Monday, November 22, 2010

Switzerland Diary 1: Unreality Stuck in Time

So even though it’s been two weeks since I returned from Europe, I’ve only gotten the chance to write my experience of Switzerland now. I’m not exactly bound by the constant pressure for timeliness that the internet supposedly demands. My recollections will be slightly fragmentary, because there was no real narrative to my long weekend there. Honestly, it all seems a little surreal, in ways that I hope will become clear. I consider the fragments of my trip to be a reaction to the absurd punctuality of that country. I have never been on a walking tour of a city that ended precisely on time before I went to St Gallen, and I hope I never will again.

The punctuality of the place was quite unnerving to me, and the general perfection of the place was as well. I appreciate the beauty of the city and the country surrounding it, but it all seemed a little too perfect to be real. From my hotel window, I could see the entire city, as my building rested about halfway up a small mountain on the southern side of St Gallen. The entire city stretched out underneath me from my north-facing window. It honestly looked fake. I found it hard to believe that people actually lived there until I was actually in the thick of the city walking around downtown. It was as if the entire city was constructed as a film set, according to directions from a hack producer that consisted entirely of Swiss stereotypes.

The country was genuinely beautiful, however, and the people seemed very pleasant. One of the other graduate students presenting there was couch surfing with one of the locals. The couch’s owner had actually been to Canada, hiking in the Rockies. He was actually quite impressed by our mountain range, and one could consider it superior to the Alps in one important way. Hiking in the Alps, you’re always within sight of some cottage at the very least. The Canadian Rockies had mountain vistas and trails aesthetically equal to the Swiss Alps, but with the advantage that you were genuinely in the wilderness. Humanity in central Europe is inescapable.

There was one aspect of Swiss culture that did deeply disturb me, more than I thought it would, since I knew it existed going in. It’s one thing to think abstractly about culturally pervasive racism, but it’s another thing to see the posters and the physical behaviour of the people. In Zürich’s main train station, there were posters advocating the Yes side of another referendum to remove rights of legal immigrants who commit crimes in Switzerland. And the posters were of a sad-faced black sheep being angrily kicked over a border by a white sheep. My friend André, who comes from French-speaking Switzerland, described the people as not being “tender.” The word seems quite apt, implying a rigid, static, immovable quality to their hostility to foreigners, a congenital lack of empathy for the different.

The station itself was an amazing piece of architecture, an enormous stone framework for archways stretching at least three stories high from the indoor space alone. It was so open to outside breezes that it was no trouble to smoke in the station. The archways were the trains, and the pedestrians came in were so enormous that the station was more like a stone canopy, barely enclosed at all. Even inside, you were outside.

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