BERNE – Now that all 16 national teams have tried their luck on the ice in Berne and Zurich-Kloten, let’s introduce this small but hockey-crazy nation in a small, alternative visitor's guide.
Arriving in Berne and Zurich might seem easy language-wise, as everything is written in a widespread continental language called German. But this is a little deceiving, for two big reasons.
First, this country has no less than four different linguistic regions within about 40,000 square kilometres. German is the most widely spoken language, while French is spoken in the west, and Italian in the south. In the southeast, there are about 35,000 people who speak another Romance language called Romansh.
This means that Switzerland was kind of a forerunner of the European Union before the EU even made it to the drawing board. (And even though Switzerland remains one of the few non-member countries.)
Even though the two venues of the 2009 IIHF World Championship are in the German-speaking part, it won’t be easy to understand conversations between Swiss people as they speak in strange dialects, which vary all over the country, and are known as Swiss-German. For instance, whereas people greet one another with Grüess ech or Sälü in Berne, they’ll say Grüezi or Hoi in Zurich.
It’s said that the dialects were created as a means of protection to confuse the Germans and Austrians in Europe’s wild days.
Swiss also pronounce “ch” in a much tougher way than their other German-speaking neighbours do. They use their throat to make a noise that sounds like a cough.
The classic jaw-breaker is Chuchichäschtli. A foreigner who shows signs of interest in the language will get asked to repeat this word. It’s a rare word for “cupboard” which is actually just used to confront foreigners with Swiss-German.
The Swiss like to be punctual like a Tissot watch (or other Swiss watches). Punctuality seems to be one of the pillars the country is built on. Timetables are taken very seriously. It means that if you're running late to catch your bus or train, it might drive away when you are just centimetres away from the door.
On the other hand, you can usually trust train connections. If your train has a delay of four minutes or more, you will hear an excuse and information every ten minutes. (This does not count for trains coming from other countries, they're always late.)
People also like to be very organized, in any situation, at any place, at any time. Or, as non-Swiss people might say, over-organized, or meticulous.
The Swiss are usually rather reserved and quiet as long as they’re not explicitly allowed an exception (such as at a hockey game, party, or carnival). Sleep time is holy in the country and may not be disturbed with any noise. Don’t do anything that could annoy or disturb the Swiss, like being loud on a train. (Especially not in cars which are marked as a quiet zone, where any noise louder than breathing will be considered offensive.)
Never drive over a zebra crossing when pedestrians want to cross. You’ll risk a fine, just the same as you will if you speed and get caught by one of the hundreds of speed cameras. You also risk knocking someone down, as Swiss pedestrians are used to car drivers who (almost) always stop for them.
Ok, here’s one of the exceptions. Hockey. There’s hockey in all parts of the country, and it’s one of the most popular sports, along with football and skiing. SC Bern is the best-attended club in Europe, while Switzerland has the highest attendance of any European league after Sweden. (Which is, to the confusion of many people overseas, a different country.)
The sport is played with a puck, even though it’s pronounced like pöck (same as Thomas Pöck, the Austrian New York Islanders player). However, English is widespread on professional teams, since usually at least one coach or player is Canadian.
The most famous and traditional chant you can hear during the Swiss games is Hopp Schwiiz (or: Hop Suisse in French), which basically means “Go Switzerland”.
Don’t get the wrong idea about heraldic animals or club logos that feature bears in Berne and lions in Zurich: these are not typical native wildlife. (Actually, they do have real bears in Berne, which has had a bear pit called Bäregrabe since the 16th century.)
The true national animal is the cow, the animal behind the famous Swiss cheese and chocolate. Like Cooly, the mascot of this year’s World Championship. It is not only “cool”, but the name also sounds like the German word for cow: Kuh. Cooly is the successor of another famous animal of Switzerland, the St. Bernard Dog, which was the mascot of the 1998 IIHF World Championship in Zurich and Basle.
Even though new arenas have been built around the country, the Swiss are also famous for having arenas that are “full of personality”. Others would simply call these archaic venues. The most famous places of worship with old, rustic Swiss hockey charm and freezing fans are Ambrì and Langnau. But Berne’s PostFinance-Arena also fits the mould in one respect: it has an enormous standing area on the penalty box side, with space for 10,000 fans for league games (with the league constellation, the arena takes about 17,000 in total). It’s one of the few things that's left from the arena's original configuration, along with the wooden roof construction.
Even though the Swiss eat roughly the same things as their neighbours, they’re also well known for different specialties in the various language regions. The German-speaking part contributed Rösti – potatoes, onions and bacon cooked in a frying pan and sometimes supplemented with cheese.
Another, even better-known dish from the region is Müesli, which appears on many breakfast tables around the world, not just in Switzerland.
Two famous dishes with melted cheese come from the French-speaking part with Fondue (cheese melted in an earthenware pot and eaten with cubes of bread) and Raclette (heated and spiced cheese eaten with gherkins, pickled onions and dried meat).
With both dishes, Swiss drink white wine from Valais, and for cheers they say Proscht in Swiss-German. No drop can be drunk before you have raised your glass to every single person, saying proscht (or more formal: zum Wohl), looking into each other's eyes.
Before you start eating, you wish each other en Guete before thanking with merci (this French word is also used in Swiss-German) or danke.
Not all this food can be eaten during a hockey game. But it is available in restaurants of various arenas. However, the Swiss cuisine for sports fans is different anyway.
Hamburgers, pizzas, and French fries have also arrived in Switzerland, but the traditional arena food has remained. Swiss fans like to eat a sausage with mustard and a piece of bread. The standard choice is between two types of sausages: the white Bratwurst and the reddish Cervelat (Servela in Zurich), often referred to as the national sausage.
The classic drink in the arena is beer (Bier). In restaurants, Swiss usually order it as Stange, the Swiss answer to a pint. However, it’s mostly 3-4 decilitres. If you need more, just ask for a Grosses (5 decilitres).
If you want to have kind of a national soft drink, try Rivella, a drink that looks like beer but is actually made from milk plasma.
If you’re at the Arena Kloten, also try Fonduebrot, the cheesy answer to garlic bread.
Ready for the adventure?