(Translation: Feeling Cheesy).
In the names of all things Swiss, it is time to impart some merriment makers on the nation of cheese, milk and of course, chocolate.
First off, where it is. Landlocked Switzerland – looks to me like a little flea – is at the crossroads of northern and southern Europe. The Swiss themselves say they live in the middle of the world – due to its central location, it has always been at the centre of major trade routes and is still a major transport and communications link between the European nations of the north and south. Rather on the little side, with Aussie out sizing it 186 to one, it is a nation of towering mountains, deep alpine lakes and grassy valleys sprinkled with farms and small villages as well as bustling cities.
And although it may be surrounded by other countries and not the sea, it is still rich in water resources with large lakes (such as Geneva at 582km sq, Constance at 539km sq and Neuchatel at 218km sq) and long rivers (the Rhine at 375km, Aare at 295km, the Rhone at 264km and the Reuss at 158km). Mountains cover a good 60 per cent of the land area – Alps in the south and Jura Mountains in the north – with the central plateau of rolling hills, plains and the larger lakes – known as the “Mittelland” – taking up 30 per cent or so.
Switzerland is home to the Chamois, a horned goat in the goat family but that is adorned with antelope-like features, as well as a significant seven breeds of dog as attributed by the International Canine Federation – that being the Bernese Mountain dog, the Entlebuch Cattle dog, the Appenzell Mountain dog, the Great Swiss Mountain dog, the St Bernard, the Swiss Hound and the Smaller Swiss Hound.
The country is home to 8million people, with its population quadrupling in the century from 1800 to 1900. The capital is Bern – no, not Zurich or Geneva as most people seem to believe – with Zurich considered the most desirable city in the world with its quality of life and being deemed the wealthiest city in Europe. Switzerland is like Belgium with its demography being made up of three different linguistic and cultural regions, being German, French and Italian. The chief tongue is Swiss German spoken by 63.5 per cent of the population, with French at 22.5 per cent and Italian at 8.1 per cent.
Interestingly, the very easily-identified flag – that being the white cross on the red background, que all positive, plus puns; just don’t cross me on this one – is square and not rectangle, the only one in the world aside from that of Vatican City to be so. The country’s unofficial motto is “Unuspro omnibus pro uno”, translating as “One for all, all for one”, projecting an image of tradition, sobriety, sensibility and tranquillity. And ever wonder – like I – why it is often referred to with the abbreviation “CH”? Well, Switzerland is also known as the Confederation Helvetica, so there you go.
You wold think such a stronghold would be a major power in the Eurozone but not so; the country staunchly uses the Swiss Franc (CHF, there we go with the abbreviation you now know why it is so) and is one of the world’s most stable economies. It is viewed as a safe haven for investors, with banking having high secrecy laws (such as the Swiss Banking Law of 1934 which enables wealthy foreigners to evade taxes by hiding assets in Swiss banks – think Wolf of Wall Street. This means it is a criminal offence to divulge info about clients and their accounts without consent, meaning the rich are away laughing). However, recent years have seen this slightly lessened as pressure has been put on by foreign governments wanting to prosecute tax cheats.
Swiss banking has further been boosted by their continued neutrality and no interference policy in foreign conflicts; infamously known for their nonaligned stance in the face of fighting, Switzerland has been perceived as a tranquil sanctuary amidst turmoil elsewhere. (Switzerland has not been at war since 1505). This means commercial interests between countries at war used Switzerland as a meditation point where they could continue doing business with the enemy in secret (throughout WWII it stood as a safe passage for both sides). Thus, this combined with the banking secrecy laws has resulted in the country having one of the largest offshore financial sectors in the world and becoming one of the biggest tax havens.
The franc is frankly, very strong. It is extremely expensive to go to Switzerland (just asked the group of us out for a pub lunch yesterday who were gobsmacked at having to pay almost NZD$30 for a simple chicken baguette) as a result of the high minimum wage and what not.
