193 flags + 1

It wasn’t my first visit to Geneva, and I doubt it will be my last. And while it still hasn’t wormed its way into my affections, my relationship with the city has thawed. This time I got to see behind the scenes.

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)The Palais des Nations, with its over-sized broken-legged chair, the iconic symbol of the international campaign against landmines, is an impressive sight. The UN building, with its avenues of flags (194 in all, one for each of the member states plus the UN flag), is quite imposing. And until last month, I thought that was all there was to it. I hadn’t realised that in behind this building, and over to the left, the complex runs 600 meters in length, provides 34 conference rooms and 2800 offices and hosts 10 000 meetings a year. It sits in a 35 hectare park and is reputedly second in size only to the Palace of Versailles.

UN3 (640x480)Global policy-making has its hub in International Geneva. Human rights, humanitarian, science and technology, disarmament, development – agencies representing these agendas and more all live and work in the city, lobbying, debating, regulating, ratifying, spending countless hours in meetings trying to reach consensus on issues that affect the world.

UN6 (640x480)When I was there for meetings during the week, it was a hive of activity. Hundreds of people milled around in all sorts of traditi0nal dress, each bringing their own level of intensity to the proceedings. I was surprised a little at the varying degrees of formality and informality, at the number of personal conversations going on while speakers held the floor. I think that working in this complex structure would take time to get used to and come with its fair share of frustrations.

On Saturday, back for the official tour, it was like a ghost town. What I’d failed to notice in my mad search for the right conference room, were the myriad works of art donated by various member states. The Vatican sprang briefly to mind, but while grand in its own way, this wasn’t nearly as opulent.

UN8 (480x640)I’m not a great one for history; dates have never been my forte. Geography isn’t high on my list of accomplishments either. But even with my shameful ignorance of world affairs, I couldn’t help but be moved when I sat in the same room where the Korean Armistice was hammered out: 158 meetings spread over two years and 17 days. The same room where the Yom Kippur Peace Conference took place. The same room where the grounds for the exchange of Iran/Iraq prisoners of war were formed. The walls and ceiling of the Council Chamber are decorated with gold and sepia murals by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. The murals, which track the progress of mankind through health, technology, freedom and peace, were presented by the Spanish government to the League of Nations in 1936. If rooms could talk, this one would have something to say for itself.

un4 (480x640)UN2 (480x640)Walking the corridors of power, I couldn’t help but reflect the reach of the United Nations. Despite its problems, it remains the best of what we have available to promote peace and prosperity for all. Yet what we may be guilty of forgetting at times is that at the heart its effectiveness is the need for cooperation between nations. The UN, in and of itself, can’t make any one country do anything. Suzanne Nossel’s 2005 post makes for interesting reading, if one were in doubt about the need for such an organisation, even if the figures are a tad outdated.

UN7 (640x480)I was particularly taken by the ceiling in the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room. At a cost of €20 million, this sculpture,  again donated by the Spanish government, is magical. Artist Miquel Barceló sprayed many layers of coloured paint (100 tons in all) across the ceiling of 1500 square metres to create stalactites.  At the unveiling on 18 November  2008, Barceló revealed his main sources of inspiration: a cave and the sea. ‘The cave is a metaphor for the agora, the first meeting place of humans, the big African tree under which to
sit to talk, and the only possible future: dialogue, human rights.’

If you’re in Geneva, do yourself a favour and book a tour of the UN. At €10, it’s worth every penny.





13 responses to “193 flags + 1

  1. Pingback: 2016 Grateful 44 | Unpacking my 'bottom drawer' in Budapest

  2. Bernard Adams

    You exaggerate – I did not say ‘mistranslate’. I merely find fault with what is at best an abnormal usage.

  3. Lucky you…..thanks…I had no idea what that place comprised off, not sure about the architecture but artwork looks interesting.

  4. Bernard Adams

    When is a metaphor a symbol? Or vice versa?

    • Never apparently: A symbol works two ways: It is something itself, and it also suggests something deeper. It is crucial to distinguish a symbol from a metaphor: Metaphors are comparisons between two seemingly dissimilar things; symbols associate two things, but their meaning is both literal and figurative. A metaphor might read, “His life was an oak tree that had just lost its leaves”; a symbol might be the oak tree itself, which would evoke the cycle of death and rebirth through the loss and growth of leaves. Some symbols have widespread, commonly accepted values that most readers should recognize: Apple pie suggests innocence or homespun values; ravens signify death; fruit is associated with sensuality. Yet none of these associations is absolute, and all of them are really determined by individual cultures and time (would a Chinese reader recognize that apple pie suggests innocence?). No symbols have absolute meanings, and, by their nature, we cannot read them at face value. Rather than beginning an inquiry into symbols by asking what they mean, it is better to begin by asking what they could mean, or what they have meant. http://bcs.bedfordstmartins.com/virtualit/poetry/symbol_def.html

      • Bernard Adams

        I think so too (I haven’t taken the time to look at the link). So in your penultimate sentence that cave is a symbol, yet someone calls it a metaphor. Is this merely a clever modernism? I’ve just come across it in a book I’m editing, and I don’t care for it.

      • Ah – cross conversations – am still sitting on the three-legged chair… Yes, the cave.

        Can see where he’s coming from with the metaphor – identifying the cave with the agora – a meeting place. And that works for me. As symbol, not really. They’re quite different – for me a cave implies a closed off space with limited capacity; whereas an agora is the opposite… And then he introduces the African tree 🙂 I wonder what the original statement said and how much was lost in translation.

    • It wasn’t just “someone” who used the term metaphor, it was the artists himself (if you followed the link provided about this art installation, that would have been clear).

      In my humble opinion (IMHO) an artist can use whatever term they wish to describe their own piece; and from that it is up to each of us to interpret intent. Critique of Barceló’s grammatical choices might be simplistic.

      • Interesting question though – I’d never given much thought to the symbol/metaphor debate and as they say, a day when you don’t learn…. When I think about it, in this particular context, I see the chair as a symbol of the anti-landmine movement – it works for me.

      • Bernard Adams

        According to the link, Barceló’s speech was in French, Catalan and Spanish, so I doubt whether he actually used the English words quoted by Mary. My comment was not directed at the great man’s grammar but at his translator’s poor choice of vocabulary.

      • ” a day when you don’t learn…. ”

        A lot of truth in that.

        But not all things to learn today are obvious. Especially in art. My impression in art is that surface level debates are often the wrong learning point.

        “Moby Dick” at one level is a story about a whale. At another level it is allegorical. And then there are even more levels beyond that. And let us not even start with “Finnegans Wake”…..

        Anyway, again, just my humble opinion.

      • Bernard – I for one see it as a bit premature to accuse others with a comment like “his translator’s poor choice of vocabulary” without producing the original speech. I for one, without further evidence, do give the UN translator a bit more credit. But I will of course stand corrected upon seeing the original speech, and upon then if I agree that this was “miss-translated” from each of the three non-English languages. If you care to provide a link to all three language copies of the speech that is I will certainly review them.

      • P.S. Considering that it is métaphore (French), metàfora (Catalan and Spanish) versus symbole (French), símbol (Catalan), símbolo (Spanish), I do think it would be hard to mis-translate. And if it was translated wrong, then the translator would really have had to work at getting it wrong. And if the translator got *that* wrong, then the UN has some really significant communication problems to worry about.

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