Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Henrik Beer and the Cafe du Soleil

The bell tolls, 'time for another.'

Recently, Mukesh Kapila, one of our Under Secretary General’s at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies headdquarters in Geneva, sent us an email about a Red Cross Red Crescent Academic Network which links us to appropriate learning institutions around the world. I was dismayed to see my almer mater where I earned my Doctorate in Humanitarian Affairs was not listed i.e. the illustrious Café du Soleil in Petit Saconnex, Geneva.

It was January 1975 when I supped my first beer in the Café du Soleil. It was the middle of winter and snow drifted across the courtyard as I opened the door to a babble of French, thick tobacco smoke and the smell of molten cheese. I was 26 years of age and had just started working at the League of Red Cross Societies along the road. I was a Desk Officer in the Disaster Preparedness Bureau. My boss was Tadateru Konoe, Deputy Head of the bureau, and now the President of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

Little did I know that in the following years, this would become my humanitarian university where my tutors included Stanley Mitton a veteran of World War II, Emergency Officer at the World Council of Churches, and Stanisis or Stan as everybody knew him, a Greek, who had grown up in Egypt, and who had been involved in wars and disasters since the Spanish Civil War. Fellow students and faculty included Monica Pejovic, Kingsley Seevaratnam ( who already held a doctorate from Sorbonne), George Bolton, Ingrid Langernskiol , Bob Pierpont, Jean-Pierre Robert Tissot, Sverre Kilde, Sven Lampell, Sacha Bondar, Grant Akapov, Jeurgen and Amy Weyand, Chantal Pellaton, Mike Beacon, Karen Ramseyer, Enso Bighinatti, Martin Perret, David Chalfan, Valerie Berta, Bob Rossborough, UNDRO , Thomas Andreasson, Alice Wrinch, Christian Oliver, Henrik Beer, Brian Neldner, LWF, Mohammed Othman-Chande, George Weber, Hiroshi Higashuira, Pru Perry, Jurg Vittani, Rene Carrillo and Pierre Burtin. Henrik Beer, a most competent and revered Secretary General  of the Red Cross from 19960 to 81, would pop in from time to time and have a chat. He never stayed long, but wanted to check on his clan.

A photo below taken in the mid 60's , showing many of the regulars at the Cafe du Soliel who worked for the then League of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies: What is remarkable is that Jurg Vittani and Kingsley Seevaratnam had hair for in the early 70's they were both bald as badgers. The famous George Bolton is 5th from the left.

In the 70’s we had staff from the Soviet Union working with us and after many shots of Vodka, and plates of viande sechee, we would settle all the Cold War problems over plates of cold meat and pickles. Mysteriously Sacha Bondar disappeared overnight never to be heard of again. We had to help pack up the things left in his apartment and send them back to Moscow. Grant Akapov, from Georgia, who was the Under Secretary General for health at that time, when questioned rather strongly by me in the Cafe, said "Sacha had to return for urgent work in the USSR."

In 1975, the Café du Soleil was patronised by many local characters, many of them tradesmen. Jacques, the chimney sweep parked his horse and cart, adorned with brushes, poles and bags, right outside tethered to
the hitching post. We, a small group from the international humanitarian community, were looked upon as a bit of an oddity. Maurice, the balbulous blue-nosed patron and owner of the Café, tolerated us, as it put money in his till.

Next door was the lecture room – the Café du Commerce. Frequented by two veterans of the Spanish Civil War, an ICRC delegate, Andre Tschiffeli and Charles-André Schusselé of the League. For some unknown reason these two faculty members shunned the Café du Soliel. From these two I received detailed presentations on the application of the Geneva Conventions, lectures on international humanitarian law, the finer nuiances of the Conventions and particular laws applicable in times of war. All peppered with stories of the horrors of war, odd interpretations of the Geneva Convention including renaissances by Tschiffeli of a time when German trains full of medical supplies were allowed to cross Switzerland in WW II. But in the event some were full of soldiers. Also, he regailed me with anecdotes of missions to Mozambique, Rhodesia (where 3 ICRC delegates were murdered in 1968) and his negotiations with all the parties to the Vietnam conflict. This was training that no University could provide!

Between the two cafes, I did my night school and learnt the differences in mandates of the various international humanitarian organisations, how to take convoys through check points, the finer details of the use of land mines, what FoB is and how to check a plimosol line, how to distinquish between falciparum and vivax malaria, and that the cheapest planes were Canairs chartered out of Standstead airport in the UK.

The last of a breed of Geneva bistros , Cafe du Soleil is one of the few remaining old bistros in Geneva. It was once very popular for nearby workers at the Red Cross and UN Organizations, but has since seen competition from newer establishments.

.I wasn’t exactly a novice in 1975, having done two years in war-torn Vietnam, led a medical team to Bangladesh at the end of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and undertaken post hurricane assistance in Fiji. So ocassionally I had a chance to contribute to the tutorials. But with humanitarian giants like Brian Neldner and Stanley Mitton, who would look over the rims of their half-litre beer glasses (canets) at you letting it be understood that they did not tolerate fools gladly, I learned to make sure my contributions added value.

