Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Neutral no more

Switzerland is serious about neutrality. Aside from the occasional accidental invasion of Lichtenstein, the Swiss make no compromises when it comes to minding their own business. Guess which land-locked country, entirely surrounded by EU member states, refuses to join any international organization which would compromise its self-determination of economic and military affairs? Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002, despite hosting the second largest UN complex. In Europe, only the Vatican City holds itself more aloof.

This isolationism wends its way into the very fabric of the Swiss economy and consumer mindset. Whereas in America, just about every physical consumer good (aside from grain, of which we have a metric butt-load, and super-sized SUVs) is imported from China, Central America, or South America, Switzerland manufactures a surprising range of goods locally. My pens say "Swiss," my envelopes read "Swiss made," and the cheese and chocolate are obviously domestic; but the meat, fruits, and vegetables are also grown locally whenever possible. When there's anything in season, a god-damned farmer drives his tractor up to my front door (literally, on all counts) to sell his produce, in case there was any doubt in my mind regarding the provenance of the goods sold in the supermarket a mere two blocks down the road (and the other supermarket a full three blocks away).

Combine economic isolationism with more prosaic forms of neutrality and you have the enigma which is Swiss beer. The supermarkets within walking distance of my house sell only Swiss beer and Heineken. All of it is bland. Not watery, mind you - no one is trying to foist Budweiser on me (although the Czech Budweiser Budvar, unrelated to the American variety except by name, is supposed to be pretty good). But definitely bland. The grand irony is that Belgium, home of countless delicious ales, is only a stone's throw away (assuming you have a pretty good arm).

Well, I've decided that I'm not going to take this anymore (in addition to being mad as hell). Graduate student stipend or no, I'm now buying my beer exclusively from the hole-in-the-wall down the street from the two grocery stores, which contains precisely three bookshelves full of beer (and a few wines, and nothing else), where my order is entered into bound books by hand after the total is tabulated on a desktop computer for lack of a proper cash register. It may be three times as expensive. The bottles may be dusty. I may be able to clean them out of a particular variety by purchasing a six-pack. But the goods are definitely imported and absolutely delicious.

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