The difference in Geneva was apparent as soon as I got off the train…I could understand what was being said!
The trip did not get off to a good start though. It was a statutory holiday (of course, that is why I was off work) and nothing was open. I couldn’t figure out why my phone was not working and then I figured out I was out of Swisscom credit! But I couldn’t go to the Swisscom shop to get more Swisscom credit! Why? Because it was a bloody statutory holiday! Idea number two was to use a payphone. Only a thickhead like me would waste nine francs (about 10 bucks) of change first not knowing how to make a local call and then misdialing Mohamed’s number (that was my CouchSurfing host’s name) not once but twice? Good God!
So I was out of change and basically screwed…I was not going to buy something to break a bill, I’d done that once already. Two security guards were walking by. I explained the situation, one of them dialed Mohamed’s number…and HE talked. “Hello, Mr. Mohamed? This is Gare de Genève security calling…” It felt EXACTLY like the time in second grade when the principal called my mother and asked her to bring me new clothes because I had spilled chocolate milk all over my dress. And here I am, 22 years old, soi-disant débrouillarde, a reporter, for fucksakes, and this is the first impression I give to a complete stranger who has volunteered to share space with me for four days?! If death from shame were possible, I would not be writing this.
In five years I’m going to be asking editors to send me to war zones. And I can’t even use a payphone without getting anxious. Sometimes I detest myself.
But Mohamed didn’t even mention it- my first hint of what a total sweetheart he would turn out to be. He and one of his housemates, Salim, are sleeping in the same tiny bed for a week and a half to accomodate first me and then another couchsurfer. He’s a very ambitious young man, a little older than me, from Senegal. For him and Salim, their dearest ambition is to get to Canada– the word “Montréal” has on them the same magic pull that the word “New York” might have on some kid growing up in a small American town. So we had something to talk about right from the start. Mohamed set me up with some Swisscom credit and then we went our separate ways– he worked 60 hours a week normally and all he wanted to do on this day off was sleep. I bought batteries and wandered around Geneva’s gray cobblestone, medieval-looking old town and huge waterfront (lake Geneva is so big the land on the other side is barely visible) taking pictures of the swans, looking in all the posh, closed shops and figuring out what I wanted to do tomorrow. In the evening Mohamed took me out for kebabs (which are not skewers– kebabs is for some reason the Swiss French word for shawarma). We walked for hours, over the bridge, through the banking district and past the watch factories to get to this place in the suburbs that had the best kebabs. Mohamed knew the owner. The kebab-shawarmas were made with lamb and they were very good. We ate them in a park, walked home and talked with Salim and a bunch of their housemates (15 people live in an apartment building with these minuscule, university dorm style bedrooms and a communal kitchen and living room (complete with cushy couches, cat and bird). It’s like paying rent on a place in a youth hostel, and I would happily uproot and move to a place like that.
The next day was my day to play tourist, and I took a long walk from “our” neighbourhood up to the Place des Nations where the UN headquarters was. I spent much of the day in the International Committee of the Red Cross museum. It is a very well done museum but much of their material is out of date (the timeline, for example, only goes up to about 1992, and the computers on which one of the interactive displays is mounted are massive candy-coloured iMacs, the kind that came out when I was ten). It is interesting, though, to see what Red Cross chapters based in developing countries (each country has its own chapter) do to help their own citizens. The Rwandans, for example, ran an extensive parent-child reunification program after the genocide and the post-genocide refugee crisis– all they needed from outside were a few donated cameras– and I think they succeeded in reuniting more than half of the several thousand families they tried to. In the Philippines, the Red Cross runs a program to train street and slum youth in their early teens to be “junior health care workers,” caring for younger street kids and educating them about self-care, hygiene, AIDS prevention, etc. (note: The ICRC museum is set to close 30 June 2011 for a complete refurbishment– I have no idea when they will reopen or what this will entail, although I presume if you’re in the market for a used, candy-coloured iMac, now is your chance.)
