Monday, 2 February 2009

Belief in the inherent goodness of humankind - Geneva

In these days of economic recession, increasing problems attributed to global warming and new conflicts, it's refreshing to visit again a city that stands for international diplomacy, multiculturalism and belief in the inherent goodness of humankind. Geneva was the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), who once said: "War is a relation, not between man and man, but between state and state, and individuals are enemies only accidentally." One-time resident Henri Dunant received the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 for his work in founding the Red Cross, which is based here. Geneva is also the European seat of the United Nations. A visit will make you proud to be a rational, caring human being. Visiting Geneva makes me proud to work for the Red Cross too.

As the Tsunami operation draws to a close, I was in Geneva last week for various planning meetings for the transition to our longer term work. Over the weekend I had a chance to be part of vibrant and diverse Geneva.

Every step you take in Geneva, is one through history, back to, and before the Romans.

At this place where Lake Geneva drains into the Rhone River, Pont du Mont Blanc, were early bridges and punts that ferried great armies and conquerors to spoils and land on the other side. Silks from China made their way across this point to lucrative markets in Germany and beyond. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The first traces of human civilization in Geneva, discovered on the shores of Lake Léman, date from around 3000 BC. The hill of the Old City, however, was not inhabited until 1000 BC. Later, when Rome conquered Geneva, it was defended by a small Celtic tribe. In 58 BC, Julius Caesar drove off an attack by the Helvetii. At the height of the Roman Empire, around 400 AD, it became a bishopric. The first recorded use of the name Geneva was by Julius Caesar. The Romans had taken over this area from its previous occupants, the Celts. Successive invasions saw control of the city pass through the hands of Burgundians, Franks, Merovingians, Carolingians until the 1500s. Around this time the city began to grow in importance and its fairs became internationally renowned. Geneva was on the far end of the famous Silk Road (route) that I have written much about, and from far off China, and via Itraly, the silks came.

From the mid-1500s, Protestant reformer Jean Calvin was active in the city, and it earned the nickname ‘The Protestant Rome', attracting floods of refugees fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe.
In 1602 an invasion by the Duke of Savoy was repulsed, and nowadays celebrations of this event (l'Escalade) are the city's most important festival. When I lived in Geneva for five years, the celebration of the l'Escalade was the highlight of the year for me. Women reenacted, how they repulsed the enemy by pouring scalding cauldrons of soup onto the soldiers who were trying to climb the city walls.

An aerial view of Geneva. Thanks to Geneve Tourisme for permission to use this photo.

In 1792 Genevans overthrew their ancien régime aristocratic leaders and declared a republic, which was swiftly annexed by France. With Napoleon's defeat and the carving up of his Empire in 1813, Geneva opted to join the Swiss Confederation, and was accepted in 1815. The Red Cross came to life here in 1864, and then the League of Nations after World War I.

For a wayfarer like me, journeys to Geneva are pilgrimages. To cross Pont du Mont Blanc and feel the feet of conquerors who controllewd the trade over this hostoric bridge, to see the old Russian Church preserved and respected, to meet old friends Ian and Laurence Clarke, both of whom I climbed and trekked with in Afghanistan. Ian is now a de-mining specialist with the UN. .

Also to meet with my boss Jerry Talbot (below), a fellow New Zealander and a 'living treasure', who has served the Red Cross movement for more than 40 years in most corners of the globe, was another learning experience for me. He has so much wisdom to share and I had a delightful evening with he and his wife Jen.

What a surprise when I went into a Cafe with Heela, and I met Umed, who worked as a radio operator for me in the middle of a civil war in Tajikistan in 1997. I had not seen him since 1999 and did not know where he was. He now works for our Finance Department in Geneva at the IFRC.

But let's forget my work for a minute. I had the whole of Saturday to savour Geneva. I was out on the streets at 8 a.m, on a misty cold morning taking in the sights of the Lake, the architecture and the mighty Rhone flowing out of Switzerland into France. I saw churches, temples and other places of worship where people pray in peace and safety.

On Saturday noon, I went to the Cafe de Paris for the best Entrecote steak in Europe. It is cooked in front of you in butter and herbs, with tasty pomme frittes and a mixed salad.
, See photo below

The Cafe de Paris, not far from the Geneva Railway Station.Photo: Bob McKerrow

Not far from the Cafe de Paris, a huge crowd was gathering. I was curious. At least 50 police in riot gear were standing by in quite a relaxed mood. The crowd was quickly building up to 500 people and I found out they were from left wing political parties. It was strange to see red flags with the hammer and sickle flying high after so many years absent from the world's gaze. I left after 15 minutes and headed back to the Hotel.

On my way back to the Hotel I passed these two characters above, obviously heading to the demonstration down the road. They grunted at me when I asked if I could take a photo. I thanked them profusely for permitting me to record their art.

Frank Jordans, a writer for AP writes about the protest turning bad after I left

Riot police fired tear gas and water cannons at bottle-throwing leftist demonstrators in Geneva who protested Saturday against the annual World Economic Forum meeting in the Swiss Alps.

