We’ve just returned from a long weekend in Geneva, thanks to my brilliant husband, who somehow managed to get us front row center seats for the Sting concert there (more on that later). I often say that one of the best things about living in Europe is its proximity to, well… Europe. Geneva is just a four hour drive from here. But in spite of the short distance, neither of us had ever been to Switzerland before. We didn’t really know what to expect. After all, what is Switzerland known for? Chocolate, skiing, cuckoo clocks, army knives, chalets, secret bank accounts, fondue, precision timepieces, neutrality and boarding schools where one can acquire the sort of generically European accent that Madonna now has. As a list of accomplishments, it doesn’t exactly bowl you over.
And neither does Geneva. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time there. But it was the sort of great time that you could have anywhere. Geneva doesn’t have a strong sense of self, and when you’re there, it’s easy to forget exactly which country you’re in. The people speak French, English, German and Italian. Like the French, they are thin, well-dressed and tend to smoke. Like the Germans, they have an affinity for tidiness, order and rules. Like the English, they are polite and posess the ability to wait patiently in line. Like the Italians, their restaurant menus heavily favor pizza and pasta. And just to mix things up a little, like the Dutch, they like trams and tolerate prostitution. Yes, you read that right. The legal age to enter a bar is 18, but the legal age for prostitution is 16, though only in the state in which Geneva is located, not all of Switzerland, as we were informed by the man at our hotel who answered our question about what was up with the scantily clad ladies on the street outside.
Lest you worry that our hotel was in a bad part of town, let me assure you that it wasn’t. In fact, I highly recommend the Hotel Windsor if you are ever in Geneva. For a city as expensive as Geneva is, the newly renovated hotel (which has a sauna and a fitness center that’s nicer than my gym) is chic, comfortable, and the quietest hotel in which either of us had ever stayed, real value for your money. It also had free breakfast, free Wifi in each room, free passes for the tramways and a bar (though the bar was far too expensive to do any serious drinking in – perhaps how they correct for all the free stuff).
Our street looked just like every other street in Geneva, where there seem to be only two types of architecture. First, there are some lovely-ish designs that appear to have been done by people who were inspired by Haussmann’s Parisian constructions but too afraid of being accused of plagiarism to execute them fully or to extend them for a full city block, as he did. These buildings stand side-by-side with the other type of design, a drab, featureless rectangle that is the product of whatever brain-wasting disease was affecting the architecture profession in the 1970s. The overall effect of this combination is underwhelming and bland. Even along the lakefront, where the former, more appealing type of buildings prevail, they have spoiled things by topping each building with a large corporate logo, ruining what might otherwise have been a lovely view of lake and city framed by mountains.
Now you might think from reading all this that we didn’t like Geneva, but we did. Sure, Geneva may be a generically European city, but you could also argue that they’ve taken some of the best things from their surrounding cultures and combined them. (With the exception of teenage prostitution, of course.) The city is clean, the people are friendly, the food is good and there’s plenty to see. We saw a very comprehensive exhibit of Corot’s work, visited the Modern Art Museum, had a drink at the infamous Beau Rivage hotel (for those of you who visited Austria with us, this is the hotel where Empress Sisi Habsburg was shot), had lunch in Geneva’s oldest restaurant (where the Clintons dined when they were in town), enjoyed a traditional Swiss fondue, took a lunch cruise of Lac Leman, strolled through several parks (including one with some serious chess matches going on), snapped pictures outside the United Nations building and windowshopped in the city center.
We also went to Sting’s Symphonicity show, an event that really deserves a blog post of its own. How to sum up the feeling of being mere feet away from a singer you have adored since you were 15 years old? And seeing your favorite songs performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra? It was breathtaking. Put simply, they rocked. Johann even talked to Sting! At one point, when introducing the next song, Sting searched for a word in French. Johann told him what it was. Brush with fame! And we got a good look at Sting’s guitarist, Dominic Miller, who lives just five minutes from here. Now we’ll recognize him the next time we’re all at the Lourmarin market at the same time. Viva Geneva!