A few months ago I watched a hilarious Spanish movie called Ocho apellidos vascos, which centered on the concept of Basqueness. To count as Basque, one needs to have the eight Basque last names of the movie's title in the family, i.e. all eight of one's great-grandparents need to have been Basque. To have any sort of future with his Basque obsession, the Andalucian protagonist needs to come up with a list of eight Basque names and use them consistently. Otherwise, grumpy dad will kick his ass back south.
As lighthearted at the movie was, there's quite a bit of darkness in the degree of racial purity claimed to be required for acceptance into Basque society. It's a brutal system, hostile and exclusive. Even the Nazis weren't quite that strict. To count as Aryan, none of one's grandparents must have been Jewish, but no one asked what the great-grandparents had been up to.
The Swiss establish belonging differently. Here, everyone has a place of origin. This is not where the person was born, grew up or currently lives. For most Swiss, it is the town where their family originates, frequently a hamlet up in the mountains and possibly a place they have never seen. The place of origin is required on many official forms and might come up in conversations when people try to appraise each other.
When I first heard about the concept of origin, I naively thought it would provide an easy way of nationalistically separating the wheat from the chaff. No matter how many rules you follow and how much on time you are, you can't be truly Swiss if your place of origin is Pristina, I thought, but it turns out that naturalized immigrants don't have their foreign birthplace as their origin.
This is explained by the curious three-tired nature of Swiss citizenship. In Switzerland, you're first and foremost a citizen of your place of origin. This must be an ancient tradition. Your first loyalty was with your village. This local citizenship gives you the right to further citizenship of canton and Confederation.
For the Swiss, this is how it's always been and not worth a second though. For foreigners wanting to become Swiss, there are some interesting consequences. First, you don't submit your application to a federal agency. Your current hometown, the place where you've spent the last few years, handles the process. Second, it's not only formal criteria that qualify you for citizenship but also the consideration of your future fellow citizens. They will be asked to come forth and voice any objections they might have. Third, the issuing town will become your place of origin if you're application is successful.
When we went to the local registrar's office the other day, questions of citizenship and place of origin where not on our minds. Instead, to come back to the beginning of this post, it was the last name of our son. Despite our best efforts at torpedoing the system, the Swiss administration had done things right. Not being married, the mother is the only point of reference. Our son carried Flucha's last name.
This put him at odds with his sister and presented us with a wrong in need of correction. It wasn't difficult. A pile of documents from three countries and an hour at the registrar's office sufficed to establish my paternity and gave our son a German last name, at least as far as the Swiss were concerned.
At the German consulate, where we had gone this week to claim citizenship and apply for the best passport for traveling, a different story emerged. The Swiss might have done things properly and filed all documents in the right place, but no one else cares. I save you some of the rather absurd details but over the course of an hour, our son went back to carrying his original last name, only to revert to the right one a few minutes later. He's not even two months old, but he's had four official identities already. And – fingers crossed that it stays that way – he has one German last name.