Geneva, a city you’ve probably never seen, even if you live there
Some things never change, and a certain class of wealthy Brits seeing quaint little Switzerland as a playground is one of them. Another is the itch of UK newspaper writers to get the editor to pay for a trip, preferably during the ski season, to trot along on the heels of the rich to write about this fabled, gorgeous, expensive, boring little police state where people survive on chocolate and cheese. The Times has just done it and so has the Telegraph.
If you’re determined to see a place as an old cliché, you will, and they did. Clichés work, of course, because they have an element of truth in them. The younger brother of a friend was put under my care for a long 24 hours in Paris when I lived there, and at the end he dismissed the city as boring, with terrible food and ugly people. The women were short and bony, he said, and restaurants didn’t even serve ketchup with their hamburgers which were, by the way, awful, he added.
I couldn’t disagree, but I did think he’d missed something.
So did England’s newspaper writers. Geneva officials might be annoyed with the articles, Times and Telegraph fans will lap it up, and the rest of us will roll our eyes in wonder.
When I began to work as a journalist in Switzerland my editor at Business Week, who was based in Paris, admonished me to always include something about cheese with holes, cuckoo clocks or gold under the streets of Zurich. Why, I asked, assuming that my job was to add something new, preferably intelligent to what the world knew about the place. “The editors back home want it. They say that’s what readers like, and they’ll never read the more serious stuff if we don’t give them the clichés first.”
I also worked for Time magazine then, and asked the bureau chief there if he agreed. Absolutely, he said. It helps the editors in New York keep Switzerland and Sweden straight in their minds. Those white, snowy capital S places.
A little cliché-busting
The Times and Telegraph reporters got some of the basics wrong and don’t appear to have entirely understood the Swiss tax system.
Here is a summary of the news story, the more or less serious stuff that’s prompted editors to shell out the cash for an EasyJet flight from London, I assume (times are tough in the media world). Hedge funds are moving out of London to Switzerland: 8 of them made the decision in December. British media are increasingly focusing on the story because UK tax rates on bank bonuses and high income levels will go up sharply as of 1 April 2010, and this is prompting some companies to move.
Here are my two bits on the story: Geneva’s Ivan Pictet, president of the board of the Geneva Financial Center, said in October when asked about hedge funds moving in, that Switzerland is and will continue to have only a tiny role to play in the international hedge funds business. He used a figure of maybe up to 2 percent of the global business. Geneva would welcome more companies moving in, but it’s not about to replace The City as a hedge fund capital, he noted.
End of story. But if you want the editor to pay for that trip to the fabled playground you have to have a bit more to write. So here’s what we get: Geneva is boring, expensive, people all dress alike, and communes dictate how you live. Taxi drivers think only about money (well, you probably do recognize that one, but London has a couple of these, too). The place is crazily racist.
Geneva and Switzerland, as viewed by London’s newspapers
From the Times:
- Hedge funds and wealthy people want to take up Swiss residence so they can get a tax forfeit: lump sum taxation (GenevaLunch: Some confusion here: the rules are clear that this is only for people who “do not pursue an occupation in Switzerland”, which lops out anyone employed by a hedge fund, no matter how much they make. There were, 5,000 people who paid lump sum taxes, less than 0.1 percent of the Swiss population, in 2008)
- “There are hardly any normal shops: most seem to sell only diamonds and furs.” (GL: That’s not called Geneva – it’s called a two-block area)
- “. . .supper at a studenty restaurant where they serve only steak and chips: £150 [CHF220] for three, excluding service (GL: That’s a silly price for what you ate unless it was in a trendy restaurant and included a bottle of wine. The wine is generally better and cheaper than in London – and service is included, by the way)
- A Geneva lawyer says he buys his groceries in France because Switzerland is too expensive (GL: ask him what he buys: some stuff is cheaper in France, other stuff cheaper in Switzerland, and the great thing about Geneva is you can do your shopping in both – toilet paper in Switzerland, steak in France)
- Geneva is boring. (GL: No, it’s small. There’s a difference. I have been to Cardiff three times, a city about the same size as Geneva, and thought it was boring, too – everything shut before 6 in the evening, food was either bad or else it was good but way too expensive. I had the good grace not to write that because I figured there might be more to the place, if I took the time to find out.)
