Hmm, on second thought…

There comes a time when even the best of people need to swallow their own words, and as I certainly do not count myself among them, I feel it’s ok to go back on some of the things I have previously declared. As I’m quite anal when it comes to grammar and spelling mistakes, I often look back over my old posts to search out errors to correct; sometimes I find the actual content in need of tweaking, and here are the amendments. I humbly present to you what can only be described as some serious backpedalling…

1. “It’s virtually impossible to give someone three kisses in a cold manner” – Apparently (my Swiss buddy tells me) there is a way of giving three bises but still coming across cold: if you don’t make any sound. I admit to being quite taken aback at this, as I have been giving stonily silent bises from the moment I stepped onto Swiss soil. Had I been inadvertently cold-shouldering every charming Swiss person I have encountered? I hope that my general comportment and foreignness lets people think otherwise. Nevertheless I must be sure to make loud smacking noises with my lips from now on!

2. “Personally, I find the less I speak of a language the more animated I become” – What utter balls. Perhaps I become more animated when I am trying to use my hands rather than my mouth to explain something, but otherwise, it is very difficult to push yourself out of your shell when you are completely outnumbered. At a recent soirée, I experienced for the first time being the ONLY non-Swiss in the building. Though it was a convivial and  interesting evening, I was definitely much more of an observer. I couldn’t follow a lot of the rapid-fire colloquial French going off all around me, and as a result (as I swore wouldn’t happen to me), I did withdraw a little into myself. We live and learn, children.

3. ““Malade!” equates to the English “Sick!” though apparently it has to be said with particular emphasis – “c’était ma-lade!”” – No, in fact one can just say “malade”. The special emphasis is a practice peculiar to a specific group of some 10 Swiss boys in Suisse Romande.

4. “I have probably the most neutral kind of accent it is possible to have in the south of England” – Neutral accents don’t exist. This subject has been exhausted, re-ignited, beaten to death, then flipped over and dragged out some more, and somewhere on a friend’s facebook wall is a looong comments-section-debate regarding “neutrality” of accents. The conclusion I drew was that a neutral accent is impossible because everyone’s ear is attuned to thinking their own accent is “neutral” and anyone who diverges from this has an “accent”. But so long as you speak only beautiful words, you will sound beautiful whatever your accent! (No that’s not the fondue, the smell of cheese is coming from that last sentence).

5. “It’s like living in model land” – Weeeeell…not always. That’s all I’m going to say.

6. “Apparently my curt “excusez-moi” and elbowing him off the seat wasn’t enough to deter him” – It would appear “excusez-moi” is far too polite an expression in the context of a drunken imbecile pushing his derrière into you; to use the formal vous form of the verb excuser is unnecessarily polite. Though I was conscious of my choice of language (in the presence of such ill manners, I thought it only appropriate that I respond with exaggerated courtesy), the informal “excuse-moi” would have been better. Or, “Hé, mec! Qu’est-ce que tu fais?” (“Oi, dude! What d’you think you’re doing?”).

7. Jay-walking is not done – Yes it is, by me! Seriously though, people do in fact jay-walk here. Quite alot.

8. Teaching here is excellent – On the whole, yes. But my Ancient Greek teacher and one of my French teachers…well. Let’s just say when I have insomnia, I really wish they could be around. It’s a real achievement to make two of my favourite languages boring though, so props for that I guess… Teaching talent aside, all my teachers have a good attitude at least.

9. Though, let’s be honest, Switzerland’s probably going to be better than England – Oh wait, no. I still stand by that.

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Stereotype Me!

In case you didn’t already know, I am of Chinese origin. (Well, my father is from Taiwan, but please let’s not get into that whole does Taiwan belong to China/I’m actually mixed-race argument. For simplicity’s sake, I’m Chinese.) I wear glasses. I do (or did) kung fu. I eat with chopsticks, I brought a rice cooker all the way to Switzerland, I have kittens everytime I see anything Hello Kitty. I go red when I drink. I like street dance. So far, so Asian.

Oh, but wait. I can’t really speak Chinese. I study Classics and French (as opposed to, oh I don’t know, Actuarial Science. Accounting. Engineering. Economics. Whatever other “practical” subjects Chinese parents force on their kids so they can start earning lots of money, fast). Everyone tells me I am “English”.

