Friday, May 30, 2008

5 - The station again, and another part of the city

I go down to the station in the afternoon, mainly to be able to catch a sight of the train of great speed that, rather imaginatively, is named 'the train of great speed'. I watch the sleek, earthworm-like, phallic shape pull out, even as it desists from doing so at great speed. I walk around the by-now-much-more-crowded Zurich Hauptbahnhof. It turns out there are additional platforms underneath the ones I've seen in the morning. Around the underground platforms is sprawled a massive shopping plaza that's almost hidden out of sight when you're upstairs.

**
The Toblerone arena that was being set up in the station foyer in the morning has much more action and bigger crowds by now. Screens show videos of the story of the founders of Toblerone, the history of the company, and the process of manufacturing chocolates. People help themselves to chocolates from bowls placed around the arena - I do too.

At one long table, people put their heads down and fill stenciled outlines of the words 'Toblerone' with colours. Many others huddle behind them to watch. 5-year olds happily spill colours outside the lines, sitting beside grandmothers who fill in slowly, easily; even as twenty-somethings rub the crayons back and forth in brisk, smooth motions. People who finish make way for other passers-by who start on another sheet. A bearded man is watching his wife and kid daughter bent over the table, immersed amid their crayons. He smiles at me, points at the '100-years-of-Toblerone' balloon, and exclaims 'Magnifique chocolate, monsieur'.

At another set of tables, people take opened-up-Toblerone-wrappers and fold-and-stick them into the characteristic triangular-prism-shape of Toblerone packs. A tower is being made of these prism-packs. A crowd cheers as it expectantly looks upwards at the tower-top where a volunteer atop a ladder adds new packs. An electronic counter reads 7571, indicating the number of prisms already in the paper-tower.

I watch at one of the tables as two women and an old man are intent in their folding-into-prisms act. One of them, a girl with flaming lipstick and pierced chin flashes a radiant smile and invites me - "Why dont you join in?". A young mother who's doing the folding-and-sticking while balancing her toddler adds - "Yes, please do." After much struggle with the cellotape and gum-stick, I wish I had a few more hands to keep the folds in place. I finish my first pack with an exultant sigh, in the time the young mother's done three. The old man at the table and gives me a "'Tis okay, you only need to get used to it". My second pack is much faster, though it looks like the folds will burst apart any moment.

**

Sometime later, as I exit the station, the mum-with-toddler-at-Toblerone passes by. She spots me amid the milling crowd , lets forth an exuberant smile and does a "Hello again. How've you been?". A couple of pleasantries later comes the "Have a nice day". It's fascinating to see the warmth and affability of the people I meet, and more so when it's put in the context of prim, formal localities I see everywhere.

After being in India, you dont quite expect uninvited greetings or good wishes - it's pleasantly surprising to be able to return compliments to people you hardly know. Even random people I strike up conversations with show an unprepossessing warmth I've hardly seen elsewhere. It's all the more surprising since most people, like their city, drape themselves in formal starched-plain exteriors that can make you feel underdressed.

**

I find a part of the city that doesnt look like it's dressed up in a suit-boot-tie. In a narrow lane behind the Limmat river, there's an open square that you could call the city's flea market. It's a counterweight to the culture of the rest of the city, even though it is very insignificant in size.

Here's everything that Zurich city would shudder at. Just outside the open-square quadrangle, there're cobblestoned pedestrian-only roads; there're Asian, Mexican and Turkish food stalls; there're cloth shops that have shelves packed with clothes, unlike the spacious designer-display-shops in the rest of Zurich. Inside the quadrangle, there're vendors in t-shirts, sombreros and long beards, people who look like they have no qualms about skipping a bath. There're also Ganesha statues, necklaces made of strange beads, jewelry made of feathers, stones that are a world apart from Zurich's primary-colour-identity.

Friday, May 23, 2008

4 - City rounds and stumbing upon black sheep

Across the Limmat from the Hauptbahnhof, there’s a swarm of boards announcing caf├ęs and restaurants. There are three cyclists parked atop the Limmat bridge ponderously looking at the placid, flat stream. A dad-son-dog trio looks into the water. A preteen in dark glasses and helmet whizzes past atop her skates.

