It’s a mystery to me today when I look at some of the old black and white photographs of my mother and myself as a young boy, one of them on the "Pont du Mont Blanc" in Geneva. The picture was probably taken sometime in the fifties. It would be an even greater mystery to the young ones, like our children or their children – the fifties? My god, that’s nearly as far away as Marie-Antoinette smelling the roses in her vast park in Versailles… in any case, in was last century and that today is a very long time ago.
So what were we doing there and why were we in Geneva? As with many pictures, instead of triggering memories and answers, they frequently generate nothing more but questions. My mother, although not particularly tall, wearing a business-like two-piece tailored suit, was towering well above me. She was standing there, with one hand on the railing. In the background, the many Canton flags, that still today adorn the bridge joining the Rive Gauche to the Rive Droite, fluttered lazily in the light breeze. In other photographs, also somewhere around the lake of Geneva, she was dressed in an elegant flowery dress like a film star of her era, wearing medium-high heels.
But that was last century and of course, my mother, like most of my family, are long since gone, and in a grey past some of them may even have been acquainted with the Guillotine up close during the French Revolution, like Marie-Louise de Savoy – was that why we were here? Was she searching for a distant link; after all, Geneva is surrounded by the Savoy… I doubt it, my mother although formal and at times influential and, occasionally not loath to exert her power, was in fact on the surface quite modest and relatively down to earth, more at ease with her cousins scattered around the Lake, all of them associated with the Dutch resistance during the Nazi occupation, than attending cocktail parties with the “The Beau Monde”.
They did not party and dance much, they simply acted within their capabilities. Being down to earth, however, did not prevent her from taking me to some of the most prestigious hotels of their era.
There are many more questions than answers, but wouldn’t it be interesting to be able to sit down today and have an adult conversation and ask some of those lingering questions…. Like ‘Mom, what were we doing out there in Geneva? The answers may well have been disappointingly simple, perhaps something banal as, ‘I just wanted to see it, or ‘I like the shops here ‘or conceivably even, ‘I’m looking for a place to live, a nice villa somewhere’.
And more than likely, like myself later, she would have concluded that Geneva was maybe too confined by its borders with France, or too busy and lacking some of the charms of Lausanne or Montreux.
I doubt she would have said, ‘I’m here to see my lawyers and demand the properties back that were lost during the French revolution…’ and maybe the French would have answered, ‘But of course Madame, have a Chateau, oh, and 167 years of back taxes…’ but then, we’ll never know will we, all that remains is an old photograph of a sophisticated lady in a two-piece tailored suit.