Honking in Switzerland; It's In a Class of Its Own

wARnInG** tHiS BloG contains AuSTraLian coNTeNt***@@##!!%7*

Tony Abbott (Australian Liberal Party leader) avec 'budgie smugglers' , on the election trail

When I first began my ‘Rob in lausanne’ blog back in July 2010 I wasn’t even sure what the content would be, or whether it would be fact or fiction based. So to put print on a page and get my site out there, I invented a story about an odd email that I had received from a character who signed off as ‘AA’, in some vain attempt to give himself similar anonymity to members of Alcoholics Anonymous. In exchange for information I was to provide for this ‘AA’ person from my research into Swiss culture and politics, he would send a tax free monthly payment to my Swiss bank account.
Well speaking from a point of poetic license, I have kept my end of the bargain and no monies have been forthcoming since I received that email (and that’s because I didn’t really receive the email anyway). So the time has come to let the cat out of the bag, or in this particular case the budgie. From an undisclosed source in Canberra (think ASIO)I have found out that this ‘AA’ is no other than Anthony Abbott, the ambitious leader of the opposition party of the Australian Federal Government. My source, who tells me that their are more leaks in the Australian parliament  than the Canberra Raiders left side defence, said that when Abbott found out that I was going to live in Switzerland for two years he thought I would be the perfect research assistant for his up and coming biography (that he is apparently going to release when??? he becomes Prime Minister of Australia). The title of the book is rumoured to be, ‘A Portrait Of A Budgie Smuggler; Or How To Make The Perfect Raclette’, hence the Swiss connection.
Gruyere cheese raclette, ready to savour

All I can say is that I didn’t flinch in doing the hard yards and Big Tony, as he is known on the Northern Sydney Beaches, did not reciprocate. I endured the embarrassment of trying to poach raclette recipes from master raclette chefs all around Canton Vaud and also in Valais, without success. The only outcome from this persistent effort on my behalf was a muffin top that ruined my reasonable for age, budgie smuggler profile and a contempt for the sight, sound or smell of a raclette burner.
The only thing that Tony ever did get around to sending me was a bumper sticker that was a part of his unsuccessful 2010 Prime Ministerial campaign. It carried a photo of the Australian flag and a budgerigar with the words ‘Honk if your horny or send a text to Warney’. I thought the Australian flag looked pretty impressive so I put it straight on to the you beaut, red Alfa Romeo Jo and I had purchased the day the sticker arrived. Funnily enough the honking started almost immediately after. Almost every time I was waiting at a traffic light anywhere around Switzerland, the amber light would come on and the locals would start honking me. Not being a qualified social analyst and reasonably innocent about Swiss honking protocol, I wasn’t sure if they were honking as a response to the slogan on the sticker or that they recognised the good old Aussie flag and honked to say hello. 
Bumper sticker for horn challenged vehicles

But after a couple of months I tired of the constant honking and took the sticker off. I must admit this did cut back the number of honks I would get in any given day. It was also around this time that I also noticed that the Swiss as a culture were not big on bumper stickers. The only two stickers of any interest that I had ever noticed was one on a red Ferrari that said ‘My Other Car is  a Ferrari Too!!’, and on the rear end of an un-named ‘Swiss Eco Bank’ company car were the immortal words, ‘If We Ever Run Out Of Cheese We Can Always Eat Our Money’.
What had started out as a joke by putting Tony’s honking sticker on my car’s bumper had now become quite complex and almost as difficult for me to understand as the French language. I began to reason that honking may in fact have been the fourth national language of Switzerland. It appeared to my logic that it was the most common means of communications between Swiss nationals and foreigners such as I, and indeed a language that easily swept across cantonal borders without major conflict.

