The Swiss Joke

Outside the police station in Pakrac on 2 March 1991.

19 May 2017 

It is 125 years since delegates from Belgium, France, Italy, Switzerland and Trieste met in Turin and launched FISA. To celebrate, the international federation invites members of the rowing family to divulge secrets of their experiences in World Rowing. Chris Dodd joined the FISA new media commission in 1991 and reveals how its inaugural meeting had a surprising twist. 

Chris Dodd. Photo: Tim Koch.

In March 1991, FISA’s annual meeting of all the commissions took place in Zagreb. Having never been to the area, I set off a few days early to explore Zagreb before rowing matters intervened. Hardly had I reached Heathrow, however, when shots were fired in an unheard corner of Croatia, the village of Pakrac, a few hours drive from Zagreb. What few realised at the time, including yours truly, was that the countries of fragile Yugoslavia were sliding into a Balkan war. These were the first shots.

My only knowledge of the region’s history came from Olivia Manning’s Balkan trilogy. But my boss at The Guardian newspaper was delighted to have a man on the ground, and keen to have a story. That is how I became a war reporter. I hired a car and a student interpreter from the FISA conference and we drove to Pakrac and parked near the village square. Two Yugoslavian Army tanks – or were they Croatian Defence Force? – faced the sand-bagged police station across the centre, while the Orthodox and Catholic churches faced each other on opposite sides. There were bullet holes in masonry and ‘Greater Serbia’ daubed on walls. A man in the tank chatted while enjoying a cigarette; the police wouldn’t let us in; both priests declined an interview. Eventually, we repaired to a café where locals told stories of rumour and atrocity that certainly qualified as fake news. On the way back to Zagreb, my student took me to the terrifying museum at Jasenovac, site of an extermination camp run by the Ustasha in World War II.

Pakrac was clearly no joke. The next day, The Guardian was granted an interview by Croatian President Franjo Tudman, and somehow I concocted a story that likened Croatian-Serbian relations to the Wild West. I can claim to have trod carefully while unravelling very little.

But I digress. The FISA joint commissions meeting was about to start. Its form is that commissions meet separately or in pairs for a day or two and then come together for a joint session with the executive and council.

The media’s agenda involved discussions with athletes, medics, youth and women to explore increasing publicity and improving press relations, etc. But my chief concern was another Guardian assignment that had come my way because of my frequent visits to Switzerland on rowing business. Namely, to write about Switzerland’s anniversary of 700 years as a state, and specifically, whether the Swiss had a sense of humour.

Paul Kölliker, at the age of 80, in 2012.

The chairman of our new commission was Paul Kölliker, a genial, very tall journalist from Lucerne (who had a short and wide colleague, thus the pair being dubbed the ‘gnomes of Zürich’). Who better to point the way to an answer? I interrupted his opening remarks by saying ‘Paul, never mind about issues like how to explain the concept of repechage to the public – the most important question is, are the Swiss capable of enjoying a joke?’

‘Kreeeeeeessss’, he said – he always called me Kreeeeeeessss – ‘I will tell you a true story’:

‘One day I was climbing Pilatus [the mountain that broods over Lucerne] when half way up I crossed the path for walkers and was surprised to see a small car with Austrian number plates reversing up the mountain. As I passed I asked the driver ‘Why are you driving in reverse?’ He replied ‘In case there is no turning circle at the top!’

‘I carried on and then, several hours later, when I was walking down the mountain, I met the car again, still in reverse. I asked “Why are you reversing downwards?” Full of excitement, the driver answered “Because there was a turning circle at the top!”’

For the next day and a half, Paul told a stream of jokes, Swiss jokes, many at the expense of Austrians, most of them unrepeatable in a family blog. Our meeting room rocked with laughter (and continued to do so for all the years that the commission sat) and Zagreb conference centre corridor echoed with mirth.

On the last morning, the media commissioners took their seats for the plenary session. In his opening remark of his opening remarks, president Denis Oswald, a Swiss lawyer who was presiding over his first joint commissions meeting, demanded to know the cause of the commotion exuded from media sessions throughout the proceedings. As the designated spokesperson for the commission, I rose to my feet and declared that we had made a ground-breaking discovery in cultural understanding. The FISA media commission had unmasked a sense of humour in president Oswald’s countrymen, whether their native tongue is French like his or Schwizerdütsch like Kölliker’s.

The evidence appeared in a piece entitled “The Swiss, 700 Fears On” in The Guardian on 19 July 1991.

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