When we arrived in Geneva, it was still cold, but sunny. The train between Zürich and Geneva had brought us from a more austere, alpine landscape into hazy-blue Mediterranean surroundings. Lake Geneva suddenly appeared to the left of the train as a glittering reminder of the villa that was waiting for us on its shore, the villa which we were going to have all to ourselves for a week, during the last workshop of the Topos and Topography project. This was to be the first time that we did not meet in Rome, and the first time that we were going to present our first drafts of the texts for the final publication of the project. And, as I remarked to Stefano when we dragged our heavy suitcases down the stairs at Zürich central station, it was the first time that we actually travelled together. We had been tourists in Einsiedeln, we had come as a sort of pilgrims to the abbey library, and now it seemed only logical that we should undertake the last leg of the journey to Geneva together. It was as if travelling together had made us more of a group, more of a we than we ever had been before, our train tickets kept together in one single folder.
The taxi stopped in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, on Chemin Vert, a small street quite rightly surrounded by greenery, on the border between Coligny and Vandœuvres, two suburban residential villages outside Geneva. And in the midst of the same greenery I am writing this on my very last day at Foundation Hardt.
Within minutes after our arrival, we sat at the dinner table together with the director of the Foundation, professor Pierre Ducrey. As if it was the most natural thing in the world, we talked about Latin literature and other sublime subjects while having the most exquisite meal under the chandelier of one of the most lovely places I have ever visited. The art, the furniture and the interior decoration was all preserved from the period when Baron Kurd von Hardt, the founder of this institution, still lived in the house, and spindly, gold-framed Roman engravings, dark glossy still life paintings, marble sideboards, pastel-coloured upholstered sofas and speckled oriental rugs formed the scenography of our little evening tableau. As a child of the modern age and of moderate means, the only thing I could associate to was a museum. We are inside a museum, and it is wonderful; these marvellous things are here to be admired, to be looked at, but not touched. But when professor Ducrey told us about the ideology of the Foundation, I suddenly understood that it was quite the other way around. ”This is your Foundation”, he said in his utterly pleasant manner; ”the Foundation belongs to you. You will have whatever you need when you need it. In the park outside, you will find animals and birds; in the garden you will find fountains and flowers of all sorts. Be happy, be happy, be happy!” To be instructed to above all be happy, to be reminded of joy and the pleasantness of nature – I don’t know if I ever have experienced that in academia. We are too often confined to rather depressing ambiances, square and bleak rooms dominated by entangled electric wires, curtains of undescribable quality, worn floors, and furniture in non-sustainable materials, as well as to too few teaching hours, too large student groups and what have you, and we have to rely heavily on our phantasy for evoking the spiritual landscape of our studies. Academia is not the place for gold-diggers in the literal sense. But thanks to the odd patron, places such as the Foundation Hardt exists, which give researchers with precarious working conditions a chance to for a short while enjoy a safe haven and peace of study, and the serenity that is what brings great ideas alive (competition and strife about the few fixed academic positions available is, I can tell you, and contrarily to what some would like to argue, the one thing that surely will kill every fragile butterfly of an idea, create dissidence and bitter conflict, and eventually hollow out the freedom and diversity of academia). From professor Ducreys words, I realized that this magnificent villa was not a museum, but actually the backdrop of our workshop, the scene for our discussions and the playground for yet unknown ideas and future plans. And it has not at all to be about luxury. It would suffice with a green lawn like this, a small, chuckling stream or a fountain, and a few high trees for a cool green shade on a hot day; in short what in ancient literature would be called a locus amoenus (”a pleasant place”), the place where poetry and philosophy comes to life.
And so, when going to bed that evening in my yellow ochre coloured room, I was feeling a slightly bit nervous about the start of our workshop the next day, but when I saw the bright red dahlias in the flowerbeds outside my window shine through the dark, I repeated to myself: ”Be happy, be happy, be happy.”