Fear and loathing in Switzerland (Part 2)

February 5, 2013 § Leave a comment

August Rodin, The Gates of Hell (Kunsthaus Zurich)

August Rodin, The Gates of Hell (Kunsthaus Zurich)

(For Part 1, go here)

Day 4

At 11 am, wobbly, stressed, over-caffeinated but at least fed, I’m back at the airport. My flight hasn’t been cancelled yet and it seems to have stopped snowing, so I utter a silent prayer and check in.

I have a horrible sense of déjà vu when, at 1.20 sharp, my flight is cancelled again.

This time the scrum at the baggage claim is even worse. It takes more than an hour to find my bag again. As I wait, Damian reappears at my elbow. I ask him if he managed to find a room the night before and, to the relief of my guilty conscience, he says yes. We end up chatting for a few minutes while we wait for our bags. I’m not normally one to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but he’s the only person who’s been nice to me in the last twenty-four hours.

Bags finally collected, we head back up to the Swissair desk. The agent I get this time (after another hour of queueing), an over-dramatic woman with a gravelly smoker’s voice, tells me that the easiest way for me to get back to London is to take a flight two hours from now that goes via Zurich, ‘although I can’t guarantee that the second leg of the flight won’t be cancelled.’ I feel uneasy about this but am so desperate to get home that I readily accept. I also ask for a claim form for my hotel bill and am handed a piece of paper. When I leave the queue I take a closer look and see that it isn’t a reimbursement form, it’s a feedback form. Sneaky.

Damian (whose real name I never learn  – nor he mine) and I compare flights. He’s been routed through Brussels, which I envy him as that at least leaves him the option of the Eurostar if his London flight is cancelled. ‘No, you’re the lucky one, I’d rather be stuck in Zurich,’ he laughs. We wish each other good luck again and head off in opposite directions.

My flight actually has a gate, which I hope is a good sign. I flop into a chair at the gate and realise that I’ve spent the better part of six hours queueing. Even though I’m wearing low-heeled boots, my legs are killing me.

As my flight is boarding, Damian’s flight to Brussels is announced as being delayed by two hours.

I hope he got home.

The flight to Zurich is quick and painless, and I start to relax. The feeling of wellbeing is illusive and short-lived as, immediately out of the gate in Zurich, the departures board shows the London flight has been cancelled. Oh God, not again.

I trudge over to the Swissair desk to rebook, along with nearly everyone else on the flight. The ugly truth has finally dawned on me: sending us to London via Zurich was merely a ploy on Swissair’s part to get us out of Geneva.

The queue moves at a pace that could only be described as glacial. Glacial would also describe the desk staff, who seem to feel no need whatsoever to alter their usual routine to accommodate unusual circumstances. There are only two agents to serve well over a hundred people (the London flight plus another to Amsterdam). There are another three agents seeing to the tiny number of business- and first-class travellers who, once said travellers are taken care of, flatly refuse to serve economy travellers, never mind that this would more than double the speed of the queue.

After an hour and a half, I finally reach an information desk whose agent’s sole purpose seems to be… making sure you’re in the right queue. Once she determines that I am, indeed, in the right queue (i.e. not business class), I venture to say that this is the third flight of mine that’s been cancelled and I and my fellow travellers would be extremely grateful if they could put a few more agents on the desks to help us.

‘Mmm. That’s too bad. Next!’

If I didn’t hate Switzerland with a passion already, I do now.


I realise that I’m likely to be stuck here for at least another hour. I fish a book out of my bag in the hope of getting some reading done while I wait.

My choice of plane reading wasn’t the happiest: since last autumn, I’ve been working my way slowly but determinedly through Remembrance of Things Past, so I have A l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs with me. Even in ordinary circumstances, Proust and air travel aren’t a good match – he demands quiet contemplation and the prose is so layered and dense (plus I’m reading it in French) that it demands to be savoured slowly and in small portions – I’ve never managed to read more than twenty pages in a sitting. Nevertheless, I flip it open to the bookmark and pick up where I left off yesterday afternoon in Lausanne (which feels a lifetime ago).

In this particular passage, the narrator is travelling by train with his grandmother to a resort on the Normandy coast. He’s extolling the joys of train travel, the pleasure of waking at sunrise in an unfamiliar town and being served café au lait through his compartment window by a beautiful dairymaid.

Damn you, Proust. I throw the book back in my bag with a huff. It doesn’t come out again.


Speaking of literature, I’ve just remembered who Dante put in the antechamber of Hell: the Neutrals. I find myself wishing that the entire staff of Swissair, if not the whole population of Switzerland, could be transported there instantly.


I’m not hungry (all this stress has stolen my appetite) but I’m painfully conscious of having eaten badly since this ordeal began – bread, croissants and a pathetic sandwich, washed down with coffee. For some reason this is when the image of the tangerines piled in the fruit bowl in my kitchen, glowing orange against the dark blue glaze, chooses to rise before my mind’s eye. I have waking dreams of tangerines, kale and beetroot.


