Culture Clash

I had to write a report not long ago for my home university in the UK, all about the things I’ve experienced and the progress I’ve made so far. It was actually quite nice to look back on all the things I’ve been and done.

HOWEVER, there are some things that I didn’t write about, either because I didn’t have enough space or because they were trivial and off-topic. Some of these things were possibly even culture clash, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t expecting that. Anyway, here is a list of trivial observations and examples of culture clash. I apologise in advance for any rants.

1) Lots of the people here are really friendly.

I can count more than one person who’s said “bonjour” to me in the street, even though I’d never seen them before. Me and the cleaning lady say hi to each other if we pass each other, and people getting off the lift will wish a “bonne journée” to the people still on it. It’s really nice! I think the world would be a better place if people picked up the habit of saying hi to each other in the street. And when I’ve needed directions from someone, they’ve been so obliging and happy to do so!

2) The university lecturers are really nice and welcoming.

Before I left, I was warned that the student-teacher relationship at a French university is a lot more formal, and you can’t approach the lecturers as easily. So I kind of expected the same thing in Switzerland. Maybe I was wrong to – it is another country after all. Of course, you still use ‘vous‘, and there is still this distance for politeness’ sake, but they’re all really friendly. They’re always saying that, if we ever have any questions, we can send them an email, their office hours are on X-day at Y o’clock. They’re happy to discuss topics, be it (in a debate) in class or separately, after the lecture. They’re not afraid to laugh in the seminars, or talk as if it were a conversation rather than a lecture. In short, I had some fantastic lecturers last semester!

3) Geez Louise, it’s expensive here!

OK, a bit of an obvious point to make. And I was expecting it, but perhaps I underestimated the extent! My mum and I have this joke that, in Geneva, everything costs CHF 50, and it’s not far from the truth. I remember when I arrived and did the shopping (for one person), it costed CHF 60. For you Brits out there, that’s the equivalent of more than £43* (*at time of publication). For one person. So it’s no surprise that most people who work around here live and do their shopping in France. Leading me on to my next point…

4) The border may as well not exist.

I’ve been here and doing my shopping in France for about 5 months now. And how many times have I been asked for my passport or ID? Once. Because so many people do their shopping in France, border control only does spot checks to check that people have the right papers. But the majority of the time, cars just go through freely, no problem. It’s normal around here. Although, in terms of culture (for lack of a better word), you know that you’re in a different country. Apart from the fact that the road signs change, everything’s in euros and there are French flags everywhere instead of Swiss ones, the atmosphere changes a bit. You notice tiny little differences in the buildings, the landscape, even what you find in the shops. I can’t fully explain it, but you definitely feel that you’re in France. It’s weird. Or is it just me that feels like that?

5) Everyone likes central heating.

Let me just say – if it’s the middle of winter outside, there is something wrong if I need to keep the window open at night because it’s too hot to sleep inside! I’m not kidding. As soon as November was here, they switched on the central heating, and we’ve spent the last 4 months in temperatures of 23/24 degrees. In the flat, at university, at church… It’s so stuffy, and I’m finding myself in just a t-shirt two minutes after I get there. Yes, it’s cold outside – but that doesn’t mean I want it to be a sauna inside! That said, it seems that anyone who doesn’t have control over the central heating complains too!

6) Food – every stereotype contains a grain of truth.

When you think of Swiss food, what stereotypes do you think of? For me it was chocolate, muesli and fondue. I can confirm – it is all true. Department stores in the middle of town have entire departments dedicated to Swiss chocolate. In the Coop, you can buy pick ‘n’ mix Lindt (Switzerland has ruined Lindt for me – it’s everywhere, as much as Cadbury’s is in the UK*)! The last time I checked, I’m pretty sure I counted more than five different kinds of muesli in Migros’ cereal isle, not counting the bircher museli which you can buy in great big 500g tubs. And fondue is just a normal night out with friends, be it in a restaurant, or at home using a fondue set and ready-made cheese mix from the aformentioned Migros.

7) Everything’s in cash.

I think I’m used to this by now. But in the beginning, it made me feel a bit awkward. I’m not too comfortable carrying CHF 1500 around in my back pocket. But in a country where the five is a coin and the minimum you can get from a cash point (or bancomat around here – ah, Swiss French!) is sometimes CHF 50, should I really be that surprised? Alhough, what annoyed me the most at first was the fact that, when I needed to pay my rent at the post office, I couldn’t pay by card there unless it was a PostFinance card. So I end up paying my rent with a giro cheque, in cash. A bit different to the British system, with its direct debits and £5 notes!

8) Everyone lives here, except the Genevois.

The city and the university are both such multicultural places that I have yet to meet an acutal genevois. Even outside university I’ve heard loads of other languages – English, German, Slavic languages, Spanish. Obviously, French is still the main language on the street, but still. It seems like most of the people who live here are ex-pats. We’ll see if that changes in the second semester.

9) After thinking about it, I like it here a lot!

OK, I’m finishing on a bit of a corny** note. At first, I didn’t know what to make of Geneva. It’s probably one of the biggest cities I’ve lived in, and definitely the busiest. And I didn’t know how anything worked, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know what my daily life would look like. If you’d asked me back then (and some people did) if I’d come back afterwards, I would have said “I don’t think so”. But now that I know the city better (and it’s not as big as it looks at first!) and I’m more used to life here, I can confirm : you’re all right, Geneva.

So there we go. I’m sure I’ll find some more Swiss particularities that’ll surprise me, or annoy me, or make me mess up. And then I’ll come back and complain again!

Anyway, à bientôt!


* EDIT : well, ok, not really. It’s still better than Cadbury’s, and you can get so many more different kinds here than in the UK!

** This is actually in the French version of this blog, but I’ve discovered one of my new favourite phrases – “cucul/cucul la praline” is a phrase you use to describe something as corny!


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