Switzerland: A Rebellion

Crans Montana, Swiss Alps.

The fondue had begun to cool and the choices of meat to dip into the melted cheese were dwindling. The bottles of wine were nearly all dried out. Four women sat around an old dining table that used to belong to the grandmother of one of those women. The young women were discussing how it felt to be a woman in the workplace in Switzerland and whether women were too linked to being emotional, and what the hell being “too emotional” even meant.

It was December 31st and the energy from the excitement surrounding the New Year’s Eve celebrations to come that night were vibrating through the cool winter air. I’d arrived in Zurich 24 hours ago, wide-eyed and eager to learn about a place I had once visited ten years prior, but would now be seeing from a completely different perspective; the perspective of those who actually live and breathe the crisp Swiss air every day, and have breathed that air throughout their entire lives.

My friend, actor and director Isabel Sulger Buel, had taken the time to come greet me at the Zurich airport before we hopped on a train, transferred to a bus and pulled my suitcase through a calm but eery cemetery, finally arriving at her modest three bedroom apartment in the neighborhood Im Gutte, where the streets were some variation of the word Gutstrasse.

Actor, director, and host extraordinaire Isabel Sulger Buel in Lausanne.

That first night, Isabel cooked a delicious, traditional Swiss Rosti, potatoes fried into a sort of pancake and, in this case, topped with eggs sunny-side up. To drink, we mixed one of her many options of flavored syrups with water to create the juice that Isabel has been drinking since childhood.

Delicious syrups and rosti with sunny-side up eggs.

One significant thing I learned about Swiss culture is how important politeness is. I offended Isabel by sitting casually at the dining table with my foot propped up on my chair so my knee showed over the table. She said in Switzerland it is inappropriate to not have both feet planted on the floor while eating at the table, even in the comfort of a friend’s home. Or maybe because I was a guest and not in my own home I shouldn’t have put my stocking foot on the seat anyway.

More importantly than table manners, the politeness ran to a whole new level that went above and beyond the hospitality I’ve seen in my American friends. Being offered places to stay, even if those who owned the house wouldn’t actually be there. Being taken out to meals and cooked for. And one late night, when I was deciding whether to take a shower after 10pm or wait until the morning, Isabel told me that out of a politeness factor, the house rules of her apartment building stated that you are not to shower after a certain time of night out of respect for those who are sleeping in case the sounds of the shower wake them up. In NYC we’d just say, get over it. (It is a loud city, after all.)

Another thing I noticed is that nobody ever expected or asked for anything in return for their polite offerings. Maybe it’s a silent code of conduct that you would of course host someone in your home as they would host you, or maybe they really just didn’t need anything in return and would maybe take you up on it when offered. I feel like in America it’s usually favor-for-favor situations rather than offerings out of pure kindness or wanting to take care of one another. Not that Americans aren’t kind, but there seems to always be a trade-off that needs to happen. The times where you might not see that in America is usually from people from low-income communities. Interesting, right?

I was able to meet up with a former colleague and now close friend of my dad’s and his family in Zurich. They took time out of their lives to have dinner with me, Isabel and our friend Rebecca. I met their kids (now adults) for the first time after hearing about my dad’s amazing Swiss friends for years. They also had lunch with me and took me to Kunsthaus art museum another day. Meeting them remains one of my favorite memories from my trip to Switzerland. This is a photo we sent to my dad from Zurich.

One thing that happened on New Years Eve in Zurich that I had never seen before in America, or ever, was an organically formed giant game of spin the bottle in the middle of the street after the fireworks. Only, in this game, anyone and everyone from all walks of life and all cities and towns across the globe who came to Zurich for a mutual celebration would spin the bottle and, whoever it landed on, they would run out and hug the spinner in the friendliest gesture I have ever seen between strangers. It must be the genuine love in the air in Switzerland. “Humans have a need to love each other, you see,” exclaimed Isabel’s friend, Melissa.

An organically formed hug circle on NYE in Zurich.

In the couple hours leading up to the fireworks on the waters of Lake Zurich and before the joy of a spontaneous hugging circle, I sat down to dinner with Isabel and two of her friends, Anja and Melissa. Prior to introducing me to the infamous Chocolate Game (oh, just you wait to hear about that!) we had a really great conversation about being women in the workplace and whether or not they believe Switzerland to be as progressive as it is thought to be.

Anja, Isabel, Casey (me), and Melissa

Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Anja: I’m from the like, middle class. I have a middle class education. And for that I can achieve anything. And for that I can do anything. I mean, I’m in a job who’s a man’s job. Chef, particularly. But they told me it’s a woman’s job, which I don’t understand, but anyway. With my knowledge and everything, I can do whatever is, for me, possible.

