With only three weeks to go in my internship, I am rather dreading that my time here in Geneva is nearly at an end. Surely with three weeks left, I have a great deal still to do, but with the departure of Steve Wayling this weekend and Anne Andermann a few days from now, my own departure seems far more imminent now than it did only a week ago. And that makes me sad. Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t miss much about Chapel Hill … I do … but Geneva is different. Maybe I can explain …
Geneva is an interesting place in a lot of ways. I imagine that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea … too slow for some people, too big for others, too conservative in some ways, difficult to adjust to in certain respects. But for me, it has become like home. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I grew up in and around a city not too dissimilar from Geneva — Washington, DC — or maybe it has more to do with the fact that I have for a long time been enamoured of European attitudes and sensibilities about life. I’m sure it has something to do with the charm of the city, the vibe. But it also has a lot to do with the people – the diverse and fascinating people who live here, and the incredibly wonderful people who have come into my life since I came to the city, right from the very first day. Whatever the case, as I begin to make plans to leave, I will simultaneously be charting a course in my mind for when I can return, maybe to stay.
I plan to blog a bit more about work in the next three weeks, but with a busy couple of weeks ahead, I didn’t want to give short shrift to reflecting a bit about the summer. So these are my thoughts about my summer in Geneva …
Because I came here as an intern with WHO, I’ll start there. WHO is an interesting place – quirky, different, fun, absorbing, intriguing, frustrating, and a bit odd in some ways. There is a huge abstract painting that hangs in the main hall of the HQ main building … people call it the WHO org chart. Yeah, really. I didn’t quite get it when I came here. Now I get it. The other buildings that surround the main building are called the C, X, M and L buildings –not A, B, C, and D. Roman numerals, go figure. WHO just underwent (or is actually still undergoing) a shift to a new global management system for its IT. Global Management System … GMS, right? Wrong, acronym taken … so they call it GSM. Just whisper “GSM” and eyes begin to roll, heads to shake. It doesn’t work very well, and EVERYONE complains about it while the IT section sends out emails almost daily to say how well it’s working … and they simultaneously moved IT support from Geneva to Kuala Lumpur. Hmmmm…. are you starting to get the picture??? And then there is the other side of WHO. My favourite part of the HQ campus is the life-size sculpture outside the main building … a young boy leading an old blind man by a long stick — once a common sight in Africa, where onchocerciasis is endemic. But WHO (especially TDR) has promoted and facilitated widespread ivermectin treatment programs, especially in the context of community-directed intervention, and has saved the sight of millions of people. That’s only a single example, but it’s emblematic of the countless good things that WHO does. For all its quirks and idiosyncrasies, the World Health Organization and the people who do its work are an amazing and talented bunch of people who dedicate enormous amounts of time and talent to making the world a healthier place and who, on a daily basis, rise to the challenges presented in addressing the difficult health issues that face people who are poor and vulnerable. I feel more fortunate than I can begin to describe for having had the opportunity to work here, and to contribute in some small measure to the good works that go on in this place. It has truly been a joy and a privilege.
Now the really tough part … how do I manage to reduce to words what it has meant for me to be here. I came to Geneva as an intern, planning to ride out a three month stint with my daughter in a place I’d never been and hadn’t really given much thought to, truth be told. But every day that I’ve spent here has given me new things to enjoy about Geneva, new experiences to appreciate, new reasons to think of it as home. It isn’t that Geneva is perfect … surely it isn’t. It just works for me. I love this place. So here’s my Geneva…
I live in a two bedroom flat in Pâquis, a vibrant and noisy section of Geneva – right by the lake on the Rive Droite. I live on the fourth floor (fifth, if you count floors like an American), with no elevator. No air conditioning, but the weather isn’t that hot, so I’m surviving. I have a small washing machine, but, as is mostly the case in Geneva, no dryer … so I hang my laundry to dry. It takes some adjustment, and I’m not so sure I’ll ever get to the point where I don’t prefer to sleep with the A/C cranked and a blanket on, but life is good here at rue des Pâquis 16. Down the street is the local square, fountain and all, where people sit, meet, take their dogs, kids play and kick footballs and ride scooters. It is so rich with the flavour of Pâquis. There is a lot of singing in Pâquis — when the bars close at 2 a.m. there are always people singing, but people sing at other times, too. There is a guy who rides his bike to work past my building every morning at 820, ipod on, singing at the top of his lungs and completely out of tune. Football fans sing, and friends sing, and it seems that men tend to sing a lot more than women. This weekend, I heard a bunch of guys singing songs in Spanish as they taunted their soon-to-be married friend as he walked through the neighbourhood in a chicken suit. Seriously, a yellow, fuzzy chicken suit. Noise notwithstanding, Pâquis has been a good and happy place for us to live.
