All About Geneva with Anita Lehmann

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Who We're Speaking With

In this episode we'll be speaking once again with Anita Lehmann who joined us for episode 19.

Anita is a multi-award winning author of 9 books for children and adults, with her picture book 'Slobber, Slobber, Kiss, Kiss' shortlisted for the German Children's Literature Prize in 2020.

Born and raised in Bern, Anita moved to Geneva as a student, for the first of two stays there. She gained an MA in Economic and Social History from the University of Geneva and has lived and worked in all kinds of interesting places, like the Galapagos Island and Taiwan, before making Cambridge in the UK her home.

Since a few of our listeners are either based in Geneva already, or thinking of moving there, we thought it might be nice this time to look towards the French-speaking part of the country and to speak with Anita about Geneva and her most recent book The Geneva Chronicles which was published in Spring 2022.

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Well, hello everybody and welcome to another episode of the Expert Guide to Your Life in Switzerland.

This is a series of conversations in which we speak with people who could be considered experts on different aspects of life in Switzerland and share what we learn with you. This series is brought to you by Rigby. We're a staffing and IT services company based in Zurich. If you or anyone you know of is looking for a new role in Switzerland or if you're looking to hire, let us know, we'd be happy to help. The best way to do that is by sending an email to contact {at} rigby.ch.

Alright, in this episode we'll be speaking once again with Anita Lehmann who joined us for episode 19.

Anita is a multi-award winning author of 9 books for children and adults, with her picture book 'Slobber, Slobber, Kiss, Kiss' shortlisted for the German Children's Literature Prize in 2020. Born and raised in Bern and with an MA in Economic and Social History from the University of Geneva, Anita has lived and worked in all kinds of interesting places, like the Galapagos Island and Taiwan, before making Cambridge in the UK her home.

Since a few of our listeners are either based in Geneva already, or thinking of moving there, we thought it might be nice this time to look towards the French-speaking part of the country and to speak with Anita about Geneva and her most recent book The Geneva Chronicles which was published in Spring 2022.

Anita, welcome back!

Thank you, Daniel. Nice to be back.

Okay, could you begin by telling us a little bit about your history with the Swiss Romande and Geneva in particular?

Yes, sure.

So, I am Swiss by origin. I grew up in Bern, so in the German speaking part. But one of the cool things that I like about Switzerland is that you can go and live and study in different languages in the same country. So I decided I wanted to study in French in Geneva. So I went to live in Geneva to study social and economic history. Then I moved to the UK for love and worked there and had two kids. And when my husband then got a job in Geneva, we all relocated back to Geneva in 2011.

So the student experience was quite different and quite unlike the family experience of the city. It was basically a bit like moving to a a new city altogether because suddenly all the things that you worry about when you're a student become irrelevant and things like, "oh, can I get on this bus with a pushchair?", or "where is the nearest playground?" becomes really important. So it was really discovering a new city altogether. So that was exciting.

And in April 2022, you wrote the book, The Geneva Chronicles, telling the history of the city through 17 stories. Could you tell us a bit about what inspired you to write the book?

Yes, sure. So actually I wrote the book 10 years earlier, nearly, I started writing it 10 years earlier because my son really struggled settling in Geneva. He was a new nursery, it was a new language, a new culture for him, but he had this very deep interest in history already when he was very little. And in the UK there is this series of books called The Horrible Histories.

Horrible histories, yeah.

Do you know them?

Fantastic, yeah, love it.

They're great, aren't they? And so it's basically history books with a lot of jokes in them. And I tried to find a book like this about Geneva, basically horrible histories for Geneva, but I couldn't find anything. And I don't think there was anything like this on the market in 2012 in Switzerland. So being a historian and the children's author, I decided to write that book myself. And that's what I did.

Yes. And do you have a favorite among the 17 stories in the book?

Yes, so I like them all, I like them all really because I've grown quite fond of Geneva as a process in the process of writing this book. I grew quite fond of Geneva. So I'm going to tell you about the one that I found trickiest to write, but I really, really like now. And that is actually about Calvin and the Reformation. So there is a chapter in the book about Calvin and the Reformation because he is very, very important to Geneva's history. And Calvin obviously has a reputation of being very austere and very serious, very Protestant. And I was really struggling because I thought, how on earth can I make his story fun and accessible for children for my book. And it turns out it actually was a lot of fun because Calvin is a lot more nuance than we give him credit for.

So for example he was very austere and serious and he was obviously a complete workaholic and he genuinely believed in what he preached and he lived by his own rules and so he probably wasn't very much fun to hang out with and then he tried to impose his rules on the people of Geneva so he didn't like people dancing or gambling or you know plays theatre He banned theatre. So basically it wasn't much fun.

