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How to find some Latin spirit

April 26, 2011

Sadly no La Boca style flavour here, but look on the bright side, you're less likely to get knifed as you walk down the street

As a pasty Brit, I am clearly unqualified to write this post. However, as a hispanophile (that’s a word, right?), I have some experience in rooting out the pockets of Latino culture in Ginebra, as they call it.  Not for me attempted integration into Genevois culture a la Geneve Girl  – French lessons, cheese munching and yodelling. No no no.  I like to be wilfully contrary and insist on learning Spanish, eating empanadas and dancing tango. (Well, that’s a lie. I don’t dance except when very, very inebriated, in true British style).

In fact, it’s not at all hard to find. There are a LOT of Latinos here. Sometimes I hear more Spanish on the tram than French. Including the time when I overheard a rotund Mexican woman bitching about how big my suitcases were (seriously, I despair) only for me to turn round and smugly explain that I could understand her perfectly well thank you very much [insert florid Mexican slang here], and she should think before she bitched, next time. Ha. Living the dream. It’s the small victories that count, right?

So, here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Jonction is probably the neighbourhood one could best describe as the Latin quarter. Plenty of Latino bars/cafes etc here.
  • Tierra Incógnita – I can’t recommend this place highly enough. Hidden away in the back streets of Plainpalais near MAMCO, it is a bookshop/cultural centre/language school/cafe/restaurant/bar all rolled into one. Friendly people, some excellent concerts and film screenings, and what’s more they sell empanadas and for those of you with an Argentine-style sweet tooth, alfajores.  Mean pisco sours too.
  • There’s a load of places you can do dance lessons in Geneva. For salsa, I’ve been recommended DAME-2.
  • For excellent Colombian arepas (cornbread stuffed with all sorts of goodies – an excellent hangover cure), go to the Carouge market at Place du Marché on a Saturday and seek out the lovely ladies just opposite the Bio cinema. Be prepared for a slow queue, but it’s worth it.
  • There’s a Latino bodega on Rue Caroline just near Pont des Acacias (Carouge side) – for mate, real corn tacos and other hard-to-find South American groceries.
  • Filmar – annual Latin American film festival, next edition in October/November
  • Noticias de Ginebra, en español
  • For Spanish lessons, if you work for the UN or an accredited NGO, the UN language school is the best bet.  Tierra Incógnita (see above) is a great option too, especially if evening classes suit you best. You can also do conversation classes there over lunch. Language tandems/intercambios are a great way to practice and can easily be arranged over Glocals (choose ‘Language Exchange’ under ‘Things to Do’).
I’ll add to this as I think of more things. Please comment with any suggestions!

How to get deported

April 20, 2011

Doesnt it just warm the cockles of your heart?

The little tizz I had yesterday about the banning of minarets got me thinking about all the other things that are illegal in Switzerland. This is not as wasteful a task as it might sound, seeing as last year the Swiss passed a law which stipulates that foreigners who are convicted of a serious crime – the definition of which eludes me but which, according to the New York Times, in Switzerland includes a broad scope of offences from rape, to over-claiming on your unemployment benefits – will now be automatically deported upon completion of their prison sentence.

This legislation is only the latest in a spate of efforts to minimise the amount of foreigners in Switzerland, which currently comprise around 23% of the country’s 7.7 million inhabitants.

Despite the fact that without foreign workers, Switzerland would be unable to maintain the high levels of economic activity which make it such a prosperous, cheese-riddled country, there is a whole bunch of foreigner-hating going on here, led primarily by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the artists of the infamous sheep posters.

The SVP relies on statistics which show that 70% of all prisoners in Switzerland are foreigners to justify their xenephobia. However, they fail to put this statistic in the context of Swiss laws which require, among other things, residency in the country for twelve years before allowing foreigners to become Swiss citizens. These statistics also must be read in the light of legal practices which generally perceive foreigners as presenting a greater flight risk and therefore necessitating incarceration with a greater frequency than citizens, and the discriminatory nature of most criminal justice systems, which are far more likely to convict “the other”.

Anyway, in light of all of is, I think is somewhat important that we expats in Geneva educate ourselves about things that are and are not illegal in this country and may or may not get us deported. Here are my top tips for no-goes in Switzerland, unless of course you’re looking for a free flight home…

Don’t be flushing your live goldfish down the toilet. Swiss law stipulates that you must murder the fish before sending it to a watery grave.

It is illegal to do a bunch of things on a Sunday in Switzerland, which goes a long way towards explaining why it’s so bloody quiet here on the weekend. Among the illicit behaviour is those public-endangering, risky tasks such as washing your car, mowing your law, and hanging your washing out to dry.

