A Country With a Conscience

When we moved to Switzerland, it was as if we were entering into a time warp.

Coming from a suburb of Los Angeles, it was shocking to find an entire country that was closed on Sunday.  Really.  The whole country just kind of closes for business on Saturday around 5 pm, and remains closed until Monday morning, some shops even Monday afternoon! No quick Target runs, no Sunday morning pedicures, no mall hopping.  None of that. 

And it's so quiet.  Did I mention that you're also not allowed to mow your lawn on Sundays?

There are plenty of cafes and restaurants, though, that are open all weekend long and  I often wonder how on earth they can turn a profit.  Did you know that there are folks who make a career out of one European-sized (read:  "small") cup of Joe and a newspaper?  I am not kidding when I say that folks sit for hours lingering over one pastry or one soda or one cup of coffee--talking and enjoying each others company.  In the same seat.  At the same table.  The server won't bring your bill until you specifically ask for it, because that would be rude.

Not that anyone can afford more than a pastry.  Eating out in Switzerland requires reservations and some serious cash.  One modest meal averages around the equivalent of $30.  And the portion size is a single portion; there's not even enough to take home!  Aside from the prices, eating (ahem, dining) out is an event that takes all evening.  I suppose if you've just blown an entire day's wages on dinner with your family, you don't exactly want to rush through it.  Because you don't do it often.  And as a result, most of us end up eating in; a throwback to the 70s when our moms made dinner every night, and the occasional trip to the one Chinese restaurant in town was truly an event.

All that means you have to shop for groceries, and if you're really good--you'll plan meals for the week.  Or, if you're a full time working mother like me, a rarity in Switzerland, you plan meals to survive.  Not many budgets can afford a $100 nightly tab for dinner.

Which brings me to my next point--the grocery shopping.  It's....different.

There are plenty of stores, and they have plenty of items, but selection is just not part of the Swiss grocery culture.  If you live in the US, the next time you're in your local supermarket, do a tally on how many brands of, let's say, green beans they stock.  If I make a trip to the local market, there is one, just one brand of canned green beans.  Horrified can't even begin to describe my first impressions of Swiss grocery stores.  The foodie that I am--I wanted many types of beans.  The way I was used to choosing my brand was by trial and error, eventually finding the one I liked best.  I would proudly proclaim to anyone who asked that it was my brand of choice.  Well, life's a lot simpler here.  It just doesn't work that way. There is usually one brand of the packaged stuff and fresh produce tends to change with the seasons.

Seasonal.  Now there's a word that doesn't exist in the vernacular of today's savvy American shoppers.  You may remember the little story about me going into a veritable tizzy, doing a little dance in front of farmer Hans's vegetable stall when I spotted my first butternut squash of the season.  There was a reason for the dance.  I just cannot get butternut squash until autumn, and then, it lasts only through winter. When it arrives, I do the Butternut Squash dance.

HOW, you might ask me, can you LIVE without CHOICE?  Isn’t' it your God-given right Pamela?  Don't you feel jipped?  Controlled?  Like some kind of grocery prisoner?



But wait!  There's more.

Remember when I told you that shops close daily at 5 or 6 pm?  That includes grocery stores too.  So Saturday at the grocery store in Switzerland is madness.  You're really happy if you can grab that one brand of green beans just in case you need it on Sunday.  Because Sunday.....you know the story about Sundays.

Why do I love it so much here?  What is it about Switzerland that makes me feel so calm, so nostalgic, and so very relieved as I'm landing at Zurich International Airport after a trip abroad?  Why do I so look forward to returning to a place that give me less choice, provides me with much greater rigor, allows for fewer mistakes, and holds me personally accountable for my actions?  What's so fun about having to plan out my life, just so we'll have food on the table at night when I come home from a long day at work?  What's so appealing about high prices for food, for labor, and meals at restaurants?

The answer:  "cognitive dissonance."   I've got none.

Cognitive dissonance was such an interesting concept to me when I studied about it in college.  I love the way the words kind of roll off my tongue.  But it's an important concept.  I believe that cognitive dissonance is at the root of personal unhappiness.  The faster you can get it out of your life the happier you will be.

Cognitive dissonance, simply put, is when your actions do not match your beliefs.  It is when you do something that is not in line with your inner compass, or when you act (either overtly or covertly) against what you believe is the right way to act.

I think there's a lot of it going around the good old USA right now.

I'm not talking about the attorney general who waged his own morality war against big business and then got caught in bed with a prostitute.  I'm talking about the every day choices we make, either consciously or just out of habit, that aren't in line with our inner beliefs.

For example:  there aren't many people who wouldn't agree that first and foremost, their family comes first.  There aren't many I know who would say that farm animals are just meat and don't deserve humane conditions because we're just gonna kill 'em in the end.  I don't know anyone who is in favor of polluting the ground water supply or letting kids go without health care.  But I do know plenty of people whose actions do not match their beliefs.

Is there one day of the week where they spend the whole day with their family?  Is there an absolute cut-off in the evening when all works stops and they are together around the table for dinner?  Do they choose to eat food raised from responsible farming methods and sustainable farms?  Do they shun meats that come from stockyards?  Are they willing to bring home produce which is not perfect, which may have a scratch or a spot, or is lopsided?  Do they insist on the "super-sized" Costco version, when the smaller size would have done just fine?  Do they support with their actions the notion that everyone, not just the white collar workers, should have a day or rest and be able to work hard at only one job and still be able to support their family--even if they are a cashier at the local supermarket?  Do they support doing their part in helping to ensure that all Americans, but kids especially, don't have to go without basic and affordable healthcare?

Did I mention that even though there is only one brand of canned green beans, that they qualify for being the best canned green beans that I've had?

Unbridled choice, completely unregulated markets, and the pervasive "survival of the fittest" attitude is beginning to take its toll on the American culture and ultimately the survival of arguably the best country in the world.  I'm not such a disciplined person.  Give me a store that's open on a Sunday and I'm there.  But now, I don't have to make that choice.  I'm home with my daughter, visiting with friends, slowing down, and enjoying not having to get stuff done on my weekend.

It took a while, but my sense of peace is striking.  From over-scheduled weekends, and frantic runs to fast food restaurants, to lazy weekend mornings in PJs til 10 am and walks around the lake at 2--the choice, in a way, has been made for me.  And because I'm only human, I'm glad about that.

The laws in Switzerland are voted on by the people.  From the smallest village, to the Gemeindes, to the Cantons, to the country, every single voting person has a say. The rules, the laws, the demand that what little choice there is must be excellent.  The paying of workers a living wage, even though it results in higher prices for us all, and the enforcement of strict importation laws so that our farmers can continue to farm in a sustainable way are the foundational beliefs of the people.  They made it this way.  They want it this way.

And I believe that they've got it right.