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Life by the Lake

Baradwaj Rangan
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ZURICHBaradwaj Ranganspends an afternoon in the Swiss city watching ordinary people do ordinary things

GAZING INTO NOTHINGNESSAt Lake Zurich, there is enough time to stand and starePHOTO: BARADWAJ RANGAN
GAZING INTO NOTHINGNESSAt Lake Zurich, there is enough time to stand and starePHOTO: BARADWAJ RANGAN

All these years of air travel after, there's still the suggestion of science fiction about being in Chennai one Wednesday afternoon, struggling to squeeze everything into hand baggage while remembering to empty the refrigerator, and finding yourself, a day later, strolling beside Lake Zurich, as turquoise-headed ducks steer clear of brightly bobbing boats. There's a lot of strolling in Zurich. For one, the city is as tiny, as compact as the army knives it sells by the truckload to tourists. But also, the end-April air is so cool and crisp — poised hesitantly between winter and summer, like a housewife wavering between the solid comforts of a dull husband and the questionable excitements of a lover as yet unproven — that it's a shame to waste it. You want to inhale huge lungfuls before returning to a city whose swelter does not invite strolling.

The average Zuricher, I'm beginning to suspect, is a creature of powerful thighs and calves. So fond of strolling is he that the vast expanses of macadamised road seem a waste of tar and gravel. There aren't even many cars, though this could be the effect of school vacations. This information came from Ricardo Pinheiro, the cab driver who drove me from the airport to my living quarters in the city. He added that he was Portuguese and that his last name meant “pine trees” and that he came to Zurich chasing a girlfriend he loves deeply but will not marry because he doesn't want to make the same mistake twice. Some of the walkers wheel along a bicycle. The non-walkers sit in the sun and soak it up till their face turns a bruising pink, and because I get all the sun I care for (and more that I do not care for) back home, I settle down in a spot in the shade with notepads and napkins and scribble down stray thoughts. It makes me feel like an émigré author. So what if Fitzgerald and Orwell found their imaginations fired by Paris – surely there was someone inspired by Zurich. A little boy in a helmet wheels his little bicycle still on its trainer wheels. The love for the outdoors apparently arrives early.

But an equal number of Zurichers have clearly spent a lot of time indoors. Many women stroll by with strollers with infants in them, and some of these women are already expecting another child. Disregard the distended bellies and they could be gymnasts. How do they pare away the post-partum fat? For an answer, we need look no further than this lakefront. Even the men show little trace of the beer they seem to consume like water, by the little restaurant with a grill in front and a canopy that no one sits under, but before I can make unscientific conclusions about the Swiss being genetically predisposed to fitness, from this completely unrepresentative sample, a big man walks past. He's huge, and he's made huger by a voluminous crimson shirt with gigantic white orchids, the kind of Hawaiian print that would make Floridians blanch. There's another reason he stands out. Most others are in grey and beige and black and the fading blue of denim. This lakefront demonstrates Ricardo Pinheiro's contention that the people in Zurich are boring, that they are organised to a fault and that they follow a thousand rules. He made them sound like Stepford people genetically predisposed to tallness and pinkness.

No droves here

Adopting a tone of polite disbelief, I said that there was something, surely, that Zurichers did for fun. He said they went to Langstrasse, which translates to “long street” and on whose streets you'd find walkers of a different kind. His mouth curled into an appropriately embarrassed smile, and he added, quickly, that even if I didn't do anything, the energy of the place was still exhilarating. I'm sure, but I choose to write about life around Lake Zurich because this is a paper that my parents read. Another woman walks by with another baby. With more people, the scene would resemble life around Lake Michigan in Chicago, a city with equally bitter winters whose residents possess a bloodhound's scent for the unseasonal sun and would descend on the lakeside in droves. There are no droves here, I presume, because there are simply not enough residents to constitute a drove. It's a miracle that the two Italian restaurants down the road haven't yet closed shop and converted themselves into stores that sell, at least in this season, sneakers and straw hats. How do two Italian restaurants, right opposite the street from one another, stay in business? Theirs names make a feeble stab at differentiation. L'altro calls itself “ristorante Italiano,” and Il Tartufo announces “cucina Italiana.”

Swan, lake and trees

A couple from California clutching bottles of beer seat themselves not too far from me, and we get talking about how they don't use the Euro here and are still loyal to Swiss francs and how expensive everything is. Europe, in general, is expensive, they say, having been to Paris to see the Louvre and Rome to see the Vatican and Naples to see a new granddaughter. I have always wondered how people do that, hopping from place to place like disoriented rabbits. If I embarked on such a vacation, I'd need a vacation to recover from that vacation. The man sights a swan swimming towards us, with snow-white plumage and an unexpectedly dirty neck, as if it had foraged for food in a nearby sewer, and he takes pictures. There's something about the camera in the tourist's hand that makes marvels out of mundaneness, and he does not stop to consider that this marvellous moment is a function of the three-dimensionality of the eye and that it will not survive the transition to the hastily taken photographic image.

He will upload these pictures on Facebook a few days from now, and a friend will glance through the thumbnails and sigh that it's just a swan and it's just a lake and those are just trees in the perimeter.

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