Tales from the Frontier - No. 1

There was a sound of revelry by night. – Lord Byron

The advantage of living where three borders meet is the abundance of celebrations. To begin with there are three national days. Although to be honest the Germans don’t go overboard for their National Day.

Some countries celebrate with parades, fêtes, galas, concerts and fireworks, but since a couple of men in smart suits had merely signed a German reunification document, only muted jollifications were merited. A quarter of Germans take the chance of the public holiday to have a lie-in. The Germans are still a bit wary about holding national military parades.

On July 14 naturally the French want to let off fireworks, have a good old knees-up and run about and shout to mark the storming of an old prison (even if it was almost empty). French victories are few and far between so memories of successful belligerent acts are made much of.

The Swiss do have a different take on paperwork. They consider any signing, collecting, filing or movement of it to be sacred. Hardly surprising since it is the national occupation. Insurance, banking, and being neutral are hardly Action Man activities but do require a lot of bumf. Their national day honours the peaceful signing in 1291 of the Federal Charter beginning the Swiss confederation. Wikipedia suggests August 1 is celebrated with paper lantern parades, bonfires, hanging strings of Swiss flags, fireworks and competitive rifle shooting matches. Blanks are probably used for Health and Safety reasons.

The Swiss are fond of fireworks. Major displays burst over Basel both on National Day and on New Year’s Eve. I imagine there is much cowering under sofas in the houses lining the Rhine by domestic wildlife and the timorous while fireworks explode like the bombardment before a WW I assault. The Swiss have experienced very few ‘over-the-top’ flurries during the last few centuries so the booms and bangs are a bit of a novelty.

Shops usually shut on days of national festivities so being a short stroll from another country means you can still get your half-litre of milch/lait and baguette/brötchen most days of the year. You don’t even have to use Franken when you shop in Switzerland, they take anything that even vaguely resembles money, although their idea of exchange rate is on a par with the Great Train robbers – they end up with sacks of banknotes and you come away with a headache.

Shops usually close in all three countries for at least one day over Christmas but you do get the advantage of having a load of different Christmas markets to chose from. Not that that there is a great contrast in the separate markets. The quality of glühwein varies and local snacks differ somewhat although a bratwurst by any other name is still a fleshy vehicle for non-Coleman’s mustard. You can probably buy a Peruvian cap with ear-flaps knitted from llama’s wool in all three and a crib scene cut from plywood purporting to come from the Erzegebirge or one of the whittling Swiss cantons or French woodworking departements. One thing you should not expect when attending a Christmas market is late night revelry. Most close pretty promptly at ten o’clock or earlier which is just as well because glühwein seems to make most people sleepy rather than boisterous and eager for late-night action.

I always wonder what they do with the potting sheds they use as stalls for the other eleven months of the year. They do pop up occasionally when a town celebrates the day they received their charter or they hold a mediaeval style festival. Much the same fare is available although it has an event-fitting name. It is sold by someone wearing a tabard, tights and a cap with a feather in it or a shapeless floor-length skirt with an apron and bonnet. And as ever, everything stops when the sun goes down and the little huts go back to their long exile.

An added benefit of a border area is that you get more theatres, museums and art galleries, although of course presented in different languages. And language can be a bit of a problem. You thought you had a decent grasp of French or German until you hit a serious Schwartzwald or Vosges mountain dialect but even then you might muddle through. You can forget that when it comes to Schwyzer-Deutsch. Nine more words come along while you’re still struggling to decipher the first. Vowels are clipped variables and consonants are spat or hawked out and the whole lot is crammed into as short a sound-bite as possible. My theory is that it’s an attempt to save breath for clambering up alpine slopes. And that’s also a border plus – you get three different national sceneries, but that’s another story.