Swiss perspectives in 10 languages

This week Dale Bechtel dusts off a Hemingway story for a different travel perspective

After first arriving in Switzerland about ten years ago, I read a collection of short stories by the great American novelist, Ernest Hemingway. It may have been an odd choice at the time, but it happened to include two pieces set in the Swiss Alps.

I pictured Hemingway taking a break from the savagery of Spanish bullfighting and African big-game hunting to soothe his existentialist soul in the fresh mountain air.

In a “Homage to Switzerland”, he writes about separate but very similar encounters between American tourists and local waitresses in train station cafés. In each episode, the waitress is invariably asked if she can speak other languages besides English. The reply is always the same, “Oh, yes, sir. I speak German and French and the dialects.”

In the last meeting, the tourist, Mr Harris, asks, “Which do you like best?” The waitress answers, “They are all very much the same sir. I can’t say I like one better than another.”

Mr Harris, and the other two male characters, a certain Mr Wheeler and Mr Johnson, would be in for a surprise today. The waitress might say that besides English and French or one of the dialects, she speaks Tamil or Albanian.

Much is still made of the fragile but peaceful harmony that exists between the German, French and Italian speaking Swiss. “Röstigraben” is the German expression used to describe the cultural divide between Swiss-German and French speakers.

Hemingway made no mention of rösti, but probably had his fill of the traditional Swiss-German meal of fried potatoes, while “graben” means trench. But the man or woman who might serve Hemingway if he were alive today would be from Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia or Algeria, and would be unlikely to care much about the issue.

The “Röstigraben” theme has been overtaken by the real or imagined problem presented by the growing number of guest workers and asylum seekers in Switzerland. It has become an explosive issue.

At the time Hemingway wrote “Homage to Switzerland”, the country was poor and the Swiss were still leaving to seek their fortune elsewhere. But Switzerland has not looked back since the post-war boom. It has had trouble though accepting its appeal as a refuge for the world’s destitute or repressed.

The government has tightened its immigration laws, and some conservative groups would like to go further by putting a cap on the number of foreign residents in the country, or denying them citizenship.

More liberal thinkers say Switzerland has a humanitarian tradition to uphold, and emphasise the economic contributions the foreigners make; including taking jobs no one else wants in the important tourism sector.

Mr Harris, Mr Wheeler and Mr Johnson make a pass at their waitress. Each time, the American is rejected. Hemingway gives the impression the men were not serious, only killing time waiting for their train.

We do not know what happened to the waitress in any of the three episodes. The fate of many foreigners waiting tables in Switzerland today is equally unclear.

by Dale Bechtel

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR