Archive for December 2009

Geneva, No Longer Home

December 5, 2009

There was a brief time, lasting just five months, about twelve years ago, when I called Geneva home.  I hadn’t returned since then, until last week, when I was seized with a sudden desire to see all my old favorite places. The fact that we were there during the infamous minaret referendum and a WTO riot didn’t faze us at all; in fact, we were happily oblivious to both until after we were safely back in France.

We were full of excitement as we got ready for our trip.  At least Shel and I were.  Even though he looked rather cross at the sight of the suitcase, Beppo would have been happy to come with us, but alas, it was not to be, even though he’s the proud possessor of a cute little European Cat Passport.  I kid you not.

Parts of Geneva are truly beautiful, other parts are desperately drab.

And it’s full of history.  Here’s where philosopher and composer Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712.

It’s a city of enormous contrasts.  Every other window is full of glittering watches,

fancy labels (isn’t this Louis Vuitton store  supposed to be selling luggage?),

or high fashion design.  There’s an unimaginable amount of money in Geneva.  Shel saw an  Aston Martin, two Bentleys, a Ferrari, a Maserati, and assorted other high zoot vehicles just while we were wandering around downtown.

We paid a memorial visit to what used to be my favorite grocery store, formerly the downtown Placette, now a Manor.  Here’s a guy slicing and packaging pata negra ham from Spain, for $268 Swiss francs a kilo.  Since right now the Swiss franc is just about equal to the American dollar, that’s $268 a kilo, or well over $100 a pound.  Somebody must be buying it, but we sure weren’t.  And he wasn’t offering free tastes, either.

It’s the sort of  store that sells boar stew, and venison stew, by the 100 grams.  That’s about a 3 1/2 oz portion.

The foreign food section, which was where I got the best ras el hanout of my life all those years ago, has been transformed into a department where they sell stuff like this.  Spice powder for making American-style French fries.  It’s so sad.

On the other hand, nearby was this little cafe full of birds

and, just a few minutes further down the road, there are stores like this.

What I love about Geneva is that it’s the most international place I’ve ever been.  Everyone is from somewhere else.  On the tram and in the streets you hear every language in the world, see every sort of dress.  Half the time you can’t even guess what people are speaking, even though they seem to understand each other perfectly.  I feel right at home in the midst of all that.

Another thing I love is that the Swiss are very direct about telling you what to think.  This sign says, basically: The handicapped aren’t like us.  They’re capable of coping with challenges that would wipe out the rest of us.  Our prejudices are our handicaps.

Or this one, that says: the Swiss have better stuff to export than weapons.  I didn’t think it was a bit cheesy, as campaign slogans go.

Sitting in a cafe near this hip little brewpub and trying to absorb it all, Shel said “We’re enjoying the nightlife in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.”  I really hated to burst his bubble, but I felt compelled to remind him that it was only 7:00 in the evening, which hardly qualifies as nightlife. But we had a good excuse for being there, surrounded by a noisy group of people only one-third our age: we were waiting to be entertained.

Because earlier we had passed by this tent, which bore a sign advertising an African music concert.  Peering through the flap, the set-up guys had advised, invited, practically implored us to come back later.  And so we did.

And we were so glad we had, since that evening it was music from Senegal, and we were treated to this fantastic koura player

and one of the best drummers we’ve ever heard.

In the morning we went down to the water to get a bit of perspective. What we learned there was that when someone is throwing crumbs to the masses, in this case swans, duck, and gulls, everyone will fight for what they consider to be their fair share.  But then, the Swiss seem to have more of everything than what might be thought of as their fair share, yet they’re famously neutral.  How’s that work?

Out on the lake the little mouettes crisscross the water, free to everyone who’s staying in a hotel, as were the buses, trams, and trains.  We went with them, back and forth, looking at Geneva from as many angles as possible.

Now tell me, does this look like a guy who’s got it all figured out?  Does he look like a guy who’s wearing his wife’s coat?  For this is the very coat that I bought from Eddie Bauer twelve years ago, in order to keep warm in Geneva.  And I was oddly happy to repatriate the coat after all this time, even if Geneva no longer feels like home to me.