The Swiss industry is based on a successful formula, being build specialised and good quality products, guarantee delivery dates, provide high value after sales services and sell to a global market. This has led to the country being one of the world leaders in the export of high end watches, with Swiss seen as the best in dominating the watchmaking industry (think Tag Heuer, Rolex, Omega and the “Swatch” – precise, stylish and affordable, launched in 1938 as a more casual, fun and disposable option). In 2014 the exported watch and clock industry was worth USD$23.6billion – right back up from the Quartz crisis of 30 years ago, where the advent of quartz watches replacing mechanical meant a surge in Japanese designs and a big downer in the Swiss market.
Now, political systems are often bore-inducing but bear with me (did you know the Tolberone – a Swiss genius of an innovation – has a bear embedded in the mountain logo? Grab a bar and have a geez) (and please tell me you were already aware that the shape of the bar is so as to be reminiscent of a mountain range?) because that of the Swiss is actually rather intriguing.
So Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons – like the Swiss version of states – with each having its own constitution and assembly. A direct democracy, Switzerland gives its citizens an extraordinary amount of participation in legislative processes and a maximum level of self-determination in politics. It is unique in the number of decisions it requires citizens to make through referendums – there are votes several times a year on proposed legislation at both national and canton levels – in fact, of the world’s total number of held referendums, the Swiss have held more than half. Swiss citizens can also call a national vote on any issue by collecting 100,000 signatures. This means citizens have a direct voice in their own affairs, unparalleled in any other country. (But interestingly enough, although Switzerland is often praised as a model of direct democracy women were not actually granted the right to vote there until 1990).
Now the thing that most hubbubs me out is that Switzerland has a collective head of state. A seven-member federal council has run the country since 1848, with executive power vested in a committee rather than an individual. “One for seven, seven for one” is the go, with each year a different member holding the ceremonial post for federal president on a rotating basis. So succinctly put, the “head of state” status remains jointly held by all the seven, with the year’s “president” the one to represent the Swiss at home and internationally but are still considered a first among equals and not the leader. Thus, executive decisions are made collectively, with official communications stating, “The Federal Council has decided…”.
A thing that tickled my fancy: there is a political party called the Anti-PowerPoint Party that is dedicated to decreasing the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and other such presentation software in professional contexts. Instead calling for the use of flip charts, the party claims power points cause economic damage of 350 billion euros worldwide on an annual basis and calls for a constraint on the “boring” presentation avenue. It was formed in 2011 and had 3500 members as of 2015. Seems to really be excelling, right? Word. I’m still trying to compute.
Switzerland is on point with pets, having the toughest animal rights laws in the world. In late 2008, a new animal act was passed into law; 150 pages, it laid out on great detail how dozens of different species are to be treated by their owners. These are such specifications as dwarf rabbits must be kept in a hutch no smaller than 50cmx70cm with 40cm headroom, with the ability to dig; dogs, as social animals, must have daily contact with humans and walked at least once a day (though not specifying how far or how long which angered a lot of campaigners); prospective owners must do a four-hour theory course and complete four hours at a dog school on first owning their canine; so forth. However, it ignited a lot of calls of “species-ism”, and the “cute effect” – that being, only cute animals such as puppies and kittens were given consideration with the “ugly” largely ignored.
In March 2010 there was a referendum held whether animals should be appointed free lawyers in abuse cases, meaning each and every canton would have to have public defenders for animals. (They voted no). Switzerland is home to the world’s top animal lawyer, Antoine Goetschel, from Zurich – the only canton with one. An animal advocate, he has represented animals in divorce of their owners and such lark, with 2010 seeing him in court acting on behalf of a pike (I.e., fish with a long snout). How did it come to be? Well, a man from the village of Horgen had reeled in a 55kg pike and boasted to a local newspaper about how it took him 10 minutes to land the scaled swimmer. Goetschel acted on instruction of the state prosecutor and the man was taken to court on criminal prosecution for causing excessive suffering to the animal. In court at the same time as the referendum failed, Goetschel lost the case citing the “absurdity” the media splashed (sorry) it about the headlines in led the public to being fed up with it all. (The pike became the poster child for animal rights and got his own Facebook page, attracting 6000 likes).
Now to get all cheesy and get onto the food.
The Swiss national food is none other than fondue neuchateloise, that being none other than cheese fondue. This is melted Emmentaler and Gruyere cheese bubbling away in a communal pot as companions gather around and dip in cubes of bread on speared forks into the melted frippery (the others indulged in for an entrée last night, citing a cheese overload afterwards).
