In just over a month, I will be back in Switzerland. I’m only going to Europe for two weeks this year – fair enough after last year’s month-long vacation – but am spending the bulk of that in Switzerland and, more specifically, in the mountains.
I remember looking for books about Switzerland before I visited for the first time in 2012. Aside from Heidi and travel guides, pickings were slim. But I did hear about a book called, perfectly, Switzerland for Beginners by George Mikes. I wasn’t able to track it down then but, thanks to the wonders of the inter-library loan system, I got my hands on it earlier this year and had fun giggling my way through this all too brief book.
Mikes, Hungarian by birth but English by choice, had a successful career writing humourous guides to various countries, observing the ways of the English, French, Germans, etc for the edification of befuddled outsiders. An early Bill Bryson, if you will. His books are much quoted, especially his How to Be an Alien, which seeks to explain the English to foreigners: who hasn’t heard (and laughed at) “Continental people have sex lives; the English have hot water bottles”? But, until now, I had never read even one of his books. Switzerland for Beginners was the perfect place to start.
The Swiss are not a race that excite much interest from the rest of the world. They are not sexy or dangerous, they are not cruel or fascinating. They are adorably, endearingly boring. This is perhaps why there are so few books about them. A few years ago, I read The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a chronicle of the author’s travels to the happiest places on earth. One of the happy places he visited was Switzerland, where the steady predictability of life was at the root of the population’s general happiness: “happiness,” Weiner concluded, “is boring.” I kept thinking about that as I read this book. Mikes’ book was published in 1962 and Weiner’s in 2007 but their observations are consistent.
Mikes has fun with his book. His writings are based on his entirely subjective observations and the real charm of the book comes from how much of his personality is injected into it. It is very much about how he feels , what he thinks, and how he experiences the country:
Whenever I go to Switzerland in the winter, my chief problem is how to avoid winter sports. It is not an easy task. Dangers lurk in every corner. In November or so, the whole country is transformed into one vast – well, not so terribly vast – ski-run, and few of your kind and hospitable Swiss friends seem able to grasp that your main purpose in life is not to run down a mountain slope at fifty miles an hour as if you were a sixty-horse-power motor-car with faulty breaks.
He does not pretend any scientific approach to his observations. Instead, he is just a man dropped into a foreign society, observing it with all the attendant prejudices (some put on for comedic effect) of the foreigner. And one can’t argue with the amusing results:
The Swiss, indeed, are hard-working people and this devotion to work is one of their most repulsive virtues. Altogether, it is the virtues of the Swiss which I find a bit hard to bear. Coming from England, I regard work as some sort of nuisance you must pretend to be engaged in between cups of tea. But the Swiss take work seriously: start early, finish late, and are even proud of it. They are paid for it handsomely – more handsomely than the English – and their old-fashioned idea is that they ought to play fair. The employer is not simply the chap you organize strikes against: he must pay, to be sure, and pay a lot, but he must also receive value for his money. This attitude is, of course, quite outmoded in the second half of the twentieth century.
Mikes speaks fondly of the Swiss: of their deeply ingrained but benignly-expressed regional prejudices, of their devotion to hospitality, of their careful money habits and insistence on quality…in short, of all the wonderfully undramatic things that make the Swiss so endearing. And, as a bonus, there is a final, perfect essay – one that proved, to the author’s delight, to be controversial for a brief period after its publication – about the too-often neglected principality of Liechtenstein. The book is all too brief – not even a hundred pages with illustrations included – but there is something to amuse on every one of those pages. And I certainly feel more prepared for my trip back next month!