An Austr(al)ian Exploration of International Geneva
Vrump - I start, shaken from my nap! A little lost, I look out the plane window, and see the blurred outlines of Lake Geneva.
"Cabin crew, prepare for landing," says the pilot with an Austrian accent. The propeller blades start roaring irregularly, and just a few moments later, it seems, the small plane touches the runway.
Excited about arriving in Geneva, I present my passport to the boarder official, accompanied by my very proud "Bonjour." Heading for the Arrivée, very organized, with my trolley in one hand and a "No Kangaroos in Austria" T-shirt for my Australian host in the other, I already feel Swiss.
Out of breath from running for the train, punctual to a fault like all Swiss trains, my host, Hannah, and I climb on.
"Das SBB Zugteam begrüßt Sie im Intercity nach Sankt Gallen, nächster Halt Genf," a voice says. Feeling honored to be greeted in my mother tongue, I remember that Switzerland has not just two, but four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansch. They don’t even list English, which is also on many of the signs.
Seeing the sun set over the Jura Mountains, I become nostalgic, remembering my last summer in Geneva. My farewell after a seven month study exchange was still fresh – having fondue on a jetty on Lac Leman (as locals call Lake Geneva) with friends as diverse as Geneva’s population, made it very hard for me to leave.
This time, though, I am just a tourist.
Hannah and I decide to celebrate my arrival over a few cocktails. Only a five-minute walk from the main train station Geneve Cornavin, on Rue Plantamour, is the Lokal Heaven, a very classy bar/restaurant, which my friend tells me is becoming the insider tip for people that don’t go in the ultra-posh discos Platinum or JAVA, where you can’t even hear your own thoughts.
Pushing open the double door, I immediately notice the smoke-free air, and sigh with relieve. We aim for one of the black couches in the corner, illuminated shyly by purple wall sconces and small candles on the table, and nestle in. The waiter, dressed elegantly in black trousers and a crisp white shirt, takes our order, and, after a few minutes, returns from the devilishly, softly lit bar with our Passion Fruit Mojitos. By the end of the evening, I decided this bar has THE best cocktails in the world.
Exhausted from the flight, and slightly tipsy from the drinks, we stagger back to the train station, to catch the train across the border to France, where my friend lives. Like many people, her family commutes between Switzerland and France, where living is much more affordable.
Since Geneva is home to many international organizations, including the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and many specialized UN divisions, my IR student’s instincts lead me to the area around the train station Geneve Sècheron the next day. There, the ostentatious Palais des Nations, built between 1929 and 1938 as the headquarters of the League of Nations, gracefully overlooks Lake Geneva and its famous Jet d’Eau, a fountain projecting water 140 meters at a speed of almost 200 km/h.
Famished from our walk through Le Jardin Botanique, the botanical garden, along the north bank of Lake Geneva, and the Rhone, framed by 5-star hotels and businesses, we decide to have lunch at a traditional Swiss restaurant.
Auberge de Savièse, located on rue du Paquis, is a small restaurant decorated in the style typical of the Valais Canton. Because of its cost effectiveness, and homely atmosphere with its chalet-style wooden décor, the restaurant attracts business people and travelers alike. Additionally to lunch specials of perch and fries, veal with potatoes and sauce, and others for between 15 and 17 CHF (€9.3 to €10.5), you can also treat yourself with traditional dishes like fondue and raclette.
Reinforced by a filling Swiss lunch, we begin our journey into the old town as you can walk almost everywhere in Geneva without having to use public transport. Strolling through charming pedestrian zones with antique stores, small markets, along with cafes with Starbucks Christmas mugs, I get the impression that old and new mingle effortlessly in a harmonious early January scene.
From the other end of town, the University quarter Plainpalais, we resolve to take a bus back to the station as evening approached. Trying to put the coffee cup into the dustbin on the bus, the lid comes loose, accelerates to the speed of a discus and hits an elderly man with a mustache. The lid hits the man’s neck, provoking a sputtered ‘merde,’ and we decided it was time to hop off at the main shopping street, the rue du Marché, where I purchase an olive-green purse along with earringsat a shop for my friend at a Guess shop, as a belated Christmas present. We fall into a conversation with the salesclerk, explaining that while I am from Austria, my friend is actually from Australia, kangaroos and all.
The next day we spend in Collonges, a typical small French village about 30 minutes away from the Swiss border, over a few beers at the local pub, trying to forget that I will be leaving in a few hours. As the waiter brings us two pints traditional French 1664 beer, he starts flirting with Hannah, saying in French that she’s bandante, really hot. Not having total command of the language, and missing the point, she confidently answers "yes, definitely." Laughing so hard I could barely breathe, I clear up the mystery.
On the plane to Vienna, I think back at that little awkward, but funny moment, and the peaceful atmosphere in the city of Geneva, which, from time to time, gives the impression of a mini version of the world with so many different nationalities living together in a "little village."
Back in Vienna, however, I realize that the internationalism of Geneva is not always fully understood, as two Russian guys, coming in on my flight, tell the border official that there was a French side of the city, too. Unfamiliar with the arcane politics of Swiss neutrality, they didn’t know they had ever left the European Union.