the last of zurich

This is being written from a combination of the United departure lounge at SFO, as I wait for my plane to Tokyo to board, and on the plane to Japan itself, so it may be a bit more telegraphic than usual. For those keeping track, that will be three continents in four days. I expect to emerge on the other side of jetlag, a new, post-sleep human.

In any case, Sunday:

Woke up, rolled out of bed and downhill toward the Hauptbanhof for another mandelgipfel. That’s basically “almond pastry”, and actually really more like “marzipan inside a croissant”, and even in a land not noted for light foods, it was probably the single least-healthy thing I ate. Needless to say, it was awesome.

From the station, I took a leisurely walk down the riverside past the mostly closed festival booths, and then uphill about half a km to Zürich’s largest art museum, the Kunsthaus. (Literally, “house of art.”)

The building itself isn’t that much to look at, but the exterior sports the single largest Calder mobile that I have ever encountered:

…and a 12-foot-tall casting of Rodin’s “The Gates of Hell”, which even by Rodin standards is imposing. The gate is roughly the size of the monolith in 2001, and is covered with intricate figures of sinners being cast into the abyss. In the main, they look properly tortured, but one group of them on the upper left of the lintel seemed to be having what looked suspiciously like a really good time. Really, I think I’ve been to this party:

The primary exhibition at the museum was something called “Shifting Identities: (Swiss) Art Now”, which like any group show had its ups and downs, but you’re largely going to have to take my word for it, as it was the one section of the museum that prohibited photography. I did cheat a little bit though: one installation involved building an raised, enclosed platform in the middle of the (very large) exhibition hall that could only be reached by ladders. Having climbed the ladder, you found yourself in a small room with a TV (displaying just a Grundig logo: I never found out if that was part of the piece or if someone had forgotten to hit ‘play’ somewhere) and a box on the floor with a small hole on top that you could peer into to see a kaleidoscope. Next to the box was a set of three steps ending in a small platform, which if you stood on (and were over about 5‘6”) your head would stick up through a single open space in the tiles of the dropceiling, giving you a 360” view of the area between the dropceiling and the roof. Since nobody else was in the room and the museum’s dropceiling was not the artist’s creation, I felt pretty okay taking a shot:

I’ll spare you (for now) most of the many, many photographs of other people’s art that I took. The Kunsthaus is a relatively small museum, but it’s pretty well-populated for its size, with a good balance of ‘old masters’ and contemporary pieces. The highlight for me was probably the entire room full of non-“Scream” Edvard Munch paintings, none of which I had ever seen before.

Over in the “avant garde” section of the primary collections, there was an installation piece that from a distance appeared to be a paper mache dead horse, which was disturbing enough:

…until you walked to the other side of it and saw the all-too-real mane, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the fake dead horse is actually covered with the skin of a real dead horse:

And one last shot just for fun: a Mondrian painting shot through a scupture that I neglected to get the name of:

My only bone to pick with the Kunsthaus is that for an art museum in the city where Dada was created, they really didn’t have much to show from that movement: I saw one Man Ray in the photography section, a single George Grosz piece, and… well, that was about it.

Having had my fill of art, I took a quick lunch across the street at a ridiculously posh cafe called “Terroir”, and then grabbed the #6 tram up to Fluntern cemetery. And when I say “up”, I mean it: while downtown Zürich is pretty flat (being along a river and lake), the rest of the city rivals San Francisco for sheer, random verticality. It is in the middle of the mountains, after all. After about 20 minutes of solid climbing, the tram dropped me and half a dozen families off at the Zoo (the nearest stop), and I did my country proud by only completely missing the cemetary entrance the first time I walked past it.