I walk to a bus stop near the train station each morning. The way I walk takes me up through the red light district. It isn’t like the ones you see in the US – not the nicest area, but hardly unsafe or unseemly. Every morning, even at 815 or 830, there are prostitutes out on the corners and by the bars. There are many more when I head home in the afternoons. Prostitution is legal here, but pimping is not. From what I understand, the prostitutes own the Thai restaurant just about 3 blocks from where I live, and they all “work” there, and have health insurance and pensions through the restaurant business. How’s that for empowerment? I wonder as I pass the by the same women on most mornings what their lives are like, and consider what a difference it makes to these women that sex work is treated differently here than in the contexts that are more familiar to me. Of course, I also wonder how they walk in those 8-inch Lucite heels.
I love the diversity of the people here. While French certainly dominates as the primary language, and English is spoken abundantly as well, there are people from all over the place. German and Italian are the next most frequently heard languages I think. There are a fair number of eastern Europeans, with languages that are completely unrecognizable to me, except that I can usually pick out Russian. There are lots and lots of Africans, and now, in the August holiday season, gazillions of Arabs. I don’t think I had ever seen a woman entirely covered, either with only their eyes showing or not even that. Here there are many. There are very, very wealthy people here in the city of Rolex, with Maseratis and Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Bentleys everywhere. And there are beggars on the street, mostly women and frequently barefoot, sometimes with small children. There is an organ grinder on the rue du Mont Blanc, and there are topless sunbathers at the Bain de Pâquis, where I take Caroline to swim. But as you walk by the lakefront and see teenagers rollerblading and laughing, couples strolling, people feeding pigeons or kids chasing them, parents warning their kids not to let their gelato drip on their clothes … it’s hard not to think of how very similar we are.
It’s nearly impossible to describe the beauty of this place — breathtaking, stops-you-in-your-tracks beauty. A friend whose children are now grown and back in the US says that she always used to tell her kids when they were growing up to remember what a beautiful place they grew up in. She’s right, but I can’t imagine how anyone who has been here could not carry with them how truly lovely it is. On a clear day, when Mont Blanc is visible, it’s hard to keep your eyes off it. When it’s sunny and the breeze is blowing, sailboats dot the lake as far as the eye can see. And on the rare occasions when I get to the Rive Gauche, I look across the lake to see the exquisite Rive Droite that I call home … and I feel so very lucky. I take a little ribbing every now and then for my constant state of awe, but if you go back and look at the pictures I’ve taken, all un-retouched, how can you argue that this isn’t one of the most beautiful places in the world?
I love the flower boxes filled with geraniums and seeing the Swiss flag flying from the buildings in town, especially when the stark red and white is set off against an incredibly blue summer sky. I love the sort of weirdly cut trees that line the lakefront and drinking tiny glasses of grotesquely overpriced wine at the Terasse on the lake. I love that people take their dogs into department stores and on the bus and just about everywhere else you can think of. I love the lake, and being by the lake at night when the lights shimmer on the water and the streets are filled with people. I love being able to go to France at the drop of a hat. I love that you have to buy a bus ticket, but that no one takes a ticket or checks to see if you have one. I love that so much cool international stuff happens in Geneva. I haven’t experienced the Fêtes de Genève yet, but I’m pretty sure that after next weekend, you can add that to the list. I love sitting outside at the local cafés for lunch or dinner, and being “a regular” at the places in my neighbourhood. But all of that stuff is just the big picture stuff that makes Geneva so amazing.
There is other stuff, too … the stuff I just can’t explain, or don’t want to … but I can’t write of my summer in Geneva and not include something about the people who mattered most, the things that made all the difference, the moments and memories that I’ve come to love most dearly about my time in this place….
… fondue chinoise, Anne and Steve, lunchtime plats du jour, Annecy, the Grand Duke, Leigh, Centre Casai, gamay de Genève, tunnels through the Alps, the Splendide Royal, Flora and Madhavi and Gillian and Pauline, penne beurre, Mont Blanc, walking, the intern room, Hashim, wine by the deci, train rides, Itziar, cool rosé on a hot day, my Italian market, “Drillbit Taylor”, rue du Mont Blanc, Khalifa and Selam, Café du Soleil, June 10, new old friends, La Matze, Manor, filets de perche, a boat ride in the rain, Bollywood … L u g a n o … gelato stops, a Saturday in Bretigny, the tower of tapas, three kiss hellos and goodbyes, Yvoire … and a special little place on rue des Alpes.
So that’s it … my summer. What an incredible summer it’s been.