I remember well a cartoon in The New Yorker during the Cold War era. It had a grumpy old couple, sitting in large chairs, placed at an awkward angle, each clearly unwilling to turn towards the other. The caption said: “Let’s go to Geneva for talks”, reflecting on the irony of making a trip to the Swiss Alps to settle disputes. Diplomats continue to go to Geneva for talks. But some of us also go for walks.
Many of my recent visits to what’s probably the most efficient and polite Francophone city in the world, have been to gab-fests, where diplomats and business executives talk endlessly about the state of the world. The Swiss city certainly offers tranquil, soothing calmness. It also offers space for conversation, distance from intractable disputes and the sense of time standing still, as the problems solve themselves, with the ease and certainty with which night turns into day.
At night, Geneva sparkles, as vivid colours shine on the Jet d’Eau, making it look like a swaying, technicolour sailboat and the lights of the buildings around the lake are reflected in the water. Geneva reeks of wealth—of jewellers, private bankers and movie stars living in chalets in the hills. But it is also home to many organizations that try to alleviate human suffering—the Red Cross, the UNHCR, the Human Rights Council and others. That is the curious paradox about Geneva.
Then there’s the lake, Lac Léman, and places in and around, to go on long walks. I’ve been going to Geneva for nearly 20 years.
I’ve always liked the lake and have made many trips along it. To Nyon, where an ancient ruin of Greek columns emerges on a hill, looking like the remnants of stumps of a cricket match, in heaven. And further along to Lausanne, home of the International Olympic Committee and Olympic Museum, where I saw Jesse Owens’ shoes and Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick, used to score goal after goal for India during his glorious years.
Still further down the lake is Vevey, where I’ve stood by Charlie Chaplin’s statue; he made this his home in the autumn of his life. It was in the days before iPods; I climbed the hill behind the town, listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons on my Walkman. The air was mild, the wind gentle. Atop the hill, listening to Vivaldi, I saw a cat come out of a house flanking a terrace farm; her eyes stared at me, unblinking. Now, every time I hear Vivaldi, I think of that cat and that lovely morning in Vevey.
Beyond Vevey is Montreaux. I had heard that Nabokov breathed his last looking out of the window of one of the grand rooms at the luxury hotel, the Montreaux Palace. Dolled up like a wedding cake, with its ornate exterior and stately rooms, it seemed imposing, a place only counts and archdukes, and probably James Bond, would stay in. But Nabokov did too, and as a literature junkie, I wanted to visit that room, as a point of pilgrimage. I had to go there and sit in the chair Nabokov had sat in, looking at the lake. I had imagined the view from that window to be beautiful and wanted to see if what I had imagined matched what he had seen.
That was not to be. In cafes in Paris, such as Le Dome, Lipp, La Closerie de Lilas, La Coupole and Les Deux Magots, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the 1920s, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the 1950s and 1960s sat, you find plaques telling you who sat where. No such plaque exists at the Montreaux Palace.
So I went to the reception and asked about Nabokov. The receptionist brought a large register, looking for names. I thought he misunderstood. My French is very poor, and I switched to English to explain that Nabokov had once lived in the hotel and could he tell me where he had sat. After some time, he looked up from the register and told me: “Mr Nabokov? Is not here. He has checked out.”
It says something about our times that the receptionist didn’t know about Nabokov and that the statue you see at the pier in Montreaux is that of Freddie Mercury, and his song, “We will, we will, rock you!” which reverberates annoyingly.
From talks to walks, to rock. This has to be the end of the road at Lac Léman. It is time to return to Geneva—and maybe buy a clock.
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