I was spending several months in Geneva on an assignment and was lodged in a charming little hotel near the lake. I was sipping coffee at the breakfast table when the question startled me.
The tradition at the hotel was polite but formal. At breakfast, the guests sat at their table and seldom joined other guests for conversation. With my eyes intently on the headlines of Le Matin, I wasn’t expecting an intrusion.
The interloper was a woman, dressed to the hilt, made up flawlessly. You would hardly notice those, for she was spectacular by herself. Shoulder-length dark hair framed a beautiful, bronzed face, the colorful Asian ensemble she wore adding an exotic edge to her slender presence.
“I was born in India. My father was from a family that had once lived in what used to be Pakistan.”
She arched her brows at the complexity of my reply, but smiled and said, “Good enough. I live in Islamabad.”
“What brings you to Switzerland?”
“My brother heads the Pakistan unit of a Swiss company and they are having a conference here. I thought I would give myself a week’s vacation.”
“Summer is the perfect time for that,” I said. “I feel lucky that I am here for that week.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said, “you can take me around everywhere.”
She didn’t ask me once before making that plan, so assured she was of my compliance. She well knew the effect she had on men. In that staid dining room every eye was riveted on her.
I was tempted to add those, such was the magnetic influence of her large sparkling eyes. But I summoned the last dregs of my will and said, “I like it this way.”
She chose the chocolate drink and asked for some fruits. I could barely take my eyes off the crimson nails of her slight fingers. Both her arms had a hundred bangles of gold, silver and rainbow colors and they tinkled as she stirred her chocolate with the right hand or brushed back her hair with the left.
It was a Saturday. So the next question from her was legitimate, “So what are we going to do today?”
“During the week I seldom have time. I was planning to visit MAMCO, the museum of contemporary art.”
Her face fell. Clearly modern art wasn’t her cup of tea. I felt bad.
I asked, “And what is your plan?”
“My brother told me of a museum too. Lots of watches, famous Swiss watches,” she said hesitantly.
An idea struck me.
“I have heard of it too. I tell you what: the Patek Philippe Museum is right next to MAMCO. Why don’t we take in a bit of pictures and statues, and then we can see all the watches you like.”
She smiled and said coquettishly, “I would love to see the pictures with you.”
I suspected, however, that she would not love to see those abstract pictures that fascinate me. It was to the credit of the museum that its spacious and sparse display was astutely designed to show off such artistry at its best. Sonia – who by now she had found time to tell me her name – seemed taken in by the show. She took care to check out the Flatland on the first floor, the artifacts on the stairs and every work of Philippe Thomas. I was impressed and delighted.
I was glad to escort her to the Patek Philippe Museum after that. This time it was my turn to be taken in. Even without being a watch geek, one can be amazed at the ingenuity of Swiss horlogerie, and the delicate blend of art and artifacts in watches displayed from five centuries. I hadn’t expected to see a tennis player or tightrope walker on a watch or a watch masquerading as a pistol or a mandolin.
We ended up, at her suggestion, at the Il Lago restaurant overlooking the Place de Bergues, where she had dined before and wanted to share the experience with me. It was a charming place. I had some oysters while Sonia had cheese tortelli, then we both had lobster risotto. She was laughing and talking as I ate, and I hardly noticed how many times our glasses were refilled. I was happy.
It must have been quite late when we finally returned to our hotel. As we crossed the lobby, a heavy-set man walked up to Sonia and said, without preliminaries, “Where were you? I called you twice, once from the office and then after I returned.” He sounded peeved.
He didn’t look any happier when Sonia introduced us and it became quickly clear that we had been spending the day together. It became quickly clear to me that, though they were two unattached siblings, he did not welcome the idea of his sister’s attachment move anywhere beyond him. The way she moved quickly to assuage his concern made me wonder if she would brook his attachment to anyone beyond her. They had a world of their own. Everybody else had to stay outside the threshold.
I took their leave. The next day, Sunday, I had my breakfast by myself.