Switzerland Feature

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Understanding the Swiss

Though they're proud, sober, self-contained, independent culturally and politically, disdainful of the shabby and the slipshod, painfully neat, rigorously prompt—the Swiss have a weakness for cuteness, and they indulge in incongruously coy diminutives: a German Bierstube (pub) becomes a Stübli, Kuchen (cake) becomes Küchli, Wurst becomes Würstli, and a coupe (glass) of champagne becomes a Cüplí.

It is lucky for travelers, this dichotomy of the folksy and the functional.

It means your trains get you to your firelit lodge on time. It means the cable car that sweeps you to a mountaintop has been subjected to grueling inspections. It means the handwoven curtains are boiled and starched, and the high-thread-count bed linens are turned back with a chocolate at night.

There is an earthiness about the Swiss, and they're as at ease with the soil as they are appalled by dirt.

A banker in Zürich may rent a postage-stamp parcel of land in a crowded patchwork outside town, sowing tight rows of cabbages and strawberries, weeding bright borders of marigolds, and on Sunday he may visit his miniature estate, pull a chair out from the tidy toolshed, and simply sit and smoke, like Heidi's Alm-Uncle surveying his Alpine realm.

An elderly woman may don knickers and loden hat, board a postbus to the mountains, and climb steep, rocky trails at a brisk clip, cheeks glowing, eyes as icy bright as the glaciers above her.

There's a 21st-century counterpoint to this: the high-tech, jet-set glamour that splashes vivid colors across the slopes at St. Moritz, Gstaad, Zermatt, and Verbier.

Step out of a bulbous steel-and-glass cable car onto a concrete platform at 6,560 feet and see Switzerland transformed. Wholesome, healthy faces disappear behind mirrored goggles and war-paint sunblock, and gaudy skis and poles bristle militarily, like the pikes and halberds in the Battle of Sempach.

The contradictions mount: while fur-clad socialites raise jeweled fingers to bid at Sotheby's on Geneva's Quai du Mont-Blanc, the women of Appenzell stand beside the men on the Landsgemeindeplatz and raise their hands to vote in local elections—a right not won until 1991.

While digital screens tick off beef futures in Zürich, the crude harmony of cowbells echoes in mountain pastures.

While a Mercedes roars down an expressway expertly blasted through solid rock, a horse-drawn plow peels back thin topsoil in an Alpine garden plot, impossibly steep, improbably high.

And on August 1, the Swiss national holiday, while spectacular displays of fireworks explode in sizzling colors over the cities and towns, the mountain folk build the bonfires that glow quietly, splendidly, on every hillside of every Alp, uniting Swiss citizens as they celebrate their proud independence, their cultural wealth, and above all their diversity. It's that diversity and those quirky contradictions that make Switzerland a tourist capital—the folksy, fiercely efficient innkeeper to the world.

Updated: 09-2013

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