Friday, 12 August 2016


I noticed a lot of things in Switzerland that were not in Australia, America, or even northern Europe. One of them was the mountains. Australia's highest mountain is a mere hill compared to even the lowest mountain in Switzerland. Even the Rockies are no comparison to the mighty Swiss Alps.

However, the mountains were not what struck me most about the country. What struck me most was its culture.

The culture of an area is its identity. If someplace has a very old, established culture, it becomes instantly recognizable if you happen to be there. Australia was never properly populated before the Industrial Revolution, so its culture was mostly stolen from other continents; in Europe, however, country and even regional borders are obvious.

Let's take Italy and Switzerland - the two countries I visited this July. These two places, although neighbors, are shockingly different. One has been neutral for the past hundred and fifty years; the other has been heavily involved in both world wars. One has had a long history of organized crime; the other is one of the safest countries in the world. One makes great cheese; the other makes even better pizza. When I visited Italy on a day trip, the border between the two countries was obvious. It was marked on a pass by two massive stone eagles (a memorial of some battle victory in the Napoleonic Wars). To the north, there was a valley and beyond that, icy snowcapped mountains. In the valley there was a town with a visible church. The town seemed to have no center; it was stretched out across the valley floor. To the south, in Italy, the mountains tapered off abruptly and gave way to rolling hills, all sparsely covered with houses and lakes.

Cultures are interesting in the way that they carry on even when the geography that shapes them does not. For example, in Switzerland, there are two geographic regions: the Swiss Alps and the Rhineland. In the Swiss Alps, where Switzerland was first created, there is almost no flat land at all, except for that thin ribbon of farmland at the floor of each valley. As a result, all towns have only one road of any importance and the shops are spread out over hundreds of metres, sometimes kilometres. Curiously enough, when Switzerland grew to encompass the Rhineland, the system carried on. Look at a map of any city established under Swiss rule and you will see a distinct linear pattern.

My favorite thing about Swiss culture is the architecture. Architecture varies greatly all over the world. Even if a region has none of its own food, town layout or traditions, it will have its own architecture. Swiss houses and hotels have strange roofs for a place with a lot of snow; they have almost vertical outer sides and very flat tops, like boxes. Not all of them do of course; it's different in every single valley, just like the food and many other things are. And that's what I like most about Swiss culture: its variation.

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