Another day, another commute from France to Switzerland


On the eve of Bastille Day last year, I joined several hundred French commuters returning from Lausanne to Thonon-les-Bains after their day’s work in Switzerland. The 50-minute ferry journey against the backdrop of Lake Geneva and the French Alps must be one of the most picturesque commutes in the world.

I made the trip as part of the research for a new chapter about Europe in the second edition of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, due out next month. The chapter examines Switzerland’s relationship with the European Union, and I wanted to see for myself the phenomenon of cross-border commuting in action.

Frontaliers, Grenzgänger or frontalieri make up six per cent of the Swiss workforce. The relationship between Switzerland and the EU is above all a human one, with millions of Swiss and EU citizens interacting with each other every day in workplaces, families and communities. Apart from the 318,500 cross border workers, some 1.4 million EU citizens currently live in Switzerland, while 430,000 Swiss citizens live in EU countries.

As the commuters streamed onto the Général Guisan ferry that summer’s evening, some carrying scooters and laptops, and many still wearing work badges, the atmosphere was jovial. The last woman to make it on board joined a table of friends indoors. “I left the clinic at 27 past,” she announced, before pulling up a chair.  The table soon filled with bottles of beer and glasses of white wine, and the conversation turned to plans for the holiday.

The captain reversed the ship out and swung around to head southwest to the town of Thonon-les-Bains. The 5.30pm crossing in the Général Guisan is one of 28 daily crossings between the two ports each way run by CGN ferries. Some 600 people make this particular crossing every day.

I wandered around with my camera taking pictures, and struck up a conversation with a Swedish marketing director and an IT worker who were having a drink outside, sheltered from the strong breeze at the stern of the boat.

Both were returning to their homes in the Thonon area. We were out in the middle of the lake, where the border lies. “The border is not important,” the Swedish woman said. “We live and work in the same region.”

The journey is not always as pleasant as it was on that July day. “It can be magnificent, travelling when the sun is setting or rising,” the IT man said, “but in the winter, travelling both ways in the dark, we feel a bit like cattle.”

They both agreed that working in Switzerland is not complicated. It is not complicated because, after fifteen years of free movement of labour between Switzerland and the EU, Swiss employers are used to cross-border workers. All the necessary arrangements are in place, including the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, exemption from taxation at source, and coordination of social insurance systems. For more information on cross-border workers in Switzerland, see this summary.

The average age of the ferry passengers I travelled with was 30 to 50. The scooter riders queued at the door as the ferry docked, eager to get off first.

Thonon was lively the day before the French national holiday, with all generations out on the streets in a festive mood. The next morning I expected there to be much fewer people on the 6.30am ferry to Ouchy, Lausanne but it was still quite busy.


Understandably the atmosphere was more subdued, with some people already in work mode on their laptops, other sipping coffee and staring into space and a few tired souls with their heads down on their arms sleeping.

I chatted to some hospital staff from Lausanne’s university hospital CHUV. They were blasé about their special circumstances, as only French people can be blasé, but I left the ship impressed with the slice of life I had witnessed, and keen to understand more about the special relationship between Switzerland and the EU.

Do you have any experience of cross-border commuting in Switzerland or elsewhere? Have I painted too rosy a picture? I’d love to hear more first-hand perspectives on this.

Enough of the faux confusion over #metoo


Let’s get one thing straight. You cannot sexually harass or abuse a woman without realising you are doing it. This is active, deliberate, targeted behaviour that some men choose to engage in. That means they don’t do it to everyone. They do it when and where they can get away with it, and they want to do it.

Last night I watched a Swiss TV report in which about 20 men were interviewed about how difficult it is now interacting with women and how they don’t know if they can give a compliment anymore. This was the line of questioning from the woman journalist. As in, literally, “do you feel like you can’t give a compliment anymore?” The report was part of a longer item on the #metoo phenomenon, a wave of truth telling by victims which grew from the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the numerous allegations against powerful men that have followed.