The restaurants and cafes lazily unroll themselves, spilling their tables-chairs-clientele onto the road on the banks of the Limmat. Behind these, a hill harbours a road that shoots upwards, along which a massive hoarding advertises Lindt chocolates.

**

I pass a movie-memorabilia shop, and stop to look at a wayside board listing theatre and opera performances in town. Almost all are in German, and none fits my budget or time.

There are a couple of buildings with flat, towering glass facades that stick out amid the prim, ancient looking residences elsewhere. They havent the subtlety that marks the rest of the city - no statuettes and decorative motifs, not too much careful attention to detail - just one monstrous sheet of glass that rises up and spreads sideways.

These aren’t ostentatious or brash. There is only one small board near what could only be an entrance, mentioning, almost reluctantly, that this is the Marriott.

At a zebra crossing ahead, four cars line up one behind the other and wait for a young father to push a pram across the road.

**
I walk through residential areas, streets harbouring apartments. The houses, while neat and proper, offer hardly any sign of life. You see no people milling about, no one on the balconies leaning out of houses, hardly any clothes hung to dry, hardly any windows or doors open, no one out in the flowerbeds and gardens. There are no kids playing about, no teenagers roaming the streets.
In commercial areas – Bahnhofstrasse and their ilk – crowds potter around, trudge gently, sit back as they populate the roadside chairs-tables of brasseries.

Life is unhurried, there’s no bustle or haste anywhere in the town. But sometimes you wonder if it's the relaxed, retiring pace of life that has conditioned people to stay within their private worlds. The extraordinary level of organization and maintenance, the trim localities, blooming gardens, avenues, and the level of public attention that seems to have gone into the city, all seem a little incongruous with such unwillingness to go out, experience the city, engage with the world.

**

At first, I tell myself the insulation really is some form of refinement – perhaps some variant of ‘I shant bother my neighbour’. But seeing this poster sprinkled all over Zurich city(including, ironically, the vicinity of the airport) makes me wonder if there is something deeper:

I was a tad surprised at the bluntness of the message, bespeaking some desperation. A little less paranoia perhaps could have led to a more tactful(not to mention more convincing) ad. The one below, incidentally, was another ad in the same campaign.

You’d think that a city with so much to enjoy, contemplate, appreciate would give its denizens nothing to worry about. Still skeptical, I told myself that surely this was not really representative of the entire populace’s opinion – maybe a far right fringe bunch(for the posters were a part of a poster-and-mass-media ad campaign by the Swiss People’s Party). It turns out that the Swiss People’s Party(SVP) is the biggest party in the Swiss Parliament, its rise over the last twenty years being largely founded on its anti-immigrant rhetoric.

I think back, and realize I’ve hardly seen any non-whites in Zurich. Sure, there’re some Asian tourists, conspicuous by their bag-carrying and hesitant awkwardness – but hardly anyone black or brown who look accustomed enough, comfortable enough to suggest they reside here.

A pub owner I meet a few days later, a Kosovar immigrant, mentions how impossibly difficult he was finding it to get a Swiss passport, even though he’d stayed here twenty or so years. The process is crazily drawn out – you’ve to take language tests, and in what looks an almost medieval practice, the residents in your town have to ‘approve’ of you by a vote.

**

Understandably, the ad campaign set off alarm bells in Europe. Doudou Diene, the U.N. special fact-finder on racial intolerance said the campaign was "advocating racist and xenophobic ideas". People have remarked how eerily similar the rhetoric is to that of Nazi Germany (and if I may add, to present day Mumbai, Gujarat, you name it).

The SVP, of course, has much to say in its defence. Ulrich Schueler, the man who created the sheep campaign said, "That's nonsense. It's not against race. It's against people who break laws. People are fed up." Another party member, Bruno Walliser had to say, “The black sheep is not any black sheep that doesn’t fit into the family. It’s the foreign criminal who doesn’t belong here, the one that doesn’t obey Swiss law. We don’t want him.”

