Sunday, June 19, 2011

Switzerland, Zurich, Chateaux d'Oex

Day 1 – Switzerland, Zurich

A talk to some senior Directors of major European companies, in Zurich, is just the excuse we need to stay with my brother-in-law, who works here, with a very swish apartment right in the centre, as well as visit friends who live in Chateaux d’Oex, at the other end of the country. So here I am on a gloriously sunny day, sitting on a grassy bank beneath a willow tree with a violet butterfly perched on my big toe, having a picnic on the banks of the crystal clear lake, watching the suits and secretaries, go by. Lunch is a serious business here. In fact everything’s pretty serious here.

The lake feeds some equally clean and pristine canals that make the centre feel very calm, so walking the city centre is no chore. Post-reformation churches are white and grey inside, but a touch of pre-reformation colour and exuberance is seen in most of them. They have stained glass windows that are literally works of art, from Chagall and Polke, but even the smaller churches feel the need to capture some sunshine and raise the spirit. Calvinism, a creed I’m all too familiar with being raised in Scotland, has always needed its touches of splendour and hidden pleasures. In just one afternoon walk we saw the chocolate shops with their pyramids of Springli Luxemburgerli (tiny one inch cakes with cream), stupidly expensive watches (all that money for a device with one function) and sex shops.

Chagall windows

Anyway, back to the Chagall windows in the Fraumunster Cathedral, which are five tall, narrow arches, each in a dominant colours; blue, yellow, orange, green and secondary complementary colours for figures, animals and objects. You can sit down in a separate chapel and take them in, in our case, fully illuminated by the sun. The joy of stained glass is the way it transforms the white glare of the sun into intense separate colours. Science meets art in that light is refracted out into its constituent components, as discovered by Newton. The work is full of Christian humility, with tall and narrow figures which flow in the glass, reaching up to heaven.

Just a few streets away is the Grossmunster, where the Polke stained glass pieces bring brilliance to an altogether bigger church. Once again the plain ground of the church interior makes the windows stand out in flashes of colour. There’s a green figure in one, slices of agate in two others, bottle bottoms and so on, made between 2006-09 (Polke died in 2010). This is by far the best way to see Zurich on a hot day. Just drift from church to church, then sit, rest in the cool interiors and take in these windows to another world.

Time was short but I was determined to see Cabaret Voltaire, the café where Dadaism originated, and pleased to see that it was still a lively café with regular oddball events. Perhaps Dadaism was, like the stained glass, a reaction against the strictures of Calvinism. One of the reasons I like living in Brighton is the fact that it has been such a healthy attitudinal antidote to Scotland. There is in Zurich, also an underbelly, and drunks and addicts are not hard to find around the station. Stopping for a ridiculously expensive coffee in the old town gave us the odd experience of watching a series of men go in and out of a sex emporium. They weren’t furtive, it was just a mid-afternoon pastime.

Day 2 - Attitude sickness

The other side of the coin, is Zurich and its banks. This was part of my talk, on ‘social media’, where I was presenting the idea that social media has been a necessary condition for the Arab Spring, and that if Facebook can get over 640 million people talking to each other, along with hundreds of millions on Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, Wikipedia and so on, then business has to take note and respond to this global cultural phenomenon. As I was in Zurich, I used the banks as my example. Citibank, Wells Fargo, HSBC, Lloyds, and may others, are using these media to speak to customers and recover some of their lost reputations.

During the Brighton Festival, where I’m a Board member, I was lucky enough to speak to Julian Assange, by Skype, as part of an official appearance. I asked him about the banks, the super-injunctions by Fred Goodwin, and leaked the name of the HR person (who was also involved in his pension awards). Julian, through Wikileaks, released the details of over 2000 bank accounts from Julius Bar, a Swiss private bank. That bank closed down his ISP, then tried to close down Wikileaks (unsuccessfully). Since then Wikileaks has had a profound effect on the banking system, as private Swiss accounts will have to be released under FATCA legislation in January 2013, brought in by Obama, and supported by other nations such as the UK and France. Many of those banks are headquartered in Zurich. This is a major step in reforming the banking system, and one I agree with.

So the Swiss private banks may look calm on the surface but beneath the water they are paddling away furiously, to avoid losing both money and reputation. They will end up paying huge sums over in illegally withheld taxes, as well as fines, and be forced to put their investment arms outside of Switzerland, to increase transparency. On top of this is the estimated $50 billion plus squirrelled away by African and other dictators, often siphoned off from aid budgets provided from other nations. Another speaker at the conference, from an African bank, talked to this issue. It was a fascinating day.

It ended at around 4.30, so off we went in a hired car (tip – ordered a cheap Citroen C1 at rock bottom prices and get an Audi 3 for same price) to the other side of Switzerland. It was a fun drive, through some spectacular scenery.

Day 3 – Chateau d’Oex

There can be few people, on the entire planet, who have a better view than my friends who live on this exact spot in this Swiss valley. We sat on their balcony looking across the alpine valley, with perfectly manicured meadows sloping almost vertically up to trees and then to grey rock shooting straight to the sky. The weather and colours seemed to change every hour and red kites soared just a few hundred yards away on the thermals. Below them lay the village with its ancient church on a motte-like mound and all the houses and shops were in alpine wooden architecture. They live here regularly shooting off to London, elsewhere in Europe, the US or S Africa. They have good internet connectivity (I often skype Ray) and this heaven on earth is their true home.

In the afternoon we walked down to the river, a glacially, silted grey-blue colour and crossed the rickety bridge, before heading off for lunch in yet another spectacular location, halfway up the side of the valley. We had rosti, veal and wild mushrooms, a typical Swiss dish, with a good rose and a plate of Swiss cheeses with fruit bread.

Then down to Gstaad, one of the world’s poshest ski resorts. To give you some idea of its cache, famous residents have included David Niven, Roger Moore, Elizabeth Taylor, Julie Andrews, Roman Polanski, George Soros, Yehudi Menhuin and the not so classy, Bernie Ecclestone, who owns a hotel in the town. We thought Zurich reeked of money, but this was on another plane. There was a cauliflower on sale for £30! Then a walk up to the Grand Hotel – no idea what the room rate is, but arms and legs come to mind.