August 6


You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone. Next stop: Ticino

By Rick

August 6, 2014

ticino is the twilight zone between Italy and the rest of EuropeLast 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…)

Bellinzona, a village in the region of Ticino, SwitzerlandFor 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.

Lugano, Switzerland

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

map of TicinoEven 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.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Nice artcle! and LOL that’s why I love Ticino. It’s one of those regions that stands out because of their uniqueness. A little Italy inside one of the most efficient countries in the world. I have to say though that you’re likely to find the same sort of organization in regions like Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, those regions don’t look like Italy at all.

    • Thanks! I’ve never been to Trentino Alto Adige and Friuli Venezia Giulia, but I’m sure you’re right. Not really “Italian” they way most foreigners imagine it.

  • A real life example of “lose the grit/ lose the charm” can be found in the disneyfication of Times Square. Veteran NewYorkese openly mourn the loss of the veneer of grime and vice from the iconic heart of NYC. Perhaps we should change the name to Ticino Square.

    • Funny you mentioned that…after we left Ticino, we flew to NYC where we spent three days. My wife had never been, and it’s been about 6-7 years for me. As you say, I was surprised to see how “sterile” Times Square was, although I don’t have much memory of it’s former state.

  • Well, I would love to visit Ticino just to see…but if it’s anything like “Swiss Rail Journeys” an old T.V. show that always put mio marito to sleep, well. Having been in Rome for only a month, it is gritty in more ways than one and can be a bit of a “hard sell” compared to other cities…but then they are not Roma either! For us, Rome is like London, once in their clutches it’s game over and there is no way we cannot return…heck we didn’t even throw a coin in the Fontana Trevi last spring…cause…we know we will be back!

    • I agree with you regarding Rome’s “grit.” It’s part of the charm, like it or not. If you got rid of it you have, well…Ticino. 🙂

  • A good way to put the “homogenous” thing is, America is the mixture of a chocolate, strawberry, vanilla and coffee milkshake, all mixed up and blended. Switzerland is the milkshake thing all over again, but in parfait form.

    I’ve lived in Italy off and on for the past 30 years and Ticino is a nice respite – that is, until I want to start yelling at people again, which is about 3 days after I arrive.

    • Hey, I like that description, John! And the truth is, I liked Ticino. It’s just that something felt a bit off. I’m not in a hurry to go back there, but wouldn’t avoid the place, either.

  • Interesting read. We have lived in Tuscany for 10 years and its not just the cities that are dirty, the country towns and villages are much the same. But we love it, not the dirt, just the whole lifestyle thing. We visit the cities occasionally, Roma, Firenze, Milano and stay for two or three days watching the rush and chaos from a carefully chosen bar. However, roads all seem to lead us back to the Chianti hills.

    • Yes, that’s part of the expat bargain, isn’t it? You have to take the bad with the good. But as you say, it’s mostly good, so worth the trade offs.

  • “Instead, I was trapped in a nightmare—a sterilized, watered-down, Walt Disney version of Italy. Aiuuutooooo!!! You have nailed it Rick. When living in Italy, we couldn’t quite put our finger on what there was not to love about the Italian/Swiss border towns, but we knew something didn’t feel quite right. We missed the chaos, the grittiness & the vibe. And it was all too clean! (what is it with Italy & litter). Having said that, we loved nothing more than escaping the August heat & hiking in the nearby alps in summer with the yodelling, lederhosen hikers that we seriously encountered hiking way up in the alps.

    • Ha, ha…thanks, Michelle. Yeah, that’s my feeling. too. A great place to visit, but…

      The hiking sounds great. In fact, I’m thinking about writing a post about the “Sentiero del Viandante.” Have you hiked it?

      • No I haven’t Rick. I just checked the map and would love to hear about it if you do. We hiked Reutte (near the Austrian/German border), Seebense (Tyrol) & Filzmoos…all with our dog, Atticus. I would go back in a heartbeat.

    • Well, yes, certainly. Are you kidding? Given the size, the US is by far the most culturally homogeneous country in the world. I grew up in Orlando, FL. If I drive a few hours to Tampa or a few more hours to Atlanta, I’m in the same place. Heck, if I FLY to Seattle, nothing much has changed. Same language, same mentality, same coffee bar (Starbucks, obviously). In Italy, I can travel just 10-15 miles and the culture, food…even the language is completely different. Israel? Well, OK, but Israel is smaller than New Jersey!! On the other hand, Switzerland is about the size of Kentucky, and they have four different languages and countless different sub-cultures. So yes, compared to the rest of the world, the US could hardly be more homogenous. Not a bad thing…in fact, it’s one of our strengths.

  • Rick I experienced some of this while staying in Stresa recently. It was cleaner and the people were different particularly the tourists. I liked it

  • Funny, I have a friend (+her marito) seriously considering moving to Ticino to escape Italy’s taxes (not in a runaway unlawful way, lol) and general chaos. I would have to agree that a visit to the bel paese is much much different than trying to make a life work. It can be done, but should it really be sooooooo hard? I knew a couple originally from Milan who basically did all of their shopping over the border. I feel sorry for Italian friends who marvel “but their IVA is only….” or “things are so clean” when they visit various EU countries. Can a happy medium ever be found?!

    • ^^ I meant to add, your info on the immigration laws recently passed is the one thing pushing back a move at the moment.

      • I believe it. The Swiss have made it pretty clear that they don’t want any more Italians. At the few that I spoke with expressed this sentiment very clearly and assertively.

    • I’ve often asked myself the same question about the elusive “happy medium.” I’m not yet convinced that it’s possible. Once you become “Swiss,” you’ve relinquished many of the things that makes Italy appealing, in some odd way. More thought on this subject is needed….

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