One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.
The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.
From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.
Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.
Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.
Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?
It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?
Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.
Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.
In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.
From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.
Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.
When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.
This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.
Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.
When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!
And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.
Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.
I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.
My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.
Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.
Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.
In a slight change of direction, I’ve been commissioned to write some science stories over the next few months and that means my inbox is now flooded with Swiss science newsletters. Actually, it’s a great way to start the day, finding out about scientists’ wild and wonderful ideas. The creativity is infectious!
Today brought a press release from Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology about duckweed, aka Wolffia. Two researchers, Cyrill Hess and Melanie Bingelli, want to take this common water plant beloved of ducks, and make it widely available as a superfood for humans. Duckweed contains lots of high-quality plant proteins and fibre, as well as valuable unsaturated fatty acids. They think it could become a staple for vegetarians, perfect in smoothies or salads, apparently.
Apart from the various challenges the scientists have to overcome in the production process, there is one important administrative hurdle to get over, and it involves the European Union. Hess and Binggeli have to apply for EU approval for Wolffia to be listed as a novel food before it can be sold as a foodstuff. This approval might eventually make the production and sale of the plant economically viable.
If you want to read more about their work, check out the press release here.
So what’s the Brexit connection? I’m getting there. Reading about this exciting research, it struck me, not for the first time, how central the EU is to everything that happens in the European region, scientific research and food production being just two of countless examples.
Switzerland had a free trade agreement with the EEC from 1972, but when the EU single market came along, new arrangements were needed. The plan was for Switzerland (along with fellow neutrals Sweden and Austria) to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, which would have offered the advantages of EU integration without compromising on sovereignty. But when voters rejected this option, the government had to go back to the drawing board, a bit like the position the British are in now. Membership of the EEA might have made sense for the UK which is obviously much more integrated in the EU economy than Switzerland ever was but, thanks to Teresa May’s red lines, this was ruled out at an early stage after the Brexit vote.
Since 1992, the Swiss have negotiated some 120 bilateral agreements with the EU, a slow and painstaking process. These agreements, along with membership of Schengen, have brought Switzerland very close to full integration. Thanks to the 1999 Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products, for example, approximately 58% of Swiss agricultural exports went to EU member states in 2018, while about 75% of its agricultural imports came from the EU. Maybe one day duckweed will feature among those exports.
The UK officially leaves to the EU on January 31st and the (in)famous Withdrawal Agreement will be in place until the end of this year. The idea that Boris Johnson’s government wants to negotiate a raft of new agreements governing every aspect of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in 11 months is for the birds. Yet another unnecessary self-imposed deadline that could only be met at great cost to the smaller negotiating partner.
Seeing the distasteful triumphalism of the flag-waving Brexit Party MPs in the European parliament yesterday was yet more evidence of the national delusion at the heart of Brexit. I still can’t understand the appeal of this behaviour although it clearly pleases many British people. Which is why the Johnson regime is running video ads this week in the same style which would have been dismissed as a parody of patriotism just a few short years ago.
As I wrote in The Naked Irish, the long-term effects of Brexit are impossible to predict. Walking away from the world’s largest trading block and all the preferential trading deals it has in place with the rest of the world seems bonkers to any sane observer. I certainly don’t see the UK, one of Europe’s most unequal societies thanks to home-grown policies, becoming a better place for the majority to live in the wake of this decision. No-one wants the population of the UK to go through unnecessary suffering and instability. What’s bad for them is bad for the rest of Europe too, particularly Ireland. It’s a crying shame.
Look, it’s too late for the duckweed lesson. The UK isn’t listening anyway. As the country sails off into the sunset /over the cliff of Brexit, the people I feel sorry for are the other half of the population who have been press-ganged into a future they did not choose.
On a different note, you may be interested in two votes taking place in Switzerland next week. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the affordable housing initiative, which shows that housing is an issue everywhere. And fellow Bergli Books author Diccon Bewes wrote a great piece on his blog about the second vote on extending racism law to include homophobia.
