We have a history, Geneva and I.
As a child I visited often, courtesy of my father’s obscure international job. In time I returned for a year to study law.
As I stepped off the night train from Paris my first encounter would be with just that – the law. Exhausted, I lugged my two suitcases across a deserted Sunday morning street. I jaywalked. And I got caught.
“You have no money? Tsk, tsk.” The policeman tsked at me! “Then you will come to the station tomorrow morning at the first hour and you will pay the fine.”
He trusted me to do so, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing otherwise. This is an ordered little place.
That Sunday was also the day the Swiss would vote – as they periodically do – on whether to restrict the presence of foreigners (good news: if the new law passed I wouldn’t have to pay my fine).
Geneva has a strange relationship with the 41% of its residents who happen to be foreigners. It loves and hates them, tolerates and berates them, welcomes and rejects them – often in a single breath. The anti-immigrant initiative was rejected but it would resurface.
As I waited for the bus one morning a man dropped a wrapper on the street. An older lady pounced on the scrap and chased after the clearly-foreign criminal.
“Sir, I don’t know where you’re from but in my country we don’t throw paper on the ground.” (Yes but meantime I have to walk around dog crap no one bothers to clean up.)
Yet come August, when 10,000 Gulf States citizens move to Lake Geneva to escape the crushing heat (and possibly stash away some rainy day funds), the city throws its hospitable arms wide open.
“We make more money in August than we do the entire rest of the year,” a shopkeeper told me, preferring not to give her name.
Lest you think this city is laced with paranoia and anti-foreign sentiment, let’s not forget that Switzerland spent most of its existence as a motley collection of independent cantons, or states, which operated more as micro-nations and only joined the larger confederation as a way to guarantee their independence (Geneva joined in 1814, a relatively recent arrival).
Years ago I lived in a quintessentially Swiss village on the shores of what anglophones call Lake Geneva (known as Lac Léman to everyone else). My landlady, a rotund and unusually cheerful sort, gravely announced one day: “My daughter is marrying a foreigner.”
“I’m not sure that is a good thing,” she added, oblivious to my own lack of Swissness.
Turns out the foreign beau was from two villages over.
Eight kilometers away.
In these parts that’s foreign indeed.
Geneva overflows with foreigners, of whom one quarter work at the UN; the rest are diplomats, corporate employees, refugees and migrants, students and NGO workers, not to mention the 90,000 French citizens (of whom I am one) who cross the border each morning for work but are periodically vilified for causing traffic snarl-ups and driving too fast. Authorities ignore the rants because there’s widespread agreement that if the French stayed home, Geneva would come to a standstill. And if France retaliated, the thousands of Swiss who have found homes across the more affordable border might be invited to leave. So we live with one another.
In the most recent anti-immigrant vote, in February 2014, Geneva and its environs actually proved the most welcoming of Switzerland’s regions, rejecting the demand for quotas.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Despite its periodic fits and starts, this most cosmopolitan of cities usually spreads out its welcome mat. Voltaire lived here. Lord Byron fled here to avoid scandal in England, as did the poet Shelley (they even had houses next door to one another). Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein here. Jorge Luis Borges is buried here.
And the city has a heart. The League of Nations was headquartered here, and Geneva is home to the largest UN office outside New York; the Geneva Conventions were signed here; the Red Cross was born here; and if you want to study humanitarian and international affairs, all the best academic institutions are here. There’s a reason we call it the ‘Capital of Peace’.
Geneva: Easy to Live, Easy to Leave
Geneva is a city that is easy to live. The pristine waters of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, as francophones call it), Europe’s deepest and largest, are bordered by low-rise buildings and elegant mansions. The Jura and the Alps tower over the city like proud parents, one mountain range on each side. The weather, dour and despicable in winter, turns bright and radiant in summer, with pretty sailboats bobbing in the water like flocks of excited doves.
After all these years – I studied here in 1975 and moved here in 1984 – I’m still not quite sure what it is about this city.
Perhaps it is the jumble of private banks and name-dropped shops, providing a sensation of luxury my mother used to describe as a ‘perfumed mink coat with its arms around you’. Not that I wear enough bling to be allowed in by the smartly-dressed young men who guard the world’s elite jewellers, mind you.
Perhaps it is the solid sense of security that flows from its humanitarian history as a city which has traditionally protected the less fortunate. Or the Old Town, centuries old, whose cobblestones are designed to break your heel or twist your ankle but where you can sit at a café for hours – as generations have done before you – watching lawyers go about their business (the police station and a prison are around the corner).
Even the most mundane sights are original. The city’s most visible landmark is a giant water spout, the 140m/450ft-high jet d’eau, which has graced postcards since 1886 and is the one thing that tells me I’m home as my flight is about to land.
And then there’s the Geneva flower clock. I’m sure wheelbarrows of words have been written about this most Swiss of sights, a clock made of flowers, which are changed every season, and which keeps perfect time – a ticking garden. Sitting on a nearby bench for fewer than five minutes I count 44 people getting their pictures taken. Or taking selfies. Or taking pictures of other people taking pictures.
If there’s a single photo opportunity in Geneva, this must be it.
Scratch the smooth sparkle and you’ll uncover a second Geneva, one that appeals to my rebellious streak, whose underside can slap you in the face and which has kept me here for three decades. Take the walls, whose graffiti competes with fashionable storefronts. Stroll around the red-light district of the Paquis, where partially-unclothed women freeze on winter streets. Enjoy the security of one of the most policed cities on earth but don’t hang around the train station’s parking lot after dark. It’s where drug users go to stay warm. As your high-speed train whips by, deflect your gaze from the squalid migrant quarters that line the tracks.
Like all great cities, it has a secret side.
And while Geneva may be easy to live, it is also easy to leave: it lies at the center of Europe, and it is home to EasyJet’s second hub after London’s Luton. At rush hour on Friday nights, I can get to Paris or Madrid as quickly as I can drive across town. And dinner will cost me a lot less.
Geneva has been called boring, unfriendly and expensive.
It has also been called glorious, tolerant and sensuous.
Both are true.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- If you’re flying into Geneva, get a free transport ticket from the machine before you leave the baggage area. It’s valid for an hour and can also be used on the train into town (4 min.)
- Geneva isn’t cheap. It’s terribly expensive, actually. If money is an issue you can cut corners by eating at one of the department store cafeterias (Manor, Migros, Coop). Hotels are exhorbitant. One reasonable option is Airbnb – if you don’t have an account yet, use this link and get a $25 discount on your first stay.
- If you really want to stay in a hotel, hop the bus over the border to Ferney-Voltaire (if you’re driving you can go further afield). There are a few small and relatively inexpensive hotels in town; just beware that the bus into Geneva only runs every half an hour, and you will have to cross a (virtually non-existent) border each day.
- Public transportation in the city is excellent, with a network of trams and buses that take you pretty much everywhere. Buy your ticket from the machine at each stop before you get on board. Just grab a seat. Once in a while controllers check and the fine if you’re caught without a ticket is hefty. You can use Swiss Francs or Euros in the machine.
- Two interesting visits: 1) the Palais des Nations – the United Nations office in Geneva (take the bus UP the hill and get off at Appia – if you get off at the main gate you’ll have to walk uphill for 15 minutes); 2) the Red Cross Museum, across the street from the Palais – visit both together.
- The city is basically safe, but hang on to your belongings in crowded areas, train stations and crowded street corners.
Photo of flower clock: Szalax via Wikimedia Commons