I'd been talking on the phone for a few minutes with Alex Biscaro, spokesman for the Swiss Embassy, when I finally had to ask: Look, aren't Americans just a bunch of stupid idiots?

"I would never say that," Alex said, neutrally.

That's the Swiss for you: even-keeled, slow to anger, reluctant to take offense. I'd wanted to start an international incident, and I'd picked the wrong country. (Next time: the Dutch, with their noisy wooden shoes and their unseemly tulip love.)

The reason for my foray into geopolitics was something that reader Michele Clark pointed out. Michele works at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

She's very mindful of how the United States is perceived around the world, especially since so many of the foreigners she encounters seem to think Americans can't find Afghanistan on a map or spell "France."

Michele was at the Festival of American Folklife over the summer when a friend from Switzerland asked why the Swiss flag was flying on the Mall.

Said Michele: "I wandered down there and, sure enough, there was the white cross against a red background, signaling the presence not of a foreign consulate, but rather of a first aid station. My friend, justifiably, laughed."

Michele let pass the indignity of having her country mocked by someone whose breath smelled faintly of Ricola.

Recently, however, she was jogging on the Mall when she saw that the first aid tent for the upcoming Native American festival bore the same inverted symbol: a white cross on a red field.

"And this time I really had to hang my head," said Michele. Why wasn't it a red cross on a white field, the international symbol of aid and succor?

"Duh, should this not be self-explanatory?" Michele wondered.

So I called the Smithsonian to heap scorn upon them. (I keep a bag of scorn handy for just this purpose.)

It turns out that the Smithsonian intentionally reversed the colors.

"The reason that the flag is not a red cross on a white background is that symbol is trademarked by the American Red Cross," said the Smithsonian's Becky Haberacker. "So we just went the other way."


Yes, said the American Red Cross's Stacey Grissom. Except for certain companies that were using the red cross before 1905 -- Johnson & Johnson among them -- use of that symbol by anyone other than the American Red Cross is a violation of the law. (The medical services of the military and some corporate partners of the Red Cross may also use it.)

Stacey said they don't want the symbol sullied by other uses. It must, she said, maintain its "neutrality."

When I called Michele back to explain the results of my investigation, she said: "So now we're reduced to plagiarizing the flag of a friendly country because we can't plagiarize the flag of a first aid organization? Is that what you're telling me?"

Yeah, I guess so.

"I still think it's pretty pathetic."

Alex at the Swiss Embassy was a bit amazed, too. He wasn't aware of any of this complicated tale. He said first aid stations have red crosses on white fields in Europe.

He also said that there hasn't been too much confusion in Washington. Though a Swiss flag flies above the embassy on Cathedral Avenue NW, no injured people have limped up in search of first aid, no ambulances have idled at the front gate.

Alex told me that in the past few years, T-shirts emblazoned with the Swiss flag have become very chic in Switzerland.

When he came to America with his own patriotic shirt, he said he was told: "Never go on a beach with such a T-shirt. Everybody mistakes you as a lifeguard, and they expect you to run and save them."

Join me tomorrow for my weekly Web chat. It's at www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline. Or share your neutral thoughts at kellyj@washpost.com or The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

This first-aid flag on the Mall mimics the Swiss flag's white cross on a red background, below left, because unlike the American Red Cross logo, with the red cross on a white background, it's not copyrighted. Got that?