So I finally got round to writing something about Geneva as part of my MatadorU travel writing course. They say you should write what you know so that you can go beyond the stereotypes and capture real life – and yet how hard it is to capture the details, the nuances, the essence of what it’s like to live in a place, to become part of a lifestyle, to make lifelong friends. It’s impossible, so I didn’t even try. In any case, here it is, my mid-term assignment for the course…
I spent nine years in Geneva. That’s almost a third of my life, and almost all of my adult life. It’s pretty much unheard of for a young expat to stay that long. Usually, they come for a couple of years, and then move on.
The temporary nature of people’s time in Geneva is reflected in the mindset. Most of my colleagues knew from the start that they would only stay for a two-year assignment. Many of them made no attempt to learn French (everyone speaks English anyway) or to meet people outside of work. Some spent every weekend going home to their boyfriend whom they’d left behind in the UK. They couldn’t join us on road trips, they weren’t free to go for a drink, and they didn’t really try to get to know the city or the people in it.
Geneva is also not usually high on the bucket list of places to visit. That’s not to say that there aren’t any tourist attractions – there are the UN headquarters, CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, the headquarters and museum of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and many potential excursions related to the things for which Switzerland is known: cheese, chocolate, and expensive watches. Not to mention the beautiful lake and the surrounding countryside. Most people I know who’ve flown to Geneva, though, have done so on their way to going skiing in the Alps. Only three of my UK friends ever visited me during my nine years in Switzerland. Sniff.
At first, I was part of the two-year gang. In fact, I remained in that temporary mindset for the whole time I was there. Originally, I had come for my master’s degree and planned to leave as soon as I finished my thesis. I stayed on in Geneva, though, accepting a role at Procter & Gamble. The European headquarters office is like a university campus, full of energetic young foreigners who work hard and play hard. Life in Geneva is expensive, and it becomes much more attractive once you can afford to say, “No problem, let’s split it!” when the bill arrives after a meal.
Looking back, I see now how my lifestyle changed over the years in stereotypical fashion. The nights out, the metres of shots, the dancing and laughing into the morning hours – all that gave way to wine and tapas and movie nights; until those too were replaced with pots of tea and countryside walks. Although I didn’t get married and have children myself, I adopted the habits of my friends who did. At one point, I was verging on an existential crisis as I watched not just my girlfriends but also my playboy colleagues settling down in marital bliss (those expats who do stay on in Geneva do so wholeheartedly!), while much of my network left Geneva in classic expat fashion. Alone and lost, I pondered the meaning of life… but I soon found a new rhythm, balancing comfortable nights in with my baby friends with sometimes venturing out into the night with my younger colleagues.
Every year, in winter, I would decide to leave Geneva. And every year, come summer, I would change my mind. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the skiing – I really missed it this first winter away as I endured my friends’ gloating over their “no filter” pictures on Facebook.
For me, though, Geneva is all about the summers.
In summer, happy people spill out onto the streets; tables and chairs appear outside cafés and restaurants and are populated with rosé-drinking people-watchers; teens jump off the bridges into the Rhône river; and we argue over where to get the best ice cream (I vote for Eaux-Vives, although conventional wisdom favours a little place in Pâquis).
Perhaps the first sign of summer is when La Terrasse opens. This is an outdoor bar down by the lake to which well-dressed professionals flock after leaving the office. “Who’s going to La Terrasse?” is a common, though largely unnecessary, status update on Facebook, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to run into someone you know. There you can share a bottle of rosé as you watch the sun set behind the hotels and office buildings, enjoying the view across the nearby yachts to the white peak of Mont Blanc on the other side of the lake.
La Terrasse is right by the Bains des Pâquis, public baths dating back to the late 19th century. There, bodies fill every available surface, including a special area for women where bare breasts are a common sight (and a solitary man is often seen to wander in “by mistake”). People will happily go for a dip despite the many ducks and boats leaving various things behind in the water. If you prefer to stay out of the dirty water, you can hop on one of those boats to your chosen destination around the lake, such as Nyon, Lausanne, and Montreux on the Swiss side or Evian and the medieval town of Yvoire over in France.
On the other side of the lake we have the more sophisticated Genève Plage and the Wakeboard Centre, where people go to do 360 spins and jumps in the early hours before heading into the office. At night, the hoards descend onto the rocks when the Glocals expat organisation has its annual beach party (which always ends abruptly and far earlier than desired when the neighbours call the police to complain about the noise).
Summer is also when the music festivals arrive in Geneva and the surrounding area.
“Did you get tickets for Paleo?” comes the eager question, followed by the answer tinged with a degree of self-satisfaction:
“Yep, Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.”
Tickets for this annual festival, held 15 minutes outside of Geneva in Nyon in July, are released at noon on a day in April on which the system inevitably crashes and all tickets are gone within minutes.
Paleo was originally created in 1976 as the Nyon Folk Festival but has since evolved with a broader repertoire. The big names make the headlines – Manu Chao, Lenny Kravitz, Franz Ferdinand, James Blunt – but it’s the smaller acts that I’ve always found make for the most memorable evenings.
Aside from the music, the food is a major feature: I favour the chocolate chip waffles, while friends with more savoury tastes rave about the magret de canard (duck breast), the Molokoffs (fried cheese balls), tartiflette (a cheesy potato dish) and the portable fondue (melted cheese poured into a hollowed-out baguette). It’s all about the cheese.
Another, maybe more internationally famous, festival is Montreux, the second-largest jazz festival in the world. It was founded in 1967 by the national treasure Claude Nobs, who sadly passed away last year. Having featured legends like Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald in its early days, and being immortalised in Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water (which tells the story of the fire of 1971), Montreux has since continued to attract audiences with a line-up including BB King, Annie Lennox, Johnny Cash, Pink Floyd, and, this year, Pharrell Williams.
I’m not really a festival person (I’ve never been to Glastonbury – the horror!), but these festivals and concerts were a central feature of my life in Geneva. I remember one night in particular at Montreux when Lauryn Hill cancelled at the last minute and we instead had Wyclef Jean improvising a set, which ended with us all dancing on the stage with him until long past when the concert was meant to finish. And a couple of years ago at Paleo it finally rained, and I got to wear my proper festival chic, wellies and all.
The peak of Geneva activity, and my all-time favourite time of the year, comes in early August during the two weeks of Fêtes de Genève. Evenings are spent drinking mojitos and caipirinhas, riding rollercoasters of questionable safety, and screaming deliriously in the not-so-scary haunted house (top tip: it helps to have a couple of those mojitos before you go on).
The grand finale of the Fêtes is an absolutely spectacular, but ridiculously extravagant, firework display that lasts for 45 minutes.
When the final firework has fizzed, the international food stands, the cocktail bars, the rides, are all packed up and shipped off to some new location. The lakeshore becomes barren, the streets empty of people, and the outdoor terraces close down.
After a brief, torturous period when wakeboarding season has ended but before the ski season has begun, we all head off to enjoy après-ski in the mountains and gorge on fondue in our chalets.
Secretly, I would always be counting down the days until summer returned.
This year, though, I won’t be in Geneva to enjoy it.