What a perfect example of conflating two totally different problems, involving two totally different groups of people. On the one hand, men who find it hard to gauge their charm skills, and on the other hand, men who get sexual gratification from making women uncomfortable or afraid.

Bottom line, if you worry about women taking your comments or your birthday hug the wrong way, you are not a predator, you are socially inept. Predators don’t worry about these situations, and falsely presenting predator behaviour as social ineptness is the very definition of disingenuous.

If this is the message that reaches those hearing about #metoo from a distance, people who do not even bother to read the stories of horrible experiences or ask the women in their life what it means to them, it is a crying shame.  

Here is what #metoo means: humiliation, fear, shame, flashbacks, and nasty memories that make you sick to the stomach.

Remember, these toxic men cross the line when and where they can get away with it. One of the perks of getting older is that you fall off the radar of creeps like this. They know who they can embarrass or intimidate into silence, most often girls and young women. So, apart from the risk of a very random event, I feel safe now in my daily life. I am now a person who will tell an aggressor to fuck off, I will report them and, most importantly, I have credibility. They know that and they act accordingly.

But I know that girls and young women are still in the firing line. My direct experience of male sexual violence and harassment was worst between 11 and 22, give or take. I can think of at least a dozen incidents when I felt frightened, in danger, and disgusted by the behaviour of predatory men. And I’m not talking about compliments.

For starters, I’m talking about exhibitionists, the dirty old men and young men that waited in the lanes and backstreets of my neighbourhood to expose themselves to schoolchildren. If you think flashers are harmless, please understand that the victim does not know it will end there. Every time it happens you dread that maybe this will be the one that grabs you, and does those acts you don’t understand but you fear so much.

I’m talking about inappropriate comments in the workplace. When I was 16 and working in my first proper job serving drinks in a bar, there was a barman who would tease me with questions about my non-existent sex life. He only did this in front of select others who would either laugh with him or blush with me. Did you have sex last night? How many times did you do it? And on and on. He knew what he was doing. I did not know how to handle it. He would not speak to me like that now.

I’m talking about being followed and pestered on public transport and in the street, telling a guy to leave me alone and not being left alone, being called ugly names instead. I’m talking about a boss more than twice my age and weight trying to get sexual with me. There is nothing subtle about this, these are not misread signals or clumsy compliments, this is groping and forced kissing and someone trying to physically overpower you.

You good guys, you know who you are. You are the majority and we love you. Partners, friends, workmates, neighbours, cousins, you make us comfortable, you make us laugh or smile, you want to treat us well and you do. It’s that simple. The others don’t want to treat us well and they don’t. No soul searching or faux confusion required.

Based on what the wonderful women in my life have told me, I know that my experiences of sexual harassment are on the minor end of the scale and that is a serious relief. I have heard tales of child rape and gang rape that chilled my soul. I know there’s a hope that teaching young men about consent will make potential aggressors think, oh now I get it, respect women. I’m not convinced. My feeling is, you are either a decent man who cares how you make women feel or you are not, and you know damn well which one you are.

(That painting is Concept of a Woman by Robert Motherwell, 1946, currently on display at the Paul Klee Museum in Bern.)

My Swiss TV debut on Telezüri

English-speakers are really spoilt in Switzerland, more than any other language group. The locals gladly switch to English at the first opportunity, call centres for banks and insurance companies have English-speaking operators, most websites have an English page, and the state even produces much of its official documentation in English.

Of course that makes it harder to learn the national languages but most of the time it’s an advantage. I’ve written before about the challenges of being a non-native speaker when you live in a foreign country. My language ability varies, mainly depending on levels of confidence and tiredness in a given situation. That’s why is was such a breakthrough for me to accept my first television interview in German and to get through the interview in one piece!

This time last week I was googling tips to prepare for a television interview. Now, the interview is behind me and it’s a huge relief because everything went well. Not that I didn’t make any language mistakes but I managed to make my points clearly and calmly. The 25-minute discussion was broadcast yesterday by Zurich television station Telezüri. The host was Hugo Bigi and I was joined on the Talk Täglich show by fellow Bergli Books writer Wolfgang Koydl, author of Switzerland: A Cartoon Survival Guide. Above is a clip from the interview, and you can view the full programme on this link.

