Geneva looks deceptively French. The signs are in French. Many of the chain stores are familiar. The pâtisserie fare looks decidedly French, with not a German style gâteau in sight and the bread is baguette-shaped. If it wasn’t for the excessive cleanliness of every inch of the city, which almost feels too pristine to be real, I wouldn’t even suspect that my train had crossed over the border into Switzerland.
Until the people start to give it away, that is. The Swiss don’t behave anything like the Parisians to whom I’ve grown so accustomed. Not the Swiss I meet anyway, who are basically waiters, waitresses, shopkeepers and café owners. Because all I seem to do while in Geneva is eat fondue or cake or brunch and drink café renversé after café renversé. There’s only so long you can spend admiring the jet d’eau or the snow white swans on the incredibly limpid lake before the desire to head for a café sets in. Not because the lung-squeakingly pure air is giving you an increased appetite or making you thirsty, you understand. Just because there doesn’t seem to be a great deal else to do.
On Friday afternoon, while my friend and hostess is finishing up at work, I saunter into the city centre. First, I buy a chocolate cow for Tadpole as a little treat, and this is the occasion of my first unsettling retail experience.
I have only just managed to withdraw cash, after several hours of tramping around the city centre in increasingly weary circles. You’d be forgiven for thinking that finding money in a Swiss town known for its financial services – where every second person you pass is a suit barking something urgent-sounding about due diligence into his blackberry – should be child’s play. But the words “private bank” make me too nervous to cross the thresholds of the places I pass. Is that private as in “keep out”? Are they offices? Or actual banks with cash points for the use of normal people without Swiss bank accounts? I peer in, but can’t see beyond the first set of smoked-glass doors. Once inside, is there some sort of private handshake I ought to know about? A dress code, perhaps? I’m so used to living in a city where a clearly labelled bank machine can be found every hundred metres or so on the outside of every bank that I am completely thrown.
Finally I find a bank with a reassuringly non-intimidating name (co-op) and when I make my way inside I’m pathetically relieved to see a normal-looking cash point lurking behind a potted plant. I draw out a nice fat sum of money in case it’s my last opportunity all weekend. The machine spits out a single note.
Which is why in the chocolate shop I pull a 100 franc note from my purse with an extremely apologetic face when I pay for Tadpole’s cow (6 CHF), bracing myself for the torrent of tutting and muttered abuse which must surely follow.
“I’m really sorry, I don’t have anything less, I’ve just arrived in town,” I say in an anxious voice. I half expect to be told that I’ll have to come back later when I’ve got smaller denominations.
Imagine my amazement when the shopkeeper smiles sweetly and reassures me that this is no problem at all. And proceeds to wrap the cow delicately in many layers of tissue paper so that I can transport it back to France without mishap. Then smiles again and wishes me a good afternoon and a pleasant stay in Geneva. Wow, I think to myself. Either she was nice, or she is used to bankers wives paying with one thousand franc notes or asking her to put their purchases on their American Express black card.
The sun is shining and I decide to rest my weary feet, finding a pleasant-looking café with outdoor tables opposite the Palais de Justice. I decide to try a café renversé (literally: knocked over coffee), hoping that it is what the lady at the next table is drinking, a kind of latte in a glass with a small seam of froth perched on top.
The waitress approaches. “Qu’est ce qui vous ferait plaisir?” she asks pleasantly.
I almost drop my menu in astonishment. What would make me happy? What would give me pleasure? Is this for real, or have I wandered onto a film set? Seconds later my coffee arrives and a navy-blue blanket is provided to warm my legs when the sun slips behind a cloud.
“I could get use to all this niceness,” I say to my friend, setting down my book when she joins me at the café a couple of hours later.
* * * * * *
Barely two days later and I’m hankering for dirty, gritty, surly, grubby, smoky Paris. All that niceness is starting to set my teeth on edge. The immaculately groomed city is too bland, too aseptisé, too soulless. There’s not a cockroach, not a crotte in sight. No-one has been rude to me all weekend. I’m feeling homesick.
* * * * * *
“Un pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît,” I say to the greasy-aproned baker’s assistant on the rue de Belleville.
She catches sight of my twenty euro note before I even have time to begin my apology.
“Oh là là! Comment je vais faire… C’est pas possible, ça…” She rolls her eyes at the people queuing behind, shrugs her shoulders, and finally slams a huge pile of change on the counter with an accusing clatter. She’s offloaded her entire centime collection onto me as a punishment. I sweep the coins into my purse with a flourish and walk out of the shop with my best poker face in place.
Wherever I may wander, there’s no place like home.