A Swiss Trips through the Eyes of a Hopeless Cynic

I had heavy dreams built up about Switzerland in my lifetime. Perfectly aligned buildings showering in fragrant flowers, fighting a constant identity crisis whether they are modern or classical, air with freshness that could be bottled, creeks of crystal water splashing the edges of newly oiled streets, purple cows bathing in Swiss chocolate and peacefully awaiting slaughter. A true nirvana. The reality had big shoes to fill.

It wasn’t anything like that. The Zurich station was trapped in fog and rain, everything had a grey hue about it and every price tag seemed to have been raised by a triple just for the heck of it. An immense amount of graffiti was covering every conceivable surface. At times I thought it was purposely initiated by the city to catch up on hipness. It wasn’t. Most buildings were simplistic and grey, a dance of concrete and steel and glass, used efficiently to host thousands of faceless people pushing numbers and papers from one stack to another. Zurich was the business hub of the country. Quite the disappointment, given my unachievable standards it had to live up to.

We were taking our steps amid the strengthening rain and the wind was brushing our sides so we seeked refuge under the bell of a plain white church. Children from a school trip were stacking up next to us, a cultural m&m package, of every skin color and ethnicity, speaking terrible English, so we could label them as Britons with ease. They were throwing unsure side looks at us as we were clearly staring them down with cheap ham sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil stuffed in our faces. When we turned to the entrance of the church, the masses parted in unison, much like the red sea before the pure hearted people of Jerusalem. Inside there was only us and a lesbian Asian couple, the organ was played in some hidden chamber. The walls were strangely lacking any type of kitsch one is so used to from a lifetime of promenading through prominent catholic churches. They seemed to think God doesn’t care much about it, and I had to agree with them.

We made a round around the city center where towers with clocks were hidden by grander towers with clocks, you would think after the fourth one they would have considered adding the clock as redundant. Next to the opera house we found a piece of empty dock side filled with lazy seagulls covering the sidewalk. Our arrival alarmed them and they joined in forming a bird tornado swirling around us; I walked past them feeling the brush of their feathers on my skin while Katja was making selfies like crazy. After our second cup of cheapest McDonald’s coffee the sun took some initiative to smash the clouds apart and in an unexpected moment we got a glimpse of the sunshine covered Alps behind the glittering lake, framed on both sides by majestic towers, all towers showing the same hour.

Dada stopped by for us on her Passat which by the time we all sat inside, somehow refused to start. On the second try Dada threw in a threat and on the third one a prayer, and on the fourth one the engine started, yet puffed violently every time the car slowed close to a halt. Dada was cursing like mad, on everything and everyone, on grandpas and handicapped people, new and old cars, you name it.

“Get out of the way or I’ll help you to your grave!”

“Why are you on the streets if you can’t walk?!”

“Get your piece of trash car away from here!”

“Get your super expensive car away from here!”

It didn’t really matter to her. Old guys on crutches were somersaulting away from our car to stay alive. Dada was a little anxious we might get the wrong impression of her given her aggressiveness behind the wheel, and it wasn’t completely unreasonable from her to think that. We glided through the landscape up until Basel, where it seemed every building of interest was built with powdery crimson bricks, and the ones that weren’t got red paint smacked on their facades to melt in with the rest. Before we arrived, Dada googled ‘interesting things to do in Basel’ to keep things exciting for us. The top result was swimming through the Rhine. That’s how captivating the city was. It was slowly getting dark by the time we arrived to the French border, where a handful of policemen were staring through the car windows to spot the danger flowing in or out of their country, but we were sufficiently white not to get attention.

Dada’s home was lovely, a two story old house a few hundred paces from Basel, wedged between a noisy German and an unseen French neighbor. Her son Alex was waiting for us with his Serbian nanny, to him known by the name of baka. She was usually out of the picture, sitting on a crate in the garage smoking one cigarette after another, as far as I knew. Oh and Alex. We have met twice before and although by what I have seen he was maybe moderately rebellious, he had a reputation of being the third reincarnation of Lucifer himself. After a fast lunch Dada had to go to work and Katja was given the task to satisfy Alex’s need to sell imaginary soup and ice cream to imaginary giraffes and pirates who, by the way, he thought were paying him way too little money. At the first window of opportunity we threw in a weak excuse and left to roam the French village. There really wasn’t much to see, yet it was a bristling experience for me to watch people ordering freshly baked baguette and fromage, on the streets, in French, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, which for them it doubtless was. I wanted to stop random people and throw some French rambling at them and my wish got close to fulfillment. As we were heading to the entrance of a local store, a shady french man clearly not in his right mind edged close enough to talk to us.