So why go to a cemetery in Zürich? Well, as usual, someone famous is buried there. But it’s not really who you’d expect to be buried in a tony Swiss cemetery. See if you can guess who it is:

If it hadn’t been for the inset box in the Lonely Planet guide, I would have never known about this either, but yes: that would be James Joyce. Also his wife and child:

Fluntern on a Sunday morning is a stunningly beautiful place: surrounded by woods and artfully landscaped gardens, and far enough off the road that in most places all you can hear is the birds at the nearby zoo calling each other. I spent a good two hours wandering through the plots, taking photos of the more interesting headstones and details, of which there were many:

By midafternoon, I’d had my fill of the place, and I took the tram back down to the city. I got off a bit early, planning to walk down a dirt path down the hill by the university that I’d seen earlier in the week. Sadly I was foiled: the path was closed during the weekend. But I did manage to get a few interesting shots near the university:

By the time I got down to the river, the party for the Euro 2008 final was in full swing: pretty much the entire city, plus several other cities worth of people was slowly trickling into the riverside area:

My original plan had been to park myself somewhere in the “FANZONE” (and you really have to imagine that word pronounced by an excited monster truck rally announcer) area near where they had a 20’ tall floating projection screen anchored out in the river, and watch the game (and the people watching the game) from there. This plan was quickly scuttled by the security checkpoint on the outside of the FANZONE: they were patting down people for weapons, but also apparently cameras were prohibited, and I was clutching my large and conspicuous SLR in my right hand. (Why a ban on cameras when every single cellphone in Europe has at least a 3-megapixel camera built into it? Search me, mate.) My attempt to brazen it out by playing clueless American tourist got me nowhere, so I detoured around the FANZONE and walked a bit further north to where I’d been when Germany won the semifinal at the beginning of the week, as I remembered there being a projection screen on one building’s wall there.

On my way there, after basically an entire week of wandering unrecognized through Zürich, I managed to run into first my coworker Alex and his family. Then once I reached the viewing area, I heard my name being called, and saw my coworker Christoph and his girlfriend across the street, who I joined. Ten minutes later, my coworker Travis walked by, on his way to join some friends further down the river. Apparently football brings everyone out here.

…and by everyone, I mean everyone. In the 90 minutes or so between my arrival and the start of the game, our little section of the street went form “busy” to “crowded” to “packed”, and continued on through “jammed”, and “mobbed” before finally arriving at a density of humanity that was in obvious danger of gravitational collapse. I’m sure that the singularity thus produced would have looked like a soccer ball and had an UEFA logo stamped on it.

With grim predictability, I ended up next to That Guy. If you’ve ever been to any sort of large outdoor public event in the states, especially in California, you’ve met him: late-50s to early 60s, scary bronze tan, open shirt (if any at all), long thinning hair, clutching a beer can, trying to say “hey pretty lady” to every woman who walks by. The Swiss-German version of That Guy says “Wie Gehts?” to every woman walking by, but is otherwise undifferentiated from his American cousin. He was largely harmless, and luckily spoke so little English that his one attempt at starting a conversation with us foundered instantly, but over the course of the evening as various people attempted to shove their way through us to get in or out of the crowd, he would sometimes, following some sort of internal sine wave of semi-drunken belligerence, cross his arms, plant his feet, and refuse to let them pass. In the states, this would have probably led inevitably to a fistfight; here, people mostly just sighed, groaned and worked their way around him.

The best part of it was… did I mention that people in Switzerland still smoke? The first few days there, I kept being startled by the number of times I’d smell cigarettes when passing a bar or restaurant. Apparently the mere challenge of lighting up and ashing while in a crowd so dense that getting your arm from your hip to your lips and back was a multi-minute exercise in applied geometry was not going to stop anyone: looking out over the crowd as the sun went down was like looking over the smokestacks of some old industrial plant: a puff here, a puff there, another puff over there, all in never-ending concert.

Hm, I suspect I’m making this all sound pretty horrible, and I should interject here that I was having a grand old time. It probably wasn’t a good place to be if you’ve got claustrophobia or dislike standing on your feet for a few hours, but the crowd was largely happy and enthusiastic, the weather was gorgeous, the people-watching excellent.

Before the game started, there was the requisite pre-game entertainment at the stadium, and as much as I like to mock the overblown pre-game and halftime shows at professional American football games, the show at the Euro2008 final gave me a new appreciation for the NFL’s willingness to pay lots of professionals to put on their spectacle: the UEFA’s pre-game was surprisingly threadbare, involving primarily a pair of pyramidal cages of chicken wire filled with balloons in the national colors of Germany and Spain circling each other for a while before releasing their meagre handful of balloons into the air, while a shellaced-looking Enrique Iglesias sang something in… well, let’s call it Europopese. I’m sure it was uplifting, in any case.

