Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: May 1, 2000
A phase of my life just closed behind me. I skate out of town, with a pack on my back to thumb it slowly to Berlin. Moving out of town past neatly piled stacks of garbage, leaves me reflecting pensively on my experiences here.
I came to Geneva some two years ago. It was a novel effort on my part. I hadn't worked much for years to be honest, and felt it was time to top up the coffers. The reasons for coming to Geneva were many and complex, but involved the magic ingredients of money, language and a woman.
I spent some three months looking for a job, based variously in the beds and on the floors of my friends, and hitch-hiking to and from job interviews. I would hitch from my base of the moment to my interview in another town, change into nicer clothes, take an interview, change back and hitch back home. I was based in Bern for a month for the groundwork, Berlin for a month hoping and waiting and then in Lausanne for a month making things happen ... By Christmas of ’97 I'd won two offers and accepted one for a January start.
The first months in Geneva were intriguing. I was captured by, enamoured of, the garbage. Sounds odd I guess. But it wasn't. The Genevois dump the contents of their houses on the streets for some odd reason.
There are collection days once a month, where large unwanted items are placed on the street and collected. This includes old furniture. And in a society as rich as Switzerland, old unwanted furniture is often in perfectly wonderful condition. It's just been superseded that's all. And the Genevois display little respect for allotted collection days. They just dump it as it comes, and these little mounds of household items collect on the footpaths at strategic points.
The good stuff doesn't last long, and midnight walkers carrying sofas, beds, tables, fridges, stoves, washers, and all are not an uncommon sight in Geneva. Hey, I furnished a room, with refrigerator, and various household appliances, lamps, toaster, great carpet you name it, all just from the 2 km run I'd walk from my home to work every day, and back. Sometimes I'd see something in the morning and intent on taking it home of an evening be disappointed that some one else had done so first.
I recycled 5 bicycles, all damaged and abandoned, gave three away. I delivered furniture to friends in need of it. And vice versa. On occasion a whole apartment would be laid out for the picking! Seriously. Friends of mine found fax machines, computers ... even.
It drummed home what a transient culture this is. One third of Geneva's population is not Swiss, and another third is not Genevois. There are enormous numbers of people coming and going on three month, six month, year long, two year long stints, at the United Nations or any of the international organisations here not to mention the university and colleges. Occasionally, I guess someone moves on and leaves their flat more or less fully furnished.
It’s actually a sensitive issue. In Geneva, taking things is no drama. Getting rid of them is the problem. I've been berated for putting things back on the street, whence I got them! But never for taking something. You see it's garbage, unwanted, and there's a disposal problem. It costs money to have it disposed of. Even on the monthly collection rounds, the rule is to register articles in advance and pay a fee. In practice, as soon as a small pile stands, people are adding to it as furiously as people are withdrawing. Like some kind of household bank, with deteriorating principal. Over time, only the truly old and ratty stuff remains. The cream pickings are gone within a few hours of appearing.
So you can imagine, if someone has to leave, and has for example furnished their place through inheritances, it's an attractive idea just to leave the furniture problem to the landlord, or next tenant. Their mutual solution is sometimes to empty the flat onto the street, so the new tenant has the unfurnished flat they're after.
So it is I'm reminded of the whole cycle, now, heading out of Geneva, as I pass just such a household. And muse over the things I may have taken two years ago to furnish my room. There is furniture, appliances, books, tapes, records even. Brik-a-brak of all sorts. Somebody’s material life is before me, and I wonder whence that soul departed ...
It's such an irony here in Geneva. A town full of expensive watch and jewellery stores, which draws rich Arabs all summer long strolling the lakefront with their black-clad wives, and posh western ladies in furs, the mercs, and the diplomats, with such waste, so visible. All side by side with an under-culture, of students and squaters (there are allegedly over 100 squats in Geneva – I never counted them but there are many believe me), of the unemployed, refugees and immigrants, so grateful for this unofficial exchange system. The rich pass on to the needy what they have in surplus.
Passing the much despised World Trade Organisation, the centre of Geneva's many demonstrations, marches, and graffiti vandalism, the irony deepens. In Geneva the High Commission for Refugees is just across the road from the World Intellectual Property Organisation - the champion of human rights across the road from the champion for commercialism. Odd bed-fellows under the United Nations umbrella.
Yet for all these contrasts it's a place of surprisingly little tension. Even the demonstrations, even when the bottles are thrown, and the police are there with their plastic shields, or the military with their machine gunned patrols of UN grounds, even with all of that, there's an air of harmlessness in some perverse sense. It's difficult to imagine, and perhaps not all would agree, but I can imagine no other place I've been where I could see all these things, participate in them, and feel so unthreatened. Where the anarchists are so gentle and mild, and the police and military so tamed and controlled. Like a social ballet of sorts, a child's game almost and yet the stakes are deep and earnest. It is with great concern that we protest globalisation, bank mergers, and property speculation in Geneva, and that Tibetans and Kurds congregate on the Place des Nations for sit-ins, and it is in all seriousness that the military patrol the gates, and the police protect the uninhabited buildings from squatter's incursions.
But uniquely Genevois somehow. Swiss. Controlled almost.
Well, those are the reflections. Among many others. I saw it all as a visitor, of two short years. As much from planes as from the ground, as like many people here, my international business left me almost as often in other countries as at home. I leave my suit at home now, two years of jet-setting, business class flights, and lounges, five star hotels, mobile communication, as a teacher, a technician, a salesman at times, and stroll to the outskirts of town, to thumb my way back to the homeless vagaries I knew before ...
My colleagues all ask me what my plans are. If I have another job. Few of them understand. I don't know. First to Berlin, to my ex-lover, and then to muse, muse on freedom, and the future ... The world is changing for me again and I can't help but wonder how I’d have lived here, if I'd arrived in Geneva as I leave, without a job in my sights. Would I have found more community, in the squats, if I'd have been more engaged in the protests and the sub-culture I so love, instead I topped up my coffers, learned French and taken a shot at love ...