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Zurich—city of sleep September 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in memoir, travel.
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This is one of a series about a three-month hitchhiking trip I did across Europe when I was 18.

I have been an insomniac most of my life.  That is why I remember a certain event in Zurich so clearly.

My trip had started January 12 in Glasgow.  Many countries later, I realized I was running out of money, even with the low cost of staying in youth hostels and getting most places by hitchhiking.  In Athens on April 9, I wired home to Mom and Dad to send cash.  But it would take a while for the money to arrive, so I took a boat to Crete for a few days and enjoyed the sunshine.  Got back to Athens around the 14th, got the money, bought myself an air ticket back home.  It had to be Icelandic Airlines, and the closest point of departure was Luxemburg.  Date of flight: April 21.

Now I had to get moving.  This was going to be very different from the meandering style of the past months.  First leg of the trip was a boat to Brindisi.  And then it was trains, one after another, all very slow, very crowded.  One night was spent sitting on the floor in a corridor with people stepping over me.  Another night was spent in the waiting room at the station in Milan.

Somewhere along the way on those stuffy, swaying trains under bare yellow light bulbs, I met an American woman named Marian.  She was impressively well-groomed, given the circumstances.  Her hair was pulled back neatly into a bun that appeared to tighten the skin over her cheekbones.  She was older than me, of course—everyone I met on my trip was older than me.  She seemed possessed of great kindness and psychological insight—at least, she spoke of everything in psychological terms.  She was going to Paris, but we both had to go through Zurich, and we spent the night on adjacent chairs in the Milan train station.

We arrived midday at the  Zurich station, that epicenter of punctuality.  We decided to splurge on a hotel.  We deserved it!  At the booking desk in the station, we met another woman looking for a room.  After seeing the price for a Zurich hotel, we decided to pool our resources and find accommodations for three.  At least, that is what I think must have happened, but this might be a theory masquerading as a memory.  All I remember for sure is that there were three of us in the room.

Everything about Zurich seemed shiny and expensive.  My best experiences  had been at places more down at the heel, places like Cork in Ireland, where I ate bread, cheese, and ham at the youth hostel and was taken out for a pint at the pub.  At any rate, after we parked our bags at the hotel, Marian and the other woman decided to go for a stroll, while I opted to take a book to read down by the lake.  I was trying to bear firmly in mind that this was not only a city of bank accounts but the place where James Joyce had died.

I sat beside the lake, which sparkled so brightly in the afternoon sun that I could hardly look at it.  I felt so very tired.  The book dropped out of my hand into the water and, since it was a cheap paperback—I believe it was “Flowers of Evil” by Baudelaire—it floated.  I fished it out, but the pages stuck together.  After a while I went back to the hotel.

Marian and the other woman came in.  They had met some friendly Swiss in a cafe and learned some local lore or picked up some local custom or other.  That is the sort of thing that travellers are supposed to do, and I felt socially incompetent by comparison.  We decided we would go out for dinner at seven.

I lay back on the bed to get a moment of rest.  When I woke up, it was the next morning.

Marian and the other woman had decided not to disturb me.  I had slept for about 15 hours, on my back, on top of the covers, with my shoes on.  It had been a deep, black, restorative, time-stopping sleep, almost more like anaesthesia.

I have always remembered that time when, for once, I was wrapped for long hours in the arms of Morpheus.

Zurich train station

Zurich train station



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