The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths

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My Swiss book has a title – and a cover! It has an author’s note, an afterword, and ten action-packed chapters in between. Now that the book has start to pop up on book retailers’ websites, I wanted to share the news here.

I am at the stage of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and by the end of the week my work on the manuscript itself will finally be done. What a year it’s been. This time last year I had just arrived in Ireland by ferry for my annual summer holiday. I had the task of reworking the concept for the book I had pitched to Bergli Books two months beforehand, plus a new sample chapter to write.

The starting point for me was that I felt the Swiss were poorly served by the clichés – some flattering, many negative – that had crystallised around them. Their true nature was obscured by false assumptions and fixed ideas. To paint an accurate picture, I wanted to go through the dirty laundry and great achievements, and get close to the Swiss at their best and at their worst.

Did the Swiss really help the Nazis? Are Swiss women stuck in the past? Are the Swiss xenophobic? Is there even such as thing as a real Swiss person? How did these people get so rich? And what’s going on with the banks?

This book introduces an engaging cast of Swiss characters – refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union, one of the country’s last surviving suffragettes, a street-sweeper philosopher, a pragmatic private banker and a president with no regrets, to name but a few. It also provides all the context you need to make your mind up about this complex and dynamic land.

Have a look at the Bergli Books catalogue for autumn 2016 (The Naked Swiss is on page 6) for the full list of chapters. If you are a long-term planner, you can pre-order the book here. So far it’s only available to pre-order on German-language websites (although the book is in English) but I’ll let you know as soon as the English-language Bergli website has the book for sale.

If you are interested in keeping up to date on The Naked Swiss, I’ve just started a Facebook page which will be a good source of book news and related events over the next three months ahead of publication in October. Now that we’re on the subject of non-fiction, what is your favourite non-fiction book?

 

Good news about my Swiss book deal

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I am delighted to announce that I have signed a book deal with Swiss publisher Bergli Books for a non-fiction book about Switzerland. I believe this country is hopelessly misunderstood and a little unloved. Armed only with a cheap laptop, I intend to stress-test the stereotypes, and change the narrative about Switzerland.

People always say you should write the book only you could write. That’s what I’m doing now. I came to Switzerland in 2003 on the love train (actually an Aer Lingus flight to Geneva). Since then I have experienced the country on many levels – as an immigrant, a journalist, a foreign spouse, and mother of three Swiss children.

Churchill famously said that Russia was a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. At times Switzerland has felt like that to me too. But over the past decade of covering Swiss news for swissinfo.ch, and navigating everyday life, I feel I have stripped away the layers and got closer to understanding the Swiss soul. I’m ready to share the good and the bad about the Swiss.

This book will introduce readers to the real face of Switzerland, from presidents to poets, from bankers to street sweepers. At the same time it will paint a faithful picture of the political, cultural, economic and historic landscape.

Recently I wrote about rejection on this blog because it was becoming my specialized subject. I was getting used to it. In fact I was even getting good at it. After all that I can’t tell you how good it feels to take this long-awaited step towards being an author.

The title of the book has yet to be confirmed. The release date is also still being worked out by teams of experts (well maybe one small team), but I’m expecting it to be sooner rather than later. In the meantime I have a lot of work to do and will keep you posted on progress.

I’ll leave you with one small interesting fact. Bergli Books is an imprint of the Swiss publisher Schwabe, which was established in Basel in 1488, making it the oldest publishing house in the world.

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.

Switzerland and the foreigner thing

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After last Sunday’s vote in Switzerland to curb immigration from the European Union, I feel compelled to write about what a discouraging signal this sends to foreigners in this country. Having lived here for a decade and contributed the fruits of my labour to this country for that time – my work output, my taxes, my social security contributions, a thousand supermarket trolleys full of produce, not to mention three new Swiss citizens, I can safely say that Switzerland has enjoyed a substantial net gain from me.

And I’m no exception. The most recent OECD report on migration in Europe showed that the foreign population as a whole are net contributors to the rosy economy in Switzerland. Foreign women have bigger families, filling schools that would otherwise be half empty, with the future workers, footballers and leaders of Switzerland.

