November 20-23, 2016: The Land of 11-Franc Water

In order to catch my long-haul train to Geneva for the Career Trek, I had to wake up for a 5:30am train. I only slept about 3.5 hours the night before. I don’t think I have ever woken up so early so often before coming to Bologna. But there are all these early trains and planes to catch. I just happened to run into Antonia walking up via Independenza with her luggage on her way to Geneva too. And I’m glad we found each other. There were people still out from the previous night. And there were people at the train station going home. They were mostly Africans for some reason. And I don’t want to stereotype, but they were doing very suspicious things like getting close to us and yelling across the train. It was really strange where they talk to each other but don’t sit near each other. We weren’t comfortable falling asleep while they were still on the train. It was good to have some company. We split up in Milan because we had assigned seats. Our train was running late at first but luckily it caught up because we had a short layover in Milan.

It just so happened that Gaetan and Elle were in my carriage. The second train was really nice going to Switzerland. I had a four seater all to myself. I had plenty of time to write my blog and stare out the window at the pretty Swiss Alps and the green countryside. The mountains are capped with snow. It is really pretty against the blue sky. It’s not foggy in Switzerland like it is in Bologna. We passed by Lago Maggiore on the Italian side, and I mistook it for Lake Como. But nonetheless, it is really pretty. There are lots of lakeside mansions. You could see why I mistook it.

Switzerland is unbelievably, ridiculously expensive. I thought Scandinavia was expensive but Switzerland just blows it out of the water. Even Chinese food was expensive. And Chinese food is universally cheap around the world. It was over 20 francs (roughly 20 euros!). And we arrived on a Sunday which made it even more difficult to find any restaurant open, let alone a reasonable one. Only the immigrants open on Sunday. We wandered around for over an hour searching for a place to eat with everyone complaining the whole way. I’d been up really early and it was getting pretty late. We ended up settling on falafel. It was ok. It is certainly not worth 11 francs. But it was the cheapest thing we found. Our friends ordered water at a restaurant with dinner without really thinking about it, and it cost 11 francs!

Gaetan said the reason everything is so expensive is because it creates a barrier for people to immigrate to Switzerland. People who work there are paid enough to compensate for the expensive everyday goods. It is expensive to eat out, and it is expensive to buy groceries. It is a lose-lose situation. It is not a visitor-friendly country.

We happened to run into Alice and her friend from Geneva who showed us around the old town. The fountain in the center of town has potable water. It’s kind of weird. He was actually an excellent tour guide. He took us to the Calvinist church, which was very plain and Calvinist, unlike the ornate Italian Catholic churches. They basically strip the walls of any excess. It is a more humble form of Christianity. We didn’t climb up the tower in the church because everything is expensive. We found a little café where we all had hot wine (vin chaud) with cinnamon and orange. It is very good, perfect for the winter. We saw city hall and a park. We did a lot of walking. And at one point, I almost got hit by a tram. They don’t stop for nothin’.


What is this weird baton twirling thing this lady was doing in a public park?
The only cool thing in an otherwise plain Calvinist church

We had dinner at a fondue restaurant on a barge on the lake. It is the cheapest fondue in Switzerland because the restaurant is owned by the state, so it is subsidized. Fondue is what you do in the winter in Switzerland. I must admit that I thought I would love fondue because I love cheese and bread, but it was just so much cheese and bread. It was really heavy. And the cheese they use has a bit of a taste to it. On top of that, you’re not supposed to drink water because it is bad for digestion. Supposedly, the cheese expands or something. You’re supposed to drink wine instead. But by the end of the meal, I really just wanted water. You have to really get the bread deep in the pot and swirl it around for a good while, but then you get so much cheese. I really couldn’t handle it. I disappointed myself a bit. I now never want to eat cheese again.

