When I venture into Geneva, hand in glove

The author, a freelance journalist and long-term resident of Switzerland, pictured keeping the cold and the bacteria at bay. Bill Harby

My wife and I play our new No-Touch-Unless-Must game now when either of us goes out. 

This content was published on March 29, 2020 - 11:00
Bill Harby

Points for taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and no grabbing the railing. Pull the door open with an elbow and wrist, the elbow again with the mailbox and the street-crossing button.

Today I leave the apartment for the first time in three days, donning untouched translucent white lab gloves, my mask ready in my pocket if I am forced into close contact.

But I’m not. The streets of Geneva on this stunning, sunny, brisk Spring Tuesday are dotted with just a few people – dog walkers, runners, people like me on errands, some apparently aimlessly wandering, some leaning on walls with headphones on, a clattery skateboarder doing tricks, nearly everyone by themselves except for a few dads or moms with toddlers wrapped up in coats and hoods in their untouched world.

I don’t take the buses or trams anymore even though they are mostly empty now – too many handholds that too many have touched. As one bus goes by, a young man in a heavy coat and grey stocking cap looks at me through the window reflections, his phone to his ear, doom in his hooded eyes – no, probably not; he’s probably listening to his mother adding olives to the grocery list.

I pass the corner kebab café where my friend whose name I don’t know works. It’s dark inside. For a couple days they had stayed open for takeout only, as the city allowed. I’m sure he’s relieved to not be serving even his regulars. "Qui est malade, pas malade?" (“Who’s sick, not sick?”), he’d asked me. But surely he’s worried how he’ll pay his family’s rent.

An impression of the coronavirus is drawn on an empty sidewalk in Geneva. Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

The train station is like an architect’s model of its normal self, with just a few people here and there standing oddly still. Most of the escalators are in the auto-slow-mode, waiting for a passenger. Two blue-and-black uniformed police in the main hall stand alert for … what?

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Outside the bank a man wearing a tattered heavy coat holds out his hand. "Monsieur? S’il vous plait?" I glance at his eyes and rush inside shuffling my bills to pay. Now I have to touch the buttons of the multi-mat. My thin gloves are supple, but I have to press hard on the touch-sensitive screen to enter my code. On the way out, I give monsieur some coins, but don’t make eye contact.

I push the buzzer at the locked tax office door and step back. A young woman in a bright blue pullover opens the locked door. She’s smiling. She wears no gloves or mask. We say our bonjours as I hold out the envelope at arm’s length. She leans out and takes it as if our exchange is business as usual, then quickly steps back and closes the door.

Walking home, I stop on the bridge to look down into the flowing Rhone. I gather my scarf against the breeze. The river is clear, clean, blue and icy green, the submerged grasses undulating freely in perfect ignorance. As always, I have to resist the urge to jump in and swim.


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