Remember the song ‘Be Back Soon’ from the Oliver! musical? That’s stuck in my head now so I hope you don’t mind me passing it on to you 😊
I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.
Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.
So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.
From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.
Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.
No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.
In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.
This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.
In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.
Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.
The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.
In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.
We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.
September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).
A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.
It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.
I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.
I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.
Brexit has given us another Shakespearean year in British politics and, like many observers, I am simultaneously gripped and dismayed by the drama. I am fully expecting a once-in-a-lifetime thunder storm to accompany the final act, though it is anyone’s guess what that ending will look like.
For the Irish, there is too much at stake for schadenfreude. The dominant feeling is disbelief that we are witnessing such an extreme public display of incompetence and bad judgment on the part of our former rulers. Whatever we thought of the English, we never considered them to be foolish.
The Brexit project was based on the premise that the EU was bad for the UK and that life outside the union would be much better. The UK’s real, home-grown problems, such as having the highest rate of income inequality in the EU, were ignored in the debate which concentrated on the woolly issue of sovereignty, fuelled by wild economic fantasies.
Leaving the EU is a new concept but it is imaginable, assuming you approach the task with good imagination, good planning and some respect for the rest of the union. That we are where we are today clearly shows the plan had no great minds or vision behind it. It is obvious that the Leave campaign never expected to win. The goal, or the game, was to stir up as much discontent as possible while using the debate as a vessel for grand-standing and disruption. At the end of it all, the Leave campaign has left us with a dated, mean-spirited brand of nationalism in lieu of a workable roadmap for Brexit.
The English and Welsh decision to leave the EU, dragging Scotland and Northern Ireland along, was based on negative, not to mention dishonest, campaigning. The narrative of the European Union as a tyrannous force from which the British have to be liberated is bizarre considering the UK’s influential place in the union and the special exceptions it successfully negotiated over the years.
The EU has many flaws but it is not the enemy. If the British public need an enemy so badly, why don’t they look slightly further afield to the country that revived the practice of annexation in the 21st century?
The vote result showed a profound lack of consideration for others – whether immigrants or the Irish or fellow EU countries – and a lack of understanding of the wider implications, such as who would really benefit from this course of action. Why did Putin, to name one Brexit fan, speak out against a second referendum? Because the first result, actively encouraged by his back office, fits perfectly into his agenda of weakening Europe.
Trade was a big argument in the referendum but the Leave campaign denied how complex and painful severing ties with the EU was bound to be. In the 25 years of the single market, entirely new ways of doing business have evolved based on 28 countries being a single trading space. The pain of undoing that mesh of interdependence will be felt for years.
When it came to the prospect of Northern Ireland being pulled from the EU, the Leavers did not bother with denial, just indifference. Thanks to the single market, a hard-won peace agreement and the (relatively new) good working relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the island of Ireland has, in many ways, been able to move beyond the border.
Joint membership of the EU goes way beyond trade for Ireland. As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we in the Republic voted to remove the territorial claim to Northern Ireland from our constitution. This was conceivable not just because everyone wanted peace so badly but because we were all EU citizens. Being European is an additional, welcome identity that unites us and makes it easier to for the two Irelands to cooperate in healthy ways. The shared identity enhances the links between north and south which can only be a good thing. Taking it away is the most destabilising thing that could be done to Northern Ireland.
The border is not just a line on a map. For many, north and south it is a scar that in recent years was finally allowed to heal in a context of forgiveness. The fading of that scar allowed people who had been oppressed by it to feel free, and it took away the legitimacy of paramilitaries. We don’t know what life will look like – economically, emotionally and politically – with the scar cut open again. But we have got the message that the people who voted leave could not care less.
Historically, the Swiss have also had an ambivalent attitude to the EU, and there is an influential segment of Swiss politics and public opinion that beats the same nativist drum as the Brexiteers. This was the constituency Steve Bannon was seeking out when he came to Zurich in March and praised the delighted audience for being the first to stand up to the EU.
