Pushing the Limits of Art and Bread Consumption in Zürich
This weekend that I am writing about was not this weekend, but a weekend two weeks ago. This weekend was a weekend in June. This weekend was one of those weekends where everything seems normal, and then everything is just absurd. You know, like when you open the blinds and there’s a skunk eating a cheesecake on your porch. Just me? That’s fine. Scroll on, dear reader, and let me tell you about Zürich.
For me, this was one of those ill-prepared trips where I had counted on everyone else to plan things to do, because I was too busy not planning things to do. I did request a place to stay on Couchsurfing.com, a website I’d never used before despite having made an account a year or two ago. Incidentally, I logged in a few weeks ago because I got a request from someone wanting to stay in New Haven, and saw that I also missed out on hosting an Egyptian archaeologist (an archaeologist from Egypt), and a guy with a “chill indie band” from Dallas, who I guess were not discouraged by the fact that I had no home listed on the website.
Anyway, five of us Americans planned to stay with a guy named Stefan who had over a hundred positive reviews from confirmed guests, so it wasn’t sketchy or anything. Don’t worry. This isn’t a story about that.
So. On Saturday, all of us Americans piled into a train and took off for Zürich, but at only a moderate pace because the express trains are too rich for our taste. We spent much of the afternoon doing various things, like walking around and eating food and going in churches and towers and being denied entrance to churches because of many fancy weddings that were happening. Everyone we saw was very fancy, actually. I felt way underdressed for Zürich. We also crowded under the overhang of a church that was closed for a wedding with a bunch of other random people during a rainstorm that went from zero to 5000000 in five seconds flat.
We also followed the advice of our couchsurfing host, Stefan, who very kindly met us at the train station to give us maps and advice before leaving town for the afternoon. He said that you should feel free to just go into any fancy house in Zürich and ask for a tour, and usually people will be happy to oblige, even if it’s just their house. So we went into this place
which could have been anything but turned out to actually contain a museum and a bowl of free matchboxes, surprisingly.
There was also a dance recital about to take place, and we got briefly trapped inside by the crowd of dance moms trying to come in through the front door for the recital. Oops.
Below are some photos of beautiful Lake Zürich, and also the city itself. I’ve realized that all the photos I’ve ever taken of cities look the same because it’s always cloudy, but maybe you’ll enjoy them anyway.
Here’s a picture of arguably the fanciest water fountain I’ve ever seen.
So, we mostly wandered around and went to a flea market where I had a lot of miscommunication with the vendor of some nice pocketknives and also ate some kind of tasty meat dumpling product. We also went to a small art gallery which featured an exhibit of quilts made of photos taken every day by the artist, either along her walking route or related to her daily life in some other way. It was a really interesting and beautiful idea, and also reminded me of the time I tried to take a picture every day for a year. I started on January 1 and got like halfway through February. You can actually still see it here if you’re interested in looking at a bunch of very terribly edited and weirdly yellow-tinted photos from my freshman year of college.
Moving on. After sadly watching Switzerland lose their soccer match through the windows of various bars and cafes, we had fondue for dinner at a Swiss restaurant for tourists. This was a shocking experience for me because I learned that not only do I actually hate fondue, but even the very smell of it makes me kind of nauseous. This was consistent over the whole weekend – whenever we walked by a fondue place, I just did not want any food at all. I am highly disappointed in myself and the melted cheese that runs through my Wisconsin veins. Dishonor on me, dishonor on my family, dishonor on my cow. Especially my cow, because she will never contribute to a fondue.
After dinner, several of us wanted to try absinthe, because we had heard it was a Zürich thing. So we went to this place we’d seen earlier called Cabaret Voltaire, where the Dadaist art movement started. We knew this because of the sign that said “This is where the Dadaist art movement started” or something like that in German.
It just seemed like the kind of place that would have absinthe (there was some in their shop downstairs, actually), but upon talking to the bartender I found out that it was actually an absinthe bar. The bartender was super nice and understanding of our general ignorance of alcohol, and served us the house absinthe, a “mild” one compared to the kind that’s 160 proof.
It was still kind of horrible, possibly because half of us got gin cocktails called the Dada Sour with thyme syrup and a little absinthe while the other half, myself included, got absinthe and water on the rocks. Gin cocktails with thyme are much more delicious than plain absinthe, which tastes like sweetish yet bitter and chalky fennel punching you in the throat. Mmm.
Anyway, here’s the exciting part. My friend Aditi was going to ask the bartender something, and while she waited to talk to him some lady asked her if she was performing. So she was like “what” and the lady proceeded to tell her about this group called Manifesta that was doing a performance later that night, and how you could perform anything you liked and then join the guild of artists and go to the official performance. Aditi came back and told all of us about this – it was actually more complicated, because of something called “joint ventures” and some paperwork you had to fill out before you performed. I realized immediately it was the kind of thing I would both hate to do and really wish I had done after I’d passed up the opportunity, so after we’d sorted out all the details and I felt like I understood the whole venture I committed to doing it with Aditi. Everyone else decided they were cool with not performing, so the only thing left was to decide what to do, and then do it. We ended up deciding to act out our daily routines (Aditi’s idea, which I really liked). We named our performance Maximum Depth as a reference to recursion, because I wanted it to speak to the feeling of being trapped in a monotonous cycle of daily mundane tasks and Aditi is a computer science nerd. This also seemed to fit well with the philosophy of Dadaism, which (as I understand it) is that life has no meaning, so art shouldn’t have a meaning either. Except this had a meaning, kind of. But the meaning was about meaninglessness. Hmmm.
