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Last Updated: Saturday, 5 March, 2005, 13:25 GMT
A Swiss hygiene inspector calls

By Imogen Foulkes
BBC Geneva correspondent

Moving house is said to be one of life's most stressful experiences but, in Switzerland, it is made even more stressful by strict requirements on how you leave your old home. Imogen Foulkes moved house recently and describes the day the hygiene inspector came to call.

I have to confess, I have always been a bit intimidated by the Swiss devotion to cleanliness.

Row of houses in Switzerland
Women in Switzerland spend a couple of hours a day cleaning the house
It all began not long after I arrived in Switzerland when, as a new mother, I was invited for coffee by a woman who had had her baby in the same hospital as me.

I found myself sitting in a kitchen which seemed more suited to open heart surgery than a cosy chat about feeding routines and nappy rash.

The surfaces gleamed, the floor was spotless, even the babies were squeaky clean - apart from mine, who was only squeaky.


But, a few years on, I have become more used to Swiss hygiene standards so, when it came to moving house, I knew I was expected to leave my old home immaculate.

Sure enough, I got a letter saying the hygiene inspector would be there at 10 o'clock on a Monday morning.

Too late, I realised I could not actually remember having cleaned that drawer
He arrived, punctual to the nanosecond - a dapper little man in a maroon jacket and beautifully pressed trousers.

His name was Herr Schweizer - or Mr Swiss in English - and he had even brought a spare pair of shoes to wear inside the house.

I should have recognised the warning signs when I noticed that Herr Schweizer, who was no taller than me, somehow managed to look down at me over the top of his glasses.


But I had spent the best part of three days cleaning and I was confident I would pass the inspection with flying colours.

Geneva city
The streets of Geneva are spotless
'Let's start in the kitchen,' said Mr Swiss and I trotted eagerly after him. I was particularly proud of the kitchen - old postcards and invitations were gone from the walls, so too was the odd blob of spaghetti sauce, vintage 2002.

The oven shone, the cupboards were bare.

But Herr Schweizer was not impressed. He was too busy unscrewing my taps.

"Look", he said pointing to the inside of a pipe I'd scarcely known existed. "All these calcium deposits, you'll have to get rid of them."

We moved on to the ceramic hob. Mr Swiss bent over it. I could see his reflection in its pristine surface - he could see something else.

Black speck

He produced a razor blade from his pocket and scraped gently - a tiny black speck floated upwards.

"Still dirty", he said.

The list grew ever longer and I realised I had at least another day's cleaning ahead of me
An hour-and-a-half later we were still in the kitchen, but mercifully almost finished, just one drawer to go.

Too late, I realised I could not actually remember having cleaned that one.

Herr Schweizer pulled it open to reveal three old fish knives, a cork, two bottle openers and what looked suspiciously like a lock of child's hair.

This time he said nothing. He just sighed and added the drawer to his list.

On it went. Behind a radiator he discovered half a spider's web. In the bathroom, dismantling the toilet cistern revealed yet more calcium deposits. Downstairs in the cellar, the ventilation shaft was smudged.

Scrubbing and polishing

The list grew ever longer and I realised I had at least another day's cleaning ahead of me.

It gave me a chance, during the scrubbing and polishing, to reflect on why it is the Swiss attach so much importance to cleanliness.

Passing the fuse box, he pulled it open. "Look", he said triumphantly. "Dust!"
A friend of mine says it is the crowded nature of this country. Switzerland is small and mainly mountainous; space is limited; most of the seven million inhabitants live in apartments so keeping things clean and tidy is necessary just to live comfortably.

Another friend, more unkindly, suggests that the Swiss are not exactly noted for their achievements in art and literature - perhaps, he says, because they pour their creative energy into cleaning.

My own interpretation has to do with the role of women in Swiss society - those with children often do not work.

That means hundreds of thousands of women in small apartments, with no gardens and time on their hands.

A recent survey revealed that the average Swiss woman can spend at least two hours - every day - on housework.


The very idea exhausts me, but it probably saves them the ordeal I went through at Mr Schweizer's hands.

When the inspection ended, I was given a six-page list of improvements I needed to make and, as I ushered him towards the door, he had one last instruction.

Passing the fuse box, he pulled it open.

"Look", he said triumphantly. "Dust!"

A week later, the house is clean, my muscles ache and my hands are sore from cleaning fluids.

But I'm happy, because I know that should a pair of heart surgeons move into my old house, they need never go to the hospital - they can perform operations in my kitchen, and store their instruments in my fuse box.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 5 March, 2005, at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Switzerland
02 Mar 05 |  Country profiles
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10 Aug 03 |  From Our Own Correspondent


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