Just like the British isolationists, these Swiss have a superiority complex when it comes to Europe. They believe they are better than other Europeans, sweating away stupidly under the yoke of the evil EU. They knock the EU as a rotten construct while benefitting from its strength and partnership in a myriad of tangible and intangible ways. It is a highly unattractive mix of snobbery combined with a sense of entitlement.
The Swiss are not EU members but their relationship with the EU is so close, complicated and crucial to the smooth functioning and well-being of the nation, that they might as well be.
As well as intensive contact between people – 17.5 per cent of Swiss residents are EU citizens (not including dual nationals), and 430,000 Swiss live in the EU – Switzerland is hooked on the EU because the single market of 510 million people is its largest trading partner.
Switzerland is part of the Schengen area and ties are increasing rather than diminishing, for example in the area of food safety, public health, research, electricity and CO2 emissions. The raft of bilateral agreements that govern the relationship are in the process of being replaced by one over-arching agreement, though there is resistance from the usual suspects to this pragmatic solution.
And while we are all bitching at each other in Europe, things are evolving quickly on the global stage. Since the phenomenal rise of China, the world now has two great economic and military powers where before there was one. China has no allegiance to Europe or wishy-washy ideas like human rights, and Trump has proven that US sympathy for Europe is only skin deep.
Over the same time period, Russia has been trying to claw back to a strong position since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and while unable to score on economic progress, it has fallen back on dirty tricks and military posturing.
The EU has plenty of shortcomings and often does not live up to its own ideals but we don’t know what life in Europe would be like without it. When it comes to regional trade, the EU is the only game in town. When it comes to geopolitical influence, 28 countries may find it hard to reach consensus but as a group they still manage to play an important role as a global voice for democracy.
Whatever happens in the next three months and beyond, we have no choice as Europeans but to wish the British people well and to hope for a tolerable outcome to Brexit that does not cause undue suffering and instability. The British rejection of the EU, adopting the role of the thankless child, has brought the rest of the family closer together – for now. All is disarray and disappointment this Christmas. Let’s stock up on some good cheer and goodwill before the next instalment of drama in 2019.
My New Year’s resolution this year was to give up meat. With great effort and a handful of staple dishes, I managed to get through January meat-free. My quest has gone steadily downhill since then and I am now back where I started, eating meat roughly every second day and feeling uneasy about it. Part of the problem is that the rest of my family are not yet converted, so I still have to cook for four meat eaters. There’s only so many times I can reheat my lentil stew and watch them eat lasagne (I make a very good lasagne).
To be accurate, I never aimed to be a pure vegetarian. Ideally, I would like to eliminate meat from my own cooking while being relaxed about eating a meat dish as a guest at someone else’s table. But by not taking a hard line, I’ve been too open to making other exceptions. Classic slippery slope.
My motivation to stop eating meat mainly stems from conscientious objection to the meat industry. I just wish I was more conscientious about it. When I think about the cruel and unnatural conditions animals must endure in large-scale farming and the way they are slaughtered, I feel I cannot be complicit. I’m also swayed by the environmental arguments and, to a lesser extent, the health benefits.
But why is it proving so difficult to give up just one of many foodstuffs? Meat eating is just a habit, not an addiction, even if I did grow up in a strong meat-eating culture.
A lot of people grapple with this issue in young adulthood but my twenties came and went without me seriously considering vegetarianism. I was always too hungry and in too much of a hurry chasing other goals. But that’s a long time ago now. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to face up to this basic moral choice. And I can’t believe what a lousy job I’m doing at sticking to that choice.
In my reasoning, and some vegetarians will disagree strongly, the problem is not the fact that an animal dies to feed me, the problem is how the animal lives and dies. The forced breeding of billions of animal lives in miserable warehouse conditions to produce meat is an ugly reality. The more traditional small-scale farming model is obviously more acceptable, and one thing you see in Switzerland is a lot of contented cows ambling about in beautiful, big fields. Pigs and chickens suffer behind closed doors, unfortunately. But no matter how pretty the farm, when the time comes, the animals still have to be transported to be slaughtered en masse. Back to my original sticking point of not wanting to be complicit in a horrible, distressing death.
