Al’s been offered a job in Switzerland and we needed to see if we could live happily ever after there. I believe you can tell within a few hours whether you can thrive in a city or not.
It was way back in 2005, on my first visit to London as an adult, that I realised the city and I didn’t gel. I arrived at Stansted Airport from Dublin at 6 o’clock in the morning and made my way to my cousin Hayley’s flat. I emerged from Archway Tube Station and blinked into the spring sunlight. I looked at my map and it wasn’t clear which direction I was facing or where I should turn. I asked a tattooed, fat-bellied construction worker for directions and he said, ‘Luv, turn left then right, then right then left, then left again’. I glazed over and all I absorbed was the first turn left then right and I thought I’d be fine from there. I wasn’t.
It was as if someone had blindfolded me, turned me round and round and then taken it off again. I dragged my two bags and 30kgs of luggage through the quiet, unrecognisable streets. I was hot and tired and I could feel lines of sweat dripping down my back, tickling me as they converged in the crack of my back side. I got to a random street corner, stamped my foot, flung my bags aside and thought, ‘That’s it. This place sucks’. I then bellowed ‘Hayley! HAYLEY!! HAAAAYYYYYLLEEEYYY!’ and hoped she would magically emerge from one of the buildings. Ever since then, London and I haven’t got on.
I have a wild imagination and when Al got the offer, I had visions of skiing on weekends, yodelling and skipping with joy across the mountain tops like in Sound of Music. I had to root myself firmly in reality and force myself to control my fantasies during the weekend, which felt a bit like stuffing a lid on a steaming pot.
The weekend wasn’t a holiday. It was emotionally exhausting. The opinionated ‘yes’ me and ‘no’ me played tug of war in the bag seat of my brain and it wore me down. There’s some litter in street. NO! It’s so peaceful. YES! That building looks a dump. NO! This place is cleaner than London. YES! Where are all the people? It’s too quiet. NO! The scenery is beautiful. YES! We don’t speak French. NO! But it would be fun to learn a new language. YES! I’ve just had the most expensive, effing pizza of my life. NO! NO! NO! Yes no yes no yes no yes no.
My first impression of Switzerland was of precision and cleanliness. My life experience so far has taught me that this is not necessarily a good thing as precision comes with loads of bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Geneva airport was clean and clinical and I would happily have had an appendectomy right there in international arrivals if I had to. Even the Swiss flag looks like something out of the Red Cross.
Geneva has been voted one of the most boring cities in the world. Why would we want to move to a city with those credentials? It doesn’t bother me though as it means fewer tourists. No Asian families taking photos of post-boxes or street lamps. No tourists ambling along the pavements, gazing at their surroundings and clogging my path. What the city lacks in exuberance, soul and sparkle, the surrounding countryside makes up for. It is deeply and endlessly gorgeous and as we walked along the lakeshore, my spirit felt light and free.
The week before we arrived, Geneva had the fourth largest snowfall since 1895. This made the landscape crisp and clean but we were concerned because, while freshly fallen snow is stunning, it is like heavenly tip ex and temporarily covers a multitude of sins. We wondered, what is lurking beneath all this snow?
The price of things in Geneva is unreasonably exorbitant. On our first evening, we were on a quest to find something affordable to eat. Even McDonald’s was too steep. Eventually we settled on a pizzeria and I ate the most expensive Margeurita of my life. I stared at my pizza forlornly because it felt as if I was just eating cash for my supper. I couldn’t bear the thought that a simple little pizza was costing over R300. And that’s cheap! The average price for a spaghetti carbonara was around 40CHF/£35/R350.
I wondered, ‘If pasta costs so much, how will I afford run-of-the-mill hygiene expenses like a hair cut?’ I pictured myself in front of my mirror, hacking away at my hair with the kitchen scissors the way I used to do when I had a fringe. Al’s salary is adjusted for the extra expense but you can’t justify the Geneva prices for a spaghetti carbonara or haircut no matter how much you earn. It’s ironic that 250 global NGOs are based in a place like Geneva where the price per person for a simple office lunch could feed a family in Sub Saharan Africa for a month.
After all the too-ing and fro-ing, yes and no’s and pros and cons, it came to this: We are weary of London and we need a change. Britain is depressing me and I’m watching it become a nation state equivalent of Asda. London is cold and anonymous. My favourite writer Charlie Brooker is correct when he says, ‘Rather than break their stride, pedestrians in London would blankly step on your face if you were dying on the pavement, quietly tutting at the blood on their shoes.’ Maybe the Swiss would stomp on my face too but at least I would bleed to death in picturesque surroundings.
Most exciting of all, I think The Black Dog may not enjoy my company as much in Switzerland and I’m hoping I can leave her behind in London.
I have felt lost, alone and directionless for many months. I recently had a picture of being stuck in snow and a dove suddenly appears to guide me in the way I should go. While we were in Switzerland, I would have loved some literal sign of the dove as a definite, overwhelming confirmation. On our final day, we walked on the lakeshore. We saw hundreds and hundreds of ducks in the water. They were cold and still but they were a community and seemed happy and settled. I didn’t see any actual doves but I saw ducks and felt peace. That’s good enough for me.
Al has a 3 month noticed period and resigned today. From now until March, we’ll walk across the carpet to the light of the open door.