Magazine Features in this issue:
I must be dreaming. I'm in a German city where everyone speaks German,
as one would expect. And yet they all seem so French, preoccupied as
they are with sensual pleasures and relaxation.
†These so-called Germans savor food and drink at a languorous pace
on sprawling outdoor patios. In the French fashion, the wines are dry
and the breads are sweet. In Germany, as everyone knows, it's the wines
that are sweet and the breads, so very dry.
†True, the city is squeaky clean in the German tradition, and the
trams and trains run on time, down to the second. But something is
amiss. The real giveaway that I am in Zurich, Switzerland's largest
city, lies in a detail that would seem unforgivably foreign in the
fatherland: everyone smiles.
†On the surface, Switzerland is quite neatly divi-ded, almost
balkanized, into its German, French and Italian pieces. Most Swiss
Germans don't speak much French, although I'm told this is sometimes
merely an affectation. Stereotypes are not far below the surface for
both groups. The French accuse the Germans of being serious and dull.
The Germans will sometimes say the French are lazy: the industrious
Germans earn all the money for the Swiss, they say, but the French,
with their addiction to elaborate social schemes, are quick to spend it.
†Still, the cultures have lent more to one another than some Swiss
would like to admit. This seems most evident in Zurich, the country's
most cosmopolitan city, where Swiss Germans have developed their own
style, one that owes plenty to their Latin confreres. It's a
combination perhaps best expressed in Switzerland's most celebrated
crafts: the precision of clockmakers meets the gourmet concerns of
cheesemakers and the decadence of the chocolatiers. Zurich may have a
reputation as a highly efficient financial hub, but the city is also a
†Much of the city's relaxed spirit finds its focus on the water.
Zurich is situated on a lake entirely surrounded by lush parks. Fresh,
clear water flows into the lake from glaciers in the Alps, which
provide a picturesque backdrop to the city. Boats are plentiful. The
Limmat, the river that flows from the lake through the historic city
centre, is banked by pedestrian promenades and outdoor bars and cafés.
†Lakeside, people sprawl on the expansive lawns or the huge square
docks built out into the water. The docks, like picture frames,
surround swimming pool-sized holes, making it easy to take a refreshing
dip. There are several of these pools, including one each for gay men
(at Tiefenbrunnen) and bare-breasted lesbians (on the Limmat). At
night, DJs set up booths and the docks transform into outdoor
Zurich is a party destination for European gay men. The city is known
for its relaxed attitudes to the pleasures of sex, drugs and
electronica. As in most places, such easy living has been hard fought
†Zurich's sex appeal was threatened by a police crackdown on
darkrooms two years ago. "The police closed down a bar because they had
a darkroom and argued in front of a court that it was illegal," says
Pierre Rosselet, co-president of Pink Cross, the national gay men's
advocacy group, itself an umbrella for dozens of regional chapters and
†Rosselet, a lawyer by day, helped to successfully challenge the
ruling, which was overturned last year.
†"The first court said, yes, it's illegal. But then the supreme
court of the state of Zurich ruled that a darkroom was legal if certain
precautions were taken." Darkrooms and saunas once again flourish in
the city. Of the victory, Rosselet says, "We are very happy and proud."
†Electronic dance music fans flock to the city, particularly for
the annual Streetparade, a citywide dance party with a definite gay
vibe. Each August, every square inch of public space in Zurich is
transformed into a disco. A roving party of club kids and drag queens
in dayglo costumes flows through the streets while each of the city's
many public squares becomes an outdoor dance club. Makeshift dance
floors pop up everywhere: in parks, on boats and even in the giant main
hall of the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station. The chief of
police tried to ban the parade in 1994 but ultimately caved in the face
of massive protests. These days, the city of Zurich is a major force
behind the festival and, true to its sophisticated reputation, it even
distributes information on how to avoid purchasing bad party drugs.
