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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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

2014 Grateful 27

I nearly didn’t recognise her. The short crop was gone, replaced by a pinned up 1940’s bob. I hadn’t seen my mate MC in way too long. Despite the best of intentions, work and lives had interfered. Schedules had clashed and best efforts to get together had come to nowt. It had been nearly two years since we’d seen each other – by far the longest time we’ve gone with out setting the world to rights in our own inimitable way.

STA_9956 (800x399)We did the train-station theatrics in Bath with minimum fuss but the right amount of understated excitement at being together again. And then we went for lunch. One hour morphed into two, three, four. The bottle of wine long-since gone, we had just one Italian spritzer (limoncello and prosecco) which turned into two and then three. Nearly a full eight hours later we had caught up on personal stuff, discussed Putin’s bout of sabre rattling, bandied around the possible consequences of China’s debt bubble busting, debated the current rise of antisemitism in Europe, wondered at the whole gay rights vs human rights, and expressed our liking for the current pope. Back home to hers and the conversation continued. That night, I marvelled, not for the first time, at the enduring power of real friendship and thanked my God for blessing me with some fabulously interesting friends.

The night before, I’d been to a reception in Bahamas House in London. The current Governor General of the Bahamas was retiring. As he spoke, he mentioned that at 84, it was time to retire. He didn’t look a day over 70. There, I caught up with old friends from the Bahamas and Jersey, met some new friends from South Africa, and again, marvelled at the diversity of opinions, perspectives, and lifestyles that the world has to offer.

The day before that, I’d been in Bern, Switzerland, and had had dinner with a mate of mine from school whom I hadn’t seen since 1983. I recognised AR immediately, partly through a recent connection on LinkedIn but mainly because she really hadn’t changed that much. We sat for a couple of hours in the shadow of the Swiss Parliament and caught up on 30 years, mostly trading experiences of where we had lived and what we’d been doing in our intervening lifetimes. We swapped news about classmates whom we’d been in contact with recently, try to put names to their collective faces, and reminisced about school days and the green uniforms that were indelibly etched on our fashion consciousness.

Earlier in the week, I’d managed to inject some life into a rather lethargic Geneva in the company of some new friends from the Cook Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Samoa (our Solomon Islands friend had gone in search of shoes). As we sat and traded stories, our fluency much enhanced by some semi-decent Swiss wine, we seemed to focus on commonalities. Shared phrases, ones that I’d assumed were quintessentially Irish, like ‘yer man/yer woman’ are alive and kicking and doing the rounds in the Cook Islands. This begs further investigation and one of these days I’m sure we’ll manage it. Traditions, habits, recipes, tales of madness and circumspection travelled to and fro across the table. As I settled into my hotel bed that night,  I marvelled at the opportunities and chance encounters thrown up by the universe that have the potential to become enduring friendships, or not, and I thanked my God for sending these people my way.

As CS Lewis is said to have said: ‘Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.’

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

Spread the (Balkan) love

To say Geneva is expensive is a little like saying that Sultan Kösen is tall. It’s just a hair’s breadth from being a massive understatement. Having paid 34 CHF (about €28) for four very ordinary sandwiches, I was still suffering from shock three hours later. To pay €200 per night for a very, very, very ordinary hotel room (ordinary to the point of being that same hair’s breadth from a hostel dorm room) didn’t hurt as much, as I wasn’t picking up the bill.

Reluctant to throw myself at the mercy of travel advisors, tourist advertisments or concierge recommendations when it came to have dinner last night, I was happy enough to be guided by some Serbian friends who like their food. When it comes to networking while living abroad, the Irish have nothing on those who hail from the Balkans – it seems as if everyone knows someone who knows someone and this particular someone owns/manages/runs La Sixieme Heure  at No. 6 Place des Philosophes close to the Plainpalais (Tram No. 15 from the station) in Geneva.

Once we’d made ourselves known (i.e. as having been sent by the boys), what was already promising to be a good experience took a turn for the sublime. The place itself is furnished with a random selection of mismatched chairs and tables and sofas that transport you to just about anywhere you’d like to be. There’s plenty of room between tables so no eavesdropping to distract from the food. The menus, printed on simple, white sheets of A4 were written in French (of which I have enough to spot an artichoke from 10 yards out). I opted for tagliatelle with artichokes, sunblushed tomatoes and mushrooms topped with oodles of freshly shaved parmesan while PC indulged his taste for truffles and chanced an interesting combination of feta cheese, truffle oil and ruccola with his tagliatelle. The ‘on-the-house’ New Year’s aperitifs of white wine with apricot kirsch led nicely into a Swiss Sauvingnon Blanc for me and a Rioja for himself.

Having already talked at length about replacing ‘want’ with ‘need’ in my life’s vocabulary, I couldn’t justify ordering the warm chocolate tarte so I declined… for both of us – a decision which was promptly ignored by our man from the Balkans. And was I glad. It was just about as ‘to-die-for’ as he is! Add a couple of digestifs and some coffee to the mix and there was little change from 100 CHF (€85 / $120).

