Saturday, 4 September 2010

A few tales from the Rhine Riverbank, Spoiler Alert: No Wagner Yet

Quite a lot of my days have started and continued like a tutorial at Oxford. The summoned by bells bit, woken from tired-limbed sleep by honking great church peels, at seven, half past, eight. I am usually human by eight. But they are loud. Mass Media for The Plague Generation.

Then there's the complex discussion to be had (with myself) about post-reformation politics and public spaces, witchcraft, terrorism and religion in general. There's the bikes everywhere, and now in my new maturity I have grown to love these cyclists, as not one has ever knowingly worn Lycra. This is perhaps an exaggeration.

Rheinfelden fits to Oxford Tutorial Bill, the very early bells get me up and I am not dead, which is possible proof that God was behind the Big Bang after all, despite Hawking. The light on the Rhine is crisp and deep. If I stayed a day I'm sure I would have grown to love the narrow streets and the old buildings. But I want a city. After a quick urban wanderweg I pick up my bags and go down to the river.

After yesterday's Dance of Death, I'm sticking close to the river today. I climb out of town, and turn after a Rhine-side Calendar beer brewery. In the brewery car park I ask a man of some stomach capacity if I am near the footpath. Yes, all the way to Basel. He laughs, the sound playing out a basso-profundo through the double helix of his beer sampling arena

Good, I am walking there I say.

I'm pretty sure he was still laughing when I got to Basel, certainly he was laughing a good long time.

This really is more like it. The path is feet, sometimes inches from the river at water level. It climbs away at times - the private swimming baths, the camp site, the school stuff - but it never detours far. Tales from the Riverbank. There's a real sense of Roman exploration now, there was a pontoon bridge here from Roman times, originally, when Tom came through. I pass an allotment. I ask a woman who is picking Daffodils what's she's doing. For soup, she said, or pies. Boats are moored, fishing points. An unexpected and fantastic Roman ruin, right on the path, inside three restored rooms.

I'm back to that Oxford Tutorial Mode: why don't I know more Latin History? Ok, what did they do? I known that Strasbourg, back in France, and a few days away, was "Argentina" to the Romans, city of money, the place they organised their taxes from.

Sun's out; even the factory towers have a grim beauty. At the appropriate moment in my morning the path widens out into a small sculpture park. It's not Goodwood, but a boy can't have everything.

Behind the park is a temporary marquee, with a cafe inside. Excellent, time for a coffee, etc. In fact it is a Supra-Dupra Business Lunch place, complete with chandeliers and a wine list straight out Somelier Centrale. There is one couple in place; two suits, dull, ties. They sip aperitif, and check out the menu. They discuss starters, in appropriate ways. It is 12.02. I feel certain they sat down at 11.59.45.

I am out of place, bien sur. However my host, Regine, is charm itself. She locates me in a cull de sac in the room that allows me to watch it all without being an eye-sore. The restaurant will close in a couple of weeks, it was a good summer she says. But soon it will be too cold. There's a main restaurant in town, and a sister place in Basel. I tell Regine about my trip.

Will you sail home to Brighton? she says very wistfully. as though once she had been very happy there with a man, perhaps a married man - who can say?

She is Hildy Neef and Jeanne Moreau and she has Moreau's great whiskey voice. If she started singing Lili Marlene I would not be surprised. "You will like Basel," she says. "It is smaller that Zurich, more elegant. Smarter."

I suggest that in my current unwashed state, with the leather jacket wasting away with sweat fatigue I may not play well with "smarter". Oh, but you have, though, a certain style, Regina says. In front of me two new men - suits but no ties, aka Creative - are doing the same mime over the menu, the Rhine Business Lunch Trope. I pay for my espresso and walk on, with my certain style - and deep odour trail. I am looking forward to the art in Basel; I'm also looking forward to the laundry facilities.

Soon there is a major detour inland from the river as Aufhaven, a huge facility for shifting containers and materials shipped up and down the Rhine, looms into view. This reminds me of the There, Not There Romans in Brugg. Because of course the gas, the petrol, the energy, the stuff of modernity that drives those elegant art galleries and temporary business lunch marquees, is usually invisible to us. Only in Reykjavik, Iceland, Gracefully becoming 50 with Portia, have I been aware of the public nature of our power sources - and there because it is coming straight from the volcano, as it were.

So it seems good that the Rhine footpath takes me through this modernist campsite of logos and clean lines and rail tracks and giant containers. It's like walking through a canyon of power. There's even a tiny oasis, a few apple trees, though given what is being pumped out of the towers here, I don't think I'll be trying the Aufhaven Cider anytime soon.

Is it me or do the Swiss do Factories pretty well? Anyway, onwards, a group of young kids with their teachers learning how to cook outdoors. A weir, a lock. Fishermen. The Rhine curves and in the distance the twin spires of Basel's famous cathedral. A bridge. I walk on and turn, Aufhaven is now tucked away, around the last corner. In Basel it is not necessary to think about all those engines of the economy. But I've walked them, and enjoyed it, a kind of Post-Romanticism wanderweg in the non-urban contemporary.

I climb away from the direct riverside and walk along a street with tall houses and river views. A little lite graffiti emerges, but why not? And then it's time to climb more steps and get my first vision of the city of Basel - Basil, to Tom.

