Watches can be a major investment. So naturally, many collectors, especially of more recent vintage (and notably in emerging watch markets) prefer to play it safe and buy a big-name timepiece. These are more often than not excellent, solid, well-conceived watches … but they tend to overshadow some eyebrow-raising watxches with less PR power, ones that are rare, exciting, and will not break the bank, either.
Here’s the short version of this story: You can get a well-designed, technically classy watch run on one of those brawny, automatic ETA movements: 42mm carbon case, stainless steel bezel, classy black dial and an elegant rubber/fiber strap for under $1000…. But only until July 29 on kickstarter. Here’s the link (Adventure), and here’s the rest of this story.
A week before Baselworld 2014, a friend called me to ask if I could quickly skim over a press release announcing a new brand. I can no longer count the number of times I get these calls , but I’m happily not blasé yet, and my curiosity and inner do-gooder inevitably get the better of me. So I corrected a shabbily translated press release that did, however, describe quite a sexy timepiece called Exploration, I couldn’t help notice. It also landed in the Masters & Mavericks section of Wristwatch Annual 2015, described thus:
“…a 44.5 mm steel case made up of several components and black ceramic inserts, definitely sporty, but not on steroids. The coolness is in the details—the satin-brushed surfaces, contrasting polished beveling, open-worked hands, markers that shorten on the left to make way for the subdials. For complications, he chose a power reserve indicator—the two spring barrels of the customized Technotime automatic movement can drive the watch for up to 120 hours—and a retrograde date hand that takes up about one-third of the dial.”
The “he” in the piece turned out to be Julien Fleury. When I met him a few weeks later in the ground-floor bar at the Ramada (today XXX), I did a double take. Fleury looked like he’d just hatched from an egg, short slightly spiky hair, thin as a rail. He could have been a school kid. But there was something compelling about the intensity of his stare and his very serious demeanor. I was not surprised to discover that he regularly participates in cross-country marathons, a sport that requires focus and self-control.
He is not a watchmaker, he told me off the bat. He started his career in the jewelry trade but had studied graphic design. This did explain the very clear visual impact of the watches.
Businesslike, he explained his concept: He basically designed the watches and has them made by local artisans and friends from his native La Chaux-de-Fonds. They had helped him made the Exploration, and would continue doing so, he said confidently.
Having visited the upper reaches of Neuchâtel canton and the neighboring Franches-Montagnes (Free Mountains) a few times, I realized he was not kidding around. People have loyalties there, and Fleury’s family had, he told me as well, a pedigree reaching into the industry. He’s also a dyed-in-the-wool chaudefonnier with a special love for his native town. “Watches that say Swiss made are readily available,” he said, “but none say ‘made in La-Chaux-de-Fonds.” This odd city is indeed one of the cradles of watchmaking in Switzerland. After a fire destroyed the old town in 1794, a new town was designed along the best lines for natural lighting, a boon to the watchmaking industry. This particularly impressive combination of form and function earned La Chaux-de-Fonds and neighboring Le Locle a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
And so, Fleury aimed to render unto Caesar, as it were, and thus rightfully put that trundling, hyphenated name on his watch dials between 1 and 3 o’clock. His second tribute to “La-Chaux” was the brand name, duManège. The “Manège” is the town’s old riding school built in 1855. It was later used as low-cost housing for poorer families and became an architectural ideal of community living.
The start of a dynasty Once all the technical, financial and biographical issues have been taken care of at my first meeting with Julien Fleury, there remained my key question for any new brand: What are the plans for 2.0, 3.0, etc.. Because an idea in watchmaking is only as good as its subsequent generations. He assured me he had a concept, but he needed first to get his first crop into the market.
At any rate, I left the interview with an old quote from Le Cid by the 17th-century French playwright Pierre Corneille: “Aux âmes bien nées, la valeur n’attend point le nombre des années.” The young Rodrigue, who goes on to duel a gifted swordsman, who had an insulted his aged dad, say s “To the soul well-born, the worth need not wait for years…”
Three years later, armed with better funding, Fleury got back to me with the Heritage line where he could use his jeweler’s talents, or tap into local crafts for a grand-feu dial or other decorative arts. He was even offering customized miniature painting. It was a clear sign that his brand was here to stay. I made space for his watches in Wristwatch Annual 2018, including one of my favorites whose dial is covered in stylized fir trees in champlevé enamel. This special chaudefonnier art-nouveau motif reflects the local trees in that cold and snowy region. They are also a legacy of the city’s famous son, Le Corbusier.
A few weeks ago, Fleury wrote me with a new duManège product, a sleek, sober, technical watch again (the 42-millimeter case is made of carbon composite), with a definitively sportive feel and story. It is called Adventure, and is dedicated to those who, like Fleury himself, practice elite sports. This means: a three-hander, lightweight and robust, screw-in crown, water-resistant to 30 ATM, a big superluminova-drenched 6 and applique markers for the other hours that stand out sharply on a black dial with a dynamic ribbing pattern. The rubber strap also contributes to the active look, and comes with a coat of technical fibers and color stitching according to the model. Time here is driven by a robust automatic ETA 2824-2..
The watch comes in six different models, each dedicated to a separate activity, which is identified by a color code appearing on the second hand and stitching on the strap. Ball is yellow and stands for football (soccer); Slide (blue) for tobogganing; Fight (white) is for martial arts, while Military is khaki obviously; Motor is red for motor sports, and, finally, Mountain is green.
Twenty percent of the sale of each watch will go to a designated sportsman to help him on his way to success. These include Swiss bobsleigh driver Yann Moulinier (from La Chaux-de-Fonds) , who’s making a bid for the Olympic Games (Slide); soccer player Neftali Manzambi, training to make it to the national team (Ball); Ludovic Soltermann, Prestige Class motorcycle driver (Motor); Zakaria Khelil, a kickboxing and Muay-Thai specialist (Fight).
Getting it These watches will be available online for chf 1390 (for dollar price, check the daily exchange rates), but Fleury has started a kickstarter campaign to get them produced by the end of the year. His deal: Buy one through the crowdfunder, and get a 40% discount….
You haven’t heard this one yet: Four top experts, a micro-engineer, an industrial designer, an artist with a specialty in metalwork, and an accountant walk into a bar. And the barman says: “So, Herr Gerber, what can I serve you today?”… Add a really smart kid, but that would be getting ahead of my skis…
A slightly flippant joke like that above may not be the most dignified way to introduce a giant of watchmaking, but the real cognoscenti will know that the punchline is pretty accurate. This was confirmed to me during a brief and – as usual, fun – visit with him and his wife Ruth during the Easter break. Let me backtrack for a minute.
In case you don’t know Gerber too well or at all: Bernese by birth, but living and working in Zurich for nearly half a century, he has had his platinum fingers in the mechanism of many a great watch or clock over that half-century plus. Amongst his global creations is, for instance, the cool-calm-collected MIH watch made for the Musée Internationale de l’Horlogerie in La Chauds-de-Fonds. Two of his pieces have been in the Guinness Book of Records. One time was for the smallest clock made of boxwood, another for one of the world’s most complicated watches. It was originally a fairly simple pocket watch made by Louis Elysée Piguet in the early 20th century, but a new owner, Swiss entrepreneur Willi Sturzenegger (the “Earl of Arran”) decided to soup it up… Gerber also makes watches under his own name: they are easy to read, and with small touches of genius, such as a dizzying triple rotor. It’s Gerber’s understated humor coming out, a necessity for his version of “innovation.”
