14 October 2009 0 Comments

Those disorganized Swiss

You know the reputation. “Swiss” isn’t a nationality. It’s really an adjective meaning highly organized and perhaps even a little too punctilious.

That’s a myth. The place is just like the Middle East… (Look, I write fiction, but I may be onto something. Read on.)

On my recent reading tour, I stopped in Basel as a guest of the superb Literaturhaus Basel. Everyone told me to go the city’s main art museum for an exhibition of Van Gogh landscapes. After a stroll over the Rhine and up into Basel’s beautiful Baroque district, I stumbled on a scene reminiscent of a UN food station in Gaza.

Ok, not quite. That’s the fiction writer meeting the sensationalist journalist, perhaps. But still it wasn’t Swiss.

There were two lines. One was vaguely marked as being for the Van Gogh exhibit. The other, for the rest of the collection. I decided the extreme length of the Van Gogh line was enough to put me off. I joined the other line, which turned out to move very slowly.

A pair of Italian-speaking Swiss ladies tried to jump under the rope to skip ahead in the van Gogh line. A guard told them this wasn’t fair and sent them back. But a few minutes later I saw they were back in position, keeping a low profile.

When I got to the front of my line, I discovered that I could buy a ticket for Van Gogh there too.

It left me wondering what’s happened to the Swiss (sort of.) If I hadn’t lived in the Middle East and encountered far more un-line-like lines, I might’ve really blown a fuse. Maybe I’ve just calmed down enough in my life that now I’m a little bit Swiss myself, trusting that if someone else pushes in it’s their problem and I oughtn’t to worry about it.

I roamed the wonderful museum and returned to my hotel the Krafft Basel. I settled into a chair overlooking the Rhine and asked for a coffee. It seemed I was too late for the lunchroom. I was directed to the smoking room at the front of the hotel.

Now I’d already ventured into that very attractive room. Only to be repelled by the stench of cigars. It smelled like my great-uncle’s dungarees after he’d drunk a bottle of Johnny Walker and peed himself. (Switzerland’s probably the only place in Western Europe these days where you can settle down to make a public area of a hotel smell like a nasty urinal. God bless the EU.)

With a Middle Eastern refusal to accept rules, I told the waitress she could serve me where I was and I’d leave before the remaining diners were done. She agreed. So maybe it’s my fault the Swiss allow rules to be bent.

I set out that evening to corrupt more upstanding Swiss. I enjoyed my reading at the Literaturhaus, which was organized by Katrin Eckert there. (She took me over the Rhine in an old wooden ferry that’s powered by nothing more than the current of the river. One of the most peaceful experiences I think it’s possible to have in a big city.) She brought in Rafael Newman, a translator and all-around intelligent fellow, to interview me and translate.

I’m used to more or less the same kinds of questions at my readings (for which I bear no grudge, they being the most apposite things that come to mind on reading my books). But when Rafael asked me about my literary influences, he had something different in mind: “I’m thinking of the sandstorm in A GRAVE IN GAZA, which is really blinding, and Huxley, Eyeless in Gaza, back through Milton and Samson Agnonistes, going right back to Greek tragedy, where one of the great tragedies ends with a storm.”

“I’m glad you asked me that,” I said, pondering how to adapt my usual answer about the influence of Raymond Chandler on my books. “Mainly I go back to the Bible…”

The ability to bullshit on my feet is one of the few things I gained from three years at Oxford University. Anyway, I told you I was corrupting the Swiss…

Next it was on to a family vacation with my wife, son, and babysitter on Lake Geneva. We stayed in a small village on the slopes of the Jura, smelling the cooking-pie scent of the ripe grapes on the vines. In Nyon, a stinking rich little place on the lake if ever I saw one, I was happily fellating a $5 single-scoop chocolate ice-cream when Graeme Le Saux, formerly an England soccer played, walked by with his black labrador.

During his career, Le Saux was sometimes taunted by other players for being less manly (read, less ill-educated) than they. One Liverpool player, Robbie Fowler, famously pointed his backside at Le Saux and made a comment about what he imagined Le Saux might like to do to it. Well, now who’s taunting who. Fowler presumably lives in crime-ridden Liverpool, waking every morning to wonder if his hubcaps are still on his car. Old Graeme lives on Lake Geneva.

I, too, sometimes wonder if I could’ve lived my life in a more pleasurable place than the Middle East, where I’ve been for 13 years now. But as I licked my Black Forest ice-cream, I looked out over the blue lake and thought that I wasn’t doing so badly as lifestyles go. And the hubcaps on my wife’s car were stolen long ago.

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