All summer it had been raining in Switzerland and only when I arrived in Zürich did the clouds break and the sun come out in full force. The morning I took the train from Zürich, heading west to Luzern, rain blanketed the landscape once more. With the rain the northern summer chill so reminiscent of my younger days in Germany also made itself felt, and for the first time since my arrival I felt I had returned to a familiar Europe.
I spent the hours on the train between Zürich and Luzern with my face pressed against the window pane, drinking in the green landscape. It was still hard to believe I was actually in Switzerland. Looking out at the gentle rolling hills, without a mountain in sight, preconceptions of what Switzerland actually was slipped away with each passing kilometer. The country actually had flat regions, where you could drive your tractor and set holstein cows grazing.
Of all the cities in Switzerland Luzern was where I hoped to discover the romance of a Swiss lake. In spite of the rain, the colorful banners of the Luzern Festival and the flags of the city and the aluminum and glass structures of the train and bus stations, coupled with a seamless merging of ancient stone clock towers and churches and low-cut, modern office buildings made the entrance into the city seem weightless and cheerful. I stopped by the tourist office and though there was a long line of travelers waiting to get information, the tourist information officer smiled when she looked up and seemed to take a liking to me, for she went way beyond simply telling me where the youth hostel was located, going into deep detail about the history of the city walls, the timing of the bells of the old city belfries, the memorial of the Swiss Roman guards who had died protecting Caesar, even the significance of the faded Dance of Death paintings by Kaspar Meglinger on the Spreuer Bridge spanning the lower half of the city’s portion of the river. When I voiced concern about all the people waiting behind me she waved her hand in dismissal, “They always ask the same questions!” She went on to explain that she had been born in Switzerland, but had grown up in California, on a vineyard. She also told me her last name, which was Dutch, and at my raised eyebrows, she shrugged, “My ex. What can you do? I figured that it was silly to break up on bad terms; after all we had loved each other at first! So I decided to keep the name.” We must have been standing there for twenty minutes, gabbing. I felt like Luzern had welcomed me with open arms, though the eyes burning into my back said otherwise.
After leaving my pack at the youth hostel just on the edge of town, I took the street car back downtown and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling about in the heavy rain. Students from all over the world wandered the streets, mostly in big groups, all taking photographs of the famous sights, especially the KapelleBrÃ¼cke, a long, wooden covered bridge that spanned the wide Reuss River. From what the woman at the tourist office had told me the bridge had burned down several years ago, due to a careless smoker. Walking across the newly rennovated version now, I stopped every so often to stare at the thousands of names and messages scribbled in Hangul onto the wood by Korean tourists.
The rain got too heavy to walk out in the open so I retreated to the market streets and hugged the storefronts to escape the downpour. Couples raced by, hiding under umbrellas and jackets, to disappear in coffee shops and clothing stores. I bought a hot pretzel at one vendor and stood nibbling at it under an awning while watching the water stream down over the cobblestones.
People often think that when it rains photographs no longer exhibit beauty, perhaps equating the dampness of the rain and the greyness of the skies with lack of color. But in the rain colors come alive where before there was just a dull stone face or strong shadows. When the water glistens on the surface of leaves or street lights reflect their neon colors in the puddles, rain can enhance the effect, pulling your eyes away from the stereotypical sunny skies to the ground or to hidden corners.
The romance of the lake came in the most unexpected way. I was just returning to the youth hostel, and had stepped off the street car, when two Korean university students stepped off behind me. They looked lost so I approached them and asked if they were looking for the youth hostel. We hit it off, and walking back to the hostel, we began to talk about our travels. The conversation never stopped. Khang and Yunho asked me to join them for dinner and when that still didn’t give us enough time to get to know each other we all took the street car back downtown to take a walk around the area I had wandered in all day. I felt like a university student again as we joked about, talking about girls, about dreams, about new places to travel to. We arrived at the edge of Lake Luzern and like a sea it spread out in the darkness as far as we could see. Boat and port lights, mixed with the squiggly strands of street lights, wavered on the dark water, while on every bollard at the edge of the lake couples held each other in the rain. Yunho, the youngest of us and out on his first trip outside Korea, sprinted to the edge of the lake and threw his hands in the air, shouting… and reflecting the feelings of Khang and me… “I LOVE LUZERN! I LOVE SWITZERLAND!” Then he ran back to me, his smile beaming from ear to ear, and asked in earnest, “Isn’t it romantic Miguel? Isn’t it romantic! Oh, Miguel, it is so beautiful!”
Still floating on these words I woke at dawn the next morning and took the train west again, for Chamonix, France, the doorway to my mountain dreams.