And then this campaign begins, peddling the idea that all the problems of the country, literally anything that is bothering the long-suffering natives in their daily lives, is down to this “uncontrolled” influx of people from the EU. Your train carriage is crowded? It’s because of them. You have to wait at the doctor’s? It’s their fault. Your rent has gone up? Obviously those pesky EU workers again. Urban sprawl offending your eyes? You know we wouldn’t have that without these outsiders.

The level of scapegoating would be laughable if it wasn’t hurting people. The debate has got to the point where there is no problem, present or future, that cannot be pinned on bloody foreigners.

And they lapped it up, or at least 50.3% of those who voted on February 9th did. The people have spoken, as is their right, but do they realise what they have said? Did they act to fix a real problem or was this just a way to score a cruel point, to hurt their neighbours?

To understand the result you have to know a little bit of background on how the vote came about. What you are seeing at work here is ‘direct democracy’, the purest form of democracy known to mankind, as I am now tired of hearing.

The Swiss political system has a very special role for popular petitions. Under the initiative system, any citizen may call for a vote on any issue or challenge a parliamentary decision providing they collect at least 100,000 signatures in support of their cause.

Well we all have our pet peeves so that’s great. Of course your average citizen doesn’t have the resources to gather 100,000 signatures but sometimes groups of citizens who are passionate about something get together and pull it off. More often this tool is used by well-organised and well-funded lobby groups and political parties. The gold medal in this category goes to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

This particular vote, dubbed “Stop mass immigration”, was brought to us by the Swiss People’s Party. With about a quarter of the popular vote, it is a fairly easy task for the party to gather so many signatures. What they do with this power is to focus on the social blight of foreigners.

For the past twelve years, EU citizens have been free to live and work in Switzerland, without any red tape, just as Swiss citizens have enjoyed the freedom to work and settle anywhere in the European Union. Known as the ‘free movement of people’, this agreement is one of the core principles of the EU and puts Switzerland on a par with EU member states.

It makes it easy for workers to follow work, Swiss retirees (for example) to move to Tuscany or Provence, and people living near borders to have access to the hinterland around them. You could see this as a win-win situation, or you could see it as an affront to your national sovereignty.

As a result of Sunday’s vote, the Swiss government now has to pull out of this agreement with the EU and return to a quota system of work permits, last used in 2002. Never mind that Switzerland has had a pretty good ride since then, helped in no small part by the easy working and living arrangements with its biggest market, i.e. every country surrounding it for as far as the eye can see.

Of course life will go on. Employers will find a way to hire the people they need and the people who are looking for work and prepared to uproot their lives to another country will still come to where the work is.

But the bitter taste will remain. Painted as the problem-makers, come here to rip the country off and make life difficult, we will continue to keep our heads down and work hard but the affection that was growing in our hearts for this nation is flickering and may be snuffed out. And that is the greatest loss of all to Switzerland.

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home
Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

10 things to love about Switzerland

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I’ve been dwelling a lot lately on what I’m missing out on by not living in Ireland anymore so in the interests of positive energy I’ve put together a list of 10 wonderful things Switzerland has to offer.

1. The Alps: They take up almost two-thirds of the country’s landmass and play a big part in national consciousness and history. Whether you are sailing up in a chairlift over green meadows in a warm summer’s breeze, hiking over a glacier or swooping through a pine forest on skis, any visit to the Alps brings breath-taking moments where you just can’t get over the sheer beauty of it all.

2. Languages: For a language nut like myself, Switzerland is a fascinating mini Tower of Babel. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of cracking Swiss German, completely impenetrable the first time you hear it, even to Germans. Living in a town on the French-German language divide, there’s a lively mix of both cultures; people in my neighbourhood switch between the two languages effortlessly. How do you say hello in Switzerland’s fourth language, Romansh? Allegra!

3. Public Transport: Switzerland demonstrates what public transport should be. The service is frequent, reliable and synchronised, and can take you anywhere. Amazing that the Swiss still feel the need to have five million cars for eight million inhabitants.

4. Location, location, location: Imagine living in a place where in a couple of hours you could visit Germany, France, Italy or Austria. That place is Switzerland. Coming from an island on the edge of Europe, I still get a thrill when I stand in Zurich station and see destinations like Milan, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague on the timetable display.

