Zurich - Guest Entry

September, 2003

by David Fair


Gently rocking back and forth with the swaying of the train, I gazed out the window at the unparalleled scenery.  Still somewhat awed by the experience of the past week, it took me a couple of minutes to realize that I in fact was not rocking back and forth with the swaying of the train, because Swiss trains don’t do that.  Somehow the civil engineers in Switzerland have defied the rules of trains.  In America, if you live near the train tracks, you hear the trains coming from a mile away.  Every hour.  As the train approaches your house shakes, dishes fall off shelves, babies wake up from naps, windows rattle, and you miss important dialogue in the movie you are watching even though the volume on your TV is set on “11”.  In Switzerland when the train goes by at 50 miles per hour, you hear wind.  No rattles.  No ruckus.  Just 4 or 5 seconds of wind. 

 If riding a train in the US is an experience as you are clicked and clacked and rocked and swayed into oblivion, being on a Swiss train is not an experience at all.  You sit down, a bell rings, and the train accelerates.  In a few seconds the train isn’t accelerating any more, and the ride is so smooth you could hand-letter your wedding invitations with a calligraphy pen.  If it weren’t for the fact that scenery rolls past the windows it would be like sitting in a chair in your living room.  Except there is a gorgeous blonde sitting across from you on the train in Switzerland, and that is much less likely in your living room.  Well, for me it is anyway. 

 Pretty much everything about Switzerland had amazed me.  One week in the mountains in Davos had convinced me that in fact, Massachusetts roads are among the worst in the world.  Massachusetts people will make all kinds of excuses like, “It’s because of the hard winters that our roads suck”.  But let’s face it, folks, there is no way that Massachusetts has harsher weather in the winter than the Swiss Alps.  While driving in Massachusetts, one cannot travel more than 10 miles in any direction without seeing road construction.  In fact, they came and tore up our street a few weeks ago, and within two short weeks of brand-spankin’ new asphalt, large cracks and sections of crushed road appeared; and it wasn’t even winter!  But I drove halfway across Switzerland, highways, city streets, and treacherous mountain roads – I didn’t see a single piece of road construction equipment, and I didn’t see a single crack in the asphalt.  No crumbled curbs, no “Bobby wuz here” scratched into the sidewalk.  Not even any trash on the roadsides. 

 Of course the Swiss alps can’t be beaten for scenery.  A teaspoon of sadness dripped into my mind as I realized that I was leaving this place and returning to Massachusetts and my own crappy street in Medford. 

 Meanwhile, a half-cup of excitement poured over the sorrow.  I knew that once again, I had been forethoughtful enough to neglect making hotel arrangements for a one night stay in Zurich before leaving Davos.  Last time I played the “no plans during international travel” game, I nearly got myself into a bushel of trouble in the city of Xi’an in China.  You would think I would learn my lesson, but nooooo. 

Perhaps an underdeveloped sense of adventure prevented me from being responsible about making travel arrangements ahead of time.  Maybe I secretly wanted to put myself into a crisis so I could have the excitement of dealing with it and a cool story to tell afterward.  Maybe I thought it wouldn’t be an issue because almost everybody speaks English in Switzerland.  Probably I was just lazy.  For whatever reason, I found myself on my way to a city in a foreign country with a heavy suitcase and no clue what to do when I arrived. 

 And let’s face it, there really wasn’t a gorgeous blonde sitting across from me. 

 She was more of a brunette.  And she looked kind of punkish.  Maybe 19 years old, she sat there reviewing some note cards, occasionally talking on her cell phone in German.  Not only was I not interested in interacting with her, but she was clearly not interested in interacting with me. 

 The obvious answer was Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3, which always seems to help out in these types of scenarios.  My CD player faithfully repeated the San Fransisco Symphony Orchestra’s performance of it into my headphones, and I was happy.  What more could I ask for?  A smooth train ride, beautiful scenery, and a great recording of one of my favorite symphonies.   

