The Weekly Watch
A Swiss Watch
I've been in Switzerland the last three weeks. The natural beauty was the big draw, plus the great public transportation system designed for citizens and tourists. It is an interesting country...really a confederation of cantons, cultures, and languages - German, French, Italian, and Romansh. The CH designation of Switzerland comes from Confederation Helvetia. The Romans founded their province of Helvetia in current Switzerland in 15 BC. The idea of a country focused on neutrality in conflicts and solidarity among its disparate groups is appealing. It's often ranked as the happiest country on Earth. In part because it is one of the wealthiest (minimum salary is 3600 Swiss francs/month), in part because they provide public services and care for their citizens, and in part because it is so beautiful. So hop aboard and join me in my exploration.
Please feel free to hop down midway to the travelogue if you prefer...
I'm starting this essay from home, and I've been reading a bit about the history in preparation. The ancients lived in pole structures along the lake shores. Later trails were cut through the mountains and trade slowly developed. Celtic groups left Southern Germany for current Switzerland in the 1st century BC. This tribe was known as the Helvetii. The Celtic population became assimilated into Roman civilization during the first two centuries of our era. Peace and prosperity reigned. The first passes were opened.
The peaceful period ended with the invasion of the Roman Empire by German Alemannians in 260. The Alps became temporary border provinces under military occupation. The Romans finally had to evacuate their alpine territories around the year 400. The Alemannians did not manage to conquer Rhaetia (the current canton of Graubünden in the SE corner). The Rhaetian Romans who lived here had been settled in parts of current Austria as well, and offered great resistance against the Alemannians. They managed to keep their territory and lived autonomously for a long time. At this point the language Rhaeto-Romanic came into existence, which still is spoken in Graubünden. The Alemannians occupied the West, where Christian Burgundians finally settled. The Burgundians adopted the language Latin from the Romans. In the South a similar process took place.
The four languages that are currently spoken in Switzerland came into existence around this time. The invasion of the Alemannians caused the North to become completely German-speaking around the year 900. In the West, vulgar Latin evolved into a French dialect. The South stuck to Latin which gradually developed into Italian. The separated Graubünden stuck to its Rhaeto-Romanic. The languages reflect the different cultures and explains why the country evolved into a regionally based government.
The Austrian Habsburg family eventually ruled over parts of the country, which resulted into a lot of resistance. This was the time of the folk hero, William Tell. When the emperor of Habsburg died, some regions took their chance and met to enter into a permanent alliance in order to become independent: the cantons of Schwyz, Unterwalden and Uri formed the Swiss Confederation on August 1, 1291. This event turned out to be the birth certificate of current Switzerland, and August 1 is still a national holiday which is celebrated annually.
The cantons of Luzern, Zürich, Glarus, Zug and Bern acceded to the confederation between 1332 and 1353, so that the end result was a confederation of 8 cantons. The successful confederation developed a tendency to expansion. It succeeded in ruling over Milan and the current canton of Ticino in 1513 and had entered into an alliance with Geneva and Graubünden.
In 1515, the confederation lost a battle against a combined force of the French and Venetians. This setback resulted into a redefinition of the objectives: the confederation no longer aimed at expansion, and it declared itself to be a neutral state. It was laid down in a 'perpetual' treaty with the French, which is still the basis of Swiss policy today.
Switzerland's neutrality remained intact until 12 January 1798, when the French army, commanded by Napoleon, invaded the Swiss in the west. France was mainly interested in the alpine passes, since they were of strategic importance for a direct route from Paris to Milan. However, the Swiss were not easy to negotiate with, and the Frenchmen decided to withdraw their troops in 1803. Six new cantons were added to the confederation and three others followed in 1815. The cantons received the advantage of a great extent of independence, which was laid down in a treaty. The constitution of 1848 transformed Switzerland from a loose confederation into a unitary federal state. It is the oldest federal democracy in the world after the United States. The new constitution guaranteed freedom of domicile, freedom of religion, and internal trade barriers were lifted.
Switzerland mostly maintained its neutrality during the First World War between 1914 and 1918, although there were differing opinions among Swiss communities. The civilian army was mobilized which affected wages, while food prices doubled. There was a shift away from production towards services, which continues to be an important sector in Switzerland.
