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Spin the Globe: Eric Weiner in Liechtenstein

AFAR chose a destination at random—by literally spinning a globe—and sent writer Eric Weiner on a spontaneous journey to Liechtenstein.

On my second day in Liechtenstein, an odd question occurs to me: Does Liechtenstein exist? In any other country, such a question would be absurd. But in a nation with the population of Muskogee, Oklahoma, a nation you can traverse end to end in 20 minutes, even accounting for traffic (if there were traffic), a nation with no prisons or airports or bureaucracy or any of the other trappings of modern statehood—it is a perfectly reasonable question.

I glance at my lunch companion, a local journalist named Sigvard. He clearly exists, but what about his nation? “Does it exist?” I ask.

Sigvard doesn’t answer right away, he just sips his espresso and stares off into the dis- tance, toward Switzerland, or maybe Austria. I’m not sure. Finally, he speaks.

“Can I get back to you on that?”

It’s not easy being a citizen of one of the world’s smallest nations. “We are great pretenders,” Sigvard finally declares, and before long I see what he means. Liechtenstein pretends to be an independent nation-state. It’s a fabrication, though, for this tiny principality is so Swiss that a Swiss friend of mine calls it “just another canton.”

Size shouldn’t matter, or, as Dr. Seuss might put it, “a country’s a country no matter how small.” It shouldn’t matter, but it does. We respect nations with geopolitical heft, and we ridicule the microstate. Thankfully, there’s almost always someone smaller than you, and sure enough, during my stay I hear a few Liechtensteiners speak dismissively of San Marino and Andorra. “Those little countries,” one person sniffs. Seriously.

What Liechtenstein lacks in acreage it makes up for in banks. More than 15 of them. The sort of banks where few questions are asked, discretion being Liechtenstein’s most precious natural resource. And make no mistake about it, Liechtensteinian discretion is not that diluted form found across the Rhine River in Switzerland. No siree, we’re talking pure, unalloyed discretion. The kind of discretion that, frankly, I shouldn’t even be discussing.

For my four-day visit, I’ve decided to base myself in Liechtenstein’s capital city, Vaduz, which is really more of an overgrown village, albeit a village where Patek Philippe and Cartier signs compete for attention, a village where time is kept on a large, public Rolex. Add in boatloads of money, alpine vistas to die for, and bus drivers who actually smile and make change, and you begin to get the picture. What strikes me most, though, is what is missing. No crime. No traffic. No litter.

On my first morning in Vaduz, the cost of breakfast at my hotel threatens to bankrupt me, so I venture out in search of an affordable caffeine fix. I walk a few meters down the street before stumbling across a squat little building that smells of freshly brewed coffee.

“Hoi,” says the proprietor, employing the compact, karate-chop greeting common here. His name is Alpers, and he’s originally from Turkey. He just opened his café a few days ago. I am one of his first customers. He unfurls a flyer with the just-announced name: The Square Café. That seems about right for Liechtenstein. Neat and symmetrical.

I order a coffee, then a second. Alpers throws in a third on the house.We sit outside on little plastic chairs and car-watch as a parade of BMWs and Mercedes and the occasional Lamborghini rolls by.

“Look!” Alpers says suddenly. “In that car.”

“What?” All I see is yet another BMW driven by yet another perfectly coiffed woman.

“The princess.”

The Liechtenstein royal family is accessible. They’re ordinary, or as ordinary as a family worth billions can be. “Not like the British royalty,” says Alpers proudly. Here, they drive themselves around town. Prince Hans-Adam is said to go running in the forest. Barefoot. Another difference: Unlike British royalty, Liechtenstein’s prince has actual power. He rules with a small but powerful fist, able to veto any law and dismiss ministers at will. Before he handed the reins of government to his son in 2004, Hans-Adam was known to respond to political resistance by threatening to decamp to Austria and leave the principality princeless.

Directly above my hotel is the castle. Maybe it has a name—I don’t know—but that’s what everyone calls it: Das Schloss. The Castle. It dates back to the 12th century and looks exactly the way I imagine a 12th-century castle should look, beefy and foreboding. I never see anyone entering or leaving Das Schloss. My journalist pal Sigvard—who has been inside—proclaims it “dark and depressing.”

