A passage to Geneva

Geneva Pic 7

Wale Okediran in Geneva

By Wale Okediran

It’s sunset in Switzerland and I am on a boat on the enchanting Lake Geneva.

All around me were other boats filled with tourists who were taking advantage of the nice weather to enjoy a ride on the famous lake. A few meters away spurting into the twilight was a vertical jet of water known as the Jet d’eau de Genève. From the radio of the 20-sitter boat where I sat with other tourists, recorded information about the Lake and its other tourist attractions such as the Golf courses and a Waterpark were relayed to us. In addition to the boat ride, tourists could also go swimming, fishing, canoeing, and kayaking in the lake, or take a scenic hike or bike ride along one of the many trails in the area. In short, there was something for everyone on Lake Geneva.

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva also known as Lac Léman (French) or Lake Leman (German), the largest lake in central Europe, is about 583 sq km in area, straddling the border between Switzerland and France. However, the largest part of the lake, about 363 sq km, is in western Switzerland. In addition, the vertical water jet which has been a true emblem of Geneva since 1891, is140-meter in height. Created in the 19th century, the water comes from a release valve designed to relieve overpressure from a hydraulic pumping station. We were also informed that the jet d’eau doesn’t run constantly as it is switched off at night, in strong winds, and in below-zero temperatures.
Geneva, a city in Switzerland regarded as one of Europe’s most cosmopolitan cities has a population of about 200,000. Surrounded by the Jura mountains and the Alps, the city offers exceptional views of the majestic Mont-Blanc. Headquarters of the United Nations Office and the Red Cross, it is a world center for diplomacy and the banking sector. The French influence is widespread in both the language and cuisine even though German and Italian are also spoken.

I had come to Geneva alongside Paulina Holmgren, a Swedish writer, and photographer, to represent the London-based International Authors Forum (IAF) at a 2-day Meeting that took place at the headquarters of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). The purpose of the meeting was to gather suggestions from key stakeholder organizations in the Book industry including intellectual property experts, policymakers, and cultural heritage professionals on how to address the legal, financial, and ethical obligations in the preservation of cultural heritage collections within the scope of copyright legislation.

Having spent the previous 48 hours poring over the voluminous and highly technical 38-page ‘Preservation Tool Kit’ document, I arrived in Geneva from my Accra, Ghana base well prepared and in high spirits for the meeting.

The taxi driver that took me from the airport to my hotel in downtown Geneva was a chatty young man from Turkey. Within the period of the short trip to the hotel, he had briefed me extensively about Geneva. According to him; ‘’Geneva is a beautiful place and a global city. It is also a financial center, and a worldwide center for diplomacy due to the presence of numerous international organizations, including the headquarters of many agencies of the United Nations and the Red Cross. The city hosts the highest number of international organizations in the world with 25% of its population being foreign individuals’’

However, the downside to the city according to the driver is the high cost of living and police excesses. ‘’If you park your car wrong, it’s a police matter. If you missed paying the ticket for the tram, it’s a police matter. Some of my friends who live in apartments complain that if you pee after 10 pm it’s better not to flush until the morning. If you do it right away, the neighbors may call the police and you’ll be fined for making noise at late hours’’ he added.

Hoping to catch some rest before my first informal meeting during dinner, I quickly checked into my hotel which I felt was too pricey at 350 dollars a night. I was however pacified when I discovered that the hotel rate also goes with a Swiss rail pass which will give me access to travel by train, coach, boat, streetcar, city bus, public taxi, and cable car. Fortunately, the Tram to the Nations Terminus (The UN Headquarters) next to the WIPO headquarters venue of my main meetings was just 4 stops from the hotel.

To confirm the international nature of the workforce in Geneva, the Taxi driver that took me for my dinner meeting at the other end of the city was a Moroccan. He also confirmed that the city is very safe and well-organized.