But what if there was such a thing as a good life and a clean death for an animal? It turns out this ideal does exist and there is a group of people dedicated to making it possible, Swiss hunters. Though it’s a hugely popular pastime here, hunting has always been alien to me. Now, as part of this whole thinking process around the ethics of eating meat, I have become more curious about hunting. So much so, that I was inspired to go on a hunting expedition and write an article about it.
The autumn hunting season is currently in full swing and game features on the menu of Swiss restaurants everywhere, from the hushed dining rooms of Michelin Star restaurants to the loud and crowded supermarket canteens. The most popular meat is venison and it is served with an array of mouth-watering side dishes, including glazed chestnuts, Späzle dumplings, Brussels sprouts, red cabbage, poached pear and cranberry sauce. About a third of the game eaten in Switzerland comes from domestic hobby hunters but the demand is so high that most of the meat has to be imported.
Up until last month, you could fit everything I knew about hunting onto a beermat. I certainly didn’t see the attraction of stalking and shooting an animal. As an activity, it seemed a bit selfish and unnecessary. When I go walking near my home, I sometimes catch sight of chamois (a kind of goat antelope native to the Alps) and deer and it makes my day. Why would you want to hurt those lovely creatures?
This was more of a superficial, city girl reaction. Of course I have heard of culling and how it is necessary to keep wild populations at sustainable levels to protect biodiversity. And I know humans started out as hunter gatherers. Children don’t play chasing and hide-and-seek for no reason. Hunting is in the blood. I just didn’t think it was in my blood.
Well, I was wrong. The day I spent hunting chamois was completely different and more exciting than most other days I’ve spent in the great outdoors. It beats skiing, paragliding (OK, I’ve only done a tandem jump once) and hiking. And I didn’t even carry a gun! All I did was trek around the place, look through binoculars a lot, and watch animals. I was with a party of eight hunters who split up for the day and only one of the eight shot a chamois. Yet everyone had a great time because we were all there with a purpose. I discovered that you don’t need to shoot something yourself to feel the thrill of the chase.
It felt OK to me because the chamois that was shot was killed instantly and was sold to a restaurant. And then there’s the context in which the hunt was happening. Hunting is tightly regulated in Switzerland, and I think this is a good thing. They don’t just let any fool go out with a gun. You have to go through a two-year training programme to get your hunting licence, and then pass an annual shooting test. The cull numbers are carefully controlled (15 per cent of the herd) and hunters who apply are allocated a small number of animals to shoot, age and sex specified. They have to put a date tag on their kill and show it to a wildlife inspector the same day.
The hunters aim for the side of the chest, just under the leg, to kill with one shot. Some butcher the carcass themselves and keep the meat, the rest sell directly to butchers or restaurants but the money they make does not cover the licence costs. For these men – and some women, the proportion is growing – hunting is a way of life.
There are two hunting systems in Switzerland. In most cantons, the hunting period for the ‘better’ animals – red deer, roe deer and chamois – is limited to a few weeks in the autumn. Smaller animals, fowl and wild boar have a longer hunting season.
Swiss hunters tend to be members of clubs. In the non-hunting months, they spend a lot of time involved with the animals – saving fawns from combine harvesters during the mowing season (the little ones tend to hide in the long grass when they get scared), delivering hay to feeding points in the winter, doing forest maintenance and lots of observing to see the condition, whereabouts and numbers of the animals.
The hunters are a tightly-knit community from all walks of life, but the majority I met work in manual jobs. They spend a lot of time in nature and that, along with the camaraderie and the challenge, is the attraction. I wonder if I fell into the trap of the embedded journalist of liking the hunters too much and losing sight of the rights and wrongs of the venture. I hope not.
Feel free to scroll down and comment. I’d love to hear your take on any of these subjects from vegetarianism to cooking for a family with different diets to humane farming to hunting. These are areas where personal decisions can have far-reaching consequences – at least that’s the hope.
Every town is a collection of businesses at different stages of their life cycle – fledgling, midlife, waning, and shuttered for good.
