Monday, November 14, 2016

Drinking in Public




The Swiss love their public fountains. In fact, it is said that they have more of them per capita than any country on earth.  Why?

We have already established the uneasy relationship that the Swiss have with urban life; despite the country's many outward trappings of modernity, there lies beneath the glass and steel surface of Switzerland a massif of sylvan tranquility.  The public fountain - usually hewn from muscular slabs of solid rock - is its urban outcrop.


These mountain mainsprings, then, tap right into the Swiss vein. Even in the midst of the hectic city or the cookie-cutter suburbs, the dehydrated wayfarer doesn't just get a drink but a reminder that, close by, the Alps continue to send their glaciers tumbling groundward, giving the country its life, its safety, its identity. Just like wearing a Freitag bag connects the patriotic Swiss commuter to her country's industrial sinews, so her local drinking fountain taps into Helvetia's lifeblood.  

So it is that public fountains in Switzerland don't actually serve to quench the thirst of any one individual, but to reinforce the very idea of Switzerland as a nation and a concept.  By partaking, the parched pedestrian in fact lends support to this shared concept, ingesting a bit of its shared Swissness and buttressing the bond between people and place.  

You don't drink from Swiss fountains.  They drink from you.



Monday, October 5, 2015

Having Emotions






The German-speaking Swiss are famously serious folks, but never let it be said that they lack emotion.  Indeed, they're practically bursting with the stuff. Why?

The earnest anthropologist is sometimes overwhelmed by the frequency with which usually staid advertisements invoke 'emotion.'  The same word that sells condoms to the Swiss also sells them family cars, or registration for the local marathon. This makes tracking the semiotic in- and ex-tensions of the word very difficult, and leads to a disturbingly profound (and damnably elusive) question: what, exactly, are Swiss emotions?


The linguistic anthropologist finds fertile ground in the word 'Emotion,' since, although it translates directly to the English emotion, in German it carries an entirely different set of connotations.  This is a fine example of the Helvetian habit of importing English words, the better to exploit their symbolic value as excitingly exotic.

It also alerts us to a more subtle but altogether more important answer:  while the Swiss value control and social harmony, their native language - indeed their native cultural aesthetic - lacks the vocabulary to capture what is meant by the foreign 'emotion.'  The latter, in Switzerland, is a portal to romanticism, adventure, sensuality, and often a vaguely spiritual otherness.

Truly autochthonous feelings, therefore, are discussed in the local language, while the other sort can be altogether more safely bandied about in arms-length Swinglish.  A good Swiss might occasionally be miffed that a train is late, or pleased to see Federer take another title, but is as a rule not overcome with emotion.

So it is that we learn that the Swiss find it far easier to talk about someone else's emotions.