Bad Ragaz is utterly still, deader than ever, at 6.30am. There’s nothing open for water or buns, and the hotel I’m staying in will no doubt put out a search party for Bambi, or anyone else involved with its miraculously people-free accommodation skills.
I’m headed for Walenstadt, where Tom took a barge across the Wallensee lake and then shimmied up small rivers to Zurich. It’s about – it’s always about – 25 kilometres away, and I’ve moved off the reassuring Rhine and so am interested in my navigating skills, and those of the IPAD.
I have to say the Swiss do Good Sign. Later in Zurich a pair of late night graphic designers will tell that despite the historic and continuing excellence of Swiss typefaces and typography the Zurich Client is likely to say: “we want whatever is in London.”
The signs for us walkers, cyclists, roller-skaters and even once penguins, are great and always give the distance in time, a point that Tom notices 400 years ago. Of course the debate starts here, in a couple of days I am discussing with Norbert whether it is better to know that it is 20 kilometres to go, or four hours. “Four hours,” Norbert says, “means you can know if you’ll get there before dark, or the church service, or the closing of the city gates.
But what speed do the signs represent?
It doesn’t matter, you learn that four hours means two hour, or six.
And so time twists its expanding universe around the valleys of Switzerland.
I’m soon in flat farmland near the river and I’m sticking hard to the banks, avoiding hills. I’ve found some water and old croissants in a petrol station, and I’ve checked out the larger suburban chalets, from which – as from the farm houses later – ridiculously small children emerge ladened with backpack, to catch the school mini-bus. My, they start early. It could be New York.
The valley I’m walking down to Walenstadt has proper stage-set high mountains, spectacular things that utterly dwarf the hill villages on the horizons. Riverside factories come and go; roller-skaters pass me, dogs growl and I see plenty of shooting ranges. On Saturday Roli tells me that anyone currently in the army, and Switzerland still has conscription, more later, has to practice shooting a specific number of times per year. In Brugg he points out a notice on a council board, giving the dates.
But I’m only aiming for the 11.20 boat from Walenstadt to Wessen, and hour and a bit of a lake ride. It’s the northern most stop of the Wallensee. I feel very blond and teutonic today, though when I sit down to eat lunch at Walenstadt, because I miss my boat by five minutes, I still feel self-conscious among the soldiers, locals, Japanese tourists who’ve just done a car tour of “Heidiland” – the valley is even signposted as Heidiland, and when I first post this on Facebook a friend asks if I’ve had any goat’s milk yet. Answer no: I’m on a coffee and fags diet, still.
I sit in the harbour and wait for the 2.00 boat; a few soldiers and a couple of locals sunbathe, and the dogs try and swim as fast as the swans. No chance. The clouds do something amazing above the mountains, a blue and white zebra crossing of foaminess.
Everything is even more blue-eyed and blond and I begin to blend in. The Walensee has the same vibe as Lake Como, back down the Splugen and the San Marco passes in ClooneyLand. The boat makes a series of zig-zag steps across the lake, throwing out the most stunning vistas. Tom writes that there was a huge wooden bridge across this lake. It’s gone now, and would have really been something.
We pick up more people along the way and by Wessen we are full to disembark. There is a bus to the railway station @ Zeigelbrucke, but I decide to walk: Tom took his barge down a tributary all the way to Zurich, I feel justified in taking the train from Zeidelbrucke, but I damned if I’m going to catch the bus as well.
It gives me the chance to do Cary Grant impressions down long fields of corn, whilst crop planes fly overhead. But the biggest danger, as ever, is the BMW driver on his/her phone.
I use my map app to get from Zurich HB to the Andorra bar, in the gentrified, but not Abramovitch’d, old town near to the Limmat river. Just off Limmat quay, I turn left and walk up to an old paved street, pass the club where the Cabaret Voltaire launched in 1916, pause to take a nod to Dada, and see the Andorra bar, amidst a bunch of places, fifty metres ahead. Norbert is sitting outside, in front of a pet shop, with a beer. He’s fidling with his IPhone. Soon we are having a haven’t seen you for twelve years conversation.
In the early years of the web Norbert ran a very cool Interactive Newspapers conference in Zurich every November. He very kindly invited me for five or six years. The first time to give a keynote, alongside a Very Grand German Publisher who’d flown in his jet from Paris and spoke a lot about his kids in the lab and the wonders of The Renaissance. The crowd asked me to slow down, it was my first public speech and I was pumped to explain why everybody was wrong.
In later years Norbert asked me to do something else: to sit at the back and then ask to hard questions that everyone else was to polite to contemplate. It is fair to say not everybody loved me. But then in those days there was this idea that newspapers could make Croesus millions online.
Norbert has a workshop with a large regional Swiss newspaper tomorrow. He introduces me to Beat, the bar owner, who has a Boy’s Own Bachelor Pad opposite, complete with roof terrance with just fantastic Rear Window views and a panorama across Old Zurich and its churches. Tomorrow night Dinner Party, Beat says. He has about 10,000 DVDs in his living room and the whole apartment is a shrine to movies, Once Upon a Time in the West seeming to get most poster action, including a rare East German poster from the 80s. Friends of Beat like to play a game where he leaves the room, somebody removes one DVD and then he has 60 seconds to guess which.
He’s never lost.
We all talk for hours. Beat tells us that at one of the bars down the road a tourist has asked, “Where is the non-smoking outdoor terrace.”
“She was lucky not to be clubbed to death,” Beat says. The laws about smoking inside bars only changed a couple of months ago, and Switzerland or certainly Zurich is still a city of Karsh Smoke Images.
We’re having a sort of boy-man (of 51, Norbert and I discover we are the same age) conversation about all those topics of middle age. We’ve all moved some distance from 1998. Norbert lives in Berlin now, in what was East Germany. A hip area where things change from week to week. We go back to the optimism of the early days of the web, of online newspapers: the hope, the hype, the lies and the genuine successes. These days, until in fact the arrival of the “app” and the idea that with mobile internet, accessed via a paid for app, there might be hope for a financial future for online media, the reality is desperation in the newspaper world of print. Actually the Swiss still buy print in large enough numbers, the papers are regional, and local, and read and mean something.
“I woke up about four years ago turned on my laptop and thought – my screen is so flat, everything is the same.” Norbert says. “There’s no nuance, nothing subtle. I read many, many more books now.”
He’s been reading about neuroscience, as have I. He talks about the stimulus to certain parts of the brain when we mirror the actions of others. “We need other people, the whole experiment we’ve lived through about the individual – it’s failed. Or rather if it doesn’t fail then it’s all over for us all.”
Beat has been to see his youngest son, who lives nearby with his mother. It is his first day of school. “I told him that the great thing about school is that it is a countdown to Life,” he says.
In Switzerland, Norbert says, education is about making you “something” rather than encouraging the curious. But we need the curious. We need more than the flat, annihilating computer screen. We’ll talk more, I’m sure. A happy first reunion.
The guys go to bed and I read Goethe’s Autobiography on the IPAD. The young years; the intensely curious years. The fights with rote-learning teachers and personal tutors, the explorations of the Classics, Hebrew, art – people. Perhaps it is Goethe’s particular genius to make this all seem fun. What price the Angry Birds game app now number one on the free downloads?
The light streams into my top floor bedroom at 6am, and the bells from the churches are made especially loud by their proximity, and the height I’m at. I stagger to the roof terrace and have a look around. In high rooms office work is starting by 7am. Hollywood Zurich style has replaced Heidiland and I am in a Big City for the first time in a week.