“This store is a Coop store?”

What. “Si. I mean oui.”

He nodded to himself with a satisfied smile, glad he was right all along. Of course it is possible I grandly misunderstood and he asked me whether I eat ketchup with my fries or if I wear underwear.

The store itself was hardly remarkable, except for the wine section, which occupied a quarter of the space. The wine section had its own special section filled with exquisite samples and armed with a sommelier who was jumping from one customer to another illuminating them with his knowledge. The French seemed very dedicated to their wine, much like the Slovaks to their home made spirits.

Around 7 p.m. Zoran arrived, still wearing his work clothes. The next morning he was leaving for Dresden to finish a construction job. Since I was running on my 3 hours of sleep, my contact lenses started to irritate and pop out of my eye sockets as we were talking, making me blink like a drugged epileptic. Zoran wore short sleeves this time, showcasing his thoroughly tattooed arms, making him look even more like a Slav gangster from the Bronx. As he was talking his eyes rarely found a resting point, they were swinging from one part of the apartment to the next one, and his hands were unwillingly tugging at everything in their way. It was obvious it took him effort modeling his thoughts into German words. There were some interesting stories. He told us about how he gave up drinking, smoking and caffeine on the day six years ago when he almost had a stroke, casually mentioning the fact that he has been a smoker from the age of nine. And at that tender age he hid it well from his parents. There was no feeling comparable to that first cigarette in the morning with your freshly made cocoa.

We grabbed our coats and took a ride into the heart of Basel, where bearded Serbians were swarming in golden-rimmed pink range rovers. Everybody walking on the streets seemed to be drugged. The air was chill yet at the tables and barrels flung in front of bars, bathing in iridescent light, hordes of people were cupping their overpriced drinks. We walked inside one of the fuller joints, into a bar named soho, belonging to an Albanian guy who was Zoran’s old friend from school, or kindergarten, someone with whom he used to puff a smoke between naps. In the good old days. We ordered some drinks and while the girls were hating on every bitch with a social network profile, with Zoran we talked about serious matters. Like cars and booze. He showed me the house he bought in Serbia, in need of serious reparation, and talked about how for the past months he didn’t enjoy going to work anymore. Once I chugged down my first beer we switched a gear in seriousness.

“So what would you want to do? What goal is left on your checklist?”

He took a breath and his eyes floated to the ceiling in thought, then answered sincerely.

“I want to have a daughter.”

“I see. That sounds great. I know people from the Balkan, in general, are more family oriented than the average.”

He was nodding approvingly. There were things said before, half-pronounced sentences dropped lazily by the girls, that gave me the impression that Zoran wasn’t all that family hungry. I know the traditional, conservative ideology holds true a somewhat twisted meritocracy, where the fathers spending much time with their families have less value than the ones unseen but providing enough wealth for a comfortable life. It is a cause for debate and in their extremes clearly none of them is right, but much of what Zoran told me that night revolved around how he has to and needs to provide enough money for his children, so they never suffer any material need, and for Dada, so she can quit her job and keep her fingers unlifted. Zoran was born in Switzerland and raised by Serbian values, and with the same values he intended to guide his two sons and unborn daughter through adolescence.

As I was drinking more beer we gradually got to more philosophical matters. He once wanted a Mercedes, he wanted a Bentley, he spent immense amounts of money on things he was sure would make him happy but instead left him hollow. So now he turned to family. The next might be the church.

“Aren’t you afraid to have a daughter? The world is an ugly place to send out a fragile being. Anything could happen to her.”

“You will understand once. For a parent there is no difference between a lost son and a lost daughter. And to have a son is, in many ways, much more dangerous. A well taught girl knows where to be and when to run, but with a son you never know. A slap in a face can end in a gunfight. Anger and hurt pride have thrown more boys to their deaths than any rapist possibly could.”