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

3 - First steps in town

I exit the station towards the Bahnhofplatz. There’s a statue of Alfred Escher, one of the founding fathers of the Swiss Railway network, and a fountain and a trough under the statue. The crossroads isn’t too busy this early in the morning. The glass roofing and sides, along with the early-morning-emptiness give the tram stops a newly-washed look.

To take my tram to the Youth Hostel, I turn into the Bahnhofstrasse. This one-and-a-half-kilometer long avenue is said to be one of the world’s most expensive shopping areas. I can see why – on either side are shopfronts with labels like Chanel, Armani, Cartier and their ilk. There’s even a huge Davidoff store. These facades are wide, spacious, like they’re firmly saying they don’t need to be miserly.


Cyclists, skaters and walkers have begun to crowd the sides already – there are hardly any cars. The lanes that cut the Bahnhofstrasse are half occupied by chairs and tables of brasseries. These have begun to fill up with breakfasters poring over newspapers.

I need to figure out which of the stops I need to take my tram from. I ask an old man, who says he’s headed the same way. He walks me to the tram stop, and helps me with the electronic ticket dispenser. As he gets off the tram a couple of minutes later, he gives me a warm smile and a “have a nice day!”. During the course of the day, I get this pleasantly surprising greeting from the youth hostel staff, random neighbours on trams, shops where I merely browse but don’t buy - from pretty much everyone I come in contact with.

**

The first tram ride takes me through two impressive platz-es(squares, plazas) – Enge and Paradeplatz. Both are broad, open, with a couple of stalls in the centre and imposing castle-like buildings on the sides. Enge has a majestic railway station to one side and tables-chairs of cafes on another. The railway-station front has tall arches spread out in a semi-circular shape, with a teeny clock on top, almost like a white bindi.

Paradeplatz, no less ambitious, pulls off its special effects with a little help from palatial corporate offices - UBS, Credit Suisse and the rest. Both Enge and Paradeplatz still manage an air of being relaxed, let-hair-down hangouts, due to the by-now-ubiquitous roadside cafes and brasseries.

I need to make plans for the day. There are close to 40 museums in Zurich – the Kunsthaus is among the most prominent in Europe, the Musee Reitberg is fairly close to the youth hostel where I will stay. But then, I’ve only a day and a half, very little money, and everybody wanting to be my baby. I tell myself that roaming the city streets will let me pack in more of local flavour into the limited time-and-money than an art trip or, *shudder*, an organized tour.

I get myself a day pass. This will let me travel on any tram and bus in the city for an entire day. The plan, therefore, is to take random trams-buses-walks all day and explore the city.

**

I find Zurich pleasantly old-fashioned, carefully crafted. Everywhere there are sloping roofs, chimneys, intricately carved mythological motifs on house fronts, usage of lots of stone, of dark brown wood, and hardly any high rises. Occasionally, there are stone statues on porches, flower beds between houses and gargoyles atop them. There are fountains and water bowls sprinkled across the city, all of them spouting drinking water.

Each house in the city seems individually crafted, with a distinctiveness of its own, with no locality designed en masse. Yet the design is understated and anything but loud. Zurich’s architectural charm comes from it being firmly rooted in the past. It seems to tell its beholders what Messrs Carl F Bucherer announce on their ads – ‘for those who do not go with the times’.

**

PS - None of the pics are my own. All are off the 'net.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

2 - A station far away.

The train is silent, glass-windowed, footboardless. As it does the short trip from the airport to the railway station, I try to get used to the novelty of the train, of the experience.

Zurich Hauptbahnhof(or Zurich Main, if you please) looks eerily like Mumbai VT. The station is an expansive ancient-looking stone building. Like VT, you see trains gently wedge themselves into dead-end platforms, like swords into scabbards. As platforms roll outwards from dead-ends under glass roofs, outlines of the tracks dissolve into a frantic mishmash.

I walk to the front of the platform, and go past the dead end. There is a corridor and a high-roofed hallway housing railway offices and restaurants and shopping areas. These stretch some 60 meters from the dead end within the main building. I walk around the arena and look about, lugging my two big bags along.

