Deliciously ice cold tap water, gleaming white supermarkets, perfectly packaged cheeses, watches weighted with glittery bits, and the magnificence of the lake, a glistening great silvery body of sparkles that spreads out within the city: my first fresh breath of Geneva.
Belongings dropped at our rabbit warren style hostel, Iain and I strode out into the city, heading for Lake Geneva. I had never before encountered a lakeside city, and with little expectation, followed the ordinary, linear streets toward the centre.
Spain was now far away, but still jolted through my body, through the veins beneath my sunned skin. In the depths of my backpack I had reclaimed trousers and a t-shirt, which now replaced my six week uniform of shorts and sleeveless tops, worn without a second thought throughout the endless sun of France, Spain and Portugal.
The fresh air cut into me and I re-entered a world that seemed serious, neat, efficient, but quite dull compared to the colourful whirl of Spain. There were no crowds, no clusters of people, no food stalls spilling out into the streets, no bellowing across balconies. I found Geneva’s immediate calm disappointing and longed for the alluring disquiet of Iberia.
We approached the lake: the glorious heart of the city. It was breathtaking, especially when compared to the city’s more modest looks. Although warmth faltered, the sun seemed hopeful, illuminating streaks of water below, revealing its sporadic strength.
Our guidebook (and our thriftiness) led us to an outlet for free bicycle “hire” along the rim of the water. Staffed solely by African refugees who work for tips, the organisation was my first inkling of Geneva’s overt humanitarianism.
Cycling round the water, we stopped for a minute to admire a perfectly manicured park, a bubbling fountain gracing its centre. A bright little train guiding tourists zipped passed us, as we passed pedal boats and large boats on the outskirts of the lake. We continued cycling beyond the central bustle, and stopped half an hour later. We now had the edge of the lake to ourselves, and enjoyed a picnic initiation into the Swiss staples: holey cheese sandwiches and milky chocolate. The spectacular view kept us there until the end of our bike “hire” time neared and we rode quickly back to the depot across the lake from our spot, invigorated by the fresh air.
A visit to the Red Cross Museum was recommended by the receptionist at our hostel, complemented by a discount for guests. We climbed the hill that led up toward the museum, passing Europe’s UN headquarters. Strips of brightly coloured cloth flapped in the breeze, overlapping one another noisily: the 192 flags of each of the UN’s members, flying outside the entrance. Switzerland’s firm neutrality made the country an obvious choice to house the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor.
The city is the birthplace of the Geneva Convention, based on native Henry Dunant’s proposal for international laws to relieve the suffering of wounded soldiers. Dunant also envisaged a permanent aid organisation, which led to the creation of the International Committee for the Relief to the Wounded in 1863, the Red Cross’s predecessor.
The museum’s entrance appeared: a large mirrored structure with a white canopy stretched above. A bold red Christian cross stood beside Islam’s crescent moon, high on the canopy. Ten or so figures in stone, hooded and blindfolded, were lined up outside the entrance, hands bound by sculpted ropes.
We entered a bright spacious atrium. The ticket desk and a bookshop stood just beyond a network of flatscreen computers, live news websites glowing on their screens. We were directed to the exhibits, in the basement of the building, down a stainless steel staircase.
The world’s most influential religions were each represented on large sheets of fabric stretched across the immediate space, one behind the other. Each was streaked with the black painted letters of that faith’s appeal for human compassion, illustrated by extracts in the original script. “Love your neighbour as you love yourself” is the echoed message of each. The lighting was dim all around, save for a glow beneath the sheets, casting shadows through fabric, mingling alphabets and text.
A small adjoining cinema was closed off by a velvet curtain, guarded by a bony woman, the sliver of her tiny lips closely pursed. We could hear guns and cavalry, and, through a crack, see the flickering of light. A monitor counted down the minutes before the next screening would start. Four minutes to go.
We scanned the brief biographies of influential humanitarian figures just outside, Henry Dunant and Florence Nightingale among them, and watched the clock. Two minutes. One minute. The sound stopped. Iain began tugging at the curtain. The attendant snapped into action and intercepted him, her eyes bulging in alarm. She made him wait the remaining few seconds, then politely allowed us to pass.
The video outlined the organisation’s conception in a mildly interesting way, but it must have been the finale that we were so pointedly prevented from seeing. As the last sequence faded, the large screen slowly opened, two pieces separating to reveal the rest of the museum.
The tourists hesitantly got up. We looked at each other, wondering whether we were perhaps supposed to clap, and made our way through to the next section before the screen closed again. A life size model of Henry Dunant had been placed at his desk, beside the original Geneva Convention, encased in glass.
In the next room there were relics of Red Cross assistance during the First World War. Frighteningly basic medical kits contained large saws for emergency amputations. Tins held tiny sticks of odd looking gum: crisis food rations. TV screens displayed footage of war scenes with seats for those able to stomach the reminders of what humans do to each other from time to time.
Vivid, often abstract exhibits in the museum’s next section focused on essential involvement of the Red Cross in more recent events. Illegally small prisoner of war cells were reconstructed to inform visitors of their severity. Another prefabricated box, about four metres square, was pasted ceiling to floor with passport size photos of the some of the children orphaned or displaced by the Rwandan Genocide. Hundreds of dark eyes stared blankly ahead, all holding a number. The scheme intended to help to match family member with child. It miraculously succeeded, reuniting close on all of the several hundred children photographed with their families.
The relevance of a museum’s content had never been more apparent to me. It made the celebration of artists and the indulgence in ancient artefacts at other museums seem trivial. Being confronted by the macabre realities of human existence produces a powerless, yet guilt ridden sense of obligation. What exactly that obligation is soon becomes absorbed into our everyday existence and conveniently put aside.
The Red Cross museum cites its aims as spreading the principles of humanitarian law, while showing that action is always possible in the face of suffering and violence. Crisp mountain air and carefully contained beauty may remain foregrounded in my image of Geneva, but its role as the cradle of this indispensable organisation is what I will ultimately remember.
If you enjoyed Geneva, subscribe to email updates or our RSS Feed. You'll be notified when we next publish a story about the Old World.