Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Switzerland is...DEFINITELY not Italy!

The title is obvious. Switzerland is not Italy...it's Switzerland. But culturally, there are a lot of differences I observed in my recent weekend trip to Interlaken and Zurich.

While the Italians believe in showing their superiority over tourists, the Swiss genuinely enjoy the fact that their beautiful alpine regions are such an inspiration to travelers, and wish to welcome them with open arms. Therefore, our reception in Switzerland was much warmer than in Italy (not temperature-wise, though! It's cold in Switzerland!)

A few examples:

When crossing the street in Italy, you MUST ensure before stepping onto the pavement that there is not a single car, bicycle, scooter, or any other automotive within a 1,000 foot vicinity, or you will be hit. The way Italians see it, when it comes to a car vs. a person, the car will always win. They will have no problem running over you.

However, in Switzerland, if you are exiting the corner grocery store and a car is approximately 3 blocks away, they will assume you are planning on crossing eventually, will stop around 700 feet back, and wait patiently for you to make sure you didn't leave any bags in the grocery store, close the door of the store, approach the curb, and cross. And, while you cross, they will smile and wave at you.

In Italy, if you have just purchased a gelato or finished browsing the shelves of a store, when it is time for you to take your leave, you walk out of the store without a word. In Switzerland, when you turn to leave, you will hear "Goodbye! Have a wonderful day!"

In Italy, they speak Italian. And they will begrudgingly speak English for your benefit if you desire to communicate with them. In Switzerland, they will greet you in German, have a conversation with you in English, interject with Italian phrases such as "si, grazie" and "allora," and will end the conversation with "au revoir!"

In Italy, Celiacs Disease is increasingly common, and the term "glutine" (gluten) is not taken lightly. Every one you talk to is a food expert and knows exactly what is in their food and what possible allergens are present. In Switzerland, they are likely to confuse Celiac with lactose intolerance and tell you that you can't eat something because it is milk-based, despite your insistence that you are in fact not lactose intolerance. And, they are likely to say something is gluten free and sell it to you, only for you to find that at the center of your mousse is a pastry (that was a rough night).

In Italy, everything is relatively inexpensive. You can go to the fresh food market and, if you budget and plan appropriately, can buy a week's worth of groceries for around 6 euros. In Switzerland, a fondue dinner is anywhere from 25 to 50 francs per person, and a simple bar of chocolate will cost you around 10 francs. A hot apple cider can cost you 6.50, and a bratwurst will be anywhere around 9 francs. It is an expensive country!

Aside from the expenses and lack of gluten free food, Switzerland was quite enjoyable. I went paragliding over the alps, ice skating in an outdoor rink (formatted like a corn maze, with different ice pathways connecting larger rinks), and went through various churches and museums in Zurich.

I had two specific interactions during this trip, however, that were quite interesting (and, for your entertainment, I will be vulnerable and include the second one).

First, when I went to a chocolate store to inquire with the chef regarding which ingredients were used in the chocolate making workshop because I was interested in signing up but had severe gluten allergies, I was treated extremely rudely. She refused to tell me what ingredients were in the chocolate until I agreed to sign up for a one hour-session (costing 55 franc). She took out her book and, pen in hand, demanded, "When would you like to sign up?"
I stuttered, explaining I had to check with my roommate, whom I was traveling with, and see when she was available to sign up.
"Then why are you here?" she asked, frustrated.
I started over. "I want to talk with my roommate about possibly signing up, but I need to know what is in the food and if I can even participate," I explained.
"Well, if you don't sign up right now, I'm not going to go back in the kitchen and get the ingredient list. I don't want to waste my time on you," she said.
I thanked her, and walked out. My friend, who is originally from Japan, looked at me after a few moments of silence and said, "No one in a store would ever treat you that way in Japan."

