In summer, the red-crested pochard (Netta rufina) migrates from India and Africa north to Europe where they spend the warmer season diving for tasty, sub-aquatic plants. They are startling birds to look at—the first one I saw looked like a toy—a rubber ducky with a bill spray-painted fire-engine red and a glowing red and gold eye, as if this innocent diving duck was possessed.
I watched carefully as one particular drake paddled in the ever-clear waters of Lake Geneva, dabbling among the elaborate swans and awkward coots before diving deep below the surface. “Lake Geneva is so clean you can drink it!” I’m told, and through the very clean water I could see the duck’s tiny webbed feet fighting the urge to float, kicking upwards, little bubbles rising up from this beautiful little bird.
Garçon, there’s a duck in my Perrier.
In summer, the Arabs fly north—from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the Emirates. Some of them arrive in private jets and like the pretty little ducks with red bills, they too settle along the shores of Lake Geneva.
Nobody can blame them. Back home in Dubai, the thermometer is racing towards 122 °F (50° C), whereas mid-June in Switzerland is paradise perfect: high 70’s (24° C), light mountain breezes, and so many cooling lakes. I would migrate north, too.
They have startling cars, some of them. The first one I saw was parked just outside my $850/night hotel: a royal blue Rolls-Royce with white leather interiors and a Saudi license plate. Like any shameless gawking American tourist, I could not resist taking a quick pic and looking up the car’s cost on my phone—the blue book value for this blue Rolls-Royce (used) was well over $200,000.
The next day I spotted a shiny orange Lamborghini with Kuwaiti plates parked on the other side of my hotel. It looked like a 1980’s spaceship that could levitate and hover away if needed. This one, it turns out, was valued at a mere $150,000 but offers speed: apparently, it can accelerate to 200 mph (320 km/h) in just 4 seconds. Once more, I gawked in awe at this rare, over-the-top luxury and imagined its owners careful eyes looking down at me from the our hotel.
Concierge, there’s an American near my car.
Back in 1976, the nation of Switzerland held a referendum on mandatory seat-belt laws. (As a direct democracy, any law can be put to general vote.) In this case, the canton of Geneva voted against making seat belts mandatory but they were defeated by the national majority. The law was repealed the following year as “illegal”, then reinstated in 1981, despite majority opposition from the Genevois.
“How did the Genevois react to the new law?” I asked one Genevois while riding as a passenger in his car.
“The police refused to enforce it,” he answered.
“Why were they against wearing seat belts?” I asked.
“They weren’t against seat belts,” he shot back. “They just didn’t want it to be the law.”
Ah! Libertarians! I thought, and then tested my seat belt.
In 1536, Geneva welcomed John Calvin’s Reformation, but two years later, the city’s wealthiest families (who also happened to comprise the city council) banned John Calvin from Geneva, sending him packing along with his troop of reformers.
But Calvin returned to Geneva in 1541, unleashing his Ecclesiastical Ordinances and banning all the things he didn’t like, including dancing, “luxuries” and the wearing of jewelry. He also banned four-part harmonies and musical instruments, which he said, “only amuse people in their vanities.”
One should also remember that John Calvin was a stickler for time. He himself went to bed at 9 pm and woke up at 4 am and he disliked non-punctual people so much that he introduced fines for anyone who was late to church, who missed church, or who left church early.
What do you get when you fire all the city’s jewelers and then make tardiness a punishable crime?
Full-page ad watches, I thought to myself, as I crossed the Mont Blanc bridge to the other side of the lake, past the Patek Phillipe store where that morning, I had investigated the merchandise, and was informed one particular watch carried a $2 million price tag.
Geneva redefined window-shopping for me. I did quite a lot of looking—at shoes, at watches, at leather satchels and knife sets and Mont Blanc pens, but I never managed to get beyond the glass, because . . .
. . . who buys $2 million watches? Seriously, I don’t know. But I can tell you who buys the $10,000 watches: the Chinese.
According to almost every Swiss person I talked to, the Chinese have boosted the Swiss watch industry like never before.
“After the economic crisis, all the luxury markets suffered . . . except watches,” explained one Swiss woman (who wears a Japanese digital watch). “We have so many Chinese visitors in Switzerland now, but they don’t stay very long. They come only to buy a watch, and then they leave.”
Apparently, real Swiss watches have become the penultimate status symbol for Chinese officials. One Chinese blogger dedicated his blog to analyzing every Chinese government official based on the value of the Swiss watch he or she was wearing (not surprisingly, the blog was banned).
The great irony of Swiss luxury goods is that in my experience, the Swiss are some of the most modest and financially prudent people on the planet. I don’t know a single Swiss person who would spend $2 million on a watch, let alone $200,000 on a car.
Admittedly, it is too common a stereotype, but here in Switzerland the Swiss do seem to appreciate a good bargain. During the three days I spent in Geneva, whenever someone recommended a good restaurant, one word kept popping up: raisonnable.
“They do great food and the prices are tout à fait raisonnable!” the Genevois counseled me.
“Completely reasonable.”—that’s a compliment in Switzerland, and perhaps also the underlying antidote to the up-and-down, off-and-on history of this strange Swiss city.
In the sunny afternoon, I watched an intense game of oversized chess in Le Parc de Bastions, where men and women frowned at the pavement before lifting knee-high chess pieces and moving them, tipping pawns over with a hollow thud. I watched a queen perish, then walked farther into the park where I came upon Geneva’s monument to “the reformers”: John Calvin, William Farel, Thedore Beza and John Knox (the father of Presbyterianism).
