"In Search Of Home"~ Zurich Travelogues   Leave a comment

In Search of Home – travelogues by Deepti Gujar – Part I

Acknowledgements

To the many friends – old and new, flat mates and colleagues who gave me the breakdowns and the breakthroughs, the wonderful night outs and made that trip full of lessons worth a lifetime! 🙂

Foreword

How do you feel six months into a relationship with someone with whom there is an incredible connection and a love at first sight? I was in this state dually. One, because this was exactly how I was in a relationship with the land that is the heartbeat of Europe – something that brings to mind the German DW channel’s tagline – Aus der mitte europas – and two, because this was also exactly how I was in a relationship with the man of my dreams I met there. It was parallel romances, parallel passions, parallel explorations and parallel sunsets amid a rollercoaster of work. Would it be justified if I said this was a business trip, since it was far more exciting than what this term means to those who have experienced one in a usual corporate setup?

I am an erstwhile software engineer with the only distinction of being a highly curious one and succeeding in differing as one. This was an onsite trip that lasted a mere nine months, but which resulted into a complete change of course in my life.

Visiting a place as a tourist and inhabiting it are two ends of a spectrum in terms of travel as well as attitude. Both have their pros and cons. If I were to visit Zuerich (‘zürich’ with the two dots over letter ‘u’ called the umlaut in German is often spelt ‘zuerich’ since letters with the umlaut are often replaced by the consonant succeeded by an ‘e’ to write it in regular script and yet maintain the essence of the pronunciation) as a tourist next time, I would feel a nagging emptiness that could take some getting used to, especially if I have to go sauntering around the Hauptbahnhoff(main train station) – called HB – instead of having the noise of a deadline to meet or office to reach at the back of my mind. It also might be terribly disconcerting not earning in Swiss Francs while shopping and travelling in Switzerland, often touted to be an expensive affair – a pinch I was insulated from as an inhabitant while enjoying my touristy splurges with uncontained naïve enthusiasm. On the bright side I might be able to visit the Rheinfalls with company this time, instead of being alone and might actually sum up the courage to ‘see’ it without running back halfway, panicked by the phobia of waterfalls. There ceases to be more than this reason however. Truthfully, in my heart, going back to Zuerich would be going back ‘home’. It would be homecoming to walk down the Bahnhoff, greeted by its warmth of being ensconced amid its confusing levels and yet be able to remember the way around. I can almost feel my heart-strings tug as I imagine myself approaching Valentino’s, my favorite Italian take away pizzeria on the second level, infusing the encapsulated air with the smell of warm bread against the melting cheese and tomato, seducing and temporarily satiating like a hot-blooded concubine who knows enough about keeping you in bed for the night and yet be discreet enough to leave room for a true lover’s passion.

This is simply a rendition of feelings interwoven with the idiosyncrasies of Switzerland, a place that gives you a pristine, picturesque landscape, expansive enough to build memories, if not homes. Finally, people maketh the journey…sometimes even by absence they punctuate the essence of a place. The names of my colleagues and my lover have been changed not only out of respect for their identity, but because no one wants to have their life affairs put up in the pages of a book. But you all know where you have featured in this story. Some of you, my ex-colleagues especially, might want to send me an angry mail but before you do that here is my apology: All that time we spent together in not-so-flattering ways or in utterly delightful ways (which you would like to keep secret) is as much my memory as yours. I have etched out my life in these pages with one intention – to look back and laugh at the puerile behavior and the naïveté of those many firsts. I hope you enjoy seeing it as just a character in just another story rather than take it personally, because if there is anything I have learnt in these years after coming back, it is to not hold up anyone’s behavior against the wonderful people they truly are!

Thank You for being so incredible and wonderful!

Here is a sneak peek into those incredible, life-altering 9 months of my life.

Chapter-1: Kultur aktuell

I was very fortunate to travel to Europe for the first time in my life with the one (and only) colleague with whom I shared a great camaraderie, and who had already been to Zuerich earlier. As soon as I started taking tips from Raj (let’s start with the Dilwale Dulhaniya… character-name although this is nowhere that story) as to what to take along with me from India, I knew he was a great companion and loved die Schweiz. The moment we landed in the cold, freezing darkness of the Flughafen (airport), I was intimidated by both the weather and huge barrenness of the airport. My friend, on the contrary, had the happy feeling of having just returned ‘home’. We were out of the airport, waiting in queue for a taxi – a queue with no one but us at the early hour of 6 o’clock on the Sunday morning of April 23, 2007 when the daylight savings time had ushered in spring time by gaining back its winter hour. As I huddled into the taxi, Raj started speaking to the cab driver who understood only Deutsch (German), rather schweizertuetsch or Swiss German as they call it there, in enough nouns to be understood where we were to be taken – a set of serviced apartments. As the taxi started, he pointed out the GPRS system the cab had, where the cabbie punched in the starting letters of the strasse (street) where we were to go and the street number after which the screen revealed a real-time roadmap of directions from where we were parked. I found that pretty awesome! It was a bit disconcerting however that inspite of that, after a certain point the driver would ask us to confirm left/right (in German!) which thankfully Raj knew, having stayed there on his earlier stint. I must admit I was impressed that after almost 5 years Raj not only remembered the directions to this apartment where he had lived earlier, but also remembered “links” and “rechts” auf Deutsch! I could make nothing out of this strange, quiet, dauntingly uninhabited land devoid of a soul on the streets as the taxi made its way through. In hindsight I realized that was probably because in India there were always the beggars and drunks and errant drivers in any city at any hour during the night.

