I landed without wings right in the middle of a faraway city, Zürich. I brought with me images from childhood, of green foothills towered over by shining peaks and corner shops selling chocolate and watches. Almost as if waking from a long sleep I took to the streets and felt as if I was peering through a window. I walked for hours that first day, letting myself get lost in the side streets and unplanned water’s edges.
I hadn’t expected short sleeves and burning sunshine and crowds worshipping the light or deeply suntanned numbers of men and women with beautifully toned bodies. They bobbed past me while I stared at them in surprise. And smiles everywhere. In one afternoon the stereotype of the dour Swiss evaporated. Like a benediction after the furtiveness that you nurture in the trains and sidewalks of Japan, the quick smiles and acknowledgement of women passing me reawakened that sense of interactive street life that I so missed in Japan.
It might be postcard perfect, but there is something to be said for cities that step beyond mere convenience and practicality. Walking here was a joy; even in the city you could feel as if it was a place meant for people to appreicate their presence there. Everywhere there were seats to lounge on, coffee shops to stop and unwind in, views to look out at to remind you of where you were located. Unlike Tokyo where you would never know that the ocean its right at your doorstep until you round a corner and find it there, almost as an afterthought, here the hills and the river and the big lake hold pride of places. You could tell that the inhabitants loved what they had. The water in the lake was clean enough to swim in, and proven by the hundreds of sunbathers who had crossed over to the platforms floating a hundred meters away from the shores.
Jetlag slowed me to an aimless stroll and with the sun beating down it took me a while to count the strange coins when I bought a mineral water and a bockwurst sandwich. Japanese kept springing out instead of German, but even then the Swiss German sounded garbled and oddly gutteral, even for German. Luckily just about everyone spoke perfect English, so I allowed myself some lapses in kick-starting my German again.
It took a while for my head to begin swiveling into photography mode, where my eyes begin to sink into the light around me and scenes present themselves one after the other, often before I am aware of what I am looking at. When I can let go like this walking with a camera turns a place almost into glimpses of streams of consciousness. The world grows incandescent and full of meaning, and even the lowliest flake on a wall holds the weight of the world within itself.
Like most places in Switzerland tourists overrun all the prettiest areas. As I walked about I wondered how the Swiss could put up with the constant intrusion. I don’t think I would be so hospitable if strangers were continually tromping up and down the street outside my window.
Humans painted everything red in Switzerland. They even wore the color on their hats and shirts. I never saw so many flags hung out of windows and draped from flagpoles, not even in conservative America. I never imagined Switzerland as a nationalistic country, but without even having heard anyone speak about it the Swiss never let you forget where you were.
I love to get lost and let the turns in an alley or trail surprise me. In the old part of a city like Zürich the walkways are narrow and crooked and sometimes you literally brush up against the walls as you navigate. When you look ahead at a certain unusual light and follow your nose, often you come upon gems of courtyards and secret, tiny cafés.
Europeans take their eating and their time to talk very seriously. At noon all the shops but the restaurants close down and don’t reopen until two-thirty or three. As a boy in Germany it was always a difficult time to get through because I always wanted to go rushing outside after lunch and burn up energy, but my grandparents insisted that I stay in the living room and take a nap on the couch. It was much the same here in Switzerland; I wondered what Japanese or American tourists would think, with their inability to stay still and wait.
The popular tourist spots always exhaust me after a while and for the time I stayed in Zürich I often took refuge in the alleys and out-of-the-way hills. Here I could watch the local populace go about their daily lives in peace. Since these walkways were so small and narrow cars never passed through and the tranquility gave me an inkling of what cities must have been like thre hundred years ago.
I would have wandered Zürich for a week, but I had come to go walking in the Alps. So, after three days of rewinding my clock I headed off to the train station to take the train west.
I’ve only begun to work on the 850 photographs I brought back. Looking through them and working with PhotoShop on them I’m beginning to find a few that I really like. To think that I was honestly considering not bringing the camera because of the weight!