Up before dawn for six Saturdays running, in order to catch the train and attend the Staatskunde courses – a total of over 15 hours in class plus plenty of extra reading to tax my poor brain – that in itself should qualify me for Swiss citizenship! But no, on completion of this course in December I had to do a written test, an “Aptitude Test” worth a maximum of 70 points (I knew immediately I had lost at least 6 or 7, due to my brain going blank on some very simple questions, but it turned out I had 86% correct) and now in January attend a chatty interview just to make sure I’m worthy of acceptance in this village.
Yes, my friends, I am very pleased and proud that soon I shall to be able to proclaim “i bin Schwyzerin / je suis Suissesse” and I look forward eagerly to holding my ID card and red passport in my hot little hands. There is, of course, another step to go: I have passed the test, and the village elders have put in their recommendation on my behalf, but it will now take until the autumn before the powers that be in Bern will grant me that little red booklet. I confess that I pointed out to my interviewing panel that, given my age, it would be nice to get it before I pop my clogs!
I grumbled about this course beforehand but now I wish all Swiss had to do it and pass this test in order to retain their Swiss citizenship! It‘s an excellent idea, and I’m glad I did it. Having been here for almost half a century, you’d think I’d have known almost everything there is to know about this unique little country, but no, far from it – every single day I discover and learn something new. I’m sorry for all those people born Swiss who haven’t delved into the details of their native land: it’s an enriching experience. And it has increased my admiration for this landlocked island squeezed in among its louder, more notorious neighbours, for keeping its identity and autonomy for so many centuries.
Ask anyone what they know about the history of Switzerland, and most will mention Wilhelm Tell – who is probably mythical – and maybe that famous Swiss neutrality that kept its citizens out of two world wars. “Switzerland has no history,” a French friend once told me very disparagingly. “It’s just one big money-laundering machine.” And there’s the famous quote from Orson Welles about cuckoo clocks.
But look at this place: how, with its multicultural population and its impossible terrain, did it ever come to be a country in its own right, and even more amazingly, how did it manage to stay a united country, with such a strong sense of national identity? Of course it has a history, and a very interesting one at that.
The Swiss survived Julius Caesar, the Habsburgs (who started out Swiss – their family castle is still standing above the Autobahn tunnel in Aargau), Napoleon and Hitler. In earlier times, being strong and tough, young Swiss men were much sought after as mercenaries in foreign armies (including the Vatican’s Swiss Guard). Swiss history is full of bloody clashes between feuding lords and bishops, greedy dukes and earls, with fiefs changing hands every decade. Eventually, these arguments seem to have been settled and common sense allowed to prevail, but events within Switzerland had few international repercussions, so are largely ignored.
Take the story of Switzerland’s nineteenth century civil war, the Sonderbundkrieg. This was the last war on Swiss territory and lasted exactly one month, the month of November 1847 to be precise. 130 fatalities recorded. Then, typically Swiss, a compromise was reached resulting in a new constitution. The general appointed to put down the conservative rebels – and who didn’t want the job and kept turning it down – was the famous Henri Dufour, who later founded the Red Cross. Somehow, this story encapsulates much of what is typical for Switzerland. I had never heard of it until a few weeks ago, probably because it had no immediate impact outside the country … or did it? Just a few months later, in 1848, most of Europe exploded in revolution …
So, as I said, I discover something new every day about this country. Today? Well, all along the Rhine are ruins of mediaeval fortresses and our village actually has two. One is up on the mountainside and became home to the Abbot who was the feudal lord of most of the villagers, the other housed the feudal lord of the rest of the village and is on a small hill covered in vineyards nearer the river. This morning I found out not only some of the history of this castle, but also the bare bones of a legend: somewhere in the castle there is imprisoned a beautiful banished damsel, waiting to be rescued by a capable young man who not only gets the girl but also a legendary hidden treasure. Not a particularly original tale, but how exciting to live virtually next door to such a place!
Why hasn’t our Tourist Office exploited this story? Probably because this castle is also used every summer for an open-air rock festival, which attracts masses of young people. Who knows, maybe some of the lads might start trying to locate the mysterious captive and her treasure – and that could lead to vandalism. Or maybe, more mundanely, there are no romantics left.
Incidentally, this castle is called Freudenberg, which means Mount Joyful. At the end of December, I travelled here with my daughter and son-in-law after visiitng Heitertal = Cheerful Valley. My son-in-law’s surname means Happy, my daughter’s middle name is Joy, and their dog is called Merry. Could there be a more felicitous omen?