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.