Over-the-counter pot

I did a double take. I didn’t trust what I was seeing. I certainly didn’t trust my French. I stopped. I asked. And yes, I was right. It’s now legal to buy cannabis in a shop in Geneva. And not just a head shop, a shop that sells other stuff, too. Stuff like newspapers and chocolate.

That said, the THC content is pretty low in what you can buy legally. High Times has an interesting article on the topic. But the CBD content is pretty high. And there’s a difference. In Switzerland, you can now buy cannabis with low-grade THC and high-grade CBD… not such good news for recreational users looking for a high, but good news for those wanting to use CBD to treat, say anxiety or pain.

There is an argument for what’s called the entourage effect, i.e., using both THC and CBD together, as the latter ‘has calming and uplifting properties that can reduce the mental effects’ of the former.

I hadn’t figured Switzerland for being that liberal, but perhaps it’s not liberalism that’s in question here. I was surprised. I’m still surprised. But hey, it’s been a few years since I’ve been here. [I was proposed to when I visited for the second time back in 2010 – fond memories.] I knew it was legalised in some form or fashion but it wasn’t so blatantly on sale. Things were bound to change.

What hasn’t changed is the lake view. I love the idea of having a massive lake (224 sq miles/580 sq km) in the middle of a city. Who needs pot when you have that sort of calm on your doorstep. An interesting fact for the trivia heads among you is that 60% of Lake Geneva is in Switzerland with the rest being in France. And while it’s always been Lake Geneva to me, the French might know it as Lac Léman or Lac de Genève; the Germans as Genfersee; and the Italians as Lago Lemano or Lago di Ginevra.

Perhaps the focal point of the lake from the city-side, is Jet d’Eau – the tallest fountain in the world. Built back in 1886 to release excess pressure from the a hydraulic plant at La Coulouvrenière, it pumps 500 litres of water per second to a height of 140 meters (460 feet). It’s impressive. And it hasn’t changed.

The shops are still epicentres of designer brand names. While shoppers in Dublin might get to sport a shopping bag from M&S or BTs, here it’s serious labels. There appears to be no shortage of money to spend and prices are steep. I paid the equivalent of €10 for a coffee and a water in a streetside café that was nothing to write home about. I’m still reeling. But with 10% of the working population involved in International Geneva – diplomats, NGO, international organisations – per diems help keep the retailers happy. [And an aside – if you’re in the city, visit the UN – take the tour.]

It’s that transience that would turn me off living here. It’s beautiful. The food is great. The choice expansive. It’s the seat of movers and shakers who steer a course for the world via policy and politics. There’s a vibe, a sense that things are happening, that people are doing, that stuff is getting done. But yet there’s a transience that says that so many people, while here physically, are still at home mentally. For me, that sense of ordinary, everyday presence is missing.

But take a train and travel just 15 minutes outside the city, to the villages and towns that form the ‘burbs, and you can find that sense of community, albeit multinational. The municipality of Versoix is the last in the Canton of Geneva, on the road to Lausanne. It consists of a series of villages and I think I was in Versoix-Bourg or maybe it was Versoix – lac – I couldn’t swear to it. It was whichever is home to the fab town all, Mairie de Versoix – a stately home that I wouldn’t mind at all having as an address.

But more of note that the crazy painted apartment buildings, or the strange cut-outs in windows, is the cooperative sailing club. Some 250 members pay an annual membership fee and get to sail the club’s 15 boats. They have to certify to sail and courses are provided. They can then book time on one of the various boats the cost of which is covered by their annual 300 CHF subscription (about the same in dollars and euro). Maintenance is carried out by members who work on keeping the boats in good shape. You can sail and socialise or just do one or the others. A brilliant idea for sailing enthusiasts who don’t have rich friends with boats or the wherewithal to rent a craft for a day elsewhere.

With the lake to the front and well-established forest to the rear, the village is one place in Geneva I might just consider living. Were I in the money….






