I met my friend Kathrin when she came to the United States as a cultural exchange student twenty years ago. During the year she spent here, she shared stories of the life she had growing up a small village in Switzerland. The close-knit community, the simplicity and predictability that she described seemed so different from life in the United States. When I found out that she sewed doll clothes for the child she cared for, I realized that she was truly special. I had always hoped to visit her and see Switzerland for my myself. A few months ago, I finally got my wish.
Arriving at Zurich Airport, at first glance, the airport looked empty, compared to the congested and frenetic Newark International Airport where we had departed. Noticeably absent were the glaring televisions featuring prominent political figures and the imposing aroma of fast food. What we saw instead were stylish coffee shops, shoe stores displaying “made to last” boots, and alluring grocery stores fully stocked with enticing produce, freshly squeezed orange juice and a profusion of distinctive Swiss chocolate. A McDonald’s and a couple of other fast food restaurants were inconspicuously situated on the upper level of the airport.
Since it was eight in the morning, we headed to one of the coffee shops. Switzerland is comprised of German, Italian and French regions, so there is an abundance of great espresso. We had excellent coffee, hot chocolate and one of the freshest croissants I have ever had (no butter needed!). We were amused to see Ovaltine featured on the menu. Afterward, we approached an information booth and a helpful guide explained how we could get to our hotel via public transportation. With two-day unlimited passes we had access to all trains and trolleys. At one point during our journey we needed directions and asked a person who was loading up the dining car from the train track. He stopped what he was doing and went onto his smartphone and provided us with clear instructions. Then, politely he suggested that we download the app to our phones. This was the first of many encounters demonstrating just how much the Swiss value self-sufficiency. The public transportation system is impressive with trolley cars that seem to arrive the moment you get to the bus stop. The trains are immaculate and always (and I do mean always) on time. Conductors don’t regularly check tickets as riders are expected to be trusted to pay the required fair. The Swiss adhere to a code of personal integrity that seems to work very well.
Zurich is a significant city with a population of close to 400,000 people. Our Hotel was situated in Zurich West, a haven of ethnic restaurants and funky bars with American names like Holy Cow and Brooklyn Burgermeister that fill up with young locals every evening. Switzerland is not as expensive as we had anticipated. Prices for hotels and restaurants were comparable to the US but somewhat higher than other European cities we had visited.
Our next stop was lunch at a beer hall featuring traditional Swiss cuisine. We were seated at a long table with other customers. We shared platters of grilled pork cutlet and sausage which came with a salad of shredded root vegetables and a popular potato dish called Rosti which resembled home fries formed into a patty. Swiss cuisine is simple and hearty. I looked to the right and noticed a table of men sharing beers and platters of beef goulash. Their weathered faces and calloused hands suggested years of hard work. They were laughing and toasting each other in what looked like a regular ritual for them.
The Swiss walk briskly in their sturdy boots and practical clothing of wool coats, scarves, hats and gloves that are all similar, but somehow look different on each person wearing them. They seem not to question much. Although many rely on their smartphones to navigate, you don’t see them glued to them or sitting in coffee shops staring at their laptops. I did not see many overweight people in Zurich. The overall obesity rate in Switzerland is 19.5% compared with 36.2% in the US. Notable, however, is their high smoking rate; 27.7% of Swiss resident’s smoke compared with 17.2% in the US.
The next day we boarded a bus that would take us to Mount Rigi, commonly referred to as the “Queen” of the Swiss Alps. The ambiance of urban Zurich was quickly transformed to a beautiful green countryside scattered with an assortment of livestock grazing peacefully. “Here in Switzerland,” our tour guide boasted, “we have very happy cows. They must spend 90 days a year outside in free air.” She continued, “Switzerland has strict environmental laws that require approximately one third of the country remain forested. For every tree used for construction, it must be replaced with one planted.”
