The French President and the Green Fairy

François Mitterrand was in trouble. Elected president two years earlier on the promise of a “French road to socialism,” things had not gone as planned. Perhaps he had gone too far, too fast, but within a year the French franc had collapsed and he was forced to make a U-turn. Then came an austerity program, and his popularity plunged.

Mitterrand decided to do what many unpopular politicians do: go on a foreign junket. He could strut about the world stage, show presidential leadership, and generally try to change the subject.

He picked neighboring Switzerland as his destination. It would be the first state visit by a French president in nearly 75 years—a nice way to capture headlines. And Switzerland being such a calm and safe country, what could possibly go wrong?

Enter absinthe, the drink nicknamed “the green fairy” that had long been banned, blamed for making people like Vincent van Gogh go insane. Find out how this illegal drink was at the center of an international scandal in calm little Switzerland.

Read all about it in The Good Life France!

France and the “Right to Disconnect”

The French are at it again

Photo by xpiswv at

First it was all that vacation time.

Then it was the 35-hour workweek.

Now the French have established the “right to disconnect.”

Yes, a new law requires employers to negotiate with their employees on when they can send them work-related emails. After 7pm? No, that’s too late! I’ve already started my aperitif!

Coming from Silicon Valley as I do, at first this sounded crazy. After all, around here we joke that “flexible working hours” means “you can put in your 18-hour day whenever you’d like.” We’re inventing the future! We don’t have time for vacations!

But then I reflected on the years I spent as an expat working in Switzerland.

Work there was confined to the regular workweek and only rarely spilled over to the weekend. More than that, stores in Switzerland closed at noon on Saturday and didn’t open again until Monday.

This was really annoying at first. My wife and I worked all week, which meant we had to cram our shopping into Saturday morning. What a pain!

But eventually we came to appreciate everything being closed. We couldn’t shop, we couldn’t run errands. We had to take a break.

Over time we settled in and learned to do what everyone else did – enjoyed the weekend as a time for family and friends, a time for hikes in the mountains and lunches in the garden.

Living in Switzerland was wildly different from what we were used to in Silicon Valley. People worked hard just like at home, but life was somehow less hectic.

Work wasn’t the be-all and end-all: my wife was once eating a sandwich at her desk when a colleague came by and lectured her on the importance of taking a proper lunch break. And everyone took all of their vacation days; not to do so was considered unhealthy.

Yet the Swiss economy is the envy of the world. And productivity, a key measure of economic health, is higher in France than in Germany or Japan.

So maybe those lazy French are actually on to something – time away from work can actually be good for you and good for the economy.

You can hear my reading of this commentary on National Public Radio here.


My Life as a Swiss Criminal

It started with the clothes dryer

I became a criminal during my first week in Switzerland.

It began when I moved there for an expat assignment, back before Val and I started living in Provence. We needed to supply our own clothes washer and dryer. And because Swiss appliances are ridiculously expensive, we were advised to buy a washer and dryer in the US and ship them over.

There was only one problem: Swiss electrical standards are different than ours. So I found a specialty store that carried “international appliances” and confirmed the specs.

  • 220 volts? Check.
  • 60 hertz? Check.
  • 3-phase electricity? Check.

We were all set. Or so I thought.

When our stuff arrived in Switzerland, it was easy to plug in the washer. But the dryer was another story – an electrician had to wire it up.

I called the village electrician but he could only come during the day so my neighbor let him in. When I got home that night I learned that the electrician couldn’t do the wiring due to some mysterious technical thingy. I was stuck.

So I talked to the head of facilities at my company. He agreed to send out the electrician who had helped build our factory, Monsieur Jeanneret. I was assured that he was the best – no silly clothes dryer could stop him!

I met M. Jeanneret during lunch hour. He inspected the dryer and his eyes got big. Uh, oh. Then he went to the basement to check the electrical panel and as he walked back up the stairs he shook his head.

I hadn’t learned much French yet so I didn’t understand his long explanation. But I understood “big problem” and “very expensive.” M. Jeanneret left without doing any wiring.

My facilities manager spoke to him later that day and explained the problem to me. It had to do with amperage. Wait, what? I had the right voltage and hertz and all that, didn’t I?

Well yes, but they only describe the kind of electricity. There’s this other thing called amperage that describes how much. The higher the amperage, the more of an energy hog an appliance is.  And mine was the biggest, fattest, hungriest hog that M. Jeanneret had ever seen.

How hungry? The dryer drew 30 amps of electricity. That’s no problem in an American home, which is typically wired for 200. But my cozy little Swiss house only had 25.

This meant the dryer used more electricity than the entire house!

It put into perspective how much energy we Americans use. And how energy conscious the Swiss are.

So now I faced a dilemma. I could buy a Swiss dryer (very expensive.) I could rewire the house (very, very expensive). Or I could become a criminal.

I went with criminal.

I plugged the dryer into a wall outlet and set it on low. That worked but it was highly illegal.


The Swiss are clever. They know that lunch is the big meal of the day. Millions of stoves cooking at the same time creates peak electrical demand and the Swiss government wants other big appliances off the grid; otherwise they need to build new power plants.

One way they do this is by requiring that all dryers be wired into special circuits that shut off electricity around lunchtime.

My dryer, my lovely big American dryer, was not connected to one of these special circuits.

I was a Swiss outlaw.

My crime was never discovered, thank god. I didn’t care to experience the rigors of Swiss prison life.   Rumor had it that Swiss prisoners are deprived of Lindt chocolate and forced to make do with Hershey’s.

In Switzerland, that’s considered cruel and unusual punishment.