15 September 2020

Would it do the trick?

I had five weeks to prepare for the official hearing, one of the multiple steps required for the Swiss citizenship application. Five weeks to make sure I knew everything I “should” know at the federal, cantonal and municipal levels. Five weeks of intense reading, summarising, testing myself and practising German. Now that the hearing is over – a mere three hours ago as I’m typing the first draft of this story – it’s as if all the muscle fibres of my body finally released the tension they had felt. I’m mentally exhausted.

Walking up the steps of the town hall, right before my hearing

Over the past five weeks, I read hundreds of pages over and over again, to be 100% knowledgeable on all the details of the political, judicial and parliamentary systems at all levels; the names of each elected official, their party of affiliation and their responsibilities. I made sure to know where every traditional dish came from in Switzerland. I memorised dozens of key historical dates, once again at all levels – federal, cantonal, municipal. Examples? The first settlements in my village? 2,750 BC. What happened in 965? The Emperor Otto I gave the domain rights over the village to the cloister of Einsiedeln. What makes the Swiss government (a.k.a. Federal Council a.k.a. Bundesrat) so interesting? It’s always governed in coalition and the council was never replaced in its entirety ever since the creation of modern Switzerland in 1848. That’s for some stability. Oh and the first stage coaches between Zürich and Chur? 1826. Yes, sir. I could go on and on, but I’ll spare you the details.

I summarised everything I needed to remember in a 50-page long document, including hundreds of vocabulary terms. I took all the tests I could find online – it felt ironic that Swiss people sometimes didn’t even know the answers. I spoke out loud to myself in German (not awkward at all, but nobody heard me, I think, and anyway it wouldn’t change much to what people already think of me when I mumble to myself). Two friends, Dirk and Katha, were kind enough to make me practice a few times as well. In addition, I was requested to prepare a 5-minute preparation covering key questions such as what does homeland and integration mean to me, what I had done to actively integrate myself in the village (not just in Switzerland), and obviously why I wish to become Swiss. If you’re curious, here’s one of my self-recorded attempts about 3 weeks ago:

German speakers will undoubtedly recognise my French accent. Hopefully it isn’t worse than the accent of Guy Parmelin or Alain Berset, two of the seven members of the Federal Council.

How did the hearing go, I hear you ask? It went well. Yep, it’s quite rare for me to say that with assurance and I may have failed, but I don’t think so. I’m a bit disappointed – I have to be disappointed about something every time, can’t help it – that I didn’t have an opportunity to share everything I knew (e.g. everything I mentioned a few paragraphs above, it was all for naught). For I knew way more than was required, even if all my preparatory work was mostly needed to be ready for that hearing. I was however caught off guard with 3 or 4 questions (out of about 30, see at the bottom of the page for the full list), but this is hopefully not a hearing during which I have to get everything absolutely perfect. We shall see.

It all really started earlier in the day. I had collected all the things I thought I would need with me: pen, paper, water bottle, passport, official letter, deck of cards (yes, yes, more on this below). I could have recorded an unboxing video of the new iron I hadn’t used yet, but I wasn’t in the mood for that so I simply went ahead and ironed my white shirt. Armed with my razor, fitted with a brand new blade for the occasion, I proceeded to my weekly shave – no cuts this time around!

I really don’t get it: while deodorant ads boast about them lasting 24, 48, even 72 hours (who doesn’t shower that long anyway), I lost a kilogram in sweat over the 10 minutes of walking from home to the town hall. I was way more stressed than any public speaking I have ever done, including in front of thousands of people.

The Swiss flag, one of the few country flags which is square. Its squareness is however not a legal requirement: only the colours and the fact that the length of each branch of the cross must be one sixth longer than their width. Yes, I did learn about all these details!

At 7.40pm, five minutes before the assigned hearing time, I stepped into the town hall, immediately guided upstairs to an incredibly large meeting room. 6 people were seated at random seats, 2 to my left, 3 further on the right, and the mayor immediately across, staring at me with a smile.

“Shall we start? Is Swiss German okay with you?” asked the woman who was to be in charge throughout the hearing, the others asking almost nothing at all.

Swiss German? Of course not! Fluent German is difficult enough for me! In case you’re wondering, Swiss German is an Alemannic dialect which is essentially spoken (while the Swiss write in the Swiss flavour of German – yes, I know, it’s confusing). It’s not even an official language (there are already 4 in Switzerland, including Romansh, spoken by 0.5% of the population). Despite that, most citizens living in the German speaking part of Switzerland speak the dialect at home; conversely, the French dialects have gradually disappeared in the French speaking part of Switzerland. What a melting pot of languages!

