1981) Swiss Ambassador To Turkey Dr. Walter B. Gyger Has Been An Observer Of Turkey For The Last 40 Years Because Of His Wife, Birsen Hanim

A Swiss ‘Enişte’ in Turkey As an Ambassador
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He thinks that during these 40 years Turkey has had ups and downs, but that the overall trend has been positive. He is happy to serve in Turkey, not only because his family is here, but because he likes the country. His favorite places in Turkey are Mardin and Bodrum. He defines himself as an ordinary career diplomat, although he is the head of a special mission caring for the diplomatic community in Geneva -- a job he describes as “difficult.” Mr. Ambassador thinks that being neutral was initially a tool of survival for his country, but other countries are happy about this policy, too.

“But you said that you would not ask me about politics,” says Ambassador Gyger, and laughs. The question prompting this response was, “What is the secret of 40 years of marriage?” Ambassador Gyger keeps this sense of humor throughout the interview, which takes place in the very big, very green garden of their residence, a gathering place for the diplomatic corps and art lovers. One day after the interview with Today’s Zaman, there was a traditional iftar dinner after a very nice concert of Soprano Öykü Şenöz and pianist Derya Yılmaz in this garden.

Mr. Ambassador says he loves this garden. “We are lucky we have our own water. It is not of drinking quality, which means we can use it for the garden,” he points out.

Ambassador Gyger has been married to a Turk for 40 years. Unfortunately Mrs. Gyger was not in Turkey on the day of the interview. Ambassador Gyger refers to her as “Birsen Hanım,” just as Turkish husbands do when they mention their wives.

“Two students went to Brussels for training at a bank. This is how it started and continued for 40 years,” he says when Ambassador Gyger talks about their love story and explains the secret of their successful marriage: “I think this is mainly respect. Respect each other. You may think differently. As an example, the position of a Turkish woman in the house is very strong. A man should not intervene that much. In Switzerland it is more of an egalitarian approach. This means that at the beginning, we had to learn about each other. I wanted to help my wife in the kitchen. I think she was surprised when the first baby came, too,” he says.

The Gyger couple has three children. The youngest is 37 years old. All of them are married and live in Switzerland. Only the eldest is able to speak and understand Turkish -- “unfortunately,” according to Mr. Ambassador.

Mr. Ambassador says “Türkçe bilmiyorum” (I don’t know Turkish), but his pronunciation is very good and when he talks about the dynamics of Turkish society, he says that even the language and some of the expressions are changing. “If I want to order a beer in Turkish, I can do so,” he says.

“When we met, my language was German. I spoke very poor French. Her language was French. She was fluent in French. So our common language is French. She says that to teach me one language is enough,” Mr. Ambassador laughs.

In Turkish, there is a title for the husband of a sister: enişte. Eniştes have always had a special status in Turkish families and it is considered normal to ask favors of them. When Mr. Ambassador was asked whether any Turks requested favors of their Swiss enişte, he smiled.

“I would do it anyway, this is the job of an ambassador,” he says and adds: “I am happy to serve in Turkey not only because my wife is Turkish, but because I like the country.”

This is the first time the Gyger family has lived in Turkey during their 40 years together, but they have visited Turkey frequently since 1968. “I am a 40-year-long observer of Turkey,” Mr. Ambassador says and continues: “During these 40 years, Turkey has had ups and downs, but overall went up. Economically, politically and so on. What strikes me most is how dynamic the society is. For example, you had a very serious economic crisis in 2001, but you rebounded and it has passed now,” he explains.

Mr. Ambassador says that this dynamism is also reflected by the behavior of Turkish businessmen. “They take more risks than European businessmen. This impresses me,” he says.

Mr. Ambassador mentions that if he did not have a foreign wife, he might have preferred to stay in the banking sector. He was trained in banking, but when asked how he would advise investors nowadays, he says there are Swiss bank branches in Turkey and he is sure they would be happy to help. When it comes to the other famous product of Switzerland, chocolate, he says he loves it, but hesitates a little bit to mention what his favorite sort is.

“I cannot advertise for a specific one. But maybe the ones with pistachios,” he says while laughing. “I think Swiss chocolate factories are the biggest exporters of Turkish nuts.”

Diplomats are no better than other human beings

Mr. Ambassador is very proud of being a member of a multicultural, multilingual society. He explains how his country is keen on preserving that: “We have four official languages. I don’t know all of them. My mother tongue is German. My family [language is] French; with my wife and children I speak French. According to a law, I am supposed to know Italian. Each civil servant of Switzerland has to know three languages. But it would be pretentious to say that I know Italian.” He adds, “Romansh (one of the official languages of Switzerland) is spoken by a small group and has several dialects. We are doing everything to keep this language alive.”

Since the international country code of Switzerland is CH, from Confoederatio Helvetica in Latin, he explains that Helvetica was a tribe that lived in Switzerland, but adds that it is difficult to say what the ethnic origins of it is because of the complex history of their country.

Mr. Ambassador defines himself as an “ordinary career diplomat.” He explains: “I started in Switzerland and went to Iran before the revolution over there. This gave me the opportunity to cross Turkey two times, because we went to Iran by car. Then I got back to Geneva and continued on to Paris and Bonn. Then I was appointed ambassador to Senegal in Africa. Later to India, but also I was covering Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Then it was time to bring Birsen Hanım home.”

