On Geneva and overcoming resistance

Resistance is my inner donkey digging her heels into the dirt; a refusal of any forward motion towards whatever it is I think I should do. Sometimes I can successfully lure the donkey into movement by holding out an apple: c’mon, yes, one more step, and pretty soon the donkey has forgotten its resistance and is happily trotting in the direction I want it to go.

However, when it’s someone else’s idea (love you mom), resistance really is futile: apples be damned, this donkey will stand there until the sky turns green and mountains crumble into the sea. I’ve learned that when I feel resistance, I simply need to understand where it’s is coming from. For example, I resisted writing about Cyprus because it meant digging into an emotionally protected area: an essential task and I knew it. The apple worked.

The resistance to writing about Geneva was different. I’ve spent more time in Geneva than any other place on this side of the pond save for Tel Aviv, and not only did I not want to write about it, I didn’t want to be there at all. I drafted a post out of boredom and amusement during my last visit, which I then set aside and promptly forgot. But this new Belonging question is a useful lens through which I can write about these places I’ve been; they’ve all been clues, like that Hot and Cold game we all played as kids. When you’re blindfolded, “colder!” was just as important as “you’re getting warmer!” in figuring out where to go.

I’m noticing how similar cities are to people, with their own distinct personalities that I either jive with or I don’t. A place — town, city or country — is the nexus of values, norms, culture, activities, food, weather, nature or lack thereof, and, of course, people. The stronger the sense of place, the more it acts like a magnet, attracting some and repelling others. An extreme contrast might be Dallas and San Francisco: two places on opposite sides of the spectrum that both served as my homes for many years. Which makes sense of place a key ingredient that I’ll write about in this recipe for Belonging.

Geneva was my destination after Tel Aviv and Cyprus; I’d been there twice before, both in the heavy grey chill of late winter and early spring. At the time of my latest draft it was summer and yes, the sunshine and energy were enjoyable… but I couldn’t shake this feeling of I don’t belong here. Now I’m willing to spend time writing about it, because I’d like to document my intuition saying “colder!” on this blindfolded search for belonging.

Geneva: The OCD uncle

If Annecy is the small-town girl with flowers in her hair and Tallinn is the innocent yet gritty girl next door, then Geneva is the moneyed OCD uncle who dislikes attention. We are lulled by his grey, impeccably tailored three-piece suits worn tall and proud. His Windsor-knotted ties reveal a preference for varied shades of blue; the once-misguided gift of a flashy red tie earned swift reassignment to the round file as soon as decorum permitted. His walk is precise and balanced, carrying a measure of aloofness with inelastic grace.

And yet if you catch him on just the right day — the chance patterned-shirt day, or the 2-Manhattan day — he’ll sit with you on a park bench, remove his jacket, and lean in to confess a mildly naughty story that has you laughing at the innocence of it all. On these days, he almost wins you over; it’s a shame that it doesn’t happen more frequently.

Welcome to summer in Geneva, where the joyful celebration of warmth and sunshine are constrained to specific pockets of the city; perhaps akin to small children at play in the garden of our uncle’s stuffy abode, under the watchful eye of a stern nanny.

One such pocket is the delightful Bains des Paquis on Lake Geneva. Built over 100 years ago as a bath house, today it’s a small enclave of fresh, relaxed and progressive energy. You’ll find saunas here in the winter, and swimming, music and poetry in the summer. Every evening, Genevans line up to dine on the plat du jour — the plate of the day, ranging from steak and potatoes to pasta and meatballs — one of the only affordable meals you’ll find in this city.

It’s a place that loves to be photographed during the day (click on any image for the full-size gallery)….

and on Thursday evenings when the DJ plays a groovy house vibe under the stars.

Here I became obsessed with creating abstract images using slow shutter speed… painting with the multicolored lights onto the sensor of my camera.

Another refuge for youthful energy is Jonction, where the remarkably aqua-clear waters of the Rhône river meet, but don’t mix with, the sandy, opaque waters of the Arve; the resulting patterns, called confluence, are magical to watch from above on the railway viaduct bridge. You’ll find a long hiking path in this area, as well as a few riverfront bars. Watch the beer-toting floaters be swept downstream by the current, or purchase a big rainbow-unicorn float and participate yourself.

And of course you can simply walk around the lake, as I did every day. It’s hard to miss Jet d’Eau, the 140 meter high jet of water that’s the city’s famous landmark.

Yes, it’s all beautiful when the sun is shining. I found ways to enjoy my stay here, especially the intellectually stimulating dinnertime conversations with new friends. But the undercurrent of energy in this city was slow, stiff and uncomfortable to me. It’s hard to put my finger on precisely, and yet when I shared my OCD-uncle analogy with my friends from San Francisco who now live in Geneva, they said yes: that hits the mark.

Why am I here?

(written two months ago:) This city wouldn’t normally be on my travel list, but here I am: the third time since arriving on this continent in late February. It’s a place for business, finance and global NGOs; a small town with international scope and impact that should theoretically be quite attractive to me. And yet.

I’m here because it happens to be where my extra clothes are, stashed in suitcases in a friend’s storage locker about 30 minutes outside the city. Thanks to the prospect of consulting work and a new business partner, Geneva was where I thought I’d base my company when I first catapulted myself overseas in February. You know what they say about “best-laid plans;” needless to say, nothing has panned out yet.

On one hand, I’m still hopeful that a big project with a particular Geneva-based company will come through. On the other, I’m having an allergic reaction at the thought. Since I’ve given myself permission to focus on what I love — writing and photography — the idea of re-entering the corporate environment, even as an outside consultant, feels like spending time in Geneva in the grey gloom of spring; like visiting the OCD uncle on an uptight, constipated day.

Or maybe it’s not an uncle after all: perhaps it was simply me all along, play-acting a part that I thought was expected of me, fearing to loosen the tie or attract attention. Perhaps my reaction to the polished perfection of Geneva is a reaction against the straightjacket I wore for too many decades. And now that it’s off, I can’t bear to put it back on.

If the project comes in I’ll take it, of course. I’d be nuts to turn it down. But in the meantime, I will write. Wander. Photograph. Allow new avenues for my “second half of life” career to reveal themselves now that I’m finally open to them.

Next stop: Tallinn, Estonia

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