The first thing you notice about Switzerland’s largest city – Zurich – is that, by comparison, every other city in the world looks worn-down and raggedy. The whole place smacks of affluence, from the clean comfort of the airport to the understated high-end street fashion (even old people rocked dark denim and leather jackets by somebody famous). In Zurich, they riyotch, beyotch.
Early industrialization and the development of banking services (a business not exactly pure as Alpine snow) helped the Swiss obtain one of the highest per capita standards of living in the world. Food and clothing in Zurich aren’t necessarily the cheapest, but public services and infrastructure are top-notch. I flew into a world-class airport on a world-class airline, hopped a train to the main station, where I met up with my CouchSurfing host (Björn – Swedish name, Swiss dude) for some lunch-time Thai, then took a sleek and efficient tram to within a block of his apartment.
I rested a bit from the 12-hour flight until Björn got home from work and we hit the streets of Zurich just as the sun dipped behind the Alps to the west. We walked around the old town, and I marveled at how multicultural the place actually is (I encountered Brazilians, Eritreans, Sri Lankans…), in spite of murmurings about Swiss xenophobia. It was strangely comforting to be in a place surrounded so completely by mountains; I’d lived in Bogotá, which sits on a high plateau surrounded by the Andes, but with 8 million people, comforting is the last word I’d use to describe the Colombian capital.
Conversation took us past 900-year-old churches and 21st century electronics stores, then down towards Lake Zurich where we hopped aboard one of the water shuttles that augment the city’s transportation options.
According to Björn, the whole city is walkable in about 45 minutes, and we seemed to be testing out that assessment. Finally, as the temperature dropped into the upper-40s, Björn broke out the fondue set and we had some traditional Swiss potatoes and cheese for dinner. So much for my no-carb vacation.
The next day? Cold, gray, and rainy: perfect weather for a museum visit! The castle-like Swiss National Museum – Landesmuseum Zürich in German – chronicles the history of Switzerland from the Stone Age to modern times, even mentioning the Swiss role as financiers of the slave trade (no pics allowed). I’m always shocked in European museums by the amount of guts and gore that appears in depictions of Christianity: severed heads and people nailed to crosses and whatnot. Victory over violence, my brethren! I was also mildly chided by the old lady taking tickets at the entrance to the museum’s World Wildlife Federation exhibition because, as an American, I’m in some way responsible for America’s lax environmental policies. I just let her talk, responding every now and then with a “Yes, ma’am.”
Then, I shivered over to the nearby Museum of Design Zurich, mostly because I was sans-umbrella, and caught the temporary exhibition on skyscrapers (my favorite type of building). Photos, blueprints, and scale models of structures in major cities comprised the exhibition, and I took the opportunity to draw São Paulo’s Copan building in the guest book, since other people had drawn buildings in the guest book.
Soon, it was time to grab my onward flight to Berlin, departing from Zurich Airport’s über-chic “low-cost” terminal.
Björn, thanks a lot for the Alpine hospitality! Zurich, you are small but sophisticated and your people are worldly and affable. I will be back!