Switzerland has Ruined America for Me

When Mark was first assigned to the BIS in Basel I never dreamed how much living in Switzerland would change us.  Other than the language barrier, I thought getting around there would be breeze. We would move in, live there for 2 years, and then just fly on back to the US. Easy-peasy. How different can it be?

A lot, as it turned out.

Living in Switzerland was an eye-opening experience as to how life could be lived. And it has ruined a bit of America for me.

Firstly, the children there had a ton of freedom! And they had a lot of responsibility.

Our children were encouraged – no expected – to go it alone. To go to the park with their friends and not their parents. To run to the corner shop and pick up a liter of milk or some sugar on their bike or scooter. To walk to school or go on the tram to school by themselves from the age of 7 or 8.

The can do this because children are taught and trained how to behave from the time they are toddlers. It seems like the Swiss have made it a priority to teach their children how society works and to respect the rules of that society. They aren’t isolated and insulated from the rest of society by car travel and so there are a plethora of “teachable moments” and interactions with people.

And everyone parents every child. Whether it’s a stay-at-home parent in the park with their toddler or a pensioner on the tram or me walking through the neighborhood. We watch out for not only our own children, but everyone’s children. That means there is almost always a parental-type adult around.  Someone is always watching and there to help and keep them safe.

And there is an expectation that everyone gets the Benefit of the Doubt. The concept of Benefit of the Doubt is something that has been all but forgotten in America. I find I slip into assuming the worst, especially when I see kids on their own. I have a horror movie involving kidnapping or delinquent behavior running through my brain.  Where are their parents? is the common refrain. As if we should be hovering over them every minute of every day.

In Switzerland, children aren’t automatically thought to be destructive hooligans. They are just kids trying to have fun and who seem to need to be reminded that the tram is not a playground. Corrections are, therefore, short and not personal. And they are taken with seriousness and respect.

There is also the concept that the societal good is everyone’s business.

I don’t believe I ever heard the phrase Mind Your Own Business once in Switzerland. In America, it’s how we live our lives. We mind our own business. Ignore and move along. And don’t even think of correcting a child you didn’t birth yourself. Frankly, it has gotten dangerous to poke your nose into the business of the world around you, even when you should.

It’s so rare that news shows have done countless experiments highlighting people walking right by others in need and celebrating the “heroes” who choose to take the risk, give the Benefit of the Doubt, and do the right thing.

I remember a woman in a mobility cart tipped over getting out of the tram. No less than 12 people rushed to her side to help her; including 4 teenagers who slammed on the “door open” button and ran out to help to get her from behind. Without hesitation. It was an automatic reaction. And it made me very proud.

The next thing that has ruined America for me is the Swiss philosophy of Quality over Quantity.

Quality matters a lot in Switzerland. They don’t do cheap and flimsy. Even the tissues are thick enough they can double as formal napkins in a pinch. Ikea is as cheap as the Swiss get and, actually, you find a majority of the shoppers are ex-pats.

Americans seem like they are more impressed with getting 50 mediocre cookies for $5 than they are with getting 5 of the most delicious cookies they’ve ever had in their lives for the same price. The Swiss value quality and so they produce quality. This is how they have ended up producing the world’s best chocolate and cheese.

I got use to buying fresh bread, still warm from the oven with incredible flavor. I reveled in buying cheeses that were made with in 20 miles of where I lived, each more delicious than the last. I still crave the crammed-with-flavor salami and prosciutto on my cheese platters.  There are some foods and things America does well, but we just don’t do good bread, cheese, and prosciutto.  Don’t worry, America, you still have the pizza and the hamburger.

Family time is also more of a priority in Switzerland than in America. Oh, we can preach about work-life balance all we want, but we don’t ever seem to be able to to achieve it. To be productive and “get ahead” is embedded our culture. We value productivity over everything. Our phones are always in our hands. People brag about sending out work reports at 4 in the morning or responding to their boss at midnight. If you are sitting down or having fun you are lazy. There is work to be done!

In Switzerland, employers, as a rule, don’t call employees at home. They don’t expect you to check your emails every minute of the day and they don’t call you on the weekend. (Exceptions happen, of course, but they are exceptions.)  You are with your families and you are expected to be engaged in family matters.  Family is a priority.

See, in Switzerland you work when you are at work. No posting to Facebook or shopping on Amazon when you should be working. You are given ample time at lunch or vacation to do all that.

Mark was able to take 1.5-2 hour lunches while in Basel. And he wasn’t the exception. Schools in Switzerland give their pupils 2 hours for lunch and it was typical/usual/expected that parents would come home and have lunch with their kids. Some shops with only 1 or 2 employees were also closed from 12-2 so they could enjoy a lunch and get their own personal things done.

We were astonished when we moved there to discover most stores are closed on Sundays. Grocery stores, department stores, the knitting shop on the corner. All closed on Sunday.

Sunday is a family day. The parks are full. People play Kubb, have a beer while laying in the sun, or kick a soccer ball around with a gang of kids. The hiking trails in the mountains are also full of couples and families.

Life is about just living, not about getting ahead or having the most.

As a result of our always working American lifestyles we barely talk to each other. When is the last time you had long leisurely meal or evening with your family free of phones and emails? When is the last time you went outside and played with the kids? In Switzerland this was the norm, not something reserved for a birthday or anniversary.

I will also miss the two solid weeks of vacation that my husband was forced to take every year. Mark had only worked at the BIS for a couple of months when his supervisor came to him and filled him in on the unofficial policy that he take a solid 2-weeks off at some point during the year. Some people take this in the summer and others wait until Christmas to enjoy a ski weekend.

2 weeks. Two solid weeks. Oh, that wasn’t the only vacation he got. He had plenty of other days for us to take a long weekend here and a week there. But 2 solid weeks of just doing whatever he wanted. Resting. Rejuvenating. Morale building. Family time. Traveling. No thinking about deadlines or the unexpected call from work. Just time with us hiking and traveling.

In America, if he were to take only a week off he’d be scrambling before we left and checking his email nightly to make sure things were running smoothly.  Even a 3-day weekend is a stretch for some! And when we do manage to fit in a vacation we have our phones strapped to our eyeballs making sure our desk will still be there when we get back. No wonder we’re so stressed out.

It’s going to be hard to come back into a society that believes if you aren’t “work” working everyday you aren’t productive or useful to society. When did family become an inconvenience? When did enjoying life become an impediment to success? And we wonder why people are waiting until their late 30s and early 40s to have children instead of having a family during their prime earning years. Politicians preach family values, but at the same time do nothing legislative to make it possible to enjoy our families. And that needs to change.

So, thanks, Switzerland. You’ve ruined me for American living.


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