But interestingly, he also did some really, really good things for the city. So the city at the time in the, you know, in the 16th century was completely filthy. People just threw their rubbish and their human waste right into the streets. So Calvin introduced the new drainage system, which actually made Geneva much healthier and safer to live in. He also believed in general education so that every child should be able to learn to read and write, which, you know, 400 years ago was quite, quite innovative, as a thought. And he, he interestingly, did something that really surprised me. And because I knew nothing about this, he fought against domestic violence. So Calvin, you know, created laws that to punish men who hit their wives. And so, in a way, that was obviously a very, very good thing for women.

So he was having said all of this, he was a very controversial figure and he was a foreigner, he was a refugee from France. And people were like, "who is he, this foreigner telling us what to do with our city?"

And when you go into the archives, it becomes a lot of fun because you read about murder attempts against Calvin. So somebody tried to push him off an icy bridge into the throne. You read about people naming their dogs after Calvin to annoy him. You read about court cases, for example, about a woman who had been dancing at her wedding illegally. And so she was thrown into prison, but not without shouting the worst insults at Calvin on the way. And so it was all quite exciting and dramatic and interesting to read about. And so that's, I hope, I managed to put that into the book.

Do you think on balance that Calvin's reforms were for the good of the city?

Oh, I don't know. It's just it's what happened, isn't it? It's just he didn't only, I mean, he had such a massive influence not only on Geneva, because Geneva became the Protestant centre of the world, basically. And then from there, you had, you know, John Knox taking his preachings to Scotland and the UK. And America was deeply, deeply influenced by the the Calvinists who then went there and the sort of Puritans and Protestants. So he had a huge influence on the world. I don't know whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, but he certainly made his mark.

Yes. You talk about history as a tool for integration. Could you expand a bit on that, please?

So I talked about this earlier with regards to my son settling into Geneva and history helping him to find his way and to grow his roots there. And if I let me just go back a little bit, because there are these studies about the importance of family history for children. So, for example, you know, those little family stories, people tell each other where, you know, the time dad was naughty and stole sweets from the sweet shop or how granny and granddad met or got married. All these little stories are actually..

It was only once!

Is that right? What happened?

Yes!

But these stories are really important for a child's development and understanding of themselves and their sense of belonging. And we are only now starting to understand quite how important these things are for a family, because they help a child understand where they belong in the biggest scheme. And in my mind, I think the same applies to places. So not only the place you come from, but also the place you live in. So it's important to grow a sense of self and grow roots in a new place when you move. And to get an understanding of where this place came from and how you fit into it. Because otherwise, I think you risk just floating about on the surface of a place. And I think that can be really detrimental to people's well-being. And humans are social creatures. So I think it's a basic human need to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. And so for me, history, understanding a place's history is such a powerful tool for integration. And I think it's very, very much underestimated by a lot of people.

So this was my aim with this book is to tell kids true stories about the city or the place they live in and whether they've always lived in Geneva or whether they knew to the place doesn't really matter. So small stories and big stories, stories about things they see on a daily basis. And I think that's just, it can be very powerful and empowering for a child.

And now about the creative process Anita, and how you structured the book. Could you tell us a bit about that please?

Yes, I had a lot of fun making this book and creating this book. It took quite a while for me to work out the how I was going to structure it. But it started with a visit to the Archaeology Museum in Geneva. And in that museum, it's right underneath the cathedral, and you can see all the different layers of the history of Geneva. And in there, I found the skeleton of a 2000-year-old Celtic chieftain. And that chieftain is from a tribe called the Allobroges. So that's a tribe that lived in Geneva at the time. And Allobroges translated means the people from elsewhere.

Now I thought, you know, given Geneva's international character, achieved him from a people from elsewhere who is buried in the heart of the city and has witnessed everything that has happened there over the past 2000 years would simply make the perfect narrator for this book. And so I call them Allo the Allobroges and he is the narrator of the book.

And in the museum there are also remains of the horse. So I gave Allo a smart horse as a sidekick. And so these two basically give you the thread through the book. So they take, they take the reader on a journey through the history of Geneva.

And so in the book I then built it up from you know, 2000 years ago to the modern day via a tsunami on Lake Geneva, the time of the medieval fares and the Maison Tavel, which is one of the only surviving medieval houses in Geneva, as the surprisingly fun chapter on the Reformation and Calvin.

