Saturday #91 was my first full day in Zurich and being the middle of the Easter week-end, I didn’t know what if anything would be open. Aside from the airport and train station, the city appeared to be on Code Red lockdown when I arrived on Friday. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I got to bed very early and was ready for a full day of sightseeing on Saturday.
The first challenge was getting into the city centre from my suburban hostel. Thankfully Zurich has an excellent public transit system and a weekly transit pass includes admission to something like 470 small and large museums and galleries. I kid you not! There was a tram at the hostel door and a double-decker commuter train just a five minute walk away. I opted for the train and made it to Central Station in about 20 minutes.
I didn’t feel the need to explore the whole city on my first day as locals Marcel Buchele and Stefanie Wirz had promised to give me a guided tour on Sunday. (We met in 2014 in South America and survived Bolivia’s Death Road bike ride together). Instead I opted to stay pretty close to Bahnhofstrasse – the wide pedestrian-friendly street that Fortune Magazine recently ranked as the 7th most expensive retail real estate in the world, just behind New York’s Upper 5th Avenue, the Champs-Élysées in Paris and Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay.
At one point I noticed a man put a bottle of Heineken in his jacket pocket and stand up as if to leave his table at an otherwise jam-packed patio bar. I had just been thinking about lunch so I hopped a barricade and quickly grabbed the man’s seat before the maitre’d even noticed that it was empty. Soon a waiter appeared and stood in front of me with his hands on his hips. He didn’t say anything but the look on his face said, “You’re not the guy who was just sitting there!”
I didn’t want him to think about this for too long so I quickly said, “I’ll have what he’s having” and pointed to a tall, dark ale that was being consumed by a tall, dark man who was reading a book at the next table. “Schutzengarten?” said the waiter. “Gesundheit,” said the tall, dark man without looking up from his book. The waiter rolled his eyes and headed off to get my beer.
My table wasn’t the steadiest and everyone who passed by brushed up against it, so to be on the safe side I just kept my beer in my hand. For three hours. I don’t know what you do with a beer in your hand for three hours but I tend to drink. A lot. As one hour blurred into the next, and one litre became four, I thought up a few potential blog ideas. Here’s a slightly edited version of the texts that I sent myself between that first litre of Schutzengarten and a third litre or Trois Dames Oud Bruin.
Starbucks? Try Twenty Bucks!
It’s a good thing that Apple and Tesla have had a good month as I might have to sell some stock to finance a week in Zurich. Yesterday I had 20 minutes to kill at the train station so I grabbed a grande Pike Place (plain old drip coffee) and a lemon poppyseed muffin at a Starbucks inside the transport hub. This set me back CHF12 or CAD$16.28. You read that right, sixteen, twenty-fuckin-eight. I try not to swear in public but it’s a challenge when you hand over the equivalent of a $20 bill for a coffee and a day-old muffin and you’re not sure if the cashier is going to give you the change or simply drop it in the tip jar.
Shortly after I arrived at the bar I heard my waiter say to another waiter, “D&D on 4.” When he eventually brought my bill it showed that I was table #4. This pretty much confirmed my suspicion that the guy who left the table so abruptly had done so without paying. The waiter probably meant “Dine and Dash on Table 4.”
Not that I’d condone it, but I can see why D&D might be a problem in Zurich. I had four beers and a dry burger accompanied by 2 pieces of lettuce and a radish (billed as a side salad) and the bill came to the equivalent of CAD $82. I don’t know who this place is named after but the immense profits aren’t flowing into the Swiss bank account of anyone in MY family.
As I said, I’m currently sitting on a patio, bathed in mid-afternoon sun, and parading up and down the street in front of me are some of the best looking people I’ve ever seen. I hate to stereotype but if everyone on this street is actually Swiss, it could be argued that the Swiss are amongst the best-looking people in the world. After the Swedes, of course. And Brazilians. And most French people. And the South Koreans. But of course it’s not a competition and the crowd on Bahnhofstrasse may not be representative of the entire country. But the scenery on this particular street is a steady stream of fit, well-groomed, immaculately dressed and heavily bejewelled individuals. And their owners are a pretty good looking group as well. A rough count would have about 50% of the ladies carrying a small dog and about 25% of the men leading a slightly larger dog on a leash which is likely to be encrusted with Swarovski crystals. I just saw a bulldog wearing a black harness and a black leather vest. I’m reasonably certain his owner has a matching harness and vest at home, possibly with handcuffs, but being Swiss he’s far too conservative to wear it in public.