The Telezüri interview was a real case of stepping outside my comfort zone. It was daunting but extremely rewarding. Speaking in public is challenging for many of us, whether it is giving a presentation in work or asking a question in a lecture hall. One of the positive outcomes of writing The Naked Swiss has been that I have been forced to practice public speaking. Now I am at the point that I really enjoy it. It is a privilege to be given a platform to express your ideas, and I am glad to have overcome my fears, as a woman, as a semi-introvert and finally, as a foreigner, so that I can speak up and be heard.

Swiss-based authors: Anne Korkeakivi


I took a walk on the wild side of Geneva with American author Anne Korkeakivi, the third subject to feature in this series of English-language writers based in Switzerland. The author of two novels, Shining Sea and An Unexpected Guest (both published by Little Brown), Anne’s work has been described as “eloquent” and “captivating”.

The New Yorker had a successful career as a journalist before she decided to try out her fiction wings. She stopped producing nonfiction work, taking a job as an editor for a French publishing house, and gave herself twelve months to make a go of fiction. She sold her first story in the eleventh month.

That was the encouragement Anne needed to devote herself to fiction. I spent a morning with Anne, walking through the woods and backroads of Geneva. Having lived abroad for most of her adult life, she is content to live in such an international city. This global spirit is evident in the many different locations Anne features in her work – from Paris to the Philippines to the Hebrides.

Anne’s two novels are very different in scope and tone. The action in the first, An Unexpected Guest, takes place over one day in Paris, as a woman married to a diplomat realises what shaky foundations her well-ordered life is built upon. Shining Sea has a panoramic sweep, following the lives of the large Gannon family over several decades and continents. You’ll find more information about Anne and her work on her website.

Also featured in this series is Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction books, as well as Jason Donald, author of Dalila and Choke Chain. There is one more author to come next week to complete the talented quartet.

Death of a great Swiss leader and suffragette


I was very saddened to learn of the death of Marthe Gosteli, one of the leading campaigners for women’s right to vote in Switzerland, who died on April 7 at the age of 99. I had the honour of interviewing Dr. Gosteli in her home in December 2015. We sat in the front room of the pretty old country house in Worblaufen near Bern, surrounded by evidence of her life’s work – the archive of the Swiss women’s rights movement. The other evidence of her life’s work is that I as a woman had the right to vote when I was granted Swiss citizenship, also in 2015.

Dr. Gosteli impressed me with her sharp intellect and vigour, despite the frailty imposed by her advanced years. There was no doubt she was still a formidable woman. But she was also warm and welcoming.

In her capacity as president of the national umbrella body for women’s associations, Dr. Gosteli negotiated with the government in the lead-up to the 1971 vote. I think of her not only as a campaigner but as a leader. She helped lead the Swiss out of the dead-end in which they were trapped. Massive societal change was needed for women and men to recognise the full potential of women. There was even a counter movement of women’s organisations objecting to the political goals of Dr. Gosteli and her colleagues, and actively fighting against them.

We talk about positive energy a lot these days. Nothing can match the positive energy of Marthe Gosteli and her collaborators. The only time she seemed wistful in our interview was when she mentioned how she missed the camaraderie and friendships of those years. We can only imagine the tireless dedication and team spirit of these women, losing many battles before they won the war.

The real challenge for Swiss suffragettes was winning the argument with male voters who held the real power in the direct democracy system.  Swiss women would not get the vote until Swiss men in all cantons used their electoral power to grant it. Gosteli and her colleagues were fighting a battle on dozens of fronts: “Many people don’t understand why it took so long. We had to win on three levels – communal, cantonal and federal. Full political collaboration was only possible when we had the right to vote on all three.”

