How to Deal with Zurich

The problem with Zurich was that I could not find, try as I might, a youth hostel. What could be nicer than a lovely youth hostel? Sleeping in the same room as 11 other people is such a great way to get to know new people (or as I say ‘friends I haven’t met yet’). And you, helpfully, get woken up at 7 am so you don’t miss a moment of the day. And you get served a lovely, filling breakfast of happy, healthy oatmeal and weak tea (too much caffeine is not good for you! I always prefer weak tea! Without sugar of course!)

Yes, try as I might, there was not a youth hotel to be found within miles of Zurich. And what is even worse, no B & Bs either! The horror! I love B & Bs, just love them. It’s like staying with family! I scorn turn-down service, chocolates on the pillow, anonymous maids who flit in and clean, concierge services, stacks of fluffy white towels and the decadent joy of using a “Lush” bath-bomb full of lavender flowers and rose petals and not having to scrub the tub afterwards. Scorn it, I say. Give me home-spun, simple pleasures and people who want to have a nice long chat with you over breakfast at 7:30am; the breakfast consisting of oatmeal and weak tea, naturally!

But no, I was denied this happiness and was forced, forced I tell you, I mean practically at gun-point, into one of those small European hotels with fabulous pure cotton sheets, a feather comforter, wooden furniture, mini-chandeliers in the room, a velvet slipper chair and huge enamel tub. How I suffered! I will spare you the details except to insist again how much I hate central heating: 1) noisy and 2) all the air whooshing about in vents takes the humidity away so your skin gets dry. Dry skin – is there a more important problem in today’s society? I don’t think so.

This hotel, not to belabor the point, had proper heating – metal radiators so that in the morning I would run 4 inches of scalding water into the tub with a little Dr. Bronners peppermint castille soap and voila! the air was warm, properly humidified and with a lovely invigorating scent! In the evening, another 4 inches with a few drops of my perfume and voila, instantly relaxing atmosphere. I have always thought that with a few hundred dollars and a few days I could turn Alcatraz into a cozy pied-a-deux with a certain decadent air. It’s a gift. Why fight it?

Swiss Air (and who knew Switzerland had an airline?) did not serve chocolates on the plane which I found startling, seats were not great, and the video system did not work (boo hiss! watching movies on planes is the only way I see movies!) but took off and landed on time and Zurich airport is very nice.

Swiss customs were perfunctory then suddenly I was in a clean, organized, well-lit hall, very disorienting, especially as there was a large, yellow sign saying “Heidi” with an arrow. I got on the airport train-shuttle and as we hurl along through the tunnel, suddenly you hear cow-bells and cows mooing. Irony. I am not used to irony. Then there is one of those 15-second movies along the wall of the tunnel showing a “Heidi” herding cows and blowing kisses. Swiss sense of humor.

Got to hotel at 6:30am and they let me into the room right away. Swiss sense of hospitality. Try doing that in USA or England. Went out and about. Had bought LL Bean parka for the cold weather but when I put it on, I could not get the zipper to work. I hadn’t zipped a coat closed in three years and unlike riding a bicycle, you can forget how to do it. Took me about ten minutes dancing around and cussing.

Ten minutes later I was out on the street; first purchase: mittens, second: scarf, third: hat. So very odd to blend in to the crowd; having a bland face really helps a lot. In New Zealand people thought I was a New Zealander; in Norway, they thought I was Norwegian; in Zurich they thought I was Swiss.

Zurich in winter, even at Christmas time, is very gray which would be annoying long-term but for a few days it was fine. Everyone, as in everyone, had a black or dark grey coat; all the cars were black, rather sinister feel, very early John Le Carré. Plain front buildings in grey and white that make Canadian towns look exuberant. But the restaurants! Oh, the restaurants! I never went into any, but there were dozens with lovely table decorations, candles, starched white heavy linen tablecloths, headwaiters resplendent in suits and junior waiters in waistcoats and silent black shoes, twinkle lights decorating topiaries outside, wine lists, discrete lighting! All the tables were set with water, white wine, red wine and champagne glasses. So comforting.

I ate in cafes and had a few sausages from stands (sausages! yum!) but you could just tell this is a city that takes dining seriously and does a good job of it.

And yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and at Christmastime in Zurich, the people from Lindt chocolates really do stand outside of and in supermarkets and hand out free chocolates. And the shopping was excellent, not avant-guard, not cutting-edge fashion, nothing loud and nothing tacky – Hannes B. and Ludwig Reiter. As I woman who went to high school in the time of preps, I could appreciate all the plain, simple leather boots; plain, simple cashmere sweaters; plain, simple well-cut camel-hair coats (I have one that would have fit in perfectly. My mother got it for me ages ago and occasionally reminds me that she spent more on that coat than anything she has ever bought for herself. I occasionally remind her there is no use having children if you don’t spoil them rotten; it helps develop their character.)

