March 12, 2010
Zurich has a reputation for being stodgy, but it ain’t so, at least not after hours. On one of my first visits, I met a Dublin girl by the name of Mary O”Connell downstairs at the hotel bar, which was an Irish bar and a hot spot. She worked as an au pair for a rich family somewhere in the suburbs. Mary smoked incessantly, her working papers were undated, and I could barely comprehend a word of what Mary said. Her brogue was thick, her words were slurred on top of that, and she talked non-stop with a cigarette stuck in her mouth, from which she blew smoke right into my face.
Mary was a knockout, a real sweetheart. The only problem was she had a Turk for a boyfriend. And her daffy girlfriend from Killarney was in love with a Greek. Aside from cigarettes and Guinness, the biggest pleasure these two Celtic wonders had in life was keeping their boyfriends dangling at the end of a rope. According to Mary, the poor fools were hypnotized. Mary informed me that she did not dance, but we made a date to go dancing anyway.
I did not use her first name. Instead, I assumed a slight brogue and pronounced her name in a formalistic way. It was “Well, Mary O”Connell…” and “Now, Mary O”Connell…” With the Guinness, it worked. I became a kind of slave or attachment. I was lighting up Mary’s cigarettes and hanging onto her every word. What she had to say was not earth-shaking by any means. It was just the fact that she was saying it, that it was coming out of her big beautiful mouth, along with the smoke.
When I observed her ordering the waiters around like they were her personal factotums, it gave me pause. She knew them all. It turned out that most were either Irish or Anglo-Irish, so it figured. They seemed eager to do anything and everything Mary told them to do, no matter what. The question I kept asking myself was, why? But I was just like them. Mary gave me a color snapshot of herself in the nude, embracing an old poster of Clint Eastwood in one of those spaghetti westerns. To reciprocate, I forked over a pack of English “Craven A” cigarettes. It delighted her to no end.
The next morning I had breakfast at a sidewalk cafe on the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the wealthiest streets in the world. I was stoked. If it had been another city at another time of day, I might have jump up on the table and done an Irish jig in honor of Mary O”Connell. If I had done that, however, it would have been grounds for deportation. Zurich is not New York or Mexico City. It is ground zero of the Western World, the lock box of civilization.
Supposedly, there was a mile of gold bullion in vaults beneath the street. Zurich was and remains the last safeguard in a world rapidly going to the dogs. In Zurich, on that day not long ago, there was no mayhem, and the whole downtown area was mercifully free of jarring noises. (It was not techno weekend.) I could have sat at the cafe for a month and never encountered a horn or an obscenity. The trams and buses were electrified.
To calm down, I stopped drinking coffee and took a walk up to Lindenhof, a pocket park on top of a hill overlooking the Limmat and the Old Town on the other side of the Limmat. Pensioners played chess under the trees as if in the countryside; the world of business and banks was in another gallaxy. The Limmat is crisscrossed with classic stone bridges. Every time I crossed one of those bridges on my way to an art gallery, I made a point to observe the majestic swans below and looked for a herd of amber ducks. The ducks were going nowhere in particular. The swans paddled against the current and dipped their long, snowy necks down into the water, to get at some vegetation growing on the river bottom. Then they capsized, which left me watching two black, webbed feet, sticking straight up in the air. Momently, the swans flipped right side up, as dry and dignified as before.
Isn”t Silvana an unusual name? It is derived from the Roman divinity, Silvanus. He was (or is) the god of forests and uncultivated fields. Silvana was another girl I met at the Irish bar, when Mary O’Connell was at work. Silvana pulled me into Lake Zurich. She was a Swiss girl, almost twenty-five. She looked and acted seventeen. Even so, she had traveled as far west as Minneapolis, U.S.A. and as far east as the Chinese border at Nepal. In fact, Silvana had recently returned from an extended walking tour of the Indian Subcontinent. Her smile shined through an enormous mass of wavy, ash-blond hair which she never bothered to comb.
Silvana worked in one of those imposing banks on the Bahnhofstrasse, where all the gold was. She specialized in East European and East Asian currency. She made mistakes all the time. There was so much money involved, it did not matter. Her job was straightforward and repetitious. Outlanders from points East walked into her bank. They would be carrying suitcases full of strange-looking currency. They handed over the cash to this little Swiss girl with the wavy hair and a big smile. Their fate was in her hands. Back home, they would have been shot or thrown into jail. In Zurich, they got a receipt from Silvana and left with an empty suitcase.
After lunch in the Zeughauskelle—which was the second time I had ever laid eyes on her—Silvana invited me home to have dinner with the family. Later, that same afternoon when the bank closed, we went to an open-air dance, a tea dance, at the magnificent Baur au Lac. Silvana is like Mary O”Connell in one respect: she does not dance. So we sat in the walled garden and drank English tea with lemon and ate tarte aux fromboises. We might have been snacking in the courtyard of the Plaza AthÃ©nÃ©e in Paris. The tarte was as scrumptious as any in Paris, and the surroundings could not have been more refined.
The following afternoon found me and Silvana on one of those electric commuter Swiss trains out of Zurich, heading south along the lake, to the so-called golden coast. It was like a jet plane that never runs into turbulence. Every stop timed to the second. The train circled ZÃ¼rich somehow, through various-sized tunnels, then breezed through the neat suburbs, with the dark lake of ZÃ¼rich below us, to our right.