Marthe Gosteli worked for the Swiss Army press and radio division during the Second World War and later for the American Embassy information service, before devoting herself fully to the women’s movement from the 1960s. The only complaint Dr. Gosteli had, she said, was that the achievement of female suffrage had lost recognition in Switzerland.  “Huge work was done by many brilliant women in our country and no-one knows about it.”

May she rest in peace. Marthe Gosteli (22 December 1917 – 7 April 2017)

Where to get your Swiss news in English


Because so much big news happens in Switzerland, from peace talks to banking scandals, there is an abundance of Swiss news coverage in international English-speaking media. But if you live here, you will probably be interested in finding reliable sources of news and information relevant to residents.

If you look at home-produced news in English, the pool is relatively small. Here is a guide to some of the main news outlets and what they offer.

The most authoritative and extensive source of Swiss news in English (disclaimer: I worked there from 2005 to 2015) is Bern-based, which operated in a previous incarnation as Swiss Radio International, is a unit of the state-funded Swiss broadcasting corporation SRG SSR idée suisse. It provides daily news coverage in ten languages, along with in-depth articles, video news and features, podcasts and galleries.

Swissinfo employs some 40 journalists, Swiss and foreign. Like all news organisations, it is evolving to be more fast-paced and social media-friendly, but it still has a relatively-traditional solid structure with an editor-in-chief, editorial department heads, picture editors etc., all of whom are subject to high professional standards.

Another website providing Swiss news is The Local. This is an English-language digital news publisher offering daily news, business and features, that originated in Sweden in 2004. It now has outlets in nine European countries. Run by a small team, with additional material from freelancers, the editorial style is light and accessible but the information is well-researched by journalists who have a good grasp of Swiss current affairs.

For those who need to keep up with business and financial news, conveniently translates the daily news written by its staff journalists in Zurich.

World Radio Switzerland (WRS), broadcasting from Geneva, was offloaded by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in 2013 and is now in private ownership. The station features a diverse mix of programming, including talk radio, magazine, business, culture and music shows. It runs news bulletins and publishes short news stories on the website. There are various ways to listen, detailed here.

WRS and The Local have to be commercially viable, so they also carry advertising and have separate sections featuring property listings and other earning links. The same applies to Le News, which covers national news with a regional focus, catering for people in the Lake Geneva region. Le News publishes a fortnightly newspaper with a large entertainment and events section, which is distributed free in the region.

In the entertainment and lifestyle category, the most prolific site is, which covers culture, design, events and tourism. Newlyswissed regularly features listicles and has a light-hearted and humorous touch, well displayed by the current feature suggesting alternative activities for Valentine’s Day for singles in Zurich. A lot of the content is Zurich-oriented.

Other popular websites aimed at the Zurich market, with a strong what’s-on focus, include New in Zurich, which features many different writers, and Girlfriend Guide to Zurich, which bills itself as the ultimate directory to living in Zurich.

Basel has Basel in English, a one-stop shop of information for English-speaking Basel residents, and The English Show on Radio X from 18.30 to 20.00. And Zug has The Zug Post, a media partner of local newspaper the Zuger Zeitung. Because of its link to a local news player, this site provides more general local news, something it would be good to see more of.

And finally, Hello Switzerland is a comprehensive guide to relocating and living in Switzerland, with a free quarterly magazine in English. All of the above are also active on Facebook.

It’s not easy to make an exhaustive list but I hope I haven’t left out an important news or information provider. Please let me know if there’s a website that should be added to the roll call. And of course, there is an enormous range of news outlets in the local languages which are essential reading if you want to branch outside the English-speaking community. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up post with a guide to Swiss newspapers. A much bigger subject to tackle!

Meanwhile, if you are interested in putting Swiss news in context, check out my nonfiction book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, published by Bergli Books in October 2016.

All aboard the Swiss-bashing bandwagon


This week two Swiss newspapers reported on the problem of the “Swiss stare”. Apparently “expats” (I need a separate blog post to explain what I find wrong with this word) have been complaining online about how they dislike it when Swiss people stare at them. The fact that both papers quoted a forum discussion from 2013 gives an indication of how thin this story is.

