29 JUNE 2018 — The early morning alarm is never pleasant when there’s a flight to catch, especially when that flight is abruptly canceled. Disoriented, I called the airline to find out why and to see if we could get on something other than a multi-stop return to New York. Flying indirect is the worst way to travel. Every stop magnifies the chances of delay, trapping you in the purgatory of transit. No cost-savings is worth the hassle—and I like flying, especially international. The quality of the planes, the food, multitude of entertainment, and the infinite flow of wine, make the hours confined to a silvery vessel pleasant and exciting.
We were stuck in Zürich for another twenty-four hours. Thankfully the hotel could extend us a night without forcing us to relocate chambers. Their complementary breakfast buffet paled in comparison to that in Salzburg. We sat in a cheerless room amongst the tourists, poking at lukewarm eggs and listening to CNN blathering in the background. If vacation has any requirement, it’s to be completely removed from the constant bombardment of news, especially in this day and age of one distressing debacle after another. Twenty-four-seven news channels generate incessant anxiety. They ruin airport terminals and ruined this already lackluster hotel dining room. How they could not simply play relaxing background music, I will never understand. On our way out, we noticed an outdoor terrace and the serenity we preferred.
There was a desire to make the most of the extra day. We went gift shopping for the kids and meandered through a picturesque farmers’ market. The day was beautiful, so we searched for a place to eat outside. An attractive riverside cafe was full, but we eventually found a courtyard Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, we came to terms with the fact that Zürich is an expensive city. The Swiss Franc was nearly equal to the US Dollar, yet a split entree was equal in value to two back home. We had to remind ourselves we were on vacation and enjoy the food and wine, no matter the expense.
In search of something other than Old Town, we walked along the Limmet River to Zürich West where a viaduct had been converted to a foot and bike path above and trendy shops within its walls below. A snack bar in Josefwiese Park allowed us to enjoy afternoon beers, watching laidback parents tend to their well-behaved children, plus a maintenance crew patiently power-washing a fountain. The sky cleared and it became hot. We meandered through the trendy viaduct shops then caught a trolley back to the central train station. The quiet hotel terrace invited us to sit in the breezy shade, enjoying minibar beers, reading and dozing. A mix of the early start and the alcohol was a perfect excuse for a nap, so I slept while my wife went in search of a gift for her sister.
As the dinner hour neared, we vetoed a recommended place some distance away in favor of finding something closer. Yet after twenty-four hours in Zürich, the options had become repetitive while anything that intrigued us was intimidatingly expensive. After much circling, we settled on a French bistro, Chez Marion. I walked in, guns blazing, eager to speak French. The young waiter was amused and Katherine enjoyed our broken banter. Only as the meal concluded did he reveal that French was not his strong suit. But it was fun nonetheless in this multi-lingual city. I ordered the elegantly simple croque madame without question, while my wife, feeling adventurous, went for a galette, concluding with a shared bowl of ice cream.
Daylight still warmed the city, allowing us to walk off our meal during another stroll to the lake. This was the joy of vacation: a little adventure, a lot of food, and a chance to clear one’s head of quotidian monotony. We sat on a bench and watched the diverse city population pass by, including an intriguing amount of exceptionally tall people.
Another early morning awaited us, so we ended the night relaxing in our little hotel room, sipping beers from a corner market, packing our new acquisitions and eager to head home in the morning.
Late night revelers spent their final bursts of steam as we walked the short distance from the hotel to the bahnhof. Rising again before dawn was no fun, although it was a rare treat to see a Zürich in its waking hours, nearly absent of cars and people.
An airport-bound train was waiting for us, but again we bought tickets that went unchecked. We arrived before the flight had a gate, so we checked our suitcase and ate breakfast outside security (predictably pricey cappuccinos and almond pastries). A calm and orderly passport control, a Swiss-themed underground tram, and a terminal as vast as the galleries of the Louvre. Our gate was at the far end and nearly empty. We relaxed as seats filled up, until a worker shooed us all away, hastily setting up another passport checkpoint and forcing us back through. Katherine was randomly chosen for extra scrutiny, a pointless inconvenience considering that she had my carry-on bag, not her own. On the flight, we were together but separated by an aisle. I sat next to a French-speaking teenage girl who restlessly chatted with her parents in the row ahead. Katherine burned through four movies, while I only made it through one, preferring instead to struggle through a German edition of the Grimm Brothers’ tales that I picked up the day before.
Returning to the States is always dismal when coming from abroad. The dread of arriving at crowded JFK, long lines through customs, incessant loudspeaker announcements, officers barking orders at disoriented travelers. Miraculously, it wasn’t as obnoxious as it had been in the past. Computer kiosks did the bulk of the work, while stern-faced humans made the final passport inspections and paid zero attention to the customs form I meticulously filled out on the plane. At baggage claim, our suitcase was the last one to roll down the conveyor belt.
To offset our expensive time in Zürich, we decided to take airport shuttle into the city. Instead of the big coach bus that initiated our journey, this time we were seated on a little party bus, the kind usually reserved for large bachelorette parties. It was small and crowded. The undaunted driver skillfully loaded a conundrum of heavy bags (even his colleague was impressed) and calmly dealt with a confused group of Korean tourists. Despite New York City traffic, we arrived at Manhattan in forty-five minutes, giving us time to grab lunch before a train to the suburbs and a short taxi ride to our house. Overall, it took us an exhausting four hours to get home since we landed, nearly the time it took to cross the Atlantic. A taxi would have cut that time in half, but at over twice the cost.
And just like that, it was done. No longer was Austria embedded in my imagination as a place of lore, a mysterious fragment of my mother’s life before me. It was now a real place, fixed in my memories, a captured sense of place that would forever add dimensionality to my thoughts of Salzburg with its soaring fortress, the immense scale of the Hohe Tauern, the picturesque sprawl of Innsbruck, and the dramatic ancient thoroughfare of the Brenner Pass. This was more than a geographic journey, but a voyage through time, perhaps to be visited again in the unforeseeable future.
Auf wiedersehen—until we see each other again.
In the meantime, the question remained: where to next?
[More photos can be seen on my Flickr site.]