At the end of August 2015, I had the great luck to spend a few intense days with Paul Gerber and his wife and comrade-in-arms Ruth. The occasion was one of his watch seminars, during which me and two other gentlemen were coached by Gerber while we took apart an old Unitas, changed the mainplate, decorated it, and put the whole thing back together again in a special case. The details of this exciting process, and the depth of learning can be found here
Easy does it
At the time, I had already developed a deep respect for this dyed-in-the-wool watch-genius. Nothing in his surroundings or demeanor suggested the extent of his know-how and experience. He seemed more akin to some regular Joe, puttering around his little den-like workshop in the basement of his modest house on Zurich’s western edge. But the three-day workshop, besides deepening my knowledge of the art, was also full of wonderful discoveries, tiny clocks, machines, movements he’d rebuilt, gadgets and gismos, and lever arch folders stuffed with thousands of pages and images fastidiously documenting the work of a lifetime.
We met at various events since, and each time he extended a generous invitation to drop by. Casually. And so, earlier this year (2018), I was able to finally take up Paul and Ruth Gerber on their invitation.
It was a sunny day. But no sooner had I arrived, than Gerber took me to his workbench in the den-like basement. The operational word is work: The space is covered with motley items he uses to operate on watches, screw drivers, tweezers, bits of gummy stuff used to pick up tiny screws, a quadruple oil dispenser. There was also a broken wine glass he uses to protect parts from dust while they wait to be assembled. Most industrial watch workshops have elegant cheese bells: “I’ve had this since I started,” he pointed out with a mischievous smile. Gleefully he showed me a device he’d built… just to sharpen screw drivers. “The others don’t work well.”
But the pièce de resistance was undoubtedly a tiny ring-shaped part of silvery metal, stainless steel I assumed, which he picked up with a pair of tweezers and held up to the light. I had no idea what it was. He explained forthwith: It was the frame of the watchstrap moon phase he’s made for the MIH watch. The story behind it was typical Gerber: A customer had wanted a moon phase on his MIH watch and rather than clutter up the dial of the minimalist watch, he decided to sink a small, battery driven moon phase into the strap, an innovative idea, if I ever heard one.
We were supposed to go out for lunch on this, the first real day of spring in 2018. But I had brought a big jar of mustard and spontaneously suggested it would be a great day to grill cervelat and enjoy the garden… Gerber seemed relieved, and I was to, and Ruth immediately set about organizing the lunch, while Paul disappeared somewhere to grill the sausages.
(Chatty aside: Is there any Swiss family that doesn’t keep an emergency reserve of cervelat, that short, thick wiener-like sausage wrapped in natural skin (it caused a bit of a stir about eight years ago when it seemed Switzerland was running out of skin? I guess not.)
Over lunch, Gerber talked about his early days in the biz. The quartz crisis was raging at the time he was doing his apprenticeship. And so he began by opening a watch and jewelry shop. As he spoke, I had difficulty imagining this brilliant watchmaker discussing watch straps with walk-in customers, or confirmation gifts for thirteen-year-olds. And he confirmed my feeling: Being in his watchmaking den, with his fingers on the wheels, was more along his lines. He sold the shop.
A distant connection of sorts flash through my mind. Gerber’s enthusiasm with watchmaking reminds me of a sentence Max Büsser (see MB&F) has made into his company’s tagline: “A creative adult is a child who has survived.” Survived the constraints, strictness, rigidity, Gradgrindish goal-setting of the so-called adult world. This explains his desire to stay close to his work, at home, in his basement, rather than delve in the flimflam of communication and publicity. The marketing masters of our industry love to talk about passion, and urge their copywriters to do “emotion.” But Gerber does not perceive and then act in the spirit of passion (conjuring Hume, here), he just lives it as a cellular impulse. His rationality then steps in and tells him how to implement it in the 3D world.
I mention a young unemployed watchmaker I know, who has restored some surprisingly valuable watches (an Omega Seamaster, among others), and the conversation drifts towards old movements and replacement parts. You’d think it is extremely esoteric and a little dull, but it’s not. Not when Gerber talks about it. It’s more like Wilhelm Kempff talking about piano strings or felt hammers. And so I learn that watchmakers who’ve started cranking a heavenly topping tool often leave a treasure trove of bits and pieces, sometimes even entire movements, for the next generation. These end up in flea markets, or are picked up by other watchmakers to fiddle around with. And are then passed down or end up in a special timepiece that may or may not be sold. More likely than not, it will end up in the recycling container. Gerber has his own collection of composants trouvés, as it were.
I thought his big hobby was fly-by-wire planes…. But after lunch, Gerber steers me to a display case in his living room containing one of his own collections. Standing on a shelf like little soldiers, are a battalion of old Oris travel alarm clocks, the ones that folded up into a hard shell, a clever design. Just for the heck of it, he built a functioning tourbillon into one of them. At some point, virtuosity is the key that unlocks total creativity, sort of like Picasso drawing Gertrud Stein as graffiti on a bathroom wall.
He had more to show me, down in his Ali-Baba’s cave, The Basement. Bellies full, we browsed through pictures of his special car, a Fiat 600 Multipla from the late 50s, adoringly restored. Interesting: Many watchfolk I know have flashier vehicles, but this one has personality… He dug up some mechanical place-name holders that show the diner’s name when a lever was depressed. I asked him about the amazing Earl of Arran watch, and he dragged me – where I had sweated for three days two years earlier decorating that Unitas movement – was a large and beautiful box with a leather insert, for the latest iteration of the (see the article on Paul Gerber, P. 1).
Back in the basement, he shows me the large gearwheels he finished for one brand we shall keep anonymous. He dismisses the actual model they were fitted into with a sly, deprecating smile. But those gearwheels …. beveled to perfection, inside and outside edges, including the corners, which are exceedingly tricky, the three wheels displaying forty (40!) surfaces for his rock-steady file to transform from mundane metal to watchmaker perfection. And that, for several models… He also pulls out a thick folder to show the details of the order. Everything is documented, beginning with sketches, down to the last screw. That’s the book-keeping part. It’s a key to maintaining continuity; it’s a gift to future generations.
I think full circle. When I first left Gerber’s cavern a few years back, I thought hard on what elevates some watchmakers to the highest rank. It’s not just the achievement and portfolio. The challenge is this: Watchmaking taps into all sorts of fields. In addition to engineering, material science, gem-setting, enameling, a top-notch watchmaker will know history, navigation, astronomy, theology, philosophy, esthetics. They are Renaissance people, they are the great (sea) venturers, to borrow a term from R. Buckminster Fuller, who required “…great anticipatory vision, great ship designing capability, original scientific conceptioning, mathematical skill, (…), able to command all the people in their dry land realm in order to commandeer he adequate metalworking, weaving and other skills necessary to produce their large complex ships.”1
The era of the master visionary and maker may be dead and gone in many other industries, but to create a beautiful watch, like composing a beautiful string quartet, you need a Beethoven, a Haydn, a Brahms, not a committee of brainstormers dreaming up target groups. Gerber is up there with the giants.