A good day at the office

I find it hard to explain to people what it is I do to put milk in the fridge, to pay my bills, to keep my sanity. I don’t have one of those neat jobs that fits tidily into a box, easily captioned, and even more easily explained. I have what Charles Handy would call a portfolio career, picking up degrees and qualifications in various fields as I’ve move from one thing to the next. Over the years, though, I’ve found that I really enjoy training in public speaking. For me, speaking from a stage is the cheapest legal high I can get. Better than any drug and, while equally addictive, far less harmful. And when I can encourage that passion in others, I’ve had a good day at the office.

This week, I’m in Geneva with DiploFoundation’s Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for small Pacific, Caribbean, and African States, known in brief as CD Multi.

Small states with limited geographical, human, and financial resources face the challenge of doing more with less: they need to employ all available methods to increase their representation, including networks, alliances, and information technology tools. In addition, diplomats from small and remote states often lack the experience and exposure to Geneva-based institutions and processes that would allow them to ensure that the interests of their nations are well represented.

Small states, especially geographically remote Pacific, Caribbean, and African nations, strongly depend on international law and order. The effective presence of such states in International Geneva is vital for their social and economic development, as Geneva is the main governance hub for issues such as trade, climate change, health, and migration.

Twenty-six participants from 17 countries [Mauritius, São Tomé and Príncipe, Sierra Leone, Kenya, Malawi, Benin, Cameroon, Uganda, Cabo Verde, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Suriname, Fiji, Cook Islands] are taking part in this 10-day immersion programme, the final of three phases (the other two being Online Learning and Policy Research) of CD Multi-Carib and CD Multi-Africa which began in October last year.  Back in 2014, I got to see parts of Geneva I’d not visited before with the CD Pacific group. What sticks in my mind most was the visit to the International Telecommunication Union. This time, we’ll get to catch the latest in Internet governance developments at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) at the ITU next week.

The programme offers participants a chance to network, to meet representatives from those International Organisations that have so much to say in decisions that affect their lives at home. Four of the countries participating in the programme do not have permanent representation in Geneva [São Tomé & Principe, St Vincent & Grenadines, St Kitts & Nevis, and Suriname] so for them, this is an opportunity to scope out the prospects for setting up shop.

Each participant brings an admirable level of expertise to the table. They range in age and years of experiences. With backgrounds in the voluntary sector, air traffic control, international development, policing and security, ICT, teaching, and diplomacy, they share a passion for ensuring that their countries have a voice, a seat at the table.

During the various conversations that we’ve had over the last few days, I’ve been quietly impressed by the depth and breadth of their collective knowledge but even more so by their energy, their enthusiasm, and their determination to make a difference.

In my world, I see lethargy, apathy, and a general ‘whatever’ attitude that borders on helplessness in the face of the political turns this side of the world has taken. [Admittedly, the voting turnout (nearly 70%) in the UK election this week has given me hope that tomorrow’s leaders are stepping up and taking note (453,000 of the 600k new voters to sign up on deadline day were aged between 18 and 34), but talk from Ireland and Hungary both brings to mind a vision of hell and a hand-basket.] The company I’ve been keeping in the last few days has been cathartic, helping me shed some of the disengagement I’ve been feeling and reigniting my interest in the world at large.

Ceiling of the Human Rights Council room at the UN

1000 sq m weighing 23 000 kg – took 9 months to do – depicting the ocean floor and said to be a metaphor for multilateral diplomacy and the different perspective everyone has (view is different from every seat in the room)

Next week, we’re at the Human Rights Council – it meets three times a year for a total of ten weeks and is currently in session. We’re also at the Commonwealth Small States Office, the ITU, the Austrian Permanent Mission, the World Economic Forum (WEF), the Swiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the World Health Organization (WHO), and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The session I’m looking forward to most is one on Fake News – and the role of confirmation bias in a post-truth world.

Yes, indeed. It’s been a good few days at the office.


Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world

Sitting in a hotel room on a Sunday morning in Geneva last month, it seemed as if my plans for the day were doomed. To get to where I wanted to go, I’d have to take a train out of the city and then double-back by bus (the only route).  I’d just discovered that both Richard Burton and Alistair MacLean were buried about half an hour by car outside the city in the village of Céligny, but in the few hours I had before dinner with some friends, I wouldn’t have time to make the trip. Then my phone went. It was DD. Before dinner at his, he said, why not visit a little cemetery he’d come across just outside the city.  I texted back, already knowing that the universe had listened. ‘It wouldn’t be in Céligny by any chance?’

