After several days exploring the progeny of Yugoslavia, we ventured to a place with no hint of any strife whatsoever: Zurich, Switzerland. As we’ve been on this journey, rarely a day (or walking tour) has gone by where we haven’t learned about some battle, city sacking, or other geopolitical tussle in recent history. Switzerland, on the other hand, has been able to stay famously neutral and, seemingly, only grow richer.
Founded initially during the Roman Empire in the 2nd century as a place to collect taxes, a result of its ideal location on Lake Zurich and between two rivers, Zurich continues to serve as a place for coupon-clipping to this day. On our first day of tourist duty, we ventured on a free walking tour (surprise) that initially began at Paradeplatz, an intersection that serves as a center for financial institutions. You’ll have to use your imagination to picture the place, however. Instead of tall imposing sky scrapers with doormen and associates hustling about, imagine a place with several hundred year old mid-rise buildings covered in ornate stone work. Yes, nothing but the finest for the likes of UBS, Credit Suisse, HSBC and even some alternative asset managers.
Our tour wandered through the narrow cobble stone streets in old Zurich to discover ruins of a Roman bathhouse, obligatory churches and even a municipal clock tower. In typical Swiss fashion, Zurich smartly built a large tower on a hill in the middle of the old city to keep watch for fires in the 18th and 19th centuries. Several great cities succumbed to fires in their history (Chicago included), but not Zurich.
After our tour, we enjoyed a traditional Swiss meal of fondue and raclette paired with white wine at a local restaurant on the recommendation of our tour guide. Sticker shock shortly followed when our 140 CHF tab arrived…roughly $146! We always knew Switzerland was going to be expensive, but we didn’t quite understand the magnitude. We received a stiff warning when we attempted to find lodging for our stay. Unable to find an Airbnb for less than $180/night we opted instead to use our airline miles at the Swissotel. (Sidebar – miles are kind of a joke. As a consummate saver, I had big plans to use my miles accrued over a decade for a big flight on our trip but was surprised to learn you still have to pay taxes and fees on your purchase. Not so much at hotels.)
Sticker shock continued as Alyssa was not to be denied the best hot chocolate in town for dessert… 7 Swiss francs for a small (about 7USD). In its defense, and as our tummies could attest to the rest of the day, it was the absolute richest hot chocolate either of us had ever tried.
As someone who pays maybe just a little too much attention to economic circumstances, this was hugely interesting to me. How can normal people survive when a combo meal at McDonalds costs roughly $14? (We know from experience. We each had a Royale with cheese; it’s like a quarter pounder…). Maybe it’s due to the dearth of McMansions we saw around town, encouraging more apartment centric living and freeing up francs for food. A quick glance at Wikipedia, however, reveals the average income is $84k/yr and ¾ of all jobs are in the service industry; a high proportion of those being financial service jobs. In recent history, instead of a place to collect taxes, Zurich, and Switzerland at large, has become a place to stash your loot. Contrary to popular belief, minding assets is not a very expensive endeavor when your country is (was) staunchly neutral. I haven’t yet figured it out, but my interest is sufficiently piqued…
Pocket book intact, if not a little thinned, one takeaway from our time paying sky high prices is, even in Zurich, you get what you pay for. That McDonalds quarter-pounder could make an appearance at Au Chavel and the foodies among us would not notice. Which reminds me of a powerful axiom I was taught when I was young: you can get something done well, fast, or cheap but you can only pick 2. Where I come from cheap and fast reigns supreme. The Swiss have settled on only one thing: doing things well.