(Published in www.travelanddeal.com, June 7th, 2013)
Nobody should stay at Switzerland or Helvetia-land because the place where one resides can never be a worthy tourist spot, for the dweller. The second reason is that, it no doubt looks spectacular to view this country standing at almost any point, but the best way to view it, believe me, you will be moved by what I suggest—is to watch Switzerland while being mobile, seated in a train, a bus, trekking or even by jogging. Hence nobody should ‘stay’ in Switzerland. The Swiss stand testimony to what I say, they keep moving and working even at a very ripe age. They are taxed up to 7% of their earnings. It seems the cost of the wheel chair that physically challenged is provided with by this welfare society is costlier than a car. It all depends on whether you hear it right, or (from) the left (politically). One of the costliest countries this also called as CH. Many Swiss are not familiar with its expansion as ‘Confederation of Helvetia’. I wonder whether ‘Helvetica’ font is their contribution, like ‘Italics’ might be an Italian contribution, because they have a ‘leaning’ (like italics) tower of Pisa.
I once witnessed hilarious scene on Zurich road. A bicycle-rider was caught and fined for driving on the un-prescribed route (on the footpath). The police fined the woman with what comes to 12,000 Indian rupees, a price which was sufficient to buy a new bicycle in India. It was hilarious for me, not for her.
The Swiss do not have a language of their own: they speak French-Swiss, German-Swiss, and French-Swiss, Italian-Swiss or a very minor percentage of a vernacular-Swiss. Hence, if you are an only-English speaking guy (or gal), you are happy because you cannot differentiate between them, when they make announcements in the buses and trains. In such cases, even a change in the schedule, promptly announced in one of those languages reaches you only after the action is over. Even the metro-shop-wallas (an wallis) are not apologetical about them being very familiar with English.
They also have a rule which is as strange as their language (or the lack of one): if a majority of Swiss citizens (or a million votes, whichever is higher) vote for or against any issue, any time, the issue is officially endorsed, immediately! Let us say, one such voting would be about cancelling such a voting right of those very people! Even that might get enacted! That will be heights of contradiction; and Swiss governance stand testimony to it. And perhaps they must have all similarly voted for this notion of ‘mobility’ in Swiss. It is a country, perhaps not bigger than Karnataka, which can be covered in a day by train, owing to the perfect-legendary-timing of their public transport system. A train covers two kilometers per minute. Just within a couple of weeks of my stay at Zurich, I was so corrupted by their sense of timings, that I began to grumble about a couple of minutes delay while waiting for connecting trains, despite hailing from a country in which some (or “most places” as cynics say) places trains arriving at 11am today while it would be scheduled to arrive here yesterday at 11am! The Swiss do not pay to travel but to keep up their legendary status of travelling in-time, to-the-minute.
I decided to be hence mobilized throughout my stay at Zurich for six weeks. Equipped with sufficient funds from Pro Helvetia, a cultural funding agency, I bought a Swiss Pass to travel for a month, which was a roughly 36,000 /- Indian rupee. It was an average salary of an Indian lesser known art school lecturer. With this pass, one could freely travel throughout Switzerland, every day, all the days, throughout the day, from wherever to whenever, in trains, buses, ferries for a period of one month, round the clock. The Swiss trains halt in the night, since they can cover the length and breadth of the country in the day time and spill out beyond the nation’s boundary if the journey continues into the night. There are two reasons for this: the country is too small and trains are too fast. However conditions did apply for the Swiss pass—you could not travel in cable-cars at the most scenic places like Jungfrau, Interlaken, Lucerne, for free. The occasional ticket checking and inspection in public transport system was so frequent that I thought it to be almost a regulation. If caught without a ticket they fine you with 100 euros, with a smile. One of my friend-curator, obviously a Swiss, told me that once she knew that she did recognize one of those deceptively dressed inspector, she had a chance to get out since she hadn’t bought a ticket due to hurry, yet did not care; and ended up paying the fine. That’s the least price you pay for the fatigue-of-perfection-syndrome, a typical Swiss characteristic.
The one thing that captures your attention while travelling across from the eastern Basel to western Engadin (‘the most beautiful Swiss canton is Engadin’, claim a few. And most of them happen to be residents of Ingadin!), from northern Bern to southern Geneva—apart from the fact that even if you close your eyes and shoot the camera, you get a reasonably attractive mindboggling picture—is the confusion between farming and gardening. It seems: the farmers farm on the ground level during summer, go higher up during spring to clear up the ice on the road; and graze animals and dairy products in severe cold season during utmost winter. Thus the farmers have three professions and three houses for three different seasons and three different professions; and hence are politically the most powerful Swiss community.
