'We are very happy you've wanted to become Swiss and we hope Switzerland will become a home to you.'
This was the dedication in the book ‘Engste Heimat,’ we received as a 'home-warming' gift the day we became Swiss. The gift could not have been more appropriate. It symbolizes the crossroads in my life where two signs, both pointing to a place called ‘Engste Heimat’ - meaning closest, innermost home - go off in opposite directions. In Erica Pedretti’s book, ‘Engste Heimat’ refers to Sudetenland, where I was born. So much of what she writes parallels my own life, that seeing the ordeals, fears, loss and pain documented in black print, I can - I hope - let go of my own memories, turn my back on my past as it were and take the new road in the other direction, where ‘Engste Heimat’ stands for Switzerland.
I was 11 when I first came to Switzerland in 1956. My parents had just remarried, we had an apartment with a toilet and a bathroom. I had a home for the first time in my life. For my parents it also was a homecoming of sorts. Trogen, the Appenzell hills, the town of St. Gallen all reminded them of the Reichenberg they had irretrievably lost.
But this was 1956 and Trogen wasn’t waiting for me with the same positive anticipation. 'Germans stink' my classmates said. I could not understand the dialect - let alone participate in the conversation. I felt more lost than ever. The hopes that a country so like my native land would become ‘my land’ were the hopes of an eleven-year-old.
Unlike my parents, I quickly learnt to speak the dialect and to adapt. Very soon, my language, my behavior was that of my friends and classmates. Yet a fundamental sense of insecurity persisted for many years to come. Never to be the right nationality, never to feel welcome became a stigma I continued to carry around with myself. It hurt and occasionally oozed, not unlike the shrapnel in my father's left arm.
I carried it with me when I met my future-in-laws in Coventry. But it was not long before my background ceased to stand between us and I became my father-in-law's apprentice. I learnt to dig holes and to plant. Since then I have dug many a hole, watered in many a new plant. Some seedlings developed into strong bushes, others were wrong for this soil, this climate. For every thriving plant in my garden, there is at least one failure. And now in my 26th year of planting, my garden flourishes. I have roots. I have a home. I am rich.
We had never thought of applying for Swiss citizenship because until the early 90’s dual nationality was not possible, and my husband could not imagine ever losing his British nationality. But then the law was changed. At about the same time we realized we would not want to move again. Our sons were more Swiss than anything else. This was our home. For the children and me there was also no place ‘to go back to’ should our working permit not be renewed. So we applied.
The process took almost two years and was anything but purely administrative. If we had to prove our worth to our neighbours over the years, we now had to convince the authorities - the various levels of authorities, that is. For anyone new to this country, I must explain that unlike most states where you become a citizen of the state, in Switzerland you become a citizen of a village or town. The process emphasises the clear division of power on the local, cantonal and federal level with each level insisting on its own investigation. It starts - as you would expect - at the local level. Once approved, the canton investigates, who then forwards the material to the state to conduct its own inquiries. Once the three levels of authorities have approved, the application goes back to the village or town where it is put to the vote - in canton Schwyz, at least. In other cantons, such as Zurich, it is up to a commission to make the final decision. Just as the procedure varies from canton to canton, so does the cost. The latter depends very much on the desirability of the town. A town bordering lake Zurich can charge a lot more than a village in some inaccessible valley. The original justification for the fee, I am told, was a type of prepayment should one become destitute in old age and become dependent on public funds. The canton and state also charge their fees but these are more administrative.
So we handed our four applications in at the village hall. We were told it would take some time, as due to the change in law many applications were pending both at the cantonal and federal level. We were also warned we could not take it for granted to be voted in even if all appraisals were positive.
A few weeks later we had a call from the local police. It was a formality, the policeman said, but he had to ask us a few questions. ‘Fine, when shall we come down? I asked. ‘Oh, that’s not necessary, I can come up’ was the reply. ‘It’s absolutely no trouble for us to come down’ I accommodated. ‘No, really, I can come up.’ Back and forth the ball went until it finally dropped. He obviously was requested to see HOW we lived, if in ‘geordnete Verhältnisse’ - a German euphemism for order and an acceptable standard of living.
What we had anticipated as an unpleasant formality, turned out to be a very pleasant meeting with a thoughtful, intelligent, young policeman. He first apologized profusely for having come in uniform in the police car, something, he said, he normally avoided so as not to create the impression with the neighbours that we were under police investigation. That thought had not even crossed our minds, but his considerate manner immediately put us at our ease.
Over coffee - of course, he would not drink wine on duty - he started to write down our personal details. We quickly realized this was the very information we had attached to our application forms, so my husband quickly ran him off copies of our respective curriculum vitae. He clearly had not been given any information on us but was asked to conduct his own investigation. To discover any discrepancies in the details, I wondered? Still our policeman was very impressed that we had this information at our fingertips and relieved of writing it all down again, we spent the rest of the time making pleasant conversation. As he was about to leave, my husband could not resist asking - despite intense shin kicking on my part - if the finger printing would be done at the police station or if he would come back for it. But thank goodness, the policeman recognized English humour when he heard it.
A few weeks later the cantonal authorities wrote to us - to the three men in the household to be precise, asking them to state their reasons for wishing to become citizens of this canton. Clearly, the canton considers wives and mothers to be such desirable citizens there is no need for a justification!
The same wife/mother was again present when the postman rang and said he had a registered letter for us with a charge of Sfrs.500 from the police department in Berne. Immediate shock! What was this fine for?, I wondered. What crime had we committed?
