24 August 2009

The Church of Latter-Day Switzerland

Switzerland is special. Just ask the Swiss.

In graduate school I took a seminar that focused on the Western novelists Wallace Stegner (yea!) and Mary Hallock Foote (ugh!). As a transition between the two writers, we took a day off and looked at other forms of Western art from around the turn of the 19th century to the present. We started with some early paintings by the likes of Thomas Moran and Albert Beirstadt of the Hudson River School. I can't remember the specific prints but they were all fairly similar to this one, titled In the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt (1867).

These paintings drive me nuts. I made the comment that as realistic as the paintings are, to me they come across as flat, too perfect. To me they don't capture the wildness that is and was the Yosemite Valley, especially in 1867. I said something like I thought it was too clean, too safe, more like a park, more like Switzerland than the American West. From there, everything fell apart.

A woman in my class asked how I could say that about Switzerland? They have mountains in Switzerland. Had I been there? Her husband is from Switzerland. I don't know anything about Switzerland. It's not a park, it's very wild and dangerous, just like the Rocky Mountains.

I pushed my point a bit farther. I answered some of her questions. It was no use. Her husband was Swiss and so she had been to Switzerland and so I had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently.

At that point, 1998, I had, in fact, been through Switzerland, albeit quickly as that is all the time a hitchhiker's budget would allow. I just finished the winter working as a ski-lift operator in Bavaria and it was springtime and Wendy and I were on our second leg of our hitchhiking odyssey. It occurred to me then, as we were looping back through Austria and Germany that, yes, after living and working in the Rocky Mountains and just returning from the forests of Poland and the Czech Republic, Switzerland's cleanliness and orderliness looked and felt like a very pleasant park.

And now that we've lived here for six months I can say with conviction that, yes, Switzerland is owned, operated, and maintained as if it was a National(ized) Park. But don't be so defensive Woman-From-My-Graduate-Class-Ten-Years-Ago. That just might be a compliment.

In Folk Groups and Folklore Genres: A Reader, Elliott Oring outlines the concept of world view:

Folklorists are not only interested in traditional behaviors but in the patterns of thought that underlie and inform those behaviors. The comprehensive set of assumptions, premises, or postulates that groups hold about themselves, their environment, space, time, and the world and the way it is ordered is called “world view”. How a people perceive and understand the world will in large measure determine their behavior in it (Kearney 1984). A world view, however, is only partly based in formal, explicit systems of philosophical reflection. It mostly consists of implicit concepts, concepts that group members are not aware that they hold and which they could not explicitly articulate were they asked to do so. While formal systems of mythology, religion, and philosophy are important for the delineation of a people’s outlook toward the world, it is the unarticulated, abstract ideas underlying such systems that are at the core of world view.

From The Dynamics of Folklore Barre Toelken offers a more portable version of world view:

"Worldview" refers to the manner in which a culture sees and expresses its relation to the world around it.

No matter how you spell it, worldview is the all-encompassing idea that a culture or society both projects a version of itself onto the world as well as absorbs a version of its outside world. Worldview assumes a dual role in the life of a culture. A society both perceives and experiences its world through culturally provided sets of ideas and activities that originate from within and without its own culture. Thus, "reality" is not a universal conceit but, processed differently from culture to culture, is culturally conceived. Which brings us back to Switzerland.

The Swiss are special because they see themselves as special. Historically, they project an ordered, clean, and rule-based society because, in part, they interpret the world around them as chaotic, polluted, and lawless. They share part of a border with Italy, for god's sake! They've been completely surrounded by World Wars, Cold Wars, Thirty Years' Wars, plagues, political and economic crises, and massive waves of migration. It's a scary place on the other side of the Alps. It's seems almost constitutional that a small, centrally located country would want to retreat to its safety zone, sweep its streets, straighten its crooked pictures, and build for itself a worldview based on its reaction and relationship to the outside world. These are part of the implicit concepts of worldview,
"concepts that group members are not aware that they hold and which they could not explicitly articulate were they asked to do so".

