Novak (novak) wrote,

Personal: Europe Trip 2006: Geneva to Milwaukee: Part One: Walking Geneva

Tuesday 25 July 2006
Now it’s Thursday … Thursday?! No. Tuesday. Tuesday morning. I suppose getting toward 9ish. I’m sitting on the steps of Sacré Coeur, just past where the Rue Général-Dufour breaks off from the Boulevard Georges Favon, that I've been walking down. It's just a little ways down the street from the synagogue here in town, which I stopped and looked at for a little while, underneath the trees in front of it, at the damp fountain. Regretting now for the first time, in a very personal way, not being able to speak French at all, after a blonde and bouncy baker was trying to flirt with me as I bought some éclairs. So … too bad. She lit up for some reason in the most satisfying way. Too much fun!

So, heading further on down and gonna break over toward the Museum of the History of the Reformation before too long here. Erik and I are going out tonight with two women who are friends of a friend of his sister's. So, don’t know what’s to be expected there. Hopefully more success than I just had with the baker, socially! Hopefully they speak English or we are sunk: gonna be a long night. Eh, it’ll be fun. Different. It will be nice to meet some locals, actually. Anyway, the plan for today is the Museum, then head up to the Cathedral de Saint Pierre, go up the tower of that, then underneath into the archaeological digs, and see what that leaves me of the day.


I soon found myself approaching the University of Geneva from its west side, near the building that was marked in my guidebook as holding the Museum of the Reformation. I gathered that the entry was on the other side from me, away from the street, so I started looking for a way to walk around the building. I went down a street, along a high, wrought-iron fence, until I found an open gateway, where the path led back toward the Museum building. Dodging an enthusiastic sprinkler – but enjoying the way the morning light played through it and illumined the glowing green parkspace – I followed the path to where it led to an odd, seemingly-inappropriate block of stood. It was only as I got closer that I could see that the stone was carved in a striking way that had not been apparent from farther away: a nude female figure, collapsed in despair and loss, her form both leaning upon the stone and also flowing out from the it, with the veil of the hair of her bowed head flowing back into into the stone. A script on the other side of the stone from me revealed that the piece was offered by the French people of Geneva in memory of the losses of the First World War, if I read it correctly. This statue was a surprise for me – nothing I'd expected to find or had read about – and I found myself unexpectedly moved by it: that it conveyed something to me of what that generation experienced of overwhelming loss and mourning. I spent a little time with it, walking around it and admiring it from other angles, enjoying the success of how effective and simple it was: it seemed to me to be a real achievement for whoever the artist had been. Then I continued up the path, walking around a more conventional statue memorial for Henri Dunant, whose name and story I now knew well, from the day before, as the founder of the International Red Cross.

As I came around the building and found its entrance, I discovered that the Museum of the Reformation was no longer in this building, and no longer on the campus of the University at all. I was given directions to a building just to the side of the Cathedral, which was further down on my list of places to visit this day, anyway. I stood at the heart of the campus, filmed a bit of a panorama, taking in the buildings and just trying to feel for a moment what it was like to be a student on this campus, from what you could just tell by the architecture and grounds. Then I turned and walked across the broad parkspace on the campus grounds to the edge where the long wall of the Memorial to the Reformation stretched across the rising ground heading toward the heart of Old Geneva.

The Memorial, almost all in wall form except for a few outlying blocks of stone, is focused on the Geneva or Reformed churches' Reformation, and not the entire Reformation. So Luther and Zwingli were only briefly "mentioned" by having their names inscribed on the outlying blocks, while the length of the wall is centered on John Calvin and what flowed from the events of what occurred in Geneva, even to the Reformed Pilgrims and their efforts in the colony in Massachusetts. I took a gazillion pics of the thing, with its various little sub-memorials, narratives and texts. A lot of it I figured would be something I would be able to take in in detail when I could study the pics back in America, and that I would end up spending far more time at the wall than I could afford if I tried to take it all in today while I was actually there. And, to be honest, I was more interested in seeing what the Museum would get across to me about the Geneva Reformation than this Memorial could, perhaps particularly because – even as a "church historian" – this is the least interesting part of Reformation history to me. I was far more interested and even enthralled by the work I did on Luther as Mickey Mattox's teaching assistant during the past spring semester. Still, it was interesting to see the kinds of consequences – like the Pilgrims and the growth of the American experiment – that the Memorial chose to take in. After a while here, I began to follow the weaving path that took me up the hill, into the well-kept and picturesque winding medieval streets of Old Geneva, working my way to the square where the steeple and towers of the Cathedral dominate the city, and where the Museum and Cathedral awaited.


