Arrival and first impressions

Sam Young – Environment, Energy and Economics Fellow – Master of Environmental Science and Management, University of California – Santa Barbara – Earthmind Intern
Being on the quarter system I was among the last participants in the Duke Program to arrive in Geneva. I had just completed the final for Environmental Law the Friday prior to my departure, giving myself the weekend to pack up my room and sign final paperwork with my sub-lessors before flying out from LAX to GVA. I spent the majority of the 10 hour flight to my transfer at London Heathrow finishing my spring thesis update (which I promptly proof read and sent from the airport after landing). It was just after midnight when I landed in Geneva, about 5 hours after orientation. The customs officer must have been almost as exhausted as I was as he only stamped my passport after I had gone out of the terminal, returned and asked him to do so. Due to my supremely fatigued and disoriented state, I quickly gave up on trying to figure out which bus to take to the Air B&B I was staying at. I wandered out to grab a taxi, only to find that the driver did not speak English. Being that I did not speak French nor did I know where I was going, it still amazes me that we managed to find our way.The next morning I woke and all of my electronics (aka means of communicating with the outside world) were dead. The well-meaning but incompetent fellow at Radioshack had sold me European outlet converters telling me they would work in Switzerland. As this was certainly not the case and no one else was home at the apartment, I proceeded to wander about in hopes of encountering a place that would sell me a converter and reconnect me with the world. As I stepped out on to Ave. de Châtelaine I got my first views of Geneva in the daylight. I had imagined Switzerland to be clean, mountainous, and with large stately buildings. Ave. de Châtelaine is quite the opposite. There was litter in the street and on the side walk, the buildings that were built were very boxy and grey (the kind I would have imagined in Eastern Europe or Russia) with several half built buildings that were soon to be larger versions of the status quo, and no mountains to be seen (Salève is a hill)!. After several kilometers I encountered a mall at Charmilles. None of the shop owners could speak English and did not have converters – or maybe they did and we just failed to bridge the language divide.Back on the street I continued to wander and eventually found the Rhone. The river was a stunning blue color, surrounded by large buildings that were closer to my expectations of Swiss architecture. I wandered upstream and suddenly I was surrounded by shops for Rolex and Cartier. These are things I had heard of but never actually witnessed being sold before. I went into every storefront that looked like it might sell electronics in the Rive and Eaux Vives districts – none spoke English and none had converters. At this point I was convinced that the claim you don’t need to speak French to get around Geneva was entirely false.

I climbed up through the old town, definitely feeling more like I was in Europe. After admiring the antiquity of the buildings and that they were contained by a wall, I walked through the Eaux Vives farmer’s market and tried a few more shops. Finally I found a gentleman who spoke broken English, and had a Swiss outlet converter! He charged me a steep price of 13 Swiss Francs, but at this point I was happy to pay it (I later found out the Migros in Gare Cornavin sells them for 5 Swiss Francs). I wandered over to the Starbucks down the block to recharge and reconnect on the wireless internet. I got a lot of crap from my friends back home for being the stupid American that goes to Starbucks on his first day in Europe, but the free Wifi! I ordered a “Café noir” (only thing I knew how to say) to legitimize my presence and the staff laughed at me. Then as I tried to separate the francs from the pounds from the euros, I dropped my coins everywhere. The staff laughed harder.

I spent the next several hours sending emails to friends and family to let them know I had arrived safely, updating my Facebook, and responding to classifieds on glocals.com (an extremely handy site for networking, discovering events in Geneva, and classifieds for everything from housing to second hand items – the Geneva Interns Association (GIA) Facebook group is excellent for this as well) as I had not yet secured long term accommodation. Once fully charged I proceeded to my next task – learn French. I found an English speaking bookstore over near the Mont Blanc plaza and purchased French Phrases for Dummies. Then I set off looking for a park to read and practice my soon to be new skill. The first park I came across turned out to be a cemetery – but people were out picnicking and socializing amongst the headstones which I found to be very strange. As I continued I noticed a large group of Asian tourists photographing a particular grave site. My first thought was “how rude”, but then “these are old headstones, it must be someone important” so I wandered over as well. It was the final resting place of Jean Calvin of the Geneva Calvinist Church (and ironic namesake of Calvinus beer).

I continued from the cemetery and found myself in Jonction – my favorite spot in Geneva then, now, and always. Everyone was out in the grass barbequing, having beers, and floating down the Rhone. At the end of the path is the confluence of the Rhone and L’Arve rivers, producing a striking contrast as the brown sediment laden waters of L’Arve met the cool blue color of the Rhone. I sat there for at least an hour practicing how to ask for directions, order food and drinks, and all the basics.

I had received a message on glocals earlier at the Starbucks regarding an “orientation event” in Carouge. Not wanting to be late, and having exhausted my patience trying to learn French I wandered off to try to find the location in Carouge. I happened to be the only one who showed up, but I got a free beer, tips on how to get to the Mont Salève trailhead, how to make the best of public transit on the cheap in Switzerland, and invited to the UNECE Conference on Transboundary Rivers!

It was not until the next day at the GIA meet up (The Geneva Interns Association meets for drinks every Thursday) that I met the first of the Duke Program Participants. One, like myself, had missed orientation. We bonded over being late comers and struggling with the language barrier while navigating the city.

By the end of the week I had secured a beautiful apartment in the Servette neighborhood, made a group of friends I would be spending the rest of the summer having adventures with, and learned enough French to ask where something was (not that I could understand the reply) and order a drink (however “Parlez-vous anglais?” was still my go to question). Geneva was not at all what I expected in terms of aesthetic or culture – really it was more like being in France than Switzerland. From my initial feelings of disorientation, isolation, and anxiety being on the other side of the world from home in a place where I did not speak the language – I emerged confident that I could handle just about anything (this would be put to the test later on in Pamplona, Spain).


 Heejin “Jeenie” Yoon –  Humanitarian Action Fellow – Master of Social Work – Columbia University School of Social Work – WHO, Gender, Reproductive Rights and Gender based Violence Intern

First, let me begin by saying that my first week or so is NOT representative of my time in Geneva. I absolutely loved my summer, my internship, and the people I ended up befriending and networking with. I think it’s important for the reader to know that because as a future program participant, you should know that it’s completely normal and okay to go through a difficult adjustment period. It is equally important to know that the adjustment period is not at all what your entire summer will be like.

I admit that before moving there, I knew very little about Geneva, Switzerland. All I knew was that there were some really important organizations housed there, and that the main language spoken was French. Other than that, I assumed that there was a strong sense of familiarity–Switzerland is a developed country, they have important organizations, strong WiFi and internet connections, and things that I am used to as an American, right?? Right. I had traveled a lot before, and loved getting to know new cultures and people and learning phrases in a different language. I was going to be just fine.

Despite all of this positive self-talk, I found myself completely and utterly lost my first week or two in Geneva. “Parles vous Anglais?” became the most frequently used phrase for me. I kept hearing, “Everyone in Geneva speaks English.” This is a bold-faced lie. Now, don’t get me wrong, most people are at least conversational in English. But there is a solid percentage of the Geneva population that speaks French, and knows little to no English. Conversing with store clerks, bus drivers, and waiters was difficult at times. My severe lack of French didn’t make things any easier.
In addition to the language barrier, I experienced a lot of frustration over the public transit system and with my inability to navigate the roads. Let me warn you in advanced–you WILL get lost several times your first few weeks. However, getting lost was one of the ways in which I got to know the city better. There were countless times where I would accidentally stumble upon a store or a cool restaurant or bar by getting lost.