Once I had paid and actually held the letter in my hand, I saw that it was addressed to Dr. Colin West, to Anthony West and to Michael West. How nice of the postman to have allowed me to pay for it! The envelope contained the four passports we had to hand in with our application. It was followed by a letter informing the aforesaid men that their applications had been approved. My husband’s letter contained the remark ‘the same applies to the wife’ and ended inviting Dr. Colin Harvey West to follow the required steps in the procedure.
At this point I wrote a letter to our Federal Councillor, Mrs. Dreifuss, with the question ‘how does one become Swiss when one is a wife?’ The reply came from the Bundesamt für Gleichstellung von Mann und Frau, the department dealing with equal rights for men and women. They empathised with me, agreeing that the procedure was not in concordance with the law of 1992 which established a separate citizenship for men and women. However, they conceded, ‘old habits weigh heavily.’ They suggested I take it up with both the cantonal and federal police and justice departments, even offering to pass on my letter should I so desire. But, they gave me to consider, it was possibly advisable to wait with any further steps until I was indeed Swiss.
The day eventually came - we had just about given up - when the community was notified that all investigations were completed and that both the federal and cantonal authorities had approved our applications. But the biggest hurdle was yet to come when the inhabitants of our village would cast their votes.
Our village is very small with just a grocer, a bakery and a butcher, so that I do most of my shopping in the next little town. That is also where I teach and where most of our friends live, where my gymnastics group is and where my husband had sang in the choir. With our house a mile up the hill, we also don’t very often walk around the village. All of this meant that only a small number of the voters knew us personally. And I was not about to give my name to every person I gave a lift to! The other problem is that in recent years Switzerland has had to absorb many foreigners, not only people like us who had come here to work, but also many refugees. The number of both groups is large enough that many Swiss now feel threatened by so many foreigners and fear that soon Switzerland will no longer be the country they know and love. We, therefore, could expect many people to vote against us, not because they disapproved of us personally but because they did not want their ’Swissness’ diluted by yet another foreign family.
Once again, I felt myself judged, dependent on the goodwill of strangers, utterly exposed. Our friends and my students were very supportive but as they do not live in our village, they could not vote for us. Then two of my students wrote an open letter in the local newspaper. They thanked me for what I had given to them over the years, wishing us a true and permanent home in Switzerland. There are very few gifts I have received in my life to equal this. Suddenly, it did not matter how many people would be for us and how many against us. This public commitment was the open arms I had longed for.
Voting Sunday came. It was a lovely day in June. The main issue was federal regarding the financing of pensions. The turnout was unusually high, counting took time, and it was afternoon when we received a call from the mayor of the village informing us of the result, 522 votes for and 278 against. A brilliant result, he said. He would come by with a member of the Gemeinderat, the council, to congratulate us.
Up to this moment we had not realized what a cause for celebration this was. Our friends in the next town, some of my students, had clearly been trembling for us and had called around to get an early result. One by one they arrived, some on their bikes - and our hill is a long one - some had walked up, some had driven. I was deeply moved that our fate should matter to so many people. Now they went out of their way to show us how happy they were that ‘we were one of them!’ There were gifts - the book I mentioned at the beginning, the text of the Swiss national anthem framed by good wishes, flags and champagne. I treasured them all but it is the warmth that I still carry in my heart.
It was both a pleasure and a privilege to thank all those who had supported us, who with their vote had given us the right to a home. Now it was my turn to write an open letter to the local newspaper. ‘What is home?’ I asked. ‘Home is the place, where you can stay as long as you like, the place you are always allowed to return to even if you go far away. Home is the place where the plants make their roots deeper, where you greet equals, where you don’t have to explain why you are there. Home is the place where you are happy to contribute. Home is warm, home is beautiful.’
A few days later a letter addressed to the family arrived from the mayor thanking us for our hospitality and congratulating ‘the four new Swiss citizens’ once again. It was at this point that I decided not to persevere with my complaint. I had reaped so much kindness; it would also have felt like going behind the backs of the people who had always addressed the four of us in equal terms. And I wanted to stay with the good feelings.
The official ceremony in Schwyz was an event to be remembered. It took place in the stately 17th century building painted with scenes of a proud past, dark oil portraits guiding us up the stairs, then the oak-panelled room. There were around 50 of us who were to become Swiss that day. We rose from our carved benches and raised our right hands to swear allegiance. Forgotten was the long and tedious process of forms and documents. The moment we gave our oaths was a moment of truth – solemn and moving. The highest ranking official of the canton, the Landamman, then asked the women to come forward to receive the certificate for the family. At the reception that followed, he explained that by making women the recipients, he wanted to counteract some of the discrimination that unfortunately was still a part of the procedure.
Anthony, Michael and Colin now each have a certificate. My name does appear at the bottom of Colin's certificate, where it states that the wife, Heidrun West, is also included in the local, cantonal and federal Swiss citizenship. I just hope we will always remain marital partners. It would be a pity to get the scissors out one day and cut up this handsome certificate so that we could live separate lives.
Do we FEEL Swiss you may ask? Yes and no. Yes, when you ask me ‘where is your home? Where do you feel safe?’ Yes, when it comes to where my commitment for a nation lies. Yes, when it comes to contacting the Swiss Department of Exterior when my son had an accident in Thailand (even though, as it turned out later, he was traveling on his British passport). And I am sure many more ‘yes’s’ that I have come to take for granted. But as for the deep feeling of identity, I would have to say I am European - and leave it at that. But I am very happy with what I have.
Second Homecoming appeared in Ticking Along Free edited by Dianne Dicks, Bergli Books, Basel, 2000