Police chased black-clad protesters through the narrow streets of what is known as the "city of peace," as Saturday shoppers took refuge in bars and cafes. An Associated Press reporter on the scene saw a few minor injuries.

The protest of hundreds of people was largely peaceful until police blocked a group from walking to the center of the city. Some in the crowd threw bottles, and police responded with tear gas.

The violence was a long way from the target of the protesters' anger, the World Economic Forum in Davos, a five-hour train ride from Geneva. The forum is an annual gathering of the world's business and political elite.
This is Geneva. A city of many refugees where you can protest, within acceptable limits, a city that stands for international diplomacy, multiculturalism and belief in the inherent goodness of humankind.

Boats on a late misty afternoon, moored on Lake Geneva. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Marja said...

I do belief in the inherent goodness of people. People only often don't know it themselves and need to hear it more often. The newspapers are only full of bad things.
Looks like a one big family all these red cross people. Must be a great experience.
Thanks for the history Very interesting. I love old cities with their many stories. Geneva looks great. When I am in Holland we certainly visit a nice old city.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Marja

I agree that people are inherently good, but it's environment that shapes them one way or the other. Yes, if only the newspapers promoted more good news such as the millions of school children who return home safely every day. We only read about the one who was beaten up or molested. Have a good day. Bob

Paterika Hengreaves said...

Kia ora Bob

What a delightful read. Yes, indeed your job with the Red Cross is truly rewarding in so many ways. Providing humanitarian assistance in the areas of your expertise. Then finding time to interact with blogging friends, like me, who thirst for news about far way places from persons like you, who have actually been in those countries you write so well about.

My daughter been to Geneva and surrounding border countries on her many business trips. She didn't take pictures but instead bought souvenir booklets on the historical places because she knows I would find in them, delightful reading. Also, sample currency of all the places she visited in Europe, Asia, South Africa, Australia, China just to mention a few. I think I'll take photos of the currency with the new camera among other things I got from her for Christmas and post them on my blog with poetry of course.

Thank you for the pictures and the factual reporting. You look in the peak of health in those pictures with your co-workers. You do take wonderful pictures. Thank you very much for sharing your pictures, life experience and factual reporting for persons like me who thirst for more and more knowledge.

I'm still reading the book, but be assured that when I have combed it to the fullest I'll give you my comments on it. Don't really want to say a book review but simply how I felt after reading your book. Anyway, I'm able to talk about Afghanistan with a little more confidence with my kids as I keep reading your book . It was only after 9/11 that Afghanistan became part of my vocabulary. Obviously, from reading your book you were in Afghanistan long before 9/11 and those were dangerous times as well.

I'm delighted you have returned safely from your recent business trip. Thank you again for such informative reading.


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Paterika

Thank you most warmly for your feedback.

The more I visit Geneva, for more I understand its many strands of history. Like the Rhone itself, the history twists and turns, and at each bend or tributary,you discover something new.

I enjoy following the life and times of people through blogging and as I have said before, your poetry moves and inspires me. In this world we need each other to inspire, to laugh, to cry and to learn. I was interested to read of the many travels of your daughter.

Yes, I am in excellent health after the knee operations and enjoy walking without pain.

Look forward to your comments on my book. I must tell you that I would never have published it had 9/11 not occured. After that tragic event many writers went to Afghanistan, and without knowing the landscape, people and history, wrote rather cheap stories. I felt I had something to offer from having visited 33 of the 34 provinces. I felt photos and poems/prose would give another perspective on the country.

Enjoy your week and God Bless.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
As usual a most entertaining, thorough and thoughtful post. The inherent goodness of man gets harder to believe in, but you, and tho work you do with these people, bring it to life.
I hope, by the way, in those re-enactments they do not use boiling soup! And that steak dish had my mouth watering. What a lovely and amazing city, I would love to tour it with you. Any places to find a wee dram?
Well the Nats and Key have made their attack on the RMA and it does not look good. The scariest part being the farmers, and biggest polluters, have stated "it is a good start". Our voices will be needed.
Take care Bob, really glad to read you are walking pain free. Having been there for a small part of your recovery and the road you have come down it is really just inspiring. Next come the mountains eh! My best to you and your family.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

At the l'Escalade celebration, they boil the soup, drink it, and then pretend the empty pots are full, and tip them over the wall. Normally at that stage people have imbibed so much wine, there is often a lack of clarity as to who is doing what. It is such a fun event.

You say "the inherent goodness of man gets harder to believe " and yet every day I see, to quote John Masefield.

" I have seen flowers come in stony places and kind things done by men with ugly faces, and the gold cup won by the worst horse at the races, so I trust, too"

Like the photo I took of the Punk in Geneva last Saturday, he didn't want me to photograph him. However I insisted and I believe he felt some trust.

Take care mate and let's pray for the RMA to remain unchanged.


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