Oh, the game? Well, like most Americans I’ve only got the thinnest understanding of how football is played at all, never mind the intricacies and subtleties of the game at the continental championship level, and all of the broadcast commentary was in German, so I didn’t really learn anything more that day. But like most sports, it’s easy to at least get carried along by the excitement of a crowd of appreciative and demonstrative spectators. As far as I could tell, Spain pretty well routed the Germans: the 1-0 score belied the exceedingly small amount of time that the Germans spent playing offense.

At the end of the game, the Spanish contingent of the crowd went predictably bananas:

…but once the game was done, the crowd thinned out quickly enough that I was able to bid Christoph and his girlfriend (who’s name I am completely failing to remember) goodbye and walk back to the hotel to pack up for Monday’s flight.


A brief day. I got up early, showed and shaved, then grabbed a tram in to the station to pre-buy my train ticket to the airport and mail a small stack of postcards. The main post office is across the street from the Hauptbanhof, and predictably enough the Swiss post office is clean, quiet and blisteringly efficient: I was in and out within five minutes. The queueing system is actually pretty similar to the CA DMV: you get a ticket on entering the room that has a number on it, then about a dozen well-lit displays tell you which window is serving which ticket number, and you can wander around the room as you care to while waiting for your number to come up.

A light stroll down Banhofstrasse later and I made it to Cafe Sprungli, which was already doing a brisk business at 7:30am. Oddly, I encountered my sole bit of linguistic difficulty there, where the extraordinarily goodlooking attendant in their main sales room didn’t have enough English to ask me if I was going to be carrying my chocolates around the city in midday and would I like an icepack to slip into my bag: this was eventually accomplished by pulling one of the icepacks out of the drawer and cocking an eyebrow, which got the message across perfectly.

Then back to the hotel to pack the last of my bags, and from there back to the station, where I was greeted with a stunning sight: the dismantling of the enormous footballer statues, which looked like a scene from some surreally soccer-themed Terminator movie sequel.

From the station, the train to the airport took about 12 minutes, in some sort of entirely successful attempt to make me appreciate BART even less. I checked in without incident and had an uneventful flight to Copenhagen.

In weird contrast to the border control inbound to Zürich, where I was waved through without stamping or even really looking at my passport, the Danish insisted on having us queue and be stamped twice: once while disembarking the plane, and once before entering the departure gate area. In-between, the path routed us inevitably through a series of ridiculously large duty-free stores, where I disposed of the last of my Swiss francs and discovered a completely awesome thing that only the Scandinavians could (or, more to the point, would) have invented: smoked licorice candies, which are totally brilliant.

Arriving at Sea-Tac airport after Copenhagen was dispiriting. Enormous signs at U.S. passport control sternly warned foreigners that they would be fingerprinted and photographed before entry, while a bored-sounding man constantly repeated into the microphone which line you should be in and which papers you needed to have in order. Past immigration, the baggage carousel and customs were downstairs in the windowless basement, and after customs anyone with bags to check forward had to detour into a dingy room with a conveyor belt and a hassled attendant who was there largely to inform people that despite the fact that the bottles of wine and liquor that they’d bought at the duty-free were still sealed in the duty-free bags, and despite the fact that they were never going to leave the secure corridor, they still had to re-pack their checked luggage in order to somehow cram the bottles inside, because they were not going to be allowed to carry them on. This dubious ritual was then followed by another queue to be re-x-rayed and re-metal-detected, presumably in case someone had managed to pick up a bomb or a switchblade from one of the many weapons vendors to be found in the U.S. Immigration and Customs areas. Compared to both Zurich and Copenhagen’s airports, Sea-Tac looked dingy and decaying: combined with the pointless bureaucratic aggression it was hard to avoid the impression of decline and desperation.

The flight to San Francisco was delayed half an hour, giving me time to upload more photos and bang out the previous installment of this series. We then lost another 45 minutes circling over SFO waiting for a landing slot, and then to complete the experience my taxi driver managed to (accidentally?) miss our exit and thus go another $10 out of the way. No matter: I was home, and Miranda, the cats and my own bed were inside.

…all of which I got to enjoy for a day, before getting onto a plane to Tokyo, where I am right now. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, or more likely when I’m too tired to move any more.


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