Dolphins Overseas: Swiss observations on buses and trust

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Emily Powers, Staff Writer

Before I came to Geneva, I’d heard that it was a completely international city, filled with people from different countries and backgrounds. Wikipedia says 44 percent of the population is made up of resident foreign nationals, so it must be true…

Geneva is one of the world’s centers of both banking and diplomacy, but most people I interact with every day are Swiss natives. So what does it mean to be truly Swiss? I’m still not exactly sure — I would probably need another 10 years here to understand the finer points of Swiss culture, but some of these differences would be apparent to just about everyone!

In addition to being allowed almost everywhere else in Geneva, dogs are allowed on the legendary Swiss public transport system. I can sort of understand people bringing their pets onto buses and trams, but you can even bring your dogs onto high-speed trains going to cities like Zurich or Paris. On the automated ticket machine, just select the “one person + one dog” icon and you’re all set!

The canine fare is half the price of a regular adult ticket, and it could cost up to $80 or $90, considering how expensive everything (including train tickets) are in Switzerland. Seems a little steep to me, but my brain is probably too full of schemes to find brownie mix and skim milk to understand this little bit of the Swiss mentality.

Swiss people also pride themselves on honesty. You can see this reflected everywhere, but a couple of my favorites are the “self-serve” newspaper kiosks, and the lack of ticket-checkers on public transport. Newspaper stands in Geneva are not locked, you just pick up the paper you want and deposit the correct amount of money into the slot. And people actually follow this rule!

For one of my classes we are supposed to bring a newspaper to class once a week and I completely admit that I’ve cheated a few times, skimping on a franc here and there. (Switzerland is one of the only countries in Western Europe that doesn’t use the euro — and as any Swiss person will tell you, they are doing just fine without joining the European Union, thank you very much!) One time a man saw me slinking away with my (half-price) paper, and I was actually nervous he was going to call the police.

Riding the bus is another place where honesty is the best policy. There is nobody checking tickets when you board the buses or trams, and for a few weeks, I seriously thought I would get away with not buying a pass for the whole semester. I laughed inwardly at the fools who wasted their money on little meaningless slips of paper at the bus stop. Whoops.

It turns out that 99 percent of the time no one will check that you have a ticket, but when they do, watch out. The doors will open at a random stop and four or five SWAT team-esque characters will storm the tram. I’m not joking, these people are scary. Each one takes a different section of the tram, and you can’t get away. The doors are all closed, and if you don’t have an acceptable ticket, the officers will accept cash or credit cards (how convenient!) for the huge fine they charge you.

The shame from one of these public dressing-downs can continue for weeks. So when my bus pass ran out, I took the bus to my internship for a few more days without a ticket, and my heart almost stopped every time I saw someone in uniform on the sidewalk. I soon decided the stress wasn’t worth it and started to walk to work instead.

Geneva (and Switzerland in general) is an amazing place to live, and I love discovering all the little interesting parts of being Swiss. I’ve found that Swiss people consider themselves being modern and efficient. Swiss goods are world renowned for their outstanding quality and superior craftsmanship, and if a train was over five minutes late anywhere, I’m pretty sure heads would roll. But when it comes to recognizing cultural traditions, they don’t mind being a little “quaint” or “pastoral” for the tourists’ sake.

I spent an amazing day at a little village outside Geneva, at the “L’escalade” (when all the cows in the town come down from the mountains for the winter) and basically the whole point of the day was to watch the cows parade in circles in the town square for no particular reason. It was one of the most disorganized and hilarious things I’ve ever seen: cows kept breaking away from the pack and making desperate charges at the band, everything was about 40 minutes late and no one could even walk in the streets because of the obscene amount of manure.

To the untrained eye, the day was “typically Swiss,” with the cheese vendors, and alphorn players in traditional dress and the idyllic mountain setting, but I felt proud, just for a moment, that I could see through the gimmicks to the very core of the event. The feeling was short-lived unfortunately, because a few minutes later I bought a hot dog from one of the stalls. I ordered in French, but he returned with perfect English. I don’t know if it was the hot dog or the accented French, but I guess I’m not much of a native after all…