10 things you didn't know about Switzerland
Updated: Nov 6
As a non-swiss citizen there were so many new facts and stories that I didn't know before - I could list some of the traditional stuff (e.g. that Switzerland has 4 official languages) but in this blog I'd rather go into some points where people have to ask twice - really?!? Especially the last one is so fascinating and terrifying at the same time. So let's dig in...
1. Voting Rights for Women
You might think with all the international institutions (e.g. UN or International Red cross who are based in Switzerland for centuries now) and the democratic image that Switzerland embodies, that the Swiss women had the right to vote as probably one of the first worldwide.
But it is actually the opposite: Just 1971 the right to vote for women was introduced by federal vote. Switzerland was therefore one of the last European countries which granted its female population full civil rights. And to cap it all it took another nearly 20 years until the last canton of Switzerland finally introduced the women voting right on a cantonal level.
Why is that so? That can be explained by the constitution of Switzerland and its direct democracy. For bills relating directly to the constitution, all the people who are entitled to vote have to actually vote about it. Which means back in that time all the people who were entitled to vote were men.
2. Why are there only a few Swiss whiskeys or similar spirits?
Well, certainly Whiskey is something that is traditionally produced in Scotland, Ireland and America. But usually countries do have similar spirits on their own made out of grain - such as Vodka or Korn. In Switzerland it was forbidden until July 1, 1999 to make spirits from staple foods such as grain and potatoes. The corresponding law dates back from 1885 and was tightened again in 1930 to protect the population from the gasping alcohol abuse. The law also served agriculture to protect local spirits made from fruits. Luckily today we are able to enjoy fine whiskeys that are produced in Switzerland as well.
3. Kim Yong-un went to school in Switzerland
Even though there is no physical evidence, there are several reports that the northkorean dictator went to school in Switzerland. Under a false name and passport he and his siblings probably went to school for a couple of years in the 90s in Bern.
4. The Swiss Alps are full of military bunkers, shelters and protected premises
As weird as it sounds, the Swiss alps are perforated like a Swiss cheese. The first category are the military installations which go back to 1880. The so called "Reduit" or Redoubt was a defensive plan developed by the Swiss government to respond to foreign invasion. Even though Switzerland was never involved, the fear of a German invasion during the second world war was always there.
The idea is simple: Fall back into your huge net of fortifications and military installations in the Swiss Alps (which work already as a defensive shield), protect all accesses and in worst case, blow up all tunnels, bridges and mountain passes. Today you can visit some of these bunkers and even spend a night in them - if you dare.
The second category goes back to the cold war and the fear of a nuclear strike. By law there has to be a shelter space for every inhabitant. Not all of them are in the alps, but all communities and cantons are obliged to install this kind of shelters. This results in about 360 000 personal protection rooms, plus around 1700 protective systems. They should also be available in case of other disasters and emergencies, e.g. an earthquake or risk of an avalanche.
The funny part about all these shelters is, that you probably won't notice them until someone points you directly to them. They are painted as normal houses or in the mountains you only see some holes here and there.
5. Guinea pigs must be held at least as a pair of two
As unusual as this may sound at first, this regulation actually makes a lot of sense when you look closer. Guinea pigs are very social animals and prefer to live with a partner or in a group. From 2008 the Swiss federal council declared that Guinea pigs can not be held alone.
6. Legal consumption of cannabis
Totally true - you maybe will notice the smell of weed in the air when walking along the lakes of Geneva or Zurich - but there is a high chance that this is a legally bought cannabis cigarette - where you won't get high. Products made from cannabis plants, which can be legally bought in Switzerland, can only contain very little of the substance Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for the narcotic effect of cannabis.
7. Bise - what's that?
If you don't live in Switzerland you probably never heard about this phenomenon before. It is a canalized air-current along the northern edge of the Alps, during high-pressure conditions in northern or eastern Europe. It actually works like a gigantic natural wind channel - wind gets pushed from the northeast between the Alps and the Jura mountains, while the channel narrows its way through Switzerland with the Lake Geneva as its valve.