In the 1949 film The Third Man, Harry Lime (Orson Welles) famously sums up an outsiders view of Switzerland:

"You know what the fellow said: in Italy for thirty 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 five hundred years of democracy and peace—-and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."

Sadly, Switzerland can't even take the lowly credit attributed to it: Germany invented the cuckoo clock. The image of Switzerland persists, though, and the image of Switzerland is perpetuated by the Swiss. Worldview.

Within three months of moving into our new neighborhood, we amassed a healthy criminal rap sheet:

--We were lectured twice by our neighbor about our dogs wandering off our property. ( "We don't have anything against your dogs, we like nature, but if your dogs cause an accident on the road you will be held responsible for any deaths.")

--The same neighbor yelled at Wendy for walking on his lawn. (Just prior to this event, we caught this neighbor spying on us from his upstairs window.)

--We were told twice by another neighbor that our music was too loud on both Saturday and Sunday. (Our quarterly community newsletter reminds all its residents that "quiet time" is Saturday from 12:00 to 1:30 and all day Sunday. This means no lawn mowers, vacuums, stereos, or any other potentially offensive noises.)

--Henry's preschool teacher wanted him kicked out of class and claimed that he was too young and too disruptive for the benefit of the whole group.

Glass recycling prohibited on Sunday!

Probably there are real laws that are followed by real fines for infractions like these as well as a whole host of others. But in Switzerland shame is the real law of the land and no commissioned officer can match the influence shame imposes on Swiss society. In the United States a noisy neighbor might see a visit from a local police officer. The first visit would be a warning. The second visit maybe a $100-200 fine.

In Switzerland the police might be involved. More likely, though, neighbors will speak in silent circles about the offender. Heads will shake, more complaints will arise, and a legacy will be born, a legacy that will carryover into generations. Forever and ever the offender and their family will be known as the loud ones that break rules on Saturday and Sunday. Which consequence will ensure that someone considers their actions before they are performed and encourages those to stand straight and tall in a narrow line: the ability to pay a minimal fine (maybe even online!) or the knowledge that a broken rule will inflict a lifetime of communal shame on the perpetrator?

It has been said, though I can't take credit, that in Switzerland everything is forbidden and anything that is not forbidden is mandatory. And somewhere there is probably a Swiss Law book that states succinctly that which is forbidden and which is mandatory. More importantly, there are volumes of unspoken, unwritten social laws in Switzerland that are imposed by its citizens daily.

Yes, in Switzerland, we are all Park Rangers charged with the duty to uphold its clean, orderly, and rule-based worldview, or "the comprehensive set of assumptions, premises, or postulates that groups hold about themselves, their environment, space, time, and the world and the way it is ordered" (Oring). So if the law books don't set you straight, community pressure and shame most certainly will.

In Switzerland, there is no greater influence on your life than your immediate surroundings. This implicit obligation to the worldview of the community is even mirrored more explicitly in formal systems like the Swiss Militia and direct democracy voting rights.

Secret circles of communication, communal shame, and militias. There is only one place this line of thought can lead. Back to our starting point: Utah!

(Continued in Part 2.)

Photo credits:
Albert Bierstadt
Salt Lake City Temple

18 August 2009


Lately I've been obsessed with a song. Wendy says I always have to be "in love" with something and I guess my current affair has something to do with Tom T. Hall. In particular, I'm starry-eyed and swooning for his 1971 song "I Hope It Rains at My Funeral" from his album 100 Children.

It's a brilliant piece of songwriting, due in no small part to Tom's delivery. The storyline is well-worn: country boy desires to escape his dead end country life and authoritarian father but
once he's gone only finds himself in more trouble. Like many of Tom's more serious songs, it's sad and heartbreaking but conveyed with a sense of humor (or, humor conveyed with heartbreaking sadness). The hero of the song is curious and ambitious but naive and limited by his upbringing. You can't help but to cheer for the poor bastard even though you're shaking your head with knowing anticipation.

