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How to negotiate a dinner party

March 30, 2011

I prefer breakfast parties

Once you finally find yourself some mates in Geneva, you’ll need to quickly get up to speed on the city’s social event of choice – the dinner party. Popular among the bankers, the UN civil servants, and the diplomateratti alike, the dinner party is standard issue when it comes to life in Geneva, and comes in all shapes and sizes – from snooty networking dinners to gatherings at a friend’s tiny studio for which you’re usually asked to bring a chair or sit on the bed. Yet, invariably, the conversation always comes around to one of a select few topics. New Yorkers have money and politics, Londoners have football and the weather, Sydney-siders have weddings and property, and we in Geneva have…


For a comparatively unexciting, drab, city Geneva gets a disproportionate amount of airplay amongst its inhabitants, who have a kind of twisted love-hate relationship with their place of residence. At just about every dinner party you will attend, Geneva is likely to be the topic of choice for a considerable proportion of the evening. Geneva-related conversation will be predominantly skewed towards whinging about the following things:

– how expensive everything is

– how hard it is to find/keep accomodation

– how annoying it is that the grocery stores close at 7pm

– how strange the Swiss are

This may sound entirely negative, but in fact it is just an enjoyable hobby that many expats living in Geneva like to indugle in. The pleasure you get from complaining about Geneva is not unlike that you get from scratching a rash – even though you know it’s not doing you any good, it feels great at the time.

All things UN-related

Before I moved to Geneva, I had this strange, baseless fantasy that people in this town spend their evenings debating the cosmopolitan vs. communitarian debate vis a vis the role of the United Nations in humanitarian disasters, over a glass of fine Merlot, surrounded by leather-bound books in apartments smelling like rich mahogany. The reality is both far from this idyllic picture and also scarily similar to it. Okay, the apartments tend to be filled with second-hand paper backs and smell like curry and the Merlot is not exactly fine but rather bought from the Tabac for a cheap-as-chips 9 CHF, but chances are most conversations will come around to the United Nations sooner or later.* To be honest, however, discussions are more likely to center on a) what a bureaucratic labrynth the UN is, b) how many meetings about having meetings about having meetings have to be had until anything gets done, c) today’s depressing example of how politics, yet again, has got in the way of actual progress and d) who is sleeping with who’s boss.

The sad fact about the experience of living in Geneva and working within and around the UN system is that it both crushes every hope you ever had about the potential for change and unprecedented solidarity in the world, thereby debunking your desires to participate in the hulking, ineffective machinery that is the United Nations, and at the same time, like a bastard ex-boyfriend, offers you occasional glimpses of hope and promise so that you continue to kid yourself that this might just work out after all. The weight of these contradictory phenomena bears down on just about every dinner party you attend here.

Unless it’s solely populated by those other expats living in Geneva, the bankers, in which case conversation will no doubt turn to…

Money and all the things one should spend it on

For a town ostensibly populated by humanitarians do-gooders, there is a whole lot of ostentatious and excessive behaviour going on. What else do you expect when you fill a quiet town with thousands of attention-deprived twenty-somethings earning ridiculously high salaries and paying either low (for the bankers) or no (for the UN-staffers) tax who are willing to pay to make the boredom go away? For one thing, this phenomenon contributes greatly to the over-priced nature of just about everything in Geneva, because locals know that the expats have the money to pay for it. It also means that behind a lot of closed doors there are some somewhat hedonistic things going on. Stories of 16-year old children of diplomats imbibing all sorts of delicacies while dancing on the suede couches of Java Club or the shiny tables of Little Buddha abound. Grandiose chalets in the mountains are hired and filled to the brim with young, rich, bored expats every weekend between December and March, days are filled with heli-skiing and parapenting and nights are occupied with tequila shots and table dancing in one’s ski boots.

If dinner discussion doesn’t move around to this sooner or later, it will definitely touch on which exotic location participants are jetting to that weekend, with a game of one upmanship soon emerging where the Cheese Rolling Festival in Gloucestershire, England clearly trumps La Tomatina in Spain, the spending a weekend in Pamplona for the running of the bulls is just so passe. Obviously.


Finally, inevitably, at the end of the night, chat of Geneva and the UN and money gets pushed aside – actually, combined – and talk turns to sex. Afterall, prostitution is legal here. And you can bet, with all those tax-free salaries going around, that it is not only the local Genevoise who are utilising the services provided…


* This is to be expected seeing as (according to the ever-wise Wikipedia) around 10,000 people work for the UN in Geneva and the population of the city is only 190,000.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. March 30, 2011 5:38 pm

    Excellent post – couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. J Smith permalink
    March 30, 2011 5:44 pm

    First time reader, first time ‘replier’. Love the blog. Well written.
    Feeling that there are a few similarities between Geneva and Perth pastimes…bitching about the price of things is just a given right for anyone who isn’t a perth native. Actually the only thing that needs replacing is the UN section – just insert ‘Mining Tax’ debate – I kid you not. Oh and perhaps how we spend our money….personally it is on getting back to the east coast, or wining and dining on some delicious M.River produce…but locals spend the moula on escaping to ‘Broome or Bali’ or fags, prostitutes and steak ‘n’ chips.
    ps pessimism about the UN suprised me…but I get it. Lucky we are both optimists.
    pss I’d forgotten how good jjj can be – new serious pod caster from 2011. Heard R. Spektor and thought of you earlier.

    • March 30, 2011 6:13 pm

      Ha ha love it honey! Especially the part about the mining tax, I can just imagine how it’s dominating convos in Perth!
      Meanwhile, are you trying to make me jealous with the Margaret River and jjj references? Can’t you see I’m already dying here! 🙂
      Come back to the northern hemisphere please! x


  1. How to know when you’ve been in Geneva too long – Part 2 | HOW TO MAKE IT IN GENEVA

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