How is it possible to raise inconvenience to an art form?
A dull March day at the Geneva Central Train Station. The main escalator was kaput. It had seemingly been cordoned off for ages, surrounded by signs warning everybody to stay out and gathering dust and cobwebs while arrangements were no doubt being made for its repair.
Several days later nothing had changed: it was still dusty and forlorn, a looming structure, silent with paralysis. People sighed with resignation and toted their luggage up and down the nearby stairs. The problem with their luggage appeared to be not so much its weight as its bulk. Were their wheeled suitcases and rucksacks filled with sandwiches and bananas?
Most of the arrivals were tourists – the station is linked directly with Geneva’s airport – and the internet and previous experience had warned them to avoid paying Swiss prices for snacks and stodgy meals whenever possible. And who would blame them?
But we are left with the question of why it should take so long to repair important equipment in the main train station of a major world city.
Even if their reputation as hoteliers is overblown, are the Swiss not renowned for their command of efficiency? Isn’t Switzerland supposed to be the country where the expression just like clockwork isn’t merely rhetorical? If it’s not exactly a nation of robots, it’s at least the kind of country where the general urge to do everything by the book leads the people in the next apartment to ring your doorbell and reproach you for putting your garbage in the wrong kind of bag. And yet a public disruption like this dragged on for ages. Why?
Il ne marche pas!
Geography may answer that question. Switzerland is stuck in Europe. It’s surrounded, with no hope of escape. Sure Switzerland likes to be different, with its hardheaded neutrality and constant referendums. But it’s a victim of its own success. The Swiss occupy a small territory, but they wield inordinate purchasing power. Even Switzerland’s down-and-outs are rich. So the country can afford what ever it wants without having to bother making it.
They can buy whatever they need in the nearby countries where graffiti assaults the eyes without mercy. Where most buildings are covered in graffiti. Trains, too. And doorways, fountains and statues. And where even the signs prohibiting graffiti are covered in graffiti.
So the Swiss can rely on Germany, France and Italy (some of Graffitistan’s major members) for everything except bank management, watches and chocolate. But this is a double-edged sword. As anyone familiar with Graffitistan can attest, inconvenience has evolved into an art form.
Inconvenience as an art form? Maybe more accurately described as a way of life.
Imagine a Sunday afternoon in Xvillestadtburgo, a medium-sized Graffitistani city. You wish to purchase a set of screwdrivers. A shop sells screwdrivers. But it’s closed. The sign on the window says:
OPEN 10:00 – 13:00 and 16:00 – 20:00 MON – FRI and 10:00 – 13:00 SAT
CLOSED SUNDAY AND 1st AND 3rd MONDAY OF EACH MONTH
CLOSED ALL NATIONAL HOLIDAYS
CLOSED ALL AUGUST AND FIRST HALF OF JANUARY
CLOSED ON FEAST OF ST. SEBASTIAN
And so it goes. If you want to spend money in Xvillestadtburgo after Saturday lunchtime your options may be limited mainly to prostitutes and heroin.
Which brings us back to Geneva’s central station’s dead escalator. The station’s management was no doubt mortified by this state of affairs. But what more could it do than call the nearest manufacturer’s agent in Graffitistan and ask for the problem to be rectified with all possible speed? We can imagine the manufacturer’s agent sitting in his office. Let’s say it’s in Milan. He is talking to Geneva.
MANUFACTURER’S AGENT: So, you have a slight problem over there in la belle Suisse, do you?
STATION MANAGER: I’d call it more than a slight problem. It’s the main escalator for passengers disembarking from the airport to reach street level. It’s totally kaput.
M.A. : I see. I see. One of life’s tribulations. A piccolo trial of everyone’s patience. I see.
S.M.: Ah! So you’ve read Marcus Aurelius too, have you?
S.M.: Never mind. So…?
S.M.: So? When can you get the main escalator working again? The sooner the better, need I remind you?
M.A.: Well now, signore, a technician will have to take a look at it.
S.M.: Naturally. And as soon as you get cracking you can arrange that, correct?
M.A.: Cracking, signore? Is the escalator cracked?
S.M.: No, no. I’m asking if you’ll arrange this right away.
M.A.: Allora, you understand this means I must contact the manufacturer in Munich?
S.M.: Right, so kindly do so. When do you think they can send somebody?
M.A.: Hmmm. Hmmmm. Well, probabilmente in a week or two. Probabilmente.
S.M.: Did you say a week or two!?
M.A.: Si, about a week or two. Maybe sooner if I contact them today. Which I won’t, since it’s nearly lunch time.