Switzerland in a Mini Cooper 1:4

Part 1 of 4: Zurich

“What did you think of Switzerland before you came?”

Translation: he was not asking my opinion of his country. He was asking what I imagined it would be like before landing in Zurich five days prior.

“Did you think of yodeling and chocolate and cows?”

“All of the above!” I laughed. “Except not cows.”

“And what do you think now that you have been here?”

What did I think? I had flown into Zurich after a work trip to Tanzania. I extended my layover to a week, staying with a friend and his family in Locarno. Our plan was to keep Locarno as home base, and take road trips around the country in the family car. He asked me what I wanted to see most, and I don’t think yodeling, chocolate, or cows ever came up — the Matterhorn did, and we found it. On the wrapping of a chocolate bar.

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Switzerland is a nation synonymous with grace and neutrality. How could I form a staunch opinion before I arrived, or even after I left? I hadn’t expected bone-warming sunshine in March; to hike an Alp (singular) and laugh through clumsy yoga stretches with new friends at the peak; to be greeted by strangers with three kisses; to hear the radio DJ switch from Italian to French to German as we drove from canton to canton; to walk barefoot off a mountain through the halls and courtyard of an ancient monastery; to drive a car into Italy; to eat horse for dinner; to stand in a valley village that left us all a little speechless. I didn’t expect to find so much of me tied up in the roots of unfamiliar valleys and craggy mountains. How could I have an opinion about any of that? How could I anticipate it?

Harder question: how do you blog about it? In four parts, that’s how.

ZURICH

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Zurich is Gothic elegance with a classical, European bearing. It is edgy, collected, and raw. The underbelly to the spires and clock towers is a nightlife that buzzes but doesn’t roar, a noble restraint to even the wildest of nights. It’s a Swiss thing: grace, calm, and composure in the face of utter chaos.

A red-eye flight from East Africa is not easy. Switching from Swahili to…what language are we speaking now?…is not easy. When Zurich woke to find me sitting in their airport at 6am, it was alarming for everybody. I was giggling like an idiot on the shuttle between airport terminals because every time the doors closed there were sound effects — bells ringing, cows mooing, yodels. On 2 hours of sleep, I found that hysterical. My friend Liv met me at the airport with big hugs and toted this embarrassing, bleary-eyed little woman around Zurich for adventures.

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After wandering for a few hours, Liv and I gave up on the expensive art museum and jumped on a city bus, just on a whim. We had no idea what it would cost, but reckoned we’d sort it out eventually. The passenger stepping off the bus handed us his day pass as he disembarked, and we rode the bus for free, hopping on and off as the mood struck. That night, we crashed at a friend’s apartment, and within 30 minutes of meeting our friend’s flatmates, they insisted on feeding us dinner. We asked if there was enough. Of course there was! They kept us well fed, and chatted with us like we were old classmates.

We left the next morning for Lucerne and finally Locarno.

I was pressed to the window in awe of every mountain and lake we passed on the meticulous and punctual train from Zurich to Locarno. Swiss trains run like Swiss watches: perfectly.

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“Liv, do you see those mountains?” I gasped as we pulled out of the Zurich station.

“Those are hills…”

Ok, so I’m easily impressed — its part of my childlike wonder. A few hours later, we rolled into Lucerne, wheeling my suitcase with its broken wheel across the landmark Kapellbrücke with a thud, thud, thud. I protested when Liv tried to take the suitcase.

“You don’t need to be a gentleman! I’m the idiot who packed too much!”

“I’m not being a gentleman. I’m being Swiss. It’s what we do!”

I lost that argument.

A few hours later, I was hauling that stupid luggage off the train in Locarno.

Samantha Bossalini