Wednesday, February 13, 2013
Geneva is like a pimple on the face of Europe in that it is almost entirely surrounded by France.
Swiss flags might be everywhere but the lifestyle and attitudes are mostly French. Croissants instead of Bircher muesli; 'La Poste' on the sides of yellow delivery trucks instead of the rather forbidding 'Die Post' further north; and Fashion over Sensible Footwear.
The official branch of the bank that is used by Love Chunks' UN agency closes down over lunch, so any workers who want to pay bills or open an account have to sneak over before midday or after 2:00pm. Everything is closed on Sunday, so if you haven't done your weekly shop or wish to visit a restaurant that:
* has decor later than 1978
* is vaguely affordable; and/or
* serves food that isn't Kath's One Pot At Home-standard of pasta or pizza
..... you'll starve. It is the official Day of Rest and judging from the silence of our enormous apartment complex, residents are either attending church or lying mutely in the dark for the entire day.
Despite this, there's enough Swiss influence to ensure that public transport runs precisely on time; recycling depots are on every street corner and just moving to a different suburb requires you to notify and register with the local commune (council). Cafes stay open "non stop" which is not 24/7 but means that they don't close for their own lunch break.
This is not the case a mere five kilometres away. Where the edge of CERN's enormous underground Hadron Collider borders France, things change. Prices of food, shoes, clothing, pharmaceuticals, gifts and furniture are markedly cheaper. Same goes for meals at restaurants and bistros.
Kate and her daughter Imogen took Sapphire and myself out for a little excursion to Val Thoiry; a well known shopping destination for frustrated Genevan Meat Tourists* and for those tiring of only being able to buy their clothes from H&M and therefore match the 99% of the population who are not Rolex-wearing multi-millionaires. I can spot a striped H&M t-shirt, one-pocket stud jeans and funky trousers a mile away these days.
Trudging through the snowy car park, we found ourselves in a northern hemisphere version of a Melbourne 'Home Maker' centre: enormous shop fronts, oodles of free (outdoor) parking and all manner of things for sale. We'd been living in Geneva too long and had forgotten just how much choice is on offer if you're permitted to purchase items that aren't necessarily grown, invented or manufactured by the Swiss.
Prices had me gobsmacked. "Kate, look at THIS! It's only ONE EURO! How on earth.....?" A fellow shopper looked over at me in a kindly manner. She recognised a new recruit; a Meat Tourist now given the keys to purchases and choices beyond beef mince and deodorant. "WHY is this two Euros here but eleven in Geneva, Kate? WHY?"
With shoes, birthday presents, Vag Fresh mints, kitchenware and chocolate purchased, our rumbling stomachs informed us that it was high time for lunch.
A cafe beckoned; its winking lights, front bar filled with warm-looking patrons and an extensive blackboard menu bragging about daily specials, two course deals and burgers cementing our decision. "Let's go here. Look how cheap the food is!"
Not so fast, the waiter seemed to say as I pointed to a large, empty booth inside the restaurant and he instead grabbed my elbow to steer me away. "Your table eeez outside."
Admittedly, it was undercover and warm, but the cafe itself was empty except for the front bar. Perhaps they were cleaning all the table tops?
The waiter returned. Sapphire asked in tentative French for the advertised burger, salad and fries. My language skills were limited to understanding only his "Non." She then tried wood oven pizza. "Non," he said again, pointing (with some force) at the laminated menus that also served as place mats on the outdoor table. "Just zeeeze," he said in English.
Kate nodded, finally understanding the waiter's lack of enthusiasm. "It's 1:45," she said, pointing to her watch. "We're too late for lunch and they wanted to close the kitchen."
Ohhhhh. The front section was full, but not of eaters. They were all busy chatting and slurping coffees, beers and wines, pausing only to flick their cigarette ash out behind them into our section.
All four of us dutifully pointed to the least offensive items on the menu. He nodded, relieved that these tardy clowns had got the message. "Four lasagnes, eh?"
"Er, Oui. Please."
When our meals arrived - and they were good - the waiter sidled past every couple of minutes or so, meaningfully staring at our table in a very clear Hurry the Hell Up manner.
This, of course, had the opposite effect. We took our time and, somewhat ironically, had an interesting conversation about how often we must offend other cultures/countries/people unthinkingly.
* Meat Tourists: Frustrated expats who drive to France to buy cheaper meat and groceries. Border control can stop your car and ask you how much meat you have. Maximum permitted is 500 grams of red meat per passenger in the car. I've been stopped twice in two years and have only ever had two kilograms of chicken breasts which they weren't even remotely interested in.