My character, if I do say so myself, is developing nicely. One of the main issues is, naturally, to develop a sense of priorities, which is why I only went inside one church and spent an hour plotting my routes so that I could visit every recommended café, including the café in Hotel zum Storchen, Café zum Opera, and Café Harold. People think cafes are all fun and games, but it is a serious endeavor, you have to know how to get a good seat, ordering the correct beverage (It’s not just cappuccinos! Sometimes you need to try to a café Baileys, sometimes the Baba rhum. Not to mention fifteen minutes every night making sure your pronunciation of ‘café mélange’ is correct. I once saw a man say it wrong and the cafe went dead silent; every face turned from him. He slunk out in shame and misery, reduced to Starbucks for the rest of his benighted existence. It could happen to you. Be careful.)

Then there is the judging, wait staff (scale of 1-7 on fifteen different points), then atmosphere (scale of 1-9 on 12 aspects), then you have to review the menu choices, actual food, decoration of food, presentation of food, choice and placement of tables and chairs, space utilization, lighting, ambiance, heating, disguise of heating A/C ducts, quality of other customers, tone, mood, display of liquor bottles, flooring, sound-proofing, respect of integral structural qualities of the building, respect of integral historic qualities of the building, attractiveness of sugar packets and I haven’t even mentioned the tabulations for glass wear, table wear, silverware, napkins, tablecloths and waiter’s uniforms.

A few trolls kept asking me, “But you went alone, how can you do that? You were alone! Weren’t you sad? You were all alone!” But if I was with someone they would have forced me to go see something cultural when what I really wanted was to see all (prepare to be fascinated) the 5-star hotels in Zurich. Most are really not that remarkable or elegant (except the Widder which has substituted style for hip/ sleek/ modern/ cool [literately, they have a bar set up outside in winter (and thus is usually below freezing) that serves only vodkas]. All of them had small, cramped, boring lobbies and small uninteresting tea/ lobby bars. But what was clear was that the staff are trained to respond to expensive clothes and only expensive clothes. Americans can walk into any hotel in the Middle East or Asia and everyone jumps because they know Americans don’t usually show wealth through clothes (i.e. you can’t judge annual income by shoes) but if you come to Zurich, you got to wear your money.

Another lesson is that, as you always suspected, Europeans have nicer childhoods than Americans. Better bread for one. Nutella for two – the Swiss boys next to me on one plane flight spread their croissants with butter, and then laid on a thick layer of Nutella, a level of decadence even I cannot countenance. The toy stores are like something out of a dream: hand painted wooden toys and doll house furniture, stuffed toys with personalities, the most fabulous, winsome Noah’s Ark sets I have even seen. I wanted to buy one for all the nieces and nephews except they were the same price as diamond earrings.

Another lesson is that, as you always suspected, everyone has nicer department and grocery stores than USA. Everyone. There should be a ‘Head-start’ program for USA department and grocery stores; it is just ridiculous how lousy USA is in comparison to the rest of the world. We need some sort of World Bank assistance. USA has some OK (not great) fancy department stores but the staff are condescending, and everything is too expensive, or you have someplace like Macy’s which is a zoo, nothing is organized, no one can help you, goods all in a heap and long lines at the cashiers. Oh, dear people, in Zurich, I mean shut my mouth and call me Clarence. Not expensive, very lower middle-class prices, fabulous taste, interesting items, helpful sales clerks, no lines and the grocery stores have EVERYTHING. Fresh bread, beautiful flowers, stuff to make stuff (it so helpful when I am precise!). It’s like a Dean and DeLuca’s for people on a McDonald’s budget.

On the scale of whether Zurich is a good place to be rich, I would say, it is perfect if you are wealthy and sort of boring. Chic is not a word for Zurich. Neither is fascinating. You have very good quality, very expensive things for sale and nice cafés to rest in between purchases. I guess if you want to ski (and note: ski = exercise, so consider yourself warned) there are some mountains nearby (I never saw them, either dark or cloudy). Let’s see – Zurich would the perfect place to recover from a face-lift or a bad divorce. A good place for elderly Anglican clergy who have some private funds. Perfect for after that rafting trip down one of the lesser Amazon tributaries or drug-smuggling opium out of Afghanistan. Friendly, calm people although some can be somewhat too accommodating towards dictators, tyrants and monsters (do not let the whole cowbell/ Edelweiss/ fondue smokescreen fool you – kindly note that in my hotel room, for the first time in my life, the Bible in the drawer included only the New Testament). Hmmm.