Clare O’Dea Talks About Her Book
The Naked Swiss
Jennifer Lisle spoke to Clare O’Dea author of the book “The Naked Swiss” and this is what she found out about this intriguing book:
JL: You do a great job of describing the complexities of the Swiss culture and people in the book. Why do you think that, more than other cultures, the Swiss (not in a negative way) need to be explained? Unlike the French or the Italians, for example, whom people seem to be able to accept more at face value.
CO’D: Funnily enough the Swiss brand is one of the world’s strongest, so there is high recognition of what Switzerland stands for (reliability, quality etc.) business wise, but much less awareness of who the Swiss are. Language plays a big part in identifying a country and Switzerland’s main languages are already ‘taken’ by other much larger and more dominant cultures. So it’s something to do with being overshadowed by powerful neighbours. I guess people are more prepared for the differences when they move to France, Italy or Germany because they’ve heard about them for years. When they come to Switzerland, they don’t know what to expect from the Swiss. The federal system also plays a role in fragmenting Swiss identity and encouraging regional differences so it takes longer for outsiders to get the lie of the land and its people.
JL: How would you characterize your own ex-pat experience?
CO’D: I associate the word expat with people who are moved to far-flung destinations by their employers to stay for a few years. That doesn’t really apply to me because I came to Switzerland independently 13 years ago and stayed. Fribourg, where I live, is a small town which does not have a big English-speaking community. Because my husband is Swiss and I worked with Swiss people at first, I had more of a fast-track into Swiss life. But I still felt often the weariness of being a foreigner. Joining swissinfo was great because I found a strong community of like-minded people, even though we were from all over the world. That’s something all immigrants have in common, the need to belong to a community again.
JL: What has been the reaction from the ex-pat community in Switzerland? From the Swiss community?
CO’D: It’s still early days since the launch of the book, but the feedback so far from the ex-pat community has been enthusiastic. People say they find the book entertaining and eye-opening. I think there is a need for this kind of book to help people make sense of the challenges of living here, and to understand the background to what’s going on with the Swiss. There’s nothing worse than feeling out of the loop. What surprises me is that the book is being read not only by English speakers but by people from many different cultures who live here, and share the same need of wanting to know the big picture.
JL: It seems like you met a lot of interesting people while you worked for SwissInfo. To what extent did your work as a journalist inspire this project?
CO’D: My years at swissinfo.ch definitely inspired this book because, apart from covering daily news, I also had to look for the stories behind the headlines, or introduce topics that were off the beaten track. That meant discovering the human side of the big issues, as well as obscure topics. I also got lots of practice in finding and verifying information in a wide range of areas.
It was only when I left the job in 2015 that I realised I had this great store of characters and information to draw on. But it wasn’t enough just to have lots to tell, I also had to have something to say.
JL: If you were to write a follow-up book, are there any myths still left to write about?
CO’D: I’d love to tackle the myth that Switzerland has not produced any great art. There have always been ground-breaking Swiss artists, from Le Corbusier to Giacometti. The cultural achievements of the Swiss are significant, and I’m discovering new names all the time, such as Méret Oppenheim, one of the few women who found success in the Surrealist movement.
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Article written by Jennifer Lisle. Jennifer is a Zurich-based freelance journalist who has written for The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and Elle, among many others.