The first sight is the Kunstmuseum, not 200 metres away, with a giant poster advertising the current Warhol show.

I think Basel and I are going to get along just fine. If I can wash everything.

Friday, 3 September 2010

G-LOST, the fifty kilometre day

The old town of Brugg, like so many of the smaller places on the trip at this time of the year, wakes with deep sharp shadows, and a sense that the entire population is still at the beach, somewhere else.

The clean, everything is so clean, perhaps this is why graffiti is so popular, pedestrian streets are empty as I walk to the station, under it, and off towards a Roman amphitheatre, about a kilometer away.

The ruins are significant, and do not seem to have been completely excavated yet. Tom doesn't mention the Romans - here. And he is always keen to deploy his Oxford classics education. It makes me realise that all the way from Splungen the Romans have been with us; they've built hundreds of Rhine bridges in their time, though the only one to survive in a functioning sense until Tom's time was at Rhinefelden, today's destination.

Brugg emphasises the here and the not here. I begin to fumble a vague theory about Roman remains as they are considered in Tom's time, the early years of the Seventeenth century. This is before the widespeard antiquarian movement, the Grand Shopping Tours of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. But it is after the Renaissance Boom in rediscovering and then teaching the classical texts. Perhaps, most crucially for us, it is 350 years before Darwin, 300 years before dinosaur bones meant something deadly for the Biblical narrative that saw the world as 4004 years old.

Were The Romans Tom's concrete connection to his past? Did they stand-in for the textual illogicalities of The Bible, now being made available to local, vernacular, translations without (so much) danger to their authors and printers? Tom was now in a publishing hotspot, Gutenberg's long shadow looming down from Zurich, Basel and the German cities and towns. He's following - as far as I can tell - one or some of the main postal routes that connected, say, London to Venice, or Paris to Strasbourg. And postal routes leave traces, like the faded old holiday paperbacks that pepper the shelves of cheap hotels, everywhere, read and discarded.

Tom would have seen Shakespeare's (and others') Julius Caesar, the second best known global historical celebrity, after Christ. He'd know his history, through Justinian in Istanbul, Jerome, Aquinas, down to Luther, Bucer, Erasmus and, perhaps even, Montaigne.Did he feel the echo of some lost Roman soldier, as I feel the echo of Tom, and of seemingly every Western fault line, from religious persecution through intellectual rigour to the nascent stirrings of acceptance of what is now Romanticism and Nature.

Tom visited the Monastery here, a fine complex and a stirring church. This morning at 8am there are a group of men and women already dressed as Romans, I don't ask why, it just fits my mood. Food has already been cooked on stones on the ground. BarBQ Breakfast the Brugg way. I walk back past a psychiatric hospital in the same grounds, and then through an Alphaville mid-town, all underpasses and railway sidings and post-modernist office blocks. Strangely perhaps everything looks great, unbrutalised. I'm mellowing into an enjoyment of all the typos of visual stimulation available. The Lynchian suburbs, the old towns and the modernist sprawls that have grown to accommodate population explosions, now that the great annihilating plagues that define Europe for hundreds of years are, seemingly, gone - thanks in part, no doubt, to the wonders of Swiss pharmaceuticals.

I see another MIGROS store, they have been everywhere since Thusis. Yesterday Roli and Norbert told me about this store/bank/everything. It gives 1% of its turnover, not profits, to Swiss culture.
It shows.

I've also made my mental peace with cyclists, bikers, pretty much everything shy of Heavy Goods Vehicles flying down the autobahn too close to my wanderweg.

The sun is magnificently, Swiss Airly, out. I cross the river down near the medieval gate. I turn, it is always important to look back: it is the view of traveller coming the other way. Brugg: quietly calm on a Sunday morning.

I climb out of the town on a series of streets, the housing shifts for a while into decked apartments, each with a terrace, some covered now in lichen, that hug the hillside. It is a sublime day, the rain has gone, I am riverside soon, and striding out. Yesterday's wet brings a moisture to the trees and grass. I walk on, as Tom must have, following the river.

25 kilometres to go: first scheduled stop Efiingen, about an hour and a half away. At ten I sit at a riverside bench and email Portia, recording in Los Angeles, perhaps still awake. I finish my water, Effingen soon.

Then I check my GMapp application on the IPAD. Soon a glowing circle shows me where I am, and my destination route. Fantastic: mobile technology at its best.

Except that I have walked down the wrong river, gone south, not north. Not quite GLost, but GPS-ly hopeless. I ask a couple for the nearest cafe. It is hot, they argue about its location. I cross the river, hop through some gardens and then some David Lynch Landscapes: no restaurant. Finally I follow the railway line to the station. I am in Bad Somewhere, and even here nothing is open. I shovel coins into a machine, buy and drink ice-tea, water and then some more. Plus chocolate: this is going to be an energy sapping day. Then I turn around, follow the river on the other bank until I see signs for Linn, once upon a time, today, a 45 minute skip from Brugg.

