Geneva: Still Dull and Expensive

Sometimes I wonder if the BBC is a bit like the Clinton Foundation and receives hefty bribes cash donations in exchange for favourable treatment, in this case puff-pieces on various trendy expat locations.  This week the city under discussion is Geneva:

For an affluent country once considered one of the most stable economies in the world, Switzerland is going through a rocky patch.

In the country’s financial hub, Geneva, a slowing economy and an investigation into the country’s secretive banking industry has led to almost 2,000 jobs being cut over three years, about 9% of the sector, according to the Geneva Financial Center.  In the coming years, more jobs could disappear following Brexit, since the UK is Geneva’s fourth largest trading partner.

Eh?  Geneva – located in a non-EU country – could see jobs disappear because Britain leaves the EU?  What’s the mechanism for that, then?  The BBC doesn’t say.

Yet the city (which is not the capital, that’s Bern) remains an incredibly popular place for expats to relocate to for work. Mercer’s 2016 Quality of Living Survey ranks Geneva among the top ten cities to live in, scoring highly for personal safety and quality of life.

Ah yes, we’ve been here before: these surveys tend to identify which cities upper-middle class wives with husbands who draw large corporate salaries most like to live and raise kids in.  The result is usually a list of cities which are clean, safe, expensive – and mind-numbingly dull.  Geneva, then.

One of these fans is Silvana Soldaini. After nearly 20 years working in Milan, Italy, Soldaini received a job offer to work in banking in Geneva. She arrived in March 2004 as a single parent of two.

Before she arrived in Geneva, she held some common preconceptions about it.  “Being an Italian, my stereotype of [the city] was that it was stiff, that it had a culture without much soul to it,” she says.

Twelve years on, she’s a convert. She lives in a spacious apartment a 10-minute walk from Lake Geneva and has no desire to move back to Italy. Her two teenage children speak French, Italian, German and English.

Okay, good for her.  But if you’re looking for somebody to disprove the stereotype of Geneva being a boring city, you might want to pick a 25 year old bachelor rather than a middle-aged woman bringing up two kids on her own.

Switzerland is one of those places where the 1% – that tiny chunk of the global population who are rolling in money – are conspicuous. Luxury watchmakers specialising in diamond-encrusted watch faces line the riverfront, and it’s not uncommon to see Ferraris and Lamborghinis cruising down the spotless streets.

So a bit like London, Paris, New York, Dubai, and Singapore, then.  With the possible exception of the spotless streets in those first three.

Initially drawn here by higher salaries, expats – especially those with families – often choose to stay for the year-round cultural events such as the Geneva Music Festival or Nuit de Bains, a contemporary art event, plus a wide range of outdoor activities around Lake Geneva…

…but mainly for the higher salaries.  And wifey’s ability to park the Porsche Cayenne without some brown oik nicking it.

While it used to be standard practice for multinational firms to fork out for housing and children’s school fees, this is not always the case today, says Laetitia Bédat, managing director of relocation agency Welcome Service. Now, most foreign hires will either get no allowances or they will only get relocation services, tax assistance and medical benefits.

Bless.  How will they cope?

According to research from global consultancy firm ECA International, Geneva is one of the most expensive cities in Europe, second only to Zurich. In other words, you will need good salary prospects to even consider living there.

For American Sarah Brooks, who moved from Washington, DC to work at a human rights organisation, she found her expenses comparable.  “There is more take-home salary,” Brooks says, “and I find I tend to spend it in different ways, like I don’t spend it on commuting anymore.”

Why a human rights organisation chooses to base itself in one of the most expensive cities in Europe is a question the BBC didn’t bother to ask.  But I’m glad those who work selflessly for the betterment of mankind aren’t having to slum it:

According to the survey, nearly a third of expats in Geneva earn more than $200,000 a year, second only to Hong Kong’s high-earners.

Which will no doubt bring comfort to those rotting in the dungeons of a third-world kleptocracy.

For Olivier Greneche, his reason for relocating from Paris in 2012 was simple.

He could finally escape French meetings?

Besides the job opportunity from a French bank, it was also for his two children who were toddlers at that time. Geneva’s access to nature and green spaces made it an easy decision.

