Trilingual Brit denied Swiss citizenship for not knowing origins of raclette

Where does raclette originally come from? The right answer would have been "from canton Valais". Keystone

Philip Smith who runs a café in Zurich, was denied the red passport because he didn’t know which canton the melted Swiss cheese speciality came from.

This content was published on June 5, 2018

Smith shared his frustration with the Swiss naturalisation process in an interviewExternal link with the SonntagsBlick newspaper. Besides his native English, the 43-year-old is fluent in German and French. He has no criminal record, has lived in Switzerland since shortly after his birth, and worked for a Swiss financial organisation for several years. He is raising a six-year-old son in Switzerland and has recently opened a café in Zurich.

Despite all this, Smiths' application was rejected by his local municipality on the grounds that he only knew that raclette came from the French-speaking region of Switzerland and couldn’t pinpoint its canton of origin (Valais). He was also unfamiliar with capuns, a traditional Swiss chard dish from the Romansh-speaking region of the country.

“I admit I’m not perfect,” Smith said, but pointed out that he had passed the obligatory written exam about Switzerland with flying colours. He also said he had spent most of his life in Switzerland and was well-integrated – not as an expat, but as a local.

He was baffled by the level of detail of the naturalisation interview, which he had been told would be an “informal conversation” but which he said was more like an oral exam. “Even my six-year-old son, who I needed to bring along, was questioned,” Smith said.

Smith said he was left wondering what was expected of someone to become Swiss: “Absolute perfection?”.

Other gaps in knowledge

His local municipality, Freienbach in canton Schwyz, wrote in its report that Smith was “not familiar enough with Swiss customs and traditions”.  

The commission said its decision was also influenced by the fact that Smith could not say how a national vote came about and that he had too little knowledge of the country’s militia system. He also did not know how many inhabitants Freienbach had or the number of local, cantonal and national councillors.

In a statementExternal link to the Blick newspaper on Tuesday, Freienbach’s mayor Daniel Landolt said he partly understood Smiths' frustration, but said his municipality did not have “particularly high standards for applicants”.

Questions about Switzerland’s regional specialities were only thrown in to “lighten the mood” and to give applicants an opportunity to shine – if they knew the correct answer, he said. But the raclette question would ultimately not have determined the negative outcome, according to Landolt.

Smith said he finds it particularly hard on his son, who has only ever known life in Switzerland. “I don’t know how I should explain to him that he’s not Swiss,” he said.

He now plans to reapply for citizenship, pointing out that next time he will be better prepared for the raclette question.

On the bright side for Smith, he has been invited by the tourist authorities of Valais to try their “much-copied but never replicated original raclette”. In Valais, they wrote, Smith and his son were very welcome.

The story was anonymised on May 17, 2022 on request of the person mentioned in the story. 

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