A measure of how badly I had done this morning can be judged by the fact that I crossed three hills, saw bird sanctuaries, nature reserves, stunning vistas that must have crossed national borders, met elderly bike and pillion Sunday seekers, Was that really the Himalayas I could see, it already felt like it. I bumped into joggers with IPODs who yell kein problem as I wheezed up another glided hill towards Linn. And I knew, in my heart of hearts, and in my thighs, that Effingen, the first stop, was less than a quarter of the way to Rhinefelden, and the lovely spa-facility hotel I'd booked last night online.

Linn has nothing but beauty, views, nature, wells, birds and nice houses. I reach Effingen at 2.03, only four hours late. Again, everything is closed, even the petrol station. I sit at the bus stop bench, turn on the IPAD and discover that the Orange Pay to Go is over. In some miracle of GPS the GMap application is still working. I check my directions, but instead of the walking options I get the public transport. A bus schedule appears, there is a bus to Rhinefelden, four changes, in four minutes.

The Devil works in Strange Ways. I stand, walk away and head down the street for the next town, and then the next. Off river now; and The Rhine won't appear until late in the day. The bus passes me, on time of course. I make it to Brozen, it's about three something and there is a restaurant that is open. It is run by an Indian guy. I sit and eat the best wurst and cheese salad swimming in salad cream, washed down with half a gallon of water. I sit outside, inside half the town is enjoying a big Sunday banquet. Men and Women in suits and skirts sneak out for a cigarette, clutching glasses of Gavurttraminer, well, anyway, sweet looking wines. Pudding time.

After half an hour when I stand everything hurts, but especially my thighs, which are in shocked spasm. Those hills, those vistas. I try out Norbert''s Physician Heal Thyself Massage techniques, through the pockets of my jeans. I feel rather decadent, hope I pass no children's funfairs; it is as if I am auditioning for some Parisian Club de Frottage. But blimey! It works, a sense of hope returns to my legs. I march on.

Bus Stops, then Barnhofs become the temptation. But I keep going, roadside now, through this town and that. A Fair. A Market. Long sessions by the autobahn on the cycle routes. Scrabbled journeys up verges and banks to walking routes. Up - never down. Then, around five, Stein. I ask a couple for the route to RhineBaden, so tired am I that I get the name wrong. With Swiss politeness they say, "To Germany? Tonight? Good Luck." We work it out and they tell me to go down from Stein station to the old town. I can pick up the Rhine there, walk its banks all the way.

At Stein station I buy more water and watch a mother drop off her son, in full fatigues, to catch the train back to barracks. Nobody looks happy. Yesterday Roli and Norbert told about their one year conscriptions, compulsory military service with the Swiss Army: both ended up in "communications". Roli said: the first thing my officer told me was that if there was a war we, the comms guys, would be the first to die. The enemy would just dial up our crappy walkie-takes and bomb us.

Norbert remembered being in the mountains for three days, waiting for a signal from his team. It never came. They just forget about us. It was great, he said. I realise that I am travelling with better technology, and access to information, than anyone, including the military until not so long ago. We have come a long way. If only I could read a map, or follow the right river.

The sun has gone, and the clouds are out. How long until dark, I wonder? I see the Rhine, muddy and broad, down below. But what is obsessing me is the yellow sign at Stein station which informs that it is 4 hours and 45 minutes to Rhinefelden: that gets me into town at around 10-something at night.

I stay high; three more hills, and a curve. Go straight, it will be quicker, I decide. Climbing again, then cycle paths, horses, sheep. Rhine-Lost, of course, somewhere else again. I think it begins to get dark-dark at eight. The Sunday night autobahn traffic is hurtling home now. Still no signs for Rhinefelden, not even the 15 kilometres away warning for motorists. It is raining, lightly. At least my hotel has a spa, I can get a massage, Bond style.

A field, a horse and carriage, lurching towards me. All four occupants in raincoats. Now I am higher again, scrabbling with half-bent back between trees and a wire fence. But I have seen a sign for The Place. An hour later, and rather nicely, as the bells hit Eight, yes Eight, I enter the old Rhine town of Rhinefelden. The Romans had a bridge here, and the labyrinthine streets would be great if I had a pulse.

My spa-hotel, isn't. My receptionist is Basel (sic) Fawlty. He picks up the phone as I approach and laughs manically for a couple of hours. Finally a key and a room. I fall asleep fuming that I can't turn the television on. I have just walked 50 kilometres. I've tried to tell Blofeld the Receptionist, but he's too busy laughing at an old joke, perhaps it was about mad Tom Coryate.

The Gods are with me. I'd planned to stay in Rhinefelden for another night, get a massage, write up a few days. Instead I have breakfast alone at 6.30am, then root around the town a bit, then I am walking - the Rhine and NOTHING BUT - fresh and un-aching, at seven. This club de Frottage thing has legs, as we used to say to the newspaper business. I am off towards Basel, it is Einfach. I can't quite believe it myself.

And The Rhine is now so close I can touch it. Now that's What I Call Wanderweg.

Basel's marketing strapline is Culture Unlimited.

Sounds good, if a little Guardian 2002.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Im Brugg, No Colin Farrell.

If there are typos, it is because it is sunny outside the Cafe in Basel I'm posting from. And the IPAD screen is not perfect. Will sort out from Strasbourg.

