‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere's Fan
On a breakfast table in an old Swiss palace, sit two coffees in white porcelain cups. On either side of the table sit two opposing parties, watching each other, the coffee get cold. Were they not here they would be making war. Instead, they are not making eye contact. Precisely midway between them, cautiously, sit sugar, cream, croissants, bread, butter, jam.
Between them also, the air is heavy with the weight of history. Each party brings its own to the table and tells it from the angle at which it sits. The stories run parallel, in opposite directions, across the invisible frontline. Each is as true, personal, and painful as the other. Each is about real people’s lives.
All is laid on the table, face up, but judgment. The past, hurts, prejudices, fears. One man passes the other the cream. They talk, stir their coffees, spread butter on their bread.
World conflicts are ended, officially, in Geneva, but two short train rides away, on a mountainside over Montreux is a palace where real people have real talks.
To stay at the Caux Palace, a former luxury hotel, is to play by the house’s rules. Those who check in at reception are requested to leave their constructs at the front door; biases, prejudices, perceptions of the other. They are then given their room keys, quiet time for reflection in the mornings, and fresh towels and sheets.
Introspection, dialogue, and service shifts are required around the house. Heads of state, heads of opposition movements, musicians, students, activists, coffee bean farmers, ambassadors and maharajahs have cut carrots, folded linen, washed plates. And on these shifts; on the terrace overlooking the mountains and Lac Léman; on the tables at meals and tea; on long walks in the forest, people have met. And changed.
The first conference was held here in 1946; World War II and the bombs had gone quiet. The French and Germans met for the first time, lay their elbows, guns, past down, banged their fists on the tables, learned each other’s names, then started rebuilding Europe.
Irène Laure, French, and Clarita von Trott, German. Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman. And over the decades that followed the Japanese, South Africans, Russians and Ukrainians, Brazilians, Lebanese Christians and Muslims, Malian tribesman, Rhodesians, Burundian village leaders, Palestinians and Israelis, Syrian refugees, South Tyroleans, great grandchildren of Turks, Armenians, Kurds, of a country once called Yugoslavia, black and white Americans, Cambodians, Somalis, aboriginal and settled Australians.
Thousands have come here from all over the world in the past seventy-one years, because regardless of the past they believe in global change, and that it is, at its core, human.
Global change starts with an empty seat at a table where a stranger is having breakfast. An exchange of names; the stranger now has a human voice and face. From there, curiosity sparks conversation, ideas are exchanged, and an openness to switching seats midway offers a different perspective.
Our realities are built on our beliefs and perceptions of facts that are constantly changing. ‘What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.’ And on the other side of any conflict and table is a person with a name and story.
No child is born with prejudices. No blanket statement covers all. Curiosity never killed cat or human but ignorance and apathy do. War would be impractical if we knew how the enemy liked their toast. So question, yourself first. Listen. Revisit. Reassess. Again, again,
Then rewrite the story, rebuild the construct. What if it looked like this:
What if we were curious, not fearful of the other? What if we were willing to switch seats? What if our belief systems were topics of conversation and interesting late night debates? What if other countries were just other places where friends of ours happened to live? What if war were not inevitable, suffering never anonymous, and not just in a palace in Switzerland?