I say goodbye to the French countryside and take a train to Geneva, Switzerland, quite possibly the world’s most expensive city. Despite its small size, Switzerland is a diverse place, a hodgepodge of French, German, and Italian cultures, all united in their dedication to independence and (formally, at least) neutrality. I will only be in Switzerland for four days, so I’m hoping to see or experience as many stereotypes as possible—a watch factory, a bank, the United Nations, chocolate, lederhosen, those long trumpet things featured in the Ricola cough drops commercials, fondue, a Saudi prince in a private school uniform…Switzerland had better bring it.
A costly Swiss welcome
I arrive at Geneva’s central train station and am surprised to encounter a sort of half-effort customs hall. Switzerland, though in the Schengen (border-free) zone of Europe, is not in the EU, and it does maintain a certain independence from the rest of the continent. I walk slowly through the hall without incident; nobody stops me or asks to see my passport. Some of the other travelers are not so lucky, though. It seems that anybody with dark skin is stopped and questioned.
I walk from the station to the university, where I am meeting Kelvin, the same friend of mine who I visited in Nice, France. He has recently moved to Geneva as a post-doctoral fellow at the university, where he studies plant cellular biology. I am shocked to learn that, in Switzerland, Kelvin makes a higher salary as a post-doctoral fellow than a PhD engineer can expect to make in the private sector in Vancouver. He just laughs. “Incomes are measured on a different scale in Switzerland,” he tells me. “On household surveys, the first checkbox says ‘0-75,000 francs.’ In Geneva, I’m poor.”
And, indeed, I swiftly learn the truth to this. Until recently, the Swiss Franc was pegged to the Euro, and thus was kept artificially cheap. A few months ago, however, the central bank, in a surprise announcement, allowed the Franc to float, causing it to gain 30% in value overnight. This was excellent news for anyone paid in Francs, like Kelvin, but quite distressing for anyone else trying to transact business in the country using foreign currency, such as a circumnavigating backpacker with a dwindling bank account. I almost faint when Kelvin and I stop at a grocery store to pick up some olives, bread, meat, and cheese for a picnic dinner. The cost: about 35 francs, equivalent to 43 US dollars.
Fortunately, Kelvin has offered me his spare room, so I do not have to pay for a hotel. He also very generously insists on treating me to dinner and pays for the entrance to various sites during my short stay in Switzerland. Thank goodness.
Wild white wine
Despite its close proximity to France, western Switzerland is not particularly well known for producing quality wine. To improve this image, Geneva Canton hosts an annual wine-tasting event, and it happens to be taking place the weekend I visit. Kelvin, his friends, and I decide to head there in the late morning. I’m looking forward to a quiet day in the countryside, visiting the various wineries and strolling through a typical Swiss pastoral setting.
I start to get suspicious as soon as we board the train. It’s packed with people, most of them young and already in a raucous mood at 11:00 a.m. I’m squished up against several revelers, my left leg pressing tightly against a young woman’s party dress, and my arms splayed overhead and pressed against the ceiling to keep myself upright in the event of a sudden break. After a 20 minute ride, the doors slide open, the pressure is released, and the train ejects its passengers onto the platform like a stepped-on toothpaste tube.
We walk down the hill, following the crowd towards the first winery, which is set up like a concert venue, with tents, picnic tables, food stands, and of course a large bar to serve wine. We buy a €5 wine glass, which entitles us to free samples throughout the day. While we wait in line, a quartet of long-Swiss-trumpet-thing players provides the entertainment. They’re called “Alphorns,” in case you’re interested. My first Swiss stereotype!
We spend the rest of the day hopping from winery to winery, each one looking more like a nightclub than the last. By the end, we’re mushed into a beer garden with a thousand 20-somethings, shouting over the din of music and conversation. A rowdy and uncouth young man stumbles by, his wobbling hairy belly hanging out over the waistband of his stars-and-stripes-print cargo shorts like an ulcerated water balloon. I cower in the corner. This isn’t a wine tasting; this is a rave!
Fortunately, good, stoic Swiss sensibilities come into force at 17:00, when the whole event is shut down. Everyone corks their unfinished wine bottles, tucks their shirts back in, and files in an orderly fashion back to the train station. On the ride back, a group of foreign troglodytes, clearly drunk, disturb the peace of the post-party train. The now-orderly Swiss passengers look on the group with distain. Some people just don’t know how to behave.
