SWITZERLAND, April 18, 2020 — Cities and countries, like people, have their own distinct personalities and characteristics. Basel, Switzerland is home to one of the most unique communities.
Back in a world where political correctness was not as dominant as it is today, when people still had a sense of humor and did not take every comment out of context as some sort of demeaning racial slur, there was a marvelous little travel adage that perfectly described the cultural nuances of five countries in terms of heaven and hell.
It went something like this:
HEAVEN is where all
the police are British,
the cooks are French,
the mechanics are German,
the lovers are Italian
and it’s all organized by the Swiss.
Hell is where all
the chefs are British,
the mechanics are French,
the lovers are Swiss,
the police are German
and it’s all organized by the Italians.
Stereotypes to be sure, but in very broad terms it captures the essence of what makes travel so intriguing and rich. It is this aspect of travel that takes us beyond guidebooks into new dimensions of personal growth, understanding, and tolerance.
Years ago while traveling with a group of writers in Basel, Switzerland, I had my eyes opened by a funny incident that was a bold revelation in the “never trust a book by its cover” category. For yourself, you may find the humor as one of those “you had to be there” stories, but even at that, hopefully, it will offer a valuable lesson in the essence of travel.
For American travelers, Basel is one of the best-kept secrets in Europe.
Most of us enter the country through either Zurich or Geneva and quickly head to Lucerne or Bern or Interlaken. We ski in St. Moritz or Gstaad or Davos, but comparatively few of us make a beeline for Basel.
In recent years, thanks to its history, geographical setting at a bend in Rhine River where Germany and France meet Switzerland, and its world-famous international art fair, Basel has quickly become one of the cultural hubs of the continent. Yet Americans pass it by in droves.
Given its compact size, Basel may have more high-quality museums per capita than any city in Europe.
‘Baselers’ are extremely proud of that reputation and they, justifiably, want everyone else to appreciate their passion for the arts. Some might call it local pride, while others may see it as a sort inferiority complex that the city doesn’t receive the global recognition it feels it deserves.
To an outsider, that’s often mistaken for having an elitist attitude. Baselers know they have something truly special, and they get uppity with pride whenever they feel the need to point it out.
Basel was in the center of the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.
The city was greatly influenced by the presence of Renaissance Scholar Erasmus of Rotterdam who professed a more humanistic approach to the world. Simply put, the humanist movement was motivated by new concepts in painting, and by advances in printing which was developed not too far downriver in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg.
It was the advent of movable type that had such a dramatic impact on the printing of books. Europe became a literate society almost overnight and, in the process, the heed for religious painting greatly diminished.
A history of Swiss Democracy
If you look at Swiss history, you quickly discover that it is one of the most democratic countries in the world. Without royalty and with all the other change surrounding them, some of the great artists of the day made their way to the area. Of course, the art was nothing to compare with what was going on in Italy, but that’s another story.
In Switzerland, people decided that art should be available to everyone. Until that time, all the really great art collections of the world were either in churches or in the hands of private collectors.
Since the average citizen had no means of purchasing art, the Swiss came up with the idea of making art a public enterprise.
Basel – home of the first public art museum in the world
Basel established the first university in Switzerland and, over time, as part of the university, they opened a museum of fine arts which was available to the public. It was the first public art museum in the world. That was the beginning of Basel’s love affair with art as well as all the other cultural pursuits.
The Kunstmuseum Basel (Fine Arts Museum) is one of the best in Europe. Though not nearly as well known as the Uffizi, the Prado or the Louvre, it was actually the birthplace of public art as we know it.
The city is especially proud of its Picasso collection, and the story behind it is fascinating.
Years ago, Picasso loaned two of his larger works to the museum; one is a harlequin and the
other is a scene depicting two young brothers. When the exhibition closed, they were supposed to be shipped to another museum for display, but Basel had become so attached to them that the city did not want to let them go.
The citizens of Basel took a vote to decide whether or not to purchase the paintings so the museum could keep them forever. The two Picasso paintings were bought by the Kunstmuseum of Basel in the first public referendum for the purchase of art in the world.
So touched was Picasso by Basel’s admiration for his work, that he told the mayor he would donate another painting to the collection.
When the mayor’s wife became conflicted over which of two choices she should make, Picasso added both to the group, thereby doubling the original number of paintings.
On the day of the opening of the exhibition, Picasso, himself, expressed his heartfelt gratitude to Basel by adding two more of his paintings bringing the total to six which have been permanently showcased ever since.
Consequently, it is easy to see Basel’s source of pride in its heritage and to understand its sense of under-appreciation.
Following a long day of museum hopping, our tiny group of travelers gathered for an early dinner before attending a performance of Carmina Burana.
Mealtime in Europe, especially for special occasions, is normally reserved for socializing and relaxing. This time however, in order to keep from missing the opening curtain, the pace of the dinner was a little more rushed than usual.
