It took Paul Bilton a while to find out how small Switzerland is

The Swiss are always telling you how small their country is. But when first arrive it appears as big as any other – until you take a closer look.

It is small, but it's been put together in a deceptive way: if you have ever looked down from the Vorab at Flims into Glanderland you can see just how close Elm is. However, to drive from Flims to Elm means a 110 km journey taking 1hour 22 minutes by autobahn. The topography makes a stone's throw into a day's outing. There are hundreds of examples of short journeys made long thanks to mountains and valleys - like getting from the Toggenberg to the Walensee or Hoch-Ybrig to the Muotatal. Switzerland is built like a maze and getting from A to B often means going via J or K or L, and sometimes all three. Switzerland is small, but it appears big.

CitiGroup's CEO for Switzerland, Per Etholm, is a great fan of this country and is responsible for massive investments here. Per hands out promotional T shirts claiming that Switzerland is in fact the largest country in Europe. The trick is that you have to iron the mountains flat. Nobody has attempted this yet.

I was born, not under a wandering star, but in Southport, Merseyside UK. A town few have heard of but with a population of 90,000 midway between Preston (pop. 130,000) and Liverpool (pop. 430,000). With nothing more than a sand dune to divert the road, access is straightforward – L to P via S.

Switzerland's largest town Zurich has a population of 342,000. Ever heard of Wigan? Never mind, but it is nearly as big as Zurich with a population of 301,000 (and a pier). Bern has a mere 122,300 inhabitants and world-known Lucerne has only 57,289 people living there. Thalwil, my adopted home here 16,000 residents. By world standards Swiss towns are tiny.

The result of this Swiss micro-world is that one is forever meeting people one knows or recognises. You must have sat near a TV newsreader in a restaurant or seen a politician in the street. As an English teacher in Zurich, I am for ever coming across my students. Once in Ascona for a break I met two different students within five minutes of arriving; enough to send me straight back again. However, the whole of the canton Tecino has only 317,300 people living there, so the odds of staying anonymous are low.

On holiday in Greece I got talking to the Swiss couple on the hotel balcony next to ours. On the first day teaching after my return I was asked how I liked my holiday in Greece, as a friend of one of my students had met me there.

Being small and thinking big is of course one of Switzerland's great advantages. Direct democracy would have a hard time in a large country where anonymity grants hero status to tax dodgers and welfare fiddlers. In Switzerland if you cheat, you cheat your neighbours.