My first impression of Geneva was underwhelming. Things were hard to navigate, the language was completely foreign, the bus system could be confusing at times, things were insanely expensive (especially for an unpaid intern), and shops closed way too early. But in the end, I learned how to embrace life in Geneva for what it is– a relatively quiet and peaceful town filled with important people and activists genuinely trying to make the world a better place. Everything that I initially found frustrating eventually became something that I recognized made Geneva the city that it is. You learn your way around the city pretty quickly, and once you understand the bus and tram system getting from point A to point B is very easy. You learn to leave work at a certain time to get to the shops you need to get to, and you learn how to make your money go far by picnicking and buying certain types of groceries. All of this took me roughly two weeks or so to learn, and once I had adjusted, I realized that my initial frustrations simply stemmed from the fact that I was living in a city I hadn’t known beforehand. My first impressions were just that: first impressions. They were not the reality of my summer in Geneva, which ended up being a truly great summer.


Julianna Martinez – Humanitarian Action Fellow – Duke University – IOM (International Organization for Migration) Intern

My first day in the land of cheese, wine, and chocolate set some ridiculously high expectations. To sum up my first twenty-four hours in Switzerland in three words, they were: welcoming, adventurous, and educational.

I left the good ol Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina around 6 pm on a Saturday, and I arrived in Geneva around 8 am the next morning. Now, let me tell ya, Sundays in Geneva can be a bit off-putting if you are not expecting them: most stores are closed on Sundays; there are few places to purchase food; public transit system stops running earlier than Friday/Saturday schedules; and housing (well mine at least) keeps its doors locked all day. Luckily, a fellow Duke Program participant – Faith – who was also staying at CITE sent me a welcoming email before my arrival informing me about these inconveniences. She provided me with a phone number to call the night watchman to open the building for me and provide me with my room key, and she told me of a couple of shops that would be open on a Sunday.

I hopped off the plane ready to begin my Swiss journey! My cab driver was very generous; he even taught me a few phrases in French! I got settled into my room at CITE, and did what every college kid does when they arrive somewhere new (right?): I checked facebook. However stereotypical this is, it turned out to be so rewarding, because I saw an invitation to go Hiking posted on our Duke Program facebook page by some fellow participants. Eager for exploration, I unpacked my luggage, messaged the girls, and set off to meet them at the train station at noon for the hike.

Coming from a hometown with just a mere two taxis and no public transit system, I was not even close to familiar with how to locate the train station. However, I made a friend at the bus stop who instructed me on the quickest route (and informed me of a FREE transportation card from my housing!). I found my way to the Migros (a grocery store) and met Jess and Masha for our hike.

We started on what we anticipated to be a 2 hour stroll up Mont Salève, a mountain close to the Swiss border in France. However, we did not end up returning to the train station until around 7pm. This casual afternoon hike developed into the most wonderful, welcoming, gorgeous, spectacular first day in Switzerland (/France). I was able to travel to France, hike a mountain with a beautiful view of Lake Geneva, see the Jet for the first time from way above the treetops, enjoy some swiss chocolate, meet wonderful friends, learn a few more phrases in French, explore a Migros, and handle the bus system… all just 2 hours after my 8am arrival!

The best and most influential part of this little excursion occurred about halfway up the mountain when we met the nicest couple. We chatted with them for a bit, and then we ended up joining their hiking group for the remainder of the trail. When we reached the top, we enjoyed coffee and icecream with them, a chat over a parasailing platform, and a gondola ride down to the bottom. We exchanged emails, and later that week, they invited Jess, Masha, and me over to their home for a BBQ! We attended and had wonderful conversation and fellowship; we celebrated their new engagement, played board games with their daughter, and chatted about life. We kept in contact over the summer, and when we visited CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), we unexpectedly ran into them and got to tour it together! We road back to Geneva with them, shared another lunch, and planned other events for the summer. They offered wonderful tips for exploring Switzerland and France, welcomed us into their home and their life, and became great friends. Their advice and friendship are invaluable, and these relationships were formed in less than 12 hours of my arrival to Geneva!

Needless to say, if the first day was any indicator for the following 76, I would be in for a joyous ride! (And what a ride it was! Geneva proved to be so inviting and exciting! I just wish I had more time here…)

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