We stay low in Baden, leave the youth hostel and wander around the grand, sometimes faded, hotels and baths. Last night we have heard that the business is failing, the hotels not doing so well. We wander in and out of places, they are reminiscent of some lost dream of European something. The only parallel I can give is that it feels like an episode in that French novel, Le Grand Meuaulnes. Something lost and present simultaneously. Hidden, fine dining rooms. Flower-strewn atriums. The baths. The "Inhalatorium". Like a mid 90s nightclub designed by Damien Hirst. Steep paths and modern elevators. It is hard to say if this is a failing industry, or if baths always feel like this. Whatever Tom's state of arousal when witnessing the Bath-Antics; and however C19th Zurich men treated Baden as Protestant Release Mechanism; it feels new age enema-healthy. A man tells Norbert that there's been big new investments. Things are moving.

We move on.


For the other novel I could mention would be the magic mountain, Thomas Mann's consumption hotel classic. My pan-European smoking experiences of the pervious night have rendered me Mann-esque. At an apothke close to the barnhof, hey, I buy Nicorette. And water at the station while we wait for Roli on the 11.20 from Zurich. He's the third musketeer for today.

You know that those smoking gums are owned by the cigarette companies, don't you, Norbert says. They like to make money at every stage of the consumption process.

Roli arrives at 11.20, just as the time-table said. At a book-launch in Basel a few days later I'll hear that, amazingly, not all Swiss trains run on time. But the failure rate is ridiculously low.

It's a short walk today, 12 kilometres or so to Brugg. Bridge. Tom called it Brucke. We set off and detour after about eight seconds when Roli sees a poster for an art show in Baden. PipiLotti Rist at the Museum Langmatt. Off we go.

Classically the museum holds a fantastic collection of impressionist art; the usual suspects and unusually, less well known, so. The rooms are preserved from a fin de siecle time and are suitably grand. Pipilotti has installed herself into these rooms with lights, videos, sounds. More than installed, she has immersed new technology with the old, it is like a small version of the Frick in New York being populated with arty YouTube. A woman suddenly screams across a dining table; bookcases become living things, lamps sing, a woman swims across a river that is cascading across a wall-full of Impressionist Gems.

The curator said it took four weeks of intensive build. And months and months of conceptualising as PipiLotti decided what pieces to make, and where they would fit in the domestic arrangements of the Museum Langmatt. It's fantastic; brings a smile to us all and a touch of aesthetic rigour as well. Good work Pipilotti.

The sun is out when we leave.

We stick to the Limmat-side, until other rivers arrive and conspire to confuse us. We use male logic; it fails, of course. We see Keifer-style burnt landscapes, discuss turnips, bird hides. Roli's art pieces, when he's not teaching graphic design, emphasise the physical change if our environment. He talks about a oiece in Holland which used light and form to show us air "moving".

At Thurgli most of the restaurants are closed, we sandwich and soft-drink with old guys and their dogs. Down the road Roli has pointed out a shop specialising in hair-straightener for black hair. There are Beyonce wigs too. Semiotically this is spectacularly unlikely. But there it is. There is not a black person anywhere to be seen.

There is also a palimpsest of new music posters (all these things are photographed and captured on my Facebook page, btw). First for 70s Prog Rockers, Barclay James Harvest. Playing soon.

We try to remember their Hit.

Did they have a hit?

Then, 40 Years After, Ten Years After. Alvin Lee, right?

We muse on these new digital tablets, as I email. Why glass? When will they be material, cloth? Why can't we write onto them? Isn't there a built in hand-writing function? Handwriting to text? Ten years ago when I was paid to think about things like this, by Mcirosoft, for a short while, the handwriting part was a given. Part of the holistic whole. Right now we're not there. And I'll write about my IPAD life in a few days. It does change the way you see the world. Saved my Bacon on the rocky road to Rhinefelden.

Rivers take us all over the place, soon they will go federal and become the Rhine. But not yet. Norbert's having a bit of Day Two Syndrome, and we're content to follow the cycle routes to Brugg. The boys will take the train back from there, and be in Zurich within 30 minutes. I book into the Youth hostel, again excellent, and old this time. Then I find a corner in the HAvanna cafe, close to the river and the southernmost tower. I finish writing up a day towards Zurich just as a House-remix of One Nation Under A Groove announces that this is Saturday night and while the kids of Brugg should be out, I should be asleep. It is an early start, I have 25K to walk. And a Roman remian and a monastery first.

Except it will be 50K tomorrow. But I not smoking, a slave to my new walking injury. Nicorette Jaw.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Pussy Galore in Baden

The rain continues; all night now and into the morning. We leave Zurich's cafe Schwarzenbach around 10.15 and it's still pouring. Norbert has an umbrella, I have a soft hat advertising Splugen. Today we are walking the Limmat river to Baden; we cross so that Norbert can show me what's still known as "needle park."

Zurich was famous for its hard drugs problems in the 1990s. Two of the villages near where Norbert and Beat grew up had quasi epidemics. Those comfortable suburbs where there is everything and nothing to do.

