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Last Updated: Sunday, 10 August, 2003, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
The cleansing power of Swiss peaks

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC Geneva correspondent

When I first arrived in Geneva two years ago, the Korean ambassador to the United Nations kindly invited me to what he termed "an informal summer barbecue" and his gilt invitation card stressed, in gold italics, that the dress code was casual.

Lake Geneva
Geneva is pristine, and the Swiss "obsessed with cleanliness"
It was 35C that evening, so I turned up to the barbie, fresh from a swim in the lake, in a damp pair of shorts and a vest top with the word "Princess" emblazoned across the chest.

When I was admitted to the ambassador's marble palace and was handed my solid silver "Korean informal summer barbecue" presentation chopsticks by a horrified butler, I realised that "casual" just meant not black tie.

As I joined my fellow guests in the landscaped gardens, it was difficult to ignore the fact that everyone else was in a linen lounge suit or something that was only two sequins away from a ball gown.

Love at first sight

To his eternal credit, the Korean ambassador totally ignored my unsuitable attire and instead put me at my ease by introducing me to all the mountain ranges that were visible from his grounds.

And for me, it was love at first sight.

This probably sounds rather soppy but I feel that Switzerland's mountains, and those just across the border in France, are now truly engraved in me. Often, if I saw the local weather forecast was predicting a clear morning the next day, I would get up at sunrise just to stand at the top of the hill by my house and watch the crusty pavlova peaks rise from the blue haze.

World Health Organisation headquarters in Geneva
Geneva benefits from multicultural exchanges
And when the ski season came, I was unable to spend a weekend away from the mountains. However tired I was, however hard the blizzards were blowing and however much the thermometer dropped below zero, I felt an overwhelming urge to pack my skis, heave the snow chains onto my car wheels and head for the hills.

The mountains, I am sure, have magical properties.

When I am skiing down their flanks, I forget the criticism I have had from my neighbours for having the nerve to use the wrong-coloured bin for my rubbish.

And the slopes make me forget the fury I feel each time a motorway speed camera flashes in my wing mirror - especially when it is disguised as a Friesian cow or large block of Gruyere cheese and anyway, I was only driving fractionally over the limit.

Because, after a morning of hurtling down the Matterhorn, the Mont Blanc or the Jungfrau, I feel as if I have been internally cleansed - it is that wonderful swilled-out sort of feeling you get when you vigorously brush your teeth after a sticky supper of popcorn.

I now routinely trim the leaves of my plants with nail scissors so they look symmetrically tidy. I dust my bicycle. I keep individually wrapped lemon-scented antibacterial kitchen wipes
Far from the synthetic and precise world of Geneva's cocktail and garden parties, I find reassurance in the mountain's sheer and uncompromising massiveness - and when I am smashing face first into them, having skied over a rogue piece of ice, I like to be reminded by nature, red in tooth and claw, who is boss.

Towards the end of last summer I was hiking up near Grindelwald and I came across a tiny hut where an old man spent the months of the good weather making wonderful runny goat's cheese to sell to walkers.

As a small child, each Sunday afternoon my father used to read me the story of Heidi and for a long time afterwards I hated the Brownie uniforms and ballet tutus of my middle-class existence and yearned to live bare-legged in a hayloft with Grandfather and, perhaps, a not so drippy version of Peter.

Obsessively clean

This cheese-making Grandfather of Grindelwald was a bit more welcoming than the surly old hermit of the novel, but he was equally philosophical. He did not lecture me on the virtues of his simple life but he did jerk his thumb towards the busy towns below and tell me that their problem was that they simply demanded too much from life.

I am probably being ludicrously romantic and maybe if I had looked more closely I would have found out the old man had a brand new BMW with personalised number plates in the cowshed and was actually fronting secret bank accounts for Robert Mugabe and Saddam Hussein in Lugano, but I doubt it.

The most endearing thing about Switzerland is that, away from the financial centres and the cities, Swiss life and Swiss people are unpretentious and uncomplicated.

But, there is a shared obsession with cleanliness. People hurry to pick up other people's litter. The winner in the national sport of Swiss wrestling is never declared victorious until he has politely dusted off the shoulders of his opponent as a sort of apology for having soiled him.

I have even watched drug addicts in rehab centres who no sooner than they are finished injecting, are disinfecting their tables and putting the paper towels into the recycling bins.

And this fastidiousness is rubbing off on me. I now routinely trim the leaves of my plants with nail scissors so they look symmetrically tidy. I dust my bicycle. I keep individually wrapped lemon-scented antibacterial kitchen wipes.

And I have started to agree with my friends who say that I had better leave Switzerland quickly, because, without doubt, I am going native.

Expat e-mail: Switzerland
03 Dec 02  |  UK News
Country profile: Switzerland
23 Jul 03  |  Country profiles


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