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Nine stereotypes about Switzerland that just aren’t true

Whatever country you grew up in, you probably had an image of Switzerland which at least in part turned out to be false once you came here. Here are some of the most common misconceptions about this country and its people.

Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri in a pair of Lederhosen during his time with Bayern Munich.
This might be one of the few acceptable occasions when you see a Swiss person wearing Lederhosen. Swiss footballer Xherdan Shaqiri during his time with Bayern Munich. CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP

Switzerland lends itself to lots of clichés, many of which are indeed true (think chocolate, cheese, watches, cows and punctuality).

But when it comes to certain stereotypes and widely held beliefs, they are as full of holes as… Emmental.

When I was growing up in the USA, I once heard someone say that, aside from being clean enough to eat off of, Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse is paved with gold.

Imagine my surprise when I first came to Switzerland many moons ago and discovered no gold underfoot – let alone anything you’d want to eat off, on or near. 

To this day I meet people who believe a number of things about Switzerland — the kind of things that would make the Swiss shudder and roll their eyes.

These are some. 

You can hide your money in anonymous Swiss bank accounts

This belief comes from Hollywood movies where each villain has a secret account and a vault in a Zurich bank (undoubtedly on a street paved with gold).

In fact, anonymous accounts are a thing of the past, ever since Switzerland passed a series of laws in the last two decades making money laundering illegal, requiring any suspicious deposits be reported to the authorities, and basically laying the notion of banking secrecy to rest. 

No secret accounts here — anymore. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

In fact, if you are a foreigner – particularly an American – it might in fact be difficult to get a Swiss bank account at all. 

READ MORE: Why are Americans being turned away from Swiss banks?

Heidi is a (stereo)typical Swiss girl

Well, no.

While the 19th – century novel was written by a Swiss author Johanna Spyri, and her fictional heroine Heidi lived in the Swiss Alps, the orphaned girl was born in Frankfurt.

So the quintessential “Swiss” girl was actually an immigrant, way before Switzerland had become home to approximately 2.1 million foreign nationals — many of them from Germany.

You’re also very unlikely to meet anyone named Heidi in Switzerland, no matter how much yodelling you plan on doing. 

READ MORE: What are the most popular names for adults in Switzerland?

All the cuckoo clocks come from Switzerland

Again, no.

Just as Heidi was German, so are the cuckoo clocks that originally came from the Black Forest in Germany.

Now, however, many are manufactured in Asia; either way, very few, if any, are hatched in Switzerland.

OK, but those Swiss do love their lederhosen…

Quite a few foreigners associate lederhosen with Switzerland.

Maybe it’s because they confuse Switzerland with Austria (the two countries do look alike, especially in the dark), but lederhosen is not a Swiss garb.

A man with an unusually large pipe on a lake in Switzerland. Image: Pexels.

A man with an unusually large pipe on a lake in Switzerland – wearing sensible pants. Image: Pexels.

They are, however, worn men in Austria and in the Bavaria region of Germany.

Swiss-German men prefer not to be typecast as lederhosen wearers, preferring make a fashion statement of their own by wearing socks with their sandals.

The Swiss are serious, staid and humourless

This image probably comes from the same source as the tidbit about anonymous bank accounts — Hollywood (not surprisingly many of those sedate individuals featured in movies are Swiss bankers who, because of the heavy secrets they carry, must be tight-lipped, and tight-lipped people can’t smile).

Some Swiss people, and not just bankers, are likely unfunny. But as The Local reported in an article earlier this year, there really is such a thing as a Swiss joke and Swiss people love to laugh at their own expense. 

In fact, they can laugh all the way to the bank.

READ MORE: Swiss wit: 9 jokes that prove the Swiss are actually funny

Swiss babies are born with skis on their feet

This is another stereotype that is far from truth.

It’s true that Switzerland is a nation of avid skiers. Kids are put on skis even before they learn to walk properly, fearlessly dashing down snowy slopes sucking on their dummies.

But not everyone skis. Some people, like me, want to keep all their limbs intact, yet others, like me, hate the white, slippery stuff that covers the ground in winter.

It’s like — literally and figuratively — skating on thin ice.

Covid-19: What will the ski season look like in Switzerland this year?

Each soldier carries an army knife

Some might, but there is no evidence, either scientific or anecdotal, that troops actually carry those handy little gadgets in their pockets — although there is a joke about it that goes like this: Two members of the Swiss army got into a knife fight…then a corkscrew fight, then a tweezer fight, then a bottle opener fight…

Not exactly useful in a battle…Photo by Patrick on Unsplash

All Swiss are wealthy

Just because there are plenty of banks and tight-lipped bankers, doesn’t mean everyone is rich.

Given the high cost of living here, it would be nice if all residents of Switzerland lived up to their stereotypical image of wealth. However, 6.6 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, according to some studies.

These statistics may be misleading because Swiss “poverty line” is well above that of other countries’ and a big chunk of the population enjoys a higher standard of living than most other nations.

So the stereotype of “wealthy Swiss” is true to some extent, but not totally.

READ MORE: 16 things that only happen in Switzerland

Swiss food is bland and uninteresting

There is a common saying which goes “only boring people get bored” and so the same goes for Swiss food. 

If you believe Swiss food has no ‘kick’ to it, just try Cenovis.

This brown sandwich paste made of yeast, invented in 1931 in the canton of Aargau, is so salty, it can only be eaten when a thick layer of butter is spread on a slice of bread.

For those who have never tried it, according to the bastion of knowledge that is Wikipedia, Cenovis “is similar to English Marmite, Brazilian Cenovit, and Australian Vegemite”. 

