A Genevese Pause....
- Categorized in: October 2011
Had I had more time, I suppose the ascetic in me would have insisted that I bicycle across Switzerland to go visit friends and family in Geneva. Almost anywhere you turn in this country, there is a ruddy great hill in front of you – a wonderful challenge for fresh legs – or a very good reason to take the train if you feel you have nothing more to prove.
So leaving the money-counters behind in Zurich, I hopped onto a speedy carriage that whipped me across Switzerland in under 3 hours, which would’ve been at least a couple of days’ riding under my own steam.
From Zurich to Geneva, you are passing from the German-speaking into the French-speaking world, through the cuspish town of Fribourg, which seems to have no idea which it wants to be.
Vineyards above Lake Geneva
Despite the sun shining in Zurich, by the time I arrived in Geneva it was raining.
Rain!? I’d almost forgotten what that was. And I wasn’t very popular with the first friend I went to see if only because she claimed I’d brought the rain with me. (A vile slander, as anyone who has been reading these travel notes up to this point can attest.)
But whatever the weather, there I was. In Geneva. Ahhh! That lyrical city, fair metropolis of harmony and genius, where the very stones breath culture, and the air throbs with the beating heart of romance and drama……
Hmmm, maybe not. Grey as the suits of her bankers, if Geneva was a young lady, a writer like Dickens would probably describe her as “homely”. Which is not to say that there is anything much about her that invites a traveller to hang up his wheels, and throw down an anchor on the shores of this famous Swiss lake, and call it home.
However, those that know would have you believe otherwise. My cousin Henry has settled there and repeatedly describes Geneva as the “best kept secret in Europe”.
“It may not look like much, but it’s a great place to live.” He intimates that Geneva’s less than dazzling appeal is in fact a carefully constructed ruse by its inhabitants to keep the place to themselves. This may well be – and on a drizzly October afternoon he was at no risk whatsoever of having his enjoyment of the city encroached upon by me.
But let us be fair. Geneva the city is at least situated in Geneva the place – meaning you can’t be too upset living on the edge of a beautiful lake, surrounded by picturesque mountains and only a short drive to some of the more dramatic mountain retreats in Europe. Cousin Henry’s attitude is instructive here too: “We live in Verbier [a nearby ski resort]. We just spend our weekdays in Geneva.” If only we could all be so lucky.
But I didn’t come to Geneva for her charms, hidden or otherwise, but rather for whom I would visit there. Way back along the trail, in the little mountain town of Xinglong where I was grievously shamed into dancing around the town square with a woman who would not be led, as 300 Chinese townsfolk looked on, I had received an invitation from an ex-colleague of mine to drop in on her once I got to Europe. At the time, it seemed absurdly far away, so I was happy finally to have made good on my promise. Here I was in Geneva, where I was to be very well looked after by my friend Laura.
Laura is an interesting girl. I first met her when working for Freshfields in Paris. I won’t say she is frighteningly intellectually intimidating on first acquaintance, but what is true is that when you first meet her, it rapidly becomes obvious that she is a lot cleverer than you. And however long you know her, you’re unlikely to change that first impression.
I think it is true to say that she is my only Finnish friend – and if she is fairly representative of her people, then you had better have your wits about you if you ever find yourself in Helsinki. She knows more than me about most things – with the possible exception of bicycling – and like a good cross-examiner she will pick me up on anything particularly stupid that I might say. Once you can accept this, you’ll find this does wonders for raising the quality of your conversation as you learn to keep up with her repartee.
Laura et moi
Laura remains a lawyer and should always be one. She is one of the few people I have worked with who likes the work (in my view) for the right reasons – namely that she loves the game. She loves winning. She likes sticking it to the other side, beating them up intellectually and leaving them feeling small and defeated. I can relate to this. Call the opponent a mountain instead of a “claimant” or a “respondent” and I understand why she needs to take it on.