Melissa: As long as you don’t have children. (laughter ensues all around)

Anja: Yes. But that’s another thing. That’s another thing for now, I mean in my construction of my world, in my level of knowledge and everything, I also did a bit of a higher knowledge, but I still, in this way, I can do whatever I want.

Isabel: Well, I had a feeling that a company I used to work-and I love that company, I need to say-but sometimes I had a feeling that men were not taking me serious enough. And I haven’t determined if it is because I behaved in a wrong way or just because they didn’t want to take me serious.

Casey: Well, what would a wrong way be? Is there a situation where you think there could be a wrong way that you behaved?

Isabel: Well, I asked my team leader at the very end before I left if I was a difficult employee. I mean, I knew I wasn’t “easy” because I had my own opinion and I had my own way to go about things. And I was 26 when I was at this company and I consider that I became mature when I was 28. And so he said, yeah, I was in a way difficult but what he considered difficult was that I was emotional… And I sometimes ask myself if they would have taken me more serious if I had always behaved in a rather calm manner.

Casey: Do you think that there’s a stigma against women being emotional? Because there’s a stigma against hormones and there’s a stigma against menstruation and people put all those things together and they might say, “Oh you’re being too emotional?” But also, is there something to be said for, I mean, for example, have you ever gone into a bathroom stall and cried while you’ve been at work?

Melissa: Yes, I did, but for me it was when I failed at something or whatever that I was disappointed. And so yeah, that happened. But personally for me in my particular situation, I feel, I mean, I know I will get this assistant position in half a year, and I don’t really know why I got it. I mean, I know that my grades are good and everything but I just, you know, the only thing I know from my professor is that this institute, they all sat together and decided it’s going to be me. But the thing is, I’m much more emotional than most people there…. I feel like I’m the only emotional person there at the moment. And I feel maybe sometimes they think I’m a bit head-strong. So first I thought that’s a problem. But in my case it’s an advantage. It just seems like people appreciate it. So I can’t really say that being emotional-and this is just in my case-for me it was an advantage and not a disadvantage. But this is the academic field, and in academics… you shouldn’t be too emotional because science is not based on being emotional. And sometimes I struggle with it. But if you find the balance I think that’s a good thing.

Anja: People like if they know what the other people think. And if you say like, strong and you’re standing behind your opinion, then people know where they are in the situation with you. They know where they stand. And people like that.

Isabel: Well, yeah, but if you are too forceful as a woman it can also backfire. And they kind of feel like you are too aggressive, I think. So, in regard of crying, no I never went to the toilet to cry, I cried in front of my CEO because I cannot hold back tears. And whenever I feel that they treat me unjustly, I kind of, I just can’t stand it and it just makes me angry and anger is very often combined with tears… And I mean, I don’t want to cry in front of them, it just, it happens. They probably think it’s too emotional, yes. But then, I am very vulnerable, if you want. Like, emotions flew through me. I’m an actor, too, so that’s kind of like my craft.

Casey: So if there is a concern at all of feeling like you can’t be emotional or vulnerable in a work situation, do you think that’s a gender thing or do you think that’s just professionalism?

Melissa: For me it doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or a man. If you’re balanced it’s always better.

Isabel: That’s so true.

Melissa: I’m a very sensitive person. I’m in kind of a funny situation right now [personally] and inside of me there are kind of a lot of different emotions right now but I try to be calm from the outside. For me, personally, it’s all about breathing, it’s all about thinking. It’s all about what you want to–actually, the experiment with the smiling, it sounds stupid but sometimes it works. So I personally, I try, and this is just my thing, I try to be balanced.

Isabel: The person with the smiling is called Vera F. Birkenbihl.

Anja: Yes, that’s her. She’s brilliant. Well, she was brilliant.

Melissa: So I don’t really think that’s a gender thing because at the moment I work at the airport next to my phD, and when you have someone in front of you who is super emotional, if you stay calm, you can calm this person down. It’s so interesting to see how this dynamic works.

Anja: If you see a man crying, you also think it’s very emotional. And men crying is just, like, a thing you shouldn’t see.

Isabel: Personally I think it’s beautiful. It’s human and it’s probably biased, but I acknowledge that it’s a man and I only think, “Oh my god, this is so beautiful, he can show emotion.” This is a quality to a man. To me as a woman this is something that I want in a man.

