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Laudable attempt with unintended side-effects

A comment by Martin Pütter

The Washington Times recently tried to give its readers some insights into Switzerland, with somewhat unusual examples.

 Recently I came across an article in the online edition of the Washington Times, saying that “Switzerland seeks skilled foreign workers amid anti-immigration push”. The article appeared the day after Swiss voters had soundly rejected the “Ecopop” initiative aimed at limiting annual net immigration to 0.2 percent of the nation’s population. The article in the Washington Times was an interesting follow-up, trying to clarify why Switzerland, and Basel in particular, actually depends on skilled foreign workers. It was also a laudable attempt to explain Switzerland to readers in the USA, where many people still mix the country up with Sweden (but then again, many Swiss might put Oregon and Ohio next to each other).

A few points in this article, however, caused my eyebrows to go up in astonishment. The author wrote: “Typical expat complaints about Swiss ‘quirks’ include requirements to reserve washing machines in laundry facilities in apartment buildings.” Obviously, every household in the UK, USA, Canada or any other English-speaking nation has at least one washing machine – so yes, it must be strange for expats to move into an apartment and have to share a single washing machine in the basement with the tenants of however many other apartments there are in the building. As neither Swiss nor non-English-speaking expats have a problem with this, I suggest: when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

Another point was “sensitive neighbors’ complaints about any noise louder than the drop of a pin after 10 p.m.” Now that I call hyperbole and then some – proving once again that journalists are prone to exaggerate (call it, as the French do, “déformation professionelle”). But then it is difficult to find a snappy translation for what in rent contracts is described as “Zimmerlautstärke”. Online translation tools suggest “about the same volume as two people talking in a normal tone of voice”, “moderate volume” or “considerate volume”. Or let me put it this way: would you like to be woken up at 2 a.m. by music played at a volume that makes the trumpets of Jericho sound like a whisper? (There you go, I got my hyperbole out of the way as well).

Being an expat myself, I agree that Switzerland has lots and lots of regulations, and occasionally they go over the top. But what I missed in this article in the Washington Times was an explanation of why Switzerland has so many regulations. Maybe this helps: Avenir Suisse, which describes itself as a “think tank for social and economic issues”, wrote that “two thirds of the Swiss population live in the area between the Alps and the Jura mountains, in only a third of the territory of Switzerland”. According to the think tank, this means 426 people per square kilometre – almost the same as the Netherlands, the most densely populated country in Europe. So many people living so close to each other, and with no regulations – I leave it up to you to imagine what would happen.

The author also quotes expats complaining about “unfamiliar social rules”, saying that “the cultural norms are the real social barriers”. I wonder: is this a case of “you can take the expats out of their country, but you cannot take the country out of the expats”? Maybe it would have helped if these expats had read The Basel Journal’s columns about the “Little Differences.”

And finally, what really made me laugh: the author claims that expats complain about “public bathroom rules that require men to sit on toilets when urinating”. I have answered many calls of nature in public bathrooms (or public toilets, as the Brits would call them), and if there is a urinal in a public toilet, I use that, in a standing position. But I am still waiting to see that particular regulation posted somewhere. I have seen the relevant pictogram in friends’ houses and apartments, and if there is only a toilet, used by both men and women, this sign certainly makes sense – it is common-sense courtesy to other users of the facilities. However, can it really be a widespread expat complaint? Or is the writer just extrapolating from a few individual comments? I leave the readers to decide for themselves.

3 Responses to “Laudable attempt with unintended side-effects”

  1. John says:

    Several points in this article are not correct:
    1. “Every household in the UK, US, Canada… Has a washing machine.” I guess you have never lived in any large US town where laundry facilities are always shared
    2. Signs about sitting in male toikets can be seen ALL over Switzerland, are you sure you live in this country?
    3. A Swiss neighbor will call the police for the smallest noise, even people talking in nirmal voice. Again, it doesnt seem like the author lives in the coutry and if he does, he must live inside a bubble
    This piece is just picking on somebody’s article and adds nothing. Sad for THe Basel Journal to publish something like this

    • Stéphanie Erni says:

      By Martin Pütter (author)
      1. OK, maybe I should have written “(…) has a washing machine or three.” But then, if (public?) laundry facilities are always shared in large US towns, why complain about sharing one washing machine in an apartment building? I am quite sure that there, too, regulations apply where demand for use of the machines exceeds supply.
      2. Last time I checked, Basel (where I live) was still part of Switzerland. And as a rugby referee for the Swiss Rugby Union I travel a lot, always using public transport (over 15,000 km in 2014, for example). As you can imagine, I have seen a public toilet or two on those journeys – and no, I have not seen any of those signs in them.
      3. If your Swiss neighbours call the police because they can hear you, may it perhaps be less because of the volume, and more because of what you had been discussing? Joking aside – complaining neighbours are not unique to Switzerland, or the German poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805) would never have come up with this line: “The most pious man may not live in peace if it does not please his wicked neighbour.” Or is it telling that this line turns up in his famous play about the Swiss freedom fighter William Tell?

    • Rob says:

      @John,
      I believe the authors (Martin) intent when responding to the ‘Swiss Quirk’ regarding washing machines was appropriate. As the US and many other countries have laundrymats, why mention at all that within appartment buildings in Switzerland, the occupants share a single washing machine? Pointless post.
      Your second point requires no other comment that “Please read again”.
      The author (Martin) clearly states “But I am still waiting to see that particular regulation posted somewhere”…The only place I have seen this myself is at work.. and with good reason.
      As for point 3.. what is you point actually? Are you agreeing with Martin that the original Washington Post author’s was ‘hyperbole’ or it is true that swiss neighbors complain for absolutely no reason? I have been here 22 years and yes you do get some absolute ****oles but this is no different than any other country I have lived in.
      Good morning John.

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