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Lots of famous people are buried in Switzerland. I was quite surprised that Richard Burton would end his days in this tiny sanctuary – Vieux Cimitière –  also known locally as the protestant cemetery. But then I hadn’t known that he’d lived amidst the 600 or so locals for the last 26 years of his life  in a three-bedroom converted farmhouse that had a library bigger than the cottage in which he was born.

IMG_2908 (600x800)And I was equally surprised that given there are fewer than 30 (I think I counted 28) resting peacefully around him, that one of these should be Scottish novelist Alistair MacLean. I grew up on MacLean. I begged my dad to join the local library so that I could use his tickets to pick books from the adult section. The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra, and Where Eagles Dare  – I loved them all. Although not yet old enough for the library’s classification of adult, I was ‘safe’ with him as, quite unusually for his genre, his heroes never had sex; he believed that it, and romance, simply got in the way of the action. For a man who made a fortune churning out thrillers (so much so that he moved to Switzerland as a tax exile), he never claimed to be a writer: ‘I’m not a born writer, and I don’t enjoy writing […] I wrote each book in thirty-five days flat – just to get the darned thing finished.’ And yes, Mr MacLean, sometimes it showed. Nonetheless, thank you for the many many hours of mindless entertainment you gave me and so many millions of others – and thanks too, for the entreaty you left on your gravestone.

IMG_2915 (800x600)IMG_2913 (600x800)Near both of these famous people lies another man. André Bordier’s eternal words are quite simple – vis ta vie – live your life. I have no idea who he was, or what sort of legacy he left behind, but I was completely enthralled by the sculpture that stands on his headstone, wondering briefly if it was an African-influenced take on the Madonna and Child.

It’s a lovely spot, hidden from the world  off a small country lane that runs by a stream. It’s quiet, full of shadows, with a a sense of peace about it that would lend itself to reading. I can think of worse places to spend eternity.

IMG_2938 (800x600)IMG_2928 (800x600)Not far away is the new cemetery, a different world entirely, with closely set graves that belie whatever attempt was made to put them in order. Encased behind a wall that clearly marks its territory, it too is quite beautiful, but in a different way. It has none of the wild abandon, the natural simplicity of the Vieux Cimitière. Add this to the engraved inscription above the gate – Ici l’égalite – and it would seem that a point was being made by its almost random orderliness.

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I couldn’t help but contrast the wordiness evident here that was missing from the simpler graves next door. And not for the first time, I found myself wondering how many people give thought to their epitaphs.

The contrast was remarkable. I’m now leaning heavily towards a preference for nature running wild, with just a little bit of pruning, rather than the more modern gridplot effect that, even with flowers, can be a little sterile. No one really dies to order, do they? And few of us live the type of orderly life that should be mirrored by our graves.


True till the end

I’ve often wondered where the bitches and the bastards are buried. Those nasty people who beat their spouses, molest their kids, kill their mates. In all the cemeteries I’ve been to, I’ve never seen a gravestone marked with ‘Here lies the b______, may they rot in hell’ or even anything approximating it. I have seen some that offer just the opening and closing dates of a life with nothing extra, and perhaps this was because those burying the corpse had nothing good to say about it. Perhaps. What’s that old adage? If you have nothing good to say about someone, say nothing at all?

IMG_2887 (800x600)IMG_2879 (800x600)None of this was on my mind as I visited a cemetery in the heart of Geneva. Cimetière des Rois (Cemetery of Kings) or Cimetière de Plainpalais as it is also known, is near the Plainpalais and not all that easy to find. I had to ask four people before I found someone who could direct me  (mind you, that could be a reflection of my pathetic French pronunciation!). But find it I did, eventually. It’s a lovely oasis in the heart of a built-up, lived-in neighbourhood, a walled-in park where people come to sit and chat and have a picnic lunch. This was a little at odds with the Geneva I thought I knew and, not for the first time, I found myself revisiting the opinion I’ve formed of the city.

