Friday, July 02, 2004



The Swiss border is one of the few places in Western Europe where a passport still has to be shown. The cautious Swiss are not members of the European Community, not even of the United Nations (they finally joined in 2002 - Ed.). They like to go about things in their own way, which is admirably independent, to be sure, but there's a touch of the curmudgeon about them as well. Switzerland has an image in the world of a postcard-pretty little country full of cuckoo clocks and secret bank accounts. It's also full of the smug, rather xenophobic Swiss. They tolerate foreign workers when they need them (mostly Italians) but kick them out of the country when they don't. They're a peaceful nation in the sense that they've been involved in no European wars since the time of Napoleon. This has nothing to do with pacifism; quite the reverse, in fact. The Swiss are one of the most militaristic nations on the face of the earth with universal conscription of the entire male population between the ages of 18 and 45. Every Swiss male goes through a period of basic military training (alternative service is now available for conscientious objectors) with a two-week "refresher course" every summer. All of these part-time soldiers keep their assault rifles at home with a package of sealed ammunition so that, theoretically, the whole country can be mobilized for war in a matter of minutes. It's not unusual to see young Swiss checking in their machine guns at the cloakroom when they go to visit an art gallery or museum. Nobody gives it a second thought. The air force (and this is true, so help me!) have hollowed out several mountains around the country which they use as hangars and secret bases. On every fine day in whatever part of the country you may happen to be you will hear the air force jets overhead on training flights. What has kept the country free from invasion for so long is not just the difficult mountainous terrain but a well-deserved reputation for military skill and ferocity. For hundreds of years the Swiss were the most highly-paid mercenaries in Europe. When things were slow on the farm the local boys would head off for Germany or Italy, take part in some well-paid slaughter, and then drift home for the harvest. The King of France had a Swiss Guard that held out to the last man during the Revolution; a final reminder of those days is the colourfully-uniformed Swiss Guard that can still be seen at the Vatican.

We changed trains at Zurich and took a local train along the lake as far as Ziegelbrücke where we changed to an even smaller local line threading through a narrow valley between the mountains. We were on our way to stay with Ernst and Eva who live in a tiny village near the border with Liechtenstein. I've known Ernst and Eva and their son Christian for the better part of twenty years. Ernst works as a civil judge; his wife Eva is the elder daughter of a family I came to know near Munich when I was working for the ex-SS major. This deserves a bit of explanation and I'll come back to it before long.

Ernst was waiting for us at the village station and drove us the short distance to their roomy three-storeyed house. The house, built in 1870, stands on a little hill just on the outskirts of the town and all the rooms have the ample proportions of a complacent, comfortable, self-satisfied century. The railway line came later and one of the features of the house is that it has its own private railway crossing with a gong that goes off for each passing train. We settled in for much talk and reminiscing over a meal with the salad and all the fresh vegetables coming from Ernst's pride and joy, his kitchen garden. We talked until late and went to bed at last, having arranged to take the train in to Zurich the following day where Ernst would meet us and take us sightseeing.


The sun rose the next morning on another glorious day. We wandered about the fields near the house with the mountains leaning down on us from all sides feeling, yes, no doubt about it, we were definitely in Switzerland, and then got a lift from Eva to the station. It was about a 40-minute ride into Zurich through towns with names like Pfaeffikon and Thalwil. Ernst was waiting for us when we arrived and we stepped into the Bahnhofstrasse, the main street of the city, famous for its shops and cafés as well as for being the centre of the Swiss banking network. This is where the financial elite -- the "Gnomes of Zurich"-- are said to sit in their counting-houses surrounded by fabulous wealth. The girls wanted to do a bit of shopping (when does S. NOT want to look at the shops?) so Ernst guided me into the cool interior of the "James Joyce Pub", the old bar of Jury's Hotel in Dublin that had been transplanted and painstakingly reconstucted in these unlikely surroundings. The Guinness was not bad at all and only double the price of Ireland. Joyce moved to Zurich from Trieste (then Austrian) at the outbreak of the First World War, and at one point in 1917 shared the city with Lenin and Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of the nihilistic Dada movement. He got into a flaming row with the British Consulate over the price of costumes in an amateur drama, with the result that the names given to the two drunken British Tommies in the Circe episode of Ulysses are those of two British officials (Carr and Compton) who had aroused his particular displeasure. Bennett, the Consul-General, appears in the book as their sergeant-major and the Ambassador, Horace Rumbold, becomes the hangman who applies for a job in the Cyclops episode. Elsewhere in the book he becomes "Whoreass Rumhole". Nobody -- but nobody -- crossed Joyce and got away with it, particularly his old Dublin nemesis Oliver ("Buck Mulligan") Gogarty. Pouring scorn on one's enemies was very much in the tradition of the ancient bards of Ireland, and Joyce was even more indelibly Irish than he himself realized. He returned to Zurich from Paris in 1940 and died here in 1941. He is buried in the local cemetery.

