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Where I stayed
Geneva City Hostel
At least four times during the night, I was woken by loud machine noises composed of beeping and smashing glass. Once is understandable - probably a trash truck - but what the heck were those other times? The moments in between these strange sounds were punctuated by screaming drunk people, so really every moment of the night was exciting.
The room itself was hideous - bare as a jail cell, in shades of orange and brown - yet it cost the same as my adorable room in Chamonix.
Today, I took a day trip to Lausanne, just 40 minut4es outside of Geneva by train. I had sky-high expectations of the city because everyone says it’s so gorgeous. Something I read stated that Lausanne is the number one city French-speaking Swiss claims they’d want to live in, because of its "easy elegance." Rick Steves has famously said (in so many words) that Geneva is a snore but that Lausanne is precious.
I found Lausanne pleasant and pretty, but not quite as charming as Annecy or Chamonix. Those two are fairytale towns, whereas Lausanne is still a city, however small and elegant.
My first stop was Ouchy, Lausanne’s port and waterfront area. It was pretty, with sailboats moored alongside gardens and very hazy mountain views, but nothing to go out of your way for. There was a famous museum about the Olympics nearby that’s supposed to be pretty good for people who are interested in that sort of thing.
Instead, I took a bus to the northwest part of town to The Collection de l’Art Brut a non-traditional museum housed in an old chateau.
L’Art Brut is a concept defined by Jean Debuffet, which refers to art created by people who have little to no artistic training, and live outside the social norm. This includes criminals, the insane, mediums and other assorted recluses. Debuffet thought that L’Art Brut artists worked from a purer place of imagination and creativity than the average commercial, formally-trained artist.
Overall, I found the museum incredible! Even if you didn’t know the backstory behind the artists, the artwork itself was engaging, thought-provoking and complex.
Wandering up to the top floor of the museum, I gasped as the lights clicked on to reveal a room tucked under the eaves, that glittered with Paul Aman’s huge seashell dioramas. Brightly-painted shells reflected jewel tones all over the room, giving me the feeling of standing inside the largest jewelry box in the world. I literally said, “Wow” out loud. It took a lot of self-control not to touch the dazzling fish and complex plants he’d created. Two funny anecdotes about this room were 1) He painted with both paint and nail polish. 2) When asked, how he found all of the seashells for his work, he answered, “I eat a lot of seafood.”
After Paul Aman’s room, my second-favorite exhibit in the Collection consisted of masks in the shape of animal faces, composed of giant seashells. Not only were the seashells themselves impressive, but the expressions on the masks were very lifelike and emotionally engaging.
Some of the projects in the Collection were extremely skillful and impressive, such as the five-foot-tall wooden carving of the Eiffel Tower, complete with figures inside. A life-size statue of a horse made from found wooden branches held together with wooden pegs was also easy to appreciate.
Appreciating others pieces required a bit more imagination than I have. Wall-sized paintings done by a governess who fell in love with the emperor and was later institutionalized were fairly one-dimensional representations of mental illness. Distraught figures with huge eyes and faces in turmoil swirled and tumbled about the canvas, reminding me of a less apt version of Munch’s, “The Scream.”
I also struggled to understand the room showcasing Henry Darger’s 15,000-page work: The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger’s landlord stumbled upon this opus in Darger’s apartment after his death, along with huge illustrations of the story (up to 10 ft x 3 ft). The sheer volume of writing and the dedication it required is incredible, the subject matter strange. (For example: Naked girls made of paper dolls with horns and tails fighting soldiers and running away from storms). There was also a 5,000 page autobiography, which I would’ve liked to learn more about. All we really learned from the exhibit was that Darger was a reclusive janitor. But why would someone who had so little interest in people want to share his life with the world on paper?
Another wacky exhibit displayed the work of a man who quit his job and left his family at the age of 50, moved to a shack in the woods and hung hundreds of tin can tops from the trees, painted with facts about science, literature and music, written in five languages. Some of the tin can tops were on display, along with a video showcased his shack and the decorated property surrounding it. While I respected his commitment to recycling, but couldn’t help but wonder if this was more the hobby of a lunatic and less “artwork.” Then again, who’s to say they can’t be both? That’s the beauty of museums like this. They make you re-think your definition of art. They provoke an emotional reaction, for better or worse, that’s way more interesting than, “Ah, what a nice bowl of apples.”
The enormous size and scale of many works in the Collection struck me. Why make pieces so huge? Is it simply a matter of having ample free time since they weren’t interacting with people? For many, the art they created was their sole means of self-expression, which might explain a fierce concentration and desperate drive to get it right, to keep going. Was the art intended solely for themselves, or as a means of communication to others?
After the museum, I visited the Lausanne Cathedral. To my untrained eye, it was a stereotypical European cathedral - austere gray stone sprinkled with ethereal stained glass, and even a gypsy beggar shaking a cup at each entrance. Nice enough, but an equally good attraction was the views of Lausanne. You could see all the way to the water, over the terra cotta tile rooftops.
Leaving the cathedral, I wandered the streets of Lausanne, thoroughly mixed up and lost, but finding cool things along the way, such as the Eglise St. Francois (church), the Palais Rumine and a street with a name one letter away from being Rue Petit Chien (little dog street - if only!)
Back in Geneva, it was time to find my way to Christine’s house. Christine is a woman I met through an organization called Servas, which seeks to promote diplomacy through international homestays. There’s an interview process involving applications and letters of recommendation. Once accepted, you’re granted membership for one year. Then, you have access to lists of people who live in petty much every country you’d ever want to visit, and you can stay with them for free.
While Christine probably lived two miles from the main train station, I had a hell of a time finding my way to her apartment. The bus stop had moved because it’s under construction, so it took one sweaty hour of charging around with my luggage to locate it. Then, I got off at the wrong stop, and just walked the rest of the way… and turned right instead of left and got lost again. Good grief.
Finally found her apartment, which was pretty, with plants growing everywhere. Christine is super nice and we stayed up late talking and eating a delicious meal of fresh organic salad, omelet and boiled sarrasin (buckwheat). She eats healthy, gluten-free food, and this was a nice change of pace for me. It’s not a myth - Switzerland is crazy expensive. To stay on budget, every meal I’d eaten there so far has consisted of Cliff bars, raisins and trail mix in some combination. The fresh food felt delightful!