Friends, Mountains, and the Good Life in Zurich
A quick visit to Switzerland for käfele, cheese, and other rejuvenation
I’ve traded Thirsty in, just temporarily, for plains, trains, and cable cars for three days in Switzerland. Liesl is staying with my sister and family in Ohio. After Switzerland, I will go to Ghana.
In 1981, I became good friends with our exchange student from Switzerland, Fran, another senior at our high school. I last saw her almost ten years ago when I stopped to visit her in Zurich on my way home from Peace Corps Service in Ghana. On this trip, I’ve reversed the order and am visiting her first.
You couldn’t ask for more of a contrast than Ghana and Switzerland. It is an odd itinerary to be sure.
Meeting Fran at the airport was wonderful. My spirits lifted as soon as I saw her. I was pulled right into Swiss life as we went into Winterthur, where she lives, and where her daughter attends aeronautical engineering school. We had a delightful lunch at a theater cafe, and enjoyed strolling through the streets. Bicycle culture is strong here. Winterthur and Zurich make city living look really good.
In the evening, we visited the Rhenau area along the Rhine River, at a restaurant in a building that Ewald, Fran’s partner, said was probably 400 years old. The weather was perfect for sitting outside and I enjoyed geschnetzeltes mit rösti, after asking Fran to recommend something traditional from the area. Rösti is a refined version of what we call hash browns, with cooked shredded potatoes seasoned then perfectly fried with a crispy crust. After coffee, we went inside to admire the building—I especially liked the wood stairs, polished down by years of foot traffic.
On the way home, we zipped through a covered bridge and over the Rhine to get add a tiny bit of Germany to my trip. We also saw some type of river festival, with musical performers floating under a bridge and past an audience on the riverbank. I think they were filming something, because people at the bridge stopped all who tried to pass. Swans, too, floated in the river with their babies.
Saturday morning, we went to the city via public transportation, first meeting Fran’s parents for a delightful lunch, and then visiting Uetlberg, a high peak from which you can see most of Zurich—imagine Twin Peaks in San Francisco, but with a couple of cafes, picnic tables, and public art. The Swiss really love their mountains—this is most clear when you get to a high place and can see other peaks. Fran and her father share this deep affection for the landscape and have had some good alpine adventures together.
It is a real pleasure to be able to whisk about the city on trains, buses, and trolleys, with a native guide and friend answering questions and sharing interesting stories.
Zurich is a wonderful city, with Swiss tidiness in evidence everywhere. It is almost strange to be in a place where everything is in such good repair. Even the street-cleaning cars look as if they were washed before they set out on their morning rounds.
The people, too are tidy and have great style. I especially noticed that Swiss men are quite stylish, mixing patterns with subtle flair. It is a treat to spend time in downtown Zurich and people-watch. This is facilitated by many cafes, with chairs facing the street, and perfect espressos, always accompanied by a little cookie or sweet.
When I was here before, I thought Fran suggested stopping for “a kaffe” several times because she knew how much I had missed good coffee over the proceeding years. When I laughed about it now, she said no...this is simply “käfele”—the Swiss-German word for going from place to place, having coffees, and chatting with a girlfriend. She told me there is also “lädle”—the same idea, but with shopping.
The other thing I noticed about Zurich was how cheerful everyone seemed. Everywhere, people smiled and greeted each other with bright eyes and happy voices. I was a bit shocked when this realization came over me...it was so different than what I have come to expect. It really made me stop and think.
We traveled around the city, riding the train with her son and then visiting her daughter’s football game near the airport. There we had the best bratwurst I’ve ever eaten, cooked by a lively fellow with jokes and more smiles, and enjoyed women’s soccer played under landing planes and the long summer sunset. It all seemed very European and I enjoyed it all.
On Sunday, we played tourist, driving to Säntis, the highest mountain in this area. There is a cheesemaking facility and shop, which we visited before taking the cable car to the peak.
There we had lunch, sharing a table with some friendly Russians, and continued käfele while picking out the various hiking paths coming up from far below and the alps (an alp is a green pasture area above the valley floor and below the peak).
A few snow fields were left, some being crossed by the hikers below us. The air was cool but the sun was bright, making for perfectly comfortable outdoor dining. (Fran tells me the weather is not always this perfect, but I’m not sure I believe her.)
In some circles, we say “the map is not the territory”, and in no other place is this as true as in the Alps of Switzerland, where the three-dimensional reality defies representation on a flat map. Fran described many of the surrounding peaks and where the trails came from, what was behind the ridges, and which lakes were which—but it would take years for me to sort it out in my own mind.
When I visited in 2013, it was early December—exactly half a year different. Accidental, but perfect for contrasting seasons. This time, instead of deep snow and short days, there were delicate alpine flowers, butterflies, and clear sunshine. Alpine Choughs, smaller relatives of crows with bright yellow bills and bright red legs, fold their wings into impossible dives along the rock faces of the peak.
In the afternoon we visited the Appenzell region and tried some more local cheeses. A discussion of this Swiss canton should really include some explanation of its interesting political organization and democratic process—but I will leave that for the reader to pursue on their own. I will say that it makes for interesting käfele.
Buying cheese, I noticed how inexpensive it seemed. I’m sure I would have paid twice the price for cheese in Sonoma County, especially in a shop with cheese tasting. All along, I expected things to be more expensive than they were...except for gasoline (“I learned today that Swiss is not an oil-producing country,” I joked with Fran after seeing that it cost over $150 US to fill up.) This really surprised me. I thought perhaps this was a matter of the exchange rate, but I looked it up and it is not terribly different than it was in 2013.
Appenzell is a lovely town for strolling quaint streets and visiting shops. I fell in love with a display made of dried blossoms hanging from delicate wires—though it defied my attempts to photograph it well.
In the evening, we returned home for “cold kitchen” dinner with Ewald (at lower altitudes it was quite hot...looking at my phone, I noticed that it was even hotter that day in Zurich than it was in Accra!) We enjoyed Wurst-Käse-Salat, which is a salad of cold sausage (similar to summer sausage) and grated cheese, a wonderfully simple idea I might try to replicate at home.
After dinner, we enjoyed watching Switzerland defeat Portugal in Nations League football—and there is hope for me yet to become a soccer fan.
Monday morning was suddenly upon us, and I was saying goodbye to Switzerland. I drafted this on the plane bound for Accra, crossing the dusty skies over the Sahara, on to the next adventure.
Zurich to Accra couldn’t provide more contrast...though I hope I will still find the smiles I enjoyed in Switzerland and have come to expect in Ghana—along with travel’s food for the spirit, and cheerful reunions that touch my heart and soul.