Saturday, May 29, 2010


Why am I dreaming about Switzerland, night after night?

Is it because I want my county “cantonized”? I certainly wouldn't object to it. Imagine the territory between the Jordan and the sea split into cantons based on Arab or Jewish majorities, imagine referendums, a loose centrist government... something could come of this place after all.

Is it because I'm yearning for a Wilhelm Tell? Perhaps. A man must have a myth or two to hang on to, a healthy national symbol to call his own. We have the legendary amputee Joseph Trumpeldor, but he's famed for saying: "It is good to die for one's country" on his dying breath. I don't subscribe to this phrase. Poet Wilfrid Owen rightly noted that upon knowing the horrors of war -

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Knowing something of these horrors, I prefer to dream of Switzerland's pastures than the thorns of upper Galilee. The Swiss manage to keep Wilhelm Tell as a symbol. That's enviable. In this country, a man stopped at a roadblock and forced by soldiers of an occupying army a to endanger his son's life can only be a hero of the other side.

Why am I dreaming of Switzerland? Maybe simply because I miss it. I miss the days of adventure that led me like the through its valleys like the föhn, the warm wind.

Hitchhiking in the Bernese highlands, a driver warned me of the föhn. "It's an old wind that's trapped between the mountains" he said. "It comes into the valley and everything heats up, then everything looks very clear, the colors are sharpened, and afterwards people experience headaches."

This wind caught up with me in Interlaken, brightening everything. I felt no headache, I felt elated. The mountains sloped seductive, unattainable and just plain outragously gorgeous directly into the water. The chubby warden at the hostel invited me and an American girl for a fondue dinner at her home. We will buy the Gruyère, she'll take care of the rest.

A week later, near Lucerne, I discovered the wonders of raclette in the farm of complete strangers who were just a spontaneously hospitable. Who said the Swiss were cold and arrogant? I would like to introduce them to my kind hosts in Watwil, in Bern, in Fribourg, in Winterthur... Switzerland lavished its franks on a traveling street musician and was the easiest country in Europe to hitchhike.

One of the more memorable lift I cought there left St. Gallen in the middle of the night. I couldn't find much to do in the town and headed for the road. Two girls were already there, sticking their thumbs out by the side of eastbound road. I joined them.

One of the girls was Swiss, the other - a Bosnian Refugee. they were headed for the shores of lake Constance, to a Bosnian club that turned out to be a dump complete with vinyl curtains befitting a cheap bordello and an awful singer accompanying himself on a keyboard.

We went outside and built a fire on the waterfront. I played some songs for them on the guitar, then tried to get the Bosnian to tell me about her fresh war memories.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,

She preferred not to tell. "I've seen everything," she said, "that's all I can really say."

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, —
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori

Before dawn we ran out of firewood. Chill crept in. We walked back into the town of Rorschach, found an unlocked door and entered. We were in the hallway of a small apartment building, protected from the wind. There, on the stairs, we fell asleep like dogs, until some tennant of the building went down for the newspaper, bumped into us and invited us up for a cup of hot chocolate and a shower.

You may call this laughable. You may say, as many cynical Israelis would, that in real time Switzerland was not so keen on offering breakfast to refugees and to Jews. That's as may be, but we don't treat our refugees very well either. I don't see many Israelis volunteering to drive them inland from the Egyptian border, as Swiss activists did during the Holocaust (refugees who reached Cantons not bordering reich territory were not deported). You may mention stolen assets that were kept for decades in safes underneath Geneva's pavements. You may speak of arrogant Europeans who come here and take sides out of self righteousness. I'm no expert on such things. All I know is that I've been to the land of peace and that it treated me well, well enough that I would dream of it every night and wake up inspired.


Francesco Cattani said...

Well, someone has to comment your little essay on the beauty of Switzerland, so who would be more fit for the job than a true swiss citizen? I'm glad to hear you had a great time in our country.
It is, or should I say can be, a nice place. I'm surpised though to hear you experience such formidable hospitality, for swiss people tend to be a little suspicious, reserved at least.
Next time you visit (and I hope to intend to do so), I hope you will use my hospitality as well (we do have a swimming pool...:-)). I wish I could find time and money to visit Tel Aviv. But as you may know or not, my Bonnie lies over the ocean, so I have to travel a lot to another destination, far far away

יובל בן-עמי Yuval Ben-Ami said...

Notice how you contradict yourself, Francesco: First you fail to believe that Swiss people are hospitable, then, in the same paragraph, you offer me a bed to sleep in and a swimming pool. I rest my case, and will be glad to jump on the invitation as soon as something really dramatic and unexpected happens to my financial situation.