This is a supposed travel piece I wrote after returning from cuckoo-clock-and-cuddly-cow land. Quick disclaimer: it isn’t really anything of the sort. It’s an ungracious, tasteless rant that was a lot of fun to write, as most ungracious, tasteless rants are; if someone started a magazine called Outlook Grumbler, this might make the grade.
As I’ve recorded elsewhere I didn’t have a great time on the trip, certainly not from the sightseeing point of view. (“No one ever returned from Switzerland unhappier than the Jabberwock,” proclaimed the reputed TV journalist Shamya Dasgupta, though not on TV.) But the editor needed a quick 1200 words to fill four pages in the magazine, so I turned this out with impunity, knowing it wouldn’t be cut.
Stylistic footnote: I’ve decided to use the phrase “moment of epiphany” in every second story I write. Just because I want to.
Give the Swiss a miss
The moment of epiphany comes somewhere along a highway trip from Lausanne to Geneva. I look up to see numerous jets streaking across an absurdly blue sky, leaving white trails in their wake, playing a mad empyrean game of noughts and crosses. Even though I know this is a two-dimensional picture, that the planes are all flying at different heights, it’s still disconcerting to see so many of them criss-crossing at once. “Is there an air force base near here?” I ask Gareth Jones, marketing man for the Financial Times in Switzerland, who’s been showing us around. “Oh no,” he guffaws, following my gaze. “Those are passenger jets. When the skies are so clear in these parts, you’ll see this many of them at most times.”
“We’re smack-dab in the middle of Europe, you know -- everyone passes through here!”
One of the annoying things about Switzerland, a landlocked nation that shares long borders with some of the most distinguished European countries (France, Germany, Italy), is this: it’s right in the centre of everything, but it still doesn’t really have a unique identity of its own. Discount the cliches -- the chocolates, Heidi, the beautiful scenery that countless Hindi film crews have appropriated over the decades -- and you have a place that never quite provides the sense of a culture or an ethos independent of its geographical position. It doesn’t even have its own language; the national languages are derived from the neighboring countries and are spoken in the parts of Switzerland that are closest to the respective borders -- German in the north and central regions, French in the west and Italian in the south. And uh yes, there’s also Romansh, a derivative of Latin.
This cultural aridity is nicely summed up in a monologue written by Orson Welles for his character Harry Lime in the film The Third Man:
“In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love -- they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
But Harry Lime was being uncharitable -- Switzerland has given us loads of very fancy watches as well. And my colleague Rakesh and I are here to cover the international watch fair in Basel. Which means much of our time before leaving was spent telling envious friends that no, we wouldn’t be frolicking about the countryside, we’d be spending all our time closeted in huge halls surrounded by timepieces, discussing tourbillon movements with CEOs and vice-presidents.
That’s pretty much how it turns out too. BaselWorld is enormous, classy, superbly organised and a haven for any watch-lover, but it’s scarcely the place to be if outdoor sightseeing is what you’re looking for. So Rakesh and I make the most of the hourlong train ride from Zurich -- where we’re staying -- to Basel. The countryside is as beautiful as you might expect -- if what you like is placid beauty, mile upon mile of unchanging, undulating landscape. Personally I get bored by too much of the same shade of green - Scotland was so much better, dahlings. But what do I know -- my colleague was busy with his wretched handycam every minute of every journey.
Basel itself is more to my liking, a pretty little town with a quaint town centre right outside the train station. Here trams and little cars compete furiously for the same road space, occasionally missing each other by inches, and I can’t help imagining the bloodshed that would result if a couple of Delhi drivers were thrown into the mix.
Although we don’t have time to visit the old town, we see enough -- steep lanes, townhouses, medieval churches -- on our way to the exhibition to get a sense of a place with a history. Basel was established as a Celtic town in the first century BC and had become a prominent trading centre by the 13th century AD. Today, of course, it is best known for the world’s most high-profile watch and jewellery show, which is held here annually.
As it happens, much of what we learn about our surroundings comes from our FT contact Gareth, who has spent the last year here and whose disgruntled views contrast delightfully with the conventional wisdom. After he’s done with sardonic comments about the tall claims made by watch manufacturers (“yeah right, so years of R&D finally proved that the human wrist has a curve”), he turns to general observations about the country. “There’s no such thing as value-for-money food in this place,” he grumbles, minutes after we first meet, “and they don’t even have a decent cuisine of their own. Everything is borowed from somewhere else.” According to Gareth, the Swiss know how to mess up even something as simple as a pizza. “You’d think they would have learnt a trick or two, being so close to Italy. But no!”
However, the quality of food is the least of our problems. Poor Rakesh is vegetarian -- always a hazard in these parts, where waiters look at you in astonishment when they learn you don’t even eat fish -- so Gareth takes us to a salad joint in a nearby supermarket. “This country is obsessed with its underground parking lots,” he spleens, as the car pulls into one. “Nowhere else in the world will you find parking lots as clean -- spotlessly clean -- as here. I have a theory that they started digging big holes in the ground the minute Henry Ford announced assembly-line production.”
The days tick-tock by, and it’s only on the penultimate day of our stay that we get out of Pendulum Pit (as I’ve come to think of the watch fair) and manage some sightseeing. Gareth drives us to the Lavey-les-Bains spa resort, located in the mountains, 60 km from Lausanne. The drive is stunning: lovely weather, some of the finest views of the Alps -- and best of all, given the winding, stomach-churning hill roads back in India, the roads here are arrow-straight. Our guide explains that entire stretches of these highways have doubled up as runways for the army at times of war, because there is a paucity of space. “They always have to be prepared for war in these parts,” Gareth tells us. Wow, what a great country.
There’s something unreal about swimming in an open-air thermal pool -- complete with jacuzzi and air pressure massages -- halfway up the Swiss mountains when summer hasn’t yet set in, but it’s a very pleasant way to wind up this trip. The water is, of course, heated, but the surprising thing is that it isn’t as cold outside as one might think. In fact, on the whole the weather, even in March, hasn’t been anywhere near as chilly as everyone back home had warned it would be. The thick woollen sweaters I had meticulously packed have been cooling their sleeves in the hotel room through the duration of our stay.
As you might have guessed by now I wasn’t too taken with the country, though this was partly because ours wasn’t exactly a relaxed stay. And then, we didn’t get to visit several of the must-see places like Jungfrau or Lake Lucerne or the ridiculously named Mount Titlis. But even if Switzerland is overrated as a destination (and so expensive that your chocolate dreams will melt as soon as you get there) it is undeniably beautiful on its own manicured terms, and the weather, if you go at the right time of year, makes much else worthwhile. My advice, if you do decide to go there, is: don’t make it the focal point of your visit. Spend some time in the adjoining countries as well. Pass through.
(P.S. Welles and Lime got it wrong; the cuckoo clock is a German invention.)
[Incidentally my marketing colleague was all set to send copies of the magazine with the story to the Swiss Embassy and Swiss Tourism but I quietly asked him to read it before doing any such thing. Have not seen him since.]