When I was eighteen I worked for a winter season in Gstaad, Switzerland, as a plongeur (a washer-upper). The fact that another name given to this job was "pêcheur de perles" did not make it any less unedifying, routine and unfulfilling, For day after day I would stand in front of a pair of industrial sinks armed with corrosive cleaning agents, scourers and brushes and scrape burnt cheese from the bases of a thousand gratin dishes before stacking them into the monstrous automated washers. "But it must have been wonderfully character-building", the parents of contemporaries would say when I told them what I'd done in my gap year. To which I would think (though not reply) that it felt - at the time - like wholesale character destruction.
There were, of course, wonderful things about that season. I learned to ski. I lived with an extraordinary farming family called the Raaflaubs in a mad house on the side of a mountain called the Gifferhorn between Gstaad and Lauenen. I walked home every night after work in the dark through snowdrifts one-and-a-half times my height - a journey that took over an hour on foot. I lived mainly on boiled potatoes and a weird liquorice paste. I learned that "la vie est dure, et sans confiture". I helped inseminate cows. I got very lithe and my hair grew long.
So I was looking forward to going back to Switzerland this last week to work with my colleagues on the Technical Advisory Group (pictured above) for the Global Commission on HIV and Law. The meeting was vwery stimulating, and we got a lot achieved. The trouble was that the meeting was in Geneva. Geneva - European Capital of Bling - is an odd city. It has extraordinary natural advantage as far as its setting is concerned - mountains to the south, west and north, a lake spreading out before it to the east. It has a great old town, up above the lake on the hill. But it feels disoncertingly disjointed, at least to someone like me who is only an intermittent visitor. And that's because, I think, it's a city comprised largely of visitors - intermittent or otherwise. Everyone on on a mission or in a mission. People go there to do things with an impact which will be felt elsewhere, if they are felt at all. And to that extent it feels like a city which does not need to take account of itself, or be responsible for - well - for charging £12 for a bowl of hoummous, or £200 poer night for a rather poor hotel. Never mind the prices - someone is either paying for it from tax free income, or someone else is paying.
The weather was amazing while I was there. Storms, warmth, the jet d'eau dancing in the sunlight. But I so wanted to be back in the mountains, trudging through the snow after a day scraping off the burnt cheese, chatting to Ruedi Raaflaub about the avalanche risk and cow husbandry. Geneva isn't Switzerland, that's what I conclude. It just happens to be there.