I will forever be connected to Switzerland and to La Réunion, through the experiences which I have recounted in part on this blog. How bizarre it was, then, to see La Réunion pop up on BBC News just weeks after my return to the UK. Switzerland, meanwhile, mainly garners media attention for its attitude to immigration and for the success of its tennis players. It’s time for a little catch-up…
La Réunion hits the headlines
At the end of July, La Réunion suddenly became international news, after a part of the missing Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 washed up on its shores. The flaperon – a part of the plane’s wing – was the first trace of the plane since its disappearance over a year previously.
A media frenzy ensued, at the centre of which was Johnny Bègue, a local Creole man. He had made the discovery whilst searching the beach at St. André for a “kalou”, a stone to grind his chili with. With the help of his friends, he moved the piece away from the water, before alerting the police and, of course, calling Radio Freedom. Before he knew it, Bègue was thrust into the spotlight, becoming a minor celebrity as international media invaded the island and asked him for his story.
In the subsequent excitement, further items, purportedly from the missing plane, surfaced – the shredded remains of a suitcase, debris that could be a plane window, a Chinese water bottle and an Indonesian cleaning product – but were later discounted. However, the original discovery, the flaperon, was later confirmed to be from the missing plane, thus providing the first solid evidence of its fate all those months ago.
International journalists, discovering La Réunion for the first time, found more stories on the island. This was thanks to the active volcano, which erupted right on cue, and the continuing shark debate – the recent spate of deaths included a British citizen who lost her life earlier this year. Photos of the volcano started to spread and the Sunday Telegraph ran a story entitled “Surfers bite back in great shark wars”. Of course, the shark problem is far more complicated than the article suggested, but they tried their best.
Seeing this previously obscure place thrust into the media spotlight, and hitting the headlines on English news channels, just weeks after my return, was a surreal experience.
Perhaps the biggest news since I left Switzerland was back in February 2014, when a referendum was held for an initiative against mass immigration. The initiative, which proposed the reintroduction of quotas to limit European immigration, was accepted by the people in dramatic circumstances, with the slight majority of 50.3%. Over a year later, politicians are still trying to work out how to apply this decision in legislative form, without compromising Switzerland’s various agreements with surrounding countries. These concerns have perhaps now been superseded by the current refugee crisis, with some hotspots not at all far from Switzerland’s own borders.
Meanwhile, Switzerland has become a tennis super power. In 2014, Roger Federer and Stan Wawrinka joined forces to win the country’s first ever Davis Cup. At the age of 34, Federer has defied his many doubters as he continues to compete at the very top of the game. Vintage performances, most notably his stunning victory over Andy Murray at Wimbledon earlier this year, have cemented his place as second best player on the tour.
He has been joined by Stan Wawrinka, who has become a popular and serious contender at Grand Slams, with his iron will (Stanimal) and his iconic single-handed backhand. Wawrinka, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland, won his second Grand Slam at Roland Garros this year, obliterating world number one Novak Djokovic with an astonishing performance in the final. In doing so, he confirmed that his 2014 Australian Open triumph had not been a fluke.
In the women’s game, two Swiss players have risen to prominence in recent months. Timea Bacsinszky, a relatively late bloomer with a wonderful back story, enjoyed a brilliant run to the semi-finals at the French Open; the great Swiss hope for the future, the 18-year-old Belinda Bencic, is getting better and better. Meanwhile, tennis legend Martina Hingis has made an incredible comeback in doubles, winning 5 Grand Slam doubles titles in 2015.
You may recall that I discovered Xamax, the local football team, during my year in Switzerland. I had arrived in Neuchâtel just after the lowest point in the club’s history. I’m pleased to say that Xamax have managed three successive promotions and now find themselves in the Challenge League, Swiss football’s second tier, for the 2015-16 season. It is a remarkable turnaround considering where they were just three years ago.
Right, well that’s enough looking back. The question is, what next for the French graduate? Well, watch this space.