Home Sweet Home!

When Raj chivalrously lugged my huge cargo bag up the 3 floors to the serviced apartment (during my entire stint I had not only not seen a single apartment building with an elevator, or an apartment building over four stories high) where I was to stay (with four unfamiliar female colleagues whom I knew just by face or project work), I was struck by how spacious and simple the 2BHK apartment was. This is where the idiosyncrasies of Switzerland started. In the language of serviced apartments, a 2BHK here meant 2 bedrooms, a hall, a kitchen AND a guest room. The floor was parquet – beige wooden planks, that made the ‘homely’ sounds faintly reminding me of the Enid Blyton attics and on the flip side subjected us to the disgraceful sounds of the male colleagues staying in the apartment right above us, especially when they played football (and inevitably breaking a few things there which had made them, I daresay ‘Indians’, the ‘black sheep’ for the private company running the serviced apartments). Even more audible was when they plunked their heavy feet onto the floor each morning and dragged themselves to the bathroom and the most comical of all, the flush of the toilets! Not that I had the luxury of sleeping with earplugs, since the first few weeks there during my ‘normal’ sleeping hours of 11pm I felt like a loud block of silence was placed claustrophobically upon my ears. I remember a time during one of these early days when I had slept almost empty stomached and had woken up in the resoundingly dark awning of a silent night screaming, and had completely freaked out my roommate who shared not just the bed, but also the double-bed quilt with me (thanks to the uneager ladies servicing our apartment once a week ‘forgetting’ to get us separate quilts). I still gag with laughter as I recollect her suspended, electrified expression with wild bushy hair upright as she stared at me not knowing what had exactly awakened her or where she was on the planet!

Coming back to the aesthetics, the curtains were white net and overlooked a narrow street across which there was a Carslberg bar famous in that area. Funnily enough, I was expecting snowy Alps to grace my view from the French door that opened up the guest room. But I should have looked up the geography of Zuerich to have expected that!

Down to basics:

Talking about geography, Zuerich is a canton. A canton for me was the Indian equivalent of a taluka and Zuerich as a city in the canton was divided into areas called “zones”. The main city area was the Zone 21. However within the zones there were “stops” or stations. This is identical to Mumbai as a city having “stops” or stations such as Bandra, Dadar, etc. I was staying in Zone 21 in a ‘station’ called Oerlikon which was just one stop away by train to the main station i.e. Zuerich HB (Haupt Bahnhoff – main station).

Back at the apartment, the bathroom was indeed the piece de resistance. It was all spotless white, with a beautiful, huge, creamy ceramic bathtub which was definitely a luxury for all the girls at the apartment.

The only thing eventful other than our arrival that first Sunday was the brunch at Burger King followed by a visit to the Bahnhoff in the afternoon. It was at Burger King where I first became acutely aware of the language barrier. The lady at the counter muttered something in a sing-song tone. While I knew as per standard common sense she was probably asking me what I wanted to order, I was tongue-tied because of a barrage of unfamiliar words tying up my mind in a knot. Raj quickly sensed my lost-in-translation state and ordered for me. I was definitely confused at my own reaction! It seemed funny and surreal to me all at once and I had a good laugh over it while I was eating. I got another pointer from Raj regarding the “esskultur” – the eating culture – Cheese burgers had beef! For an Indian, cheese burger is just cheese with probably a few veggies thrown in. As I found out that day, beef was very chewy and gummy and was hard for me to swallow. This was probably because non-vegetarianism for me until then was limited to tandoori chicken or kebabs once a month or so. I felt like a cow chewing the cud.

Moving Around:

When we boarded a tram from the tram stop just outside Burger King at Oerlikon Ost, I was a child in a toy train! Never had I experienced a tram before! Never had I experienced such seats! Never had I experienced the unforgiving shutting and opening of tram doors! Never had I experienced the warmth of a heated public transport and cold, expressionless faces all at once! I was in awe of the whole package! The grinding of the tram over the rails became my most favorite sound of the era! There are times even today when I still close my eyes and reminisce about the strength of the holding bars that my glove wrapped around as I leaned my head against it, and the grinding sound filling my heart with a deep rumbling to go back. (Sigh!)

