“Marta, Zurigo é una bella citta, no?” asked my friend’s father during my first visit to Zürich in 1994.
I shook my head. I didn’t think Zürich was beautiful at all. I thought it was strange and scary like a di Chirico painting. Of course I was jet-lagged and terrified and lost, but…
One night in the winter of 1996/97, at the Bodega Española, an old bar in Zürich where Lenin used to go, a professor from the University of Zürich hit on me. His pick up line was bizarre, yet provocative though not in the way a pick up line is “supposed” to be provocative. “What brings you to the crossroads of western civilization; James Joyce’s grave?”
Well, OK. Why would Joyce have been buried in Zürich? What made this grim backwater of a European city the “crossroads of western civilization”? I found the guy creepy, and he moved on. I was with two friends who thought the whole thing was hilarious (they were right), but the next summer, when I returned, I visited James Joyce’s house (but not his grave). Time would show me why Zürich was the “crossroads of western civilization” and the city would wrap itself around my heart and my mind as I finished writing Martin of Gfenn and moved on to writing other stories set in and around Zürich.
Some cities are instant lovers. Chicago was one for me. Shanghai. Beijing. Milan. Other cities seem to need courtship, time spent getting to know them. Zürich was like that. In my recent visit with my friend I felt happy that I still knew the streets, even after eleven years. That I could show her the things I think any visitor to Zürich should see — the ruins of the Roman baths visible through the gratings of the metal stairway in the narrow alleyway of Thermengasse, for example, or a small but excellent chocolate shop.
It’s not that Zürich hasn’t changed — it’s changed a lot. I have studied maps of Zürich from the 13th century to today and a Zürich resident of even 100 years ago might have a difficult time with the changes to the city. There are no longer any walls. Around the edges of the city, old buildings have been torn down to make way for new. Villages that were once outside the walls are now part of the city and can be reached easily by tram or train. But in the historic center of the city, changes to buildings can only be INSIDE; the old city must remain the same outside. And this is why, after 11 years, I can still find my way around the labyrinth that scared me so much in my first visit.
Zürich fascinates me more than any other city in the world, though it’s not even considered much of an attraction in a country that is filled with attractions. It is not Geneva or Bern; there is no great and beautiful mountain nearby. It’s a serious looking — grim looking — place on a cloudy day. Zürich is banks and business. But for me it has become a sort of home.
When I said goodbye to my friend Rainer — whom I hadn’t seen in eleven years — and his girlfriend, Kirsten, Rainer said, “Come back soon. Don’t wait another ten years.”
I thought, “Wow, in ten years I’ll be 74 or maybe dead.” The thought shocked me. “I won’t wait ten years,” I said. “I love Zürich.”
Rainer looked a little surprised, but then he said, a little nervously, “And Zürich loves you.”
Funny, but I kind of believe that.