It may not be Europe's biggest trend setter, but in subtle ways, the land-locked, quadrilingual republic is fashioning a hipper, more confident cultural identity.
ZURICH — Ask any Swiss person if they think their country is cool and you're likely to get a raised eyebrow, maybe even a burst of laughter. Efficient? Sure. Switzerland is also safe, tidy. All that. But cool? That's just not the first word that comes to mind — unless you're Nicolas Bideau, director of the federal agency Presence Switzerland.
Bideau's job is to promote the country's image, which is his mind, has every reason to be considered cool. Take Roger Federer. He's "the king of coolness," in Bideau's opinion. There's also the "Nati," as the Swiss national soccer team is known. And so on and so forth. "The Swiss-made brand is so cool that everybody wants to copy it," the Presence Switzerland head insists.
Really? Federer's ageless heroics and the Nati's berth in the upcoming FIFA World Cup may certainly have improved the image of Swiss sports. But you still don't see hordes of young people rushing to Switzerland on EasyJet flights. Geneva isn't Barcelona, after all. Zurich isn't Berlin. Swiss cities are way too expensive to be cool.
Still, over the past two decades, Switzerland's image undergone a discreet transformation. It's been modernized, rejuvenated even. In 1998, after a settlement was reached in the World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks, the banker country's reputation hit a new low. But what about now? How does its image stack up 20 years later?
For answers, we turned to experienced observers who live between Switzerland and foreign countries.
"Switzerland has expanded its horizons if not its borders," says Susann Sitzler, a Berlin-based German-Swiss journalist born in the Swiss city of Basel. "It has developed and diversified itself." In looking outward, the Swiss learned to assert themselves, she adds. "Faced with the Germans who speak loudly and say what they think, they've had to come out of their shell and they're more aware of their qualities."
Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998.
Sitzler has plenty of positive things to say about her country of origin— its gastronomy, its sense of innovation, and the high level of education "among the rich and poor alike" — but laments its perfectionism. "We still worry too much about what people will say," she argues. "It's incapacitating because we prefer to do nothing rather than make a mistake."
This keen sense of self-criticism also annoys Axel, an Icelander who has been living in Zurich for five years and for whom there is no cooler place than Switzerland. "Its architecture is interesting. "Its quality of life is fantastic. Access to culture is easy. How can you not find it cool to be able to jump on a train in the morning, ski during the day and return to town at night?"
But what does it actually mean to be cool? Two Ph.D. students in philosophy from the University of Geneva — Constant Bonard and Benjamin Neeser — have set about defining this notion, which is as vague as it is commonly used. In their opinion, coolness has two properties: some originality and a certain form of non-conformism. But above all, it's ephemeral, and is defined by an "elite."
The degree of coolness in Switzerland, therefore, depends on the size of this young, mobile, educated, world-oriented population. Little wonder that art schools, universities, polytechnic schools, all act as hubs. "By attracting international students, they forced the locals to compete, to compare themselves," says filmmaker Lionel Baier.
The country has gone through a process of "decompartmentalization" that's been amplified over the last 20 years, according to Baier, the introduction of the Internet and social networks, and the increase in university exchanges. Switzerland has no exoticism and hardly exists in the eyes of the rest of the world, the French-speaking director notes. But that's also an asset. "It makes you want to leave, to go see elsewhere, to confront yourself with other realities," Baier says.
"Look at the number of explorers Switzerland has produced. Ella Maillart, Nicolas Bouvier..." he adds. "The Swiss have the courage of the wealthy who have not experienced war. They are particularly good at adapting."
As a result, Switzerland has developed ambassadors in design, fashion or sport. Those export a form of aesthetics and a certain sense of know-how, which is no longer synonymous with outdatedness. Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998. Baier sees it as a "great talent incubator" and says it's especially good at fostering confidence amount the youth. "We let young people go with kindness, hoping they will come back," he says.
But if the cool-defining "elite" export themselves, what remains? For British journalist Haig Simonian, a former correspondent for the Financial Times, this is where the problem lies. He sees a whole series of advantages to Switzerland: efficiency, quality of life, beautiful landscapes, but nothing that fits into his own definition of "cool," like a musical or artistic scene that would attract young people.
"When my daughter was in boarding school in England, she was asked if she had a cow at home and if she had any cellphone service," he recalls. "You think that looks cool?"
Another foreign journalist, Tyler Brûlé of Canada, agrees that Switzerland has become far more international. "In some parts of Zurich, I feel like I'm in Berlin — in a smaller, cleaner, more orderly version," he says.
The editor-in-chief of the information and lifestyle magazine Monocle has reinforced his team in Zurich, where he plans to open a café and a shop soon. He feels much more welcomed now than in the past when he first settled down. "Someone slipped a note under my door reading, "Foreigners go home,"" Brûlé recalls. He also describes a change in mentality. In the past, young people dreamed of long careers in big companies, he says. But now — perhaps because of the economic and banking crisis of 2007 — "more and more young people are starting small businesses," the journalist notes.
"I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer."
But like Simonian, Brûlé isn't quite ready to call Switzerland cool. "It doesn't produce anything very popular, unlike the Nordic countries, which resemble it. Why has Switzerland never produced a film like The Square? Or a hit series? Or a brand like H&M or Ikea? Where is Swiss pop culture?" he asks.
Except real coolness is separate from mass consumption, right? It hides in niches invisible to the general public: local scenes, ephemeral events, spaces of spontaneity. "One of the biggest surprises for my friends who come to visit me is summer by the Limmat river," says Charlotte Theile, a Switzerland correspondent for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Relaxation, music, people jumping in the river. You don't expect so much coolness in Zurich. Many people don't actually know Switzerland. Zurich offers an incredible amount culturally, but it's not necessarily known outside the city's borders."
Why not? "I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer," she says. "There is a form of self-satisfaction that leads to indifference"
For some, it is also a matter of generations. Faced with the modesty of their elders, the younger generations will know how to reveal themselves more. Perhaps they'll also manage to flip that script on that other oh-so-Swiss trait and take themselves a little less seriously. Because isn't that, after all, the quintessential quality of coolness?