The transport system across Switzerland, as I soon found out, is one of the best in the world. In the first few weeks of my arrival, I went along with Raj to the train office to get my monthly Zone 21 pass called “Zone Karte” and the Gleis 7 which was a pass for people under 25 which got me a discounted rate on the transport for the entire year of its validity. In fact I remember getting the Gleis 7 before the Zone Karte so as to get a discount on the latter. The Zone Karte entailed free travel via train, tram and bus within Zone 21 for the entire month of its validity. And indeed it worked out very well since I was a frequent traveler to various stops within the zone largely thanks to the meetings in different offices that I had to attend.

It was during one of the first few weekends that Raj explained the ‘traveling etiquette’ to me. The first one was that one boards the train by forming a queue on the right side. That was a difficult thing to get used to initially since India works on the left-sided system (if at all!). Even when we waited on the escalators, we had to wait on the right side to allow people in great hurry to climb them up from the left. Stairs were to be climbed from the right, up or down. As you may have already guessed, I was responsible for a lot of jarring annoyance and cold stares as I would barely manage to squeeze onto the escalator just to realize that, out of habit, I had landed myself onto the left side. Almost immediately I faced an onslaught of people pushing me from behind who were in too much of a hurry to move at the escalator’s pace. To add to their annoyance I would sometimes continue staring at people while bumping into them on stairs, lost in thought, as I began ascending from the left!

Another idiosyncrasy was the seating etiquette in the trains. In sections which had a pair of seats facing each other, when a couple would be seated cross legged, diagonally across each other, it meant they intended to have the entire section of four seats to themselves. It was politesse not to disturb their arrangement by sitting next to either of them, unless the situation demanded it on account of the train running full (quite rare). It was of course, de rigeur to ask “Frei?” meaning ‘free’, before taking a seat to the person seated adjacent or opposite to it or in any case sometimes!

Affaire du ‘trash’:

When I came to Zuerich, I became aware of the mixed reaction my fellow Indian colleagues had to the city. While almost everyone sorely missed the spicy food so dominant in any resident Indian’s daily life, there was also a unanimous sense of well-being that one got while staying in Switzerland. The cleanliness, ironically, was a very big hit among Indians. The “quirk” that fellow Indians who had recently started living in Switzerland which mostly coincided as their first stint on foreign shores often smirked around, albeit with a hint of admiration, was the many different kinds of garbage collection bins found across the country. I remember Raj pointing out how cigarette butts were the only thing that the street could be littered with, in consensus. He would also be very amused, almost hiding his fascination, about how on every street, every few feet one could find a garbage bin. I knew for a fact that he considered this to be the hallmark of being in Switzerland. I remember on my way to the first office that I was assigned, I had once noticed approximately 4 –foot tall bins lined up in a row on one side of the pavement, each demarcated for green glass bottles, yellow glass bottles, blue glass bottles and uncolored glass bottles, and colored respectively. It was a curious sight for me every day as I walked past them. I remember mentioning this to a friend of mine who has a passion for greening the environment, upon which he asked me if I could photograph them and send it to him for inspiration!

Even in our office there were a pair of garbage cans under every side of every table and a pair at the doorway, each reading – Abfall and Papier. Quite intuitively, Abfall was for wet garbage, plastic wrappers, plastic bottles et al and Papier for paper, stationary and the like.

Street culture:

“Gruezi!” is the most common greeting any time during the day one can hear from shopkeepers, restaurant owners, store runners, ticket checkers and all forms of informal meetings with people. It’s the informal “Hello!” Often in restaurants or super markets one also gets greeted as “Gruezi mitenand!” and it is, of course, politesse to greet them back the same way with a slight forward tipping of the head.

Official greetings differed based on the time of the day as in any language, although the standard German greeting of “Guten Tag!” or just “Tag!” suffices well at any time. The Swiss-German dialect, called schweizertuetsch, is simply German spoken with a French/Italian pronunciation and sometimes words from either language, and has no written script of its own. It is a commonly known, “on-the-field” fact that Germans look “down” on the Swiss for this reason. Of course it is just another puerile (West-?)European quirk where every (West-?)European national finds reasons to think of their country superior to others. Coming back to office, the Swiss vary some of the German greetings where “Schoen Abend” becomes “Schoenen Abigg”, “Danke” – pronounced in German as “daan-kuh”- becomes “daan-kay”, “Bitte” (welcome/please) – pronounced in German as “beet-tuh” – becomes “beet-tay”. But the most confusing of all is the word for “I” – “ich”. The reason being that as per the German taught in language schools here in India, it is pronounced as “ish”. However, the Swiss pronounce it as “ikkh” with a slight “scraping” sound of the tonsil lingering at the end. However the word for “me”, “mich”, thankfully remains “meesh” in both cases. “Sprechen” the verb for speaking, pronounced as “shpreshen” in German becomes “shprekkhen”. And the most regularly used word “strasse” – pronounced “straa-suh” in German became “shtraa-say” in Swiss German!

