Caran d’Ache

When I moved here four years ago I followed the instructions of every moving company and put my treasures in the car I drove myself. My treasures were Lily, Dusty, and Mindy (dogs), and my art supplies. I especially treasure two sets of Caran d’Ache materials — watercolor pencils and Conte crayons. I know that never in my life would I be able to replace the sets. I don’t use them. I work with a smaller set (40) and I replace each pencil as it wears down. These colors are made in Switzerland.

A long time ago I had a Swiss family. It’s a long story — pretty interesting one — but I’m not telling it here. For a few years, I spent most Christmases in Zürich with them. Often, I was given cash as a present, and one year I went to the Glatt (big shopping center in Wallisellen) and bought a giant sent of watercolor pencils. One year I wasn’t able to go to Zürich, and when my friend returned to California from time with his parents, he gave me my Christmas presents. One was the set of Conte crayons.

I have a set of Caran d’Ache gouache that I used once in a while and a set of oil pastels I’ve never used. So far they haven’t fit my technique.

For me these colors are wonderful in themselves and in the way they connect me to a time in my life that was these colors.

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Navigating Time Travel

Reading a street map is becoming a lost art. Is that OK? I rely on my phone, too. It’s like having a wife who sits in the passenger seat with a map and tells me where to turn. I’m sorry for the sexist remark “wife” here but in my life that person was either my mom or me so it isn’t all that sexist. When I was in Switzerland with my friend L I opted NOT to pay extra for GPS because I was going to have a “wife” who could navigate. I wasn’t thinking that, 1) L drives everywhere in her life because 2) her husband is blind and 3) not everyone LIKES maps as much as I do and 4) she wasn’t really good at reading a map and 5) Switzerland is what one from out here where the second largest town in an area as large as Connecticut has only 4000 people, well, we might call Switzerland “compressed.” Where the next town HERE might be 14 miles away, in Switzerland it might be half a mile.

I can tell you, it led to some pretty ugly moments, but we always got there, and L got better at map reading. All was well.

As for me here in the wild and woollies, my cell phone service data plan doesn’t cover the San Luis Valley. I have a Rand McNally road atlas in my car, but with no co-pilot that’s a bit of a problem but there is this little trick of pulling over and looking at the map. I’m pretty good at that.

Maps fascinate me. In the process of writing my historical novels, I found old maps to be like time machines. While writing The Brothers Path I tried to imagine the moment when Felix Manz was drowned in the Limmat and what kind of panic that might have inspired in some people — including my characters. In fact, the first line I wrote of that book was THAT moment, the moment when the brothers Thomann and Andreas realized they were about to witness something that had never, ever, ever happened before* and one of them, Thomann, quickly apprehended that it could result in a lot more deaths if not a riot. Thomann told his brother to run. In fact, the first line I wrote of that novel was, “Andreas! Run!”

But where? Zürich today is not Zürich of the 16th century. It was a walled city — and it had been walled more than once, a series of walls ever reaching outward as the city grew. I found a map. A beautiful 16th century map with the names of the various gates clearly marked. I saw the roads (old, old roads, still there, paved, lined, traffic filled, but old) that would have taken them out of the city that horrible day. There was a squat little tower called the Ketzitzturli (sp) that would have put him right on the road home.

Many of the streets in Zürich carry the names of the towers to once they led. I found it pretty easy to drive in Zürich because I knew this old map so well.

*The leader of the Reformed church, Huldrych Zwingli, executed his former friend, the Anabaptist, Felix Manz. It was the first execution of a Protestant by a Protestant and it happened only 3 years after the beginning of the Reformation. Both men had once been priests.

Winter has Returned…

Six degrees F this morning. I’m watching the sun rise slowly (everything moves more slowly in the cold). I invariably get sick when it first gets cold and here I am, following my personal tradition. Getting a cold when you have asthma is like overloading an exotic sundae. Too much of a good thing. So, I got up at 6, sucked on the albuterol (which I very seldom use), and shocked the dogs by letting them out in the dark.

Mindy stood at the back door looking bewildered.

I was driven by the thought of hot bitter coffee flowing down my esophagus, opening my chest.

Long, long ago in the sainted land of the Helvetians, which I have been privileged to visit many times, I had a family. How that came to be, and what the family was, isn’t important now. But one year I was given a genuine American WW II B3 bomber jacket. The father of the family — who was like a brother to me — sold furs. He was also afraid I would be cold in Switzerland, coming as I did from California.


Zürich, January 1997 on the Lindenhof

Not only was this jacket warm, it was companionable. Those were very hard times in my life, and I remember flying back to the US on a crowded jet after the Christmas season, cuddling my jacket and wishing I hadn’t had to come “home.”