I also went for a tour of the UN conference halls. I went through airport-type security, got a clearance badge with hands-down THE WORST ID photo of me ever (It is elongated slightly and I look like a horse, but I am saving it until I can replace it with a press pass) stood in line for an hour and, to be quite honest, was disappointed to learn nothing of use that I did not already know. But it was the bookshop that made the whole tour worth it. I was having a look around the shop, seeing what books they had to offer about Africa, when I saw Gen. Roméo Dallaire’s determined, blue-bereted face staring back at me. My mouth fell open in suprise.
Dallaire is a Quebecer and a member of the Senate of Canada. He’s also a friend of a friend of a friend, and I’ve met him twice. He worked on a project with Allan (my professor and the CMTS project co-ordinator), presented to one of our courses, and legendarily got into a shouting match about Rwandan history with my friend Mbonisi. Mbonisi, the only member of the class who had never heard of Dallaire, was later to look him up on Wikipedia and say “How was I to know I had picked a fight with Gandhi?”
Dallaire was the commander of the disastrous UN mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. He and his colleagues, based on what they’d seen on the ground and reports from sources within the government, believed with a few thousand more people and an expanded right to use force, they could stop the genocide. Dallaire and his people were stopped at every turn by bureaucrats in New York, confidential sources were denied protection, about fifteen peacekeepers were killed and instead of the 5000 (I think that was the number) troops that Dallaire requested, he found his force reduced, to less than three hundred people. The killing continued, while UN troops more or less stood and watched, because there were not enough of them and they were under orders not to fire unless fired upon. In the end, over 800,000 people were killed, members of the Tutsi ethnic minority as well as anyone, Tutsi or not, who opposed the government in power at the time. The UN mission there was one of the organization’s biggest failures. Dallaire returned to Canada angry, bitter and mentally ill. Years later he wrote a book, called Shake Hands With the Devil, which was later made into a Canadian movie. The book is part (a small part) biography, part breakdown of the Rwandan genocide and part (a large part) bitter, searing and completely understandable, from Dallaire’s perspective, polemic against the UN.
That’s why I was stunned to see it in the UN bookshop in Geneva. So many museums, like the ICRC one for example, are animatronic press releases for their organizations. I was shocked to see a book with such raw criticism of the organization so freely available at the UN bookshop. As a journalist, the objectivity shown by whoever was stocking that bookshop impressed me so much that I broke my two major rules (One: no unnecessary expenses. Two: no unnecessary bag weight) and bought Dallaire’s book, and another one besides. If I cross paths with him again, I hope I will have the book on me so he can sign it.
Books in hand, I headed further up the path to have a look at the WHO, where Mohamed worked. Then I turned around and walked home.
That evening, I got my first experience of eating the Senegalese way. Nourdin, Mohamed and Salim’s third, quiet housemate, had cooked a pasta dish with meat and placed it on a big, silver platter. Nourdin, Mohamed, Salim, one or two of their French housemates and I took forks and dug in, just like that off the big platter, while talking about our days and discussing African politics. I don’t know why I like this, but there is something very familial about it. Later that night Salim and I went out to a Mexican bar, although we didn’t stay long because the beers were about $11…and the cocktails $20! It did feel good to go out though.
The next day I spent scrambling around the cobbled streets of the Old Town, climbing spooky staircases and cathedral towers, exploring a 10th-century crypt (for a price) poking my head in some shops, grazing on samples at a market and tasting some chocolate…one chocolate-honey truffle I had was particularly fantastic; I have to consider mixing honey in with my hot chocolate from now on. In the afternoon, Mohamed took me around the art and history museum, where he used to work as a security guard. Salim and I played music for hours and hours with their housemates (everyone had an instrument, from maracas to djembe drums) while Mohamed cooked a traditional Senegalese meal. I can’t remember what this dish was called- Féfé? Yéfé? Méfé? but it was fantastic. A thick sauce of peanuts, cooked red sweet peppers, chili peppers, bits of meat and I don’t know what else, poured over a bed of rice. Fortunately there was tons of it, because everyone ate and ate; housemates who wanted only to “try a bit” were bewitched by the magical peanut goo and ate and ate. It was honestly one of the best things I ever tasted.
