Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tuesday, July 10, 2012 - No comments

Zurich: The Iconic and the Imagined

(from June 26)

There’s been this commercial on CNN lately where a businessman who lives in Central Asia (or the Middle East maybe?) goes on about how, when he needs a break from “the chaos” he loves to take his family on vacation to Zurich where “everything works.”  The storybook scenery in the ad had me excited about visiting, but I thought the way he went on and on about how functional and efficient the city was seemed a bit over the top.  

I stand corrected. 

I have never seen such an orderly place!  It ran with the precision of a well-crafted Swiss watch - trains, trams, bikes, cars and pedestrians all moving along in their proper lanes at their designated times.  Everyone knew their place and - maashallah - nothing crashed!  At tram and bus stops, digital signs listed which number would arrive in how many minutes, and little symbols denoted which vehicles were bike or wheelchair friendly.  What’s more, people actually waited for passengers to disembark before making their way onto the train - amazing!  (At home in Turkey, I’m always afraid I’ll get stuck in the train and miss my stop because some lady with eighteen shopping bags pushed her way on and blocked my exit!)

Oh, and the crosswalks!  There seemed to be one every 20 metres or so, and all you had to do to stop traffic is step up to the curb.  No button, no chirping bird - just automatic safe passage.  As a “Turk” who is accustomed to capitalizing on any small break in traffic and making a lane-by-lane break for it, this phenomenon was something akin to having magical powers.  I kept thinking I was about to break some unwritten rule and mess up the system, but if I did, I’m unaware of it cuz the Swiss were too calm and polite to make a fuss about it.
After my encounter with the Turkish couple in Migros (see previous entry) I bought a 24 hour transit pass for CHF 12.80 (13.40 US) from a machine at the airport.  This allowed me to ride any form of public transportation within Zone 10 (where the Old City is located) for the duration of my stay.  Apparently the Swiss still operate on the honour system, because not once did anyone check my ticket.  
When I boarded the train from the airport to downtown, I unknowingly got into a First Class car, while my ticket was for Second Class.  I realized it when a group of American tourists behind me were (loudly) discussing the fact that they’d done the same thing, and so I trundled off behind them, suitcase in tow, to find the Second Class car which, to me, still looked awfully First Class-ish with its cushy seats and little tables.  It took me a minute to figure out that I had to wave my pass in front of a sensor to open the sliding doors between cars.  It’s a wonder that my “steerage” pass didn’t set off an alarm as I made my way through the “uppity cars.”  I wonder what would’ve happened had I just stuck around in First Class.  Maybe they serve ice cream...or truffles!  Then again, “Guilty” is my least favourite flavour.

Disembarking at the bustling Hauptbahnhof (main train station), I easily found my way onto a tram, and off it again three stops later at Limmatplatz, just two blocks from my hotel.  I was surprised that the two young girls I asked for directions didn’t know English (thus disappointingly blowing my “everyone in Europe speaks English plus three other languages” theory), but with a glance at the address (apparently I was butchering the street name) they were able to point me in the right direction.

My top-floor room at the Casa Heinrich was decorated completely in white from one dormer window to the other - more modern homeyness than hospital-esque sterility.  It was something of a studio apartment, complete with a fully equipped kitchenette, and would make a great base for exploring the city in depth someday.  For being the cheapest one I could find (within the “safe for a single girl” range, that is) on Booking.com, but it was much more comfortable and classy than I expected.  Then again, as I was later told, “The Swiss just don’t do ghetto hotels.”  
Changing into what I hoped was a cute and “European-enough” dress (with the help of some tap water and the hair dryer to erase all traces of it having just emerged from a suitcase) I made my way slowly back to the train station to meet my friend Tina, who was to be my tour guide for the evening.  My bare legs stood out in contrast to all the “not yet dressed for summer” folks around me, but it was warm enough by this point in the afternoon, and at least I matched the degree of formality around me.  And, as Tina later assured me, “It’s Europe, not Turkey.  No one cares what you wear.”
Now luggage-free and looking the part of the carefree tourist, I took my time observing life in the streets of the Old City.  The buildings had a whimsical quality about them - nearly every window was framed by cheerfully painted shutters and many of the apartments had tiny balconies with curving wrought-iron rails.  There were far more bicycles than cars on the roads - quite a few Vespas and scooters, too - and men in business suits to women in high heels and skirts were making their way home from work on two wheels.  The place had a rather eco-friendly fairytale feel to it.  (Though I don’t suppose Hansel and Gretel would’ve gotten away with dropping their crumbs all the way home had they lived in Zurich - no litter in sight here!)

