Nestled in the corner of a massive lake and guarded over by the mighty Alps, the ancient city of Geneva, Switzerland rests peacefully in a blanket of spring sounds and smells: the aroma of fresh coffee issues from sidewalk cafes, the melody of accordions hint of the city’s French pedigree. Here, under the shadows of its towering medieval buildings, Protestant reformer John Calvin attempted to construct a model religious community in the mid 16th century, a worldly version of the City of God based upon the virtues of living modestly, diligent prayer and hard work.
Packing up my Moleskine reporter’s notebook after a busy afternoon of jotting down facts about the Old City, I meander slowly down the steep, sinuous cobblestone streets to modern Geneva, a bustling city home to the United Nations and an interminable number of banks and ritzy boutiques. Calvin would hardly recognize the city he helped build. Modesty and self-denial are here in short supply.
Parlez vous Française? Well, me neither, but in Geneva, as elsewhere, money talks. Let’s go window-shopping to see what we can find!
First, a little self-indulgence is appropriate. Coming from a family of LaFollette jewellers, I have a built-in weakness for timepieces. The first trinket in my basket will be a nice Swiss watch. Although the golden Rolex submariner is a steal at $16,200, I finally decide to splurge for a Corum Admiral for merely $20,575. For my wife, I’ll take the diamond-studded lady Rolex for $13,600 (I hope she doesn’t mind that it was on sale). As an amateur writer, I need something to accompany my shabby notepad, so I’ll take the Mont Blanc fountain pen for $715. To complete my ego trip, let’s purchase that Salvatore Ferragamo (don’t know him but he sure sounds distinguished!) billfold for $750 and the matching passport pouch for $2,290. Oh, and yes, I need a new pair of shoes after all this walking. A nice pair of J.M. Weston loafers for only $940 fit just right!
To balance things a bit, let’s add a few more souvenirs for the lady of the house. Let’s see….Oh, yes, that’ll do nicely: a Prada jacket for $2,270, matching pants for $3,190, a Gucci handbag to carry her excess money at $6,080, a pair of high heels for $850, and designer sunglasses for $320. She needs new earrings, too. Ah, just the thing: Benoit De Gorski earrings for $9,600. These will splendidly compliment the new Armani evening gown in my basket for $11,590. And for those less stressful days ahead (shopping, as everyone knows, is exhausting), I add to my basket a bottle of Sinet Glenmorangie Scottish whiskey for $375—and the six piece crystal glass collection to boot for $750.00. Whew, I’m pooped after all this shopping! The total price of my indulgence: $74,370. And the good news: it all fits into a large shopping bag!
Across town now, in a beautiful but serious chamber at the UN’s Palasis des Nations, I encounter some very different numbers. Always leave it to the folks at the UN to rain on our parade:
Today, 50 million people are refugees, 26 million thereof displaced within their own country.
There are 1.4 billion people that live on less than $1.25 a day.
There are 26,000 children die daily of malnutrition, or about 9 million a year. That’s 9.5 times the total number of casualties on 9-11; a full 25- percent of the world’s children are undernourished.
Every evening, 850 million people go to bed without a meal in their stomach
There are 500,000 women who die of complications due to pregnancy and childbirth every year, or the equivalent of three Boeing 747 crashes every day.
The total price of our indifference: incalculable; devastating; inhuman.
Of course I didn’t buy any of those things in my imaginary shopping basket; not even a roving LaFollette Press columnist can afford such extravagancies.
Writing about the very morning that Americans learned of the 40,000th US casualty in Vietnam, Dalton Trumbo, author of the anti-war book Johnny Got His Gun, said that instead of vomiting at the news, which any caring and decent person would have done, we casually asked to please pass the coffee and toast over the breakfast table. But now, sitting comfortably over a pub dinner on the Rue de Lausanne, Trumbo’s words cast a pall over this otherwise happy place. Across the street, two expensively clad women spend five minutes peering into a boutique window at a $10,000 dress. In the meantime, in Africa, Asia and other impoverished parts of the planet, 288 children have just died of hunger for the want of a meal that would have cost less than one dollar.
The price is simply not right.