Once when I was in a bus to the university on top of the mountain from wherein one could view the whole of Zurich. I suddenly smelt something very familiar and almost nostalgic. The huge shed did not visually reveal its content. While returning back, I got down at that very point and saw what was inside. The smell directed me towards it and it was bliss: the typical huge Indian farming houses wherein people and animals lived together seemed to be reinstalled herein. The farmhouses with latest gadgets and oldest tamed animals and farming equipments, alongside what seems to be a park and a latest banking company is a treat to watch in CH-land, provided you get a quick comparative view of them, successively. And this is possible only if you are mobile at Switzerland!
It was July 2012, afternoon. I witnessed the shocked expression on the face of that girl seated outside a café in Aarau. She just stood up, put both the hands onto her mouth and stood there in awe. I had to deliberately follow the arrow of her sight and found a middle aged man standing few inches away from a pole at the end of that arrow, bending down his head and holding it in both his hands, obviously in severe pain. Both, the girl and the man, stood still, while the rest of the world moved on. He had banged his head against the pole in the center of the road and she had become numb! It was like a spectator watching a player in a game of life, the former would be helpless as far as the latter’s fate is concerned. One of my theory after observing a couple of major countries in Europe—without excluding CH–is that they can’t concentrate on more than one job, alternatively, unlike Indians. Another theory is that, that’s how their gods don’t have multiple pair of hands like Indian Devis and Devas possess, which indicates that it is a God-given gift of multi-tasking solely reserved and preserved for Indians.
Even while traveling back, early in the morning, I saw a man bang his head against a railway pole and collapse on the other side of the platform. My train timing, connecting to my flight timing was interwoven and fast approaching, there was nobody on the other side to be alerted; and it was next to impossible to go there with my entire Indian-style luggage. It was equally ruthless to just be a mute spectator. Luckily someone came skating, did not hit his head against the pole, heard my shout and checked the man who had collapsed. The injured finally managed to be seated on a platform chair at Wedicon stop. There was definitely someone or more than one watching us through the camera, but there was not a single authority to be contacted in person…my train came and I had to get into it. The bang was on my head as much as it was on the one who received it!
I had to shell out about six thousand Indian rupees for the six kilometer return train journey to the Top of Europe at Jungfrau Mountain. They issued a memento-like train ticket which looked like a fake passport, as a mark of celebrating hundredth years of the tunnel-vision journey (built in 1913)! The train travelled through the mountain like an outdoor submarine. While travelling, the train–carrying the name of a famous Hindi filmmaker–and the people were enveloped with ice, rather literally. Few Asian-looking travellers were wearing shorts and later I ‘realized’ that they had ‘realized’ pretty late that it was the most inappropriate dress to wear in the given situation. After half an hour or so, I could not even remove my shivering right-hand off the glove to shoot Sherlock Holmes, sculpted in ice. It seems this fictious character pays a visit to this mountain in one of Doyle’s story. Obviously many tourists had misread the severity of the Swiss summer’s cold on Top of Europe stop–Holmes’ analytical mindset would have been very apt, to adopt. I literally had a severe bile headache at the top (of Europe) and it went down as soon as I arrived at the ground level!
While being at the top, I was in the midst of an ice-clad mountain, for the first time in lifetime. I mean my lifetime, not the mountains’. Earlier I had seen Annapurna Himalayan range in Nepal, but never been amidst ice. You can never see an ice mountain while being ‘on’ it, the ranges look like squeezed out white butter, because it is you who stepped upon it at the first place. Humans squeeze out the essence of whatever they step upon. In the Bollywood Café at Jungfrau, with plenty of Indian film posters displayed in it, Indian chai cost four euros, hence the price and the tea both tasted hot! Suddenly I felt very homely in this foreign location and the second reason was that the Indian cafe had dirt all over the floor! This perhaps was the actual reason as to why they had ropes all around a certain limited area of ice outside—otherwise the whole Jungfrau would be begetting the feel of dirt—in a typical Indian tourist mode. Most Indian films have song sequences from here, even when they want the depicted location to indicate the Himalayas!
The ice clad mountain is deceptive and refutes a factual perspective. A particular wide ice road between two mountain ranges, visible from the safety of the café over there, was as big as a football stadium, going from here to nowhere. Two visitors had a heated argument about the solitariness that the mountain range would evoke, “will you be able to stay alone in this tiny cafe room, alone, throughout the night?” The demand was for a sincere answer, which was not to come. The least populated place on earth should be ice-clad areas, not just because it is very slippery. Many haunting stories about Swiss mountains have been turned into films as well. It is the sound of the mountain which we the humans are yet to place into an experiential perspective.
The Swiss are clinically clean. The new migrants earn 7 euros per day, with which they can only buy peanuts. This is only till they pass through several grades of social tests. However, the American Indian maid who cleaned the house I stayed in was paid 50 euros for two hours (roughly 3000 INR). But it was only once in a month.
