14 September 2009

Switzerland: now at twice the cost and half the efficiency!

Arthur says that it's "strange to be in a country where (a) everything works, (b) everyone seems well-off, (c) all appliances, machinery, telephones and gadgets are more modern than ours."

Switzerland definitely has the reputation of being a land of precision, function, and efficiency. Think Swiss watches, Swiss banks, Swiss Army Knives.

But have you ever actually used a Swiss Army Knife? Trick question. No one has EVER used one. They make great gifts, but if you want actual function, use a Leatherman. Swiss Army Knife blades are laughably small and dull; the other tools are basically useless. I'm sure there might be some situation in which I need a tiny, crappy awl, but it can't imagine what it would be.

The knife is the perfect metaphor Switzerland, at least in our experience: superficially well put-together, efficient, precise. But in reality, not so much.

Case in point: the transit maps. They're a disaster. In other cities (Berlin and Paris, for example), the maps have a relative scale--the distances between the stations are all the same, but the cardinal directions of everything are more or less correct. The maps kind of sprawl in a linear fashion, according to how the city itself is laid out. They make sense.

The Swiss have tried to cram the Zurich transit map into a square, orderly grid. In theory, it's great: it fits in a small space, and if you check the index of stations and see that your desired station is in sector B3, you just find that square on the map. But by trying to force a logical grid on a sprawling, disorderly system, they've ended up with a map that looks like a plate of pasta studded with tiny meatballs.

The pricing of things here also completely defies logic. Most foods are jaw-droppingly expensive. A Big Mac Value Meal costs 11 CHF (their currency is nearly even with the dollar, so that would be about $11). A Whopper, sans fries and drink, costs 7 CHF. A vastly inferior curry in a dive of a restaurant in a dreary neighborhood costs 19.50 CHF.

But go to a swank restaurant in a hip section of the center city and order fondue. It'll be 22 CHF per person--about what you'd pay in the US, but the quality here is better. (Yes, you'll look like a tourist. Deal with it. Arthur insists you have this exotic "food specialty of Switzerland," and it is damn delicious.)

Or head to the bustling lunch stand on the Limmatquai and order up half a rotisserie chicken and a huge, rustic roll. Cost: 9.50 CHF. That sounds about right, maybe even a little cheap, given the quality and quantity. Just don't order a beverage: Lee's 20 oz bottle of Coke, at the same place was 5 CHF.

Totally baffling--as Lee put it, they don't seem to have any idea what to charge for things (although, as I said, for the most part they seem to have decided that prices should be absurdly, whimper-inducingly high).

The city just isn't as orderly and efficient as you've been led to believe. The trains run on time, but good luck figuring out the layout of the central train station and getting to your train in the first place. And please ignore all the graffiti. Oh, and how many dapper accountants did we see? ONE. You think this whole city is full of them. Not so.

Lee and I figured it out, though: the reason everything here is so freaking expensive is that they spend gobs of money on PR consultants to convince the rest of the world that this place is as modern, orderly, and efficient as Arthur claims. Kudos to those consultants; they've done a fine job. I was convinced. Until I came here.

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