Friday, March 23, 2007

From Zurich to Paris. 346 miles and a world apart.

Ah, Paris. The garbage that litters every sidewalk below the empty garbage cans. The unabashed young men who can’t believe you’re not interested in buying decorative string at the footsteps of the Sacre Coeur. The airport where once you go through security you are locked in a glass room with no sign of a toilet. What’s there not to love?

But somehow, when one sees the Eiffel Tower lit up, all the things Paris lacks somehow melt away into the darkness as the city of lights refocuses your mindset to one of love and never-ending wonder.

This is something Zurich, less than the length of Illinois away from Paris, cannot achieve. So it cleans its streets religiously, runs buses that are so spotless you could eat off the floor, and has no signs of pushy young men trying to sell tourists a piece of string. In Paris, dirt and other annoyances are somehow forgiven; in Zurich, they never would be.

Outside the Zurich main station at a tram stop, an impatient Zuricher looks at his watch. It’s 8:59 and the tram should be here. It comes at 9:00. He glances at the driver to let her know that he disapproves before throwing his cigarette butt under the tram and taking a seat in his Armani suit that has never known a dirty form of public transport. Two minutes later, a street sweeper arrives and the cigarette butt is history.

The clean cobblestone streets of Zurich’s old town are charming. The Bahnhofstrasse gleams with expensive shops that lure you in with spotlessly cleaned windows. Cars actually stop at pedestrian crosswalks. The lake is so clean you can swim in it. You can drink from the public fountains. Even the dogs on the trams somehow smell nice. But that’s all Zurich is. Very, very nice. There’s nothing wrong with nice. Except you feel like something’s missing.

Paris has dirty metro cars. Dogs that you actually see evidence of on streets. And an affection for running over pedestrians. But it also possesses something Zurich does not. Magic.

Maybe it’s the culture of Paris that has made it a haven for artists that inspires this magic. Artists, good and bad, still paint on streets there. Accordion players serenade passengers on public transport. And no one is in a hurry.

In Zurich, you can go to school for all of your childhood without ever having the benefit of a school choir. Or an art class. Creativity is not encouraged. Productivity is. On trams there are signs with an illustration of a musician with a red line around it, signaling “no”. And at lunchtime, streets in Zurich are filled with successful bankers and lawyers and the city feels rich. But rich does not magic make.

I never feel threatened in Zurich. I walk alone in the woods. I don’t put my wallet into the inner pocket of my purse like I do when I’m in Paris. I hardly ever see a beggar. And when I do see one he has a British accent. But I rarely feel charmed either. Even during Carnival, when the streets fill up with costumed brass playing bands, I somehow get mad when they play after 10pm. Because then they are breaking the rules. And rules are to Switzerland as what art is to Paris.

In Switzerland, even in hotels, you can get in trouble for taking a bath after 10pm for fear of the noise you might make. And forget about trying to put a glass bottle in a recycling bin after 8pm or on the weekends. But these terrible marching bands are allowed to play the same song all night until 6am. Maybe if their playing improved over the course of the night you could forgive them. But as you are promptly yelled at the next day for cutting your grass during lunchtime, you can hardly find a band playing in the middle of the night charming.

Paris doesn’t have rules like this. Maybe that’s why too, it can get away with more. Instead of expecting cars to stop for pedestrians and trains to run on time, you are pleasantly surprised when they do, instead of having a rise in blood pressure when they don’t, like you do in Zurich.

Somehow, when there’s an abundance of filth you forget about it as it somehow blends into the landscape. But when there’s one big wrapper being blown down a spotless street it stands out.

Perfection is always admired, yet rarely memorable. The spotless Swiss train, with its quiet train car where talking, cell phones, and MP3 players are not permitted will get me there on time. But the train in Paris, with the man playing rap from a boom box, the British tourists reading to each other from Top Ten Paris guidebooks, and the accordion player trying to serenade me above it all is the ride I’ll always remember.

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