I arrived in Switzerland on a cold morning. I forget which day exactly, Friday I think. I’d just stepped off an overnight bus from Berlin, still a little sleepy, and hovered around the bus station trying to find my bearings. A Starbucks was nearby, so I stood outside, praying to the travel gods for a free wifi.
I logged in and GPS’d myself. I wasn’t far from the centre of Zurich, a couple of kilometres. Feeling a sniff coming on, I looked for a juice bar – a carrot and ginger juice always kept the flu running scared. Like your usual OCD traveller, I stood shivering in the cold, op-shop jacket and H&M discount beanie, reading the reviews of every single juice bar in Zurich’s centre. Then I walked.
It took me twenty minutes to get there, lugging my bag along Zurich’s streets. They were surprisingly empty. It was only 7 a.m., but I’d envisioned a more bustling centre for a city as prominent as this. Often I would turn a corner, and not a single soul in sight.
I found the juice bar without trouble. There was nobody in there, of course, I was the first. I ordered the standard vege juice, extra ginger, extra lemon. The guy spoke perfect English. The juice was perfect too. What wasn’t perfect was the price. Backpacker dollars don’t go so far when converted into Swiss francs.
My friend Lara, who I had arranged to stay with, was going to meet me after her classes that evening. I had around 11 hours to kill. What does one do in a Zurich autumn for 11 hours?
Sit in the juice bar and charge my phone, first of all. I did that for an hour. Then, exploring.
Zurich is extremely slick. Streets are picture perfect, trees groomed, buildings all clean and full of character, expensive looking cars everywhere. It’s like a rich people suburb, but the size of a whole city.
I wandered over to the river first, which remains nameless in my head. It looked cleaner and more polished than the rivers running through other European cities. At least the surrounds did. I remember seeing a young couple sitting on some stairs by the river’s edge. They were laughing about something. I wondered why they’d choose to sit outside on such a cold morning.
I went to the supermarket next. I’m not sure why, but I expected Swiss supermarkets to be spectacular. They’re actually quite ordinary. I wandered through the produce section, wondering what I wanted to eat. Silly, because I already knew what fruits I would be buying before I went inside: The cheapest ones.
One thing that’s funny about supermarkets around the world is the rules are always different, which is expected, but the problem is they don’t display the rules anywhere; you’re just expected to know. So in some countries you weigh your own apples, in others you take them over to a special counter and they’ll weigh them for you, and other countries they just weigh them at the checkout. Sometimes there will be a weighing machine but it doesn’t work, which leads to even more questions. Are you supposed to weigh your own apples, and the machine just happens to be broken today? Or is it broken because they stopped using it five years ago? Of course you don’t want to get it wrong, because you might end up getting to the checkout and then the lady tells you, you need to weigh your fruit. Now you’re that silly gringo running back to the produce section while everyone waits for you. Luckily there was no guesswork this time, the supermarket had a nice big weighing machine in the middle of the floor, with all these Swiss grandmas tagging their vegetables.
After wandering the isles for too long, I got to the checkout and panicked after realising one of the weighing stickers had fallen off my cucumber. I rummaged through the basket, trying to find it. Not there. I shrugged at the checkout lady, and she shrugged back at me.
“You need to weigh it again.”
So there I was – law of attraction – the dumb tourist with a cucumber running through the supermarket.
My next stop was a small park, perched on a hill high above the city. It was actually a pretty tough hike up there, with my bags and all. I found a bench and spread out, picnic style. My bounty from the supermarket consisted of some tomatoes, a cucumber, a couple of apples, a pack of salami, a pot of yoghurt and a baguette the size of my arm. I lounged up there for almost an hour, relaxing, listening to music, eating breakfast. Or was it lunch? When you’re on the road those words become meaningless sometimes, as does the clock; you just eat when you’re hungry.
The rest of the afternoon escapes me – just blind wandering, probably. I suppose one thing travel makes you good at, sitting in all those airports, is killing time. People watching, wandering in and out of shops, listening to your own thoughts. It was five o’clock before I knew it. I headed to the train station and sat under the big clock. Lara showed up five minutes later.
Lara was an old friend I’d met on my travels a few years back. We studied French together in Montpellier, and struck up an unexpected friendship over the short month we knew each other. She was only 16 at the time, me 28. Bizarre in regular life, for sure; not so much on the road. Two years later, we were here, meeting again in the middle of Zurich central station. We hugged, and laughed. It was like we didn’t really know each other, yet we did.
