Letters of Life

Gotta Love Geneva

Geneva has been described as “just a place with the UN buildings”, a city with nothing interesting, where the shopping is ‘boring.’

Yet I found this impressively clean city whose trains run like clockwork more than just a slice of modern Europe with “nothing much” to offer. Au contraire, as the French-speaking Swiss might say.

The Old Town with its narrow alleys and old brick buildings, many of which are at least a few centuries old.

Exhibit 1: The Old Town

I did the touristy thing—a trolley tour of the Old Town, and I was glad I did. The mini-train trundled down cobblestone streets, where the sleekness and the bright sunlight gave way to tall, manor-like buildings offering shade and calm to visitors exhausted by the summer heat. A key architectural feature of the Old Town is St Pierre’s Cathedral, built in the 12th century, and later adopted as the home church of John Calvin, one of the principal leaders of Calvinism and the Protestant Reformation.

Exhibit 2: Les Pâquis

Between Lac Léman, where the tall fountain spouts, and the Gare de Cornavin, where trains take you to other parts of Switzerland, is Les Pâquis, a district with an edge. The buildings look older, the streets a little seedier, yet just around the corner are a line of five-star hotels where 100-year-old tapestries hang on marble walls above tiny chrome tables and white leather lounge chairs. The cafes in Le Pâquis appear more exotic, with Middle Eastern, Ethiopian, Asian, and Morrocan cuisines; this part of town is home to many immigrants from the former French-speaking colonies to the south.

Take a few wrong turns and you realize you’ve ventured into the red-light district.

Exhibit 3: Downtown Geneva and Urban Art

Home to more than 130 private banks, Geneva smacks of money, commerce, and wealth. Perhaps the Jet D’eau captures that metaphor of wealth shooting high and falling unseen, all around this well-heeled, well-kept city.

Wealth, afterall, is something you sense, a feeling, like a cool touch of the hand on a sweltering day. The filthy rich is what you actually see.

Anyway, there was a black upright piano parked next to newspaper stands, looking like it could sell dailies if it wanted to. A wooden chair with a wicker seat had one of its four legs chained discreetly to the piano where the pedals were.

No signs said to keep off the keys. Only a URL plastered on the top face of the upright: www.jouezjesuisavous.com. “Play me, I’m Yours.”

So I dinked around and played some chords, of which two chords were captured on video.

Then I got home and decided to look up the website. It turns out that the street piano is part of a worldwide art project by British artist Luke Jerram, who has been installing these pianos all over the main streets of the world since 2008 for people to play on.

The artwork happened to be ‘live’ this summer in Paris, London, Salt Lake City and Geneva until early July.

I visited the website here and saw videos of an 11-year-old boy playing Mozart’s very lively Rondo Alla Turca perfectly. It’s a lot like hearing a kid reciting a soliloquy from Shakespeare while one merely improvised on the cat sat on the mat. Maybe the Rondo was an exam piece.

Urban Art: Street Piano

So much to discover about Geneva. Pity I only had half a day.

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