And raclette, oh raclette– cheese melted over a fire and scraped over potatoes, pickles, onions and bread. Fittingly coming from the French word “recler” meaning “to scrape off”. (Kirsty had some for lunch and declared it sensational -though something tells me her lump of cheese was melted down in a microwave rather than a flickering flame).
You see, cheese making is a major part of Swiss heritage; with more than 100 varieties, it is not mass produced – rather, cheese is made in hundreds of small, strictly controlled dairies under the directions of a cheese master with a degree. Many infamous Swiss cheeses such as Emmentaler – I.e., the one with all the holes – Gruyere, Appenzeller and Sapsago have been widely copied around the world.
And chocolate, oh mate, chocolate. The Swiss eat more chocolate than any other country in the world and are the global superpower in terms of production. Chocolate was first introduced into Europe with Christopher Columbus bringing it in back in 1502 – it was a hit, and started being produced in Switzerland in the 1800s when the people saw it as a long-range money-maker. They are credited with having created truffles, pralines, cakes and mousses, with the first chocolate factory block (yes) opened in Corsier in 1819.
We have the Swiss-born Daniel Peter to thank for the advent of milk chocolate too; in 1876 he was the lad to add condensed milk to the bean. Taking a good eight years to perfect he took it to none other than Harry Nestle (inventor of evaporated milk) and we were blessed with the block. The year 1879 Rodolphe Lindt perfected the melting chocolate process, significantly contributing to the worldwide reputation of Swiss chocolate (note his last name?) and the first chocolate bar – the Lindt Surfin bar – came into being in 1879. Sprungli (big name in chocolate) and Lindt merged in 1899 into a chocolate-making dynasty, with the first Lindor ball created in 1949. The company is now an international conglomerate selling in more than 80 countries with eight production sites in Europe and the USA.
Secrecy and precision have always been cited as Swiss virtues and this extends into chocolate making as well. Chocolate is not just an edible, but an artwork with the allure in the aesthetics as well. Swiss consumption averages at one bar per person per day, with a popular belief being, “Nine out of ten people like chocolate. The tenth is lying”.
Mate, onto the milk. With all the cows and what not, of course milk is big, with the Swiss drinking 70 litres each a year – that’s 233 glasses. In 2014 the 550,000 Swiss cows produced 3.47million tons of milk, equal to 1348 Olympic sized swimming pools. And there is none of this “skim”, “trim”, “skinny” hoshtosh; it’s always whole. Milk vending machines abound across the country, and dairy is so loved that it was even developed into a fizzy drink in 1952 – meet Rivella, a 35 per cent why and lactoserum bevvy that – apparently – tastes like Sprite. Deemed the “Uber Swiss drink”, more than 2 million glasses of the stuff are consumed by the Swiss every day. (And it now comes in varieties, being red, blue, yellow, peach, rhubarb and cranberry).
Although made by a Frenchman, Absinthe was technically created in Switzerland; in 1792 French doctor Pierre Ordinaire was on the run from the French Revolution and went to western Switzerland, where he came up with the “green fairy”. It was considered an elixir cure-all for a range of diseases, going on to be utilised by creative types such as Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde and Picasso for its hallucinogenic effects. It was illegal in Switzerland from 1910 to 2005, and although allowed nowadays it must be distilled and not contain certain additives.
- Roger Federa: of course, one of the greatest tennis players in all of history. At 34 years old he holds 17 Grand Slam singles titles and has held a striking 302 weeks atop world rankings. Born in Basel in 1981, he was tipped as one of the country’s top tennis players by the age of 11. He went pro in 1998, with his Wimbledon victory in 2003 seeing him as the first Swiss man to win a Grand Slam. He is married with both a set of identical twin boys and identical twin girls, with his family following him about the globe to support him playing. His wife Mirka (also a Swiss tennis champ) made headlines in 2014 at the ATP Tour Finals semi-finals in London; a video went viral of her heckling her husband’s opponent, Stan Wawrinka (also Swiss and Federer’s doubles partner in past). Wawrinka had expressed discontent with Mirka’s encouraging calls to Roger during his serving, with Wawrinka going to the umpire saying Mirka was breaching tennis etiquette and was “unbearable”. Mirka responded by calling out, “Crybaby!”. After the match – won by Federer – Wawrinka was so agitated that the two men argued in the tunnel and had to be ushered into a makeshift gym to sort out their differences.
