A biased view of a Neutral State

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

When you land in a foreign country for the first time, you form certain first impressions of that country, its people, its customs and it’s working. These sometimes supplement the associations you have formed about it while sometimes it goes against the best or worst imageries you have about that country.

Similarly I had my own ideas about Switzerland, which I am sure are no different from the viewpoint of the average Indian. Especially since such views were reinforced by a mélange of Hindi, Telugu and Tamil movies which showed snowcapped mountains with the hero and heroine dancing atop them. The heroine is generally covered with nothing more than the average Indian ‘movie sari’ (read: sleeveless blouse, sari below the navel). That the heroine seemed ecstatic just to be dancing in the snow even in that cold never quite sat well with me. And the fact that the Hero is always clad in the best of the clothes (read: woolen or leather jacket with a hundred layers of clothing underneath it) did not make things any better. I had a soft corner for all those poor heroines who gladly stripped off. Although I tend to ignore my friend who says he would dance naked for an hour in the same snow if he is even paid half of what the movie stars are paid.

Another set idea I had about the country is that its people are business like, stiff and very methodical. This was a view that was fostered by the numerous books and movies about Swiss banks and Swiss bankers. Since the banks protected the monies of their clientele and more importantly their identities with such dogged efficiency and utmost discretion biased my views about the Swiss.

The other images I had about Switzerland, other than its snow capped mountains and its banks were of course its spas, cheese, chocolates, watches and Swiss Army Knives. And also that the Swiss buses, trains and trams run notoriously on time. These were the things I had in mind when my company asked me to travel to Switzerland.

So time for reality check! The image about snow capped mountains turned out to be quite true, only this time around it was not Indian movie stars dancing atop them. Rather it was the global heads of state, meeting to discuss globalization and competitiveness issues atop the snow clad resort of Davos. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a certain Manmohan Singh and a certain Chidambaram were among the most sought after people at Davos. Watching German TV at my apartment, I felt rather proud to see images of both these nice fellas accompanied by incomprehensible news in German.

Then, the people! It was interesting to note that the people are rather friendly and not the stiff business types I expected. As Zurich is among the Financial Nerve Centers of the world, you get to see and meet people from diverse nationalities. Around my cubicle are an Englishman, a Chinese lady, a Pole, a South African and me an Indian. And this in just a few square meters of space. Clichéd as it may be but the word ‘microcosm’ immediately comes to mind!

Contrasting my other images of Switzerland were images of a beggar (only one!) on Zurich’s world famous shopping district, a gay couple kissing on an escalator while people watched open-mouthed (most of the onlookers were goras), Swiss versions of taporis teasing a gorgeous girl in a bus and finally a gigantic billboard hanging down the Zurich airport shouting “INDIA FASTEST GROWING FREE MARKET DEMOCRACY”!

Enough to make me feel at home!