You’ve seen the rolling, flower-strewn meadows of Switzerland in innumerable Hindi films and snow-clad mountains in tourism brochures. You know that Zurich is lined end to end with banks and that every third shop in the country sells cuckoo clocks, cheese or chocolates.
But did you know that hornussen is a popular sport, which has its origins in sheer brute strength – a requirement of farmers? Or that in the canton of Valais (or Wallis, depending on whether you’re speaking French or German), country houses are built on smooth round stones so that no mouse can climb them? Or that dairy farming looms so large in the national consciousness, that the most popular cold drink is not Coke but Rivella, made of milk protein?
We gathered these, and many other nuggets of wisdom, in the two weeks we were there, courtesy of our hosts the Köllikers. They’re old friends, and the primary objective of our trip was to catch up with them, rather than to see Switzerland. However, you don’t need to have friends to stay with a Swiss family: many in towns and villages let out a room to tourists who’re staying for a week or longer. You get lodgings considerably cheaper than at a hotel, but more importantly, you see facets of a country that you never would from a series of impersonal hotel rooms.
This was brought forcibly home to us during our wanderings through the country: Lake Lugano was packed with the smart set from across the world; Lucerne was where we saw the most Indians, all crowded around the watch showrooms of Raymond Weil and Rado, and around the peaks of Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch, Japanese outnumber locals three to one. The rest of the country, however, is refreshingly bare of anyone except the Swiss themselves.
Switzerland is famously compared to Kashmir. We were curious to see whether or not the comparison was apt. It turned out that it was, but not in the way that it is usually felt to be. Sure, there are rolling meadows, hills with dark, brooding fir trees, snowy mountains and a series of lakes. That’s where the physical resemblance ends. I found a far deeper connection in other things: Swiss surnames for instance. They tell you what the person’s forefathers did for a living. The Köllikers’ forefathers would appear to have lived in forests, far away from human habitation, making coal from decayed wood. Uncannily, the descendants of such people still possess an aloofness and a love of solitude! In Kashmir, Reshis were sages who lived away from human habitation and meditated in caves and forests. Today, many of their descendants have taken to the walnut wood trade, but characteristically have a streak of asceticism.
There is not much difference in the Kashmiri and Swiss sense of humour: both poke fun at people from other districts. Thus, in Kashmir, people from Sopore look down at those from Anantnag, who in turn laugh at the fumbling efforts of residents of Pulwama and so forth. In Switzerland, those living in the canton of Bern are said to be slow of speech, those in the canton of Friebourg are said to be bovine, and the rest of the country laughs at the residents of Appenzell, notorious for their bumbling ways and simplistic folk culture.
All old Kashmiri country houses have a space for animals and a loft for hay, as do Swiss houses. Elisabeth Kölliker, our hostess, was brought up in Rütschelen in the district of Emmenthal, famous for the eponymous cheese. Her ancestral home is a slightly westernized version of a traditional Kashmiri house, down to the warmed stones that are heated from smouldering logs below and used as seating.
Ballenberg is the recreation of traditional Swiss houses in natural settings. It has the potential to become a huge tourist draw, but on the day we visited, there were only Swiss families out with their children. Walking through some of the bare country cottages, I felt I was in a time-space warp – was I in Kashmir or in Switzerland? There was the same reassurance that came from solid materials rooted in the earth: mud and stone; the same feeling of spaciousness in virtually empty rooms, the same play of light, and the same sense that kitchens were the cornerstone of the family’s activities.
As we drove through the Swiss countryside, by far the greatest majority of houses we saw were traditional; even the modern ones drew inspiration from tradition. Andrew Kölliker, our host, delighted in pointing out the difference between predominantly Catholic villages and Protestant ones. Amazingly, there was a vast difference: the former had houses that were tightly clustered together around a central church with a towering spire. There were never any window boxes and consequently no flowers. On the other hand, in Protestant villages, and the majority were those, houses were further away from each other, you had to look hard to spot the church steeple, and the flowers that blazed from window boxes were an art form: pink or red geraniums in all-wood houses, purple begonias against off-white walls.
About the nicest aspect of the country was that there were no long, dreary rows of identical houses. Indeed, there were no rows for the most part: houses tended to have been built in haphazard order; it was prevented from descending into chaos because of the modest population size. And the churches – Roman Catholic ones had altars that were florid and overwrought in the Italian mould (Versace home furnishings looked just as gaudy in Swiss shopping arcades), but Protestant ones were poetically beautiful. And even if no church services are held in them anymore, many are used as the venue for Sunday morning choir practice
On a trip to Le Vully in the canton of Freiburg, we passed a too-pretty-to-be-true church. Immediately, Elisabeth and Andrew’s interest was aroused – they walked around it, examining the interiors and exclaiming over the ivy-covered porch with a movie director’s enthusiasm. It turned out that Swiss weddings are always held in churches, and if the photograph album is the high point of any wedding, the group photo in the porch is the high point of the album, hence the interest. We went especially to the little town of Spietz – snowy mountains in the background, sparkling blue of the Thun Lake in the foreground – just to see the church. The next day, we would be shown the wedding album of friend Andrea’s daughter, whose backdrop was the church in Spietz.