So we took up our absinthe glasses and brought our paperwork (which mostly consisted of colored pencil drawings) to this guy behind a curtain at the back of the bar, where we registered to perform, I guess? It was all very confusing. Then we went through a sliding curtain panel into the Guild Hall (ooh) and this guy was like oh great! You’re here to perform! Go right on up!
The guild hall was a fairly small dark space, with a little door to a courtyard, a platform for seating, and a small stage, with black curtains all around. The ceiling was much lower in the seating area than on the stage, which I did not pay attention to, so I hit my head on the ceiling going up the stairs to the stage. Fortunately, there were only about five people in the room at the time. As we went through our completely improvised two-minute performance, however, about fifteen more people showed up. The perfectionist in me found a lot of things afterward that I wish I had done differently, but people clapped at the end, and I enjoyed the experience quite a bit.
Aditi and I watched a ridiculously hipster couple from Brooklyn do a performance right after us, and then we went to get our membership cards
Which are FOIL EMBOSSED, hooray. All I’ve ever wanted in my life is a foil-embossed membership card. After touching base with the rest of our group and taking advantage of the discounted beer price for guild members, we went back to the guild hall for the main performance. It consisted of a guy sitting on the far left of the stage interviewing a lady about her career as a pole dancer, which was actually really interesting and fine until she was like “Imma take off my dress now,” at which point we were like “nope we’re out.” Here is a photo of the stairwell down from the main bar, which I enjoyed looking at while we finished our beers safely outside the guild hall.
Also, this place was so cool they didn’t even label the restrooms with actual restroom things. Just names of artists, probably, because Marcel was definitely a Dadaist. Dunno about Tristan though.
If you’re interested, here’s the website of Cabaret Voltaire. It’s definitely a pretty interesting place, and all my artist and Dada-enthusiast friends would probably appreciate it a lot more than I was able to (though I had a great time).
After all this nonsense, as though that weren’t enough, we went to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) for this annual summer dance party. But not just any train station dance party. There were CHANDELIERS in this train station, people. There was an orchestra.
We watched a very impressive vaguely grocery-store-themed performance of music and dance through the decades (starting in the 40s), which I confess was probably much more suited to my taste than the Dada stuff. The quick costume changes were impressive in themselves, as was the commitment to being vaguely grocery-store-themed in every decade in honor of the dance’s sponsor – Migros, a large Swiss grocery store chain.
After all that, we went to Stefan’s apartment, where he had left a key in the mailbox and left out lots of blankets and pillows in his living room. I am so amazed by the trust and generosity of the Couchsurfing community – this guy had literally met us for ten minutes and just gave us access to his apartment in the middle of the night when he wasn’t even back yet. I literally had no credentials except a reference from my roommate Lucy that says I am very knowledgeable about topics like Kentucky and identifying edible vegetation, and that you should not tell me your credit card number because I have a good memory and I will remember it. Which is probably not true, but I appreciate the sentiment.
In the morning, we finally had some time to talk, and he made us a delicious breakfast of Butterzopf (a challah-like bread that according to Stefan is 90% butter), various Swiss cheeses, jams, and a syrup made from pine sap that can only be ordered online from Stefan’s hometown. After breakfast, most of us went hiking with Stefan and his roommate up Zürich’s only “mountain” (the tourism website literally calls it a “mountain” in quotes), where we played a wonderful card game called Frantik while looking out over Lake Zürich.
The best part after we finished our hike was riding the Swiss Milk tram, a city tram sponsored by Swiss Milk. It features a lot of pictures of cute calves, and a screen playing a loop video of a Swiss soccer player and a cow playing soccer.
After this, we all made use of our remaining hour or so in different ways – I mostly peeked at the Irish soccer game through the window of a fancy restaurant (they lost). All in all, it was a lovely weekend. The main things I took away from the whole thing were:
- A weird feeling about the pointlessness of my daily life, after having acted it out on stage. It definitely started feeling more like all I do is sleep and get ready for the day and eat food and take the train and work and eat food and work and take the train and eat food and get ready for bed and sleep. I don’t want to feel like I spend my life getting ready and commuting, so since this performance I’ve been trying to make the most of that time in productive ways.
- A sense of amazement at the generosity of random strangers. I realized when we arrived back in Stuttgart that I had left my rain jacket at Stefan’s apartment, and I messaged him on Couchsurfing to ask about it, telling him to keep the money that was in the pocket for shipping if he would be willing to ship it. Not only did he leave the money in the pocket, but he also shipped me a Frantik game with the jacket, paying 12 francs for shipping on top of the fairly exorbitant price of the game (24.90 on the sticker). I am amazed at this kindness and thoughtfulness, and it is encouraging to know there are people like Stefan in the world.
So. There’s a long and rambly story for ya. I hope you enjoyed some of it. I’m going to go get ready for bed and then sleep and then get ready and eat food and take the train and work… and then go to a barbecue, because things are actually pretty fun 🙂 And people in the lab are really into barbecues. More on that later, maybe.
Butterzopf and foil embossing,