Category Archives: Europe

The Old World

I always loved going to the East Coast. I never failed to be taken by the sense of history that envelope those cities. There are the obvious landmarks, of course, the walk along the Freedom Trail in Boston, the marathon of the National Mall in DC – where significant sites are piled one on top of another. But it goes beyond that. There is just this incredible feeling of well-wornness, of character, of being through shit that we do not have on the West Coast. It permeates the streets, the buildings, the people most of all.

That aspect of Boston resonated with me when I lived there. The parts of the city that looked like they had seen better days. Street cars that screeched like nails on chalkboards, and ran 15 minutes late with regularity. People who lived with a constant chip on their shoulders, probably from having to shovel snow for months on end. I’d expect the drainage system to deal with rain better but it didn’t. It was just good enough. And that was the city. There was an element of survival, of endurance ever-present. Boston was painfully worn in.

I like to describe Tokyo as the living vision of the future we once imagined in the 1980s. I see Europe, conversely, as a throwback – a stalwart of the 18th century. I offer many caveats. I have only lived on the continent for nine months. I reside in a city and a country that each occupy unique spaces even within the European sphere. And I am well aware that Europe is a continent and therefore less amenable to any sort of umbrella characterization than a city or country. But I offer one nonetheless. It’s like time moved on, but Europe did not. For better and for worse.

I am likely infusing my feelings of places with broad swaths of world history. Boston HAS seen better days. Tokyo WAS the future in the 80s. Europe’s heyday WAS the 18th century.* But feeling and historical reality are inextricably linked. Ultimately, there is something about Europe that feels like a continent trying to protect, or perhaps recapture, its past. It is an active anachronism, but notably does not appear effortful or defensive in the process – Europe being too self-assured for either.

*I use “18th century” symbolically, as I am too ignorant to pinpoint the relevant period du jour. I’m an American, after all.

Europe has a presence. It’s not intimidating, though it can be. Rather, it stands coolly confident, with an identity that is almost if not completely common across the continent. Each city gives off a vibe akin to what I experience from the East Coast, but with a far more amplified sense of history and character and sense of comfort. Every place is as well-rounded as the next, as though they operate in their own bubbles, with slight but perceptible variation across various dimensions betwixt them.

Being shallow, the physical features strike me first. The majesty of the train stations. The overwhelming castles and churches. The statues and busts to spare, not only in museums and outside parliament buildings but at intersections and fountains and neighborhood parks. Indeed, it is precisely the everyday that I find most captivating. Every building, almost without fail, memorable in its balcony or roof or windows or windowpanes or ivy on walls. Modernity conspicuously absent, quietly rejected.

The past permeates every part of every city, but in a manner that somehow accentuates history rather than age. Charm is never lacking: in the decidedly mom-and-pop restaurants where the space seems slightly off and none of the tables are quite aligned, the boutiques resting on the ground floor of apartment complexes that never seem to open for business, even the street signs that curiously seem to prioritize vanity over practicality, for instance being located on building sides instead of free-standing.

It is more fundamental than the physical, however. The very way of life in Europe often appears stubbornly set in the past. Upon arrival, I could not help but notice the carefree way in which people stroll, chat, lounge, as though unencumbered, even unconditioned by modernity and the clock. It was especially pronounced coming from Tokyo. People are so at ease here, and what is more, they are at ease being at ease, whether on a balcony or restaurant patio or at the park. Even service seems to come at its leisure.

There are oddities associated with the past that manifests also, reinforcing the temporal displacement of the continent. I listen to a presentation from a man named Bernd sporting a bowtie as if any of that is a normal occurrence in the year 2017. I find water fountains with beautiful lion heads as taps at every other intersection but never a metallic 20th century concoction at a public venue. I interact with waiters who act so uptight as though they were preserving the sanctity of dining itself.

Of course, there are frustrations in inhabiting a world and a time that do not feel like my own. As with Japan, I do not wish to romanticize Europe. There are times when I wish I could get in and out of a restaurant in 40 minutes, places I wish would be open after 7 pm weeknights or anytime Sundays, environments I wish could adopt a space on the continuum away from their formality and stuffiness and towards my roughness around the edges. Yet, it is hard not to romanticize a place that literally harkens back to the Age of Romanticism.

Indeed, the sense of history and character and charm is never lacking. Like I said, I always did love going to the East Coast. And living on the European continent is akin to that, only amplified: richer, deeper, and more memorable. Ultimately, it is older – and I’m grateful for it.

