Friday, May 04, 2007

Switzerland from a Bird's Eye View

Frank Luger headshot by Frank Luger

There is no country quite like Switzerland, and no people even remotely resembling the Swiss. This statement is not intended as promotional propaganda for the tourism industry. It is based on personal experience, when in late 1966, after breaking through the Iron Curtain, I had to find my way from an Italian refugee camp to eventual political asylum in West-Germany; and so, perforce, see and feel Switzerland from the inside, rather than from the comfortable outsider stance of a well-to-do tourist. Still, it was a nice experience. Since then, I was there a few more times; and the same good impressions remained, throughout the past 35 years or so.

Flatten the mountains out with a giant rolling-pin, and the country would expand to three or four times its size. Crumpled as it is, altitudes vary from sea-level (at Locarno) to 15,215 feet, on the summit of the Dufourspitze, the highest peak in the Swiss Alps. In between, you can choose your climate, from mellow Mediterranean to frozen Arctic. Why, in the course of an afternoon you can travel backward through the seasons, as it were, from summer back to spring and thence to eternal winter, by going for a ride on the steep mountain railway that ascends the Jungfrau.

And the people who inhabit this country are just as varied. In the West they speak French and are Gallic in ethnicity, i.e. features, character, temperament, and culture. The conductor on the eastbound train from Geneva or Lausanne starts by saying "Tous les billets, s'il vous plaît!" when he asks for the tickets; by the time the train reaches Berne, he has switched to German and calls "Alle Billete, bitte!"

For we have meanwhile passed the language frontier and entered the region where German dialects are spoken -- a slightly different one in each region. The "frontier zone" is only a few miles wide, and it remains a mystery why, despite many generations of federal government and intermarriage, there has been so little blending and merging of the various ethnic elements, all over the country.

But that is just another of the characteristic features of Switzerland. The twenty-five Cantons or counties making up the Helvetic Confederation enjoy an amazing amount of autonomy; and they are so jealous of their independence within the Swiss family that some of them still officially call themselves republics! Far from attempting to unify the population, the Federal Government takes pains to preserve the natural demographic and ethnic order and thus prevent the creation of discontented -- and therefore troublesome -- minorities. This 'formula' has worked well-nigh perfectly for several centuries.

Right across the country from East to West runs the great Alpine barrier, culminating in the St-Gotthard massif. Strangely enough, the St-Gotthard, though traversed by only a single railway tunnel and a single road, is far less effective as a language barrier than the little stream that divides German-speaking from French-speaking Switzerland. The reason for this is mainly climatic: the Ticino is far sunnier and warmer than the regions north of the Alps. In springtime you may leave Zürich by train in cold fog or rain, run into snow as the train ascends towards Göschenen, the northern end of the nine-mile St-Gotthard tunnel, and emerge ten minutes later at Airolo into a world of bright blue skies and warm, golden sunshine. The urge towards the South is therefore quite natural. Having reached retirement age, thousands of Swiss from the North buy a plot of land in the sunny Ticino and build a house or cottage in which to spend the evening of their years. They take their language and their native habits with them, thus adulterating the true Italianatà of the Ticino, where sunshine and the lovely scenery are practically the only economic assets of the "natives." This "colonization" has been going on for generations, and in some parishes in the Ticino today the German-speaking now outnumber the Italian-speaking original inhabitants manifold.

Of late, too, wealthy Germans have been settling in the Ticino in ever-increasing numbers. Ever more advertisements offering "Building site for sale" and "House for sale in the Ticino" have been appearing in German newspapers as the relatively poor Ticinesi dispose of their coveted though unproductive property at good prices. The attractions of the Ticino are obvious: in addition to the mild climate and beautiful scenery, taxes are comparatively low, and the geographical location is fairly safe, even in the event of another war. It occurred to me that maybe I, too, would like to buy some land there one day, build a cottage, retire to the lovely Ticino and write books. Oh, well -- daydreams"…

The Swiss feel sad as they watch this development; many of the Ticinesi- especially those who themselves have no land to sell -- feel angry. A committee had been formed for the "defense" of Italian-speaking Switzerland, but there is not much that it can do. If the present "invasion" of German-speaking settlers, both Swiss and foreigners, plus wealthy foreigners from other countries continues, it is possible that the Italian language will have become the exception rather than the rule in a few generations.

There are a great many attractions in Switzerland, from ski 'paradises' to excellent cuisine, from the fabulous dairy products to banking advantages, you name it; but perhaps I should stop at this point and let you do your own explorations and discoveries at your leisure. You will find that each place has its story to tell, its celebrities to vaunt; but the overall effect of Switzerland is serene tranquillity, as well as great natural beauty and colorful lifestyles. True, in recent decades many non-European foreigners have somewhat diluted or watered-down traditional Swiss values; but the unique charm of the country remains nevertheless, throughout the years. Therefore, the opening statement of this brief article stands, despite the passage of many turbulent times all over the World.

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