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The Helvetica Type

by Kevin D. Williamson

Will Switzerland work if it’s no longer Swiss?

Zurich – Switzerland is an excellent place to see stereotypes substantiated. If a train is scheduled to depart at 4:28 p.m., it departs at 4:28 p.m., not 4:30 p.m. or 4:46 p.m., and the passenger compartments and stations are as clean as the white tablecloths in restaurants at opening time. The Tessinerplatz, near the Enge train station, is tidier than any comparable public space in the urban United States, and the crosswalks that connect it to the train station do not have walk/don’t walk signs — the ubiquitous commuter Audis and Mercedes-Benz taxis serving the nearby hotels stop for pedestrians without the need for a blinking light to tell them to do so. Conversely, where there are crossing signals, pedestrians patiently wait for the light to change, even when there is no traffic in sight. You see members of the national militia commuting to and fro with the folding stocks of their SG550 assault rifles poking out of their baggage, but you might go days without seeing a police officer. There are guns everywhere, and no sign of crime.

A train conductor who missed me on her first go-round confronted me, clearly in distress, wanting to know where I got on the train. I told her where and suggested that she must have overlooked me. “It is not possible,” she said, a phrase I would hear in many contexts during my Swiss travels. I showed her my ticket. She exhibited tightly controlled distress, and then I was served coffee, which, along with the punctuality, is the only way in which Swiss trains are superior to their U.S. counterparts. Wi-Fi? It is not possible. But in a country with relatively few destinations that take more than a couple of hours to reach by train, coffee and punctuality are what really matter.

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