Meet the man bridging the distance between Switzerland and its people in Colorado.
Asked to explain the role of honorary consul, René Sonderegger gives an answer that highlights his natural curiosity and spontaneity.
“I was trying to find out the same thing, and then they asked if I wanted to do it!” he laughs while driving in the Denver foothills. With a number plate reading CH2, even his red car highlights his patriotism (CH is Switzerland's Latin name, Confoederatio Helvetica). But who’s got CH1? “That belongs to my sweetheart,” says Sonderegger, referring to Yoon Kim, whom he met line dancing eight years ago.
Both dancing and biking keep the lean and energetic Sonderegger fit, not to mention his job as a FedEx driver, which has him hopping in and out of trucks and toting parcels. Originally from Balgachexternal link in canton St Gallen, he was in his mid-20s when he came to Colorado in 1986. His previous job involved tech support for photogrammetry (aerial mapping/surveying) equipment; later he serviced industrial printing presses.
In 2018 he became the treasurer of the Swiss-American Friendship Society of Denverexternal link. After the previous honorary consul stepped down, Sonderegger got in touch with Switzerland’s general consulate in Los Angeles, California – and soon found himself with a new part-time job.
Three main areas of responsibility
“The first is taking care of the Swiss community and their questions, and also the social end of things,” explains Sonderegger. “If someone has financial problems, or ends up in jail, I ask if they’d like me to visit.” [So far he hasn’t had to do the latter.] He’s also responsible for keeping people informed about everything from the latest on Swiss social security to news of an airline adding connections to Denver.
The second area involves building bridges between Swiss and American businesses.
“If a Swiss company wants to open a branch here, I can help. And vice-versa,” says Sonderegger, who’s in close contact with the local World Trade Center. Lastly, he helps coordinate government-related affairs – and has an American secret service number on speed-dial in case a Swiss federal councilor visits.
Sonderegger in turn represents Switzerland at monthly consul meetings in Denver, as well as at special events like the recent inaugurations of Colorado Governor Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
Religion and politics
“I love the smell of the trees,” he enthuses over a picnic lunch at Bergen Parkexternal link. He and his partner enjoy taking in the local scenery on walks and bike rides. Earlier, during a quick visit to the Red Rocks Amphitheatreexternal link, Sonderegger ticks off several species of wildlife in the area: rattlesnakes, deer, mountain lions and bears.
“I also like the diversity in terms of religion here,” he says, mentioning that he had been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church before joining the Korean Christian Church with Kim. Between them they have four adult children from previous marriages, plus an 18-month grandson.
In his own family, his mother rarely voted, whereas his father “rarely missed dropping off his vote”. Besides voting in the US, Sonderegger recently tried e-voting to cast his Swiss ballot.
He can think of at least one sure-fire topic to help American politicians find middle ground: the Swiss-style apprenticeship.
“There aren’t many things the Republicans and Democrats agree on, but even they can agree on that!”