Sunday, November 26, 2006

Yellow Monday

I've had the pleasure of seeing the seasons changing both in Europe and Oz. While the cicadas are coming out in Sydney, the leaves are dropping here in Geneva. I know this because I've seen both in the last week. When I glanced out of my window on my first day back at work, I noticed how yellow the final leaves of autumn are. The autumn coloured leaves of orange and brown have already fallen, but the remaining yellow leaves shimmer and glow in the twilight.

The brief trip home was a chance to take in extra yellow rays of the sun, before I returned to winter. Pete and I found a cicada shell in his garden and some friends gave me ear-rings in the shape of cicada wings. I realised just how Australian these creatures are when I tried to explain them to a colleague - the fun of collecting live cicadas with extra prestige for the rarer "black prince" and "yellow monday", the buzzing sound on a summer evening, and the first cicada shell of the season.... but I guess you had to be there.

Can't escape my middle class fate

Very few people here in Geneva can call themselves true Genevoise. Most of us are foreigners of some description, and many work in and around the UN. I've noticed that this international community has created its own unique class system, and I have managed, yet again, to find myself in the middle class.

The upper class consists of diplomats. Their mode of transport is car or taxi. I have one friend who is a diplomat, and my jaw dropped when I visited her apartment. My humble dwellings paled in comparison to the sheer luxury of this three bedroom villa with breathtaking views of the lake. I haven't had her over to mine yet...I really must.......but I'm a bit embarrased because she will have to sit on a plastic chair and the only view I can offer is of more apartments. My mode of transport? The tram and bus.

But everything is relative. "A view of more apartments?" cry the students and interns. "Sheer luxury. We are so poor we have no view at all! Trams? Why, we have to walk everywhere!" Most interns are not paid anything for the work they do, and need to pay their way by babysitting in the evenings. They are not afforded the luxury of a room to themselves, and must keep meals out to an absolute minimum. In the building where I live, my room is one of only four with its own bathroom and a balcony. A friend of mine who is studying a PhD cannot believe how lucky I am. She has no view at all from her apartment, cycles everywhere to avoid transport costs, and we usually meet for coffee because dinners out are out of the question.

So I've started riding my bike a bit more - in solidarity with my friends, and for the sheer fun of it!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

What am I doing here?

Before I left for Geneva, a friend asked me why I wanted to work with the United Nations. It’s an interesting question. The UN is criticized for being too bureaucratic, for being a talk-fest and for achieving very little. And certainly it has its problems. The system of consensus is quite different to the Quaker model, where those with a concern are genuinely listened to and a final statement is agreeable to all. Instead, countries use the power of veto as a tool of control, with the frustrating result that often no decision is made at all. In some meetings, each country will feel the need to comment on the timeliness of the meeting and congratulate the Chair on their recent election, which can leave no time for discussion of substance to take place.

So, why work with such an institution? I came to some clarity on this question when I was in Brussels. The keynote speaker at a Quaker Peace Conference pointed out that we don’t stop engaging with our national governments because they are not exactly the institution we would like them to be. Indeed, he pointed out that it is for this reason that we should engage most vigorously with them. The role of my organisation is to engage with the world's government. By advocating for international positions on human rights, disarmament and fair trade and facilitating dialogue and understanding between government representatives, we can have an impact on the current system. We can also model the kind of international diplomacy that we would want to see throughout the UN.

Not in our backyard

Quaker House, where I work, is situated in the beautiful, quiet, leafy suburb of Petit-Saconnex. Some of the houses we walk past are old fashioned and cute, others are modern and quite grand. They all have impressive gardens and well-kept hedges.

But all that is to change one day soon. The Geneva Government wants to compulsorily acquire an entire street in order to build social housing blocks. This will mean that the residents will be forced to sell to the Government in 2008. The residents are protesting, which means, according to Swiss law, that they are allowed to attach yellow ribbons to their gates. Like any important decision in Switzerland, the matter went to a vote, but, given that most of Geneva does not live on that street, they voted “oui, oui, oui” for the social housing.

This situation has brought up some interesting issues for me. Recently there was another vote. People voted "non, non, non" to a referendum asking them if they wanted to accept more refugees into their cantons. I do wonder, though, if these residents in Petit-Sacconex protested as strongly for the rights of the refugees to a safehaven as they did for their own rights to stay where they are. When I read the protest signs that say “construire mais autrement” I wonder if they mean “Go ahead and build, but not where it affects me”, or are they saying “Build, but find way to do it that suits us all”? I hope it is the latter.