A chat with Beth Zurbuchen, the President of the Swiss Center of North America

We have something a bit different for you this time, which is a conversation between Diccon and Beth Zurbuchen.

Beth is the President of the Swiss Center of North America, and Diccon met with her in New Glarus, as part of his recent book tour of the US.

In this conversation, Beth tells us a bit about her experience of holding onto her Swiss heritage as a dual citizen living abroad.

Show Notes

Transcript

Daniel Shalom

Hello and welcome to another episode of the Expert Guide to your Life in Switzerland. This is Daniel from Rigby in Zurich.

And we have something a little bit different for you this time, which is a conversation between Diccon and Beth Zurbuchen.

Beth is the president of the Swiss Center of North America, and Diccon met with her in New Glarus as part of his recent tour of the US. In this conversation, Beth tells us a bit about her experience of holding on to her Swiss heritage while living abroad.

If you enjoy this podcast, please subscribe. And, if you work in IT and would like to find a role here in Switzerland, or if you're looking to hire, please let us know. We'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is the send us an email to contact@rigby.ch and we'll be in touch. So, enjoy the episode!

Diccon Bewes  

Hello, my name is Diccon Bewes. And this month, the podcast is going to be completely different because I'm not in Switzerland. And Daniel isn't with me. Instead, I am in Wisconsin in the northern United States. And I'm in a little town called New Glarus, and sitting beside me is Beth Zurbuchen. So Beth, why don't you tell us why you're here.

Beth Zurbuchen

Hello, Diccon. And it's good to have you back again. The people here just enjoy hearing from you. And since you have two new books, we're really excited that you are back once again.

Why am I here? I am the president of the Swiss Center of North America and our organisation works to preserve, celebrate, and communicate about Swiss cultural heritage in North America. And that could be from Puerto Rico, all across the United States and well into Canada.

Diccon Bewes  

And how did you get involved?

Beth Zurbuchen

I believe I was meant to come here. I am of Swiss heritage,

Diccon Bewes  

With a surname like Zurbuchen, you’d have to be of Swiss heritage!

Beth Zurbuchen

Yes, I am. On all sides. So, my grandfather emigrated from the Emmenthal in the 1920s. My great grandparents came from Canton Bern, from Graubunden, from Thurgau in about the 1880s,1890s, and settled here in southern Wisconsin where because of the settlement of New Glarus, which came out of Glarus Canton, there were Swiss here already. And the Swiss brought more Swiss, and my family settled here. And I luckily now am working at the Swiss Center of North America and learning every day about what my heritage means to me and means to others.

Diccon Bewes  

So you're Swiss.

Beth Zurbuchen

I am and I'm Swiss, dual national.

Diccon Bewes  

But you weren't born Swiss.

Beth Zurbuchen

I was not. I knew I was Swiss growing up, but pure American. And as I got involved in the Swiss Center here, I learned that through my grandfather, I could attempt to acquire Swiss citizenship, which I did prior to the law change in 2018. And I was fortunate and thrilled to be a dual national now, Switzerland and the United States.

Diccon Bewes  

Almost like me. So, I'm Switzerland and Great Britain. I think my process of becoming Swiss was slightly harder than yours, because I have no Swiss heritage. So, I have to do it the hard way. I do remember a speaking when you were applying. And it's like you didn't have to do a language test. And you didn't have to prove your knowledge of Switzerland, which is amazing anyway, but it was so much easier for you back then, than it was for me back then.

Beth Zurbuchen

And you know Diccon, that was hard for me to feel excited, because I knew how hard you had to work for it and wait 10 years, right?

Diccon Bewes  

Yeah, well, 12 years before I could apply, and then three years for the application. So, 15 In total.

Beth Zurbuchen

And I think mine was about seven months. Sorry!

Diccon Bewes  

I forgive you. Now, obviously, we're sitting in New Glarus was presumably founded by settlers from the original Glarus, old Glarus. Why did they come here? Why all the way to Wisconsin?

Beth Zurbuchen

In the mid 1800s, Europe was in recession, people were very poor. Canton Glarus was largely a farming Canton at that time, large families, small properties. People were starving to death. And the Canton put together and emigration society and sent approximately 200 people to go to America settled near St. Louis, which would be five hours south of where we are now. But because of land and needing to find the appropriate place for a settlement, they ended up here in what is now a New Glarus, and a thriving little village in the thriving county called Greene County, which, by percentage has the second most Swiss heritage in it outside of Columbus, Ohio.

Diccon Bewes  

Okay. And is that why Wisconsin? This is something I learned when I first came here, Wisconsin is famous as the cheese state. And presumably, that's because all the Swiss cheese makers came over with their cheese technology and set up cheeseries here.

Beth Zurbuchen

You mean the cheese factory? Yes, there you are. You're absolutely right. Many immigrated here to become farmers but the land was not good for growing corn, wheat, so they turned to dairy. And what do you do with all this milk? And then the cheese makers began to come my great grandfather was a cheesemaker and more cheese makers and throughout time, Greene County is renowned for its cheese - is today, was then, and that is in big part why we are the dairy state and worked bunch of cheese heads here.

Diccon Bewes  

But you still haven't really mastered telling the rest of America that Swiss cheese is more than just a piece of plastic with holes in.

Beth Zurbuchen

No, because a company named Kraft has controlled the marketing of that type of cheese, which I agree is not your Swiss makers’ cheese. And

Diccon Bewes  

Not at all. I mean, I eat the hole and leave the rest. That's how good it is.

Beth Zurbuchen

You like it so much you just eat the air?

Yeah. You know, people will not know this unless they've been here, or grown up here in Greene County, Wisconsin. We actually have the master cheesemakers, and the cheesemakers here in the county worked with University of Wisconsin Madison, which is the flagship university in the state and created this Master Cheesemaker programme. And so, the individual cheesemaker has to get their certification in, let's say it is Emmenthaler/Swiss, or it is a cheddar or it is Limberger. It's not this broad stroke where you get one certificate and you're this wonderful cheese maker, you have to go back and get a certificate for each type of cheese you make.

Diccon Bewes  

And you actually win cheese competitions.

Beth Zurbuchen

We do. The world cheese competition is in Madison, Wisconsin, about 30 minutes to the north of where we are sitting right now. And it's usually a big competition between the cheese makers in Switzerland and the cheese makers right here.

Diccon Bewes  

And we, as in the royal ‘we’, are now sitting in New Glarus here, we sometimes beat the original cheesemakers in Switzerland anyway.

Beth Zurbuchen

But this year, Switzerland won.

Diccon Bewes  

Yeah, well, that's only right. And I'm I know you've been to Switzerland because you've been to stay with me. But what was it like going back to where your ancestors came from? And which you'd only ever heard about or seen in pictures, and then you were back there? Even before you were Swiss, you went to visit Switzerland. How did it feel to you? Were there similarities to what you could see growing up in a Swiss environment in America, or was it completely different?

Beth Zurbuchen

It was completely different. I had no expectations of what the Emmenthal looked like. And that's where my grandfather came from my mother's father. And I was there with two of my second cousins. One was from Baselland, and she could speak English one was from the Emmenthal, and he could not speak English and I had no idea what he was saying.

And we went to the farm that both of our all three of our grandparents, which were all three different people in that family came from, and to stand on this, more than rolling hillside, this beautiful green, vast, mountainous hillside and see the Alps in front of me and stand next to my two cousins, plus the young man who is working on the farm living on the farm. His name is Rudy Wüthrich, we say ‘With Rich’ here, but that's my grandfather's name.

Okay, so it was an experience I will never forget. I didn't have an anticipation, nor did I have any idea how much that would move me. And I mean, I could cry right now hit my heart. And my head. I mean, ‘Grandpa, why did you leave this place?’ My brother Matt said that he has he had at asked grandpa that before he had passed. And grandpa said you can't eat beauty.

Diccon Bewes  

Exactly. You can't live off fresh air, even if the fresh air is beautiful Swiss fresh air.

Yes. And I mean, I've been here many times. This is now I think my sixth time in New Glarus. And for me, it's really interesting. And I've been to other Swiss communities as well. So recently, I was in Florida and four years ago, I was in Australia, and done talks in all these places. And sometimes it feels like the Swiss abroad as they are known. So, the expats Swiss are even more Switzerland, the Swiss, because they're hanging on to the heritage so there's yodeler clubs and we know I know people who play the Alphorn, which I don't even know in Switzerland. Here I know people who play the Alphorn. And there's this feeling of being Swiss. Even if you can't speak the language, you still relate to Switzerland as your homeland, your Heimat. And presumably, that's where the Swiss Center comes in, in trying to not promote that, protect it, maybe

Beth Zurbuchen

Promote and protect and continue. When you can't live in Switzerland, or whatever your heritage is, what do you have? What reminds you of home? What reminds you of your grandparents? It is the sound of my grandma grandfather could yodel, I think of him.

Diccon Bewes  

I'm assuming you can yodel then, of course, if your grandfather could.

Beth Zurbuchen

Err.. ‘Yodelayheehoo’ is the best I can do! I can play a little Alphorn. And it's the food as well. The smell, the touch, the taste of the food that your grandparents fed you, then maybe your parents fed you, my mother. That brings you back to this, this Swiss thing. Well, what is this Swiss thing? And that is what we're trying to realise here at the Switzer at the Swiss Center, that this Swiss thing means many, many things. It is singing, it is Alphorn. It's also playing Jass!

But it is a sense of community that people are longing to be connected to others who have their same heritage, or came from the same country. And so when we all can get together, there is fellowship, and there's fun. And we celebrate. Maybe we all come from different places, obviously in Switzerland, but we celebrate that. And when you're when I'm here in America, we have the Fourth of July. That's our August 1. Oh boy, it's the fourth of July, let's have a picnic. It's a totally different thing. When we celebrate August 1 here. My God, we're Swiss, yay! Let's celebrate it. Because we don't live in Switzerland. It's more important and take it for granted here.

Diccon Bewes  

And is that why people contact the Swiss central come in? I know you're you were sitting in a building, we're not just a virtual entity, we are sitting in a building, you can visit the Swiss Center and look through the archives. But is that really why people contact you? Because they want to connect with other people of Swiss heritage?

Beth Zurbuchen

Broadly, absolutely. People look for their Swiss roots. I grew up thinking I was German, French, Italian, I will hear and I've just found out that I'm Swiss: It’s that language, right? The Swiss have so many languages that the German the Swiss German sounds like German, so therefore you are German. And people just want to know, what is Switzerland? Where are where is my family from? And what is that place?

Diccon Bewes  

And is it Sweden?

Beth Zurbuchen

Yeah, they're the same place, right?

Diccon Bewes  

The same place I've learned in America, Sweden and Switzerland are the same place. So I have been asked on this book tour alone, I have been asked if the Swiss really trade treasure Abba enough as one of the greatest exports. And I just had to point out the Abba are Swedish.

Beth Zurbuchen

I get and many of us get ‘Oh, you're Swiss? Do you speak Swedish?’

Diccon Bewes  

Yeah. So, I mean, it's really interesting for me that Switzerland is a tiny country. Even now, it's only eight and a half million people. It's only twice the size in New Jersey. So, it's small in European terms. And yet it has this reputation in the world, whether it's cheese chocolate, Heidi and cliches like that, or whether it's neutrality or any of the aspects of what makeup swiftness and yet this tiny country has a heritage in one of the world's largest countries, and you're helping that to survive.

Beth Zurbuchen

And it's, it's important, because this country North America is so large, how do we work to ensure that a Swiss club in Chicago stays viable? Or a Swiss club in Portland, Oregon, or in Maine stays viable? How can we connect? How can we, and again, this really Group and Group individual by individual Swiss Center of North America, but how can we share knowledge? How can we connect so we don't see that we don't want to cease to exist.

Diccon Bewes  

And that, for me is really an important issue because a lot of Swiss came 150 years ago because they were escaping poverty, like the people who came from the original Glarus and so they were looking for a better life. Just like many other Europeans were there was Irish, Italian, German, and they were no different really. But obviously today, Switzerland is a very different country. It's much more prosperous, the people are healthier and wealthier. So, immigration from Switzerland has tapered off. And so, I think it's really important that the next generation don't lose that heritage just because there are no new immigrants coming in. And I think that's where when I come here and look through your archives at things that are 100 or 150 years old, but they're still relevant today. And so, I think it's really important that centers like this exist in countries like America or Australia, which is made up of immigrants, so that the smaller populations of immigrants don't get overwhelmed by all the Italians and Irish and Germans and Polish, and don't just get lumped into that melting pot.

Beth Zurbuchen

And you're exactly right. It's how do we emerge from that? The American melting pot?

Diccon Bewes  

Yeah.

