The Complacency of Place
The path is marked at regular intervals by plaques bearing the symbol of the journey, a scallop half-shell, set into walls and street signposts.
My own half-shell swung against my backpack, keeping my pace in a rhythmic whisper. The grooved lines of the shell represent countless paths that lead in scattered rays towards a single point of convergence. The image denotes the many individual interior pathways that lead to a shared center of spirit. It’s an old non-verbal sign that the bearer is a Camino pilgrim, and an invitation for other pilgrims to talk.
The Camino, a pilgrim’s path that dates back to the 9th century, was once mainly a Christian journey of faith. It has long been a secular journey of self-discovery, a walk for peace, and a personal physical challenge. Walking the Camino is supposed to bring strangers together, literally from all walks of life, in a harmony of movement. Geneva, as a city, promises to do the same.
I’ve lived in the Geneva area for over twenty years. Although I wasn’t a proper pilgrim coming from afar, I wanted to be a pilgrim in spirit.
I started early on a Friday morning in Versoix, at the border of the Geneva canton. Snugged between the worn roll of the ancient Jura mountain range to the west, the punky new peaks of the Alps to the east, trees rustled the heat in a welcome August breeze. The sun rose over the Alps, benign.
The late summer sun shone down on the town in the middle of Europe known as Peace City. The air carried the sweet scent of grapes ripening in nearby vineyards. Lake Geneva was a carpet of dazzling diamonds set against the backdrop of Alpine peaks, white-capped even in summer. These shores are home to the world’s highest density of humanitarian organizations; half of the inhabitants are foreign born. Geneva is one of the most diverse and wealthy small cities in the world, managing to assimilate a large transient population with what looks like little fanfare or strife. Wars come and go, Geneva floats serenely above the fray.
On my previous Camino walk, in the north of Spain, I’d gotten lost. I’d had wonderful encounters with walkers and locals alike; I’d also gotten viciously hit in the head by a drunken local in Pamplona. Not that I was looking to repeat that particular experience, but I was looking forward to some unexpected moments. And maybe a little less heat.
There wasn’t a soul in sight, even on the main road where the Geneva path begins. After the first 30 minutes, I sensed a flaw in my plan: I expected to encounter people who would complicate my walk, but there were no people. I’d downloaded maps as if I might lose my way. But if I’d hoped for getting lost and having an adventure, the path was clearly marked by dust-free signs at every turn. And it was getting hotter by the minute.
Here was the first fountain, clearly marked as a welcoming sign to Via pilgrims. A waterfall of fresh, clean spring water, splashing against a new sculptural fountain carved from a large boulder. Clean fountain water is one of the only free things you’ll find in Geneva, but it’s a luxury you’ll find almost everywhere.
Welcome, lonely stranger.
I embarked on the exquisitely laid-out path through a tree-lined residential area, accompanied only by a babbling brook that shadowed the path. Gravel crunched quietly beneath my walking shoes, birds sang their morning song and I might have been in a remote forest instead of in the middle of a town.
I’ve lived here for most of my adult life, raised a child here, and yet I have very few friends who are originally from this area. It’s a phenomenon one hears often among long-term foreign residents. That’s one of the things I would have to think about on my own: how can a city be so welcoming and so aloof at the same time?
Among the top twenty world cities with high foreign-born populations, Geneva is the smallest. In addition, tens of thousands of foreign-born workers flood over the Franco-Swiss border every day to work in the congested urban area. When Switzerland held a 2014 national referendum to limit immigration and foreign workers in favor of Swiss citizens, Geneva and the neighboring cantons all voted against it. The national referendum passed on the slimmest of margins based on the votes of cantons which do not have high levels of foreigners living and working in their regions.
The mere fact of an economy’s dependence on foreign workers has never meant that local residents like or accept them. Any language of tolerance usually has discord oozing out the sides like chocolate melting on a hot day.
Two women were walking on the gravel path. Finally! Some chance encounters!
I said the obligatory “Bonjour!” that any polite person says in French-speaking areas when there aren’t too many people to say it to.
“Oh, bonjour, bonjour!” I fell into step with them. They looked like grandmotherly extras from a 1960s movie, all polka dotted dresses and stockings, hair meticulously coiffed at eight in the morning.
“Are you from the around here?”
They both shook their heads and protested. One was tall, the other barely came up to my chest; neither was younger than 75.
“No! We’re not from here! We’re from Geneva. We only moved here to be closer to our children and grandchildren. But this town is so unfriendly. Not like Geneva.”
Geneva, they said, had opened its arms to them in a real communion for half a century. But Versoix! Versoix turned its back, overcharged senior citizens for bus fares, and waited impatiently for them to die.
It was time for them to turn off the path, and I carried on alone.