I had encountered several funny (though not that humorous in the heat of the moment) situations, where I had to use the most common phrase: “Sprechen Sie Englisch bitte?” which translated to a polite “Can you speak English?” question through the formal address of “Sie”. And the answer would promptly and curtly be “Nein” with a firm shake of the head, almost edging onto a not-if-I-can-help-it attitude especially from the older folks who had apartments to lease. Since I knew conversational French, I would often ask “French?” and they would then get irritated and say a double “Nein Nein!” and shrug their head vigorously and walk away. Bemusing enough was the fact that inspite of French being the second official language of Switzerland after German, none of the verkaufers or verkauferins (shopkeepers – male and female respectively) knew anything of French! I remember having the verkauferin at a very popular mall on Bahnhoffstrasse called ‘Manor’ get frustrated and abandon me for what seemed like I had wasted her time after I had futilely tried to explain to her my requirements for a watch in French and then through mime, whose specifications went as follows: a ladies’ watch with a black dial and roman numerals. Not an easy mime. Definitely not entertaining in a mall just half hour before the closing time of 5pm! That was another idiosyncrasy.

Malls were a fairly new social invention in India at that time, unlike today where we have one like a temple around every street which keeps its doors open beyond 8pm even in a quaint city like Pune. If you get delayed in picking things out for yourself, the staff makes an exception and waits for you beyond the normal closing time. In case of smaller retail shops where you are a regular customer or a one-time-but-a-big-budget customer, the shopkeepers are ready to bend double and go to greater lengths to suit your need. Yes India is built around the consumer and all-for-business etiquette. Switzerland, in stark contrast, is built around “The Shop Owner” and personal-time-for-all. Half an hour before their closing time (for some an ungodly 5pm – just when you squeezed in your work in time to storm into the nearest mall), the verkauferins, especially of boutiques and garment stores, rushed around like a time bomb taped to them, doubly making sure that you NEVER entered the changing area.

Esskultur

Over the next few months, the most important quest was the one for sustainable food which unexpectedly evolved from palpable to sought-after favorites. Raj was often my favorite startup guide in this matter as well. He had a favorite hangout called ‘Valentino’ on the second level of the Bahnhoff that we would eventually end up in on our way home from office. It served an array of Italian grab-on-your-way food and had a seating area with high rise tiny tables and bar chairs where one could gorge down the freshly made steaming pizza slices, which always added to the ensconcing warmth of the Bahnhoff. My very ‘vegetarian’ friend was particularly fond of the pork macaroni here. This had become the only exception to his staunch vegetarianism (a concept explained later) ever since he had eaten it under the misinterpretation of it being vegetarian for several months in a row, ever since his discovery of the place on his first visit. It had ground pork and was indeed very different as it lacked the usual hollow smelliness that meat often emanated in India that usually gave me a cavity feeling just below my throat. It soon became my occasional favorite too. I loved the pizza slices more though, the ones with ananas or pineapple cubes on it with hot cheese melting all around them! It was lip-smacking to say the least!

The oft-used phrase before picking up anything to eat in any eatery pertaining to any cuisine (including Indian) was “Vegetarisch?” The reply though was loaded with ambiguity. Vegetarian or “vegetarisch” here meant you could be served eggs and fish (and probably other forms of seafood). A friend of mine later told me that in the U.S they had a term called “vegan” which meant not only excluding these items, but also excluding milk and dairy products. I wonder why we are in between when “veggies” essentially means species that would never make it into a zoological dictionary. Or maybe it is just an Indian quirk. Coming back to restaurant-language, the very hardcore vegetarians learnt up the German terms for egg and fish and would often CLEARLY add, “Vegetarisch? Ohne Ei, ohne Fisch?” Not that it guaranteed any results.

Ohne” or sans in French was popular with me as well. Especially in the scores of trips to McDonald’s which was the saving grace for my hunger when I would often return too late and too exhausted, and sought food over cuisine. “Einmal burger” – one burger – was always “Ohne Kaese” – without cheese – and the iced tea (pronounced “iced tay”) was “Ohne Eis” – without ice. The Filet-o-fish was standard and a comfortable favorite. The meal would generally cost SFr 11 with 20rp (Rappen) extra for every sachet of ketchup. Yes another oddity – ketchup/sauce was extra cost everywhere. Except for the very scrumptious shrimp cocktail that was served with the equally tasty tartar sauce and was only available in spring/summer. It was culinary education in sauces learning that fish associated with tartar sauce, barbecue sauce was often preferred with chicken and was a brown “American” sauce and Hollandaise was a sauce too rich for my taste. I remember going to the Bahnhofstrasse McDonald’s almost every Sunday afternoon for my late brunch, picking up the shrimp on my way out and sitting at my office desk in the empty afternoon in a building devoid of any flesh-being but me and munching on it while working on until 10pm when I would head back to McDonald’s again for dinner/supper. No great routine here and I certainly never miss the work part of it, but I do contemplate the lightly fried pink shrimp crunching out their juices on my tongue sometimes.

