Vignettes

By: bienesrobados

Oct 06 2010

Category: Uncategorized

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Switzerland.  A pale, bloodless country.  Beautiful but strangely unexciting, like the airbrushed body of a porn star. Zurich, a handsome city bisected by the broad waters of the Limmat river, is the center of Switzerland’s banking industry, infamous bastion for the ill gotten gains of rich tax dodgers, despots, and criminals.  The streets of the city of bankers are clean as though scrubbed, like the hands of an obsessive compulsive after handling cash.  Perhaps as a result of its strict Protestant heritage and bland button-down business nature, there is little grime or grit to Zurich.  Many of things that give a city it’s character – street vendors, graffiti, public art, cultural diversity – are conspicuously absent from Zurich.  Despite it’s film festival, pleasant sidewalk cafes, art museums, and bustling shopping district, Zurich has all the romance and excitement of a mortuary.  The city that once produced Dadaism, of which there is no more enduring image than that of Duchamp’s signed urinal, now produces nothing but cash.

On our last day in Zurich we stopped in a laundry mat to wash our clothes.  It was a small run down building and there was only one washing machine available. We started cramming our dirty clothes inside the machine as a woman, presumably the owner jabbered at us in German.  One of the other customers explained to us in English, “You have to put it on at least 60 degrees or the machine doesn’t spin on the dry cycle and your clothes will come out sopping wet and it will cost a fortune to dry them. I’ve spent 50 francs trying to dry them after that.”  The 60 degree wash of course was more expensive, 9 dollars for a small load. A short and exceptionally fat man sat in the corner, his great gut swelling the seams of a stained white t-shirt. He was drinking a tall can of Hieneken and smoking a cigarette. “Having second thoughts?” he asked as we began pulling our clothes back out of the washer. “We have a train to catch.”  He grinned. “Where to?” “Zagreb” I answered.  He nodded and snorted, “Oh yeah, just do it there, it’ll be loads cheaper, pretty much anywhere is cheaper than Zurich.”

Killing time before our train leaves, we’re sharing a bottle of wine on a bridge in the heart of Zurich’s old town, looking out across the water at the two church towers rising, giant clock faces illuminated.  Another of Zurich’s bridges, illuminated from below, arcs modestly across the darkened waters.  Perhaps I’ve been too hard on Switzerland.  The countryside was undeniably beautiful, with breathtaking mountain views and great green alpine valleys, lush with grass and dotted here and there with hearty, plump cows.  Throughout our whole time in Switzerland, nearly two weeks, we never once stayed in a hotel, instead staying with people in Lausanne, Neuchatel, and Zurich.  Their kindness gives me hope.

It’s 5:45am on the night train to Zagreb, due to arrive there at 10 o’clock. We’ve been on the train for 9 hours already, sleeping on top of our backpacks in the cramped confines of our coach seats. I can’t get back to sleep though I know I should take advantage of the remaining darkness. I slip on my headphones and close my eyes, the clean, bright sounds of Ali Farka Toura’s Talking Timbuktu blues filling my head.

Upon arrival in Zagreb we both feel more at home.  The streets have a comforting layer of filth, people are dressed in mismatched second hand clothing, and street vendors hawk grilled corn, roasted chestnuts, and stale popcorn.  Also, things here are gloriously cheap compared to Switzerland.  A cappuccino is $2 instead of $5.50.  Plates at restaurants start at $6-10 instead of $17-$50.   We only have 3 days in the city and we spend our time eating, drinking excellent coffee, and wandering the streets.  Our second night we meet up with our hosts at a bar in a cavernous building that used to be a squat.  We chat with them and their other guests, 3 Polish girls who had hitchhiked across the Balkans, until early morning.  The Poles recommend we check out Sarajevo and we promise to contact them if we visit Poland.

Our bus winds along a two lane road, the asphalt ahead gilded by the light of the sinking sun.  To our right a river runs parallel to the road, October brown cornfields growing on its banks.  A few houses dot the densely wooded hillsides.  Next to one house a plump cow grazes in a field; at another a young man churns a cement mixer by hand, smoking a cigarette and gazing across the darkening waters.  As we draw closer to our destination, Jajce, a small town between Zagreb and Sarajevo, the river broadens and carves a deep canyon. The gentle rocking of the bus is rhythmic, hypnotic, and I feel my eyelids drooping.

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