- Communes rule people’s lives with police-state style rules (GL: okay, at this point the writer veers off into fiction, with visits from Interpol and commune rules about flowerbox colours, which is fun, but I’m starting to wonder if she really caught that EasyJet flight or just cobbled together the story over a nice cup of tea in London.)
- CHF40 an hour for cleaning help. (GL: that’s the rate you pay for a cleaning company, not a regular cleaning woman, who gets CHF20-25, and for this you get someone who is used to cleaning to Swiss standards, which is nice)
- Crans-Montana is not as well known as Gstaad because wealth whispers. (GL: Rubbish. Italians have been flaunting wealth for years in Crans-Montana, but the Brits don’t mingle with them – a language problem?)
- You can’t make friends in Switzerland. It’s an expat’s life or nothing (GL: The woman quoted is 26, can’t have been here long or have lived in many cities, and she goes home to London every weekend – a little reminder needed here that life in any city is what you make it, but you do have to make an effort).
- Switzerland, and especially Geneva, is racist (GL: Calling kettles black, etc. – look around you when you get back home).
The Times is having a hayday with Geneva-drubbing in its Sunday 16 January edition: we get another Times article, by a different Times writer, saying Geneva has no nightlife, so it won’t be able to attract London’s high-flying financial companies. He quotes the Economic Development agency in the city and some relocation agencies, looks briefly at the Glocals.com website. He doesn’t find much going on. It’s not at all clear that he actually visited Geneva to write this. He makes the weird remark that a lack of nightlife and no show-off flashy lifestyles “constitutes one of the main obstacles facing Geneva, along with the rest of Switzerland, in the quest to attract the financial sector away from London.” (GL: Surely people with the smarts to make that kind of money can figure out how to spend it having fun? And outside London, not many people think Switzerland is scrambling hard to attract these people.)
And then the Telegraph jumps into the fray, but with a much more upbeat story, which appears the same day. I suspect they heard about the Times articles and decided to write the opposite story. But it, too, suggests London’s financial crowd wants its Little London in Zug or Geneva. Some do. Many don’t, from what I’ve seen.
From the Telegraph:
- “Jay-walking [is] an arrestable offence” (GL: And yet people do it all the time, but people are very rarely stopped for it unless they do it in front of a bored police offier – but hasn’t the journalist ever been to California? Switzerland is pretty relaxed on this, compared to a lot of places)
- “Each of Switzerland’s 27 self-governing cantons sets its own tax rate, many with ultra-low levels to attract foreign finance firms and workers.” (GL: true, but the thing that makes Switzerland interesting for staff is the relatively low income tax rates for individuals, which apply to all of us, not just rich bankers)
- “The Swiss, a conservative nation, generally expect mothers to look after their own children.” (GL: an urban myth related to the idea that Swiss women don’t work – although this was true 35 years ago. Things change. Switzerland has one of Europe’s highest number of couples where the husband works full-time, the wife part-time: twice as many as the number of couples where the wife does not work, which is about equal to the number of couples where both work full-time. And it has one of the highest percentages of couples where both work part-time, according to 2008 figures published by the UN’s Economic Commission for Europe. Childcare options are limited, but changing. The Swiss political system reacts slowly.)
- Switzerland’s 27 cantons (GL: 26 – more on them at www.ch.ch)
I’m left with a sense that the British, or maybe just British bankers and wealthy Brits, don’t relocate well. Fortunately, I know quite a few of them in Switzerland, and I suspect that the ones who like to live well and who know how to spend their money well were all out doing that when the UK journalists came to town for a day. The problem might be that these people are hard to spot: they’ve learned how to fit in and enjoy life.
Links to other sites:
- Times, UK: “Bonus supertax sends the City’s super-rich to Switzerland”,
- Times: “Lack of Nightlife could dull Geneva’s appeal”
- Telegraph, “British bankers find the good life in Switzerland – even before tax“
- Swiss federal government page on tax forfeits (lump sum taxation)
- social networks popular with English-speakers in Switzerland: English Forum, Glocals
- to keep track of what’s happening in the Lake Geneva region: our own very popular blog for newcomers in Geneva, Geneva’s best-read source of news in English (guess who!) and GenevaLunch resources and events
- radio in English
- Geneva Welcome Centre has a What’s on page in English, and the Sortir web page at TSR (public television) has the most complete listing around of music, movies, shows and other entertainment in the region.