Zurich – What Time Is It?

zurichHe looked at me with his eyebrows scrunched up in that inimitable question mark = ? I was regretting having taken away his watch. And at moments like these I wondered why I married him. True, he was drop-dead gorgeous. True, he had a mind to go with it, as spaced out as it was. True, he was kind and sweet to bleeding animals. Not that they had to be bleeding, but it helped.

The real thing that attracted me to him, despite all these wonderful qualities however, was his obsession. I identified with it. Not HIS particular obsession, but the fact that his was so ALL-consuming, he had sought outside help. As Professor of Social Geography, he specialized in ‘Space, Action and Time.’ And TIME was his obsession.

I think there is something very reassuring – something comforting in knowing that as crazy as you are, there is someone who is crazier than you. That was my second attraction. We met at a psychiatrists’ office. The same psychiatrist who had suggested that he leave his watches (a collection of over 250, not including his collection of antique timepieces) at home, as a form of therapy. I now looked at his haggard face and knew it wasn’t jetlag, another 3 hours without a watch and he would definitely come apart at the seams.

The good news was that we were landing in Zurich. He could look at clocks for the next 6 days before going on to Cambridge. I consulted my Patek Philippe, an extravagant wedding gift from my husband, which he gave me saying “with you time stands still.” I took it as a compliment- “We’re landing in Zurich in exactly 3 minutes and 32… no 31 seconds. If you ask me one more time, I am divorcing you in Las Vegas.”

The Swissair flight was smooth as Lindt chocolate, the only grievance I had was that every hour, either for geographical high points, (Some Goddamn Alp) or for climatic information, the stewardess made announcements in Swiss-German, Swiss-French, Swiss-Italian, Romansch .The 3 comments became a running monologue of 6 hours; the time it took Moses to climb Mount Sinai for the 16 commandments. Thank God they were in English!

The first thing that assailed you at Kloten airport, was the cleanliness. It was disgusting. There was nobody sleeping on the floor, waiting for some mis-connection outside customs, and apart from our group there were only 2 other flights picking up their luggage. I asked a stewardess if the airport was always this calm, and she replied with an hysterical edge to her voice. “You think this is calm!?” (I had read somewhere that Einstein developed his ‘Theory of Relativity” not far from Zurich. It all fell into place.)

Regardless of our numerous travels to Switzerland, (which my husband equated with the Bahamas – that’s to say that when the bickering at the University reached a saturation level close to the density of peanut butter, he would come here and contemplate space and whatever) I was excited about Zurich. The Swiss-German cantons were the last on our list, and it was still terra incognito. We grabbed a cab, and George asked the driver if anything special was happening in the next few weeks.

The driver meant this to be the weather report and proceeded to tell us that the air pollution level today was very high and that this morning, he had to drive some old burgher (farmer) to the emergency ward for oxygen. George looked at me shocked. He does have an expression for shock, but since he uses the same expression for anger, it’s hard to tell sometimes what he’s feeling. Anyway, curious we rolled down the window and inhaled deeply. “George, you know what this reminds me of?” “No, what?” “Remember last year, the casino in Las Vegas. 2:00 am, the craps table.” “Yea, what about it.” “They pump pure oxygen into the rooms after midnight. That is what this is!”

The driver now was angry. The car swerved. For a Swiss, this was serious. “You say that I now lie?” The consequences for calling a Swiss a liar can not be compared to anything in our culture – in Los Angeles its’ considered a compliment, in New York a necessity.

But George who on occasion can be sensitive, immediately defused the bomb. “We are Americans.” Whenever we had occasioned the frustration or anger of the locals for no apparent reason, (at least to us), we used this simple phrase and watched in awe, each and every time, as the miracle of understanding, forgiveness and then ultimately peace unfolded.

