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The City and the Writer: In Geneva with Raluca Antonescu

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


Can you describe the mood of Geneva as you feel/see it?

With a foreign population of over 40%, Geneva proudly lives up to its multicultural, cosmopolitan reputation. It’s pleasant to live in; an elegant and smallish city that sometimes makes me think of a well-fed, handsome snake lazing out by the lake.


What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My early childhood was in Romania. When I was four years old my family fled. We became political refugee passport holders. Stateless. I grew up in this city, by the lake. It’s also where I’ve received my Swiss citizenship. It was an extremely important moment in my life. I had finally gotten a legal, administrative document—a passport. I was twenty-two years old.  

Much has been said about the long and costly formalities one should undergo to obtain a Swiss citizenship, the so-called “Swiss-Makers.” And applicants have to be skilled in Swiss cuisine, or know how to sing certain folk songs and, of course, the national anthem.


What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

When I visit cities, I love discovering the parks. They’re the lungs of the city, those large, open green spaces that allow one to relax and revitalize. I feel secure in them. In Geneva there are two big parks, Eaux-Vives and La Grange, which I have extensively explored. They capture and nourish my imagination. They also play an important role in my novels—that of a benevolent guardian.


What writer(s) from here should we read?

Geneva has a rich literary heritage with many publishing houses and writers, such as Grisélidis Réal, an exceptional woman, writer, painter, and prostitute. She was one of those rare people who dared to defy public opinion, and assume her out-of-the-ordinariness and its ostracizing consequences. Grisélidis passed away in 2005 at the age of seventy-five. She was buried in the Cemetery of Kings and it was a scandal. Some objected to the idea that this prostitute was to be among such royal, illustrious company.


Is there a place here you return to often?

My mother and brother still live in the Eaux-Vives, a lively, ethnically mixed neighborhood that’s right on the lakefront. Less than five minutes from there, one can just spread out a towel and lie on the tiny sand beach called “Baby Plage.”


Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Geneva’s literary headquarters recently opened in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s childhood house, in the old part of the city. They have great programs—book launches, readings, and debates in various strange locations in the old town. They run a festival called “La Fureur de Lire.” I was invited for a reading in an ancient stone water tank under the oldest Geneva house, La Maison Tavel.


Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

In the old town, in the middle of the city, is the Cathedral Saint-Pierre. You can climb the 157 steps of the north tower and get a 360-degree view of Geneva. There is another stairway that takes you a few meters underground, where there are galleries and over two thousand years of archaeological history. It offers two powerful journeys: into the present and the past, being part of the sky and scratching the soil.  


Where does passion live here?

The old public bath: Le Bain des Pâquis. Though perhaps it’s less passion and more a joie de vivre. There you can go to the hammam, eat good, inexpensive food, and enjoy different cultural events.


What is the title of one of your works about Geneva and what inspired it exactly?

In my first book, L’inondation, the lake is like a mirror that the characters look into. It has a watchful and patient presence that absorbs and reflects human turmoil. It’s an omniscient character.


Inspired by Levi, “Outside Geneva does an outside exist?”

I love to go away—leave Geneva and pretend to forget it. But every time I return, on the airport tarmac I get this warm, enveloping sensation of being back home. I never expected that I would one day have this feeling.


Raluca Antonescu was born in 1976 in Bucharest. She spent most of her childhood in a little Swiss German village before her family moved to the Vaud state and then to Geneva in the early 1990s. She studied visual arts at HEAD. Antonescu directed and produced several short documentary films and worked as a video editor. She currently teaches art in Geneva. She is the author of two novels: L’Inondation (The Flooding), published in 2014; and Sol (Ground), published in 2017. 

Published Oct 16, 2017   Copyright 2017 Nathalie Handal

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