Reflecting in depth on what Switzerland is like is easy. Pulling it out in pictures takes time. At least if you're me and really just want to talk about the interesting cultural layers of Switzerland. I will update this post with some of the images I have of the places I stayed to give a better sense of the personal aspects of my fascinating time in Switzerland.
Heading North from Milan, the country rises into mountains and a mist mingles with evergreens. There are so many lakes that dot the lower altitudes of Switzerland that common sense might say that the country is stepped, but the land is defined by what's around these pristine lakes--mountains rising straight up on all sides. There are mountains all over Europe, but Switzerland rises suddenly and straight up, and in every way stands out from what surrounds it. Not in fierce independence, although that somewhat defines Switzerland's relationship with the world, but simply in it's difference from what surrounds it is Switzerland defined.
Thus, for now, traveling in Switzerland has a fractal quality of switchbacks in switchbacks. To get from one point to another requires zig-zagging. Where I stayed in Switzerland was minimal, I stayed with very distant family in both Lugano and Beatenberg. But moving between them, and eventually leaving Switzerland meant trains stopping in Zürich, Bern, and other smaller stations to arrive anyplace.
In Lugano you deal with the most moderate parts of Switzerland--lower altitudes and winding, blind corner roads that still aren't hairpin turns. The lake is beautiful and the town is vibrant. People speak Italian in Lugano which is easier for most English speakers it seems.
Interestingly though, Lugano maintains some of those features of Italy which the deeper interior of Switzerland eventually has to dispense with as Germany, France, and Italy all mingle. Particularly where language is concerned, there are simply not as many languages spoken in the restaurants and on the streets of Lugano as there are in other Swiss cities. This is typically Italian. Very interested in communicating, but less concerned with taking on many languages, this is the Swiss interpretation of a more lax Mediterranean culture. The difference is in bus systems and a general plan for the city.
Lugano, like all of Switzerland runs on time and has robust mechanisms for insuring that timeliness is kept up. There are massive bus hubs in Lugano which penetrate the entire city. There are signs and arrows directing every pedestrian and motor way. This is something that the Swiss really invest in and it's something they continue to refine. That is there has been fairly consistent work in Switzerland to make it traversable and mostly demarcated in a place where these things shouldn't be possible. I suppose in some respect you might say that Switzerland is very like the clocks it's known for--precision, nested mechanisms, unambiguous design, all to convey the meaning of something as immaterial as time.
Similarly, language is something that is very fluid as you penetrate Switzerland, where as in neighboring France and Italy there are different attitudes taken toward speaking. Interlaken actually gave me the chance to practice my German. This was a change of pace from Italy where I picked up some basics very quickly and France where I mangled every interaction.
Every hundred meters vertical in Switzerland can be felt. For some, it is in terms of nausea, but the climates within climates are noticeable as well. This was obvious moving up and down the mountain side from Interlaken to Beatenberg. The sunshines on the top of the mountain first, Interlaken eventually clears its weather out into it's lakes by which time Beatenberg may already have a new kind of cloud covering it's long, thin profile.
This was particularly the case leaving Switzerland. It was rainy in Lugano and stayed that way up to Beatenberg. That is until the last day when finally the Jungfrau massif came into view from Beatenberg but was still lost to Interlaken on the train station.
But the journey to Lyon, France followed this sudden good weather down the altitudes. Passing through Lausanne was dramatic in this regard. Lausanne is beautiful and very low in the altitudes of Switzerland, but looking across the lake, circling the water by train allows you to take in a huge sweep of vistas, eventually the sight is across a huge lake to some of the most precipitous mountains imaginable (at least to this midwesterner) and it displays the vast contrasts of Switzerland itself within Europe. An actual stop in Geneva proves that France is near with a sudden change in language to something incomprehensible.
Whatever reminiscing I could do over Switzerland would be useless without discussing, though, some simple matters of fact about Switzerland. First that it has these unique and independent qualities. Second that it is perpetually iterative. These features speak to, first, a stroke of luck in this visit, but, second, suggest the probable differences in seeing Switzerland in the future.
I was lucky that I knew people--family--in Switzerland. It made living there cheap. And Switzerland does not participate in the EU really at all, except for the Schengen Area which basically keeps Switzerland permeable to travelers. But the plugs are radically different than other European countries and the money is all their own. This independence isn't changing.
Again, as luck would have it, I'd gotten a fair amount of Swiss francs from family who'd been to Switzerland recently on business (Jungian studies, who cares). But this meant that for a whole week there was no rent and cash to pay for everything. So my time in Switzerland was impossibly cheap. Usually getting through the mountains is an expense, but all said, I spent about 100 francs in the week.
But Switzerland is changing. Perhaps inspired by the LHC or just a desire to redouble the efficiency the Swiss have been perfecting for hundreds of years, the next time I travel through the country it's likely to feature more tunnels and less switchbacks between cities. Things are becoming more direct in Switzerland, something that's not outside the culture there, but perhaps until recently has been outside the technological ability of the country to engineer into the landscape.
Even so, the future of Switzerland will have a train system that runs through the mountains rather than across them. So travelers will appear and disappear into the bulk of the country like figures on a cuckoo clock. At the same time, literally penetrating the country will become easier for people taking advantage of the very demarcated very permeable border of Switzerland. But really feeling anything more than the weight of the land (which is already immense) may become more difficult.