However, unlike his Turkish colleague, he did not complain of any police harassment. Apart from being expensive, his own complaint was what he called the ‘cold’ nature of the citizens of the city. According to him; ‘’It’s hard to make friends here. People are only friendly if you are just a tourist who leaves money and then leaves the country. It’s however another matter if you are a foreign worker. It can be very boring if you don’t have your family here. Your best bet is to make friends with foreigners just like you’’

It was cold and drizzling when I left the hotel the following morning to catch the Tram to the Nations Terminus. It was a quiet ride with everybody in the tram car busy with their phone or one gadget or the other. Within minutes, I arrived at the UN Headquarters train terminus, crossed the road, and walked up to the magnificent 13-floor WIPO Headquarters at 34, Chemin des Colombettes, Geneva 1201.

Since its completion in 1978, the WIPO headquarters building, I was reliably informed has become an architectural landmark in Geneva, with its bold facades sweeping up from the rising ground, and its dominant position on the Place des Nations, the focal point of a number of intergovernmental organizations.

According to reports, the building was designed by Geneva architect Pierre Braillard. The exterior of the 13-storey building is encased in sapphire-blue glass which reflects and blends with the changing colors of cloud and sky. Outside the WIPO building, just below the conference room, water cascades into a pool from a 65-meter-wide fountain which is graced with two nymphs said to be originally sculptured by the 16th-century Florentine sculptor Gimabologna.

As I walked into the magnificent building, I chanced upon an unusual wall fountain in the lobby said to be six meters high and 11 meters wide which I was told, symbolized the emergence of life. Around the lower edge of an upstairs cupola, in Latin were the words; “Human genius is the source of all works of art and invention; these works are the guarantee of a life worthy of men; it is the duty of the State to ensure with diligence the protection of the arts and inventions”

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Lake Geneva

It was still raining when we conveyed our meeting on the 13th floor of the WIPO building with a panoramic view of Lake Geneva on one side and the Jura mountains on the other. While the picturesque mountain was no threat to my concentration, the same could not be said of the magnificent and sprawling lake with its trademark fountain of water jetting out into the sultry sky. Despite the cloudy and gloomy weather, so enchanting was the Lake that I found myself devoting more attention to it than to the discussion in the room. At a point, I wanted to ask the organizers of the meeting to change my seat so I could stop gazing at the body of water. Matters were not helped by my recollection of some famous authors to whom down the centuries, Switzerland had been a great inspiration. In his book, the Gilded Chalet’, Padraig Rooney described the escapades of a wide spectrum of wordsmiths including Byron, Conan Doyle, le Carré, Hesse, and Highsmith. In the nineteenth century, they came for fresh air and alpine scenery, escaping the disease and smog of major cities. Switzerland became a byword for health cures and luxury hotels.
Mary Shelley, aged only 18, wrote ‘Frankenstein’ by the Lake of Geneva. Lord Byron, who had been staying with her, was inspired by the majesty of the Swiss mountains to write ‘Manfred’, a three-act poem, later put to music by Schumann and Tchaikovsky.Thomas Mann wrote ‘The Magic Mountain’ after visiting his wife at a sanatorium in Davos.

The novel is widely considered to be one of the most influential works of 20th century German literature.

It is said that Byron’s trek around Lake Geneva kick-started a cult of literary travel that still pulls in the tourists at the Château de Chillon.In the twentieth century, Swiss neutrality facilitated a cloak and dagger world during the wars. Somerset Maugham, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene and John le Carré are the spymasters. Later, Patricia Highsmith, the mistress of crime, retired to Italian-speaking Switzerland. Other big literary guns also came to Switzerland; Joyce, Nabokov, Borges, Mann and Hesse, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. There was no shortage of talent. Switzerland was where the rich and literate hid away and get some scribbling done.

Fortunately, I quickly came out of my literary trance and turned my attention back to the meeting. I must have realized that I could not become a great writer like Lord Byron et al by just staring at the Lake Geneva. Secondly, WIPO and IAF did not bring me all the way to Switzerland just to be day dreaming about Lakes, Writers and Mountains. I had to finish the job at hand first and then move on to the hard work of writing.