Buckminster Fuller, R., Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, A Dutton, New York, 1963, p. 17
A look at a specialty on Geneva’s Yuletide tables.
One cannot help but think that if the Latin influence were not so strong in Geneva, Christmas might not be such a jolly affair in the city. Indeed, when dour and sour Calvin turned the place into a theocracy from about 1541 onward, with his rigid laws and set punishments running all the way to death by burning or drowning, he set a course still felt to this day. Among other things, he made fun and games anathema, and so Genevans had had to find ways to make merry without irritating already naturally irritable ghosts and deities. And his staunch hatred of bling meant that the local jewelers had to find a new way to practice their art: clock-making… But that is not the subject of this post…
Calvin prohibited anything and everything that could be remotely fun. Carnival is not celebrated in Geneva, for example. Calvin even went as far as prohibiting Christmas as a feast of idolatry and for a few hundred years after, the Genevans did not celebrate the Birth of Christ, Prince of Peace…Tell that to the wind machines ranting on about the fake “War-On-Christmas. What the city does have is the somewhat extreme and boisterous annual celebration called “Escalade,” the commemoration of a skirmish between the (Catholic) troops of the Duke of Savoy and the (Protestant) Genevans came right before Christmas 1602 on the Gregorian calendar. It comes along with fancy dress parties and general rejoicing and chocolate cauldron consumption. I have described this otherwise insignificant event outside Geneva in an earlier post.
All this to say: the influence of Calvin is still felt in Geneva. Ultimately, however, the Genevans did goback to celebrating Christmas. The city gears up in November already with wonderful lighting arrangements in the leafless trees, and shopping becomes more frenetic. But on Christmas Eve or Day, on the festive tables, amidst the smoked salmon, foix gras, oysters, calorie-laden bûches (the French pastry Yule log) and various wines, you’ll find a delicacy whose rewards, like Calvinistic grace, are only revealed and delivered after a long and arduous journey.
The item in question is the cardon, in English cardoon, in Latin Cynara cardunculus, a thistle-like plant related to the artichoke found occasionally in the wild in Mediterranean regions and elsewhere.
Cardoon character At first glance, it looks like some irksome and resilient weed requiring immediate annihilation. So, as with the olive and several other labor-intensive foods, one must marvel at the first people who figured out that the cardoon is edible and that it has a wonderful artichoke-like flavor with just a hint of bitterness and a fine texture.
It also has history. The Mediterranean people already cultivated it in antiquity. According to lore, it was Protestants from the south of France who brought it to Geneva following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that deprived France’s Huguenots of their religious and civil rights. These families settled in the so-called Plaine de Palais (where the Bastions and National Theater is today) and continued cultivating their cardon, refining over the centuries to make it – guess what – even more thorny (épineux). Today, the “Cardon genevois épineux” is actually the only Swiss vegetable with a protected designation of origin.
The slothful – Catholics, perhaps… no offense – will buy the vegetable already prepared, cut into short segments, and packed into large jars or in vacuum packed bags for up to CHF 15 the kilo. The self-respecting Genevan will purchase it fresh for about CHF 5 per kilo from one of the famed local market-gardeners (maraîchers) at any outdoor market.
You can’t miss it there: imagine a pale yellowish, oversized celery with a thick root. Occasionally they come stuffed in a plastic bag, not very ecological, but it will protect your hands from the thorns.
Taming the wild cardoon From seed to table, the cardoon is all about the sweat on your brow.
A few years ago, Pierre Gallay, a gardener, explained the cultivation procedure to me. It’s sown in May and grows quickly in summer. In autumn, the leaves on each plant are folded up to promote natural bleaching. In November each cardon is then uprooted by hand along with some earth and put into cool cellars where it continues to grow and bleach out without risking frosts.
Geneva produces about 130 tons of cardons per year, according to the Association of Plainpalais Interests. These Genevan heritage enthusiasts also point out in traditional Calvinist style, that with its fibers and low calories, it is the perfect counterpart to the prandial “abuses” of year’s end.
To prepare it, shave off the thorny edges. Then peal the stalks as you would rhubarb or celery, pulling off the stringy ridges and skin. Cut up into inch-size pieces and tenderise overnight in a milk-water mixture. Then boil in salty water (about 30 minutes) with a dash of milk. Dress with cream (yes, but double cream from Gruyère) and pepper, or use the liquid for a béchamel to cover the cardons, sprinkle with Parmesan or Gruyère and bake till the cheese is a little crispy. You are now a step closer to being Genevan.
This story is entirely true because I imagined it from beginning to end. Boris Vian (1920–1959) Preamble to L’écume des jours (Froth On The Days)
We all seek a measure of security in a connected, networked world, where corporate identity ensures global monoculturalism at all levels and offers the comfort of familiar space. We can travel the planet without ever really seeing it, enjoy the exact same coffee in Singapore as in New York or Warsaw, buy the same clothes in shops that all look the same, hear the same shallow music with me-me-me lyrics, and even taste the same foods. Our hyper-technology tends to reinforce the uniformity around the globe, creating more safe space, removing all sting and thrill out of the adventure of life. Everything can be seen. And paradoxically, in the flood of images being traded across the globe every second of the day, it’s our imagination that suffers.
Throughout their lives, puppeteers Tina and Michel Perret-Gentil chose to sally forth into the great unknown without fear of being disconnected. Their particular art of telling stories through their puppets engages the imagination far more than any movie or series of pictures on Instagram or Flickr. Their life and craft dispense metaphors that trigger chains of thoughts and eureka moments and genuinely slake our minds’ thirst for exploration of mystery and for more journeying.
Here’s the story of two very special people living a different life in Geneva.
When Tina was 19, she packed up her bags, took the seeds of her life’s experience from a childhood and youth in the stark, majestic mountains of the Canton of Grisons in eastern Switzerland, and went down into the lowlands to plant them and see what might grow. The year was 1967; in the western world, a new generation of humans was taking its first hesitant steps away from the social and political straitjacket of a more conservative past. Change was in the air, and it was to break into full-fledged rebellion a year later in Paris and other European capitals. Geneva was not yet the pressure-cooker-like, global maelstrom of finance, oil, real-estate speculation and tarnished money it is today, but the presence of the UN and other international organizations already gave it a distinct stamp, a whiff of distant shores, of exoticism that contrasted with the in the quintessential Calvinist petit bourgeoisie of the city. It was a mix lacking elsewhere in the Alpine Republic.
Tina, née Marianna Katharina Casanova, who had learned French and done some secretarial training, had no ambitious plans for life. She just wanted to work at the post office and get a feel for life in a biggish city. “My aunts and my mother had worked at the post office in Obersachsen (her native village), and as a child I would help them deliver telegrams or express mail for pocket money,” she recalls. “I did that for a few months in Geneva but I realized I did not want to be behind a counter all day, I wanted to get out and deliver the mail, and be with the people.” And so her first seedlings withered quickly under the fluorescent assault of reality.