Apparently “green” isn’t synonymous with “healthy” in everyone’s books - I was surprised by the number of smokers.  (Then again, I was also surprised by the number of older women with streaks of indigo in their hair.  Even “proper” cultures have their exceptions, it would seem.)  On the tram to the station, the atmosphere was hushed.  Nearly everyone was wearing headphones and reading either a book, an iPad or a newspaper - everyone blissfully alone in his or her own little commuter world.  Well-groomed lap dogs abounded, as did streamlined baby strollers, and both canine and kiddos were remarkably well-behaved.  
To my eye, the Swiss definitely have “public sphere etiquette” perfected - a stable balance of “give me my comfort and my rights and I won’t step on anyone else’s.”  As one living in a country where individual rights are less than cherished, and the care of public spaces seen as “someone else’s responsibility,” I was particularly impressed.  I suppose that sort of utopia is not without a price, though, as Zurich is one of the most expensive cities in the world in terms of cost of living.  I can’t imagine most Turks being willing to pay higher taxes for fancy bike racks.  In my neighbourhood, all of our “street signs” are still just numbers painted hastily on telephone poles.
At the meeting point under the big clock in the Hauptbahnhof, I found Tina immediately, despite the fact that her crisp “I-work-at-a-bank” outfit meant that she blended in with her surroundings better than one would expect an American to.  Having not seen each other since a summer spent volunteering in Mexico seven years ago, we had much to catch up on - particularly the details of her upcoming wedding.  Half American, half Swiss-German, she moved to her father’s homeland several years ago, learned to speak Swiss German remarkably well, and got a job at an international bank.  After they’re married, her Yankee groom will be joining her in Switzerland where they’ll begin their life together.
Tina works in Zurich but lives about an hour away, and most of her “downtown experience” has been showing her fiancee around when he’s visited, so in some ways she was as much of a tourist as I was.  She was the perfect guide, having printed out maps and researched “photogenic spots” in Old Town that she know my camera and I would find charming.  
We chatted our way down Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most famous (and priciest) shopping streets in Europe.  Then we turned onto Augustinergasse into the “Ye Olde Switzerland” I’d pictured in my mind before coming.  This prestigious district was once encircled by the walls of a Roman fortress.  Cobblestone lanes narrowed and twisted in an inviting medieval maze that climbed a gentle hill and then descended gracefully to the banks of the Limmat River.  Boutiques, spas and law offices sat tucked away in four and five story gingerbread buildings, all decorated with a rainbow of shutters and dormers and even the occasional turret.

A steep stone staircase led us up into Lindenhof Park, and our huffing and puffing were rewarded with one of those shining “I’ve always wanted to see this in real life” moments.  A group of very solemn older gentlemen were crowded around a giant chess board as two of them battled it out under the shade trees.  Behind them, a mother watched in amusement as her little girl danced around a second board, struggling to arrange pieces half her size into a formation that looked more like a Teddy Bears’ Picnic than a proper chess game.

On three sides of the park, tall houses peered across a lane so narrow that their inhabitants could surely follow the progress of the chess game from the comfort of their living rooms.  We headed across the lawn to the east side of the park where benches and a low wall overlooked the Limmat River and the city beyond.  Clock towers and steeples dotted the skyline, the most remarkable of which belonged to the Grossmünster - the tenth century church that has come to symbolize Zurich.  (I’d arrived too late in the day for a tour, which just settles the matter of me coming back for a longer visit.)  Several bridges - some for trams and auto traffic, others for pedestrians) spanned the width of the narrow river, which flowed into Lake Zurich, sparkling just to the south.  

From the park, we made our way down to the river, crossing over to the promenade on the east bank and following it down to the lake.  As the church bells chimed five o’clock, the sun broke through the clouds, and the crowds on the boardwalk were rewarded with the warm weather they’d clearly been anticipating.  Teenaged boys with guitars, kids feeding the swans, kissing couples and those with their nose in a book (or in an iPad, as it were) lined the benches along the water while roller bladers, bikers and stroller-pushing moms wheeled their way down the shaded pathway.  Sidewalk cafes and designer ice cream stands were swarming with people eager to believe summer had finally began.  
We rounded out the evening with dinner at Tre Cucine where this “fresh-out-of-a-Muslim-country” girl was most excited about the ham and pineapple pizza.  :)  (I’m not even that much of a pork eater, but there’s something about not being able to eat it for months that makes me want to down some delectable “swine flesh” the moment I get that exit stamp in my passport!)  The setting of the sun made me wish I was wearing more than a summer dress, but there was no way I wanted to sit indoors when there was a proper European sidewalk table outside. 
When we finished up our craving-satisfying supper, I thanked Tina for giving me precisely the “Swiss evening” I’d been hoping for.  
I tend to build these things up so much in my traveller’s mind - “the classic this” and the “quintessential that” - and whether they are definitive of that location or not, they become so in my mind.  To me, “lingering at a sidewalk cafe” was the golden experience I’d anticipated making me feel like I’d really “done Zurich.”  Our outdoor Italian dinner had hit the spot in both edible delight and mental snapshot-worthiness.  My “iconic moment” was still missing a few ingredients, though - I needed coffee and chocolate to round out the picture.  As we both had to get up early, caffeine was forwarded to my morning bucket list.  I didn’t have to head to the airport until eleven, so there would be plenty of time for espresso and truffles.
As we parted ways on the Number 4 tram - Tina to catch her train home and me to continue on to my hotel - a group of tipsy teenagers who would surely be underage at home commandeered the back section of the tram.  So much for my notion of “perfect public etiquette.”  Their open beer bottles and raucous laughter marked, for me, the transition from the “clean and safe Zurich” of the daylight hours to the “nighttime Zurich” I’d been warned about.  I wondered if, perhaps, this scene was just as “iconic” as my romantic street cafe daydreams.
As their rowdy voices followed me off the tram and towards my waiting white room, I decided it was best to head inside before anything else could mar the fairytale Zurich I’d built up in my mind.  When it comes to postcard-shaped memories, I just plain prefer mine rose-coloured.