Thursday, June 27, 2013

Buying a Bag

How to explain the ubiquity of a particular type of handbag in Switzerland today? 

The luggage-minded Anthropologist cannot help but wonder why it is that when the Swiss need a bag, they reach for a Freitag. Sure, style plays a part, as does patriotism, which is a force never to be underestimated in Switzerland (Frietag bags are actually made out of the industrial sinews the country itself, from the hides of trucks which have spent their lives plying Swiss highways and feeding the Swiss economy; their wearers might just as well carry sacks made of Swiss sheepskin and cow tendons). But then many things fall in and out of fashion, and alongside the Frietag bags are a number of similar, and equally popular bags which are decidedly non-Swiss, including increasingly popular models by The North Face.

The secret lies, then, in something rather deeper in Swiss culture with which this style of bag resonates: an artful blend of rugged outdoorsyness and smooth modern minimalism. It is two crucial aspects of Swiss identity fused, and turned into an appealingly expensive and discreetly visible accessory.

This combination is a powerful one, and offers such vast appeal that it lies behind many of the country’s best-sellers.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Not Cutting the Grass

Despite their famous zeal for tidiness and organization, the Swiss often seem surprisingly reluctant to cut the grass.  Why?

At its heart, this reluctance is a product of the uneasy relationship the Swiss have with urbanization.

It is important to remember that until relatively recently, Switzerland was rather poorer than its neighbors and very sparsely populated.  It was only a boom at the end of the 19th century that massively grew the population and the economy out of its centuries-long pattern in which agriculture dominated and the chief export was mercenary soldiers.  Its subsequent growth into spectacular wealth needs little belabouring here.  

The Swiss have left behind their pastoral idyll with equal measures of success and reluctance.  For many, the well-oiled hum of the country's massive urban economic engines drowns out the Arcadian symphony of old Helvetica in a perpetual reminder of all that has been lost.  Marching boldly into the post-industrial future is something of a mixed blessing, and urban life a necessary evil that even the most oppidan Swiss engages with a wistful sigh and a look back at the rolling, grassy meadows of the past.

Therefore, the unkempt lawn overtaking the park or encroaching on your neighbor's windows is not simply a dandelion-choked thicket.  It is a time machine.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Being Insured

Why do the Swiss have more insurance than any country on earth?

Not only do the Swiss hedge their lives with a vast network of bomb shelters, they also hedge their paper, with more dollars of insurance per capita than anyone else on earth.  Bicycles are regularly (and well) insured, as are printers and dogs.
The national obsession with insurance points up two different though not necessarily opposing aspects of Swissness: pessimism and perfectionism.

Today’s Swiss have by virtually any measure achieved one of the highest standards of living of any people in human history.  They remain convinced, though, that it will all fall apart soon enough.  Depending on your feelings about the relative fullness of glasses, you may consider this attitude commendably pragmatic or intolerably cynical; regardless, it is entirely Swiss.

Their native perfectionism means, though, that even in their pessimism the Swiss do things right.  Confronted with the possibility of losing everything, the Swiss neither bury their heads in the sand, nor crack open a crate of whiskey and unplug the phone. 

Instead, they call their broker.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Building Bomb Shelters

By Swiss law, every dwelling built in the country since 1968 must have a bomb shelter able to withstand a blast from a 50 megaton explosion at a distance of 700 metres (by way of comparison, the Fat Man bomb detonated 600 meters above Nagasaki measured only 21 kilotons), stocked at all times with 3 weeks of rations, water, and other supplies. Why? 

Switzerland has no nuclear weapons and no enemies – not having fought a war in 500 years does have its diplomatic benefits – but has more shelter space per capita than any country on earth. The law came into effect during the worst of the cold war, and Switzerland – uncomfortably close to the German heartland that would probably have been the central battleground of a NATO-vs-Warsaw Pact land war – wisely decided upon a strong defense.

This is actually an old Swiss strategy: the Alpine Redoubt or Schweizer Alpenfestung – the retreat to the mountains. This should not be confused with surrender, since before they gave up on war Swiss mercenaries were the most feared in Europe (and continue to guard the Vatican to this day). The shelter mentality is rooted in a firm belief that the Swiss are as comfortable in the mountains (literally in them) as anyone, that the hills have always provided for the Swiss and been a natural barrier against millennia of invasions, and that when things fall apart, the hills will provide again. 

Still, the logic of the bombshelter can appear paradoxical, since it presumes that a nuclear holocaust so horrific that it destroys everything not buried underground in a reinforced concrete bunker to nonetheless be worth surviving. 

The shelter mentality, however bemusing to the non-anthropologist, is simply the practical extension of a fundamental piece of Swissness: the view that Helvetia is a place where hard work, a beautiful environment, and an admirable social order have created a singularly wonderful way of life – one worth maintaining even after the rest of the world has been destroyed. 

Who would want to emerge into such a world and face the horrors of trying to create a new life? The Swiss.