The cab driver…said “Ah Ya zoo, Americans.” I was leaning out the window to revive myself from the jet lag. “George?” I decided to whisper. “Yea?” “You know, I was thinking if someone wasn’t used to coming to Switzerland, they could die from all this healthy air! Their lungs wouldn’t be prepared for the gruesome onslaught. It’s like giving cocaine to a baby.”

We turned left and suddenly from out of the rolling green farmland backdrop, the city of Zurich emerged from a foggy Lake, much like the Loch Nest Monster – Medieval, foreboding capped by a gunmetal grey wintry sky. I gasped. George said, “What time is it.” The small narrow streets were all cobblestones and tourists. It took less than five minutes to bounce in front of the Krone Hotel, next to the train station. George had picked it for its moderate price. (105 Francs for a double with bath).

The concierge was kind enough to inform us that it had been founded in the 17th century, that not only has it lodged the down and out for 3 centuries, “Why in your room, Lenin hat geshlaft.” George never easily bushwacked, smoothly responded. “Of course he did. – and plotted and planned the revolution.” But on the way to the room – “Deb, why do you think so many revolutionaries lived at some time or another in Switzerland? What does that suggest?” I really thought about that.

It was true – Zurich had been visited by Engels, Lenin, Jung, Einstein, Thomas Mann. James Joyce had written that scandalous, most censored of its time, erotic poem – Ulysses. I tried to think hard on his muse, and found none. There is nothing sexy about Switzerland. It is a surprise to me that there are Swiss, considering, that as true Reformed Protestants, pleasure is forbidden.

Again, came the plaintive addictive question, “What time is it?” “George, didn’t you hear the bells of 100 churches peeling only two minutes ago.” “I couldn’t tell how many gongs, they all ran together.” “It’s 4:00. OK?” We were seated at a cafe having a sandwich and beer while I paraphrased from Fodor’s tourist book. “Well we really should see the Kunsthaus, they have all of the impressionists, and Rodin’s exhibit ‘Gate of Hell.’ Zurich also has about 89 hotels, some of which are very famous, a 113 tea-rooms/cafes, 246 banks, and about 473 bars.

There is also a Botanical Garden for the English tourists and 3 McDonalds for the Americans, and/or Swiss teenagers tired of Bratwurst.” “George, Foders says that the Grossmunster and the Fraumunster Cathedrals are the top attractions. They say that, according to legend, the Grossmunster was founded by Charlemagne whose horse bowed on the spot, marking the graves of three early Christian martyrs.”

“Oh Pulleese, was this horse Trigger?” George had that look – shock or anger, his beautiful blue eyes were open Montana skies, and with his blond hair in disarray, he looked every inch the “believer.” The open, sweet, unspoiled man who never had a cynical thought that I dropped for 4 years earlier. It hadn’t taken long to uncover the ugly truth – within a matter of days, I had fallen into the murky depths of that humid, malodorous bed of cynicism that lay an inch below this angelic face. This is what higher education does to your mind.

Sipping my café – I plunged recklessly ahead – knowing full well the outcome. “Then they say that construction started in 1090. And then..whoa! listen to this! “What?” “Well it says here, that the three martyrs were patron saints of Zurich: Felix, Regula and Exuperantius. And in the 3rd century, the martyrs attempted to convert the citizens of Turicum, that’s what they called Zurich then, to Christianity. This inordinately upset the governor, who ordered them placed in boiling oil and forced them to drink molten lead.”

“So, in those days, torture was a refined art form.” This part he had no trouble believing. “Wait that’s not all…apparently they refused to renounce their faith, and then were beheaded.” I looked up to see if he was still open-minded. No response. “And then – well George – they PICKED UP their heads, climbed to the top of the hill and dug their own graves, and buried themselves.” Very Swiss to clean up after themselves I thought before rushing on as only courageous fools know how..

