It’s Much More Important Than That

A short work of fiction by Paul Knott

Sitting on the plane, I read my call-up papers for the umpteenth time: “Private Moses Afwerki to report to base at 7am on 11th October”. This is my last trip with the Eritrean national football team before starting my military service. It is not a happy prospect. In my country soldiers serve in the barren, baking hot region bordering our hostile neighbour. We do not get paid and are sometimes barely fed. Conscripts are treated harshly by the regular officers and we are the first to be put in the firing line whenever the lingering conflict flares up again.

drought by @libby_ol

Our coaches tell us we are already soldiers fighting for our nation on the football field. They are wrong. Even for a serious international player, football is still a game and you cannot play it well without a sense of joy. That famous British coach was right when he said that football “is not a matter of life and death”. But his punchline “it is much more important than that” is not so funny where I come from. I do not want to be anybody’s soldier and dream of pursuing my passion in a place where football’s only significance is as a glorious spectacle.

For this tournament in Switzerland, we are based where the Swiss national team train. The lakeside location is beautiful and the training pitch has grass like the silk carpets in the Presidential Palace. Even the cows on the adjacent lush green hillside look well-fed and satisfied with life. The sense that you can breathe easily here stems from more than the crisp fresh air.

Since Haile the goalkeeper ran away after the match in Italy last summer, our team has travelled with six security guards. We are not England or Germany. The guards are not here to protect us from over-enthusiastic fans and opposition hooligans. They are here to stop us from escaping. They patrol the corridors and exits of our team hostel and make sure we are locked in our rooms at night.

One morning my roommate, Birhan, and I are heading downstairs for breakfast when a commotion breaks out on the floor above. The team hotheads Gabriel and Tesfay are scuffling again. They are usually the best of friends but sometimes the pressure of being cooped up like this gets to them.

Two guards race up the stairs past us to deal with the disturbance. Birhan and I spot simultaneously that they have left the fire escape unprotected. We glance at each other. It is a split second decision. We decide to run.

We sprint straight for the train station up the road that we pass on the way to the training ground. Luckily for us, a train is standing on the platform. After several hours of hiding in the toilets and switching trains to dodge ticket inspectors, we arrive in a town called Winterthur. It seems far enough away from the team hostel and is the first place we have seen that looks big enough to hide in. The wooden-beamed buildings and church towers opposite the station look nothing like home but the pair of palm trees outside a restaurant provide a hint of familiarity.

That the trees might be an omen is borne out when we see a small group of our countrymen hanging around near the station shops. When we approach in the team tracksuits we are still wearing, two of them turn out to be football fans and recognise us instantly. They take us to eat a “döner”, which is not bad once you put the spicy sauce on it, and then to the Migrant Assistance Office nearby.

By evening, we have been taken to the outskirts of a small town about 15 kilometres away. Somehow after all of that drama, I did not expect to end up locked up overnight in a hostel that is scruffier and more crowded with people from home than the one from which we have just absconded.

My compatriots are a comfort in this alien world, especially Isaias who used to play for my club’s local rivals back home. He has been here for over a year and tries to teach me the ropes. In the process, he is quick to disabuse me of my dreams that I might soon be playing for Bayern Munich.

Two years later, my request to stay in Switzerland is still being processed. I am not allowed to work legally, travel outside the country or do anything much that would allow me to live a free, independent existence. I am grateful to the Swiss for providing us with shelter and a small amount of money for essentials. But I cannot understand why they want to give us these things, rather than let us work to provide for ourselves whilst they decide whether we can stay.

Apart from the handful of local delinquents who hang about near the hostel gates drinking and trying to provoke us into fights, the people are not unpleasant to us here. Sure, when we are out the police take every opportunity to check our ID and pockets but most people treat us with indifference. They greet each other in the street but stare straight past us as if we do not exist. In many ways, this is what grinds me down the most. For all of my homeland’s problems, I am part of a big family and community there, where people always take the time to welcome visitors warmly. I probably enjoyed the recognition that came with being a well-known sportsman there more than I realised too. Here we are nobodies, granted the basic material necessities but starved of human dignity.

My only respite from the suffocation comes on weekends. Isaias has a temporary residence permit now. He coaches the kids at the local football club voluntarily and has fixed up for me to play for the first team. As I am not allowed to earn money and play professionally, the club is in the regional amateur league. It is far from the Bundesliga and playing several steps below my level in front of fifty fans and a dog can be frustrating. But my teammates are friendly and for a few hours every Saturday afternoon it ceases to matter who I am off the field.