Just across the road to the WIPO office is theUnited Nations Office. It is one of the four major offices of the United Nations where numerous different UN agencies have a joint presence. Despite the drizzle, I visited the facility after the close of the first day of my meeting. Unfortunately, I was too late to be allowed inside the main bowl ‘the Palais Des Nations Complex’ where the main UNOG administrative offices are located.

I was however informed that the Palais des Nations complex, was originally constructed for the League of Nations between 1929 and 1938. Besides United Nations administration, the Palais des Nations also hosts the offices for a number of programs and funds such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).The United Nations and its specialized agencies, programs and funds may have other offices or functions hosted outside the Palais des Nations, normally in office spaces provided by the Swiss Government.UN specialized agencies and other UN entities with offices in Geneva hold bi-weekly briefings at the Palais des Nations, organized by the United Nations Information Service at Geneva.

Since it was my first time in Geneva, I decided to visit the headquarters of the famous World Health Organization (WHO) during the course of my stay. Through some contacts,I was fortunate to be linked up with a staff of the WHO, Dr Debo Akintunde who had spent twenty years at the world-famous organization. It was Dr Akintunde who graciously took me round the very busy office which is currently undergoing reconstruction.

The World Health Organization (WHO) which is the global guardian of public health was founded in 1948. The organization conducts its activities from its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and from six regional offices. More than 50% of WHO staff are said to work in country offices situated in 150 countries and territories. I was able to visit a very important section of the office, the Emergency Operation Sector (EOS) where I saw very busy officers glued attentively to their computer screens as they monitored possible cases of epidemiological emergencies all over the world. Dr Akintunde also took me for Lunch at the cavernous and well organized Cafeteria where the International staff handled their gastronomic exercise in an atmosphere of warm camaraderie. I joined them to put away a plate of steamed rice, fish and vegetables.

In order to get a balanced opinion about Geneva I later took up the matter of my discussions with the Turkish and Moroccan drivers with a retired Nigerian Professor who had lived in Geneva for about 20 years. According to the Professor, the Swiss are not hostile, they are just by nature insular and extremely reserved.

As he put it; ‘’I lived in Geneva and the neighboring canton [State] of Vaud for a period of 20 years and in those years I can count the number of Swiss I became friends with on one hand with a digit to spare. I lived in a beautiful upscale apartment complex for 16 years and in that time, the only neighbor that engaged me in a conversation beyond the perfunctory Bonjour was an older man who had in his younger days had some pharmaceutical business in Nigeria’’ According to the Professor, the City of Geneva is probably the most accommodating to foreigners in Switzerland and that is probably on account of the presence of several United Nations agencies including the representative office of the Secretary-General of the United Nations. But even then there is relatively little socializing between the indigenous natives, visitors, and resident foreigners except perhaps the continental Europeans.

A Swiss middle aged man whom I met during breakfast at my hotel put the matter succinctly when he observed thus; ‘’If you come from another country to Switzerland and want to stay here for a longer period of time make an effort to learn the language – German, French, Italian, depending on where you want to live in Switzerland. Don’t expect people here to speak your language. And don’t only stick to your foreign friends. You should try and join a local club known as “Verein” where you can share your interests and hobbies with the locals and get to know them, especially the reasons why they do some things which may appear strange to you’’. The Swiss gentleman was also of the opinion that while it may take a little longer for the Swiss to open up to foreigners, once they do, you will have a true friend for life.

As expected, the closing session of our meeting at the WIPO office was akin to a parliamentary meeting where every representative of an organization wanted to make sure that the interest of his or her constituents were well captured in the emerging Copyright document. From Authors to Publishers, Librarians, Lawyers, Heritage and Museum experts, vigorous and robust contributions were made in an atmosphere of mutual understanding towards the preparation of the draft of the Copyright document which will still remain confidential until its eventual release later in this year.

With the meeting over, it was now time to turn my attention to the matter of the Lake Geneva and its legendary magical inspiration. I took the tram back to my Hotel dropped my bag and Laptop and changed into a pair of jeans and sneakers. Fortunately, it had stopped raining and the receding sun still gave enough light in the approaching twilight as I walked past tea shops, restaurants as well as medieval and Renaissance houses along the narrow streets towards the Lake.

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