I’ve mentioned stereotypes several times already here and here. But it’s such a big topic, I’m not done with it just yet. So, here are some stereotypes that seem to be flying around alot, and my personal take on them:

Swiss people are cold – Weeeell, in my experience, no. I’d say the general attitude of shop or administrative staff is a good deal friendlier than what I’m used to.

Swiss people are friendly – Of course I can’t speak for the entire populace, but so far that’s the impression I’m getting. It might depend on which city you are in though.

Swiss Germans are really uptight and organised – I haven’t met many Swiss Germans, so I can’t really comment on that. I’ll let you know when I come back from Zürich next week.

Germans are really uptight and ordered – I have met lots of German people here. Uptight they are not, though I don’t know about the orderliness. I was told recently that 60% of trains in Germany run late, so presumably that stereotype is not necessarily credible.

Swiss people hate French people – I’m going to step carefully around this one, but there is a general feeling in the air that the French can be rather patronizing and dismissive of “les petites Suisses“… Even though in truth it’s the opposite, as Swiss people are generally taller.

All English people love tea – True. So true.

Chinese students all study hard – Well, you only have to look at the sizeable gaps in my attendance record to draw your own conclusion as to the accuracy of this claim (8:30 starts are hard!)…but then, do I really qualify as Chinese? Again, let’s not get into that…

Stereotypes are a load of cack – Well, I think there’s never smoke without fire. It’s a tricky one, because even if someone appears to fit a stereotype (such as moi), it’s not definitive. Stereotypes can be surprisingly accurate but also overly simple, and often a highly efficient way of offending lots of people in one fell swoop. So use with caution!

To live comme il faut (as one should)

Two chocolate bars and a packet of crisps. This is your average UK university student lunch on a school day, gobbled hastily between lectures, with perhaps a can of coke for hydration. And this will be all you eat, all day. Of an evening, maybe some beer to go with a Domino’s pizza delivery. You’re eating a varied diet if it’s a Chinese takeaway one night and a kebab the next. If your waistline isn’t expanding as a result of this, it’s probably shrinking rapidly as, without mum there to cook, you’re barely eating anything at all.

Back home, there is little concept of taking care of oneself; “healthy” habits such as eating proper food and exercising are either scoffed at as “boring” or pretentious, or else viewed as some kind of faraway mecca, who’s attainment is hardly worth the sweat. It’s basically expected of you as a student to eat crap and be sedentary, with your main exercise coming from throwing drunken shapes around a nightclub dancefloor.

It’s well-known that Europeans are slimmer and healthier on the continent. English women are obsessed with the French woman conundrum: how can they drink so much wine, eat all that cheese and chocolate, foie gras, bread, etc. and still be slimmer? The answer isn’t rocket science, but something deeply rooted in the psychology of a people. It’s a difference in attitude, priorities and environment.

For the average European, it is not “extra” or “special” to eat a proper, large, hot meal at lunch time, rather than throwing a few crackers down the throat. It’s normal. The students I live with actually cook proper meals in the evening. Sure, we’ve all been guilty of doing the typical student pasta dish, but it’s a proper meal at least. No takeaways – there just aren’t that many in Switzerland (and they’d be too expensive anyway).

I was on the metro once, and sitting opposite me was a very stylish-looking young man, probably a fellow student, with some friends. He reached into his bag, brought out a huge tupperware box that was full of some kind of couscous and tomato salad, and started digging in. Now, you’re probably thinking, so what? Precisely. If you’re sniggering a little right now, I bet you’re English. Let’s face it, in England, his mates would all stare at him, and probably mock him for having a packed lunch – “Aahh, gaaaay!” No, in England a “cool” guy would never have a tupperware box full of couscous in the first place. In reality, it was lunch time, he was probably hungry, so he started eating the lunch he’d packed, on the metro. Big. Deal.

This is the fundamental attitude difference between young English people and the Europeans I have encountered: less self-consciousness. Eating is a perfectly normal thing, why does it have to be a source of apprehension? Why does eating vegetables as opposed to crap need to be something “special” and commented on?