One of Ambassador Gyger’s favorite places in Turkey is Mardin. “Mardin impresses me the most. I like people there. The architecture of the buildings is multicultural,” he says, but adds: “My holiday place is Bodrum. When I am at the bus station in Bodrum, I feel this is the real world.”

Ambassador Gyger is also the head of a special mission to care for the diplomatic community in Geneva, “It is difficult,” he says and explains: “At the moment there are 35,000 diplomats and international civil servants in Geneva. They are no better human beings than anybody else. There are as many as problems as in any town with 35,000 people; drug problems, reckless driving and so on…”

Mr. Ambassador says that it is very difficult to care for a community of people who have certain immunities. “Immunity does not mean being above the law. I pay my fines if I drive fast,” he says.

Whet it comes to Turkish driving, Mr. Ambassador laughs, “I am not better than any other Turkish driver,” he underlines but also praises the Turkish way of driving: “I think Turks are very good drivers. Maybe they are driving a little bit too fast. But they are good drivers. Since I drove from Switzerland to Tehran, I am in a position to compare driving habits in several countries. I think that here in Turkey, I drive like a Turk. I can understand the other drivers. I know how they will act. I can calculate what is very important in driving. In India, I never feel the same. When I drive in Turkey, I feel freer than in Switzerland. You do what is natural. Order is not always natural,” he says.

When it comes to the stereotypes of Swiss people -- working very hard and being orderly and not knowing much about having fun -- Mr. Ambassador partly agrees: “Are the people saying that we don’t know how to have fun? I think they are not too far from the truth. The whole Calvinist, Protestant thinking -- life is work -- has influenced us strongly. As someone who lived half of his life abroad, I can say that we certainly work very hard and are very reliable but we are a little bit rigid,” Mr. Ambassador says and adds: “We don’t have more rules than any other Western country, but maybe the difference is that we apply the rules. I don’t think you can say Switzerland is boring. We have a very colorful cultural life and very nice nature.”

Being neutral was once a survival tool

“The only Swiss troops in a foreign land are the Swiss guards at the Vatican,” Mr. Ambassador puts it. He says that they have been there for about 500 years. “Switzerland was once among the poorest countries in Europe. Many people went to other countries to serve in the armies. Only after the foundation of modern Switzerland, to serve in foreign armies became prohibited with one exception -- serving in the Swiss Guard at the Vatican,” he says.

Switzerland also became a full member of the UN just five years ago, according to the ambassador, this late attitude can be explained by history: “At the beginning the UN was an alliance of countries that fought a war against Germany. Also, we have not had, let’s say, a positive experience with the League of Nations. Switzerland was careful not to join the political part of the UN, but we participated -- right from the beginning -- in specialized agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNESCO, of which we are a founding member. We had some reservations regarding the political activities of the UN. It took a long time. We, I mean the Foreign Ministry, have been working very hard to convince Swiss people. In the first referendum it was rejected, so we had to start again. But I think we can play a constructive role in the UN,” he says.

Mr. Ambassador underlines that his country’s understanding of being neutral is to avoid wars. “Our interpretation of neutrality is that we have to do everything to avoid wars and these efforts to avoid wars are taking place in the UN,” he says and adds that neutrality had a very strong influence in their foreign policy and history.

“At the beginning, it was a tool of survival,” he says and explains: “Switzerland is a very multicultural structure of different languages, mainly Christian religions. Living together in a confederation was not easy. World War II was something else, but take World War I as an example. The French part was close to its neighbors; the German part was close to Germany. During the 18th century there were big wars, religious wars in Europe. If Switzerland had participated in these wars, it wouldn’t exist any more. Another element is geography: We are in the center; the shortest links from north to south pass through Switzerland. Any power which is controlling this strategic area would have had an advantage over the others. So other powers are interested in our neutrality.”

However he underlines that this definitely does not mean that Switzerland is isolated: “We are open to the world. The Red Cross was born in Switzerland like several other international organizations long before the UN, even before the League of Nations. Switzerland was always a country of immigration. There is even Swiss immigration to Turkey. So it never isolated itself from the world, but always abstained to participate in wars,” Mr. Ambassador explains.

Another political tradition of Switzerland is referenda and their high frequency. According to Mr. Ambassador, this makes Switzerland unique: “So this is an old tradition we maintain and which is very unique. It makes it difficult to integrate in bigger and bigger unions if these unions have supranational powers because decisions are taken outside Switzerland and this make it difficult to have referenda on them,” he says.

Despite its understanding of direct democracy, the suffrage of women in some parts of Switzerland came very late. “Yes, you are right. Nowadays nobody can explain it. For me, thinking that even my mother at a certain point was opposing it, I cannot understand it. The argument was ‘I can tell my husband what to vote’, but this is not a credible argument. At the moment we have a small government composed of only seven members -- two of them are women. Not enough of course. About one third of parliament is made up of women. They also have active roles at a local level. I think that today everybody agrees that women are good politicians and have something to say. It is too bad that we are late,” he underlines.



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