A friend of mine who worked for more than 30 years for the ILO (International Labor Organization) in Geneva was standing in a post-office queue one day when he noticed that the man just in front of him was in a curiously agitated state.  “Mais c’est impossible, intolerable!” he kept muttering.  He turned out to be a vintner who had been trying surreptitiously to extend his acreage of vineyards on the western, sun-absorbing slopes of the nearby Jura mountains by buying up new plots of land.  “Those Boches,” he exploded.  “Those Boches will stop at nothing!  You know what they did?  They hired a helicopter and had it fly over my lands and take photos!   Without permission or a word of warning!  Ah, ces Boches—they are capable of anything!”

When my astonished friend asked him why on earth Germans from somewhere to the north would be indulging in aerial espionage, the vintner explained that, by “Boches,” he did not mean Germans but “les gens de Berne”—snooping inspectors from the German-speaking capital of the Swiss Confederation.

It is virtually a truism to say that any inhabitant of this extraordinary land-locked confederation is first and foremost a member of his canton (of which there are 26, each with its own police and law courts) and only secondly Swiss.  He (or she) is primarily a Basler from the pharmaceutical-industrial nexus of Basel; a Zürcher from the busy banking hub of Zürich; a Luzerner from the lovely lake-fronting jewel of Lucerne—on one of whose beautifully wooded, “four-canton” (Vierwaldstätter) shores was sealed the momentous anti-Habsburg pact of 1291; a Luganer or, more exactly, a Luganese from sun-blessed Lugano, in the Italian-speaking Ticino; or a Genevois from the world’s watch-making capital of Geneva.

What has kept the linguistic divisions—roughly 4.5 million German or switscherdütsch and 1.5 million French speakers—from tearing the country to pieces is a kind of earthy realism well illustrated by the ironic appellation Röstigraben (literally, “fried potato ditch”), which German-speaking TV-media wits coined years ago to designate the geographically unmarked but sociologically quite audible demarcation line that divides the potato-loving German speakers of central and eastern Switzerland from the French fried-cheese raclette or fondue lovers of the west and southwest.

If there is one thing no bona fide Genevois is prepared to do, it is to admit that his canton—which barely numbers 300,000 Swiss citizens (if one excludes 160,000 foreigners, or almost 40 percent of the total)—is in any way inferior to that of Zürich, which boasts three times as many inhabitants.  Many are those who deliberately learn English as a form of protest against the obligatory teaching of German to which they are subjected in their lycées.  Often the butt of Parisian jokes because of the singularities of their French pronunciation and the use of “unorthodox” words—septante, for example, instead of the cumbersome soixante-dix (for 70) adopted centuries ago by the supposedly more intelligent French—they are not prepared to admit any form of cultural inferiority or to regard their leading newspaper, Le Journal de Genève, as at all inferior to the “ponderous” Neue Zürcher Zeitung.  Yet the sad fact of the matter is that the Journal de Genève is little more than a provincial rag compared with Zürich’s NZZ, which ranks with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, and Vienna’s Die Presse as one of Europe’s major newspapers.

Am I prejudiced?  Perhaps.  But I happened to be in Geneva on May 8-9 and was amazed to find that, at a time when an extraordinary galaxy of world leaders were gathering in Moscow to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Journal de Genève could find no better topic for its front-page headline than the sudden outbreak of a strike by local taxi drivers.

There is one distinction, however, that no one can reasonably deny to Geneva: It is unquestionably the most international of Swiss cities.  This is the consequence of a momentous fatality of history.  The defeat of the German Empire at the end of the catastrophic European war of 1914-18 ruled out the possibility that a German-speaking city—for example, Basel, once the home of the great peace-loving humanist Erasmus—could be chosen, in this admirably neutral land, as the ideal location for Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations.  Its most imposing monument—not completed until 1936 (with the help of Rockefeller money), by which time the League, mocked by Adolf Hitler, was clearly moribund—was the Palais des Nations, a grandiose, neoclassic edifice that still looks out from the heights of the Ariana Park over the Lake of Geneva, toward the sombre Mont Salève to the east, and, when the intervening clouds are absent, to the distant snow-white summit of the Mont Blanc.

The Helvetian Confederation having managed with the same neutral tenacity to stay out of the second and even more destructive world war of 1939-45, Geneva once again logically became one of the two operative centers of the deceptively named United Nations.  Today, no fewer than half-a-dozen U.N. organizations have their headquarters and main offices here, some of them in the Palais des Nations or in other buildings on the lake’s “right bank”—which, five bridges and several tiny islands farther on to the west, turns into France’s river Rhône.  These organizations include the ILO, the WTO (World Trade Organization), the WMO (World Meteorological Organization), the WIPO (which handles international property rights), the HCR (High Commission for Refugees), and the WHO (World Health Organization).  And this is not to mention the quintessentially impartial and globe-girdling ICRC (the International Committee of the Red Cross), founded by an eccentric humanitarian, Henri Dunant, in 1863—long before the short-lived League and, later, the predictably Disunited Nations had come into existence.

