Monday, July 14, 2008

Swiss Wonderland (Written 13 July 2008)

I arrived in Zurich by train - the first time I've had to take public transport to my destination since I left the Czech Republic. It was a long, strenuous day with bad weather on the road from Belgium, a few bumps and troubles, nothing major, but finally I arrived in Singen, Germany, and my driver insisted I take the train - it was getting to be night and there wasn't much traffic, and he claimed that hitching in Switzerland is difficult because Swiss people don't like people that don't have money (I simply quote him)

Anyway, I arrived in Zurich at 10.41pm (yes, much much later than I had calculated - I had guesses by 6pm?) - and all the stereotypes of Switzerland seemed to be true - trains exquisitely punctual, clean, everyone is polite, everything is a strange way it reminded me of Japan, much more to do with these surface observations rather than the actual culture of the people.

Wonderful, really wonderful, to see Maja and Andreas. Maja had come to Japan to run a marathon in November 2006 and I was her guide in December for two weeks. We had formed a really good bond during those two weeks and it felt like a homecoming in Zurich, even though it was my first time in Switzerland.

Wednesday I lazed about until I met Brodie - what a strange coincidence - I know Brodie from Tokyo, when we lived literally 100m from each other in Nakano, and since then we seem to cross paths quite frequently in Tokyo...about a week ago he sent out a group email that he had arrived in Zurich for the IronMan (yes, he's crazy) - and he would just be hanging out for the next week. I couldn't believe the coincidence (I knew he was going to participate but had no idea of the date) and we arranged to meet up. So, on Wednesday we met at the station, gawked at how expensive the market food was (he resigned himself to a small plate of curry for 15 CHF - about 1550 yen - 15USD), then went to rent bikes. Zurich (and other large cities in Switzerland) has a great program where they are trying to promote eco-tourism and provide jobs for unemployed by renting free bicycles - you need only to leave a 20 franc deposit and the bike is yours for the day! Really great - so we rode around the lake, and ventured down to IronMan Land, as I call the area where it was being hosted, and finally to the Lindt Shop - yes, Lindt chocolate. I believe we spent about an hour poring over every single different variety and flavor and collection and package...I almost succeeded in not getting anything, Brodie had 9 bars of chocolate, including a 300g almond orange dark chocolate one, mmm...and when we were outside and I unlocked the bike, I dashed back inside to get the Summer Edition Strawberry Rhubarb. YUM.

We then rode back to meet Maja at the hospital, and from there we went to El Lokal, a really funky cool international feel bar along the river. There's indoor and outdoor seating and when that fills up, people get their drinks at the bar and then they find a spot along the river. Kind of not what I was expecting in Switzerland. I don't know why. Relaxed, beautiful, laid-back people enjoying sun with their sandals kicked off and smiles all around. Wow.

Thursday I met Raffaella, who I had met in Buenos Aires this March, and we wandered around the old city and finally succeeded in getting my Travellers Check cashed. My signature in my passport is written in Kanji, Japanese script derived from Chinese characters, and on my Travellers Checks I had signed using Latin script. Swiss banks are so go-by-the-rules that I actually was not permitted to change my check, even though I had my passport, a number of Credit/Debit Cards, and student ID etc. Wow. Figured out a way around it though, and I was all cashed up - which means nothing in Switzerland because money disappears like water in this country.

I then met Brodie at Burkliplatz, got bikes, and attempted to ride up the hill in the Southeast of town but I am out of shape and still not a cycling expert (very very far from it) so gave up and instead went to Werdinsel. This is an island very close to the city center, and it's unlike anything I've ever seen in a city before. People are sprawled out in bathing suits. You just jump in the river and the current, which is quite strong, carries you downstream until you come to a roped area with ladders to get out. The river flowing through the city is so clean that you can do this! Wow!

We cycled back along the river, passing the public baths, again packed with beautiful bodies, and then met Maja at Burkliplatz, where she and I had agreed to go for a swim. This area of Zurich is beautiful, and we lounged around with hundreds of others in the sunshine-y evening. Maja had invited me for a barbecue at her friend Denise's house (actually her boyfriend's), and it was really lovely. I felt very engaged and welcomed and comfortable with everyone there and it was a good evening with lots of laughs and great food.

Friday, Carole who I met in Nicaragua and went to Costa Rica with, had the day off so we took a day trip to see the sights around Zurich. Einsiedeln, Schwyz, Brunnen...then swimming at Zug. This day out really made me understand a bit more about Switzerland (at least this part of the country) - it is so clean, so well-organized, so compact, so green...the lake views from Brunnen were among the prettiest I've ever seen in my life...and it's all within easy driving distance of Zurich. Unbelievable.

In the evening, Rebeka who I met in Guatemala (she's Guatemalan and working as an au pair now) came for dinner at Maja's place.

Saturday, horrible weather so lounging about before our evening fondue. Totally different from previous fondues I've had, I was thoroughly impressed, and thoroughly suffering after the meal. 200 grams of cheese per person, splashes of white wine and cherry liquer...what more could you ask for?

And today, we took a trip to Weesen and did a 3 hour hike along the Wallensee to Quinten. A beautiful walk, unfortunately no spectacular views of the tall mountains because of the bad weather, but passing fields full of wildflowers, green forest, all while looking at the glacial blue water wasn't any small pleasure.

They cooked a Zurich specialty for dinner, pork in a mushroom cream sauce, and rosti, which is essentially a giant hash brown with Aromat, the ubiquitous Swiss seasoning which is delicious MSG and onion and various other powders...

Tomorrow I'm off to Lucerne for a day before heading back to France...conclusion is that yes, Switzerland is expensive, but it is really kind of worth it, considering the high quality and the speed and efficiency of everything. I'm almost surprised I never wanted to visit before - this had more to do with the fact that I didn't really have any Swiss friends until I met Maja in 2006 - now that I'm here, I can see myself easily wanting to visit regularly to see more of this breathtaking, small but important nation.

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