The tangerine dream gives way to one of the bottle of Poire William that’s wrapped in my thickest jumper at the bottom of my suitcase. It’s a good thing it’s not with me, as I’m fairly sure I’d have uncorked it with my teeth and drunk the whole thing by now.


Also I’ve just realised that I’ve been staring at a huge Tag-Heuer advert with Leonardo DiCaprio’s smug face plastered all over it for the better part of an hour. (I loathe DiCaprio. He’s probably my least favourite actor ever.) Someone please put me out of my misery.


The head of the queue is still nowhere in sight and I’m still having hallucinations (without the aid of a suitcase full of Class A drugs) about eating kale with a Poire William chaser while running away from Leonardo DiCaprio, who is brandishing a giant watch… okay, not really. Something stranger still is happening – everyone else in the queue is starting to strike up conversations with each other. I get chatting with a cheerfully sarcastic Greek girl in front of me, who manages to carry on simultaneous bilingual conversations with me and a group of her compatriots, then with a group of Londoners behind me who were total strangers until fate threw them together a few hours ago.


Misery sometimes creates solidarity. Two of the Londoners offer to go up and ask to speak to the manager on our behalf. They eventually get one of the agents to summon him and, although I can’t hear what they’re saying, they’re speaking and gesturing with that uniquely British amalgam of simmering rage tightly reined in with extreme politesse. It produces results, but not quite the one any of us were expecting:

An armed guard.

So this is how a neutral country works. My brain really doesn’t want to examine this too closely right now.


Just past midnight, the Swissair powers that be FINALLY decided that it just might be a good idea to lay on extra staff, because the airport is closed and it would be great if they could get us out of here, because we’re cluttering the place up and preventing them from getting home. (If this were a Monty Python sketch, you would now have a blinking ‘Sarcasm’ sign flashing on the screen.)

After close to five hours in the queue, I find myself standing before an unsmiling, phlegmatic Swissair agent. I ask her through gritted teeth for a new flight to London, a hotel voucher and, while I’m at it, ‘I would like you to know that I don’t hold you responsible for this, but the way Swissair has handled this situation is inexcusable.’

I too can do simmering-rage-reined-in-by-extreme-politesse even if I wasn’t born British.

At least this time I don’t get an armed guard for my troubles, just a… Helvetian shrug. She tells me that the only available flights for tomorrow are at 7 am (given that I’m not likely to reach my hotel before 1 and would need to be back at the airport at 5, this isn’t tenable) or 6.30 pm.

In the interminable hours I’ve spent in airports today (or rather yesterday, what a depressing thought) I noticed something interesting: British Airways managed to get a decent portion of its flights off to London while Swissair cancelled every single one.

‘Can you put me on a BA flight instead?’ I gamble on her eagerness to get rid of me. It pays off. I leave the queue with a ticket for a BA flight at 1.20 pm, a hotel voucher, and the blissful knowledge that I no longer have to deal with Swissair. After a far-too-long hunt for our luggage and a mercifully short shuttle journey, I and my companions in misery at last pitch up at the hotel, where – small miracles – they’re still serving dinner. The meal has the desperate gaiety of one shared by a bunch of shipwreck survivors. Wine goes down like water and has none of its usual effect. Just before 2, I finally tumble into bed.

Day 5

When I stumble into the bathroom to wash up, a ghoul stares back at me: dull hair, dry red eyes, blotchy cheeks – it’s the first time I’ve seen myself in the mirror in two days and the worst I’ve looked in recent memory. What is this place doing to me?

Breakfast makes me feel rather better, although I drink too much coffee (again). As I’m finishing, one of the Londoners from last night asks if she can join me: a petite, fiery-looking woman in a huge sheepskin coat with cat-like black eyes. Her name is Jasmine. (It isn’t really, but in case she ever reads this I want to protect her anonymity… and Jasmine would’ve suited her.) She’s on the same flight as me.

‘Let’s stick together,’ she says. I feel better than I have since this ordeal began.

We turn up at the airport at 11 to find that our flight has been cancelled. If I were still alone I think I would probably have sat down on my suitcase and burst into tears, but Jasmine and I march up to the BA desk, queue for less than five minutes and are served by a polite, cheerful agent who promptly books us both onto the next flight (7.10 pm) and tells us to go check our bags, go into Zurich and enjoy ourselves, and be back in time for check-in.

Twenty minutes later we’re settled comfortably in a warm café near the train station sharing our life stories. Jasmine is a well-heeled bohemian who lives half in London, half in a little village in the French Alps (hence the failed flight from Geneva), the mother of two artistic children who went to university herself once they were grown (English and women’s studies). She’s smart, curious, opinionated, cultured and has a wicked sense of humour, and I marvel at my good luck at having ended up with her as my companion in misfortune. When I mention that, as we’re stuck here, I’d very much like to visit the Kunsthaus, she immediately agrees, on the condition that I tell her all about the paintings. That’s no hardship.

