Three minutes between trains? 'It will be tight but you will have time'

"Your train will get to Rorschach at 8:20. There you will change for the connection to Kloten-Zurich Airport, leaving at 8:23." The helpful young Swiss, searching through the timetable, says all this casually enough. I am incredulous, but he seems not to notice. "It will be tight, but you will have time."

Even for someone as impressed as I with Swiss efficiency, that is cutting things too fine. so I opt for the earlier train and wait 35 minutes at the Rorschach station. That gives me time for a sausage breakfast washed down on this occasion with a typical Swiss beverage -- hot Ovomaltine. As station breakfasts go it is decidely tasty and it provides an opportunity to take in the morning commuter scene in this Lake of Constance community.

Sure enough the later train that I might have caught arrives on time and, yes , I would have made the connection with about a minute to spare. I shall still catch the earlier train next time, both for the breakfast opportunity it provides and my own peace of mind. Even in Switzerland, three minutes is too close for comfort in my opinion.

I first learned of Swiss punctuality from a British executive with a Canadian aluminum company. During an assignment in Switzerland in the late 1950s he had a suit made. After his final fitting the tailor told him it would be ready "at midday on Thursday." "I arrived a few minutes early," the executive recalled, "and had to wait.At precisely 12 o'clock the tailor came through from the back with the completed suit. I should have been filled with admiration. Instead I left irritated. Such efficiency didn't seem human."

Human or not, the Swiss are efficient, even if, according to some of the older generation, standards have fallen a little in recent years. During two days of cycling through this green and tidy land; through nearly a dozen towns and one moderate city, St. Gallen, I saw not a single piece of shattered glass in the roadway. As a Boston-trained cyclist, this was little short of awesome to me.

The bike I hired at the Alstatten station was equipped with tools and a hand pump but no lock and chain. It soon became obvious that no one locks his bike in Switzerland. I left mine parked unattended alongside similarly unlocked bikes outside cafes, shops, and other places of interest. The initial apprehension gradually disappeared as the security that is Switzerland sank in. In an attempt to test Swiss honesty, a visitor once left a bicycle unattended outside his rooming house for several months on end. "What happened?" a friend asked. "It got rusty." came the reply.

While there is nothing exceptional about the courtesy of Swiss motorists, they are aware of the cyclist on the road and do not begrudge him the right to be there. The Swiss are not as wedded to the cycle as the Dutch, but cyclists of all ages are fairly commonplace on the roads.

Some country club golf courses in other countries appear less well tended than the Swiss countryside as a whole. Rural Switzerland is as well groomed as the affluent suburbs. Take any train, particularly some of the narrow-gauge lines that twist and turn through the more undulating parts of the country, and that impression is inescapable.

On the other hand you will find litter in Switzerland.But you have to look hard to find it. I did so on a walk along a road fringing the Lake of Constance , or the Bodenzee as the Swiss call it. Over a distance of perhaps two kilometers I saw candy wrappers blown into the hedgerows by the wind and occasional cigarette butts. There was just enough of this litter to stuff into the Micky Mouse lunchbox a child might tote off to elementary school. Were Swiss standards slipping "or are we tourists to blame," a visitor back at my hotel wanted to know.

Early one morning I slipped out of my hotel for a prebreakfast jog around the city of St. Gallen. It was more of a sightseeing jaunt than any concession to exercise. It was a scenically pleasurable experience as such things invariably are in Switzerland. But what stood out most to me was the number of streets and sidewalks being busily cleaned --not just by those officially hired for that purpose but by others who presumably would be otherwise employed once the town clock struck eight.

One woman vigorously swabbed the sidewalk in front of a jeweler's shop. Except for a pair of rubber overshoes or similar protective footwear, she was elegantly dressed in mauve. The accompanying jewelry matched anything on display in the window behind. Very probably she owned the store. When it comes to cleaning and tidying, it would seem, the Swiss have few qualms about status.

The English writer George Mikes has written many delightful commentaries about the Swiss. He once referred to Swiss street cleaners as having cleaner fingernails than some waiters in other countries. He was being humorous, of course. But, then, he wasn't stretching the truth all that much either.

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