Academic Travel: Days in Geneva

Geneva, CH

18 October 2009

 Adrienne and I hit our respective snooze buttons repeatedly until the threat of missing breakfast eventually forced me out of bed.

I joined Kyle for a morning walk by the lake. The city of Geneva slumbered on, not even stirring as we passed darkened shop windows, empty streets, even abandoned tram stops. The expanse of water before us tossed itself about in the wind, splashing among the swans riding its turbulent waves. The Swiss flag fluttered in the cool wind – the only sound save the rustling of the trees and the turmoil of Lake Geneva. We walked together on an otherwise deserted trail.

   A surreal feeling washed over me, flooded the landscape through my eyes. Where am I? The honest answer would have appeared absurd only months ago.

  We purchased 65 CHF worth of McDonalds food for three other people and ourselves. The cashier smiled at our American accents. The boys unpacked the food onto the floor of their hotel room, and there we had lunch, McDonalds for what seemed like the hundredth time. Unintelligent television droned in the background. I felt more American than I ever had in the United States.

   SSB once again accomplished the remarkable feat of getting all 17 of us aboard not only one, but two forms of public transportation, across the city to the Red Cross Museum. A troop of masked prisoners, carved in stone, lurked outside the entrance under gigantic flags twisted in the airspace above. “It’s supposed to resemble a prison…” someone whispered, and in that it succeeded. The towering concrete walls resonated with an aura of general unease. We entered. A stern-looking woman in matching baby blue garments approached and instantly interrogated us with a long list of angry demands. Take off your jacket! No water! No cameras! It became apparent that she would be our tour guide.

   “What do you expect to see here?” she questioned, a fierce gleam in her eyes as she scanned our faces for signs of fear. The entirety of our group flinched in terror. Neil would later state, in and impromptu attempt at haiku:

  Nazi woman makes my bones freeze

 Danger is imminent.

  I feel that this statement accurately generalizes our collective sentiments. The guide marched us down a set of stairs into a dark concrete room, demanding to know if anyone could define the Geneva Conventions. Thomas muttered something under his breath.

 “Answer me!” barked the woman. “Don’t just mumble into your nonexistent beard!” We stared in disbelief, but in truth, I was impressed. That woman could guide one efficient tour. We spent the next hour or so holding our breaths in fear of harsh rejection or humiliation, not daring to let our minds drift for even a split second. The museum itself echoed barren insensitivity, a sort of cold, perpetual numbness.

 “Why are the prisoners’ faces covered?” smirked our guide, gesturing to statues resembling the ones outside. “When they have no visible face, how can we relate? Yet they could be your husbands, your sons, your brothers, fathers or friends…”

  Walls of glass encased hundreds of thousands of faded name cards, the last documentation of soldiers slaughtered in battle. Infinite scraps of paper; the last traces of so many identities before death or disappearance caused them to fade away… the exhibition made my stomach churn as our guide proudly exclaimed its significance with a sickening smile.

  We entered a small room, its walls plastered in color photographs of African children. Their fingers clenched pieces of paper displaying a number and letter combination. “Orphans,” boomed the guide. “Some of them are too young to even know their names, their parents’ names, or their origin.” The sorrowful gazes of countless children bore into us. The question of identity struck me as intensely overwhelming. Without a name, parents, origin… who are we?

  We ended our tour shaken, whipped awake by our guide and the fear of her wrath. The museum itself left a cold, metallic taste in my mouth.Here we were, so unbelievably privileged, and my classmates were on their cell phones, taking this for granted, not paying attention… it was a sickening sight.

   What became perhaps the most nauseating experience of the entire trip for me, however, came at our next stop, Anne Deriaz’s apartment in Geneva. The tiny, aging woman welcomed us warmly into her home, beaming as we packed ourselves into the crevices of her living room. She served us tea in cups, bowls, glasses, whatever she had that could accommodate our large group, and when we all sat comfortably, tea and cookies provided, we surprised Neil with a round of Happy Birthday and a selection of cakes.

    Nestled among cushions, chairs and couches, and crammed against the wall, we celebrated and cleared the table for another writing workshop. About half of the students were already giggling, gossiping about drunken episodes from the night before. It went downhill from there.

  Anne led us through a series of the same exercises I had previously found so inspiring, and within a few minutes each of us had produced a brief text. We were then assigned the task of turning it into either a tragedy or comedy. Guess who was assigned the comedy? The results were an embarrassment to our entire group. Meaningless texts with no respect for the immediate social context, describing only “the joys of being drunk” at best… I was humiliated to even be associated with such behavior. A Swiss author had displayed the warmest hospitality of welcoming us into her home, and to see these students abusing such an experience made my heart hurt. I made sure to thank her profusely upon leaving, and to distance myself from my disrespectful classmates as soon as possible.

   Kyle, Melani, Adrienne and I had Lebanese food for dinner, lingered in a tiny restaurant for a few hours. Middle Eastern men came and went. We hurried back to our hotel in the biting wind, happy to be inside.


3 thoughts on “Academic Travel: Days in Geneva

  1. Holy cow, Acacia, the Red Cross Museum part was fantastic!! An inexplicable combination of at first laugh-aloud funny as well as horrifying, then gut-wrenching sadness. Thank you for bringing this so alive for all of us…

  2. I’ve become addicted to your blog…your future plans must include travel writer, travel photographer…maybe famous author…food travel writer…secret foreign agent wouldn’t be bad either! Love u bunches! Gina

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