As the days progressed, lunch time became an adventure. Initially ever-so-faithful Raj and I would go to a small Lebanese eatery called “9.90”, a few minutes away from our first office, opposite to a beautiful cathedral. Everything there cost upto SFr 9.90. The fare was simple: a choice of chicken / vegetable / lamb curry, a portion of rice, a tiny helping of couscous salad, some hummus, a creamy yoghurt-like substance also served on the side and, if requested for, 2 slices of “dark” bread that looked like it was made from a coarse variety of grain. For my palette, the taste of this cuisine was very similar to what my mother made at home which was more flavored on mint and delicate herbs rather than the spice that Indian cuisine is often identified with. The first time I ate there, I remember calling up my mother who had just made her morning chai, and telling her about it. Both she and Raj found this gesture very amusing.

This happy lunch place unfortunately shut down soon and was taken over by a Thai place which looked anything but inviting. I remember sampling the food there once which was comfortably forgotten. So the other option for food was one which the rest of my Indian colleagues were very fond of – a Turkish place just a few yards across the office – which served the favorite fare for vegetarians and non-vegetarians alike – falafel. A white flour roti wrapped around a few deep fried round vegetable dumplings, almost like the Indian pakodas on a bed of fresh lettuce and cabbage with a generous splash of mayonnaise and other Turkish sauces, as per demand. Being a tiny lady gifted with a demure appetite, the falafel was twice more than I could complete at best. However as the weather turned cold I had adapted well enough to be able to complete an entire falafel that then translated to overfull. The other things at this eatery that my colleagues with the typically Indian sweet tooth were very fond of, was baklava – a tiny khaari-like biscuit made from filo pastry stuffed with dry fruits – served warm and dripping with honey. Having had painful extractions of my sweet tooth in this regard courtesy the heavy gorging of mithai during childhood, I was the opposite of being tempted by it. Once though I had garnered enough curiosity to try it and it was actually honey-sweet rather than saccharine-sweet which made all the difference and turned out to be delicious without getting as heady as a barfi.

Mysteriously, I would often become allergic to the canned fruit juices there and frequently suffered from a lost voice, cold and sore throat. This persisted for the initial couple of months until a doctor back home told my mom that it could be due to the lack of preservatives in their packaged natural fruit juices (!!!) and advised her to advise me to completely abstain from drinking packaged natural juices. This worked! However, during my afflicted times I would find the usual Turkish fare too heavy for my already assaulted ENT system and missed the simple concept of dal-roti that I would eat while I was sick back home. One of these days I intuitively walked into the Turkish place and as I was greeted heartily by the jaunty Turkish guy in his de riguer sing-song “Grueziiiii!” I gazed at the menu written on a board put up on the counter behind the wall. One item “çorba mercimek”, pronounced “chor-baa mer-chi-mek”, stood out. I asked him what it was and he told me it was a kind of a lentil soup with some tomato purée served with 2 pieces of coarse bread on the side. It sounded perfect even though I couldn’t make out the German. When I was served this pale red-orange dal­-like piping hot soup in a bowl too big for me to finish, I felt truly at home once more. This then became my saving grace during all those times when I would simply want something that felt closer to the heat of home and recuperative to the heart.

Other than falafel there were kebaps which were nothing like the Indian kebab; a kebap was made from slivers of meat extracted from a large grilling rod around which it was wrapped, turning around in the heat all the time. The most popular among them was the doner kebap which was rumored to combine slivers of chicken, beef, lamb and pork. The serving structure was the same as the falafel having the meat instead of the fried balls and the vendor asked us whether we wanted it scharf (spicy).

Soon I was tired of both the falafel and the kebaps and decided to explore if Turkish had anything more to offer me. I was not disappointed. I discovered another whole lentil-cum-rice preparation which, although I couldn’t figure whether it was vegetarian or not, seemed to be a very simple preparation where the lentil/rice was steamed and was cooked in olive oil with a healthy mixture of tomato, succulent zucchini and some strong spices. It was generally served hot which was a huge temptation itself as you will later find out why. At the end of almost every meal, this jaunty Turk would serve us complimentary “çai” (pronounced “chai”) which was a lightly brewed black tea with no sugar in the traditional, small Turkish cup made of clear glass instead of traditional ceramic. It was almost a happy family affair when we’d be the last ones finishing our lunch in the late afternoon, accompanied by the Turkish guy, his family who served and cooked the food, and a few occasional Turkish visitors, sipping çai and watching a Turkish channel on the tiny TV pitched up on a high “shelf” just below the ceiling at the rear end of the restaurant.

The street where we first worked is one of the ‘seedy’ locations in Zuerich, Zone 21. It never crossed the bar for decent with the huge garbage cans parked forever near the road divider and surrounded by the “red light” area that extended to the Sihlstrasse tram junction. In fact the entire area behind the building was lined with shops that typically never saw the ‘light’ of the day – shops with signs that quoted per-hour rates of women.