In addition, the food culture in England is atrocious. You just have to compare university canteens to see what I mean. Here, the choices feel endless. We have pizza chefs, a whole array of “plat du jour”s, sandwiches, a guy who makes special Lebanese wraps, baguettes, salad bars, Asian meals, pasta, fresh cakes and pastries…the list goes on. I never have packed lunches, not because it’s “uncool” or because I don’t care about saving money, but simply because the canteens are so great I just want to eat at uni everyday.  I hear EPFL is even better… that’s next week’s lunch destination sorted, then!

Anyway, a “healthy” European lifestyle (and waistline) is simple. Eat properly. Respect yourself. Don’t have a ridiculous attitude toward food. Get some exercise. It’s easier in the beautiful Switzerland, where there are breathtaking landscapes to go hiking in, and mountains to ski on. And junk food costs a bomb. Yet somehow I don’t seem to be losing weight. Why is that? Oh yes…alcohol consumption. Zut.

Why I love Switzerland

The Swiss – …are just so chilled and friendly. I went to a flat party the other night (my first authentic, 100% Swiss party!), and I basically didn’t know anyone. However before I knew it people were coming up to greet me, giving me the usual triple-bise (three kisses on the cheek) and making me feel welcome. Which leads me on to the next thing I love about Switzerland…

The Triple Bise – It’s extra, takes too long, slows everything down… I love it. It’s a good way of properly acknowledging someone when you meet them, rather than a brief “hey” and a wave. It’s much warmer. It’s virtually impossible to give someone three kisses in a cold manner, so you’ve got no choice but to be friends! How awesome.

The Service – I love how the cute checkout guy at Denner (a discount store) managed to make me blush because he was so polite and friendly. That would so never happen at ASDA. That aside, all cafés and restaurants offer table service (excluding American imports such as McDonald’s and Starbucks). They give you the receipt as soon as you’ve ordered, so once you’re done you can just leave your money on the table and up and go, which again leads me to the next thing…

The Safety – Whoever heard of just leaving your money on an outdoor table at a café and walking off? Well, a friend and I did just that the other day. Though it’s not crime-free here, people are pretty trusting. Sometimes at the supermarket the cashier will walk off to check the price of something, leaving me standing there, unattended, with all my groceries scanned, unpaid for, and already in my handbag, able to walk off at any moment. Standard.

The Cheese – Newsflash: I actually discovered some small blocks of Cathedral City cheddar cheese in a supermarket. Extortionate, of course, but proof that cheddar cheese is not just some kind of dirty myth here on the continent. Aside from that, the cheese section in my local supermarket is ginormous. It’s like a wall of cheese. And there are all these different intriguing types of cheese, many I’m too afraid to try. Which should give you an idea of how weird some of them are, so rarely am I afraid to eat anything.

The Metro – Would you believe there are NO barriers? For most of my first month here I saw not one contrôleur (ticket inspector). I have since seen them several times, but they are always very friendly – though I hear that can change if you are actually caught without a ticket. The Metro is clean, on time, convenient, and (as mentioned in a previous post) never fails to amuse with its sound effects.

The Organisation – I haven’t been caught up in any red tape, and fingers crossed it will stay that way. Everything just seems to run smoothly. I arrived expecting things to go wrong, for admin to get messed up and general confusion to ensue, as I assumed was standard when one moves to a foreign country. It didn’t happen. I was happy about that.

My New Friends – Last, but by absolutely no means least, is my new motley crew of foreigners and Swiss alike. It really is thanks to them that I’m having such fun. Whether it be my bonkers girls with whom I share red wine, chocolate, and uproarious laughter, my crazy colocs with whom I share Sunday dinner and probably too much personal information (though all in French, at least), my charming Swiss buddies who share so much of their culture with me; English-speaking, French-speaking, Chinese-speaking, and everything in between, it’s all of them who make my time here worthwhile. I’m nothing without you – triple bises all around!

