Here's my confession: I have travelled about 10 times around the earth on Swiss rails. Approximately 400,000 km. I have spent more time on these trains than I have with my friends and family. I can't go into the Whys and the Hows. It wasn't an easy life but it surely was an interesting ride.
I don’t drive. I have a driver’s permit, from India, but the day I received it my Dad told me that he would never let me take the car out. He feared that I wouldn’t be able to handle Indian traffic by myself, that I was too nervous. Also that the majority of the population behind the wheel is male and just seeing that I am female is enough for them to harass me. Thus, my license is now a decrepit old plastic card with my face on it, that’s turning white on the edges. It hasn’t seen the light of day in close to a decade. Practically speaking, I can’t drive.
I use public transport unless someone is kind enough to drive me to the place I wish to go. When I moved to Switzerland I realized immediately that I was in a privileged position. The standard of transportation facilities in this tiny country that has just 8 million residents is remarkable. The country runs on time (and on money), like no other place I have ever known. I had never before understood punctuality in its intended meaning until I started using Swiss public transportation, which is ‘Be on time indicated or get punched in the gut for missing the meeting.’ If the bus is to arrive at 8:04 and the driver sees you running towards the bus stand 20 meters away at 8:04 he’ll not wait for you. You are late! He will not wait because it is disrespectful to the people in the bus who were on time. He is doing his job by following the rules but you still feel like punching him. In these ways I learnt what it means to be Swiss – orderly, law-abiding, disgruntled by the system at times but still proud and very much adherent to the social norms.
My personal and professional lives in Switzerland were at two ends of the central railway line. I bought the GA/AG – Generalabonnement (de) or Abonnement Général (fr) – the brilliant and expensive travel pass for residents that let’s one use any mode of public transport to go almost everywhere in Switzerland. Some premium mountain passes and tourist traps are not covered but the GA holders get a discount. If used regularly the holder comes out the winner. The GA/AG card also lets one experience and appreciate (after a while) that those who hold this pass are under a self-imposed gag order. Also the reason why I call the GA the GAG pass. They usually take fixed lines at fixed times and hence there is no talking or ooh-ing or aah-ing. They work. Or sleep. Or catch up on the news. If a ‘foreigner’ or a teenager or a tourist is seen yapping away on the phone or chatting loudly about the beauty of the Swiss landscape during rush hours then s/he will be stared at. That’s the rudest thing to happen to you in a Swiss train: the Swiss death stare. I know because I have done it. I have tried using my mind to get the person sitting opposite me to shut up, and it’s almost always failed.
The times I took the train outside of the main GAG hours (yes, that’s what I am calling rush hours) something remarkable happened. I ended up conversing with interesting strangers and also noticing the strangest of behaviours. If you, the reader, are from any other country you’d probably think I am making an Alpine mountain out of a Marmot hole. But you’d be mistaken. It’s normal in your part of the world to talk to people sitting next you in a bar or a bus or a plane. It is not so normal here. Swiss people respect privacy above all else. Why else do you think there are so my famous people living here? Along with the tax benefits they get anonymity. I feel oddities should be recorded. So here’s my collection of the best meetings I have had on the Swiss trains,
Never judge a book by its cover
I read, more than most but less than some. If I know I’ll be out of the house for more than 2 hours then I carry a book with me. I take books to weddings. It is no surprise then that I read on the train. It’s a normal habit. A lot of people read on Swiss trains. Nothing extraordinary. Except, the books I have read has led some very cool people to talk to me. The first book is Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk. It is one of the best memoirs I have read. I was so engrossed in it that I was unaware of a very handsome young man who’d been staring at me (and the book) for a while. When I looked up he had the broadest smile and told me how much he loved that book. He went on to suggest Snow by the same author and we had a very brief chat. It isn’t a ‘Wow! That’s such a cool story’ story admittedly . But it was the first time a stranger had spoken to me in a Swiss train. Until then I had always felt a little out-of-place and rather oppressed by the silence. I was too mindful of the social protocols and was always on edge. That man broke a stereotype for me that day. I began to relax more.
