The Swiss People Today

THE Swiss people today preserve that element of the paradoxical which in the Middle Ages produced an Arnold Winkelried, courageous to gather the spears of a foe into his bosom for the sake of his country, and thousands of other heroes willing to give almost as great service to any cause for the sake of steady pay. The Switzer of the twentieth century is intensely patriotic, and to keep his country secure makes cheerful joys of the tasks of universal training for military service. But he is a willing exile wherever there is money to be made. He cherishes a deep national pride : but he has no objection to servile occupation in a foreign land if it is profitable. Often he shows himself greedy and rapacious. Yet he is markedly hospitable and charitable. He is eager for liberty, but surrounds his life with a host of petty tyrannies of regulation, being more under the shadow of the official verboten than even the German. He loves the wild natural beauty of his mountains, but will spoil any Alp with a staring hotel and a funicular railway for the sake of tourist gold.

A nation of heroes and hotelkeepers, of patriots and mercenaries, a nation that produced the Swiss Guard which defended the Tuileries, and the suisse who will carry anybody’s bag anywhere in Europe for a tip—the Swiss mingle in a curious way the sublime and the paltry.

Two characteristics the Swiss has clear-cut—thrift and industry. I have never heard of a prodigal Swiss. Their industry is almost as invariable. Very noticeable is it in the Swiss abroad. I can recall two typical Swiss colonists in Australia. The one arrived without other resources than a willing back for a burden and took a porter’s post in a hotel. He soon had something better than that in view, and went hawking ingenious coat and trouser hangers which he twisted from fencing wire. Next I encountered him selling eggs and fruit : he had bought up a little farm out of the profits of his coat-hangers. His next step was a hotel of his own, and thenceforward he became steadily rich. The other Swiss was not of so much resource. He was a printer by trade and earned from £4 : 10s. to £5 a week by that calling. He had saved and saved and had bought three acres of land some five miles out of the city. This farm he and his wife cultivated, providing for themselves (and for sale to neighbours) fruit, milk, wine, butter, cheese, vegetables, poultry. He never spent a penny on a railway or tramway fare, walking always to and from his work. Nor did he ever enter a restaurant or a hotel. When he had paid for his land and his house out of his earnings, the weekly budget of the household never called for more than ten shillings for food, clothing, taxes, etc.

In the Appenzeller district, true, one may encounter apparently lazy men. But in most cases it will be found that these men have put in a very hard-working youth abroad to save money for the little household ; that they spend the summer laboriously as guides, and only idle around the porcelain stoves of their cottages in the winter (whilst their wives work at lace-making and the household tasks) because there is nothing in particular they can do with any direct profit. Certainly, they could help the women. But what the use, or the justice of it ? That would only leave idle time on the women’s hands, and if any one deserves a rest, they would argue, it is the man who has perhaps spent years of his early life in absolute slavery to save up enough for a home.

Mr. John Addington Symonds in his Life in the Swiss Highlands (A. & C. Black) has given a detailed and a very sympathetic picture of the life of the Swiss peasantry, the class from which stream out all over Europe big, hungry, slow-witted, sturdy hotel porters and waiters. In some cases it is a very harsh life these peasants have. He tells :

Some families subsisted on almost nothing but potatoes and weak coffee. One poor fellow, who has now developed into a hearty man, told me that before he left home he hardly ever tasted bread or cheese or meat, and that he was a mere hungry skeleton with skin upon it. At school he had so little flesh and blood that when he cut his finger to the bone it did not bleed. This man also told me a strange tale, which I will relate. There was a family in the same village, as indigent as his own, but reckless and wild. The long, gaunt, lanky sons grew up like beasts of prey, stealing eggs, climbing into stables and sucking the cows’ udders.

One of them, more frantically famished than his brethren, confessed to having hacked with his knife a large slice out of the quarters of a richer neighbour’s live pig. Whether the young brigand cooked this Abyssinian beefsteak or ate the delicious morsel raw, I forgot to ask. Another of the same brood used to supply himself with animal food by drinking the blood from slaughtered beasts, whenever he got permission to indulge his appetite that way. I was informed that this comparative vampire developed into the stoutest and comeliest fellow of the set ; and indeed blood, drunk warm from the veins of a sheep or bullock, ought to be highly nutritious.

That is, I suppose, the harshest side of a Swiss peasant’s life—an example of the very poor folk. But in no case is it luxurious. From that sort of life the young Swiss, going to carry burdens in a French hotel of the lower class, or act as waiter and factotum at a Bloomsbury boarding-house, finds hardly any degree of hard-ship unendurable. It is astonishing to note on how little food, how little sleep, how little human comfort the poor Swiss on the bottom rung of the ladder can keep soul and body together. After-wards, when he gets on in the world, the Swiss sometimes takes his revenge. The rapacious Swiss hotel-keeper of a tourist resort whose exactions infuriate the traveller, is perhaps only paying back to the world the bitter lessons he was taught as the slave of some poor house of accommodation. Not, of course, that the Swiss hotel-keeper is always, or even generally a brigand. Indeed he is very rarely so in Switzerland. It is verboten. But they are always keen, and if dishonest are more keenly dishonest than any others. In their own country regulations safeguard the tourist fairly effectively.