While hanging out at the Square Café again the next day, I meet a posse of Liechtenstein’s elite. They’re sipping very expensive champagne and smoking equally expensive cigars while sitting on Alpers’s cheap plastic chairs. They sport designer eyewear and the sort of consciously tattered clothing that only the wealthy can afford.

What is the best thing about life in Liechtenstein? I ask.

“It’s nice,” says one person, discreetly. “You never feel alone,” says another.
“We love our prince,” says a third, and a chorus of harrumphs follows.

“The taxes,” says a man in ripped jeans. “They’re not so high.”

He is quickly shushed. He has been indiscreet.

Alpers serves beer, and I order one. It’s called Brauhaus, and it’s one of Liechtenstein’s few tangible products (along with, for some reason, dentures). Ein Land Ein Bier is the brewery’s slogan, as if beer had the power to cement a national identity, which it just might.

I never thought I would miss dirt and squalor, but now, by day two in Liechtenstein, that is exactly what is happening. I am desperate for grit. I’m not expecting public urination or anything as grandly seamy as that, but how about a stray gum wrapper, or a crushed beer can? Something. Anything.

Sigvard has told me about a dive bar called the Black Box. “The sort of place you go when you’re drunk and don’t want to go home,” he said. That evening I spot it. My hopes soar. But when I approach, I find the doors shuttered. The Black Box has gone under. This is not a good sign.

I’m determined to have an authentic Liechtenstein meal, but Sigvard has stated confidently that “there is nothing genuinely Liechtensteinian,” including the cuisine. So I eat lots of Italian food instead, at a place next to my hotel. On my second night I feel like a regular and strike up a conversation with one of the waitresses.

“Liechtenstein is what most people consider paradise,” she says.

“Is it paradise?” I ask.

“It is a kind of paradise.”

A kind of paradise. Paradise qualified is not paradise at all, I think but do not say. The next morning, I wake to the sound of banging and hammering. Workers are erecting a carnival in the town square. Another noise is even more jarring: a police siren outside my window. An intrusion from the real world, an auditory reminder of the sort of messiness out there “across the river.” I hear that phrase a lot. Across the river, in Switzerland, anything can happen. Not necessarily bad things, either. Liechtensteiners must cross the river in order to spend money lavishly on something other than watches or hotel breakfasts, or have an affair, or go out for an exceptional meal, or do any of the other things that residents of “normal” nations do.

On my last day, Sigvard and I decide to go hiking in the mountains that surround Vaduz. He and his compatriots sport an impressive array of gear: NASA-approved microfiber clothing and poles—not walking sticks, mind you, but sleek, aerodynamic poles that scare me. And Liechtensteiners are fast! Grandmothers pass me, as do 6-year-olds. It’s humiliating.

We turn a corner on the path, and suddenly, I notice there is no sound of civilization. Nothing. Sigvard tells me he has been pondering my existential question for a couple of days now, and he has an answer. “From the outside, Liechtenstein doesn’t exist,” he says. “But from the inside it does.”

I can’t argue with that. I look down at the valley far below. Suddenly, Liechtenstein doesn’t seem so small. It is I who feels small, mocked by the towering Alps, the big sky, and the monumental wealth. A disturbing thought worms its way into my mind: What if Liechtenstein exists but I don’t?

That night I check out the carnival in the square. My eyes are drawn to a sign pointing to a bar. Actually, it’s a trailer, the kind used for hauling horses, that’s been converted into a bar. It exists, but in a provisional way. Perfect, I think, as I walk up the ramp.

It’s called the Schloss Hexen, or Witches’ Castle. Inside, it’s dark, with broomsticks on the wall and Styrofoam spiders here and there. Tending bar is a stern woman with huge biceps and tattoos. Harry Potter meets Easy Rider.

I down a few drinks, make small talk, which consists mainly of me saying hoi over and over, and then sign the guest book. “This is the best bar in Liechtenstein,” I write, and I mean it.

The next morning the Witches’ Castle is gone. Was it ever there, I wonder?