5. Egalité: Go to an ice hockey match and you’ll see how strongly the Swiss feel about their local identity. People are very attached to their canton and recognise each other’s regional accents straight away. On the other hand there is no such thing as class-related accent and children of all backgrounds are educated side by side in state schools.

6. Built to last: Here’s something that amazes me. There are farmhouses in Switzerland still standing that were built in the 13th century. Not forts or castles but simple farmhouses. This surely is a sign of a great country. For more on that subject here’s a story I did about Switzerland’s oldest house in canton Schwyz: http://bit.ly/ddypTP

7. Traditions: With a huge variety of traditional celebrations and rituals still thriving, Switzerland is all about continuity. Carnival is massive, people spend half the year preparing their costumes and rehearsing with bands. The things people celebrate here feel authentic. Instead of Santa Claus, children wait excitedly for a visit from St Nicholas in early December, a man dressed as a bishop who goes from house to house giving out nuts and chocolate.

8. Waterways: For many people water is about boating and fishing – for me it’s swimming. Switzerland has a wealth of beautiful clean, accessible lakes and rivers. The water warms up by mid-summer and you can walk in without getting a heart attack. The beaches are well kept and there are numerous public pools built on the lake and river shores. So far I’ve swum in a dozen different Swiss lakes, each experience unforgettable – dozens more to go!

9. Cheese: I’m completely hooked on the national cheese dishes raclette and fondue. These melted cheese meals are an institution here, part of the weekly menu all through the winter. I can’t decide which one I like the most so I just have to keep eating them both until I make up my mind.

10. People: One in five Swiss marries someone from outside the country. Like many foreigners in Switzerland, you may start off loving one Swiss person but for those of us who stay and make the effort, the rewards are great. The Swiss I now count as friends are fun-loving, kind and generous. They make me feel at home.

It’s been a good exercise for me to count my Swiss blessings. Have you ever done the same for your adopted home?

The fear of dying badly

Most journalists covering Swiss news will eventually be confronted with the issue of assisted suicide, legal in this country as long as the person helping does not benefit from the other’s death. This week assisted suicide organisations claimed that a state-funded research programme exploring the theme of death and dying was biased against their activities (a claim swiftly denied). I’ve written about this controversial subject before and it always makes me think, and wonder. Will this ever come close to home?

Last year I attended the World Right-to-Die conference in Zurich – as well as popping in to the protest counter-conference across the street, convened by a Canada-based pro-life & anti-euthanasia group. It was a long day. Around that time I also interviewed a woman who had helped her elderly mother pursue her wish to die.
You can read about that case here http://bit.ly/Mc8mAJ .

One speaker at the right-to-die conference made a strong impression on me and I grabbed a few minutes with him later in the hotel lobby. A palliative care doctor who looks after 300 terminally ill patients a year, he has more experience than most of the wishes of the dying. Up to 20 of his patients per year express the wish to avail of assisted suicide but only one or two of them actually see it through.

What makes a person who knows they will die soon want to intervene and end their own life? According to the doctor, there are two types of terminally ill people seeking assisted suicide. The first type is a strong willed, usually successful person who is used to controlling their own destiny. They reject the decline and suffering facing them and decide to end things on their own terms.

But for most people this doctor deals with, the main motivating factor is fear – fear of suffering and fear of being a burden to others. Terminally ill patients are not afraid of death, but of dying badly. They are terrified of dying in awful pain, gasping for breath – a fate that modern medicine can spare us. When this fear is taken away, by informing the patient about pain management and sedation on the one hand and reassuring them that professionals will be in place to care for them when the time comes, the suicide wish usually goes away too.

Assisted suicide now accounts for one in four Swiss suicides. Most of the people who go down this road are suffering from long-term rather than terminal illnesses. Suicide is usually carried out by taking a lethal dose of barbiturates procured with the help of an assisted suicide organisation.

As our population ages and excellent health care means people can live for much longer (but not necessarily well) with multiple illnesses, investing in the provision of good palliative care is one way to make sure assisted suicide remains a minority choice. But for those who decide they can’t take any more, there is comfort in knowing that there is a safe, humane and legal way out.