Looking for Helvetia
A travel novel
I will walk along three rivers, following their Swiss course, and I will try to disentangle the skein of my identity: this is the idea, at least. It will do for a start, then we’ll see.
This story begins here, at the triple watershed of mount Piz Lunghin, in the Engadin Valley: it’s the story of a journey across Switzerland; a quest for answers that can be very hard to find for someone who is born in Ticino – cut away from the rest of the country by the Alps, of course, but also by a linguistic and cultural gap. The Piz Lunghin divide is the only European watershed that leads to three different seas. The rivers that spring from it are the Meira (which flows into the Adda and into the Adriatic Sea); the Rhine (which flows into the North Sea); and the Inn (which flows through the Danube to the Black Sea).
Mountains, lakes, and cities: Lorenzo Sganzini’s journey across Switzerland led him to visit iconic places (such as the Matterhorn, the Schöllenen Gorge, and the Rütli), and to figuratively meet some of the great people of the past who contributed to the country’s myth and history: William Tell, Nikolaus de la Flüe, General Guisan, but also Giacometti, Hodler, Frisch, Dürrenmatt… However, what ultimately guide Sganzini’s steps was his curious gaze: quoting Antonio Machado, “a path is created by walking”.
On the Lunghin he felt the presence of Gaia, the goddess of Earth. On the Bernina a she-devil came to him; on the Morgarten he was in the company of Gertrud Stauffacher. Helvetia was chased far and wide: during his travel, the author came to regard its cities as the hatcheries of a uniquely Swiss mindset. Basel made him think of Orson Welles’ famous phrase (a remarkable collection of clichés): “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” Truth be told, things are not quite like that. A long time ago Erasmus, Holbein the Younger, Paracelsus, and for some time even Calvin; the printing presses and the University made Basel a cradle of Humanism. As the historian Jacques Le Goff has observed, in the early days of the 16th century, Basel came to be a powerful “civilisation factor”, beating at the very heart of the bustling European network.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lorenzo Sganzini (Lugano, 1959) has been in charge of the Canton Ticino Division of Culture, of the Rete Due channel of the Radiotelevisione svizzera di lingua italiana (Italian-speaking Swiss Radio and Television), and of the cultural services of the City of Lugano during the construction of the LAC (Lugano Arte e Cultura) cultural centre.
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