As time passed, however, she came to realize that the post-office job in itself was just a symbol for the determination and self-confidence bequeathed to her from her mother and aunts well before Swiss women even got the right to vote. The Grisons, that large mountainous Canton in Eastern Switzerland with its stark peaks, eight months of snow, where people still speak a derivative of Latin, Rumantsch, boasted particularly traditional values. “They were different from other women,” she says of those powerful women in her life, “they wore more jewels, they wore trousers, they were the first women to ski up there, they all made music, and I got a diatonic accordion for my ninth birthday,” she points out, a touch wistfully. “I had a wonderful childhood up in the mountains, close to nature.”
When I visited Tina the first time to write this article, she was still close to nature. Her home, surrounded by greenery, is unique in and for Geneva, a city plagued by an extreme dearth of lodgings and where rents are astronomical. Almost forty years ago, she and her husband Michel slipped quietly into the nomadic lifestyle of rolling homes “It was not a conscious decision, it just happened,” she says, “but I couldn’t live in a house anymore today. Those poor Romas whom the government was always trying to force into homes, they must have gone crazy.”
They had four trailers, long, dark wooden structures that her life-long companion Michel Perret-Gentil had carefully and skillfully revamped, adding windows, insulation, wood paneling, and the occasional decorative touch. One was for sleeping, one for the office and atelier, there was one for each of their two children, who are now grown up and have children of their own. Her son Jan lived in Uganda for a while, where his wife worked for an NGO. Daughter Anna is in Geneva. For guests or other meetings, Michel put up a large yurt, the tent-like structure of wooden slats covered with felt used mainly in Mongolia.
At the time of the first interview, these homes were located in a garden lot in the Cherpines area of the city, which until May of 2011 had been zoned for agriculture. The two functional homes were placed so the doors face each other. Between the two was a simple picnic table covered in wax cloth and shielded from the rain by a canvas. Often, on warm days and nights, they sit together or with any of their innumerable friends and chat, dream and discuss projects. They are as gentle with the environment as possible, always using biodegradable soaps. The waste from the toilet is compost.
In their five years’ residence at the Cherpines, they had planted a wild garden with roses, some vegetables and herbs, dug a small pond, and even planted a willow, using offshoots from a tree at their previous residence. “Everyday I look at the flowers in the garden, I feel they are inhabited each by their own spirit, and that gives me strength as well and confidence.” These two words return in our conversations over and over again. Strength, confidence.
During our interview, we sat in the kitchen, essentially a wide corridor with a gas stove and an old wood cooking stove used on colder days. The walls are covered in mementoes, pictures, notes, drawings, post-its, the eclectic ephemera of a life on the road and with children. A shelf carries a crowd of strange objects, statuettes and, incongruously, an old shoe. The sheer immediacy of the outdoor takes away any feeling of being inside. It’s spring, and a host of sparrows, blue tits and blackbirds are carrying on a lively conversation. The west wind that brought a light rain is also shaking drops off the trees onto the roof above us and making the nearby highway more audible than usual. The cats come in and out of the open door. The air is rich with spices, herbal teas and espresso and a hint of patchouli, an aromatic anchor in Tina and Michel’s lives.
We sit opposite each other. Her eyes are dark aquamarine, almost grey. They take in everything without hunger, as if they could hear. She speaks in clear, emphatic tone, her French has the slight singsong of her native Swiss German, and every move of her long thin arms shakes a parade of bangles. She modulates her voice down to whisper sometimes, or stretches out a syllable beyond its shelf life.
A touch of theater is an occupational hazard: For nearly 38 years, Tina and Michel have been puppeteers, telling stories, singing, accompanying their little wooden actors with all manner of sounds and instruments. As such, they have become an integral part of the cultural scene in Geneva, appearing wherever there is some manifestation or celebration of the stage arts or children to entertain. They also launched a late spring festival called “Dust of the world” (Poussière du Monde), homage to nomadic culture featuring song recitals from the Maghreb or Colombia, or evenings of fairytales. It all takes place in a in the Parc Bernasconi in Geneva. The theater itself is in fact two magnificent concatenated Mongolian yurts, whose cloth walls are supported by slats intricately decorated with arabesques.
It is there, on a Sunday afternoon, that I picked up one of their shows. This one featured their kathputli puppets – a special type of string puppet originating in Rajasthan – enact vignettes from life and legend presented to the scratchy recordings of folk music taken from old 45s. The program opens with two puppet musicians playing… and very quickly you forget the intricate, perfectly timed pas-de-deux of the two puppeteers operating behind a simple anthracite backdrop. Among the more virtuosic scenes is an acrobatic horseman holding a torch on his galloping steed, a little scene featuring a woman who suddenly turns into a man, much to the disappointment of an eager suitor, and our horsemen joisting. It is a far cry from the flash-bang, often violent drama with which the entertainment industry usually tries to hypnotize spectators. But rows of children up front, some surely hardened Wii, Gameboy and TV users, are wide-eyed in fascination, so much so that they begin moving forward and at some point have to be guided back to their place.
Puppeteering is a form of expression in metaphors. The tales always have some didactic or moral goal, or they are reflections of life itself and its sometimes absurd realities. Therein lies the fascination: Like court jesters, the puppeteers can reveal disguised truths for the audience. And after a while, the puppets themselves come alive, a little like Pinocchio, only less schoolmarmish: “The most extraordinary exchange occurs between them and us,” Michel once wrote. “We give them life, and in return they give us the possibility of living. Some are thirty years old. They don’t age. They wait discreetly, always ready for our hands to seize them. The wait is never very long, and when our hands take them it’s not just our hands doing the work, but our hearts are present as well.” By his own admission their creations avoid caricatures, sentimentality, irony and the spectacular, leaving “receptivity and imagination” in Michael’s words.
He is not just venting theory. The puppets are what sparked the couple’s unusual, nomadic lifestyle. They became “the means of transportation for a journey without a goal… Like the horizon, the goal is always escaping me,” he wrote.
That journey began in the early 70s. After the post-office debacle, Tina learned to type and found work at a bank. It was then that she met Michel, a young man with curly hair, opaline-blue eyes, and the wild creative vein of an extramural philosopher. He liked his job washing windows. It gave him time to cultivate and expand his tangled web of thoughts while peering into opulent shops, thoughts that got him thrown out of the military within a week of passing muster. “He was filed as ‘socially not adapted’” Tina says with a broad laugh. “You should have seen his demeanor, plus he had a bunch of psychological reports. But we did have to pay a military tax after that.”
Inspired by friends who had visited India, they put money aside and, in 1971, bought a VW bus and drove to India by road. “It was a magnificent journey,” Tina recalls. There were adventures – such as people shaking their car at night – as they wended their way through the Balkans, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The beauty of discovering the world remains, tinged with the occasional thrill. “Afghanistan was simply marvelous, the people were hospitable, friendly,” she recalls. “Michel and I used to say that no one talked about the country because it was in peace, and look what happened, the Russians, oil, money.” They even stayed with smugglers near the Khyber Pass — “Guns, ammunition and Camel cigarettes! All over the place!” — who offered them an evening of music, dinner, and a night in silk sheets.
