Swiss Watching: Inside The Land Of Milk And Honey by Diccon Bewes

The Blurb On The Back:

One country, four languages, 26 cantons and 8 million people (but only 75% of them Swiss): welcome to Europe’s most individual country.  But there’s more to Switzerland than banks and skis, francs and cheese.  This is a place where the breathtaking scenery shaped a nation not just a tour itinerary, and where tradition is as important as innovation.  It’s also been home to travel writer Diccon Bewes for over a decade.

Diccon started his Swiss explorations by seeking Heidi and finding the best chocolate, but soon became the ultimate outsider on the inside.  He discovered that not all the cheese has holes, cuckoo clocks aren’t Swiss and the trains aren’t always on time.  In fact, he uncovered the true meaning of Swissness and, in this new edition, started on the road to becoming Swiss himself.  

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Diccon Bewes is a travel writer and British expat who lives in Switzerland and is currently applying to be a Swiss citizen. In this 3rdedition of his wryly amusing, informative and well set out book, he aims to get under the skin of Switzerland, combining a jaunt through its tourist highlights with an examination of the country’s structures and values to create a fascinating look at this most neutral of nations.

I picked this up because I have a relative who moved to Switzerland for work in 2014 and despite having visited them numerous times and been to the main tourist cities, I wanted to know more about the country where they live.  This is the third edition of Bewes’s bestselling book and was updated for 2018. The book is divided into 11 chapters, each of which deals with a broad aspect of Switzerland and its national character, from its history, to its political institutions, religion, attitudes to money and the military, famous Swiss products (with a special mention of cheese and chocolate), the travel network and one of its most famous icons – the fictional Heidi.  You can dip into individual chapters if you don’t want to read it all in one go, but having read it cover to cover I thought that I got a lot more from it – especially as some chapters cross-refer to or expand upon points made in other chapters.  The book also includes maps and there’s a fun quiz at the end to see how much you’ve absorbed.

For me, the most interesting chapters related to the political and religious organisation of Switzerland.  I was especially interested in Bewes’s description of the canton system and the relationship between the Parliament and the Federal Council and his observations about the rise of populist parties and the impact it’s having.  As a Brit, I was also fascinated by his account of how referendums work over there and the impact they can have on the political agenda – specifically the system seems to work a lot more efficiently than in the United Kingdom …

Each chapter ends with a slightly tongue-in-cheek ‘Swiss Watching’ section, that gives you handy tips on how to interact with Swiss nationals.  I actually found these very useful, specifically one on meeting and greeting because having been at university with a Swiss guy, I now understood why they introduced themselves to everyone at a party.  Bewes has a good eye for Swiss etiquette and I think it’s always good to know how to avoid committing a boo-boo if you can.

The only chapter that didn’t really work for me was the one on Heidi (the fictional little girl who lived in the mountains with her grandfather).  This wasn’t so much due to Bewes’s writing (he’s actually very informative on her creator, Johanna Spyri, and how the Swiss have turned her creation into a commercialised cash cow) but more to do with the fact that I have bad memories of the dubbed TV adaptation that have left me with a lasting aversion for the little girl (and of goat’s milk, but that’s a whole different story).

The book ends with a personal postscript as Bewes recounts his own decision to apply for Swiss citizenship and his experiences of the same (which were on-going as at the point of publication).  I was particularly moved by his comments on how his previous editions of this book were received by Swiss people – most of whom seemed to appreciate it but with a few people determined to be unpleasant and hostile.  For what it’s worth, I think Bewes does a fantastic job of ‘selling’ Switzerland as a country – his love for it really comes across on the page and he writes in a way that makes you both understand and want to find out more.  I hope his application for citizenship is successful as he is a great ambassador for the country and this is a really good book for anyone who’s been there or is thinking of going there in future.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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