Six Months In: Four Unexpected Favorites
Six months in Zurich, and things finally start to click. I’m able to get a certain amount of places without using Google maps at all. I can remember which S-trains arrive at which stations and at what time. I have a go-to cafe for different types of activities (whether that be writing or working or chatting), and know which path home will give me the best view at sunset with the least amount of crowds. I’ve come to embrace the slowness of Sundays, when everything is closed.
Thanks to the city’s integration course, I have a slightly better understanding of the history and culture. We’ve made a few friends and are starting to have small semblances of social lives. Slowly but surely, we are carving out a little place for ourselves in Zurich. And half a year after moving, there are a few unexpected favorite things I’ve found about living here.
1. Zürich ist cool!
We are peeling back the layers of this city, debunking myth after pre-conceived Swiss myth. One of the greatest discoveries? Zurich, this buttoned-up city of 400,000 people, has more than meets the eye. It’s fun, it can be a little rebellious, and dare I say, even edgy. Zurich, my friends, is cool!
Full transparency: Raunaq and I did not necessarily have high expectations for the vibe of the city. We had hoped that Zurich would be as clean and beautiful and efficient as advertised, but truly didn’t expect much else. And that was OK. In fact, we reasoned that if that city was dull, than all the more time for outdoor adventures and incentive to travel every weekend. Sorry, Zurich. We take it back! You’ve been proving us so very wrong.
I’ve mentioned in my first month post that Zurich comes alive in the summer and that all social life revolves around water. I’m taking that one step further to assert that Zurich is the best summer city I’ve lived in. Fighting words, I know, given my Southern California roots. But hear me out. Summer in Zurich is presided over by two bodies of water: Lake Zurich (the aforementioned lake of many colors), which is at its prime in the summertime, and the Limmat, the absurdly clean river that runs right through the city center.
And with this comes Zurich’s bathing culture - the 25+ badis (public swimming areas) that line the lake and river. There are the über-cool hipster badis along the Limmat, badis on Lake Zurich with views of the Alps, badis that stay open after sunset and turn into barefoot bars, badis that have swim-out platforms and waterslides, elegant Art Nouveau badis right in the center of town, badis with areas for “FKK” Freikörperkultur (free body culture) where you can be blissfully naked in the sunshine. Some even turn into saunas in the winter.
It’s normal to go to a badi over your lunch break, or to bring a dry bag and float home from the office, or to meet for a waterside happy hour. The badi culture is practically cult-like, changing the entire atmosphere of the city. Everyone has a favorite, it’s a thing, and it’s amazing. Come visit. I’ll show you!
I like cities that are living contradictions. Cities that you have to get to know, where you need to scrape a little under the surface.
And further, Zurich may have reputation that is straight-laced, but she’s not all banks and watches and rules. She knows how to let her hair down. There’s Theater Spektal, a two-week theater and performance event that happens every year at the lakeside, with 18 different stages, food stalls, bars, and performances under the open sky from people all over the world. The theme of last year’s festival was migration and post-colonialism, and our only regret is that we couldn't watch more performances.
There’s Rote Fabrik, a former silk mill turned artist collective, restaurant and club on the west lake shore, where artists can showcase their talent on the legal graffiti walls. Kreiss 4, a neighborhood in the former red-light district, is gritty and lively and diverse, with flea markets and Sri Lankan spice shops and bars that stay open to morning and a restaurant that only serves three types of Nepalese momos with a legitimately spicy homemade chili sauce. Go a few blocks up to Kreiss 5, aka “Zuri-West”, for industrial wasteland-turned-warehouse chic and nary a cobblestone street or church bell in sight.
In late fall, Zurich’s film festival takes over all of the city’s movie theaters for weeks, with a phenomenal lineup. Sadly, last year we were only able to watch the American or Canadian films, due to #subtitleproblems (all the foreign films had German or French subtitles. This year we will do better!). And Street Parade, the biggest techno house parade in Europe, brings hundreds of thousands to dance through those squeaky clean Zurich streets.