“They say there are statues of them carrying their heads under their armpits.” Stone cold silence. “George, isn’t that amazing?” In my mind’s eye, his laser blue eyes zapped a hole in the wall next to the coat of arms, over the doorway, (a chicken holding a scepter, I kid you not) before dropping his chewed ham and cheese sandwich. “Do you believe that!” “Amazing isn’t it!” My excitement barely concealed. “YOU DON’T even pick your clothes off the floor. Yeah! I believe it! Most miracles are unexplainable. That’s why they are MIRACLES, George.”

George looked at me in shock/anger? “Maybe I’ll go to the Kunsthaus.” “That’s a good idea, or one of the famous walking tours. The Munsterhof was the old swine market or..” “Debra, it’s March and its’ snowing so strong you can’t see your frozen fingers!” “I know – but the concierge swears tomorrow will be 80 fahrenheit, and you know the Swiss never swear and are never wrong.”


“What time is it?” “I don’t know George, I left my watch at the hotel.” “You left your watch at the hotel!? The most expensive thing I have ever bought, you left at the hotel!” George wasn’t cheap, he was a professor. “George, “What about that 400 A.D. Mayan sundial you bought from Professor Enrique Fernandez Cuentamentiras Arencibia de Bilbao Guzman – you hocked the house to buy!!? Of course I left it at the hotel. There’s a clock on every corner, and I am tired of you asking what time it is.” “What if the maid steals it!?” “But George, this is not New York, the place you always know where your bag is. This is S-w-i-t-z-e-r-l-a-n-d, the only country in the world, where they have not only a “lost” but a FOUND department. The land of the honest people. Remember?

I had delivered this with the patience of a Corsican/Sicilian mother who is used to wayward children. Letizia Bonaparte would have been proud. George, bored. “So what do you want to do on this trip?” “Well now that we are over jet-lag..you can devote the rest of the time to your obsession. I know you want to pillage the watch stores, which I calculate shouldn’t take you more than 4 days. “Let’s see,” consulting the Zurich News we found in the cafe, that should be Bahnhofstrasse.” (Later, I realized it was always Bahnhofstrasse).

“What are you going to do while I’m pillaging the watch stores?” “George, you know I have to write a travel article for ‘Cultural Manias of other Peoples.’ I have to de-construct the town. If you want to help, you could ask a few questions, and we can meet at Paradeplatz for lunch, and compare notes. What says you?” He yawned, and then returned to the International Herald Trib as if I were one of his dead postcards of drunk St. Bernard dogs, lethargically laying on the table, waiting for the next rescue mission in the Gothard Pass.

“George, did you hear me ?”

It was high noon. The sun was a misty silver disk, surreal above the mountain range. A swan caught my eye as it whizzed across the lake, flapping huge white wings in hot pursuit of a lover. The traffic was dense, but reasonably quiet..only a few honking mopeds, clanking trams, and a series of peeling bells as they marked the hour, ultimate timekeepers – the Swiss. There was such a bucolic peace that an image of 15th century maiden, sweet, chaste, pure, dressed much like our quakers or amish flashed quickly thru my inner eye. Cathedral organ music even played in my head as I navigated the bridge over the canal to the center metropolis.

I had been a crime reporter in Miami for 2 years…thinking now that I would have starved if my beat were here and longing perversely for something sensational, something shocking, something violent, even evil to happen. And best of all – being the reporter to get the scoop. American Journalist witness to multiple murder in broad daylight as Swiss gnome – employee of the Yamamoto Bank – goes on killing spree.

I took a breath and refocused on reality…What I really wanted was a drink. A nice cold beer. There was a bierstube with the date 1002 carved into the antique doorframe- though I wanted desperately for something evil to happen, I didn’t want it to happen to me. This place was older than war and my insurance was HMO.

I walked a few feet further downhill, and there was one dated 1467. I ducked inside its dark interior and headed for a table near stainglass windows. Scribbled notes… Zurich is situated on both shores (left and right bank, much like Paris, although sadly enough here the comparison ends) of the Limmat river. It flows from the northern end of Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), a beautiful, crystal clear body of water that lays like a giant’s tear drop at the feet of the powdered, bewigged snow capped Alps.