“To understand Switzerland, and to fully enjoy Geneva, you should be keen on going to a chalet in the mountains on the weekends and the countryside quite often,” he says.

Similarly, to understand France, and to fully enjoy Marseilles, you should be keen on taking your yacht out at the weekends.

Soldaini’s family were much more city-centric, and state benefits – such as allocating 250 Swiss francs (about $260) per child to a family or the four public swimming pools within a 15-minute bike ride from her apartment – made life as a single working mother much more manageable.

Which is great, until you learn that:

Eating out could terrify frugal newcomers. Lunch in a low-key restaurant will generally cost more than $20, while a mid-range restaurant can quickly surpass the $100 mark with wine.

Does having free stuff offset ludicrously high prices?  I’ve generally found it doesn’t.

As for their schooling, Geneva is spoiled for choice. Public schools are free, and generally considered very good. Due to the large number of expats, there are plenty of international and private schools, although tuition fees can hit 30,000 CHF ($31,200) a year, says Greneche.

I think that tells you just about everything you need to know about the type of people who show up for expat positions in Geneva and the taxpayer-funded international organisations that are based there.

Much of the residents’ social lives revolve around stunning Lake Geneva, a pristine, freshwater lake measuring roughly 21 sq km.

Tim Worstall is forever bemoaning journalists’ lack of grasp of orders of magnitude: Lake Geneva covers 580 square kilometres.

So Geneva sounds awesome.  Only:

Often, residents cross the border into France at weekends to buy groceries, to avoid Switzerland’s higher prices. Produce is generally double supermarket prices in France, while meat generally costs triple.

What the article doesn’t mention is how many people work in Geneva but choose to live over the border in France, getting the best of both worlds with high salaries but lower living costs in a place which doesn’t shut down and go to sleep at 6pm.  This practice is so widespread that the canton of Geneva and others deduct French taxes from your salary. Yes, there is a reason why Annecy and its surroundings are so popular, and it’s not just because of the lake.

Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.

Chesterton’s Fence and Carrier Bags

As with seemingly a good portion of my newly-acquired knowledge, I first heard about Chesterton’s Fence over at Tim Worstall’s blog.  Chesterton’s Fence is the principle that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood:

[L]et us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

I’d actually forgotten about this until it was mentioned again more recently in the comments at Tim Worstall’s, and it reminded me of something I saw in Avignon the weekend before last, which in turn reminded me of something I had been thinking for a while.

While in Avignon, I was walking down a busy shopping street when I saw a young lady carrying a large paper bag full of groceries in her arms.  As I walked past her, the bottom of the bag fell out and the groceries went everywhere.  I commented to my companion that there are very good reasons why plastic carrier bags were invented and became extremely popular, and that I’d often thought these reasons were not properly considered when France banned them at the beginning of July (my local supermarket stopped providing them sometime last year, and they don’t even give you the option of buying them like you can in British supermarkets).

The American practice of using paper bags doesn’t really work in any place where you have to walk any distance with groceries, let alone use public transport.  The American-style paper bags are designed to be packed by a former convict and wheeled to your car in a trolley, not carted down the street by hand.  They don’t even have handles for a start, and the young lady who I saw in Avignon was carrying hers in her arms as if it were a child.

I think the behaviour that governments and the lobbyists want the citizens to adopt is one whereby they turn up to the supermarket with one or more robust, reusable grocery bags but this only really works when the shopping trip is planned.  What somebody is supposed to do if they pop into the supermarket to buy more than two items on the way home is anyone’s guess, unless they fancy forking out a fiver for one of those robust, reusable grocery bags.  I expect what we’ll find is people taking up the habit of carrying around a small, compact bag in case they need to do some unscheduled grocery shopping at some point in the day.  During the good old days of the Soviet Union, the happy citizens would routinely carry around a string bag called an avoska, which roughly translates as “perhaps bag”, on the off-chance they would stumble across a store selling something worth buying and would be able to carry it home (before swapping it with a neighbour or friend in return for something they might actually want).