Even it’s history is surprising - in the ‘90s, Zurich was notorious for having Europe’s biggest open heroin scene. The city took a highly pragmatic approach focusing on treatment and therapy, pioneering then-controversial solutions like clean needle exchanges and methadone prescription programs for addicts.
I like cities that are living contradictions. Cities that you have to get to know, where you need to scrape a little under the surface. And above all, cities that defy your expectations. Zurich certainly continues to surprise.
2. “I’m Going on an Adventure!”
The Zurich main train station (Hauptbahnhof) perfectly embodies everything Switzerland has come to represent for me: the ubiquitous clocks all perfectly synced to the second, announcements that sound off in multiple languages, trains bound for Italy and Germany and France departing throughout the day, the large-scale contemporary art installations that often grace the main hall. The railway clock itself is a Swiss national icon, with the red second hand famously pausing for just a moment at 12, the clock design honored at the New York’s Museum of Modern Art. But what I love most of all is the train station at 6am on Saturday morning.
It’s the Zurich rush hour. Packed with people, everyone seemingly embarking on a thrilling adventure. In the summer, groups climb aboard with hiking boots and poles, climbing shoes and carabiners dangling from backpacks, coolers of beer for a float down a river. In the winter, there are snowboards and snowshoes and sleds, people boarding the train with their ski boots and helmets already on, ready to immediately hit the slopes.
Even shoulder season is no different. When we were first considering this move, back in October 2017, it was not the charming old town or Swiss efficiency or even the magnificent scenery that ultimately convinced me.
It’s the Zurich rush hour. Packed with people, everyone seemingly embarking on a thrilling adventure.
It was arriving at Hauptbahnhof at 5:30am for a hike up to Mount Rigi, and being dumbstruck in my bleary-eyed state: the station was buzzing, and every single person had that Bilbo Baggins look when he was running out of Shire, map flapping in his hand, “I’m going on an adventure!” Myself included. I knew then that this was a country I could get behind. And six months into living here, the weekend morning atmosphere at the train station is one of my absolute favorite aspects of this city.
3. Living Seasonally
After a childhood in San Diego, college in Los Angeles, stints in Central and South America and the last 6 years in San Francisco - I experienced a lot of things. Seasons were not one of them. The entire city of San Diego would grind to a halt at the mere mention of rain. SF was the coldest place I had ever lived. Yesterday, I went for a run outside because it was 0 degrees, sunny and “the weather was nice.” There was snow on the ground. File that under things I’d thought I’d never do.
There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.
But, the seasons. For the first time, we have front-row seats to watching the city change, and Zurich is a flawless backdrop. Summer was a rush of activity, driven by turquoise water and badis and beer gardens. It was hotter and drier than normal, we were told, nearly every day in July and August over 30 degrees. When thunderstorms did show up, they were warm and strong and short. I opened every window in the apartment, battled the swarms of wasps that descended on the city’s flowers, awoke early with the sun and stayed out by the water until it set.
Then, that tangible crispness in the air set in. Fall has a magician’s sleight of hand, the green disappearing from the trees along the lake, every leaf suddenly turned a startling shade of red and orange. Chunky sweaters and wool coats were pulled from storage and backs of closets, dusted off and shaken awake, reporting for duty. Fondue pots were in all the shops, and instead of heat lamps, cafes covered their outdoor seats with thick furry throws.
By the time the last leaf fell, it was winter, chestnuts literally roasting on an open fire. The sun wasn’t gone, but it went elsewhere. Radiators cranked to life. Overnight, Zurich transformed into a Christmas snow globe, “Lucy” lights sparkling in the sky above Bahnhofstrasse to live up to their Beatles song namesake, holiday markets appearing in trains stations and plazas, so perfectly festive it hardly seemed real.
The temperature dipped into the negatives but never snowed, until one morning it unexpectedly did, and I couldn’t contain my childlike excitement when I woke for the first time to a city blanketed in white. The Swiss always like to say: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” and mid-winter in mid-January is no exception. I have an inkling of what spring will bring, but I’ll just have to wait and see what the city has in store.
