Getting to Know Geneva

Staff Writer Deborah Dimond discovers the progressive Swiss city of Geneva

By: Deborah Dimond
The Broken Chair monument
The Broken Chair monument

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St Pierre Organ
My introduction to Switzerland started in Geneva which, this year, had the honor of playing host to the 2011 Switzerland Travel Mart. Travel professionals, suppliers and journalists from around the world gathered in the city for the prestigious industry event.

On my first day, I decided to hop on one of the city’s very clean and efficient busses to get the lay of the land. The quaint metropolis sits on the serene banks of Lake Geneva surrounded by the French Alps. French is spoken here and, because I consider my grasp of the French language to be très mauvais, I was very happy to find that practically all of the people I came in to contact with spoke English.

At first glance, the city seemed quaint and compact by my Los Angeles standards, with a population well below 200,000. However, despite Geneva’s small size, I quickly figured out that this little city has a global reach. Known as the Peace Capital, Geneva is a worldwide center for diplomacy. Along with many global headquarters and foreign embassies, the city is home to the International Federation of the Red Cross and is the European headquarters of the United Nations, the Palace of Nations. This impressive building sits in front of an avenue strewn with flags from all corners of the globe. I was told by a local guide that all the international flags rotate so that no single nation gets special treatment.

Across the street from the Palace of Nations sits the Broken Chair monument. It is both eye-catching and massive at just under four-stories tall. At first glance, it looks like a simple wooden chair on a giant scale, but with the front leg dramatically ripped off and missing. It is a constant reminder to all the politicians visiting Geneva of the opposition to land mines and cluster bombs. It also provides shade to the many protesters who gather there to express concerns about particular causes.

The average tourist will find out quickly that many of the people living in Geneva are from other countries. As I wandered down the street on my way to see the Jet d’Eau of Geneva, a gigantic fountain in the middle of Lake Geneva, I met Sebastien, a local who immigrated to Geneva from the Republic of the Congo in the 1990s. By chance, we came across one of his friends, and the two of them quickly discussed organizing a manifest for victims of genocide in Africa to be staged in front of the Palace of Nations all through Facebook. Then it hit me — staging a protest for political upheavals is part of the common culture here. This, in turn, made me wonder, why Geneva? Why is this little city such a microcosm for social change? One theory is that the city’s roots in Calvinism have made it such a place.

A couple of days after I met my new friend by the lake, I found myself sitting in a stiff wooden pew staring at the unadorned, vaulted ceilings of the St. Pierre Cathedral in the city’s old town district. John Calvin adopted this very church back in the early 1500s, and it became a prominent landmark for the Protestant Reformation.  

With the history lesson set aside, I was there to listen to a pipe organ concert to be played on the cathedral’s grand organ. The instrument’s cluster of pipes dominates the back wall of the church, and the cathedral’s organists, who usually plays religious hymns for the Sunday services, had picked out some classical numbers for tonight’s engagement. The music reminded me of something that I would hear in the old black-and-white version of the “Phantom of the Opera,” and it filled the giant cavern of the church. It was magical, until about the fifth or sixth number, when the pew started feeling even more uncomfortable and my dreaded bout with jetlag started rearing its ugly head. To my dismay, our tour guide yelled for an encore and, begrudgingly, I sat back down to endure one more number. The cathedral fell silent and, then, the organ player started dolling out the first few cords, which I recognized as the theme composition to “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Hearing this tune blast throughout a gothic cathedral in a tiny corner of Switzerland, my inner nerd was beaming.

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