Stunning Switzerland !
Toblerone Mountain peeking through pillow clouds. The first breathtaking sight one will see on the plane as it comes to land through bleary eyes promises magnificence and Switzerland delivers magnanimously.
The Matterhorn, which one grows up seeing on the side of Toblerone bars given out like precious chocolate gold, was my first introduction to Switzerland. These were never plenty for us as children. They were treasures that were brought when my father travelled, which became less and less as we grew older. Later, they were freely available at local supermarkets and other brands added their tastes, but it was always the picture of that mountain that evoked the wonder of Switzerland for me. When we landed in Geneva and were greeted by a crisp wind, it rose in the distance, somewhat blurry around the edges but iconic and incredible. It was going to be an awesome week.
Another point of reference were the dairy cows, green fields dotted with flowers, clean streets and quaint cafes that whizzed by as we were ferried to our hotel. Switzerland was picture postcard perfect, in fact it was like a whole shelf of postcards jammed together, with summer throwing open the glorious seasonal palette. Just the previous day the weather was gloomy, cold and threatening rain, but we brought the sun with us – a little bit of Sri Lanka to keep from getting too home sick. The next day was serious business. Journalists from nine nations were meeting their partners and it was time to focus on our reporting projects. Each of us had to do a presentation with our Swiss journalist partner and in typical style everyone was keen to mingle. I met Matilda at my hotel; she was around my age and from Kenya and it was interesting to chat with people from Palestine, Columbia, Haiti, Myanmar, Senegal, Mali, Vietnam and Columbia.
When journalists meet, the topic is always politics. So it was interesting to listen to what other journalists were covering. Several of them were touching on the topics ranging from poverty in Switzerland to the thorny issue of asylum seekers. Having no knowledge of French was initially a challenge, but translators were kind and after a week of total language immersion I even gathered a slight French lilt. It was great.
Here I met Kesseva Packiry, who was to be my partner. A Mauritian by birth, his family had moved to Switzerland when he was little and was now a senior journalist based in Fribourg. He would be my driver, guide, translator and overall nanny till the program ended. He was fantastic and we enjoyed working together immensely.
I lost little time in making my priorities clear to him. I wanted to touch snow, preferably close to the Alps. Never in my travels had I had the chance to actually move around in real snow. So where better to do that than in Switzerland? Kesseva laughed uproariously and promised we would make time. Then it was time to work.
Most of the time was dedicated to planning interviews, brainstorming and putting together the stories that I had planned. But there was still time for fun, in fact all of it was fun. I got to meet the staff at La Liberte, who were incredibly kind to me and got a chance to sit in on their daily meetings (I understood none of what was said as it was in French) but I did get the chance to see the marvellous resources that they had and the interesting challenges they had to surviving in a world dominated with internet and free newspapers.
A Swiss-Sri Lankan
It was due to this link that I had one of my most stirring experiences. One of the La Liberte journalists had a Sri Lankan sister-in-law. I was asked whether I would like to meet her and of course I said yes. I trotted off and met Natalie who was adopted from Sri Lanka when she was a baby by a Swiss couple. She told me how she returned to the land of her birth 16 years later to meet her biological mother. It was a journey of closure and understanding. Having grown up among the wealth of Switzerland for many years, she struggled to understand how a mother could give up her child. Only when she returned to her native land did she understand the terrible burden of poverty.
A mother abandoned by her husband and with five children to look after had no choice but to give up her two youngest. That is how Natalie and her brother found their way to Switzerland and a happy life. Yet the cost has been great for her mother.
The first meeting had been emotional but healing in purpose. Incidentally a reporter of my media organisation had been at hand to record the event and had written an item about it in the local language sister paper. Since it was in Sinhalese Natalie could not read it and I had the opportunity to sit down with her after dinner and translate a 10-year-old article. She loved it and we talked for hours. Natalie returned to Sri Lanka in 2010 but this visit was a much happier one since it was for her wedding. Clad in sari, atop an elephant, she embraced the best parts of what made her Sri Lankan and Swiss. I left her house in mild awe of destiny and deeply grateful to have made a friend.
A people’s parliament
Kesseva then took me on a tour of the Swiss Parliament in Bern. It was a total surprise as we had merely travelled to the city to conduct an interview – or so I thought. I was introduced to Kesseva’s colleague Valerie and after being quickly whisked through security, I was sitting in a balcony watching politicians argue. The towering structure is not simply the seat of the Swiss Parliament, it is also an outstanding symbol of politics in Switzerland.
Tens of thousands of people visit Parliament each year. Here there are no body guards or restrictions. Politicians are incredibly accessible, friendly and down to earth. They mingle freely with reporters and there is no sense of superiority – quite unlike what is found in Sri Lanka.
