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!

About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.


16 Responses to Überpünktlich

  1. Fred Anderson March 13, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    have you read “Ticking Along in Switzerland?”


    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:24 am #

      No, but now I will have to. Thanks for the recommendation, Fred.

  2. Dee Harris March 13, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    I’m so Swiss. In my book, if you are on time you are late. I leave
    15 minutes early to be 15 minutes early!

    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #


  3. Kathy Smith March 13, 2014 at 12:23 pm #

    My uberpunktlich husband absolutely loved our stay in Switzerland last May. His favorite activity was watching the clocks in the trains and trains stations and noting their synchronization and the prompt arrivals and departures. We had to remind him to also look at the beautiful mountains! 🙂

    (ps. my keyboard doesn’t do umlauts…which is too bad)

    • Noel Weaverf March 13, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

      Hello Doug.
      G;ad tp see uo are using trains, I thought you would. If you want a really neat trip out of Zurich, i suggest a day trip to Appenzell. It is a neat small town to the east. You take Swiss Rail to St. Gallen and change to a meter gauge line in to the mountains. Lots of scenery and nice folks as well. Oh yes, I think you will find the trains on time to the minute. I did that trip way back in 1970 as well as a lot more train riding in Switzerland on a Railroad Tour that year in the fall. I could not believe what I was seeing.
      Noel Weaver

      • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:20 am #

        Eventually we hope to get to all of the surrounding towns and villages, Noel. But thanks for the recommendation! A couple of Saturdays ago, Susan and I went to Lucerne and just happened to arrive for their Fastnacht celebrations, which somehow seemed more fun in a medieval city. Good to hear from you!

    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:23 am #

      My keyboard at home doesn’t have umlauts either, so that post had to be written at church. What makes the keyboard at church so maddening (for now) is that the z and y are switched, because (I assume) Germans speakers (and typers) use z much more than y. There’s an adventure every minute.

  4. Markus Bruetsch March 13, 2014 at 4:47 pm #

    Its good to see that observations I made about my fellow Swiss are confirmed by a Newcomer.. I like your musings, refeshing.
    Tschüss has an “s” after the “t”.. Its one syllable. 🙂 I should know.

    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:18 am #

      Thanks for the proofreading, Markus. And here I was so full of pride over my use of German, umlauts, etc. Maybe I should stay with “Ciao!”

    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 8:53 am #

      Correction made!

  5. Carel Steensma March 13, 2014 at 8:41 pm #

    First 10 years here we lived next to a church… 7.00 am the bells go for a full 5 minutes! Except on Saturday and Sunday, then you get to sleep until 9.00 am. Saturday evening 6.45 (18.45) they sound all the bells for 15 minutes! We’ve often made the mistake of sitting down for dinner in the garden at 6.44… There is not a lot of conversation at those dinners… But I have to say that I’ve grown to like it.

    • Doug March 14, 2014 at 2:17 am #

      I was going to write “that’s one way to get teenagers out of bed,” but then I remembered that they can sleep through anything, including church bells. I like the church bells too, Carel.

  6. Doug April 23, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    Halley, thanks for the comment. I wish you well with your blog.

  7. Halley April 23, 2014 at 3:41 pm #

    Thanks! I appreciate your explanation a lot!


  1. Timely Trains | halley gentil - April 23, 2014

    […] a good reason the Swiss are known for watch-making. They are überpünktlich. Over punctual. The Swiss French a tad less, but since the majority of the country is Swiss German, […]

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