The little differences 9: Rules, rules, nothing but rules
By Martin Pütter
On Sundays, you are not allowed to hang up clothes to dry, nor to wash the car or mow the lawn; and after 10 pm on any day of the week you can play music at moderate volume only. Expats have trouble with regulations that seem (almost) normal for the locals.
I must admit, this article in my series about little differences was inspired by a passage in another piece. On 1 December 2014 the Washington Times (not to be confused with the highly respected Washington Post) published an article headlined “Switzerland seeks skilled foreign workers amid anti-immigration push”. The lines in question read: “… keeping … much-needed, lucrative foreign workers is a challenge for the Swiss, especially because many foreigners don’t like what they perceive as the Swiss’ cold, quirky and uptight manner and their highly ordered, rule-oriented society, according to interviews with Swiss-based expats” (my italics).
Some of you will remember that I previously wrote a comment about this article. That was not the end of it. It kept me thinking over the next few weeks – not just because the highly regulated life in Switzerland was already on my list of topics for this series. Irrespective of whether they had read the WT article or my comment, expats continued to vent their displeasure at certain things that for the Swiss seem (almost) normal. The following points were mentioned most often:
- Clothes may not be hung up to dry on Sunday.
- You may not wash your car on a Sunday.
- It is forbidden to mow your lawn on a Sunday.
- It is not allowed to flush the toilet, take a shower or have a bath after 10 pm.
- In an apartment block, with only one (or perhaps two) washing machines for all the parties in the building, washing is not allowed after 10 pm.
Are these regulations silly, or dumb, or plain crazy? Well, what do you think about this regulation for the town of Eureka in California: “A man with a moustache may not kiss a woman.” Or this one from Alabama: “It is illegal to sell peanuts in Lee County after sundown on Wednesday.” (These examples and more can all be found on www.dumblaws.com.) And as the British newspaper Daily Telegraph has shown, there are some unusual laws in the UK as well: “In the city of York it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow.” Or: “It is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside-down.” Unless I am mistaken, or I missed the government changing this, treason in the UK is still punishable by death.
So, let us agree that all countries have their, well, very distinctive laws and regulations. Now you could ask: why do expats have trouble with regulations in Switzerland? Is it simply because parts of their life that previously, wherever they hail from, were unregulated are now regulated here? Or are they unable or unwilling to follow the English saying (which would actually help them) “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”? Actually, it is not these questions that I am going to answer. Rather, I want to try and explain why Switzerland has these “quirky and weird” regulations.
Now, all those things you are not allowed to do on a Sunday (washing the car, mowing the lawn) are easy to explain: “Six days thou shalt work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest” (Exodus 34:21 (English Revised Version of the King James Bible)). Yes: these activities are not allowed because Sunday is the day of the Lord, and these regulations show how much influence the church still has here. Switzerland is not a secular state – in a referendum in 1980 the Swiss population even rejected the complete separation of state and church. And maybe you also have noted that Switzerland still has a system of church taxes, as do a few other European countries.
Now you may ask: what about not being allowed to do the washing after 10 pm on a weekday? What about not being allowed to flush the toilet after 10 pm (I still would like to see that in writing), or to take a shower or a bath then? When it comes to doing the washing, I found this: “As you very often share a washing machine in Switzerland, and as this is very often situated in the cellar under an inhabited apartment, in most apartment houses you are not allowed to do your washing on Sundays or public holidays or during the night” (original German text here).
It is out of respect for your neighbours, for their right to have some peace and quiet at certain times of the day (and night), that these regulations are in place. And although Switzerland has a reputation for efficiency and quality of work, this does not always apply to the dividing walls in apartment blocks. For example, when my neighbour has a cold I can sometimes hear her cough in her bedroom (which happens to be adjacent to my living room) – and she in turn knows which radio channel I am tuned into. And in some buildings you can tell if someone above you is taking a shower or a bath, or is flushing the toilet – because you hear the water running down the pipes.
I still remember my teachers at school explaining why Switzerland has so many regulations. He said that the country’s habitable area is actually quite small, so people live close to each other – and then he quoted German writer Matthias Claudius (1740 – 1815): “Liberty is the freedom to do anything that does not harm anyone else.” As I wrote when commenting on the WT article, there are 426 people per square kilometre in Switzerland. Or, as the Basler Zeitung recently reported: 84 percent of the population live on 41 percent of the Swiss territory.
With so many people living close to each other, you need to ensure that there are periods in which you, or your children, can rest and sleep. I remember one night many years ago, while I was living in London, that a neighbour in the ground floor apartment had a party. Not only I (on the fourth floor) but everyone in our and the adjacent buildings was kept awake until 6 am because of the volume of the music. Even the police, who did turn up at one stage, were unable to get the volume turned down. It was one of the (few) moments where I wished the UK had some of the Swiss regulations