Early May in Switzerland was cold af. I was thinking 50s and 60s, and it was 30s and 40s (Farenheit… I’m American, fam). It’s expensive too, but the injury to my wallet was manageable. I managed the vacation with about $1,500.
I landed at the Zurich airport early in the morning wearing gray sweat pants and a long sleeve Phillips 66 shirt. I hadn’t showered for the past 16 hours of flight, which included my 7-hour exploration of Toronto during my layover, so I was a very stinky boy. I was exhausted, had a groin rash and a worsening cold, and was making my way through the airport, trains, and buses like a zombie with eye boogers and bad breath. The last train left me climbing up a steep hill dragging my luggage and doing my best to be grateful for the lovely, cold experience around me: gorgeous houses with flower pots on tiny balconies, colorful window shutters, squeaky clean everything. I finally got to the Zurich Youth Hostel where I left my luggage in a public place (the front desk guy noticed my apprehension and said, “it’s fine, you’re in Switzerland”), I took a shower, and used their bathroom which was truly a room—no space where an outsider could see inside—and a big button for flushing attached to the wall. I filled up my water bottle in their bathroom sink and the rumors are true: their water tastes amazing everywhere. Feeling fresh, I hopped on a bus and went to Zurich’s Old town.
There isn’t a “first thing” I noticed about Zurich. I noticed a bunch of things all at once: cleanliness, wealth, safety, and beauty. The only litter I noticed was cigarette butts in flower pots. The Swiss love to smoke. Their famous street, Bahnhofstrasse, stretching along the Limmat River, offers every imaginable jewelry and clothing store; and many stores have unnecessarily sexy security guards wearing suits and ear pieces. I never managed to understand their traffic laws, but all of their streets have bike lanes running down the middle and a lane just for buses. Pedestrians always have right of way. You can expect cars to stop if they see you waiting at a crosswalk—even if you’re not at a stop light. I’m still not sure if pedestrian courtesy includes waving or not. The geography of the place is gorgeous, too. Central Zurich has two hills running alongside the Limmat River, which spills into Lake Zurich—complete with mountains in the distance and funny-looking ducks. After a three-hour nap I ventured out to District 5 in the northwest part of Zurich. A bar there had 5 indoor badminton courts in the back, so the Swiss aren’t afraid to mix drinking with sports. The bar’s pinball machine also featured a topless woman. I’m not sure if that means Switzerland is more open-minded about sex, but it certainly suggests it.
The next day, my birthday, I went south to Lucerne. If Zurich could be called extravagant and business-minded, Lucerne would be quaint and slow-paced. There are some places to shop, but this city is more dreamy and life moves slower. The mountains that appear distant in Zurich are right up close in Lucerne. I took a cable car up to the top of Mt. Rigi, which was still covered in about half a foot of snow. The Swiss mountains are different than the mountains I’ve seen in New Hampshire and Colorado. The Swiss mountains have less (if not zero) wildlife, so they’re very quiet and solemn. They don’t have the sharp peaks of the Rocky Mountains, but they still manage to equal them in splendor. Even the tallest Mountains in Switzerland seem much more climbable and small than they really are. Their elegance lies in their modesty.
Later I went to Stadtkeller where I blew 50 bucks on dinner. I ordered a meat fondue, which I thought would be meat alongside a cheese fondue. It wasn’t. I made the further mistake of eating two pieces of that raw meat before the waitress brought me my cooking pot. The food wasn’t great but the Swiss music show was. At some point I wished I was drunk to further enjoy watching a lady ring a bell, strutting behind a guy dressed up in a cow costume. The ending of the night beat all my previous experiences when I sat before the giant Lion of Lucerne monument, carved into a cliffside. It occurred to me that this masterpiece doesn’t necessarily commemorate something noble. The Swiss guards, memorialized by this rock carving, were protecting a French tyrant, and his defeat marked the end of a terrible monarchy. But I noticed the Lion also had a fleur de lis near his bowed head, so perhaps it was a nod to the French who revolted as well. Who knows. In the end none of that mattered as the lion came to life for me, breathing slowly, dying, with a quiet pond and scattered lilies to grace him.