“May I kindly request to conduct this hearing in German please?” I asked politely. Coincidentally, it was exactly a year since I had passed the German language exams at the Goethe-Institut, since a minimum level of German was a requirement by the federal and cantonal authorities.

The woman grunted. She didn’t seem pleased, I wasn’t off to a great start. But perhaps they had been confused: as they verified my identity, they incorrectly stated that I was a German citizen. I have no idea how they got that wrong, considering the lengthy official documentation I had to submit. The mistaken information on my citizenship confirmed what I had heard before: the Swiss don’t really appreciate Germans who don’t attempt to learn Swiss German, while they generally welcome non-German speakers who have taken the trouble to learn German.

Off we went speaking German then. The woman introduced me to the other committee members, skimming through my CV in 20 seconds, mainly mentioning that I practised badminton, enjoyed kayaking and was an amateur magician.

At that point, I was fully “in the zone”, focused, so I jumped right in and said:

“That is correct, and if you want, I have my deck of cards with me!”

I don’t remember their reaction but that comment didn’t go completely unheard, as you’ll read later on. The rapid-fire questions started coming at me. I could see that all the committee members had the same stapled A4 papers with what looked like many questions arranged in themes. Of course, from the distance I was sitting at, there was no way for me to be able to read any of them. The questions were thrown at me way too quickly anyway.

I was at times a little surprised: the questions jumped from the village level to the federal level, then back to the village level. I had been expecting something more “logical”, as per the guidelines I had received in their letter. Considering the depth of my preparation, my “strategy” had been to overwhelm them with my knowledge, expanding any answer I would give them into adjacent themes. Unfortunately, that strategy quickly failed when two things happened: firstly when I realised they had their prepared set of questions and I would have to answer all the ones they had planned, regardless of my attempts to take over the flow of the hearing; secondly when the woman in charge kept interrupting me once she had the answers she wanted.

I was playing a dangerous game: I didn’t want to annoy them or appear too arrogant (I’m French enough as it is, no need to confirm the stereotype – hence my attempt to become Swiss to finally have a proper disguise); but at the same time, I didn’t want all my knowledge to go to waste or worse, that they would corner me into areas I didn’t know much about, without them realising I did know a lot in other domains.

So when they asked me how many people are elected on the municipal council (seven), I immediately told them I could also give them the names of each of them. Without waiting for the confirmation to proceed, I started listing them. The woman interrupted me after the third name, but I carried on with a smile, lowering my voice as if I were about to be reprimanded. I heard a few laughs from some of the committee members. The woman made me understand that it was good enough. I carried on (stubborn anyone?), further lowering my voice, mentioning “and the latest addition to the town council... Guido…”. The rest of the committee laughed, nodding in approval, confirming this person was indeed the latest addition to the council.

I would repeat the same little game every time I had the opportunity – names of the members of the Federal Council, names of the members of the Cantonal Government, names of the members of parliament, etc. It was quite obvious my memory impressed them. The same one who asked me about my memorisation technique then tried to trick me with a difficult question, asking me what happened in the year 1315. What did he think? Of course I knew the answer: the victory over the Habsburg army in Morgarten. I scored another point. But come on, this was part of the knowledge already required for the written exam!

It didn’t all go as smoothly though: I stumbled on some questions, even sometimes struggled understanding them. At times, I didn’t realise I was using the wrong words, for instance saying lions (“Löwen”) instead of wolves (“Wölfe”): we had just talked about the coat of arms of the village (which consists of 3 lions, dating back from the times of the Duchy of Swabia, one of the 5 big duchies of what is modern-day Germany) and we had moved on to one of the referendums taking place next week (on the topic of loosening hunting restrictions on wolves). My word confusion made the committee roar in laughter: gee, thanks, I know there aren’t any wild lions in Switzerland!

At other times, I unintentionally leaned in the direction of the woman-in-charge as if to signify I didn’t hear properly when actually I didn’t understand some of the words – but she was kind enough to repeat or use different words. I think she did particularly enjoy it when I was unable to properly explain the school’s dual system – but it was fair game since I had kept trying to take control of the hearing. At that point, we were still only at the middle of the imparted time. I put my tail back between my legs and I tried to keep a serious face… even as I was constantly tempted to keep playing with my audience. For instance, when I was confident I knew the answer, I made them laugh by congratulating the woman:

“This is a very good question, thank you!”

