VEVEY, Switzerland – The charge is that it was racism underneath the unfortunate experience of Oprah Winfrey last month in a store in Zurich. But it may have been equal parts Calvinist denial, which extends through the culture to urbanism and environmental policy.
As anyone following top Twitter trends knows, the talk-show host was visiting for Tina Turner’s wedding and stopped into the Trois Pommes boutique. She was interested in a $38,000 Tom Ford "Jennifer" handbag, named for Jennifer Aniston, but the store clerk wouldn’t let her see it, steering her instead to less expensive products. The Swiss tourism office has since issued an apology.
The assumption was that Oprah couldn’t possibly afford such an excessively priced accessory. Yet Switzerland has a complicated relationship with wealth. It is one of the richest nations on earth; the combined net worth of the richest 300 residents exceeds the gross domestic product. For the visitor, it can also be shockingly expensive – a $7 Starbucks, $15 bottled water, $26 for macaroni and cheese, and routine $50 taxi rides. It seems a world unto itself, right down to the currency the nation has kept rather than adopting the Euro -- the Swiss Franc, equal to about $1.08.
Wages are generally commensurate with the cost of living. But being able to pay for things remains in a kind of unspoken, understated realm. In keeping with the culture of the vaunted private banking system, the super-rich never discuss finances, even with friends. They are expected not to flaunt how well-off they are.
The modesty is seen in building facades. When the village of La Chaux-de-Fonds burned in 1794, residences were rebuilt in an orderly grid in uniform height and appearance, even for the wealthiest owners of watchmaking businesses. Once inside, the Art Nouveau interiors might pass for ostentatious. But on the outside, virtually everybody has the same plain front door.
Limiting excess is also a hallmark of the country’s approach to sustainability. At the luxury resort Mirador Kempinski, perched high above the Gold Coast of Lake Geneva, we couldn’t seem to make the air conditioning work on an unusually hot night. Alas, it was explained, there was nothing wrong with the unit. Environmental regulations forbid interiors from going below about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.
Under the country's "roads to rail" policy, heavy trucks are slapped with huge fees, as part of the effort to transfer most freight traffic to rail. Owning, operating, and parking a private car is also famously expensive. Tourists are discouraged from renting a car and instead steered toward the excellent inter-city rail system, which seems to have departures every hour to just about everywhere. I must admit it felt great not to drive for several weeks, instead taking boats and driverless funicular trains and clean, spacious buses with five-minute headways. It’s all good for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, which Switzerland obviously takes very seriously.
But again, especially to an American, there was this subtext of denial. We can live our lives and enjoy the country. But there are limits. You really don’t want to zoom around in a BMW; just hop on the bus. And if you want to chill-ax in a $500-a-night hotel room, open the window. Or just live with a little sweat.
Of course, there are limits even on limiting excess. What is a boutique doing stocking $38,000 handbags if not to sell them? And my thesis breaks down on another front. The store owner says that the clerk urging moderation was Italian.
Still, returning home and behind the wheel once again, I’m feeling some fondness for Swiss restraint. In consumption, energy and otherwise, maybe we all could use a bit more of it.