>Switzerland: Neutral to the Max

>Ahh, Switzerland.

What is there to say about the gorgeous Alpine country bordered entirely by the European Union?  With its classically neutral status and no recent major political controversies, what is there to discuss?  The neutrality itself, I suppose, and how this very aspect, along with their famed standards of efficiency define this place.  What are some of the things that first come to mind when thinking about Switzerland?  The pocket army knife?  Like the country, it is small, compact, efficient.  The cuckoo clock?  It is as dependable as the Swiss trains.  To be sure, the trains do in fact, run distinctly on time.  But what really makes this country tick?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)

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Imagine a country where to be more egalitarian, they adopted four national languages instead of simply choosing one and imposing it on the regions that spoke the other three.  That’s Switzerland for you, with German spoken dominantly in the center and the north, French in the eastern region around Geneva, Italian in the south, and Romansch in the southeast.  I tried to get a picture of a sign with all four languages on it, but because I was only in Geneva and Zurich, and nowhere near the Romansch speaking region, I sadly could not find one.  But here is one in German, Italian, French and English:

Two of the most interesting things I did in Geneva seem to exemplify this spirit of neutrality.  One of those was a tour of the United Nations European headquarters at the Palais de Nations in Geneva.

Being a political science and international affairs enthusiast, a tour of the UN was obligatory.    Our tour even got to briefly observe one of the sessions on Human Rights.  It was odd, actually, nothing at all like I imagined.  Sure, they all sit in a big conference room — with a very cool ceiling I might add — but instead of a full room with nothing but a captive audience, people are up milling around, checking their Blackberries, while people take turns having their say.  But if you consider it, it makes sense, an occupation at the UN probably means a lot of meetings, maybe even a job that is composed of nothing but meetings.  And with so much going on at the UN, I would probably be checking my Blackberry, too.  I actually got to meet a Pittsburgh expat who worked for the ILO for 35 years.  He let me pick his brain about th UN, life in Switzerland, and politics in Switzerland.  In addition to great conversation he and his lovely Ecuadorian wife treated me to a delicious home-cooked dinner, something truly appreciated by any traveler.
Right across the street from the Palais de Nations, is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent museum, an enlightening and moving experience.  The museum explains how the organization came into being and its history as an organization that looks beyond borders, serving humanity, regardless of sides.  How fitting that such an orgnaization’s symbol, is merely the inverse of the Swiss flag.  In this museum one of the displays explained how the Red Cross sent out thousands of boxes to victims of World War II, boxes containing essentials like socks and toiletries.  Later in my travels I would visit the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and watch a video of one of Anne’s friends telling the story of how her last contact with Anne was throwing one of these boxes over the wall of the concentration camp to her.  Incredibly powerful stuff.  I highly recommend a visit to this museum.

Something else you should know about Switzerland is that it is incredibly expensive.  I was agog at the idea of having to pay 8 Swiss francs (about $7.50) for one day of public transportation.  Despite the recent economic crisis destablising the Euro all around it, the Swiss franc is still doing quite well.   It seems that their isolationist policies have been a wise choice in this regard. 
As you probably already know, the Swiss economy has thrived on the back of its banking sector.  On this topic there actually has been a bit of recent controversy.  Swiss banks, because the country’s secrecy laws have for years been utilized as tax havens for citizens from foreign countries.  The banks have previously been protected from having to reveal to other countries who have an account with them and how much it holds.  In 2009 though, under international pressure, the secrecy laws were eased somewhat, and some tax evaders were given up.  This article explains it more fully.   This issue is important to the Swiss though, because without the strict secrecy laws, their banks have less appeal to foreign investors, something that could negatively effect their economy.  For the moment however, the Swiss economy is doing just fine, as evidenced by the respectable hole in my wallet after a week there.
Financial woes aside, it is difficult to have a bad day in Switzerland.  Unfortunately I did not have the chance to meet many locals but I met a few expats, some who positively loved the place and others who were only leukwarm about it.  But I found it impossible to be in a bad mood when surrounded by sparkling lakes and magestic mouintain vistas.  The view from the Uetliberg in Zurich could probably cure even the grumpiest of attitudes. 
In fact, the evening I first arrived, I was tromping my way through the streets of Geneva in a drizzling rain, trying to find my hostel, with what must have been a sour expression on my face.  A man in a bellhop’s uniform standing in front of a nice hotel stopped me and asked if I was looking for the youth hostel.  I said that I was, and he replied that it was just a block down on the other side of the street.  My expression changing to one of relief, I thanked him.  To this he exclaimed, “Don’t worry!  You are in Switzerland!”  I immediately smiled and laughed and continued on to my hostel, wishing him a good day.
-Marie DeAeth, World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Intern Abroad

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