We head off to the Kunsthaus and are immediately captured by the cast of Rodin’s Gates of Hell outside the entrance. We stand admiring it for a good ten minutes despite the cold and I try to explain it as best I can (which is quite a fun exercise), before we decide it would be a good idea to get indoors.

The entrance is empty. It’s a Monday in Switzerland, which means…

The Kunsthaus is closed.

We take one look at each other and burst into hysterical laughter.

Since art seems to be off the menu for the day, we amble through the old town (which is pretty in a frosty, prim way – hard to believe that this city was the cradle of Dada, the home of Jung and the place where James Joyce actually chose to spend his last years) with stops for lunch and another coffee, talking up a storm. It turns out that, among other things, we’re both great fans of Steve McQueen…

Ah, Steve McQueen. You see, I now have a dilemma: his big retrospective opens in Basel in mid-March, and up until a few days ago I’d been dying to go. Now I’m not sure I can face the idea of voluntarily coming back to Switzerland.

While we’re in the midst of an impassioned discussion of Shame, standing in a park overlooking the lake and watching the swans glide by, fat flakes of snow start to fall. We turn back toward town, casting apprehensive glances over our shoulders as if pursued by an unseen assailant.

As the time for us to return to the airport draws nearer, our conversation dwindles – not because we’re growing tired of each other’s company (at least, I’m not). After a particularly long stretch of silence as we trudge toward the station, Jasmine glances up at me from under her hat.


‘Yeah,’ I sigh.

‘Me too.’

She hails a cab (she’s a self-confessed cab addict and refuses to let me contribute) and I give our destination to the driver in my pidgin German. He grins and says, ‘You know, I speak English.’

It turns out English and German are only two of the six languages he speaks. He’s from Ghana, has a master’s in engineering that, due to the vicissitudes of Swiss bureaucracy, is useless here, and is probably the most interesting cabbie I’ve ever had.

Jasmine asks him if there’s much of a Ghanaian community in Zurich. His response floors us.

‘Yes, there are a good number of us,’ he says, ‘but we’re not allowed to have any festivals or open shops selling goods from home without the city council voting to permit it. They won’t, though. The thing is, if you move to Switzerland you have to be Swiss, fit in, at all costs. No keeping your own culture, at least not in an obvious way.’

We’re decidedly subdued the rest of the way to the airport.

Well,’ Jasmine declares as soon as we’re inside, ‘that was an interesting conversation.’

‘I’m done with Switzerland,’ I reply with equal fervour.

By unspoken agreement, we head straight to the nearest café, order two glasses of wine, and spend the next quarter of an hour dissecting just what it is that makes Switzerland such a deeply nasty place: the situation our cab driver just described (Jasmine), the way it’s never really taken responsibility for its ignoble behaviour during the war (me), the fact that in some parts of the country women didn’t get the vote until 1989 and that Switzerland has the highest rate of domestic violence against women in Europe (Jasmine again – I hadn’t heard that last statistic but a bit of research proves her right). Oh yes, and the fact that apparently if you complain about anything, it’s considered okay to call in a guy with a uniform and a gun to intimidate you (see Day 4). Suddenly we remember we have two untouched glasses in front of us.

‘Well. Cheers.’ She raises hers.

‘To getting home tonight.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’ We clink glasses and drink. It gives me enough courage to go over and look at the departures board.

We have a gate.

I rush back to give her the happy news. ‘I refuse to get excited until we’re actually in the air,’ she says philosophically. And, wine finished, we lapse back into the nervous silence of earlier.

It doesn’t lift until an hour later, when we’re sat in the gate and boarding is announced. I feel as if I’m in a waking dream – this time, a good one – as we file onto the plane and take our seats. Exactly on time, the engines roar to life. It’s quite possibly the sweetest sound I’ve ever heard (this week, anyway).

I’m still in no mood for Proust so for the duration of the flight I just rest my head against the window and do some thinking. I come to a few conclusions:

  1. I will go back to Switzerland if required to for work, but that’s it.
  2. With one exception – I will go to the Steve McQueen exhibition. As a daytrip.
  3. Despite everything, I still think Lausanne is lovely. I just wish it could be gently lifted up and set down complete on the opposite shore of Lake Geneva.

The bag claim at London City is one joyful reunion as we catch sight of most of the people we’d met in the queue in Zurich the night before. I ring my boyfriend to let him know I’m finally back and he insists on looking after me for the evening – not that I need much convincing. My bag retrieved, I say goodbye to Jasmine, who hugs me and tells me to keep an eye out for her if I’m ever in her neighbourhood. I give her my card. Part of me is fairly sure I’ll never hear from her – why would she want to see someone she met in such miserable circumstances again – but part of me hopes that I will. We wave to each other as I head off to the DLR station and then I’m gone.


It took me two weeks after my return before I felt ready to write these two posts. My dislike of Switzerland (bar Lausanne) hasn’t lessened one bit, but I find that now, with a little distance, my strongest memory is actually of the kindness I encountered in the shape of two strangers from London.

Damian, Jasmine, wherever you are – thank you.


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