It is no surprise then that, being a Finn and wildly competitive, she spends her weekends smashing into people on an ice rink. If she’s never represented Finland at ice hockey, it’s only because she’s been spending too much time in the office. In Hong Kong, they refer to businessmen who moonlight as triathletes, or long-distance cyclists, or marathon runners as “Weekend Warriors”. We can adapt this for Laura – she is a “Weekend Amazon”. (It doesn’t alliterate but this we may overlook. – maybe “Out-of-Office Amazon” is close enough.)
She is rather tall, has a light red brown bob haircut, which frames the pretty, almost elvin features of the people of the North. And it must be added, a taste for younger men. Since she is undoubtedly young at heart, this makes sense.
So when we finally met – some 14,000km after it had been arranged – it was a great pleasure to see her. She had various plans for our amusement including a sort of reprise of the Parisian work lunches we used to have with other colleagues – complete with inattentive waiters, and far too attentive patrons on invasively close neighbouring tables.
Geneva does yodel
She was also delighted when I hesitantly suggested seeking out a yodelling concert, which I’d had half a mind for as I passed through Switzerland. She had her own suggestion. While not exactly a concert, we both swallowed our pride and went for dinner in “the most kitsch restaurant in Geneva”. Which is pretty kitsch, I can tell you. But where else could you go and blow a twelve-foot long mountain horn in between courses?
Does this need a label?
We had cocktails over-looking the jet d’eau and I was reminded of the world of European sophistication to which I was returning – big hair, big heels for the womenfolk, big collars, big watches for the menfolk. (Not to mention wondering at the number of Mai Tokoch Kyrgyz sour milk balls that you could trade for a few sips of a Caiparinha.)
All in all, it was fun to catch up with Laura, and once I’d wished her well on her current case, her next hockey match and her on-going romantic escapades, for my final evening in Geneva she handed me over to my cousin Henry and his family.
Henry has been the inspiration for any Russophilia in the Brun family. An adventurer in a far truer sense than I, he’s lived and worked in the Russian Far East in Vladivostok, and then in the “early years” of independence in Tbilisi (that’s Georgia). He now operates as a private banker based in Geneva, but with a lot of business in Russia (and India). Although he has often explained to various members of the family exactly what his business entails, none of us has come away any the wiser.
There was a time when I worked in Moscow, where I was approached by a Frenchman of rather dubious character and connection, who needed to open some new lines of credit (having been refused by everyone he’d tried up till then). Henry has never thanked me for attempting to send him this business, since a cursory background check on this individual revealed him to be a convicted illegal arms dealer in sub-Saharan Africa, and a “close friend” of Saddam Hussein and General Masood (I believe). Apparently, even Swiss bankers can’t take on this particular breed of clientele these days.
But over the years, Henry has carefully constructed the life that he wants, together with his wife Louise, who runs a successful exhibition gallery in the heart of old Geneva. And it was easy to jump in for 24 hours and become part of the family for that short time. Whether this meant watching England lose at rugby, playing patty-cake with his oldest daughter, or having lunch with another set of old friends in their house over-looking the lake, it was a taste of my own family and very welcome.
Time was a-ticking though. And it wasn’t long before I was pedalling through the rain to make it onto the train to Lausanne. There to spend the night with another cousin – a Danish one this time – who lives with her fiancé in a spacious apartment in this lakeside city.
Time is a precious commodity – and such is the intensity of people’s schedules these days, that I was able to snatch just a couple of hours of Cousin Fie and Johan’s time before they were off to work in the morning, and I was needing to move on.
Back on the train to Zurich on a grey and drizzly morning to pick up the trail where I’d left it.
The page was now about to turn once more, onto the closing chapter of my long journey.
- Notes from the Road
- Join Me for the Ride!
- Press Articles & Clips
- Causes for your Support
- Voices in the East
- Distance Done
- Kit Inventory
- Maps of the Route
- Video Clips
- Norfolk Superheroes