In the mountains south of Zurich, as winter approaches, the farmers bring their cows down. The snowbound higher pastures will soon be empty, and the precious cattle walk down in traditional processions, some decorated with small flowers, the streets of the villages echoing with the sound of the famous cowbells. It’s a time-honoured tradition, and no one is ancient enough to remember when it began. Switzerland, the world’s oldest democracy, has existed as a recognisable country for over 700 years, and that’s enough time to build up more than a few traditions. The Swiss value constancy, solidity, continuity; these are integral parts of their culture — the canvas on which the life of the country is painted — and it’s one of the attributes that outsiders like, too. It’s no surprise that at times of international crisis money washes into the Swiss franc, and the term ‘flight to quality’ is well chosen. What many people don’t realise, however, is that Switzerland, the archetypal landlocked island, is changing. Zurich is the exemplar of these changes, and it’s an interesting story. As the 21st century beds itself in, this once-Roman trading post is becoming very much a city of its times.
The first tremblings of what is now recognised as a seismic shift came a few years ago, and were unwanted, even tragic. Just a couple of weeks after 9/11 a gunman broke into the local parliament in the town of Zug and killed 14 people. Five days later the flagship national airline Swissair went bust. Three weeks after that a fire in the Gotthard tunnel killed 11 people. Things like this just don’t happen in Switzerland. The Swiss reeled from the multiple body blows as it began to dawn on them that they were far from immune from woes that only seemed to beset other, less fortunate countries. Although the Swiss are nothing if not resilient, and quickly picked themselves up and carried on, there was a growing realisation that perhaps nothing would ever be quite the same again. In the following year Switzerland at last joined the United Nations. More recently, a deal has been struck with the EU that allows for greater freedom of movement and residency rights between its member states and Switzerland. It seems as if the times are indeed a-changin’.
Most interesting of all, however, are those changes brought about not by political edict or legislation but by a subtle shift in the nature of the culture. It’s the little things you notice, like an increase in the use of English in advertisements and even official notices. Curry is now sold alongside the peppery sausages, bratwurst and cervelat in the Migros supermarkets that, along with the Coop, dominate the nation’s food shopping (but not its drinking — Migros, famously and in the face of marketing logic, has never sold alcohol). The changes often seem to be driven by the younger generation — so Zurich has an annual hip-hop-techno-dance-fest called the Street Parade, which now rivals Berlin’s in terms of numbers, flamboyance and exuberance. Putting that German city further into the shade, the emergence of a new club and bar-swamped area known as Z