Water and Light: Geneva

December 19th, 2006

My socks are wet. I'm going to Switzerland.
Funny the thoughts that come to mind on a long-distance train. They're great places for thinking, trains are, and also for not thinking. It was a nine-hour ride from Rome to Geneva, and I got a lot of not thinking done. I love train rides for just that reason – they always provide such an unhurried experience: thoughts come or don't come as they will. The countryside zipping or crawling by (depending on how much you paid for the ticket) is arranged as in a sidewalk showcase window, behind an imperfectly sealed pane of glass. Sounds, smells, sights make their way into the train slowly, reluctantly. It's as if there's a world out there, but you're not in it. It's the perfect sense of detachment required for abstract ponderings. Or not.
I went up by train and flew back down. The flight lasts an hour and costs about 25% less than the train, but besides the love I have for trains in general, I had my own reasons for going the way I did, mostly having to do with passport stamps and the Schengen treaty and Swiss neutrality. I'll tell you the details if you care and you don't work for the Italian immigration authorities, but in any case there I was on my way to Switzerland with wet socks.
When I was fifteen, I got glasses for the first time. Not something a kid looks forward to, but on the drive home from the optometrist I was stunned by the newly discovered crisp details of everything I looked at. I had been used to seeing things in a fuzzy way, and the contrast was amazing. After three months in Rome, Geneva reminded me of that experience. The streets are almost startlingly clean, the lines are straight and crisp, mocking the wave-like undulations of Rome's Via Nazionale, where I live. Windows are crystal clear and close completely (if you've ever been to Italy, you know what a change that is). The trams slip along the street smoothly and silently, smirking with Swiss superiority at the rumbling roaring buses of Rome. And not a hint of graffiti in sight. I almost wanted to throw some litter on the ground to make myself feel more at home. I didn't.
I first chose Geneva for this expedition based on a description in a Robert Ludlum novel. The image he created of the Swiss sun shining off Lake Geneva against the backdrop of Mont Blanc and the Alps has stuck with me. "Glittering" was I think the word he used. Upon further research, I've seen that other Swiss cities like Zurich or Bern are considered more appealing to the tourist, yet I can't regret my decision, as capricious as it was: Geneva does indeed glitter. Unlike some European cities that are best showcased at night (see Madrid), Geneva loves the sun, and the sun loves Geneva.
Situated on both sides of a long fingerlike harbor on Lake Geneva, it's a city based around water, as all great cities should be. Something about the human soul needs the peace that water brings, and Geneva's lake is happy to provide it. Surrounded by mountains that reflect as beautiful snow-bottomed stalactites, colored by a clean light emanating from the crisp unpolluted skies, the lake provides an ever-changing visual appeal. When you think Geneva, think of the lake.
Also working in the city's favor is its international character. I began a project of photographing each ethnically representative restaurant or shop along the main street, but I gave up after about fifteen, somewhere between the Egyptian kebab palace and the Neapolitan trattoria. The place seems almost American in its multinational feel.
Then of course there are the people, the most important factor in judging any city. Polite, reserved, yet seemingly genuinely happy. In contrast to the passionate tortured souls of Italy, Genevans give the impression that they are pretty much content to be alive. Very pleasant people. Nothing to stir the fires of the heart, but refreshingly pleasant.
No description of Geneva would be complete, however, without mentioning money. The prices are shocking, astronomical. A Big Mac value meal at McDonald's runs about $10 US. (It may or may not have been super-sized. I have a bad habit of saying "oui" to anything a cashier asks me.). And that's the cheapest food you can get. Some day I would like to try a real Swiss fondue, but I just couldn't bring myself to shell out twenty bucks for a blob of cheese. We can only hope that the exchange rate for the Swiss Franc calms down a bit in the future, because I would like to return. I would like to return, which means Geneva accomplished all that can be expected of a place in a two-day trip. It made me want to come back to Switzerland. Next time, I'll bring more money. And dry socks.