The Southern Touch

Friday, the 3rd of June, was special.
For starters, I was up at 6.15 am.
I put face wash on my toothbrush. I am not a morning person.
Brigett and I were on a tram by 6.30 & on our way out of Zurich on a train half an hour later. It was going to be a long journey – three hours south would get us almost to the Italian border. We were going to Sonogno, a small mountain village at the end of Valle Verzasca. A place with a sad history. But more on that later. I prefer sunsets to sunrises for obvious reasons, but this particular dawn over Lake Zurich was quite lovely ~
Our train wound through a narrow valley flanked by craggy green mountains – similar to the drive up in Himachal, although it was greener here, and the trees all looked as though they were ready to be cut for Christmas. According to Brigett, it would be a sunny day because she’d brought along an umbrella and forgotten her shades. She was right. It was glorious weather.
I’d like to say it was picturesque all along the way – and mostly it was, old Swiss cottages nestled on the slopes with flowers at their wrought iron windows – but there were sections of vast ugliness, a utilitarian invasion of 50s-style buildings with their matchbox finesse and squat, square lines. Why they would choose this over the other is a terribly big mystery – but it’s similar, as far as I can see, in England, where entire towns (Slough, for instance) look like something out of a Big Brother theme park. Thankfully, large patches of land are given over to sweetly peaceful farming (helped by the government). On another bovine note (I still haven’t figured out the mooing in the airport train), Brigett told me that farm cows in Switzerland are de-horned, much like cats can be de-clawed.
“It was very strange to see these cows some years ago,” she says, pointing to a cluster of grazing animals. “Now, it’s normal.”
“And how do they do this?”
“They burn the horns when the cows are young so they can’t grow.”
“Why?” I’m trying to hide pain and terror.
“So they can’t fight each other, or hurt humans.”
Suddenly I feel awfully sorry for the cows.
Brigett continues – “But it can be a problem, in the summer when they are taken to graze in the Alps, wild cows with horns fight with them and hurt them.”
I relate this snatch of conversation only because I think it reveals something of a nation’s phyche. Not that they have a penchant for cruelty – but definitely for infinite prudence. I don’t know if this is practiced anywhere else in the world – maybe it is, I’m hoping not – but it’s disquieting even if it does ensure perpetual “safety”.
Our train journey ended at Tenere – a small, middle of nowhere town, where we whiled away an hour waiting for the “autopostal” bus. Over mugs of Ovaltine, I ask Brigett about Switzerland’s neutral stance during the two world wars. It’s something that’s been bothering me even before I landed in the country.
“We were like this,” she says and puts her hands over her eyes. “We didn’t say anything. Hitler’s trains went through Switzerland and we didn’t stop them; our banks were open to business with the Nazis.”
I can’t tell whether she is alright with this – perhaps it’s a trick of light, but something changed in her eyes.
“But like in Germany, where there were people who helped the Jews, a lot of Swiss also helped Jews escape. There were people here who sympathised with the Jews, and there were also people who supported the Nazis. Like everywhere.”
I have just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (and recommend it to anyone who hasn’t) and her words are particularly poignant. It will take more than one conversation to figure this out – can it be justified, not taking a stand, no matter how small, against Hitler?
Later, our bus lumbers up the slopes – and the scenery, as Brigett promised, is breathtaking. A lazy river meanders at the bottom of the valley, its waters a deep, curious cobalt blue; far up against the sky a line of snow-dabbed peaks watch us silently. We pass a huge dam, a graceful stone bridge, and one tiny village after another – their largest, most prominent structure is the church.
The village of Sonogno is the last in the valley, and it’s perched on the slopes like a misplaced tragedy. Despite the quaint stone cottages (characteristic of the southern part of Switzerland), the joyful flowers, and stunning snow-clad surroundings, it’s a place where  dreams die. Dependent mostly on grazing, the local economy has always been fraught with trouble – but from the mid 1800s times were so hard that people sent their children to Milan to work as chimney sweepers. Many died, and never came back. I don’t think the people of Sonogno have ever forgiven themselves. As soon as you enter, there’s a small museum on the left dedicated to these lost children. It was closed when we were there, but maybe somewhere on its walls hangs William Blake’s poem in translation.
From Sonogno, we took the bus to a town called Locarno, built around a lake that borders Italy. It has, what Brigett called, “the southern touch”. It doesn’t happen often, but I loved it as soon as we stepped off. Locarno is famous for an annual international film festival, held there since 1946 in the open-air Piazza Grande. Something of the event’s artiness hangs in the air. Locarno is bustling and busy and full of gorgeous old houses. The town revolves around the piazza – which has the more modern part of town and lake on one side and the older, more charming section on the other spread over cobble-stone slopes. The walkway is lined with street food stalls, open-air cafes, and the winding roads take you to a castle, a crowded flea market, and little boutique shops. Magnolia blossoms hang white and heavy over your head, and if you’re lucky, an open door allows you a peek into a courtyard garden.

After a gelato by the lake, Brigett and I made a quiet journey back on the train. We were tired. In true pathetic fallacy-style, the sun vanished, clouds drifted over the mountain tops and a drizzle danced on the window. I listened to Sigur Ros (and I recommend you do, if you haven’t already); their music is perfect for dramatic landscapes and night rooftops. It was a weary, melancholic evening, and we plunged in and out of tunnel darkness. Then, something I glimpsed out of the train window made me really happy. There, grazing by a wooden fence, was a cow with horns.

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