And then going through the 18th, 19th and 20th century with people such as Rousseau and Voltaire, Mary Shelley and Frankenstein and Henri Dunant, who was the founder of the Red Cross and the first Nobel Prize winner and then finishing off with the story of the UN and CERN.

So yes, for me it was important in terms of building the book that all the stories were visitable as it were and seeable. So all the things that I talk about in the book can be to see. So you can go and visit the Château de Coppet, the Castle in Coppet, where Gérémé de Steyer lives, Voltaire's house, which is now a museum. You can go on a trail to to see all the things that Rousseau did in Geneva.

The UN, obviously you can visit, the Maison Tavel is now the History Museum in Geneva, the Cathedral, you could even visit Allo the Allobroges in the Archaeology Museum underneath the Cathedral. And then Pierre Wazem, the illustrator, he took the whole thing to a new level in terms of seeing things.

Yes, there are beautiful illustrations.

Yes, he did a wonderful job on there. And he used, for example, there's a painting when I talk about when Geneva became Swiss. So when the Swiss Confederates appeared on the boat in the Port-Noir harbour. So there is a painting of that in the Art and History Museum in Geneva and Pierre basically just gave it its own comic spin. So he used that painting. So if you go to the Art and History Museum, you will find, you will see the same picture basically, but in a slightly different interpretation.

What are your favourite parts of Geneva? Are there any places to visit in particular that you would point out?

Oh, there are so many places that I like about Geneva! I'm very much a water person. So I love that Geneva has a lot of water. So I love the Bains des Pâquis, which is a bath built onto the lake. Do you know them?

Yes, sure.

Yeah. And in the winter, they have a sauna there. And so you can go in the sauna and jump into the cold lake and then afterwards and you can have a fondue right there. There is a little restaurant and in winter they serve fondue and it's one of the best experiences for me in all of Switzerland I think to have a sauna followed by a fondue on the banks of the lake.

And do you swim in the lake in winter?

Oh yes.

You're very brave.

After a sauna visit you need to cool down, no?

Yeah, so they say, but it's easier said than done!

That's true. It's not always. I didn't always do it, only sometimes. You also can just.. Depends how you feel. But there are people who swim all year round. There is the New Year's swim in Geneva. It's very, very famous. It's a Christmas swim, I think. I'm not sure.

Yes, there's something like that here in Zurich as well.

Yes.

And then the second place I'd like to mention is La Jonction, which is my second favourite part of Geneva. It's basically where the river Rhône meets the river Arve and the Arve comes with a lot of sediments from the mountains and the Rhône is all clear and turquoise and very beautiful and blue and you have these two colours because of where the rivers merge you have the sort of colours merging into each other and it's a pretty magical place actually.

It used to be a huge tourist attraction in the 19th century and then it kind of got forgotten about so it's not very well known now, but I highly recommend a visit to La Jonction.

That's a great tip.

Definitely. Yeah.

Is there any advice that you would share with someone thinking about relocating to Geneva or the surrounding area to help them to settle in and enjoy life there?

Yeah, I think you will know that, Daniel. I think Switzerland it isn't always obvious how you can integrate easily. And I think Geneva has no exception to that. So I think there is a lot of proactivity required and a lot of patience. But my personal experience from living in many different places, whether that be, you know, Taiwan or Ecuador or the UK or Switzerland is that curiosity opens doors everywhere. And just whatever you're interested in, you know, language, history, culture, sports, join some sort of group or organisation and get involved and be curious because people love sharing their stories and people love it when people from elsewhere show an interest. I think it's a really, really big deal for people and that happens and that will open many, many doors.

Yeah, I'd agree.

And read the book!

Read the book!

We will include a link in the show notes.

Anita, I wanted to ask you, could you let our listeners know, please, where they can find out more about you and the book?

Yes, absolutely. So my website, I've got a website, it's www.anita-lehmann.com and you can get the book in any good book shop or online on at the bergli.ch website or on Amazon, if you must!

Or on Amazon. All right, well, thank you very much for joining us, Anita. It's been very interesting.

Thank you so much for having me, Daniel.

Alright, well that was a little bit about Geneva with Anita Lehmann. We'll be including links in the show notes to some of the things that we spoke about.

In the next episode we'll be taking a look at the Swiss schooling system with the woman who wrote the book about it, Margaret Oertig. She wrote a wonderful book called Going Local, Your Guide to the Swiss Schooling System. If there are any questions that you would like us to ask Margaret then you can let us know by sending an email to the usual address, contact {at} rigby.ch.

So that'll do it for today. Until the next time!


*Calvin lived ~500 years ago

**Theatre was banned later on, by Calvin's successors, not by Calvin himself.