The Language Files 4: Language barriers, or the fear of opening one’s mouth

It is never, ever easy trying to get by in a foreign language. I become very easily frustrated with my inability to articulate things which I could bulls-eye in a second in English. Thankfully so far everyone has been very kind and patient with me, and no-one mocks my accent. A language is the first and last thing that will prevent two people from properly communicating and connecting, and it’s an uphill grind working past it.

There seems to be a real fear that one’s personality won’t come across properly in a foreign language. Of course this is true to an extent – but I find that alot of a person’s character is communicated non-verbally anyway. I think the real problem is that once people are impeded by the language, everything else follows like dominos. Facial expression deadens, body language closes up or becomes less dynamic, and one ends up feeling a rather dulled-down version of oneself. People are petrified of appearing stupid by saying something wrong in a different language. But, the way I see it, I’ll look just as stupid if I stand by dumbly and say nothing at all, so I might as well try and push out a few sentences. And the Swiss are kind.

Personally, I find the less I speak of a language the more animated I become. If I’m trying to communicate sans actual words, I use far greater eye contact, a wider range of facial expressions and of course lots of highly dignified gesticulation. I’m more inclined to smile, as if to say, “isn’t this ridiculous?” When you really can’t get your point across verbally, it is important to not give the wrong impression in every other respect. A dead look of incomprehension in the eye is not welcome anywhere in the world.

Much as there are differences between the culture here and what I know back home, the gap is not so huge that I risk shocking or being shocked. It’s still Europe. It’s not a cultural minefield of unfamiliar social mores as somewhere like Japan might be to a European. So, on the whole, it’s not been too much of a problem. Also, everyone speaks English.

Anyway, I doubt any of my francophone friends here would describe me much differently to my anglophone friends. I remain as irrepressible as ever!

Il n’y a pas le feu au lac! / Keep your hair on!

Come to think of it, English is chock-full of idioms. It’s enough to drive you up the wall if you haven’t the foggiest what anyone is harping on about. I ought to count my blessings that I haven’t been faced with a truckload in French, though if I did it’s all part and parcel of the experience. Takes alot of derring-do to up sticks and ferry off yonder from Blighty, but once you’re off, you’ve just got to get your feet wet and play by ear, haven’t you? Things won’t always be fine and dandy, but there’s no use crying over spilt milk, you’ve just got to bite the bullet, soldier on, and in no time things will be right as rain again.

Idioms are funny little things. They make absolutely no sense within themselves, yet they are the final touch (after accuracy and accent) to truly lending authenticity to one’s speech, and making one appear at home with a language. They can raise an appreciative chuckle or wise nod from a fellow interlocutor who gets it, and completely flummox someone not initiated into the nuances of a language. The sense of many idioms can of course be divined from the context, but knowing how to apply them correctly really adds a touch of je ne sais quoi to someone’s speech.

I naturally don’t know many idiomatic phrases in French, but it is amusing explaining (or trying to explain) English idiomatic phrases to francophones, and vice-versa. I don’t know about French ones, but I do love English idioms; they can be so random, and funny, or just plain bizarre. For example I was going over various ways of saying “dying” – kicked the bucket. Pushing up the daisies. Becoming worm’s meat. Not the most delicate ways to describe a death, perhaps. But why these particular idioms in relation to death? There’s no doubt the phrases idiomatic to every language are often a reflection of a particular country or culture. For example, the phrase “il n’y a pas le feu au lac!” in the title is native to Switzerland, where we have the beautiful lake Léman, and so originally had a special significance for the Swiss, though probably less so for the French, despite a common language.

Don’t even get me started on slang. But where does idiom end and slang begin? The distinction can be an ambiguous one, and slang is basically idiom, though idiom is not always slang.

Naturally, alot of English idiomatic phrases are lost on my non-native English-speaking pals, though I find them slipping out automatically. I found myself telling a Korean that she’d “boss” her test tomorrow. What on earth moved me to think anyone in the room (no Brits) would understand what I meant? That wasn’t even idiomatic, it was rather juvenile slang, and I should have known better! Similarly, conversations need to be paused as French idiomatic phrases are elucidated for me. I have come across some amusing turn of phrases. “Malade!” equates to the English “Sick!” though apparently it has to be said with particular emphasis – “c’était ma-lade!” Putain, though a swear word, has been so frequently used and abused in the French language that it’s become an everyday interjection for everything, good or bad.

