by Nancy Bach
La Douane? What’s that?
When we learned we were moving to Switzerland I was elated. I love visiting new countries and learning new languages, so I was excited for the opportunity to add Swiss to my personal language portfolio. It took a while to remember that there is no “Swiss” language. Depending on the part of the country visited, Switzerland uses three official languages: French, German, and Italian.
Our assignment was at Switzerland’s southwest tip in Geneva, a small, but powerful international city hosting numerous UN and other global organizations. In this beautiful setting on Lac Leman and the Rhone River, Genève, as it is known to natives, is totally surrounded by France. Formidable! I was set. With my full year of high school French I would be speaking fluently in no time.Our family quickly settled into regular routines. The three kids attended L’Ecole Internationale de Genève, the world’s oldest and largest international school, while my husband and I worked at offices at the airport. We loved morning croissants and pains au chocolats from the boulangerie near our townhouse, every-weekend skiing in the Alps, and easy access to all parts of Europe. La vie est belle! Life is beautiful!
There were adjustments to make, however. We found the Swiss lifestyle a bit more regimented than we were used to. Many homes in our neighborhood had 20-foot hedges blocking visibility. Speed trap cameras were everywhere. And worst of all, at least from my perspective as a working mother, was that stores in Geneva closed by 6PM. We made accommodations. We met people while dining at communal restaurant tables rather than strolling through the neighborhood. We asked our secretary to help us write the appeal letter (in French) for our speeding ticket. And we hopped across the border to France on weekends to get groceries.
Coming back from our shopping trip in France to Switzerland required passing through a customs and duty checkpoint, the douane. There were multiple lanes for à déclarer and rien à déclarer. We always chose the “nothing to declare” lane since we were just bringing home our groceries for the week, nothing we thought would require payment of duty.
One workday I arrived home a bit after 6PM and found that we were out of milk—a major problem for the next day’s breakfast for our cereal-loving family. I had just enough time to race to the supermarket in France to beat its closing time of 7PM. I bought 19 liters of milk, enough for a few days, and other items to fill four or five grocery bags. I headed home singing along with the musical Notre Dame de Paris on CD.
I took a quiet shortcut, going through a back-road douane we didn’t often visit. There was only one lane. An unsmiling guard, armed with what looked like a handheld machinegun, spoke to me in French…rapidly. Trop vite! I caught only “Avez-vous…? ” Do you have…? With an air of nonchalance, I responded, “Rien à déclarer.” Nothing to declare.
Instead of waving me through, the guard tried more French, but seeing my clueless expression, he resorted to gestures. He indicated that I should get out of the car and then, using the gun, pointed me to the back of the minivan. I tried to explain that I had only food, but “Où est la bibliothèque?” was the only coherent French phrase that came to mind, and asking where to find the library didn’t seem appropriate for that moment.
The guard again gestured (avec le mitrailleuse!) for me to remove the contents from the back of the car and put them on a stainless steel table that looked like a butchering counter. I was starting to get nervous. Mon Dieu! Was I going to be sent to a French prison? Would I ever see my family again? A sickly wave of powerlessness swept over me. I was being held at gunpoint and no one in the world knew where I was. Worst of all, I could not express myself with anything other than simple gestures. Quel dommage!
The guard kept his weapon in hand until I had unloaded all my bags. Then another guard with a slightly smaller weapon came to the table, removed all the items from the bags, and sorted them into various piles. He counted some, weighed some, and just shook his head at others. He made notations on the multi-page document on his clipboard. This took hours—at least in my mind. The two guards discussed the results, flipping pages back and forth several times. Mr. Friendly with the machinegun gestured me to a corner to wait.
At last, I was called to a cashier and presented with a bill. I was charged about $20 for duty on the items I was bringing into Switzerland that were above the allowed limits. At the time, the total duty-free value PER PERSON was only 50 Swiss francs, about 50USD; I was over that. The allowed amount of milk was three liters per person; I was WAY over that. The fresh apple limit was 2kg, processed apple products 1kg, chicken 1 kg, fresh meat .5kg, dried meat 2kg, etc., etc. I didn’t know about these per person limits since our family of five had never been challenged when we crossed the border. A few months after my incident the total duty free limit was raised to 300 Swiss francs and some of the other limits were combined and relaxed. Too late to help me! Here are the current limits:
Back at the guard station, each of my overages was noted on my bill, and then the total amount was multiplied by three, because I had lied when I said I had nothing to declare! I paid my $60 bill, gathered my groceries, tucked my tail between my legs, and shakily drove home, poorer, but wiser.