The bus stopped in a tiny picturesque town where we boarded a cable car to start our ascent to the top of the mountain. As we hung on a simple cable thousands of feet in the air, I looked down at infinity; a breathing taking bounty of green, masses of trees and tiny houses that looked like toys. The cable car stopped, and we transferred to a cogwheel train to continue our summit, passing quaint little towns sparsely sprinkled with modest houses perched on hills so steep they looked like they might fall off the mountain.
Mt Rigi is formidable with an elevation of 5,899 ft and breathtaking views from every angle. Lunch time called to us and we noticed a small house down the road with a restaurant sign posted out front. The one room dwelling was modestly furnished with two picnic style tables each serving 6-8 people. The owner came out and asked what we wanted to eat. “They only serve one entrée and that is goulash,” another customer informed us in English. I wondered if the owner lived upstairs from the restaurant. As we ate our simple goulash of beef, carrots and potatoes, the chef and his wife joined us for a glass of beer. Their cat climbed up on the bench and snuggled next to me.
The Swiss pride themselves at being on time, so the next day when Kathrin arrived at our hotel precisely at 9:15am as she had promised, we were not at all surprised. As we rode the train to Lucerne, she started speaking in German to a woman sitting next to her. I asked them how their health insurance works and whether they thought it was affordable and met their needs. Both expressed satisfaction with the quality, cost and choice they had with their health insurance and care. In Switzerland health insurance is mandatory and funded through a combination of private and public insurance with subsidies for those on low incomes. The system offers a wide range of choice that varies according to where you live. The Swiss have a life expectancy of 82.8 years, nearly four years higher than the life expectancy in the US which is 78.7 years of age.
We arrived in the lakeside region of Lucerne, a beautiful tourist town fully equipped with outdoor markets, high end stores and restaurants. We sat at a café drinking coffee and looked out at the famous Chapel Bridge. After a walk along the many winding streets we were back on the train and Kathrin pulled an impromptu lunch out of her knapsack. “This is our picnic!” she explained as she spread out slices of cheese, meat and some hearty bread on our dining trays.
Our next stop was the small village where Kathrin lived. The provincial little town had winding alleyways and cobblestone streets. Kathrin’s house was a modern structure that resembled a simplified IKEA display room, with square rooms and sharply angled furniture. It was spacious and practical. Downstairs on the basement level, I thought it was unusual to have so much dedicated space for a sewing room. But the big surprise came when she opened a door to the fallout shelter. Switzerland requires all residences and buildings to have enough nuclear fallout shelters to accommodate its entire population. After our tour we entered the dining room where the table was already set. We watched Kathrin prepare raclette, a traditional dish of melted Swiss cheese poured over boiled potatoes and sprinkled with a special spice. The Swiss love their cheese!
For our last night, we decided to try traditional Swiss fondue. We booked a small restaurant that was tightly packed with locals. Our server helped us select our fondue which was made with mild and sharp cheeses, wine and Kirsch, a popular liquor made from fermented cherries. It came with chunks of white bread and boiled potatoes to dip in. We washed it down with some wine made locally as well. It was all so good.
I felt sad to leave this nice country where everything seems to make so much sense. The following are my top takeaways from Switzerland:
- The Swiss prioritize the basic human needs of their citizens as most important. They have excellent health care and a mandatory health insurance system that is accessible to all. A nationwide job readiness program ensures a highly skilled labor force, low unemployment and one of the highest gross domestic products per capita in the world
- They appreciate what they have. They love their food, culture and natural resources. They embrace their traditions and are committed to protecting their environment
- They value quality. This is reflected in the homes and buildings they develop, the food they eat and the goods and services they produce
- They have a good work life balance and offer reduced work schedules for parents and reasonable time off for all employees for leisure and activities of daily living
- They are a neutral country. They value being pragmatic rather than taking extreme positions. They have not been involved in a war since 1516
- The Swiss have won more Nobel Prizes and registered more patents per capita than most other nations
They must be doing something right.