SI Vault
Jonathan Rhoades
August 28, 1972
There is a theory—not widely held, to be sure—that the 1972 Munich Olympiad will never, happen. The theory was expressed most recently in a Munich beer cellar, one of those smoky places with tables on sawhorses and fat, off-key waiters and draft beer that is sold not only by the yard but by the 200 and even the 1,500 meters.
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August 28, 1972

Going From Bad To Wurst

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Good Driver Schweik said calmly, "Yes, I'll bet you have. Around the dunghills of your village."

Fisticuffs ensued, and the rammer pummeled Schweik into the earth, climbed back into his old car and drove off. By American standards, he had committed about six separate and distinct offenses, including assault with a deadly weapon, assault and battery, and hit-run driving.

A few weeks later, Good Driver Schweik received notice that he, Schweik, had been charged with various traffic offenses. In court the judge told him, "Herr Schweik, you come from the big city of Zurich, and you've had a good education and a good background. But this poor fellow that hit you, he's from a small village. He hasn't had your opportunities. He doesn't have your sophistication. When he tried to keep you from overtaking, you should have realized that he didn't want you to pass! You should have been patient with him. As for the fight, well my dear Herr Schweik, it wasn't very kind of you to talk about the dunghills of his village, was it?"

His Honor's final decision was a model of Helvetian jurisprudence: he dropped all charges and ordered the drivers to split costs. Schweik was relieved to have beaten the rap after having committed such heinous offenses as coming from a big city and being sophisticated.

Of all the European countries, Switzerland will be the most crowded this summer, both because of its many sightseeing attractions and because it is just down the block from the Olympic Games. Already car-rental agencies are reporting sellouts (or rentouts) and rushing cars into Zurich and Geneva from other parts of Europe.

Too bad, This picturesque little country that so magnetizes the tourist is an aggravating place to drive. Thousands of Swiss seem to suffer from chronic irregularity or iron-poor blood or some other undiagnosed condition that causes them to turn into snapping ogres the instant they get behind the wheel of a car. Tempers flare; insults and sometimes blows fly freely. A South African diplomat's wife passed a Swiss car, and at the first stop street in the center of town the indignant Swiss got out of his car and slapped the woman in the face. In a similar incident, two secretaries from the U.S. Embassy in Berne got off with minor shakings.

For a time, the Swiss enjoyed questioning one another's sanity by driving alongside and sharply turning an imaginary key on the temple in a clockwise direction. When that was made a misdemeanor, people began using a backward peace sign (and sometimes half a peace sign) as a show of annoyance. At the moment, the typical Swiss driver seems content to shake his fist, especially at foreigners, and the practice has become so widespread that certain consular employees have removed their CD (Corps Diplomatique) tags so that they will not be spotted as auslanders.

A while back, Hertz began putting big yellow-and-black T (for tourist) signs on rental cars. A pamphlet explained that the conspicuous T would tell the natives that you are "a tourist who may not be familiar with our roads...who may drive into a wrong lane...and then the Swiss will not immediately lose their temper." No, not immediately; not for three-fifths of a second. Latterly, against the odds, Hertz reports the sign is bringing good results, the deep-down Swiss courtesy apparently having won out over the deep-down Swiss insularity, and now other Swiss auto-rental agencies are following suit.

But if attitudes are improving ever so slightly, the awful Swiss roads are changing hardly at all. "We invented DDT," my Swiss friend Michael Vescoli once told me, "and we had the first cogwheel railroad and the first self-winding watch, and we developed milk chocolate and the gas turbine, but we still haven't discovered the highway!"

"Cowpaths" is a better description. Except for a superhighway that is progressing by inches, Swiss roads are high-crowned, slick, pockmarked and adorned at every blind 90-degree turn by a farmer leading a herd of goats or a blind old bullock plodding ahead of a tank of liquid fertilizer or a young Oberl�nder dawdling along the center stripe, all of them secure in the knowledge that the right-of-way firmly belongs to them. "The pedestrian," says an anguished Zurich cabdriver, "he is a sacred cow in this country." Under Swiss law, you are always at fault if you hit a pedestrian, no matter what the circumstances. As Vescoli said, "If you pass under a tree and a man drops out of the tree in front of your car and you hit him, you're at fault for passing under the tree at that particular moment." The law is accented in a typical drivers' examination:

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