They spent nearly a year in India and Nepal discovering a brand new culture. When it came time to return, however, war between India and Pakistan had broken out, so they abandoned their car and flew home with the help of wired funds.
Back in Switzerland, life continued, but their paradigm had shifted. One day they went to see a puppet play directed by a fellow named Michel Politti. It was a classic coup de foudre, love at first sight, when all the disparate parts of life seem to gell into a full-blown affirmation, a single, vibrant “yes!” They wanted to return to India anyway, so through the Indian Tourist Board they found a center to learn how to make and activate the kathputli puppets of Rajasthan, one of the oldest forms of the art. They gave up their jobs and hit the road again, this time in a small, two-cylinder Ami 6 Citroen station wagon customized for camping. There followed six months of toil, learning to carve, sew and string up the kathputli, and create small, eye-twinkling, moving tales to entertain people.
Their return to Europe was not auspicious. The car’s engine froze up in Belgrade and they had to leave a large case filled with their freshly made puppets behind to take the train. Nevertheless, back in Geneva, at a little house rented from the city near the airport, they began rebuilding their stock. “We practiced a lot, and a woman saw us and asked if we would like play at the annual meeting of the Swiss puppeteers,” she recalls. “And would you believe it? Suddenly everyone wanted us. People would ask us how much money we wanted, we had no idea.”
The tours began. First to France, then Germany, later to Eastern Europe and England. Soon, they were able to live from puppeteering and decided to buy a big 1947 Saurer bus to save themselves the cost of hotels. Ironically, the vehicle had originally been used by the post office to transport people as well as mail. They travelled about 12,000 miles a year. When the children came (born in 1976 and 1980 respectively) the trips became shorter, or Michel’s mother had to step in as a baby-sitter. Their shows evolved and expanded as new puppets were created and new tales added. Michel had found his calling in the creation of a string of “circuses” with special puppets. In Pécs, Hungary, they won a prize for his “Cirque philosophique,” which combined music (Tina on accordion) and Latin texts. They performed at festivals and in schools, for Christmas and Easter.
Meanwhile, in 1982, the city of Geneva wanted their cheap little house back to turn it into lodgings for flight attendants. Tina and Michel decided to make a deal. Rather than accept alternative accommodation, they asked whether they could use some municipal land and put a second bus on it. The city let them use a plot in the Malagnou section. Soon, real-estate developers started ogling that plot, so they moved to a new place lent by friends, and then when the developers reappeared again, like locusts in neckties, these urban nomads moved again. And again… Each time they came to a new spot, they cleared the grounds, planted gardens, created a paradisiacal human biotope. As the children grew, they added the rolling homes, long, simple structures that had been abandoned by workers or other similar nomads.
Like many gentler flowers, the Cherpines location was long coveted by predators as easy prey. On May 15, 2011, after an acrimonious campaign, the people of Geneva voted to have this rural section of Geneva rezoned for building. It may have been necessary, since the city’s growth needed to be accommodated. Overnight, the price of land exploded and the speculators moved in with deals that were tough to refuse. They offered local property-ownerss staggering sums for their plots. Tina had always maintained a friendly relationship with her landlord. She also kept the plot impeccable, beautifying it with a garden. At the time of the referendum, he was recovering from an operation. Tina visited him as to wish him well and was greeted by a vicious “When are you moving out?” Money talking.
It was time to pack again.
In the six years since the Cherpines were delivered to speculators, not a building has been built. Why should it? You can sit on fairly cheap land while the rest of the city squeezes into small and often dumpy apartments, and the price of the land will just go up. No investments needed, except for some taxes and a few good lawn mowers. The misery of some, make the happiness of others, an old French saying goes. While Genevans waited for more apartments, Tina and Michel had to move. They found a place in the Lignon area. It is not as idyllic, but wherever Tina and Michel “drop anchor,” their space always radiates care, beauty, calm.
January 2017. Outside it’s cold. The damp comes off the river Rhone nearby, it’s like the Erlkönig’s voice. We sit in the warmth generated by the wood stove and talk about the next puppet show. The city is cutting back on funding for artistic pursuits, maybe the deficits will come down, but while economic woes can be corrected, cultural poverty is a downward spiral that eats at the foundations of human society. There is some anger in her voice at the way the world is becoming increasingly polarized. She notes the neighborhood, young people who have chosen to live in their campers to save money, not necessarily idealists. They go to work like everyone else. Then there are the punks, who, she notes, are developing self-sufficiency and engaging in different crafts.
And there is the ever-lengthening past she speaks of as if it was the present. That is the gift of nomads, and it is their essential melancholy. They carry their entire lives in their baggage, in their minds, in their souls, in their homes, tents, on the backs of their camels and horses, or in their old vehicles. Those of us who have moved around a great deal know the value of human beings, of other people and peoples. Our consumer society demands that we fill cellars and attics and try to be reconcile ourselves with an unpredictable future. The nomad collects and keeps mostly weightless stuff around, thoughts, dreams, philosophies, ideas, and sanctifies human to human contact.
Michel sits beside her in the kitchen. His clear blue eyes are opened wide by overarched eyebrows; his look is a mixture of admiration, love, gratitude and amazement. He seems at peace. Those who knew the old Michel speak of his great intellect and ready conversation, his fast mind and love of life. Three years earlier, while packing the stage after a Christmas play, a massive heart attack struck him down. He recovered, essentially, but death’s had struck and its claws raked a part of his mind, taking his treasure of thoughts, his memories and many puppet adventures away forever. Today, he handles the puppets literally by heart, which was always his way. He is a man of the heart, friendly, resolute, creative and a touch mysterious, without being obscure.
Wherever Tina and Michel go, they are approached by acquaintances, friends, admirers. It’s more than just the attraction of the theater. It is the single-mindedness with which they lead their lives and their belief in the importance of the human creative impulse and the power of the individual. Michel came up with a clever, double-edged name for them, “des anges heureux,” (happy angels), which is almost a homonym for “dangeureux” (dangerous).
After our first interview, still in the Cherpines, she took me back to my car back. On the way, she showed me the lovingly tended garden. She is a long, lithe woman, with stunning poise. Her hair is always pulled back in two thin braids that reach almost to her knees. At 62, she moves with the grace of a ballet dancer, be that while walking through the market shopping, receiving gifts, or giving life to the puppets. And the rhythmic sound of a tabla, or djembe, a tombak or any other live percussion will set off a languorous swaying dance like that of a field of wheat caressed by a breeze. The beauty of her being radiates from an inextinguishable inner fire. At night a lighted candle always flickers near their home, “to signal that we are here, we are still burning,” she smiles. As I drove away in the luke-warm spring drizzle, I could see their home in the rear-view mirror and another quote of hers echoed in my ears:
“We are on wheels. When we go, we will leave no traces.”
A brief review and shout-out to a film never seen before, because its world première was given the day after the official closing of the great Locarno Film Festival, which is held every summer on the Piazza Grande of this traditional hub of Swiss tourism.
