I went to this land a number of times. Aged 13, aged 25 and aged 26. It is a picture book land of snow-capped peaks and lush valleys. It is hard not to exhaust the clichés with Switzerland. For Indians this country is Fantasyland. It is used as the backdrop of many Bollywood blockbusters. By the way that word comes from the fact that Americans talk of ”blocks” in a city. If a film was so good that people queued so long that the queue went around the corner of a block then it was a blockbuster. As my parents said ”we queued in the rain to see that one.” Yet again my corkscrew mind digresses.
I had a chum in school who was half Swiss and half British. Let me call him Oscar. We played our puerile war games in the woods. I matured out of them and he didn’t. He went to act out his childhood ravings by joining the army but that is another story. We went by military codes – very war-y. His initials were – are – O.W. Using the NATO alphabet this is Oscar Whiskey. Yes, I spell whiskey with an ‘e’ not because it is the ‘key’ to all but because I am Irish and not Scotch. Yet again I have managed to drift of the theme but that is half the charm of this medium. My stream of consciousness is going into the flood relief channel! Yes, Whiskey – that forbidden substance of which we pre-teenagers had never partaken. I like it not a lot now.
Oscar’s mother was a willowy chain-smoking lawyer. She always looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. It was rare for her to smile. She was Swiss-German. Oscar was verbally abused by Greg at school for being a Nazi. This was as Oscar spoke German he was German. What an ignoramus Greg was, OScar is Swiss. Oh well – Greg was half Soviet so it was hard to bear a grudge against him for bearing a grudge against… oh well, there I go again. In point of fact Owen told me in 2008 that his grandparents did come from Germany. His grandfather served in the Wehrmacht. Last time I asked the old boy was still going not so strong aged 95.
Oscar’s dad was a Britisher from Cymru who moved to London. Thence he went to Zurich.
Oscar moved up to the senior school the year before me. We kept in touch. He suggested I pay them a visit in the land that didn’t invent the Cuckoo clock – that was Germany, whatever they said in The Third Man.
It came to pass that I flew from France to Switzerland one Easter. I have a feeling I jetted straight from Bordeaux.I flew Swiss Air. The leggy air hostess was pretty, cheery type whom, had I been a year or so older, might have helped me become a man – in my mind. Her superb English issued from red-painted lips. Her dense, dark hair was piled up on her head above gleaming eyes. It is odd how she left a sufficient impression on me such that I can recall her over two decades later. I remember later joking with Oscar that this woman – she must have been 25 or so – wobbled on her high heels and must be a transvestite. We were anti-gay or acting so. Actually I had faintly liberal instincts on the issue at the time.
I landed in Zurich and I remember nothing till I, with my trolley, was ushered through to the greeting area.
Oscar and his dad were there. Was his sister Lynn there too? His father was casually attired for the first time in his life. Let me call him Elliott. Elliott was an embryo tortoise in appearance and that is being only a little cruel. He worked in computers but was personable despite it. After decades on Switzerland he had acquire a command of German.
I was astonished to see him push my trolley onto the escalators and it folded. They thought of everything, the Swiss.
The day was bright and clear. A goodly number of tidy people walked in a relaxed yet businesslike manner around that shining hall. We got into the car and pootled off through flowing traffic. Somehow the word squatter came up. Oscar was in the process of cracking a crapping joke when I headed him off and explained that the word alluded to those who well in properties that they do not lawfully possess. I cannot remember what improbably claim Oscar made. He was something of a fantasist. His father called him ”a source of disinformation.” Oscar bridled at that. His parents were a little hard on him.
His father remarked that they had an office in the UK near my new school and he would take me out for tea. I greeted the idea with eagerness. It never came to pass.
Let me call the family the Wilkins. We drove up to the house on Blue Street. The boy’s old school was around the corner from it. He had allegedly blown up his desk and been expelled which is why he came to Giggleswick. This is surely a myth made up by him. He was a compulsive liar. His lies always reflected well on himself. The Wilkin’s house was narrow but t all. Four storeys high besides a basement if memory serves. A Welsh Dragon fluttered from a flagstaff put front. Oscar told me scathingly of the neighbours that the mother parturated annually till she went sterile. It was the first time I heard the word ‘sterile’. I am not sure if that is a correct usage of it.
Mrs Wilkins was always supervising Oscar when she was not impatiently smoking herself to death. The last I heard of it she is still a going concern.
I remember in Oscar’s room him craning his arm into some secret compartment in his desk and fishing out a bizarre loose, long, rubbery item that flopped about. ”A sheath” he furtively announced. He was almost scared to present it. I was astonished and faintly frightened to see it. I think I realised it was a condom. Again I did not know what a sheath was but I had heard of condoms.
Our first afternoon we went to the swimming pool. I did something amiss and was told off by the life guard in German. ”Ich bin Englisch” I explained even though I am Irish. I did not know how to say Irish. He explained my transgression in good English. It did not occur to me to speak to him in the Swiss language that I did know – French.