A little reverie, a train change, some more reverie, and we arrived in the Zurich train station.  After bustling my suitcase through the jungle of people on the train, I stepped onto the platform knowing that I had only bloodied three kneecaps on the way out.  Since I had no idea where I was or where I was going, I decided to walk around aimlessly in the station until I found some sort of direction.  A café, a newsstand, a flower shop, a money changer, a bunch of kiosks, and several other vendors contributed to the sensory overload that was defining my experience.  I’m not sure exactly when I realized that my suitcase had definitely been designed by someone who doesn’t actually travel, but it certainly didn’t take long.  Aside from the typical handle on top, the large thin body is graced with a set of very nice wheels on one corner, and a handle for dragging it on the other corner.  It is quite a nice design, until you try to drag it around.  Because the suitcase is tall and thin, it has a tendency to fall over, and because it is long, the handle gives you no control over it while it is falling.   

After purchasing a map and looking all over for information about hotels, my stomach decided that dinner was the most important next event.  With my usual flair for doing things the hard way, I dragged my luggage out of the station and onto the streets of Zurich.  After several blocks I came upon a restaurant that looked somewhat promising.  By this time my hands were quite tired from pulling the suitcase, so I hauled myself inside the door and requested a table for one. 

 After a nice dinner of cheese-drenched potatoes with extra cheese and extra cheese (they really like cheese there), I asked the waiter if he could help me find a hotel.  As luck would have it, he referred me to a giant kiosk in the train station with all the local hotel info.  Of course it would have been way too easy for me to look at that kiosk before I dragged my suitcase for a mile on cobblestone streets.   

My hands and shoulders whined all the way back to the train station.  Fortunately it didn’t take long for me to find the hotel kiosk.  As I should have suspected, this was yet another unwelcome sensory overload.  A 20 foot long board with probably over 100 hotels and an interactive computer system flanked my entire field of vision.  I pushed a few buttons, looked at some flashing LED’s on the giant map display, and suddenly had to laugh.  “What the hell am I doing?” I asked myself.  I just wanted someone to say, “Here, choose this one.  You can get there on the #238 bus which costs 4 Francs.  Just get off at the 4th stop.”  Now 10:30 at night, and having been up and on the road since early in the morning, I knew that this was going to be painful. 

 As I laughed and shook my head at the ludicrosity of the whole situation, I caught a young couple out of the corner of my eye being helped by an older gentleman – in English.  The sound of unrequested English comforted my soul.  Seeing my plight, the gentleman turned to me and suggested that I go with the couple to this particular hotel right off a particular bus line.  “Thank you Lord,” I thought.  “Sometimes God answers prayers we don’t even make.”  I shook hands with the couple, a British college student and his Chinese wife.  They looked reasonably sane, and I was substantially desperate, so we agreed to travel together.   

The next thing I knew we were standing inside a bus on the way to the hotel.  As I watched the cityscape pass by the bus window, I began to notice that the scenery was degenerating.  We started in the brightly lit, downtown area with lots of upscale clubs and hip young lovers showing off their significant others, but gradually I began to see occasional pieces of trash on the streets.  The restaurants were a little more seedy, and the quantity of drunk-looking men increased.  Neon signs graced the roadsides, and suddenly it struck me, “These are not your average neon signs.  They are outlines of naked women! 

 The cold water of reality hitting my face told me that I was in for an interesting night.  Of course right in the middle of the red-light district was our bus stop.  And of course there were scantily clad women at the bus stop waiting to pick up customers.  And of course I didn’t have any cash.  I had spent it all knowing that it would be a pain to change it back in the States.   

Together the young couple and I dismounted the bus and stood dumbfounded for a good minute or two after the bus pulled away.  “Why am I so stupid?” I thought.  “Didn’t I have enough of a red-light experience in China for a lifetime?  Why didn’t I just stay in the really expensive hotel near the station?”  Of course it was too late now.  I had made my bed, now it was time to scrape the bugs out of it before laying in it. 