Asino Vola (Fly, Donkey) was screened on the Sunday night August 16, following the Festival’s official closing. The day had taunted the region with rain, but ultimately delivered a dry and slightly chilly, starry night with no moon, a perfect finale to one of the world’s great film bacchanals. It was billed as a children’s film, so obviously Locarno’s Piazza Grande was filled to the brim mostly, it seemed, with the young and their parents. This was not a children’s movie only, however, it was more like a cockeyed fairytale, ageless, a touch magical, humorous, heartwarming.
The story of Asino vola is quickly told: A little boy, Maurizio (Francesco Tramontana), seven years old, living in a dusty Sicilian backwater, dreams of becoming a musician and makes good thanks to a drum that he learns by proxy, since the bandleader had assigned him to a flugelhorn, which his parents simply cannot afford. As in all good stories of success, the path to the goal is really what counts, and in Maurizio’s case it is not all smooth going. So much can be expected of a movie. Continue reading “Do donkeys fly? In your dreams”
In a confederate system as diverse as Switzerland, it is hardly surprising to find that Cantons and cities occasionally engage in very local celebrations that no one else has ever heard of. There is the Chalandamarz and the Pschuuri in the Grisons, or the Bloch at Mardi Gras in Appenzell. Not to be outdone (especially by its Germanic co-confederates) , Geneva has the “Escalade,” The Climb, which has evolved into one of the main participatory spectacles in town.
Geneva is Geneva, of course, and stringent logic often seems absent from the organisation of local urban life, so the climb actually involves horizontal rather than upward mobility. Much of the event consists of people running, Marathon-like, through the city on the first Saturday in December or, if Saturday falls on the 11th, then on the second Saturday. In 2014, it was on Saturday December 6. The date, like the hare-brained configuration of the city’s public transportation, needs some clarification.
The event that spawned The Climb took place on a wintry night of 11-12 December 1602, the longest night of the year, since Genevans still used the old Julian calendar at the time. Duke Charles-Emmanuel I of Savoy had coveted the Calvinist city north of the Alps, and was hoping to force it back into the Catholic fold for religious, strategic and economic reasons. On that fateful night, a band of mercenaries managed to scale (escalader) the walls at around 2 a.m. When two sentinels ran into them, all hell broke loose. Reports say that civilians joined in, throwing heavy stuff out of windows, tables, chairs, barrels, stones, and real weapons like halberds.
The Genevans got the better of the attackers. They lost 18 men in the skirmish, 54 of the attackers were killed, 13 taken prisoner, tortured and executed. Ultimately Charles-Emmanuel signed a treaty with the city and peace was restored once and for all at the Treaty of St. Julien (a town just beyond the border in France).
Memories are made of this
A year later, the whole battle and its political setting were set to music to an epic ballad in 68 strophes in Provencal dialect, Cé qu’è lainô. The event was also immortalized in a poem, Genève delivrée, by Samuel Chappuzeau. In 1926, an association called Compagnie de 1602 started a parade to celebrate the victory. Participants come in gaudy period costumes; there are drummers, fife-players, weapons-bearers, a hangman and other period figures. Today, the parade, which is held on Sunday after the races, ends at the door of the Cathedral St. Pierre in the old town with speeches exalting the Republic, freedom, and so on.
The Escalade races were started in 1978. They now last almost all day, with participants broken down into different categories running set courses in a staggered schedule. Ages range from the “Poussins” and “Poussines” (literally chicks, boys and girls born in 2005-6) to Hommes VI or Femmes VI, men and women born before 1942. The length of the run goes from 1.8 km for the youngest runners, to 7.2 km for the older ones. This year drew 32,150 participants. All races begin and end in the Parc des Bastions right under the walls of the old town.
Walking and Nordic Walking have also been introduced for more comfortable sportspeople 10 years of age and above. The 8-km course begins in Veyrier and ends in the Parc des Bastion. The final race is the Course du Duc (the Duke’s Course) and is the toughest, naturally, since the Duke lost the battle: 17.5 km.
There are fees for the runners, and those running the longer itineraries will have to get medical certificates. For more details, please visit www.escalade.ch. The money paid goes to maintaining the costumes and organizing the events.
The final race on Saturday is simply called “Marmite”, or Cauldron and comes in two categories, youth and adult. The runners complete their nearly 3.5-km itinerary in crazy garb. There are no real winners here, but whoever comes first in this fantastical dash, will have their name and pictures published in the local paper, the Tribune de Genève (along with the serious runners).
What’s in a cauldron?
The chaudron is ubiquitous in Escalade season. Throughout the festivities, spectators and participants are regaled with vegetable soup cooked in great cauldrons sometimes on an open fire. It’s a very pleasant and fortifying dish in the damp and frigid days of early December. Escalade parties are held during this time to which children come disguised and singing a ditty that gives a blow-by-blow account of the “battle”. They will occasionally do something resembling trick-or-treating, i.e., knock on people’s door, sing that very same ditty, an request candy or coin. On one evening, children, parents and staff are invited to contribute vegetables to a big cauldron of soup, which is enjoyed usually with bread and some sweets.
And for a few weeks prior to the Escalade, pastry shops, confectioners and supermarkets sell chocolate cauldrons decorated with the coat-of-arms of the city and filled with marzipan vegetables. The way to eat them is to break the cauldron with a stick or a knife while hollering valiantly: “Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la république!” (”Thus perish the enemies of the Republic!”)
Those raised on Asterix may get the wrong idea. The brave and independent Genevans did not beat back the Savoyards intruders by dint of a magic vegetable soup. Somewhere on the line a story emerged from the mists of history, that one Mère Royaume, living near the city gates was in her kitchen cooking a cauldron of vegetable and rice soup. Hearing the enemy in the streets, she carried the heavy pot to the window and heaved it onto the hapless invaders.
Mère Royaume was a real person. She was Catherine Cheynel, born in Lyon. She and her second husband, a maker of tin pots, were Protestants and escaped to Geneva soon after the massacre of St. Bartholomew (August 1572). By 1602, she was 60 years of age and had given birth to 14 children, few of whom had survived. The idea of her dumping hot soup on an enemy apparently comes from Verse 29 of the epic Cé qu’è lainô mentioned above. But history has many such modest heroes, like the women of Eger in Hungary who threw boiling fat on the attacking Turks.
Let them eat soup
As a journalist, I must wonder: What was she doing cooking vegetables soup at 2 a.m.? And would she, as a Protestant Genevan, waste food that way? Really? It is difficult to imagine. I suspect that on waking and hearing the ruckus, she grabbed the first thing at hand … under, or close to, her bed and hurled that out the window. So whosoever came up with the marmite idea has done us all a great service in Geneva. Imagine thousands of Genevans screaming: “Ainsi périssent les ennemies de la République!” while standing around steaming chamber pots.
Real or not, it’s a nice story, and it gets everyone out and about eating healthy soups. In an interview with Le Temps in 2009, Catherine Santschi, state archivist pointed out a more reasonable explanation for the victory, one that has repercussions to this day: “It wasn’t Mère Royaume and her cauldron of soup that protected Geneva, but rather the fact that the citizens kept their weapons at home. They woke up in the middle of the night and were able to fight right away. If they had had to go to the arsenal first, the battle would have ended differently.”
