90: Junking Geneva + Random Numbers

A Genevan bridge with the towering fountain in the background. Geneva can do better.

Junking Geneva

Stepping off the train in Geneva, one is met with the forked road conundrum. Turn left and go to Switzerland. Turn right and go to France.

I was sorely tempted to go to France, only so I could say I went to France two weekends in a row. That sounds so much more glamorous than if I were living in a Canadian provincial border town in say … Alberta, and I could say “I’m going to Saskatchewan for the day,” and do it just by crossing the road. I’ll bet there are French people in Alberta who right now are thinking about skipping over the border to Saskatchewan and bragging about it later. I’ll bet they have French relatives in France who do not know what a non-event provincial border-jumping can be in Canada.

And while I’m rambling, in my reporting days, Saskatchewan was the provincial name that earned the most derision when mentioned in interviews with non-Canadians. They doubted it existed and when confronted with the realities of the geographical gap that its absence would create, they doubted anyone would burden any place with such a long and convoluted moniker. I think it is a cool name just for that reason. But I drift from my topic which is: Is Geneva really all that bad?

The only bridge adornment we could find in Geneva was an open-air statue and "museum" about the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) who left Geneva at the age of 16, and who irritated the city leaders to such an extent that they burned his books here, but later capitalized on his fame by erecting a statue. A small detail: Rousseau spent two months at St. Peter's Island in Biel/Bienne and counted it as the happiest time of his life.

No it is not. But it does have a few problems,  beginning with a snooty waiter who forgot he was in Switzerland where the cultural practice is to extract as much money as possible from tourists by being polite to them. I’ll come back to him later.

We rolled through the train station and ran into Geneva’s first tourist foible. The train station is nowhere near the tourist district-proper. One has to walk through the city’s ordinary downtown, which is not extremely ugly, but it certainly lacks the quaint accordion-player charms of other Swiss locales. When we came upon the River Rhone, it was strapped with bridges that were all function and no fashion. This is a huge drawback for a Swiss tourist spot. Every town seems to have cute bridges here – even Olten, Switzerland’s not-so-great small town, has a lovely covered bridge.

We can probably blame Julius Caesar for the lack of charming bridges. After all, he is reported to have blown up or burned a bridge in Geneva, and maybe the city planners were forever-more discouraged from investing in bridges. After all, if a titan is going to roll into town and burn the thing, why even bother?

We found our way to the city’s historic district, which is surprisingly small for  such a globally renown city, but once inside it, we enjoyed wandering its winding narrow streets and old stone buildings – and yet, there was something missing. We cannot say what. It eludes us.

What Dave looks like when he sees steak on the menu for the same price as we would pay for an entire strip of prime beef tenderloin back in Canada. Math on this statement: 1 steak/$70 in Switzerland, or 15 steaks/$70 in Canada. Or maybe it was $60? No matter - it is really high up there as far as our restaurant pricing sensibilities go.

We found our way to a small half-filled open-air cafe’ where we asked to sit at a table that was half-sun/half-shade – perfect for Dave and I whose preferences for sunlight differ. The maitre’d, on hearing our request, raised his shoulders in that classic Frenchman shrug and protested, saying the table arrangement was for four, not for two.

Cafe-Creperie Saint-Pierre, Geneva

We didn’t see a line-up of diners waiting behind us, so we politely persisted, but he instead put us at a table right next to the shade/sun one, also a table for four, that was completely in the sun (he pulled the table arrangement apart so we were then technically at a table for two). We overlooked this mildly peevish behavior until we opened the lunch menu and saw $35 poulet and $70 bouef. If customers are going to fork over that much money for a plate of food, they should be able to sit anywhere they like, even the kitchen, or perhaps while standing on the maitre’d’s toes. We left.

Next to St. Peter’s Cathedral where John Calvin delivered his inspiring sermons during the Protestant Reformation, we found a quaint creperie where we dined on buckwheat crepes filled with cheese, mushrooms, spinach and chicken. They were delicious and the service staff were delightful.

Over the last week:

For the curious – blog stats report:

  • the country with the highest number of readers for this little blog was Canada
  • the country with the lowest number of readers was the United Arab Emirates
  • the most popular search engine term used that landed readers was “jungle design.” I cannot explain that.
  • the weirdest search engine term that landed readers was “Ringo Starr McDonalds.” I cannot explain that either.
Tomorrow: Geneva’s genial side. 

How you view terrorist activity is sometimes a matter of proximity

Bahnhof Bern: Services in the neighbourhood of 150,000 passengers a day, centered in a national capital. Yup, this could be a terrorist target.

BERN, SWITZERLAND It sounded like a gun blast at first or a tire-burst. A big one. Then a column of black-grey smoke rose above the passenger train at the Bern train station. The crowd on the platform started and lurched instinctively away from the blast, but no one ran.

The explosion appeared to come from the train the second-track over from the train we had just exited and as is always the case with deciding what to do in an environment where we don’t speak the local language, we watched the crowd to see their reaction.

BBC image of 2004 bombing at Madrid's Atocha train station.