I am used to Swiss-bashing articles appearing in the English-language media but when I see Swiss newspapers jumping on the bandwagon, I think it is unfortunate, to say the least. All it does is make everyone look bad.

Here’s the interesting part. I heard about the “Swiss stare” when I was contacted by one of the newspapers in question earlier this week, and asked for my take on the issue. I said, honestly, that I had never found it a problem. I’m a bit of a starer myself so maybe I’ve come to live in the right place. In my view, Swiss people in public behave quite like introverts. They are happier to observe others than to draw attention to themselves. That is the group dynamic rather than a reflection of individual characters.

The journalist did not use my answers because they did not fit into the thesis he was presenting. Fair enough. It’s a trivial enough subject and not a serious newspaper so that’s OK. But in the long run, these sorts of stories have a cumulative negative impact, and this is one of the reasons I was motivated to write The Naked Swiss. This quote is from chapter one:

Particularly in the English-speaking world, but also among Germans, there is a great appetite for ‘aren’t they strange’ cultural commentary stories about the Swiss. As a general rule, any piece that makes the Swiss appear ridiculous or sinister, or both, is welcome. The result is a caricature of the cat-eating, obsessively recycling, robotically-dull and silly rule-making Swiss that has been so carefully constructed over years that it may never be dismantled. It’s tough being the rich kid of Europe.

Is there any point in me pointing out that this is a multi-cultural country with a much higher proportion of foreigners than the UK or US (13% in each)? One in four people living in Switzerland are foreign-born. That proportion could well be higher on public transport. How do you even know if the person who stared at you on the train that time is Swiss?

But even if it is a real thing that Swiss people do above all others, I’m not sure why this has to be a problem. When I travel, I neither want nor expect the rest of the world to behave like Irish people. I have never been under the illusion that the Irish way is the defining way of behaviour worldwide. Maybe this is a big country / small country thing. If you don’t count Irish pubs, Ireland has never attempted to dominate the world (or indeed any other country) with its norms and culture. I wonder if it is easier to accept differences in other places if you come from a smaller, more insignificant country, or is it mainly down to the individual’s capacity to accept change and adapt?

In the introduction to my book, I quote Siri Hustvedt who said “no person leaves themselves behind in order to look at a painting”. Our individual responses to a work of art depend on who we are, our character. I think the same applies to our individual responses to a country as immigrants.

So, what can you tell me about the “Swiss stare”? Is it real or imagined? Does it make you dislike the Swiss in general? Or could it happen anywhere? I would love to hear some different perspectives on this from anyone who has experience of living in another culture.  

In praise of coworking (and other news)


An early adopter is a person who starts using a new technology or product as soon as it becomes available. I am more of a chronically-late adopter, but that doesn’t stop me from being enthusiastic about the new thing when I eventually discover it for myself.

When I wrote a few months ago about how much I was enjoying my new self-employed lifestyle, the only drawback I mentioned was that it had been difficult, based at home, to keep working time fenced off from family and house duties. The other thing I didn’t mention was the isolation that goes with working solo. Social media makes up for this to some extent but it doesn’t beat having a little catch-up over coffee with real human beings.

I first heard of coworking through a video journalist colleague at who was working one day per week in a shared office space to pursue film and animation projects outside his regular four-day per week job. I thought it sounded great but I wasn’t looking for something like that at the time. Besides, I thought, that’s the kind of thing you only find in big cities.

And then one day this summer, when things were a bit hectic at home, I did an impulsive google search for ‘coworking Fribourg,’ and immediately struck gold with Colab Fribourg. It turned out that there was an ideal co-working space just five minutes’ away from where I live.

Colab Fribourg is an initiative of local entrepreneur Philippe Lang of It has the special attraction of being located in an atmospheric old building in the old industrial part of Fribourg. Not only that, the large, bright office space is directly above the Villars chocolate shop and café. People come from miles around to buy chocolate there.