We have our wedding videos; the Swiss have their wedding albums. The grandest of them look like velvet-covered briefcases, complete with brass latches! Inside, the photographs are individually bordered by the photographer who charges a fee (around 5,000 Swiss francs per wedding) not only for taking the pictures but also for decorating the album. Good photographers are very much in demand. The bride has to look good gorgeous, the beauty of the church simply must come into play, and most importantly, it has got to look like the weather was clement, whether or not it actually was.
We had heard tales of the Swiss penchant for orderliness and neatness, and were prepared to spend up to one quarter of our holiday gritting our teeth in annoyance, but were pleasantly surprised instead. And after the chaos of home, it was comforting: on the roads one day, we spied an enormous wooden hut being carried on a truck, to be transported to new surroundings. Riding with the truck was a cavalcade of police vehicles, to ensure that there were no road accidents.
Yet, nowhere was the Swiss love for order brought home more forcefully than with the tischabfäller that graced our breakfast table each morning. This was an attractive pottery jar with a lid, although in hotels it could be plastic with the donor company’s name prominently displayed. It sat on the breakfast table in its role of a miniature dustbin. Into it would go cheese rinds, empty packets of sugar, empty mini cartons of jam or cream, or just about any other waste from the breakfast table. Ingenious and practical, it’s the one thing that immediately comes to mind when I hear people poking fun at the Swiss for their boring ways.
One thing that gave me a complex was the high level of fitness, across all ages. We’d be on our way to Gotthard Pass, completely snow-bound all year round, and we’d see a group of cyclists, bicycling furiously uphill, calf muscles rippling in the sunlight. Their ages? Thirties and forties (same as me, but what a difference!) Or we’d be photographing the endless valleys from the vantage point of Grimsel Pass, and before we knew it, we’d see dozens of motocyclists thundering by. Gleaming machines, the likes of which one rarely sees in India, ridden by men and women in their 50s and 60s wearing leather jackets and trousers – long-distance motorbiking appears to be a cool pastime on weekends.
So is traveling by caravan – we kept passing pretty (but not stunning) locations in the countryside that were earmarked for caravans. With convenience stores and cafes within spitting distance, you could have a lazy holiday cooped up in your miniature home on wheels, but somehow it didn’t appeal to me. For one thing, none of the sites were spectacular, and being Switzerland, you couldn’t just drive your trailer anywhere you liked and park for the weekend. For another, as the Köllikers pointed out disdainfully, you kept meeting the same people all the time, because the caravan circuit was small and close-knit.
To be sure, anything that smacks of the unconventional does not find favour in ultra-conservative Switzerland, whether it is caravaners or the graffiti in drug-induced colours that adorns many public buildings in the cities. Graffiti may be the angry new art of a section of an angry new generation, but it co-exists with other artforms. Twice a week, we’d visit the church in Lotzwil, the next town from Langenthal, our temporary home, to tend the graves of Elisabeth’s parents and Andrew’s mother. Carved stone gravestones, miniscule patches of flower-beds, duly adorned with the too-cute-to-be-true pottery birds and gnomes that constitute Swiss garden art. No graveyard that we ever passed was completely desolate – there was always a relative or two busily tending the grave of a loved one.
Switzerland proved to be a land of surprises. Barely had we got over the surprise of eating an authentic Indian meal in a private house-turned-restaurant in off-the-tourist-track Lotzwil, (cooked by a Swiss family who had never visited India) than we heard about Matten English, Bern’s secret language. We knew of the three major languages of Switzerland – German, French and Italian. We had even heard the obscure dialect of Romansch on the radio, but Matten English took us aback.
It turned out that in its heyday, it was spoken by a couple of thousand people in the merchants’ quarter of Bern, which lies in the loop of the Aare River. There was a rigid caste system – on the hill overlooking the merchants’ quarter were the city’s administrators who laid down the law. Not wanting to be outsmarted, the merchants invented a language that bears not the least resemblance to either English or German. “A piece of bread” translates into “ein stuck brot” in German and “ä legu lem” in Matten English. It doesn’t have a written form, and was in danger of dying out, but because there’s a resurgence of interest in all things Swiss, this forgotten language is being taught at a couple of institutes now.
Swiss German is the dialect of the entire country – a couple of predominantly French cantons and two mainly Italian cantons are the only exceptions. Swiss German is completely unintelligible to all Germans from Austria or Germany, and differs slightly in pronunciation from one canton to another. Because it has no written form, it would have been natural for SMS messages to be sent in pure German, the language of Germany. With the resurgence of all things Swiss, however, the Swiss German dialect is gaining common currency, with hilarious results – no two people use the same spelling!
We had gone to Switzerland fully prepared to encounter an unending series of clichés, but our short holiday uncovered so many surprises that we can’t wait to get back and discover some more.