I love idioms, and the more archaic the better. I still sometimes find myself discovering new ones in English, and look forward to learning more in both languages. It’s such a fun topic that I might do another post about them one of these days. I’m not dead certain though, so don’t hold your breath…!

The Language Files 2: It’s all French* to me!

Think French is a whole other language? Think again, you know more French than you realise. You know all those awkward words in English that are really hard to pronounce and read even less phonetically than usual? Such as lingerie, croissant, grand prix? Well, you have French to thank for those.

Ever uttered an indignant “excusez-moi?!” Or wished someone “bon voyage“, or declared with a resigned shrug, “c’est la vie“?

Whether your tastes are more avant-garde, or you like to go au naturel, or you have a thing for bric-a-brac, you’re speaking French without maybe even realising. Ever described a girl as brunette, blonde, petite or chic? A fan of fine cuisine? Cried “encore!”, travelled en masse, lived in a cul-de-sac, experienced déjà-vu, had a private tête-à-tête, staged a coup, made a faux pas or had a fiancé? Sautéed something, executed a pirouette, applied some rouge, been a bit risqué, RSVP’d (respondez, s’il vous plaît) and typed sans-serif? There, see, you’re practically fluent!

Prêt-à-Manger, that well-known vendor of refreshment, in fact means “ready to eat”, and has nothing to do with where baby Jesus was born; although, a manger is so named because it’s a trough from which animals eat. Manger = to eat in French. Aren’t languages fascinating!

On the other side of the channel, you get plenty of anglicismes in the French language. Un sandwich, un rice cooker (that one always makes me laugh), le parking, le brainstorming, un job, le week-end, un gentleman, le comeback, le chewing gum, le look. Then there are some rather bizarre mutations, such as le footing (jogging) or le talkie-walkie.

French words employed in English are often used in the context of high culture (haute couture, ballet, gourmet), and tend to create an elevated tone, a loftier ambiance, if you like, vis-à-vis the subject matter (see what I mean?). Interestingly, the French seem to have the opposite view of the anglicisms that are creeping into their language, and L’Academie Française appears determined to protect the language from English contamination. A debacle indeed…

*A note for my non-anglophone friends (of which I have happily made many recently), the title of this blog post does have more signification than the blindingly obvious…It’s a play on the English phrase “It’s all Greek to me“, meaning, essentially, “I don’t understand”.

The Language Files 1: Accent. Or, why can’t anyone understand me???

This post marks the first in a series I will be doing on the subject of languages. Excited? You should be…

I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much of my time talking about accents before coming here. Not even when I moved up norrf to live in Yorkshire for a year, and everyone told me I had an “accent”. Of course accent’s a big thing here, with all these languages being bandied about. I am used to being understood by pretty much everyone back home, because I have probably the most neutral kind of accent it is possible to have in the south of England. It is very “London”, but everyone can understand that thanks to the BBC. Not so here. American accents are actually more easily understood by non-native English speakers, due to greater exposure to American media. There I was, on my little British isle, thinking nobody spoke clearer than I…

It is fascinating (and often amusing) to see how all these different twangs come together to communicate (or not). I admit to having a giggle the other evening in the kitchen, listening to a Korean girl and a French guy attempting to communicate in English, which neither spoke perfectly, and with vastly different accents. I had to step in as interpreter to break up the blank stares that were being exchanged.

I cannot hear a huge difference in accent between the French speakers from France and Swiss French speakers, but there is a noticeable difference in speed. Well, there’s a Parisien next door to me, and they are notorious for speaking like they’re on speed, while the Swiss are famous for their long, drawn-out vowels.

Accent can become a rather touchy matter, or one of dispute. My friend from South Africa  claims to have a neutral accent, but it sounds pretty American to me (she’s going to kill me when she reads this), whereas in America she was told she sounded British (hm, no!). Some people tell me I speak queen’s English (ha!) while others tell me I sound Chinese(!) I admit to being in turn baffled and stunned at the more outlandish claims.

