Monday, March 12, 2007

from Geneva, Switzerland: going home

There was a time, decades ago, when Swissair was my favorite Europe-bound airline (!) and Geneva was, therefore, a typical connecting city for me.

The remarkable thing about this is that I never much cared for Geneva as a place to visit. It’s a personal reaction, I admit. It seemed (and still seems now) a place of high etiquette and propriety. Everything is expensive and older women look very well kempt. Perhaps I sensed that I didn’t exactly blend well here.

For complicated work reasons, Geneva was a good stopping point now on my way back to Madison. I came early, took care of my assignments quickly and found myself with a long afternoon where I could call the shots and do as I pleased. I chose to walk.

For hours and hours, up through the old town and along the lake, I walked. A few photos, to show that I am happy to give Geneva another chance, even as I still feel that its warmth is more weather related than because it is inherently a welcoming place. Here’s evidence of its charm though. Because Geneva, on an early spring day can appear charming:

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hot chocolate, naturally

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drawing lessons

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I ask the desk clerk for food recommendations and I am given a name of a place that is minutes from the train station, with a cuisine that aims to please: Swiss fondue and Chinese dishes as an extra bonus. No, that wont do.

At a beautiful old bookstore I ask for something on Geneva’s food scene. I am told that there is one great book on the new bistros here except the gentleman over in the corner is reading the last copy.

The gentleman over in the corner is willing to part with it but I ask if he could, instead, simply recommend a nice place to eat. Seafood, he tells me. I should try the Café Central for its fresh seafood.

I am in one of the few land-locked countries in Europe and so I hesitate. If at least Switzerland aligned itself with the European Union, so that Scottish salmon and Greenland pink shrimp were all really Union food… But no. Switzerland is in its own neutral world and so I say no to the seafood place and ask for another choice.

Brasserie Lipp. Go eat there – the food is quite good. Fresh and honest. (Alright, the honest is my addition.)

Now that’s just plain funny. Brasserie Lipp is a favorite for any number of Parisians and visitors to Paris. It is an institution there and I have never gone to it because Paris has enough other choices, so that I have not felt the need to seek out this solid, old world brasserie, with very traditional cuisine.

But here, in Geneva, I have no other ideas and so I do go there and I happily acquiesce to Greenland shrimp (because I actually think little pink shrimp make a lovely appetizer), but then go with the Swiss beef and the ever magnificent Swiss scalloped potatoes and Swiss wine and all in all, I am prepared to be satisfied.

Except that a gentleman at the table next to mine is an older Frenchman who travels to Geneva occasionally and eats at the Brasserie when he is here and he rolls his eyes at this Swiss rendition of the venerable old place, so that even here, I am told not to be completely won over.

It’s not nearly as good as the French version, he tells me. And, it is expensive for what it is.

Is it? I am here so briefly that I have not bothered to study conversion rates and so I have no idea what any of the prices around me stand for. I assume everything is expensive because it is Geneva after all, but the Brasserie Lipp in Paris is your middle of the road place so why should it be different here?

Why indeed. Ah well, you can’t go wrong with Greenland pink shrimp and Swiss beef. And really, there is not a restaurant in the world that cannot be criticized, just like there is no city in the world that hasn’t its failings. It’s all in the mindset. I am prepared this time around to find Geneva an acceptable stopping point and the Brasserie Lipp to be a fine old dining establishment and so it shall be thus.

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I return late to my room, the one where someone has smoked and smoked all its living days, the one right next to the train station, so that I should not even bother to look out the window because the view cannot be anything at all. The one I will happily leave tomorrow to return back home.

Let’s hope for a good croissant in the morning. The Swiss bake ever so well. And who can beat an airport that is a six minute train ride from city center. There, you see? It’s all in the mindset.

Now let me drift back in my thoughts to the fresh, gusty mountain air, and to the view out my window this morning. Now that was something else…

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Cervinia morning: view from the Hotel Hermitage