The first sunrays work their way past the pillars and outer walls of the hallway. Early morning commuters begin to trickle in – and not all on foot. A schoolgirl wades in on skates. A disheveled young man wheels a cycle in. Two electric scooters glide through. Two old men peer out of their jackets at the ticket vending machines.

In the middle of the foyer, a massive triangular balloon gets slowly inflated. The balloon reads “100 years of Toblerone”, and bears the said brand’s insignia. Young men and women in Toblerone t-shirts form a huddle, presumably to chalk out their plans for the day. Dispersing, they use Toblerone-yellow ribbons to demarcate the central part of the arena.

One coffee stall just beyond a platform’s dead-end has just opened; I glance at its menu and try to get the hang of Swiss Francs. I’m letting the calculations, the budgeting, the conversion into rupees distract me from taking in the vastness, the grandeur of the carefully carved stone atrium. Annoyed at self for said distraction, I take a deep breath and just look.

The parfumerie, the patisserie and the kebab stall on the outer margins of the foyer are still closed. The ticket counters and helpdesks are open, but there are only officials therein. A prim middle aged man unlocks the doors of a newspaper-and-book shop. A young, incredibly pretty woman dusts the exhibits of a flower shop. The brasserie looks appealing - it has chairs and tables placed outwards, right in the main lobby of the railway station. With some three rows of chairs-tables all facing the expanse of the hallway, it gives the impression of seats at a theatre or show.

There’s still a tang of cold in the air, as if to remind me of the winter that’s just past. It is, however, spring now - mild, golden sunlight weaves through passers-by and pours itself upon the largely empty foyer.

I order a breakfast of raspberry jam, uber-bitter coffee and soft, crumbling croissants. I occupy front row seats to look at still-fairly-sparse crowds of travelers walk across the atrium towards waiting trains and large schedule-boards.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

1 - Learning to fly.

I have some four hours to spend at the Bangalore airport. The chairs in the lounge arch backwards, but stop short of reclining. There is the uncertain discomfort of whether you should attempt to sit or lie down. I quit reading and do an easy saunter around the lounge.

A posse of Kingfisher air hostesses arrives with their flaming-red baggage. They wait for their luggage to get stowed away - their duty hours are yet to begin. They confer in hushed whispers, sometimes letting occasional smiles and jokes break through their trained mannerisms. The occasional anxiety and frown peeps out from behind the pink make-up and powder. One of them twiddles the blue ribbon of an Indigo check in queue that reads - 'no red tape'. The counter at the end of the ribbons is closed.

**

The coffee day bar has deep red for backdrop, with an occasional glow of mild lighting. The three tables inside arent enough for the crowd, so people step outside under a yellow stained-glass like glass ceiling. People in the queue try and balance their baggage as they dig into their pockets.

A woman with sunglasses balanced above her forehead extracts the change she needs. She spots two suit-boot clad men and greets them with a shout - "Hello! You're going to Bombay too? Which flight? We should have come from office together!". It's yet another Friday evening.

**

You realize airports do not afford you as much space or variety of views as railway stations. All I had was a fairly big hall some 100 metres across. Most stations give me the choice of the length of a multitude of platforms, as well as space outside the station. Security threats and all that ensured that I couldnt exit this hall. If only for a change of scene, I check in my baggage and move inwards into another lounge.

The inner pre-boarding lounge has commerce aplenty too. Amid the self improvement books and fiction and HBR compendia, I cant help notice one book that claims to help overcome the influence of cults, written by 'America's best known intervention specialist'.

Coffee, sandwiches, biscuits abound - but no meals, nothing that can fill a stomach. No restaurants or tables - so you've to eat amid the rows of chairs sprawled across the lounge. There are shirts and ties and designer jewelry - you sometimes wonder who precisely is it that buys these. Prices leap up as you go from the outer to the inner lounge. Airports seem to be a trifle more demanding, perhaps because they deem these boarding areas their sanctum sanctorum.

**
There's the vague feeling of boredom in the air. People know there's a late night commute-after-flight that stands between them and the weekend. Sleep is still a couple of hours distant. People chomp on sandwiches and biscuits and stare into nothingness. My flight is still one hour away. This isn’t quite a comfort zone.