It is a quiet working environment (with kitchen, meeting room etc.) but Philippe is currently converting a second room with a built-in phone cabin to cater for people who need to talk more and make phone calls.

I have met people from lots of different countries and professional backgrounds in Colab. Many are working on interesting projects. Some of these – like distributing solar panels in Africa, or coaching small businesses – are easy to understand. Others are at the innovative (and more obscure) end of new technology. I hate the word synergies but it is possible I could link up with some of these fellow Colab workers in future.

Apart from pooling resources, the advantage of self-employed people sharing an office space is that you can have as much or as little contact with each other as desired. In that sense, it is different to a regular working space where it’s more difficult to have a quiet day not talking much to colleagues.

In other news, I am getting very good feedback about The Naked Swiss, most recently this five-star review from, in which the reviewer says she enjoyed the book so much she read it in one sitting. Check out this quote:

“Clare O’Dea’s writing is informative without being too dry, and her clear, well-structured style means that this is a fascinating read, occasionally funny, but never boring. It is an excellent social and historical portrayal of the Swiss nation.”

Last week I went to Basel to the home of Bergli Books’ parent company Schwabe Publishing. A good crowd turned out in Schwabe’s book shop Das Narrenschiff for an author talk and book signing. We ended up having a long question and answer session afterwards where I heard from people of several different nationalities. I’m really glad the book is also appealing to readers outside the English-speaking community. Fellow Irish author Padraig Rooney came along to the Narrenschiff event. I am currently reading his book The Gilded Chalet, a highly enjoyable crash course in literary Switzerland.

This week saw an interview about The Naked Swiss by Zurich-based freelance journalist Jennifer Lisle, published in It’s great to be getting the word out about the book. I hope I can come to Zurich soon for an event – just have to find the right co-host and venue.

Finally, the big news is that Bergli has reached an agreement with another Swiss publisher Helvetiq to bring out the French and German translations of the book next year. I’m delighted the book will reach a much wider audience in Switzerland. If you find any mistakes, now is the time to tell me!

Rendezvous with a sheep farmer


When a wolf attacks a flock of sheep they run but don’t scatter. The wolf circles the terrified flock biting anything within reach. That’s why there is so much damage. In the small canton of Glarus in central Switzerland a farmer lost ten sheep and lambs in one attack two summers ago. He made the grim discovery when he went up to check on his flock on a high mountain pasture above the town of Näfels. What made the Glarus attack special was that it was the first confirmed presence of a wolf in the canton for more than two centuries.

I had seen the story on the wires and decided to follow up on it. A few days later I had a rendezvous with the sheep farmer at 7.30a.m. I was the only guest in the B&B. The retired couple who ran the place served me a banquet for breakfast. They watched me eat with solicitous care, possibly still alarmed by my admission that I had left my children at home overnight. I explained that the children were in the care of their father but that did not seem to diminish their concern. No mother will ever feel unimportant in Switzerland.

This carefully prepared Swiss breakfast was a treat for the senses. Little ramekins of home-made jams sat next to a plate of cold cuts of meat. A loaf of fresh Zopf bread was draped with a white napkin, ready to be sliced, and the cheese board beckoned with a wealth of tastes and textures. There was a constant supply of fresh coffee and hot milk. The man of the house accepted my compliments for his special creation, carpaccio of fennel served with dill and vinaigrette. I was ready for my hike.

Before I travelled there, the only thing I knew about canton Glarus – one big valley, lots of mountains – was that it was where Switzerland’s ‘last witch’ was beheaded in 1782. I had once interviewed a local historian about the subject by telephone. Anna Goldi was a servant woman who worked for an influential family in the village of Mollis. When one of the children in her care sickened and allegedly coughed up pins, Anna was accused of witchcraft and locked up. Rumour had it she was also having sexual relations with her employer, information which would have been damaging to him if made public. Incredibly, even though the child recovered, Anna was sentenced to death by the Protestant church council, fifty years after the last similar execution for witchcraft had taken place in Germany. She was officially exonerated by the cantonal parliament in 2008 and there is now a museum in her memory.

