May 20, 2009

Day 1 : "A happy day because its the first of May"

When I woke up puffy clouds billowed outside and the plane was ready to land in Frankfurt. The best part about this trip was the timing. I did not have to worry about snow and rain and early sunsets. This was the beginning of summer. And I could see that a bright day was dawning.

I landed and cleared a very unfriendly immigration. Why is it that every country treats you like you are about to drop the big one on them? In this economy even my meager spending ought to be welcome. I walked hazily on towards a lounge, feeling quite cross.

The first jolt was the “Achtung Bitte” posters with sundry terrorists and warnings of swine flu. How many times have I heard the word ‘Achtung’ – in the numerous world war II movies and books. The haze lifted and I looked around somewhat wonderingly. This was the second airport I have ever been to where the signs and announcements were all in a language I didn’t know. Clearly though it was better than Hongkong, since I knew the family.

I freshened up in the lounge, the warm shower and cereal making me feel a lot better finally. The fatigue - both mental and physical was ebbing away. And my brain slowly registered the fact that this was the town where Goethe had lived. No, the Frankfurt airport was not named after him but there certainly was a bar named Goethe. As I sat contemplating on Goethe's Italian Journey - 'Slipped out at 3 in the morning, arriving early with just a suitcase looking forward to enjoying a fine summer after a wretched work filled spring' - I realized I am going to keep encountering many more such illustrious characters. The journey has truly begun.

Zurich was to be the first stop. Mainly because of the convenience of VA’s house. The Swiss Air flight to Zurich was shorter than the time the plane spent on the tarmac. It was May first, not just the labor day, but also I had read, in pagan cultures a traditional summer holiday. The beautiful summer morning outside held promises of a lovely time. We flew over unbroken picture-post card scenery of low hills and greenery and landed in Zurich late morning. I had expected to see towering mountain ranges with snow peaks instead and this was oddly like dessert before the meal.

KS, ST and PS had arrived from the US and our party was all set. AS and SS were too pumped up. I asked for “buttermilk rice” for lunch with such feeling that it elicited a round of laughter. VA's house was right on a main tram thoroughfare that still managed to have beautiful trees lining them. There was even a convenient Indian restaurant right below the apartment. Not that we were in need of it. SA and VA had made great food and after a nice lunch deciding not to waste a single moment, we all got out and decided to explore.

There had been travel warnings around rallies in Germany and the year before there had been major riots by left-wing activists in Zurich. SA mentioned that they had burned a few BMWs - no doubt a newer way of bonfire from the pagan reminders. I briefly wondered if it was probably a saner idea to stay home but my limited vacation blinked like red alert in my mind that I quashed that thought ruthlessly.

The rest of my party joked about what 'Radhika travels' was going to show them first. After some quick instructions from SA we got into the tram at Guuggachstrasse and after a short ride arrived past Hauptbahnhof at Bahnhofplatz. The idea was to walk as much as we could in the area and see the sights. The street was deserted and all shops closed. What would have been a meaningless window shopping exercise with jostling crowds instead became a leisurely evening stroll. I could see why Bahnofstrasse was one of the most expensive shopping avenues in the world as we walked past showrooms - Louis Vuitton, Giorgio Armani, Cartier, Bvlgari, Dior... I wondered how I would have felt if I had been to this avenue ten years ago. Somehow the designer shops were not as awe inspiring as it would have been - after all most of them do business in India and I was anyway not smart enough to appreciate the better collection they were sure to have in Switzerland.

Besides the shops there were more sights to see including the welcome green lawns. Past the statue of education reformist Pestalozzi I noticed a clock on the upper part of a store front surrounded by bells. This being Zurich and my brain remembering all the great Swiss watchmakers, I was convinced and I also persuaded everyone it was some interesting contraption which would play some strange music at the top of the hour. We waited but nothing really happened and I think everyone wondered but were too polite to remark about the level of research I had done before. Kurz watchmaker and jeweler had not really advertised anywhere how the clock would perform.

I paused for a few moments near the Granite sculpture by Max Bill. The sculpture gave a feeling of rest and relaxation though I had no idea what was the intended effect. I could almost philosophically interpret it as a series of doors to the inner sanctum of something within yourself. It was slightly colder and I was probably beginning to get jet lagged that I was thinking such pseudo-profound thoughts. I made a mental note to look it up later - I was sure it would be quite the opposite of what I thought. Max Bill had studied under Kandinsky and I have a print of a Kandinsky composition which evoked joyous feelings in me but was in reality about the deluge. Le Corbusier of the Chandigarh connection was from Switzerland, but I had decided to not go looking for a house designed by him this trip.

Strassencafe, straddling the street was quite full with patrons staring at each other across the street. We wandered on past the sights, the spires of the churches, past Paradeplatz and the famous swiss banks and arrived at the lake front to see a man relieving himself on the lake water and a cross dresser in a pink tutu.

From there we walked some more crossing the bridge to the other side. Ability to stroll on a wide street enjoying the sights is such a rare pleasure for me and I took a deep breath and simply let the wind and the evening sun and the views of the marvelous towers of Grossm√ľnster and Fraum√ľnster wash over me.

We joked about opening a Swiss bank account - seeing all the names of the premier financial institutions lining the street and concluded that with our unmade up faces and t-shirts and jeans we will probably not even be allowed inside.

A huge thin crust pizza that we shared sitting on the banks, was deliciously balmy. People milled about relaxing on the lake front. I did more couples than families. I was surprised to see the level of intimacy most couples were displaying - in various levels of embrace from affectionate to borderline obscene. SS sniggered and from thereon AS and SS decided to nudge each other of PDA alert.

Sun's rays reflected off the lake and the ice-cream was wonderful. We walked back after a while and caught the tram home. SS and AS went to a park nearby to feed pigeons while I packed my backpack.

It was past 9 and it was just beginning to get dark. I went to bed realizing it was Mayday and whether the witches were going to wander in to cast a spell or not, Europe was beginning to cast its spell on me.

May 20, 2009