The problem was all over Zurich, very visibly, and petty crime rates were soaring as the addicts tried to make money to feed their habit. The police were stretched, and the government didn't want to know, it wasn't a good brand image for Zurich or Switzerland. The police decided on a new strategy, crack down hard on the addicts everywhere - except needle park. Soon it was the safe haven. And once the addicts were there it was impossible to ignore them. The government - the entire country - had to accept there was a problem. Nowadays there are many schemes to help addicts, things have changed, we move on. We cross the Limmat again. People swim around here, there's a throw-clothes-in-plastic bag, tie, jump thing that seems wedged in all Zurichers' imaginations.

We sit; I IPAD. A message arrives from Portia. She's standing in the security line at Heathrow to fly to Los Angeles:

So I'm 3rd in line for xray. Ahead of me, already thru, is a tall,thin man waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver his things. They're asking questions about the bag he has sent through. He looks perplexed, doesn't know what they're talking about. Time passes. We don't move. A security guy in a bright yellow vest, like a construction worker would wear, comes to study the xray. People are calm, barely watching, but I'm fascinated and don't take my eye off the scene. Nearly 10 minutes go by, a long time to stand still, while they study the xray.  All this time they make no move to touch the bag. It stays in the xray. Our side of the conveyor is crammed with the next lot of stuff to go through.  

A young official comes to announce that our zone is closed. As people grumble and scramble their way into the other queue, I notice an armed policemen - just one, but with a machine gun. He crosses behind the security check without even looking around, then goes thru a door by those new machines that can see thru your undies. We're all being drawn away from the area. I'm the last to get my stuff from the bins on the conveyor belt. As I'm picking them up, I hear one of the women at security say, "he's got something hidden in a false bottom of the case."

And that's it. Couldn't see or hear anything further.

This seems to me a very modern moment. Separated by hundreds of miles, and shortly by thousands, we can still communicate, instantly, our fears and our joys. Once, let us say 50 years or so ago, when daily BOAC flights to New York began, this story, or it's security variant, would have been remembered weeks later, once home. Or maybe it would have been written by letter. Now it is instant, terrifying, and then ok when 15 minutes later the On The Plane message arrives. An entire cycle over in less time than it takes Norbert and I to walk from Beat's to the Needle park.

We pass a youth centre, it was once another cause for concern - young people, poor young people, having a place to be. We walk on, I ask Norbert why Switzerland's neutrality was accepted in the Second World War.

We grew up with the story, it would have been too difficult to invade; the men would have gone into the mountains, guerilla war. It would have been like Tito's partisans in Yugoslavia, only even tougher for the Germans.

I too grew up with war stories, was "taught" in the 1970s the truths about Ireland.

Norbert points out the boat club. Once a year we send a hot soup to Strasbourg, down the river, the thing is it has to arrive hot. The Strasbourgers send something back, but we're not quite sure what. Fraternity on the Rhine, and all that. Good history, continuity.

"We lost our innocence about the war in the 1980s," Norbert says. "The stories started coming out. The deals that were struck with the Germans, the people who were sent back, the Jews, the quotas....The money in the banks, of course....The journalist who broke a lot of these stories killed himself. He just couldn't cope."

I wonder about the stories to come out of England from 2001 onwards. How many more to come? The rain still pours and we're out into the suburbs now, riverside. Norbert likes Berlin, likes its easy restlessness, its mutability. I think about the seemingly immutable Berlin, East and West, of the 1980s. Things do change.

We have lunch in a nunnery, of course. The Kloster Fahr. Fish on Friday, I joke. And cider. Later the rain stops and Norbert shows me where he played important high school soccer matches, and wrote match reports for a sports mag, rushing by engined-bike, I'm not sure what, perhaps a Swiss thing, to hand his copy to his editor on a Sunday afternoon. He's been taught a new massage technique, he has sessions on Mondays just before he plays football. If they go well he is Messi, if not just messy. The technique involved pushing into the pain with your fingers and then "thinking" the pain "soft". It can be very emotional, Norbert says.

By four it's raining again, we had sun for lunch, , we've lost our river and we're tired - and Baden is nowhere in sight.

Baden, Norbert says, is where upright Swiss Protestant Men came for hundreds of years. A canter down from Zurich, horseback or carriage. They came to stay in fine hotels, promenade in the park for show, then go off to prostitutes and gambling.

Ah, that old one. Of course Tommy has got very heated about the ladies of the Baden bath houses, and it seems he was not wrong. Protestant work ethic to Prostitute, as it were.

We are so lost Norbert knows where we are. We are close to the autobahn. In fact to the first over-road shopping mall built in Switzerland, the famous Raststahe at Wurenlos. We are wet and we ache. We buy iced tea and poisonous sweet drinks and wander though shops offering Armani and Swiss watches. It is surreal, if that phrase still means much. "When I was a kid and I saw the Raststahe I knew we were almost home," Norbert says. Today we have no such assurance.

We find the river, and hope that it is the right one, and just as nerves are fraying we bump into a gaggle of graffiti artists, who've taken the train, "ah, from somewhere" to cover a series of underpasses with paint in a town near Baden. The girls and boys work with great solemness; we are quickly cheered. Near now: a high school with large hilly grounds. Tonight it is decked out in thirty or so sound stages, "nightclubs", bars and restaurants, in cardboard mostly. It is Swiss Glee, meets Las Vegas via The Prisoner. Everyone looks so happy; the designs were done last term. Now it is the beginning of the new, two days of build, and tonight the show. [The downpour began about an hour later, we were somewhere else, but it did rain all night. At one point we did raise a glass to those poor kids.]