In summer, this causes rather dry and sunny weather while in winter the Bise can sometimes lead to severe icing in Geneva and nearby communities.
But aren't these sculptures fantastic?
8. World's longest and deepest rail tunnel
With it's 57.1 km (35.5 miles) the Gotthard base tunnel is the longest rail tunnel in the world. Opened in 2016 it connects northern and southern Europe and left the Seikan Tunnel in Japan as well as the Eurotunnel between Great Britain and France on position 2 and 3.
But not enough with that. Switzerland is already planning the next gigantic project - a 450 km long tunnel from St. Gall to Geneva opening in 2045. That would be a tunnel crossing almost entire Switzerland on the northern side. Why? Due to the central location of Switzerland and the rising traffic volume the highways will reach their limit - so other ways needed to be found.
9. Place of origin ("Heimatort" or "Lieu d'origine")
When I moved to Switzerland and was ready to start my new job, the HR department reached out to me and asked me about:
HR: "Your place of origin?"
ME: "What do you mean? You know that I am from Hamburg, Germany."
HR: "Yes, but where does your family come from?" ME: "Same answer, but if you really want to dig in in this, I believe most of my family comes from the german-danish border or Hamburg itself."
HR: "No that is not what we mean - lets try it this way: Where were you born?" ME: "ähhhmmm... Hamburg-Hohenfelde?"
So in the end my Swiss girlfriend explained me the entire place of origin thing. It refers to the municipality in Switzerland in which a citizen of Switzerland is listed - mostly where your ancestors were first listed. It does not have to do anything with the place of birth or place of residence. Nowadays the place of origin is of less practical importance but it is noted in your Swiss passport as well as in almost every official form. If you would like to know more about your ancestors it is actually pretty easy, because you only need to reach out to your municipality of origin and they can give explicit details about marriages, deaths and births.
10. Switzerland's wolf man
This story we discovered very recently when we went hiking in the mountains and couldn't believe it at first glance, but it is for that time well documented and turns out to be true - the story of Johannes Seluner. In summer 1844 the farmers of the mountain area "Toggenburg" noticed that their cows, which are traditionally up in the mountains during the summer, were milked already. So the farmers started to closely watch their cows. One day, one of the farmers noticed a being that got out of the nearby cave (the "Wildmannlisloch"). He couldn't really identify if it was a human or an animal, but the being sneaked towards one of the cows, lay under it and started drinking milk directly from the udder. The following days the farmers brought themselves together to catch the being - successfully. The being defended itself wildly but it was crystal clear for the farmers that this is a human being - hairy all over the entire body and neglected, but nevertheless a human - a teenage boy.
So they brought him down into the valley where they put him into the local poorhouse. The boy couldn't speak, couldn't write, couldn't communicate - it turned out he was both deaf and mute. Nobody responded to the local announcement of a lost boy so for administrative affairs they named him "Johannes" (which was the name of the patron of the village) "Seluner" (like the mountain Selun where they found him). Unfortunately in the 1800's poverty was very common and for the poorhouse Johannes was only an expense factor - he never learned to communicate, was happy with milk and porridge and stayed mostly for himself (probably because the people didn't know how to interact with him back in the days). It has been told that the best part of his days were when people from the community brought him apples - he then smiled all over the face.
One day a man came by to visit Johannes and something flamed up in Johannes, that seemed to be long forgotten, but he started to scream, scratch and bite the man. Nevertheless the man came back again and again until one day he didn't come anymore. Maybe he died but it couldn't be found out who that man was.
Johannes died 20.10.1898 in the poorhouse in Nesslau and was buried on the local cemetery. It is told that the church has never been fuller than on the day of his funeral. Almost three decades later he was exhumed by a scientist from Zurich to analyse a potential connection between Johannes and the neanderthals. The idea was not that implausible due to archaeological founds in the cave where Johannes was found as well - but the analysis came out all negative.