Yes, it really happened this way! While many of the stories I publish have some (obviously) embellished aspects, the account I’m making of this hearing is 100% accurate. I’m actually smiling as I’m typing this, even if I’m exhausted and trying to recover from the haze I was in.

The end of the hearing was approaching. It was time, they were tiring of me more than I was bizarrely enjoying it, especially when I tricked them into something they didn’t remember, when I was simply asked about the types of political rights: I completed my answer with the dates when those rights – the optional referendum (1874) and the popular initiative (1891) – were introduced. Too much was too much… Small digression: that’s also the slogan for the far-right party’s popular initiative next week. Enjoy the beautiful poster:

Poster of the far-right party in favour of restricting immigration

The committee members looked at one another, they seemed to be done. That’s when someone asked for a card trick. Sh*t, what if I failed it?! What if they didn’t understand the trick? After all, I had covered myself in ridicule earlier in the year when I had miserably failed a couple of magic tricks in front of my entire team at work! As I said, I was in a haze, my answers and my gestures were in autopilot. By some extraordinary coincidence, I had actually learned the German word for a “deck of cards” so I could explain to them what I was about to do. They all looked at the two cards I was about to insert randomly in the deck. I asked them to count to 3 with me. To make them laugh, I counted in Swiss German. On the count of 3, with one rapid movement of my hand, I immediately extracted the two cards. Applause all around (which I didn’t even notice then).

It was pretty obvious to me that they wouldn’t have asked me for the card trick if the hearing hadn’t gone a little bit well. But that was a mere assumption on my side. Since this was all about magic, I offered to explain what I understood of the magic formula in Swiss politics. By then, they clearly had enough of me: they explained the next steps of the naturalisation process and thanked me, before kicking me out.

In recent years, 40,000 people obtained the Swiss citizenship each year. Unsurprisingly, Germans, Italians and Frenchmen hold the top 3 spots. However, when looking at the rate of naturalisations compared to the number of residents for each given citizenship, the Russians hold the top spot, by far. That was quite a surprise to me. But I don’t need another challenge such as learning Russia, I’d be pretty happy to get the Swiss citizenship. Time will tell!

Musicians playing a traditional Swiss instrument called the Alphorn in Brunnen, on the Swiss National Day (1st August) which celebrates the moment in the year 1291 when three cantons decided to form a confederation.

PS. For the record, here are some of the questions which I could remember:

  1. What are the names of 4 restaurants in the village? (I could only name 3)
  2. What are 3 things you can do in terms of activities in the village?
  3. What are the names of 3 shops in the village?
  4. Name 3 events that take place every year in the village.
  5. Explain the concept of federalism.
  6. What is the dual school system?
  7. What is the mandatory school duration in Switzerland? (Trick question, there’s no unified system in Switzerland, it’s all decided at the cantonal level, and therefore the duration varies, usually from 9 to 11 – ha, but I knew that and they didn’t fool me).
  8. What was the last canton to be created and when?
  9. When was modern Switzerland created?
  10. How many people sit on the town council?
  11. What are the names of the executive authorities at federal, cantonal and municipal levels?
  12. How many people sit on the cantonal government?
  13. How many members does the canton have at the National Parliament?
  14. Who elects the federal council?
  15. What are the 5 referendums next week?
  16. Name 3 cities in the canton which are beyond the hills? (I didn’t understand “beyond the hills” at first)
  17. What happened in the year 1315?
  18. What does the Swiss charter of (human and political) rights mean to you?
  19. What is the town assembly (“Gemeindeversammlung”)?
  20. Explain the militia system (“Milizsystem”).
  21. What is the name of the local electricity company?
  22. Give the name and describe a recent bank holiday in Zürich.
  23. Describe and explain the origin of the village's coat of arms.
  24. Who's eligible to vote at referendums?
  25. What kind of products does Switzerland export?
  26. How many inhabitants are there in the canton and in the village?
  27. Read the charter of rights and obligations that you signed 6 months ago: tell us what it means to you and if you agree with it.

Update the next day: after asking my key contact over email to thank once again the committee members of my hearing, she responded the next morning that it had gone very well, that I would officially hear from them very soon, and that she personally very much enjoyed my magic trick. Phew!