Thursday, March 14, 2013

Foreign Land

First Impressions
The Switz has been known, from time immemorial, for their mountains and things, and also chocolate and bling watches and lederhosen. This is so oft-repeated that it is barely worth mentioning except as a courtesy gesture, so I shall move on to the rest of the passage.

The minaret at Wangen bei Olten (Wikimedia)

The Minaret Referendums in the Switz occurred in 2009, four years after my first visit to the country (which I have mostly good memories of). The details you can read sure enough in the link, but I should highlight here the outcome: fifty-eight percent of the Swiss voters opposed the construction of new minarets.

Now it so happens that minarets are supposed to be more than mere appendages to mosque buildings, but the most essential part. An enclosed prayer hall was as an import from Christianity; mosque architecture was developed from an re-appropriated Saint Sophia Cathedral in Istanbul. On the other hand, the minaret has been part of the Muslim place of worship since the dawn of the religion. So the Swiss have effectively banned building mosques in the country. I am not so sure now if it was because the fifty-eight percent of the eight million did not understand the significance of the minaret, or that they just wanted the brown people out. Either possibility would have been quite disappointing.

At the start of the year, a Swiss student, who had been on exchange in my university, went missing in Thailand. Her name was Tscherina, and her disappearance triggered a frenzied search. For a time, Facebook was full of well-meaning posts passing on the contacts of her worried mother, so that whoever has found Tscherina could contact her. Soon the wave of mainstream media overtook the wave of social media and caught her pants-down at a Thai border post, overstaying the tourist visa for three days, and, by some fantastic feat, also accused of stealing a camera. I had read that the Swiss were a people who were very good at getting their shit together. The first concrete example I heard of on that matter has turned out to be negative.

So I came to the country with pretty low expectations. I did not expect to be living among a people who were stoic and honest, like the Finns, nor spontaneous and sociable as the Russians. I did not expect to enjoy all the new experiences the country has to offer, because the ones I knew of no longer inspired any feelings of novelty. I expected a strange people speaking a somewhat familiar language in which I have been drilled for slightly over a year's worth of lessons. Only the Institute here provided any real draw, with its hearty servings of seminars, courses and research projects.