After 10pm at night is another danger zone, when apparently you can be fined for flushing the toilet or, if you’re a man, urinating standing up.

Whatever you do, do NOT ski down a mountain while reciting poetry. Seriously, that’s just reckless.

On the bright side, and bizarrely, you can do the following with no fear of being hassled by the authorities:

–          Get around with your kit off

–          Discriminate against employment candidates on the basis of gender, age or nationality

–          Be or seek the services of a sex worker

–          Euthanase someone or be euthanased

–          Smoke pot

–          Light a campfire in public

Well! Despite my fears of deportation, all of a sudden Geneva is sounding a lot more exciting! Naked campfire euthanasia parties, here I come!

How to breed fear and intolerance

April 19, 2011

The coming into force of the burqa ban in France last week sent me into a bit of tailspin which, in an act of masochism, I chose to exacerbate by reminding myself that the Swiss passed a similarly hateful law banning the construction of minarets (because the grand total of four minarets in the whole country was really starting to stress them out).  I don’t wish to rope you all into my efforts to self-harm by thinking about these issues, nor do I wish to taint the undoubtedly hilarious, light-hearted nature of this blog with a departure from my hysterically funny stories about life in Geneva. But, much like Charlie Sheen and his bizarrely wonderful fall-out with the makers of the worst television show ever made, I feel the pressing need to vocalise my thoughts in public. Unlike Charlie Sheen, however, I’ll leave aside the pressing issues of Vatican assassin warlocks, and try to keep it brief.

The world is going through a difficult period (though, let’s be honest, no difficult than those which preceded it) when we are trying to resolve the bundle of issues related to religion, conflict, wealth, environment, values, rights and poverty which we inadequately and ineloquently refer to as “the relationship between Islam and the West.” Resolving this relationship is neither an insurmountable obstacle nor a unique challenge, despite what the media and many governments, both in Arab and Western states, would have you believe. It is, however, an incredibly complex situation, one that will not be resolved through simplistic, over-reaching op-eds or sensationalist tabloid headlines.   Mutually acceptable and beneficial solutions are discoverable. However, discovering them will require some serious soul-searching, reconsideration of old attitudes and biases, and widespread realisation that the pressures of climate change, population growth and increasing inequality will necessitate a readjustment of our expectations about how much wealth and space and privilege we can expect in this world and can deplete without serious consequences.

I don’t know what the solutions are. But I will tell you what the solutions are not.

The solutions are not legislative measures that control what we wear and regulate the amount of skin we show. I don’t care what ridiculous justifications about public safety or the requirements of a society governments fabricate (nevermind the fact that, in the case of France, the number of women wearing the burqa is reportedly around 2000, which doesn’t seem to reflect an overbearing threat to public security) – the ban on wearing the burqua in public is the product of no more than the ignorance-born fear and distain that we feel when we see a veiled Muslim woman walking down the street. It is not a solution to make that which we do not like, or of which we are afraid, illegal. Doing so is no more than an updated version of that which the the South African government did to black South Africans during apartheid or the Nazis did to Jews in the 1930s and 40s. Let us not kid ourselves that hating Muslims because they are Muslims is any less reprehensible than hating black people because they are black or Jews because they are Jews.

One does not have to weigh in on the issue of whether or not it is right for women to be forced or to choose to wear a veil and the role of Islam in mandating or requiring that. That is a separate debate about religion which cannot be held in isolation of the unacceptable fact that women experience oppression in every facet of their lives and across every religion, culture,  and society in the world. Let’s have that debate too, but let’s remember what this debate is about – the extent to which we will allow our government to impose the fear of a few on the lives of many.

The solutions are not rules that make the practice, teaching or representation of a religion illegal. The ban of minarets in Switzerland is as breathtaking for its intolerance as it is for its stupidity. Around 22% of Swiss residents are foreigners,  and Switzerland hands out citizenship to about 50,000 people each year, at least half of which hail from predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey.  By what twisted logic do the Swiss authorities imagine that barring part a religion or trying to hide its physical manifestations will foster greater community integration or social cohesion? Intolerance breeds intolerance. Marginalising and discriminating against Muslims will have no greater effect than to further entrench the community divisions from which intolerance is born.

