I have arrived at Kommunität Diakonissenhaus Riehen. This convent was founded in 1852 with just a few women living here. By the 1940s-50s the community had grown exponentially, and included hundreds of sisters, though not all of them were based here. Many lived embedded in local communities in various places. Now the community of 62 sisters and quite a few other inhabitants and guests connected with it is mainly housed in Riehen. I was very surprised to find such a thriving convent here, as many monastic orders in England are smaller now. I think I was picturing one building housing maybe about 12 sisters!

Here is the oldest original part of the convent:

And here is the current “Mutterhaus”, where I am staying, which also includes the chapel and main dining area:

One of the extraordinary things about Basel is its proximity to France and Germany. There are places where you can be standing in one country and you can see the other two. Or where you are effectively walking along the border between two of the countries, though there may be very little evidence of it.

On Sunday, my first full day in Riehen, Sr Delia and I went for two walks in the surrounding countryside. I am absolutely loving the cold, fresh air, and seeing the beautiful autumn leaves all around. Here were some of the sights we saw:

As we walked along this path (below), Delia explained that the woods were in Switzerland, but the path we were walking was right on the border. In front of us was Germany and over to our left in the distance was France. A police car passed us, and she explained that this was the mobile border patrol. They were not at all interested in us, though later she mentioned how her adopted sister, who has darker skin, is often stopped and has to show her passport or ID card.

The view over towards France:

Apparently as recently as the mid 90s, the border controls were much more strictly enforced. But currently the borders are very open, so you often see German buses in Basel, which will take you right across the border to neighbouring towns and villages in Germany. Delia’s Dad and brother and his family have relocated to Germany, but in fact this doesn’t much feel like a relocation, because they always lived pretty close to the German border anyway.

As I’m gradually discovering, Swiss German is an interesting dialect. I can’t appreciate this fully as I only speak a tiny bit of German. But in this region there are many French words or words that are at least a bit French sounding that people use all the time. For example, I noticed the ticket collector on the train said “merci” as people showed her their tickets. And if you want tea with milk you ask for “Tee Crème”, which seems wrong to me on so many levels! (Don’t put cream in tea!)

Of course there are French speaking parts of Switzerland too, mainly further to the Southwest of the country, Swiss Italian in the South and Romansch in a small, mainly mountainous part of the Southeast.

Apparently the dialect of Swiss German spoken in Basel is very different from that of Zürich, which is only an hour away! (And both are different from “High” German, the language you learn in school.) But consider this: there are only about 37000 people who speak Romansch (the smallest proportion of any of the nation’s languages), but there are five dialects of Romansch!! Five!! How anyone ever understands anyone else here, I’ll never know!

Switzerland is notable not just for its excellent chocolate, stinky cheeses (to use Sr Delia’s technical term!), glüwein and skiing, but also for its endless capacity for careful and extensively collaborative decision making. In Switzerland, virtually everything is decided by referenda, or so I gather. It’s a very cautious nation, always wanting lots of research before the potential choices are put to the people, even. Delia tells me that for this reason, decision making is terribly slow, but usually once the decision has been made, people accept it, even if it wasn’t what they wanted. (Hmmm… maybe in the UK we could learn something from this…? But I think our problem is we’re just not used to having referenda for individual topics, so we did the Brexit referendum spectacularly inadequately. If we had followed the Swiss model, everyone would have had a shed load more information about how this would impact the UK before taking the vote. And if we were more like the Swiss, we would probably read and inwardly digest all of this information carefully before casting our votes. And take out insurance against the outcome of the vote too! (Apparently there is insurance for everything here. “Insurances”, actually – Versicherungen – as my brother ably informed me, the word is plural, because of the many things that could go wrong, I guess?!)

It does seem pretty remarkable, though, how Switzerland has managed to be such an equitable and peaceful place, given the challenges of having people of multiple languages and cultures living here.

My experience at the airport was also that Switzerland polices its borders in a most unruffled way. I know I flew in from Singapore, so I guess they could have confidence my luggage had been checked already, but I breezed past the passport control in the airport much more quickly than anywhere else I’ve been in the world. Passport control consisted of an impeccably smart, cheerful lady who smiled and nodded me through without a second glance. No landing card, no scrutiny of luggage, no questions about my occupation or when I last visited, no stern appraising look designed to strike fear into the hearts of potential terrorists, nothing.

I have also been impressed with public transport here. Basel being a politically Left and Green leaning area, has reduced the width of roads and introduced substantial cycle lanes alongside the tramlines. I have never seen such frequent trams and buses. Except perhaps in Melbourne. But even there you wouldn’t get a traffic jam of trams. Here, that’s a common sight in the city and also sometimes further out. These lanes are for bikes/pedestrians, trams and then cars:

Some more pics of this beautiful countryside from our evening walk:

3 thoughts on “Borderlands

    1. Ah, an otter, of course. I couldn’t turn the beard into a name.

      When Ali asked for things to do in Basel for an afternoon, I nearly wrote that I’d been fascinated by the borders too, particularly enjoying crossing the border in the woods round Riehen, back in the aforementioned mid 90s. Perhaps it was marked but it was unfenced, never mind undefended. That seemed very strange to someone from Little Britain, where every square microfurlong of manicured lawn is jealously guarded. (I didn’t because my internal maternal monologue told me not to get my sister in trouble.)

      On a business trip, my very German, not at all Swiss boss, from all of half an hour away in Müllheim, enjoyed putting on his fake Schwiizertüütsch to fool an Austrian border guard, only to pull out an EU passport and get Bangemann-waved through. He said he’d never be able to pull it off in Basel.

      The really mind-blowing thing on that trip for a lad from Bournemouth was being on the ferry half way from Cherbourg to Poole in the dark and seeing lights on both sides of the Channel at once. To grow up on the edge of the world and then see with your own eyes that it’s not how it felt.

      Liked by 1 person

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