 As I looked at the young British guy, I noticed his T-shirt sported a large image of Jesus giving me the finger.  “Jesus hates you!” it said in bold red letters.  Not knowing what to think of that, I got my bearings, and pointed to the left.  “I think we need to go that way,” I said with confidence that must have sounded like a student in an exam he hadn’t studied for in a class he wasn’t taking.   

It took us quite a while to find the door to the hotel, because it was actually a bar.  We walked into the bar, and were told by the bartender-hotel manager (or whatever he was) that they didn’t accept credit cards.  May I remind you that I had no Swedish Francs because I got rid of them all.  What the hell hotel doesn’t take credit cards?  Aren’t hotels supposed to not take cash and only take credit card?  Of course this was a different kind of hotel.  This hotel was special.  Just in case I was about to forget that this hotel was special, they reminded me.  After “Mr. Jesus-Hates-You” lent me the cash for the night under the trust that we would find an ATM and I would pay him later that night, we began to head upstairs to our rooms.  The hallway was kind of crowded, as a few police officers were roughing up a very sorry-looking and barely conscious woman with sunken cheeks and a distinct smell of… well… I don’t know, but it wasn’t pleasant.  It was clear that she was high on something, and didn’t really know exactly what was going on. 

 Imagine my excitement when I opened my door to find a sketchy metal cot with a mattress, a 1970’s TV set, cracked linoleum floor, and a sink in my room.  “That isn’t so bad,” you might say.  But that was all.  No chair.  No extra blankets.  No bathroom.  Having not peed in about 6 hours, this was becoming important to me.  The bathrooms were common to all the rooms on the floor.  I looked across the hall and found it.  Perhaps as much as 3 feet square, it was clear that my knees would be hitting the wall while I was peeing and the floor looked very… used. 

 Not long later, I found myself walking with the couple all around the red light district looking for an ATM and a place for them to grab a bite to eat.  Apparently banks in Switzerland are very intelligent.  They don’t have any branches in sketchy areas of town.  Restaurants are also pretty intelligent.  The only things we could find were bars, strip clubs, brothels, drunk men, and prostitutes.  So now I had a new task.  I needed to drag my butt out of cot early, take the bus back to the train station, get money from the bank, come back to the room, pay “Mr. Jesus-Hates-You”, check out of the hotel, and take the bus back to the train station again to take the train to the airport to catch my flight at 9am. 

 But before all of that could take place, I had a much more urgent issue: I needed to sleep on this mattress on this cot.  Have you ever wondered what you are sleeping on?  Have you ever wondered if sexually transmitted diseases can be transmitted by sleeping on an infested bed?  Have you ever wondered if the itching on your skin is in your mind or if maybe the sheets have something on them that you don’t want on your skin?  These questions and many other more graphic ones pelted my mind with small stones that kept me awake for quite a while. 

After an unpleasantly cold shower I made my way back to the bus stop.  I saw a few prostitutes and a few customers going home after their night of riding the waves.  Aside from that, it was silent, almost peaceful.  The only person at the bus stop, I watched color begin to return to the streets as the sun rose.  Eventually the bus came, and I was treated to a view of sunrise-Zurich on a Sunday.  The streets were completely empty – I may have seen two or three cars on the way back to the train station, and there was only one other person on the bus.  I think I was in culture shock, going from the high-class hotel in Davos, to the super-smooth train, to the cobblestone streets of old downtown Zurich, to the red light district, to the peace and tranquility of those same streets at sunrise.  I knew my experience was almost over.  Once again, I had survived.  Once again, I vowed never to travel in foreign countries without plans.  And once again, I had experienced a piece of the world that had only entered my life through movies or books.  Such excellence and such depravity, such clamor and such tranquility – all in the same space of time.  Large stone buildings with ornate architecture beckoned to be gaped at, history itself seemed to reach out and take my hand, yearning for me to stay just a little longer, to experience what was meant to be in Zurich.  The bus ride was not nearly long enough for me to take in the beauty and calm of the city, and the itchiness on my skin was far behind me.   Before I knew it, I was on an airplane leaving the Alps, the architecture, the cheesy potatoes with extra cheese, and the red light district behind.