Douwe Osinga's Blog: Boring Alps

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

When I told people we were moving to Switzerland, a common reaction was: Switzerland, isn’t that very boring? The Swiss do have a reputation for being solid and reliable. “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, 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 they produce? The cuckoo clock”, as Harry Lime said in The Third Man. A sentiment still very common when it comes to Switzerland.


The cuckoo clock was actually a Bavarian invention, but that is hardly the point. Switzerland was not always this peaceful, it is actually quite a recent thing; In 1848 Switzerland had a bitter civil war and before that the Swiss were known as fierce warriors, often fighting as mercenaries on both sides of a war. As for contributions to world culture, there were Hermann Hesse, Rousseau and Paul Klee, in itself not a bad score for such a small country and of course federalism and local democracy; a lot of the ideas that seemed new when introduced by the founding fathers in the US had been practiced in the Alps since 1291 when the people from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden decided to go it alone.


Zurich is not the boring banking town ruled by gnomes some people would have it either. On my way to the office, I was approached by two hookers and a drug dealer and that is only a five minute walk. Nightlife here is supposed to one of the best of Europe (but I find things like that hard to judge) and there is for sure no shortage of bars and restaurants. And the vague smell of Marijuana is pretty common; it is Switzerland, not the Netherlands or Nepal where they seriously discuss legalizing the stuff.


Of course things are well organized; trains and trams run on time, streets are safe and the general quality of things is high. Zurich may be a bit like Amsterdam in that it is tolerant, international and small, but it sure is a lot cleaner. But the fact that things work, doesn’t make life boring. Actually the most boring place I’ve ever spent time was in a small village 5 miles walk from Waterloo, Sierra Leone. And there pretty much nothing worked.