Refining my accent in French obsesses me. I know more than anyone the kind of impact the way you speak can have on the way you are perceived. Pronunciation is something often taken for granted in one’s mother tongue, but throw a load of foreigners together and you start to realise how nonsensical and awkward languages can be. Trying to teach my Italian friend the difference in pronunciation between “ball” and “bowl” continues to be a source of amusement and confusion to this day (it’s easier in an American accent).

Often my French-speaking chums need to pause and reflect for a while when I ask them to explain something in their language; usually there is no logical explanation. That is the beauty and the curse of French; highly irregular, tremendously difficult to pronounce and yet oh so pretty when spoken correctly. Au contraire to finding a language beautiful simply because it is incomprehensible and makes for a sequence of melodic sounds, I find my appreciation of the French language increasing the more I understand of it. It is the prospect of one day being able to produce such divine intonations myself, of wrapping my tongue around the language of romance, that keeps me going, and allows me to repeatedly make a fool of myself as I stammer and garble my way through broken sentences. One day, la langue de Molière and me, we’re gonna get along just fine.

Mini essais

There are loads of little observations I have noted which are not in themselves enough to write a whole post about. So I’ve done a Michel de Montaigne and collected a number of mini essais (or attempts – attempts at writing something interesting that is) that express a few of my thoughts…

The Hills are Alive… with the sound of my calves screaming – Lausanne is a hilly place. I’m talking, major hills here. Steep, steep motherfuckers. Do excuse the profanity, but a recent walk up to an art gallery on the top of a hill was anything but enjoyable. One doesn’t dress for vertical hiking when one is going to look at paintings; though we were rewarded with a lovely view of the lake and the distant mountains against the warm pink-peach sunset, aahh… I’ve been to hilly places in England (Durham is a perilous one), but Lausanne is really something else. Because of this, girls from Lausanne are supposed to have the most beautiful legs in the world, and it wouldn’t surprise me, though I can’t say I’ve been checking. If I gain one other thing this year (apart from fluency in French and some sweet memories and friends), let it be a pair of taut and toned stems!

Absence really does make the heart grow fonder – Cheddar cheese? Primark? Downton Abbey? These things all seem par for the course back in Blighty, but move a girl 460 miles to the east and suddenly they take on a brand new luminosity. I have found myself becoming increasingly proud of my British accent, even more so when people cannot seem to understand it as well as that of my American friends’ (it’s the way English is supposed to be spoken!). My jacket was from Topshop (non-existent here), and I’m keeping healthy with my Holland & Barrett cod liver oil tablets. I amble along in my Russell & Bromley brogues and carpet bag from Camden market, my humour is as dry as English weather is wet, and I apologise too much. I prefix everything with “bloody” and laugh about getting “wankered” the night before. Yes, when in a foreign land, there’s just no denying it. I am so, indisputably, inescapably, British.

No Drama – If I had to use one word to give a broad portrayal of the general mood and atmosphere one (or at least I) experiences on a day-to-day basis here, it would be… peaceful. I don’t even mean Switzerland’s perpetual neutrality (though that can’t hurt), but in most respects things are pretty chill-chill here. The Swiss are famous for being relaxed, taking their time to do things, and not getting stressed; yet they are efficient, too. A winning combo I’d say, why haven’t more people caught onto it? In addition, living in halls has not been the chaotic/ orgiastic/ drug-fuelled spectacle that featured in my nightmares. Far from it. I have not been caught up in one drama since arriving here, and that has got to be some sort of record. Not that I am a very dramatic person, but anyone who has experienced a Fresher’s Week in England knows that no drama=non-existent. Most people I’ve met are pretty chilled out, and we have good, clean(!) fun. Just as well, I’m getting far too old for all that kerfuffle…

European Chic – Every September in England “Fresher’s Guides” start to pop up all over the place; preparing for uni, do’s and don’ts in Fresher’s Week, and most of all, Fresher’s Style Guides. Apparently, there’s a way to dress for uni – campus chic, if you like. One thing I have noticed here is the omnipresence of the Longchamp handbag. I don’t know if there’s some kind of European equivalent of a Fresher’s Style Guide telling all girls to carry Longchamp bags, but literally (literally) every other girl sports one. I mean, they’re popular in England, but this takes it to a whole new level. Longchamp bags are to European girls what Nike hi-tops are to street dancers, or high-waisted trousers are to Simon Cowell. Well, I could think of worse things to see everywhere; like hair that’s been bleached to the consistency of straw, or the borders of foundation at girls’ jawbones. So they’re classy, at least.