Way too much fondue…

Day 1 of the career trek started early. We walked over to the International Trade Commission (ITC). The air is really dry in Switzerland. I felt like I was getting sick. Partially I probably wasn’t drinking enough but I think the air had something to do with it too. The presentation was very good at the ITC. It was informative and made trade genuinely sound interesting, which I didn’t really have too much interest in before. But the following day we went to the World Trade Organization (WTO) which was insanely boring. They make trade sound like how I thought trade was going to be. They were SAIS alums who all said their jobs were basically sitting at a desk number crunching. At that point, I was kind of turned off to trade again. They did have a very nice location right on a lake, in a big ornate building with a Gilman-like atrium. They also seem to hire very few non-lawyers, non-phd-level-economists. So there is no hope for us.

WTO: Fancy room, boring presentation

What was interesting though was that the WTO employees were the only people we met that seemed to have any stability. They may have boring desk jobs, but they have families and they live in Geneva long term. Everyone else moved every couple of years. And as far as I knew, they didn’t have families. It is something worth considering.

The presentation at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was very good too. The speaker had the best presentation of any we saw. But she did make me question myself about whether I am capable of doing field work. I don’t know if I’m cut out for it. It is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing work that I may not be mentally, emotionally or physically prepared for. Human rights work is hard. The work that the IOM does is undoubtedly rewarding but I don’t know if I can live like that.

From the IOM, we walked the about an hour to the International Environment House (IEH) where a lot of NGOs and IGOs are housed. There was a bus but we wanted to walk since we had plenty of time anyways. Sofia didn’t want to walk and she was trying to guilt us into taking the bus with her. But it didn’t work. We adamantly walked underneath a highway that was graffiti-ed. It actually looked like it could’ve been a scene in New York, rather than Geneva. In contrast, we also passed by enormous mansions.

Most all of the presentations at IEH were really boring. And it was really hot in there too so I was falling asleep the whole time. The Geneva Environment Network (GEN) was boring and pointless. The best one was the World Food Programme (WFP). The presenter knew her stuff and was very good and she was talking about interesting work. But with most of these UN organizations, they are looking for people that already have experience, moreover field experience. They look for humanitarian work on your resume. You can’t suddenly decide you want to turn your life around and do good in the world. You have to prove that you have consistently done good in the world to do more good. It is a little perverse. You would think they just want as many people as possible, but that is not the case. It is very difficult to get these humanitarian jobs.

Afterwards, we took a bus to a bar for happy hour. I paid for a bus ticket, but no one ever checks for tickets. And the busses are so expensive that I think a lot of people don’t bother to pay for it. Everyone was late to happy hour because the scheduling was poor. There were supposed to be alumni there and there were only a handful, compared to the fifteen of us. The ratio wasn’t really right. And then we had to buy our own drinks and there was no food. We were all just starving. I talked to Amanda, the new head of the Career Center in Bologna. She is really nice but she isn’t crazy about the mess that is the Bologna Center. She correctly points out that there is no organization at our school whatsoever. I also talked to a guy from Montenegro who works for the UN Secretariat. And I talked to Gabriele, who works for the Norwegian Refugee Organization (NRO). His work was really interesting. And I got a business card. There was never really much opportunity for us to give out business cards. It was more the other way around. I didn’t need to get that rush order on business cards. Now I just have a hundred business cards and nothing to do with them.

We went to GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance the second day. It is a private-public partnership funded partially by Bill and Melinda Gates. I kind of like the function of a private-public partnership. There was an intern there that is an undergrad at Boston University studying communications. Maybe Morgan can do a semester in Geneva. It’d be an expensive semester. The presentation was really interesting. One of the main focuses is on supply chain and being able to get vaccines to those who need it. One new way they are doing that is by using drones to drop vaccines to doctors who need them in almost no time at all. I want to work for the drone company.

Later in the day, we got on a really packed tram and it made me realize that Geneva is just like any other place! It’s not all totally bougie. People take public transportation and they have crowded public transportation too. Gaetan thought he saw a controller so he got off the bus while we continued, not realizing they got off until it was too late. So we got off at the next stop and then walked. But we were still far from our destination. We didn’t know he saw a controller, we thought they got off cause we arrived. But as we continued walking, we saw them through the window of another bus and we hopped on that one. And we ended up together.