No European country remained truly neutral during WWII. Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland all worked to some extent with the Axis. In Switzerland, the people who lived through the war wanted to believe that it was their army and fortifications that kept the Nazis out. Historical research and documents clearly show that if the Nazis wanted to invade Switzerland, it would have been quick and relatively easy. The reason Germany spared its tiny neighbor to the south was because .
The Swiss made many useful weapon components (aluminium for the Luftwaffe, spark plugs for jeeps taken from the Russians, timing devices for bombs, among other things), and thus their factories were not bombed every night. The Swiss National bank bought gold from the Reichsbank, the Reichsbank was given Swiss francs which could be used internationally, and used them to buy cobalt, nickel and tungsten from the other “neutral” countries. The Turks, Portuguese, Spanish and Swedish, who were all under heavy pressure from the Allies not to accept direct gold payment from the Reichsbank, then exchanged the Swiss francs for gold. The problem was that the German gold came from the Belgian National bank reserves (not from concentration camps as some would have it) and the neutrals knew it.
Finally, the Swiss allowed trains to carry food and non-weapon supplies from Germany to Italy, with dozens of trains every day on their way to Africa. But did Switzerland have any other choice? Probably not. Totally surrounded by the Axis, most of its coal supply came from Germany every week, and all of its exports had to go through Axis controlled territory. For a landlocked country with few natural resources, this meant the Swiss had to work out some way to get along with their neighbors. The problem is that the postwar generations have been raised to believe that it was the Swiss army, and not the country’s usefulness to the Germans, that protected it from the wrath of war.
The industrialization of the country began between 1700 and 1800. The textile industry flourished in the northern and eastern parts of the country, while the watch- and clock-making industry developed in the west. The time piece industry allowed for independent, individual businesses. It made Switzerland the most highly industrialized country on the European continent. Railway building was a significant factor in order to be able to export products quickly. The amount of track was more than doubled between 1865 and 1885, and the major achievement was the opening of the Gotthard tunnel in 1880. Trains continue to be a primary means of transportation and most (80%) are powered by hydroelectric plants.
The federal state is composed of 26 cantons. The canton's have a good bit of autonomy. Switzerland's government, parliament and courts are organized on three levels:
federal, cantonal (based on 26 cantonal constitutions), and communal (in a few small cantons and in some 2500 small villages reunions or meetings of all citizens are held instead of cantonal and communal parliaments; local courts are usually common to several communities).
The federal branch governs the areas of foreign relations, the army, customs examinations and tariffs, value added taxes and the legislation on currency, measure and weight, railways and communications to the confederation.
Only the cantons (and some major cities) have armed police forces, run hospitals and universities. Legislation on public schools is made by the cantons, resulting in 26 different education systems, but the public schools are actually run by the communes, much like many other public services (like water supply and garbage collection). The confederation, the cantons and the communes do collect income taxes to finances their affairs.
Switzerland's electorate has more rights of participation than in any other country and makes extensive use of them, but women's right to vote was introduced relatively late in Switzerland. Only in 1971, women got the right to vote on national level and the last canton was forced by the federal court to introduce it on cantonal and communal level as late as 1990.
The National Council is Switzerland's "house of representatives". The 200 members are elected every four years according to a refined proportional election system. The Council of States represents the cantons (like the U.S. senate). The executive branch is a team consisting of seven members with equal rights. Each member of the government acts as head of a department of the federal administration, but all major government decisions are taken in weekly government conferences either by consensus or by majority voting of all seven members. The members of Switzerland's federal government are usually (re-)elected every four years in December.
While the federal system can be found in many other countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Austria etc., and separation of powers (government, parliament, courts) are common to all democracies (or at least should be), referendums are rare in most other countries. In Switzerland's long tradition of Direct Democracy, frequent referendums do have a stabilizing influence on parliament and government. Ordinary citizens may propose changes to the constitution ("initiative"), if they can find a number of supporters (100,000 out of about 3,500,000 voters). Parliament will discuss it, probably propose an alternative and afterwards all citizens may decide in a referendum whether to accept the initiative, the alternate proposal or stay without change. So although there has been a rightward shift among their politicians (like much of the world), citizen referendums have held them in check. For example their politicians wanted to ease the ruling on where arms could be sold, but the people voted it down with a referendum.