Each season brings a different type of awareness, a curiosity about what’s happening in the natural world, and a connection to everyone else experiencing it right alongside you. This seasonal shift has been a novelty, and I’ve loved watching and feeling Zurich transform.
**Although, I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I also wasn’t looking forward to the day where I didn’t have to wear heat-tech leggings under my jeans at all times**
4. Consciously Consuming
This seems all the more relevant given the Marie-Kondo craze that is inflicting everyone I know at the moment. Living in Switzerland has made Raunaq and I incredibly conscious consumers, as compared to our life in the States. I can think of a few reasons why, none particularly revolutionary, but all together has changed our lifestyle quite dramatically.
It’s delayed gratification, and most of the time I realize I don’t need the gratification at all.
First, things are expensive in Switzerland. Full stop. Even after six months, the sticker shock still hasn’t worn off. But now, I’m trying to shift my mindset to treat this as a good thing. I need to give all unnecessary purchases a second (and third, and forth) thought, essentially putting an end to mindless shopping. Products here are costly, high-quality, and for some things, of limited variety.
There’s no equivalent of a Target or Home Goods or Ross, a place where you could walk in for one item and leave with a cart of knick-knacks just because they were there and they were cheap. There is certainly no CostCo. In the US, Raunaq and I would bulk-buy at CostCo at least once a month...for two people. Why? This is how we ended up with 9 economy-sized bottles of Listerine when we moved out of our apartment.
Of course, for everyday necessities, like groceries or transportation or bills, we have no choice, and I’ve gotten better at not cringing when I see the amount. And speaking of groceries, we buy seasonally and mostly cook at home. A decidedly average meal at a casual restaurant can easily cost 100 francs or more - heck, McDonald’s is 15 francs for a Big Mac and fries.
It’s a lifestyle change that was simply harder to make in San Francisco, with so much variety in restaurants, high end and low end, in all cuisines at all price ranges. So most nights, we cook. The expenses, in an ironic way, help keep costs down and ensure we use everything we have and only buy what we need when we need it. And also means we have a more minimal, tidier home!
Second, Amazon doesn’t deliver to Switzerland (well, it does, in a roundabout way, but it’s complicated and slow). There was a time in my life when Amazon Prime boxes would arrive almost daily, if not weekly. It’s embarrassing, but true. Whenever something I needed popped in my head, bam, it was ordered. Not so here. If I need something, I go to the store to buy it.
Yes, I know, not revolutionary, but removing the ease and convenience of ordering online does makes a marked difference in purchasing habits. If I can’t find it in Zurich and it’s something I absolutely “need” (using that term incredibly loosely) or I know we can find significantly cheaper, instead of ordering it on Amazon, I will wait until Raunaq is going to the US or we can travel to a border country where it’s available. It’s delayed gratification, and most of the time I realize I don’t need the gratification at all.
And third, it’s simply a pain to get rid of the old things once you replaced them with new things. I know I’ve talked about this ad nauseam, but Zurich’s trash system really does create a more conscious consumer. The onus is on you to figure out how to deal with every single piece of trash you create.
If a bunch of deliveries in cardboard boxes arrive at your door, you are the one breaking them all down and tying them with twine, and they will be in your house until that month’s cardboard collection day. If you want to buy a new lamp or chair, that’s great, but you can’t just leave the old unwanted furniture out on the street or drop off garbage bags of junk to Goodwill. There aren’t even that many second-hand shops to donate clothes or household items. My new mantra is becoming, “If it ain’t broke, don’t replace it.”
All told, Switzerland’s way of life may have been the forcing mechanism, but we have found ourselves just generally consuming less things. And, in doing so, focusing more on creating. It’s been the most welcome change of pace.
Four unexpected delights. But day to day, unexpected or not, Zurich is just a really pleasant city to live in. But of course, amongst all the good and even the great, are the expected challenges of moving to a new country. It hasn’t all be easy. I’m struggling with the language, with making new friends and missing my old ones, with re-learning how to be comfortable being alone. But that’s for part two of this six-month story. For now, it’s Friday, we just got tickets to see Bob Moses, and I’m off to get some momos.