We talked African affairs, Cote d’Ivoire, French intervention and the guys’ worries for the future of Senegal, and Rwanda. I think we scared the hell out of one of the French girls. She had no idea her country, wanting to prop up the francophone Habyarimana regime in Rwanda in the early nineties against a mostly English-speaking Tutsi insurgency, unwittingly provided training to the genocidaires. I really did feel sorry for her when I saw her shocked expression.
All that evening the housemates and I played music. We sang a few songs (there was a Kenyan girl there who was a Tracy Chapman fan) but mostly just jammed, improvising concertos for guitar, violin, djembe drum, rhythm sticks, maracas and musical keychain.
The next day started off on kind of a funny note. The night before, Mohamed had mentioned that he would probably go to work the next morning at nine, and I should come along if I wanted an inside look at the WHO. I mentioned this to Salim and he burst out laughing. “Mohamed? Mohamed isn’t getting up at nine. Mohamed will sleep till noon!”
I had complete faith in Mohamed, so I told Salim I would buy him a good coffee the next morning if he was right. The next morning, Salim was laughing all the way to the Café de la Gare. We had coffee and then wandered along the waterfront to have a look at the Jet d’Eau (400-meter-high fountain) to the Bains de Paquis, a sort of urban beach on Lake Geneva. It was too cold to swim so we laid back on the rocky beach, watched the ducks and talked, Salim is an interesting guy. His parents are completely illiterate and speak just Wolof (the native language of most black Senegalese). He speaks excellent French (with that Spanish trill that a lot of Africans tend to tack on to most words ending in R), and good English too– he has a certificate in English language and literature–although he must have learnt out of old British books because he asked me what “fit as a fiddle” meant. I believe now he is working on something to do with computer science.
Around one in the afternoon we got a sad-sack text message from Mohamed: “No work today. Just got up.”
Another couchsurfer, a guy named Sam who is from Quebec, met up with us at the Bains. We shared some kebabs and then Salim had to go study. I caught Sam up on Canadian politics, as he’s been in Geneva for a few months. We took a long walk along Lake Geneva, stopping at every interesting booth. Sam is a very chill, easygoing guy who is trying to figure out what he wants to do after his work placement is up (it seems as if every 20something in Bern or Geneva is here on some sort of work placement). I really had a good time with Sam not only because he was very chill, but also because it had been weeks since I had spoken to anyone who understood everything I said. And I mean that in the literal sense of understanding the words that come out of my mouth.
At one point Sam and I went swimming for a little while in the frigid blue waters of Lake Geneva. I’m getting to like these spontaneous swims! Sam had an extra t-shirt and I didn’t, which is how a t-shirt advertising the Université du Québec en Outaouais theatre company came into my possession thousands of miles from Gatineau.
We checked out the Botanical Garden and its sort of mini-zoo, which had crowing roosters, hens, deer, swans, geese and a peacock with an enormous blue- green fan tail. I have not had a chance to look at the ;ictures yet and I do hope we got a few good ones!
I had intended to leave for Berne earlier but it was Salim’s turn to cook, and he insisted I stay because he was making something called a yassa. It’s another Senegalese dish, spicy sauce on a bed of rice, this time with green peppers, olives and chicken. It’s eaten in a round, and the meat is used mostly to flavour the sauce, only when the rice starts getting all eaten up do people snatch up the chicken bones with their fingers and eat them clean.
I love Senegalese food. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Indian food and it makes me wonder why there are no Senegalese restaurants, like there are Indian? But then again, maybe the main reason I love it so much is because it will always remind me of my Senegalese friends, Mohamed, Nourdin and Salim?
They saw me off at the train station and we were all a bit sad. But I told them, I know I’ll come back to Geneva.