The town I live in, Fribourg in Switzerland, was founded in 1157. Many generations have made their living here. It is built in and around a gorge, which also happens to be the geographical line separating the French-speaking Swiss from the German-speaking Swiss. It’s got history and medieval architecture in spades. For a guided walk around the most interesting parts of the town, see this blog post.
Fribourg was first settled around the river bank, growing upwards on steep slopes, century by century. When the Swiss constitution was created in 1848, the area of Pérolles was just fields. But when the trainline came to Fribourg, it brought new energy to the periphery, and by the turn of the century the new Boulevard de Pérolles, and its side streets, was the happening part of town.
The boulevard is about a kilometre long, starting at the train station and ending at a bunch of new university buildings. There’s a cinema on Pérolles, a church with a declining congregation, a newspaper with a declining circulation, a bank, a secondary school, various bars and restaurants, clothes shops, hairdressers, a small shopping centre and lots of apartments. The dentists and doctors of Fribourg have their surgeries on the upper floors of this street. The strangest business is a shop that offers ‘acqua-ness’, cycling in tank of water in your own private cabin.
But despite all this activity, Pérolles does not have the feel of a thriving street. Shops change hands too often and many businesses appear to be hanging on by a thread. The longest shopfront on the street is FriCash, a store that offers cash for jewellery and household goods. This lack of vitality is probably to do with the fact that the street is bordered by a gorge on one side and not leading anywhere in particular. The rest of the town, situated to the north and west of Pérolles forms a better-connected core.
Yet many things have happened on Pérolles in my 15 years in Fribourg. I had 30 anti-allergy injections on 30 separate visits (that didn’t work) on Pérolles. I had my Swiss citizenship interview in an office on Pérolles. I learned to speak German in the adult education centre off Pérolles. And I found out I was pregnant with twins at a gynaecologist on Pérolles. I’ve had fillings filled at the dentist on this street, I’ve had my hair cut here many times, I’ve celebrated birthdays and anniversaries on this street, and now I rent office space in an old chocolate factory just a few yards from the boulevard.
Two awful things have happened on Pérolles in my time living here. One day, a man stabbed his toddler in the toilets of the shopping centre. The mother ran with the injured child to a clinic just off the boulevard but they could not save him. Desperately sad.
A few years later, a tailor whose shop was next door to a café, flew into a murderous rage. He was having a long-running row with the café owner about the café’s street tables infringing on his shop front. One day, he grabbed a scissors, stormed into the café and stabbed his neighbour in the heart.
Miraculously, the injured man survived. I read a newspaper article about him some years later, written after the trial. Although he had recovered physically, he could not get over the crime because his attacker did not receive a custodial sentence – just a suspended sentence and a fine. The lack of punishment tormented the victim so much. But that is the Swiss justice system. You can deliberately stab someone in the heart in anger and not go to jail. Suspended sentences are the norm as jail is mainly reserved for those at risk of reoffending.
You can park on Pérolles, one franc per half hour. Two bus routes also carry people up and down the street and into the suburbs. And if you look closely, you will see that all of life is there.
Six months ago, I sat in a concert hall in Zurich listening to Steve Bannon fantasise about civil unrest, while the audience around me murmured their appreciation in subdued Swiss fashion. Bannon was talking about the new serfdom of the working class, but this was not a gathering of the disadvantaged. Anything but.
For a start, the poor are as rare as hen’s teeth in Switzerland (OK, seven per cent of the population), but more importantly, they don’t come out on a cold weeknight and pay 40 francs to listen to a political speech, especially not during ice hockey season.
No, this was more like an outing of business clubs and retired professionals. As I wrote in The Irish Times, mostly the kind of people you would see in a city’s central business district at lunchtime, minus the young women working in lower paid roles.
It would be nice to dismiss Bannon as a political Ozzy Osbourne (also coming to Zurich soon on tour), just another ageing performer who still needs the attention or the money that a tour generates. But of course, Bannon is more than a performer, he is a master strategist who represents a powerful movement that wants to revolutionise Western society. It is clear that we, the media, need to keep tabs on him but, as the current confusion of inviting and disinviting shows, not clear whether or not to engage with him.