Silvana was in the habit of going for a swim every afternoon after work. Today, I was to join her. We arrived at her apartment house, which was in a sleepy village at the edge of the lake. Silvana’s mum was up in a window, and she looked almost as exceptional as Silvana. We were introduced, everybody speaking English. In Switzerland, everybody speaks four or five languages: German, French, Italian, maybe Rumantsch, and English. Then Silvana steered me into papa’s bedroom to grab a bathing suit. He was away in Lugano on business. I was trying on the suit, which fit okay, while Silvana’s mum cooked spaghetti sauce down the hall. Silvana sported a bikini and did a headstand in the corner. The Indian influence at work.
On our promenade down to the lake, I was veering into Silvana and forcing her off the sidewalk and into the bushes. Silvana retaliated by bumping me with her shapely and exceedingly firm hips. Presently, we arrived at a park the size of a postage stamp where a sign as big and as clear as daylight stated that swimming was verboten. Silvana kicked off her robe and jumped into the water.
The surrounding scenery was magnificent, out of a Maxfield Parrish mural. Silvana swam away and plunged beneath the surface and started doing somersaults. Reemerging, she proclaimed, “The water is cold.” I asked myself, how can that be? It was the middle of summer. Silvana smiled enigmatically. I stepped awkwardly down onto some large boulders just beneath the surface. The shock was immediate and immense. The water was freezing, not at all like Florida or St. Barth.
Without further ado, Silvana swam over and pulled me into the lake, just like that. Help! I”m freezing! I was screaming to myself, while attempting to grab Slivana. She was too fast and too smart. I was having enough problems just staying afloat. She swam away from the shoreline, and I followed her, toward the center of the lake. As with Mary O’Connell, I was reduced to a sidekick. “Where are we going?!” I heard myself shout. “Until we can see the church,” she replied. I was rapidly becoming numb all over.
We swam or drifted further from shore. At last, Silvana stopped to point out the church. I could just barely make out a steeple with a clock on it, in the distance. It was St. Peter’s in Zurich, next to Lindenhof. The lake was hemmed in by hills and mountains, and it dawned on me what a qualitative difference there is between ocean water and lake water. You sink much, much faster in a lake. I was sinking, and sinking fast, into Lake Zurich, with the giant church clock, one of the largest in Europe, as a backdrop.
Silvana went into her mermaid routine again, doing somersaults, as I realized I had cut my big toe while being pulled into the lake. The current, meanwhile, was steadily carrying Silvana and me away from our little park where the sign warned that swimming was verboten. I took this all in nonchalantly, while desperately trying to stay afloat. Then Silvana swam over and gave me a kiss. I was laughing and sinking like a stone at the same time. Before it disappeared entirely, I took charge at last and instructed Silvana, “Zum park, sofort!”
Silvana’s mother was seriously interested in world affairs. America appeared to be her special area of concern. She watched TV, but she had also been there in person, and it made an impression. She was a graduate of the New York Port Authority Bus Terminal. She had traveled on a Greyhound Bus through the northeastern states and out to Chicago. She was more intrigued with America than ever. I was somebody worth talking to, a strange being from a doomed continent.
Silvana was at my side at dinner, being quiet and attentive, like an aide-de-camp or executive assistant. I was regarded as an emissary from the New World whose mission it was to bring fire to the Old World. But I had no fire to bring, and I was in possession of no new wisdom. If there is a flame, I thought, it remains at its source—Europa. All I cared about was eating spaghetti, drinking Fendant, and squeezing Silvana’s knee under the table with my free hand. In a contest between America and Silvana’s knee, Silvana’s knee was a sure bet. What was America? America was just an extravagant idea in everybody’s mind, a concept. Silvana’s knee was reality, a call to action. No analysis was required.
After dinner, Silvana and I returned to the little park by the lake. It was dark, but the sky was clear and the stars and the moon were out in full force. We smoked a mild blend of hashish and cloves, or maybe it was just a strong Indonesian cigarette, which she had picked up on her travels in the East.
On the opposite side of lake, a train blinked through a village on its way to Zurich from Italy, and we could hear it all distinctly, not just the whistles. I had lost track of the wonderful Swiss white wine I consumed at dinner. It was a considerable amount. After dinner, I drank half a bottle of an Italian digestivo, which bottle I did not recognize. Silvana liked to throw her head back so I could kiss her neck. It was a fantastic neck, and as soon as Silvana realized how fond I was of it, she started throwing her head back.
There was a handful of night fishermen over in the opposite corner of the park, but they paid no attention to us. The ground was a luxuriant greensward, very fresh and somehow amazing. Silvana gave me some instructions on various methods of kissing, as if I were born yesterday. When I asked Silvana about related matters, she smiled and said, “There are many possibilities…” It was a simple statement that might have passed unappreciated, except for the Fendant, the digestivo and the cloved cigarettes.
Or was it the way she said it? In the same tone and with the same disarming smile as she had earlier said, “The water is cold.” What could it mean? It meant that there are rare and decisive moments in the lives of human beings in which the mind gets everything into focus, and snaps. Another train, as if in a dream, echoed across the lake. I looked up at the numberless stars, latitude Zurich. They were bright and cheery, revolving counter-clockwise. I punched one of the three buttons on my Patek Philippe split-second chronograph. The rattrapante hand whirled. “There are many possibilities…” That’s the beauty and the horror of it. Like the Patek Philippe, a masterpiece manufactured on another shore in Switzerland, we rotate at the center of an unknown universe.