David A. Andelman: Swiss Bear Arms… At a Medieval Wedding

Davis Andelman, EditorFRIBOURG, SWITZERLAND—This weekend, Cyrill and Maureen got married. It was a three-day affair, with medieval theme, each of the more than 400 guests wearing medieval garb, eating and drinking and carousing much as Swiss knights and their ladies (with a few monks and William Tells thrown in) might have done seven or eight centuries ago.

But the ceremony and all that surrounded it was much more than that—a tribute to how far Switzerland and China, indeed Europe and Asia, have come in the days since Marco Polo first returned from the Orient in the year 1295 and brought back word of a mighty and mysterious kingdom on the other side of the world. Cyrill Eltschinger, it seems, is Swiss to the tips of his gauntlets, while Maureen Yeo is Chinese—tracing her lineage back five centuries or more.

Cyrill and I first met last year after our books, Cyrill’s Source Code China: The New Global Hub of IT (Information Technology) Outsourcing and my own, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today were both published, two weeks apart, by Wiley, and we were invited to speak at the Outource World convention at New York’s Javits Center. I was then at Forbes, and Cyrill was and remains CEO of IT United, one of the leading information technology companies in China, and is based in Beijing where he first met Maureen three years ago.

Some months after Cyrill and I had met at the Javits Center, having moved to World Policy Journal as editor, I received an e-mailed invitation to come to Fribourg and Neuchatel in June for their wedding. The only catch? We had to come garbed. Chain mail and a Swiss cavalier’s cap for me, two elegant gowns for my lady (aka wife Pamela).

Fribourg itself, beyond being the hometown of Cyrill, was a totally appropriate spot for this unusual ceremony. It is a bilingual city divided down the middle by an invisible, but quite real line—the northern half lies in the German-speaking portion of Switzerland, the southern half in the French portion. France and Germany united again in the heart of Europe.

On Saturday afternoon, at 1:15, some 400 individuals from every continent (save Antarctica) gathered in the Cathedral of St. Nicholas for the very special nuptials. There was a woman entrepreneur from Zimbabwe (who reached Fribourg via South Africa and Geneva), an American IT competitor of Cyrill’s from North Carolina who races Ferraris for relaxation, and a host of Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and other points east.

At the church, Fribourg guards, clad in the ancestral blue and black colors of the cathedral, and bearing formidable pikes, lined the entry for the arrival of the happy couple. Receiving them at the altar was the pastor, a venerable Swiss priest who, just two years earlier, had returned from a lifetime of service as a missionary in the Philippines. This was truly a bi-continental wedding.

But one with some messages as well. “You will respect each others’ beliefs,” the priest smiled kindly on the bride and groom as they knelt before him at the altar—Maureen, a Buddhist, in a flowing white gown with six-foot train and medieval-style sleeves that hung to her hips; Cyrill, a Catholic, in full chain mail and helmet, his family crest emblazoned on his chest. Beyond the respect for each other’s beliefs, though, lay some ancient realities.

“Cyrill believes deeply in the most profound codes of the Middle Ages,” explained one of his closest friends. “Fidelity, loyalty, steadfastness, these are what drove the feudal system.”

Maureen believes deeply in her own past in China; her family tree includes the first Chinese woman general some 500 years ago, when Europe, separately, was moving out of the High Middle Ages into the Renaissance.

But in Switzerland, especially, there’s more to the code of the Middle Ages. “Where do you want me to begin?” Cyrill asked slyly Sunday morning after briefly nodding off from a night of celebration just outside the castle walls. He’s even embarked on an effort to educate China—a Medieval festival he sponsored in Beijing nearly a decade ago still resonates and Maureen nodded solemnly when I asked her if she shared her new husband’s Western (Middle Age!) values.

To a Swiss cavalier (like Cyrill), loyalty means quite a lot, especially in a nation that has maintained its recognized neutrality at least since the Congress of Vienna guaranteed it in 1815, yet has nevertheless maintained a standing army throughout its history. Only recently have the Swiss participated in any armed peacekeeping forces—in Kosovo, then Afghanistan, though last fall they were withdrawn from Kabul which had become, clearly, too much of a warzone for this determinedly neutral nation.

Still, each Swiss young man still must enter national service and for those who choose the military, each has his military-issue rifle ready at his home. The nation with among the lowest crime rates in Europe is perhaps also the most heavily armed. Cyrill was no exception; he served as an officer in an elite unite of the Swiss Special Forces.

His life has been typical of Swiss multi-nationalism. Educated here and at Texas A&M University, he was posted to China for EDS where he ran the installation of the entire IT infrastructure for General Motors and later, with a few other pals from EDS, set up their own company that Cyrill now runs.

Sunday morning, after a night of carousing, fireworks, and the frequent firing of an ancient Swiss canon from the ramparts of Valmarcus Castle high above the Lake of Neuchatel, we awoke to front-page headlines in Swiss newspapers. The Minister of Defense, Samuel Schmid, had been photographed, grinning, with two former Miss Switzerlands at the end of the Tour de Suisse bicycle race, the same day that four Swiss soldiers were laid to rest after a rafting accident on the Kander River—ceremonies that he’d passed up a week ago. The Swiss code of honor, suggested Le Matin Dimanche, should cost him his job. Certainly, in Switzerland. It was Schmid, incidentally, who last November had ordered the 220 Swiss peacekeepers home from Afghanistan.

David A. Andelman is the editor of
World Policy Journal and The World Policy Blog. A veteran domestic and foreign correspondent and editor of The New York Times, CBS News, and most recently Forbes.com, he is the author of A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today.

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