Sunday, November 26, 2006

Yellow Monday

I've had the pleasure of seeing the seasons changing both in Europe and Oz. While the cicadas are coming out in Sydney, the leaves are dropping here in Geneva. I know this because I've seen both in the last week. When I glanced out of my window on my first day back at work, I noticed how yellow the final leaves of autumn are. The autumn coloured leaves of orange and brown have already fallen, but the remaining yellow leaves shimmer and glow in the twilight.

The brief trip home was a chance to take in extra yellow rays of the sun, before I returned to winter. Pete and I found a cicada shell in his garden and some friends gave me ear-rings in the shape of cicada wings. I realised just how Australian these creatures are when I tried to explain them to a colleague - the fun of collecting live cicadas with extra prestige for the rarer "black prince" and "yellow monday", the buzzing sound on a summer evening, and the first cicada shell of the season.... but I guess you had to be there.

Can't escape my middle class fate

Very few people here in Geneva can call themselves true Genevoise. Most of us are foreigners of some description, and many work in and around the UN. I've noticed that this international community has created its own unique class system, and I have managed, yet again, to find myself in the middle class.

The upper class consists of diplomats. Their mode of transport is car or taxi. I have one friend who is a diplomat, and my jaw dropped when I visited her apartment. My humble dwellings paled in comparison to the sheer luxury of this three bedroom villa with breathtaking views of the lake. I haven't had her over to mine yet...I really must.......but I'm a bit embarrased because she will have to sit on a plastic chair and the only view I can offer is of more apartments. My mode of transport? The tram and bus.

But everything is relative. "A view of more apartments?" cry the students and interns. "Sheer luxury. We are so poor we have no view at all! Trams? Why, we have to walk everywhere!" Most interns are not paid anything for the work they do, and need to pay their way by babysitting in the evenings. They are not afforded the luxury of a room to themselves, and must keep meals out to an absolute minimum. In the building where I live, my room is one of only four with its own bathroom and a balcony. A friend of mine who is studying a PhD cannot believe how lucky I am. She has no view at all from her apartment, cycles everywhere to avoid transport costs, and we usually meet for coffee because dinners out are out of the question.

So I've started riding my bike a bit more - in solidarity with my friends, and for the sheer fun of it!

Thursday, November 02, 2006

What am I doing here?

Before I left for Geneva, a friend asked me why I wanted to work with the United Nations. It’s an interesting question. The UN is criticized for being too bureaucratic, for being a talk-fest and for achieving very little. And certainly it has its problems. The system of consensus is quite different to the Quaker model, where those with a concern are genuinely listened to and a final statement is agreeable to all. Instead, countries use the power of veto as a tool of control, with the frustrating result that often no decision is made at all. In some meetings, each country will feel the need to comment on the timeliness of the meeting and congratulate the Chair on their recent election, which can leave no time for discussion of substance to take place.

So, why work with such an institution? I came to some clarity on this question when I was in Brussels. The keynote speaker at a Quaker Peace Conference pointed out that we don’t stop engaging with our national governments because they are not exactly the institution we would like them to be. Indeed, he pointed out that it is for this reason that we should engage most vigorously with them. The role of my organisation is to engage with the world's government. By advocating for international positions on human rights, disarmament and fair trade and facilitating dialogue and understanding between government representatives, we can have an impact on the current system. We can also model the kind of international diplomacy that we would want to see throughout the UN.

Not in our backyard

Quaker House, where I work, is situated in the beautiful, quiet, leafy suburb of Petit-Saconnex. Some of the houses we walk past are old fashioned and cute, others are modern and quite grand. They all have impressive gardens and well-kept hedges.

But all that is to change one day soon. The Geneva Government wants to compulsorily acquire an entire street in order to build social housing blocks. This will mean that the residents will be forced to sell to the Government in 2008. The residents are protesting, which means, according to Swiss law, that they are allowed to attach yellow ribbons to their gates. Like any important decision in Switzerland, the matter went to a vote, but, given that most of Geneva does not live on that street, they voted “oui, oui, oui” for the social housing.

This situation has brought up some interesting issues for me. Recently there was another vote. People voted "non, non, non" to a referendum asking them if they wanted to accept more refugees into their cantons. I do wonder, though, if these residents in Petit-Sacconex protested as strongly for the rights of the refugees to a safehaven as they did for their own rights to stay where they are. When I read the protest signs that say “construire mais autrement” I wonder if they mean “Go ahead and build, but not where it affects me”, or are they saying “Build, but find way to do it that suits us all”? I hope it is the latter.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Turning on the heat

It's starting to get colder here, which is good, because I get to wear all my new winter gear!! The amusing thing about the Swiss heating, though, is that there is a day that it all gets turned on in Geneva (I think it's the third week in October). Every industrial or residential building is required to fall into line with this arrangement, regardless of their individual heating needs. I suspect they have a ceremony that week, too - probably involving cows. There are good things about the approach of winter. A few of us hiked up Le Grammont the other day and it was so nice to find ourselves in a Swiss chalet at the top of a mountain and to sip a well-earned chocolat chaud, huddled next to an open fire.

