Another list of small but surprising things about living in Switzerland

Credit: Patrick Robert Doyle

Funnily enough, I have yet to feel a strong sense of culture shock since arriving in Geneva from Washington, DC one year ago. On the whole, everyday life here feels a lot like everyday life there.

Of course, there are many, many minor cultural differences that stand out briefly the first time I encounter them, but are so minute in nature that I have readily absorbed and accepted them as ‘the way things always were.’ I’ve already listed some of these peculiarities, like having to weigh your own produce at the supermarket, in a blog post from last year. Here are some more I’ve observed over the past year.

They do not make it easy for you to buy meds here. Medication is not sold at supermarkets, only at pharmacies and in person. You need a doctor’s note to purchase something as simple as melatonin. When I buy ibuprofen at the pharmacy, the cashier has to retrieve it from a locked cabinet behind them and give me a spiel about how to consume it responsibly.

Taking off two weeks or more at a time is the norm. When I started my first job after college, I had two weeks of vacation for the entire year. Now I get five weeks of what’s called “annual leave.” Good luck trying to reach anyone in Europe during the month of August.

The weird over-emphasis on gender. In French, greetings, emails, train announcements, online orders, formal correspondence — everything seems to be preceded by Madame or Monsieur. A lot of websites and services also mistranslate Madame to Mrs, which I find particularly annoying. You’re either a Mr or a Mrs. There’s no third option. Not even inanimate objects can escape this fate: when I went to the Apple store last month for an issue with my phone, the Apple genius kept referring to my phone as him. He is running too many apps at the same time. Do not charge him when he is already at 100% battery.

Restaurant etiquette. In the States, except for casual joints where you pay and grab your food at the counter, it’s considered rude to seat yourself at a cafe or restaurant; you wait for the host to show you to a table. Here, you just park yourself at any empty table and wait for someone to come to you eventually. (Keyword eventually.) And if you show up at a restaurant that’s full without a reservation, the host isn’t going to ask you to stick around and wait for a table to open up. It’s just, “Sorry, we’re full, please go away.”

Mail is delivered to names, rather than apartment numbers. Every mailbox is labeled with the name of the current tenant(s), which means that you don’t receive tons of spam meant for someone who lived here five years ago. But that doesn’t mean there’s no spam; I receive tons of catalogues for local shops, fundraising requests for issues like swimming safety education in Swiss lakes, and political flyers advocating for one issue or another. Most people in my building have affixed their mailboxes with a sticker that says pas de publicité – merci (please no advertising), but that doesn’t seem to have much of an effect.

Weird customs charges when dealing with the EU. When I first moved here, I bought a reusable capsule for my Nespresso machine from an online shop in the Netherlands. A few weeks later, I got a surprise bill in the mail: apparently I owed around 30 euros in customs taxes. (The capsule itself was less than 40 euros.) Some people in Geneva rent a mailbox in a shop in Ferney-Voltaire, just across the border in France, to avoid paying fees on online purchases and also to make purchases from Amazon France. I went to that shop last year when I had to mail my work laptop to a former colleague who lived in Nantes, France. It was safer to keep the entire transaction within France so that neither she nor I would get slapped with unexpected charges.

Store hours are short and inflexible, but you make it work. This is something that comes up a lot in expat guides: the fact that Swiss stores are usually closed by 7pm on weekdays and completely closed on Sundays. I struggled with this at first, but now I’ve learned to adapt my schedule and approach it like most people, which is to plan your grocery shopping ahead of time. Saturdays are the most popular days for shopping, but most big stores actually also have special extended hours until 9pm on Thursdays. I did once go to France on Sunday just to get groceries, and the produce section at Carrefour had been completely picked over by that point. Would not recommend.

The directness of the French language never fails to entertain. On my first day at my new job, the French HR representative onboarding us spent some time going over employer perks, such as reimbursement for up to a certain amount of gym membership fees. “We thank you to wait to claim this reimbursement after the conclusion of your probation period,” she had said, and I’d thought, huh, that sounds rather cold. But it turns out that’s actually the polite way to say it in French: nous vous remercions, or we thank you, is essentially the French equivalent of we’d greatly appreciate it if you could.

I’ve learned not to take anything said in French at face value. One of the major political parties in Switzerland is called le Parti libéral-radical, which sounds like it should be very left-wing, but it’s actually on the center right of the political spectrum. When the news say that something deplores, what that really means is that people have died, e.g., “The city deplores three deaths.” If you try to read everything literally like I tend to do, then you’re going to be very confused.

No school on Wednesdays. Pre-COVID, I noticed that many women in my office had out-of-office messages advising that they didn’t work on Wednesdays. Someone finally explained to me that a lot of nursery schools are closed on Wednesdays, which is why many of my female coworkers with young children usually had to spend the day at home. And yes — it’s always the female coworkers.

Websites default to German just because I’m in Switzerland. I get a ton of Instagram and YouTube ads in German, even though I’m in a 100% francophone region. This is even more problematic when these ads are from the Swiss Office of Public Health and cover important subjects like how to protect yourself from the flu. I have to use the Swiss version of a popular stock photo website for work, and there’s not even a French version of the site available: I literally have to use Google Translate to look up English keywords in German and then copy/paste them into the search bar.

The post office probably won’t accept your credit card. I learned this through trial and error. No Visa, no MasterCard. The only payment they’ll take is cash, Maestro, or their own card. Yes, the post office is also a bank.

2 comments

  1. I’ve never heard the thing with “deplore”! It must be a Swiss French thing. Something I only learned this year after years of studying French and having been to France multiple times was that they use “disparaître” to mean “die.” Like “Nous regrettons de vous informer que ___ a disparu” meaning “We’re sorry to let you know that ___ has died”

    Liked by 1 person

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