Talking trees, health, security, peace, and festivities – all in one week!

This post is part of an archived series of blogs called The LeVine Line, written by former Ambassador Suzan G. LeVine during her time at U.S. Embassy Bern.

3 January 2015

I have found in this job that the only commonalities across weeks are that they are very varied and that they give me the opportunity to learn more each time about Switzerland and the ways in which our people, businesses, universities, and governments collaborate to make the world a better place.

In early December, I experienced another great example of that.  Over the course of one week, I visited Zürcher Hochschule der Künste (Zurich University of the Arts or ZhDK), Pfizer Pharmaceutical, the Global Center for Security & Peace (GCSP), and then the Christmas market in Montreux – the first two in Zürich, the next one in Geneva and the last one in Montreux.

Each one was fascinating and important in its own way.  Here’s a rundown on what blew me away as well as illustrations of our countries’ collaborations at each of them:

ZHdK: It was like a cornucopia for the senses. Upon arrival, my visual senses were tingling because of just how open, crisp and beautiful the new facility is in which they’re now housed.  The school was started in 1878 but just moved into this building this past year.  Here’s their website.

But the building was just the Amuse-bouche.  Led by Prof. Dr. Thomas Meier, the Rector of the school, I was taken on a tour of the school that included:

  • Watching some of their contemporary dance students practicing –  The grace, balance and strength were exceptional!
  • Listening to a lesson with one of their music students – who was using their organ. The facility for this stunning instrument looked like a cross between the room with all of the memories in Harry Potter (the one where Voldemort attacks Harry) and the daunting room where the Wizard of Oz greets people.  This is probably because they’ve put reflective bulbous tiles around the room in order to increase the surface area of the room so that the organ can “fit” in the room (my photo doesn’t do justice – so I recommend seeing it if you can).
  • Hearing about “Building Bridges” – this is a theater training program that is a collaboration with 4 other schools – including the School for Visual Arts and NYUs Tisch School in New York City.  This program almost sounds like a reality tv program – where students from each of the 5 schools meet up live and virtually throughout two years to learn together and frequently receive assignments that they need to complete within short periods of time.
  • Flying “Birdly” – a virtual reality full body experience – developed in their Interaction Design department.  Within this program – I was able to be a bird flying around San Francisco – complete with the wind in my hair and the effect of flapping! Here’s their website for more information on this incredible program.  To the right is a picture of one of the team members demonstrating it before handing over the controls.
  • Listening to the trees in one of their labs in the Institute for Computer Music and Sound Technology – Specifically – they have recorded the ultrasonic sounds (clicks, pops, and squeaks) of trees when they’re under stress and brought them into the audible spectrum.  They also assigned light frequencies to sound so that, as they recorded a sunrise, it sounded truly like a symphony!
  • Touring their Museum of Design and seeing more than a hundred years of furniture, kitchen, poster, and industrial design – The content of this collection was stunning and was laid out in a very witty way – taking us back in a time machine of chairs, refrigerators, lamps and more. (I highly recommend visiting this museum!).  I even got to see the original brand and nomenclature guidelines for the New York Subway system – defining what font, size, etc… the various signs use (even today). Just below are some of the exhibits – their history of chairs, the design book for the New York Subway System as well as their collection of TVs and such.


As the fourth largest University in the country, ZhDK seems to provide a dynamic and incredibly creative environment – not just giving people an outlet for their talents, but also giving them skills that will equip them for life!

Pfizer  I was so honored to visit Pfizer – a US pharmaceutical company with a terrific presence here in Switzerland – to participate in a “fireside chat” with their country manager and the head of the Innovative Pharma Business, Pam Alexa.  I learned that 60% of their staff in Switzerland are women – and, of course, their country leader is a woman.

In connecting with Pam and then subsequently with the employees, I was moved by their focus on whole-body health and ways to help people think proactively about well-person health care rather than just sick-person health care.  I guess, however, this makes sense given that a number of the products they make/sell are more about proactive health (ie – Lipitor to lower LDL cholesterol).

The questions the employees asked were very thoughtful and ranged from questions about how I manage my team to what my experience as a woman in business has been over my career.

Fundamentally – it was terrific to meet with such an array of staff from their organization – especially their dynamic and super-smart leader!  Here is the write up on the Embassy Bern website.  And here we are outside their facility.

GCSP (Geneva Center for Security and Peace): One of the amazing qualities that Switzerland has as a neutral country is the ability to host organizations like the Geneva Center for Security and Peace.  This is an organization who has the“primary purpose of promoting peace, security and stability through executive education, research and dialogue.”  The United States and Switzerland are two of the 45 Foundation Council Countries who help guide the organization (Switzerland was also a founding organization)

When I visited, I had the honor of spending time with Swiss Ambassador Christian Dussey, the Director of the GCSP (the Swiss provide a person to act in that capacity for the GCSP).  Here we are in one of the white board filled-rooms.

What is it about?  Imagine a room filled with diplomats, government officials and/or even military officers – all from different countries (and I mean very very different countries – you’ll frequently have countries who may not have very good relations sitting next to each other)  .  Now imagine that the physical space for this conversation falls right between the UN Geneva facility and the commodities trading center – and other key businesses.  And did I mention that glass walls are present throughout the design in order to project and foster transparency?  The topics for exploration are varied and substantive.  You can see the subjects of their sessions up on their website.

As we look out into the future – it will be exciting to see the critical role that GCSP will play in facilitating dialogue and engagement around and across the globe – promoting peace and security!

Christmas Market in Montreux – Mayor Wehrli (shown in the photo to the right) and his fellow legislators work very hard to attract thousands and thousands of people to their market.  They also work to integrate an international flare – they featured partners from Japan and Hungary this year.  As important as work is, so is play.  By providing such a tremendous venue for families and individuals to gear up for the holidays, the Montreux Christmas Market had an outstanding impact on locals and visitors alike.

So there you go: One week in early December.  I haven’t had another week like that during my 7 months here, and I don’t believe I’ll have another one like it in the future. 

Each week will be different, exciting, engaging, and impactful.  Most importantly – every week will be focused on how we work to improve our relationship zusammen!