Postcard from Zürich

As published on


In a tunnel underneath Zürich International Airport, as you and your fellow shower-craving, be-cankled travellers are shuttled from terminal to baggage claim, flickering images of an archetypal Heidi burst onto the walls as cowbells jangle lazily. Startled out of your grumpy long-haul obliteration, your senses will awaken just in time to process a Swiss flag somersaulting into the air to the yelp of a yodeller’s yahoooo. Sallow, I-need-to-be-alone faces crease into uncertain laughter, as all nervously await the longed-for end station.

I didn’t make that up, stitching stray pieces of Swiss cultural paraphernalia together in a fiction. It really does happen, and that driverless train – which is likely to be your first impression of Zürich – embodies a certain distilled essence of the nation, Switzerland in the proverbial roasted chestnut shell. What can be gleaned from that under-airport journey is true of much of what you will encounter: stunning technical achievement, smooth functioning of the mechanical, cleanliness, efficiency, luxury in the everyday, folksy traditions, awkward humour and unsettling nationalism. It’s all there, if you knew to look for it. I moved to Zürich in 2007 and could only think of the film Children of Men, with its propagandising train windows and its Clive Owen. I can’t be certain what prodded the association, but I’m fairly confident it wasn’t because Clive was there.

Or maybe it was. It’s so long ago that it’s impossible to be sure what stirred the dust of my memory that day. Much has changed, in any case. At that time, I was dialling home in phone booths (remember those?), navigating a maze of numbers and codes and automated robo-voice condescension, a process so frequently maddening that I very infrequently suffered it (sorry, family). In the years since, I learned that for a returning Swiss traveller, those emblems of the national character are like a welcoming embrace, as comforting as a pot of molten cheese sponged dry by crusty bread or a steaming, sweet Glühwein, clutched between gloved or grateful hands on the rounds of a Christmas market in cold, grey December.

I have reached for the guidebook clichés there, but the ease of their imagining will not detract from the experience in real life. In most cases, your mind’s conjuring won’t even come close to the reality of Switzerland’s jewels. The Alps are unfathomably majestic, imposing and primordial, a genuine exemplar of the phrase awe-inspiring. The spring waterfalls that flow down them will charm and captivate, the snow a retreating spectre as you wind along impossibly scenic roads. You’ll wander wooded hills, paths dotted with rudimentary gym equipment; encounter and be mesmerised by Bambi (she has a gaze that stops the beat of time and heart); glimpse friends encircling open fires (legal), grilling Bratwürste and guzzling Bierflaschen (also legal); and discover unlikely vineyards clinging to hillsides, accompanied by the gentle clang of nearby cowbells. It is, truly, a spectacular land.

However, you venture there not as a tourist but as a music student, and it won’t all be smooth lake-bound sailing. For a nation so famous for the clockwork operation of its public transport and its, um, clocks, its bureaucracy is surprisingly convoluted, many-tiered and slow. Gradually I came to understand this as a symptom of Switzerland’s general economic protectionism, inserting employment strata where other countries streamline them. A positive for the workers, no doubt, but a concern for the foreign student sweating on the prompt processing of their residence permit.

Suspicion is an attitude you will encounter too often and that coveted permit (or as you will come to know it, your Ausweis) will be vital in allaying it – mostly because it states that you won’t be staying forever. As fond as I am of Switzerland, an honest account of an outsider’s experience there cannot hide from its rather unsubtle xenophobia. The famed train system – a faithful friend you’ll take for granted until moving countries and realising your loss – will be the site of most of your exposure. Teams of uniformed ticket inspectors regularly sweep through the carriages on a choreographed truffle hunt, stern-faced impersonators of Tommy-Lee Jones in The Fugitive, seeking that elusive passenger with a forgotten or invalid ticket. Once found, the theatrics can escalate rapidly and they will struggle to conceal their glee as they demand your permit and call the Migration Office. Or, waiting at train stations, you’ll feel cowed by or indignant towards political posters that scream at you from billboards, cartoons of comically obvious sentiment ensuring that nothing is lost in translation.

I don’t mean to frighten you, or to furrow the brows of my Swiss friends who are reading this with a rising sense of betrayal. Anyone who recounts their time lived abroad or tells tale of their wide travels will usually gloss over the negatives, aware of the privilege and good fortune inherent in their experience. I do tread that path ordinarily, but acquired knowledge is useless if not passed on. Any relocation involves challenges, whether from Australia to Switzerland or Hobart to Brisbane or even Carlton to Fitzroy. Securing an abode, cracking into cliques, contending with the new and uncomfortable; these are common difficulties, found anywhere. After a year in Melbourne, at the gently rumpling age of 31, inserting myself into established social circles is still a tremendous challenge, and that’s despite the celebrated openness of Australians. Moving isn’t easy.

For Zürich-specific advice: apartments tend to operate on a hand-me-down basis, with departing tenants nominating their successor to the realtor. As a shiny new inhabitant this will be a major obstacle, so opt for a room in a student house (Studentenheim) at first, they are easier to obtain and more conducive to quick social inclusion. To befriend the Swiss, try and try again to learn the language. This is the secret to getting through their coconut shell defence and finding the generous and loyal friend within. Finally, don’t be alarmed when you notice a stranger staring unwaveringly at you on a bus, train or footpath. Yes, your quizzical reaction is correct; it is weird and unnerving, but harmless. No Swiss person could ever suitably explain this trait to me, it’s just one of those things. Don’t take it personally and don’t try to win, a curious Swiss grandma cannot be defeated at this game. Simply look out the window and enjoy what is sure to be a lovely view.

And of music? What should you expect? I found a generally higher level of technical proficiency and an abundance of quality instruments; was shocked by undeveloped sight-reading skills and Bachelor students with no orchestral experience; felt gratified by the high concert attendance and genuine enthusiasm for being a musician; and took pleasure in the exposure to the many famous soloists, beautiful concert halls and lavish opera houses that you will have access to. Oh, also, there is Alphorn music. Be prepared for that.

Ultimately, a universal truth still applies: don’t choose a country or an institution to help you improve; choose a teacher. If that crucial relationship fails to nourish you sufficiently, you will be frustrated and unhappy no matter the beauty of the panorama, the warmth of the buildings in winter, the array of chocolate, the beer bought at a newsagent and drunk on a train, the proximity to Rome or Paris or London, the makes-sense-of-everything white Christmas, the salted footpaths, the bags of freshly roasted chestnuts on a sub-zero morning, the deserved reverence of the potato, the first birdsong in spring, or the dear and deeply missed friends you’ll make.

Still, that choice is your responsibility; for the rest, Switzerland has as much to offer as anywhere. Years later, you might just find yourself in a tunnel under an airport, smiling reassuringly at a flummoxed passenger, and chuckling to a sensibility you came to know and be fond of, if not quite understand.

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