- William Tell: the folk hero infamous for shooting an apple off his son’s head. Many years ago Switzerland was ruled by a Hapsburg family tyrant named Gessler, making life for the people bitter and difficult. One day he set up a pole in the town square and put his cap on the top, telling every man they must bow down before it. Along came William Tell, a hunter from the mountains who would not do as Gessler demanded; rather, he stood up straight, folded his arms and laughed at the tomfoolery of the leader. Gessler was infuriated and was afraid other men would follow suit; he decided to punish William Tell. Having heard of Tell’s expertise with a bow and arrow and the claim that no one could shoot as well as Tell, he (being Gessler) decided to use this in a cruel plan to bring Tell’s skill to heartache and grief. He ordered Tell’s young son to stand in the square with a red apple atop his head, and demanded Tell shoot it off with his bow and arrow from 50 steps away.“You must hit the apple with a single arrow,” Gessler said. “If you fail, my soldiers will kill your son before your very eyes.”Tell’s son stood tall, firm and still, having great faith in his father’s skill. Tell shot the arrow in the centre, the force carrying it through the air from his son’s head; as he turned a second arrow fell from beneath his jacket. When Gessler questioned as to why he had a second arrow, Tell responded, “It was to pierce your heat if my first arrow killed my son”. Tell was arrested for such a response and sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in the dungeons of Gessler’s castle; however, on the boat journey there a violent storm broke out and the oarsmen begged Gessler to let Tell take the reins and save them. Tell manoeuvred the boat to shore and jumped out to freedom, hiding in a bush outside the castle. When Gessler returned home Tell struck him the heart with the second arrow. No one is sure if the aforementioned is legend or actual occurrences (main consensus is that Tell was actually a real man back in the 1300s), but it is said to have spurred the rise up of the Swiss against Austrian rule and inspire the independence of Switzerland.
- Heidi: the fictional lass frolicking about the mountain fields, created by Swiss author Johanna Spyri in 1881. As a youngster I LOVED Heidi, having read my well-thumbed copy many a time. I used to frolic about the back yard with flowers in my hair and bare feet, begging Henio to buy me a pet goat and going to great lengths to find my own friend Clara in a wheelchair. (Even today, if I ever have children, I want to name my first girl Heidi).
- Albert Einstein: one of history’s most important physicists, Einstein is known the world over as being insanely intelligent. Although born in Germany in 1879, he took Swiss nationality in 1900 and renounced German citizenship in 1933. In his time, he published four massive theories – most well-known being that of relativity in 1915 – and won the Nobel prize in 1921 for physics. He died in 1955 in New Jersey (immigrating there during WWII as a result of his Jewish background) after an abdominal aneurysm (he refused treatment, declaring it tasteless to prolong life artificially). His brain was removed and is now displayed at the Princeton University Medical Centre. He was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Century.
- Ursula Andress: the first and ultimate Bond girl and sex symbol. She starred alongside Sean Connery as Honey Ryder in the 1962 Dr No., with the famous scene of her sauntering out of the sea in a white bikini with a large diving knife strung on her hip voted as the number one in the 2003’s 100 Greatest Sexy Moments. Funnily enough, Andress never actually went for the role; two weeks before filming kick-started her character was still up in the air. Directors saw a photo that actor John Derek had taken of his wife (that being Andress) and offered her the part without even meeting her. In the film, her voice was done by voiceover as a result of her heavy Swiss-German accent. (And the bikini she wore sold in a 2001 auction for USD$60,000).
- Others of Swiss descent: Rene Zellweger (Bridget Jones’ Diary, Chicago); Ryan Seacrest (American Idol host and E News presenter); Meryl Streep (the greatest actress of all time who can play ANYONE; maintain that in a docu of my life, she’d play me); George Lucas (Star War director) and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Almost done – as always, some inventions and what not.
- The Swiss Army Knife – actually Swiss!
