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Julz’s World: The price of life in Swatch land

Julz’s World: The price of life in Swatch land

By Julie Symons

Apparently a study has revealed Geneva has higher food prices than any other city in the world – even Tokyo.

Though I have yet to see the report for myself, I have no trouble believing it.

I’ve just returned from holiday in New Zealand and although I notice general inflation every time I go back, it has to be said that overall the prices and quality are much better than in Switzerland.

In Geneva you pay four times the price for fruit and vegetables that are usually rotting and milk that is nearly off. The lamb often comes from New Zealand and is also exorbitantly priced, which frustrates me when I know the original value back home! The most remarkable thing though is that the supermarkets could almost be in the Eastern Block. The stock is always limited. The other day I noticed a huge queue of people hanging around the meat freezers shortly before closing time and couldn’t understand why. Suddenly a man appeared with a trolley full of half-price meat and threw it into the freezers. People dived in, young men jostling with the elderly, all in a fighting frenzy for the cheap meat.

It must be said though, my tastes in food and my ability to cook spontaneous meals is improving, since I have usually only two choices of meat at my local supermarket by the time I finish work, be it horse, rabbit or something more conventional. A variety-starved ex-pat like myself feels like a kid at Disneyland with all the choice in New Zealand.

As for the biscuits… lets just say I faced an enormous excess baggage charge when I caught my plane a few days ago. My parents asked if there was anything edible that I could dispose of. “Yes,” I replied to the mirth of onlookers. “Twenty-five packets of toffee pops.” My kiwi friends in Switzerland have put in orders, along with the English and Americans who were instantly hooked on my secret hoard following my last visit home. Not that they will recognise me when I go to distribute the bounty – I’m a tonne heavier after feasting on sorely missed meat pies and donuts for two weeks solid!

But it’s not just the food that’s cheaper in Australasia. My trips home aren’t exactly holidays – they’re more like torture trips, involving dentists, doctors, waxers and anything else that hurts but is cheaper Down Under. One of my Aussie friends in Geneva flew home once to get an infected wisdom tooth removed, because the flight was cheaper than going to a dentist down the street in Switzerland! When I had a medical for work in Geneva, the doctor asked me if I felt fine, stamped a form, then charged me the equivalent of NZ$150 for the five minute consultation.

Housing in Geneva is also ridiculous, largely because there is not enough to go around so unscrupulous landlords can push the prices up at will. My one-bedroom apartment, though spacious, costs the equivalent of NZ$2000 per month to rent, and that’s considered cheap for my neighbourhood. Fortunately my landlords are among the few genuinely nice ones. If you’re looking at buying, a three-bedroom house will easily set you back half a million dollars or more. Tenants have fewer rights in Switzerland too. It’s typical to pay three months’ bond, give three months notice to vacate (or lose the bond), and be kicked out rather rapidly if you break any of the myriad rules.

Still, I was so surprised at how rapidly housing prices have gone up in the land of the long white cloud since my last visit in February, that I considered joining the panic buyers when I was back. The bank put an end to my plans (apparently kiwis living abroad are high mortgage risks) but not before I’d had a chance to check out several properties with sloping floors, sloping ceilings, rotting timber, odd smells – and all priced about $40,000 or 40% over the government valuation. Just what is the deal with that anyway? Was it coincidence that all the houses I viewed had greedy vendors, or do landowners always rip people off in times of demand?

And while housing standards are mixed, they hold nothing on our national airline. After waiting two hours to board Air New Zealand while engineers made the plane sky-worthy (better to run late than to have parts fall off mid-air I suppose), I discovered I had no functioning light to read and write under, no view of a television, and no complementary toothbrush, socks and eye mask like passengers receive on many other long-haul airlines. And no, I wasn’t hitching a lift in someone’s suitcase in the hold. The hostesses though could not be faulted. In fact, I started writing this column with the aid of a torch loaned by one, although I didn’t dare tell her the topic of my ramblings. And at the end of that sentence they offered me complementary ice cream. A definite bonus! But is it really worth the ridiculous prices airlines charge to travel during the festive season?

I guess when it comes down to it though it’s all relative. If people were expected to live in Switzerland on New Zealand wages, now that would be distressing. And it would be really excellent if we could live in New Zealand on Swiss salaries. But I think chocolate will rain from the sky and swatch watches will grow on trees before that ever happens.

Copyright Julie Symons 2002

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