The beer was a big help..but I started to dry up. I needed lunch.

FOUR DAYS LATER 6:30 pm, as pre-arranged at breakfast, I met with George at Paradeplatz. He was reading a book called “Why Switzerland?”, 34 francs, at the Librerie Francaise, (Jonathan Steinberg – Cambridge Press, his old alma mater). Tea and apfel strudel. “Didn’t you sleep well last night George, your usually beautiful blue eyes have circles. It’s disturbing.” Breakfast I never notice anything but my coffee and croissant, call me insensitive.

“With the trains clanking away every hour! And then total silence, no police, ambulance sirens, no gun shots!” “We could have stayed at the Dolder Hotel if it wasn’t so expensive. And they had Einstein, Arturo Toscanini, Winston Churchill and even Kissinger sleeping in their beds!” George wasn’t impressed. “It was a medieval fortress and they have their own funicular. Isn’t that romantic.” George yawned. His jaw crunched as the mandible settled back. I had forgotten he wasn’t romantic.

“George they have their OWN dungeon!” Now that had gotten his attention. “What a great idea, if they can’t afford to pay their exorbitant rates, they lock them up. They probably have all kinds of tourists; English, American, French, German, Japanese.” He actually smiled. When George smiled the angels sang. I know this is true, I can hear them. Over 3 Heineken beers I offered up my notes for George’s approval. I knew better but I was out of control. “What do you think of these ideas?”

And reading directly some scribblings, not yet in order, I dived right in. “Zurich is….bla.bla. Most of the cities 380,511 residents speak a form of German called Schwyzerdutsch, which is a gothic guttural language that sounds very much like a Japanese samurai movie in the original. The main street is called Bahnhofstrasse and.. George all of a sudden found his fingernails fascinating. “Look, I am sorry this is boring, but I have to give them some streets to let them know where the hell they are. OK!” I blithely continued “Against 14th century architecture, reminiscent of vintage horror movies, stands the everyday man in the street…who in reality is one of four: 1. a retired farmer 2. a conservative wealthy member of some arcane guild of which their great-great-great-great grandfather belonged to 3. a businessman, basically a well-suited, homogenous, drone-like individual, and last but not least 4. a young person who has a Toulouse Lautrec, bohemian, cabaret look of too many sleepless nights, of too much booze. They are dressed in the cross cultural fall out of the sixties. With their wild hair black or red-carrot punk hennaed, their platform heels and torn leather jacket – you might mistake them for Americans George frowned.

“Debra, do you think.. they’ll care who lives here?” “George, please, my readers care.” (I immediately crossed it out.)
“The Swiss are extremely insular and seem a little cold, and sometimes even hostile. Of course this varies, depending on how long you stay and how much money you spend.” (I knew the money thing wouldn’t fly, thinking on Paris, New York, Istanbul…et al.)

“You can’t say that! George, I wasn’t going to, but just LOOK out the window! They all look as if YOU, YES YOU, PERSONALLY shot their dog. In New York they all look as if you COULD shoot their dog. But there is a difference between making someone responsible for something they haven’t done..and” “OK! OK.” “Anyway I have come to the conclusion that the Swiss’s problem of ‘sociability’ is very simple. It’s the Alps.” George was shocked/angry “What do YOU MEAN THE ALPS?”

We had discussed the Alps. They were breathtaking. So much so that they looked fake, ersatz, like a “Sound of Music” Hollywood set. And from Uetliberg, a 2,800 foot hill overlooking Zurich, I had seen the Matterhorn. Apart from a few days in the “paramos” (swampy lowlands) of Columbia, digging for the El Dorado treasure, it was the most disappointing day of my life. It looked exactly like the one in Disneyland, in California, with the sole difference that you drive through the bogus one in a bob sled, and you have the added excitement of faked fear.

