Claudia List writes: “Wear jeans, you’ll end up in a field afterward.”

Not something I’d usually consider when going to a wedding, but I found this interesting piece of advice on an expat forum when I was wondering what to wear to my very first Swiss wedding.

The comment thread continued, with several expats agreeing they had attended weddings in high heels only to find themselves in a paddock, stuck in the mud (and cow pats).

It doesn’t take much time to adjust to living abroad, before long all the habits and foibles you originally found quirky, or crazy, start to seem normal. But special occasions can make you feel like an outsider again.

Weddings could easily be the most special of all special occasions. Steeped in tradition, they are a minefield of rules, social mores and appropriate attire. This is a Swiss wedding survival guide, written to help anyone struggling with what to wear to a hochzeit in the land of Heidi.

After spending a summer in Switzerland, I knew in general they were more outdoorsy and more inclined to comfortable shoes than my Australian friends, but despite the Swiss love of hiking I couldn’t believe anyone would get married in a field.

The big day arrived. The sun was shining and the temperature edged up. I was pleased to be getting out of the city, in my fabulous new heels.

After the aperò (more on this later) we piled onto a boat and cruised down the river Rhine. We disembarked and boarded the two small double-decker buses waiting for us, and started the long drive to the reception.

The drive took us past tiny towns, spires rising high above the houses, their clock faces shining in the sun. The towns grew further apart as we headed into the countryside. We finally arrived at our destination. A driveway, a conservatory and fields. As far as the eye could see.

How to negotiate gravel, grass and cowpoo in high heels and a short dress was not the only thing I learnt that day. In a few short hours I learnt a lot about how Swiss people celebrate their nuptials.

A friend had already warned me that unless the wedding is held in a church it’s rare to see the ceremony. But it was still strange to see the bride and groom arrive already married, a bit like celebrating a world cup win without watching the match.

After the ceremony, the apéro begins, or, as it’s known in Australia, ‘drinks and nibbles’. The Swiss love apéro, and have them as often as possible. They love them so much in fact, that at weddings they have two.

As befits a society built on neutrality and compromise, Swiss weddings comprise of two tiers of guests. The first group are invited to the apéro, they greet the bride and groom, have champagne and nibbles and then are politely asked to leave.

The second group, made up of family and closer friends, stay on for the reception. This is a fantastic idea, and means more people can be invited and costs still be kept down. In practice it seems a little awkward, and as a foreigner already struggling with the etiquette, I avoided discussing the reception altogether.

If you do get invited to a Swiss wedding and are lucky enough to stay for dinner, be prepared. Don’t just expect to relax, listen to some speeches, and dance drunkenly at the end of the night. Swiss wedding guests are expected to sing for their supper, literally.

Swiss people in general are rather reserved, so their enthusiasm for audience participation at weddings is somewhat surprising. I have had to sing (twice), play charades and seen improv theatre. I’ve even heard of weddings involving icebreakers (get-to-know-you games).

Despite all the rules, and games, it is very easy to enjoy yourself at a Swiss wedding. The laughter I’ve heard at Swiss wedding receptions is much more genuine than the polite titters elicited by most father-of-the-bride speeches. And the seemingly requisite dessert buffet is always excellent.

On a final note, a week after completing this article the next wedding invitation arrived via email. I’ll be sure to wear comfortable shoes this time. The apéro will be on a mountain, with guests invited to join the bride and groom for a short two hour hike to the restaurant afterwards, arriving just in time for dinner.

Claudia is a freelance writer currently completing her Masters of Journalism.

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