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From chapter 6: Au Palais WIlson

January is not a great month in Geneva but I felt like a new man in a new world and was happy. I had a small, cheap room in the Hotel des Tourelles overlooking the Rhone River. (My family was to stay in New York until the job contract got sorted out.) I might have seen Mont Blanc from my window but it was never clear enough; instead I saw the nearby Saleve, an unexpected great wedge of earth that rose in a stolid mass to the southwest. Immediately before me was the Coulouvreniere bridge and, passing beneath it, a strip of land, with river on both sides, called the Promenade des Lavandieres. I liked it that I knew what lavandieres meant and so could imagine the washerwomen on their promenade with the river rushing all around. I liked it as much, maybe even more, that I hadn’t a clue what a Coulouvreniere was, for that held the promise of future discoveries. On a Sunday morning I would jog up the quai Turettini—who was Turettini? -- followed by the quai des Bergues, across the flag-lined Mont Blanc bridge, past the city’s sweetly silly big clock made of earth, flowers and shrubs, and up through an allee of pollarded plane trees.

New smells and new sounds, electric trams, the very curious, rather medieval hats of municipal workers. A new language, as in the phrase “affichage sauvage.” This was, per the frequent signs, what was
interdit, forbidden: affichage (the putting up of affiches, posters or notices) sauvage (meaning unregulated, but also, more commonly, meaning wild or even savage). Affichage sauvage, the wild and savage putting-up of posters! I was delighted. I laughed out loud walking alone in the streets of Geneva. I hadn’t done that in New York for a while. I wandered past the house where Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born and the house to which Jorge Luis Borges came to die. I pressed against the cool stone walls of the cathedral of St. Pierre and listened to the organist practice. And at night I’d look out at the lights and clatter of the quayside cafes; the building-top neon signs for Rolex and Inter Maritime Bank, stuck in a font from the 1950s; and the quiet river swelling past the lovers and the drug dealers on the promenade des lavandieres.

The walk to work went along the bank of Lac Leman, past a flurry of watch shops and watch advertisements. A narrow strip of park extended all along the embankment. The design was plain except for an inelegant statue of Elisabeth (“Sisi”), Queen of Austria and Hungary and an emblem of mid-19
th-century poetic female melancholy. She was walking here when she was stabbed on September 10, 1896, by the anarchist Luccheni. (It is said that he had wanted to kill a member of the Orleans family but couldn’t locate one, so killed her instead.) The statue is thin and distracted, like Elisabeth herself, who had a phobia of weight-gain.

Just back from the lake was the sort of well-heeled-hideout neighborhood where puzzling assassinations still happened from time to time. But, in general, mildness ruled here. Out from the embankment an earthen pier took you to a beach where in the warm months people swam at lunchtime and after work. There would be a Ferris wheel, and ice-cream stands and sandwich stands, and people reclining on the grass with a beer or a glass of wine, and municipal gardeners changing the public flower arrangements every other week. Even the red-light district, which stood between the nice part of town and our office, seemed genially bawdy, with old-school matrons and half-curtained windows. It was sometimes said that Geneva was Paris frozen in the 1950s. I took that as a compliment and an invitation.

Our offices were in the Palais Wilson. It had been built as a hotel in 1873-75, in the French style of the time, with mansard roofs and two wings flanking a central tower. The hotel became headquarters for the new League of Nations in 1920 and was named for the league’s founder, President Woodrow Wilson. The League moved up the hill, to the new Palais des Nations, in 1936, and the Palais Wilson passed to the city and then to the Swiss federal government. In 1997, Kofi Annan asked if the UN might use the building for the office of the high commissioner for human rights. Mary Robinson accepted the building at a ceremony the next year.

The wide staircases, with their elegant banisters and low risers, lighted by a wall of stained-glass windows, were unusually open and inviting, which created a problem. Given the office’s mission, it was only right that one go about the day with some sense of urgency—all the more so in a building of such easeful opulence. So human-rights workers could be seen rushing somewhat desperately up the elegant stairs rather than lingering by the elevators and appearing less than urgently committed. It was easier if you were young (as most of the staff were) or if you were Sergio, who, as one secretary explained to me, never took the elevator. Rather he would sprint up the stairs, most often, she said with a melting expression, “two steps at a time.”