Tuesday, November 11, 2008

No Verduns or Vicksbergs here. Chocolate, anyone?

Veteran's Day in Switzerland might as well be a holiday in Borneo or Guatemala: it's something that occurs elsewhere. It's someone else's commemoration of someone else's problem. If not for the international news, you'd scarcely know that today is the anniversary of the armistice. The Swiss are no dummies. For the past two centuries, they've thrived on their neutrality in the center of what has largely been a non-stop battlefield. When it came to both World Wars, the Swiss took a pass. Non, merci. Nein, Danke. No, Grazie, they said. If you don't mind, we're going to sit these out. Well, officially, anyway...

Drive ten minutes across the border to France (which is visible from our window), however, and you'll see enshrined in every single town, smack in the center of the square, a World War One memorial to Les enfants qui sont morts pour La France: The children (and many of them were children, of course - 16, 17 years old) who died for France. And in a town that could've scarcely have had more than a population of 200, there will be 26 names, and many of the last names will be identical. Fathers, sons, brothers, and uncles all obliterated together.

In case that's not sobering enough, there's usually an addendum on the memorial, added 27 years later, for the next generation of "les enfants" killed in World War Two.

In the northeast, at Verdun, you'll see land that is still traumatized from the shelling that occurred almost a century ago; the topography is like a giant egg carton, endless acre upon acre of consecutive bomb craters. Towns were literally wiped off the map. To this day, nothing grows in the soil. Seeing it is visceral. It makes it easier to understand the French acquiescence to the Germans in World War Two. If that kind of devastation occurred on my home territory, I might tell the Germans that they could walk right in, too. Fine, install a puppet government. Take the Jews. Just please, please, no more bloodbaths. And spare my last remaining male relative.

But Switzerland doesn't have any historic battlefield to visit - no Verduns, no Vicksbergs, for that matter. When you go to a town square in Switzerland, all you see are begonias, and rustic stone cisterns, and maybe a bronze statue of some hallowed, constipated-looking educator.

True, the Swiss have run a lucrative side-business for years renting themselves out as mercenaries, and they did some battling during All Things Napoleon, too. But the last time the Genevoise were officially at war with another country was 400 years ago, when they fought off invading Savoyards in 1602. The most famous moment of this battle was when a Swiss noblewoman repelled the attackers at the city walls by pouring a cauldron of boiling soup on them (hey, it was dinner time. Don't underestimate the power of soup!)

Today, the event is commemorated each year with a holiday called L'Escalade. This is marked by several festivities, the most important of which involves smashing a cauldron made entirely of chocolate (filled with marzipan veggies) and devouring it.

There are many reasons to love Switzerland, but for me, the combination of pacifism and big chocolate cauldrons is pretty unbeatable.

A whopping 24 people died the Escalade. Every year, their names are read in memoriam. The fact that more Americans have died in one day due to whack-jobs with semi-automatic weapons makes this even more stunning.

And so, while people in the four nations that frame Switzerland's borders (I'm sorry, but Lichtenstein shouldn't really count as a country; it's a tax haven, thank you), are mourning their dead with a solemnity and gravitas that's simply alien to us Americans (sales at Macy's anybody?), the Swiss are going about their business as usual because they have no veterans. And if I have one prayer for the world, it's that one day, this will be the case for all of us. Let us have nothing more to do but read names from four centuries ago and eat a giant chocolate cauldron.

1 comment:

Tim said...

Interesting facts about Sweden:

Swedish people have the longest life expectancy in Europe....80.51 years(neutrality has some perks)

Sweden has the highest number of McDonald's per capita in Europe..(still half the per capita of the US) Without McDonald's would they be living to 100?

Sarah Palin can't Quite see them from her front porch.