We bought our house in the Geneva countryside sixteen years ago, and all our Swiss friends complimented us on our big and roomy bomb shelter. We use it to store little-used items such as Christmas decorations, antique computers, boxes of old slides, wooden tennis racquets, and decades of income tax returns. A freezer and a beer fridge both hum away happily, and there are still a couple of mystery boxes that haven’t been unpacked.
Starting at the height of the cold war in the 1960s, every private house built had to have its own officially-approved shelter – a thick-walled room with a mysterious contraption in one corner. This legal obligation was phased out about ten years ago.
However, back in October 2010 we were seriously alarmed when an official letter arrived, announcing The Official Bomb Shelter Visit. Suddenly faced with two pages of rules and diagrams (article 28 of the Civil Protection Ordinances) involving the verification and functionality of the air intake system, the anti-explosion valve, the pre-filter, the reducer, the blocking mechanism, the lead rings, the gas filter, and the condensed-water recipient we were flummoxed.
The crank was nowhere to be found. The dog was a prime suspect.
During those long years between inspections, all rubber bits were supposed to have been treated with silicon and the massive armoured door and window should have been kept rust-free. The motor should have been tried out (without filter attached) for at least five minutes every twelve months. The anti-explosion valve should have been cleaned and looked after. Attention should have been paid.
When the big day finally came, the inspectors tried to catch us out and arrived two hours before schedule. They were from the Swiss Civil Protection Force and wearing clean and sharply pressed brown and orange boiler suits. From a clipboard, they handed me a 10-page brochure on “Helpful Bomb Shelter Tips” and my heart sank.
Colleagues had told me that a drink, or even a bottle of wine, might be a friendly gesture to grease the inspection wheels. However, as my inspectors were of obviously non-Swiss cultural origin, this plan was relegated to a last resort.
Down the dusty, dog-haired steps to the basement, my inspectors trotted behind me and I heard a sigh—was it of contentment?—when we got to the massive door and they stepped inside and pulled it shut.
Miraculously, having done nothing, we passed the inspection. As they left the inspectors called out cheerily that they would be back in five years.
As the inspection day trauma gradually faded, retirement and travel and grandchildren happily filled in life’s cracks and the bomb shelter reverted to its friendly functions of storing swim fins and snorkels and mosquito nets and old toys. Until last week.
On November 10th, 2021 an official letter arrived. It cited Article 81 (sic) of the Civil Protection Ordinances and an inspection is imminent. It stresses that the site has to be prepared, and the elements accessible and “manipulable”. There are pages of cut-away drawings and a list of checks that should have been carried out every 12 months.
A new element has been introduced: the “emergency escape.” It has to be functional and I have a horrible feeling that this involves the grill where a 10-ton flower pot is now standing with a huge tree growing inside it.
Off now down to the bomb shelter for a cold glass of “last resort”. I will let you know how this all pans out.
Note: The original op-ed article, Inspection Day, was published October 22, 2010 in The New York Times (IHT). Le Jour de l’Inspection was published in Le Temps also in October 2010. The French translation by Emmanuel Gehrig.