There was a watch store on each city corner in Zurich. I walked into Tissot and looked at a silver timepiece with a diamond-crusted face. “But what does it do?” I asked the clerk. “It tells you the time,” he answered politely, and I laughed and thought how charming and sweet that was, that a thing would be allowed to take up real estate on your body without also simultaneously taking a voicemail or counting your steps or buying your groceries. A few days later, I bought a Swatch, bright blue and orange, and it remains on my wrist, a quaint reminder of my trip, a quaint reminder that we may be permitted to do one thing at a time and still be considered valuable.
All countries will tell you clearly what they hold dear from the moment you arrive, if you’re paying attention, and Switzerland is no different: It’s money and time that they are consumed with, like the rest of us, but without the layer of angst that, in much of the world, bears down on people short on those things. (For this story’s purposes, I embody those “people.”) The souvenir shop owners don’t desperately bargain with you if you try to walk out. Nobody is rushing; everyone is well dressed. What you have is a country that lets you to catch your breath for a minute.
If you acquire money, and if you allow that money to buy you time, I encourage you to buy a ticket to Switzerland and use that time thusly: You should float aimlessly for hours in thermal baths at the top of a mountain, then have your battle-worn belly rubbed with hot oils by a woman whose touch transmits true, motherly love for you. You should dip pears into melted cheese at your leisure on the side of the Limmat River. You should drink a local Alpine beer under a canopy while the clouds sob down on you. You should let the daylight shine on you through the stained glass windows at Zurich’s Fraumünster church, designed by Marc Chagall, tinting your face red and blue. You should wake up to a view of the river in a room that is decorated like Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. You should eat chocolate that people made with their hands and let the person serving you tell you its history, because the care and the pride that went into that chocolate transformed it into something that contains a story, and when you swallow it, that story will become part of your cellular system as you digest it, and you will be the story, too, now. You will never truly be without the story again.
The gift of travel is to think about your life. The prison of travel is that your thoughts about your life remain in the country where you had them.
With your time you should go to a museum that’s an hour away from Zurich, the Am Römerholz in Winterthur, even though it will close in two and a half hours, because you know the transportation will run on time. You should look at the Cézannes and the Renoirs, and you should find, as I did, that in middle age you are no longer the person who rolled her eyes at framed Giverny posters from the Met in your friends’ bedrooms, that you’ve finally gone soft and feline and you rather like the impressionists now. You may not take pictures in the Am Römerholz, and this will be your first lesson in how to use the time, to live inside it, to be more present in the moment and not worry about what it looks like to you later, to not be so obsessed with how to convey it all.
I saw Picassos in a collection at the Sammlung Rosengart in Lucerne, which holds dozens of them, along with photographs of the artist and some Klees and Modiglianis, too. At the Kunstsammlung in Zurich, I watched a thousand-year-old Chinese woman with a cane look at a Sisley for more than an hour, like maybe it was going to go somewhere if she didn’t watch it, and I learned from her a new way to look at art—hard and for a long time—and I hope I don’t forget it. I sat and looked at the same Sisley and thought maybe I should do something beautiful with my hands, maybe I should do something wordless. Maybe I’ll take painting classes when I get home, or sculpture classes. Maybe I’ll make tragic, reaching sculptures like Giacometti’s, and everyone will say, Remember her? She was a writer, wasn’t she? Did you know she is now also a very successful artist?
But those are thoughts you have when you travel. Your travel takes up a week, but that week is a physical space, a bubble, a monastery in time where everything has meaning, particularly in a place like Switzerland, where everyone is kind and everything runs on time and life feels easier than it ever has before. And you begin to have the sort of space to think thoughts that are bigger than the day and the week and the month and what time the kids get picked up. The gift of travel is to think about your life. The prison of travel is that your thoughts about your life remain in the country where you had them.
On the train from Zurich up Mount Rigi in the Alps, I didn’t glance at the scenery: I watched it, with all my glorious time, inside my monastery, and I saw that if I looked at something long enough, I’d see more than a first glance delivers: trees, yes, but behind those trees a waterfall. Waterfalls everywhere, suddenly! I looked into the mountains, surrounded by the fog, and saw a double rainbow for the first time in my life, but I saw it only after a few seconds of looking.