The escalator to an overhead walkway was jammed with people, who all turned to survey the explosion site. On the walkway, people stood and pointed, but no one appeared to panic.

Hmmm, column of black smoke, loud bang – probably nothing wrong. That’s what the crowd reaction told us. We waited for a second explosion, the big one, but it did not come. Thank God.

Bern is Switzerland’s capital city and the train station is massive and densely populated. That makes it a target similar in scale to a London or Japanese subway or Madrid’s Atocha train station. This is what goes through one’s mind when gauging how to react to a loud bang, that and whether searchers will find enough body parts to identify us by DNA and so inform our families of our scattered whereabouts.

Nothing happened afterward, and there was no news of it in the local media, so we can only assume it was some kind of mechanical or electrical gaff, although we didn’t see any mechanics or train staff running toward the site of the blast. The Swiss, they are a calm bunch.

It brought to mind Noam Chomsky and his famous comment in the wake of 9/11 about how Americans should not be so fussed about terrorist attacks, and that the U.S. is big enough to take a hit. It seemed he was unaware the U.S. had already taken a hit with a kill-rate of over 3,000, more lives lost in a few hours than the Irish Republican Army had achieved in over three decades. I would have mailed him a copy of the New York Times dated Sept. 12, 2001 if I had his address.

I also wanted to call Mr. Chomsky and suggest he provide the addresses of his parents or children to the terrorists as an acceptable target, to see if he would then think a “hit” not such a big deal.

When living in an American/British/Canadian enclave in Madrid, we were occasionally treated to warnings that Spain’s Basque terrorists (ETA) were going to target the local malls during the Christmas season to send a message to the Americans. Our U.S. friends were somewhat taken aback, having never heard of the Basque or even been aware that their government had anything to do with the Basque complaints. It did not, but that was not of interest to the terrorists. All they were looking for was a victim that would attract big headlines and American victims fit the bill.

That’s the thing with terrorists – they don’t have to worry about re-election and so they can pick their victims at random without having to defend their decisions at the next polling of the electorate. And while the Spanish turned tail and voted to

run for cover when they did suffer their most significant terrorist attack at the Atocha station in 2004, which occurred just before a national election where they turfed the party that supported sending troops to Afghanistan (however token in number), they were not always so accommodating to bullies.

Interestingly, Spain is the one country that had earlier seen a reduction in terrorist activity when the Spaniards wearied of the ETA blasting children and civilians, and the population took to the streets in a protest not against their government for ‘not controlling the terrorist situation,’ but against the terrorists themselves. It was a refreshingly intellectual move on the part of the Spaniards and one we wish more protesters would emulate.

The ETA took note and announced a ceasefire that turned out to be its longest one (which sadly ended when we were there in 1999/2000).

But that drifts from my point that how one views terrorist activity can be governed by proximity. Living in zones that are potential or declared targets imbues the threat with vigour. Living safely in the confines of wherever Chomsky dwells or others who like to blame the victim or the government of the day for threats authored by madmen is another thing.

It is something to think about while gauging whether to run, drop to the ground or just wait for that final fatal bomb to go off while going about what is an otherwise ordinary day.

After-note: We described the Bern train station sound and smoke to our hotel staff friends and they said it was likely a problem in the electrical system. See, nothing wrong. 

Travel travails continued

Arc de Triomphe, commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, and new symbol of our goal to get to Paris. Will we triumph? In a side note: We have several Spanish coins dated to 1802 with a Napoleonic visage on them. Must remember to get them appraised.

As I made my way through throngs of commuter passengers at Biel’s train station, a middle-aged man in a tan jacket and faded denims unzipped in the train square and let’er rip.

I’ve lived in Spain, so I’ve seen public urination before – usually on the side of the highway where the Spanish men do not give passersby the courtesy of turning their backs to the road as they empty their bladders.

A location for public urination? According to one fellow, it is. Yuk.

This fellow, who stared straight ahead and otherwise appeared sober, had opted for what must be Biel’s  most public venue for such a private act. It was only 6:30 p.m., still broad daylight and the square was jammed.

Maybe he had just come off a day of dealing with a cantankerous travel website, or perhaps he had just discovered his train ticket cost double what he expected.

So I walked on by, noticing that no one else seemed to notice or care much about Mr. Public Urination.

A few minutes later, after meeting Dave inside, we/I learned our train costs will be over $500, according to a different booking agent than the one who earlier in the week had quoted $260. The agents had a good belly laugh when we mentioned the $260 quote.

Because we are Canadians, we did not shout or make any display. We simply groaned inwardly as we felt our stomach ulcers dig in deeper.

At that point, we were still in recovery from the lastminute.com fiasco and it seemed that as Tuscany was for Seinfeld, so Paris would be for us (click here to find out what I’m talking about). It has become our “white whale.” We must get there, and so we ponied up the cash, realizing that we are already at over $1,000 for two days in that famed city.

It goes a little over budget for we frugal types, but we are rapidly losing the ability to care … at least about that. I’d still rather men chose more discreet locations to relieve themselves.  After all, this isn’t Spain.

Postscript: And now a well-traveled friend warns us to stay away from Paris over Easter.  Cue the Jaws theme music.