Intro to Geneva: International Affairs 101

By Charlotte Parker

The funny thing about Geneva, to a foreign traveler, is that it’s nearly impossible to tell who the “locals” are. As host to headquarters or branches of over 200 international organizations, including the UN, the WHO, and the ILO, as well as a number of banks that bring in pinstriped employees from all over the world, Geneva is considered the epitome of an international city. Throw away your ideas of Switzerland, my friends—no one here is eating fondue at a street corner, or yodeling from their balcony. The population of the city proper is almost 50% expatriate. On Friday afternoon, I watched kids of all colors flip themselves into the community pool of Versoix, a wealthy commuter suburb, while their polyglot parents chatted on lounge chairs. The next day, I visited a beautiful farmers market in Ferney-Voltaire, a French town 25 minutes from Geneva, and bought both fresh chevre and Thai noodles alongside women in hijabs doing their Saturday shopping. On Sunday, at a public park by Lake Geneva, the sweet sounds of Turkish from around a nargileh mixed with a rousing chorus of British-accented “Happy Birthday.”

at the Saturday market in Ferney-Voltaire (Parker/TYG)

It has been a bit bizarre, with the Alps on the horizon and all the unpasteurized bounty of their cows, goats, and sheep in my fridge, to be able to speak English anywhere. Only today, two weeks into my stay here, did I meet anyone who says they’re “from” Geneva. The nature of the city raises all sorts of questions about the practical and ethical foundations of the international organizations to which it is so tied.

If you are interested in international relations, foreign affairs, global development, or any of those broad fields that encompass what I see as applied idealism, Geneva can be a sort of paradise. You can have brunch with a Red Cross employee fresh from the field in Afghanistan, or speak with a veteran US diplomat while dressing your salad at the UN cafeteria. If you’re looking for a partner for an international business scheme (or a cosmopolitan mate), you can frequent happy hour at Mr. Pickwick’s Pub, an expat hotspot. And you can also ask a lot of questions about the practical and ethical foundations of these international organizations. I would argue that most people working in Geneva are here because they want to “do good” in some form, but does good get done in an office surrounded by similar offices in the wealthiest city in Switzerland? What are the confidential documents floating through the UN’s Palais des Nations actually affecting on the ground in, say, Sudan or Syria? What stories are here for the international press, beyond what is woven from official statements and big speeches?

The Place des Nations, outside the UN (Parker/TYG)

And I’m beginning to sense that Geneva’s internationalism goes beyond these organizations. Not everyone in the city is a middle-to-very-much-upper-class diplomat or banker. There’s a large and well-established Portuguese immigrant population, for example, and a growing influx of migrants from North Africa. What I want to investigate over the next six weeks is how Geneva’s certain sort of internationalism pervades the city on a day-to-day level. How does its position as an international city play into transnational problems, like human or drug trafficking? How has the immigrant community, beyond the diplomats and bankers, integrated into the fabric of the city? For all the people in Geneva who make a career out of studying the world, does anyone study Geneva? And is there a movement of Genevois who feel truly rooted here and push their community to become more than an international transit zone?

I had hoped that the soccer Eurocup series might help me answer that last question, preferably at a small neighborhood café over a glass of 1664, but the Swiss team didn’t make the cut this year. For now, then, looks like I’ll be watching the matches at Mr. Pickwick’s with, almost literally, the rest of the world.

Charlotte Parker ’13 is in Berkeley College. She is blogging from Geneva. Contact her at