I’ve been living in Geneva, Switzerland for a few weeks now and I’ve grown to love this city, despite our brief acquaintance. We drove here via the Eurotunnel, arriving after several hours excitedly chatting in the car. The spell was broken when we struggled to find our street, and had further difficulty getting into our apartment on a late Sunday evening when Geneva is sleepy – but we made it in the end and we were pleasantly surprised.
We live just off a busy street in small apartment amongst about about 10 others. Two minutes away, and I am at the river Arve, one of two rivers which cross through the city (the other is the Rhone). There are dozens of restaurants to choose from and part of our ambition has been to find our favourites; our favourite coffee, the favourite Italian, Thai, and so on. My friends tell me it’s one of the rites of passage when living in a new place.
Our apartment is perfect for us. I shall be sad to see it go, and I know that to enjoy living here will be short-lived: we stay here for a few weeks and then we move to France, in the Haute Savoie area, which I’ve written about elsewhere. In the meantime we get a taste of city life. When it all gets too much I take myself to the chair by the window, have a beer and reflect, which is where I am right now as I write. When you move home and country, there’s a lot to think about.
It’s been an amazingly busy, all-but overwhelming few weeks. Now as I am quietly ensconced in the chair by the window, I think back to what we did on our first few days here. Mostly, we wandered about the city, still in the honeymoon period before the inevitable humdrum tasks began. The weather was fine, and I caught the sun. At first we felt cheated – the wind had kept quiet the giant water jet that is the star of Geneva’s lakeside – but eventually we were rewarded with the spectacle of hundreds of tonnes of water shooting high into the air. It’s pointless (which in this rich country might be the point) but it’s hard not to find it impressive. Like the mountains that surround the capital of French Switzerland, you can see the Jet d’eau from miles around.
When I’d been to Paris I loved the idea of the rive gauche and the rive droit – they seemed so much evocative than their English language equivalents – and so taking a long stroll down the rive gauche here in Geneva was a real highlight. The city is split about the lake, and the rive droit is known mostly for the many international organisations that have offices here. The rive gauche, with the artisan and longtime independent area of Carouge, feels more cultured if less bohemian than its Parisian counterpart on the left-bank. But the strongly multi-cultural area of the Paquis is on the right bank, so there’s less of a clear divide between the two sides in terms of which has dibs on being the arty side. Remarkably, for a lake, Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) has its own beach – albeit a very modest one – and the the parks by the lakeside of the rive gauche are especially lovely, too.
Spending time in the chair I’ve grappled with trying to summarise the flavour of city. I can’t hope to do it of course and would never really want to distill and classify such a various place. But I lean towards a piece of homespun philosophy that tells me this: it’s a city full of contrasts. For example, on the one hand we live near Plain Palais, which has at its centre a large scruffy patch of ground which normally houses funfairs or the like. At the moment it’s more or less empty, haunted only by drinkers on park benches, lonely dog walkers or smokers. It’s got what you might generously call ‘atmosphere’ despite this; and surrounding it are many of the best – and least expensive – bars and restaurants around, befitting of its status as a student centre.
I like it for very different reasons than Carouge, which lies over the block and could hardly be different. Carouge is one of Geneva’s most affluent areas (which is saying something in an already affluent city) and is full of one-off craft shops, narrow and quiet streets, and old-fashioned charm. It has a square of its own, which is lined with wine bars and eateries. It’s altogether more genteel, untouched on the whole by the kinds of things that make the Plain Palais appear less well kept, but no less well loved.
What is striking is that the identity of one area does not merge imperceptibly into the other, as you imagine it might after decades of cross-pollination and entanglement. Rather, a geographical boundary – in this case, a road, the river Arve, a block of houses – sharply divides one area and its concomitant atmosphere from another. You can almost feel it as you cross from one area to another.
And if I were to extend my analogy further, I’d say this may represent the cultural identity of Switzerland on the whole. It is not the melting pot of America, where identities merge under the flag, but here cultures observe and retain their own sense of self within the great many different peoples that pass through this crossroads at the centre of Europe. The four languages of Switzerland – French, German, Italian and Romansh – reflect this restraint to some extent. This doesn’t mean that its people don’t get on – it’s one of the most peaceful places you can imagine, held together by a people-centred democracy. What’s more, I don’t know if my idea holds water – it’s a theory unsubstantiated by further observation as yet – but I think there’s a germ of something in it.
To some extent where we live lies in the midst of all this. The Rue de Carouge, which I can see as I write, is a busy main street with restaurants, bars and stores below the ubiquitous and unremarkable apartment buildings. If I walk north towards the lakeside, I’ll find the quiet haven of Parc des Bastions and the granduer of the Place Neuve, with its national theatre and statues. It’s a great place to immerse myself into the local ways of living. I’m learning French, too, slowly.
I can say nothing more revealing and no less banal than Geneva is a mix of the great and prosaic, the humdrum and the magnificent, of grandeur and grime, of sardine-packed apartments and wide open spaces. And if all these photos here look like postcards rather than realistic documentaries of city life, that’s because right now that is how it feels – like a wonderful escape. The grit and grime can come later. But until I can find nothing more profound to catch this city, then it’s back to the chair by the window…