Whatever the history, Geneva loves its Escalade, and for good reason. It’s a heart-warming, belly-filling feast, with so many parties, no one has to have a bad conscience for having fun. People from all walks of life have a chance to rub elbows in a congenial atmosphere. In some ways, too, it celebrates the victory over Catholicism in what was then a strictly Protestant-Calvinistic city. Paradoxically, it now serves to conveniently condense and celebrate Carnival, St. Nicholas and other religious/profane festivities that Calvin and his dour and sour successors had wiped off the calendar.
The February 9, 2014, referendum that garnered a “yes” to stop mass immigration into Switzerland and replace it with a system of quotas has sent ripples, even shock waves, throughout Europe. The initiative passed by a slim margin of 50.3% to 49.7%, with participation at just over 55% of eligible voters, and people in both camps are nursing hangovers these days, from different spirits, as it were.
The issue on the table was by no means new. Societies the world round are occasionally gripped by nativist impulses that target foreigners, and Switzerland is no exception. In the 1970s, one James (sic) Schwarzenbach launched an initiative against “over-foreignization,” turning what appeared to be a groundswell of backing from several Swiss cantons into a political party. But the initiative failed and the party ultimately fizzled.
The current initiative was put to the Swiss people via the Swiss People’s Party (SVP/UDC), which is a lot more savvy than the late Schwarzenbach, and, of course, operating in a different era. It has produced a number of rhetorically noisy and cunning campaigns in the past already, mostly designed to elicit a knee-jerk reaction to anything foreign. One recalls the famous anti-minaret campaign of 2009, which drew the ire of the EU, or the “black sheep” campaign of 2010 to throw out foreigners who had committed felonies.
At first glance
Both earlier initiatives won, thanks in part to the ruckus raised by the posters whose communication boiled down to crude demagogery. Simple colors, simplistic icons, oafish but graspable message. And effective. In fact, the People’s Party’s “black sheep” poster even found use by the Neo-Nazi NPD party in the German state of Hessen, by Italy’s Neo-Fascist Lega Nord, and by some other extremists in the Czech Republic. The poster in Switzerland showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off the Swiss flag, and it raised hackles all the way to the United Nations.
The present referendum’s artwork also grabbed the headlines but for other reasons: the apple tree whose roots are crushing Switzerland with an inscription proclaiming the damage of mass immigration was actually borrowed from Economiesuisse, the Swiss Business Federation, which opposed the initiative together with syndicates and other industrial associations. Its apple tree – used in campaigns since 2000, no less – was intended to show how relations and treaties with European Union were benefiting Switzerland (the apples). What this had to do with the concerns of the Swiss people about immigration was not immediately clear and either confued or alienated potential voters. “I was against the initiative,” said a friend of mine, who is very engaged in Switzerland’s political debates, “but I couldn’t vote for the Economiesuisse proposal, because they seemed to be supporting the kind of wage dumping that big business would like to have. But no one is taking the issue of immigration seriously and addressing it, and the SVP/UDC did.”
The People’s Party does choose its issues well. The topic is always a little taboo, hence it attracts lots of attention, which is the cardinal rule in breaking out of websmog. Their initiatives can usually be summed up in a single short phrase and they go to the gut or the jugular, or both, ideal for the 140-character society. And the Party’s strategists have a musician’s gift for timing, they know when to simply let their issues ferment and simmer. The Internet and papers do the rest, especially the comment sections of newspapers and blogs. This permits all kinds of nonsense to be uttered without the higher-ups catching any flak. Vague connections are made between immigration (or any other bugaboo) and the lack of affordable housing, the high price of real estate, the filled trains, traffic jams, failures in schools, crime, noise in the streets, dirt, crooked bankers, ugly architecture, and lost jobs, etc.
On the other hand, countering these gregarious views is inherently difficult and often requires moral, ethical and even legal arguments that most voters are hardly inclined to follow after a hard day’s work, what with all the mesmerizing entertainment provided by our daily screens.
And, finally, perhaps at the core of the issue, there is the subtext of unemployment, which is one of the main Swiss worries, especially, when it comes to immigration. Life here is expensive, and maintaining a high standard of living is not that easy. While the country’s own jobless rate is very low (averaging around 3.1%) and economic growth is high, what people actually perceive is different and they have the proof just beyond Switzerland’s borders.
It’s no picnic out there, if we are to believe the media. Europe’s economy is sluggish, unemployment is over 10% for the whole EU, earnings are low (though social benefits excellent). It all seems very threatening, like some Fritz Lang movie of the 1920s. Foreign nationals are needy and greedy and pressing at Switzerland’s gold-strewn shores, or so it seems … And the ghastly conflict in Syria, the unrest in North Africa, the hordes in the East waiting to pounce, the Chinese plagiarists are all giant shadows performing some ghastly economic Totentanz in the background. The result is a fortress mentality, which is aggravated every time the United States IRS puts a gun to the head of the Swiss banking system, or the German or French tax authorities get a hold of a few CDs with the names and account numbers of German tax evaders.
So the immigration issue may well be getting mixed in the minds of many with the whole cluster of other insecurities and uncertainties that have become the electrifying juice of our capitalist system, the Damocles sword held over the Average Joe and Jane to keep them on the straight and narrow, no complaining, please, your job is next on the block. So what some Swiss voters are saying then is: leave us alone, we’ve done our bit, now you do yours and let us get along with our lives, things were better before. The fact that cities like Zurich, Geneva or Basel actually voted against the initiative suggests as much. Geneva! Which is literally overrun by foreigners of all stripe, but could not really survive without them.
But vote they did, and now the chickens are fluttering and clucking near the roost. The Nays are disappointed and shocked that the measure, which seemed doomed to failure just a few weeks ago, actually passed. The Ayes, for their part, are gloating but with that slightly sour “I-told-you-so” attitude. Many of their comments in the papers, on television, and even in public, suggest that they did not quite understand the implications of their yes to the no immigration. Or worse yet, they don’t really care either way, since the point was to show the world that the Swiss system of direct democracy still works and that they will not let themselves be subjected to a “dictate” from Europe – a kind of political dog whistle often blown by the right wingers in the country, and one that is sure to garner votes.
Unfortunately, though, the laws in place are not that simple. The Swiss government can’t just text or tweet the EU Commissioner and break off the engagement. The CH-EU relationship is far more complex. In the run-up to the referendum already, the EU had been sounding the alarm about Swiss voters deciding to roll back the “free movement of people” across borders, a right written into the first set of Bilateral Agreements that went into force in 2002 and was extended to new EU members in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Negotiations on including Croatia in the Bilaterals (which joined the EU on July 1st, 2013) are now threatened, said Richard Jones, EU Ambassador to Switzerland , and with it a number of research and exchange programs, like Horizon2020 and the Erasmus+ program, which facilitates all sorts of professional and academic exchanges across EU borders. So opportunities for young, talented and ambitious Swiss individuals may have just taken a blow… if, as the Germans would say, the food is eaten as hot as it is cooked…
The European reaction to the vote was swift and categorical. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and Swedish Foreign Minister Brigitta Ohlsson spoke of reconsidering EU-CH relations, Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said she would put the issue on the table with the EU Council, and Jean Asselborn from Luxembourg warned EU countries of striking separate deals with Switzerland.
