Melting Winter

There is something soothing about the sound of running water.  As the elixir of life barrels over itself from mountains to sea the air inherits a freshness.  Luckily for us, bordering one side of our neighborhood is a small river.  A well-flowing creek keeps the water circulating in a near-by pond .  Ice still covers much of this tree-lined pond, but the ducks still find space to dunk their heads, and search for food.

To us, this bit of nature is a respite from a city’s chaos.  We have lived in Berlin, Munich, Phoenix..all cities with an abundance of movement and healthy populations.  Even our former neighborhood in Zurich was suburban but dense–a view of a tree was enough to be considered experiencing “nature.”  A meeting with a few (Swiss) neighbors yesterday gave glimpse at how our pond and river-rich neighborhood once was, before “change” moved in.

Switzerland is at a fascinating place in its history.  Though its independence and tradition have been secured and preserved in large part by its geography (mountain ranges act like fences) it seems globalization has presented the Swiss with a curiosity: a diversifying population.  That is not to say migration has only begun in the last decade, or that globalization has only now breached the Alps, but new concerns have marched to the fore.  Urban sprawl is encroaching on agriculture land, for example.  Traditional “Swiss” are harder to find–some 23% of residents here are foreign.  And those two items together have over the last four decades drastically morphed our current city.

Still natural
It is still natural, though apartment buildings are springing up faster than saplings.

Our neighbors moved into our building in the 1960s, and are now perched on the top floor.  They stopped by to welcome us to the building after my wife baked cookies for everyone and wrote a card–the proper thing for a person in Switzerland to do, she thought.  But our neighbors came with a feeling of appreciation, excitement, and perhaps disbelief–no one had made such an overture before.

Another rarity, we were told, was our German ability.  Fewer and fewer residents speak German, not to mention the more difficult Swiss-German.  Many immigrants we were told are Italian, or Eastern European, but from our own experience we realize native English speakers in Switzerland who venture to learn German are a rare breed as well.

These issues and complaints of locals seem to be universal.  In Germany the complaint often (perhaps unfairly) rested on people with Turkish heritage.  In the US criticism in political rhetoric (especially in Arizona) has focused on immigrants from Central and South America.  But in Switzerland, there seems to be an “us vs. you” situation evolving.  There are only 8-million people in Switzerland, and a quarter of those are not Swiss.  Not only must the native Swiss cope with urbanization, but they also react to secure their heritage, which some see as under threat by their drastically shifting demographics.

The fear has manifested itself politically, first by the ban on minarets in 2009, and then by the “Black Sheep Initiative” to deport foreign criminals.  Other populist notions have included language requirements for potential immigrants, ever decreasing work permit quotas, or monetary deposits from immigrants to prevent abuse of welfare benefits.

Trying to keep things the way they were..

Whether any of these initiatives would be passed, or succeed in combating a shifting demographic, is questionable.  Like the Germans, the Swiss need foreign labor to keep the economy alive, and they need foreign tourists to keep Alpine destinations in the black.

These international issues of culture, economy, and immigration are in ways much bigger, but also connected to life in this part of Zurich.  Once empty fields have apartments; a small town now has strip malls and development projects.

“To us it is still our little village,” our neighbor said.  But things have changed.

Perhaps our conversation in German and some banana bread will show that, for our part, we appreciate the opportunity to live and work here, and we respect the culture and tradition of our hosts.   I would say maybe more conversation, and more loaves of banana bread, would help break the tension between guests and hosts in this country.  But in our apartment building alone, just 4 people even replied to my wife’s card..out of 10 apartments. 2 of those 4 were Swiss…who are, at least here, in the minority.

As they can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make that horse sit down to share a coffee in the spirit of neighborly fellowship.  But meeting even four of our neighbors is more than we had in Phoenix…where just a nod of my neighbor of 3.5 years was the depth of our relationship.


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