Switzerland, though beautify and wealthy, is small in significance as well as size -- or so I thought when I arrived in Geneva nine months ago. I thought of Switzerland mainly as a mountain resort, and as a passive meeting ground for the warring nations of the world. These, and many other of my preconceptions were to be dramatically altered.
I hadn't imagined the physical beauty of Geneva. Mountains rise above it to the north and south, in provocative contrast to the fashionable downtown boulevards. The city sits on the banks of Lac Leman, and the Rhone River flows through it. The largest of Geneva's bridges, the Pont du Mont Blanc, points toward the horizon where the massive Mont Blanc will appear, as if floating, on a day of unusual clarity.
In the older parts of Geneva, fountains grace nearly every corner and square. In the summer, flowers abound. The heart of the city retains its cobblestones and medieval character; it is still the most exclusive address.
Geneva seems too civilized to some. Street cleaners roll by even in rainy weather. Cars, by law, are free of dents and rust. The exteriors of buildings are frequently cleaned, and the parks are perfectly manicured. There is little vandalism, scant graffiti.
As I made my first forways in this ordered environment, I assumed nearly all the people I saw on the street were Swiss. Soon I discovered, with mixed amusement and dismay, taht I was among 5,000 of my American countrymen, who, in turn, are part of the foreign community which makes up 35 percent of Geneva's population.
With only 340,000 inhabitants, Geneva is the world's most international city. More than 185 worldwide organizations, including the Red Cross and the World Council of Churches, are centered here. It is the European headquarters for the UN and for several large American corporations as well.
The Fourth of July celebration in Geneva is the largest outside the US, and certainly the largest I've attended anywhere. This event, which drew 50,000 last year, is sponsored by the American International Club, which has 1,000 members of 25 nationalities. The American Women's Club, of the same size, has a glossy monthly magazine and a full calendar of social events. These organizations make it possible for an American to settle here with hardly a tremor of culture shock, and provide a haven for some of the less adventurous throughout their stay.
An English-language coordinating service publishes lists of groups, courses and activities in English, including feminist meetings, an amateur opera society , and bridge. Twelve English-speaking churches draw large congregations.
By now I am used to hearing American-accented English frequently. Americans often find it hard to gain fluency in French, as almost everyone, Swiss or foreign, can speak English. Many Swiss also speak three of the four national languages, French, German, Italian, and Romansch. This fact is astonishing to those in whose homeland a bilingual person is regarded with awe. The dozens of languages spoken here give bus-riding a special thrill.
Foreigners commonly say that Genevans are reserved, even cold. If this were true, it would be a natural reaction to the stream of foreigners through their ancient city. Those I have met, however, have responded warmly to curiosity and respect. The customary greetings to nearly everyone with whom one comes in contact produce an atmosphere of friendliness that most American cities lack. The relative patience and serenity of workers in stores, post offices, and banks are also striking to a US city-dweller.
While American influence is notable in the incursion of McDonald's, roller skating, and jogging shoes (though a jogger is a rare sight), Geneva remains essentially Swiss. As it happens, the Swiss exemplify ideals which once were thought American, but are now of questionable repute in the States.
Their industriousness in unsurpassed: A recent referendum defeated the proposal for a reduction in the workweek from the habitual 44 to 40 hours. They value free enterprise and distrust government. They are practical and precise. Their trains run on time, and their manufactured products are of the highest quality. Postmen, who often travel on bicycles or mopeds, deliver twice, sometimes three times a day.
The resident soon learns to expect efficient service. At 4 one evening recently, I telephoned a government office in Bern, 95 miles away, requesting some printed information. The next morning at 9:45, the postman rang my bell. "I brought this up because it says, 'Do not bend,' Madam," he said, handing me the package from Bern.
On a Monday a few weeks ago, I sent a roll of film through the mail to a lab in Zurich, 170 miles from Geneva. On Wednesday, the prints appeared in my mailbox. This, my Swiss friends assure me, is routine service. Incidentally, the client in these transactions is trusted to send payment for the photographs aftern they have been returned.
Services and goods, however, are not cheap, and very little goes for nothing. On Aug. 1, part of Geneva is cordoned off so that the Swiss Independence Day fireworks will be visible only to those who've paid about $6.30 to see them. Shortly after my arrival last June, I was surprised to be charged that sum (10 Swiss francs) to stand in a crowd which lined the streets of Vevey to see a parade. It happened the parade was well worth it, featuring yodlers in traditional costume, players of the long, haunting Alpine horns, lumbering cows with their enormous bells, and experts at cracking the bull whip.
More than the fact that everything costs something here, it is the decline in the dollar's buying power that hurts. A cup of coffee costs about $1, a movie $ 7. Dinner for two at a simple restaurant commonly runs to $40. But if one can momentarily forget the nightmarish dollar-conversion rate, a trip to the supermarket is a delight. Cheese, chocolate, breads, and pastry are delicious, of course, and there is considerable variety in fresh and natural foods on the shelf.
Swiss practically does not preclude esthetic sense. Public statuary throughout Geneva is unusually lively and humane. Billboards are both effective and visually appealing. Even the walls in a train car are appointed with framed photographs of Swiss scenes, apparently with no fear that they will be stolen.
Here, it is not surprising if a police station, such as the one in Lugano, has a waiting room that can only be described as chic. Highways are equipped with rest stops that offer modern public showers and freshly baked bread. Traditional domestic architecture, such as in the Valais style house, is modest, balanced, and well-suited to its mountain environment.
The pace of life is tolerable here, the population is much smaller than in the US, and people move less frequently.If the Swiss have, as it seems, a greater sense of citizenship than is generally found in America, these are perhaps among reasons why. There is a lot to be learned in Switzerland.