Friday, 4 March 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 4

Cartagena (Colombia) - Geneva (Switzerland) - Chamonix (France)

[The giant “Broken Chair” on the plaza across the street from the flagpoles in front of the “Palais des Nations” in Geneva. The broken-off leg is at the left rear, mostly hidden from this angle.]

The Amazing Race has been to Geneva before, and even picked up a clue at the city’s signature fountain, the Jet d’Eeau (“water jet”) at the end of a pier that extends out from the downtown lakefront, but the race didn’t actually do or see anything else in the city on its first visit. That’s not unusual: Many tourists pass through the Geneva airport as a gateway to the resorts elsewhere around Lake Geneva (as The Amazing Race did in season 3) or to skiing in the French Alps nearby (as The Amazing Race 28 did in this episode) but spend little or no time in the city of Geneva. There are shuttles directly from the airport to many outlying resorts, bypassing the city center entirely.

This time, the racers were given some tasks to complete in Geneva, starting at the “Broken Chair”, a monumental sculpture intended to evoke the idea of a person one of whose legs has been blown off by a landmine. Then the racers had to go across the street and pick out the flags of a specified list of countries from the array of flags of all the U.N. member countries flying in front of the main U.N. complex in Geneva, the “Palais des Nations”.

The final challenge of The Amazing Race 21 was a similar flag-matching task on the plaza of the U.N.’s headquarters complex in New York City. The U.N. General Assembly meets in New York, but many components of the U.N. — including some committees of the General Assembly — are wholly or partially based in Geneva, as are many specialized U.N.-affiliated international agencies dealing with human rights, intellectual property, health, trade, aviation, labor, and other subjects. Many non-governmental organizations, industry lobbyists, trade associations, consultants, activists, and other hangers-on are based in or come to Geneva to work with these U.N. bodies, and many locals are employed in administering and providing services to these entities and their employees — collectively, a large component of the local economy.

Unfortunately, much of this work — and not just the diplomatic negotiations — goes on behind fences, walls, and doors that are closed to visitors. There are hour-long guided tours of the “Palais des Nations”, but they are only offered for groups (although individuals are sometimes able to join a pre-arranged group), and they don’t give visitors a chance to see much more than the building itself.

[In front of the “Palais des Nations” in Geneva. I’m standing on the public sidewalk, but the perimeter fence of the U.N. complex is right behind the sign, between me and the flagpoles that can just be seen over the wall at the upper left.]

On television, The Amazing Race 28 cut directly from a shot of the racers under the “Broken Chair” across the street from the U.N. complex to a shot of them inside the fence on the front lawn by the flagpoles, suddenly and magically wearing visitor badges. That’s the artistic prerogative of the video editors (who wants to watch half an hour of security theater?), but the U.N. Visitors’ Service warns that it can take 30 minutes or more to get into the complex. It takes even longer for first-time visitors because badges aren’t issued at the front entrance (behind the main sign at the right side of the photo above) but only at another entrance a long walk around the perimeter of the complex. Only on subsequent visits, after you have a badge, can you use the front entrance.

[Entry badge for one of the U.N. buildings in Geneva]

The U.N. complex can be a fantastic place for people-watching and listening. Not all diplomats are as discrete as you might think! Many of the events that take place inside the complex, including both the official meetings and the “side events” organized by NGOs, lobbyists, and individual countries during the regular sessions of the Human Rights Council and the Human Rights Committee, are open to anyone who has credentials permitting entry to the complex, and of potential interest to visitors. There’s no way to get inside for more than a walk-through, however, without being sponsored by a U.N. body or member government or or by some other entity which is itself accredited to a U.N. body. If you have friends in Geneva, or associated with an organization or institution that might be able and willing to sponsor you, and are interested in hanging out at the U.N. — especially around some specific meeting or event — ask politely, well in advance, and be prepared to take no for an answer.

Geneva is expensive but not necessarily unaffordable, as I’ve discussed in some of my previous columns. The Swiss Franc has fallen significantly against the U.S. dollar in the last two years, but not so much as to make travel in Switzerland a bargain. The State Department’s per diem expense allowance for any U.S. government employee on official duty in Geneva has fallen only slightly, to US$473 per night for lodging, meals, and incidentals (not that you need to spend that much). Geneva and its Swiss environs are still significantly more expensive than places just across the border in France. Most visitors still don’t linger in Geneva without a specific reason.

Geneva has its interesting aspects, and I’m glad I’ve had reasons to spend a few weeks there. Geneva is both Swiss and francophone, but that’s only one of its contradictions. My impression is that Geneva is intellectual but bureaucratic, free-thinking but stodgy, cosmopolitan (I doubt that any other city of comparable size is so international or so global in its internationalism) but provincial, accepting in principle of refugees but sometimes judgmental of them and their ways of life, philosophically egalitarian or meritocratic but with deep tripartite class divisions between (1) the jet-setting elite (bankers and jewelry traders and their customers from around the world, internationals associated with the U.N. and other international organizations and NGOs, and international tourists), (2) the francophone Swiss-citizen working class, and (3) the underclass of refugees and “guest-workers”, also from around the world but in many cases effectively trapped and unable to go “home” or to travel freely as stateless people or with limited work and/or residence permits. The city government is left-of-center by Swiss standards, but divided over immigration and work-visa policies — not issues at all unique to the USA, and worth studying in other countries as examples from which the USA could learn, for better or worse.

Geneva is an excellent city and base for cycling, although none of the challenges for the racers in Geneva involved bicycles. As U.S. Secretary of State and cyclist John Kerry has drawn attention to during his diplomatic visits to Geneva, there are fine easy flat rides around Lake Geneva (where at lake level of only 375 meters or 1200’ above sea level the climate is surprisingly mild even in winter, and the roads are generally free of snow or ice) as well as more challenging rides into the French Alps nearby, where Kerry broke his leg (in a fall from a low-speed bicycle crash on a curb) during one of his days off from U.S.-Iran negotiations in Geneva last year.

There’s also a newly-marked, more or less level 54 km (34 mile) bicycle “‘scavenger hunt” route connecting a series of exhibits around the ring of the world’s largest and highest-powered particle accelerator at CERN. It appears to be intended as a day-long educational excursion for families — a nice addition to the other interesting but somewhat limited tour offerings at CERN. Don’t get your hopes too high, though: Workers routinely ride bicycles inside the underground tunnel of the accelerator ring, but tourists are only allowed to enter the above-ground portions of the facility.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 4 March 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

I had occasion to spent several days in Geneva ten years ago for the first incarnation of the Lift conference:

On the day after the conference ended I had a spare day in the city, and I used it to good end:

The highlight of that day was a walking tour of the city I took, offered from the tourist office; if this is still available, I highly recommend it, as there's a lot more to Geneva than meets the eye.

Posted by: Peter Rukavina, 10 March 2016, 05:01 ( 5:01 AM)
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