Sunday, January 27, 2013


I arrived in Zurich with a couple of days to kill. Plans had changed. Instead of meeting the family in Lisbon I would meet them in the Zurich airport and then we would all fly to Lisbon together. Upon exiting the airport I had the choice to take a taxi into town or ride the train. All my life I'd heard stories of the efficiency of Swiss trains, so the decision was easy. I puzzled through the German instructions, bought a ticket and before I knew it I was on a very clean, very on-time train heading into Zurich. The trip was short, but I had the chance to speak with a fellow traveler who was on his way home, somewhere in the French speaking areas of Switzerland. He had been in Italy and confided in me that after six months of travel he was ready for a little down time. I can understand, I've been away from home for six out of the last twelve months. Twelve out of the last twenty four. I love to travel, but after a while I too feel the pull of home.

The Zurich train station was large, busy and just far enough from my hotel that I needed a taxi. While I re-arranged my bags I caught the eye of a young swiss girl. She was probably 18 months old and stared at me for a very long time. Eventually, much to her parent's surprise, she decided I was OK and ran up to my leg, grabbed it and made the universal toddler noise of delight. 

Zurich is quiet. Well mostly quiet. At 7am most mornings all the church bells would ring at once, a loud cacophony that would wake me no matter how soundly I was sleeping. I never determined a pattern, but some mornings were quiet and some started with a blast of bells. Other than that, the streets were quiet, the people were quiet and the weather was quiet and grey with an occasional cold wind blowing off the lake. Snow was in the mountains but I was told it would be at least another month before any serious snow would accumulate in the city. Zurich is expensive. Really expensive. I looked at a few online indexes and Zurich was always in the top 10. I attribute it to the bankers, they were everywhere and just like any other commodity, money follows the rules of supply and demand. I talked to a few of the locals and they attribute it to taxes, which I guess are very high. The hotel seemed empty, but the rates were very high. The restaurants were all empty but everything cost two or four times more than what I am used to. I was on my own but at least my wallet felt like my family was with me.

One of the restaurants I went to was in a very old meeting hall, built in 1348. I was one of three tables, the other two were bankers in quiet lunch meetings. In Zurich I quickly learned to spot the bankers by their clothes and demeanor. The waiter was middle aged and wore a permanent frown. He took his food very seriously. I ate a quiet lunch, pondered the solutions to problems at work and watched as the two other tables left. One of the bankers, to my great surprise, walked out with a dog that had been under his table. I finished up my lunch in total silence, alone with the frowning waiter. As I was paying, I asked him what the typical tip was in Zurich. "You don't have to tip anything, nothing at all," he frowned. I pressed a little further and he admitted that five maybe ten percent would be the most anyone would ever tip him. I gave him a nice tip and his demeanor changed. He smiled. He spoke with enthusiasm. We had a nice conversation as he walked me out of the restaurant. He told me about his plans for the day, what he was going to do when he got home and what he expected to happen in the restaurant later that night. The floodgates had opened. I got the impression that he was speaking the truth, he hardly ever got a tip. What is it with those bankers?

On the last night of my stay I went downstairs to the hotel restaurant and was quickly intercepted by the hotel staff, "Oh no, you can't go in there tonight. Would you come sit in this room instead?" The dining room door was closed and I could hear strange noises. Was it singing? Maybe synchronized grunting of some sort, followed by applause. During dinner I asked one of the waiters to explain and learned that in Zurich they have 'History Clubs'. These are very old organizations and each one picks a banquet hall to be their own. In fact this hotel had been built and later re-built to the exact specifications of their resident history club, to ensure the rooms would give good service for their needs. I learned there is a rival club across the river in the restaurant I had eaten lunch. The clubs have four meetings per year, some of which require traditional dress, some of which require eating lots of different fish parts, and some of which require singing or grunting of some kind. I didn't fully understand it and I had to work very hard not to say anything flippant because it was quite clear that the waiter took the event extremely seriously and I got the impression that it is a very important part of Zurich culture.

The next day I took an early taxi to the Zurich airport, checked in and waited for my family at the top of the escalator leading out of passport control. I had about an hour to wait so I played a game of trying to guess the nationality of the people coming out. I was especially curious to see if I could recognize Americans by sight when the flight from the US arrived, so I examined each person as they came up. Nope. Nope. Nope. Maybe? Nope. Just as I was starting to lose confidence, a huge stream of Americans and then, to my great delight, my family emerged, bleary eyed and blinking into the light. 

Click here for pictures from the trip.

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