With a surprisingly uninhibited candor—as though the cardinal tenet of Max Weber’s Protestant ethic had been rewritten to read “God helps those who enrich themselves”—Geneva today crassly advertises its capitalistic as well as cosmopolitan character.  One cannot stroll along the linden-studded promenade of the Quai du Mont-Blanc, lined by a succession of posh hotels originally built for terrace-loving dowagers and daughters, for cane-carrying gentlemen and spouses, and for the glamorous demi-mondaines of the pre-1914 belle époque, without being struck by the plethora of huge signs surmounting the façades of virtually every building on both waterfronts of the gradually narrowing, v-shaped harbor.  I cannot recall ever having seen such a concentration of luminous posters in any other European city; for here, as dusk descends, OMEGA, PIAGET, TISSOT, ROLEX, GUBELIN, PATHEK PHILIPPE, and other prestigious watch makers strive to outshine BANQUE DE GENEVE, ZURICH CITIGROUP, DRESDNER PRIVATE BANKING, CREDIT AGRICOLE, BNP PARIBAS, HSBC PRIVATE BANK, etc., in a nocturnal contest almost worthy of Times Square.

Paradoxically, it was from this ostensibly Mammon-loving city that was long heard the shrillest anticapitalist voice in all of Switzerland: that of the incorrigibly “incorrect” Jean Ziegler, a neo-Marxist sociologist and, for decades, a deputy in the federal parliament at Bern, who was tireless in his denunciations of iniquitous Swiss banking practices.

Another homegrown “heretic”—who deserves this appellation since he claims to have severed all relations with the Muslim Brotherhood founded by his grandfather in 1928—is Tariq Ramadan, with little doubt the most prestigious, controversial, and persuasive Islamic theologian now preaching, lecturing, and writing (in English as well as French) on the Continent.  (Time has listed him among the 100 most influential people in the world.)  Born in 1962 and brought up in a four-story family house located on the Rue des Eaux-Vives (which runs roughly parallel to the Left Bank waterfront), Tariq Ramadan is, by birthright, a citizen of Geneva.  He has never officially condemned the subversive activities of his grandfather, Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian founder of the fanatically puritanical Muslim Brotherhood that Nasser, after surviving an assassination attempt, was forced to combat and persecute, just as he has never ceased to extol the memory and achievements of his almost-as-prestigious father, Said Ramadan, the “Saint Paul” of this radical Islamic movement, who shrewdly chose the tolerantly “neutral” city of Geneva as the center best suited for the pursuit of his proselytizing efforts in Europe.

Geneva, of course, was once the home and, indeed, thanks to the waters of the circumfluent river Arve, the moat-and-battlement-surrounded fortress of one of Christianity’s greatest heretics, the austerely theocratic Jean Calvin.  From the Left Bank’s Rue des Eaux-Vives—but even more directly from one of Geneva’s five bridges—it is a 15- to 20-minute uphill walk over stone-paved streets, past old stone houses of a ruggedly gray but also noble severity, to the summit of the historic mount, whose stubborn burghers, defying the irksome authority of the dukes and bishops of Savoy, established the city’s stalwart republican independence by the middle of the 16th century.  It is here that Geneva’s most picturesque old restaurants are to be found, next to quaint booksellers, antique shops, and art galleries.  And it is here, in a magnificent 18th-century townhouse situated near the originally Romanesque cathedral of Saint Pierre (sadly stripped of its internal finery by puritanical fanatics—only the stained-glass windows survived), that the present city fathers of Geneva had the excellent idea of establishing an International Museum of the Reformation.  The museum honors not only Calvin but every one of those stern reformers—from Théodore de Bèze to Bénédict Pictet, from Jean Diodati to François Turrettini—with a decorative artistry, good taste, and imaginative use of audio-visual accessories I had never previously encountered in a museum of this kind.

No visitor to Geneva, no matter how hard-pressed, should leave this both ancient and modern city without visiting the charmingly restored 18th-century country house where Voltaire, very much a French exile, if not a heretic, spent five peaceful years, from 1755 to 1760.  The incorrigible skeptic found this rural retreat so idyllic that he named it “Les délices”—a name later adopted by the inhabitants of this southwestern suburb.  The Museum-Institute, as it now calls itself, contains a long, handsome library where any interested person can examine some of the 2,500 different editions of the witty sage’s works, more than 1,000 original letters, no fewer than 3,200 copies, and umpteen other treasures—most of them collected and donated by Theodore Besterman, the philanthropic founder of Oxford’s Voltaire Foundation.  Among the original letters I was able to examine, I found this skeptical gem, which ends with a typically Voltairean pirouette.  In it, the prolific letter writer took James Bos-well gently to task for talking loosely of that “pretty thing, the soul . . .

I do protest I know nothing of it, nor whether it is, nor what it is, nor

what it shall be.  Young scholars and priests know all that perfectly.

For my part I am but a very ignorant fellow.


Let it be what it will, I assure you my soul has a great regard for your own.

Whether Geneva has a “soul,” be it cosmopolitan or parochial, is a question I must leave to other visitors to decide.