By Harvey Parafina
There is something I always find peculiar with the way the TPG tram on line 15 bends from Rue de Lausanne to Avenue de France. As it ascends towards the United Nations, the cramped residential and commercial buildings all of a sudden give way to a clearing with feats of modern architecture, of glass and concrete that seem to tower the rest of the city.
Taking cue from from Pierre Ruetschi’s reflections in Tribune de Genève,
Les espaces y sont dégagés, on y respire un air vivifiant, comme si on montait en altitude. Moins charmant mais plus stimulant, plus épuré aussi. … Autre registre, autre territoire, celui de la Genève internationale. Nous voici donc au centre du monde!
From the Picciotto Student House and Maison de la Paix to UNHCR and Palais de Nations itself, their grandness and the powers they hold can often keep us in awe of the differences of the city within the city. Ruetschi puts it quite well: it is easy to think that we are at the center of the world.
His article came at the time when the issue of Pierre Maudet, one of Geneva’s state councilors, was about to be forgotten, an issue certain expats of Grand Sacconex might not have been aware of. While at the same time, a majority of Genevois would not have known of the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ pivotal role in easing the tensions between Russia and the United States regarding the INF (Immediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty), let alone that on the same day he has spoken to students at IHEID on the importance of press freedom. The two cities seem to exist in different worlds, and yet, we speak of the same Geneva.
To know that such impressions of Geneva come not only from those on the outside, but from a Genevois, gives a bit of comfort that I am not alone with how I see and experience the city. His reflection gives an impression that perhaps there is something that can be said about the city we live in. Various conversations with friends, most of whom are living here for the first time, would often produce their own impressions, that Geneva is a global city that is nowhere comparable to London or New York, neither in its size nor the energy that it exudes. For a time, I even thought, “Geneva has nothing else to offer.”
However, such thoughts come at a juncture when put under Humean light: impressions arise only when there is established contact. First impressions can last, but without encountering the city and what lies behind it, how well do we really know Geneva?
The spaces we occupy. The early stages of writing this were mostly spent thinking about how it was possible for me to have lived in the city for seven months, and only spent what I approximate to be 80% of the time on Avenue de France. An exaggeration perhaps, but this should have come as no surprise given that I live in Picciotto, a mere four-minute walk from my room to the hallowed halls of Maison de la Paix.
What strikes me, however, is how within that time, I wasn’t aware of my own lack of interest in the city itself. Surely, it is understandable: I have more urgent, more important things to do. I do prefer not getting piled under the rubble of exams and paper deadlines. But it is in thinking, “There is nothing else to see,” that betrays the supposed endless curiosity that humans have.
Reflections such as these make me wonder, “What else is there to see and experience in the city?” Is there anything that I have missed? It is from these simple questions that we, at The Graduate Press in its early days, have started thinking about the spaces we occupy and interact with in the city.
The city as the lens. My wish is simple: to get to know the city better – to place myself outside the bubble, imagined or not. And to write this is to simply invite you to bring ourselves outside the “international” that we’re so often used to. Outside the bubble of the Institute and international Geneva, and into the city itself.
On the other hand, one’s experience of and in the city cannot be separate from their experience at the Institute. My wish for you and I both is not only to get to know Geneva, but to discover our sense of place in the Institute, in the city, and hopefully our own place in the world. In the same way that the Institute is not separate from Geneva, neither are we from the spaces we involve ourselves in the city. We do not only look at the city, but we use the city to look at ourselves.
My intention in writing this is, at best, slightly vague in its objective and its ambition. It dreams of trying to answer for the both of us, “What is it about the city that we want to say?” Est-ce simplement l’ennui de la vie étudiante? I certainly do not know myself, even after spending two years here. We’re aware that it is difficult to make sense of this while in the thick of things. However, we’re hoping that through this project, we get to take a step back, and take the city and ourselves as objects of our boundless curiosity.
Postscript. More than a year has passed since I’ve written these reflections for our first print edition. I intended for this to become a monthly project where we interviewed people in their favorite places in Geneva – a way of looking at the city through their own eyes. We’ve interviewed three people, but I never got around to continuing the project. Life had a way of telling me, I had more urgent things to do.
Now, I come to you from the nearer past, writing just a few days before this was published. Still in the midst of a global pandemic. Who knew? My self from a year ago would certainly not have guessed as much.
While it may be harder to ask you now to get to know the city in the same way that I originally intended, my intention remains the same. With one caveat.
One important thing I neglected to mention is what the pursuit of curiosity about the city is for. Or rather, for whom it is for. The bubble that I felt surrounded me was the product of the city that lived off its contradictions – the center for human rights and international development seems to coexist, with an uncomfortable ease, with the global centre for capital and luxury. The most expensive city in the world had hour-long queues that began at 5 a.m. for free food parcels during the lockdown.
The curiosity that I aspire for us is a curiosity that doesn’t end with us. It is a curiosity that overflows into kindness and concern for others, and anger and rage for the unjust. It is a curiosity that does not end at the Institute, Genève internationale, nor even Geneva itself. My wish is for the both of us to take this same lens – wherever and whenever you are.
We’d love to hear your thoughts. If you have anything to say about this or any other piece in the future, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I would like to thank Noel, Anmol, and Hafez for taking the time to take part in this forestalled project and for sharing their favorite places with Riya and me. Geneva has been much more alive since then.
¹ Pierre Maudet, a rising Swiss politician, met his fall in 2018 when he was exposed to have “hidden a part of the truth” about recent business dealings to the public. At the time, he was being investigated for his first-class business trip in 2015 to Abu Dhabi with his family, all paid for by the foreign government. There were suspicions that he had met with the Crown Prince Sheikh of Abu Dhabi during the said trip, when a contract under his supervision was awarded to a company from Abu Dhabi soon after. The issue is still ongoing, which you can catch up on at Le Temps.
This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.
Photo by Riya Sarin.