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Keeping the flame alive in Fribourg

Some people might think student societies have had their day, but they still attract enthusiastic members. Stéphanie Borcard and Nicolas Métraux spent more than a year photographing the Sarinia club at Fribourg, using a visual language which echoes the traditions kept alive by its members with their caps and tricolour ribbons.

Friendship, Knowledge and Virtue: those are the basic values of the Society of Swiss Students, symbolised by its three colours, burgundy, white and green. The society has 70 sections in senior secondary schools and universities throughout the country, including 11 in Fribourg, a bastion of student societies in Switzerland.

They include the Sarinia, a French-speaking society with male and female members. Founded in Fribourg in 1895, it was the result of a split between German and French speakers. It is currently headed by a woman: Léa “Esmeralda” Barrachini, a 22 year-old law student.

To see them in action, just go down the steps leading into the cellar of the Café du Tunnel in Fribourg on a Wednesday evening. There they all are, sitting with a beer in their hand, while the sounds of singing and talking merge and bounce around the walls of this inn with its medieval-style vaulting.

Before being allowed to wear the three colours, the novice first goes through the “Fuchs” (fox) stage. Then after a very specific ritual, he or she becomes a “Bursch” (lad) and can join the committee which gives new members their nickname (or “vulgo”) on the basis of their character, appearance and interests.

The most important thing is to create strong links betweeen members, young and old. The Sarinia is a kind of big family, whose genealogy is based on… beer. On joining, each new member chooses a beer Father or Mother, usually a Bursch. The duties include being a friend to the beer Son or Daughter during their studies.

So “entering society”, as they call it, is a bit like “entering a monastery”, even if the Christian associations are not as strong as they may have been in the 19th century. But anyone who accepts the colours will wear them for life, and will have to accept certain rules, such as the “Bierkomment”, the rules for knowing how to drink, which distinguish the noble carouser from the pathetic drunkard.

Pround of its sterling past (it gave the country four ministers during the course of the 20th century), the Sarinia today has only about 15 active members (mainly from the law faculty) and admits that not many recruits are clamouring to be admitted. But according to a member of the society, “a lot of people have the wrong idea, not only because of some of the things they have heard, but also because of some of the things we do, which could be misinterpreted. It’s a pity, because people who don’t join a society miss out on an enjoyable experience”.

(Photos and captions: Stéphanie Borcard and Nicolas Métraux )

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR