Switzerland Day 20: Geneva Part 2
Outside the Four Season’s Hotel, close to the lake, I stopped a man to take his picture. His clothes were pink and he was wearing purple, velvet slippers. He cheerfully posed for me. Afterwards he told me his name was Diego, and boasting a little said he was going to a drinks party at the hotel later, a fashion show sponsored by a Russian bank. While we were talking, he grabbed my arm suddenly.
‘Oh my’, he mouthed looking astonished, ‘it’s the King of Spain.’
I turned around. Behind me Juan Carlos had stepped out of the hotel and was slowly making his way towards a parked car. Diego was overcome.
‘Quick,’ he flustered, ‘where’s my camera?’ he said searching his pockets, ‘Take a picture.’
The old king looked frail and vulnerable.
‘We shouldn’t,’ I said calmly, watching Juan Carlos struggle into the vehicle, ‘it doesn’t seem right.’
Afterwards, Diego asked if I wanted to join him for a drink. He was amusing and easy company and I gladly accepted. At a nearby bar we found a table outside.
‘Let’s order Rosé,’ he suggested fanning himself. ‘Wow it’s hot. Can you believe they don’t have air conditioning yet here in Geneva?’
Diego was from Mexico, he told me he’d been living in Switzerland for 15 years.
‘Why did you move?’ I asked.
‘For love,’ he replied grinning.
He asked what I was doing and looked astonished when I said I’d cycled from Brittany. I explained I wanted to find out what the Swiss thought of Europe, but so far I’d had trouble finding Swiss people to interview.
‘Well there aren’t many Swiss here,’ he said, ‘in Geneva only 50% of people are Swiss. You know, I have hardly any Swiss friends.’
One of Diego’s friends arrived, a Spanish woman from Madrid. Diego poured her a glass of wine. She was attractive, with long brown hair. She wore a glamorous black dress and on her wrist I noticed she was wearing a huge gold watch. Diego talked excitedly about a trip he was going on the following week, to Madrid for gay pride.
I asked the woman what she thought of Europe.
‘I’m not a typical European,’ was her short response, and I wondered what she meant.
Soon, another woman joined us. She was hot and agitated and pulling a suitcase. She’d arrived straight from the airport, flown in from London. She sat down opposite me. I explained to her about the project and she said she was surprised how narrow-minded people had become in Britain. Said she thought intolerance had become normal.
While we talked Diego poured the rest of the wine. She brought up the referendum. Told me because she lived abroad she hadn’t been able to vote. She was worried about her future, about her rights. She said she had both UK and Swiss citizenship but lived in France because it was cheaper.
I asked her why she had moved to Geneva.
‘I married a Swiss man, but we’re divorced now. I’m a Swiss citizen. I have two sons. Did you know even if you’re born in Switzerland you have to apply to become a citizen?’
I shook my head.
She explained she was worried that when the UK left the EU she would lose the right to live in France, to live in Europe, because Switzerland was not a member.
Diego looked at his watch. It was time to leave. I bid the lively group of friends farewell and sat alone for a while finishing my wine. Soon a young couple in their twenties arrived and asked if they could join the table.
‘Of course,’ I agreed.
Lifted by company and feeling bolder, I enquired if could ask them a few questions. The young man was a student from Spain, eloquent and well educated.
I began by asking what Europe meant to them.
‘Europe’s core values are social justice, personal freedom, social equality and economic idealism.’ Said the young man.
He spoke fast, the ideas and concepts coming easily to him. I did not understand what he meant by economic idealism and so asked him to explain.
‘Economic idealism,’ he said, ‘is not just based on liberal economics, it’s about improving people’s existence, their lives.’
He said the EU was about bringing different identities together to find a common ground, to recognise we are in the same situation and to build bridges.
‘It’s an interesting project,’ he continued, ‘but it’s not yet fully realised, what we need to do now is to progress, to move towards a new stage.’
Unfortunately he did not elaborate and I can only guess what he meant, but I’ve spoken to others since who have suggested that the EU is a young project, whose institutions need to evolve and reform.
He told me next he was born before Spain joined the EU, but he was not old enough to know what it had been like before. That he had lived and studied in the US. That there he had felt more European.
‘Before I was happy being Spanish. When you move your understanding expands. Now my outlook is more international. Before I was small-minded, I hated the people in the town next to me. But ideas about our identity fluctuate. Now I love being European. I can go to any of the other 27 countries and have the same rights. The more I am away, the more wider Europe feels like home.’
I asked him about Brexit.
‘It is a stupid decision.’ Was his immediate reply. ‘They will come around in a little while. It displays a lack of insight and knowledge. Everybody is entitled to their opinion but Brexit has divided your country. Older people have voted for a future they won’t be a part of. The young people now have a future they didn’t vote for. The voting system was wrong and no one saw it coming. This is what happens when you have political leaders dislocated from the reality of people’s lives. The UK had a great deal. Cameron he seemed like a good leader, but he was too proud. You know Brexit and Trump show that there are some big problems in the system.’
As he spoke I wrote down what he said. When he paused, I asked him if he thought young people were more politicised now.
‘People are too used to not doing anything.’ He said. ‘We are a passive generation in a way. I don’t think people are more politicised now, they know more but do less. My parent’s generation in Spain were politically engaged. People were involved. For my generation life is entertainment, hedonism and there is a lack of awareness of how we got here. If people aren’t affected, if their individual lives aren’t affected, they don’t get active, people are distant.’
He paused, then continued.
‘But Bexit it was like wow, people realised it will affect my prospects. Political change requires something bad to happen to get people motivated. It’s like an awakening. People are asking what is happening. In the US friends disengaged till Trump was elected. There was a lack of insight. People now want change, but we need reform not revolution.’
As he paused for breath I asked his girlfriend what she thought about Europe.
‘It’s funny you should be asking us this now,’ she said, ‘we were just talking about it. I was actually born in the USSR. I have an international background. I don’t really have a home, but actually I feel more European. I lived in the UK. I feel a part of Britain. You know sharing and meeting people you can find different parts of yourself with people from different countries. Identity, is very fluid. As you meet different friends, your ideas and identity can expand. It is the openness that people have which is the most important. And you know travel definitely broadens your mind.’
It was getting late and I was beginning to feel hungry. I thanked the couple, took their photograph before I left. Presented with the choice of impossibly expensive restaurants and hotels nearby, I decided to head back to the same place I’d eaten at the night before. This time I was lucky. I got a table out on the cool terrace, with the water rushing by.