- During the late 1880s the Swiss Army decided to buy folding pocket knives for their soldiers that was able to open tinned food and be able to disassemble the Swiss service rifle. A call for a knife with a blade, reamer, can-opener, screwdriver and grips was made; no Swiss company had the necessary means for production so the first order for 15,000 knives was made with a German company in 1891. A year later a Swiss company started up to make them by the name of Karl Elsener, winning the contract to produce the Modell 1890 knife. The company grew and changed its name to Victorinox, which is the major name in production of the tool today.
- The knife was originally called “Offiziersmesser” but American soldiers nicknamed it the Swiss Army Knife after being unable to say name properly.
- Bircher Muesli: invented by physician and nutritional research pioneer Maximilian Bircher-Benner in 1900 for patients in his Zurich hospital. When hiking in the mountains, he stopped off at a mountain hut and was served a dish of raw, grated apple, nuts, lemon juice and oats in milk; he took the raw meal and modified it to his own, with oats displaying health-promoting effects. The cereal took off in later years, spreading throughout the western world in 1960.
- Nestle: Swiss food and beverage company headquartered in Vaud, Switzerland and the largest food company in the world by revenue standards. Think Nesquik, Nespresso, Kit Kat, Smarties, Maggi (Two Minute Noodles, the flat’s best friend), Milo, Skinny Cow, Lean Cuisine, Baby Ruths, Milky Bar, Wonka bars and Purina pet food. Nestle has more than 444 factories in 194 countries, with founder Henri Nestle selling his brainchild off in 1875 to three local businessmen who made it what it is today.
- Ovaltine: first made in 1865 by Swiss Dr George Waner, who established the high nutritional value of barley malt. It was first marketed as a nutritional supplement for people in need of a more rounded diet, with Waner hoping the product would someday win the world’s battle against malnutrition. However, his son realised pure malt extract wasn’t going to be too tempting to people, so added sugar, whey and beet extract and marketed it as an energy booster. It became an instant hit in the skiing community, served hot on the slopes, and was exported to Britain from 1909. It gained immense popularity as the official drink of the 1948 Olympic Games and when Sir Edmund Hilary (yeah boy) carried it up (like the powder, not a steaming cup as he trekked and tackled cliffs) Mt Everest in 1953. (It is rumoured that by adding raw eggs to a cup gives a powerful boost to the male libido).
- Movenpick Ice Cream: the first Movenpick restaurant opened in Zurich in 1948, with the name coming from the German word for seagull – “Mowe”. (The original logo had the “W” as being a bird). By 1958 there were 8 restaurants throughout Switzerland, with ice cream starting to be produced in the 1960s. In the 1970s Movenpick was the first ice cream to offer “inclusions”, being ripples, sauces and pieces. Nestle bought the international rights of Movenpick ice cream in 2003, now selling to a good 30 countries. The company declares to use no artificial additives or colours aside from glucose syrup in place of sugar, with their three “collections” – Classics (think almond vanilla, maple walnut, caramelita), Delices de fruit (lemon and lime, raspberry, strawberry) and harmony (raspberry and cream, strawberry and cream, yoghurt and forest fruit) staples in stores about the globe.
Nuances and quirks and what not to end on, I promise!
- Some consider Switzerland as a beautiful, pristine paradise; others see it as an uptight, conservative, boring place.
- Many women do not work after having children; childcare is not readily available and children often come home from school for lunch. (In 2013, voters rejected an amendment which would make it easier to combine work and family).
- There is largely a “hands-off” approach to raising kids; offspring are encouraged to explore, walk to school themselves and garner independence off the leash so to speak.
- Switzerland has a unique education system with kids entering kindy at age 4 or 5; at age 6 or 9 they sit an exam to enter Gymnasium – if passing, this school leads onto university. If not passing, they go into a stream that does vocational training. This means it is often the case of having very young nurses, childcare workers and what not as studying for actual professions starts at a young age. (To put this in perspective, only 18.7 per cent of 19-year-olds in Zurich qualified for Uni in 2014).
There we have some inSwights (sorry, that was awful). A splendidly scenic country of serenity, neutrality, chocolate and fizzy milk. Fab!