Poet's Notebook: Here and there

A long-awaited return to Switzerland inspires cultural contrasts.

click to enlarge Poet's Notebook: Here and there
Jeanne Meinke

...and still today

when Neuchâtel seems farther

than Tibet that bird glows

in the night above my desk...

Walking down the streets of Interlaken and Grindelwald, we were confronted over and over with stunning scenes of steep white-tipped mountains. While we stared in awe, the repetitive landscapes seemed to flatten out and lose their depth, as if a tapestry had been draped around the villages; and we had the feeling that wherever we went, the Swiss unrolled these mountain views, then pulled them up at night when the play was over. We of course applauded: it’s a great show.

This was a nostalgic revisiting — 45 years ago the Meinke family had lived a year in Neuchâtel, and it changed all of our lives. Our four children, and now our grandchildren, became multilingual world travelers (on this trip, they chatted away with our various hosts; Jeanne and I leaned in mutely, trying to keep up. I said “Pardon, Madame?” a lot. And of course, we all love Jeanne’s culinary pièce de résistance, fondue neuchâteloise).

Switzerland’s no fairy tale: it’s a country of 9 million, about the size of Austria or Sweden. Somehow, this multi-group democracy, with the usual human prejudices (French, German, Italian-speaking sections — and a cluster of ancient Romansh squeezed in), long ago decided to work together like grown-ups.

Our religions tell us we should love our neighbors as ourselves. Good idea. The Swiss handle this impractical advice by insisting on decency and politeness on all sides; it’s not phony, and it works. A predominantly Christian country — St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva is magnificent — Switzerland’s home to half a million Muslims with around 150 mosques. But religion here is kept personal, and — unlike us — out of politics. God bless America.

They’re lucky to be ringed by the Alps, but not isolated. When we got on the funicular to downtown at the Neuchâtel train station, a crowd of schoolchildren spilled in, bubbling like kids all over the world, a little black girl and several Asians giggling with the rest of them. This mix could be seen on the sidewalks, trams, and bars where the University of Neuchâtel students hang out; it looked like most young gatherings back home. In Leysin, Tai and Kai (our grandsons) played with Charleen, our landlady’s adopted 5-year old daughter, from the Cameroons. Switzerland (aided by its tourists) has a nicely integrated vibe.

Everything’s clean here. Small touches make the sidewalks attractive. Carved fountains with drinkable water (“eau potable”) surrounded by flowers decorate the main streets. Spotless trams, trains, and buses run on time. Our daughter Gretchen, a beekeeper in Massachusetts, noticed the bees buzzing around the gardens: there’s full employment here. It takes hundreds of thousands of people to keep Switzerland so polished.

When asked, we bragged about Tampa Bay: St. Petersburg’s Beach Drive and Central Avenue cafés, our colleges and theaters, how Gulfport and Ybor City have some of this feeling of cameraderie and gemütlichkeit — to use the European words — though without the ever-present storybook skyline. 

But the Swiss weren’t interested in Florida. They wanted to know how we elected Donald Trump. Their reactions to him seem neatly divided: the older citizens think he’s scary; the younger ones think he’s ridiculous, in a crafty way — Trump’s making money. Jeanne and I think both are right.

Although women didn’t get the vote until 1971 (while we were living there!), today the Swiss have an eloquent untwittering president, Doris Leuthard, from the German-speaking section. She, with elected assistants and a dignified voice, runs a country that values and promotes diversity, civility, and honesty as both personal and national virtues. Small as it is, Switzerland may be the fair and rational nation our forefathers hoped for when they founded America.


in partridge  Fly  fly

with me to the steep slope

of the Jura  the wide lake

the clustered vine laden

with such promise  the sweet grapes!

—Both quotes from Lines from Neuchâtel by Peter Meinke, U. of Tampa Press (2009). The image is taken from the wine label for a Swiss rosé, “Oeil de Perdrix” (Eye of the Partridge) 

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