Hotel-keeping is the chief apparent occupation of the Switzerland known to the tourist. But there is apart from that in the towns a busy industrial life. Since the use of water-power for generating electricity has come to be under-stood Switzerland has progressed more and more as a manufacturing country. So great are the demands of the new factories that the emigration of the Swiss begins to dwindle and there is an immigration of artisans from abroad into the country. In the rural districts, away from the towns, among the Alpine villages, the chief industry is the rearing of sheep, goats, and cows. Swiss milk, in a preserved form, and Swiss cheese go all over the world.

The life of the Alpine villages rarely comes under the notice of the tourist unless he is a pedestrian without the craze for rock or glacier climbing, and willing to use his legs for the exploring of rough hill paths. In these villages life is very quiet and peaceful. It is not uncommon to find in them very old men living in the houses in which their great – grandfathers had been born and died. They do not know who built these snuff-coloured huts, but only that their ancestors dwelt in them.

In an Alpine village the two principal buildings are the inn and the white stone church. There is no street. A rough track leads past the dozen or so brown houses. They are two or three stories in height, low ceilinged, lined with pine and built of small pine or hemlock logs dressed smooth and square, laid close and dovetailed at the corners. Often the exteriors are carved. The shingle roof is kept in place with heavy stones, and projects 4 to 8 feet beyond the walls. Some houses have shingled roofs a dozen layers thick. The windows are many and very small. Around the village are sloping meadows, high mountains, steep waterfalls, perhaps a fair blue lake. The short summer is spent in growing a few potatoes, herding the goats, cows, or sheep, pressing the cheese, and cutting and carrying in the grass. Winter is spent in eating up the little that summer gave, and in a struggle to keep from freezing.

In the high villages the flocks are usually of goats. To save the trouble of each villager herding his own goats, a single shepherd is employed who leads the village drove into the higher Alps each day. When the flock return at eve, each goat seeks its familiar home, enters, and bleats to be milked and stalled.

In the better country of the valleys the herds are of cows,. and it is the custom each summer to drive them to the higher Alps to follow the lush grasses of the spring as it climbs up the mountains with the waxing of the sun’s power. This general and gradual movement of the cattle from the valleys to the Alp pastures is a picturesque business. The herds are assembled in procession, each preceded by its herdsman, and a flock of goats. The herdsmen wear white shirts, broad leather suspenders adorned with images of cows and goats in bright metal, scarlet waistcoats, knee breeches of bright yellow, white stockings, and low shoes. A round black hat bound with flowers, and one long brass ear-ring consisting of a chain carrying a tiny milk-pail, usually complete the costume. After the herdsman come three or more heifers, each wearing a huge bell from a brightly garlanded collar. Then come the cattle, with herd-boys to keep them in line. Each herd – file is closed by a waggon containing a great copper cheese-kettle and wooden utensils for milk and butter.

Mr. Symonds pictures the joy of man and beast at these annual pilgrimages in the footsteps of the spring :

The whole village is astir long before daybreak ; and the animals, who know well what a good time is in store for them, are as impatient as their masters. The procession sets forth in a long train, cows lowing, bells tinkling, herdsmen shouting, old men and women giving the last directions about their favourite beasts to the herdsmen. Rude pictures of the Zug auf die Alpen, as it is called, may sometimes be seen pasted, like a frieze or bas-relief, along the low panelled walls of mountain cottages. These are the work, in many cases, of the peasants themselves, who write the names of the cattle over the head of each, attach preposterously huge bells to the proud leaders of the herd, and burden the hinds with vast loads of bread and household gear, and implements for making cheese. How many happy memories of summer holidays have been worked into those clumsy but symbolic forms by uncouth fingers in the silence of winter evenings, when possibly Phyllis sat by and wondered at her Damon’s draughtsmanship ! It takes two whole days and nights at least to get from Emsenau to the Panixer Alp. But when this journey is accomplished, the human part of the procession installs itself delightfully in little wooden huts, which allow the pure air from the glaciers to whistle through every cranny. The tired cows spread themselves over pastures which the snows have lately left, feeding ravenously on the delicious young grass, starred with gentians and primulas, and hosts of bright-eyed tiny flowers. And then begins a rare time for men and cattle.

