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Switzerland's obsession with time

Switzerland is famous for its watches and its trains that run on time. But, asks Imogen Foulkes, can punctuality become too much of a good thing?

Euro 2008 countdown clock in Bern
Euro 2008 fans will be able to depend on punctual transport

In the centre of Bern there is an electronic clock which is ticking off the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the start of Euro 2008 - a reminder that Europe's football championships begin on 7 June and Switzerland is the proud host.

Seeing the clock caused me to reflect on Switzerland and time.

My first job in this country was as a journalist for Swiss Broadcasting's international service. Not so different from the BBC World Service in fact, apart from one curious thing.

Every day at exactly nine, 12 and four, the offices were all empty, and the elevators up to the staff restaurant were all full.

Why? Morning coffee, lunch and afternoon coffee it turned out. Always at the same time.

Not because the company ordered it but because the Swiss do it that way.

Electronic timekeepers

One of my first assignments was at the city hospital, but I made the mistake of arranging an interview for 9am.

I wandered through empty corridors, passing wards where patients lay quietly, not a doctor or nurse in sight.

I finally found my neurologist in, of course, the canteen, coffee at his elbow.

Swiss alps
There are new daily timesheets, in which all work activity must be recorded at 15 minute intervals
"But what if you don't want coffee at nine?" I finally asked a colleague. "What if you fancy a cup at 10? Or what if you're hungry at two?"

I was greeted with a puzzled frown. "Well," came the reply, "I'd be on my own, because everyone goes at nine. I'd have no-one to talk to."

But despite the national enthusiasm for punctuality, Swiss companies are now trying to formalise the timekeeping of their employees and there is currently a boom in time management software.

Bureaucratic insanity

I know a woman who works as a translator. It is a quiet office, everyone works individually and phone calls are rare.

This woman likes to swim for an hour at lunchtime and because - yes, you have guessed it - everyone takes lunch at the same time, her local pool is full at midday.

So she took the revolutionary step of going for lunch at 1330.

The school timetables are not just strict, they are Byzantine in their complexity

The pool was almost empty, it was bliss - until she got back to work and found an email from her boss saying that under the new system, lunch after two o'clock was not possible.

I have another friend who works part-time, in theory every morning from eight until noon. But sometimes it gets very busy and he works on until two.

Or he did until the newly-installed electronic timekeeper began deducting an hour's wage as soon as it got to one, because of course he could not possibly be at his desk, he had to be at lunch.

The most bizarre system of all is about to be imposed on my former colleagues at Swiss Broadcasting: a new daily timesheet, in which all work activity must be recorded at 15-minute intervals.

Imagine, if you will, racing to get a television report edited in time for the evening news and having to stop every quarter of an hour to explain what you are doing.

Management claim it will allow them to compare the cost effectiveness of programmes. Journalists say it is a bureaucratic insanity.

School timetables

And then there are the schools. Punctuality is prized in the classroom too. Children who are late can expect punishment.

But the school timetables are not just strict, they are Byzantine in their complexity. A regular nine-to-four day is unheard of. Instead children come and go throughout the day.

Letzigrund Stadium in Zurich, Euro 2008 venue
It will be interesting to see how the Swiss adapt to the different habits of all these visitors
Here, for example, is a snapshot of my two sons' timetable.

On Monday, one starts school at 0730, the other at 0820.

One comes home at 11, the other at 12, one goes back at two, the other is home for the afternoon.

It goes on like that all week but not in the same way, of course. Each day is cleverly different.

The only thing that is sacrosanct is the two-hour lunch break. Forget about school dinners. Switzerland still operates on the principle that Mum is at home, so children are always home for lunch.

I have a friend with three children who tried for years to get a job but never succeeded because - and she worked it out precisely - given the school timetable, she could never be out of the house for more than an hour and 43 minutes.

Transport system

But there is one glorious, positive side to this obsession with timekeeping: the trains. They really do run - nearly always - on time.

So the hundreds of thousands of football fans who are about to descend on Switzerland for Euro 2008 need not worry about missing the kick-off.

An intricate and integrated transport system is already in place, with extra trams and trains laid on in all the host cities.

What will be interesting, though, is to see how the Swiss adapt to the different habits of all these visitors.

The Italians are going to Zurich and may well want their cappuccino at 11, not nine.

The French are coming to Bern. What if they want a five-course lunch at two?

Perhaps it is just as well for punctilious Swiss restaurant managers that the Spanish team is playing in neighbouring Austria, since their fans tend to enjoy dinner at 10.

Still, I am sure it will all go smoothly, as long as there is no extra time.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 24 May, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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