I was in Geneva last week and happened upon this bit of public art on my way to the tram. “Le respect, c’est accepter quelqu’un même si on ne l’aime pas”. Translated loosely: “Respect is accepting someone even if you don’t like him.”
This was displayed on the wall of a school in the Pâquis neighborhood of Geneva (which you may recall is in the francophone part of la Suisse/Switzerland). I lived in les Pâquis twice when I was in law school and have stayed there several times since when I have had work to do at the United Nations.
In all my experiences in the neighborhood, however, I had failed to discover:
1) Tea Room la Vouivre (The Wyvern Tea Room) where Cary Grant’s sweet smirk is reflected in gilded mirrors as you enjoy your pain au chocolat and sip your cafe au lait from a Maoist pug dog cup;
2) Buvettes des Bains, the nude-beach-by-summer turns out to be (quelle surprise!) the best-fondue-place-in-the-world-by-winter;
3) the fabulous second hand shops (!!!!), where you can find vintage French dresses, designer Italian shoes, and hand-knit baby hats for 2 Swiss francs (this really deserves a separate post); and
4) the meaning of the word respect.
The school and the artwork is easy to find – it’s on Rue de la Navigation, just past the Melting Pot Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant (which, in theory, also serves crêpes, although not the night I ate there). On the other side of the mural, the sidewalk actually passes right through an elementary school playground. Not a responsible adult in sight during recess, I almost got hit by a dodgeball and, sadly, couldn’t help pondering the stark contrast with the locked doors and color-coded alerts at my own children’s American schools.
There is a second mural as well: “Pour avoir des amis il faut les respecter.” “To have friends you have to respect them.” Both of these sayings make sense to me, but that wasn’t the real lightbulb moment for me.
The word respect, as the pictures of these walls illustrate, is both a noun and a verb. According to the Random House Dictionary, Le respect – the noun – means “esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person, a personal quality or ability, or something considered as a manifestation of a personal quality or ability.” Respecter, the verb, means “to hold in esteem or honor” or ““to show regard or consideration for.” French dictionaries add a slightly different twist: “Le respect est une attitude qui consiste à ne porter atteinte à autrui.” In other words, an attitude of not harming others.
The lightbulb moment I had on Rue de la Navigation, as I dodged balls on the place de jeux d l’école de Pâquis-Centre, was this: respect requires both the noun and the verb. You need the essential, positive, affirming elements of the subject/object (the noun). And you need to take action (the verb), including the action of NOT doing something harmful.
As the sign below says, much smaller and not in neon:
“The respect is a precious gift.”