DOWNTOWN — When people think of Switzerland, some of the first things that come to mind usually involve good cheese and luxury watches. But as with all countries and places, stereotypes do not always capture the whole picture.
Just ask Maja Gartmann of Switzerland Tourism in Downtown Santa Monica. As the organization’s media relations coordinator for the western U.S. and Mexico and a Swiss native herself, it is Gartmann’s job to show people what her homeland really has to offer.
“A lot of times you have an idea about a country, [and] it might be completely the opposite of what you expected,” Gartmann said.
With tourism, people are able to see what Gartmann refers to as the “edgier” side of Switzerland, complete with superb skiing and the world’s largest techno rave parade. Top it all off with the distinction of being the greenest nation on the planet, and it’s clear why the country is not just the land of mountains and milkmaids.
Gartmann aims to break down misconceptions by making sure that her country finds its way into the media, working with publications and television shows. She does such a good job that her work has lead NBC’s “Travel Cafe” series to win not one but two L.A. Area Emmy Awards.
“I was ecstatic,” Gartmann said of her most recent Emmy. “I carried it with me for three-and-a-half weeks through Switzerland.”
It all began back in 2002 when Chuck Henry, “Travel Cafe’s” executive producer and host, contacted Gartmann about doing a Switzerland-focused episode. Now seven years later, Gartmann has traveled with Henry to Europe six different times to film six different shows about various parts of her home country.
“The first time I did the shoot with them in the Lake Geneva region it was kind of hard because [I didn’t] really know what they’re looking for,” Gartmann said. “Now I can see something and tell you right now ‘this would work for the show.’”
Aside from Lake Geneva, Gartmann has taken the crew to Ticino and Lucerne, while the shows on skiing in 2007 and on St. Moritz-Engadin in 2009 won Emmy’s. They have climbed mountains, met local artisans and spread the word on how to appropriately eat fondue.
“You view everything with different eyes,” Gartmann said. “It’s amazing what kind of people you find.’
Even as a native of the Graubunden region where the St. Moritz-Engadin episode was filmed, Gartmann still feels she has learned and discovered things about her homeland.
“You get to see stuff which other people normally wouldn’t see,” Gartmann said.
Exposing herself and others to new cultures and experiences is one of Gartmann’s main passions. She is fluent in six languages and studied tourism management at school in Zurich. She sees the industry as a way for people to expand their horizons.
“It’s good to see different points of view,” Gartmann said. “You don’t have to accept everything, but I think it opens the mind to different cultures.”
As someone who truly lives out this philosophy, the tourism advocate traveled to Tokyo in June. Though she often found herself “lost in translation,” the world traveler loved experiencing a something that was truly unique.
“Years ago I thought I would never like to go to Japan,” Gartmann reflected. “Now I’m the biggest fan.”
Though she just returned from Switzerland with the “Travel Cafe” team, Gartmann also travels back to Switzerland on her own about three times a year to visit her family. The food, unique language and beauty of the Graubunden region are things she will always miss.
“What Colorado is in the U.S., Graubunden is in Switzerland. It’s all mountainous,” Gartmann said. “It’s probably one of the prettiest parts.”
Surprisingly enough, however, Gartmann has found things about Southern California that remind her of the homeland.
“In the evening you have a European feel,” Gartmann said of Santa Monica. “There’s lots of cute little restaurants where you can sit outside. It’s the perfect amount of European lifestyle mixed with the American lifestyle.”
Something that Gartmann feels both Switzerland and California share is the active mindset. Though she fell in love with the state in 1988 while she was taking an intensive language course in San Diego, Gartmann moved out west in the 1990s for fitness. A fan of the beach, skiing and yoga, Gartmann is a certified personal fitness and aerobics instructor.
“What I love about California — and I wish that more places in the U.S. were like [this] — the fitness lifestyle [and] it’s green,” Gartmann said. “I hope that more people adapt to that.”
Gartmann currently lives in Marina del Rey, but has also lived in Hollywood and Venice Beach. As of yet, she sees Santa Monica as the only place in L.A. with a truly green mindset. In March, Gartmann will also be moving to the other side of the bay so she can commute to work by bike. This means she will have easier access to the shops and restaurants of Santa Monica where she spends so much of her free time.
“I practically only go out in Santa Monica,” Gartmann said.
Gartmann also lived in New York for five years when she began working with Switzerland Tourism. Though a great experience, she missed California.
“I love New York. It’s fast-paced, you’re on top of the world,” Gartmann said, “but the living is different, so I was very happy when this position came up.”
Since her time back in California, Gartmann has also worked with “Travelscope” on PBS and author Richard Bangs for his book “Quest for the Sublime: Finding Nature’s Secret in Switzerland.” She hopes that the next Swiss edition of “Travel Cafe” will provide a companion for the Emmy that now sits in her office.
“It’s so beautiful, [but] it’s also motivating,” Gartmann said. “You never know, you might be surprised. That’s what I love about tourism.”