If we believe in the rights of all people to believe and worship as they please, then we must put aside our fear and accept that Islam can have a place in “our” societies. To this end, the solutions will not be discovered if we believe that the problem lies in Islam itself. It is a clear reflection of our own isolation and ignorance and lack of real knowledge or understanding about Islam and its intricacies – to be short, the absence of Muslim friends and colleagues in the lives of a large majority of us – that we are so quick to generalise about a religious community, divided into around 20 different branches and groups each with their own interpretation of the religion, which encompasses around one and a half million people,  each of whom goes to school and university and work just like us, loves their parents and their children just like us, finds Charlie Sheen hilariously insane just like us. How many times do we have to tell ourselves that Muslims are not a homogenous culture until we believe it? Let’s have enough self-awareness and insight to know that our instinct to be terrified by the presence of Islam is no more than the result of our own ignorance or stereotyping or stigmatization of Muslims.

I’m not saying this is easy. Having lived through the events of the last decade and having been affected (willingly or unknowingly) by the fear-mongering our governments have partaken in since that time, we can all be forgiven for being a little afraid. But it is our challenge to overcome this fear within ourselves, and once we’ve done that, overcome it in each other. To this end, it is vital that we speak up at the dinner table or the pub or on the blog that no one even reads to do our own part to eradicate the fear-drive generalisations that we all have. Otherwise we become a society who bans and makes illegal and seeks to hide that which we are afraid of, and in doing so we will breed only more fear and more hatred and more intolerance.

How to know when you’ve been in Geneva too long – Part 2

April 15, 2011

You start thinking of cheese as its own food group

You start thinking of chocolate as its own food group

You believe  push scooters are a dignified way for an adult to get around

You are adamant that calling the police is an acceptable response to your neighbour having his TV volume just slightly too loud at 1030pm

You demand that a friend lays on a shuttle bus from Eaux Vives to his birthday party in Plainpalais

You don’t panic and feel desperately unpopular when on a Friday you realise you have no plans for the weekend

You are surprised when back in London your friends aren’t all spontaneously free for a drink with you in half an hour (you have to book them at least 3 weeks in advance)

You consider gender mainstreaming a normal dinner party topic

You are nonplussed when a 21 year old intern foists a business card upon you

You reflexively add the proviso “if it’s open” when discussing a potential bar/restaurant for Saturday night

You’ve been to more conferences in the last 6 months than you have gigs/sports matches (ice hockey doesn’t count)/wild house parties/plays/art exhibitions put together

How to know when you’ve been in Geneva too long

April 14, 2011

When London calls, sometimes you just have to answer...

After having been in the United Kingdom less than 24 hours, you have

1. looked around in disbelief when a young girl with pink hair and fishnets got on the train and no one looked shocked or disgusted or offended.

2. laid awake at night because the noise is keeping you awake (when said noise consists of two people chatting about 500 metres away)

3. uttered the following:

“Oh my God, look at all the people!”

“wow, it takes you HALF AND HOUR to get to work? How do you cope?”

“ooh, he’s cute. (2 minutes later) Ooh, he’s cute. (2 minutes later) Ooh, super cute. Ooh, he’s really cute.”

How to assimilate

April 12, 2011

How hard could learning another language really be?

All you freakishly-brilliant Euros out there who attended trilingual schools and prefer reading literature in French but academic works in German and answer, to the question, how many languages do you speak, shall I include only spoken languages? really have no idea how good you have it. Growing up in a monocultural town in Australia, my world has always been an English one (well, unless you count double dutch, fluency in which would qualify you as “bilingual” at my primary school) where even my school-year German and Japanese language teachers were Australians whose knowledge of past participles and subjunctives could barely conceal their broad accents. Learning another language was like learning how to knit: there was a vague sense that while it was a worthwhile endeavour, but we all knew it was a waste of our time.

Living in an all-English society (and I’m not talking about a nominally English city, like London, in which one can hear every language in the world being spoken whilst walking down Oxford Street) it’s pretty easy to take six years of school-level German and call yourself a brilliant linguist. No-one is any the wiser when you mumble a few  verbs together in a sentence and tell them you just recited Goethe’s most famous works. So you can imagine my surprise when I moved to Germany and realised my grade 12 Australian high school German teacher hadn’t quite passed on to me the vast knowledge of verb conjugation I believed I had possessed. Whereas ‘guten tag’ and ‘danke schoen’ had previously elicited my parent’s pride and admiration, in Europe I had landed smack bang in the middle of a country in which multilingualism is so rampant that if you ask a French person whether they speak English, they’re not unlikely to answer “only a little bit” and then turn back to their English translation of War and Peace.