We had lunch at coop and they ran out of kebab right in front of me. They still had meat but no more bread, so wouldn’t serve it. So instead, I got a small plate of real food and then a plate of cherry tart. Dessert makes me happier.

The Sphere Project was interesting. The woman that runs it had a lot of interesting humanitarian experiences. I tried to gauge from her what it is really like to work in the field. And it seems really tough. She was in positions where there was a coup in the country and they had to flee in the middle of the night. She was in positions in war-torn countries and had to decide whether it was worth staying. And I don’t want to ever have to be put in that position. It sounds like a tough life.

UNHCR was kind of good. The SAIS alum was very friendly and he’s a good contact to have. But his presentation was more just like general advice on applying for jobs. So overall, it wasn’t so helpful.

Overall, the trip was good. It was a soul-searching experience. I am glad I went. Now I know that I don’t want to do trade or field work. I know that the UN is unrealistic. You need experience to get to the UN. The UN is the end goal for many. They do NGO work then go to the UN. It sounds like the private sector is most open to hiring people straight out of school with little experience. And they’ll pay more.

I had relatively less expensive Turkish food for dinner. And then Elle, Sofia and I went out for a drink after. We had a good heart-to-heart about racism and language barriers for international students. I guess I kind of always knew it, but I didn’t realize just how difficult a time some of the international students have with simply taking classes in English. It’s the very reason I’m not in Nanjing. What normally takes me 20 minutes, might take them twice as long. Especially when it comes to writing proper grammar. But moreover, the American system is different than what they are used to. We understand that when you get a long reading list, you’re not expected to read it all. We quickly learn how to do the minimal amount of work. But they feel this obligation to do it all. But after a certain point, if you’re not understanding it then what’s the point of doing it? In American school, we learn what is worth our valuable time.

The next morning, everyone woke up at 4:30am to catch the early train back to Bologna and they woke me up. I, on the other hand, got to start later because I am staying an extra day since I am not missing anything important at school. I, for one, don’t care to go to microeconomics section. Audrey stayed an extra day too and we hung out. We had arepas for lunch. That is the one good thing about Geneva, that as an international city, it has all sorts of cuisine. I had Venezuelan, Thai, Turkish and Swiss while in Geneva.

We took the tram to CERN for a free tour. Some lady getting off the bus handed me her ticket since it was still good. I was just going to get on the bus without paying, but it didn’t hurt to have a ticket. We signed up for the tour in French because Audrey speaks French and the English tour was booked. But luckily, I was able to get the last spot on the English tour when we arrived. I think they felt bad for me. So we split up. Good thing we did because I would not have even kind of followed physics in French. They go into the nitty-gritty of the science behind particle collisions. I thought it would be much more surface-level. It went over my head. Our tour guide is actually a physicist though, an Italian professor from St Mary’s University. I accidentally offended her by asking if she was an engineer, whoops. She is very Italian in that she is long winded and late and slow. The staff at CERN is mostly physicists, but the permanent payroll is not mostly physicists. There are scientists who come to study there on grants from their universities, and other places. You don’t actually see much on the tour, but you learn a lot about physics. I’m surprised they even try because I can’t imagine that many people comprehend it. The Large Hadron Collider has four crossing points. They are far underground and we didn’t go underground. We did see the ATLAS control room while they were doing collisions, so we could see the graphs. And we saw an old particle accelerator and they had a cool light show on the collider. There is another exhibit there too. It includes the original www server created by Tim Berners Lee from the time he was working there and invented the world wide web.


The UN Palace and a broken chair (art)

Afterwards, we didn’t have enough time to go to the UN Palace like we had intended. We were expecting it to be one of our destinations on the career trek, but it oddly wasn’t. Instead, we just went into the old town and had hot wine. We had an early dinner at the chicken place that Alice’s friend recommended the first night. I had a chicken noodle soup naively thinking I was getting soup noodles with chicken. There is a fine distinction. I should’ve just gotten the rotisserie chicken. For dessert, we had a fantastic chocolate mousse. They do chocolate well in Switzerland.


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