IMG_2870 (800x600)IMG_2871 (600x800)Home to such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges and John Calvin, former presidents, and a palette of artists of various forms, the cemetery is populated with simple headstones that lack the sculptor-ish wows, of say, Milan or Zagreb. And yet they are quite remarkable in their simplicity and their natural form.

Many are without accolade, opting for the sparsest of biographical detail – born, died, and spent the time in between painting, or writing, or whoring – or all three.  Yes, that one surprised me, too. And I was equally touched to see fresh flowers on Ms Real’s grave and two young men in attendance. Whether they knew her or not, I don’t know. I’d like to think that they, too, were moved by the honesty of the inscription, moved enough to weed and water and pay homage to a woman who knew exactly who she was. Or then again, perhaps she had no say in the inscription and some bitter ex-husband or grieving family took their parting shot. That’s the wonder of the dead – they can’t contradict the stories I choose to make up in my head. No wonder I find them such good company.

IMG_2886 (800x600)IMG_2873 (800x600)Five years of French were called into play as I tried to decipher what might be described as the anomaly – the one with the full-on testament to a life well lived. I read and re-read the inscription, picking out words that I was relatively certain I understood and then trying to make sense of what went in between. I thought it rather lovely, and for the millionth time wondered what would be said about me when I’m gone. Then again, I’m nearly at the point where I’m opting for cremation and ash scattering, so that might no longer be all that relevant.

IMG_2882 (800x600)IMG_2878 - Copy (600x800)Cemeteries are wonderful places in which to take stock of life. To stop for a while and get off the incessant treadmill that is twenty-first-century living. To reflect on what you’re doing, where you’re going, and why you’re bothering. Occasionally, you meet some honesty, some real truth. More often you see memories inscribed on stone, memories that might well be a case of remembering the best and ignoring the worst. And in some cases, as in Geneva, you simply get the facts. The bare facts.

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Voting mad

Legalised marijuana. Low gun crime despite the liberal gun laws. Life expectancy for men and women in the 80s. Switzerland is certainly full of surprises.

One of our meetings was in Bern, in the Swiss Parliament building and, as is perhaps usual with a foreign delegation, we had a tour of the Federal Assembly – a chance to see the inner sanctum of a country that hasn’t lost its ability to surprise.

IMG_2959 (800x600)The Swiss system of government is quite unusual in that the people, with enough signatures (50k), can overturn any decision made in either of the two chambers – (1) the National Council, with its 200 members elected by a system of proportional representation since 1919, and (2) the Council of States, with two members representing each of the 26 cantons – and send it to popular vote. It seems as if the  Swiss like to vote. They’ve had seven referendums so far this year with two more in the offing in September and November. [There are 46 members of the Council of States and this has something to do with some cantons having split in two lately but retaining one rep for each half of the split.]

IMG_2973 (556x800)In the Council of States, members debate in their chosen language, and as there are no interpreters, everyone is expected to be fluent in each of the four Swiss languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch (yep – that was a new one on me, too – I had to look it up. What’s amazing though is that it’s an official language even though it’s spoken by less than 1% of the population). And there are no terms, as such. You’re in until you stop being elected.

The building itself was completed in 1902, both chambers connected by a domed hall in the centre in which stand the Three Confederates whose oath was most likely made famous by Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. 

We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.

IMG_3001 (800x600)IMG_2996 (800x600)The 5×12 m painting on the wall of the National Council is called The cradle of the confederation (Le berceau de la confédération/Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft). Painted by Charles Giron, 1901, it has, hidden in the clouds, a naked female who IMG_3000 (800x600)is said to symbolise peace. It’s a restful room, lined with beautifully carved seats and overhung with wrought iron balconies heavy with visitors on the days the council is in session. That’s certainly one thing the Swiss have over the majority of their European counterparts – they’re fully engaged in the governing of their country.

IMG_2998 (800x600)Some trivia

  • Even though its gun laws are rather liberal, Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of all industrialised countries (2.3–4.5 million guns in a population of 8 million).
  • As at 2013, 85% of men and only 41% of women work full-time.
  • Women didn’t get to vote until 1971.
  • Only about 2% of Swiss wine leaves the country.
  • Possession of marijuana was decriminalised last year.

Worth a visit if you find yourself in Bern visiting the Bärengraben (Bear Pit).