There is a community of Srilankans—both Sinhalese and Tamilians, which migrated in 1990s and were adored as physically hard working people. Their children, the next generation, are neither here nor there. Being one of the costliest cities in the world, Zurich is compared with the cheaper Berlin in the neighboring Germany. Many drive from Basel to Germany, eat, buy and return on a weekend and save a lot. However, the flea market, where anybody can sell anything and everything (except nothing) offers even Indian objects. They were bought in an excitement of visiting the Oriental country and now sold because of it’s over familiarity. A shop that sells old people’s clothes near Wedicon terminal (like elsewhere) is called as the Ghost’s-company: the clothes they sell belong to the dead old people! You buy and wear one of them; you invoke the spirit of its owner! Often many unwanted, but not discarded household objects kept outside the house premises are chosen by the poor. The best part of this operation is that after choosing what they want, the poor repack the left over. In my place, we display what we have left out, making a statement about our taste as well.
Coming back to my concept as to why one should be mobilized to watch Helvetia-land (CH) is: a small plot of one quarter of an acre will be having a few cows grazing; and the next compound will be an I.T company! Next to it will be a lone jogger at almost any day and any time of the day. The landscapes are all tailor-made, as if they are waiting for the film or crew to arrive for a shoot. Nothing accidental, even the dramatic light, pure air, lush green, lakes and rivers seem to be frozen in time. Yet, the pleasure in watching or documenting them would be spoilt if one stays still and shoots them because one would have seen them already in picture-post(ers)-cards and tourist manuals. One should move and move on to get an unusual comparative imageries like a cattle herd, next to a farm house, a cow dung-dumping ground, a factory, a balcony always filled with plant-flower-pots next to an unusually huge size bridge with very few vehicles on it. Switzerland is always a mobile vision of comparative viewpoints that refute any singular view/definition about itself.
The Swiss are extraordinarily conscious about their figure (more than their health, perhaps). Their physical figures are inversely proportionate to their expenses. The Swiss artist Rahel Hegnaeur–a contemporary artist who was in a residency in Bangalore, several times–used to travel throughout the Indian city on a bicycle. And this was a habit that came to her from her home town of Zurich. Be it places like the restored antiquarian village in lower Engadin canton (eastern end of CH) or even that Jungfrau train track—there are special considerations for walkers and joggers. The Engadin antique village, a few centuries old, carries the tradition of scraping the wall surface to create design. I totally emptied my water bottle in order to collect and drink from the five varieties of natural spring over there. The bicycles are parked next to a metallic ring on the wall which was used to tame horses, a couple of centuries ago. The Noir’s Artist Residency was initially a Jewish place of religious solitude. It is a real insult or need sufficient ignorance to purchase water in Ingadin. The myth about the prosperity of Swiss banks is that many Jews deposited their wealth with these banks and never returned back from the concentration camps and gas chambers, to collect them!
Switzerland is proud to be a politically neutral country which seems like a political utopian. The rumor that a million migrants from Germany, who wanted to escape to elsewhere via Swiss-land, perished by the time the Swiss decided for it, is a long forgotten story. Even a small time residency like that in St.Gallen canton receives government funds, which is sufficient to run a reasonably good university in India. The cost of cleanliness and timing keeps the Swiss on their heels, always.
Scores of Swiss artists had come to Bangalore over the years, from last two decades on residency programs. One of my agenda was to meet all of them in their own den. A tired artist had turned into a curator, a performance artist had undertaken artistic research, some had changed their overall personalities and a few went missing. My only question to them was to how they imagined Swiss-ness, like I did comfortably with Indian-ness. Artists like Sadhyo, Pascale Grau, Michel Omlin, Rahel, Wenzel, Christophe Storz, Nesa, Lilian Hesler had explained Swiss with such variedness, that I ended up with eight versions of Swiss nation, because I had spoken to eight of them. They were never Swiss, but either the Bern-ian Swiss, the Baselian-Swiss, Genevan Swiss, Zurich Swiss or the Interlaken ones. The information about Switzerland is so abundantly colorful and colorfully abundant in the techno-suave web media that I had to search for that which the media had missed out. Otherwise it is very easy to visit CH land without moving out of you room, but with a net-connected personal computer, like that ad about A/C hinted a few years ago. Hailing from Bangalore I expected a typical Swiss-cold weather, which was not to be. Zurich was hot, the more serene Aarau and Bern was colder by a fewer degrees, Engadin was the coldest. Artist friend Wenzel A.Haller, runs an artist residency called ‘the Garage’ and consists of a board that consists of its name written in my language (Kannada)!
Hailing from India, it is difficult to digest Switzerland as a nation–it is that small. Historically its neutral stance is much advertised, though such adoration has been contested time and again. Perhaps those who are jealous about this country’s prosperity have done it, among others. The Swiss keep to themselves, but are helpful. They feed you, let you stay with them and make time for you. Yet they don’t demand you to reciprocate. It is a country for lovers of visuals and sound—a farmer’s delight. Yet they have a whole village dedicated as a museum of farming! Rest of the Europeans visit this country for a holiday, while Swiss move into Europe business. At least that is the mythical cliché I would love to believe.//