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 quarter of the populace) lives alongside the Meiers, the Favres, and the Bernasconis. They came to Switzerland because of unrest around the world, 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, and so on). 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 to keep 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. Farmers receive approximately 60% of their income from hefty government aid, making Switzerland's agricultural industry one of the most highly subsidized in the world.
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 ranging from the cutting edge to the traditional highbrow.
And you'll find unexpected cultural offerings not just in the expected urban settings, 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 tends to lag behind in terms of equality of the sexes. Granted, in most cities and large towns the issue is disappearing, but a surprising number of companies still have a corporate culture that feels like an episode of Mad Men. In more rural cantons, there still is a certain stigma attached to mothers who send their children to (hard-to-find) day care.
In Appenzell in eastern Switzerland, women were prohibited from voting in cantonal elections until the federal court intervened on their behalf in 1991. Federal law overall didn't grant women the national vote until 1971. Nonetheless, much progress has been made recently. For example, several women sit on the executive Federal Council, and women outnumber men at universities.
Although Switzerland may still have some catching up to do with regard to the sexes, there is a flip side to this equation: women are typically able to secure part-time employment, with many working at 60% or 80% while their children are young. And although Swiss maternity leave is not the most generous in Europe, mothers still receive a minimum of 14 weeks, which can often be extended to include another two months for breastfeeding.
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 a small fraction of the population but are 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.
There is also an interesting pastime called Hornussen: a puck is placed on a ramp and shot into the air with a whiplike staff. As it comes down, the opposing team members try to swat it with boards on posts that look like giant picket signs. Although 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 many 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 a ski-jumping competition where the participants reach death-defying heights.
As far as spectator sports go, in summer it's soccer; in winter, hockey.
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