Lookout's Swiss Travels
So the last couple of weeks I've written about how we are a product of time and place. Many of you have commented about the important effect of the people we have known...the who. And you are exactly correct. People do shape our lives and perspectives.
People are also a large part of a travel learning experience. We have met many interesting people on this trip. Among them a 101 year old man traveling independently ...slowly on a cane, but on his own. He is revisiting places of his youth where he skied as a young man. We met another 90 year old man from Germany. His experience with Hitler still shapes his world views today. The first question he asked me once he found I was from the states - "What do you think of North Korea? I think Mr. Trump is naive about the threat." He was not pleased with my answer that we were the threat in Korea...they (N & S) were trying to make peace. There was a Saudi woman who sat with us at a bus stop asking directions as her brother glowered at us. She was on her way to see the falls that drain the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau. "This I want to see", she said. I bet her desert perspective gave great significance to those rushing waters. We met many Brits and a few Indians, Filipinos, and Taiwanese. We've seen numerous crowds of Chinese and Japanese tourist herding together, carrying large bags, wearing fancy clothes and posing for glamour shots. But, perhaps my favorite comment was from a local gentleman about my age - Pretty perceptive. So one of the big benefits of travel is experiencing the variety of perspectives, languages, and cultural mores.
However, my main reason for this essay is to emphasize the importance of HOW we spend our time. We find travel enriching. Now I admit travel is expensive. Especially flying across the pond. We create a travel savings fund. Some of you may remember our trip to Ireland a couple of years ago. It took us those two years to build our funds to cover this trip. We've learned how to travel inexpensively...even in a pricey place like Switzerland. We use B & B's, Hostels, Guest houses, and AirBnB apartments. We average about $100/night. We don't eat out often. We use grocery stores buying fruits, cheeses, breads, and some prepared foods like salads. We buy travel passes. For about $30/day we get rail and bus travel - hop on and off when the fancy strikes, and free admission to most museums. So that's the nuts and bolts of this trip. I'll elaborate more on this next week.
So what have we seen and learned. I can only share a bit of that so let me try to hit the highlights. I'll try to fill in some gaps next week. Let's start from the top...the top of the Jungfrau...
Part of the journey has been to see glaciers before they all melt...
...and the Morteratsch glacier this week.
Nearby is the glacier in Vadret Pers
...and one more glacier to share, the Roseg.
The Glacial melt water called Glacial milk flows throughout the country...
Creating beautiful mountain ringed lakes...
Many whose shores contain 1000 year old castles...
We spent a week in the car free village of Murren...
... above the valley that inspired Tolkien's Rivendale
...and saw views like this almost daily
We hiked the historic Gemmi pass from the Roman spa town of Leukerbad to the alpine village of Kandersteg...following the footstep of Romans, Mark Twain, and Arthur Conan Doyle among many others...
That's the Matterhorn toward the middle. This one -
Here in the center of Bern is the clock that inspired Einstein to envision riding on a light beam looking back at this clock whose time didn't change...and traveling faster than light seeing time reverse.
We experienced the French flavor in the town of Vevey on the shores of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman as it is called locally) were Charlie Chaplin made his European home...
Along the shores are miles of vineyard dubbed as an UNESCO site.
And, people spend early evenings on the shores to visit along the promenade...
...and gather to watch the sunset.
So as the sun sets I'll close out the piece wishing you all the best of travels where ever you roam. I hope you enjoyed this foray into central Europe with me, and I hope you might share some of your travel adventures in the comments below. Next week I'll cover the Italian area in southern Switzerland.
We often get caught up in the insanity of our country... obsessed with perpetual war and the promotion of fossil fuels, but there are still beautiful places on our planet. There are countries focused on their citizens rather than corporations. And perhaps most importantly, everywhere there are people of good heart and well meaning. Seek them out and find friendship and peace. From far away from home, I'm wishing you all a serene and fulfilling life.