The Swiss paradox

Switzerland often strikes me as a country of paradoxes. 

At first glance, people seem so strait-laced and conventional. Nobody wants to stick out. The other day, a friend was describing an encounter with a slightly mentally unstable guy who lives near her. Her kids had seen him on the metro, “wearing a woman’s fur coat and a pair of red converse high tops.” He drew plenty of attention. She sighed. “In New York or London, nobody would bat an eye.” Actually, I said, in New York or San Francisco he’d probably be pretty mainstream.

Just yesterday, I was in town with Brendan, renewing his annual public transport pass and showing him all the amazing functionalities of his new ATM card.

— Rotten parent confession digression — 

Yes, at the ripe old age of 18 Brendan has just opened his first personal bank account. Yes, I know I’m a rotten parent.

What can I say? I’m horrifically lazy. We never did allowances because I’d always forget. When the inevitable time to open the account came (he’s an adult, for heaven’s sake), I followed some innate Swiss-tuned instinct and called my personal bank advisor. Americans are a special bunch, it seems. We made an appointment. 

On the dot of the appointed hour, we entered the hallowed halls of UBS Lausanne. There are no tellers in this building, just a vast shining hall of marble with a man standing serenely behind a tall counter at the far end of the vastness. This is a place for Important Transactions. Millions and trillions change hands here. I was surprised the man wasn’t wearing white gloves. I imagined I was a rich heiress, come to transfer a few thousands into the kids’ trust fund accounts. I had put on my freshly ironed white crop pants for the occasion, although regrettably I hadn’t gone so far as to add a necklace. We were ushered suavely into a private room. 

When the advisor came, I quickly disabused him of the idea of credit cards for the boys and said we’d just like regular accounts with an ATM card. He took our various pieces of identity and vanished, returning twenty minutes later with a multitude of forms for the boys to sign. The Bank of Mom is now officially closed. Ah, liberation. Maybe I’ll even get some extra spending money myself, from the one-franc fines I’ve just established for towels left lying on bathroom floors. 

— end of rotten parent confession digression —

Anyway, as we walked around downtown, we noticed that all the teenaged girls were dressed alike – short shorts or short skirts, tight top, ballet flats or greek-style sandals (the ones that buckle up around the ankles, not over the instep).

“I’m so glad you’re not a girl,” I said. “I don’t think I could handle it.”

I’ve been wanting to try the Vibram Five Fingers shoes. Or run barefoot. But I’m leery of doing it here. It’d be like standing up on an airport ticket counter and mooning everyone. I don’t mind being labeled an American – I am one, after all – but in our seven plus years in this country I have gradually internalized the Swiss penchant for blending into the background. I feel uncomfortable attracting too much (welcome or unwelcome) attention.

Somehow, though, in the midst of this comfy conformity, the Swiss also excel at being truly and certifiably nuts. They love it. There is something about this culture that encourages over-the-top craziness. In just the past two days, three news items caught my eye.

First, the International Alpine Beard Competition that was held last weekend in Chur. Here you have 60 old, gnarly alpine types (think Heidi’s Grandpa) wearing dorky hats and sporting a lifetime’s growth of disgusting facial hair. Check out the Daily Mail article to see some pictures. This is considered quaint.

Then yesterday’s paper had an article about a Swiss guy who tightrope-walked 1,000 meters up a cable car wire, untethered, in Germany (see photo below). (I wonder why he had to go to Germany? there are tons of cable cars here at home…) It made Gizmodo in the US, as I found out from Dave this morning. I had glanced at it in disapproval yesterday, thinking it would give kids bad ideas. “But I saw that guy in the paper, mom…”

Freddy Nock scaling the cable car wire…

This brings to mind the famous Swiss Jetman, Yves Rossy, who straps a jetpack and wings to his back and does insane things like fly over the English Channel and the Grand Canyon. He’s living everyone’s childhood fantasy. He’s so popular here, the national telephone network, Swisscom, uses him as an advertising icon. (Actually, I heard they tried to use pictures of him without his approval, and had to backtrack and sign him on officially.)

It’s like if you’re going to be crazy, it’s better just to go all out. Don’t bother with garden-variety craziness. Mind you, I don’t know if this is Swiss or European in nature. The French seem pretty nuts to me, too. Runners in the Mt Blanc race do in a single day what it took our family 11 days to do hiking. But they also seem a little more relaxed in their day-to-day lives, kind of “live and let live.” But then I don’t live in France, so who am I to say? It’s just hearsay. (Plus they have their own paradox already, involving lots of red wine and rich food and an astonishing ability to not gain weight despite these nutritional no-nos.)

The third article covered last weekend’s paragliding championship at the far end of the lake, in which the world’s best paragliders jumped off cliffs, flew over the busy autoroute in various complicated formations, and then touched the lake gracefully with one tip of their parachutes before landing. The article revealed that Switzerland has 20,000 registered paragliders. That’s enormous, given that the population of the whole country is only 7 million or so. The article also reassured everyone that “since the creation of the Swiss Acro League, there hasn’t been a single incident, nobody’s even broken a nail.” Heaven forbid!  I certainly hope not.

Switzerland isn’t the world’s most conventional country, not by far. People are very tolerant on the whole. So I don’t buy the argument that these extreme types are balancing out an overabundance of conformity, and people welcome them for that reason.  I think there is just something about the landscape, the culture, perhaps even the freedom the Swiss have to determine their own political system, that encourages dreamers and wild types to just go for it.  Personally, I strive for the middle ground, a comfy level of ordinary crazy. I’m not about to take up paragliding (I know people who have broken their pelvises this way), ultramarathoning or tightrope-walking. I’m also not going to put makeup and heels on to go to the grocery store, wash my car every weekend, or place bucketsful of geraniums on every available exterior surface in the summertime. 

I’ll still swim in the lake once summer vacation is officially over, I’ll run barefoot on the sand all year round, I’ll let my hair go grey and I’ll eat something other than bread or yogurt for breakfast. I probably see the other extremes so much because it’s not my native country, and I feel a need to figure out how I can find my place in it. But I love living in a country where such different approaches to life can coexist in mutual respect.I mentioned to my other brother (the crazy one) that I was writing about crazy Swiss people, and he said, “Oh, have you seen the video of that guy who set the world speed record climbing up the Eiger?” All I can say is Watch This Video. Ueli Steck is totally amazing. You think you’ve seen it all, and then…

I’m off to buy some flippers to swim in the lake. That ought to turn some heads on the beach.

2 thoughts on “The Swiss paradox

  1. Love your writing, Mary! Interesting paradoxes there indeed. We have our own, which are easier for non-natives to articulate. : 0 )

    That was quite a video. Running across the ridge at the summit? it's not like it was solid ground. Running, after climbing so fast, at that altitude?

    Bad parent confession: we are also forgetful about allowances, and the record keeping has not been meticulous. Guilt, guilt. And it's Julia's last day before going to college. !!!!!

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