The Problematic Roller-Skaters of Geneva



I could not relax, walking the bike path today, among people blaring country music, the guy shouting at heaven, large unleashed dogs thinking heroic thoughts, and clouds of biting gnats in the sun. But what spiked my irritation was the group of five middle-aged guys on expensive road bikes, wearing aerodynamic helmets and corporate-logoed jerseys, blasting along in a formation as tight as the Blue Angels’. They passed twice, once each way, shouting business talk to each other and banking hard to avoid walkers and slower cyclists on the narrow path. It would have been easy on the wet leaves to slide or misjudge and hurt somebody. They were not, as far as I know, breaking any rules, other than the plea on signs to be courteous.

They reminded me of a travel essay by Jan Morris, “Not So Far,” collected in her Journeys. In the early ‘80s, Morris goes to Geneva, which she is surprised to find has changed from “sure and dull” to “restless, as though it is unsure of its own identity, and after all these years of complacency, is having second thoughts.”

The Lake is still lovely, she says, with “the great plume of its fountain [and] the elegant old steamers which, bow-spritted and slant-funnelled, sail swan-like away in the morning mist for their beloved circuits of the lake.”

“[N]evertheless there is a niggling, prodding sense of unease in the air,” she says.

A spy she knows tells her over lunch that it is not the banks, or political conflict, or heightened security in the city that is ruining everything.

“No, no, no, he said testily, nothing like that: only those damned roller-skaters.”

It turns out roller-skating “is all the rage around the Lake of Geneva.” Entire families have taken it up, and dogs are pulled in baskets on skates. But the real hazard are the youth who “whizz shatteringly here and there, scattering the crowds before them with blasts of the whistles that are held between their teeth.

“[T]hat Sunday afternoon I wandered around the lake to watch the world go by [and] found that everything I saw, everything I heard down there, was punctuated by the shrill passage of the roller-skaters,” she says.

Morris describes a bland revivalist meeting with guitars, next to the lake, surrounded by a “characteristic Geneva Sunday crowd—people of every color, every kind, black people, gowned Arabs, Chinese, a flamboyant covey of Nigerians, three mountain people like Sherpas or Bhutanis, one or two half-hearted local hecklers, half-a-dozen of those middle-aged, middle-class middling sort of men, widowers I expect, to be seen in any park of the Western world wandering aimlessly about on Sunday afternoons.”

“[A]nd through them in brutal counterpoint,” she writes, “hurtled the roller-skaters of Geneva, behind them, before them, between the preacher and his audience, between the guitarists and me, heads down, whistles blowing, on their faces expressions not of fun, humor, fellowship or human sympathy, but of cheerless and unremitting arrogance.”

We all know these skaters. They are the motorcyclists who shatter the Sunday peace in Sasbachwalden, in the Black Forest; the bikers who spread disease across the upper Plains; the spring breakers dragging it home for others to die; the anti-maskers who demand to enter Walmart. They are the militia members and other armed protestors storming a statehouse. They are billionaires with sentiments such as, “We will coup whoever we want! Deal with it.”

They are all those who do whatever they want, even if (or especially if) it disadvantages or puts others at risk, because they can. They are the death of community, and they go all the way up- and down-ticket, and across national borders, these days.

As I walked, I called my friend Larry. The roller-skaters of Geneva were an interesting metaphor, we decided. What does one do about them, after asking them to stop and protesting to city government? The Swiss could not carry baseball bats and bunt them off their feet for endangering the elderly and children, I said. After all, how many baseball bats could there be in Switzerland?

We wondered about tossing sticks in skaters’ paths, or having pails of children’s jacks, which would be like small, non-deadly caltrops. But that, of course, would make a mess and would lead to assault charges as surely as ball bats or sticks would, which would dampen direct action. Nonviolent actions work best, studies show.

“Chewing gum, then,” Larry said.

I was confused.

“Give chewing gum out for free, and when people toss down their used gum all over the paths, the skaters will get it in their wheels.”

I said this was unlikely and gross.

“Jelly beans?” he said.

He was irritated when I said it would be more mess, and vomitously multicolored after a rain to boot. He suggested park-goers just lie down in groups and “take it easy for several hours” to block the skaters. Maybe the retired would be interested, he said. They could nap.

I said the jelly beans would stick to their jackets, and the gum would never come out of their hair.

But really: what to do about the threateningly arrogant? Will they disperse this time, or do the right thing, once the nation’s leadership has changed, whenever that might be? Will we relax?

There is an arrogance in frustration too. I recalled to Larry a friend from high school, who was so irritated with tailgaters that he used to draw them in close, then step hard on the brakes. He said he was not worried about his truck getting damaged, because it was a crappy F-150 called Mr. Majestyk, after the movie with Charles Bronson as a melon farmer who drives a similar truck and is out to get even with somebody. My friend believed the law would be on his side, with the tailgater getting blamed for following too close.

In a slightly unrelated incident he rolled that truck, with me in it: our cheerless faces as we untangled ourselves, pushed one door upward, and climbed out and up to the public road.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.