Τετάρτη, 9 Ιανουαρίου 2008

Zurich, a city of dark secrets

Before going to Zurich, I decided to find a few fun facts about Switzerland. Sixty percent of its inhabitants speak german, another 30 percent speak french, 9 percent speak Italian, and roughly below 1 percent speak romanish (a crossfire between the three). There are not that many immigrants in Switzerland, the majority being Spanish, South Americans, Italians and Africans. Swizzerland is governed by a far-right wing federal government, the prime minister of which nobody really knows. In fact nobody needs to know who he is, since most decisions are taken by the public, in polls. The country is divided in 30-odd cantons, each of which decides about its internal laws and policies, and which has its own official language. Switzerland is also known for its banking system. It's banking system is so protective that for many years swiss banks have refused to open vaults, that are suspected to contain treasures that the Nazis stole from jewish families during Hitler's Reign. And, for conspiracy buffs, under Zurich's streets there lie huge vaults, in wich the Odessa (organization formed by former SS members, formed in order to help SS members flee Germany in the late forties, and supposedly infiltrate governments and economies around the world) stashed huge quantities of gold boullion, smuggled out of Germany just before its collapse. Having read all this, I boarded the plane to Zurich.

While landing at Zurich's Klotten airport, the American girl sitting next to me is starting to say her prayers. This puzzles me, and I am thinking about it as I enter the town. In fact Zurich looks like a pretty much harmless little town where everybody has their expensive cars, public transport is amazingly punctual, and, fast.

It is a ten minute ride from the airport to the central train station, and all I see is the overtly green countryside, expensive looking homes and buildings that look like company headquarters. Then I arrive at the station. The only interesting thing about the station, is that part of the building has been built with the use of granite, which was extracted from what came to be the largest tunnel in continental Europe, the St Gotthard Pass. Right next to the station lies the Bahnhoff Strasse, a wide pedestrian aeria, which connects the Station with the lake of Zurich. It also houses the city's commercial and banking district. No wonder why the street is full of filthy rich Russian or Eastern European types. These guys are visiting their money which is on an endless skiing holiday in Switzerland (others send their money to enjoy the sunny beaches of Cyprus, or the Cayman Islands). In fact Zurich is a playground for the rich and famous.

The latter becomes evident when, later in the day, I cross to the old town, a pace which is considered primarily the entertainment district, and where is the only place where you can find univercity students biding their time. The place is full of bars, pubs, delis, beerhouses and, interestingly enough, strip joints. The sex industry is making a killing in this city, and prostitution is very common. That's one of the major problems here. The other is substance abuse. The numbers are horrifying. Zurich is Europe's number one city in cocaine sales, and , sadly enough, heroin is VERRY widespread. To whoever has any basic sociologic knowledge, one thing can become evident. That despite the very well preserved front, this city is very ill. The rich and famous, and all of those who work as some sort of executives in the field of services (like tourism, entertainment and banking) , can have all the fun they like, but for the poor, on the other hand, life in Zurich is simply unbearable. It is just that if you are broke, you can move around downtown Zurich only if you are working there, and not for any other reason.

On my way to the Lake, another thing happens to me . I realise that walking next to me is the President of Syria, accompanied by assorted family members and bodyguards. And boy do I have an urge do give him a little intense talk about the state of human rights in his country. But as I am planning my moves, it occurs to me that even if I manage to do it, and then escape his guards, I will not escape the hands of the Swiss police. Mind you Switzerland IS, by many means, a police state. That does not mean that you can see police cars in every corner. The Swiss police are mostly invisible, and clearly take no interest in obviously terrifying ordinary citizens, or flexing their muscle. But once it occurs to them that you are either a criminal, or someone threatening the status quo, or someone unlicable to the filthy rich sitting next to you on a bench, then they easily forget some of your basic human rights. And by god they can appear out of nowhere. Try to park your car in a space other than specified, you'll have a police car pulling up next to yours in a matter of seconds. Look toward somebody in a slightly menacing way, you might have the place swarming with members of the grendarmerie (the Swiss police) in a matter of minutes .

