“Ah. Well, I’ve got something to tell you. But you’ve something to tell me. Well, go on, then,” flirts the 30-something ex-public-school boy into his mobile phone, with the foppish hair and posh accent, while nearly colliding with me. My first evening in the city, walking past something that was a tourist shop and is now another watch shop. Welcome to the no-man’s land that is… Geneva. Wherever Geneva is.
After a day and a half of part-tedious, part-illuminating conference at the European Broadcasting Union (who thoughtfully give you unfetterred wifi and three electricity plugs at every conference desk - an EU plug, a US plug, and a UK plug) I have a day off. Starting… now.
I walk from the airport hotel to the train station, and negotiate the automatic ticket machine. It’s really easy catching a train from the airport into the centre of town: just like the Heathrow Express, the only train you can catch is to the city centre, and just like the Heathrow Express, the trains run regular as clockwork, and nothing at all like the Heathrow Express, it takes three minutes or so, and it costs, er, three CHF (which is about £1.50).
Getting into town, my spirits perk up. This isn’t the faceless, characterless, city I remember from a few years ago at all. This is new, and exciting. I’d not been to the train station before - I’d driven last time, staying in a quaint and rather bizarre Swiss-style hotel (with free wifi) downtown. Today, I’m staying in an american-style airport hotel, with wifi that costs over £10 a day. (The EBU’s was free. I used that.)
I walk, and get to the inlet of what we Brits call Lake Geneva, and cross the bridge, and it all comes flooding back. The last time I was here, it was hot - very hot. This time, it’s cold - pretty cold. I try to remember where the nice brew-pub I found was. I discover it in Place du Moulard, and go in for an ambree. And a blonde. (No, blonde is a style of beer, do keep up). The pub sells food, I discover - a choice of four flammekeuchen, a kind of light pizza popular in this part of whatever country it’s in. I eat one, delivered with slightly less than a flourish by the waitress who was pointedly refusing to speak any English, in spite of clearly knowing more English than I do French.
I perch at the bar for a little while. Next to me is an American banker, talking to some overawed German friends. The other side is empty, then silently a banker appears and orders a beer. He looks at me, and squints at the book I’m reading. Grabs the free (French) newspaper on the bar. Finishes his beer. Leaves. I realise I have no idea what nationality he was.
I go to get some CHF out. (Two CHFs to a pound, and the kind of noise that Ivor the Engine makes). I realise my 50cl beers were 9CHF each - £4.50. I still don’t know what country I’m in, but I reckon, based on price of beer, it might be Iceland.
I go walking. This is no ordinary European city, I realise, walking past the HSBC Private Bank, the RBS Coutts, the Lloyds TSB, the Barclays. I keep walking, past the tourist shops, the watch shops, the lingere shops, the watch shops, the tourist shops. In an underground shopping centre, I walk past a European sex shop with typically lurid shop front and realise that, at 7.30pm, it’s already closed. This really is no ordinary European city.
I circle round a few bars, wanting a taste of another local beer. I try to go into the “Jame’s Bar” if only to congratulate them on their incredible apostrophe abuse, but it was shut. I walk past the “Lord Jim”, which tickles me until I realise it’s really a place to eat, not a place to drink, and walk on by. I end up at a bar I’d spotted earlier, but walked past.
The bar sports three pool tables, about twenty internet terminals, and lots of confy-looking small tables. I find a small table almost next to the bar, and order a beer with a fearsome name beginning with ‘f’. In the table next to me is someone who looks barely 16, drinking Coca-Cola, wearing headphones with loud music, and is tapping away at his computer. Aha, I think, there must be wifi here - and reach for the iPhone. There is. I twitter, and Facebook, and relieve some of my personal inbox from the bounces from the slightly misguided mailout to all members. The bar sports a sign saying ‘going home is our inalienable right’, and next to it, a photograph of a new school being built in Gaza. I’m still slightly unclear about where I am. Still, the music’s pretty good (a smattering of Tom Petty, I remember) and the beer’s not bad. The billiards continues unabated around me, with cigarettes being smoked in abandon. Geneva, at least, is one place where the smoker can still drink in a public bar.
Back at the hotel, I get a nice surprise. The manager has left me, in my room, a badly photocopied sheet of slightly crumped paper, wishing me a very happy birthday, and it’s accompanied by three chocolates, two dates, and three unidentified fruit which look a little like little red scrotums. Neat use of data collection from my passport earlier, even if I’d have been happier with a Mars Bar.
The next day started with the discovery that Starbucks in this country are slightly different - they don’t accept the Starbucks Card, and give you 30 minutes-worth of free wifi with your coffee. Great idea. Yes please, Starbucks UK.
I wander again: seeing some new bits (to me) of Geneva, which are in fact the oldest bits. I discover a park which has, at one end, around ten huge chess games - massive large plastic pieces. I busy myself with some photography, and then continue walking, looking for something that isn’t a pharmacy, a watch shop, or a lingere store. I tell you, if you ever get a headache in Geneva, you’ll be sorted; but woe betide you if you want to buy some beer to take home. I end up in a Migros supermarket, where I bought some chocolate with the undeniably accurate name of ‘Tourist’, then make a beeline for the beer aisle to take some unusual beers home with me, as I always do in every city I visit.
Every city except Geneva, that is. Migros will happily sell me tonic water, but no gin to put in it. Even in Scandinavian countries you can get (weak) beer; but here in Geneva, there is nothing alcoholic at all. Not even beer. Bizarre.
Defeated, I repair to another brew-pub, before I take a train back to the airport. This one is opposite the train station; beer here rather more expensive than the place I was last night and the flammekuche is twice as dear, and almost twice worse-tasting: the “lardons fumee” sadly living up to its unfortunate British almost-translation by being smoked bacon which was mostly fat, rather than bacon.
On the way back to the airport, I reflect that I heard precious little French spoken; and the only reason I knew I was abroad is the silly currency they insist on still using (rather than being sensible and choosing the Euro, which surrounds all sides of the country). All the brands on the street were those I’d see at home. All the voices around me were English, with the exception of the billiard bar I visited last night.
As I avoid another posh city banker walking and BlackBerrying at the same time, it occurs to me that the most authentically Swiss place I visited was a bar, where they played billiards and surfed the internet. And which was called… America.