10 things to love about Switzerland


I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?

Post visit stress disorder

One thing my family does quite well is emigrate but the experience has changed fundamentally through the generations. When my grandmother’s siblings emigrated to the US in the 1920s and 1930s, they knew they would only cross the Atlantic once. Visits home were unheard of for most long-distance emigrants of that era. When my uncles emigrated to Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the trip back to Ireland was still expensive and they mostly came back once a year – until they found English wives and then less often. Even my older cousins who emigrated to the US and London in the 1980s baulked at the price of phone calls and visits were infrequent.

I can only imagine to what degree they suffered homesickness and loneliness in their new homes. Ultimately they were forced to let go. For better or for worse they built new lives for themselves.

Mine has been a very different type of emigration. Ten years ago I left Ireland to come and live in Switzerland and now new family ties keep me here. The trouble is I haven’t left Ireland behind, I can’t and I don’t want to. All the time that I’m forging a new life here for myself, I’m carrying around an ailing version of my old one. Through email, phone calls, skype and texts and regular visits I try to keep up contact – but it is an imperfect and fractured kind of contact. I try to stay close but people are having crises I know nothing about and I am having a crisis I never get to explain.

The truth is I come back from visits to Ireland like a bag of cats, suffering from a kind of post visit stress disorder. Instead of being happy that I got to see one aunt, a friend who lost his mother at Christmas, my niece and nephews, my mother and sisters, and a college friend back from England (all in three days!), I am tormented by guilt and regret over the other people I didn’t get to see or speak to, some of whom I didn’t even tell I was coming (more guilt). The long visits are even worse because we all have the mistaken impression two weeks is a long time. Arrangements add up and people say “sure we’ll see you again before you go” and next thing I know I’m squeezing in appointments like a greedy doctor and I’m using my mother’s house like a hotel with free babysitting.

I like to imagine that one day, when my working life is through and my children are established in their own lives, I will end up in an old folks’ home with my sisters, close cousins and friends. We will hang out on the porch, enjoying warm Irish summer evenings (it is a fantasy) and we will talk, talk talk. We will finally get to catch up on all those missing years and belatedly support each other through every past triumph and disaster and all the humdrum days in between. If I find myself feeling nostalgic about post visit stress disorder – not impossible, I can develop nostalgia for almost anything – all I’ll have to do is book a flight back to Switzerland.