“Well, at least it happened by their choice.”

“Maybe. But that wouldn’t make you feel any better.”

I had no comeback to that. Zoran leaned in to add a last punchline.

“And you know what they say. Better to have a daughter who’s a whore than a son who’s gay.”

He grinned and I forced a laugh at his sincere homophobic slur and we clinked glasses. Back at home we have no such sayings.

“Yes. Damn gays.”

We received much attention from the other side of the table after Zoran’s grandiose claim that he would have declined one million euros, would he have been offered, so he could be present at the birth of his second son. Dada snorted loudly in disbelief. It was also quite the jump from the birth of his first son, which he viewed more like a colonoscopy procedure performed with a chainsaw. As we were gathering to leave Zoran paid for the drinks, refusing all our appeals. I had to make a case.

“You know, it doesn’t seem fair that we stay at your house, you drive us around in your car and you pay for all drinks as well.”

He had a laugh.

“My friend, as long as you are our guests, you can put your wallet away.”

We arrived back around two and were woken at six. The window in our room was left ajar and on the street the German neighbors were having a walk with their four year old velociraptors and they were clearly in some roaring mood. Katja slammed the window shut but the cries were clawing at our eardrums anyway. Downstairs there was another wild beast tearing at furniture, impatiently waiting to sell more fake soups to imaginary people. So we got up. We went to Basel in the afternoon, together with Alex who was lot harder to shake off than I would have imagined from a barely walking toddler. He was given a simple deal, if he ate his breakfast he could come with us to the city. Alex was having none of it. He smashed his toys to the wall, threw himself on the ground and rolled around the apartment while Dada was having a smoke outside mumbling something about sweet sudden death and birth control. Ultimately the child won. I was secretly glad he joined us, since with him around every colorless, dull activity of the sort of putting on a shoe or washing hands all received a telenovela-level drama Latinos would pay fortunes to watch. By the time we parked the car he wanted to go home. He hated this, he hated that, he was cold and hungry, he needed to go to the bathroom, he needed an atomic bomb, and a ship. We made a small circle with him in the city and I already knew I was not ready to be a father.

As we arrived back to the car and Alex was throwing a tantrum, some grandpa just next to us parked his car out and smashed straight into the wall. We all shut up. After a short silence of shock the old man, seemingly undisturbed, proceeded to the exit. He was in his nineties, a friendly neighbor, a father of five children, a killer on the roads. The old, half-blind type who would run over four people in his car while searching for a way to switch off his turn lights. He rolled to the exit and rummaged in his glove compartment for a minute. Dada made a joke about how the guy probably didn’t pay the parking ticket and after laughing politely we saw the man throwing his hands in the air in frustration. We were in the most central parking garage imaginable, cars were flowing in rivers and the only exit was blocked by a man who in his head was still at his breakfast table hating on immigrants. A concert of car horns was on its rise and I was reluctantly stepping out of the vehicle to help the old man. Two garage workers were already on the job going to and fro asking the grandpa for his ticket, asking him for his money, and him in response spitting in their faces. On second thought I reentered the car and waited patiently for the clutter to clear, which, as expected, took about five minutes.

We were only going to drop Alex off at home and then return to the City, yet for that to work we needed devilish cunning and acting performances worthy of Academy Awards.

DADA: “Alright, I’m off to work. Have fun. What are you guys going to do now?”

KATJA: “I don’t know. We might go to the village for a walk with Martin.”

MARTIN: “Yes. A walk. Man, I don’t want to go at all. I want to stay here and play with Alex.”

KATJA: “No, you have to come with me.”

MARTIN: “Aw man. Alright then.”

The play was over and we were all content with our performances, we turned around on our heels and walked straight out the front door. Looking back I could just see Alex, locked in Baka’s hands, with a confused look and gears still turning in his head. One-zero for the adults.

