We’re Not Really Strangers In This Village
Written by Rachael Moorthy author of River Meets the Sea
Under the goldenrod glow of the waxing Flower Moon, trailing Wisteria takes over this city, turning it amethyst. Lilac plumes cascade over the multi-coloured pastel buildings in Basel, lining the ever-elusive jade Rhine. The flowering purple vine flourishes here, along with Wild Garlic, Elderflower, Strawberries, and the wide array of alienesque mushrooms: porous Morels, Truffles, and Chanterelle. But unlike those plants indigenous to the enigmatic Swiss forest floor, Wisteria is, like myself, an immigrant. Still, it is difficult to imagine Basel without its ethereal spring coat. Few here would argue that it doesn’t belong.
Home isn’t something I knew I had before I moved to the city that invented nostalgia. The term and concept were developed by scholar Johannes Hofer in 1688 at the University of Basel, where Nietzsche would later teach, too. I’ve found a haven of sorts at the English faculty department; in fact, I am writing this from under the shelter of the oak tree in the cobbled courtyard, next to the great lecture hall, which has painted wooden ceiling beams that have been here since the 1400s. The term “Heimweh” translates to homesickness, meaning “a morbid longing to return to one's home or native country.”
Perhaps this is why it feels like this city yearns with me. This longing is embodied in the statue of a thinking woman overlooking the veins of this city: the glittering river. A PhD candidate in my department swears the current is flowing in the wrong direction, and I wonder if it’s the spirits of the women who were tossed into the water from Mittlere Brücke during the witch trials. I float in the Rhine most days, equipped with my waterproof Wickelfisch—a Basler staple. In summer, the teal water is dappled with the multicoloured confetti of swimmers clutching onto neon fish-shaped bags, which genuinely do keep everything dry (I’ve even swam with my laptop before). It’s common to enter the riverbank at the Museum Tinguely and float the three kilometer stretch; many people do this during lunch break or between classes. I like to swim with Jo, who grew up in a village not far from here, and whom I met in a Toni Morrison seminar. They have roots in both Switzerland and Mexico and we bond over the strange sense of never quite belonging. We talk about community care, postcoloniality, and love as we weave to avoid the swans, carried by the water against the scenic backdrop of the Old Town. We glide under Mittlere Brücke, where tourists regularly fasten love locks onto the jewel-toned mosaic chapel, the Käppelijoch. Jo told me this tower was used for executing adulterers during the Middle Ages.
Helvetia auf Reisen ponders on the north-eastern edge of Mittlere Brücke. She is somewhat obscured by the city’s intricate splendor and the kaleidoscope of colour that captivates your gaze in every direction. It wasn’t until recently that I learned that she is not just any contemplative woman sifting through her thoughts at the Rhine, but the official national personification of Switzerland (Confœderatio Helvetica). Switzerland is female, barefoot, legs splayed out of her flowing gown in a position that would be categorized as “un-ladylike.” She’s got her suitcase packed, her battle spear and shield emblazoned with the Swiss flag resting beside her. Tired and pensive, Helvetia seems less like a patriot and more like a survivor on a journey to somewhere undefined. She takes solace in the element of water, which, like her, is never still.
Basel is a place of fluid borders, literally. The natural border of the region is the river, just like Stó꞉lō back home on Coast Salish territory. A polyphonia of French, various Swiss German dialects, English, Italian, and Spanish are tangled in the air at all times. I attained German fluency during the pandemic and now study it at university level, but in a country with four official languages, where most people speak at least five with proficiency, this feels deeply inadequate. Back home, my father is learning Halkomelem. I envision a future on the West Coast of Turtle Island where people are fluent in Halkomelem, Xaat Kill, and French, where we recognize all dialects of English as valid and worthy of learning. I imagine how that perspective shift would reshape the entire cultural landscape. So much narrative is embedded in a dialect.
A rare German-speaking area of central Europe that wasn’t bombed to ribbons during the two world wars, the architecture in Basel is medieval, reminiscent of the historic wine region Alsace; which, after being colonized by Roman legions in the first century BCE, has been seized back and forth between German and French empires continuously since the year 870. It was returned to France after a long period of German annexation following the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Alsace reflects a syncretism of both ancient French and German cultures aesthetically and linguistically, while also having maintained and crystallized its own distinct culture.