“Yes, the Alps. George, do you know how psychologically isolationist that is – to be surrounded by a massive range of rock day and night!? I mean, pretend you were raised in a closet. A BEAUTIFUL closet, but a CLOSET. And the only people you saw were people visiting, you know to take out clothes.” George now exasperated said, “That sounds very much like New York, What the hell has that got to do with the Alps?”

“George they voted against European Economic Area, which was the first step towards Maastricht and European Market. They do not belong to the European Union. They are isolationist. They don’t want to go down the tubes with the rest of the world!” Now I was warming to my topic, picking up momentum..and outrage… “Switzerland is still solvent! It doesn’t have a deficit of King Kong proportions and worse yet” (here I stopped for emphasis, and to get air) “it has the biggest gold reserve in the world, buried in a vault under the Schweizerische Bank, Bahnofstrasse 34.”

Another quick gasp..”I mean really!” George waved his hand as if a fly had entered the room. “This is the only economical entity that hasn’t gone bankrupt in the last two years!” “Yes, exactly! George forget it..just tell me what you have.” “Gossip or facts?” “Whatever.” “Well for the last 2 days I had my coffee from Sprungli and I had a perfect view of the Volksbank and Credit Suisse, from the second floor. You won’t believe who I saw going in and out?”

Before I could ask and smiling his beautiful smile, he pulled out his notebook and rattled off his findings. Wednesday at 11:00 Muammar Al Kaddafi with 5 women ‘chaddahed” bodyguards, carrying American Mac 2 hand-held sub-machine-guns.

At 11:16 Jack Nicholson alone. At 12:28 Madonna with an entourage of 3 gay bodyguards..at 12:34 at the Credit, Ricki Martin followed by two paparazzi, and right behind him was Demi Moore with someone I don’t know.” (As if we knew Bruce Willis). He looked at me a second before continuing – gauging my reaction. “Then around 2:00, after lunch – I saw what looked like Idi Amin coming out of the Volk. Deb, didn’t he exile from Uganda to Saudia Arabia? “No news is good news, darling, keep going , you’re on a roll.”

“At 2:45 Liz Taylor exited a black Mercedes with Rod Steiger in tow, at 2:57 before closing, Senator Dole with a tall statuesque blond. Oh and without exception, they were all wearing sunglasses. Expensive sunglasses. “So.” “It’s snowing.” George turned the page, “and then Thursday..” “George, I can’t use that. But thanks anyway. What else?” He didn’t hesitate. “You know you can time your watch by the trains and trams, they’re so punctual!” He was acting as if this was his very first trip to Helvetia! His eyes sparkled until he looked at the white band on his arm where his watch used to live. News like this puts me to sleep.

He was unaware of the soporific effect he was having on me, he forged on..”I read somewhere of something that happened the other day….A woman was arrested for pulling the emergency brake in the train going to Winterthur.” I woke up! My old war instincts, finely honed in Miami, were on red alert. “That seems a little strong, what was the emergency?” Trying to sound nonchalant. “Her baby fell out of the window.” “No kidding! But that’s awful! Couldn’t they see how important that was?”

“Yes but apparently in more than” ..he ducked into his notes..”in more than 211 years, no zug, I mean train, has arrived late. He glanced up at me. “It threw all the other trains off for days. The conductor who suffered a complete nervous breakdown was sent to a clinic (for the very, very, very nervous) in St. Moritz. It was a scandal of Italian proportions. They are still talking about it.” Oh, the excitement draining out of me, after the false alarm.

“George you know what is phenomenal.” “No What?” “That they have six pubs per block but no drunks.” He seemed to be passing this through his critical left side brain – the one professors use to digest the world around them, and spit it out…I could actually see the synapses snapping dutifully back in place. “Really!?” he said, I looked at him, and said…”I miss New York.”

He looked at me and said: “what time is it.”

photo by aforero on Flickr

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