Monday, 28 May 2007

Notes After Zurich

It's clean! It's pretty! It's expensive!

We booked the cheapest accommodation in town: one of those hotels with moulded plastic shower and toilet cabinets. Besides being almost affordable, it is conveniently located next to the conference centre where a techie event was being held. We were meeting John Buckman, one of the speakers.

We once stayed in a hotel of this chain at the same time as a bus load of Spanish kids travelling to a football match. I say “match,” so you know it's soccer. The kids must have locked their teachers away somewhere and were a nightmare of rowdiness, so our spirits took a hit when we passed the stadium two blocks away from our Zurich hotel and saw people pouring in for the Big Match. Fortunately, the match was local, and the Swiss don't do hooligan. (Zurich City won.)

We checked in and went out and wandered among abandoned factories covered with graffiti. We saw parasols in front of one building and passed another with bare wooden tables. We could see more activity on the main street under the gloom of the elevated highway leading to the centre, but it was past 8:30 and fatigue drove us back to the wooden tables.

The guidebook suggests that, if you are on a budget, it's best not to plan on staying too long in Zurich. The LaSalle turned out to be only €€ (what must €€€ be?), so for the price of another round of surgery for Nala or a down payment on a new friend for Van-Ly, we got a meal. But what a meal! I could hardly wait to be hungry, again. The staff were friendly, too. “What's inside?” I asked. “Come with me,” said our waiter, and led us inside to the clean, but not exactly remodelled factory floor, where there was more restaurant. This room was all fine linen, polished wood and crystal chandeliers – entirely encased in a glass cube. We have lucked into the “It” restaurant in Zurich. We are in the “Happening” district. And, yes, we did eat there, again.

Friday morning, we walked down to the tram stop for a little tourism. We had not yet changed our euro into Swiss francs (CHF) and didn't have enough change for the ticket machine. Anticipating the answer, we still thought we'd ask if we could get change for our 10 CHF note from the magazine kiosk. The woman spoke neither English nor French, but looked at the note, smiled and made change. This kind of courtesy should be in the guidebook.

As in Paris, where there is a Right Bank (chic and expensive) and a Left Bank (bohemian and less so), in Zurich there is a West side of the river (chic and expensive) and an East side (more casual and slightly less expensive). Both sides of the river are very clean, except for the occasional puddle of cigarette butts. It took awhile to figure out that they were the remains of the previous evening's pub gatherings where people congregate on the pavement/sidewalk outside the drinking establishments. Our guidebook was evidently wrong when it said that smoking in public places was forbidden.

Besides the remains of the evening, another thing we did not see was dog poop. In fact, we didn't see any dogs. I finally spotted 3 or 4 during the afternoon. And we regularly dined outside without benefit of bug. I can understand the lack of mosquitoes, but how do you outlaw flies?

The car horns were a surprise; I didn't think they'd be allowed. And the bicycles. The Zurichers have more bicycles per capita than Chicagoans. There are massive parking areas for them all over the place. One of the best things about Zurich – maybe The Best Thing – is that not everyone has a phone to an ear all the time. Few do. Not on the street and especially not in restaurants. Is this civilised or what?

We wandered in the hot sun and enjoyed the wandering. We came to a big, English-language bookshop and passed an hour browsing the two floors, touching, riffling, sniffing. It's been 14 years since I've been in an English bookshop. The cashier, when I paid for my two marked down books, did not look up at this news.

For lunch, we ate the hot dogs and potato salad in a € place in the centre. Soup arrived first. It looked like potato soup. It tasted like Cream of Wheat. Or maybe like grits. “What is it?” I asked? “I don't know the English word,” said our waitress, and enquired of the two women at the next table. They didn't know either. “It's called “gritz,” said the waitress. “Grits?” “Yes, gritz.” What can you say?

We walked down to the Opera house to check out the performances and prices. My standard opening in German-speaking Zurich was to start every interaction with “Vous parlez fran├žais?” followed, if the response was negative, by “You speak English?” Most everyone spoke everything. (I'm used to feeling inadequate.) At the opera house, as soon as I got the first question out – the one about French -- the woman shook her head, left the window, and asked the second ticket-seller to handle the transaction. Then second woman listened to my first three words and then said, “Why don't we speak English; you're obviously English.” “I live in France,” I said, inadequately. (We spoke English.) Tickets were significantly fewer €€ than dinner, but the performance would start while we were listening to John's speech, so we missed Manon Lescaut. No doubt it isn't the done thing to go to the opera in jeans, anyway.

John Buckman, who runs Magnatune (slogan: We Are Not Evil) and BookMooch (where I mooched a copy of Barbara Woodhouse's No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way this weekend*) and his wife Jan, arrived. We were in Zurich so that John and Nick could discuss Intellectual Property Rights. (Don't ask or I write another post. This is a warning.) The four of us went to a pavement cafe and John and Jan ordered iced coffee. In Switerland, iced coffee turns out to a coffee/ice cream soda. Nick and I had coffee. This was before I discovered Sour Cream Ice Cream. I blew it. We mentioned that we'd seen our first Starbucks. Jan is addicted to the same Latte that keeps Carina, my idol and dog guru, going.

* Ooga Chukka warning. However, Barbara Woodhouse is THE reason British dogs are so well behaved.

We made the 8 ½ hour return trip on Sunday – including a short breakfast stop, a medium lunch stop, a coffee break and a brief attempt to try to help some Americans who had a problem with their car and, in his case, with his personality. Our friends and dog sitters, Pat and Steven, had a meal – and our dogs – ready for us.

Van-Ly and Nala had had had a fine weekend with lots of extra-long walks with their friend, Suzie, river-wallows, and attention, but they covered us in welcome-home kisses just the same. Then Van-Ly went back to watching the rats.
Nala stayed close. This was the first time we'd left her since 21 September 2005, and she may not have been sure she wasn't being abandoned, again. Last night she climbed the long flight of stairs to sleep in our bedroom for the very first time.