Gotthard Pass (2,106 Meters) and the Geography of the Soul

Like a mountain pass in the high Swiss Alps, Fair Observer bridges barriers across communities. In our new weekly feature, FO° Books will connect you to the world of publishing.
valley path

April 19, 2023 03:40 EDT

Dear FO° Reader,

People have always moved around and found ways to trade goods, precious metals, crafts, art and more. In the process, they have shared stories, knowledge and food.

Fair Observer offers a platform for perspectives from around the world. It gives people the opportunity to develop relationships with a diverse community. Our team is spread across India, Switzerland, France, the UK, the US and elsewhere, and we know how to build bridges between cultures.

So, how do we do what we do? As a hiker, I see Fair Observer akin to a mountain pass. Those of you familiar with mountains know that people transit and cross from one valley to another or one region to another using a pass. In this world of many regions, religions, nations and cultures, we are that metaphorical mountain pass.

Our New Column: FO° Books

People know us as a source of insights on geopolitics. In an age where war and military tensions are back, that is now the zeitgeist. Yet war is not all. 

Literature has been around forever, even in times of war. Poets have given expression to the soul of humanity forever. Literature, in the form of poems, short stories, plays, novels and more, allows us to see the world through a different prism and navigate the ever-changing, multilayered realities of life. That is what Italo Calvino pointed out to us in Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

To reconnect with literature, we have implemented a new section: FO° Books. This is an initiative by Vikram Zutshi, Peter Isackson, and Shinie Antony. In this new section, we publish excerpts from recently published books by interesting authors. You will learn more about this from Vikram shortly. 

The Crossing of the Alps 

In the 13th century, Annales Stradenses offered instructions to pilgrims headed for Rome from northern Europe. This book mentioned the Gotthard Pass. The Gotthard Pass holds a very special place in water geography. Three main European rivers arise near here. 

The Ticino flows south into the Po, which flows east all the way to the Mediterranean. The Rhône flows northwest down the Goms Valley, through Wallis, crosses Lac Leman (also known as Lake Geneva) and then turns south to enter the Mediterranean west of Marseille. The Reuss heads northeast and flows into the Rhine.

The Gotthard Pass marks the divide for two major European languages: Italian and German. The local dialect, alto Leventinese, is a mix and borrows words from French, such as “mirègia,” mirror, from the French miroir. The valleys have a diversity of dialects, which do not fall into the neat notion of the modern European nation-state.

At the time, it was a mule path winding up and down two treacherous valleys. Around 1200, the Walser people built a spectacular bridge spanning a gorge in the Urseren Valley. In 1882, engineers built the first transalpine railway tunnel—16 kilometers long—under the Gotthard Pass. In 1980, the highway tunnel was inaugurated. I still remember the day because I tripped in my clunky wooden shoes and hit my head. 

More recently, the longest railway tunnel—57 kilometers long under the Alps—started operations in 2016.

I grew up in the village of Airolo in the Leventina Valley. This lies to the south of the Gotthard Pass. Everything around this pass felt to me like the end of the world in the middle of nowhere.

Of course, I had heard legends and stories about Hannibal crossing the Gotthard with elephants. I also heard of Russian General Alexander Suvorov coming all the way south to Gotthard to battle French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. Their soldiers clashed on the Devil’s Bridge in the Urseren Valley. 

Ensconced between strong European powers, Switzerland readily accepted Napoleon’s proposal of neutrality in 1802. And until recently, neutrality seemed like the wise path to take. Now, even Switzerland is changing with the times.

I grew up in a canyon where hundreds of young men went through boot camps for the Swiss Army. Twice a year, these boot camps would train young men in a country where military service is compulsory. As a 10-year-old, I was used to hearing military exercises with all sorts of weapons. We knew where not to go to avoid physical danger. I am sure this does not correspond to the idyllic image many readers might have of Switzerland. 

Yet, for all the historical and military significance of where I grew up, for all the beauty of the valleys and their spectacular vistas, I felt bored. There wasn’t even a decent library, forget about a bookshop.

My professor who taught the philosophy of history Barnaba Maj first introduced me to the idea of the geography of the soul. There are places we feel we belong to and which shape us. They connect us to a longer history and give us a sense of identity. Gotthard Pass is a part of the geography of my soul.

The Story of Our Team

Fair Observer is an improbable story. I am Swiss of Italian origin. I speak almost daily and work regularly with Peter Isackson who is an American turned Frenchman. Our founder Atul Singh grew up around India and travels incessantly. I find it hard to keep up with him. All of us use email, video calls and telephones to keep in touch. 

My first contact with the team occurred when Atul reached out to me. This was before the pandemic. I had donated to Fair Observer and he spoke to me. Over time, our wide-ranging conversations revealed a shared curiosity about the world. This curiosity is common to 76-year old Peter and 23-year-old Geneva Roy, our team member from New Zealand. This serendipity of the coming together of many minds of many generations from many parts of the world defines Fair Observer.

We could say that it began a long time ago. Late in the 19th century, Thomas Mann, the German novelist, author of The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), spent his holidays in my village Airolo. Young Thomas used to come there with his parents. In the 1930s, this great German Nobel laureate fled Nazi Germany and moved to Los Angeles, California. In the 1960s, when Peter was in his teens he accidentally kicked a football into the deceased Thomas’s property, considered a sacred monument in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood. Some would call the fact that Peter and I finally became team members synchronicity, others pure coincidence. It doesn’t matter. It’s a nice story that tells us that people have always moved around, crossed paths and have more things in common than they imagine.

Your Story, Our Community

If you have a story to share or if there is a story you want us to tell, then reach out to us. We are looking for authors, guests for podcasts, ideas about timelines and more. Come to our meetups in different cities around the world. Give us ideas as to how we could do better, reach more people and be more relevant to you.

As night creeps further in on the mountains, I bid you adieu and look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Roberta Campani
Communication and Outreach at Fair Observer

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