Friday, June 06, 2008

7 - Highway Star

The end of the platform at Zurich Brunau slopes down to merge with the highway’s service lane. A footpath fringes the highway up ahead. After a moment’s hesitation, I decide to cycle along the footpath, and see how far it goes. A short distance on, the highway acquires a cycling-lane - a one-metre-wide space at the far-right.

So the highway does indeed allow cyclists, unlike what I'd been told. When I notice my formals-and-tie clothing, I wonder whether I should go ahead and cycle on the highway. I hesitate, but only just, before I decide to take the plunge. Sights of other cyclists in shorts and vests, and of cyclists on super-fast geared bikes make attempts to dissuade me, all of which I resist.

**

My slow, ungeared city-cycle ambles on. I’m naturally apprehensive at first, because there’s just a line-painted-on-the-ground separating the car lane and the cycle lane. A couple of minutes’ riding is some reassurance – cars stay put in their lanes, refusing to swerve an inch on either side. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Swiss cars never ever overtake. They’re fast alright, but they aren’t in a tearing hurry, there’s none of what Bill Aitken calls the ‘animal lust for speed’.

The ones who are possessed by the said lust are the few motorcyclists there are on the road. Heads down, clad in jackets and tracksuits and protective gear like you see on TV races, they rush by furiously. Bigger, faster European bikes do nothing to ease the feeling that these guys might careen out of control at any moment. The insistent whining of their engines isnt a reassurance either. Yet the roads are empty and unclogged, so motorcycling looks fairly easy.

**

Leimbach station is a single cottage lost in time-and-space as it lies at the edge of the forested hill. The forlorn cabin and station building remind me of some solitary, lovely railway stations on long journeys on the Indian railways. Thereafter, the highway worms its way between two factory walls on either side.

The railway track and the river Sihl flow on the left. Deep green mountains tower on the right. High amid the mountains, metallic presences jut out, as cranes claw into vegetation. The Sihl narrows at one point to reveal a stone bed with picnicking families parked thereupon. The vegetation lying across the Sihl is much closer, more discrete – so you can make out its closely packed trees and shrubs.

**

A side road branches out from the highway and points towards Adliswil. I decide it’s perhaps a different experience to check out a small-town instead of keeping on the highway. I park the bicycle upon the overbridge and climb down to the railway platform. I take a walk along the open-air restaurant-lobby, past the couple of coffee-sippers lazing there in the sun.

I stand upon the arched bridge, looking at the steady, clear water of the river Sihl. Vehicles are infrequent on the road – there’s one car every few minutes or so. The town road is empty, pedestrians are few and the water below sprints quietly by.

Wooden cottages of a school look like fairy-tale huts in an orchard. There’s a white-flower-blanketed playground, beside a board with childrens’ drawings. Tis Sunday, so there’s an eerie, deserted look about the school. Under a playground-tree, two teenage girls gently hold each other as they kiss tenderly, unmindful of my passing-by.

**

On the other side, a cycling path runs parallel to the Sihl. A young man on a bench tells me it goes all the way from Zurich to Zug(some 30km away) and beyond, all along the Sihl.

Families cycle by on the grassy riverside path that glows in the gentle sunlight. Mums and dads go slow enough to allow accompanying little bicycles to keep pace. Most cyclists go slowly, looking around, taking in the view of the valley and the river, some of them spotting a distant church-spire that looks dissolved amid the forested hillside.

Mats have been spread out and food hampers unpacked as families laugh and play together on the banks. The entire town seems to be picnicking today – the banks don’t look too crowded since people disperse themselves all along the length of the Sihl.

**

The main street is boarded up, all businesses are closed. Tis lunchtime, and the three riverbank restaurants have their garden wicket-gates closed. Behind the river is a one room police station, and a food place that is thankfully open. An old couple and a younger woman are sipping beers in a corner of the corridor of Café du Jeannette.

I tentatively peer inside and find no one inside the dark, wine-bottle-lined wooden interiors. The younger woman, presumably Jeannette, springs up and almost sheepishly says,”’morning. Would you like some beer?”

“I was looking at something to eat, lunch perhaps.”

“Uh oh. I’m afraid I havent anything – there’re some old sandwiches, that’s all. I usually have no customers on Sundays, so I don’t really make anything. I’m really sorry.”

**

I walk beside a closed pizzeria and electronics shops on what’s one of the two main roads in town. A side street reveals a grand stone building that is another school. Cyclists occasionally disappear around a far corner, seemingly into a hillock lying across the town. I enter another side lane, and sit down on the steps outside the closed doors of the stately, serene stone structure of the town chapel. I take in the empty, open, tranquility of the place, as I sit unperturbed by any external stimuli, refusing to even consult my watch.

As I look at the deep, dark brown leaves of a nearby maple tree, a football flies across the street from a house down the road. Three kids run across the road amid an abrupt burst of chatter, which sight and sound puncture the uneventfulness around.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

6 - Fringes of the town

Tis evening. I lounge around the clean, almost-polished-looking lobby of the Youth Hostel. Most publications on display, tourist guides mainly, are in German. All else that is for sale, to my amazement, is out in the open and not in locked cases – chocolates, knives, souvenirs et al.

Two of my roommates are from Azerbaijan. I tentatively fish around for common ground, mentioning the three Azerbaijan-i men I know of. Before we know, we’re in excited conversation about the game. Gestures-with-swaying-arms, broken English and alien-words manage to come together to give all of us a general idea of what we talk about, even though we don’t quite get everything word-by-word. The 9pm summer sunlight slants down by our porthole-like-window, as we look out on the vacant, sleepy street.

**

I’ve borrowed one of the public-bicycles that are lent out for free by the city. I plan to cycle some way out of the city early on day 2, since I only need get out of Zurich by evening.

On the evening walk, I notice a wide, neat highway some way from the hostel, so am much reassured. Unfortunately, the youth hostel receptionist isn’t so sure – she tells me cyclists aren’t allowed on the highway. I give myself a ‘such-is-life’.

**

Still, when the morning arrives, I decide I’ll at least go see the highway and will loll around the railway station next to it. I deck the self up in formals-and-tie, having decided to get out of the city right after the said stroll.

**

When I’ve pushed the cycle up the incline, I reach the top of a small knoll. Down below are the plain-grey-sheets of the two empty railway platforms of Zurich Brunau. There are two halves of a highway that unroll themselves next to the station, split into smaller roads that go on to intertwine themselves into a series of flyovers that look like contorted octopi. The side of the hill facing the track has a bright splash of yellow across it. The hillside is smothered by yellow flowers that softly, gently move in the cool, sun-suffused morning breeze.

I wade my hands across the surface of the bowl at the base of a small fountain. The steely chill of the water vibrates across my hands. There’s the constant whizz of the highway cars in the background. The platform down below is vacant; the streets behind me atop the hillside aren’t awake either.

I steer the cycle onto the top of the railway overbridge. The pairs of metallic threads below me emerge from amid edifices, and swing outwards to curve around the side of the hill. I carry the bicycle downstairs, and cycle across the length of the platform.

There’s no one else on the platform. I sit down on a bench underneath an ad, with the cycle parked next to me. Around me is the steadiness of the highway and the stillness of the flame-hued, almost-alive hill; as the plain, bare tracks quietly snake past.