But there was a darned good reason why my colleagues and I made into the ‘red-lightness’ of the area during many cold, rainy afternoons – there was a tiny Indian eatery-cum-takeout-cum-video-CD-rental-cum-Kingfisher-beer-wholesaler a few blocks away in the heart of the area, as dingy as its mothering environment. The food was one which could only be eaten by someone too utterly homesick for Indian food since most of it was almost always stale (the antiquity of food ranging from 2 to 7 days). This place, run by a Sikh man in his 50s, always reeked of a too-familiar smell of burnt turmeric – characteristic Indian smell in a land where even the first rains of the season never perfumed the air as they do in India (thanks to the absence of dust whatsoever as one colleague grimly pointed out one day). It had one good feature in unlimited supply though – the delicious North-Indian/Pakistani raw mango (called ‘kairi’) pickle made dripping with mustard oil and left a taste rolling on the tongue long after the meal and errrr…even today. On one occasion he had been the savior-of-the-season – for the precious Alphonso mangoes that we had heard he had stocked up on as we trooped to his place one mid-May morning. As I later experienced though, they were nothing compared to the river of succulent mangoes I was used to in my home state of Maharashtra which is the birthplace of the Alphonso, whose flow stretched from late April to early June (at best). The month of May for me is therefore incomplete without a gush of hay-sweet mangoes in every meal and without them the year feels as defenselessly incomplete as a year without snow/winter would to a European. Hence, the trickle of mangoes at this place was an acknowledged compensation alright.

While on the topic of mangoes, I must mention acquiring the habit of dropping into a Coop Mini – a small outlet of one of the 2 omnipresent grocery-cum-general-products chain called “Coop” – and grabbing myself a glass of Mango Lassi which was a signature Swiss version of the Indian lassi in that it was made from crème that was much thicker than the crème found in India, predictably so because of the huge difference in the milk quality in the 2 countries. But it was a sought-after closure to the lunch which had gone to overbearing proportions for me during spring/summer.

Occasionally while at this office, lunch did comprise of a Chinese/Thai meal in a lane almost opposite to the office that served a delicately brewed Jasmine Tee and a mound of rice with my hot favorite Thai gruen curry appetizingly served at the centre. Another quick hop away was also a small pizza place opposite to the Pakistani store, Barkat (‘abundance’ in English), extremely popular among us colleagues for the cheaper rates of onions, potatoes and other vegetables which we couldn’t easily locate in Migros, and also for the very typical Indian batters, like idli, dosa mixes by a common Indian package food brand, flour mixtures (like rice flour popular among South-Indians and the Sri Lankan Tamilians), oils (like sesame oil, groundnut oil, sunflower oil) and ready-to-eat frozen food products (like frozen parathas – with and without stuffing, chicken cutlets, etc) which were life savers for a Sunday brunch after a Saturday night out.

Seasonal fares:

Never had I so conspicuously felt the transition of the seasons in my life before I landed in Zuerich. In India, the variations of the local food according to the seasons are dispersed all across the country and command an entire anthology dedicated to detailing these. However, as far as the temperatures and living conditions are concerned, there is very little change in the western part and particularly in the state of Maharashtra where I hail from and which is also the only part I can safely talk about. The transition of summer into rains is the centre of attraction in terms of time, since the state is still very agriculture-oriented. So out come the umbrellas, the raincoats and the poor quality tar from the roads! Also simmering around every ancient city street are different sorts of finger foods, served hot, oily and spicy to keep the palette and the heart warm.

In Zuerich, I felt the change of seasons very obviously, but comparatively the change in the food habits of the indigenous was quite discreet. One of the first things that I had mentioned earlier that immediately impacted me was that McDonald’s had a new menu on offer when autumn arrived. The shrimps were missing. The new menu had more beef in it. Autumn ushered in the chestnut picking season. The brown coats snugly fitting the white husky flesh of the chestnut was definitely tempting, especially when there were street-side stalls put up that roasted them and packed them in a newspaper, on weight. It was a delight to have them as the wind chill became more and more biting. Since my birthday happens to fall in fall, my friends, who were quite “local” there, had ordered me a special birthday cake with chestnut icing on it. All I remember of that night though was the excitement of celebrating my birthday with a lady at the piano singing “Happy Birthday” for me in a German accent and everyone in the restaurant cheering! J Quite a first of firsts for me!

A peculiar trait of the locals, especially while opting for lunch, was cold sandwiches. These were sandwiches pulled out from a freezer and handed over which usually contained ham or salami. Since none of these count as my favorite, I often opted for a cheese and tomato sandwich, where the cheese –  almost frozen but a softer variety – retained a light palatable flavor and tasted particularly good coupled with the cold tomato and lettuce sometimes. Still there was no compensation for the “hot” food off the streets and this was the one disgruntlement common among all Indian folks.