I woke up with close to no energy for the next day and took a train to Interlaken. The train ride was my favorite part. Lakes Brienz and Thun are the closest things to perfect I can imagine: cobalt, cold, crystal clear water. My plan was to explore the city but I ended up doing very little. I took a boat on Lake Brienz to see a nearby waterfall, took some pics, and went back to the famous Balmers Hostel for a nap. The bar wasn’t open, and most of the girls were dating, so my chances of getting laid slowly went dwindled to zero. Maybe that was for the best.
The next day’s trip to Bern started roughly. I sat on the train next to a smelly (BO smell), French lady who was paranoid about pick pocketers. She also farted without a care and had me help her with her luggage when we got off the train. Turns out her son had a brain tumor and she was picking up some swiss chocolate and cheese on her way back to Paris.
Bern, the country’s capital, would be the second ranked city where I would most likely live. Bern has gorgeous, artistic, drinkable fountains: my favorite displayed a guy prying open a dog’s mouth. Bern is also beautifully arranged. The Aare river runs through it and distant mountains surround the city. The city is wealthy too. I saw mansions with large properties, pools overlooking mountains, cameras and security guards. Their zoo was much more fun than I anticipated. The jack rabbits were giant and had large floppy ears. Zoo security is lax. The flamingos were contained by a foot-tall wire, which I’m sure was electric. Exhibits in general didn’t have the American Zoo high rises to keep people from jumping into the animal pens. They trust their visitors. The light green Aare river runs freely through the zoo and sounds lovely. I hear some people swim in it in early May, but I would not recommend it. Too cold.
Montreux, the number one city I would most likely settle in if I moved to Switzerland, was my next stop. The Castle of Chillon, sitting right on Lake Geneva, was so fun to explore for a mere $12.50. It was a nice and cold inside the dark stone halls where Lord Byron described the captivity of Franois Bonivard. My favorite fun fact about the castle was that banquets for dukes could last literal months.
Later I took a bus west and stopped midway between Montreux and Lausanne. I picked a random fondue restaurant, La Tour de Gourze, way up in the hills and started hiking towards it. I don’t know why I thought two hours of hiking wouldn’t be so bad. It started raining and it got so cold my arms turned red. I lost my jacket on a train and was hiking in a short sleeve shirt. I otherwise enjoyed this time in Switzerland the most. Walking through the hilly vineyards watching lightning in the distance and hearing nothing but occasional cowbells was unforgettable. Occasionally I would wander through a town where people were having quiet conversations and casually driving Audis. I finally got to the restaurant where I had the best cheese fondue of my life. It was a Sunday, and all of the trains stopped around 6pm, so there was no way I would get back to my Hostel in Interlaken. I found a local hotel where I paid 100 francs (francs are nearly for an uncomfortable but quaint twin-bed in Lausanne. I woke up to some delicious homeade breakfast where a Swiss native who owned the place spoke of the bad stuff about Switzerland: annoying recycling habits, cold weather, etc. His accent sounded Russian to me, but maybe that was just his deep bellowing voice. I left Montreux shortly after, but it will remain in my heart forever.
My last day was in the Lauterbrunnen area just south of Interlaken. I did what everyone does in that area and went to Mt. Schilthorn where some James Bond movies were filmed. The restaurant was reserved, but I was unaware. The waiters advised me of this after bringing me my 007 latte. So that was the reason for the weird looks I was getting, I thought. I ate a delicious 007 hamburger, took some pics, and ventured to Gimmelwald, where Rick Steves has a lot to say. My experience matched the hype. Snow fell gently and I wandered up the hill to a high place where I could observe what looked more like rough cliffsides than mountains. Cowbells rang, farmers farmed, and hardly anyone was around. The gondola, while scary, brought me back down safely, and I went home and bid my farewells to the friends I had made at the Hostel.
The next morning I was up early and on my way home. The whole way home I asked myself if the experience had changed me or if I had gotten everything I wanted out of it. I still don’t have a comprehensive answer, but that comes from my tendencies towards depression and my general lack of contentedness (which I work on through practicing gratitude and meditation). No experience in life is ever fulfilling, but every experience is growth. I’m more culturally aware now. I have experienced something new, and I want to see much more of Europe, especially a warmer country like Spain or Italy. The mountains, especially Mt. Matterhorn, gave me hope that I can rise above my personal problems and that others can too. And damn their chocolate and cheese is good.