Some time later when I was reading an Indian author (I forget whom) a South Asian gentleman who was seated opposite me introduced himself. He wanted to talk about the book and the author. We started chatting easily. He was clearly a very well-educated man who knew his books. We started talking about movies based on books and then he asked me if I had seen (this was a few years ago now) Game of Thrones. I said no but that I’d heard of it. (HBO right? I love HBO.) He went on to tell me about George R. R. Martin and The Song of Ice and Fire. I wasn’t convinced, since I hadn’t read a fantasy novel since the Harry Potter series. He insisted I read it. I did and fell in obsessive love. We kept meeting on the train, we had the same hours it seemed and we started talking about new books, movies and TV shows. He introduced me to Anime, to the great Hayao Miyazaki. I would have never known the wondrous beautiful world of fantasy art if it wasn’t for him. I still can’t believe that this one stranger has unknowingly made my life so much richer. I am more open to new genres of literature because of him.
My final story is my most special. One Saturday morning I was stretched out on an empty seat in a largely empty train with Moab is my Washpot by Stephen Fry. An elderly Swiss gentleman walked by looking for a vacant four-seater. I suppose he wanted to stretch out too. I straightened up when I saw him but he moved by too quickly to have noticed. I kept the book on the serving table and was rummaging through my bag when I heard, “I know this man”. I looked up and it was the old man. He said, “I know this man who wrote the book. Stephen Fry. Funny man.” He asked if he could sit down and I couldn’t have been happier. I think he saw that he had shocked me with his confession. He introduced himself and went on to tell me that he had been in London for many years where he had the opportunity to work with Mr. Fry. He told me that he charges £10,000 per talk in a scandalised tone. “Such a smart man.”, he said. Yes, indeed. All I could do was nod vigorously trying to soak in every bit of information. I now felt so close to Stephen Fry. I was star struck.
Then the conversation went on to our daily lives and he happily spoke about his life in Switzerland, his social work, his love for the quiet life in Bern and his distaste for the big money and bad service in Zurich. He bought me a coffee from the mobile snack bar! That one coffee has meant more to me than so many fancy meals in fancy places here in Switzerland. It was a random act of kindness shown to me by a Swiss stranger. A couple walked by whom he happened to know. They joined us. He introduced me to them and then I let the three of them catch up. I read for the rest of our journey together. Soon it was time for them to leave and as he departed he apologised for not having spoken to me more. I hope we meet again someday. There is always so much talk about this country being unfriendly to immigrants and passing right-wing laws. Whenever I get offended by such propaganda, the black sheep and crow ruining the pure white Swiss cross, I remember this elderly Swiss man and I reason my way out of generalisation.
SBB: Swiss Bafflement Bonus
A Swiss rail staffer who worked the mobile snack bar would always stop by my seat, blocking the path for those wishing to move around. He’d want to exchange pleasantries with me loudly to the annoyance of others. I would get the stare. At some point he’d leave and I’d cower inside my book and smile weakly at my neighbours. (He he. Sorry. He’s a friendly guy.) I guess he saw me frowning too often and decided I needed a friend. I can’t understand why else he’d do it!
The iPad guy
There was once a man on the SBB CFF FFS
Who loved to show off I must confess
He’d buy all Apple products in triplicate
And take off the dust jacket for effect
He’d then proceed to sit next to you
And open his bag as if on cue
He’d put one iPad on the ground discreet
Then wait for you to kick it with your feet!
Every time. Every single time I have met this man he’s done this. I have seen all the upgrades of the iPad at my feet. I couldn’t help but tell this tale poetically.
People never cease to amaze me!
I didn’t think I could ever put a positive spin on my lack of independent mobility. For a while I have been telling people that using public transport keeps my carbon footprint low. What it actually did for me is keep my human footprint really high. I would have never guessed when I first came to this country that the one place I would meet people not affiliated to any part of my life would be the one place that has no address, is regulated but sees no boundaries and all the while is very Swiss. It has been all about the journey.
Note: I was approached by the wonderful people over at meetingsbooker.com to write a post on my favourite meeting place. The Swiss rail stories seemed like a perfect idea. They are all true. This is not a sponsored post and all views are my own.