For some people, particularly middle-class environmentalists, forcing the masses to adopt practices common in the Soviet Union is probably seen as progress.

Let No Good Massacre Go To Waste

No doubt the usual suspects will try to cash in on the shootings in San Bernardino for all they are worth.  The BBC is having a good go already:

As darkness fell, San Bernardino felt more like a warzone than a city in California. For much of the day the air had been alive with the sound of sirens, helicopters and, at times, gunfire.

Outside the social services centre where the shooting began, the wounded were treated on a street which resembled a field hospital.

Suddenly paramilitary-style police, explosives experts and ambulances took off in a wail of noise. They were racing to the scene of a gun battle with the suspects.

Which sounds a lot like Paris a few weeks ago.

For this city, it has been a day of panic and chaos, as people struggle to cope with America’s worst mass shooting in three years. By one measure though, there has been more than one mass shooting on average every day this year.

In that respect this was just another day in the United States of America.

Yeah, sure it was.  I can hear the voiceover for a film as I type: “It started as an ordinary day.  The kids were getting ready to go to school, Mom was putting the trash out, the staff of the local clinic had been massacred and the leaves were just starting to turn when the Jones family heard a knock at the door…”  The BBC can hardly conceal their glee.  Shameful.

Although in one respect, this is beginning to sound like just another day:

Police have identified Syed Rizwan Farook, a 28-year-old US-born male, and Tashfeen Malik, a 27-year-old woman, as the two dead suspects.

Fancy.

Police said they had “no information on motivation,”

Nor will they ever, I suspect.  Not one that they’ll admit, anyway.  How long before we’re told this was a “lone wolf” attack that has left police baffled, I wonder?

Obama hasn’t wasted any time on opportunistic posturing either:

US President Barack Obama said in response to the shooting: “One thing we do know is that we have a pattern of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere in the world.

I dunno, there’s a strong pattern developing in France.

“There are some steps that we could take, not to eliminate all incidents, but to make sure they happen less frequently.”

Yes.  Yes there are.  But the ones you’re thinking of are probably quite different and rather more self-serving than the ones most people are thinking of.  Although I concede, anything would be better than a hashtag and everybody changing their Facebook profile picture in the hope that these will silence the AK-47s.

Paris Attacks Round 2

I am in Exeter this weekend visiting a friend, so fortunately I wasn’t anywhere near Paris when those fuckers were on the rampage last night.

I think it’s high time we saw some leadership and governance from Western leaders. Not rallies, vigils, politics, prayers, electioneering, hashtags, empty words, and more restrictions on our own freedoms: leadership and governance. They’ve taken the job, they have failed to protect the people whose liberty they have eroded in the name of their security and disarmed in the name of their safety, and this has happened on their watch. They need to respond, or in the near future those lamposts might be put to a use their designers never intended.

No, I don’t have the answers, I thought that’s what our so-called leadership was paid to provide.

I am seriously fucking angry.

Les Marchés

There’s an idea which is fashionable in the UK, especially among lefties who, if they are not cash-rich are certainly time-wealthy, that supermarkets are bad and farmers’ markets are good.  Among this crowd there seems to persist the idea that France does things better with each town or suburb having a thriving farmers’ market where local folk can go and buy healthy, organic produce from jolly artisans who aren’t connected to evil supermarket chains.  And it’s true, you can.  But there are a few things people should know about these markets before advocating that they replace Tesco in the UK.

Firstly, the idea that the French eat only healthy food and shun ready-made meals is nonsense.  At the end of my street is a shop – Thiriet – which sells nothing other than frozen, ready-made food including the microwave meals which are apparently causing Brits to become fat.  The French eat this stuff as much as we do.

Secondly, French supermarkets aren’t a patch on the British ones.  Sure, you can buy everything a French person could want but the beauty of British supermarkets is they sell stuff a British person might want, plus what a plethora of foreigners might too.  Hence you can easily find egg noodles in a Tesco Metro.  Try finding them in a Carrefour City.  Or chilli powder.  Also, the French supermarkets aren’t very well run.  The queues at the checkouts are usually a mile long and there aren’t enough staff.  They restock the shelves during the day when they’re open, probably because employing people to work a nightshift is too expensive in France.  They close on Sundays, and a lot of them are dirty.  The Auchun near me is filthy, I haven’t seen baskets and trolleys with such grime on them since I lived in Lagos.