READ MORE: Six common myths about Swiss food you need to stop believing

The Swiss do however value practicality, efficiency and cost effectiveness in their cuisine – which perhaps explains why it took the Swiss to invent instant coffee

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UPDATE: What are Switzerland’s rules for cannabis consumption?

Switzerland has a complicated set of rules for both medical and recreational cannabis consumption. Here's what you need to know.

UPDATE: What are Switzerland's rules for cannabis consumption?

Long prohibited and seen as a gateway drug with potentially dangerous impacts, countries across the globe have begun legalising cannabis in recent years. 

While the legalisation for medical use has been widespread, there have also been successful legalisation campaigns in several countries. 

The situation in Switzerland is also in flux and has been complicated by a range of recent changes.

Whether referred to as cannabis, marijuana or hemp, Switzerland’s Narcotics Act qualifies it as “a psychoactive substance”, with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) being its most intoxicating ingredient.

The law specifies that “only THC is controlled under the Narcotics Act. Other active substances like cannabidiol (CBD) are not subject to the Narcotics Act as they do not have comparable psychoactive effects”.

Here’s what you need to know. 

Switzerland has legalised medical marijuana 

As of August 1st, the use of cannabis for medical purposes will be allowed in Switzerland

Patients who are medically prescribed the drug will no longer need to seek exceptional permission from the health ministry, as was the case prior to August 1st. 

Demand for cannabis-based treatments has risen sharply, with the health ministry issuing 3,000 exceptional authorisations in 2019.

The government “intends to facilitate access to cannabis for medical use for patients” and was therefore lifting the ban on its use for that purpose, it said in a statement.

The previous procedure involved “tedious administrative procedures”, said the ministry. “Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy.”

As of August 1st, “the decision as to whether a cannabis medicinal product is to be used therapeutically will be made by the doctor together with the patient” the government wrote

The sale and consumption of cannabis for non-medical purposes will remain prohibited.

READ MORE: Switzerland to lift ban on medical use cannabis

The new regulations could benefit thousands of people suffering from severe chronic pain, it added, including those with cancer and multiple sclerosis.

READ ALSO: Why Basel is about to become Switzerland’s marijuana capital

The law change will also mean that the cultivation, processing, manufacture and trade of cannabis for medical use will be subject to the Swissmedic regulatory authority, just as with other narcotics for medical use such as cocaine, methadone and morphine.

Legality of recreational cannabis is determined by the THC

THC of at least 1 percent is generally prohibited in Switzerland and use of products with this (or higher) content may be punishable by a 100-franc fine.

Of course, if someone is determined to smoke it, 100 francs may not be much a deterrent — but that’s a subject for another article.

“By contrast, possession of up to 10g of cannabis for personal use is not considered a criminal offence”, the law states, as long as it is not used by or sold to minors.

Italy's constitutional court has blocked the latest efforts to legalise cannabis.

Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

And, as with nearly everything else in decentralised Switzerland, “there are still considerable differences between cantons regarding implementation of the fixed penalty procedure”.

However, “cannabis flowers intended for smoking with a high proportion of cannabidiol (CBD) and less than 1 percent THC can be sold and purchased legally”, according to the legislation. 

That’s because, unlike the THC, cannabidiol “does not have a psychoactive effect”.

In other words, low-content THC and CBD will not give the “high” that recreational users seek.

When will Switzerland legalise recreational cannabis?

Currently, small amounts of recreational cannabis are tolerated in Switzerland.

“The decisive factor for classification as a banned drug is how much THC is contained in a cannabis product. If the THC content exceeds one per cent, the product is prohibited. Hashish is prohibited regardless of its THC content.”

As noted by the Swiss government, “If you are caught in possession of a small amount of cannabis (no more than 10 grams) for your own consumption, you will not be fined. In addition, if you supply (but do not sell) up to 10 grams to an adult, e.g. when sharing joints, you will not be fined.”

“If you are caught using cannabis, you may be given a fixed penalty fine of 100 francs.”

In June 2020, the National Council approved a plan to start cannabis trials for recreational use.

The experiments are to be carried out in Switzerland’s larger cities. Basel, Bern, Biel, Geneva and Zurich have all expressed interest in conducting the trials. 

The study seeks to find out how the market for cannabis works – and how to combat the black market. The social effects of legalisation will also be examined. 

At this point, no decisions have been made. However, Swiss authorities have set certain conditions in case recreational use is approved.

The National Council said if cannabis were to be legalised, it must be locally grown in Switzerland – and it must be organic. 

Health Minister Alain Berset noted that legalisation should benefit Swiss farmers even though “very few producers have experience in this area”.

READ MORE: Switzerland backs recreational cannabis trials – with one condition

Can you grow your own cannabis?

In truth, a number of people cultivate marijuana plants on their balconies or in their (secluded) gardens for their own personal use.

As it turns out, the law allows it, as long as it is a variety of the plant that does not have a narcotic effect — that is, the THC content must be less than 1 percent. 

By the same token, cannabis-based products with THC content of below 1 percent can be brought into Switzerland from abroad.

However, the import rules differ depending on the type of product  it is — flowers, seeds, extracts, oils, or other goods.

How much cannabis is consumed in Switzerland each year?

Precise numbers are hard to come by, but according to an article in Le Temps, which based its information on a medical study, about 100 tonnes are consumed in the country annually.

Cannabis remains the largest market in terms of volume: it represents 85 percent of drugs consumed in Switzerland, netting between 340, 000 and 500,000 francs per year.

READ MORE: Drugs and alcohol: Just how much do the Swiss consume?