Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Next stop, Geneva

For those of you who have never been to Geneva, you probably think that it's this big, cool, cosmopolitan, international city. And for those who live in Geneva, you probably thought so as well before signing your work contract.

But don't get your hopes up, Geneva is a town of 200'000 (add another 150'000 people for the rest of the canton) with a buzz of a...well...with a buzz of a small European town. Despite its international crowd constituting about 45% of the population, Geneva manages to be an overly boring city.

The night life is probably one of the worse I have seen in my life, it is almost inexistent. Some bars even close to make room for more banks (L'Ethno) or for more luxury watch shops (B-Club). The restaurants are numerous, but the quality is deplorable. They are the most expensive, charmless, characterless restaurants in the universe and their menus are all identical: pizza, pâtes, and steak tartare. But be careful, you can only eat these delicious meals between 11h and 14h and from 18h till 21h - don't bother trying otherwise.

The service is the worst you can ever experience in you entire existence - I still don't understand why the Swiss are renown for their hospitality schools. The hospitality is not there. People in bars and restaurants are overly rude and despicable. It is as if we live in a communist city where business owners don't have to be nice to earn their living, they earn it anyway. And it is the case for Geneva business owners; every "cool" place in Geneva will have a terrible waiter and a shocking service because these places are so rare that "if you don't like it, then fuck off we'll always have people here".

And don't get me started on how the housing market operates here. As the world is facing a global real estate crisis, Geneva is booming. You will rarely encounter a person who owns a flat because 1) it's too expensive and 2) nobody wants to settle here. The quality of the apartments is appalling, the rents are close to central London's, the size of a flat similar to a prison cell and you'll always have very conscientious neighbours calling the police every time you have a party or park on their spot. But before you experience all that, the trick is to get a flat. The "régies" (real estate agents) operate as mafias. If you're a regular person, here is where you stand on the list to get a flat: 1) friends of the owner, 2) friends of the régie, 3) extremely rich people, 4) very rich people, 5) rich people, 6) UN people, 7) some unknown category, 8) YOU.

Thank God the airport is only a 6 minute train ride from the city center.

No wonder ALL of Switzerland hates Geneva. It really is horrible. But does it have any good things? Sure it does; it has good wages allowing you to pay your getaway weekends, it's compact sized making it easy to get around, rather safe, great in summer with all the outdoor concerts, pleasant, tranquil, very international, lovely parks and good living standards; but all this would be appealing for a 40 year-old with a family, not for the young generations.

I have often been asked by friends how do I do to survive in Geneva, well it's because of my friends. You have to have GOOD friends. If you only rely on some acquaintances, colleagues, contacts or distant friends – you will die, literally. If you have friends that you can consider family, then you'll survive and you can even have fun!

Here's a speech from a certain Xavier Comtesse about Geneva. Very true.

Geneva must become more creative if it is to win the war for talent and compete successfully as a global city, according to Avenir Suisse think-tank Director Xavier Comtesse.

“Geneva is boring. My kids go to Lausanne or Lyon to enjoy themselves,” he told a luncheon of the American International Club on 30th November. “Competitivity is not just about attracting corporations. Geneva has to win the war for talents if it wants to compete. Creative, talentedpeople go to creative cities. They look for the place to be.”

Those talented people do not care about Geneva’s view of the Mont Blanc: they want to mix with their like, said Comtesse. They look for world-class culture, such as the Béjart Ballet Company in Lausanne. Geneva needs to attract leading figures in culture, science, architecture and design.

In the Quartier des Bains in Plainpalais, Geneva is managing to do this. Art galleries are springing up in what used to be an area of rundown workshops. They are there to serve a Russian clientele, and the Russians have come to Geneva because it is a trading centre. The Cargill trading company set up in Geneva 50 years ago, and since then BNP-Paribas and Crédit Agricole have built up expertise in trading finance. Geneva now has a trading community.

Other cities compete with their own specialized communities. Basel is a cluster for pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Neuchâtel attracts medical device companies because ithas experts in miniaturization. Google goes to Zurich because it is confident it will find 800 creative computer specialists.

Apart from trade, what does Geneva offer? Building the CERN facility already drew in the world’s top physicists, says Comtesse. Calvin’s innovative idea of punctuality 500 years ago attracted the watch industry. Creation of the Red Cross and the World Wide Web in Geneva also“gave big things to the world.”

Geneva’s destiny is international, not local, says Comtesse. Although 45% of Geneva’s population is international, Geneva politicians and media focus on local issues. Geneva should think of its economic diversity as an opportunity. “If it becomes a cluster of CEOs, that can provide good leaders for NGOs, some of which have multibillion budgets. There is an opportunity to spill competencies over into other sectors.”

What to do in practice? The airport is key, and it is foolish to have a major transit highway running alongside its new terminal, and even crazier to plan a shopping centre which will clog the approaches. Build a new highway along the foot of the Jura in France and put the shopping centre somewhere else, he says. The upgraded TGV high-speed train to Paris? A waste: itonly serves Geneva “bobo’s” to go to the theatre in Paris.

More worthwhile would be a high-speed rail link to Lyon taking half an hour and giving also access to Paris and Marseille. The planned CEVA local rail development? He scoffs. Little point in connecting Geneva with Annemasse on the frontier. It should be extended to take the millions ofChinese who will want to go from Geneva airport to Mont Blanc!

Do more to help expatriate spouses develop careers when they arrive, he says. Speed upinternet access in Geneva, which he considers little better than in Africa. “Ouagadougou-sur-Léman,” is his phrase. The government should do something, we all think. But Mr. XavierComtesse says it is our responsibility. “It is the business community which knows how to do things. It is our duty to have vision for the future and take responsibility for our region. Weneed big issues. We must change the framework for attracting talents.”

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