For the past four weeks, and for the next two weeks, I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland. I am currently working as a consultant for the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance, serving as the interim coordinator of their HIV and AIDS campaign.
Living modestly in Geneva can be a bit of a challenge. Geneva consistenly ranks among the top 5 most expensive cities in the world, and the cost of living is nearly twice that of Las Vegas. With restaurants on practically ever corner, one can easily blow 50 Swiss francs (the equivalent of about US$45) in one meal.
The majority of Swiss enjoy a high quality of life. A ‘modest’ salary is around 100,000 Swiss francs a year, and even people working in service positions, such as restaurant servers, store clerks, and bus drivers, earn a fair and liveable wage. Homelessness does exist here, but it is a rarity, and even homeless people in Switzerland enjoy a higher quality of life than their counterparts in the United States. While on a run once, I saw a homeless woman living under a bridge next to the River Arve. She had a decent quality mattress, and I couldn’t help but notice her Chanel purse. Last weekend at the train station, I saw a homeless man enjoy his Starbucks coffee and jumbo muffin with a big smile on his face.
I am struck by the fact that Switzerland is, for the most part, a cash society. As one of my Swiss friends commented, she doesn’t understand the credit system employed by most Americans, because if the Swiss can’t afford something using cash, they don’t buy. Granted, what they can afford sometimes includes Christian Dior baby clothes, 400 franc casual tops, high quality restaurant meals, and frequent ski vacations.
Worldwide, the Swiss are allegedly the second slimmest people from a developed nation after the Japanese. How can this be when a large part of their diet consists of whole milk, cheese, bread and chocolate? Geneva is a completely walkable city – one can literally walk from one end to the other in about 2 hours – and if the weather allows, pedestrians crowd the streets. In Geneva, I live on the fifth floor of an apartment building, and I make a point to take the stairs 95% of the time, even when I am carrying an armful of groceries.
This is my third time working in Geneva for an extended period of time. Benefitting from the high wages, I try to use these opportunities as a chance to save money, which means that I spend the majority of my free time in my apartment reading, sleeping and surfing the internet. This time, I was given a living allowance totalling 750 francs for the 6 weeks, which amounts to about 18 francs a day. This is well in excess of what most people in the world live on on a daily basis, yet in Geneva would require strategic experiments in modest living.
So while in Geneva, I have resorted to a traditional Swiss diet of bread with various toppings (butter, jam, and/or nutella are my favorites), crackers, local cheese, yogurt, coffee and tea, salad, spaghetti with tomato sauce, chocolate and wine. This, with my strategy of taking the stairs, has led me to lose over 5 pounds in 4 weeks, and I was already in the healthy weight range before coming to Switzerland. Yes, I have lost weight on the anti-Adkins diet, where the majority of my calories come from carbs. How can this be? Could it be that Swiss food is all-natural, and not produced in a laboratory like American food?
In addition to the HIV and AIDS Campaign that I am working with, the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance also runs an advocacy campaign on ‘Food for Life.’ Given that last Wednesday was Ash Wednesday – the start of Lent – the organization developed a liturgy called ‘Fast for Life,’ and encouranged people of faith around the world to fast from food, consumption, and fossil fuels.
During our own Ash Wednesday service at the Ecumenical Centre, I was reminded that many of our societies are faced with overconsumption and too many choices. Something I have been thinking a lot about lately is how the world’s monetary resources are spent, both by middle-class citizens and small organizations and businesses, and by large governments and wealthy citizens. But that is the subject of another post.
So as I am continuously trying to live a modest life and advocate for the better allocation of resources, I realize that living a modest life in one of the world’s wealthiest cities is not so difficult. In many respects, it is far easier here in Switzerland than in the United States, where class differences are far more noticeable and everyone is trying to out-consume each other.