It is the rest of the week that is the trouble. I spend endless hours sitting here by the river, thinking about my family and knowing I cannot go home without being thrown in prison as a deserter. I play the scene when we ran from the hostel over and over in my mind. Sometimes I wonder if I should have taken my chances on surviving in the army. As I stare into the fast flowing Rhine, I see my life being swept away with the water.


Paul Knott began his working life in a hut on Hull’s King George Dock. He made an improbable career switch to Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service and spent twenty years globetrotting as a British diplomat.

After two decades of excitement, Paul currently lives quietly on a Swiss hillside with the Kenyan wife he met in Uzbekistan and their kids. He is still wondering how he got there.

Paul’s book, The Accidental Diplomat, can be bought at Pile of Books and Stauffacher in Bern, or directly from the author. It is also available online from The Scratching ShedHessle BookshopPoliticos and Amazon.



Zürich is full of creative, imaginative, cultural nomads for whom adaptation is a way of life. Change and learning how to fit in means something different to all of us. It’s awkward, painful, enlightening, hard work, liberating and funny. Here, some Woolf readers talk about their own journeys of adaptation, growth and imagination.


By Gabrielle Mathieu

Image: Your imagination can take you anywhere Creative Commons

Consider this: You’re raised by a former New York artist and a Swiss actress, who then converts full-heartedly to Hinduism. Your older half-sisters live in Brooklyn with their Jewish mother. Your older Swiss cousin absconds to Thailand, your younger Swiss cousin moves to Greece. You have no siblings or relatives nearby to show you the ropes as your tiny family moves all across the globe.

Now it is 1975 and you’re a bewildered teenager in the U.S.A. You do not know who Sonny and Cher are. You’re forbidden to wear blue jeans. Your schoolmates laugh at you often, and not from your own instigation.

You become an informal social anthropologist. You develop a life-long fascination with parsing cultural signifiers, including clothing styles, media preferences, and body language. Just the body language of a region can yield many observations: do people merely purse their lips when they are displeased, or will you get a tongue-lashing if you step in it? How long should you hold eye contact? What’s merely flirting, and what constitutes a blatant come-on that will get you in hot water?

And yet, the more you observe, the less you crave a full-scale adaptation. Certainly, you concede, a quick nod to cultural norms is indicated. You will not bare your midriff in a church, you will not laugh like a braying donkey with your Swiss friends, you will not be reserved and chilly on your vacation in Ireland. But the more you travel, the less you care about fitting in. You have never fit in, you will never fit in; you could never squeeze all your multicultural experiences under one hat.

Local community thrives on continuity and provides security, but it exacts a price. You cannot reinvent yourself, you must plod through the steps of being who you are, there are expectations and webs that wind themselves around you.

Remain free.

The world is full of people like you: born one place and living in another. That is your community. Those who adapt, and adapt again, but remain true to what’s inside.



Images and text: Hilarie Burke

Hilarie in Kindergarten Off and running.

I am an extrovert. I was born in Japan. My education started as the only non-Japanese among 30 Kindergarteners.  We moved to three Asian countries for 2-4 year stints before settling in the US at age 12. Additionally, I was a cross-eyed, toe headed dyslexic with glasses and eye patch. I learned, right off the bat, that I was a person among people, not part of the clan. I would never fit in, an early if unconscious realization that freed me from the agony of trying. Being open to the people around me, led me to folks of like mind, our energies matched. The idea that I might ever be able to actually ‘fit in’ never entered my mind, except to yearn for the impossible—thick, black Asian hair. I gained a broad sense of what community means. My good friends in each country were native to that country; an adaptation practice that goes a long way. Self worth could not be measured according to the approval of others. Paying attention to my own disapproving thoughts became an adaptive tool.

pakistan, hilarieWhen I listen to the conversation about immigration and the need for immigrants to adapt, I wonder. What does that mean? Ok, finding and keeping a job, and generally living by the laws and norms of the society one lives in. But even second-generation immigrants will always be part of the culture they came from, especially if there is a racial difference. It helps to recognize that they add great cultural wealth to the host country. Resistance to change is treacherous. Adaptation is core to the process of evolution. Integrating into a global society is a survival tactic.

I remain comfortable as an outsider living in Switzerland, and muddling through German. Knowing I will never be Swiss is liberating. If I have a clan, it is the international community. We share a big thing in common. We are all outsiders.



In Conversation: Martina Bisaz

Born and raised in the beautiful canton of Grisons, Switzerland, Martina Bisaz moved to Zürich to study architecture, but shortly afterwards switched to the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Scientific Visualization. Since then, she’s been freelancing, and working for the archaeology department of Zürich University as a scientific illustrator. Libby O’Loghlin asks her about her Instagram collaborations and how she fell into photography.

