France lets you know when you’ve arrived.
First, there’s a big blue sign that says FRANCE. Also, there’s a French flag the size of Belgium waving from a very tall pole.
It is my shortest trip to France ever. Before I have time to roll down the window, we spin a U-Turn and drive back into Switzerland. There isn’t even a stop sign.
Jet-lagged and psyched by the brief and surreal border crossing, I devise this really hilarious joke in my head:
Hey, how do you know you’re in France? The French will tell you.
How do you know you’re in Switzerland? Nobody tells you.
Indeed, the French-Swiss border post at Ferney-Voltaire looks like an abandoned gas station. There is no “Welcome to Switzerland” sign—I know because I hunt up and down the border for a photo opp and fail to find any mention of Switzerland in print. “So subtle,” I muse.
What I do notice, though, are the many one-way streets and signs that direct traffic towards France. “Yoohoo! FRANCE is this way—just turn left and you’ll be in FRANCE! Don’t you want to go to France?” (Well, that’s a rough translation of what the signs say.)
I’m beginning to think that this is a diversionary tactic of the Swiss. At first they welcome you at the airport. They smile at customs and stamp your passport, then they secretly send you to France.
On my first day in Switzerland I go to France six times—once by merely crossing a parking lot. My inability to stay in Switzerland makes me so uneasy that I begin to ask strangers what country I’m in.
“You’re in Switzerland,” one replies.
“But those mountains over there?” I point west.
“That’s France.” Oh.
“And the mountains over there?” I point east towards Mont Blanc, covered in cloud.
“That’s France, too.”
I am surrounded by the French—just like the British at Yorktown.
In fact, Geneva canton is the narrowest part of Switzerland—only 2.5 miles wide (4 km) at the point where it bottlenecks between France and Lac Léman. I find it bizarre that as long as I’m not staring at my shoes, I’m staring at France. No matter where I go, I am near the border.
In fact, Geneva International Airport (GVA) sits right on the border, and I mean *right* on the border. Where the asphalt meets the grass on the north side of the runway? That’s France.
Heaven forbid any plane ever have a bad landing in Geneva, because it would be an international incident, literally. If the pilot were to slam the brakes in Switzerland, he would crash into France.
Fortunately that morning I land only in Switzerland and am met by a white-haired Swiss man at the airport. Ready to dive into my next assignment, I unwrap a fresh notebook and click my pen open.
Suddenly I am very aware that I am holding some trash in my left hand—a crumpled paper label and some ripped plastic film. I am holding garbage and I must get ride of it immediately. I search for a trashcan but see only a row of space-age square canisters labeled with precise instructions.
I am presented with four options for discarding my rubbish, but none of the choices seems entirely optimal. One is labeled organic and another plastic. Conflicted, I wage an inner struggle of indecision about where to put which bit of trash and finally toss it all into plastiques.
Only then does my welcoming party point out that there is a bin marked paper and that I have essentially broken the laws of the Swiss Confederation by putting a very tiny piece of paper in the bin marked plastics.
The ink stamp on my passport hasn’t even dried and already, I am offending my host country and causing consternation to my welcome party. Though I’m not sure which distresses him more—the fact that I have wronged the balance of trash separation, or the fact that I am now reaching into the garbage with my bare hand to remove the offending bit of paper. My host looks genuinely horrified.
This is how I know that I am in Switzerland. Not because it’s eerily clean, like so many say—because that’s just a myth: I walked around Geneva all day long and was pleased to discover a discarded Cadbury wrapper blowing across the sidewalk. While I was disappointed in the unnamed stranger who littered, I was much more appalled by his choice of chocolate. (No offense Cadbury, but who the hell eats Cadbury in Switzerland?)
No, I know I’m in Switzerland because it’s filled with average Swiss people who actually care what I do with my garbage. This country leads the world in recycling—at least 40% of all solid waste and more than 80% of all plastic bottles are recycled. What’s more, you have to pay to throw away your garbage. That’s right—all trash bags must have a paid sticker attached in order to be “legal”, which is why most folks like to recycle everything they can.
This sophisticated recycling effort is managed by the Swiss Federal Office of the Environment, and I think it no small coincidence that their acronym FOEN is an obvious anagram and pun for the French foehn (or Swiss-German föhn), the gentle alpine winds that blow down from the Swiss mountains and into the valleys I am now traveling in.
A government department for waste management named after a cleansing alpine wind. Vous voyez? The Swiss do have a sense of humor, but like the border with France, it’s so subtle, I’m never quite sure when I’ve crossed the line between “serious” and “joking.”
My very first evening in Switzerland, I am dining at a sidewalk café in Geneva, packed with Swiss all watching the soccer game on a flat screen TV pointed out toward the street. France is playing Sweden and everyone is bored to tears. Like an unmarked border, 0-0 is no fun.
But then—just as I’m putting a forkful of salad in my mouth, the lovely vinaigrette dripping down my chin, Sweden scores a goal.
The Swiss go wild. There are shouts “Ouai!”and “Allez!” and I am a little confused. I ask the couple dining next to me—why are you all cheering for Sweden?
The whole display does not help me at all. So many Americans already struggle with Geography, confusing Sweden and Switzerland; Austria and Australia. So why are the Swiss cheering for the Swedes?
The woman next to me answers: “Because we are not French!” She is triumphant and certain, going on to explain, “We may speak the same language, but we are such very different people.”
“How so?” I ask.
“Well, the French are royalistes!” She uses the present tense ils sont and once again I find myself on the invisible border, hovering between the truth and a joke. As I recall, the French have not displayed royalist symptoms for some 223 years and their last king was quite famously beheaded, n’est-ce pas?
But no matter: here in Geneva, a few miles away from France, the French are still just a bunch of king-loving cretins who deserve to lose badly to the Swedes (which they did).
Thus I make my first scribbles in my new notebook, the same one that I opened at the airport—adding a new definition to be included in the Swiss dictionary that I am compiling.
Swiss: French-speaking, yes, but not French—not France.