Institutional Development was always a hot topic for debate over the years and for two decades Kingsley Seevaratnam was the expert in the Cafe on the subject, claiming that our member countries built their own capacities learning from each other, and more than often, visiting experts from Geneva learn from them. George Bolton who spent decades in Africa  (1950s and 60s) teaching first aid and helping national societies build their capacities, was according to Kingsley, 'an exception.'  Nils Gussing, Christoph Meuller and Matthias Schmale continued these debates before, and into the new millenium.

Jurg Vittani, an old disaster relief hand had survived many extremely difficult missions starting with the Korean war. He would regail us with stories. For example, after months living in cold and difficult conditions near the DMZ, he and his colleagues finally flew out to a remote airport in Japan, and having been without women for a long time, and not speaking Japanese, showed the taxi driver in hand drawings, the shape of a women. The taxi drove, and drove and drove past many villages with bars, and finally they arrived at a Budhist temple. Obviously there are some similarities to the shape of a woman and a Budha statue.

The International Rugby Club headquartered across the French-Swiss border in Ferney-Voltaire for whom I played for also met at the Cafe du Soleil, and we had committee meetings there every month. These guys were working for large international business corporations like, Proctor and Gamble, Du Pont, Rolex and many of the multi-nationals that had offices in Geneva.Some of the club members were from the Australian mission and Danny McCaul, impressed by the passion of the Red Cross people in the Cafe, jumped ship and joined us. This group sat in the opposite corner to the humanitarian huddle. Often rugby songs would drown out the dominent French conversation and it was here I learnt ‘In my Liverpool home, ‘The Good Ship Venus’ and other rugby-song classics

In summer, after a hard day's work, there is nothing better than a beer on the terrace with friends.

Photo: Petr Hlavacek

But as the years passed, my knowledge increased and I had my own experiences in the field. I slowly became a tutor to the next generation of Red Cross recruits.

My hardest mission was in Afghanistan in 1993-96, followed by tough one in central Asia following that. I regularly came to Geneva for high level meetings

In 1993 when I was heading off to Afghanistan, Janet Skeslien Charles started the Geneva Writers Group with about 20 other writers, men and women. In her words “We met at the Café du Soleil, once a month, with a thematic workshop in the morning and a critiquing workshop in the afternoon. The group grew and in 1998 we organized the first Geneva Writers’ Conference, with about 100 participants coming from over ten countries.

Unfortunately, being away for years at a time I never took part in this group, but one of my friends, Denis McClean, later got some sort of literary club underway, and according to Joe Lowry, was hatched in the Café du Soleil, which Denis named GLAS, Geneva Lierary Society.

I did attempt one poem in 1997 after numerous pints, and a number of “trois decis” of La Dole red wine. What it lacks in academic content, it makes up in truth.

Cafe du Soliel

The urinal hasn’t changed since 1975
Except the stained cracks are wider
Here I contemplated the excuses
Before I phoned to say “ I will be late”
Patron Maurice is no more
It’s now chic and commercial
Thank God the furntiure hasn’t changed
But this is my institute
Where I return flushed with emotion
Over the millions we helped
But life, like the urinal
It not always beautiful
And like the porcelian
It is only a veneer
But here I feel home

30 October 1997

In the 90’s I often met my former fellow desk officer, George Weber, who was later Secretary General, at the Café du Soleil. We used to yarn at length ‘ about our times on the Ho Chi Minh trail.' And our experiences with the Swedish au pair girls we met in the 70’s and wondered where they might be today. George and I first worked together in 1973-74 in Vietnam when the joint ICRC/LORCS Indo China operation group was the leading humanitarian force, under Col. Gill, Olaf Stroh and Jean-Pierre Hocké.

During the late 90’s I wrote a book on Afghanistan, and it was in the summer of 1999, I showed George Weber a draft in the courtyard of the cafe, and he looked at it, and saw a few controversial poems I had written, and said, “ If you publish that you’ll be fired.” I did publish it, and George was fired later that year. Strange things happen in the Cafe du Soleil.

I met Umed IBODULLOEV working for the Federation in the Pamir mountains of Tajikistan in 1998 and ten years later I met him in the Cafe. Next to him is Hrant Sahakyan, next to him and Gabrielle Wernli . They all work in the finance department. Photo Bob McKerrow

Strategies, appeals, resolutions have been penned on those aging tables in that cafe, and the paper table mats taken home with cross borders logistics strategies written on them, with blobs of cheese-foudue obscuring words, and those notes often formed the centre piece for the big planning meeting the next day.

