10 February 2009

le week-end en suisse: fondue, trains, and beer in plastic cups

I'm not going to lie-- Geneva is a snooze. Take a city in a country obssessed with order and stability, and make it the world's capital for order and stability, and what do you expect to happen? But I had been warned of this by various people, including Cheryl, the friend I traveled to Geneva this past weekend to see. A little bit of backstory: Cheryl and I met several years back in DC thanks to a mutual friend who noticed that Cheryl had done a Fulbright in the Philippines and I was about to do the same. So I knew going in that this wasn't going to be Carnaval, and shortly after I landed I explained (reassured?) Cheryl that my motivation was 95 percent hanging out with her and 5 percent seeing Geneva.

That's not to say we didn't have a whole lot of fun. Cheryl took me to some unexpectedly grubby places that served beer in plastic cups, we ate fondue by the lakeside, we had a minor scrape with the law for riding a night bus around 3 a.m. without a valid pass. We meandered around the city and a charming suburb called Carouge. Aimless wandering is not my usual travel mode, but I really enjoyed it.

We also went to a film festival that, quite coincidentally, was showing lots of Filipino movies. The film we saw was a fictionalized documentary of a Filipino "reality" show that shamelessly moves in on a family in the aftermath of the murder of the oldest son. The movie had a lot to say about the artificiality of television, the mutual manipulation of the family and the TV crew, the schadenfreude of the viewing public, and the Philippines' complicated views on homosexuality. Parts of it were deliriously funny. After the first 20 minutes, which were almost entirely footage of people bawling, I leaned over to Cheryl and remarked that "this is either awful, or brilliant, and I can't decide which." The verdict: brilliant. I feel bad saying it, but neither of us were expecting that level of sophistication in a Filipino film. The audience received it well and had a lively Q and A afterward with the director, who had flown in from Manila.

On Sunday, thanks to efficient high-speed Swiss transportation, the two of us plus another friend of Cheryl's got to see a fair bit of the country. Through some Swiss friends, Cheryl got her hands on all-day rail passes that were valid anywhere in the country for just 30 Swiss francs apiece(about $25). I don't know if I have ever been to another advanced country that suddenly and completely switches languages part way through. Most of the country speaks German, but the Western quarter (including Geneva) speaks French, about a tenth of the population speaks Italian, and a few places speak some language I'd never heard of, called Romansh. Even the trains seem to obey the invisible linguistic borders; at some point between Geneva and Bern, the screens inside the train announcing the next stop switched from French to German.

We spent a few hours apiece in Bern (pronounced "bearnn"), a small and picturesque capital city overrun with fountains and clocks, and Luzern (Lucerne), which I had expected to be bumpkin-land but was surprisingly slick and urban instead. A short selection of photos:

Wall of the Reformation, Geneva. The city is proud of its role in the Reformation and was for a time the home of John Calvin. Among the figures honored on this wall is Roger Williams.

Cheryl and me in Bern. Yes, I am pretending to take a bite of her head, because at the top of this fountain is a statue of a guy eating babies. Apparently there is something sick and twisted hiding beneath that placid Swiss psyche...

Swiss timekeeping at its finest.

This tower is part of the 14th-century wooden Kapellbrücke (chapel bridge), which is Luzern's most famous landmark. Again, stereotypes about the Swiss are confounded: instead of taking the shortest route across the river, the bridge zigs and zags. The shop called "Joe's Souvenirs" (I am not kidding) inside the tower was also a rude awakening.

No comments: