05 August 2010

Swiss National Day

Swiss Air Force FA-18s are roaring overhead again this morning, drowning out the crickets in the field of golden, rustling wheat. I'm not complaining. I love fighter jets in spite of my peacenik predilections. And these jets are particularly stirring because they are splitting the same sky where, a couple nights before, brilliant fireworks blossomed and boomed in celebration of Swiss National Day. The jets and fireworks remind me of my adolescent days in Ohio when I stayed up on a Friday night till 2 in the morning watching horror movies until finally the TV channel went off the air with the Star-Spangled Banner playing as fighter planes and fireworks filled the screen.

Which got me to thinking about the Swiss national anthem. At a big neighborhood party the night before National Day, I asked if what I'd read in a snarky book about Swiss culture was true: that most Swiss don't know the words to the national anthem. He said he didn't know the words, and didn't think most other Swiss did either. Others at the table concurred. They were neither ashamed nor proud of this.

We Americans begin singing our national anthem pretty much within minutes after being squirted from the womb, and repeat this patriotic exercise countless times through our school years and at sports events. This is apparently not the case here in CH, where students are too distracted with becoming multi-lingual and computing currency conversion rates to devote quality time to learning their nation's official song.

And no wonder. Because it turns out that the Swiss national anthem isn't an anthem at all. It's just a wimpy prayer with "Joy and bliss" here and "God dwelleth in this land" there, blah blah blah. The anthem of the U.S. of A. of course is suitably martial against its backdrop of bombs bursting in air and rockets red glare. I'm sure there would also be a beautiful verse about fighter jets had Francis Scott Key been able to peer through the dawn's early light of 1814 into the future.

The one thing the two tunes share is a belief in God's blessing. Every nation likes to claim God's special blessing. A divine lightning bolt beats an FA-18 air strike every time.

It's interesting to compare the lyrics of the Swiss Psalm and the Star-Spangled Banner. You'll find the Swiss anthem's lyrics online not only in the original German, but also the other three national languages, as well as English, which will become the fifth national Swiss language just as soon as President Obama wraps up the paperwork to add UBS to the American banks the feds already control.

There's a bigger difference between Swiss and American national identities than their anthems. A Fourth of July party means hot dogs and beers. But on the night of August 1st, I was standing on the high terrace of my mother-in-law's Neuchatel apartment as the last blast of fireworks made the 1,000-year-old town below glitter. We sipped sparkling wine, and nibbled dainty little finger sandwiches. All very civilized, but not something Bruce Springsteen will ever write an anthem about.

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