The Price of Perfection

I recently returned from a journey to Zurich and Lausanne where I worked with seventy-five women scientists during three days of workshops.  People usually return from Switzerland raving about the landscapes, the languages, and, of course, the delicious chocolate, but these aren’t what stood out for me.

The Swiss manage the logistics of daily life with ease and energy savings.  Take public transit, for example.  Trams, buses, funicular rails, and trains traverse Zurich.  There is a station every few blocks, so you never have to walk far to catch some mode of transport.  All the trams run punctually, and every station has an electronic sign with the number and arrival time of the various lines, never more than two or three or three minutes apart.

In order to ride local transit, you purchase a ticket, which you then time stamp at a machine, available at every stop.  The ticket is then good for twenty-four hours on any line within the specified zone.  There are no turnstiles, no ticket takers, no guards or gates.  You simply get on and ride.  Everyone seems to adhere to this honor system. The cost savings in personnel and infrastructure must be enormous.

Once your tram arrives, you push a green button on the door you wish to enter.  Only that door opens, and a step lowers for you to get on.  Again, a savings in energy.  An overhead screen shows the next several stops as well as the expected travel time between each stop and total travel time to the end of the line.  Other than a perfectly articulated recorded female voice telling you when you are nearing each stop, the ride is smooth and quiet.  When you disembark, you again push the green button and only your door opens.

One of my hosts told me the philosophy behind this efficiency. It is a priority because losing time waiting for a train isn’t only a frustration, it’s an actual cost to the economy.  “It costs less,” she said, “to fix a train, than it would if all the passengers were late to work.”  I couldn’t help think of time I have wasted on the Red Lines in Boston and Washington, D.C..

Everything was clean.  The trains were clean.  The city streets spotless.  Public parks immaculate.  Even public restrooms sparkled.  The flushing mechanism on the toilets themselves were water efficient with two kinds of flush choices.  (Oregon has instituted this in the Portland airport.) Most had a toilet brush next to the bowl, and antiseptic wipes for the seat.  Just as personal responsibility was in force on the trams, so was it also in the toilets.  Imagine the difference when we traveled through Penn Station in New York.

Energy efficient architecture was the norm.  In the university buildings where my workshops were held, the lights were all motion activated.  Room lights, hall lights, and bathroom lights stayed off until someone entered. In our hotel in Lausanne, the hallways were dark until you walked into them. In order to activate the lights in your room, you put your key into a pad at the doorway. When you left the room, you removed your key and all the lights went off, a system I’ve only encountered in one U.S. hotel. What a difference between this and the profligate energy expense of Times Square twenty four hours a day.

The Lausanne hotel had another green feature.  As morning sunlight streamed in from the east, the shades automatically lowered.   It was possible to override this feature to still see the view, but think of the energy savings of all the rooms where no one was there.

The Swiss approach to college education is efficient as well.  Anyone can go to any Swiss university they choose — for free. There are no admission limitations or tuition payments.  I asked my host where students choose to attend. Her response was very practical: the university closest to home.  Because of the high cost of living in Switzerland, most students live with their parents while they are in school.

The catch is this.  At the end of the first year of university classes, every student takes a series of comprehensive exams.  If you pass, you continue at the university.  If you don’t, you switch to a vocational school.

The Swiss sense of shared civic responsibility, not only in the basic honesty of transit and toilets, continues in military service.  Every young man must perform two years of military duty.  (It would be even more advanced if women were included in this requirement.) In one of my many conversations about Swiss culture, a host told me that every Swiss family has a gun.  Hunting is a common pastime. Yet, there are no mass shootings like the current epidemic in the U.S.  “Why?” I asked. “Because every man has had training with weapons,” she said. “They understand the consequences.”

Addiction is viewed as an illness.  Clean needles are sold in vending machines.  I saw no homeless people sleeping or begging on the streets.  Voices are quiet.  People say hello and ask you how you are.  Traffic stops when you enter a cross walk.  The population is well dressed.  No one seems overweight.

What is the price of this perfection?

I began to understand during my workshops.  How many times did I hear the words, “I could never say that.” I had to convince the women I worked with that having a point of view, or expressing a disagreement, or asking for what you need, is not only acceptable, but necessary.  The status quo of the male hierarchy seemed more important than the ability to successfully negotiate advancement.

I heard that the newly empowered political movement in Switzerland is against spending public money on day care.  The rationale is this: taking care of children is the role of women in the family, so why should the government pay for it?  Although the universities currently do provide day care for their employees, there is fear that it will be suspended.

The women I worked with also typically had very quiet voices.  It’s true that the Swiss in general speak more quietly than Americans.  It was difficult, though, to bring out a confident present voice in many of the participants.  I had to encourage them over and over to bring their voices forward and clearly land their points.

This vocal diminishing went hand in hand with a tendency to take up less space.  To many, it seemed unnatural to claim the area around themselves.  Although they acknowledged that men in their science teams felt much more comfortable doing this, the actual physical experience of expanding spacial ownership was challenging.

I hope that I return to Switzerland soon.  I hope that I can work with more women there.  It’s a culture that thrives on obedience and maintaining the norms.  The best parts of this make life run smoothly, easily and efficiently.  The price, though, is a deference to the old rules.  It’s time for all of us to change them, one small step at a time, without losing the best of the past.