Things are also hotting up work-wise. Having found my feet, I am flying to Brussels this weekend to give a little presentation about Quakers and Peacebuilding. Determined not to hide my small flame of spoken french under a bushel, I have been letting it shine in various social contexts with encouraging results. For example, when approached with the invariable "why are you a vegetarian?" question, yet again, it was a welcome change to have the conversation in french!!! I have also been responding to emails in french, with a bit of assistance from my multi-lingual colleague, DZA.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Working in the field

In our training period, it was stressed that we should maintain a healthy work/life balance. In order to meet this requirement, we decided to spend our public holiday over the border in France, exploring Mont Salève. The cows with bells were a reminder that we were in the country, while the fact that we could see the jet d'eau from almost every point along the way reminded us that we weren't far from the city.

There's always a dilemma for people who work in the areas of development or peace. Do you work on policy and advocacy, hoping to make a difference from a more distant point of view and risk criticism of being removed from the issues? Or do you work "in the field", living in countries struggling to re-build after war, and risk criticism of colonial interference? Well, this day helped us to find some perspective on this difficult issue. Our conclusions? Perhaps it is possible to find a balance!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cirque sans frontieres

The view from my colleague's apartment is far more exciting than the view from mine, but in addition to the beautiful alps, his view also contains the "Cirque sans frontieres", which apparently is not as beautiful as the Cirque du soleil, but instead includes animals and performers from around the world coming together in a symbol of unity - just like the United Nations.

Monday, September 04, 2006

All in a day's work

My workplace is a lovely old house with a beautiful garden. It has
four stories, including the attic (used as office space) and the cellar (used for meetings) and I am on the first floor. When I have been there a bit longer I should be pretty good at guessing whose feet are clumping up or down the stairs. One of my tasks is to arrange lunchtime meetings and I am pleased to report that my first one was accident-free. I have felt quite important running about getting my Swiss bank account and UN pass, but apart from the excitement of the perks of this job, I have realized how well respected the Quakers are in the UN circles and am feeling a sense of being part of something very worthwhile. I've been to quite a few UN meetings already, including one on cluster munitions in Lebanon, which was quite informative and disappointing at the same time. I'm also getting to know some of the other diplomats and NGO people who work on disarmament and they have been very welcoming.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The vegetarian eats a snail

One of my first discoveries upon arrival in Geneva was that my
command of the French language falls into the category of “not good enough to understand anything said by a group of school children, but sufficient to conduct simple conversations at a relaxed pace with long-suffering shop assistants”. I ended up in an interesting conversation this morning about snails when I ordered a pastry entitled "escargot avec raisins" (snail with raisins). The good news, for me and for the Genevoise, is that free French lessons are part of our “training”, so I look forward to slightly more intellectual discussions, about a variety of animals, in the future.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Taking a turn in the garden

When one is engaged in serious and important activities such as training and "preparation", it is necessary to ensure that one keeps up one's fitness. I am finding that a brief turn in the gardens morning, noon and night will generally do the trick. Tucked away on the outskirts of Birmingham, Woodbrook provides an environment of tranquility and Jane Austin-esque beauty. The most impressive point to make about the gardens here at Woodbrook is that they are indeed practical as well as beautiful. The delicious stuffed squash that I ate for supper last evening was grown in this very garden.

Also, it is interesting to note that Gandhi stayed in this very building when he came to England in 1931. The Quakers are rather proud to announce that he burnt the carpet in Room 12 when attempting to cook his dinner in his room.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Traveller in my home city

I think it's important, when you're about to be a traveller somewhere else, to practice in your home town. So Pete and I have been doing a bit of travelling of our own. I spent a relaxing afternoon having a massage in easy Eastwood, followed by a day getting lost in busy Bondi Junction's multitude of malls. We also spent the weekend in magic Manly. We caught the ferry there, and spent a warm afternoon on the beach. In fact, the weather was so warm that we were able to take our shoes off and wiggle our feet in the sand. It was great to be able to relax and put the worries of Swiss visas out of my mind. But now that my visa is secured everything seems in place for travel outside of Sydney...

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Last weeks in Sydney

A friend recently commented that preparing for living or travelling overseas in your late twenties is very different to doing the same thing in your early twenties. I definately agree. When I was planning a year's working holiday in Britain and travel in Europe at the age of 21, it was the end of an era, and I was out to find myself. I had nothing to lose. Now, as I approach the age of 30, I know what I want from this experience, I am a bit clearer about who I am, and I am leaving much more behind. Quite a few friends have babies that will grow up while I'm gone, my grandfathers are not as young as they once were, and my partner, Pete, has kindly agreed to revolve the next year of his life around Europe and my dream of working for the UN. Being away from him is definately going to be tough.