Well, I just came out of the Museum of the Reformation. I’m sitting in the courtyard in front of Saint Pierre, Saint Peter’s Cathedral, which I guess is now quite a Protestant church, despite the audacity of the name! I haven’t gone inside yet: that’s next. The Museum was interesting … I think it would not grab a child, that’s for sure: perhaps a little on the dry side. I had a great conversation inside with a girl working the desk, whose name was Shiveh Reed. “Shiveh” was new to me. A Persian name: her mother being Persian, her father being Irish. But the girl’s at Wellesley: junior, studying history, studying Reformation history, and has been here this year, and is looking toward doctoral work. So we talked shop a little bit. It was interesting to hear her story of coming to faith in Wellesley, and to hear her thoughts about the politics of the school and so forth. So, a bright one: no doubt she has a great future in front of her, and I will see her at the meetings someday.

The Museum itself, though, was … kinda Protestant-ish, I guess. It was very word oriented. Certainly there were a lot of images from history, a lot of engravings blown large and so forth, but you didn’t have anything of the sacramental, symbolic value to speak of: some crosses and some communion cups early in, but after that it was historical lessons, clips of music, images of the city. Definitely it was the history of the Reformation here: Luther was given very little time and space. It ended with glances at Barth and such. The oddest room was a dinner table room with a recorded exchange by a bunch of theologians, thinkers, including Rousseau, arguing about Predestination. The actors appaarently had never heard anyone talk about such things except some kind of a French version of a late-night TV preacher (or – God help us – the History or Discovery Channels and their “historical” re-enactments) because everything sounded like a homicidal threat! One opinion about the doctrine of predestination gets to the end and you hear “And I will kill the rest of you!” Although this was not exactly said, it certainly seemed implied! Speaking as a theologian myself, who is very accustomed to theological conversations, particularly around the dinner table, I’ve never heard anything like that in my life! So, that was … um, sobering.

So, the Museum of the Reformation is right next door to the Cathedral, unlike my guidebook, which had it over at the University. I thus found out that the current Insight Guide for Switzerland is four years old. So I went the long way around the city to get here. But I did see quite a bit, so that was nice, and I took in the impressive Wall – of the Monument to the Reformation – which, like the Museum here, is utterly focused on the Geneva Reformation and its results. So, Luther and Zwingli were present only as entry stones coming in. So, Erik was right that the heart of the city here – the high city, probably inside old city walls – I wonder if part of what I walked up to get here, from where the University and the Reformation Monument were, might have been parts of old city walls. This is all very much more “medieval European”-looking: hilly cobblestoned, or early bricked, and high, narrow streets, wandering whichever way. Gorgeous, though. Wonderful upkeep. Certainly, probably the high end of the city price-wise here, too, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover. So, anyway, got a 12th century St. Peter’s in front of me with an 18th century neoclassical façade. And, I’m sure, stripped altars inside. So I suppose I should tackle that next. I don’t know if it’s probably … noon? The time certainly was running away from me. One-thirty! Okay, so … off we go!

Well, I’ve made it a little farther away from my last recording spot: I’m now on the other side of the square in front of Saint Pierre. I went into Saint Pierre: very stripped down, very Protestant – classically, in that sense – with the shape of a medieval cathedral and the austerity that one expects in a Calvinist center of worship. The lovely woodwork of the pulpit area, front and center, elevated high and projected forward ….

(This is an especially LARGE file)

The real treasure, though – the main church probably all of took all of ten minutes to fully absorb the wood and the stone and the sense of the place – the real treasure is the archaeological dig underneath. For that I went and purchased the text on, although I’m nervous that it has a 1986 date in it. The work is still continuing, and it seems to just be an absolute treasure trove, not just of early church life in Geneva, but just of the history of the settlement and this area itself. Tribes before Christ, before the Romans, before Caesar came through this way, as I’d read all those years ago reading The Gallic Wars for the first time under Marvin Powell. I, for one, would be very inclined to do as the English-speaker on the audio guide said, and make this a trip that I came back to, or a place that I’d come back to over and over again. I don’t know that Geneva lies in my future, but I don’t know anything that lies in my future at this point. But that would be up on my list if I ever came back here. I spoke very briefly to one of the archaeologists who was on the scene at work here, mostly just curious under whose auspices the work is being carried out – I was wondering if it was a local university or a consortium of that sort or the church, I suppose – but he said that it was a state interest that was taking it forward. But all of it was just one of the most immensely accessible, informative, and laden-with-variety sites I have ever seen for an archaeological experience. So Four Stars through and through for that one.

