Last month, during the final days of my Italy blog tour, I had the strangest dream—it really unsettled me, like an episode from The Twilight Zone. At first, everything appeared normal. I was in this smallish Italian town, wandering around the historical center with my wife and baby. We stopped for an espresso, bought a gelato for my daughter, and then picked up a few cartoline and francobolli in a tobacco shop. The simple things that we do most every day when in Rome or Sicily. The people around us were speaking Italian, and there was the unmistakable scent of fresh cornetti in the air.
But something wasn’t quite right. (Cue Rod Serling’s intro sequence…)
For one thing, the streets were clean…too clean. No graffiti on the buildings, either. Everything was moving in slow motion. The motorini were idling at the traffic light like every other vehicle, instead of weaving around the cars and onto the sidewalk to get to the front of the line. We were waiting for a bus and it arrived exactly on time! And not one person told me to “vaffanculo!”
What kind of bizarre wormhole had I crawled through? “What the hell is going on here? This isn’t Italy!” I exclaimed to my wife, hyperventilating, trying to suppress my panic.
“Relax, Rick, we’re in Ticino. No, this isn’t Italy…it’s Switzerland.”
Switzerland? I thought Switzerland was like Heidi-Land; full of schnitzel, biergartens, and fahrvergnügen. Old men in lederhosen yodeling across the Alps. Instead, I was trapped in a nightmare—a sterilized, watered-down, Walt Disney version of Italy. Aiuuutooooo!!!
Ticino, Italian-speaking Switzerland
What a difference a border can make. I guess what made the experience so shocking was the abruptness of the change. At the beginning of my Italy blog tour, we started in Lake Como and gradually, over the course of an entire month, made our way down to Sicily. This time, we had taken a late afternoon flight from Catania to Milan, then a sleepy train ride to Bellinzona, where we promptly passed out around midnight. When we woke up and opened our eyes, we were suddenly on another planet.
The Canton of Ticino is the southernmost area of Switzerland, and the only canton where Italian is the primary language. Surprisingly, it’s really the only language you hear and see in Ticino, even though Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian, and Romansh).
From what I learned, the various zones have largely maintained their historical cultural identities while simultaneously forming a strong political union. This strikes me as incredible feat. The U.S. has a strong political union, but is culturally homogeneous. Meanwhile, the European Union has tons of cultural diversity, but the political bonds are weak, at best. I guess it helps to be small—and “Swiss” in your mentality.
Furthermore, while the national government is technically a “federal multi-party directorial republic,” there is plenty of evidence of direct democracy. The citizens actually cast their individual votes on all major legislation, and may also propose referendums and constitutional initiatives to their parliament, if they collect enough signatures. Even the Greeks, who invented democracy, can’t claim that degree of direct government involvement by its population.
Of course, Switzerland is not without its problems, too. One of their most pressing issues at the moment is dealing with the influx of Italians who want to live and work in Ticino. In recent years, there have been over 40,000 Italian citizens who have relocated to Ticino, with an additional 60,000 applications pending. This would be a serious strain on a population that is currently only around 342,000.
In February of 2014, the Swiss citizens passed some tough immigration laws to severely limit the number of foreigners, including Italians and other Europeans, living and working in their country. (In fact, the initiative found its strongest support in Ticino, where 70% voted in favor of it–in other words, in favor of keeping the Italians out.)
It will take a couple more years to enact the new law, but it’s pretty clear that the Swiss are determined to preserve their little island in the middle of Europe; minding their own damn business as they have throughout modern history. If two World Wars couldn’t drag them into the European Union, I suppose nothing will.
Go North, young man
Even though our visit to Switzerland was limited to just Italian-speaking Ticino, that doesn’t mean that we didn’t notice some geographical differences. We stayed in Lugano, but also went to Bellinzona, and visited our friend who lives and works near Biasca. Notice on the map that these cities are in a line from south to north. What’s really fascinating is that the culture seems to follow this line, as well. What I mean is that Lugano was clearly the most “Italian” of these cities, while Biasca begins to show signs of a more Austrian/German influence as it relates to architecture, civic organization, and traffic patterns. Bellinzona was somewhere in between. A cultural spectrum, if you will, and if you were so inclined, you could choose where you wanted to live based on how much “Italian-ness” you’re able to tolerate.
So what should I take away from my visit to the Swiss version of Italy? On the first day of our visit, I was like “YES! This is what all of Italy should be like: great food and beautiful panoramas, but with efficient services and unpolluted public spaces.”
Then by our last day it was starting to wear on me. Yes, everything was clean and organized, and the people were exceedingly polite. But to be completely honest, it was…well, how shall I say this? Boring. Which is not a bad thing if you just want to relax for a few days, like us. But to live there? I don’t think so.
The truth is, I love Rome. There’s a certain sense of accomplishment in surviving the chaos among the crumbling history of the world’s greatest civilization. I also love visiting Florence and Naples and Sicily and all the wonderful places in between. Italy is a country with more cultural richness than the entire rest of the world combined. But let’s be honest, life in Italy isn’t always easy for an expat who isn’t George Clooney at his villa on Lake Como, or some tycoon partying on yacht near Capri. For the average straniero (or Italian) trying to scratch out a living without going insane, Italy is a constant struggle, and it can seem like every conceivable obstacle is intentionally put in your way to make daily life as inconvenient as possible.
Listen, if you want a great vacation for a couple of weeks, or even a few months, don’t even think twice—come to Italy. (Better still, come to Sicily where Italy is at its most intense.) You’ll have the best time of your life, I promise. As a vacation destination, it just doesn’t get any better than the Bel Paese. But if you’re making a move and thinking of becoming an expat, I have another idea for you. I suggest that you fly into Milan and keep moving north until you find your comfort zone. Don’t be surprised when at last you’re in Switzerland. Ticino—the Swiss version of Italy—might just be a suitable compromise between the two extremes.