Martina and her Fiat

Martina and her Fiat. Image courtesy: Martina Bisaz.

What initially attracted you to study scientific illustration, and when did you start taking photographs?

Archaeological illustration by Martina Bisaz

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

I always loved to draw, since I was a little kid. And at first I didn’t even know that this ‘subject’ existed. I found out at a diploma exhibition at school, and was fascinated by those drawings and paintings. That’s when I decided I want to study this, and nothing else. Photography was also a little part of my study. I think that’s when I started to be more and more interested in it. But the big change happened when I started to use Instagram.

You have a very recognisable little Fiat that features in many of your images on Instagram … tell us a bit about how the car became a feature … and how you ended up with nearly 130K followers on Instagram.


Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

I started to post pictures of my Fiat quite at the beginning of my Instagram career, and I realised people loved that little cutie. And one day, about a year later, Instagram contacted me and asked me if they could feature my account. And of course I said yes! That’s how my follower number went up to about 60K.

While photography is often a solitary pursuit, you seem to regularly travel with one or two other people. Who are your main travel companions, and do you end up in their posts too?

I don’t really have a main companion. Whenever there are friends from Instagram visiting Switzerland, I try to show them some beautiful spots and sometimes I happen to be in their photos as well. Or I could visit places or countries, sponsored by their tourism boards, where I meet old or new friends. That is always a lot of fun.

Can you explain a bit about what an Instagram ‘collab’ is, who your collaborators are, and how you connected? Have you ever met any of your collaborators in real life?

An Instagram collab can be, for example when you just swap pictures with someone else on Instagram and edit it and post it and mention the other person. It’s like a promotion for that person. Or, someone wants to make an edit with one of your photos, and then you also post what he edited. They mostly write a comment on your post and ask if they could do a collab with you. Then you continue by email. Yes, I have met some in real life, that’s the great part of it. You make so many friends, and some of them become your best friends also in real life.

It seems like you’re always on the move, capturing mountains and nature, rain, hail and shine … How often do you travel within Switzerland? And do you have some locations you like to return to?

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

It seems like I am always on the move, but that’s not always the case. When I go somewhere, I take so many pictures, that I have photos for the next month to post! And on the weekend I am often at my parents’ house, which is in the most beautiful mountain village of Switzerland. So it looks like I’m always on holidays!

I want to return to the Matterhorn. Been there three times, but I have only seen it once. The other two times it was cloudy, which was really, really upsetting, especially after travelling like four hours through the whole of Switzerland.

Summer or winter: which do you prefer for taking pictures?

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

Image courtesy Martina Bisaz

That’s a tough question. Winter can be amazing for pictures, but also difficult to get to places. Unless you take the ski lift or you do ski tours. That’s why I prefer summer, or autumn for better light, because I can actually go outdoors and hike wherever I want, to places and mountains I can’t reach in winter.

And The Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction, and why?

What a question! I always remember Der Medicus [in English: The Physician]which I read when I was a teenager. The reason why I like it, hmmm … I think all the science and medical discoveries simply fascinated me and I actually finished the whole book!


Instagram: @kitkat_ch

Gallery: Tandem

Zürich-based Martina Bisaz is known for her Instagramming collaborations and landscapes that often include her little Fiat car.

Read the full interview with Martina.

In Conversation: Chantal Panozzo

Chantal Panozzo is a professional writer and co-founder of the Zurich Writers Workshop. She talks to Jill about her new publication, Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.

The theme of this issue of The Woolf is Exploitation. We’re looking at the positive connotations of making the most of it. You seem the ideal interviewee. Do you feel you’ve made the most of the expatriate experience? Continue reading

Switzerland, ISBNs and Authors

Jill Prewett (who indie publishes as JJ Marsh) gives a round-up of the information she shared at TIPE (The Independent Publishing Event)

January 2013, Zürich

Old Book Press in Schiers, Switzerland

Image: Libby O’Loghlin

As Swiss ALLi rep, I’ve had a lot of enquiries about the ISBN – International Standard Book Number.  Here are some answers.

An ISBN identifies your book, like a fingerprint. If you’re based in Switzerland, you need to apply for Swiss ISBNs. Those with an address in the UK, US, Australia, etc, can apply via those countries. In Britain, you have to buy a batch of 10. The US, Australia and Switzerland allow you to buy individual ISBNs but do remember that you will need a different number for each format, paperback, Kindle ebook, Smashwords ebook. Also a single ISBN costs 115CHF, whereas 10 cost Continue reading