When Asterix and Obelix visited Switzerland in 50 BC, they experienced a fair amount of culture shock.
But just how accurate is the portrayal of the Alpine nation in the popular comics by Uderzo and Goscinny? After interviewing experts in Swiss culture, banking, and tourism, I am revealing seven solid facts you can take to the bank - and am poking holes in four cheesy myths. (The identities of my sources have been changed for their protection.)
1. It's a Great Place to Get Medicine
In Asterix in Switzerland, the village druid, Getafix, needs a rare ingredient to make a healing potion: Edelweiss. He sends our hero Asterix and his friend Obelix to Helvetia.
Was that a good idea?
"Yes, definitely," says a spokesperson for the Swiss pharma industry. "Switzerland is the go-to destination for all your medical and pharmacological needs, whether it's asthma medicine, mountain-top anti-smoking clinics, or humane end of life solutions."
2. The Swiss are Masochists
In the comic, the first thing we see of Switzerland is a fondue orgy. Those who drop the bread in the cheese are beaten with sticks, whipped, or dumped in Lake Geneva. A guest whose bread falls in the pot positively quivers with excitement at the prospect of his punishment.
Are the modern Swiss this way?
"No, no, no, this is totally wrong!" So says S. Löth, an expert in Swiss culture. "In the story, they pick an Edelweiss in full bloom during conference season. It's clearly July! No Swiss would eat fondue in summer! It's so wrong, I could cry!"
But what about the masochism? "Oh, yes, that's a big part of the Swiss national psyche. We swim in freezing rivers, we play deliberately discordant music, and we voted overwhelmingly against having more holidays. And the most famous language school uses the tagline "The Strict School". Imagine a British advertising agency pitching such a slogan in London!"
3. Animal Welfare is High
In the book, the Roman governor complains that he cannot put on a proper gladiatorial circus. That is because the lions are so well-fed, they will not eat the prisoners!
"Accurate," says Frau Löth. "In every way I can think of, animals are well treated here. The WHO ranks Swiss chickens as the happiest and best educated in the world, and until recently, Swiss cows had a state-appointed lawyer."
4. The Swiss have a Mania for Cleanliness
"An orgy is supposed to be dirty!" roars the governor, as two Swiss men mop the floor during his party. Meanwhile, the road sign separating Switzerland from France is filthy on the French side - and spotless on the other.
Does the comic get it right?
"I've seen guests tidying up during housewarming parties," agrees Anna F., a British expat. "You'd go to someone's flat and it's cool and there's good music and people are smoking on the balcony. Then, for five minutes every hour, all the Swiss people get all serious and put bottles into bags, run the dishwasher, sweep up fallen crisps. I've never seen anything like it."
And the streets are kept spotless, too. "Where I live," says Anna, "it's not even central, but they have that little street cleaning truck thing, the one with the spinny brushes. It comes at 6 AM and then again two hours later. On a Sunday!"
5. Hotels are Clean - Staff are Friendly
Asterix and Obelix take shelter in a Geneva hotel. They are dripping wet and it is very late. The hotel owner is impeccably polite and shows them to a spotless room.
Is this realistic?
"This is ludicrous fantasy," says Hans G., who runs a tourism blog. "The room may well be spotless, but the welcome would never be so warm. I recently drove to a well-known four-star hotel not very far from Geneva and stopped outside the door to drop my suitcases off. The manager came racing outside to yell at me about where I was parked."
Anna F., again: "I had a weird experience in a hotel restaurant. Does that count? I sat at the table, the waitress laid the knives, forks, etcetera. She put the napkin down just so. I popped it on my lap, being all ladylike and whatnot. The waitress grabbed it from my lap, folded it, and put it back in its proper place. No one has ever been able to explain it to me."
6. You Must Have the Right Paperwork
A banker agrees to let Asterix and Obelix hide from the Romans in one of his safes. As helpful as he is, he nevertheless insists that they open an account and sign their names in triplicate.
"Yes, yes, yes. Three times yes," says Hans. "The Swiss have many words to describe this type of person, just like the eskimos have 50 words for My nose is cold. I actually find administrators here to be rather approachable, but they will insist on the right forms in the right order."
7. Banking Secrecy
Having destroyed the first safe they were deposited in, Asterix and his friend are told by the banker to hurry into the next one. 'Whose safe is it?' they ask. The banker replies, 'I don't know and I don't want to know'.
Does this attitude still exist?
I spoke to a banker who spilled the beans on condition of anonymity. "Nah, that's all over," he said, looking wistful. "The black-money stories will keep coming out, but it's mostly historical. Now we have to give data to the US, to Germany. We have to ask every customer where his money comes from. If it seems dodgy, we don't touch it. No, sigh, the good old days are gone."
8. How to Blend into a Crowd of Swiss
The hotelier, who is still helping the Gauls, gives them a rudimentary disguise - a bow and quiver – saying this will help them blend in, since the Swiss are always going off to do military service. Asterix is sceptical, but the hotelier assures him that all he has to do to fit in is to 'look well fed and relaxed.'
Would that really work?
"I had to laugh," says Frau Löth. "Looking well-fed is a good way to blend into a crowd of Swiss people, but relaxed? Ha! Go on a commuter train and tell me who looks relaxed. The drunks, maybe. The tourists, sure. But if one truly wishes to blend in, one must scowl and frown and glare. Smiling is considered a deviant, subversive activity. I was once stopped by a policeman because I was remembering a joke."
9. The Swiss are Happier Without Foreigners
Once the Gauls have gone, the banker sits down with a horn of wine and rejoices that the foreigners have left.
"To be fair, Asterix and Obelix destroyed a safe and trashed the man's reputation," says Frau Löth. "But the Swiss did vote to stop more foreigners from arriving, so the writers of the comic were onto something."
10. Yodeling and Cuckoos
There's a fair amount of yodeling in the comic, and a running joke about cuckoo clocks.
"Yodeling is Swiss," says Hans, "but it's only done in the mountains, and cuckoo clocks are German. Why they're associated with Switzerland is a mystery to us all."
11. Foreign Aid
There is a touching moment in the story that pays homage to the Red Cross.
"That's us!" says Frau Löth, "We founded that! And we've got a huge aid program. Really, look it up. If you're going to make fun of us poor Swiss, at least end on a high note. We're really very generous, you know. You want to use the toilet? No problem. Just sign here, and here, and here..."