Coming down in Zurich after the Flight of Fantasy seems rather more like a prolongation of the dream. City of bankers, city of wealth, city of conspicuous consumption. My friends aren’t Swiss but Franco-German, just two of the approximately 20 percent of Swiss workers who are foreign, and whom Switzerland relies on to fill niches in management and IT. They offer me dry comment on their colleague’s narrow education and interests. “One told me he had read one book. I thought he meant one book a year but, no, it was one book in his life”, my friend tells me. He goes on, “They aren’t interested in history, they don’t read literature, they don’t read political analysis, biographies. How can a democracy function like this, when they subsist on Googled factlets? They cannot conceive of the possibility of anything broader that might exist beyond the factlets. They can’t put the facts together into anything that makes sense. They think they are self-evident, but they’re not. It’s like reductive scientists arguing against climate change because they can’t understand the complexity of bigger systems”.
So what interests them? The symbols of wealth and status are everywhere. In stylish window displays the ultimate in luxury and taste is displayed on street after street. Art and antiquities are stashed away in secretive yet well-known little niches for those with the money and culture to buy and display them. They’ll go into ‘gold coast’ apartments all along the north shore, alongside tasteful furnishings and decoration. One wonders about the labours of countless artists. Is it just to catch the bowerbird eyes of the wealthy?
Switzerland also has a reputation for timepieces, from cuckoo clocks to Cartier. It has German perfectionism wedded to French obsessiveness and Italian ostentation. This trinity are bound together with obstinate Protestant values. Work sets you free. Free to acquire what you want, from luxury goods to enviable holidays? Perhaps, if you’re trained to want what can be bought; if you work hard.
To prepare its children for a place in its clockwork economy Switzerland starts them early. A grade four child is at school between 8.15 and 3.10 weekdays, except Wednesday, when the day goes from 7.25 to 11.45. Lessons run for 45 minutes, but before the day can start children have to get to school. From kindergarten they are already learning about precision: kindergartens must be no more than one kilometre from home, to give the littlies a fighting chance of getting there on foot. By grade one they are expected to walk on their own, no more than 15 minutes, and arrive at school no earlier than ten minutes before lessons start. That’s when the gates open, and then the school plays music over the loudspeakers, to hurry them along, until the bell goes and the gates close.
Later children may walk 20 to 30 minutes to primary school. This makes them fit, reliable, accountable and self-reliant. Swiss children are trained to be survivors, the fittest in the tooth and claw stakes of survival. They get involved in Scouts early-on. Following in the footsteps of the Baden-Powells they learn to tie knots, administer first aid and cook over an open fire. They work their way up the echelons, collecting badges and status.
The Swiss, unsurprisingly, have a reputation for being outdoorsy people. They go walking, climbing, skiing in the mountains. One wonders, though, if a walk in the meadows is as much about immersion in nature as it is about the brownie points gained from being able to walk in the meadows, for demonstrating sufficient culture. Certainly for those who push on past the vegetation zone into the mountaineer’s world of rock and ice, there’s a reward in being part of an elite.
The Romantics expounded on the sublimity of the Alps. I look about and I see drama everywhere, but I am also distressed by the insensitivity with which this incredible landscape has been treated. River valleys are littered and degraded, mountains scarred or tamed into a pretty, petty domestication. I read in a Swiss paper on the plane, before I arrived, a lengthy question and answer with a local politician about proposed new environmental laws. “Yes, of course I would support them”, he was saying, “if that was what the majority decided. Of course they are right, good ideas; but I have reservations. Introducing these laws when other countries don’t, it would compromise our economy, set us back unreasonably”. I have heard this argument before.
Switzerland has a reputation for neutrality; and for hedging its bets. It will no doubt play its cards equally carefully in the ecological wars, of whatever sort they may be, to come. There is a lot of money to lose, an enviable lifestyle, and there are people with perhaps little natural conscience. In the place of an understanding of the real world and its systems, Switzerland has artificial systems, finance and Protestantism. They could be enough to protect its people from the worst, but I fear they would betray the world to achieve this.