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Cross-border love knows no bounds

Walter and Beata Zibung living happily ever after in central Switzerland Private Archive

When it comes to love, more and more Swiss people are falling for foreigners. Nearly 38% of weddings in 2006 were between a Swiss and a non-Swiss partner.

It is a number that has steadily increased since 1970, when the percentage was less than half that. So it seems that Walter and Beata Zibung were ahead of their time.

“She was a blonde, long-haired beauty who instantly caught my eye,” recalls “Walti” of his first encounter with Beata in the summer of 1969. Twenty-one-year-old Beata was enjoying a European backpacking trip with her sister, who had hosted Walti and his friends the previous year in California.

The American sisters spent a week with 22-year-old Walti and his parents in Hergiswil, going out in Lucerne in the evenings. But while hiking one day, Beata hurt her foot. This twist of fate grounded her in Switzerland for an extra week while her sister did some travelling on her own.

“We fell in love by mid-week,” says Beata, who revisited Walti at the end of her European tour and again at Christmas.

With Beata in Florida and Walti in Switzerland, the pair maintained a long-distance relationship for two years. But it eventually became too difficult as neither was prepared to leave home and become a foreigner in another country. They broke up, moved on and eventually married new partners.

However, they never quite managed to forget each other. While working at the University of California. Berkeley in the late 1980s, Beata met a Swiss scholar who helped her to find Walti, then divorced with a 12-year-old daughter.

Beata was also divorced by then. The old flames rekindled their romance by mail and telephone, and met in Florida for a week that spring.

A second chance

“When I arrived at Miami International Airport, she was standing at the gate. Even though she had curly hair a good bit shorter, I knew her right away and she welcomed me with open arms,” remembers Walti.

They took a long drive to Marco Island and had ample time to get used to being together again.

“We were both on quite a wild ride,” says Walti. He and Beata refer to that wonderful week in May 1989 as a honeymoon.

“I asked myself, ‘How could I have let him go!,'” says Beata, who had saved over 200 letters and five hours of cassette tapes from their early days together.

That summer, Beata landed in Zurich with three large suitcases. Her family and friends thought she was insane, but for her it felt right. When her tourist visa expired three months later, Walti suggested that she stay for good. On December 12, 1989 – 20 years after their first meeting – Beata and Walti tied the knot.

“It’s the most wonderful thing that could happen to a person,” says Beata, beaming as she shares their story of long-lost love recaptured. Asked what might have been different had they married earlier, 61-year-old Walti says it’s a subject they have often speculated about.

“We were impetuous in our 20s. In our 40s, we were a bit battle-scarred by divorces and easier to get along with, plus we knew what we really wanted,” says Walti, the recently retired World Alpine Manager for Salomon Ski.

Happy in Switzerland

The Zibungs were one of about 10,000 binational couples to marry in 1989, representing some 22 per cent of all Swiss weddings that year. Beata, now 60, is grateful to those who helped her to adjust to life in Switzerland.

“Walti’s family were supportive and his mother helped me pick up the language by being so patient while I stumbled over my new Swiss-German words. People were kind to me, especially those who became my students and fellow teachers at the Migros Klubschule [language school] in Lucerne,” says Beata.

She cites Switzerland’s beautiful mountains and vistas, cleanliness and safety as factors that have kept her happy here. Of course, a loving husband is also a plus.

“Walti is naturally joyful and playful – so easy to be around. I have yet to find displeasing aspects of his personality. It’s downright pukey sweet but it is what it is,” says Beata.

Today the Zibungs live in Fürigen, central Switzerland. They enjoy travelling and dream about taking a bicycle-and-motorhome tour through the United States. Now grandparents, they are still madly in love with each other, and crazy about their two-year-old granddaughter.

Swiss men are more likely to marry a foreigner than Swiss women are but the number of Swiss women choosing a foreign spouse is steadily rising.

In the 1990s, marriages between Swiss women and foreign men accounted for about a third of binational pairings in Switzerland.

Since 2001, that figure has increased to nearly 44%. One reason for this is a change in the law. It used to be that Swiss women lost their Swiss citizenship upon marrying a foreigner, but since 1992, that has no longer been the case.

About 60% of foreign partners hail from the EU, but globalisation has encouraged the Swiss to cast their nets even wider in pursuit of true love. Swiss men are especially fond of women from eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia, while Swiss women are keen on North Africans, Turks and men from the Middle East.

According to a Zurich study, binational marriages are especially fragile – particularly when the woman is Swiss and the man is a foreigner. Some 75% of such couples who married in Zurich in 1994 were divorced within ten years. In contrast, the divorce rate for Swiss women married to Swiss men was about 15%.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR