A Schwingfest has all the elements that people love about Switzerland, although the famous Swiss banks only play a role as a sponsor of the livestock prizes. No matter that it’s the land of finance, and watches, of lakes and mountains, of many innovations in science and medicine, and home to world famous architects, the country is most beloved for chocolate and cow bells, Matterhorn, and Heidi, alp-horns and yodeling and for some bizarre reason cuckoo clocks, which in fact are not Swiss, but come from just across the border in the nearby Black Forest.
A Schwingfest will satisfy most people’s cravings for traditional Switzerland – Schwingen is a traditional Swiss sport, similar to wrestling. The contestants are usually young farmers, and the prizes are livestock – today’s third prize was a cow, the second prize was an 18 month old warm blood Freiberger (see photo below), an old and traditional Swiss horse breed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freiberger. Good for riding, pulling carts, farming etc. very good natured, easy to handle, they don’t get too big and they are easy to feed. Back in the day when Switzerland still had a cavalry the farmers would get subventions from the state to keep 1 or 2 horses on their farms. Today the breed is at risk of extinction and therefore the Swiss state pays out generous incentives to breeders of Freibergers, unfortunately this leads to many foals are slaughtered each year as there are not enough potential buyers. If you want to buy one to help support the breed, or if you want to check out some cute foals this is the website for you: http://www.freiberger-emmental.ch/verkaufspferde/: The first prize was a very big, very impressive, enormous bull.
Schwingen is a lot like wrestling. It is done in sawdust rings, the contestants wear a pair of leather “pants” for want of a better word, over their trousers. They lean into each other, grab each other by the seat of the pants, and the goal is to maneuver your opponent onto his back, both his shoulders have to be in the sawdust. To the uninitiated observer It seems like they can tackle each other any way they want, and sometimes you will see one placing his legs around his opponents neck and you think, oh no, this cannot be good. However, surprisingly there are few accidents. Sometimes a Schwinger will lift his sparring partner high up preparing to throw him to the ground.
This is no sport for sissies, and it’s nerve wracking to watch. As a friend said today, it’s like the rugby of wrestling and that seems about right. The rules I don’t pretend to understand, but what I appreciate is that there is a sense of true sportsmanship in the meeting of the opponents. They show each other respect, for example it is customary for the winner to brush the sawdust from his defeated colleagues back and if a Schwinger is injured in the course of a fight, his opponent will stay by his side in earnest concern until the medics arrive. Many of the young men who get into the rings are physically no unlike the bull they are fighting to win.
And while there are some young boys just starting out, there are also the men. Men with thick shoulders and broad necks, big hands and rounded thighs, they are powerful and masculine in a way that a gym trained body can never be, there is an energy and an impression of resilience to a naturally trained muscle, that a highly defined, brittle gym muscle doesn’t have, and there is a certain roughness to them which comes from manual labour. While some sport beer guts there is no doubt that all are strong. You can imagine them in the event of a fire on their farms, putting a bull under one arm, the wife and kids under the other and the rest of the household goods on their backs and marching everything away from danger down to the nearest pub, parking it all outside, and going in for a beer, without breaking a sweat or making a fuss.
Schwingfests – i.e. Schwingfestivals are great places to soak in the local colour and experience Swiss traditions. There are Alp-horn players and women in traditional “Tracht” the traditional old costumes. There is yodeling, and happy cheering, beer and grilled juicy veal or pork sausage with mustard, and thickly sliced brown bread, from the farm, nothing like the industrially produced stuff you can buy. There are speeches about politics and farming, about traditions and sportsmanship, reassuringly sensible and similar in content to other speeches in other places, in the face of a world that whirls and changes so fast and so furiously hearing staples and upholding old traditions has an anchoring, soothing function.
And if you are lucky and the sun is shining, and the sky is blue, then there is certain rightness to the world during these traditional events, as people enjoy their Sunday, the farmers cheer each other on and you can listen in on snatches of conversations in broad dialects of Swiss German that hail from the valleys and the fields and seem to come from oh so far away, from a place where life may still be slower. Or at least I like to imagine that this might be so. You hear spectators commenting on the fact that the bull that has been sponsored as the main prize, is from the same breeder as the bull for the last competition, and wondering without saying much, whether this isn’t a strange and wondrous and not altogether convincing coincidence. And you overhear them commenting on the form of the Schwingers and the mood is infectious as the crowd cheers and the young men scramble in the sawdust.
And where there are men and boys, there are women and girls. Girls in traditional costumes, with their hair in braids and big smiles, they seem so wholesome and so down to earth that you want to believe that they symbolize the survival of a bygone era, where people sit and talk together in front of a crackling fire of an afternoon, and knit together, where they live and interact with each other, instead of living in their own heads with a soundtrack provided by portable devices, the world blocked out by headphones, or playing computer games and barely managing a conversation. Of course back in the day life on the farms was hard. The farms were cold, the work was tough, and as many of the farms were small the land didn’t provide enough to support the families well. Looking at old photographs of bygone eras, you will notice that none of the children are smiling, because they didn’t really have much of a childhood. But I guess we all romanticize the past.
And after men and women, horses and bulls, of course it wouldn’t be a day in Switzerland at a traditional event without a photograph of that most famous of Swiss dog breeds – a Berner Sennenhund – Bernese Mountain dog.