23 February 2008

The Birds of Lake Geneva

Cygne et symbole: A Genevan swan

Seldom have I seen water as clear as that of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman as it’s known locally. A friend of Lord Byron’s compared it to a vat of indigo, though I find it a touch greener than blue. Whatever the color, it’s a natural wonder, and the Genevans are rightly proud of it.

The lake is inhabited by myriad pleasure-boats and flocks of waterfowl. Notable among the latter are the swans, beautiful if not as serene as legend has it. One wants to take a picture, but the swans do not care. They are not cooperative. No matter how patiently you wait, they will not pose.

You’ll never be a model, darling, if you don’t play to the camera.

The highlight of my trip to Switzerland last week may have been my Valentine’s lunch, at the Bains des Paquis, a swimming club on a jetty in Lac Léman, just opposite the Jet d’Eau. Architecturally, it’s not an imposing setting, with low, cinder-block buildings (so as not to obstruct the view of city, mountains, and lake) and tables laid out as if for summer-campers. Surely the food would be terrible: it’s a snack bar, after all. But I wanted to look at the water as I ate, and the city’s other waterfront establishments are wildly expensive, averaging about 35 Francs for a main course. (And in Europe, the main course is seldom sufficient, the expectation being that one will eat a starter and a dessert, as well.)

The snack bar offered a plat du jour at 12 Francs, and it was a remarkable value, generous portions well-balanced of rabbit in a cider-based sauce, plain noodles, fresh broccoli not overcooked, and a green salad with an excellent mustard vinaigrette. And five pieces of very good bread: typically in Europe, the less you pay for your lunch, the worse your bread will be, with rubbery crust and gummy mie — and you’re lucky to get three pieces of it.

The snack bar of the Bains des Paquis

I’m not sure how the proprietors managed to train the birds around the lake, but the gull who glowered at me throughout the meal, and occasionally scolded me, resisted the palpable urge to make a marauding move on my plate. Birds in another town would not be so well-behaved, but restraint and self-denial are hallmarks of the Swiss character, and evidently this extends to the birds, too.

Or maybe, like me, the birds are simply happy to be where they are.