The sheep farmer was waiting for me outside the train station. A stocky man with an Amish-style beard – Switzerland is home to the original Mennonites – he pointed to the high grey cliffs looming over the town of Näfels. Above the wall of rock I could see some patches of meadow in between the trees. That’s where we’re going, he said.  We drove a short distance outside the town and then began the hike up.

As we walked, we talked. Robert, a carpenter by trade, was a hobby farmer who brought his sheep up to graze in the Alpine meadow from May to September. The land he rented for a nominal sum from the commune of Näfels, a system of commonage that has survived since time immemorial. Most of the Alpine meadows in Glarus belong to the communes, he told me. He walked up three times a week, an hour each way, to check on his flock. I began to think I had met the quintessential Swiss man, a man who only needed a change of costume to seem right at home in the time of Anna Göldi and the last wolf in Glarus.

Robert pointed out tufts of black wool on the path. The wildlife ranger who had passed by there earlier in the week to inspect the scene of the wolf attack said that wool had been coughed up by a bird of prey after it had fed on the carcasses of the sheep.

The conversation had to stop when I ran out of breath, and we climbed steadily up the steep forest path. When we got above the tree line, a tiny mountain chalet came into view. A wizened old man was sitting outside the hut smoking a pipe, the shepherd. Aha, another character from the 18th century, I thought.

But behind the timeless traditions and rustic conditions, a modern, sophisticated, state-funded system was at work. The wolf’s DNA had already been gathered and sent off for testing and its presence would soon be recorded on the website of the monitoring group.

The old shepherd with the weather-beaten face was called Walter and he came from Valais on the other side of the country. He works with a sheepdog protection service that is mobilised within a couple of days of a wolf attack, run by Agridea, a national agriculture development agency. He had come with two sheepdogs, white-haired Italian Maremanno-Abruzzese, who did not take too kindly to my visit. Walter was there to get the dogs settled in and they were due to spend the rest of the summer on the alp, guarding the sheep.

Walter was a retired sports teacher turned sheep farmer and sheepdog breeder who had achieved his dream of living far away from and, in his case far above, the madding crowd.

The three of us sat on the bench outside the hut enjoying the morning sun and eating slices of dried sausage and cherries from Robert’s garden. Two border collies that Walter had brought along for company watched our every move, especially when the slices of sausage were involved. There was construction work going on in the valley and the low buzz of civilisation drifted up to us.

Later, Walter and I chatted about wolf and sheep matters while Robert cleared a large patch of thistles and nettles with a scythe, another subsidised task, under the protection of the mountains scheme.

I went to see the sheep to take some photographs, as close as the sheepdogs allowed me to get, and too soon, it was time to hike back down to roads and cars and houses and crowds. I was reminded of the allure of the mountains and the precious escape they provide to many Swiss people. Some argue that things are getting too crowded at high altitude too, as farmers, tourists and wildlife compete for space. I hoped the wolf would continue on her way and choose her next meal more carefully. If you’d like to read the story I wrote for about the return of the wolf, click here.

My non-fiction book about Switzerland, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, partly draws on my years of reporting for, such as this trip to Glarus. Now available to buy through the publisher Bergli Books and on Amazon, it will be officially launched in Switzerland tomorrow. I’m really looking forward to feedback from readers, so don’t forget to rate or review on Goodreads or Amazon, drop over to my Facebook page to comment, or simply tell your friends about The Naked Swiss.

Image courtesy of Micha L. Rieser, Wikipedia Commons

Would you pass the Swiss sleeping-in-straw test?

The ‘Stroh Deluxe’ room in Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in the Emmental is a world away from the real thing

The longest night I ever lived through in Switzerland was spent half way up a mountain in a barn, my head resting on a rough pillow several feet above a calving cow. Although 90 per cent of the population lives in the lowlands, the Swiss like to think of themselves as a mountain people, and therefore they celebrate all the trappings of rustic mountain life. When the idea of ‘sleeping in the straw’ came up, I took my cue from my enthusiastic Swiss friends and convinced myself it would be a fun thing to do.