By the Lake

I should experience the summer, I’m told. This in fact has been an almost universal refrain from denizens in Geneva, with the implicit – and sometimes not-so-implicit – suggestion that the other seasons are generally forgettable here. Quiet. Sleepy. Boring. It’s the general thrust of the city’s reputation. A colleague who has lived around the edges here for more than a decade could not name a restaurant within city confines that he frequented regularly. A collaborator now in Vienna volunteered she spent “a year in a month” here, chuckling as she asked how I was coping so far. I have met plenty of people who like the city, to be sure, but with reservations. Again, I should really experience the summer.

It is impossible for me to look at my three months in Geneva without doing so through the lens of the last place I resided – Tokyo, Japan. From that regard, my life is already so different that the idea of the cities being classified as the same species – let alone genus, family, order, class, phylum, kingdom, or domain* – is an almost laughable proposition. My 20.35 square meter shoebox in the world’s hippest neighborhood has given way to a ridiculous 90+ square meter apartment in one of the world’s sleepiest. Shops close at 7 pm instead of seemingly never, crowds are the exception rather than the norm, and overall vibrancy is contained to a special event, a block or two, an evening or two. We’ve shifted to tortoise from hare.

*Because high school biology shouldn’t be wasted

But it is precisely the drastic character of the change that I don’t mind at all what Geneva has been so far. This is not Tokyo revisionism. I continue to miss the constant buzz and excitement, the pure visceral and frenetic nature of it all. I miss the comfort of familiarity with the space I had carved out, in an environment defined by its absence of boundaries. I miss my best friend (understatement). Still, I have alluded to the fact that my life in Japan did not seem sustainable – for my liver certainly, or my state of mind. I did feel compelled to hike just about every week, almost necessary to preserve my sanity. It would have been too easy for me to get lost there, in this contradiction of the familiarity of the surreal.

Geneva in some ways then stands as a perfect detox to Tokyo, a near antithesis that straddles the line of being an international city and sleepy suburb. This is not the most flattering image I am painting, I realize. But short of Seoul and a select few other locales, the down-scaling from a metropolitan population that nearly reached 39 million to any other was always going to be a move that was intrinsically a return to the ‘real world.’* And Geneva – on its own merits – has plenty of positives. It feels and is culturally rich and diverse, with a sense of history and even a couple of sports teams. The presence of so many international organizations, and the accompanying influx of young professionals and expats, lends it an aura of liveliness, even if only in spurts. Life overall appears sustainable, real – more often at least.

*an estimated 485,000 in Geneva

It is a running joke that residents flock to the train station and the airport to leave the city on the weekends. But the idea that this is an indictment on Geneva itself seems a patently unfair judgment to make. The public transportation system that links Geneva to all parts of Switzerland is a credit to the country, a cheap means to a nearby day hike, a jazz festival in Lausanne, a weekend in Zurich or Bern. After all, I too used Boston as a springboard to explore the Northeast Corridor. I left Tokyo regularly to see more of Japan than any non-local possibly could, to spend holidays (twice!) in Southeast Asia. The proximity of Geneva to any number of European capitals should stand as a point in its favor, not against.

The other day, a colleague offhandedly insulted Lexington, Kentucky, a place neither he nor I had ever been to. And I found myself being a bit offended by it. It seems silly, seeing as how I’ve eliminated half the US from the list of places where I want to work. Maybe it’s easy to be self-righteous and indignant in theory. But a few years ago, I spent two weeks in Syracuse, New York, for an extended academic workshop. I was quite dismissive of the experience then. Looking back now though, I went to a minor league baseball game, checked out a food festival, and took a day trip to Cooperstown. If I lived there now, I would find hikes, local shows, a farmer’s market or something. With university students around, it would have approached vibrant, I’m sure. I would bet Lexington has its charms, just as I can see now that Syracuse did too.

Perhaps then this is a matter of personal maturity, and an interrelated comfort level with my own needs and hobbies. What does it mean for a place to be boring, after all? What does a person want from the place where they reside? In Geneva, I have walked a weekend flea market (regularly), checked out a couple of art exhibits, sat for a hockey game and a play, and ate and drank through a street food festival and a beer festival, respectively. I’ve gone on a few hikes that started within the confines of the city, even gone for a swim lakeside when the weather permitted. This weekend, I’ll likely go to a Christmas market and a photo exhibition in Nyon (a 15 minute train ride away) in lieu of a concert orchestra at the United Nations. Next weekend, I’m off to Barcelona.

Okay, so Geneva itself is low-key, quiet. But boring? I don’t think that’s right. More to the point, I don’t think I want to be that dismissive of any place anymore, even if only in theory. Yeah, Geneva is certainly different from Tokyo or Boston or Los Angeles. But isn’t that the point of living anywhere?