The Via morphed into an asphalt road and then guided pilgrims onto suburban sidewalks. It jig-jagged down through the village proper of Versoix, skirted the national railway, then climbed back up into some of the most exclusive parts of the Geneva canton. Lush gated mansions, regal diplomatic missions, startlingly tidy and intact village centers with homes from the 15th century onwards. Flowers overflowed and cascaded from window boxes and lampposts. Street cleaners were sweeping already immaculate sidewalks. They said hello as I passed, but the only other people on the streets were well-dressed dog walkers who pointedly ignored me. Maybe it was my backpack and hiking shoes.
The Via traversed a small vineyard heavy with purple grapes that lay in front of a large chateau like an edible tablecloth. The city revealed itself, carnelian rooftops between lapis sky and lake. I had more time for silent meditation than I had anticipated.
I thought, as I often have, of how Geneva hasn’t had armed conflict on its territory for generations. Even before it joined the Swiss Federation, Geneva’s leaders had learned to successfully avoid conflict by negotiating, by expelling hotheads, by compromising between religious factions. It’s long provided a haven to incendiary intellectuals like Voltaire, but has been equally happy to turf them out if they didn’t conform. The city has an annual event that includes flaming torches and a battalion of costumed volunteers to commemorate a 1602 victory over the French. Filling the cobbled streets of the Old Town with suits of armor, ragged peasants, ramrod soldiers and original canons as if the battle had been won just yesterday, the Escalade has always struck me as a curious way to celebrate centuries of nonviolence.
Maybe the militaristic posturing is to remind people that peace is the choice of the strong, those who could fight but choose instead to discuss.
Genthod to Pregny
I missed a turn-off on the Via, one of the only corners that wasn’t exceedingly well marked. Admittedly, I was excited to have gotten even a little bit lost. Maybe this would get the ball rolling, encounter-wise.
By this time I was in the area of the city that is almost wholly occupied by the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations, as well as several of the larger missions. I approached an imposing twenty-foot-tall fence of spiked metal, and beyond that, the old World Health Organization buildings. I took a picture, from the street, then noticed the United States flag flying high above the fence. I moved slightly to take a photo of it against the sky, only to have an armed guard get very agitated.
“No photos!” He was waving his hand at me.
After the two women in Versoix, this guy was the first person who had said anything to me on my walk. I was fifty feet away on a public street, and he was getting angrier by the second. He motioned for me to come over and talk to the other guards of what turned out to be the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. The installation has become increasingly fortified over the past couple of years and now looks more threatening than Geneva’s local prison. This was not the kind of meeting I’d hoped for.
I backtracked to the correct path.
By now I was worried that I wouldn’t be any closer to understanding this city or my place in it than I was at the outset.
Pregny to Geneva
The day was getting oven-hot, the sun was no longer benign, and my back was sweaty against my day backpack. I’d decided to dress the part, and was wearing the same kind of lightweight hiking clothes I would wear if I were walking all the way to Santiago rather than to the Swiss border just ten miles away.
I thudded along one of the main lakeside roads, all traffic noise and wide sidewalks, dodging the sun and trying to stay in the shade of any trees. Now that I was out of the rarified diplomatic quarter and down by the lake, there were tourists everywhere. From having too few possible people to talk to, I had too many.
My half-shell brushed against my backpack, swish-swish, and I kept walking.
I walked along the lakeside promenade, pockets of cool air rising up from Lake Geneva. Small flocks of birds bobbed in the shallow water — grebes, swans, ducks, many of them with comet tails of younglings trailing behind. The Via took me right past the Palais Wilson, the former headquarters of the League of Nations during the 1920s and most of the 1930s.
Geneva, like the rest of Switzerland, was neutral for both of the 20th century’s global conflicts. When the United Nations replaced the defunct League of Nations after the Second World War, Geneva was once again chosen as the European headquarters.
It’s easy to take the weight of all this diplomacy for granted. Live in the city for long enough, and it becomes a matter of routine to get stuck in traffic as the world’s dignitaries come to discuss treaties and negotiate conflicts. There’s a blasé acceptance of these grand comings and goings. Of seeing, as I have, Hillary Clinton or John Kerry stroll through the hotel bar where my book club meets.
Geneva is like one of those old market towns from Western movies, the ones where anyone visiting had to leave their weapons at the town limits if they wanted to come in and trade. Most of international residents will work for a time in Geneva, and then leave. New foreign residents will take their place.
I’d expected the Via to be an easy stroll with lots of conversation. But as I made my way further into the city, I was getting no conversation and having to weave through knots of tourists. The crisp mountain views were highlighted by the Jet d’Eau in the middle of the lake, which shoots a fountain of water 460 feet (140 m) into the air.
From the lakeside promenade up to the main train station, and then back down, I thought this part of the Via Jacobi might have been altered at some point to accommodate travelers arriving by rail. But no – it’s the train station that was built near the 10th-century Temple de Saint-Gervais. This stolid Romanesque temple now stands stranded, an island between bus and tram lines. Not a pilgrim in sight, but so many travelers.
Crossing over the river to the Old Town, I headed for my first destination of the Cathedral de St. Pierre. I passed the many (many!) private banks, jewelry shops, watch shops, and more banks. Private wealth management is what Geneva does when it’s not doing humanitarian work. This has historically included legitimate banking, as well as an array of documented money-laundering. Banking is a cornerstone of Geneva’s wealth and its neutral status.
Neutrality doesn’t necessarily mean an absence of conflict or conflicting interests, but it can mean an absence of armed conflict on one’s own territory. In this city of humanitarian work, it’s not widely known that Switzerland ranks among the world’s major arms suppliers, or that it long kept an army of soldiers that could be rented out to other conflicts while the federation held itself apart. Neutrality means that energies can be focused on providing the services and places for creating peace both within, and for others, even if the city and country profit from distant conflict.
It’s worked well here in Geneva, which is why I can walk across the city and marvel, again and again, at how pleasant, clean and well-appointed it is. That takes a lot of bureaucratic and organizational attention; it takes a commitment to following rules. And there are so many rules in Geneva, spoken and unspoken, and entire labyrinth of do’s and don’ts. I’ve gotten so accustomed to walking between them that I don’t even see the walls anymore.
I finished the first day climbing the steep hill of the Old Town and then, knees cracking and legs aching, the steps of Cathedral’s towers for a panoramic view of the area. The cathedral guide that day told me we were in the high season for Via Jacobi pilgrims—July and August—and he usually saw between five and ten people a day.
No wonder I wasn’t running into anyone with a shell hanging from their backpack. We were too thin on the ground. The day had grown long with backtracking and musing. I had looked into getting a bed for the night at a hostel, or better yet, at the Camino hostel across from the cathedral. But this was under renovation and in any case, only had six beds. I would have felt like I was stealing an inexpensive bed from someone who actually needed it. So I left the cathedral, followed the Via signs down the back hill of the Old Town. I hopped on a tram that would take me home for the night, to sleep in my own bed.
Day 2 — Geneva to Carouge
On the morning of the second day, legs surprisingly tired from the previous day’s walk, I started the Via where I had left off. I was determined to talk to at least one other walker. Stopping off for a cup of coffee, I heard a loud altercation in French. A woman was screaming, hurling vile insults and telling people not to look at her even as her voice drew everyone’s gaze. It took me a while to locate her on the large tram stop square at Plainpalais, the university quarter. She turned out to be a woman around my age, black hair escaping a headscarf, cartwheeling arms, railing against the world. A man told her she needed to calm down. Someone, not him, but someone, would call the police if she insisted on screaming. Other voices concurred. Calm down, or you’ll be removed.
“Someone will come and take care of things!” is the reaction of people who trust the authorities to clear away any unpleasantness. But what else could happen in a place where the spotless streets are cleaned again before they are anything less than spotless? In a rich country like Switzerland, peace doesn’t come free. Until we figure out how to extend lack of conflict, that is to say, peace, to everyone — someone is paying the price for peace in places like Geneva.
Descending down the hills that lead away from austere stone Via path of the Old Town, the back streets are lined with shops and restaurants representing and servicing all the various communities in Geneva. If you want to have an accurate inventory of what foreigners miss most from their home countries, walk into the specialty food shops in Geneva.
What is lacking is the assertion of these individual cultures on the Swiss or Genevois culture and identity. Is this a kind of peace? Not the opposite of war, but a kind of tolerance that could be acceptance, or maybe blanketing indifference, as long as you abide.
Geneva doesn’t have the pointy liveliness of cities where groups settle in, put down roots, and grow their gardens of culture over time. People leave and take their unique cultures with them, or tend to them quietly within their own communities. Refugees are domiciled away from the city center. Likewise, the local Gens du Voyage population, a once nomadic group of travelers, has been relegated to a large parking lot at the cantonal border, where their caravans are out of sight from everyone else. I had passed them on my first day in Versoix, a marginalized group made marginal in the most literal sense.
Local Genevois know that outsiders may come, but they will almost always go. Only around one-third of the population in Geneva was actually born there and can be considered native Genevois. The rest are either foreign nationals or Swiss from other cantons in an ever-changing mix. Like the changing colors and currents of the River Rhône and Lake Geneva, it’s a constant flow of strangers washing through, border to border.
I realize that I am no different when it comes to making friends with locals and foreigners who are here for the short term. My peaceful life is bought, at least in part, by holding myself at a comfortable distance and walking alone.
Carouge to Saconnex d’Arve
The second Via day was getting just as hot as the first, and with just as little to show for it. The Via took me down quiet back streets, even downtown. Walking across the Pont de Carouge and crossing the soft green waters of the Arve, white with Alpine silt, I left the city of Geneva proper and entered Carouge. Carouge was once a separate township built by the Victor Amadeus III, King of Sardinia and Duke of Savoy in the 18th century. Just across the river, it looks and feels different from Geneva.
Low Mediterranean-style buildings, artisanal workshops, no chain stores or restaurants, tree-lined market squares. It’s artsy, it’s alternative, it’s the opposite of patrician. It was the place Jews were allowed to live before they were allowed to live in Geneva; it was the place where bars and dancing were allowed back when Geneva allowed neither. It was a refuge from the refuge of Geneva.
Carouge’s lively color and movement contrast sharply with the Old Town’s somber reticence. I helped a shopkeeper rescue a young cat that had gotten itself into a precarious rooftop situation, and which was howling in despair. A cafe worker paused to direct the action from across the street, and a man passing by stopped to comment and observe. We problem-solved together, but as soon as the cat was safely inside, the three dispersed as if we’d never spoken in the first place. And since the Via through Carouge isn’t very long, I was out of the quarter almost as soon as I’d entered.
Saconnex d’Arve to Charrot
Following the Via signs out of Carouge, the urban part of the city ended abruptly at the top of a small hill, and the wide sidewalk narrowed into a dirt footpath through a small park before entering agricultural land. Suddenly, the roofs of Geneva and Carouge presented themselves as a mere backdrop to wide fields of sunflowers and corn, a million yellow suns.
I was on a pastoral path again, weaving through meadows and small breaks of forest. Water fountains marked every village center, and I splashed cool water on my arms and face.
I was walking up a dirt path and had so given up any hope of starting a conversation that I almost jumped out of my skin when a Swiss man in his seventies puttered up on an electric bicycle and surprised me by asking about my half-shell. White haired, tanned, keen to talk, he’d done the entire walk from Geneva to Santiago de Campostella in one epic walk a couple of years earlier.
A genuine native to the city, he indicated that there was, beneath the surface, a local network of people who would put pilgrims up for free, who welcomed travelers into their homes.* This kind of sub-surface network is typical of Geneva — the true locals know all about it, but it’s not readily available to anyone else.
“I always look for people walking this part of the Via. For the shell.” He glanced down at my half shell and smiled. “Of course, it’s a little hard for me, because I only speak French. And most of the pilgrims here, they speak German, or something else. Still.” He shrugged. “One tries.”
He was a visibly disappointed that I was doing such a short leg of the Via, and that I actually lived in the area. With a wave, he kicked his bike into action and disappeared.
Alone again, I walked for some time through fields that were tinder dry at the end of a long heat wave, past old stone houses and churches that rose out of the earth like they’d always been there. My shell swished against my backpack like a retreating tide and I wanted to be done.
I approached the last few hundred yards from the picaresque 19th century village of Charrot. It was noon on a sultry Saturday in August, and locals had put out chairs and tables near the fountain. People were chatting and took no notice of the stranger among them. But then, I made no effort to approach them.
Geneva made more sense to me after walking through it along the Via Jacobi, but I also realized that I’ve gotten lazy in my foreign status here. I walk around, comfortable in not engaging, like I’m still just passing through after two decades. I’ve gotten just as aloof as the natives. My old legs swing in an easy hammock of complacency, my eyes are jaded with acceptance. I thought I could walk through Geneva with new eyes and legs, but I couldn’t.
A minute down the road was a metal box posted like a mailbox, or maybe a municipal gas meter. Hand-painted words on the front beckoned: Information Tampon. Tampon in this case meaning a pilgrim’s stamp, not a feminine hygiene product. Inside was a collection of pilgrimage paraphernalia: An ink pad with a stamp for the local Via station of Bardonnex, a larger village five minutes back; a map and contact information for a local home in case of questions or emergency; a folder of simple maps for the next major leg of the Camino through France, free for the taking. A Post-It pad and several pens to leave notes for fellow walkers.
One of them was posted on a message board in French, telling “Julie” to “Have a wonderful quest and I’ll miss you,” signed with a heart. After two days of little interaction, here was a public wisp of sweet emotion. I stamped a piece of paper to take with me, a personal token that I’d done the walk. The ink pad was almost dry, but it’s not like anyone would be checking my stamp. The Camino is not a test for anyone but the walker doing the walk.
A vineyard bursting with purple grapes, covering the low hillocks in a cresting wave of future wine. The path led through a few trees, and there was a sign post: Switzerland wishes you a good trip. A simple roadblock, open on either side – and that was the border to France. The final steps of the day’s walk.
I stood for a moment, and then headed back home.
*If you wish to find the local network of free hosts for pilgrims, look at Accommodations under Jakobsweg.ch.