Monday, 1 July 2013

Switzerland, an impossible nation

The other night I stayed at the table for a few hours after dinner, chatting with the mother. At a certain point I mentioned that I found it strange that a nation manages to exist with four national languages. Sure, this is very functional in countries such as India where the regional languages and dialects play an integral part in the country's diverse culture, or in Norway and Italy where regional dialects are spoken, yet a national standard is prevalent. Why then, is Switzerland such an anomoloy?

The mother was quick to agree that even amongst Swiss people this difference is startling, and sometimes very difficult. Why? Because with a certain language, often comes a different mentality. It is debatable as to what came first, the attitude or the language, but these differences are extremely evident.   She then explained to me: "I always said I would never marry and Italian or German Swiss boy. The Italians were too passionate, the Germans too rigid. As it happens, I went out with an Italian Swiss and married a German Swiss... Though I still experience problems. We French Swiss are more spontaneous, we like to enjoy life. My husband likes to organize everything, and doesn't like to amend plans. He wants everything done properly and efficiently". In response to that, I asked what language they spoke/speak in. "It's strange, because though I do speak some German, he has never spoken to me in German. German Swiss and French Swiss prefer to speak to each other in English or French, in fact at the beginning we spoke in English before he perfected his French".

In theory, the multilingualism is fully present in the country. Ingredients on shampoo bottles, sweets and cheese are usually in at least three of the four official languages. Announcements in train stations at least use two, usually French and German. In practice, it seems that the localized language area very much favours its own language. In Lausanne road signs are in French, in Lugano they are in Italian, in Zurich they are in German. If two people from the different language zones do not speak each other's language, English becomes the lingua franca. Sometimes food items are only in, say, German, in a supermarket in Lausanne. Aside from an inability to communicate in one national language which is unique to Switzerland, how do the Swiss consolidate their national identity? It is a question I am yet to find an answer to. My only current guess is that aside from cultural ties the country shares a financial unity, the Swiss franc, and its relatively strong and safe position in the world market.

Lausanne is like indeed the real life version of Duroc from Shrek, complete with the dancing singing figurines in the square near St François. It is clean, polished to perfection, no shops give a sense of decay. Supermarkets such as Globus and Manor are furnished with chandeliers, marble floors, and displays of food which range from extremely tempting to ostentatious. Some of the price tags are also quite unthinkable. Who would really pay the equivalent of eight pounds for strawberries? Apparently many people would... I feel a little overwhelmed by these prices, not because I want to buy everything, but because it all seems unnecessary. Take away the decorative shelves and designer packaging, and what do you have? Some regular pasta which you could buy elsewhere at a 1/6 of the price. I know this is hypocritical to a certain extent, as visitors from a lesser economically developed country such as India who visit the United Kingdom are bound to think the same about our national indulgences. Seeing it further up the scale does put some things into perspective though. These people may be rich, they may be able to eat white truffle shavings for lunch and 150 pound headphones on a whim, but they are certainly not happier. They think they will be one day, if they keep working ferociously and setting rigid regimes. I doubt it.

Some people do enjoy themselves though, as I discovered the festival au bord de l'eau which happened during the weekend at the Lac de Géronde. Before arriving at the festival we stopped at a chalet/ranch where we feasted upon three different types on local goats cheese, cherries, apricots and redcurrants. They ate the local homemade bread whilst I had brought my own gluten free bread. Though the idea of an artificial lake sounded hellish to me, the backdrop was beautiful: the snow topped Swiss alps. The lake itself was actually quite charming, and you couldn't tell it was artificial. The children enjoyed windsurfing and going in a pedalo whilst the mother and I laid back and relaxed in the burning sun. Despite wearing 50+ factor suncream I found that my parting was vivid read, and I had a few red lines on my arms where I clearly hadn't evenly distributed the cream. There was a stage from which sounded some repetitive music, and a few food stalls. After baking the sun for a few hours the family suggested we eat there to avoid cooking at home. I opted for a paneer mattar curry at the Indian stall, as did the mother, whilst the rest of the family gravitated towards the pizza van.

I am enjoying myself, though realize that extreme wealth is not for me, and evidently nor is Switzerland. Don't get me wrong-it's a beautiful country with charm and some extreme positive sides, not forgetting the quaint flower adorned mountain chalets supplied with naturally chilled mineral water and surrounded by goats with little bells attached, the abundance of fantastic chocolate and the proximity to and fusion between different European cultures. I do miss the casualness of Italian daily life, the ruined cascinas and more realistic prices.

Pictures to follow later in the month.

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