I remember seeing some 10-ish olive skin girl rollerblading outside on the pool atop a steep hill. Went to the Wilkin’s office. Oscar and I ran around it manically. It was evening time and only Mr Wilkins and a monosyllabic obese brown bearded Swiss colleague were there. It was all state of the art. It was full of humming machines that did not interest me in the least. There was an internal announcment system linked to the phones. Oscar and I called each other from different rooms on the announcement system – speaking English in a hackneyed Germanic accent. Mr Wilkins and his hairy Swiss colleague took it in a good spirit.
That first night we went out to a restaurant. Oscar translated the menu. From the pig – ”pork, Owen” his father corrected him.
I spoke to his parents about how to treat their children. They must treat them well because their children would be responsible for them in their dotage. It was ”a calculated risk.” ”Calculated risk” said Mrs Wilkins slowly, her yellowing teeth showing in a cerebral smile, ”I like that.”
The weather was good and we walked around the clean streets of Zurich.
We used to go to McDonald’s – oh joy of pre-teenagers. We ate pommes frites and drank ice tea. No one thought it wrong that we should be allowed to roam a large city unsupervised at that age and no harm befell us. I think it was quite right that we were permitted to go about by ourselves.
I remember Mr Wilkins speaking about one of his American colleagues. This gentleman remarked, ”You know Switzerland is so organised. It must be the most organised country in the world. You even have a place for the gangs to meet.”
”What are you talking about” said his incredulous Swiss colleagues.
”Well you know how ‘ein’ means one and gang is well, a ‘gang’? Outside every building there is a sign saying by every door ‘ein gang, ein gang’ and here ‘ein gang’ so only one gang can meet outside each door.”
There was an end of Spring festival. It was too hot for me and I grew bored. Some Swiss walked around in Levantine folk dress browned up. tHEY were meant to represent Turks of yore. This was 20 years ago and would surely not be allowed now. We saw some cobblers on the street and I observed that horses had been here. ”You have the ability to be a great detective” said Mrs Wilkins. I thought her cynicism was a little cruel. It was one of those rare moment she smiled. Oscar said she was a bloody good mother. I got tired and we went home and watched the rest on the box. There was some huge dummy of a monster called Moogooli who was dumped on a fire and burnt.
Oscar’s sister went to the dentist. He chided her saying her mouth was dirty. She wept.
We watched the Golden Girls. The whole family liked that one. Oscar and I watched To be or not to be.
I asked them about Common Entrance that I was about to sit. Oscar told me not to fret about it. His mother reprimanded him and said he had got ‘ a crumby grade.’ Oscar seemed to have a native intelligence but little application. He ended up doing poorly in his A levels and attending a second rate university.
A couple of days before we were due to leave we went to the countryside. We took Oscar’s airgun. His father told him not to carry it as is going to war. We went by train to somewhere deep in the countryside. Oscar referred to the people we were going to as his godparents but explained they were not. His parents had sold a farm to them. I do not know why the Wilkin’s ever owned a farm. It was a young childless couple who owned the farm and they had not a phoneme of English between them.
Switzerland was at its highest beauty. The vegetation was the richest green and the woods rang with birdsong.
I crossed the border by train from Austria one February night. In fact Judith and I had passed through that sliver of Austria that touched the Bodensee. As we passed through Contanz she had suggested getting off their to find a hotel. I did not want to. I insisted we press on to Sint Galen in Switzerland. The train was all but empty. I derived much satisfaction from reading the notices in all four languages.
Late at night we stopped in St Galen. I was taking this gorgeous lady on a trip and paying for it all. I wish I had always been that good to her. I saw the green and white cantonal flag of St Galen. This pretty little city was founded by an Irish monk. I threw my rucksack across my back and we strode out of the station. Like a typical Swiss station there was no ticket barrier. They inspect tickets aboard the conveyances.
There was snow all over the ground. I had found a hostel in my guidebook. We took a taxi up the hill and we jumped out. The place looked rather on the shut side. No a hint of light peeped from its many windows. Fuck! That is precisely what I wasn’t going to get. She fumed. Why didn’t you get out at Constanz like I said. We trod down the hill. I was in her bad books. We went to a cafe for a while. I asked the waitress Anja about places to stay. We tried a couple of mid range hotels. No room at the inn – so it happened. A concerned sounding middle aged receptionist told me in perfect English about another hotel but added that it was very expensive. I had little choice. We did not wish to die of exposure.
We checked into a hotel that must have been 4 stars. It was about 150 pounds for the two of us. On reflection that was fantastic value for Switzerland – even all those years ago. Judith chuckled. She had got somewhere to stay all right and she had never lodged anywhere so swanky. The room was huge and the odour was very agreeable. The duvet was preternaturally soft. I wanted to get value by wiping my posterior on the towels.
Anyway a good shag and a good shower later we were both feeling more humanoid.