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Sputnik and tomorrow's living room

I’ve never given much thought to the evolution of modern telecommunication save to marvel at how clever my smartphone is (and I can safely say that I am only using it to about a tenth of its full capacity). I am old enough to remember the old dial-up phones with receivers so heavy that you needed a shelf nearby on which to rest that elbow. I can still recollect the freedom that came with the advent of the cordless phone and the even greater sense of freedom I experienced when I realised that it worked outdoors, too. As for the mobile phone… I can remember the brick my mate Gerry had in Dublin back in the late 1980s – one of the first car phones – I never did think it would catch on.  Today, my phone would talk to me, if only I could find the button to press to make this happen.

IMG_2837 (800x600)At the heart of global telecommunications sits the ITU (the International Telecommunication Union), one of the oldest international organisations in Geneva. Its job is to connect all the world’s people… [to] allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

In Geneva as part of the policy immersion phase of the Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for Pacific Island States, a visit to the ITU was on our agenda. And it was fascinating.

IMG_2855 (600x800)This fully interactive exhibition – ICT Discovery –  maps the progress of telecommunication through the years. And perhaps unusually, it encourages visitors to touch and feel and poke and press. You can pick up a tablet at the start and compete against others in the gaming area or simply wander through the 90-minute tour, engaging with each element as you move along. It’s well signposted and very detailed. The years fell away when I saw the Nokia P-30, which came out in 1989, and weighed in at a hefty 800 grams (nearly like holding a bag of sugar to your ear). Or the Amstrad PPC512 from 1988, with its 8 MHz processor,  52 kB memory, 9-inch screen (non-backlit LCD), two floppy disk drives and one hour of battery life. And in 1988 it was a marvel. PPC stands for personal portable computer, by the way… and here I am complaining about the weight of my laptop.

IMG_2848 (800x600)IMG_2850 (800x600)Seeing the evolutionary path of technology laid out in one room is really quite impressive. We tend to take so much of it for granted even if stopping occasionally to marvel would give us a healthier appreciation for just how good we have it. The replica of Sputnik 1, the first satellite in orbit around the Earth, launched back in 1957, is a sight to behold. I’d imagined it to be much bigger than its 58 centimetres. To see something of its size and realise that during the 92 days it was in orbit, it went around the Earth 1440 times… and then to realise that this happened more than 50 years ago? The mind boggles. And a quick view into the future was equally jawdropping.

IMG_2859 - Copy (800x600)Being in the company of Pacific Islanders – from Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Solomon Islands – made it even more inspiring. For them, a region that includes ca. 30 000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, only 2000 of which are inhabited, communication is vital. Eighteen countries and territories lay claim to a total of 550 000 square km of land spread over 180 million square km of ocean, comprising 36% of the Earth’s surface. With these distances in mind, good telecommunication can literally be a matter of life or death.

If you’re in Geneva, check it out. ICT Discovery, ITU, 2 rue de Varembé, Geneva  +41 22 730 6155 [email protected]​ The tour is free but reservations are required.


193 flags + 1

It wasn’t my first visit to Geneva, and I doubt it will be my last. And while it still hasn’t wormed its way into my affections, my relationship with the city has thawed. This time I got to see behind the scenes.

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)The Palais des Nations, with its over-sized broken-legged chair, the iconic symbol of the international campaign against landmines, is an impressive sight. The UN building, with its avenues of flags (194 in all, one for each of the member states plus the UN flag), is quite imposing. And until last month, I thought that was all there was to it. I hadn’t realised that in behind this building, and over to the left, the complex runs 600 meters in length, provides 34 conference rooms and 2800 offices and hosts 10 000 meetings a year. It sits in a 35 hectare park and is reputedly second in size only to the Palace of Versailles.

UN3 (640x480)Global policy-making has its hub in International Geneva. Human rights, humanitarian, science and technology, disarmament, development – agencies representing these agendas and more all live and work in the city, lobbying, debating, regulating, ratifying, spending countless hours in meetings trying to reach consensus on issues that affect the world.