I don’t know: I haven’t gone up in the tower – I’m afraid that I’m not terribly inclined to do so, as classic as that’s supposed to be. [Erik later took me to task for this, letting me know that I was an idiot for missing a great view of the city and area, and thus causing me to repent: too late.] So, coming around to quarter-to-four now and I’m supposed to meet Erik at 5:30, and so I’ll start to move!

Hold that thought. Addendum to the former entry: I’m still sitting here, across from the façade of Saint Pierre, and under a frowning statue of Calvin, for whom I’ve never had any patience. One of the fascinating results of this, all of a sudden, is to be here on the top of the hill of Old Geneva and to be looking at the façade of Saint Pierre and now to see the South Cathedral, whose southwestern entrance or corner I must be near, and the North Cathedral would be over there, and the atrium and the Baptistery underneath the stairs…. To see the church from the fourth century, the fifth century, and the ninth century – to see it all laid out here in my eyes, in my head – is one of the real results of a very good presentation here: to be able to see the overlapping structures over the centuries all in my mind’s eye because of this program’s ability to educate on how this space has grown and developed. Again, four stars: great presentation!


Walking around behind the Cathedral, I paused here and there to photograph a few things. I saw the auditorium next to the Cathedral itself where Calvin had apparently done a lot of his teaching, and then worked my way to a tiny parkspace behind and below the Cathedral where the hill drops quickly down toward the lake. Here I took some photographs looking up the back of the Cathedral, caught up in the busy angles of the building, and looking out over the city toward the lake from where I stood straining for the angle from the top of a picnic table, leaning out over a drop to a street cut a distance below. After that, I just found myself refilling my water bottle from one of the street fountains and resting quietly, just watching some mothers in the park as they played with their children or pushed their strollers along while they took in the relative quiet of this part of the city.

When I started working my way down through the winding city streets, still thinking about some of the ancient and medieval details that I'd learned of below the Cathedral and imagining them into the view of the city I now saw, I stumbled upon another of the Museums to which I'd already paid admission in the Museum-group ticket I had picked up days earlier during the Swiss Guard exhibition at the Museum of the Swiss Abroad. This was the vaguely-named Barbier Mueller Museum, and – this being my last day, after all, and with a bit of time to kill before going to meet Erik and the Mystery Women – I ducked in through the unassuming doorway off the street I'd been walking down.

At first, I have to admit I was slightly baffled. The first wide room I found myself in had an unattended counter where someone ought to have been to greet and charge me. I was alone in the room, and scattered around me, and up the curving staircase and along the balcony running around the room, were a variety of artworks that seemed to have no relation to each other whatsoever. But they were all clearly all treasures, and I had an idle temptation to simply seize my favourite and walk out with it, just because I was so unusually unattended. But setting that amusing picture aside, I focused on the art and began moving around the room. (A young woman did eventually appear and "check me in" and I had been quick to spot the camera trained on me and the pieces.) The styles were radically different. Aztec or modern; Egyptian or Medieval European; Greek or Chinese. Finally, before I finally found a text or banner that told me, I realized what it was I was looking at: cats and birds. I'd never seen anything quite like it at larger art museums: instead of being organized by style, era or approach, the exhibition was one organized by theme. "Birds and Felines, Compared Arts" It made for occasionally jarring, almost humourous transitions, but it was easy to get caught up such a basic theme – creatures we saw all the time, everywhere – and yet to see the wildly differnt ways they had been incorporated into human arts, whether as casual decoration or cultic instruments. I talked for a brief time with a student who had come in after me, who was from Mexico, but mostly just moved through the rooms silently, losing some forty-five minutes or an hour there before continuing on toward my meeting Erik, but now with a quietly pleased smile on my face that such a delightful and somehow light-hearted exhibition had given me.

Go to: Geneva to Milwaukee: Part Two: The Nicod Sisters
Tags: architecture, art, cultural, europe, friends-notre dame era, geneva, geography, historical, mysticism/spirituality, personal, photography, travel, travel-2006 geneva/venice/florence, youtube

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