As winter set in, I had moved into a new office which was just behind the Bahnhoff. It was a relief since that meant food options were closer, though I soon realized that it meant the end of the Turkish food and the Nestea iced tea and Mango Lassi from Coop Mini, which was a little disappointing. However, there was a new option now – that of the evergreen (quite literally here) Chinese food from two vendors at the Bahnhoff – one right opposite the Migros with the greens at level two and one above at level three, next to the escalators that led underground into the Bahnhoff from the Swarovski showroom on the Bahnhoffstrasse. The fare was warm, simple and hearty and the service was prompt, quick and just accurate. One of my favorites was the simple yellow (turmeric-based) chicken curry that seemed to have an Indian flavoring to it (errr…did I mention this was Chinese?). However it had the delicate flavoring of what often passes as “curry” in Europe, which is simply a mild concoction of mustard or sometimes a hint of turmeric or sometimes, just looks yellow but doesn’t hit you as anything specifically south-east Asian. Soon though I grew fond of the third Chinese place (trust the Chinese to rule the restaurant scene anywhere in the world!), right behind the office which also happened to be a “rancid” area. The menu was expansive in this small eatery that could house barely fifteen people cramped in both the seating areas combined.  The blitz-moving Chinese lady who was disturbingly comfortable in a thin sweater inspite of the freezing winter in this place devoid of heating could speak either German or Chinese and took orders in the form of the serial numbers of the dishes as was listed out on the menu “poster” put up on one of the walls adjacent to the counter or, in case of all absentia of communication, let you write the “dish number” on her small ordering notepad. This eatery also had a few options du jour that could be instantly served up which was a relief those days while we would be shivering in our coats, waiting to gulp down some hot spicy food! It was always an adventure to go to her eatery which was crowded in a ratio equal to the drop in temperature. The portions were twice my fill and often I would get half of it packed to carry it back as my dinner, which would relieve much of the stress I would get in simply deciding what to eat as I headed back home late at night by 10pm much of those days.

Of all things I had eaten here, I remember the spicy golden-fried prawn in hot and sour sauce (too cold to remember if it was hunan) that dribbled its juices over the steamed blanche rice, garnished lightly with white sesame seeds. The taste of this authentic Chinese in a place so far away from China still kicks up memories in my taste buds! Practically, this was a very ‘all-business’ eatery for the simple reason that there was no mention of appetizers or desserts anywhere on the menu put up on the wall. It was just a good variety of main course items for takeaway or eating there for the ones who could brave the cold.

As resourceful as Indians are when it comes to food in any part of the world, a very intelligent option had been devised for the number of Indians working in that office – a daily service of tiffins from two different vendors. One was supposedly homemade by the wife of one of the colleagues working there, and another vendor was a local restaurant run by an Indian. There was a marked difference between the two. While the homemade one was definitely light in taste and spices, the taste was often repetitive as if the same “formula” of gravy was being implemented for all the vegetables and the meat. The restaurant food, on the other hand, was heavily loaded with spices and had only a few options which were cooked depending on the preference of the majority. This preference (I daresay ‘true IT-style’) was determined by taking a consensus based on an excel sheet that was filled every morning with critical promptness before 10 am in the multi-floored office by all of us working there. One of the most preferred and cooked too often to survive on was the erstwhile chicken biryani covered by a thick layer of spices that included cloves and nutmeg brackets which needed to be delicately spooned out before one could discover the rice cowering under it.

Fridays were welcomed and celebrated as pizza days. It was a long walk after a ritual of putting on the winter things for me – a thicker sweater (in addition to the one I already wore indoors), the mantel, the woolen scarf and cap to protect the neck and ears from the wind-chill and finally the gloves – after which I would finally make my way with my colleagues to New Yorker, an American pizza place, and order a large sized pizza to share with a group of seven. One of my favorites here was a jalapeno and pineapple pizza. It was a lip smacking combination of the hot sticky cheese, succulent sweet ananas and the spicy jalapenos.  Holy trinity!

Going local:

One evening we flat-mates decided to go to a restaurant in the Old Town that was well-known for the best Swiss fondue in Zuerich city.  This place was a cozy restaurant with wooden interiors and, it being spring, had quaint wooden tables and chairs laid out in the small terasse. Surprisingly, the restaurant was manned by only one person – the owner-cum-chef-cum-server who was a super active, shrewd and delightfully hospitable host who recommended us to have another Swiss specialty, raclette, alongwith the fondue with a special recommendation of a white wine. The fondue was delectable to say the least, but the whole culture of dipping into one simmering cauldron of cheese over the endlessly excited conversations and peals of girlish laughter was a very appealing prospect! I was a “cheese-atheist” until this experimental meal, but no sooner had I started enjoying the long forked dips into the fondue, that I started cultivating a taste and began forming an opinion. The fondue had four Swiss cheeses sourced from the neighboring regions, one of which was the very famous Gruyère, and another, Emmentaler. But the dish that took the culinary prize for the evening was definitely the raclette, named so because you have to “rake” out the cheese which is seared onto the bottom of a deep dish that was served dressed with some roesti – buttered potato shavings lightly fried. It had a wonderful, deep “browned” taste to it that simply hung on to the insides of your mouth and could bring out the white wine exquisitely well.

