- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 16, 2002

YVERDON-LES-BAINS, Switzerland The Swiss ego has suffered a bruising year.
First, a string of man-made and natural disasters shattered the country's sense of security. Then came the undignified collapse of Swissair.
Now comes Expo.02, an exhibition celebrating the best of Switzerland. As a tonic for this country of 7 million, its timing is perfect. But setting it up has entailed some very un-Swiss setbacks: repeated delays and budget overruns.
And when Expo.02 finally opened its gates May 14, it turned out that someone had forgotten to fly the Swiss flag among all the banners of the corporate sponsors.
"I was delighted by the artistry and the beauty of the opening ceremony. But then a feeling of melancholy overwhelmed me because there was no big, beautiful Swiss flag," Economics Minister Pascal Couchepin lamented to the newspaper Blick.
Embarrassed organizers quickly ordered dozens of the white-cross-on-red flags to be hoisted.
That's not all that's un-Swiss about Expo.02. It is expected to run up a huge deficit a grave sin in a country proud of its fiscal rectitude.
But for those fed up with the old stereotypes, there's a bright side: Expo.02 features no Heidi, no model of the Matterhorn, no cuckoo clocks, no Swiss cheese.
Instead there are New-Agey journeys of self-discovery; 24-hour marriages to make young people reflect on the meaning of wedlock; a huge, damp artificial cloud; Pink Floyd music; and horrors! Swiss francs, symbol of Switzerland's economic might, being shredded by a robot.
It is all designed, say the organizers, to reveal the contrasts and complexities bubbling below the surface of a seemingly tranquil nation torn between Alpine isolation and becoming more enmeshed in the outside world.
"In Switzerland we like things miniature, little and precise. This is the opposite," said Nelly Wenger, the head of Expo.02.
"It takes the history of Switzerland, but raises new questions about it," she added.
Mrs. Wenger wants to dispel the enduring image of a Switzerland "which is always peaceful and always covered in snow," and showcase a country "relaxed, a bit wild, but at ease with itself."
Strong words, considering that in many parts of Switzerland it is forbidden to mow the lawn on Sunday, late-night showers and toilet-flushing are banned in apartment buildings lest they disturb the neighbors, and crossing the road on a red light is the worst sort of civic outlawry.
But Switzerland is changing.
For one thing, it has become wide open to immigrants. One-fifth of the population is foreign-born, and on some school rolls, Swiss names are outnumbered by Portuguese, Turkish and Balkan ones.
Mrs. Wenger herself is a native of Morocco who became Swiss by marriage. She is a French-speaker in a country where German predominates. And at 46, she is one of a handful of women who have made it to the top in a country that only gave women the vote in 1971.
Mrs. Wenger took over exhibition preparations in 2000 when infighting and mismanagement had driven it close to collapse. The government appointed marketing guru Nicolas Hayek, founder of the Swatch watch company, to investigate. He slammed the management as befitting a "banana republic" and ordered an overhaul.
The exhibition was originally intended for 1998, modern Switzerland's 150th birthday. But in 1994 the government decided there wasn't enough time and opted for Expo.01, with a budget of $300 million. After the management crisis it became Expo.02, with a budget of $880 million.
The initial goal was to have the private sector finance it, but corporate enthusiasm was low. Commercial sponsors are now kicking in about one-third of the cost, with government funding and receipts making up the rest.
Expo.02 has powerful critics. Christoph Blocher, a leading member of the conservative Swiss People's Party, has long complained that the exhibits were being planned by snobby intellectuals, over the heads of ordinary Swiss.
But the negative headlines have evaporated. One million visitors flocked to the event in the first month, about 10 percent more than expected. Even Mr. Blocher came, and was photographed smiling and thoroughly enjoying himself, although afterward he still complained of "overstretched symbolism, some of it difficult to understand."
Many Swiss feel sorely in need of a national celebration after a series of domestic disasters.
On Sept. 27, with the Swiss still in shock over the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, a man with a petty grievance went on a shooting rampage in the regional parliament of the canton of Zug, killing 14 persons and himself. The massacre forced what was once unthinkable: bodyguards for public figures and metal detectors in state buildings.
Then came another bombshell: Swissair, the 70-year-old national airline, suffered financial collapse. Weeks later, the Gotthard Tunnel, pride of Swiss engineering, was engulfed by fire after a head-on truck collision, killing 11. And in November, a Crossair regional airliner smashed into a snowy hill just short of landing in Zurich, killing 24.
The tunnel has since reopened, and Swissair and Crossair have merged under the name "Swiss," but the shocks still run deep.
Meanwhile, other hallowed certainties are crumbling.
In March, by a relatively narrow majority of 55 percent, the Swiss overcame their instinct for staying out of other countries' business and voted to join the United Nations the last country to do so.
The militia remains the backbone of the sturdy Alpine defense system. Men are conscripted, continue to do reserve duty and keep a weapon at home. But even the army isn't immune to change. Manpower is being slashed, and such beloved features as the bicycle brigade, mounted cavalry and carrier-pigeon service have been disbanded and greater emphasis placed on high-tech weaponry.
And although every new building comes complete with its own atomic fallout shelter, these are often used to house asylum seekers.
Still, Switzerland has resolutely stayed out of the European Union, and therefore out of the euro, the common currency adopted this year by 12 of the union's 15 countries.
One reason is that the Swiss don't want standardized European laws to interfere with their system of highly direct democracy.
The Swiss traipse to the polls several times a year to vote on issues ranging from national security to whether to build a new parking lot. In some rural areas, a show of hands at an outdoor gathering suffices. In the cities, voting by e-mail is taking hold.
Yet in many ways, Switzerland is the embodiment of the European ideal of multinational harmony, with its four official languages German, French, Italian and the Romansch dialect.
Now English is rapidly becoming a second language, and the younger generation chafes at Switzerland's reluctance to join the EU and dive deeper into the globalized world.
"Switzerland is 20 years behind neighboring countries," complained Sylviane Jolliat, who spent 12 years working abroad for the International Red Cross. "It's narrow-minded, selfish and frightened of opening up. Sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country."

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide