Thursday, March 15, 2007

The National Character Trait: Responsible

Most Americans know little about Switzerland. Some even get it confused with Sweden, but the majority conjure images of majestic Alps, fine chocolates and efficiency when Switzerland is mentioned. After living here just two months, I can confidently affirm that gorgeous views and delectable chocolates are plentiful, but the efficiency keeps me guessing. Indeed, the trains do run on time (and when one didn't the transit authority picked me up in a van), but I want to know why.

Have Mickey and I found our niche in a nation of type A citizens where emails and phone calls are returned within one day and 'punctual' is one of the first adjectives you learn in German class? Maybe. At first, I figured that centuries of adopting and abiding rules had shaped the Swiss into the meticulous watch-makers and bankers they are today. The countless rules here, ranging from the inconvenient (supermarkets close at 8pm or earlier) to the absurd (no flushing the toilet after 10pm) are astounding. When Mickey first began reading to me from The Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss, a quick read describing the peculiarities of Swiss culture, I knew I had hit a goldmine of priceless material for this blog.

What amused me more than the endless list of dos and don'ts though, was the way rules are enforced, not by the police or a task force of highly trained St. Bernards, but by themselves. The Swiss comply with these rules because they are highly conscious of what the neighbors will think and do. In fact, the neighbors of my employers have left notes at their door asking them to remove papers that had only been sitting out for a couple of hours. Likewise, Google's neighbors have filed multiple complaints about the late hours at which Google's lights are still on.

In a scene from Die Schweizermacher, an old Swiss movie about obtaining Swiss citizenship, government officials question the neighbor of the young immigrant they are investigating. "Have you noticed anything unusual about this woman?" they ask. "Well," her neighbor replies, "she uses brown garbage bags while the rest of us use blue." Perhaps using the wrong color garbage bags was just poor form at the time this movie was made, but if Mickey and I tried to pull a stunt like that, our garbage simply wouldn't be collected. Anyway, I imagined that this post would end here and that my American family and friends would have a laugh at the expense of the Swiss. 'My, aren't they petty?" we'd chuckle. But in recent weeks, I've developed a profound respect for the Swiss and the high expectations (yeah, I said it) they hold for themselves.

For instance, there are many rules governing the disposal of recyclable materials in Switzerland. Paper must be flattened and tied up with string and is collected at the curb twice each month, glass and aluminum must be sorted by color and dropped off at a local recycling center while plastics are returned to the supermarket. This system took some getting used to and I know it would never work in the US. We can barely be trusted with one container let alone three with separate instructions. Still, the system works remarkably well for the ecologically minded Swiss. I've heard that the remaining rubbish doesn't burn very well because it is completely devoid of the more flammable recyclables.

As a former teacher, I was similarly stunned by Swiss school schedules. My friend Hannah's six and seven year old charges start and finish school at different times each day of the week. You might think that US parents could adjust to that, dropping kids off and picking them up earlier or later, but here's the kicker - Swiss children come home for lunch everyday. It was difficult for the parents of my students in the US to remember early dismissal day, forget a nutritious lunch and then back off to school. This is the reason why many feel that the Swiss system discriminates against working moms. Someone must be at home to prepare lunch for the children and if mom can't, then you need an au pair. Still, I am impressed that teachers get the prep time they deserve and that Swiss parents are so responsible.

Voting also requires responsibility here in Switzerland. Its government operates with a form of direct democracy, a system which requires citizens to vote on all kinds of issues that in the states are left to local, state and national legislatures. Paola feels burdened by this system which demands that constituents inform themselves of the many issues, but I am in awe of this government which puts so much trust in its people. I wonder what would happen if the US government, education system and even garbage collection companies put more faith in the American people. If the expectations of us were raised, would we rise to the challenge and inform ourselves better at election time, become better parents and recycle more efficiently? Wendy Kopp might think so, but I'm not so sure. If only they could export responsibility the way they do chocolate and cheese... (sigh:)

No comments: