At 1am on a Thursday night you would be forgiven for thinking that the Bleu Nuit was closed. The only person present was a waitress counting money at the till; rather than shooing us away she instead gave a knowing smile as we entered and casually strode to the far end of the restaurant, being led by a friend who wanted to show us one of his favourite places in the city.
“Well, here it is,” he said, gesturing towards a vintage, cream and chrome Bosch refrigerator next to the toilets. He opened the door and one by one we all stepped into what, in a brief moment of disorientation, looked like a tiny hall of mirrors; it was in fact an underground night-club.
A smartly suited bartender-cum-disk-jockey stood behind the bar preparing extravagant cocktails and playing deep, pulsating house music. Our small group shared the intimate space with a dozen other patrons of all ages speaking a myriad of languages. Stranger still, I recognised one of my course mates at the bar, a German exchange student who, just like me, was spending the year studying at UNIGE’s translation and interpretation faculty (FTI). I asked her what she thought of Geneva and she replied with the two standard answers to this question: (a) everything here is so expensive! (b) it’s is so small and quiet, there’s hardly anything going on!
Sipping from an 11CHF (£8.50) beer, I could only agree with her former grievance, but given that we were dancing inside a fridge together with people hailing from all over the world, the latter criticism seemed a little unwarranted. To my mind, Geneva’s profile among its exchange students as a ‘boring’ place to live and study was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Small? Yes: Geneva has 4/5 the population of Southampton and is 1/5 its size. But humdrum? Far from it. It was on this point that she and I engaged in a very heated debate while waiting for the more claustrophobic members of our party to return from having a smoke outside.
I first arrived in Geneva to attend the university’s three-week French course in August, hoping to get a head start on improving my competency in the language, familiarise myself with the city and to make a few contacts before beginning the year abroad proper. In my first few days as a naive and impressionable newcomer, afraid that I’d fail to connect with the city and be faced with nine months of alienation, I latched onto a faux-advertisement inscribed on the Plainpalais skyline in large, red neon letters reading: ‘YES TO ALL’. As long as I stuck true to this slogan of optimism and universality, as long as I remained positive, the YA would be nothing but a positive experience: every challenge it had in store would leave me stronger and wiser.
Well, rest assured, the first three weeks in Geneva were a complete success. The summer school and the broader community of international students was made up of people who had the gusto to come to Geneva in the first place and, as visitors, knew that their time there was limited and precious. There was no shortage of things to do in Geneva over the summer and no shortage of enthusiastic, like-minded individuals to do them with, be it going to a new exhibition at one of the dozens of museums and galleries in the city, commandeering a pedalo from the UN Beach Club, having dinner on the roof of a friend whose apartment in the Old Town boasts one of the best views of the city (besides that from the bell tower of Saint-Pierre or the peak of Mont-Salève), going to the Ciné transat open-air cinema at Perle-du-Lac after sundown, hitting the fun-fair rides and street food stands at night, finding a good vantage point along the lake to view the retina-melting fireworks finale of the Fêtes de Genève or catching a bus to Hermance village on the French border to attend their free, annual Jazz sur la Plage festival. It felt like I’d become the central protagonist of my own Woody Allen movie. If immersion in Geneva was my objective: mission accomplished. Bring on the year abroad.
Unfortunately, immersion wasn’t my only objective. ‘Immersion’ had become a buzzword which obscured all the noble goals it originally encapsulated and a byword for ‘procrastination’. The ‘YES TO ALL’ school of thought founded that summer and developed over semester one at UNIGE slowly began to eclipse the ‘Yes to a Degree’ philosophy so lovingly cultivated during my first two years at Southampton. I was still attending classes regularly, meeting coursework deadlines and making progress on the YARP but was all the while becoming disenchanted with academia. In the mornings, I began working at a Montessori school (being a native English speaker is excellent cultural capital) run by a family I originally babysat for; lunchtimes mutated into sessions spanning several hours playing jumbo chess and ping pong with the pensioners and stoners who congregated around Parc des Bastions; in the evenings, I committed to long, extravagant dinner parties in my neighbours’ apartments where we gossiped, shared stories and ultimately debated where in the city we would spend the rest of the night: Tuesday nights were typically spent at AMR (the Association of Improvised Music which regularly hosted free jam-nights), Wednesday nights with ESN (Erasmus Student Network), Thursday nights with GIA (Geneva Interns Association) and Friday nights RIP (as one friend quipped… well, it made me laugh). At the end of semester one, I failed every exam.
It was around this time that we went out to the Bleu Nuit.
‘I wish there was nothing going on in Geneva,’ I shouted to my friend in the refrigerator, ‘then I might have actually been able to scrape some credits this semester’.
Of course, it wasn’t actually Geneva’s fault that I flunked. It was my fault for lazily using carpe diem ethics to justify a decadent, unsustainable lifestyle that flouted all prior and future commitments. I was determined to make the grade in second semester and took twice the classes as I did in the first, some at the FTI, some at the Global Studies Institute and a couple at the Maison des Langues — a language-teaching programme at the university which generously offers up to two credit-bearing French classes to every exchange student. Having said goodbye to so many people at the end of the first semester, I was looking forward to consolidating friendships with those who stayed; there’d still be time in the day for bathing in the lake and nights free to hold Cave Raves in our building’s nuclear fall-out shelter, but I would now focus my energies primarily on the complex objectives surrounding my studies abroad and less on the more nebulous goal of immersing myself in the city. ‘You have to be honest with yourself,’ I began lecturing my friends. ‘A student who does not study has as much right to call themselves a student as they do an astronaut.’ At the end of semester two, I passed just enough exams to get the credits I needed to pass the year.
I would never say that I had any serious regrets. Looking back, my time in Geneva was only a happy one: I made good friends and for that I count myself extremely fortunate. What was unfortunate was the unnecessary angst caused by losing clarity on my raison d’être in Geneva; yes, I was there to reside but also to study and — through the experience of writing my YARP — prepare myself for the final year of my degree. These were the reasons I went and the conditions on which I was allowed to go, as negotiated between the two universities and myself. Having surrendered my moral agency to the absolutist ‘YES TO ALL’ doctrine, I was still responsible for balancing the things to which I assented equally between these three spheres: where I lived, where I studied and where I would ultimately return to study. ‘Yes’ to midnight swims and converting our building’s service elevator into a ‘Barscenseur’, but also ‘Yes’ — with the same all-consuming passion — to passing my exams and diligently completing my research for Southampton.
‘Yes, to All Within Previously Defined Parameters,’ or, ‘Immersion within Reason,’ are better bywords on which to base a year abroad.
With regards to making progress in the target language: Geneva was not the opportunity to ‘have to’ speak French that I thought it might be. The community I was part of was made up exclusively of people who spoke better English than I French. Outside of class, private study and language cafés — i.e. in a natural environment — I was using English to communicate because that’s the point of communication: to understand and be understood by somebody else as easily as possible. It was not only a struggle to speak French as someone who began learning it ab initio in Year One, but a struggle to prove that my French was stronger than the English spoken by those I was interacting with. Of course there were regular occasions on campus or in the post office where French was the convention, but I was living and studying with other international students (fun fact: almost half of Geneva’s resident population are foreign nationals). The linguist’s dream of finding a soul-mate who can only communicate in the TL was nothing more than a fantasy here. If you’re an international student with only B2 French who wants to speak predominantly in French then you’ll have to be very selective with who you spend your time with from very early on during the YA, lest you fall into the trap of making friends you never wanted to part with who all use English as their lingua franca. Personally, I decided that I was okay being at the centre of a family of anglophiles… that is, after my original plan of pretending to be an anglophobic Estonian fell through during the open day.