The theater was just a couple of blocks down the street, so the most direct and expeditious way to arrive was on foot. As luck would have it, a brief but heavy summer shower came out of nowhere as we were en route to the theater, forcing us to run the last half block or so.
When we arrived, the lobby was packed with patrons in various stages of sogginess all trying at once to drip dry before taking their seats.
Due to the popularity of the performance, tickets were at a premium so our seats were scattered throughout the auditorium. Fellow traveler Helmut Kreuger and myself were the only members of our party who were seated together.
The marvelous ingenuity of the Swiss
In the last frenzied dash to arrive and get through the throng of theatergoers there had been little time to look around and get oriented. Despite the rush, in the process of moving through the theater, I realized that it didn’t resemble a theatrical lobby at all.
It actually looked like an airport ticketing facility complete with electronic departure boards, computerized reservations counters, ticketing windows, and information booths. While it seemed a bit odd, I knew Switzerland well enough to understand there had to be a logical reason for the unusual combination of venues.
Just prior to the overture, I asked Helmut if he had noticed the unusual configuration of the theater lobby, which doubled as an airline terminal.
“You know I did see that,” said Helmut. “Leave it to the Swiss to come up with a clever idea like that to maximize the use of the space. I suppose it saves people from having to call late at night after the theater. Or they can take care of all their airline needs right here in the city while they make arrangements for theater tickets too.”
It was at that moment that Helmut realized the set-up was ideal for him.
“You know, I have to reschedule my return plane ticket anyway, and I was wondering when I’d have the chance. Now I can do it during intermission!”
The house lights dimmed and the orchestra began to play the overture. For the next hour and a quarter the audience sat spellbound by the combination of symphony, chorale music and dance.
Written by Carl Orff, the powerfully dramatic story is pagan in its medieval setting in a monastery during the Middle Ages.
The performance we saw was a collage of several performing arts; a ballet with a full symphony orchestra and a chorus.
Even those who might not recognize Carmina Burana by name will recognize some of the music because it is so stunningly powerful.
When the curtain came down for the interval, the audience sat in a hypnotic moment of silence before erupting into vibrant human electricity permeating throughout the room.
Helmut sat quietly, obviously mesmerized by what he had just witnessed.
Then suddenly, as if stricken by a surge of reality, he awoke from his reverie and said “Should we go to the lobby? It really will be nice to have that plane ticket out of the way.”
The lobby was elbow to elbow with people buzzing about Carmina Burana. Helmut worked his way over to the ticket counter while I made my way upstairs to the restroom.
“I’ll wait for you right over there at the counter,” Helmut shouted above the din.
In the process of making my serpentine path through the room, I had a chance to get a better perspective of the combination lobby/airline terminal and that’s when I reached a startling conclusion.
Intermission was nearly over. Plowing my way through the myriad of people who were now re-entering the auditorium, I finally reached Helmut and grabbed him by the arm.
“Helmut, the curtain is getting ready to go up for the second act. We need to get back to our seats.”
Helmut was flustered.
“But, but, I didn’t get anything done. Nobody would wait on me. The Swiss aren’t usually like that. They’re always so efficient. Do you think they’re closed?”
When we finally returned to our seats, I looked at Helmut and said,
“You’re not going to believe this, but the lobby isn’t an airline terminal at all. It’s an art exhibit! The whole thing is an artistic installation! It’s fake!”
Helmut stared at me in shocked disbelief.
“NOOOO!” he exclaimed, trying to imagine how he had been duped.
“I don’t believe you! You’re kidding. I saw it. It’s real. Everything works. You can’t be serious.”
Upon witnessing Helmut’s reaction I could no longer contain myself. The expression on his face when he heard my explanation was priceless. I roared with laughter so loud that everyone in the vicinity took notice.
The second half of the program was as electrifying as the first.
The conclusion produced a standing ovation followed by numerous curtain calls before the overflow crowd filed out into the darkness of the Basel night. One by one each journalist filtered through the crowd until at last everyone had reconvened.
Eventually one of the other writers turned to me with curiosity in her eyes and asked the obvious question, “Just what were you and Helmut so tickled about during the intermission?”
I detailed the story of Helmut trying to exchange his plane ticket with frequent interruptions by outbursts of spontaneous laughter.
“You mean this really isn’t a ticketing facility?” asked one writer with wide-eyed surprise.
“This is all phony?” questioned another.
“You’re kidding,” said the third woman gasping in disbelief.
For the first time since we had arrived everyone took a long look around the lobby giving it a thorough inspection. It was indeed nothing more than an artistic exhibition.
Now everyone was laughing. I had been certain that only Helmut and I were fooled by the terminal display, surmising that the others had also figured it out during the intermission.
Smiling to myself that night I rolled over and fell into a deep, restful sleep. Content, joyful in the valuable lessons that reinforced what I already knew. Lessons that dramatically reminded me that I should never be too critical, for art isn’t always what it seems.
Suffice it to say. that sleep on that night was “state of the art.”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.