We left Switzerland this morning, after a delightful eleven-month residence in Zürich. This parting is bittersweet, and a long layover in Amsterdam gives me a first opportunity to reflect on our experience in Switzerland.
In short: we had a wonderful time, enjoyed Switzerland thoroughly, and (speaking for myself, anyway) can’t wait to return. I found the university center to be professionally fulfilling, the city of Zürich to be a pleasant place to live, the mountains to be entrancingly beautiful, and the deeply complex history of the country to be fascinating.
We were lucky to have rented a comfortable ETH flat, just a few blocks from the main train station (HB) and from my office (WEV), with a view over the lake Zürichsee to the Alps beyond. From here, I enjoyed a near-daily walk straight uphill to the Zürichberg ridgeline, which offered even better views, and an ample variety of routes down through tree-lined residential areas – where I would often stop for hot chocolate at a neighborhood Honold shop. This week I finally stopped long enough for a breakfast of my three favorite things: bircher muesli, gipfeli, and heisse schokolade.
In a way, I’ve just begun to scratch the surface. Although you can see in the map below that I visited (and photographed) many locations around the country, the Swiss countryside changes over every ridgeline, from one valley to the next. Even within Zürich, my wanderings were focused almost entirely within the Altstadt (old town) and on the slope of Zürichberg above our flat, that is, within walking distance. And the coronavirus cut short many of my aspirations to visit more of its museums and other cultural activities. The good news: there’s lots to explore on my next visit! (Assuming I can ever return; the EU and Schengen region are not allowing US visitors.)
Indeed, I’d like to learn more about Zürich’s long history, which dates at least 2,200 years back before Roman times to early Celtic settlements; indeed, the modern name Zürich derives from the Roman Turicum, which is apparently “a derivation from a given name, possibly Gaulish personal name Tūros…” [Wikipedia]. It was later settled by a Germanic tribe, and its own form of that language still dominates the region.
I frequently found myself thinking about this depth of history as I wandered through the pastures of the Swiss hills. This landscape has been engineered by humans for centuries, indeed, for millennia, and the land is still worked by hand in many corners of steep terrain. The land and the people co-evolved here, in this crossroads of the European continent.
[Of course, there is also a long human history in my home turf along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire, though for many reasons (including many very unfortunate reasons) there are few tangible signs remaining of those early civilizations. I hope to learn more about those peoples and cultures as well.]
So, as I (literally) sit in transition between Switzerland and New Hampshire, let me ponder the things I like (and dislike) about Switzerland.
– the train system: convenient, efficient, and nationally integrated with buses, trams, gondolas, and more;
– the SwissCard, an RFID card that integrates with all those transportation systems;
– Halbtax and GA discount cards, making the rail system affordable;
– gondolas and funicular trains that provide quick access to the high country (and give the option of hiking up and riding down, or vice versa);
– the pastoral landscape, with free public access for walking across most terrain;
– the mountain landscape, with their snow-capped peaks and dramatic glaciers;
– mountain huts and restaurants;
– the standardized and integrated national trail system, including detailed signs and markings that often begin right at the bahnhof or bus stop;
– SwissTopo, the national map system that is so detailed that it maps every trail, every structure, even the smallest barn;
– contactless payment: Apple Pay works almost everywhere, and very few places require cash (indeed, due to corona many places are refusing cash);
– cheese, in more varieties than one can imagine (American “swiss cheese” is not just a misnomer but an embarrassment);
– chocolate: it’s easy to understand why Switzerland is the country that eats more chocolate per capita than any other;
– food quality: in general, the quality of meats and produce are vastly better than my US experience;
– cities with clean streets, well-repaired infrastructure, efficient transport, and pedestrian-friendly design;
– an organized society, where things pretty much work well and people pretty much follow the rules;
– a multilingual society – especially in Zürich, where 40% of residents are non-Swiss;
– a strong education system that provides everyone a solid foundation, and a meaningful track for those who wish to learn a trade rather than going to university;
– social services that provide for the health and welfare of everyone;
– safety and security: I felt safe everywhere, and was astonished to see few people worry about theft (it is not uncommon to see things left exposed);
– train beers :-), the freedom to buy a beer in a station kiosk and drink it on the platform or on the train.
– cigarette smoke: it is hard to avoid when out in public, on the streets, or in an outdoor café;
– graffiti: perhaps this is an issue in every urban city, but I found the pervasive graffiti to be an unfortunate eyesore;
– a complex tax system that ensnares even temporary residents with no Swiss income (like us!);
– a Euro-centric culture, with few people of color; even coming from New Hampshire I was struck by Switzerland’s limited diversity.
Anyway, those are a few of my initial thoughts. I’m sure I will find myself missing things about Zürich and Switzerland – or finding differences more noticeable, once I return to life in New Hampshire. For now, let me emphasize that I am really impressed by Switzerland, and really loved living there.
I have posted to this blog every day for several months. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity – and challenge – of sharing something interesting every day. Once home, however, I will return to less-frequent posts. Schönen Tag!