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Switzerland - Introduction

Switzerland is a multi-ethnic, multilingual and multi-confessional nation shaped by the will of its people. It has been a federal State since 1848. Switzerland has a federal structure with three different political levels: the Confederation, the cantons and the communes. The geography of Switzerland is notable for its great diversity. Switzerlands three main geographical regions are the Jura, Plateau and the Alps. The geography of Switzerland means that the climate varies greatly from one region to another. Depending on the area and the time of year, Switzerland experiences conditions reminiscent both of Siberia and of the Mediterranean. Even the major towns of their own distinctive character. Building land is in short supply, but planning regulations aim to preserve the appearance of towns and villages

  1. The Plateau stretches from Lake Geneva in the south west to Lake Constance in the north east, with an average altitude of 580 m (1902 ft). It covers about 30 percent of the country`s surface area, but is home to two thirds of the population. There are 450 people to every square kilometre (1,166 per square mile). Few regions in Europe are more densely populated. Most of Switzerland's industry and farmland is concentrated in the Plateau. Villages lie within sight of each other. The countryside in the Plateau tends to be highly organised; the fields often look as if they have been drawn with a ruler. Fields are small: nowhere are there endless acres given over to a single crop. Instead, meadows alternate with fields sown to cereals or other crops and with small woods. The land is used intensively.
  2. The Jura, a limestone range stretching from Lake Geneva to the Rhine, makes up about 12 per cent of Switzerlands surface area. Located on average 700 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level, it is a picturesque highland crossed by river valleys. Numerous fossils and dinosaur tracks have been found in the Jura region, which has given its name to the Jurassic period. The rocks of the Jura were formed between 208 million and 144 million years ago. Jurassic period rocks are found in numerous places in the world, but it was in the Jura that they were first studied, at the end of the 18th century.
  3. The Alps span some 200 kilometres (125 miles), at an average altitude of 1700 m (5576 ft), and cover nearly two thirds of Switzerland's total surface area. The snow line begins at 2,500-2,800 meters (8,200-9186 feet). There are 48 mountains which are 4,000 meters (13,120 feet) or higher and about 1,800 glaciers. The highest mountain in Switzerland is the Dufourspitze in Canton Valais, at 4634 m (15,203 ft). They provide a continental watershed, determining the climate and vegetation, But while they contribute enormously to the Swiss identity, economic activity is concentrated in the Plateau. The valleys of several major rivers - the Rhone, Upper Rhine, Reuss and Ticino - divide the mountain ranges.

Switzerland boasts a thriving arts scene, with its architects in particular achieving world-wide acclaim. The culture of Switzerland is characterised by diversity. The Swiss sometimes wonder what keeps Switzerland together. The wide range of traditional customs is one reflection of this diversity.

Switzerland is in the highly unusual situation of being the home of three of Europe's major languages, but apart from Rumansch - spoken by only 0.5% of the population - it has no written language of its own. Whichever language group they belong to, the different Swiss communities have linguistic and cultural ties with one of their larger neighbours. It's easier for someone from Geneva to speak to a Parisian than to a fellow Swiss from Bern, or for a native of Ticino to read Milan's Corriere della Sera than the Neue Zrcher Zeitung.

The language communities eat different things and have different traditions and customs. Even their shared history only goes back about two centuries. Before the Napoleonic invasion of 1798, some of the cantons even ruled other parts of Switzerland. The inhabitants of what is now Canton Vaud, for example, were the subjects of Bern, and did not enjoy the same rights as the Bernese.

The Swiss themselves are sometimes puzzled about what they have in common apart from their passport, what it is that makes them Swiss. The Swiss say they are held together by the desire to stay united. The general attitude is summed up in the formula "unity, but not uniformity."

"What differentiates Swiss history from the European pattern is the outcome. Swiss communities built from the bottom up, growing out of free peasant or urban associations, are in a curious sense bottom-heavy, rather like those dolls which spring up no matter how often the child pushes them over. The weight is at the base. The communities have a deep equilibrium to which, as the point of rest, the social and political order tends to return."

Expect the Swiss to be stubborn, detail oriented, zealots for cleanliness, and dedicated to the search for perfection. The Swiss are very hard working and intense in their work. They tend to be more narrowly focused in their roles, preferring to defer questions and judgments about areas outside their specific role to others. They are more oriented to committee or consensus decisions than Americans tend to be. The Swiss are more quality oriented than Americans and the Swiss have a greater sense of personal responsibility to a job than most Americans.

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