It was a chair lift ride and half a day’s hike to get to the chalet where a farming couple were spending the summer looking after their herd of two dozen cows. We ate fondue outside and watched the sun set over the pre-Alps. I had to agree it was lovely. When we were shown to the accommodation upstairs – rough-hewn wooden bunks with the promised straw-filled mattresses and army blankets – I thought it could have been worse. I hadn’t taken vernacular Swiss architecture into account.

To keep everybody warm in winter, Swiss farmhouses traditionally integrated the family’s living quarters and the barn or cowshed under one roof. We were actually sleeping in the old hay loft, directly above the stall. This soon became clear from what I could smell through the gaps between the floorboards. One cow was being kept in for the night (I soon discovered why) while the rest were free to roam outside. When I resigned myself to the smell and the occasional sounds of snorting and stamping from downstairs, it seemed like sleep might be possible.

I awoke from a short and fitful sleep to distinctly more unhappy sounds coming from the cow below. I don’t know how many hours that poor cow was calving but I didn’t sleep a wink throughout. It did eventually come to an end and finally the light went out and the sound of lowing and voices was gone. All was not lost, I thought, dawn was still at least an hour off. I hadn’t reckoned on the morning milking, which started after what felt like a mere moment of shut-eye. First the whole house shook with the thundering of twenty-four sets of hooves on the wooden floor, and the clanging of twenty four cowbells, as the cows came in to be milked. Then the milking machine generator started up, also seemingly located directly under my bed, with its own penetrating noise. Eventually I was lulled back to sleep by the chugging – until it stopped. But then it was time for the cows to be let out, and the din of hooves started up again.

The next day I hurried down to the Central Swiss Plateau, glad to be back in the one of the most densely populated areas in Europe if it meant having modern conveniences and sleeping through the night.

The age-old tradition of taking herds up the mountains to the summer pastures is only maintained by a relatively small number of famers nowadays. Some 17,000 mountain farmers make the trek every year with 800,000 livestock, usually staying in simple chalets while they look after their animals, serve drinks to hikers, and make cheese or other farm produce. Where practical, herds or flocks are left alone, or in the care of sheepdogs.

An incredible two thirds of Switzerland’s land surface is taken up by mountains but my sleeping in the straw experience is the closest most Swiss get to mountain life in the land of Heidi, chalets and yodelling from alp to alp. To the Swiss who live in the lowlands, the mountains are their playground, a place to go skiing, hiking, paragliding or hunting. The fact is it is difficult to make a living up there. The majority of Alpine farmers rely on subsidies, and volunteers are drafted in to help with the summer harvest in a support programme organised by the charity Caritas. And the Swiss are loyal to their high-altitude brethren. The charity for hard-up mountain dwellers Schweizer Berghilfe (Swiss Mountain Aid) is one of the most popular in Switzerland for bequests. On the scientific front, the Swiss are global leaders in avalanche and glacier research. They also know a thing or two about hydroelectric power, since more than half of Switzerland’s electricity production comes from hydroelectric power generation.

This summer I summoned the courage to sleep in a mountain hut again, this one belonging to the family of a friend. First we had a hair-raising drive up a narrow winding road hewn out of the mountainside, literally stuck between a rock and a hard place whenever we met another car. Then came a long hike, up and up. There was no milking involved this time – the small herd left alone on our particular alp were too young – so I only had the spiders to worry about as I waited for morning to come. But I did have the pleasure of being first up and lighting the morning fire to heat water for breakfast, one of those age-old tasks that almost made me sentimental about mountain life. Have you ever tried sleeping on the straw? Or what is the equivalent where you come from?  For those curious to try it, check out this Swiss agritourism website to find a farmhouse nearby. But if you prefer something more refined, why not try the room in the picture above at the Hotel Kemmeriboden Bad in Emmental, canton Bern? I know I’m tempted.