Thursday, January 18, 2007

If ghosts could feel


A drab rainy last day, to visit Geneva town centre,so I bought a day rover ticket and went in on the train to Cornavin station, wandered the treets for a while, called into Placette to do some shopping for Clare and compare sale pricers with Cardiff's, then went down to the lakeside to view the fountain, spouting up into low rain clouds, the over to Holy Trinity Church, to sit quietly for a while and enjoy being there without any of the anxiety of responsibility for running the place.

It's clear that things continue to go well at HTC. It's probably the best attended of any of the non-Catholic churches within the city centre area. The institutional church that was re-founded by Calvin after vigorous reformation had all but destroyed both religious practices and social structures is itself struggling for survival, having lost the support of the native Genevois, and commending itself little to the huge number of incomers. Hard though they try, its dry sober intellectual style, however well meaning, registers poorly with seekers after faith. It has just about halved its staff over the past decade, and now struggling with church closures and amalgamations, just like us back in Wales.

HTC has a huge anglophone catchment area, and over 200 people as members or attendees. It is one of half a dozen anglophone congregations in the city. The largest is a Roman Catholic chapel of ease to the paroisse catholique de Montbrillant with a constituency of over a thousand, and two priests. Church of Scotland, Baptist, Lutheran and a couple of evangelical congregations make up the rest. Whilst it seems impressive, there's a catchment area of 20,000 or so English speaking expatriates in and around the Canton. When I did the guesstimates, a while ago, I reckoned that the actual proportion of church attendees in the population was little different to that in UK, about 1.5-2%. The paucity of buildings owned and run by expatriate congregations is an advantage from the management point of view, but it can give rise to no complacency.

Then, a tram ride to lunch with more friends. Keith, my host and I were invited by Gill Howie and Manel Kumarakulasinghe, at a Thai restaurant in the lee of the UNHCR building - United Nations High Commission for Refugees, where Manel works. Gill used to work for the WCC. Her late husband Mike, a dear dear friend, worked for CERN. UNHCR's 'iconic' environmentally friendly building is on the edge of the Place des Nations. We lived in a top floor apartment on the other side of the building for two years before we left Geneva, so this is familiar ground, yet unfamiliar. The Place des Nations has had a make-over during the past three years, now almost complete. There's a tram line running up there from the main station. Instead of a grassed central area (where protest demonstrations and other events are organised), there's now a huge pavement and some classy new stainless steel street furniture. Certainly easier to maintain than grass/mud. The passenger shelters for bus and tram stops are all glass, and look great. How long it will remain looking so good, given vandals and angry demonstrators is anybody's guess.

I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the rue du Marché on the other side of the lake, and on the way back to the station for my return train, found the Temple de St Gervais. There's been a church on this site for fifteen centuries, though the present building is roughly the same age as St John's back in Cardiff (c 600 years old). For most of my time in Geneva this building was surrounded by scaffolding and under restoration, not to mention excavation. I think I attended one ecumenical service there in my early months and that was that. Now it's open to visitors daily and organ music plays through the public address system. It's a fine building, and efforts have been made to recuperate remains of fifteen century frescoes and decorations to ribbed vaults, and some ancient carved furniture. It's a bit out of keeping with the otherwise austere and basic liturgical furnishing, which fails to make the most of the opportunities presented by handsome gothic architecture. typical of the region. I was disappointed that La Fusterie, the other city centre Temple on the rue du Marché, a pedestrianised shopping precinct was shut, though promising to be open this evening for an ecumenical Taizé service. An opportunity missed in one of the busiest commercial areas of the city centre.

Geneva continues to be well run and clean. There is still graffiti but less obvious than it was seven years ago when it seemed to be verging on the out of control. Public transport, with new tram lines up and running is outstandingly good with new buses and trams, with fresh new livery, advertising just how much the city's rolling stock gets replaced year by year. Some years ago a Genevan visitor to a capital city in Latin America was astonished to see on the streets there trolley buses in the old orange and yellow TPG livery, running but still with their destination boards displaying familiar place names from home.

It was a pleasant, if damp afternoon - the smell of coffee drifting out from small bars and restaurants, the winter aroma of roast chestnuts near the station and in the rue du Marche, the balbble of different languages among the people of the streets, the inventive artistic shop window displays in the big stores, the clangs and rattles of passing trams, noisy gaggles of school kids on their ways home, or off making mischief en route. A sucker for sentimental tastes, I called into Manor, formerly called Placette (still called Placette by the stubborn who don't understand why they keep on changing the name when there hasn't been a merger or a takover), to buy a whole pizza au saumon for supper - always a favourite tranche to have for a quick lunch with a beer. I was glad to discover it's one of my host's favourites also.

After the happy lunchtime reunion, I saw nobody familar until I got back to Keith and Claudine's. It was odd, knowing nobody and feeling unknown in old familiar places. I'm still very fond of this city, and enjoyed some wonderful years here. But, I no longer have a stake in it, as I do in Cardiff's city centre. In fact, I have more of a stake in Cardiff than I ever could have as an étranger in Geneva. I miss it however, and no return trip to Switzerland would be complete without a wander around the streets and tour of the escalators in Placette, even wiht little to be ever tempted to buy. It this what it would feel like to be a ghost, if ghosts could feel?

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