Beth Zurbuchen

And not get dissolved by it. And that's something we work on we can struggle with. But the people I work with you, other people who may or may not be Swiss, but understand heritage, understand that we want to keep this going. Here in New Glarus, recently, our middle school, what would that be in Switzerland?

Diccon Bewes  

I mean, what age group is that?

Beth Zurbuchen

Sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade, so just pre-High School.

Diccon Bewes  

Okay, that would be gymnasium or secondary school there.

Beth Zurbuchen

So that grade did their band concert and their choir concert. And the band director, who is not Swiss, but he is the president of the yodel club, he's a musician. So he plays the Alphorn now, asked me if he could borrow some of our cowbells. Not the big ones that are using the ceremonial ones, but some of the smaller ones that we have, because he had acquired a piece written by a Swiss woman called the Cows’ Lullaby. And it was written for the beginner level of the band that he was instructing. And it's on YouTube, we'll have to put a link to that for your folks.

And it all the percussionists, all the drummers were playing the cow bells. And because they all have a different tonation, it sounded like the cows coming down or going up from the Alps.

And you couldn't see the audience, but you could hear them laugh, and a few of them started clapping because there were no expectations that I'm sure some of the kids’ parents knew. But the audience did not know. So even that where we're taking kids that are 12 years old, and ‘this is pretty cool!’ ‘What does it mean?’ And then you build on that this is what that means.

Diccon Bewes  

And I think yodelling and Alphorning, and certainly kettlebells are some of the USPs of Switzerland that can help you stand out in America. I remember when I was here six years ago, there was a Sangerfest, which I'd never heard of. But it's a singing festival, made up of Swiss groups of yodelling clubs of singing clubs all across North America, including Canada. And 1000s of people were here for the whole weekend. And it was actually a singing competition with choirs competing against each other. A lot them singing in German.

Beth Zurbuchen

All four languages and Switzerland had to be sung at sacrifice. Yeah.

Diccon Bewes  

And it was great. And obviously the Alphorn players here there was Bratwurst, and it was all very Swiss. And I met a guy there, John Knechtenhofer, who played the Alphorn. And then he invited me to go down to first of August celebrations in Kansas City, middle of nowhere, obviously. And we I went, and it was almost as Swiss as being in Switzerland. We had the Lampione parade, we had breakfast, we had Swiss flags, and it was just a little microcosm of Switzerland. It was magical, isn't it? Yeah. And sacrifice was amazing. It was amazing to be in Wisconsin, or Swissconsin as you call it. listening to songs that you could hear back in Switzerland, sung by yodeling class, but we're a long way from Switzerland, and yet these traditions have been passed down.

Beth Zurbuchen

I just have to say, I remember being at the grand concert, which was in the gymnasium, which I don't know if that's the word that you would use, but the gym, and all the choirs were singing the same songs, obviously. And they did the US National anthem, and then the Swiss anthem. And I remember you saying, ‘I don't think we know all the words.’

Diccon Bewes  

And I also remember because they were they were visiting choirs from Switzerland as well. But coming back from the high school, which isn't that far, all the Americans drove even if they were driving in ones and twos in their cars, and all the Swiss walked back from the high school into town. And I remember pointing out to you. So that's one big difference between Switzerland and America. In Switzerland, if we can walk, we walk. And here, it's the default is driving.

Beth Zurbuchen

If we go anywhere, we will drive.

Diccon Bewes  

Yes. So thank you so much for your time. Thank you for hosting me. Again, I think this is a little bit of my Heimat in America. And all the information about the Swiss Center will be in the show notes. So you can go directly to the Swiss centre.org online or follow the Swiss Center on Facebook or Twitter, or contact Beth directly if you want more information. And next month, I'll be back in Switzerland with Daniel and we'll be back to normal service.

Beth Zurbuchen

And I want to thank you for coming back. We love to have you here. You always bring something new and information that I haven't heard of the people here love to listen to you.

We're tonight at Turner Hall in Monroe, the only Swiss Turner Hall in the United States. I'll give them a little plug too.

Diccon Bewes  

And if you know if you don't know what Turner Hall is, it goes back to the Turnhalle. So, it's where people actually practice gymnastics or and so it's a big hole and they used to be quite a lot of them. And now there's just the one in Monroe which is where I always give my talks when I come to Wisconsin,

Beth Zurbuchen

And I'm glad you do. You are welcome back anytime.