I had a number of memorable evening in the Cafe du Soliel with many Japanese friends and colleagues I worked with over the years: Hiroshi Higashuira, Naoki Kokawa, Satoshi Sugai, Yasuo Tanaka, Kentaro Nagazumi, Hiroto Oyama and others whose names escape me.  Most were great singers and there were ocassions where we had sing-a-longs in the corner. The other nation of Red Crossers I really enjoyed meeting in the Cafe were the Norwegians and they could drink enormous quanties of almost any type of alcohol: characters such as Sverre Kilde, Knut Adler Willy Scholtz, Herman Hellander, Terje Lysholm,  Tore Svenning, Ole-Johan Hauge, Trygve Norby, Geir Nedgard, Grazyna Samsel and Oystein Larsen all come to mind with wonderful evenings discussing Fridjof Nansen, Roald Amunsden, whaling, vikings, the Fram and the polar seas. The Irish hardly need to be mentioned as many of them virtually lived there such as Danny McCaul, Tim MacGillaycuddy, Seamus Dunne, Dan Prewitt, Denis McLean, Joe Lowry, Paul Conneally and John Roche.

Chris Lamb a former Australian Ambassador and lawyer held court here most evenings for a decade or more until he retired in 2010. Ably supported by Torre Svenning and Chris Sorek who were known to spend a fair part of their salaries here, Chris Lamb was always ready to give sound advice and guide the new generation of humanitarians and argue with the ones who spoke rubbish

Jerry Talbot and Mike Davis  in early 2009. Photo: Bob McKerrow

 It was here in January 2009, I planned the closing down of the Tsunami operation in Indonesia with my then boss, Jerry Talbot. Former bosses such as Sverre Kilde, Bob Pierpont, Enso Bighinatti, Hiroshi Higahiura, Renny Nancholas and Simon Missiri, often would take me to the Cafe to discuss issues that required a more reaxing ambience to pass on good news, sometimes bad news.

Here I drank a farewell pint or two with the legendary Sven Lampell in the mid ninties, coming back from his last field mission at 74 years of age. But beating that age record was Floyd Barnaby who retired this year (2010) after his final mission in Indonesia. Floyd and I met at the Cafe in 1995 and began an evening that probably set another record, getting back to the Hotel at 6.30 a.m. and going directly to the HoD meeting
starting at 8.30 a.m. I was fortunate to be a Floyd's farewell party in Jakarta in June this year.

Writing about the Cafe du Soleil would be incomplete without the mention of Daniel Prewitt,(left) a fascinating Irish-American whose Red Cross career started with the American Red Cross in 1964. A well read and highly knowlegable man, Dan was one of the most tenacious debaters I ever met, and I recall sessions with him in the Cafe getting into very heated arguments. Before joining the Red Cross he was in the US Navy based in Peshawar tracking aircraft in the Soviet Union with sophisticated radar/radio equipment. Dan  was a brilliant raconteur.

The Cafe also served as a psycho social counselling centre as after an incredibly difficult mission in Central Asia in 1999, I remember returning to Geneva for a de-briefing, and on arriving at the HQs around 4 p.m. I was whipped off to the Café by my desk officer Grazyna Samsel and Robbie Thomson, a refugee expert who I worked with Tajikstan.

Tor Planting that amazing Finnish actor, conducted security briefings and de-briefings in the Cafe and I can remember him once drawing maps on a large puddle of spilt beer to illustrate a point.

A dear friend of many of us, Alistair Henley, died last November. I have fond memories being invited by Alistair in 2009 to join Debbie his wife, and Steve Davey, a former Under Secretary General of IFRC and his wife Sheelagh, for drinks on the Café terrace in summer. Below is a photo of Alistair on the right and Jerry Talbot on the left. (Photo: Jason Smith)

Perhaps the warmest and most sincere person I drank with there quite regularly when I was back in Geneva, was Harold Masterson. a man with humour and wisdom in abundance.

His good friend Yasuo Tanaka wrote "

" he contributed quite a lot to this academic project as head of field personnel department and a lecturer of "human chemistry " at the Cafe du Soleil University. His lesson on the "sense of humour and culture of friendship" were so much cherished by many colleagues."

Harold is on the left with Bernard Gardiner and Bernard Morinière, all patrons of the Cafe 

Pru Perry-Adams sent me a classic message this week “ Another Alumnus from the C. de Soleil we have remembered is the one and only George Bolton. He and Stan used to go on 'retreats' organized by Fred Schmid in mountain cabins only accessible on skis but the two made sure they could carry whiskey. Then there was this hairy bloke with a funny accent whose entire French vocabulary consisted of 'encore un canette svp! “

(I think this may have been a veiled reference at me)

I attended many Christmas parties in the Cafe du Soleil and recall in the seventies, le Patron Maurice, wearing his white apron, hanging up the same fading decorations he had been using from at least WW II. So as Christmas approaches, I feel very nostaligic and think of old friends, many who have passed on, with whom I celebrated Christmas and many other forgotten events here.

Opposite the café in the village square stands the rather sombre church with a spire and clock. The bell tolls marking each hour spent drinking and prompts us to look up from our glasses. But it is never long before one of our drinking companions says “just time for another one."

  In 1993 when I did my briefing in Geneva for Afghanistan, 

Tricia Baglione had just returned as part of an audit team and explained the difficulties I would be taking over. Sixteen years later I met her in the Cafe.For further information on the Cafe du Soleil, go to their website: http://www.cafedusoleil.ch/

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