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.