In the end, of course, the boy is a man and he's beat up and only slightly wiser for it. He knows only enough to know that if given the choice he wouldn't do it all over again.

And for the hell of it, here is Whiskeytown's version taken from the 1998 compilation, Real: The Tom T. Hall Project. It pales in comparison to the original but I have a real soft spot for Whiskeytown. The naiveté is lost in the delivery and Ryan Adams sounds like the dumb loser that the hero probably is but that we don't want to admit. It's more of a late night honky tonk closer, less Joe Buck and more, um, Joe Dirt(?).

Whiskeytown also made a chorus from one of the verses, rendering it a 'song' rather than a ballad. But the worst offense is that Ryan Adams changed the last line of the original version ("For once, I'd like to be the only one dry.") into, "For once, I'd like to be the only one that's left there crying". Not only does this not make sense (Ryan Adams will never be known as a lyricist) but it removes the cynical humor of the narrator. The last line is the song's punch line and at that point the hero is laughing at himself and his reckless zeal. The Whiskeytown version seems to miss the point entirely and, again, the narrator comes across as feeling sorry for himself and his misfortunes. Bad Ryan. Bad.

Still, the combination of Caitlin Cary's sweet fiddle, Phil Wandscher's guitar, and, yes, even Ryan's affected vocals never sounded so good.

03 August 2009

The Fun of Watching Fireworks

On Saturday, 01 August, Switzerland celebrated it's 718th birthday. Yes, that means that in 1291 the country of Switzerland was created, though independence from Austria didn't happen until 1648. Take that, New World.

From the website Swissworld.org:

The day was chosen because August 1st 1291 was the date on which three Alpine cantons swore the oath of confederation, an act which later came to be regarded as the foundation of Switzerland. The representatives of Schwyz, Unterwalden, and Uri met on the Rütli field, high above Lake Lucerne, to swear a bond of brotherhood, and agree to act jointly if their freedoms were threatened by outside aggressors.

Although the holiday is a national one, the day is celebrated almost exclusively through the municipalities (villages). The one true nationalized event is the reenactment of the Rütli oath above Lucerne. The lack of pomp and circumstance makes for a local, hometown, country fair kind of celebration; a day to reflect and feel good about the immediate environment more, and less about the larger metaphors of national borders. This is important in Switzerland, a country that lists German, French, Italian, and Romansh all as national languages.

In a country run by four political parties called the Swiss Federal Council and whose President--
who has no powers higher than any other Council member--is elected by the Federal Assembly, this lack of direct authority and cultural cohesion may seem haphazard and fragmented. Not true. No, Switzerland is not the ideological backwater of three or four larger countries. Switzerland could never be mistaken for the geeky, better organized, and obsessive compulsive little brother of Germany, France, and Italy.

On second thought, maybe it could.

Alpine backwater notwithstanding, at the end of the day there is only one Switzerland. And Switzerland, Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera, Svizra, or whatever else it wants to call itself seems to believe that a country's sense of itself is cultivated from the farm up. Swiss citizens bestow their loyalty to their village or municipality first, canton or state second, and to the federal level or country as a whole third--exactly opposite to the model of allegiance pledged by those of us from the United States. National traditions, then, are developed, implemented, and maintained at a local level, which allows for smaller variations to take precedent and identifies each community as separate and unique.

Again, in the US, I think the opposite generally is true: our communities are different but we often feel compelled, we often strive, to be more American, more united. Thus, through efforts to be something bigger, more meaningful, more cohesive, we endanger that which has set us apart in the first place: local customs and traditions. Geeky little brother or not, Switzerland has nourished its traditions to full maturity.

And so it was that we celebrated our first Swiss National Day by heading into our little village of Crans. We missed the National Day speech by the municipal mayor but we made it just in time for the march through the village. Even though Crans only has four main streets (Rue des Artisans, Rue Antoine Saladin, Rue des Belles Filles, Route du Grand Pré), the march consisted of a full brass band and all the villagers who wished to follow. We jumped right in as proud Cransinians.