Switzerland's drug laws are among the most progressive in the world,
Claude Janiak tells me. Janiak is a Swiss senator who, as the former
president of the Swiss national assembly, was the country's first
openly gay head of state. He has worked successfully in favor of drug
decriminalization, immigration reform and gay civil unions. Janiak says
the country's progressive legislation is simply a function of Swiss
†"The Swiss drug policy," he says, "is an example of what I call
the realpolitik. Fifteen years ago, they started with the program that
the state gave the heroin to the people. And so the small criminality
went down because [drug users] didn't have to steal money…. I
mean, the police have better things to do than to run after people with
drugs." These days, while trafficking laws remain, possession of drugs
— all drugs — has been decriminalized. This freedom is
balanced with tough laws against driving under the influence. It's a
bold approach that has inspired Germany to implement similar drug
†Janiak also fought for gay civil unions. A bill was passed in
2004, but opponents collected the requisite 50,000 signatures to force
a national referendum on the issue the following year. Janiak says he
was not worried the law would be repealed. "I was quite sure that we
would win it, because in the parliament it was approved largely.
†"In Switzerland, normally such questions which concern the
society, abortion for example, people are very realistic. So they know
that there are abortions, and they prefer that it is legal and it's
done in the hospital and not I-don't-know-where. Regarding gays and
lesbians, people know that there are gays and lesbians," he laughs.
†Sure enough, the referendum approved gay civil unions by a large
majority. It was the first time in the world that gay partnership
rights were bestowed, not by a legislature, but directly by a country's
†Corine Mauch, Zurich's chic lesbian mayor, was not so confident.
†"I was skeptical, I must say," she says. "I was very astonished
when it passed with almost two-thirds of the people saying yes in
Switzerland. This for me really was a signal; we have made large
progress during the last three years."
†She is equally pleased that her lesbianism was not a negative
factor in last year's mayoralty campaign.
†"I was elected with a very good result," she says. "For me this
proved it's not an issue for the population of Zurich."
†Mauch was a member of parliament before becoming mayor. Before
that, she was a bass player in a rock band. Now, she's working to make
Zurich a greener city.
†"We have fixed in our city constitution our goal to be a
sustainable city," she says. It's a goal that comes with ambitious
self-imposed standards and deadlines. The city recently built a highway
around itself, to keep traffic from entering the city and encourage
transit use instead.
†One can get anywhere quickly and effortlessly via Zurich's
transit system. Trams run constantly, often on dedicated streets, and
tram connections are breathtakingly precise. But when I suggest to
Mauch that Zurich already seems to have a perfect transit system, she
expresses great surprise, "No, we don't!"
†"The starting point is good," she concedes, "but we have to
realize it still." This realization involves a little social
engineering to alter habits. "We really want to force people to take
the way around the city," she says.
Thanks to the smarts and efforts of Switzerland's progressive gay and
lesbian politicians and activists, Zurich stands to become still less
polluted, more efficient, more relaxed and a lot sexier.
Swiss International Airlines (swiss.com) is exactly what you'd expect
from its namesake: an efficient and comforting way to make your way
across the ocean. Service is meaningfully engaging and details are
managed properly. Tyler Brele, the gay Canadian founder of Wallpaper
and Monocle magazines, oversaw the airline's makeover a few years back.
†Once you've arrived, a Swiss rail pass (sbb.ch/en) is a
shockingly affordable way to get around, even in first class.
Restaurants tend to be somewhat pricey across the land, but the quality
of food is generally high. Hotels are expensive in Zurich, but they
generally offer many free services, like breakfasts that eliminate the
need for lunch, which help mitigate the cost.
WHERE TO STAY
Zurich hotels divide roughly into two camps: traditional Swiss charm
and ubermodern sleek and stylish. In the former camp, the Alden
(alden.ch) is the best example. Built in 1895, the hotel's exterior
resembles a miniature palace. Inside, there are just 22 rooms and
suites, each one unique. Rooms are cozy but never twee, with an
emphasis on elaborate spa-like bathrooms. They offer free old-school
services like shoe shining, and the daily breakfast is an elaborate
affair that includes serve-yourself Champagne. On the sleek front, the
new Park Hyatt (zurich.park.hyatt.com) is a marvel. The shiny dark
exterior is minimalist perfection, making a nice backdrop for drinks or
dinner from the sidewalk patio. The lobby lounge's vaulted ceilings and
massive modern fireplace make the indoor option equally delightful.