Place: Geneva; Country: Switzerland
This was my first ever solo trip to a European destination and it was made memorable due to an interesting albeit unpleasant incident. So I am going to kick start this section with a story about Swiss police.
I sat down for lunch at a Turkish owned eatery after exhausting my list of places-to-see in the compact Geneva town centre on my second day of the trip. I decided to spend the rest of the day with a cruise in Lake Geneva, locally known in French as Lac Léman, which is presumably the largest lake in Western Europe and also borders France .
I originally wanted to take a ferry to Lausanne but no company was operating scheduled services due to off season. Either that or perhaps there were none available at that time of the day. So I had to make do with an hour-long circular trip of the lake, which, incidentally, also happened to be my first ever ferry ride.
There was some time to the departure. I was strolling leisurely round the waiting area and enjoying the blue crispness of the waters. A stretch of hillocks brushing the clouds in the sky could be seen across the narrow stretch of the lake. The famous fountain (Jet d’Eau) was magnanimously spurting gallons of water upwards, sending chilling vibes down my spine. It was partially overcast. Short spells of sunshine made no difference as it was particularly windy and chill factor was causing my nose and fingerstips to freeze.
As I took in the surroundings, basking in the beauty of Geneva, a man approached me: Short height, shabbily dressed, large brown eyes, rough hands like those of carpenters, but decidedly emitting the air of a tourist. “Parlez–vous Français?,” he asked. I understand enough French to inform the asker that I don’t understand. “Non”, I excused. Fine. No problem for him. He switched to English.
He was an Italian tourist visiting Geneva. Enchanté. Glad to meet him. (Smiles). Could I take a few pictures for him. Sure. Why not. No no. This isn’t the right place. Why don’t we go down those stairs closer to the fence. It would give perfect view of the lake. Fine with me. Travelling solo I had realised how vitally important it is to help out other solo tourists with their camera clicks. I could empathise.
The little corner down the stairs was deserted. It hid us from the few other people in the waiting corridor, some of whom queued at the ticket office. He handed over his camera to me. It took me some time to work out some clicks. Not because the camera was too complicated for the techno-simpleton like myself but because it was too old and not working properly. I developed an immediate disliking to both the camera and his owner, who, for some unfathomable reason, uncannily reminded me of the Venetian characters of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
I had hardly clicked a couple of times when two uniformed policemen appeared out of nowhere. “Excusez-moi […..gibberish in French…]”, one of them said, with a suspicious, almost hostile look on his face. I immediately sensed that something was amiss. I did not know what. One of the uniform, a dark-skinned man with a pot belly, assuming I would definitely speak English if not French, asked me what I, and the Italian man, were doing down there. To take some pictures? What’s the matter?
I was asked to show my passport. I produced it. They couldn’t find the Swiss visa. Interrogation began. How the heck did I enter the country? Well, I have the UK student visa. Yeah but, this is not UK! Yeah, this isn’t BUT….but…(could he possibly know that at that time Third World passport holders like me were exempted from obtaining Swiss visa, provided we had a multiple British visa stamped in our passports, to enter Switzerland for the sole purposes of tourism?) I began to explain. He didn’t listen. Suddenly the visa lost its importane. It apparently didn’t matter to him anymore.
Next thing I knew he wanted to do a body search on me. Shucks. Well, no way in the world I could refuse. So I let him. Nothing objectionable was found. How much money I was carrying? A few hundreds Swiss Francs. So? Show you? Ok. I did not dare ask why he wanted to see my money. I, being a South Asian alien apparently without a Swiss visa, were a deliciously prime suspect of deliberate misunderstanding and could easily land into prison for offences unknown and unheared. I didn’t want to be another entry in their police registers. I just wanted to get rid of those two monsters and leave that haunted nook.
I took out my money from the belt round my waist and handed over to him. He searched through the stash of cash as if trying to find something tucked in between the notes. Then he began to count it. The other, the one with the pot belly, who was doing most of the interrogation, snuggled up to me and put his arm across my shoulders, pointing with the other hand over the fence across the other end of the lake. I followed his pointed finger as a reflex. “You know”, he said, “this place is dangerous.” He dropped his finger. I dropped my gaze. Confused and uncertain, I turned to look at his face. “Drug dealers come here”, he continued, pointing at the floor, “and sell drugs to tourists like you”. (It came as a relief to learn that I was a tourist). Oh ok. I got it. Sorry. I won’t come here again. My money please?
I got back my stash of cash. The bewildered Italian tourist was made to go through the similar procedure. But his wallet was not taken for inspection, neither his passport demanded, nor the cash on him counted. Then they both turned, up the stairs, got into their mobile, and left as abruptly as they had come.
Later during the day, when I counted my cash, I realised that almost half of it was missing. That night in my hotel room, disturbed and anguished, as I leafed through my LonelyPlanet, I read a sentence which made me laugh hysterically. The Swiss police are the most effective and least corrupt in all of Europe, declared the travel guide assuredly, right in my face.
Note: All pictures are my own unless stated otherwise.