UN6 (640x480)When I was there for meetings during the week, it was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people milled around in all sorts of traditi0nal dress, each bringing their own level of intensity to the proceedings. I was surprised a little at the varying degrees of formality and informality, at the number of personal conversations going on while speakers held the floor. I think that working in this complex structure would take time to get used to and come with its fair share of frustrations.

On Saturday, back for the official tour, it was like a ghost town. What I’d failed to notice in my mad search for the right conference room, were the myriad works of art donated by various member states. The Vatican sprang briefly to mind, but while grand in its own way, this wasn’t nearly as opulent.

UN8 (480x640)I’m not a great one for history; dates have never been my forte. Geography isn’t high on my list of accomplishments either. But even with my shameful ignorance of world affairs, I couldn’t help but be moved when I sat in the same room where the Korean Armistice was hammered out: 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. The same room where the Yom Kippur Peace Conference took place. The same room where the grounds for the exchange of Iran/Iraq prisoners of war were formed. The walls and ceiling of the Council Chamber are decorated with gold and sepia murals by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. The murals, which track the progress of mankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, were presented by the Spanish government to the League of Nations in 1936. If rooms could talk, this one would have something to say for itself.

un4 (480x640)UN2 (480x640)Walking the corridors of power, I couldn’t help but reflect the reach of the United Nations. Despite its problems, it remains the best of what we have available to promote peace and prosperity for all. Yet what we may be guilty of forgetting at times is that at the heart its effectiveness is the need for cooperation between nations. The UN, in and of itself, can’t make any one country do anything. Suzanne Nossel’s 2005 post makes for interesting reading, if one were in doubt about the need for such an organisation, even if the figures are a tad outdated.

UN7 (640x480)I was particularly taken by the ceiling in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room. At a cost of €20 million, this sculpture,  again donated by the Spanish government, is magical. Artist Miquel Barceló sprayed many layers of coloured paint (100 tons in all) across the ceiling of 1500 square metres to create stalactites.  At the unveiling on 18 November  2008, Barceló revealed his main sources of inspiration: a cave and the sea.

The cave is a metaphor for the agora, the first meeting place of humans, the big African tree under which to
sit to talk, and the only possible future: dialogue, human rights.

If you’re in Geneva, do yourself a favour and book a tour of the UN. At €10, it’s worth every penny.





Taken for a ride

TripAdvisor has just published its list of the ten most expensive tourist cities in the world. I was surprised to see that Geneva didn’t rate. I’ve just been there and found it to be horrendously expensive (I nearly choked on my €20 basic chicken salad and drank every dredge of my €5 coffee).

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)It’s the first city I’ve been to where hotel rooms are cheaper at the weekend than mid-week; the city is a global business and policy-making hub. The UN was buzzing all week, but on Saturday, the only peacocks visible at the Palais des Nations were the feathered kind.

Had I been travelling from London, or even Ireland, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed how extortionately priced everything is, but coming from Hungary, it was a really loud cha-ching!

I was with a group from the Pacific Islands, many of whom were in Europe for the first time. Imagine my shock and quadruple it to get even a semblance of the beating their wallets were taking. They asked about living in Budapest, whether it was as expensive as Geneva, and not for the first time I found myself talking about the relatively inexpensive cost of living I enjoy. (The operative word here is ‘relatively’.)

Expats in Hungary have a standard of living many couldn’t ever hope to have at home. The lucky ones on expat packages can live well, very well. Those with local-employment status don’t do so badly either. Even those freelancing and invoicing externally do well enough. If you know the city and know where to go, your forints can go a long way.

Yes, there are restaurants where the cost of dinner for two would pay for a flash weekend in Bucharest. There are bars where you could have a three-course meal in Skopje for the price of a cocktail. There are shops where just one outfit would set you back the equivalent of three month’s groceries. But all in all, we have little to complain about.

And yet…

At Keleti recently, arriving by train from Bratislava, I overheard a taxi driver bargaining with a couple of tourists heading for the Marriott. They thought they were getting a good deal at €20. A straight run down Rácóczi and then right? I’d have thought €5-7 would be more like it and I said as much. But they were on holiday, they said, and they had the money to spend. I was torn between a quiet admiration for the driver who got them to stump up that sort of money and a somewhat louder disgust that, regardless of how much money they were toting around and how eager they were to part with it, they were being ripped off.