Anja: I think men are not comfortable to showing feelings, especially if they’re negative. And because they are not comfortable with the situation, because they are not allowed to show sadness or tears, they are overwhelmed at the situation where a woman is crying at their work. And I think this could be the real problem, why men don’t like women crying. Because they are not allowed to show it by themselves so they don’t know how to react in a situation; in a professional situation.

Isabel: How to handle it… To me this is a valuable thing and actually makes a man more valuable because he, like, if he can show sadness, like vulnerable emotions, not aggression. It makes a man more valuable because it makes him more human.

Casey: I feel like the bigger picture here is that we all want to be allowed to be emotional. When we have to be.

Unfortunately, the recording of the conversation cuts off with us talking about whether or not our periods affect our emotional well-being at all (it was 50/50, two of us feel hyper-emotional in the couple weeks leading up to our periods and two feel nothing at all).

And then we saw some glorious NYE fireworks at the yacht club on Lake Zurich. There were fireworks going off all around the lake, emulating the feeling that those moments would be never-ending and it was oh so beautiful.

The next day, Isabel and I hopped on a train and ventured to the west side of Switzerland, the French-speaking part, passing through Lausanne for hot chocolate and ending up in the small mountain-side town of Bex, where her aunt lives.

The view of the backyard from Isabel’s aunt’s house in Bex.

My biggest takeaway from our night with Isabel’s aunt was the generation gap of women being able to travel around the world. When her aunt was a young girl living in Switzerland, 60 some years ago, she only attended school until just before her teenage years so she could learn how to do household chores, because that was more important to a woman’s duties than education was at the time. At one point, her parents sent her to live with a host family in rural Illinois to learn about America. Still, to this day, Isabel’s aunt believes that Americans are not cultured enough because they hardly travel outside of their own country. Her advice to me about traveling as a woman was to find a millionaire who can fund the trip, then to plan out the trip and have an itinerary all set for him and his friends and whoever else wants to go and, as the trip-planner, you also attend for free.

This was how she traveled to parts of Africa. To remote African islands that hardly get any tourists. Stunning islands difficult to even find on maps; if you don’t know where to look you could easily skip right over them. She showed me photos and I considered her method for a second.

So, if there are any millionaires reading this, please, give me money and I’ll plan all the trips.

It was difficult for me to express to her how uncomfortable this made me feel because it had worked out well for her and it was what she knew. It was how she had traveled practically her entire life. It definitely put a pain in my stomach that left me feeling a little sad and hopeless and angry.

“I read how Jane Eyre used to go up on to the roof when Mrs. Fairfax was making jellies and looked over the fields at the distant view. And then she longed-and it was for this that they blamed her-that ‘then I longed for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired more of practical experience than I possessed; more of intercourse with my kind, of acquaintance with variety of character than was here within my reach. I valued what was good in Mrs. Fairfax, and what was good in Adèle; but I believed in the existence of other and more vivid kinds of goodness, and what I believed in I wished to behold… I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes…’

‘Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.’

“At the same time, on the other side of Europe, there was a young man living freely with this gipsy or with that great lady; going to the wars; picking up unhindered and uncensored all that varied experience of human life which served him so splendidly later when he came to write his books.”  

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own quoting Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre

I always go back to my notes on A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf whenever I need a healthy motivator to keep pushing myself forward in the work that I want and choose to do.

Traveling, for women and especially women of color, is an act of rebellion in itself. Especially traveling alone. It almost feels like it is our duty nowadays to see and experience as much of the world as possible because so many women of older generations were not able to. It is obviously much easier for women of a certain privilege to travel now because we have jobs and are granted independence (for the most part) in our own lives. I took for granted how lucky I was to get to experience Switzerland in the way that I did until I spoke with Isabel’s aunt. As much as I may want to, I will never ask a millionaire to fund any of my trips because I know that I am capable of figuring it out on my own and have my dignity to maintain. I feel lucky to be living in this time that we are living in because I would go absolutely insane if my restless soul couldn’t make spontaneous decisions to leave on a whim and explore the world.

So, for Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and every other woman who has ever ached for wanderlust, and still aches for that sense of freedom today, we travel, we explore, we observe, we learn, and we make it known to the rest of the world that this rebellion through exploration is still in its early stages and they’d better get used to us being out in this wild, wonderful world.

Crans Montana, Swiss Alps Chalet. Those are clouds, not snow!
I loved Lausanne so much.
Lausanne Chocolat Chaud!
The dining car on a train ride through Switzerland.
A phone booth library in the Swiss Alps.
Exploring Gruyères.
Gruyère Cheese!
A cheese vending machine in Gruyères!
Downtown Zurich.
Helmhaus, Zurich.

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