Naked bathers and a bag of summer clothes

The story of a young woman who crossed continents at the last minute to start a Masters course she knew she couldn’t afford.

Charlie Ogilvie is a self-proclaimed storyteller who chases and embraces the unexpected. She currently ‘writes stuff’ for work and for fun.

My student pass for The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, 2014.

I’m not much of a planner. I never have been. I like it this way. Up to this point I have made decisions based on how I feel at a given time and what the options are in front of me. What feels right? Or… less wrong in some cases.

While travelling through Myanmar after a three month stint working for the British Council in Bangkok I had a decision to make. Would I stay in South-East Asia, or would I go — either back to the UK, where I’m from, or to Switzerland? I had a place to study an MA in International History at The Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, just around the corner from the UN. The programme was bilingual, English and French, and I was drawn in by the opportunity to achieve genuine fluency.

Earlier in the year I had secured my place. One of ten on my course. I paid my deposit, yet remained unsure whether it felt like the right decision, or a decision at all. I wanted to hold onto the chance of studying something that I love somewhere with world-class teaching and options for spending a substantial period of time overseas.

This was seven years ago. I was 21 years old. Although I knew that finance was going to be an issue — possibly an insurmountable one — I had to go. I had to try. Though this only became clear to me less than a week before the course started.

On the way back from Bangkok I touched down in the UK briefly before I travelled to Geneva. When I arrived, a day or two after the semester had started, I had only a bag of summer clothes and the address of Betty — a somewhat distant relative in the French border town of Ferney-Voltaire. Betty is the sister of Jan, my grandmother’s husband — a man I now hold very dear. Betty is a bad-ass artist, cook, fashionista and interior designer, among many other things. She agreed, I’m not sure how enthusiastically, to put me up for a few days until I found somewhere to live. She told me, jokingly, I’m sure, on greeting me that guests, like fresh fish, go off after a few days.

Wearing Betty’s clothes, and sheltering under her umbrella, by Lake Geneva, 2014.

Betty was kind to me. She welcomed me into her home. Showed me around her town. Fed me fondue. And wine. Introduced me to her neighbourhood and shared stories about her life with me. She also lent me some ‘autumn appropriate’ clothing as my tropical wardrobe “would be useless”. I needed something warm to wear and she obliged, not just with the basics but with stylish pieces that I felt great in. A camel overcoat, a colourful pashmina, some shoes that admittedly I don’t remember — probably because they did the job just fine — and a handbag, which she eventually gifted me. This helped my transition back to European weather and also gave me some confidence when meeting my course mates.

‘Betty was kind to me. She welcomed me into her home’, Ferney-Voltaire, 2014.

Due to the financial situation, aforementioned, my future at the university was uncertain from my first day. Despite this, I dived into the experience. I joined classes in French and English — one of them a four hour class in African anthropology — and learned to stop translating between them all the time. I read avidly. Put time in at the library. Participated actively in my classes. Signed-up for group presentations. Made friends. I even performed ‘Lose Yourself’ by Eminem at an open mic night with my peers — admittedly not very well. I went in wholeheartedly with every intention to make it work.

I had one month to turn my finances around and find somewhere to live. As I had come to Geneva without any prior planning, finding a job or an affordable room was virtually impossible. I tried to access additional funding from the university but they unemotionally told me that I knew I couldn’t pay my fees before I came so there was nothing they could do to help me. The situation was looking hopeless.

But, admittedly, at the very last possible moment, I found out that people elected into the student committee would have their fees waived. This was my chance to stay. However, this realisation came a little late. The presentations of the people campaigning for their election into the posts had already began. I panicked. But then my fight, flight or freeze response kicked in. In this case it was the former. I had to fight.

I lost any sense of self-consciousness that I might have had before and walked confidently into the full lecture theatre. As I entered, the last person trying to get elected as ‘Communications Coordinator’ for the student committee had just finished speaking. I presented myself as a late entrant. Surprised, but also disarmed by my brazen approach, the moderator allowed me on stage, and gave me the mic and the space to convince the audience to elect me. I had three minutes to potentially change the rest of my life. And I thrived. All eyes were on me and I felt like a bright, shining star. Like my words flowed out of my mouth as naturally as a stream flows down a mountain . I talked about my international experience and language skills. What I would bring to the role. And why they should vote for me.

I felt hopeful. Until the floor was opened up for questions to the panel of the three eager students running for the position, myself included. At this point my flight instinct morphed into freeze. I mumbled through my answers. And when the last one came — “Do you have anything to add?” — I was as honest as I could be in the situation. Perhaps too honest. “Based on what has just happened, in all honesty, if I were you I wouldn’t vote for me,” I said. This was all captured on video and I have rarely felt such pity for my former self as when I watched it. I tried. I did what I could. But it hadn’t worked.

I did come second in the election, out of three. This alone was a huge success, and probably quite upsetting for the person who came after me. But I still had to leave. I threw my notes away that I had so diligently scribbled in French and English. I said goodbye to the friends I had started to get closer to. I re-packed my bag of summer clothes and gave Betty back what she had lent me. And I booked a flight back to the UK not knowing what I would do next. Not even knowing where I wanted to be anymore. I was without an anchor, again.

But I would do it again. I am proud that I decided to try. And that I allowed myself to accept the consequences. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have had the richness of experiences that I had. Learnt what I did. Or met who I met.

I have many fond memories of my time there.

A child running down the wall, silhouetted by golden light, Geneva, 2014.

Of the balmy evenings by Lake Geneva drinking wine and eating brie and baguettes with my coursemates. Chatting away in French and watching the naked bathers at Bains des Pâquis. Taking in the sights of children clumsily mounting the wall silhouetted by golden light, their laughter bubbling up as they ran.

Naked bathers at Bains des Pâquis, Geneva, 2014.

Of the leaves of the trees turning from verdant greens to fiery oranges, browns, yellows — embers glowing after the flames of summer died down.

Of dancing in the dark beneath the moon which shimmered silver on the water and live bands playing by beautiful buildings surrounded by shadowy grass as the air chilled the later it got.

Dancing in the dark, Geneva, 2014.

And although my time in Geneva was fleeting I have no regrets.

In life, things end for all kinds of reasons. And sometimes, it’s worth remembering that in embracing transience there is extreme hope. When we know our futures are uncertain we do all that we can to be present. We live in these moments, recognising that our time, like the tide, is beyond our control. Knowing that is all that we have.



Charlie Ogilvie is a self-proclaimed storyteller who chases and embraces the unexpected. She currently ‘writes stuff’ for work and for fun.

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Charlie Ogilvie

Charlie Ogilvie is a self-proclaimed storyteller who chases and embraces the unexpected. She currently ‘writes stuff’ for work and for fun.