Map of Swiss cantons. Hard to believe that a country half the size of Tasmania needs  26 states.
But I didn’t take my observations or rationalisations on the subject any further until a few weeks ago when Jo and I were gifted some tickets to go see a Bobby McFerrin concert at the Cully Jazz Festival. Now McFerrin is one amazing character. A virtual beat box on legs, who is probably best know for his catchy ditty ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’. I know what you are all thinking. But I can assure you that McFerrin did not write this song for the bevy of Swiss millionaires that grace the free local newspapers with downturned mouths every time someone mentions releasing a book about Switzerland’s role in World War 2. He actually got the song title from the billboard byline of a New York mayoral campaign hopeful, made a fortune out of it and now refuses to sing it at any of his live shows.

But when McFerrin did a live version of his other big hit record, ‘Drive’, It got me to thinking about the honking phenonema all over again. I’d had another one of those fairly honking weeks. Admittedly I had been in the Alfa a lot that week running around after one thing or another and some of it in unfamiliar territory. So a bit of hesitation here, a honk there and it was starting to grate on me all over again. Turning up Springsteen’s ‘Wrecking Ball’ album didn’t seem to improve anything and honking back just turned each such event into a free for all honk fest.
So I figured it was time for some serious research. I flicked my MacBook into overdrive and typed ‘Swiss Honking Habits’ into my personalised iGoogle search engine. The first article I opened was from Swissinfo.ch. It told the story of a woman who was jailed for horn honking having her conviction overturned. Apparently the lady had some chickens in her back yard which was against the law in her canton. The police were alerted by a neighbour, did a house call and arrested the said illegal omelette makers. The woman kept her ear to the ground and quickly found who and where the offending big mouth snitch was and did an early morning drive by his house. At six am she parked her car on the front lawn of the said snitch’s residence and held the horn down for fifteen minutes. The police were called and she was charged with illegal use of a car horn and jailed for one day.
Another reference was about an obscure Swiss law that states it is illegal to use the car horn of a car where you are not the registered owner. In other words you cannot randomly reach your hand through the open window of an automobile and honk for the heck of it. I don’t think this would be a jailing offence but the severity of this crime would definitely draw a hefty fine in these parts.
But the title that really grabbed my attention was this one.
‘Driver Aggression as a Function of Status Concurrence: An Analysis of Horn-Honking Responses’ 
Now it seems that the Institute of Sociology at the University of Bern has recently completed and published a comprehensive study of the horn honking behaviours of the average well adjusted Swiss citizen. With simulated practices at at a variety of traffic lights around the country, they placed people (known as frustrators) in a variety of motor vehicles (indicating status) and observed and recorded the actions of the horn blowers (the aggressors). The major finding of the study was that the largest percentile of horn blowing indicates that it ‘status aggression’ related
Our (working class) Alfa 147 
To put that simply, before I read this report I thought that maybe the person behind me in a BMW or Audi who was honking in my general direction at the stop lights where I was ready to move in my 2004 red Alfa Romeo 147 was envious of my car. I was completely wrong. The said honker was attempting  to stamp his class authority over me because he/she had made a judgement call that anyone driving a used red Alfa had to be of a lower standing in the status stakes then they were and that he had the right to aggressively honk me. And according to this report it was more likely to be men (and older men at that) than women who acted in this way. Apparently if I drove a car that they considered to be equal to their car status there was less likely hood of them honking me.
A typical Swiss BMW
Now how weird is that? The report indicates that many Swiss nationals actually think that bits of steel, rubber and glass all bolted together with a particular brand name on it makes you of a higher status (worth; value to the community, planet) in the human stakes. I don’t get it but at least it explains the horn honking part of life here. In Australia people would just think that men with aggressive, horn honking, big cars have little budgies. It’s a much simpler theory.
What the Swiss used to blow at each other before they had cars - Impressive!!
So... now that I’ve finally resolved another interesting aspect of the culture that has allowed me to observe it with my tongue planted firmly in its cheek for the last two years, my Tony Abbott connection can be put back where it started from. Nowhere. Although, I did read somewhere recently that Tony has designed a new bumper sticker to roll Julia Gillard with at the next federal elections. Apparently he’s kept the flag and replaced the budgie with a King Parrot. The new byline reads:
‘If you want to give Julia the flicker...twitter Peter Slipper’

See ya round %)


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