Sunday, December 7, 2008

Foie Gras, Freemarkets & Les Femmes

Since I didn't blog last week, here's a foot-long hot dog of a blog to compensate...

A funny thing happens in Geneva at the start of the holiday season. The prices drop. That is, at least, for such traditional staples as foie gras (traditionally consumed with Sauternes and without any PETA-induced guilt on Christmas) and champagne (for New Year's, like the rest of us). Go into the local supermarkets, and suddenly, as December nears, these high-end luxe goods go on sale, precisely when they're in demand the most. And this happens every year -- it ain't just the recession.

Peculiarly, the Swiss have the nearly socialist idea that at least once a year, during the holidays, everybody should be able to afford a little luxury. Granted, this isn't exactly the height of radicalism -- oh, foie gras is now only 24 francs a slice! Moet is now down down to 28 francs a bottle! Vive la revolution! -- but it is exactly the opposite of what happens in the USA, where the holidays have traditionally been viewed by retailers as a time to bilk us bubbly-swilling partiers for all that we're worth.

But what happens in Swiss liquor stores and supermarkets is emblematic of a deeper cultural schism. Though capitalism and fierce competition are alive and well here, Switzerland is not a nation where the freemarket reigns supreme above all else. It has a tighly-controlled marketplace. And sometimes, the common good takes precedent.

Hence, it's considered more important to ensure that everyone can afford a little champagne on New Years than it is to profit as much as possible from sales of Veuve Clicquot.

When the Amazing Bob and I first moved here, this completely bowled me over. Whoo-hoo, I cried, as I went down to Denner, the discount liquor store, and stocked up on Mumm's Cordon Rouge (marked down to 20 francs, or about $14 at the time). "That's it," I announced, uncorking it, "I'm never leaving Switzerland. Tomorrow, I'm going down to the embassy to apply for asylum."

And yet, over time, even Leftie/Gauchiste moi has come to see the nuances --as well as the flip side -- of a regulated culture that does not always put profits ahead of people.

In Switzerland, stores are generally open from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. and often, they're closed for one to two hours during lunch, too. This, of course, is horribly inconvenient for anyone who's working: good luck getting groceries unless you sneak off. It's also not great for shopkeepers as far as maximizing profits are concerned. So why are these hours kept? Because, the Swiss reason, lunchtime and evenings are sacred family times. (Most school children are sent home for lunch.) At 7 p.m., people should be home with their loved ones, not manning a check-out counter or pricing a lawnmower.

Most stores are also closed on Sundays. Why? Again, it's the family thing, mixed with a bit of old time religion: Sundays are a day to spend quality time hiking, biking, skiing, or resting -- not running around some shopping mall in a frenzy of consumerism. Make like the Lord and take a day off. In some villages, the Swiss will even scold you for gardening on a Sunday. I shit thee not. They complain if you hang out your laundry.

On one hand, living in a culture that does not completely revolve around the marketplace is extremely calming. Once Bob and I got used to stocking up on groceries before the weekend, we found that Sundays here force us to chill-the-fuck-out magnificently. With everything closed, the streets of Geneva become a little like a sensory-deprivation tank (ok, except for the scenery), and so we're content just to stay home (or go out into the countryside) and drool. This can be a beautiful thing.

That is, until Monday, when I alone brave the supermarkets to restock our Lilliputian fridge, hit the post office, pay the bills. I do this because as a writer, I work at home, and therefore have the more flexible hours. But even if I didn't, the Swiss would expect me to do these things.

Because here's that flip-side of Swiss humanism, of the modified store hours and community-minded pricing: they are predicated not only on a desire for balance, protectionism, and family life, but upon deeply traditional values. The Swiss marketplace presumes that someone will always home -- home to do the shopping between 8 a.m.-noon during the week, home to prepare a hot lunch for the children, home to make sure that all is in order for Sunday. And guess what? This someone is presumed to possess a vagina. If it's not the femme de foyer (housewife), it's the femme de menage (housekeeper). But either way, it's the femme who's expected to be the angel of the house.

A few years ago, the Swiss, who vote on referendums every 2-3 months, considered a proposition to allow cantons (the Swiss equivalent of states or provinces) to extend their store hours. Huge posters opposing the measure sprung up all over Geneva. They showed a cherubic baby, tears streaming bathetically down his face, beside the quote, "Mama, I want you, but you are gone. You have to work."

Mind you, the proposition at issue allowed stores to stay open for exactly one extra hour. One day a week. Thursdays.

Geneva passed it. Other cantons in Switzerland did not.

Renowned for watches, efficiency, and punctuality, Switzerland is perversely behind the times when it comes to women's rights. Women didn't get the vote here until 1971. Age requirements, gender, (and implicitly, appearances) are still included in job listings. Abortion was only de-criminalized in 2002. And the marketplace, with its holiday spirit and family-friendly hours, is structured as an impediment to women working outside the home.

The reduced-price foie gras. The champagne on sale. The free Sundays. It's all good stuff. But there's another price you pay for it.

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