Thirdly, the quality and price of the vegetables in my local market is no different from that of my local supermarket.  I generally find it easier to use the supermarket because it’s closer, and see no advantage in buying vegetables from the market.  In all likelihood, it comes from the same place.

Finally, there is a hygiene factor.  I use the market to buy meat, the quality of which is superb and probably better than what you’d find in a British supermarket without knowing what you were doing.  The selection of fish is also brilliant, as is the cheese.  For this kind of stuff, the market is great which is why I go there.  But I did notice that this morning the chap handling my chicken breasts did so without gloves, nor did he wear a hat or hairnet.  He then handled the money with the same bare hands, picked up one of the coins he’d dropped on the floor, and then moved onto the next customer and handled a nice lump of pork without so much as wiping them on his filthy apron.  I don’t really care about this sort of stuff – so long as the chicken isn’t dry when I cook it, I won’t even remember when I bought it – but when I contrast this with the impeccable standards one sees on display at the deli countet in Tescos or Sainsburys – with everyone wearing hats, hairnets, and gloves – I wonder what the tofu-chomping Guardian readers would think if they were replaced one day by the rather rough looking bunch who man the meat counter at my local market?  Squeal for government intervention, I expect.

France is good and I like it a lot, but it’s often not as advertised.

Meetings in France

Over at Tim Worstall’s gaff, reader Andrew M alerts me to this piece in the New York Times on the subject of French, English, and American conversations.  This bit had me nodding along vigorously:

But many modern-day conversations [in France] make more sense once you realize that everyone around you is in a competition not to look ridiculous. When my daughter complained that a boy had insulted her during recess, I counseled her to forget about it. She said that just wouldn’t do: To save face, she had to humiliate him.

This is probably worse in Paris, and among the professional classes. But a lot of French TV involves round-table discussions in which well-dressed people attempt to land zingers on one another. Practically every time I speak up at a school conference, a political event or my apartment building association’s annual meeting, I’m met with a display of someone else’s superior intelligence.  Jean-Benoît Nadeau, a Canadian who co-wrote a forthcoming book on French conversation, told me that the penchant for saying “no” or “it’s not possible” is often a cover for the potential humiliation of seeming not to know something. Only once you trust someone can you turn down the wit and reveal your weaknesses, he said.

Meetings in France are perhaps the greatest single source of puzzlement in the working lives of expats.  Anyone from the Anglo-Saxon world will sit through a meeting with no agenda that started late and concludes (also late) with no substantial decisions being made and wonder what the purpose of it was other than to offer workers an opportunity to demonstrate how wonderfully clever they are in front of their peers.  The way in which meetings are conducted in France was a major subject covered in my intercultural awareness training when I first arrived, and remains a frequent topic of conversation among the expats.  Apparently, according to the article, this sort of behaviour has a long history:

Life at Versailles was apparently a protracted battle of wits. You gained status if you showed “esprit” — clever, erudite and often caustic wit, aimed at making rivals look ridiculous. The king himself kept abreast of the sharpest remarks, and granted audiences to those who made them. “Wit opens every door,” one courtier explained.

Indeed it does.  An inability to answer a random, irrelevant, and often daft question in a French meeting will demonstrate that a speaker is “unprepared”, and thus possibly unsuitable for promotion.  Hence he or she must “prepare” by stuffing their presentation with dozens of slides containing table after table of raw data in Font 8 or smaller, which are preceded by five or more slides of “context” containing sentences such as “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” and “When viewed in an inertial reference frame, an object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force.”  Given French presentations normally consist of the speaker reading the contents of a slide line by line, one after another, it’s no surprise to learn that meetings can run on for hours.

Whether these practices are fit for a modern business operating in an increasingly competitive and globalised world is a matter for debate.  A glance at the French economy and unemployment rate would suggest not.  Us Anglos could learn a lot from the French in many fields, but conducting meetings and delivering presentations are not among them.