The rain was pouring in buckets as we were brought back to Basel for a three hour walk in a city that had little left to offer. We stumbled around aimlessly, walked through every street that seemed to hold some interest, stopped by every shop, gallery and church, traversed every bridge we could find. That took us about half an hour. Lastly we stopped by at the Swiss kindergarten where Dada worked as a cleaning lady, placed right at the side of the local brothel with its gates always invitingly open, showered in soft red light that could have very possibly been present solely in my mind. The kindergarten itself was a treasure chest. Every toy I never had as a child was waiting right there for my arrival. There was also a seemingly unending stock of lego bricks, puzzles picturing foreign landscapes, music instruments placed strategically far from each other, paint and pencils, beds and hammocks. Every child had its own corner, a special space of refuge, where their paintings plastered the walls and their names were written with smudged paint in the artless manner of a child’s hand. And there, among the letters you could see the true magic of Switzerland. Where little Ahmed, Giorgio, Ulrich, Napsugar and Yusuf could play together peacefully with their parents amiably watching on instead of writhing on the floor hit by multiple seizures.

We left the center drifting and at a dark corner of the city we picked up Nikola, Zoran’s cousin slash godson from Serbia. We exchanged a swift “Hi!” but not much else, the rest of the ride to France passed in a silence with the occasional Serbian conversation fragment sprinkled in it. Nikola was a huge guy, a little over 25, wearing an overpriced hoodie and torn jeans splashed with what seemed to me like accidental green wall paint, also priced at a fortune. It could have well been the Serbian national garment for all I knew, as it was worn by every Serbian I ever met. He was also constantly staring at his phone, not unlike every Serbian I ever met.

We had plans to go for a drink to the city, and while Dada was getting dressed, we waited for her in the living room, tensed up, slowly drowning in the silence.

‘So, should we talk in German or English?’ I asked him finally.

‘Both, it doesn’t matter. Both are fine.’ He said with a shy smile.

We smiled back gently and resumed the awkward silence. We listened to a clock ticking away the time just within earshot until Dada walked out all dressed one eternity later.

The bar they took us to was dubbed a Serbian bar, owned by Serbians, filled by Serbians, playing Balkan pop songs with kitchy electronic drum beat at their base. One had a feeling of walking around in Belgrad, which, accidentally, was the exact feeling I got from Basel in general.

We sat down and got some drinks, while the rest of the bar followed us with their eyes, men with hideous stone faces, some with bandaged foreheads, some with scars running down their cheeks; and women with high heels and low skirts, their lips pumped to burst with silicone. As the beers arrived the girls started talking in Slovak and Nikola, having been left out on the brim, slipped into his phone. Though he seemed much consumed by his Instagram profile, I threw a cautious question at the docile man-bear, asking about his hometown and about his family, and he responded readily. The moment you talked to him he put his phone away. The moment the conversation lagged he pulled it back out. Given his impressive size and dark Balkan features I took him for someone who hammers in nails with his forehead for a living, yet he was a surprisingly smooth talker, both in English and German, and all-in-all a pleasant company. He was practically still a boy, two years my junior, nervously laughing at jokes and sheepishly avoiding eye-contact at times. By our third beer we coughed up every embarrassing drinking story we had in stock, roaring with laughter. Even the one where Katja dragged me by the leg to bed from the bathroom, until then a grave secret. He had a full album of photos on his phone where Serbian men and himself pose in sleeveless shirts and fat gold chains around their necks, sitting around a crumbling table packed with empty rakia-bottles, and a handgun. He showed them without much context to the great amusement of the girls. Unfiltered images of the Serbian high-life. Once again we weren’t allowed to pay for our drinks, as Nikola slipped the bank-notes secretly under the counter on his way to the bathroom.

The next day we went to Lucerne and we got our first glimpse of the Swiss panoramic beauty I already gave up to ever encounter. The ice crusted mountains and crystal lake, the ragged ships, antique buildings and towers with the usual grand clocks, all glittered awe on our faces. Except for Nikola’s who was looking at his phone even when walking, and Dada’s who was drowning in the depths of Alex’s tantrum. The boy wanted to own a ship. It all started hours before our trip, when Alex was complacently left all alone with me to play.

He had an admirable collection of stuffed hedgehogs, and he proceeded to diagnose their maladies one by one, being the only self-appointed dean of medicine nearby.

‘Oh Mr. Hedgehog. This doesn’t look good at all.’

