|Switzerland has 4 official languages:|
Switzerland is about 41,000 KM², or about twice the size of New Jersey. Lakes make up 20% of the country, while a third is in the Alps.
French is spoken primarily in the South West of the country, Italian in the South and the rest speaks German. The language distribution pretty much follows the geographical and political map around Switzerland. It is situated in the heart of Europe (though not an official member of the European Community), and is circled by the following countries: France (West), Germany (North), Liechtenstein (East), Austria (East) and Italy (South). Switzerland fought for and won its independence in 1291. It fought the Habsburg family which owned most of what is now Austria and Germany. It then fought the French and Italians successfully to stay independent until now. The country's main strength back then (before banking, watches and chocolate!) was (and still is) its location in the heart of Europe. Anyone wanting to go from the North (Germany) to the South (Italy/France) had to go through the Alps and therefore Switzerland, unless they wanted to go around them...
Switzerland's climate is very temperate, but can be different whether you live in the Alps, North of it or South of it. Nevertheless, summers are warm (but dry) during the day (in the low 80's) and pleasant at night. Winters are cold, but more humid than in the USA. North of the Alps, fog can be a persistent problem from October through March. The South is where the climate is the warmest, where palm trees are found in some cities. The Alps region is where the climate is more pronounced. Lots of sun in Summer, and lots of snow in winter (though almost no fog). My hometown is in the Alps, so I was fortunate!
Switzerland is very clean. Tourists are often amazed at how clean streets and cities are. It is one of the richest countries in the world, with the highest per capita income in the world. Poverty is scarce, and unemployment is also very low (below 5%) and very stable, which is uncommon in Europe, which makes this country very attractive to immigrants. Immigrants make up almost 20% of the population, which is one of the highest ratios in Western countries. This number is high in part because of the restrictive nature of the Swiss citizenship: being born in Switzerland does not grant automatic citizenship. Only if one parent (at least) is Swiss is the child automatically Swiss. In addition, immigrants in Switzerland face a tough and long process if they want to apply for citizenship...
Swiss are overwhelmingly Christians: mostly Catholics in the Alps, and mostly Protestants in the urban areas. Schools are very good and have a great reputation. There are very few high schools or even universities because of the public system's quality. In school, Swiss students study their native language, and then another official language (for me it was German in 4th grade). Most of them also study English starting in 7th grade.
Every man has to serve in the Swiss army. The military service duties start when someone turns 20, and it lasts 4 months. After that initial "camp", the soldier has the possibility of serving more time if he wants to become an officer. If not, he will stay a soldier for the rest of his military life. After that initial 4 month period, he has 10 more 2-week duties (3 weeks for officers) that occur every couple of years. These are designed to keep everyone in shape and abreast of the latest developments. If a soldier will not serve during a particular calendar year, he must still shoot his weapon in designated shooting areas to maintain his skills. Since all men over 20 keep all their military equipment at home (weapon, helmet, gas mask and other goodies), these training sessions are easily performed. Personally, I went through the first 4 months of training (in the artillery), but then came here to the US without serving another day (several postponements due to college). Once out of the country, I had to return my equipment, and my duties are postponed/cancelled...
I was born in Monthey, which is in the "Valais" Canton (a canton is equal to a state in the US). The town has about 12,000 (French-speaking) inhabitants, which qualifies as a medium-size town in Switzerland. The canton is bi-lingual, French being spoken in the West and German in the East (minority). The canton lies in the Alps, with its name meaning "Valley", because it is just that: a long valley with dozens of mountains on each side of it. It is located in the South West of Switzerland, and borders both France and Italy. Inhabitants of Valais (Valaisans) are very proud of their towns/villages and their canton, and seldom relocate even to a different town. People even know which town/village you are from by your accent within the canton! It is weird to think that the building I work in contains half of the population of Monthey!
By car, my hometown is about 80 miles East of Geneva, 10 miles from the French border and about 20 from the Italian one. We often would go shopping for food in France, or clothes in Italy because it was cheaper. French and Italians would in turn come here for cigarettes or gas. The canton's westernmost point is the Geneva Lake (or more precisely the Léman Lake as it is really called). The Valais includes some of the most prestigious ski resorts in Europe: Zermatt, Crans-Montana, Saas-Fee, Verbier and Champéry are very well known and very popular. I myself used to ski in the "Portes du Soleil", which is Europe's biggest ski domain, with more than a dozen resorts linked by hundreds of trails and ski lifts over an area extending into France and Switzerland.