A short walk took us to the Fortunagasse, a quiet medieval street that leads to the Lindenhof, a square overlooking the city and the Limmat river below. This is one of the oldest parts of the city and was in use as a Roman customs post when Jesus was still a young boy in Nazareth. These days it's often a gathering spot for junkies. In spite of its general air of prosperity and order (and perhaps partly in reaction to it), Switzerland has been experiencing a very serious drug problem in recent years. On the day of our visit, however, the main excitement was in watching the chess played with outsize pieces on boards laid into the ground. The Peterskirche, further along, is Zurich's oldest parish church (13th century) and also boasts the largest clock face in Europe. A nearby wall painting commemorates the hardy women of Zurich who saved the city from the Habsburgs in 1292 by marching up and down the walls of the Lindenhof in suits of borrowed armour. The Austrian invaders, believing them to be reinforcements, lifted their siege. Coming back down to the river we visited the 13th century Fraumuenster with its modern stained-glass windows by Chagall.

Ernst took us across the river and through a maze of cobbled streets and narrow lanes to one of his favourite coffee houses. A short stroll from there brought us to his office where we picked up his car for the drive home.


The next morning one of the local farmers came by to get in the hay and to escape from the clatter of his machinery we decided to spend the day in the mountains. There were certainly plenty of mountains to choose from and five minutes by car had us out of the village and climbing. We parked near the end of the road and spent the morning climbing up through the tree line to the open fields above. The various little huts dotted about the highlands are used for cheese-making so that the farmers can leave the cows grazing there in the summer. They bring them down to the lowlands in the winter when the snow can cover the roofs of these huts completely. It was a glorious blue-and-gold day with the grass shining in the sun and the blue red and yellow of the many flowers spread round about us in patterns in the meadows. We were alone on the side of the mountain with just the occasional roar of the jets overhead, a reminder that the defence of what they own is taken very seriously by the people of this country. Ernst would go leaping and bounding off the trail at intervals with strange inarticulate cries. What ailed the man, was he mad? Not a bit of it, for as the day went on his rucksack began to fill with mushrooms of all different shapes and colours and sizes. We stopped for our sandwiches and beer at a farmer's hut below the summit. There we decided that it wasn't really necessary to press on to the top since the view from where we were was magnificent. We sat there chatting in the sun then made our leisurely way back down again. That was one of the most peaceful, pleasant days of the whole summer.

Back at the house the haymaking was in its final stages with the farmer's wife -- Go to God, man, his mother surely -- hacking away at the last few bits. Ernst solemnly produced his haul of mushrooms to be admired, and, not so very long afterwards, eaten, in one of the most indescribably toothsome casseroles it has ever been my pleasure to put a fork to. We washed it down with local wine, the conversation turning a little sad at the end as we all knew it was to be our last evening together with no knowing when next we'd meet. But a rousing game of billiards put us all in good spirits again; particularly S., who pocketed the winner. And so to bed.

We were off on our travels early the next morning, heading north through the Alps to a newly reunited Germany, but to a part of the country that has always kept a stubborn sense of its own unique history: "Freistaat Bayern", the former Kingdom of Bavaria. And this is where I come back to the SS major since it was in Munich that I first met him.