On the lakeside is one of the most expensive hotels in Switzerland, the Baur au Lack. This is the typical uber-expensive uber luxurious hotel. A Bentley parked right outside, filthy rich clients packed inside, waiters pouring expensive champaigne by the pint into their glasses. Another evidence of how uber-kapitalizt Switzerland is. There works the guy who will show us around the town for the whole of Saturday morning (I arrived on Friday morning, the rest of the group arrived from Zermatt, down south, Friday evening).

Our friendly Swiss guide has four kids, so he smiles as eight kids make a violent dash towards his minibus, with troubled parents and elder siblings trailing at some distance, yelling to them to be quiet. Our destinations include the Zoo, an ice skating ring, and anything worth seeing in town. The zoo is very well organised, full of large cages containing animals that are native of alpine regions, or can be accustomed to a cold climate (the vast majority of exzibits), and warm buildings where tropical endangered species live (a small minority). All of them live in cages that resemble their home environment, but the animals had a sad gaze in their eyes. The sad gaze of an animal living away from its natural environment.

After the zoo we went to the open top ice ring. I have to say that, probably, the Swiss where born with skis or ice scates attached to their feet. A toddler was wearing its first ice skates, doing its first steps on ice, alongside the overjoyed and proud parents. A twelve year old girl performing manouvers with the grace of a professional ice skater. And eight greek kids having a hell of a time skating around and watching loads of people doing the same.

In the noon, we decided to conclude our sightseeing. But after a couple of churches the Politechnic and the Garden in which the Austrian Embassy was built, our guide ran out of options on what to show us. So he decided that the all the places of interest left in Zurich where the headquarters of various banks and multinational companies, exclusive bars, lounges and restuarants (this is the Headquarters of Novartis, this is the headquarters of UBS, I have seen Tom Cruise dine here, Madonna throws exclusive parties at this club whenever she visits Zurich etc). Zurich, the ultimate playground for the rich and famous, unbearable to the poor.... Though there is supposed to be a working public health system in Switzerland, and public schools there are of a very high standard, and 90% of its univercities are owned by the state, capitalism is allowed to go beserk here, and everything works by capitalist standards. For example, all of the swissair aircraft, are configured in a way where business class occupies half the seats in the plane (we do not have any seats in economy, if you wanna fly, fly business). Travelers in the coach section get to eat a small yogurt or a calzone, accompanied by a fudge, coffee and a juice, while business class travelers get to choose between two cooked meals, a variety of six brands of expensive wine and other types of booze, and coffee. Scandalous ain't it? Generally Switzerland is fun, only if you can afford to pay at a quite high price for it.

Friday and Saturday night are quite passable, since there seems to be some commotion in the old town, though the Bahnhof Strasse is almost empty. The bars and clubs are full of young people, and the booze goes down smoothly. But on Sunday morning, and up until Monday, the whole of the city resembles a Ghost Town. There is nobody walking around the pedestrian aereas, and, though there are some cars moving around the streets, there is a feeling of emptiness despite the sunny weather. Everybody is either outside the city, skiing, or in their homes, or locked into their expensive restaurants and cozy cafes, like Sprungli's. Sunday night is even worse. The only bar where there seems to be something going on, is booked for an exclusive party, or so tells me the bouncer. Everything else is empty, and by midnight it is also closed.

And then, while I am walking to my hotel room, I notice something that I had passed by a few times while staying there. In the corridor, there was a flat-liquid crystal tv screen broadcasting Bloomberg TV non-stop, with stock market prices crawling all over. And then this idea came across my mind. Zurich was a city created only so that there one can strike business deals. A city created to entertain capitalists, stockbrokers, bankers and merchants, who are in need of chasing dark pleasures, for a price.

Switzerland is probably the place where everything can be for sale, even only for a glimpse of what is a Europeanised version of the American Dream. Problem is that this dream usually turns out to be a nightmare. The Zuricher proletariat lives under unthinkable misery, its living conditions are far worse than those, lets say in Spain. But the worst is, that it lives in the underground, meticulously hidden under a really heavy curtain. Zurich is like a huge and shiny shop's front parlour, which hides the fact that the expensive products it vends where produced by some ten year old earning 25 cents a day at some sweatshop in a third-world country