Between my last two performances of Billy Budd I made a flying visit to Geneva to spend a couple of days with my wife Lucy. She's rehearsing "Punch and Judy" at the opera, a show which opens at the start of April. It had been three weeks since our last rendezvous and it will be another two before I return there for a week or so when the Britten is done here in Amsterdam. Sorry if you've heard all that before but if nothing it serves to remind everyone of the strange way in which opera singers (especially those married to other opera singers) have to conduct their marriages. Our rule of thumb is never to spend more than five weeks apart, even if it's only a two day catch-up between two chunks of five weeks. I don't know what we'd do without video calling.
Lucy was busy for much of the time I was there so I wandered around on my own for a bit and, as I tweeted at the time, I spent all my time wishing I were the other side of any of Switzerland's borders. Geneva is EuropeLite. It isn't France (far too Calvinist and lacking in joie-de-vivre). It certainly isn't Italy (too prissy, again too protestant, too clean). It isn't even Germany where at least you know you can duck into an inviting pub and see people having a good time. It's just there, stuck in the middle, being neither one nor the other. It's a diet yoghurt of a place; worthy and difficult to enjoy. And it is ridiculously expensive.
Lucy and I dined at a very modest chalet-style Swiss restaurant. The sort of place that appeals to tourists if I could figure out why anyone would visit Geneva for pleasure. We thought we'd have some meat fondue as I've never actually eaten it. It was generously portioned - so much so that we couldn't finish all the meat - and it came with chips, just to up the fried quotient. We shared a salad, a bottle of water and I had a small bottle of beer. No puddings or starters and yet the bill for us two came to about £70. For a fondue.
I'm an habitual menu-checker when wandering about cities. I'll stop outside pretty-well any eatery and check what's on the carte. Well in Geneva you'll never get away with paying less than around £20 for a main course, even if that means having bangers and mash. So, unsurprisingly, the restaurants aren't fully of happy carefree diners but are modestly replete with businessmen and diplomats on expense accounts or people like us who are feeling the pinch with every mouthful. I don't honestly think anyone goes out in Geneva to have a good time. It certainly doesn't look that way. At night the streets are fairly deserted. Everyone has rushed home to count their money.
I'll try harder to like Geneva when I go back and I'm sure I'll have more to say on the subject.
Coming back to Amsterdam presented an emotional paradox. On the one hand it meant leaving Lucy again but on the other, Amsterdam is familiar, homely yet effervescent and has so much more to offer the itinerant than Geneva. Last night I met up with a few of the usual Billy Budd suspects in the Engelbewaarder on Kloveniersbrugwaal, a lovely brown bar in a canal house, where we had a couple of Palms before pottering north to O-Cha, a good little Thai café just north of Nieuwmarkt. There a couple of courses and pot of tea cost us just €17 each. After dinner I took Clive, our Claggart, to De Oloofsport Prooflokaal, the jenever tasting bar at the top of the red light district that was built in 1619 and which has nothing to do with its seedier environs. It's a beautiful little bar and was utterly empty but for us and the owners. The landlady was more than happy to chat to us about the bar and its many ranks of bottles of gins and flavoured brandies.
Getting there we wandered up Zeedijk, one of the main arteries through the red light district which, I confess, I don't think I've walked up before in its entirety, believing it to be full of crud and seediness. And I think I used to be right but not any more. Now it is full of promising-looking restaurants, many full of Amsterdammers and not tourists as I expected, as well as smart boutiques and bars. You think you know a city and then it takes you by surprise. I shall have to go back in the last ten days I have here.