After centuries of poverty, with fathers sending sons abroad as mercenaries (resulting in Swiss Guards at the Vatican, for example) and citizens emigrating in hopes of a better life, today's prosperity has led to a decrease in population growth and a marked increase in immigration.
These days, a large international population (about a fifth of the populace) lives alongside the Meiers, the Favres, and the Bernasconis.
They have arrived on Swiss shores brought here by unrest around the world (especially in the former Yugoslavia), the need for workers, and that old familiar search for a better life.
The resulting cultural mix has unnerved some, but it also works world-flattening magic—in the traditional town of Brütten there is a "Stars and Stripes" American-style restaurant in an old Swiss farmhouse run by a family from Sri Lanka.
Quick: can you name the president of Switzerland? Don't feel bad if you can't—the position is refilled once a year.
Every December the Swiss parliament elects or reconfirms seven of its members to make up the executive Federal Council. These seven are each the heads of an administrative department (Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Justice, etc.) They rotate annually to act as a "first among equals" president who has no individual power of his or her own.
Simply said, the president gets to represent the country in international and domestic matters but still has a day job.
Switzerland is also one of the most democratic countries in the world as far as citizen participation is concerned. Within this "direct democracy" any citizen can try to change a law—or propose a new one—by collecting at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days and presenting them to the local, regional, or federal government (depending on which level presides over the issue). The result is referendums and initiatives voted on by the population as many as six times a year.
With an economy that is stable, thanks mainly to its banking and taxation system (even in these volatile times), Switzerland enjoys a rare prosperity.
It is home to multinational corporations (often drawn here by low and flat-rate taxes) and local companies active in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, precision instruments, insurance, real estate, and, of course, banking.
With a decidedly business-friendly government, one area stands out in this capitalist utopia: agriculture.
Given that there is only so much space in roughly 16,000 square miles of country—much of which is made up of steep mountains that are hard to develop—and that green Alps are an essential draw for the tourism industry, great efforts are made to ensure that what Mark Twain once called "a large, humpy, solid rock, with a thin skin of grass stretched over it" doesn't all get paved over.
The rural traditions you'd expect—alphorns, yodeling, cows festooned with flowers—are alive and well, and not just a show put on for the tourists (although that's not unheard of either).
Almost every town has some kind of festival at least once a season, where you can sample the local food and do the local dance, with an added Italian, German, or French flavor. Thanks to full government coffers and charitable businesses, you'll also find a wide variety of art, dance, and musical offerings. These happily range from the cutting edge to the traditional highbrow.
And not just in the expected urban settings, either, as evidenced by the gallery of surrealist artist H.R. Giger (the designer of the monster in Ridley Scott's 1979 movie Alien) in the tiny and quintessentially Swiss town of Gruyères.
Switzerland still tends to lag behind in terms of equality of the sexes. Granted, in most cities and large towns the issue is disappearing, but there is still a surprising number of companies where the corporate culture feels like an episode of Mad Men.
There are plenty of villages where an unmarried woman is considered an unnecessary waste.
And mothers sending their children to (extremely hard to find) day care are treated as if they were letting them be brought up by wolves. Welcome to the 19th century?
Switzerland is an extremely active country. Hiking, biking, windsurfing, kayaking, hang-gliding, and golf are just some of the amusements practiced by young and old. Traditional Swiss sports are played by only small fraction of the population, but beloved nonetheless as an important part of the culture. Schwingen or Hosenlupf wrestling competitions feature scantily clad opponents who grip, trip, and throw their opponents to the ground. These odd competitions are held throughout Switzerland.
Luckily, there is also this great thing called Hornussen: a puck is placed on a ramp and shot into the air with a whip-like staff. As it comes down, the opposing team members try to swat it with boards on posts that look like giant picket signs. While not technically a sport, Trotti bikes—scooters with large, fat tires—are a popular family-friendly way to descend the Alpine heights on a sunny summer day. Rentals and dedicated trails can be found in the many of the country's resort areas.
And then there's skiing. It's a sport enjoyed by Swiss of all ages, from preschoolers to hardy mountain folk in their nineties. Slopes are rated by level of difficulty, and there are areas reserved for everyone from newbies to experts. Snowboarding has made inroads as well, and is especially popular with the younger crowd. If you'd rather watch, catch one of the ski jumping competitions featuring world champion and local hero Simon Amman as he reaches death-defying heights.
As far as spectator sports go, in summer it's soccer; in winter, hockey. Both come with fan clubs and, unfortunately, hooligans eager for a fight.
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