The past few weeks have been filled with scanning the second hand shops and markets for cheap woollies, driving my flatmates crazy by umming and ahhring about the right size for my new pair of walking boots, booking flights and train trips, packing my life into boxes (again) and taking the opportunity to dispose of even more clothes, books and kitchen utensils! Charlie the visiting cat is sadly missed - he ran under a car a few weeks ago. My tomato plants have also died, signalling the onslaught of winter and coinciding sadly with my departure. I will miss my flatmates and our vegetarian household (see photo). The free yoga classes I get as a volunteer are definately a welcome relief as I begin to stress about those silly little details....including the thesis that won't go away!!

I promised myself that I wouldn't travel overseas again without a purpose. With air travel costing the earth (literally), I wanted to only go overseas if I thought I was contributing something worthwhile, and if I was experiencing a city as a resident or at least a visitor in somebody's home rather than a tourist simply hanging out with other foreigners in hostels or hotels that don't reflect the true "vibe" of the place. So a job at the United Nations working on issues of disarmament fits the bill, I think. I will try to be a bit Swiss for a year. I'm looking forward to swiss chocolate, fondu, cycling to work (can you believe that I have already been offered a bike?), French alps, catching up with old friends in Europe and hopefully even a trip to Morocco, staying with local people and learning a bit about the culture there.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Next stop, the United Nations!

Yes, that's right. I've actually managed to land a job at the United Nations in Geneva, working for an NGO called the Quaker United Nations Office (QUNO). I will be working on the Peace and Disarmament program, so will be able to put my degree to the test in a real life setting. As part of my job, I will have to write a journal, so this blog is good practice.

It turned out, for various reasons, that the Nonviolent Peaceforce wasn't the right thing for me just now. I was a bit apprehensive about the commitment, the (hot) climate and ... to be honest, the conflict there. I really believe in the notion of pacifists putting their lives at risk, if necessary, in the pursuit of peace, and I still hope that one day I can do that sort of work. But the reality of eighteen months seclusion with an organisation that is still finding its feet, was too much for somebody like myself with limited field experience. I also realised that I was more interested in conflict resolution / peace building work than peacekeeping.

QUNO is hoping to expand its disarmament and peace work to include peacebuilding, which will be particularly interesting for me. I hope that the UN will give me the grounding and international experience in disarmament issues as well as to allow me to make a contribution to its peacebuilding program. Who knows what my next step will be at the end of the one year placement in Geneva.

PS: I'm also apprehensive about the (cold) climate in Switzerland
PPS: No, I don't get to wear the cute cap!!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Garden of Peace

I am staying at the Gandhi-King-Mandela Farm (also known as the Garden of Peace) which is an intentional community in rural India. The founder is also one of the founding members of the Nonviolent Peaceforce, so there is a nice link there. Conditions are .... basic. They are in the process of putting the roof on the toilet block and we are in negotiations about getting some toilet paper for us westerners. I share a tent made of banana leaves with a lovely girl from Sweden called Lotta and as I write this I am recovering from a common complaint here - the collapse of my stretcher. Internet access is non-existant, (except via a half hour jeep ride into the nearest town, Vellore) and telephone communication requires a half hour stroll in to the village. This "log" will be contributed to the blogsite when I return to civilisation!! The picture attached is of the "Buddha Smiles School" on the farm we are staying. This is the building where we are conducting the assessment and training, and behind it are our tents. Some of the poor village children visit the farm and eat with us. It's their holidays at the moment, but they are here to practise for an upcoming concert. We have decided to plant trees here as part of our gift back to the community that is looking after us.

The people are lovely here and it's really great to meet likeminded people struggling with a similar urge to make a difference - one guy, Jose, probably articulated the feelings of many of us here: "Finally I am not the black sheep".

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Theory into Practice: Preparations for India

Here's a photo of me, at my desk at home. My flatmate instructed me to look interesting :-) This is pretty much where I'm sitting right now, trying not to get too distracted from the task at hand - writing something about Nonviolence in Iraq before I leave for India.

The purpose of the trip to India is to find out if I'm the right person, or I should say one of many suitable people, to put the theories of Nonviolence into action. Eighteen of us from around the world are getting to know one another by email as we prepare for the first stage of the Nonviolent Peaceforce recruitment process. It's comforting to find out that most of the group are not dissimilar to me - the differences being where they studied Peace & Conflict and what sort of NGO they have worked for.

Already we have been given numerous papers on the application of nonviolence to Sri Lanka, updates on the current conflict, immunisation/insurance type information and a personality test! For the next week, and possibly month, we will be tested with role plays about situations of real conflict, challenged by our own cultural insensitivities and will hopefully begin to build a supportive community.

I'm very nervous, of course.

Blogging On

There are many advantages to having a nerd for a boyfriend - one is that you get your own blog sight organised in approximately 2 minutes. It feels kindof self-important to have pages of the internet devoted to silly old me, but I once read that blogs are as much about a form of therapy for the blogger as they are about communicating with others. Anyhow, I thought I'd try it out as a way of documenting the next phase of my life, and showing pictures of what I'm up to, without overloading people's inboxes.