When I first arrived in town, I suspected there was some sort of Hungarian language tax – if you didn’t speak it, you were a foreigner. If you were a foreigner, you had money. If you had money, you were charged more. I preferred the idea of a language tax to facing the fact that I was getting the sort of preferential treatment I could have done without. Years later, there are still transactions in which I enlist the help of Hungarian friends rather than pay the ‘special’ rate for something or other. But these days, I’m a little savvier.

I noticed in a taxi the other day that I was showing on the meter as a külföldi (a foreigner) but now if I’m taken for a ride, I know I’ve no one to blame but myself.

First published in the Budapest Times  27 June 2014

Fishing in the city

I’m the first one to admit to a bad first impression. Mind you, I doubt my saying ‘You know, when I first met you, I thought you were a right pratt, but now that I’ve gotten to know you, I quite like you’ would win me any medals in the diplomacy stakes. And despite the lukewarm reception such admissions generally receive, I still persist. Honesty is ingrained in me and while the world in general, and some people in particular, might be much better off and none the wiser had I kept my second-thoughts to myself, I can’t get rid of the urge to purge.

Switzerland and me got off to a bad start all those years ago. Our relationship wasn’t improved much by semi-frequent visits to Geneva (I was proposed to there once). It took this last trip to Zurich to make things right.

IMG_9163IMG_9165The centrepiece, the main attraction, was the lake and the old town. Nothing new there, given my predilection for things old and things watery. The last time the lake froze was in 1963 – the second time in the twentieth century. That’s something that was hard to get my head around, but even harder was to see someone fishing, downtown, when the rest of the world went to work.

IMG_9195 (800x600)Over on the far side of the bridge lies the old town with its church steeples and riverside walkways. It’s here, in the cathedral, where Marc Chagall’s (born Moishe Segal) famous stained glass windows are venerated. Used as I am to the gilded walls and pillars of Catholic churches elsewhere in the world, the stark plainness of the churches I visited in Zurich were a marked contrast and somehow much more conducive to prayer and reflection. Perhaps what is most surprising about these windows is, as James H. Charlesworth notes, ‘how Christian symbols are featured in the works of an artist who comes from a strict and Orthodox Jewish background’. Worth a visit if you’re in the neighbourhood.

IMG_9221 (800x600)So the verdict? If you’ve not been to Zurich, make time to visit. You won’t be disappointed. The people are friendly, the service is exceptionally good, and there’s plenty to do and see. Eat your fondue outdoors as it does smell a little and try, if you can, to visit in December. Take advantage of the mountains and be sure to visit a church or two.




Old space, new ideas

IMG_9270 (800x600)I didn’t think there could be much more that would surprise me about Swiss efficiency. Having a tram where you can leave your Christmas shopping as you shop some more and then come collect it on the way home is a stroke of genius. Having a tram that travels the city of Zurich and serves fondue as you sight see shifts time management into a whole new realm. But it’s not just the trams that are put to good use.

IMG_9339 (800x600) (2)There’s a part of town called IM VIADUKT … and not surprisingly, it’s an old viaduct originally built in 1894. But instead of leaving it to rack and ruin, to bury itself beneath a coating or five of graffiti or yards of trellised ivy, the Swiss have turned it into a serviceable work of art: serviceable because of the shops and restaurants and cafés that have established themselves underneath in the 36 arches; artistic because of the night lights that showcase its nooks and crannies, curves and corners. The architects faced a huge challenge – their task was to develop this monumental piece of architecture within the confines of a preservation order, and to do so affordably, given the Swiss penchant for bureaucracy and red tape. And while I’m not a student of the trade I know what I like – and I like this place … a lot.

IMG_9401 (800x600)IMG_9413 (800x600)I stayed with friends in an old industrial space by the river that by rights should be ugly – concrete and steel – but instead is funky and modern without being an eyesore. I spent quite a bit of time marveling at the juxtaposition of old and new in the city – the Swiss seemed to have accomplished in Zurich what so many other city planners have failed to do – a perfect marriage of old and new.

Yes, the sheer beauty of Budapest’s architecture remains unchallenged but Zurich has wedged its way into my heart.

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