One thing to be very careful of in this context is journalistic ego. When Bannon speaks, the media lights up the stage. The person interviewing him gets a share of the glory. His Swiss host last March, news editor and right-wing populist parliamentarian Roger Köppel, practically swooned with excitement when he came out to introduce Bannon to the 1,400-strong crowd. The ensuing ‘interview’ was so soft it resembled a sponge bath.
Now we have David Remnick of The New Yorker and Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist, both struck with the same brilliant idea at the same time of inviting Bannon as speaker.
Remnick invited Bannon to attend The New Yorker Festival in October, for which he would be paid an honorarium. The news became known on September 3, unleashing a storm of criticism. The next day, Remnick rescinded the invitation without actually accepting any of the arguments that had been voiced against his plan. Reading between the lines, Remnick probably hoped to be the one to slay the dragon with his “rigorous interview” skills. While he has now dropped the festival appearance, he intends to interview Bannon again in a more traditionally journalistic setting in future.
Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, Minton Beddoes, is not for turning. Bannon is scheduled to take part in an event on September 15th in the Open Future festival, a 24-hour rolling event in Hong Kong, London and New York.
In a statement issued on the same day as Remnick’s, defending the magazine’s position, Minton Beddoes spoke of the importance of testing ideas in open debate. While she is clear that Bannon’s world view “is antithetical to the liberal values” of The Economist, she maintains that it is nevertheless necessary to engage in a conversation with critics, including the man she describes as one of the chief proponents of nativist nationalism.
Even Köppel echoed this approach. “If he is the devil,” he told the crowd, “we have to interview the devil!”
So what are these ideas we are supposed to test in open debate? One idea is that we, the mainstream media, are the enemy of the people. Early in the show in Zurich, Bannon called for the lights to be turned on and for the “opposition party media” (a nonsensical notion in the Swiss political context) to make themselves known. That was such an alien and disturbing moment for me as a European journalist, and I shudder to think what American journalists have gone through since this media-trashing narrative took hold under Trump.
When he’s not talking about the corrupt global elite, a good part of Bannon’s spiel is plain boasting. If you don’t stop him, he will relive the excitement of the presidential election night, literally hour-by-hour, gleefully listing the order in which the states turned red.
He does not hide the fact that the election was won on the perception that the US was in decline. The goal of the campaign he led was to sow discontent and provide simple solutions – namely a clamp-down on immigration and trade. Trump and Bannon needed voters to believe that the US was in decline and, as we now know, they used very effective social media tools to reinforce that message.
In the more hysterical portion of his Zurich speech, Bannon’s message got a bit murky. He talked about central banks debasing national currencies, and governments debasing citizenship. He proposed cryptocurrency as a silver bullet, a way of bypassing government. And then, surprisingly, he spoke about the threat of data harvesting.
“Your digital identity is extracted from you for free and used behind a cloud of secrecy to enslave you.” A strange line of attack coming from the man who helped found Cambridge Analytica. Strange is one thing, the next level of this conversation of ideas was sinister.
Bannon predicted turmoil and sounded pleased about it. When asked what he would say to people who fear the consequences of popular revolt, Bannon said it was a false choice. “You are not going to have stability. The system cannot continue as it is.”
In a nutshell, Bannon’s world view is that there is either going to be a right-wing revolt or some form of socialist or state capitalism. These are the stakes and he is clearly in favour of what he calls turmoil or unrest, in other words violence. Bannon’s aim is to provoke that revolt and I’m not sure he cares who wins, as long as the fantasy of destruction is fulfilled.
The Economist wants to expose bigotry and prejudice. I share that desire. But can The Economist, and all the other principled journalists, be sure that they are not being played? Bannon is about perception, not facts. He sounds notes at a frequency that is missed by most reasonable people but highly nourishing to his true listeners.