Baden may be famous for its industrial muscle and wealth as well as its baths, but the last few kilometres along the river are a nightmare of ups and downs from the riverbank. And it is truly pouring now. Whoever designed this bit of the route was a sadist. On the outskirts, a large building, built by the founder of ABB, once: tonight it is a wedding party, all crisp lines and perfume. We're so beat we can't even summon the spirit to crash it, though in another life...We find a bar, collapse, and realise it will be hard to ever get up again. Until I realise that Norbert is the odd man out at this busy bar: everyone else is English.

It is enough to propel me off to find our lodgings, though it hurts to walk there.

The youth hostel - yup, my first for about 42 years - is fantastic. On the river and with swipe card and clean and I am soon wondering where is the flatscreen and the pay for view porn. Norbert and I chill, dry out, change. He's got a friend who is directing a play here, in a temporary theatre close to the old railway station. A Greek guy, who is a genius and a professor at Edinburgh but has lived here in Baden 45 years, has loaned his office out to be the theatre.

It is almost intriguing. Norbert leads the way back up the hill, into the suburbs it seems. It is raining hellishly, as though we are being washed in preparation for purgatory. And then we are there: oh no. A temporary wooden structure, a few tables out, eight or so people. We start talking, they hush us. Food? Please food?

Yes, but quietly. The other side of a wooden wall actors rumble about; there is some screaming, but that may just be the inside of my head. Was it sausage? Who cares, the wine began to numb things.

When the play ends Norbert and I are at least cheered, if not a bit pissed. A flock of Saturday night theatre folk emerge. I light a cigarette, dream of beaches, and the next thing I know our entire trestle table has been taken over by elegant women of a certain age. All I can say is that 1) they are all friends, 2) come from many countries & 3) first met here in Baden in 1964 at the typing pool of ABB, one of the engines of the Swiss economy. I mean Big Engine, let's say Turbines. The girls' lingua franca is English.

"Ladies," I say, in British Timberlake, think Senorita, "Good evening."
At this point a lot of husbands appear and in German ask us to move, then to move up.

We are not moving an inch.

Vicky seems to be team leader, the orchestra leader and joker. When she came to Baden in 1964 she was already married to Tom. In fact they came, from Holland, because there they couldn't get a place to live. In Switzerland they got jobs, a house...and I suspect, then some.

Tom sits down next to me. He's well preserved and fun. He is an actor, he says. He's just been in the play, which sounds metaphorical and happiness heavy, or not. He lights up: I smoke when I act, he says. He's drinking a Sex on a Carrot.

I can wait to find out what he really is.

To get things going I suggest to Tom - an observation that is not without quite a lot of foundation - that his wife is very reminiscent of a character in a James Bond film with a Swiss connection. I sense Norbert tensing: he has seen this sort of thing before.

"Pussy Galore." Vicky looks rather pleased.
"I thought you were going to say Mrs Moneypenny," says Tom.

As if.

Tom has a story about Mrs Moneypenny, but we are finally up and running. Norbert and Vicky are nattering away about all sorts.

"I've done business in 76 countries for ABB," Tom says. He trained as an engineer, these days he has "communications businesses" - which I think his daughter runs. Tom's father was a journalist, in Holland. There were problems in the war.

Tom tells a story about working for Onasis, then for the Vietnamese Leadership, three years after the end of Vietnam War. Then Libya. Hard in Libya he says. He talks about all sorts of things. "Do you remember the Fifth Man? You know, after Burgess, MacLean, Philby and Blunt [the English spy ring for the Soviet Union]?

Cairncross, I say. John Cairncross.

Yes, that's right, I had a couple of Camparis with him in Provence. He was with a young opera singer. Very young.

Tom and Vicky lived in Jamaica for a while; Brazil. There was a whole new world to be built in the 1960s, all over the world. And when they'd helped do that Tom and Vicky came "home" to Baden. It all feels like Ayn Rand has Rewritten Mad Men for a European Audience. It is breathtaking, so the wine helps dull my amazement.

A young man with floppy hair comes over to introduce himself: he did the publicity for the play. He's a friend of David, the Director - who Norbert met in Beat's bar back in Zurich. Soon, I am sure, we will all be connected by Facebook.

The young man sticks out a hand. "Hello, I am Ferris Buhler," he says.
I did in fact say: "And I am John Hughes."
Of which I am sneakily proud, even if Ferris doesn't smile.
Andy Buhler, PR, was in Los Angles recording the audiobook to his self-help book, when a "guy" said he wouldn't get famous unless he had a better name. Now Andy is Ferris, and he never has a day off.

Ferris explains what is wrong with traditional marketing strategies, and talks about - well, actually I tuned out and went back to Pussy Galore who is cracking gags, organising female pilots to take out Fort Knox, and...well, having fun.

"This is my wife," Ferris says, introducing me to a young dark haired woman. "We met on Skype. She is from Vilnius, I said: come to Switzerland. She came. We have a child now."

