Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Buying a Coffee Machine

While the Scandinavians drink more of it than anyone else, and the Italians and Turks have taken coffee culture to rare heights, the Swiss have put their own stamp on the morning brew and turned the process of buying a coffee maker into a confounding tunnel into the heart of Swissness.  How?

It goes without saying, at this point, that among the keys to Swissifying a process are to make it perfect, regulated, elaborated, and potentially very expensive.  The clear-eyed and decaffeinated anthropologist, however, recognizes immediately that buying a coffee machine in Switzerland is a cultural rite of passage.  van Gennep tells us that rites of passage require the initiate to leave their old life behind and endure a period of liminal bewilderment before emerging, reborn, into the world.  

So it goes with the search for a Helvetian percolator.  In a country where perhaps 4 varieties of potato chip are on offer in the average grocery store, beholding the chromed infinitude of the coffee machine aisle can be dizzying.

Upon leaving the comfort of your tidy, quiet home, you are thrust into a perplexing netherworld of coffee-related miscellanea: only when you have considered the wattage you'll want, only when you've decoded the on-board grinder settings, only when you've wrestled with the pros and cons of capsule-based brewing, only when you have come to terms (emotionally or otherwise) with paying more for a coffee maker than you did for your first car, and figured out not only how to finance the machine but how to install and operate it - only then do you emerge from the initiation and, to paraphrase TS Eliot, return to Switzerland and see the place for the first time.

And so it is that only once you have bought a Swiss coffee machine, in Switzerland, can you truly be Swiss.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Spraypainting the Walls

American historian and erstwhile ethnographer of things Swiss Henry Trotter asks, "what's the deal with all the graffiti in Switzerland?"

It is true that the Swiss have a yen for spraypainting walls, brightly and often, with an alacrity that surprises those who assume them to be forever preoccupied with tidiness and perfection.  And, to answer Trotter, it is precisely because of this obsession with tidiness that graffiti is the most transgressive thing a young Swiss rebel can do.

With unemployment hovering around 3% and a government keen to spend money on skateboard parks and internships, Swiss youth find relatively few catalysts for angst compared with many in their global cohort.  Just as the original Punks adorned themselves with the detritus of polite society (including, most famously, safety pins) the better to distance themselves from bourgeois nicety, so the unpainted wall presents an absolutely irresistible temptation to the Swiss nihilist: defacing it strikes at the heart of Swissness . 

In their inimitable way, the Swiss mainstream seems to tolerate this form of vandalism with a magnanimity that the non-Anthropologist doesn't expect.  There are two reasons for this.

First, Swiss graffiti artists are still Swiss, after all.  Their work is invariably quite painterly and - in its own tidily rebellious way - respects a street decorum (note that signs and handbills go untouched in the above picture) that makes it easier for everyone to live with.

Second, and perhaps more important, graffiti is a very important social purge valve.  As pragmatic conservatives at heart, the Swiss realize that, when their youth need to rebel, spraypainting is infinitely better than the alternatives.