Punctuality is of the utmost importance in Switzerland – even for children!
My first punctuality faux-pas occurred when my Swiss neighbour, Celine, invited us to a fancy dress party for her daughter’s birthday. The party began at two in the afternoon and as Alice was still sleeping I didn’t want to wake her.
I should point out that at this stage my children didn’t have many friends yet and the event was a chance to remedy this. They were happy and excited at the prospect of going to a party.
Swiss parties: start and finish times
However, convinced that the celebrations would go on till about seven and that we had plenty of time to get there, I let Alice sleep on, and it was 4 p.m. when we eventually knocked at the door. Celine opened up, astonished to see us. Alice was dressed as a princess and Dante was a pirate clutching a present.
‘Why so late?’ she asked me. ‘The party is over and all the other children have gone home. Didn’t you read the invitation? It was written on it: two till three thirty.’
I must have had one of my typical gormless looks on my face at this point.
Somehow I managed to blurt out: ‘I’m sorry. It’s just that Alice was sleeping and I hadn’t read the hours on the invitation properly. We’re really sorry. At least let us give you Caroline’s present.’
Party invites: the difference between northern and southern Europe
It was extremely embarrassing and five minutes later we left. Alice and Dante were crying and inconsolably sad, and as we headed home I felt depressed and disillusioned. I also felt guilty, and this wasn’t helped when we got home by my husband scolding:
‘You’re not in Bari now, you know. You have to respect the times people tell you. Look, it clearly says on the invitation that the party was due to finish at half past three. It’s the same in Holland. People write the start and the end time for a party. If you want to live in northern Europe, you have to take that on board!
‘And of course the kids are going to cry if you mess up and they miss the fancy dress party they’ve been looking forward to. As usual, it’s down to your chronic lateness.’
‘It seems ridiculous to me to organise a party for just an hour and a half, and I’m sorry but it doesn’t seem like very good manners to put in writing what time people should leave your house. It’s like you want to kick them out. It’s downright rude. When we organise parties we would never dream of doing such a thing.
‘WE… WE… WE… Nonsense! If you don’t accept that this is the way things are here, you’re always going to have problems. Try and get it into your head. Brussels was different, I know, but we’re living in Geneva now and you have to adapt.’
The punctuality of Swiss guests, both arriving and leaving
Unfortunately, he was right. For our wedding we had organised a big party in Holland at Harold’s parents’ place. Thinking back, I remembered now that the invitation said the party would start at three and finish at six. At 3 p.m. people were queuing at the door to get in, and by six they had all left.
For Harold, Geneva was less of a culture shock than it was for me. For a Southern Italian it would be inconceivable to put a leaving time on an invitation; people would think you were joking.