‘What’s wrong with him?’ asked I, innocently.

‘Oh it looks really bad. It’s really bad.’

‘Is he going to die?’

The start that rocked his body plainly showed he was mightily unaware this might be a possible outcome. At what point does one spend nights sleeplessly weighing the uncertainties of life and death? Clearly not at age five.

‘Umm. I don’t know. Maybe.’

‘My dear boy, who’s going to know if not you? You are the doctor.’

‘Umm..’

‘I mean that would be quite a problem. He’s really fat. I’m not sure we could find him a suitable coffin.’

‘Aamm..’

It was all in fun but I was already bordering on lifelong scarring.

‘So what do you want to play now Alex?’

‘I want to be a pirate!’

‘That’s sweet, but you can’t be a pirate. You don’t have a ship.’

And thus escaped the words that couldn’t be taken back ever again.

‘But let’s start with a flag. We need a scary pirate flag to scare the people away.’

‘Okay.’

I took a piece of white paper from the table and drew a skeleton head with two sabers sticking out behind it. Alex adored it. The first steps are the hardest and we just raced through them on our quest to become the greatest pirates the world has ever witnessed. Next on was a rough draft of our deadly ship. I drew its curves on the next sheet of paper, giving it only the essentials, a tall mast and a sail.

‘We should give it a name. What should we call it Alex?’

‘Let’s call it Hedgehog Ship!’

Are you kidding me. ‘Sounds awesome.’

I drew up two characters, one up on the mast with a telescope, the other one on the deck behind the steering wheel.

‘This is us. You are steering the ship while I watch the waters for treasure.’

‘No, I’m watching the waters for treasure!’

‘Well, it’s up to you. Just remember, the one steering the ship is always the captain.’

That gave him a considerable pause, but he didn’t let himself be derailed.

‘I have an idea! You will be watching for treasures and I will steer the ship’ he said finally.

‘Sounds good.’

Next we needed a crew.

‘How about your mom and Katja?’

‘Noooooo. No. They are girls! They can’t come on the ship.’

‘Not even Katja?’

He mulled over it for a long time. He could seem like a despot at times but he truly had a heart of gold.

‘Well, they can both come. But they will need a special permit signed by all boys that they can come up.’

The traces of inbred Balkan sexism, but we were working on it. He finally asked the one million dollar question.

‘And how will we get a ship?’

‘I don’t know. We could steal one.’

‘Stealing is sin!!!’

My little moral compass. What are you doing in the pirate business.

‘Then we could build it. Or ask your mom whether she would buy us one.’

‘Moooom! Will you buy me a shiiip??!’

‘But of course sugar’ came the answer from the next room. As there was a merry grin rising on Alex’s face I thought to myself that Dada should really know better than signing empty contracts with Lucifer Jr..

In Lucerne we were walking down the old port and Alex was being unreasonably picky about the pirate ship he wasn’t going to get. He didn’t like much the ones used for tourist cruises, but in the end he settled for a small yacht in the price range of about half a million. He didn’t yet see the disappointment he was setting himself up to. Dada threw in more promises of coming back a later day but oh she dreadfully misread the situation and the looming hurricane hit us with its first wave. You had to give it to him, he wasn’t going down without a fight. After an hour of rising death rattle Alex suddenly stopped and decided that he will become a firefighter.

Our last day we pledged to take the train to the Zurich airport but, as so many times before, Dada was having none of it. She put together her crew, consisting of Nikola and Alex, and drove us right to the entrance of our terminal. We pulled out our luggage and hugged each other goodbye; I told Dada that the trip was great fun and thanked her for everything, I told Nikola he can come for drinks to Bratislava anytime. Alex was shuffling uncomfortably at Dada’s feet, but in the end he also walked up to say his goodbye.

‘When we go to grandma’s next time, will you come over to build our pirate ship?’

‘Sounds good, but we will see when you come over.’

‘Promise?’

It put a wide smile on my face. But I wasn’t falling for it.

‘Take care Alex.’

And we gave each other our secret pirate handshake.

We said our final goodbyes, we walked to the entrance and they walked back to the car. I could still see Alex waving as we drifted out of sight.

An incurable cynic