May 11 2010

Judt on Switzerland

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In the May issue of the New York Review of Books, Tony Judt writes his thoughts on Switzerland. Read the article here.

I just returned to Switzerland from a week and a half in the United States. Returning to the US was a re-experience of the reverse culture shock of last summer. I got lost in the supermarket, felt motion sick in every car, habitually checked for signs telling me when the T was expected to arrive, couldn’t figure out how to use the change in my wallet, and lamented the long-distance produce. I was like a foreigner with a deceptively American accent. But it was lovely to feel surrounded by friends and familiar places. And to be able to go to the supermarket in pajamas without anyone giving me strange looks.

Back to the Judt piece. Going to the US really makes me re-evaluate Switzerland. I know I complain a lot about Switzerland, and Judt gets it all right. The blandness. The people who would tell you to keep your feet off the seat. The overwhelming expense. The “recidivist chauvinism” as demonstrated by the minaret ban. The difference is, he likes it. He likes that there is nothing to do, that everything is clean and colorful, that it is still surprisingly unchanged and rural, that the trains are the main attraction, the natural beauty, the shared responsibility for public goods. According to him, Switzerland is “the happiest place in the world.”

The truth is, I like many of these characteristics, too. In the US, I pine for the train network, the food from the local farms, the safety, the concern of each person for the public good, the view across the lake to the Alps. When Seth and I return to the US, we will seriously miss a lot about this place. Yet, it is so hard for me to explain what is good about Switzerland to Americans, and so much easier to talk about the frustrations and absurdity of daily life and the hypocrisy and conservatism of much that is Swiss. It is quite difficult to talk about what it is like for us to live here, both in discussions with Swiss and with Americans. Swiss hate to be criticized as only an outsider can criticize, and Americans can’t believe we’re not on a permanent vacation in a Swedish-speaking ski resort. And I think Kathy does a magnificent job discussing the myth of Swiss happiness (read both part I, part II). Switzerland is not paradise, and I cannot see past its problems as, apparently, can Judt. Like everywhere else, there is the good and there is the bad. It is mixed.

Thanks, Judy, for sending me the article.

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