There are no motorcades, no obnoxious security and the tiny handful of ministers can be seen casually shopping at the supermarket or using public transport. A quaint tradition is fruits and vegetables provided by local farmers that are stacked in corners outside the main Chamber for visitors and politicians to snack on. Visitors can even arrange meetings with the members. So open was it that Matilda, my Kenyan friend, was treated to a special tour by one of the most influential ministers. After finding that she hadn’t been able to see the Parliament, he arranged for a personalised tour, met her at the front entrance, escorted her around and even had tea with her at the end. Nothing could be more striking in defining the difference between the political cultures of Sri Lanka and Switzerland. I was immensely impressed as were the bulk of other participants who had rarely come across such cordial politicians.
Joys of Joyce
Yet another interview took me to Zurich. After whizzing on a train with early morning commuters buried in their newspapers, we reached the commercial hub of Switzerland. Once the lengthy interview was wrapped up over coffee, I begged Kesseva to walk around the town with its museums, parks, cobbled streets and of course restaurants.
The city’s most famous citizen is arguably Irish writer James Joyce, who lived and died in Zurich. In fact the swashbuckling waters of the river flowing through the town are included in his work and there are many respectful nods to him scattered around the city.
A foundation formed in 1970 dedicated to his work welcomes readers and houses some priceless first editions of Joyce’s work. The city has preserved houses where Joyce lived during different times and even dedicated an honorary grave to the author with a pensive statue placed atop. A world of cuisine can be sampled down the narrow cobbled lanes where people from lands as far apart as Latin America and China have thrown open cafes that spill onto the streets in mesmeric colours and smells. Sangria and tapas for lunch and we were ready to head back to Fribourg.
My last day was magical. For what else do you call a day when a dream comes true? After frantically finishing last minute work and saying goodbye to everyone, it was time to see the Alps. As we wound up and up, a fairytale castle popped into view. This was the famous Castle of Gruyères and one of the most important heritage sites of Switzerland.
The Castle of Gruyères towers above a medieval town that is still inhabited by the decedents of the original landowners. Gruerius, the legendary founder of Gruyères, captured a crane (in French “grue”) and chose it as his heraldic animal inspiring the name Gruyères. Despite the importance of the House of Gruyères, its beginnings remain quite mysterious.
Defeating French King Charles the Bold is one of the many battle tales linked to Gruyères as is the credit of producing, you guessed it, Gruyère cheese.
Nineteen Counts are accounted for in the period between the 11th and 16th centuries. The last of them, Michel, had been in financial trouble almost all his life only to end in bankruptcy in 1554. His creditors, the cantons of Fribourg and Bern, shared his earldom between them. But in 1993 the castle was converted into a museum and visitors can now step into its glorious past through the restored rooms, chapel, stables and manicured gardens.
On the way back a stop to sample Gruyere cream with feather light meringues is an absolute must. The thick cream is served in a wooden tub with a silver spoon standing sentinel; drizzled over the meringue, it is absolute heaven.
We were getting even closer to celestial delights as we scrambled on to a cable car powered by waste water. It glided serenely over emerald pastures heading towards the white tip of a mountain. A short walk later I touched snow for the first time, as the breathtaking Alps stretched ahead and Switzerland’s largest body of water Lake Geneva lay like a grey mirror in the distance.
The ever-energetic Swiss actually trek through the Alps during winter as the only way to reach them is to walk or fly in toy-like planes. I on the other hand made snowballs, danced around, snapped a few pictures for posterity, thanked Kesseva profusely and mentally checked off my bucket list.
Matilda, Kesseva and I then made our way to Geneva where the rest of the participants were meeting up for a de-briefing session followed by dinner. Each journalist gave a succinct account of their stay with the limelight stolen by Myanmar journalist Chit Maung, who had gone skydiving!
Once dinner was wrapped up and farewells were said in long-drawn-out Sri Lankan style, we were too restless to sleep. It was the first Friday night of the summer and everyone was out having a good time. Lights sparkled off trees and lines strung across the streets. Throngs of people gathered and six of us strolled around the old streets peeking in at bars and ended up dancing at a club inside a converted underground wine cellar.
In the wee hours of the morning I gave a send-off bear hug to Kesseva thankfully knowing that I would see him again when he came to Sri Lanka for his leg of the exchange program. I stumbled into bed tucking my phone under my pillow to make sure I woke up in time to catch my plane. At the designated time the alarm shrieked my sleep away and it was time to pack my four kilos of Swiss chocolate that I brought in a factory in Fribourg along with several more kilos of cheese (a foodie’s work is never done), gobble breakfast, hop a train and fly home.
Each country I have visited has left an indelible impression on me and become part of my inerasable memories, but in Switzerland I felt a hint of home.