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Small town, big city: Geneva and the 2021 summit

People always ask me what Geneva is like. Small town, big city? I never quite know what to say, because it’s really something in between. Geneva is not a big place, and this fact does not change even with the monumental 2021 summit.

There is rarely a time I go downtown without seeing a familiar face. I know the paved, stone streets of the old town like the back of my hand and nothing feels as much like home as walking by the lakefront or getting drinks or coffee by the river.

But despite that, it doesn’t feel “small” or village-y at all.

What is Geneva like?

Home to the United Nations headquarters, as well as the World Health Organization and many more, there are people from around the world.

The rumble on the streets is a constant blend of languages, reuniting a vast array of cultures. In that way, though this might sound like a stretch, it sometimes doesn’t feel too different from New York City.

what geneva is like
Closed off perimeter in Geneva for Summit (©Geneva State, Le Temps)

To put things in perspective, NYC itself has the same population as the country of Switzerland as a whole.

From bustling to eerily silent: The Geneva 2021 summit

Following COVID-19, everyone found more time to spend outside, and during weeks as hot as this one (which we get perhaps once or twice a year), it can get incredibly busy downtown and by the water.

Which made it that much more striking to see the city as dead as it was these past couple of days. Shutting down the piers and streets on both sides of the lake to enable safe and swift transit for Biden and Putin… the city was paralyzed in a way more drastic than during the first wave of the pandemic. Honestly.

People were told to work from home and school was shifted back to online. Restaurants closed for the day. All week, different areas were prohibited to pedestrians too, as journalistic tents were set up and security enforced.

geneva 2021 summit
Entire Parc de la Grange enclosed with barbed wires

We’d never seen Geneva like it was during this 2021 summit.

Worlds collide

In all sincerity, the commotion the summit generated initially caused some resentment in the implications of having our city host such an event… We’re just recently out of lockdown after all.

But setting the premeditation of it all aside, I can only admit to underestimating the odd excitement of seeing images of Geneva, streets I walk or drive down every day, on a channel like CNN, which always felt so distant.

Before I moved to New York, we would always keep up with the US news from home. Politics and unrest in a country as big as the United States are bound to affect the rest of the world as well.

But after spending a year in NYC, following the crucial recent elections intently, and seeing Biden’s campaign running everywhere, it was that much more insane to watch him stand in front of the beautiful villa at Parc de la Grange, where I jog by on the daily.

Furthermore, seeing live footage of Air Force One on the Geneva Airport’s tarmac, where I’ve boarded every plane in my life. I think I’d only seen that aircraft in movies.

Wolf Blitzer, the anchor of CNN’s The Situation Room, and his team set up their TV set on the rooftop of Hotel Métropole. Giving way to a gorgeous view, it is a spot famous for its happy hour. Blitzer heartwarmingly documented his visit, taking to Instagram repeatedly.

The chief international correspondent for CNN, Clarissa Ward, who has covered ground absolutely everywhere around the world, had the Jet d’Eau in her frame. It is one of Geneva’s most renowned landmarks.

TV aside, people posted to their social media stories all day, anxiously waiting on their balconies or from street corners. And it’s always somewhat heartwarming to see people you know experiencing something together, however short-lived it may be.

We saw it all, from military tanks (I’m not kidding) driving up the street I used to walk down to ballet class, to army boats out on the lake sailing by us while out on the water earlier this week. It was video after video of the 30 car convoy that escorted Biden to and from the villa of Parc de la Grange.

The President finished his press conference in the blistering sun and had boarded his aircraft before anyone could catch a breath. I doubt it’s ever taken anyone this little time to drive across the city to the airport. Ever.

For a small place, the traffic is usually deadly, but without another car in sight, and no lights, suddenly both politicians were off, in the blink of an eye.

Til next time

It all felt like a lot, and in the most loving way, over the top, because we’re not used to such large-scale implications when it comes to something like this.

We host our share of events from the annual International Motor Show to the nearby music festivals such as Paléo and Montreux Jazz… However, politics rarely take those proportions in this small country. Indeed, the last time such an event occurred was for the 1985 summit between presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, almost 40 years ago.

Seeing “home” on the TV channels that run on cable in my “new home” overseas was in fact quite special. So I’ll continue to try and describe Geneva in the best way I can, until you may choose to pay us a visit again.