Geneva, from Sushil Kedia

June 16, 2007 |

 I noticed a society much at peace with itself managing nearly one fourth of the world’s wealth while traversing across Geneva for three days. Not a single war in the last five hundred and fifty years. Yet despite continued prosperity they have not built even one skyscraper! The chairman’s hubris indicator has another corroboration from this metropolis. Yes, the only real tall structure out there is a giant fountain in the middle of a huge and clean lake that overshadows all other low-hung medieval looking architecture. Here is a society that has clearly known that there is no money in ego.

For a first-timer like me in a new city deciphering the map to the last building is not always easy. At each occasion that I had to request help seeking directions to any particular addresses I was shocked positively that they were willing to take a small walk ranging from 50 to 250 yards showing where I needed to go. In all other cities that I have been the best help I have received ranged from a helpless smile to a quick pointing of the finger. Hoi polloi of Geneva are happy, positive, and willing to spare time for a total stranger.

The city has a very proactive pro-business administration. Each tourist or foreign national arriving into Geneva is given a free pass by their hotels, paid for by the city administration, that entitles the recipients to travel freely in Geneva using all public transport. No rushed trains, no filled up trams, buses stopping by to let pedestrians pass (not just private vehicles but big buses stopping!), near zero pollution, hoards of art-dealers, bankers, jewelers, confectioners, members of the oldest profession, politicians, bureaucrats, aspiring summer interns — you could see them all passing by in a single day, at peace with their diverse objectives conjoint only at wealth and power in this one city.

A visit to the United Nations reminded me of the many key pacts, conventions, and treaties signed at and containing the name of Geneva.

I had a negative experience too. On the first day of my arrival I went to the McDonald’s on the Rue de Laussane knowing that it is one hygienic food parlor that will have some fare for a vegetarian too. I found it but had my wallet picked up. Within three hours of landing in a new city, to be left with a situation where all your credit cards and cash are gone can be a shock. However, the manager of this McDonald’s took me to his cubicle and surprised me with a replay of the tapes of at least four different hidden cameras installed in the store. In less than 10 minutes we were zooming on the face of the individual who picked up my wallet. The famous Corps de Police of the Republique et Canton de Geneve were called in. They took 20 minutes to arrive and promised to collect a copy of the recording from the store manager the next day. Then they noted down the physical features of the wallet-picker with a few replays of the tape. The police officers promised me all positive action and left graciously.

However, a sixth sense told me to grab the phone, call my banks and cancel all the cards immediately and seek activation of the replacement cards. The last day that I was leaving Geneva I visited the police station and the McDonald’s to check if any action happened. I discovered the police officers had not yet returned to the store to collect the tape and had not yet flashed the physical features of the wallet picker on their wireless vans!

I am certain that McDonald’s does not have hidden cameras across their stores in possibly any other country. Bottom line: the big brother in Switzerland is watching everyone. But credit card thieves, small pickpockets, and denizens of this universe without the potential of owning a numbered account yet can fend for themselves.

But then a city thriving upon 500 years of warless prosperity gave me a sufficiently happy time to forgive and forget.

Ronald Weber replies:

 I am surprised but nevertheless pleased by your impressions of Geneva. Although it's my hometown, it is not particularly known for its friendliness toward visitors.

The infrastructure, aesthetic, and the quality of life have declined remarkably over the past 20 years. Geneva had its golden era in the 60s and 70s with oil money, but everything is relative and it's still a wonderful place to live. May I suggest that you also visit Zurich on your next trip?

Perhaps you are familiar with the famous quote from Orson Welles in The Third Man, "The violent Italian culture that produced the Borgias also produced Michelangelo, while all the Swiss, known for 500 years of order and good manners, could come up with was the cuckoo clock!"


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