Sadly, the media, myself included, is as incapable of ignoring Steve Bannon as a kitten is of ignoring a dangling string. Our duty is to discuss, to analyse, to tear apart his arguments, and that may include an interview. But allowing Bannon to perform on your stage is another matter, one sure way for the kitten to end up with fleas.
I recently received an invitation to attend an event in Zurich to discuss the concept of Heimat, among other things. Heimat is a German word that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. It can mean home, homeland, native land and more.
When Swiss citizens fill in official forms, they are routinely asked to give their Heimatort (literally ‘native place’), the commune of origin of their family. This is passed down through the paternal line so that my husband’s Heimatort (and by extension mine) is the village where his grandfather was born, even though his grandfather left there as a small boy when he was sent to live with relatives after his mother’s death. This grandfather, who ended up working as a saddler in another village, never lived in his native village again and may not have felt any emotional attachment to the place but many Swiss are proud of their Heimatort.
The old function of Heimatort was that the commune (municipality) would provide for you in case of destitution. In the past, this was more about social control than charity. Somebody caught begging or drunk in public could be picked up and returned to his or her Heimat to be dealt with. Not a cheery prospect at a time when people who were classed as ‘work shy’ could be interned under the ‘administrative care’ legal provision (common up to the 1970s). Children who were taken into care were referred to their Heimat for a foster home placement – in practice to work as labourers or servants for farming families – which often meant a new life of drudgery miles away from where they grew up.
Now, thankfully, we have prosperity, social welfare payments and a professionalised child welfare system. The Heimatort is only relevant in a few minor, archaic ways, such as the right to graze animals on commonly held land. (Admittedly this is not minor if you can’t access the land your neighbours are using for free.) I don’t know of any other residual rights Heimatort grants but I’d be curious to know if anyone can enlighten me.
I have some Heimat issues myself in that I still feel the loss of my Irish homeland very keenly. Ideally, after fifteen years in a different country I should have transferred my allegiance and affections to my new location. But this has not happened, at least not to a convincing degree. Despite the fact that I have built a decent life for myself in Switzerland, a process that involved great effort, I still feel the inner tension of being pulled back to my place of origin. Meanwhile, my family is deeply rooted and happy here. It’s a conundrum.
A three-month stay in Ireland this year went some way to alleviating that tension. Apart from all the external trappings of life in Dublin that I enjoy (the sea, the sea!), there are two interlinked things the place offers me that I haven’t been able to replicate in Switzerland. One is a sense of community and the other is the ability to be myself. My German and French are good but I don’t feel truly myself when I speak those languages. I cannot be as genuine when I am working to communicate with a reduced vocabulary (and I seem to have hit a ceiling in both languages). But it’s not only about language; I have good relations with lots of people on an individual basis but it’s in a group that solidarity and shared experiences come into play. In this environment you can express a bigger range of your personality and find meaningful acceptance. I already have some ideas on how to respond to this problem and I’ll be giving it more thought over the coming months.
The interview was hosted by Patrick Vallélian of the in-depth Swiss news magazine Sept.Info, which is running an excerpt from La Suisse mise à nu in their latest edition and organising various joint events at bookshops in French-speaking Switzerland. More updates about these events on my Facebook page.
I was delighted to see the French translation reviewed in the Tribune de Genève newspaper and I’m looking forward to reading the write-up of the interview I gave 24 Heures newspaper later this month.
This time last year I was preparing for Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges at the beginning of September. This year the pressure is off as I will be attending as a visitor rather than a guest author. I have my ticket to see Maggie O’Farrell on September 2nd and will book more as soon as the full English programme is online. Especially looking forward to hearing Lisa McInerney speak. I loved her first book, The Glorious Heresies.
The photo above is the view from the top of the Kaiseregg mountain in Fribourg at sunrise a fortnight ago. The actual sunrise pics didn’t come out too well on my old phone but this one captures the dreamy beauty of the place. We had to get up at half past three in the morning to complete the climb in time before the sun came up. Tough going but well worth the effort, this was the best experience of my Swiss summer so far. I wish you all good times and safe travels this summer too.
Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.
The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.
The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.
Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.
And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!