Apartment living: the Swiss way of life Close-living calls for cooperation

Issue: Issue 1/ 2017
Most of us English-speaking expats lived in houses with gardens back home in the States, Canada, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. Most of us are living in apartments, with balconies, here in Switzerland. What differences come along with apartment living?

There I was, pouring water from a flooded flowerpot into a watering can. Oops! The water had a mind of its own and splashed to the balcony floor and over the edge, through the balustrade slats and onto the terrace below. I peered over the railing to find my new neighbor glaring up at me. She had been sunbathing, when suddenly she was being showered….I apologized profusely and put some chocolate in her mailbox the next day.

Most of us English-speaking expats lived in houses with gardens back home in the States, Canada, the UK, Australia or New Zealand. Most of us are living in apartments, with balconies, here in Switzerland. Carelessness or messiness that went unnoticed except by family members back home ranges more widely here – onto the neighbor's terrace, for example. Children shrieking under one's window or the neighbor's fight with his wife intrude upon our domestic peace; and our too loud hi-fi at 11 at night will meet with complaints. Probably we have to share the washing machine, and to be sure, on a strict schedule. No first come, first serve.

All these annoyances can feel like assaults on our individuality as well as our joie de vivre, for we are not used to them. The Swiss seem to manage this lifestyle quite well, however; what conclusions can we draw about this?

To answer this question it is worth considering the structure of Switzerland itself. Think of the country as a unit, divided into 4 very different cultural units. These in turn are divided into cantons, each with its own character. All this in a country one-sixth the size of the UK, or only 3 times the size of Los Angeles county. There is little melding of these radically different cultures within the country; Switzerland is not a melting pot. The cantons of Bern and the Valais, for example, have two distinct language sections, one German, one French, with no border, no demarcation between them.

But underneath the considerable disparity is a sense of Swissness that transcends cultural differences. This is not to say that everybody likes everybody else. Between the German and French speaking regions, for example, there exists the "Röstigraben" (Rösti trench), or "barrière de Rös(ch)ti), referring to the fried potato dish "Rösti", popular in the German-speaking cantons, but not the French. Sniping about those on the other side of this divide is a popular pastime, not only for their cuisine but in more serious political matters as well. As this national experiment in multikulti living with an official stamp got its start more than 700 years ago and has existed in its present form for more than 200 years however, it is safe to say that it is a workable system. It identifies neither with individuality nor uniformity, but rather with the paradigm of consensus. The Swiss will discuss and discuss until a workable solution is found. The seven Federal Councillors traditionally do not issue statements until all have agreed on what to say. The basic attitude when differences arise is "how do we work this out?" rather than "I am going to get my own way".

So here we have official cultural identity units expressing their considerable individuality, while interactions among them seek agreement. Official decisions are made at the town or cantonal level more often than in Bern, thus respecting the different needs of different groups. At the same time, solidarity is important; for example, a lack of compulsory health insurance is unimaginable here. Social services in general are at a high level.

An admirable system – are there disadvantages as well? With the necessity of arriving at consensus comes a certain lack of spontaneity and zaniness, except of the official variety at Fastnacht time or on the occasion of the Street Parade in Zurich, for example. Obedience to The Rules in a particular situation is sometimes more important than being generous or noting that the rule really does not apply here. Official respect for individuality expresses itself in the many, many referenda; true and admirable grass roots democracy. The downside is that the Swiss are very busy filling out voting slips, and some of the referenda, though not all by any means, border on the silly.

So what does this have to do with apartment living? One can exercise one's individuality within one's four walls, but cooperation with one's – possibly disparate – neighbors is essential. For us this may be quite a new experience; for the Swiss is it a given. As a foreigner one may be regarded as exotic or odd; but it is all right, expected even. I can remember thinking that people were probably saying "Well, Karen is a bit strange, but then she is American", with tolerance of my oddities as a basic value.

Having said that, I have to confess that I made another boo-boo re the neighbors downstairs. A hefty storm swept a plant off the balcony railing into the bushes below and from there onto – you guessed it – a planter at the side of the neighbors' balcony. Mortified, I rushed downstairs to fetch it. Babbling on about the fact that I had never had a plant leap off my balustrade in the 12 years I have lived here, and throwing in a comment about other plant pots from other balconies that I had noted lying about in the grass after the storm, I reached for my plant. The male half of the couple leapt up and offered to carry it upstairs for me, which he proceeded to do. Neighborliness triumphed. We got to know each other a bit better. I see them as cooperative and helpful and they see me as that old lady upstairs who gets a little carried away with her balcony gardening. Not tragic, as the Swiss say. Live and let live.

All the best to you in your Swiss apartment life! 

Author: Karen Rudin

Avid balcony gardener Karen Rudin has also enjoyed hiking and cross-country skiing in Switzerland. She was a chemistry teacher and is now a translator, while her passionate interest in the environment has found expression in many articles and presentations. Cooking, writing skits and painting are further enthusiasms.

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