I enjoy reading about different countries, but Switzerland has never really struck me as fascinating. Sure, it’s famous for making expensive watches and has stunning mountains, but I’d always considered it to be a bland wealthy country, exemplified by its neutral status. However, my perception has changed thanks to Swiss Watching- Inside Europe’s Landlocked Island by Diccon Bewes, an English expat who moved to the country for love and now lives there.
For one, I learned that the country is way more diverse than I’d imagined. For instance, Switzerland doesn’t have one single common native tongue, but four official languages- French, Italian, German, and Romansh, a truly indigenous language but mainly spoken in just one district. This means that the Swiss have different native tongues, depending on where they grew up, but will also speak one or more other languages, including English. The Swiss are also multi-religious with different parts being traditionally Catholic or Protestant, and they also have a large population of immigrants (21 percent according to Bewes).
This multilingualism is a result of a history in which separate districts or cantons joined together gradually from 1291 whilst retaining a sort of independence. Over the centuries, this loose confederacy endured and solidified into a nation, whilst developing an identity that is both proud but does not rely much on national icons. For instance, there are no great Swiss kings or leaders, and even in modern times, the president is not that important – they only serve one-year terms! The country is also not part of the UN or the EU, and stayed out of World War II, though their banks did hold stolen gold for the Nazis.
The Swiss do take their country seriously. For example, every male must do a period of compulsory military service, then is given a gun to keep at home for use in the event of war (I wish Taiwan would take defense as seriously). In their democracy, public participation plays a big role in the form of referendums. Two cantons even maintain the tradition of having public election meetings on one day every year where local matters are resolved by vote.
Bewes describes familiar aspects of the country like its love for hiking (no surprise given its many mountains), its tasty chocolates, its craftsmanship as exemplified by its expensive watches, its banking service, and the national train service. However, he also points out contradictions such as how the Swiss are both resistant to change but innovative, and treasure their privacy but tolerate a strong level of government intrusion. In fact, Bewes says that this is what makes Switzerland so interesting and I would agree.
There is a lot of interesting facts about Switzerland. For instance, it wasn’t always neutral as it fought wars with the Austrians, the Burgundians and others up until 1515. That’s when the Swiss suffered a bloody defeat to the French at a village called Marignano. The Swiss decided never to fight again as a nation, though that led to Swiss soldiers banding together and going around Europe to fight for other nations and kingdoms as mercenaries. The Pope’s Swiss Guards, who guard the Pope in the Vatican while holding medieval spears and decked out in resplendent uniforms, are the sole surviving unit of Swiss mercenary tradition.
Also, Swiss people invented velcro, the division sign, aluminium foil, and the LSD (yes, the hallucinogenic drug). But not the cuckoo clock, which actually came from neighboring Germany.
While the book is not a travelogue, Bewes does visit different parts of the country to showcase aspects like the 35-km Swiss Path in which every canton is represented; sites associated with Heidi, the country’s most famous novel, and its writer; and a factory where one can still see cheese being made.
Besides the discourses on Swiss history, politics, society, and economy, Bewes fills the book with lots of humour but it’s clear he has a lot of affection for his adopted country. I admit Switzerland was not at the top of the list of European countries I want to visit, but having read Swiss Watching, it has now moved up a bit.