Arriving in any city on a bank holiday is, for the visitor, both advantageous and not. Arriving in a city on a bank holiday for the incoming student could be the start of another story.
Luckily I had planned my arrival in Geneva down to the penultimate detail. For several months I had told friends and family exactly what I was going to do: put my suitcases into left luggage, take the first tram over to the Old Town, find a nice table and an espresso overlooking the Place du Bourg-de-Four. There would be time for looking for somewhere to live afterwards.
Now, if you are thinking that I was just ‘starting as I meant to go on’, you’d be right, but it wasn’t the only motivation behind this relaxed attitude. One thing was for sure: it wasn’t my plan to live all year out of a locker and shave in the train station toilets, as much as that appealed to my budget!
It was difficult to get to live in Geneva back in John Calvin’s days; in the 21st century, the International Organisation has us lining up the same way. And year after year students return from the summer holiday to complain about the housing crisis, and year after year bricks remain on pallets, planning permissions are turned down and much sleep is lost.
Every piece of correspondence that I had received in the months leading up to my move bearing the Université de Genève’s crest had written somewhere, if not in bold, centred, and underlined text in the middle of the page: “Secure accommodation before your arrival”. Yeah right, and end up in some garret, a stone’s throw from the station, without a kitchen and boxed in by the sounds of late-night callers well into the early hours? The one element of planning that I had point-blank refused.
People come and go from a city like this regularly. Politicians, traders and scientists attending conferences lasting from a few days to several months, which overlap all year round; the student body makes up around 7% of the city’s population and is largely absent during the summer and that’s before talking about migrant workers. It’s not it really surprising that, with all the money and employment on offer, there is a lack of places to live. But, my thinking told me, if you factor in all this movement, the chances that something would come up are actually pretty high.
So, as I sipped at that espresso and looked out across the town’s favourite meeting place, the chocolate box buildings of the vielle ville, the expensively tailored genevois enjoying their last public holiday of the summer, my concerns, given that I had a week or two in hand, were less about where to live than where to have lunch. Across the street from the Hôtel de Ville in a quaint little alley? A traditional bistro? Or perhaps upmarket and overlooking the lake? Plans for the afternoon were even more sketchy. A quick climb up the Cathedral’s North Tower? Museums? Or back to the square to watch the well dressed world walk by?
It wasn’t until about 4pm that finding a roof for the night reached the status of priority. The search for something more permanent could wait. It wasn’t easy, a full stomach, the unexpectedly nice weather and the local wine having very efficiently achieved the desired effect. I’d be ok, I thought, as I remembered my other motivation for spending the first day sunning myself on a Genevan terrace. I ordered another drink, excusing myself from a conversation about the city’s reputation as the Protestant Rome that I was having with an expatriated artist from Marseille. He looked at me, as if to say – but what about your accommodation situation?
“Sometimes no matter what you do, you just can’t get it right.”
“I know what you mean,” he said, “I had an exhibition here on the terrace once.”
We stared at each other to see who would explain first.
“It wasn’t long before it was censored,” he lifted his head giving the briefest of smiles.
“That’s why I am not going anywhere just yet,” I said, reminding him that we’d already discussed the Calvinist principle of limited atonement “I figure if it’s fated to be difficult, then why start in the first place. At least this way if nothing turns up I’ll have had a nice holiday!”