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Wednesday, January 30, 2013


I've lived in Switzerland, on and off, for twenty years. I've acclimated. I speak both the home and office versions of the local diglossia -- even if my kids are embarrased by my accent. I have generally learned the local behavioral protocols, so that when I defy them, I generally do so consciously. I'm Swiss.

But being an immigrant is a permanent process; a fractal series, never-ending, of surprises and reacclimations. You keep arriving, and you never arrive. I'm Swiss, and I will never be Swiss.

Today I figured out for the first time why Swiss adults, who do not greet strangers in any public place -- not on the tram, not on the train (except for the ritual "is this seat free?", which is never an invitation to conversation), not waiting in line for movie tickets, not in restaurants (with the possible exception of a small-town local Beiz mostly inhabited by regulars), not in the waiting rooms of doctor's offices, not at the pool... invariably do so at the fitness center.

There we are in the locker room, in towels, and these old guys coming in are all "Hi" and "how are you?" and "cold weather we're having, eh?"

Now, I know, by the standards of most countries, this is not an astonishing level of intimacy. But I'm here to tell you: it's not the way they'd act with strangers in any other context. They're warm, relaxed, even jovial. At first I thought it was just an especially friendly old guy or two, an outlier on the scale of stranger-warmth. But it's all of them. And it's not because we're naked: in the steam baths at a hotel spa, or the changing room at the public pool, there's none of this. Talking to a stranger in the changing rooms at the pool would be like talking to a stranger on the bus -- not exactly forbidden, but certainly an event, and probably even -- on some level, however gracefully and smoothly dealt with -- an emergency.

Today, I figured out the riddle. It's because it's a health club. A health club has members: it is a club. We are members of the same Sportverein! So of course, even if we don't know each other personally, we are automatically warm and enduring associates with a shared history and future. The barrier is gone. We are vereint -- united -- made one.

If this sounds odd to you, you do not know about the Swiss and their clubs. Clubs are the soul of Swiss civic life. At a first-order approximation, every Swiss person over 25 is on the board of a club. The analogous civil right in Switzerland to the American "right of free association" is, essentially, the right to form clubs.

Of course exersuisse is not actually a Verein. It is a private company. It is not democratic; its "members" do not elect the board; there is no room for Vereinsmeierei -- the exquisitely honed art and science of club politics and club-law legal interpretation. But somehow it seems to have managed to borrow the social conventions of a club, possibly because doing sports together under the aegis of a private company, rather than a Sportsverein, is somewhat novel, historically speaking.

One more step on the immigrant's journey. It has left me feeling, despite myself, slightly warmer towards exersuisse. It's not just the gym I go to; it has borrowed, at least, a hint of being something greater -- a Verein. In this odd, lovely, cold adopted homeland of mine, the Verein is where you are permitted to be one, even with people you don't know.

Posted by benrosen at January 30, 2013 12:42 PM | Up to blog
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