Model Land – I’m sure I’m not unique when I profess a passionate hatred for les foules – crowds. Whether it be a dimly-lit nightclub, being swept along a swamped high street, or, as today, in an overcrowded university cafeteria, there is never any joy in having your personal bubble disturbed again and again, whilst being randomly pushed and prodded by strangers. However, today for the first time, I was completely distracted from the unpleasantness of all this by the beauty of the crowd. I’m not joking, the people here are GOOD. LOOKING. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this before, but I won’t deny being a little wonderstruck. It’s like living in model land. The average height has got to be higher than in England, not to mention the sharpness of cheekbones. Anyway, it’s new to me. Just an observation.

To Army or not to Army?

Despite being a neutral country, military service is obligatory here for all able males. Sort of. There are apparently loads of ways out of it if you really don’t want to do it. As I understand it, you can choose to avoid it completely, but you have to pay a tax, or you can try to get medically certified physically or mentally unable. “Conscientious objectors” can also do a certain amount of community service instead.

Military service normally begins for men at the age of 20, though earlier is possible. Equally, it can be pushed back later for various reasons, such as studies. It consists of a set number of days of training that need to be completed, usually a 6 month boot camp, then a 3 week refresher course every year from then on. Women can volunteer, and then the same rules apply.

The question of whether to abolish conscription, and indeed the entire Swiss army, is a highly contentious one. Some argue that as Switzerland is neutral, there is no need for an army at all, that it wastes resources and time and doesn’t do much for the country. However for many it is a deeply intrenched tradition in Switzerland, something not so easy to shake off.

I’ve had some highly insightful conversations with Swiss who sit on either side of the fence. On the one hand I have a friend who trained as a grenadier; read: proper hard nuts, the selection process for whom culls over two-thirds of initial recruits. The training is essentially the harshest possible, both mentally and physically. Apparently the general Swiss reaction to this is to think he is either insane, or a nationalist fanatic (or both). However, I can say with some certainty that he is neither. For him, the army provided excellent conditioning, both physical and psychological, has not hurt his job prospects one bit, and is something that all (or most) Swiss men, no matter their age, can relate to; a kind of common ground upon which the male population can bond.

On the other end of the scale, I met three Swiss guys at a dinner party who had zero desire to participate in military service. As was eloquently explained to me, the prospect of army training did nothing for them; they didn’t feel that they needed or would gain much from it and they objected to being obliged to do it. When I suggested that it could be useful for instilling discipline, physical health and mental endurance, the response came that the army is not the only way to achieve these things; one can play sports. Instead, the guy I spoke to would be doing a few weeks of voluntary work at a ski resort.

In between these extremes, you have guys who didn’t particularly want to do it, but ended up loving it. Or the ones who actually put on weight during the course of their service because a bit of training was counteracted by sitting at desks and binge-drinking in the evenings. On a national scale, there are bound to be those who do not get much from the experience. My grenadier friend was obviously a very enthusiastic recruit, who threw himself into training and gained alot from it, but he is probably in the minority. This video provides an interesting argument for the abolition of the Swiss army.

I’m going to be very Swiss and sit on the fence. I see the validity of both viewpoints, but I’m a strong believer in having the freedom to decide what you want to do with your life. I do believe, however, that there are ample benefits to be gained from undergoing basic training. I do not believe army training facilitates only fighting and nothing else. I believe in discipline, endurance (corporeal and cerebral), learning to live, respect and work with others and the general hardiness and experience that is instilled by training that can benefit both the individual and a state which is made up of these individuals.

Then again, everyone should have the right to choose what they want to do. The army isn’t for everyone, and there are those who would flourish equally in a different environment. And of course, not actually being a Swiss boy, it’s easy to stand on the side and wag my finger and say whether you should or shouldn’t. At the end of the day, it is the individual’s choice.