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SWITZERLAND BY ANY OTHER NAME

There are some places in the world that have become brandnames. And often you can't help wonder why. 

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Last year I went to Switzerland three times without actually going there. Not the Switzerland of Toblerone and on-time trains, but the Switzerland of Asia, the Switzerland of Africa, and the Switzerland of the Caribbean. At the time I never would've thought I was in Switzerland - where were the autobahns, the people in liederhosen yodeling, the quaint ski resorts? - but my guidebooks insisted that I was in the midst of the local equivalents: namely Hong Kong, Uganda, and Haiti.

Since then I've become an inveterate "Switzerland" watcher - that is, I can't help noticing whenever a guidebook, magazine, or brochure uses the Alpine nation in its description of a place that's nowhere near Central Europe.

I won't begin to list all the Switzerlands I've found, seeing I'm up to several dozen already, but they range from towns (Hindhead: Switzerland of Great Britain) to - surprise! - countries (Kyrgyzstan: Switzerland of Central Asia), and from a single island (La Palma: Switzerland of the Canary Islands) to a group of islands (New Zealand: Switzerland of the South Pacific). Some continents have a new Switzerland (Oman: Switzerland of the Middle East) as well as a former one (Lebanon), while South America has at least two Switzerlands at the same time, and Asia no less than five.

These Switzerlands might lie thousands of miles away from each other, let alone from their namesake, with climates and cultures that couldn't be more unSwiss (I didn't once schuss down a slope in the Caribbean, drink a warm gluwein in Hong Kong, or eat a Ugandan Ementaler - nor did I get the chance to), but something about them clearly inspired visiting scribes to conjure the Home of the Cuckoo Clock.

Few of them bother to explain the connection, though, so you're left wondering: Could Oman have crystal-clear lakes? Might there be snow in Haiti, speedy trains in the Canaries, and efficient Kyrgyzian banks? And are good fondues a highlight of New Zealand?  

Of course not. Each reference probably had something to do with the place's small/insular/mountainous qualities. Why the writers didn't just use the word small, insular or mountainous could be for one of three reasons. They 1) were trying to be clever, 2) couldn't think of anything else to say, or 3) hoped that by linking a known destination with one that's unknown, they would put it on the map - or at least make us realize it is on a map at all.

"Ah, the Switzerland of Central Asia," the traveler says upon reading the guidebook for Kyrgyzstan. "That sounds familiar. How gemutlich . Let's try it."

Stealing from the famous to help draw a picture of the unfamous is not a new practice among travel writers. Mark Twain, after visiting Hawaii, called Waimea Canyon the Grand Canyon of the Pacific. Winston Churchill, meanwhile, called Marrakech the Paris of the Sahara, and in so doing opened up a geographic can of worms. The French capital has since then become to cities what Switzerland is to countries - a name for all places.

Before I went to Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, for instance, I read several times that it was the Paris of Africa. When I got there, the grimy brashness of the harbor city suggested more of a Marseilles of the Gulf of Guinea, although even I had to admit that wasn't nearly as catchy. And catchiness, it seems, is part of the function of the call-one-place-after-another practice.

So catchy is the designation Paris of Africa, in fact, that I have since seen it used for three other cities: Dakar, in Senegal, Libreville, in Gabon, and for the Congo's capital, Kinshasa. Elsewhere, the French capital has been associated with everything from a small town on Martinique (St. Pierre: Paris of the West Indies) to a metropolis full of people who speak Spanish and love to tango (Buenos Aires: Paris of the Western Hemisphere). One British city has been called the Paris of the Midlands and the Venice of the North, all but making you forget that it actually has a character of its own too. (And that city, for anyone who didn't immediately guess from the hints, is Birmingham.)

In the United States alone, by my count, there are at least seven Parises. In order to gauge how successful these comparisons are, you might like to guess what they refer to: Paris of the West, Paris of the Delta, Paris of Virginia, Paris of the Pacific, Paris of the South, Paris of the Northeast, and Paris of Contra Costa County. (The answers can be found at the end.)

Clearly, this placename-dropping is getting out of hand, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the case of Montana. The state has been called not only the Switzerland of the Rockies, which themselves have already been called the Switzerland of the United States - which would, in effect, make Montana "the Switzerland of the Switzerland of America" - but also the Grand Cayman of the North. And if that leaves you totally clueless, consider the following analogy of the obscure with the equally obscure, "The Seychelles are the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean."

No dictionary refers to the use of placenames as a part of speech - at least not yet - even though they are being used so often they could be. I have even seen them invoked to describe airlines ("the Switzerland of the air-cargo industry") and websites ("the Switzerland of beauty dot-coms). Not one of these descriptions tells you anything about the business or the country it's supposed to be like, but going from all the other Switzerlands, Parises, Venises and Galapagoses in the world, maybe that's the point.

(A Paris Near You: San Francisco, New Orleans, Old Town Alexandria, Oakland, Asheville in North Carolina, Philadelphia, and Walnut Creek.)

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Submitted to The New York Times , but rejected with an email I unfortunately deleted.

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