People have been asking me for more blog posts about life in Switzerland.
Well, actually one person said recently, ‘How is it going?’ And with that kind of clamoring for information about my Swiss adventure, I decided to write about a uniquely Swiss concept for which the people here have their very own word – überpünktlich.
Don’t worry about the pronunciation. As with most Swiss German words, I’ve discovered, there is no accepted pronunciation. Every canton – and probably every village within the canton – will have its own distinct pronunciation of the word. (And all of the many variations will sound exactly the same to the untrained ear, by which I mean my own untrained ear.)
But back to überpünktlich.
Literally, the word means ‘over punctual,’ as you might have guessed, but strangely this is not an insult to most Swiss Germans. The word might even be a compliment, except that most Swiss can’t conceive of another way of living their lives. How can you compliment someone for something that is so deeply ingrained that they no longer notice it?
I now live among a people who have an obsession with time, though to mention this to someone here would be like saying to a fish, ‘You have an obsession with water.’
I think it’s telling that the Swiss do not ask, ‘What time is it?’ Instead, they ask, ‘How late is it?’ And with that question, you can begin to understand a little of my new life.
Most days I take the 5:15 train from the Zürich train station to the village where I now live (except that we like to think of it as the 17:15 train here). Most days that train arrives precisely at 5:15. If, as happened earlier in the week, the train has not appeared by 5:16, the people around me begin to look at their watches and exchange worried looks. Life as we know it seems to be teetering on the brink of chaos, until the 5:15 train arrives seconds later, and life can once again proceed.
Swiss church steeples typically have giant clocks on them, and the churches toll their bells at 15-minute intervals – day and night. It’s hard to conceive of this happening anywhere in the U.S., even in the most religous parts of the country, and that’s because the ringing bells, I believe, have less to do with religion than they do with life itself.
‘Time is everything’ was once the advertising slogan for the national airline, Swissair (which exists today with a new name and different ownership), but the slogan is really the description for an entire culture, an entire way of life.
Excuse me, I have a train to catch. And I’m reasonably certain that it won’t be late. Tschüss!