The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.


A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

15 thoughts on “The importance of being Swiss

  1. I like the flash fiction.

    I understand your desire to become a citizen. When we lived abroad, there came a time when I was tired of not being able to contribute to the country, of not caring enough about it the way a citizen would. Now that I’m back in my own country, sometimes when a certain issue looks hopeless, I wonder what anyone could possibly do. But it’s different. That kind of frustration is just part of being human in a complex, imperfect world.

    1. Yes it’s true, a citizen relates to current affairs in a different way and I’d like to have that back. But you’re right, a lot of the time there’s not much one person can do except hope for change.

  2. This is an issue which is really close to my heart right now as I set off on the (sometimes long and tiresome) adventure towards gaining German citizenship this year – and gained it last Monday! Obviously, nothing has changed except the little credit card-sized ID in my wallet (as opposed to a threadbare 22-year old residence permit – even if it was unlimited) but now: I CAN VOTE! If the current grand coalition holds as planned until 2017, I will take to the polls with my 19-year old daughter and we will vote together for the first time. Go for it, Clare – even if it’s a drop in the ocean for most people, there’s a huge amount of satisfaction at being referred to as a “Mehrstaatler”. Good luck!

    1. Congratulations Marius! It’s funny that we both ended up bowing to the inevitable in the same year. Sounds like the procedure in Germany is a bit more streamlined, if you only started the ball rolling this year.
      New I.D. card, excuse for a party?

      1. Since when did either of us ever need an excuse for a party?!

  3. I also can understand your reasoning. As you say, Switzerland is your home now, so to become a fully paid up member is an obvious step. I have lived in France for all my adult life but I still feel foreign. I’ve never lived in a place that was really home—I was born an immigrant and I suppose I’ll die one.

    1. To never live in a place that was really home – when you put it like that, it sounds a bit like being an orphan. No mother country! You must have become very adept at being an immigrant by now and learned to get the best out of it.

      1. The mother country is collective memories I suppose rather than a place I’ve ever lived. It’s the nostalgic weeping over the ‘old country’ that was a place we went back to knowing it was only ever to visit. My children won’t have that problem. They were born and brought up her so they are to all intents and purposes French with strange parents 🙂

    1. Thanks Tom. Sounds like you had a pretty positive experience, though I’m surprised the interviewees at the end requested to speak Swiss German with you. Fair play to you to be able to roll with that!
      As far as I know I won’t have to do a real interview because it is a facilitated naturalisation, possibly just a quick checking of facts over the phone. We’ll see …

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