At least I got an hour of free wifi with my beer and burger at Lady Hamilton’s. When I asked for the password, the waiter handed over a slip of paper with the network name in large, black letters and he verbally told me the password: 12345678. That was a refreshing change from Thailand where most cafes and hotels treat their 20-digit wifi password as if it was America’s Nuclear Launch Code and the White House was hosting King Jong Un for dinner. I checked into one Bangkok hostel and was given a slip of paper the width of a pencil and about an inch long. The password was printed in the typeface you’d use if you wanted to fit the Bible on the back of a business card.
I think I’ve mentioned this before but there’s no such thing as “free” wifi in Thailand. If you don’t have a local SIM card and a valid data plan you can purchase wifi access from most western style restaurants and cafes. They’ll hand you what looks like a lottery ticket and you scratch off two strips to reveal a user name and password. When you fire up your browser you’re invited to enter those two numbers, along with your full name, email address, street address, passport number, blood type (just kidding on the blood type) and a local cell number to which they will send you a PIN by text. If I had a local number I wouldn’t need your free wifi, I told the manager at an otherwise very nice cafe called Au Bon Pain (heavy on the pain). She was sympathetic and not only did she allow me to use her cell number, but she deciphered this illegible password for me:
I don’t know how she did it but after less than 20 tries she managed to crack the code. I told her that she could probably land a good job with the FBI. I don’t think she got the joke.
More Wifi Woes
Logging on at Au Bon Pain is taxing but it’s a lot easier than the three ring circus at any Thai McDonald’s. Rotten Ronnie prints a password on the bottom of every receipt. This might sound like a good idea, and it is in principle, but it gets a bit complicated when you don’t change the ink in the printers for a few years. When I complained that I couldn’t read my receipt, one cashier suggested that it would be easier if I just got back in line and bought something from one of the other cashiers who presumably had better printers. When I suggested that he could go f___ himself – which thankfully he didn’t understand – he proposed a compromise. There will be lots of legible receipts in the garbage bins, he said.
With less than five minutes to go before North American stock markets closed for the week, I was desperate to get online and get out of one position. So I rolled up my sleeve and came up with a legible receipt on my first dive. I wiped a long smear of secret sauce off my right forearm and hurried upstairs. In the area near the kids playroom I found a kindly grandmother who was the only person in the restaurant who wasn’t talking about the man who went dumpster diving. She allowed me to use her cell number for the PIN activation and I was online within a few minutes.
Unfortunately the receipt I recovered had been printed about 55 minutes earlier. I know this as my hour of free wifi timed-out after about two minutes. Thankfully shares of ‘MCD’ actually went up that day so I made a few more bucks before selling out the next day.
Ice-Cream Assembly Line
Many of the people strolling up and down Bahnhofstrasse are eating ice cream or gelato. I’m on a no ice cream diet these days (beer = good; ice cream = bad) so I was content to watch. I did have a very good hand-dipped cone at a shopping mall in Bangkok a few weeks ago. The girl who took my order filled out a two-part form. She handed one copy to me and the original to the cashier. That girl rang up the sale and handed a printed receipt to a third girl who did the scooping. It took about three minutes to scoop, weigh, scoop, weigh, add some more, weigh, remove a bit, weigh, and eventually check and double-check my receipt. When she was 110% satisfied that I was the guy who had ordered Rum & Raisin in a waffle cone, she finally handed it over. All three employees were standing in a space about the size of a kitchen table.
Bangkok > Kiev > Zurich on ‘Uke Air’
Can I say that? Archie Bunker would have. Donald Trump probably does. Anyway, I recently had the pleasure of flying with Ukraine Airlines. I know you’re probably expecting a horror story or at least a mildly amusing account of being served lard sandwiches and serenaded with live klezmer music while doing vodka shots with the pilot, but it wasn’t like that. To be perfectly honest, Ukraine Airlines was as good as any economy airline I’ve ever flown. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, I know, but it was a pleasant surprise. The check-in process went smoothly, the plane was a wide-bodied modern aircraft (Airbus?) and the crew members were efficient yet pleasant. And eat? Oh, boy, did we eat. If an image of a babushka-clad grandmother in the galley serving up heaping plates of food comes to mind, you’re not too far off. We got two hot meals and two snacks on the eight hour flight!
I wondered if we had gone through a time warp to the 1970s when we landed and EVERYONE on the plane clapped enthusiastically. Who does that anymore? The very nice and mostly Ukrainian passengers on UIA, that’s who.