While ascending the crest of a snow-capped mountain under an endless sky, I thought about a seminar titled “Schweizer Literatur Als Deutsche Literatur” where we discussed the relationship between space and emotion in Swiss literature. The epic panoramic alps and undulating emerald vales of Kanton Graubünden inspired the creation of Heidi's mountain home and the fictional town of Dörfli. As a child, author Johanna Spyri spent summers here in the high pasturelands of Maienfeld. Often trivialized as “middle brow” (a term that has its roots in phrenology), Spyri’s novel Heidi is a work that contends with German imperialism in the Swiss context. It is the most famous Swiss story world wide. The antagonist of the novel is not a person, rather Frankfurt and the ominous, encroaching forces that threaten the Indigenous Romansh people’s way of life in the alps. The story is an allegory for the sickness-inducing imperialist culture which perpetuates a monolithic world view, immense emotional restraint, linguistic and cultural ‘purity.’ In the novel, the imperial desire to control and standardize nature, if not abject aversion to it, is rectified by Swiss freedom of emotional expression, a deep connection to the natural world, and appreciating diversity within the community. These capitulations of Swiss culture are antithetic to the common tropes associated with Switzerland today: reservedness, order, standardization.
A critical reading of Heidi in the modern Swiss context reveals that the looming imperial forces succeeded, at least on an institutional level, and one could make the case, rather convincingly, that Swiss-German culture has since been caught in an aporetic space. There is a consensus that Swiss people do not want to fully associate with Germanness … but without any real, tangible, collective recollection of the culture that came before, relics of the past are reduced to aesthetic and culinary properties. (Swiss wrestling, black vests embroidered with white edelweiss, yodeling, and every conceivable variety of melted cheese). The paradox of wanting to return to a place that no longer exists, of piecing together fragments from the past in order to construct a notion of home, of trying to write this home into existence, is something I know all too well.
In Heidi, there are also striking foundational parallels between the traditional Romansh way of life and that of Coast Salish cultures: living within the land rather than on it, reciprocity in our relationship with the Earth and with individuals, and structuring human settlement and activity around nature rather than the other way around. Spyri’s novel is objectively the most successful and widely read book in Switzerland; it still contributes to the Swiss economy today. Yet, in a country where women didn’t get suffrage until 1970 (1990 in one Canton), Spyri never had the right to vote in her lifetime.
Dörfli is not a figment of fiction. The beloved mountain village has been constructed to replicate a 300-year-old settlement. The Heidi trail is a circuit, leading through the historic town of Maienfeld, winding up through local vineyards (and some donkeys), until you eventually reach Heididorf. There, you will be met by bleating goats and a picturesque view of Heidi's fountain, winter home, and schoolhouse. The path, adaptable for families and avid hikers, leads you up through dense oak forests, green velvet valleys, and meadows where alpine flowers burst out of the Earth like laughter. The trail is clearly marked, equipped with landmarks that include passages from the book (in English and German), paying homage to various parts of the story.
Twining my fingers with the soft meadow grass and violet aster, I overlook the Alps, the lace of thundering waterfalls worn by the mountainscape, and wonder how many female storytellers besides Spyri lived around here. How many were accused of being witches, or spoke the so-called “dead language” Romansh which, like Halkomelem, was an oral tradition that has been largely preserved through song.
Perceptions of monolithic national identities, fixed borders, and pure ethnostates are a global fallacy, and this has only become more salient to me from living here. St. Moritz, for example, a luxury alpine resort town in Switzerland which dates back to 1137–39, was named after a dark-skinned, North African knight: Saint Maurice. I wish I could talk to James Baldwin and tell him that the stranger in the village was violent imperialism, that the history of Leukerbad and the therapeutic water of its springs dates back to Roman times, before the enduring construct of biological race.
This time next week, I’ll drive down to Bellinzona, the childhood town of some friends, for a weekend of limoncello under swaying palm trees, castle ruins from the Duke of Milan’s former reign, and tropical blue lakes that look like ocean. Ticino is less than three hours away by car, but it possesses the language, landscape, and architecture of Northern Italy (which you can technically swim to). The Italian region of Switzerland is equally dazzling, but it is hard to believe that it belongs to the same country as Basel. The locals will say the same, since employment opportunities are scarce, meaning most young people from the Italian region of Switzerland know they will have to go to the German part for university or work.
It feels disingenuous to try to oversimplify or monolithize the experience of living here, a country smaller than Vancouver Island, so I won't do that. I learn more about this enigmatic place every day through wandering its dreamlike, vine-draped alleyways; through leaping into tranquil bodies of water with locals; drinking the anise-hinted firewater my reclusive inventor neighbour makes from our fallen apples; remaining open to diving deeper into the languages of the land (which hold the culture). Instead, let these fragments emulate the tantalizing beauty and looming melancholy of Switzerland: a place desperate to return to itself, wherever that is.
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