It’s been a long time since I shelled out €50 for a main course and some wine and it’s been equally long since I’ve enjoyed a meal as much. I’ve had good food with good company in good settings before – and this was no exception. But what made it so different and so special was that Balkan hospitality. I know I’ve written about  the restaurants and the music in Belgrade and about Serbs and their passion for life and for living and yet I still can’t quite put my finger on where that passion comes from and why it’s so tangible. Just knowing someone who knows someone seems enough to unlock the door to a hospitable world where the Irish céad míle fáilte and the Latino mi casa, su casa combine to create an exquisite sense of welcome that makes you forget to go home.

If you find yourself at a loose end in Geneva and are in need of some soul-warming sustenance that will restore your faith in human nature, you could do a lot worse than drop by La Sixieme Heure. In fact, I’d recommend that you go out of your way to drop by…

Geneva conventions

I was proposed to in Geneva. Earlier this year, in January. As I stood outside these very gates. And I was flattered. He described himself as a political refugee from Zurich. An older man whose face had weathered many winters but whose eyes were still those of a very early spring. He was fun. He asked me if I was married. I said no. He asked me if I had any children. I said no. He asked me if I was in love. I said no. He asked me if I spoke French. I said no, but that I could read it and write it, I just couldn’t roll those r’s. Then he asked me if I believed in God. I said yes.  He paused. Smiled. And then asked me what I thought my mother would say if he called her and asked to marry me. I said she’d be delighted. That delighted him. He laughed. He said we could have a good future. I didn’t doubt him for a minute. This was Geneva, the city whose streets are literally paved with gold, where if you’re ‘in’ you’re in!

It had been twenty years or more since I’d last visited the city and I didn’t remember much about it other than the high prices and the pink bicycles that you could pick up and ride for free. I had vague memories of the lake but couldn’t for the life of me conjure up the feel of the place – how I’d felt when I’d been there. Now I was getting a second chance at a first impression. The city offers free travel in from the airport. Impressive. When you check into your hotel, you get a free travel pass for the duration of your stay. Very impressive. I met my host, the inimitable MM, the man from Belgrade. After a quick beer, he took me on a walking tour of his part of the city. It was late on a Thursday night but the place was quiet. Few people walked the streets and those who did spoke softly. The restaurants and cafés were almost empty; few, if any, showed signs of that bustling night life I had come to expect from a major European city. The liveliest place we came across was Serbian owned. No surprises there!

There was no litter. The streets were clean. Any that might be dropped overnight would be gone again by morning. What graffiti I could see was tasteful, almost arty, serving more to transform an existing monstrosity into something more appealing. We walked up through the cobblestone streets of the old quarter, passed the statues of the fathers of the Reformation. I had forgotten, if indeed I ever knew, that Geneva was the centre of the Calvinist Reformation in Europe. His church and the museum are well worth a visit. Hearing Calvin lecture on issues that are still so relevant today was slightly surreal. Religious freedom was limited here, as it was pretty much in all of Europe in the 1500s. The maxim of cuius regio, eius religio  (whose region, his religion) meant that you simply adopted the faith of  your ruler. Makes you wonder about the origins of the phrase ‘When in Rome…’ If you didn’t like it, you moved elsewhere. Switzerland, too, had its witch trials.  Between about 1530 and 1600, numerous witch trials were held in both Protestant and Catholic cantons, often ending in death sentences, the most common form of which was burning at the stake.

Geneva is in the southwestern corner of Switzerland. Most of it in fact, borders France. It was once an independent republic and, even today, still considers itself a republic in the Swiss confederacy. During Napoleon’s time, it was annexed and occupied by France. Liberated in 1813, it joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815 as the 22nd canton. There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each a member state of the federal state of Switzerland. Perhaps America is a lot closer than we think!

The city itself is a veritable garden: there are 310 hectares of parks, 40,000 trees in public areas, 428,000 plants, including 40,000 rose bushes. The famous flower clock unfortunately, was out of order, because of vandalism. Is this a sign of the times, where lawlessness has breached the borders of a country that is known for its clock-work precision and almost puritanical ways? Down by the lake, the Jet d’eau is very much alive and spurting.  It really is something to behold. And again, my thoughts return to America and to Old Faithful, but without the steam!

The Plaine de Plainpalais didn’t look much that night. But the next day, when it hosted the local farmers market or the day after when it morphed into a flea market, it was truly spectacular.  A posher version of Esceri here in Budapest, more expensive and more upmarket. But then, that’s Geneva in a nutshell.

I’m very gullible, easily impressed. My life so far has been a series of one spontaneous move after the next. In the aftermath of visiting a new city, I can almost always imagine myself living there. Almost always. Geneva is a fine city. It has lots going on. It has more than 200 international governmental and nongovernmental organisations headquartered there. It is the home of the United Nations, windowless banks, designer watches and fancy hotels. It is clean, beautiful, and gentrified.  It offered me a glimpse perhaps of how life might have been, had I made different choices. I was there to work and I was lucky enough to have the time to see more than just the inside of an office. I had an excellent guide. I enjoyed my stay. But I doubt very much that I’d ever want to live there.