Based upon our brief sojourn, my opinion of Switzerland is (quite appropriately) neutral.
We spent a lovely weekend in Lausanne, a smallish city best known for being the international headquarters of the Olympics. (Relatedly, I saw more people jogging, mountain biking, and wearing Patagonia fleeces than I’ve seen since I left Minnesota.)
Three days is hardly long enough to understand a place, and since Lausanne is in the francophone region, Switzerland felt basically like France to me. I was, however, quite amused to observe a few ways that the Swiss resemble Americans.
1. They carry around coffees in big To Go cups.
2. They prefer hard cheeses.
3. I was not the only person wearing running shoes.*
4. They post disclaimers!
My favorite thing in Lausanne was the Collection de l’Art Brut—essentially, Museum of Outsider Art. Sorry, Walker and Pomidou: I have a new Favorite Art Museum in the World.
The collection features self-taught artists who have never been recognized formally by The School. Much of the collection is melancholy. Many of the artists were schizophrenics and other mental patients for whom the art was a way a cope with an undoubtedly sad life. One woman tore up sheets for thread to crochet a wedding dress that she never got to wear. Another, for lack of gouache, stole medications and iodine from the dispensary to use as paint. The melancholy, however, is precisely what made the collection so inspiring: it is a testament to the human need to create.
And not all of it was sad. Some of my favorite pieces were by artists with Down’s Syndrome. The collection also featured a number of delightful eccentrics, such as a man who eats shellfish every day just to have enough shells to make intricate bas-reliefs painted with nail polish.
Oh, and the museum had the most gender-balanced collection I’ve ever seen! Point: it’s great to see a museum where women artists made about half of the collection. Counterpoint: Why does it take an outsider museum to feature women and artists with handicaps?
As much as I liked Lausanne, not everything about Switzerland was so peachy.
Switzerland makes itself interesting by doing its protectionist politically neutral thing. Part of me really respects that. As an American, I’m continually fascinated by the fact that geographically tiny European nations that all crammed into one another nonetheless maintain distinct national identities. But, as an awesome piece of graffiti in Lausanne read, “Nations are hallucinations,” and Switzerland’s stubbornness has several irritating effects.
First off, it’s outrageously expensive. The going rate for a shot of espresso is around $4 US. A glass of table wine would run at least $8 US. Just out of curiosity, I checked what a movie would cost and then did a double-take and nearly fainted: a movie in Switzerland costs $19.97 US.
Switzerland’s staggering prices are compounded by the fact that they insist on maintaining their own currency instead of being reasonable and taking on the Euro. The Swiss Franc is only slightly stronger than the U.S. dollar—and to its credit, the bills cool, really colorful—but since you always lose some money to the exchange rate, it’s really just a pain in the part of the ass where you sit on your wallet.
Second, I consider it a symbol of Switzerland’s irrational nationalism that they have their own plugin, which is only very slightly different than the one used in the rest of Europe. Irritating.
Third, Geneva was awful. Just terrible. So bad, in fact, that Jef and I will forever call it The Place That Shall Not Be Named. I don’t want to upset myself all over again by rehashing the rest of our horrid morning there, so I’ll leave it at this:
1. I was unpleasantly surprised to find that the UN was set in a place even uglier than a suburban American office park.
2. Despite being a major world city that (unfortunately) receives a lot of tourism, The Place That Shall Not Be Named had the most backwards, illegible, unnecessarily confusing public transit system I’ve ever encountered. Jef and I are both reasonably intelligent people and avid users of public transit at that, and yet it took us nearly 90 minutes to reach the bus station we should have been able to reach in 20.
3. I understand that timepieces are a point of national pride, but I’m outraged that we were not allowed to join a 12:00 guided tour of the U.N. when we showed up at 11:58.
To be fair, we’re both glad that we saw the Red Cross Museum. The last time I cried in a museum, I was in the Anne Frank House. It was very moving, and if I had money to donate, I would definitely give some of it to the Red Cross.
Overall, though, after four hours we couldn’t wait to leave Geneva and breathed a big sigh of relief when our bus crossed the French border. There’s nothing like a weekend in Switzerland to make me think France is dirt cheap.
*I do not condone the wearing of running shoes as everyday footwear. The habit is especially tacky in francophone Europe, where the population is particularly well-shod. However, my black leather everyday shoes are about a half size too big, which has resulted in crippling tendinitis pain in my right leg, rendering me incapable of walking in any reasonably attractive shoes.