In a game of origami, folding a map of the world can bring Geneva closer to Kanaky. Travel and encounters with other people can do this too. This series of texts (Affinités in La Couleur des jours, 2020–2021) interweaves the unique and exemplary paths of individuals who, from one side of the planet to the other, have displayed a great willingness to free themselves from a given condition – something that also requires accepting who you are. The first protagonist of this episodic story is an artist.

Before Covid-19 and the major changes it brought to our daily lives, Geneva had bedbugs (Cimex lectularius). In my case, they arrived in July 2016. It is possible to feel that you are at the mercy of a virus, and also at the mercy of insects, tiny as they may be – in this case, 5-6 mm – and equipped with a resistance and resilience that are enough to make you leave a flat or house, temporarily or definitively. And in fact, a bedbug can easily go from six months to a year without eating. The longest such fast ever recorded lasted 570 days. Bedbugs came from the Orient, and had already colonised the Western world by the early days of Christianity – Saint John apparently enjoined some of them to leave an inn. They tormented Beethoven at the end of his life in 1827. They then disappeared from our shores, but human travel and their own resistance to insecticides eased their return in the 1990s, first to the United States, and then to Europe. Bedbugs travel inside suitcases and do not respect national borders. They suck our blood during the night: as adults, they absorb up to seven times their weight in blood within ten minutes. When you wake up, you discover with horror the traces of these micro-Draculas. Scars around your neck, your back, here there and everywhere, revolting and, invariably, extremely itchy. Some people develop allergies to them. But it is possible to overcome this scourge – provisionally and locally – thanks to a double-pronged strategy. First by resorting to chemical products: squirted all over your living spaces and furniture. Then, by freezing your clothes, linen, books, papers, records and other objects you are fond of for several days. A temporary move into giant freezers: in order to do this, everything is thrown into bin bags, compressed, and then unpacked again.

Sometimes this double-pronged approach is not enough: it is likely that the bedbugs have migrated to your neighbour’s and are only waiting for an opportunity to return, unless your neighbour manages to eradicate them in time. In my case, the bedbugs ruled supreme on every floor of my building. I had to move out – for good.

To move out some boxes full of crockery, a few pieces of furniture and other household utensils, and also, the archive of a life: that of my father, Luciano Bernardi, which had been filed away onto shelves made specially for this purpose in order to conserve it as best as possible in the cellar of the building. The boxes of crockery were heavy but relatively compact. The archive – documents, handwritten papers and thousands of photographic slides – really was too considerable for my two arms alone. I rang Séni to ask for help in carrying out this delicate work. Fit and endowed with a great amount of logistical intelligence, he was the man for the job: escaping the bugs as best as possible, reorganising things elsewhere, volumes in other volumes. The objects of daily life had been provisionally housed within the nine square metres of a “Secur’Storage” in the Acacias district: a real game of Tetris. The plan was to transfer my father’s archive to another cellar in Geneva. The bags I had prepared were not enough. So Séni and I went to buy all the laminated fabric shopping bags available at the checkouts of the closest Denner supermarket, on the rue Prévost-Martin. How strange to be buying only empty, brand-new shopping bags. I remember a few surprised looks. But how many files and folders there were! They barely fit into the boot of the 4x4 Séni had borrowed off friends for the occasion, even when optimally stashed. And the transfer took place. Fast and successful. We met again at the petrol station on rue Dancet to fill up. I was out of the woods. And what about Séni, what was he up to? What was he doing with his life?

The rest of this afternoon in the month of July 2016 unfolded on the empty terrace of a café on a little pedestrian street next to the plaine de Plainpalais, the rue Patru. Séni ordered a cold chocolate and I probably had water. Séni doesn’t particularly like moving home, and his aim is most probably to no longer do this, but rather to travel. He tells me about going back to a simple and “wild” life because you make something exciting of it. The aim is to free yourself, to cut loose, to lighten your load, to no longer break your back by carrying useless baggage. The aim is to no longer have aims. The aim is to breathe. To orchestrate the void and fill it with its music: silence.

For the past few years, eight at least at the moment of writing the present text, Séni has lived in a Mongol yurt when he is in Geneva. He set up his Asian-born, nomadic home in a clearing near to a kink in the Rhône river on which is located the Aïre water treatment plant, the largest in the canton of Geneva. This plot of land is not just close to the water, it is also easily accessible via public transport, using the TPG 7 and 9 lines, last stop “Lignon-Tours”. This trip, for anyone who makes it from Cornavin station, is rhythmed by stops, some of which catch my attention: “Délices”, which refers to Voltaire’s place of residence, between 1755 and 1765, as well as “Jean-Jacques” and “Contrat-Social”, with reference to Rousseau, born in Geneva in 1712. This little corner of the world, with its landscapes saturated with freshwater and serrated by a mountainous horizon, is marked by the political philosophy of the Age of Enlightenment, and then by English Romanticism. Words did not fail Mary Shelley to describe her vision of the Alps on the shores of Lake Geneva: “their vast immensities, their jagged crags, and roseate painting, appeared again in the lake below, dipping their proud heights beneath the unruffled waves”. (The Last Man, 1826). Pragmatically, in Voltaire’s case, settling down in Geneva in order to welcome innumerable guests and have his comedies performed meant gaining the freedom that he had been missing in his princely courts and prisons. “Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains,” as Rousseau would put it (The Social Contract, 1761). The philosopher is celebrated for his reflections on inequality: this is what gave him the opportunity to display his intelligence and powers of analysis in the public sphere. It also defined his personal journey from childhood.

Background picture: Zentralstrasse, Zurich, 29 March 2020


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