It is a pity that our British race has lost the habit of making festivals of the great events of the pastoral and agricultural year. I have seen in Australia the annual moving of the sheep from the Monaro tableland to the ” snow leases ” of the Australian Alps, when the hot sun had scorched away all the herbage of the plains. It gives just as much inspiration for joy and thankfulness. But there is no festival. The sheep huddle along, the dogs at their heels. Brown-tanned, eager-eyed men ride beside, with the gladness of the expectation of the mountain fastnesses in their hearts but hardly a word of it on their lips. In England—which was once ” Merrie Englande ” because of its cheery rustic life—harvest festivals and rural feasts have almost vanished.

In many places the Alp-horn is still used to call the cows home at milking-time. It is a huge wooden trumpet, often six feet in length, and a Swiss can draw deep and powerful notes from its wide throat. Its compass consists of only a .few notes, but when these ring and echo from height to height the effect is very striking and beautiful.

Most striking is it at the hour of sunset. On the loftier Alps, to which no sounds of evening bell can climb, the Alp-horn proclaims the vesper hour. As the sun drops behind the distant snowy summits, the herdsman takes his huge horn and sends pealing along the mountain-side the first few notes of the Psalm ” Praise ye the Lord.” From Alp to Alp he is answered by his brother herdsmen, and the deep, strong notes echo from crag to crag in solemn melody. It is the signal for the evening prayer and for repose.

Around their dairying industry centres the best of the Swiss nation, and it is fitting that the ” Ranz des Vaches ” which calls the cattle home should be the national song of the Swiss. It is no single air, it is the ” cow-call ” developed by herdsmen through generations, and it varies in nearly every valley. Its common property is the shrill falsetto intonation of the chorus—the curious twist of the throat that results in the yodel. It is singularly sweet heard in Alpine air. There is a story that once a regiment of Swiss soldiers hired by France deserted, and made for their homes, when the band played the ” Ranz des Vaches.” The desertion was not a shameful one. The same men could have been driven away from their mercenary standards by no threat of death.

The rural industries of Switzerland are fostered with great care. In particular the forests, which protect the soil from being swept away and are ramparts to the villages against avalanches, are jealously preserved. No one may cut down a tree, even his own tree, in Switzerland without the authority of a forestry official. The Department of Forestry supervises carefully the wooded lands and marks those trees which can be felled without harm to the wood.

The organisation of the national services, posts, roads, railways, etc., is also shaped to secure the greatest degree of comfort possible for the small land-holders. It is a wise policy. These rustic people, living almost exclusively on their own resources, eating food which they have produced, wearing clothes which they have spun, demanding so little from the outside world, are the very backbone of the Swiss nation, and they are the rock-foundations of the national patriot-ism. The Swiss are not bound together by the ties of a common race, a common language, a common religion. Their nation is in a sense an artificial one. Its cementing bond is an hereditary instinct, nourished among the peasants of these mountain pastures, to keep the mountain slopes free.

The town life of the Swiss, affected a good deal as it must be by the hotel life of the tourists, is not so admirable as the village life. It is in some aspects irritatingly petty-minded ; in others invitingly well-educated. The Swiss are interested only in the Swiss, and (in a strictly commercial way) the strangers who come to visit and enrich Switzerland. A Swiss newspaper tells little or nothing of the doings of the outside world. Its columns are filled with long accounts of the doings of Swiss shooting clubs and gymnastic societies. Yet Swiss trading and professional people are, in the general rule, astonishingly well versed in foreign languages and foreign literature. Offering asylum as it does to political and social rebels of all countries, Switzerland is a kind of international clearing-house for thought. The Gallic, the Teutonic, the Slavonic new thought of the day—all are understood and discussed in Switzerland, and the Swiss book-shops are the most cosmopolitan and representative in the world.

The use of national costume dwindles in Switzerland as it does in every other part of the world. The peasant women have, however, still a characteristic head-dress, the maidens wearing black caps, the matrons white ones. The caps are two slips of upright lace, which, coming from behind over the head, meet on the forehead, the whole having the air of a butterfly with wings half outspread. Between these, the girls’ tresses are puffed and held back by a silver pin—called a Rosenadel, from its head resembling a rosebud. The matrons only vary this mode in covering their hair with an embroidered piece of silk. For the festivals attending the movement of the cattle to the hills, the hay-cutting, and the vintage, the peasants also don gay national costume.

Traces of the old sumptuary laws of the Calvinist communities still linger in the habits of the people, and show, too, in the absence of pomp at public ceremonies or representative meetings. A Communal Assembly looks like a class – room. The universities carry on their work with a sober absence of pomp, and uniforms are rare. The great amusement of the people in many quarters is still religious disputation and invective. The most popular place in all Geneva for the Swiss inhabitants is the Victoria Hall, where ” revivalist ” preachers of the most damnatory forms of religion hold forth.