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….






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.