Describing Switzerland

by Terence MacNamee

I am writing from Switzerland, where I live and work. This is a difficult place to explain to people in the Americas and Asia. To people in Europe it is familiar, perhaps a bit quaint.

This country is, you might say, a hole in the middle of Europe. It is not a member of the European Union. Up till recently, it didn’t even belong to the United Nations. Its policy has been abstentionist. It does things its own way. It is particularist, both to the outer world and within its own borders. It has four languages; these have dialects in every town and valley. Not only every canton, but just about every village gets to pass its own laws and run its own affairs.

All this, of course, makes Switzerland a microcosm of Europe. And the genius of Europe has always been its extreme diversity in terms of language, culture, and ways of doing things.

But in another way, Switzerland is two worlds. It is a landscape where there are two kinds of people: natives and tourists. They look at the same landscape, but they see it differently. They experience it differently. The tourists do not come to take part in the life of the locals. They come to do their own thing.

For the English in Victorian days, it was a place to climb mountains. That had never occurred to the locals. Later they did it, and all learned to ski too. But it wasn’t their idea.

Here in the Grisons, it is folkloric and homey, a place where Romansh is spoken, for instance. But to the great figures of German literature and thought who came here, Nietzsche and Hermann Hesse, Rilke and Thomas Mann, it was something else. It was a place where you could experience extremes, a sort of enchanted world where anything was possible. This imaginary world is totally foreign to the locals.

So this country is a place of physical adventure, and of mental adventure – but for the locals, it’s just home. Most of the time, the Swiss manage to behave as if the others weren’t there.

This is as true for people in the cities, as it is up in the Alps. Yet the cities of Switzerland are also the world of banks and finance and investment. When the Swiss author and revolutionary Jean Ziegler said to Che Guevara that he was sick of living in Geneva and was thinking of emigrating to Cuba, Che demurred: “Tu es dans le cerveau du monstre; c’est ici ton combat.” Meaning that he was in the brains of the monster of capitalism, so why should he go anywhere else to fight it.

Switzerland is indeed a centre for many things that have very little to do with the ordinary Swiss. It is not a centre but a hole in the centre of the Western world, which makes it all the more important.

So what is Switzerland? It depends. Anyone you ask that question, also ask them: “are you Swiss, or from somewhere else?” Because the answers will be different each time.


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