Expat Chronicles: The Hidden Swiss

by Lou Cuthbertson

Photo: tosaytheleast /

Our Irish correspondent in Zurich gets a peek under the conservative Swiss skin and finds quite an eyeful.   

Just when I thought I'd come to grips with Zurich style — neat court shoes, Louis Vuitton handbag, discreet diamonds, and, in winter, fur coats with a small rat-sized dog — I got stymied at the swimming pool.

Chanel two-pieces are unrobed to reveal, of all things, sizeable tattoos. And it seems that this is quite a common fashion. Underneath that conservative MaxMara and Bally veneer lurk the hearts of Hells Angels. Everyone has a tattoo. Or three. 

Is it that the generation raising children now and bringing them to weekly swimming classes were the generation of the first gapyears — roaming around Asia, getting white-girl cornrow braids, and an obligatory ying/yang tattoo? (Note to my daughter: Cornrow braids can be brushed out. A tattoo is for-evahhhhh.)

Or is it because this is a conservative society? The London boho look will not wash here. If you turn up to work wearing the latest Balmain ripped jeans, you will be sent to the bathroom with the company sewing kit. Anything in animal print veers dangerously into lady of the night territory. With strict rules governing sartorial taste, is it any wonder that women rebel by having large angel wings imprinted on their shoulders, that only they and their lovers know about? Their lovers and all the occupants of the local Badi.

I find it fascinating that people here are deeply concerned about how they are regarded. They have legitimate fears of being watched. Swiss society is governed by the idea of self-regulation. It is up to you to know the rules and to obey them. If you don't self-regulate, you will be told on.

One recent story I heard, urban myth or not, was about a man who had driven home and parked in his own parking space in his own apartment complex. He sat in the car for another ten minutes or so, listening to the end of a radio programme which he had become absorbed in. So absorbed, in fact, that he didn't notice that a Polizeiwagen had drawn up beside him. He was then questioned about his motives for sitting in a car, alone. Apparently, his concerned neighbor had reported his "suspicious behavior."

So under these circumstances, it isn't surprising that people rebel in ways that only concern one's own sphere —  the ultimate private space, one's own skin.

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Lou files her Expat Chronicles as often as she likes to. .

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