Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons (very similar to the U.S.’s states), of which Geneva is one. Geneva is also a city, located in the canton of Geneva. Zürich is the largest city in the country, and Bern is the capital.
You’ll often see Switzerland’s abbreviation as CH – whether in their currency (CHF), their top-level domain (.ch), or elsewhere. CH stands for Helvetic Confederation in English, “Confederation” from the full name of the country (the Swiss Confederation), and “Helvetic”, from Helvetia, the female national personification of the country. The Latin name, Confœderatio Helvetica, is used when inappropriate to use the name of the country in all four official languages.
Switzerland is not part of the European Union and does not use the euro as currency. The currency in Switzerland is the Swiss franc, which you’ll often see abbreviated as CHF, though you may also see it abbreviated as Fr. or SFr. Their coins come in 1, 2, 5, 10, and 20 centimes (cents) and 1/2, 1, 2, and 5 francs. Be sure to note that the super tiny coin that has “1/2” on it is not a half-centime; it’s a half franc… I didn’t realize that until I had been here more than six months.
The exchange rate to the USD, is consistently about 1:1, though it does regularly alternate as to which is on top. You’ll regularly see that Geneva restaurants accept the euro, though the exchange rate is absurd, and you should never consider paying in euros.
As far as languages, Switzerland is very unique. A 63% majority of the population speaks Swiss German as a primary language, 23% speaks French, and some 8% or so speaks Italian. A few areas speak the Romansh language, though it’s very few people (about 0.5%), and you won’t see it that much. Those four languages are the official languages of Switzerland. You’ll often see signs in German, French, and Italian as you travel throughout the country. Each of the languages include some “Helvetisms,” unique word substitutions done only in Switzerland, a few of which are discussed in the French section below.
But interestingly, English is one of the most common secondary languages in the country. Oftentimes, when the Swiss travel from one area to another, English is the common language between them. As a result, you’re much more likely to see signs in German and English, for example, when you’re traveling throughout the Swiss German sector than you are to see French.
One of the things I find most interesting about the Swiss is their system of government. While they have a traditional, representative democratic system, they also vote on many major issues through a direct, democratic vote. For example, in mid-2019, they voted on a firearms reform bill that the EU was forcing on Switzerland in order to continue to be a part of the Schengen Zone (more on that later, but it’s what allows free flow of people between most European countries). The Swiss, proud of their guns, put up a good fight to the legislation, but it ultimately passed. Otherwise, the hit to the Swiss economy would have been devastating and long-lasting.
Upon gathering 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the passing of any legislation, a federal referendum will be held, allowing an up or down vote on the new law. Votes on constitutional amendments can be proposed after gathering 100,000 signatures within an 18-month period.
But their passion for direct democracy doesn’t end with simple legislation. While it’s not the case in most Swiss cantons anymore, thanks to a change in law enacted just a couple decades ago, some areas in Switzerland vote on citizenship applications by vote in a town hall setting. Anyone in the town that wants to speak in favor – or opposition to – the new citizen may appear, speak their mind, and vote on the application. This has led to some interesting results in recent years.
Switzerland is always at or near the top of those rankings of highest wealth, per capita GDP, quality of life, etc., though Zürich and Geneva are also always near the top of rankings of most expensive cities in the world.
The median salary for jobs like a restaurant server or cashier in Geneva is around CHF 50,000, which likely explains why you’re paying so much for a Big Mac at McDonald’s. Check out the government’s national wage calculator.
There’s a lot more info about restaurants in Geneva later on, but I want to call attention to a few foods that you’ll see throughout the city and Switzerland, in general.
- Fondue – Yes, you’re familiar with the big, melting pot of cheese, but nothing beats it here. You’ll find a few different combinations – sometimes a 60/40 of 50/50 mix of cheeses, and sometimes it’s just gruyère. Some places add beer, champagne, or white wine to it. You’ll just have to venture out and try them all to know what you like best.
- Malakoffs – If you like fondue and fried things, this is the treat for you. It’s essentially a huge cheese stick, fried to perfection. Sometimes you get them in restaurants as an appetizer, but they also appear in multiples with a salad to make the perfect balanced meal.
- Rösti – Basically hash browns, but they usually come with good additions like vegetables, cheese, and/or bacon. If you want a special treat, go to the city of Gruyères and find a restaurant with gruyère cheese-topped rösti!
- Raclette – They cut a raclette cheese wheel in half, and stick it under high heat, melting the top layer. Then they slide a knife along the melted cheese, smothering a plate of potatoes and other things in the cheese. It’s pretty amazing!
Good only for random trivia, one of the most fascinating things I learned about Switzerland is how they have a government-managed program, run by the Federal Office for National Economic Supply, requiring Swiss companies to stockpile significant amounts of food and other necessities in case something bad happens.
The government recently determined that coffee “is not essential for life,” and therefore companies would soon no longer be required to stockpile it. Current coffee stockpile requirements are for three months for everyone living here, which amounts to about 15,000 tons.