In St. Gallen under the statue of St. Gall, the Irish patron Saint of Switzerland

Ultimately it stayed in Switzerland for a while (it’s colder there than in California and the jacket is fur, after all) then it moved to Italy with the mother of the family who was like a mother to me. Last year she died and her son — who’s like a son to me — brought it to Colorado for me.

I was so happy to have it.

The curly depths of its sheepskin hold my Swiss Christmases, the love shared between us all and its own intrinsic warmth. Perhaps that’s why it is so heavy.

If I had worn it to the parade Saturday, I might not be sick now. 😦

Smokes, 1994

The summer afternoon thunderstorm left streams between the cobbles. They reflect the acidic green neon of the Hard Rock Cafe sign above my head. This Hard Rock Cafe is not one of the international chain of Stratocaster strewn designer hamburger joints from La Jolla to Abu Dhabi. This is a labyrinthine dinge palace replete with a jukebox playing Aerosmith, Nirvana, Metallica, old Black Sabbath and Alice in Chains. The bartender splashes Hurlimann beer into glasses and hands them to the adolescent customers who otherwise sit on their high bar stools, rolling long Euro-joints of hash mixed with tobacco shaken from eviscerated imported Marlboros.

When I go outside, the smoke follows me; I sit in my own layer of it, tobacco, beer, the heavy sweet hash smell. My first trip to Europe is an exclusive tour of Zürich’s post-adolescent hash bars, concealed park benches and castle ruins. I take a deep breath of fresh air, washed in the rain, the wind and the evening. People pass, earnest and young, in black clothing, everyone, and everyone is smoking.

Although I’m bored and depressed by the scene, by everything, I don’t think of leaving. My ride, my DATE, my LOVER is one of the teenagers inside, and it isn’t like he’s going to drive ME. He will certainly emerge so completely fucked up he’ll demand I drive HIM home. Besides, I have no idea how to get anywhere, either on the tram or in a car. Zürich is a maze, a scary, dark and twisted tangle of identical streets with no landmarks and no horizon. It’s a living Giger painting. Giger even lives here; he’s drawing from life. I sit on a bench and prop my feet on a flower box that has Switzerland’s only dead geraniums.

I stayed inside long enough to beat the local high-scorer on the Tetris game in the corner and then beat my own high score twice. As I played, I wondered what sense it makes to be in Switzerland playing Tetris. There is something very wrong with that. I’ve never been in Europe before.

To my left, down the street, only a little ways, is Zürich’s one McDonalds, a magnet for all the American-culture idolators of the Niederdorf. A Big Mac is about $7 US, fries $3, but the milkshakes are much, much better than any I have ever had anywhere. There is really something about Swiss cows.

A boy and his girlfriend sit down on a bench near mine. He lights her cigarette. She inhales deeply.

“Could I bum a cigarette?” I ask, in English.

“Are you American?” the boy asks, shaking  a Marlboro toward me. I take it and lean forward for a light.

“Yes,” I answer. “Danke.” Smoke rises between me and the green rivulets of light threading down these solemn cobbled channels to the river.


Part of a collection of autobiographical episodes, each centered on a cigarette. I’ve had a dozen  cigarettes in my life, each attached to a particular moment that called out, “This is one! Bum a cigarette!” So…my smoking is more in tune with the Native American tradition that treats tobacco as a sacred herb.

Zurigo é una bella citta, no?

“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…


La Strada by Giorgio di Chirico

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.


Thermangasse, Roman Baths below

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.


Rainer and I at the Navel of the World, Cabaret Voltaire

 Alp Horns

My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  

At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.

I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

This WAS My Best Day Ever!

March something, 2005. I meet Rainer Hugener in front of St. Peter’s Church. He has a map of Zürich, not a new map, but a medieval map. We are going to “walk” through the Zürich I wrote in my novel, Martin’s Zürich (you can see it on this map: it’s the Zürich implicitly circled within the towers). Rainer is a Swiss Medievalist Historian, a grad student at the University of Zürich. I found him online and contacted him, hoping to find someone to corroborate my historical research on Martin of Gfenn. It was our first meeting. We walk across the bridge to the Salzmarkt and stop in front of a house about which I wrote in my novel. The coincidences are beyond explaining; had I lived there once? Did I remember something? Don’t know. Sternen for bratwurst mit bürli (und senf!) then a tram to the top of the Zürichberg, walk down the hill, past a ruined monastery, and down to Dubendorf. A bus to Gfenn. And there we are at setting sun in this beautiful place where the story happened. Walking back on the wanderweg to the train, back to Zürich to meet his girlfriend, eat fondue and cake, drink champagne. After copious amounts of champagne I ask, “Do you like being identified as Swiss Medievalist historians?”  Swiss society is a bit more stratified and labeled than ours. Rainer’s girlfriend laughs, “Of course, and what do you think you are?”

Bezirkshauptorte des Kantons ZŸrich in Ausschnitten der Murer-Karte