The Swiss are an important partner for the EU, said Viviane Reding a few weeks before the vote, “but the EU is also an important partner for Switzerland.”
Talk has been of invoking the “guillotine clause,” which would call into question all the benefits of the Bilateral Treaties that Switzerland managed to negotiate after saying no to membership in the European Economic Area in December 1992 – curiously by a majority of 50.3%. The consequences could be quite drastic in many different areas, including technology, agriculture, education, environment, security and cooperation, even road traffic. In short everything that made CH a virtual member of the EU without having to deal with some of the political shenanigans and without losing its sacred right to direct democracy.
In an interview with the Tages Anzeiger, National Counsellor Christian Wasserfallen from the Free Democrats, a member of the Energy Commission, pointed out that the treaty on electrical power trading with Europe is in jeopardy, and the threat could extend to a variety of other industries, from the chemical – not news Basel wants to hear – to financial services. “Our companies have a lot of value creation in the balance,” he said, “but how the initiative will be implemented is still an open question.”
For its part, the populist right wing is in ecstasy. Their feeling was summed up by Markus Somm, Editor-in-Chief of the Basler Zeitung daily. Pride comes before the fall, he remarked, and that he feels led to the incredibly weak argumentation by Economiesuisse and its fellow oppositionists, including the Federal Council, no less: “Something historical happened. By their approval of the mass immigration initiative – against the will of almost all parties, federations, media, syndicates and pundits – the Swiss dared to do something extraordinary. A tectonic shift is happening. For the first time since their rejection of the EEA [European Economic Area] over twenty years ago, our country is taking the risk of muddying the relationship to our most important trading partner, the EU.”
Whether that is the case remains to be seen, the barking at the present time is loud, but whether the bite ever really comes is questionable. When all is said and done, the little Alpine confederacy has gone up against European powers before. And even the most vociferous EU politician knows that the nation is ruled by consensus. Even the anti-European forces will have to recognize that the relationship with the EU is symbiotic and in no way parasitic. And the forces opposing initiative will also have to recognize that not everyone in Switzerland was prepared to take on 80,000 new residents per year.
At any rate, the federal government now has three years to put some kind of contingency system in place. That leaves enough time to finagle, argue, twist arms, take names, find carpets to sweep things under, create complications, exceptions, and appease. The country is somewhat divided, of course, with inner-Swiss cantons The president of the Geneva State Council, François Longchamp, told the local Tribune de Genève, that separate conditions will have to be met for the Vaud and Geneva because of the enormous number of international firms and organizations that have settled around Lake Geneva and that require highly qualified personnel. “They [these Cantons] said no to the end of free movement.” So those who shut the door are just going to have to take on the consequences.” His fellow State Councillor of the Canton of Vaud, Pascal Broulis was also clear: “Any regulation will have to take an open and a closed Switzerland into account.” These Cantons, after all, provide the Confederacy with considerable income from the employment they create. Even Schwarzenbach had allowed for a higher percentage of foreigners for Geneva (25%, and 10% for the rest of the country).
And now, with the negotiating table full of shards and loud words, some elasticity may be showing on the part of the Europeans. Richard Jones suggested in the above-mentioned interview: “The ball is in the Swiss court. … The relationship is important for both of us. No one is ready to cut ties, but we must find a viable path.” That sounds conciliatory, in a very oblique manner.
Playing the field
In the end, this all plays perfectly into the hands of the People’s Party. Their anti-European and anti-foreign rhetoric has leavened their shares over the past decade with people who seem disgruntled at a society being transformed by globalization, while reaping the benefits as well. The strategists – including the rather brilliant billionaire Christoph Blocher – have managed to play the victim card over and over again with initiatives that always give off a musty odor of xenophobia couched in reason. That is not good advertising for a country with so much at stake abroad even if “money has no odor,” as the French say. Until now it still has not affected the economy in any tangible manner, hence even people like Mr. Blocher have not suffered any financial setbacks. But it does raise the question: if Switzerland is so timorous with its booming economy, what will it be like when the big bust comes?
The anti-immigration initiative is serving the SVP/UDC as a kind of test balloon to see if the “foreigners issue” can be used for the parliamentary elections in 2015. The party would like to extend its majority – which recent polls actually suggested was dipping in favour of smaller parties. And Europe continues to serve as an easy target: if it doesn’t react to the populist SVP/UDC, it looks as if it is ignoring Switzerland. If it does react, then it comes across as school-marmisch. And the last thing the Swiss want to hear is a bevy of European officials browbeating them for ur-Swiss values and customs, particularly their sacred direct democracy. On the other hand, not all those who voted yes to the initiative are pro-People’s Party. And at some point the less vociferous and more urbane segments of the electorate may decide that they have done enough for the nativists, and it is time to let Switzerland back into the race.
Nicolas Hayek died the way he probably wanted to, enjoying his daily leisure time at his desk in Biel. He was a grand entrepreneur in a class of his own. If anything came close to the art of business, it was what he did, and like all great artists, whatever he did seemed easy. Of course he could toot his publicity horn as much as anyone – did I say horn? I meant a five-manual organ – but that is the business of truly loving your business. Furthermore, his grandson, Mark Hayek, once told me in an interview that his grandpa relaxed on Sundays by doing the books. His concern for his industries and the people working for him was genuine, and that is what made him one of Switzerland’s most trusted public figures. When he said “sustainability,” it was not just fig leaf stuff, it meant something, because he believed in it. Swatch Group managed to navigate the massive recession of 2008-2009 without shedding many jobs. That must have given Nicolas Hayek a feeling of success, if not elation.
As a journalist, one who keeps a very low profile, I was thrilled to be able to write about Nicolas Hayek following an interview he granted me at the Baselworld 2008 watch fair. I wanted to discuss his project for a solar-powered fuel-cell car. I was given a 20-minute slot and stayed 45. Within that short time span we covered all sorts of subjects, from his Marie-Antoinette watch, to green technology, passing by the Middle East. There are several statements he made that I have never forgotten, in particular his attributing success in business to a CEO’s ability to motivate workers. Ironically, at around the same time, I – who knows Pittsfield, MA, and the social and environmental disaster area left behind by GE in what was their company town – was asked to go to a press conference given by Jack Welch and write about Neutron Jack (the article appeared under the title Jurassic Jack). It was like listening to a Mahler’s 8th Symphony and following it up by chopsticks played at supersonic speed.
So without further ado …. Nicolas Hayek as I humbly saw him.
If an adult male would walk around saying he believes in Santa Claus, he would probably end up spending some time under observation at the nearest booby hatch. Or receiving medication, as befits our zeitgeist. But when Nicolas Hayek said so, ears pricked up, eyes lost their glaze, brains fine-tuned their reception mode. Not because anyone thinks that he really believes in some fellow with a beard and dressed in a red cloak distributing presents from a sled pulled by reindeers. Rather, Hayek, founder of Hayek Engineering, co-founder of Swatch Group and the impulse behind Smartcars, is revealing one of the secrets of his success as an entrepreneur. Continue reading “Man of the People – Nicolas Hayek”