Learning a language – really learning a language, not just the lyrics to Nena’s 99 Luftballooons, is a seriously daunting, mind-bending, wrenchingly painful, exhilarating, endless process. At this age, I think it’s never something you actually complete, but rather something you struggle with and rail against and fall in love with and scorn and run back to again and again. It is a worthwhile but thankless process.

Given my clear ambivilance about living in Geneva, my decision to move here a second time round was primarily motivated by my drive to once and for all get a firm grasp on the French language. Where better place than a small town in which not only do the people speak French, but according to those in the know they speak a much slower, easier to understand version of French than the Frenchies themselves. Sounds like a recipe for fluency by the end of the year, right?

Wrong. Though it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, Geneva has been so infiltrated (bastardised?) by expats that people literally have to advertise in the classifieds to find someone to speak French to. Most of us work in English in offices populated, primarily, by English-speaking people, and after work we socialise with other English-speaking people or go to movies in English. Yes, much of this is by choice, yes we all play a large role in perpetuating the clear division between internationals and locals, and yes there are opportunities to speak French if one seeks them out. But if you don’t, it is sadly possible to live in this city and possess no more French than that required to order croissants, bread and alcoholic beverages.

The bizarre flipside to this is that often it is impossible to find a person who speaks English. In clear protest to the abundance of English speakers here in Geneva, many locals have taken on themselves to punish us by refusing to admit they speak English, even though they too have English-speaking colleagues and socialise with English-speaking people. Upon attending the local government office, where one must spend at least 8 hours in purgatory before being rewarded with a work permit, I was informed by two different people at the Service Etrangers et Confederes (The Foreigners and Confederate Service) that they didn’t speak any English. This is a lie. I’m sure I saw the English version of War and Peace hid in the corner of their desks.

The only solution, then, to avoid your own guilt at living in an English-speaking world within a French-speaking city, and to get your own back at the bitter Genevois who pretend they can’t speak English, is to just bite the bullet and learn French. A few tips for language schools in Geneva*:

UNOG language school

From talking to a few people, the language school at the UN is probably the best-run and best value for money in town. It’s open to the staff of the UN, other international organisations and NGOs, and members of permanent missions, and is free for UN-staffers and relatively cheap (around 500 CHF for a 12 week, 4 hours a week course) for everyone else. Beware – the process of applying is laborious and ridiculously complicated, much like everything else at the UN. But I am assured the wait is worth it.


If you’re recently arrived in Geneva and you’re not lucky enough to work for a big company or bank who pays for your language courses, this is your second best option. You can join a class pretty much every week, they are cheap and simple and run at pretty convenient times, after working hours. The downside is that the classes are quite large (10-15 people) and, if you’re unlucky like me, you’ll get stuck in the one with the old British man who likes to talk a lot about the motherland.


If you can’t find a class time or level that suits you at Migros, try IFAGE – it’s basically the same concept, same cost and same quality of teaching.

The expensive classes

Berlitz and Inlingua both offer high quality teaching for lots and lots of cash (up front, no less). If you’ve got the dosh though, they’re meant to be very good.

Ecole du Monde

I once went for a trial French course here and it was really good. The people are a little kooky but it has a nice, school-type vibe, and the lessons were vibrant and interesting. Only problem – they run morning classes from 9am to 12pm. If you can get the time off, though, I’d really recommend it, especially because they’re cheap!


* I have literally been to 4 out of 6 of these places. And I still don’t speak French. Which does not reflect well on my ability to learn languages, but shouldn’t tell you anything about the quality of the courses.

How to flog a dead horse

April 11, 2011

Speaking of dead horses, a friend forwarded on this email recently, and it think it’s something that many Geneva locals – indeed, anyone working for or with a large, unwiedly bureaucracy – can identify with:

The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”

However, in the UN, more advanced strategies are often employed, such as:

1. Buying a stronger whip.

2. Changing riders.

3. Appointing a committee to study the horse.

4. Arranging to visit other countries to see how other cultures ride horses.

5. Lowering the standards so that dead horses can be included.

6. Reclassifying the dead horse as living-impaired.

7. Hiring outside contractors to ride the dead horse.

8. Harnessing several dead horses together to increase speed.

9. Providing additional funding and/or training to increase dead horse’s performance.

10. Doing a productivity study to see if lighter riders would improve the dead horse’s performance.

11. Declaring that as the dead horse does not have to be fed, it is less costly, carries lower overhead and, therefore, contributes substantially more to the bottom line of the economy than do some other horses. A good reason to pass out a huge executive bonus.

12. Rewriting the expected performance requirements for all horses.

And, of course, a UN favourite . . .

13. Promoting the dead horse to a supervisory position.

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