The second:
My friend and I decided that on our last day in Switzerland, in order to escape the cold, we would treat ourselves to a relaxing afternoon in a spa tucked away in the corner of Interlaken. For only 28 francs, you could rent a swimsuit (gross, I know) and have full access to the indoor whirlpool, swimming pool, and sauna.
The jacuzzi took up almost an entire room, and was encased in glass so as to provide a panoramic view of the Swiss mountains. It was breathtaking, and upon walking into the room, I could see myself turning into a prune sitting there all day long just gazing up at the unbelievable surroundings.
After becoming quite prune-y, my friend and I decided to take a bit of time in the sauna. As we approached, we saw a sign on the door in German, with an English translation underneath: "Nakedness Zone."
We looked at each other, not sure what to do.
"Do we really have to be naked?" I asked her.
"Well, I don't know," she said. "I mean, in America, clothes would be mandated, but even in a nude sauna they are optional. Otherwise you'll have law suits for perverse behavior and such."
"Yeah," I agreed. "In America you would at least have an option. Anyways, who are we hurting by keeping our swimsuits on?
"Maybe it's a warning," she said. "Like, if you go in there, be prepared to see naked people?"
I thought about it. "Well, there's no one in there, so let's just go in."
We stepped inside, and our lungs were instantly hit with the overwhelming menthol steam. We took our seats along the side wall, and allowed ourselves to sit back and relax.
A few moments later, the door opened. In walked a rather overweight nude German man, who nodded to us and waddled over beside us to plop down in a seat.
And then, another German man.
And then, another.
And then, another.
And then, a German man and his girlfriend.
And then, another German man.
And then, another.
I sat there, surrounded by nakedness.
"Do you ever feel," I whispered to my friend, "that you go to a party and are extremely overdressed?"
She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh. We looked at each other, not needing to say how insanely awkward this was. We decided to enjoy ourselves, however, and continued to relax in the awkward silence that surrounded us.
Then, the silence was broken by the sound of the door opening once again. A spa employee poked his head in and, motioning to my friend and I, said, "You two. Out. Now."
We looked at each other, shrugged, and got up. Upon exiting the sauna, the employee closed the door, crossed his arms, and turned to look at us disapprovingly.
"Do you see the sign?" he said, pointing to the "Nakedness Zone" sign.
We nodded, looking at him. It was silent. He looked us up and down, waiting for us to say something--to explain ourselves.
Finally, he broke the silence again.
"It means you naked!" he yelled, in broken English. "You no naked, you no in! You no naked!"
"Oh, uh, okay, sorry," I stuttered.
So, we were kicked out of the sauna for breaking a cultural norm. Perhaps we were perceived as disrespectful by not complying with the norms. Nevertheless, as embarrassing and uncomfortable as it was, it is one of those stories that will remain engrained in my memory for quite some time (whether I would like it to or not).

So much culture in such a short amount of time. I walked away from that weekend with more insight on intercultural communication than I had gained in all my studies and readings. And, at least I walked away from that sauna with my pride! Because I'm an American, and I keep my clothes on!

*If you are interested in reading an article I published on my trip to Switzerland on a Florentine website, you can access it here:  http://www.flonthego.com/2015/lifestyle/02-10/switzerland/

*Also, if you would like to see a HILARIOUS video depicting the differences between Italy and the rest of Europe in their cultural behavior, click here (you'll be glad you did--we watched it at our orientation and it is amazingly entertaining and accurate): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzQuuoKXVq0


  1. Dear Sissy,
    Very interesting blog post! You are having a very interesting time traveling abroad, to say the least :) I noticed afew things from a leadership perspective that we learned about this semester. In the leader/follower relationship in a western culture, the leader/follower relationship is transactional. Meaning, an open exchange of ideas occur between the leader and the follower. Additionally, services are equally exchanged. I see that in your article. When you had hesitations about signing up for the chocolate workshop, the worker had hesitations about letting you join. In the end, the worker felt unsure that a transaction would occur, so she did not let in the class. Although this is a rather extreme version, I still see the root of transaction between leader and follower. Have you experienced many more situations like this?

    1. Sissy,
      What a great observation! It is so true that in a lot of shops (particularly in France), it is not normal to go into shops unless you are definitely going to buy something. And, if you sit down at a restaurant, you need to be ready to order the minute the waiter comes to your table, or they will ignore you the rest of the evening. So, if the transaction is not going as they would like, they will seek to end the transaction!