22 March 2021
Royal Swiss brands,
Swiss navy knives and
I once heard of a former colleague who, in his eagerness for promotion massaged his CV and claimed that he was fluent in a number of languages, including Swiss and Belgian.
I may never have been fluent in Swiss, but there is a group of street sellers pitching their wares in the car parks at shopping centres and supermarkets throughout Ireland, selling complete sets of knives with the brand-name ‘Royal Swiss.’
The Facebook page for ‘Royal Swiss’ offers a postal address north of Brussels in Belgium. Although the location is in Flemish or Dutch-speaking Belgium, the page is in French – perhaps someone found it difficult to translate the page into ‘Belgian.’
On closer examination, the packaging for ‘Royal Swiss’ knives does not say where these knives are made. Despite labelling in an array of European languages – none of them Swiss – there is no indication of their origin or where they have been manufactured.
But then, I have never checked out whether a Swiss Army knife is made in a Swiss army barracks, or a Swiss Watch comes from the same business in the Alpine village of Brienz that manufactures and markets Swiss cuckoo clocks – although I have never owned either a Swiss Army knife or a Swiss Watch.
It may be more honest to claim fluency in Swiss than to claim that any product is ‘Royal Swiss.’ The nearest thing Switzerland has to a royal family is the families who have hereditary rights to nominate their sons for the Swiss Guard, the elite, pantalooned troops that provide a colourful, ceremonial guard in the Vatican for the Pope.
But the presentation boxes for these sets of ‘Royal Swiss’ knives even display a monogram with a crown that conveys the impression of the full endorsement of a royal family.
Switzerland never had a royal family, and there are no pretenders to a Swiss throne.
I am remiss; of course there is a language that is unique to Switzerland: Romansch is spoken by about 36,000 people or 0.5 per cent of the population, mainly in the trilingual Canton of Grisons. In fact, more people in Switzerland actually speak Serbo-Croat, Albanian, Portuguese, Spanish, English or Turkish as their ‘mother tongue.’
But then, I have sometimes wondered too why there is no Swiss Navy watch.
Although Switzerland is landlocked, it actually has a small navy of sorts. Lake Konstanz and Lake Geneva (Lake Leman) form international frontiers, and their navies consist of a few patrol craft.
Switzerland also has a major Rhine commercial fleet with patrol craft available in time of war. However, both the navy and air force are branches of the army, like the infantry and artillery, and are not referred to as an air force or a navy.
This Swiss ‘navy’ consists of ten patrol boats on two lakes that form international borders, Lake Constance and Lake Geneva. Lake Maggiore and Lake Lugano also form Swiss international borders with Italy. But the shipping company for Lake Maggiore is Italian and flies only the Italian flag – and probably never heard of a Swiss Navy knife, never mind a Royal Swiss knife.
Perhaps the jokes about the Swiss navy are like the jokes about the Hungarian navy that were popular among journalists before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the end of the Cold War.
It was said in those days that Warsaw Pact ministers often turned up at conferences not knowing the agenda but only that it was their turn to be offered a junket with a few days stay in hotels in other central or east European capitals.
Shortly after the Prague Spring, three such ministers first bumped into each other at the pre-conference drinks reception in their hotel in Bucharest. Two of them turned to the man arrayed in a navy-blue, naval uniform, complete with gold braid and an array of medals and decorations.
‘Where are you from?’
‘I am the Hungarian Minister for the Navy.’
They laughed. ‘But Hungary is landlocked.’
‘The Danube is a long river,’ he replied, ‘and Balaton is a very big lake, very big lake.’
Turning to one of the men in dark suits, the other two now asked him why he was there.
‘I am the Bulgarian Minister for Power.’
They laughed and laughed, and recalled the last time they had been to Sofia, when the Bulgarian capital was plunged into darkness for almost 24 hours.
‘And where are you from?’ the third man was asked.
‘I am the Czech Minister for Justice.’
Swiss Guards on duty in the Vatican ... the nearest Swiss to a royal family (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)