In the Alps, I followed a group of laughing, bushy-eyebrowed, bristly-mustached men smoking cigarettes to the top of Rigi, where I felt like a giant looking down on the clouds and the sheep. (A note on the cigarettes: They are smoked with such proliferation in Switzerland, in an all-around health-conscious, bicycle-riding country, that I realized the Swiss must have access to some new study that says smoking is now healthy, that it turns out we were wrong, and it’s just fine. I bought a pack of Camel Lights, and my youth came back as quickly as my tendency to get very winded when climbing a mountain.)
I followed the men to the thermal baths at the Mineralbad & Spa, and we swam in crystal waters, back and forth between the indoor and outdoor parts. Even though it was cold and rainy outside, we stayed there and looked over the edge of the pool—down, down, down the forested mountains. I wasn’t scared. I did not think often about the Heidi books of my youth when I was in Switzerland, but I did at those baths, when I remembered poor Clara being sent there to heal from whatever it was that put her in a wheelchair. Poor Clara, I thought again, just trying to be someone who could walk, and instead this: being exposed to untold numbers of wrinkled breasts and sagging testicles of all the naked Swiss who have time on a Monday to hike and visit a bath. At what point did Clara ask to be removed and say she would take her chances on fresh air and unpasteurized milk, just please get her the hell out of here?
I sat with my legs dangling over the side of the Limmat, knowing that no picture would ever convey it, and finally I learned not to try.
I took a boat from the base of Rigi to Lucerne, through scenes of one storybook village after another: cows in the mountains, tiny, unimposing hotels; people gazing at the water, drinking chardonnay. There were flowers in Switzerland—at every window, on every street, flowers spilling out of buckets and vases, flowers as if there is a national ordinance that requires they appear plentifully in every square foot, flowers as if they grow on trees.
Everyone told me Lucerne is a beautiful city, and it probably is, but when I landed it was so overrun by tourists, who could tell? (The irony of this statement isn’t lost on me.)
I had fondue on the river and smoked a cigarette while the tourists fed their leftover bread to the ducks and swans. Ducks are one thing, but to see a swan lose all dignity like that was heartbreaking, and I hated the tourists even more.
I stood in front of Lucerne’s famous Lion Monument, a dying animal carved into a rock in front of a moss-covered lake surrounded by trees, there to commemorate the Swiss Guards who died in the French Revolution. It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but a bus full of schoolchildren on a class trip had arrived, and it was suddenly like there was a rave at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I waited till they were gone, and when I left, it was only because it was too dark to see the lion anymore.
City life was no longer for me, so I beat it back to the Alps, to Zermatt, which I now know is the model for every ski village in North America. I tried to buy a cable car ticket up to the Matterhorn to see the glacier, but the woman who sold them showed me the webcam image—nothing but white—and said it was too dangerous to go now, that I shouldn’t waste my money or my time. By now, I trusted these people on such matters, so I booked another massage.
It rained every day I was in Switzerland, and everyone apologized to me. They said, “Oh, well, you should have been here last week.” That was one theme of my trip: that I’d arrived just after a film festival but just before a music festival. The woman at the Glacier Express apologized, too, saying how sad it was to come to Zermatt and not even get to see the thing it is known for, the thing that makes it special. I lit a cigarette and told her it was OK, that maybe I’d see it some other time, that maybe I’d buy a few postcards and eat some rösti, a meal of potato and eggs that you can get at any time of day and that suits my constitution better than anything else I’ve ever eaten in my life. Besides, the thing a town thinks is its reason for people coming through is never the town’s only or even best value. It is never the reason people stick around or return. When I left Zermatt, I left reluctantly.
In Switzerland, there was endless rösti, there was endless fondue, there was prosecco at every turn; there was a beer I couldn’t leave a village without trying, a raclette that was the best in this town, in this city, in this hamlet. I smoked thousands of cigarettes (or maybe just eight) as I moved through my monastery. I learned to look at my Swatch for the time, and the moment I did, I realized that using my phone as my timepiece had become a rabbit hole of email check, text check, Twitter check, Facebook check that ate through my days.
