Magic Mountains

John Heaton/Stock Connection/Aurora Photos
The funicular above Mürren, with a view of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps

One is not supposed to love Switzerland. Expressing affection for the Swiss or their country is akin to confessing nostalgia for cigarette smoking or The Brady Bunch. It immediately brands you as someone at once unforgivably ignorant of the developments of the past thirty years and incurably conventional in the worst way. Whenever I blurt out my weakness for the place the young yawn politely, liberal colleagues look askance (“Don’t you know about the War?”), my family smiles indulgently: Oh, that again! I don’t care. I love Switzerland.

What are the objections? Well, Switzerland means mountains. But if it is Alps you want, the French have higher, you eat better in Italy, and snow comes cheaper in Austria. Most damning of all, people are friendlier in Germany. As for the Swiss themselves, “Brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

It gets worse. Switzerland did remarkably well out of World War II—trading with Berlin and laundering looted assets. It was the Swiss who urged Hitler to mark Jewish passports with a “J”—and who, in an embarrassing exercise in recidivist chauvinism, have just voted to ban minaret construction (in a country that has only four and where almost all resident Muslims are secular Bosnian refugees). Then there are the tax evaders, although it has never been clear to me just why what Swiss banks do in servicing a handful of wealthy foreign criminals is significantly worse than what Goldman Sachs has done with the proceeds of millions of honest US tax dollars.

So why do I like it? In the first place, the country has the virtues of its defects. Dull? To be sure. But dull can also translate as safe, tidy, clean. A few years ago I flew to Geneva with my younger son, then nine years old. Upon arrival, we descended to the railway station—one of those that the Swiss so boringly locate directly underneath their airports—and sat down in a café to await our train. “It’s so clean!” the little boy observed. And so it was: obtrusively pristine. Unremarkable, perhaps, if you come from Singapore or Liechtenstein—but not to a child raised on JFK and whose only experience of a European airport until then had been confined to the tatty shopping mall at Heathrow.

The Swiss are obsessed with cleanliness. Once, on a train out of Interlaken, I was upbraided by an elderly lady for briefly placing the outer edge of my left foot on the corner of the seat facing me. In England, where no one would have noticed or cared, I might well have been taken aback at such brazen interference. But in Switzerland I merely felt embarrassed at having broken such an obvious civic code—implicated as…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.