Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Swiss weekend

I had a very nice relaxing time visiting the family in Switzerland this weekend. I definitely needed it, as the last few weeks have been not entirely pleasant.

Saturday we spent just lounging in the lake. My dad got this hilarious big inflatable gazebo imported from the states that he can put outside the house in the water and take a little raft out to. The Swiss going by in their yachts seemed to react to it with a mixture of befuddlement and horror, which we found quite amusing. It just needed a big American flag at the top. But it was nice to lie out there with the geese and the ducks, it was eerily quiet on the lake Saturday, maybe everyone was at the Caliente festival in downtown Zurich.

Sunday we took a little road trip to the Italian section of Switzerland, which just drove home how truly bizarre that country is. The Italian section is the canton of Ticino, which is the part of Switzerland below the Alps. It’s right at the exit of the mountain pass that people from Northern Europe have used to get down to Italy for centuries. During the height of the Swiss consolidation period in the late 15th century the Swiss confederacy obtained it through conquest, attracted to its strategic location as the north-south crossroads of the Alps. It was actually the last area the Swiss obtained through conquest.

Today a 15 mile long tunnel boroughs under the St. Gothard pass, the traditional route over Alps. It’s so strange because when you go into the tunnel you’re in German Switzerland, everyone speaks German, all the signs are in German, the radio is in German, etc. But when you emerge from the tunnel 15 minutes later you’re in Italian Switzerland, and it’s like a different country. Everyone speaks Italian (in fact they usually don’t speak any German) the signs are all in only Italian, and the radio is suddenly in Italian. It even looks different and has a completely different climate. It looks and feels very Mediterranean, and the temperature is a good 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer.

This was the same experience I had when we drove to French Switzerland last year. You cross into the French section and it’s like a different country. Everyone speaks French (they often don’t speak any German) the signs are in only French, etc. And the architecture looks completely different. Al the buildings have those wrought iron balconies outside of the windows that you see in France, and they have those turrets on the roof that you only seem to see in France as well.

It’s strange because when I went to Switzerland for the first time, I was expecting it to be like Quebec, where all the signs are in both English and French and everyone can speak both but speak one as their first language. But it’s not like that at all. Nobody in Zurich speaks French and the signs are all only in German, which is a shame because I speak only a little German but I do speak French. And in the French part, no one speaks German. This seems particularly strange to me because they’re all obligated to learn one of the other Swiss languages in school. But apparently they willfully forget it once they’re done.

Essentially, being in German Switzerland looks and feels just like being in Germany, and the same goes for French Switzerland and France and Italian Switzerland for Italy. And despite what Swiss Germans keep insisting to me (they hate Germans), I have yet to notice any detectable difference in the attitudes and culture of Swiss Germans versus Germans.

It’s interesting because you’d think that being a multi-language, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country would have made this nation a bastion of cultural interaction and union, but in fact the complete opposite as true. Each canton in Switzerland is like a different state, and the country’s federalist system means that the national government has very little power. In fact women still didn’t have the right to vote in some cantons in the late 70’s. Laws change dramatically from canton to canton, and the result is that Swiss people identify much more strongly with their individual canton than with Switzerland as a whole. This seems strange for an American, where the state you’re from is more of an incidental of where you live than something you would strongly identify with.

This isolationist attitude has been the driving force behind Switzerland’s obstinacy toward joining international organisations. They were finally cajoled into joining the UN only about a decade ago, and the country’s awkward status of being completely surrounded by the EU but refusing to join seems unlikely to change any time soon. The Swiss public remains overwhelmingly opposed to joining, and really why should they when the union has negotiated separate treaties with Switzerland giving them basically all the same trade and movement rights that EU countries have (if you ask me, these treaties should be revoked in order to pressure Switzerland to join, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, back to Sunday. We decided to drive over the mountain pass instead of taking the tunnel on the way down, which was pretty cool. You drive almost vertically up at some points, and when you reach the top it’s FREEZING and there’s snow. We watched the car’s thermometer drop down to 2 degrees Celsius as we went up, then watched it increase up to 30 as we drove down to Ticino. But we got to have a little snowball fight at the top so that was fun.

While in Ticino we stopped in Campione d’Italia, a little exclave of Italy completely surrounded by Switzerland. I had been to an exclave of Germany in northern Switzerland on my last visit as well. It’s weird because there’s no border check or anything and if someone didn’t tell you, you wouldn’t know you had entered another country. Actually Campione d’Italia had this huge archway with an Italian and EU flag when you entered (which I later found out was built by Mussolini). The town is literally just a few houses, it’s incredibly small, but it also has a casino because there are no gambling restrictions there. The town decided not to join teh Swiss confederation two centuries ago and decided to remain part of Lombardy, which then became part of Italy.

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