There were walks on dirt, on cobblestones, through mud. There were sights so beautiful that my camera couldn’t capture them: I look at them now and realize that my monastery was truly just that, a holy site that can’t be replicated anywhere. It exists in my head, and maybe on this page, but not very well, I’m afraid, compared with the actual intensity. On my last night in Zurich, I sat with my legs dangling over the side of the Limmat, knowing that no picture would ever convey it, and finally I learned not to try.
On that last night, eating a shawarma and once again gazing at the Limmat, I thought back to the day before, in Zermatt, where I’d met a woman named Stefanie who owned a creperie that was half submerged in the ground. She was tall and blonde and wore an apron with pictures of raspberries and birds on it. I asked for her recommendation, and she said she couldn’t presume to know anything about what I would like; she didn’t know me. So I had the spinach and cheese and egg, and it was transformative, for a crepe. I asked her how business was, if there had been an uptick since she was listed in the Lonely Planet guide to Switzerland. She shook her head and clucked her tongue and told me I didn’t understand the first thing about her, either.
She doesn’t have to work, she explained. Her husband runs sports camps that do very well, and her children are out of the house— they’ve left their small Alpine village, never to return, just as she did long ago, though she somehow made her way back, and perhaps they will, too. All to say: The creperie business isn’t here to make money.
“You have to understand that I’m here to put something good in people,” she said. “You have to understand that I use good ingredients, that my eggs are fresh and my flour is good, and I measure it out so that it’s good. Do you see that? I’m not here for money. I’m here to offer you something good into your body.”
And this I found staggering. I thought what a luxury this was, that you’d have time and money and you’d actually use them to consider how you’d spend your day and your career and your life, to see something as elemental as serving nutrition to someone as a thing of value, as its own reward. To act so deliberately and without desperation that you could live your life the way you thought it should be lived.
I wondered what it would look like if I had that, if I had the time and the money to do only the stories that mattered to the world, or the stories that mattered just to me, and a young journalist would come to me and say, “My, how successful you are,” and I’d say, “No, you don’t understand why I do what I do. I do what I do to make the world better. I want to put something good into your brain.”
But those, too, are thoughts that live in the monastery of your travel, thoughts that aren’t allowed to emigrate out of the country with you. They don’t survive the stress of the line at passport control; they dissipate as you plead for an aisle seat on the plane. They don’t keep you from remembering that you have to interview someone reprehensible when you get home.
As I was about to leave Switzerland, I stamped out my final cigarette and got onto a train that would take me to the airport. I accidentally went the wrong way and had to get off and frantically hail a taxi. As I was running for the cab, I dropped my remaining 90 Swiss francs. I saw them fly away from me, but I was too late to try to catch them. The people who watched the money fly didn’t run after it. When you have enough money, that sort of behavior is beneath your dignity. This is the best picture of Switzerland I could provide. I got to the airport just in time.
Time and money are forces more powerful than I am, and so my trip ended and I was home. I told everyone what I’m telling you: my revelations, my ideas, what’s different, how it could all be better if we were to heed the brisk priorities of the Swiss. I showed everyone pictures, but no words or images were able to transmit the beauty and the peace. Over the weeks, I spoke of these things with less passion, because I was no longer in my monastery. I had only the memories of the monastery, and eventually just the memory that I’d once been in it.
And eventually I recovered from jet lag, and eventually I woke up no longer expecting a selection of cheeses for breakfast. On my third shampoo, my hair stopped smelling like nicotine, and before long my liver relaxed, no longer exhausted from processing an incessant intake of prosecco. My blood finally ran clear of Jarlsberg, and my cholesterol returned to its resting state. Life went back to normal, but yesterday on the way home from school pickup, I stopped with my children at the duck pond I pass every day, the one I never visit, the one that sits at the end of my road waiting for my enlightenment.
Writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote about her search for the ideal Icelandic adventure in the July/August 2017 issue of AFAR. Read the full story here.
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