Norbert and I must have blagged and smoked cigarettes from all known brands and types. In the Youth Hostel Morning, stumbling for Breakfast, my cough is so volcanic its ash could close down European Air Traffic Control.

Our Ladies and their Rich Husbands leave for what Norbert and I imagine to be Castles, and I'm not sure we're not entirely wrong.

She was quite a woman, Norbert says. We speculate on her age, then say a silent prayer that we are as hot as her at that age. As I snuggle under a thin duvet on the bottom rung of a bunk bead listening to the rain howl down on the river, I raise a toast to Pussy Galore of Baden. Tom Coryate, I am sure, would have enjoyed meeting her too.

Monday, 30 August 2010

I Belong to the Beat Generation

Beat has a theory about travel. Beat is a winning Swiss-German combination of Eric Cantona, the French footballer turned actor-intellectual, Falstaff, and Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film critic. He runs a bar, the Andorra, named after the play of the same name by Max Frisch, something of a hero in these Zurich parts. We only have Frisch and Durrenmatt, he says, you have hundreds of writers.

We also, of course, have David Hare.

There's a line in Andorra that it's a place where everyone is welcome; it seems that way from last night. And I am staying in his pad, which is playing out a bit like The Odd Couple mixed with Billion Dollar Brain. And what is there not to like about that?

Anyway, Beat's theory is this: you go somewhere, a city, for a holiday. Instead of rushing around to all the churches and museums and parks you find a cafe, a seat, and you sit down with your smoke of choice and your drink as seems fitting and you watch. Theatre comes to you, or at least you watch it pass you by. He cites the Latin quarter of Paris, the Marais. Why not?

I've been to Zurich many times, that taxi from the airport to the Swiss hotel, dinner reception, do the interview/conference thing. I don't want to do it again. Instead, my Zurich starts early with the church bells and sunlight streaming through a small eave window just to the right of my bed. I stagger to the terrace and it's about 7-ish and the morning sun is bright over the churches and the Limmat river and the hills in the distance. I'm not going that far. I'm tired, for a start, and there is a lot more walking to come.

Out of Beat's front door and onto Münstergasse, the cafe Schwarzenbach is approximately 30 cm away. I trip over table three opening my front door. I've been out late discussing Swiss graphic design, and read in bed, slept maybe three hours. I need a coffee break and a read. And, ultimately, I spend most of my day here, with excursions to Tom's churches, and in homage to Max Frisch to the Schauspielhaus where his great plays were and are still are performed. It's not far, past the church, up the antiquarian bookshop street, right past the art gallery and Thomas Struth exhibition.

I try and get to see the stage at the Schauspielhaus, but the administrator says it's just a big old red theatre, we're setting up for the autumn season. Come back in mid September.

Anyway, I have paid homage. I ask about the swimming baths that Max Frisch designed in the 1950s, when he was still an architect. Classic Sixties, she says, Though they have refurbished recently, you should see. I do my churches; wander the Kunshaus...

Back to the cafe Schwarzenbach I read and write, and watch Beat Generation Style, the Zurich world; that part which isn't glitzy or investment banky or overly pierced, that is. So I get to meet a brother-sister combo from Norfolk who are doing Europe in two months. Yesterday, whenever it was, was Prague, where there was a great bar, recommended by the people in the hostel, which was unusual because often the people in the hostels are not so friendly. 16 hrs, and now four in Zurich, before - before, well, I think, before who fucking cares really?

Two women, brown-bronze, thin, an age. Yoga teachers here for a special workshop tomorrow. Bikram? No, our heat is from "within". There's an electronic festival in Bern, I learn.

At the antiquarian booksellers I ask about Tom. Tom and his book. Because he was such a pioneer, because he was roughly 150 years ahead of the Grand Tour game, his book - dismissed at the time - was picked up by the aristo-travellers of the mid eighteenth century and often torn, page by page, as they whored their way around western Europe.

They shopped as well, of course. Mostly for art.

We search the database. Nothing.

In the afternoon I read Goethe and drink coffee. A tall black shaven haired American with a pretty Swiss woman sits down. He talks Laconic Paternalist, in slow bursts. He wants soi, accepts jasmine tea. But mostly he's about iconic Mount Rushmore Musings. His shoes are white Prada. She is in All White; blonde. He mentions his aversion to the colour blue.

There is a dissuasion about the grain available in the bread. No, we wont eat. Shall we go and look at the puppies [there is a pet shop opposite]. I know you wanna.

Rushmore walks like John Wayne.

Beat's kids are sitting in the bar at Andorra, whilst he fixes it up for opening. They live with their mum, not so far away. Lovely kids, they're a bit frightened by me. I would be too. The staff can't put out all the Andorra tables in the street until the petshop closes and there's plenty of post-work people that want to hang with the rabbits. And the puppies. Rushmore told blondie that his antagonism with his mother began with an argument about The Dog.