The mistake we made (which we didn’t realize until later) was that fondue and raclette were winter treats. In fact, Zuerich was known (and probably still is) to have a special “fondue tram” which is an open tram that runs along Bahnhoffstrasse and other scenic parts of the city during the Weihnacht or Christmas season, where one can get together with friends and gaze at the “weihnachtschein” all around while dipping into the hot, bubbling fondue served in the tram.

Christmas is indeed a special time and the favorite Christmas spice here is nutmeg – there are mouthwatering kuchen (cookies), cakes and truffles to munch on and even luxurious nutmeg-flavored body washes and shower crèmes that smell even more mouthwatering! Sometimes the fragrance of nutmeg would tantalizingly explode into the cold, windless air on Bahnhoffstrasse adorned with bakeries, chocolateries and luxury shops with their red-and-white stock on display so much so that it would halter my feet and body into submitting to the urge of popping the delicatessen into my mouth!

Hiltl calling!

Like any other person who is living away from home for the first time, I became homesick in a span of just 6 months, even though I enjoyed my life in Zuerich infinitely more that I had ever imagined enjoying in India. The main source of unhappiness was my body’s utter discomfort with food – it was innately unsettling to have heavy meats like beef and pork as part of my staple diet. This had led to different health problems which took a long time to heal. In addition to that there was a nagging feeling of being “on-the-edge” thanks to the goose bumps forever stretching out my skin owing to the cold that seemed to be latched on me.

But thanks to a local friend there, who was a life-saver in so many of such occasions, I found my perfect refuge – Hotel Hiltl located just off Bahnhoffstrasse, on Sihlstrasse 28. History went that the owner of Hiltl had traveled to India, in the early 1930s and was apparently smitten by the wide variety of vegetarian food here. So he brought home a few recipes which are still part of the main Hiltl buffet and are put up in the evening alongwith the usual fare of Italian and German dishes. Among these are the 3 varieties of aubergine dishes made to perfection, Indian-style, a yellow non-spicy dal and lemon rice. The buffet here is by weight – for those not familiar with this concept, it simply meant you load up your plate with anything from the buffet which would then be weighed and charged for. For me it was again, simply perfect with the right portions and great quality that was a “taste of home away from home” and was still economical. Even though Hiltl served à la carte, I remember ordering just once off it. The buffet was definitely more of a hit with me personally. I fondly remember going there after a long, contemplative walk of Bahnhoffstrasse during many a deserted Sunday, savoring a heartful of food alongwith a big glass of delicious African Roiboos iced tea, perched on the high chairs and looking out from the picture window overlooking Sihlstrasse, watching a few cars speed by and odd pedestrians walking by as if almost by unavoidable accident.

Another thing I would always remember Hiltl for, was for its “light art” – it had abstract, artistic lights in the lounge area that was sometimes turned into a mini pub, creating a surreal purple ambience.

I would always recommend those bit by homesickness and yet having to spend time in Zuerich to visit Hiltl and try the buffet. The quality of food there can put even a five-star hotel in this country to shame.

A touch of family

One of the friends introduced to me by the ‘love of my Zurich life’ was a charming Gujarati man in his sunny forties who impressed me by inviting me for an Italian fare at his house, cooked by him, just hours after we had been introduced. As we started spending more time together, I soon realized that not only did he love to cook, but better still, loved hosting young Indian students (yes I was a student in his eyes 🙂 ! ) often. He would cook for Indian association of students studying at universities in Zuerich on occasions such as Diwali, the festival of lights. Soon we struck up a great camaraderie! I was incredibly fortunate to spend time with his Indo-Swiss family and accompany his kids to the zoo, seasonal fairs and even lakeside picnics during the weekends. As we spent time together, he taught me about wines – helping me develop a taste for them, the incomparably tasty liquers – which he would make at home from tropical fruits such as mango and chickoo sourced from India, introducing me to Cointreau – THE orange liquer which I loved having “on the rocks”, as well as Swiss and Italian cuisines (I hold him in deep gratitude everyday for my BIG love for Italian food). Often during fall we would wind up at the ETH café after my office hours where we would spend time sampling different types of alcohol, the favorite of which soon became a glass of martini. I remember once hungrily downing daal-bhaat which he had prepared gujju-style, after sharing a martini with him at the student café with the colorful bartenders and great lounge music. My best memories with him by far though were the infinite boat trips we would go on after my office hours over Zuerich See called kleine rundfahrt or “small roundtrip”, philosophizing about life and sharing a martini and some chips over the twinkling lights of the city reflected in the lake. He is till date the warmest and earthiest soul I have met on any of my travels, who makes sure to supply me with a jar of fresh Italian herbs and balsamico every time someone travels to India from Zuerich! 🙂  I know in my heart he always will be my true extended family for making me such a welcome part of his!

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Posted November 11, 2010 by Deepti G Gujar

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