It's important to note that the flag bearer at the head of the procession carries not the Swiss flag or the canton of Vaud flag but that which represents the commune of Crans.

The parade grew as it passed through the streets, all four of them, and by the end it seemed as though the entire village of Crans was following the band. And they probably were.

Another aspect of the parade is that children are supposed to carry lampions or candle lanterns as they march around the village streets. This not only signifies that all generations are represented in the National Day celebration but that parents have the duty to pass down, to bear the traditions to their own children, customs that they probably participated in when they were young.

The timing was perfect (of course) and the parade concluded just at dusk. The band returned to the site of the party and the traditional bonfire was lit.

Again, from Swissworld.org:

Long before the government decided in 1891 to declare the day Switzerland's national day, people had celebrated summer by lighting bonfires. Indeed, the custom of lighting a fire on June 24th, St John's Day, is known all over Europe. But for the Swiss, bonfires had an extra significance. For centuries they had built beacons on mountain tops which they lit when danger approached. One legend told of both Lake Geneva and Lake Biel relates how hordes of invading barbarians intent on conquering the ancient Swiss tribes turned back when they saw the lights reflected in the lake waters, thinking they had come to the edge of the earth and were about to ride off into the sky.

Then the party! It was small but loud. There were mountains of grilled sausages, cheese, and bread. Red, white, and rosé wine was offered by the local vintner, Château de Crans. There was a DJ who took turns as the bandleader and sole accordionist.

There was no organized firework display. Everyone brought their own. Besides the constant bonfire there were small firework shows happening all night at random times and places. It was a bit chaotic and surprisingly unorganized. Adults drank and talked and danced under the tent while teenagers and kids ran amok in the park and pastures. Hank would disappear into the night only to reappear with a sparkler or a newfound friend. Music would fade in and out as it alternated with the clamor and calm of conversation. Fireworks big and small would brighten the sky or only the faces of the group that surrounded them. We talked with strangers. Hank's new friend flirted with me while Hank took pictures. It was all a smokey blur. It was a blast.

And then it happened. The accordionist/bandleader switched roles and started spinning discs. Most of it was the usual wedding party-brand of disco and cheesy pop à la Bee Gees and J. Geils Band. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, came the Four Seasons, and the deal was sealed. Block party. South Iris street. The Fourth of July, 1976. The 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. My sister's Plymouth Barracuda. German exchange students. The Outlaw Josey Wales at the Drive-In theater. Running across cool suburban lawns with sparklers in both hands.

Through it all I was reminded of my youth, in the same way that Michael Jackson's death reminded me of my youth: as something that I had temporarily misplaced somewhere in the back of my rapidly aging mind, but which has quite clearly impacted the way I view and experience and understand the world around me. The feeling was the same; I was a part of something small that represented something more.

The scene in our village of Crans repeated itself in the village of Céligny, three kilometers down the road. In the commune of Eysins, a kilometer or so toward the Jura mountains, you could also find a similar set of events. And on the French border in Crassier, seven kilometers away, a similar party was in progress. In fact, a satellite photo of Switzerland from the night of 01 August would seem as if the entire country was on fire. However, the conflagration would not be borne from a solitary flame, a single source of light, but from an infinite number of small bonfires that would evoke the limitless potential of the night sky.

It doesn't take much. You don't need a filled stadium with the Beach Boys and a million dollar light show. You don't need a National Mall with a giant monument that celebrates itself. You need hard work. You need the inclination of a bunch of neighbors to barricade their street (illegally) from traffic so that their children can run free with sparklers in their hands and their parents can haul kegs of beer and barbecue grills into the roadway. You need a small brass band that keeps their uniforms pressed and clean and ready for the five or six times a year when they're pulled out and paraded around the four village streets. You need sausages and cold, locally made rosé. And you need to know which flag to fly and when to take it back down.

Traditions don't come cheap and relationships don't come without work. I hope to know more villagers when we attend next year. And Hank will carry a lampion.