(Published in Business Standard on February 22, 2014)
Making fun of the Swiss is so easy that it’s almost unsporting. Uderzo and Goscinny did it beautifully in Asterix in Switzerland, in which Swiss people are shown constantly dusting and cleaning, checking their cuckoo clocks, being very careful with money, and drunkenly throwing each other in the lake for committing the sin of losing one’s bread in the fondue. That’s many of the best known stereotypes all together right there.
And the Swiss do, in fact, lend themselves to stereotype, perhaps more than many other nationalities. Here are some: They are unfriendly. They are averse to signs of human life after 10pm (don’t be flushing your toilet). They call the police if you park in their spot. They love complex bureaucracy, hate litter, wear shorts with long white socks, are suspicious of outsiders, and are fiercely into their 700-year-old direct democracy. They must lose many man-hours voting on referendums like ‘Should we give our hysterical, extremist women the vote’ (yes, but only in 1971) ‘Should we ban those towelhead minarets’ (yes in 2009) and ‘Should we stop accepting every dusty, worthless Tom Dick and Harry who wants to come live here, even if they’re from the EU’ (yes in 2014). There’s cheese in every one of their dishes. They yodel as they walk. They can’t sleep if the company books are off by a centime. If you try to get financial information out of them they will poke you in the eye with a fondue fork and then throw you in the lake.
And yet, they founded the Red Cross, maintain strict neutrality, accept all kinds of refugees seeking political asylum, and by the way, are not nearly as close-minded as you would think. You will find young Swiss people travelling in the remotest, most malarial corners of the world with a smile on their faces. Who can blame them for seeing the world and deciding that their beautiful little corner of it should be preserved as is?
The six or seven Swiss people who give a rat’s ass what the world is saying about them spend a lot of time battling these unfair prejudices. I feel for them, because as of today, once the world is done weeping with laughter, it will have something to beat Switzerland over the head with for the rest of human history.
It’s that thing that happened at the beginning of this week—the thing where an Ethiopian Airlines flight was hijacked by its own co-pilot when the captain went to the loo, and then the hijacker diverted to Geneva and threatened to crash the plane unless he was given asylum, and then the Swiss Air Force, alerted to this incident at 4am, said, The Italians and the French will have to deal with this, because our office hours are 8am-noon and 1.30pm-5pm.
Here’s how a country known for its mountainous impregnability, its 26,000 bunkers and fortifications, its roads that double as airstrips, its population that has compulsory military service, gets kaboomed by its own orderliness. Every newspaper in the world has run a derisive story on how to invade Switzerland: Do it outside office hours.
The Swiss Air Force doesn’t work around the clock for a very good reason: budgetary shortfalls. F-18s and F-5s and pilots don’t grow on trees, you know. On the upside, they’ve been planning a new fleet of Gripens for a while now, scheduled to roll out in 2020.
That is, if the referendum they put out on that purchase passes muster. It’s not looking so good at the moment, because they did a polled recently, and found that 53% of Swiss people don’t approve of them Swedish planes.