Friday, May 23, 2008

4 - City rounds and stumbing upon black sheep

Across the Limmat from the Hauptbahnhof, there’s a swarm of boards announcing cafés and restaurants. There are three cyclists parked atop the Limmat bridge ponderously looking at the placid, flat stream. A dad-son-dog trio looks into the water. A preteen in dark glasses and helmet whizzes past atop her skates.

The restaurants and cafes lazily unroll themselves, spilling their tables-chairs-clientele onto the road on the banks of the Limmat. Behind these, a hill harbours a road that shoots upwards, along which a massive hoarding advertises Lindt chocolates.


I pass a movie-memorabilia shop, and stop to look at a wayside board listing theatre and opera performances in town. Almost all are in German, and none fits my budget or time.

There are a couple of buildings with flat, towering glass facades that stick out amid the prim, ancient looking residences elsewhere. They havent the subtlety that marks the rest of the city - no statuettes and decorative motifs, not too much careful attention to detail - just one monstrous sheet of glass that rises up and spreads sideways.

These aren’t ostentatious or brash. There is only one small board near what could only be an entrance, mentioning, almost reluctantly, that this is the Marriott.

At a zebra crossing ahead, four cars line up one behind the other and wait for a young father to push a pram across the road.

I walk through residential areas, streets harbouring apartments. The houses, while neat and proper, offer hardly any sign of life. You see no people milling about, no one on the balconies leaning out of houses, hardly any clothes hung to dry, hardly any windows or doors open, no one out in the flowerbeds and gardens. There are no kids playing about, no teenagers roaming the streets.
In commercial areas – Bahnhofstrasse and their ilk – crowds potter around, trudge gently, sit back as they populate the roadside chairs-tables of brasseries.

Life is unhurried, there’s no bustle or haste anywhere in the town. But sometimes you wonder if it's the relaxed, retiring pace of life that has conditioned people to stay within their private worlds. The extraordinary level of organization and maintenance, the trim localities, blooming gardens, avenues, and the level of public attention that seems to have gone into the city, all seem a little incongruous with such unwillingness to go out, experience the city, engage with the world.


At first, I tell myself the insulation really is some form of refinement – perhaps some variant of ‘I shant bother my neighbour’. But seeing this poster sprinkled all over Zurich city(including, ironically, the vicinity of the airport) makes me wonder if there is something deeper:

I was a tad surprised at the bluntness of the message, bespeaking some desperation. A little less paranoia perhaps could have led to a more tactful(not to mention more convincing) ad. The one below, incidentally, was another ad in the same campaign.

You’d think that a city with so much to enjoy, contemplate, appreciate would give its denizens nothing to worry about. Still skeptical, I told myself that surely this was not really representative of the entire populace’s opinion – maybe a far right fringe bunch(for the posters were a part of a poster-and-mass-media ad campaign by the Swiss People’s Party). It turns out that the Swiss People’s Party(SVP) is the biggest party in the Swiss Parliament, its rise over the last twenty years being largely founded on its anti-immigrant rhetoric.

I think back, and realize I’ve hardly seen any non-whites in Zurich. Sure, there’re some Asian tourists, conspicuous by their bag-carrying and hesitant awkwardness – but hardly anyone black or brown who look accustomed enough, comfortable enough to suggest they reside here.

A pub owner I meet a few days later, a Kosovar immigrant, mentions how impossibly difficult he was finding it to get a Swiss passport, even though he’d stayed here twenty or so years. The process is crazily drawn out – you’ve to take language tests, and in what looks an almost medieval practice, the residents in your town have to ‘approve’ of you by a vote.


Understandably, the ad campaign set off alarm bells in Europe. Doudou Diene, the U.N. special fact-finder on racial intolerance said the campaign was "advocating racist and xenophobic ideas". People have remarked how eerily similar the rhetoric is to that of Nazi Germany (and if I may add, to present day Mumbai, Gujarat, you name it).

The SVP, of course, has much to say in its defence. Ulrich Schueler, the man who created the sheep campaign said, "That's nonsense. It's not against race. It's against people who break laws. People are fed up." Another party member, Bruno Walliser had to say, “The black sheep is not any black sheep that doesn’t fit into the family. It’s the foreign criminal who doesn’t belong here, the one that doesn’t obey Swiss law. We don’t want him.”


Gee said...

And one is forced to try and chart back the origin of the term black sheep. Why was the bad child of the house 'black'?

I don't know, and I am probably biased while I take my guesses.

On a different note, one of the reasons why I love the place I live in is - mindless President notwithstanding (and I don't know why we nitpick on that, I mean, come on, do our politicians really represent the way we are as a people?) - when it claims to be a salad bowl (as against a melting pot, it doesn't require you to blend in, you can very much do your own thing and no would raise an eyebrow), it really, really is.
And I love it.

QKumar said...

[Gee] - Yes, you are particularly lucky to have folks from all over the world around you.

Getting to meet people who're radically different from what we've seen before perhaps means there're more ways to have fun - damn, no wonder all the celebrations you keep gloating about make the rest of us jealous.