The four figures look stoic in stone, larger-than-life effigies at attention, a Swiss version of Mt. Rushmore. Over their heads, in all caps, a Latin quote proclaims Post Tenebras Lux—“After darkness, light.”
The sun was high and bright but below the statue, an electrician was busy working, installing lights, untangling a nest of black cords and aiming the lights to shine on the stone faces of the reformer.
At night, John Calvin’s statue becomes enlightened, literally.
471 years after Calvin outlawed musical instruments, the city of Geneva welcomed the idea to leave twenty pianos out in the street and invite members of the public to play them at will.
“Play me! This piano is yours!” read the pianos, and the people of Geneva obey. On a rainy morning, I watched a man huddled under a sheet of plastic, banging out a classical piece while commuters rushed past with umbrellas. When the sun came out, I watched children run up and tap the keys and later observed a young man play “The Happy Farmer” twenty times in succession.
On a free street piano in the main square, a woman played andante with the posture of a professional—straight back, rounded hands, chord after chord. The melody sounded familiar, noble and church-like. The woman played with her eyes closed, breathing in time to the hymn she was playing. It sounded so familiar.
She concentrated deeply, her head wrapped in a pink and flowered cloth. I waited until she stressed the final chord, and opened her eyes, then asked her openly, “What song are you playing?”
“It’s that hymn!” she smiled. “You know, the one from the Reformation!” And indeed it was. She was playing “The Old Hundredth”—a song composed by Loys Bourgeois and part of the original Geneva Psalter—the approved musical hymnal compiled by John Calvin himself. It is a hymn that has trickled down from Switzerland to nearly every Christian church in the world.
A woman playing a Calvinist psalm in the very city where it was composed—and only blocks away from the church where John Calvin preached his constant sermons.
Back at my hotel, I look up the original lyrics: Serving him with all your might, keeping vigil through the night.
Today, prostitution is legal in the city of Calvin—in all of Switzerland, actually. There are college courses aimed at helping women manage their business and prostitutes who specialize in clients with disabilities.
Two blocks from my $850/night hotel, a skinny but rather chesty Romanian beckoned to me from a pink-lit doorway. Her bleached blonde hair was wrapped up in an artsy do, her gauzy skin-tight shirt served no purpose. She smiled at me, a small white diamond sparkling from a single tooth in her Miss America smile.
I retreated back to the lake, where vacationing Iranian families were returning from their day of shopping. The Shia Muslim women were cloaked in black but in their hands they clutched—Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton. From the opposite direction, I saw a woman dressed like a magazine spread—designer shoes, the mini dress, the bangled wrists, the retro hairdo and raspberry lipstick—every detail was picture-perfect, down to the three miniature Yorkshire terriers following behind as careful props.
I stopped to take pictures and we chatted. She turned out to be Iranian as well, a refugee from the revolution and an émigré to Switzerland nearly twenty years before. Fashion was her life and the names of her dogs? Fifi, Gucci and Chanel.
Chanel began barking and so we said goodbye.
On my final day in Geneva, the temperatures reach 80° F (26° C) and so I go swimming. It costs only two francs to enter Les Bains de Paquis, an old 1930’s urban beach park that reaches out into the middle of Lac Léman and ends with a glowing white lighthouse. No matter that today is a weekday, Les Bains are still packed: half-naked teenagers lounge on wooden rafts in the lake, men playing cards and ping-pong, as older women sunbathe and smoke.
In 2007, the city of Geneva banned smoking in public places—that ban was banned in 2008, and then reintroduced in 2009. All I know is that Les Bains must not count as a public place, since one out of every two bathers seemed to hold a cigarette in their hand or mouth. Although, right behind one group of smoking swimmers sat a giant posted sign warning the world that all of that smoking would really come to an end in 2014.
The highlight of Les Bains de Paquis is the high dive—a platform 32-feet (10m) high from which the bravest souls of Geneva can throw themselves down into the lake. I watch one daredevil after another, running and flipping and diving from the top—I count two seconds of silence before I hear the splash below.
“Are you gonna dive from the top?” I ask one young man with his group of friends. Then I pull out my camera, anticipating the stunt to come.
“Yeah, I’ll jump. Just let me finish my joint,” he answers, holding up a freshly-lit blunt that leaks a ripe marijuana perfume into the air. Marijuana is illegal in Switzerland.
It is three o’clock in the afternoon. There are maybe five hundred witnesses and two pairs of police nearby—but the amateur acrobat sucks away the entire joint, hands the stub to a friend, then skips up the steps to the top of the platform. For a moment, all I see is the boxy black silhouette of the high dive, then suddenly there he is, whirling down from the concrete tower, arms and legs spinning—un, deux, splash.
The next morning, at breakfast, I remember to steal a crust of bread from the breakfast buffet of my $850/night hotel for the little red-billed duck in the lake. I’m sure I’ll see the bird on my way to the train station—I hope so.
Yet in Geneva, it’s what you don’t see that counts. I never saw who bought the $2 million watch, or the owner of the blue Rolls-Royce, or the Romanian’s eventual client. I did not see so many things that happen every day in Geneva, which is what makes it Geneva.
The Swiss carry a kind of cultural discretion that most of us can never achieve. Even writing this all down is very un-Swiss of me, but I must include it as an entry in my quickly-expanding Swiss Dictionary:
Geneva (noun) 1) A Swiss city that vacillates between opulence and austerity, lawful and unlawful, reform and counter-reform. 2) A place where you can spend two bucks at the beach or two million at the mall. 3) A destination for the über-rich to fly in their gaudiest cars and park them in public, and where historically, locals shunned jewelry and wore only the plainest fashions. 4) Most of us will never really know the half of it.