Heimatort Where do you call home?

Issue: Summer 2011
Sometimes defining your place of origin in Switzerland can be a problem.

I was born in Geneva, Switzerland; not Geneva, Minnesota, population 449, in case you might mix up the two. I'm proud that my mother delivered me in such a sophisticated, world-renowned city, but I can't brag about it. In my Swiss passport, under the date of birth, there's a quaint little section entitled: Heimatort or Lieu d'origine, Luogo di attinenza, Lieu d'origin (this time without an ‘e'), and finally, just in case you didn't get it the first time, Place of origin. Under this cumbersome category, Laupersdorf SO is written in prominent letters.

"But I was born in Geneva, international playground of the rich, seat of the UN…" This would be of no concern to any stern Swiss official, who, frowning through his or her window at the local council, demands: "Heimatort…Lieu d'origin…(is that with or without ‘e' ?) bitte!"

If I wasn't born in Laupersdorf SO (the abbreviation stands for SOlothurn), then why is that place mentioned in every one of my legal documents? Quite simply because that's where my father comes from, not my mother but my father, which sounds awfully patriarchal. And as if that wasn't enough, as a Swiss citizen I must also have a Heimatschein, a Certificate of Origin, to get that all-important Niederlassungs- Ausweis, a Residence Permit, which I must produce for the authorities even if I want to move from Basel-Stadt across the road to the town of Binnigen. I would, however, have to pay any taxes owing to Basel, change the status of my health insurance, among many other formalities, and re-register my car to Baselland, which is not a bad thing because I wouldn't have an embarrassing BS on my license plate anymore but a harmless BL.

The Heimatort has little importance nowadays, but since the Swiss cling to their cherished values and traditions, such as keeping army weapons at home, I'm sure a Heimatschein will be required on the final Day of Judgment for entrance to Heaven or Hell. In the past a person's Heimatort was very important because it gave a citizen many rights, such as something called Allmendweide and Holzgerechtigkeiten, still valid in some rural areas. As far as I can figure it out, Allmendweide allows me to put a cow out to a pasture belonging to the community. With Holzgerechtigkeiten I am entitled to a share of the wood that's cut down from the forest. This is just what I've always wanted. On the negative side, I would have to serve in the army of the territorial lord (Landesherr) whenever he felt like invading another community. Moreover, if I couldn't pay my bills and became impoverished, the town where I reside could shove me off to my Heimatort and it would be obliged to take care of me. This was still the case up until a few years ago. Things change, even in Switzerland, although at glacial speed. For example, married women can have their own Heimatort back. Until the new Marital Law came into effect in 1988, women were mere appendages of their husbands. So if in the unlikely event a Baselerin married a Zürcher, she would automatically become a Zürcherin!

Last year I read in the local paper that Basel-City, where I live, had a sale on becoming a citizen at the extremely good price of CHF 350. In some cantons such an Einbürgerung, or naturalization, can cost up to thousands. I sent a letter to the Basel Bürgergemeinde, a kind of citizens' council but not the actual government, requesting more information and got back a fat envelope full of forms. In essence, I had to prove that I have no criminal record, have never been prosecuted for debts, and have always paid my taxes, with no cheating. Of course, I fulfil all the criteria, but I would have had to prove it by obtaining official attestation from the various government departments which charge separate fees, making the whole complicated procedure cost almost twice as much. What were the benefits? Besides the cachet of being a superior human being, I could take part in Bürgergemeinde meetings and join one of the many guilds and societies, if they would have me.

I quickly decided to remain a citizen of Laupersdorf, a modest, friendly, down-to-earth village tucked away in a valley between Balsthal and Moutier. That's where the family roots go back to 1590. I plan to go there this summer with my cow Blanca, who's tired of being cooped up in an apartment, and let her graze and munch grass to her heart's content because Basel doesn't have much in the way of communal pastures. At the same time, I'll also demand my share of wood … lots of wood!

Image/Edi Barth


Edi Barth, a Swiss/American cartoonist /tattoo artist, will draw a witty cartoon (also in colour) of whatever subject you want for that special occasion. He is the author of "Menue Surprise" (available from the author). His cartoons and illustrations for ad campaigns have been published in many magazines and newspapers.



Author: Roger Bonner

Swiss writer/poet who runs a writing/editing business, Right Style. A collection of his funniest stories and columns entitled "Swiss Me" (with illustrations by Edi Barth) is available from Bergli Books or in bookshops throughout Switzerland.

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