After a quick Zurich dinner we jumped on the train, and arrived at her home late at night. The neat thing about Switzerland is it’s so tiny. You can jump on a train and be anywhere in the country in a matter of hours. Lara’s family lived in a tiny town called Unterägeri, in the middle of who-knows-where. We walked from the bus stop, through picture-perfect streets and snow capped mountains, like a winter Pleasantville. An oddly bright moonlight gave everything – houses, trees, cars – a fitting glow. The roads were empty and damp from the earlier rain, and I remember a silence, so sharp I was cringing listening to my broken backpack wheels squeaking against the pavement.
Of course, their home turned out to be beautiful. Anything less would have looked out of place in that neighbourhood. Floor to ceiling glass windows opened out to the massive plains outside, the size of thirty football fields, green and white covered mountains sitting behind them. Her parents warmly welcomed me in like an old family friend and showed me to my bed downstairs. Guest room, ensuite. Luxury. I dropped my things and flopped on the bed like a toddler.
For the next few mornings I woke up to fresh snow falling on the fields and hills outside, breakfasts of freshly baked bread, fresh fruit and Swiss cheese. Her mother washed and dried all my dirty underwear as if I were her own son, her father indulged me in long conversations each night at the dinner table long after the plates were cleared. They were a family who couldn’t have been more welcoming to this backpacking stranger; one who had nothing to share but smiles and a few old stories. One might not always have money to travel, but one can always afford to say hello, stay in touch, be polite and giving to whomever he meets on any given day. That in itself seems to end up paying for more than any paycheck in many places around the world.
That Sunday morning Lara took me for an early walk around Unterägeri. First we visited a small townhouse, where people were selling arts, homewares and crafts, all very Swiss and shiny, and then she showed me the lakes where she swam as a kid, now lined by autumn trees and carpets of orange leaves, the summer spots where families came together to enjoy the short windows of sun. People often are hesitant to show me small towns, “Mr. Traveller”, thinking I may be bored or unimpressed, but I always find them heartwarming and satisfying. Big cities usually just remind me of alarm clocks, ironing shirts and miserable people. Small towns are always a little closer to humanity. When I see one, I’m always relieved that places in the world like them still exist.
For the rest of my stay, like a perfect host, Lara showed me around her tiny country. The old town of Zug, the little bars and restaurants of Luzern, the perfectly polished streets of Aarau. Everywhere we went, it was always clean, always quiet, always beautiful. Everyone wore those boots with the fur, and the expensive looking coats with fluffy collars. Between the intricate cocktails and the Swiss pastries in fancy shapes, everything in this tiny country just felt nice. Switzerland may not be the place for wild adventure, but if it’s pleasantness, pretty places, tranquility, and a parade of impossibly shiny towns lined up one after the other, there may be no better place in the world than this.
The night before I left, Lara and I had dinner at a tiny restaurant in Aarau. It was a place telling of the Switzerland I had pieced together in my head, hidden away on the second floor of some building, somewhere, in some street. Surprisingly it was almost full; we picked up one of the last free tables in the joint. The waiter kindly greeted me in English, and between a mini splurge on snacks and drinks, I remember watching the streets outside the window, literally barren, not a single person in sight. Aarau was silent, on first glance one would think “Nothing happens here”. Yet sitting around us were groups of young girls chatting, a few older couples, and some younger ones too, all dressed in nice clothes, eating fancy food. As many places as I’ve seen in my life, this still amazes me – all these tiny inconspicuous spots around the world – most people will never even hear the name, let alone visit – yet there are people born here, living here, making friends here, working, falling in love, raising grandkids – living a good life, just like you and me. How can you not be curious about that? I guess that’s what travelling is, in its purest form: Curiosity about the people we never know and never meet.
The following morning Lara dropped me at the train station, my backpack and I headed back to Zurich. I would be on a plane the next day, my six month jaunt of Europe finally over, this goodbye a fitting finale. I told her once again to stop smoking, like a big brother, she rolled her eyes at me, like a rebellious little sister. We didn’t know when we’d see each other again. It didn’t matter. Travel friendships are simply that way. If you meet again, you pick up where you left off. And if you don’t, you don’t. A mini globetrotter herself, she knew it as well as I did. We hugged, I thanked her for everything, and we smiled goodbye. No tears or drama or weird stuff. Just a farewell nod, until next time.
So, what is the moral of this story?
Travel doesn’t always need to be wow. Nothing incredible or or story-worthy needs to happen. Sometimes it’s just wandering a city, catching up with an old friend, drinking some Ovaltine in a fancy cup and then heading on your way. You came. You were there. You left. Nobody said it needed to be crazy. If anything, travel should teach us to see the beauty in the small moments like these. Walking a new street. Breakfast with some new faces. Conversations. If we can appreciate all of that, our travels – and our lives – will always be something to remember.
Travel safe. Be kind to each other.