Knee deep in snow
The following day, Kelvin and I take a train west towards the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Our destination is Leukerbad, a meltingly beautiful town in the Alps. After dropping off our bags at our horrifically expensive hotel (though it’s the cheapest in town, and discounted 30%), we head to the strawberry-red gondola that whisks passengers up to the high alpine meadows and lakes that best symbolize the natural landscape of Switzerland.
Once at the top, we step off the gondola into fresh, cool air…and into two feet of snow. The lake is partly frozen, though a torrent of spring runoff feeds into one end, fissuring the crusty surface near the shore. Luckily, the sun is shining and there is no wind, so after a few minutes of vigorous hiking we are peeling off layers and breathing deeply.
We spend about four hours circling the lake, following the valley that passes across the ridge of high peaks and down to the other side. Occasionally we hear the crack and tumble of a distant avalanche as the snow melts and weakens under the sun. We eat lunch beside a stone chalet, closed for the season, and look out over at the gorgeous scenery. Nobody else is around.
Captivated by the scenery, we lose track of time. When we realize our error, we try to rush back to the gondola in time for its last descent, but the snow and upward slope make it difficult to move quickly. As we skirt back on the other side of the lake, we are forced to scramble over a rushing river by hopping on boulders. It’s exhausting work, but we make it in time, and as we take the cable car back down the mountain, our sore muscles scream to us: take us to the spa!
Stainless steel spa
Leukerbad is named after the natural thermal baths that occur in the center of town. The local authorities have constructed a big spa complex to take advantage of the healing waters, and it’s a perfect place to unwind after an arduous Alpine alpine (yes…) hike.
The spa consists of a series of heated outdoor pools, each with a variety of amusing and odd jets and fountains to massage various sore bits. Large protuberances that look like steel crocus stamens fire slugs of water onto your shoulders. Submerged reclining beds, covered with pores, fizz your back with small bubbles. A big cauldron periodically erupts with jets of water and bursts of air, roiling like a pot of salted water ready to accept lobsters. The whole place is exquisitely crafted from custom cut and welded stainless steel, making it look like a sort of space ship/Swiss chalet hybrid.
Only barbarians eat fondue in summer
Boiled, pummeled, and squeaky clean, we decide to finish off the day with another emblematic Swiss activity—fondue. I’ve been told that no worthy Swiss would ever order fondue in the summer. It’s considered barbaric and a sign of ill breeding—something, perhaps, that the lower class French might do. But we do it anyway.
The waiter looks at us uncomfortably when we place an order for fondue—summer fondue—but he does not resist. I watch a kitchen worker locate an old loaf of bread and hack it to pieces, shaking his head all the while at the sorry state of the restaurant that employs him, since it must resort to admitting cretins that order fondue in summer. The waiter gingerly drops off the pot of molten cheese and basket of bread, and then erects a screen so that nobody from the street can see how down-market his establishment has become. Well, not really. But I can’t help but notice that nobody else orders fondue, and nobody looks at us. We enjoy it immensely.
Bellies full, we retire to our hotel. The lobby door is flanked with two very out-of-place statues: one a reproduction of the statue of David, with a silk scarf tied around his middle to conceal his rude bits, and the other a seductive Venus with long luscious hair tumbling down her back like in an Herbal Essences shampoo commercial. Not so classy—but one can’t have high expectations when paying only 180 francs per night.
Back to the poor house
I spend my last day exploring the city of Geneva. Beautiful buildings with rich facades adorn the shore of Lac Lemain, looking like palaces. There are lots of people out for walks, and the demographic is quite multicultural. I’m told that Geneva is uncharacteristically diverse as a result of the presence of the United Nations and the city’s multitude of prestigious international schools.
I decide to buy a street meat hot dog, but reconsider when I notice it costs 6 francs. Ice cream would be nice, but it’s also outrageously expensive. I pass a vending machine, which sells, in addition to the normal chocolate and candy (all with stratospheric prices), something called “party sticks” for 3 francs. Next to the party sticks, for 15 francs, is a “maybe baby” pregnancy test.
Switzerland is nice. Too nice. Too expensive. I need to go somewhere cheaper. So I hop on a high-speed train back to France, in preparation for my next destination: the UK.