Julie has been my waitress all day; she's off to see her boyfriend on the next train out of the centre. She's Austrian, from Graz, like her boyfriend who is a tennis teacher. He's the same age as Federer. 28. Old. He was a pro, went everywhere, but unless you make it, that's far too old to be on the circuit. Now he teaches in Zurich, There are people who will pay big time to train their kids. They start at 2 or 3. I keep thinking of my razor, which Federer, Thierry Henry and Tiger Woods so recently promoted. It's the Big Roger on his own these days, Switzerland's finest. Henry's divorced and in New York, slumming. Of Tiger I have no clue. Julie followed her boy from Graz, pays for her own way whilst she studies literature and art history here in Zurich. I couldn't just ask my parents, so I work hard now, and I still work during term, she says. Literature is taught in English; post-colonialism, Rushdie, Achabe; there's John Milton too...

Julie had a period in Australia, loved it, the sporting life, the surf, diving. They've just been to Biarritz, for the surf.

But I couldn't stay in Australia, in Melbourne. In the end I missed the mountains.

Is it true they are alive?

Oh, absolutely. Julie has to go: she's promised to Skype her mom. In two days she will be 21.

I've bought a nice bottle of red for Beat's rooftop dinner party; now to see if it is ok. Norbert has arrived from his newspaper workshop, and it went well. Upstairs on the roof Beat is grilling the steaks. The view across old Zurich is wonderful; the wine is out; there are beers in a cooler, starters. Table clothes. Napkins.

It is hard to believe women will not be involved in our evening. But this is a Boy's Night, Zurich style. We start.

Norbert tells me about the cafe, and its shop, full of fine foods. It's been here since 1864, and it is a family thing. A long time ago, when he was making corporate videos, Norbert did a shoot. "Chocolate, do you want to know about chocolate," he asks.

Once it was a poor persons' food, for energy. And then one day Mr Lindt - Norbert points across our Zurich horizon, past the church spires, to the east - invents a machine that whisks the chocolate and he adds some milk. And he merges with Mr.Sprungli (no accents on this IPAD, sorry boys) and Makes Chocolate. It's a sort of Swiss Mad Men Moment. Chocolate goes from being the food of the poor to the luxury end.

We talk football, Beat is Zurich, solid working class team, and with a maternal dispensation, having a German mother, he also gets to win things by supporting Bayern Munich. He does a good impression of being in Barcelona the night that Bayern lost to Manchester United - 1999, I think. Another Life. Football as Religion.

Norbert tests me on my day: points at the church spires in front of us, and says: the Chagall stained glass. Ding. The biggest clock face in Europe. Dong.

Very good, he says. Roli arrives. Roli is a graphic designer, teaches at the college here, and an artist. In 2001, as part of his degree work, he walked with another designer, an Englishman, from their secondment in Barcelona, to their next in Winchester, England. Six and a half weeks. 1,284,000 steps (they had step meters in their shoes). His partner made pin-hole cameras out of the film boxes. They had a mock up art gallery, they'd unfurl in villages, ask locals to show their work. But Roli's lost track of his friend. He was a drinker. Still is, badly so. Roli doesn't even know where he is now. Somewhere in London. A loss.

I'm thinking around now about Tom's nights; his dinner chats: did he use his London after-dinner speaker skills? I know I am trying to use mine. Our night is going so smoothly, steaks followed by chicken, then Swiss sausage. Jesus I am dying. The conversation moves back to our view. Norbert says: Tom would have spent his evenings asking for advice, for information. What animals on the next bit, where to turn. What signs to look out for, what river.

Yes, dinner as Google, that makes sense.

Roli wants to talk clocks. Ok, he says, why clocks on the Church spires?

So the church owns time, I say.

Discussion follows.

In Switzerland the mountains are alive, the churches and their reach, their communication by bell, by echo - by the famous Swiss horns - denote safe. If you can hear the bell, or see the spire, then the monsters of the mountains won't come.

So what about the clocks? Surely they are to control as well; to summon, to wake, to emphasise God when - the 16th century man or woman arranges a meeting - things happen. There's more: all four of us have been to Istanbul, have all been amazed by the Muezzin call. It's a form of media.

This is what the bells did, and the clocks. The discussion goes on; much later Roli is still talking about it as Grappa leads on to taxis for him and Norbert. We haven't cracked it.

After sausage and before coffee the heavens open and a torrential rain begins. It will last all night and still be hammering down when Norbert arrives under umbrella (the tool that Tom brought home to England from Italy) at 9.30 next morning.

This is a great shame, says Beat.
We'll be fine, I say.
Yes, but what about your glamorous haircut?


Norbert's sister went to be a circus chef when she was 19. Now she's been running the circus for almost 30 years. She married in. Today, he thinks, she's setting up in Chur. We talk parents for a while.

Inside Beat and I talk movies over grappa. He says I have not seen the funniest movie ever made. To Be or Not to Be. Mel Brookes, I say.

Lubitsch. Says Beat. The speed of the dialogue. Beat has about 10,000 DVDs. He cites Kind Hearts and Coronets, the Front Page, the Philadelphia story. It's late and we're onto Once Upon a Time in America, and the East German film posters for it that Beat has.

I'm struck by how comfortable our boyz evening has been; it wouldn't be the same with so many men in England.

In the morning Beat decides he doesn't want to take a coffee with a Grasshoppers fan, they are too posh. Later, as we are walking out of town, and after the Youth Club has been explained, Norbert - a Grasshoppers fan, obviously - will say that rather than posh, they are a "thinkers" team. Ah, football.

Tomorrow Baden, walking for the first time with someone else. Cool.