„Gee“, my wife sighed. „I have no idea, what to write for my blog with „G“. Should I write about „Gastronomy? We’re good at that! Or about „Geneva“? No, I’ve done many cantons already. „Germany“? We are close to the border… but no, don’t fancy that either. Gemeinde (municipality)? How about that? Oh, I don’t know. Why don’t you write a Guest Blog? Just sum up all you know about Switzerland and you’ll be fine….“, and Gone with a capital „G“ she was.
So let’s tidy up a bit and cover the Gs that were not to my wife’s gusto:
There are three cantons in Switzerland beginning with the letter „G“: Geneva, Glarus and Graubünden. The latter has already been discussed in the „C“ section, with Chur being its capital.
Geneva on the westernmost tip of Switzerland is the most internationally oriented of the three. With many global companies, UN organisations and the CERN-physics laboratory, the canton has about 48% inhabitants holding international passports. Geneva-town, the capital, bearing the same name as the canton, covers most of the canton’s surface. Being surrounded 90 % by French territory, it sits at the point where the Rhone river exits Lake Geneva to flow southwards towards Marseille and the Mediterranian sea. Our family ties to Geneva mainly go back to the time when my wife grew up there in the seventies.(see earlier blog entries)
Sitting right opposite Geneva on the eastern-most tip of Switzerland. It may not be as densely populated with international inhabitants, however, its culture is just as rich and varied as the one of Geneva. Bordering on three national States (Austria, Italy and Liechtenstein) it also hosts a multitude of languages. The seven famous Romantsch dialects, a few Swiss-German dialects and in some valleys Italian are spoken. On the north border, towards Austria lies Samnaun – yet another of Switzerland’s many peculiarities. The Samnaun valley and the little village could not be reached by road without leaving the country. Nowadays there is a road that precariously clings on to the mountainside, just staying within Swiss territory. Samnaun itself has a distinctly Austrian feeling to its buildings and most people speak with an Austrian accent. You can cross the international border on skis as the slopes and pistes are connected to the well-known Ischgl resort in Austria.
Sitting on the north western „shoulder“ of Graubünden lies Glarus, the last of our three G-cantons. It is another mountainous area but has a very special character as it consists more or less of one single valley of the river Linth (not to be confused with Lindt chocolate). About half way up the canton, the valey splits into two where the Sernf joins the Linth – so the whole canton looks like an upside down letter Y.
Another, rather sad story about Glarus is the last execution of an alleged witch in 1782. Anna Göldi. She was accused of all sorts of „verderbtnis“ that she was supposed to have committed against the wife of her employer, a well respected Doctor of the town. Already at the time, there was resistance and protests against the trial, but when she finally „confessed“ under torture, she was beheaded before any of the protesters could come to her aid.
In our family Glarus is not a place we visit very often. I served a couple of days there in the army and some remote branch of my father’s mother’s ancenstry goes back to that part of the country. I am remotely related to the „von (der) Kilchmatten“ family, a name that is fairly common in Glarus to this day and a family. The von Kilchmattens produced a couple of „Landamman“s, the title of the elected lord of the canton and head of the cantonal government. The title is used to the present day.
One such „Werner von Kilchmatten“ of Glarus is historically documented as having died at the battle of St. Jakob (near Basle) in 1444. In that battle only 1‘500 Swiss (Eidgenossen) attacked a French army of more than 20‘000, basically all dying in the process. However, they must have fought so savagely, creating such losses on the French side, that they refrained from marching further into Swiss territory and, hence, the 1‘500 dead were seen as worth-while. This battle and the legends around the bravery of the Swiss then later led to the foundation of the Swiss Guards at the Vatican – an institution which is currently being reviewed by pope Francis.
We live only 30 minutes drive from the German border. Though Switzerland is not part of the EU, we can cross from one country to the other quite freely. Some people use the favourable exchange rate to the Euro for shopping sprees or for bigger investments such as cars or furniture. We tend to enjoy the proximity of the „Grosse Kanton“ (the big canton) as Germany is sometimes jokingly called, more for the joy of diversity. Just cross the border at Kreuzlingen into Constance and the atmosphere is different. The coffee comes in a Kännchen (little coffeepot) rather than just in a cup, condensed milk is served with it and a luscious Käse-Sahnekuchen is waiting to put its zillions of calories right onto our hips. There is a different selection of bread in the bakery and you get other kinds of wurst and meat. It is not in any way better or worse than Swiss food, it is just different. And having this much choice for me is pure luxury and a good excuse to tick off „Gastronomy“ as well.
Germany also has it’s geographical quirks, similar to Samnaun in the Grisons. Next to the town of Schaffhausen and totally surrounded Swiss territory lies the municipality of Büsingen, a German enclave. The number plates are German, but the Swiss Franc is used in the shops. History would have it that the little village was tossed around between Schaffhausen, Austria, Zürich and then Baden / Baden-Würtemberg. It was sold, given away for bribe and ransom, inherited, lost again and as late as 1956 serious negotiations were held to bring Büsingen into Switzerland. The citizens of Busingen wanted to join Switzerland but the Landkreis of Constance was against it. So the deal was off.
Until the mid 1980s Büsingen had a German post code which lead to a lot of confusion. A parcel from our place (30 mins distance) would take a detour to Romanshorn at Lake Constance, cross the border by boat to Friedrichshafen in Germany, be sent on by train to Singen, then back into Switzerland at Schaffhausen where Swiss customs might charge taxes on the content. In Schaffhausen the parcel would then be pushed into a (Swiss) post bag and more or less dropped during the Swiss postal bus service Schaffhausen-Büsingen-Dörflingen. In 1986 a Swiss congressman (Nationalrat) asked Swiss Post to look into this situation and they talked to their counterparts in Germany. For once, bureaucracy worked surprisingly fast and Büsingen has now a dual post code: D-78266 for Germany and CH-8238 for Switzerland. By the way: a similar solution was found for the telephone system. You will see Swiss and German phone booths sitting right next to one another.
The story of the municipality of Büsingen brings me to the final „G“-word my wife left me with. Gemeinde stands for municipality in the political sense. And in Switzerland this means power. The country is politically organised bottom up. Only the powers that the people want to give a level up, is actually given upwards. This means that local things like water rights, road works, social services etc. are organised locally. Even if someone from another country wants to become Swiss, it is the local „Gemeindeversammlung“ – the congregation of all local citizens – who has the final say. Each municipality has its own right to set the level of taxes (they actually do vary from town to town / village to village) and the people get a say in what the administration should spend that money on. This holds true for all levels of government, local, cantonal and federal where the people e.g. stopped the federal government from buying new fighter jets last year.
This kind of grass roots democracy is sometimes difficult to explain to our neighbours or visitors from further afield. In a public talk that was held during the last world climate summit in Rio, a young activist urged the participants to use social media to „put pressure on their congressmen, so that they vote for the right things in parliament“. This made me realise how fortunate we are with our system where we can not only elect our parliaments on all levels of State, but citizens can actually propose legislations themselves and make the whole population vote about their ideas. In some areas, this is actually still done in-situ, meaning that the population of a canton comes together at a „Landsgemeinde“ to vote about business and elect their government. One such place where they still uphold this tradition is…..Glarus.