My Swiss Remembrance Day

November 12, 2010, 1 Comment

Yesterday was Remembrance Day in many countries, even if locally it was called Armistice Day, Veterans Day or Poppy Day. As I explained in my post yesterday, Switzerland doesn’t have a Remembrance Day because it has nothing to remember. So what was it like for me to be here for a non-Remembrance Day? Interesting.

I spent the morning with the English matura class at Gymnasium Kirchenfeld in Bern. I’d been invited there to talk to the students (mainly 18-year olds) both about my book and also about living in Switzerland as a foreigner. But the first question was about the poppy I was wearing. None of them had ever seen one or knew what it stood for. So I gave them a potted poppy history, trying to explain that it wasn’t glorifying the dead (a common perception here) but remembering the sacrifice. Even Switzerland wouldn’t be the same as it is today without that sacrifice; it would probably be a reluctant province of a Greater Germany.

After that, the discussion moved on to the pitfalls of Swiss etiquette, such as how not to arrive at a party, and their questions about why I am in Switzerland (quick answer: chocolate). But I had one surprise in store. Just before 11am I explained what happened at that hour in Britain and other places; then on the hour we all stood for our own two minutes’ silence. It was the first time they had ever done it, but the silence was absolute. I’m not sure what they were thinking about, but maybe me bringing that bit of British tradition into their classroom made them think a little more about the outside world, and the past.

Of course, by the afternoon I could see what yesterday really meant to the Bernese. Lots of colourful costumes and brass-and-drum bands moving through the city centre, celebrating the start of Carnival. It was still going on when I left work at 9pm, with the crowds sheltering from the rain under the big glass roof outside Bern’s train station. I stopped for a moment and listened to the band play a Glenn Miller number; it felt a bit odd to be doing that only a few hours after having watched live on the BBC, with a lump in my throat, as Britain commemorated its dead (if you’ve never experienced it, here’s a clip of the two-minute silence). But perhaps remembrance should as much about life as death.

Swiss students standing in silence and an Englishman humming along to Mr Miller. A very unusual 11th November for both parties but one that possibly neither will ever forget. Isn’t that what cross-cultural communication is all about? Experiencing something of another way of life so that everyone understands each other better. Maybe if we’d all done that more often in the past, there’d have been no need to have a Remembrance Day at all.

One Comment on "My Swiss Remembrance Day"

  1. Colin Bewes Saturday November 13th, 2010 at 01:38 PM · Reply

    Well done you for introducing Remembrance Day to the Swiss. We will remember them.

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