Veils

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Zurich Boys

I landed without wings right in the middle of a faraway city, Zürich. I brought with me images from childhood, of green foothills towered over by shining peaks and corner shops selling chocolate and watches. Almost as if waking from a long sleep I took to the streets and felt as if I was peering through a window. I walked for hours that first day, letting myself get lost in the side streets and unplanned water’s edges.

Zurich Sailboats

I hadn’t expected short sleeves and burning sunshine and crowds worshipping the light or deeply suntanned numbers of men and women with beautifully toned bodies. They bobbed past me while I stared at them in surprise. And smiles everywhere. In one afternoon the stereotype of the dour Swiss evaporated. Like a benediction after the furtiveness that you nurture in the trains and sidewalks of Japan, the quick smiles and acknowledgement of women passing me reawakened that sense of interactive street life that I so missed in Japan.

Zurich Bridge

It might be postcard perfect, but there is something to be said for cities that step beyond mere convenience and practicality. Walking here was a joy; even in the city you could feel as if it was a place meant for people to appreicate their presence there. Everywhere there were seats to lounge on, coffee shops to stop and unwind in, views to look out at to remind you of where you were located. Unlike Tokyo where you would never know that the ocean its right at your doorstep until you round a corner and find it there, almost as an afterthought, here the hills and the river and the big lake hold pride of places. You could tell that the inhabitants loved what they had. The water in the lake was clean enough to swim in, and proven by the hundreds of sunbathers who had crossed over to the platforms floating a hundred meters away from the shores.

Zurich Swans

Jetlag slowed me to an aimless stroll and with the sun beating down it took me a while to count the strange coins when I bought a mineral water and a bockwurst sandwich. Japanese kept springing out instead of German, but even then the Swiss German sounded garbled and oddly gutteral, even for German. Luckily just about everyone spoke perfect English, so I allowed myself some lapses in kick-starting my German again.

Zurich Buildings 1

It took a while for my head to begin swiveling into photography mode, where my eyes begin to sink into the light around me and scenes present themselves one after the other, often before I am aware of what I am looking at. When I can let go like this walking with a camera turns a place almost into glimpses of streams of consciousness. The world grows incandescent and full of meaning, and even the lowliest flake on a wall holds the weight of the world within itself.

Zurich Cafe 1

Like most places in Switzerland tourists overrun all the prettiest areas. As I walked about I wondered how the Swiss could put up with the constant intrusion. I don’t think I would be so hospitable if strangers were continually tromping up and down the street outside my window.

Zurich Facade 1

Humans painted everything red in Switzerland. They even wore the color on their hats and shirts. I never saw so many flags hung out of windows and draped from flagpoles, not even in conservative America. I never imagined Switzerland as a nationalistic country, but without even having heard anyone speak about it the Swiss never let you forget where you were.

Zurich Cafe 2

I love to get lost and let the turns in an alley or trail surprise me. In the old part of a city like Zürich the walkways are narrow and crooked and sometimes you literally brush up against the walls as you navigate. When you look ahead at a certain unusual light and follow your nose, often you come upon gems of courtyards and secret, tiny cafés.

Zurich Hotel

Europeans take their eating and their time to talk very seriously. At noon all the shops but the restaurants close down and don’t reopen until two-thirty or three. As a boy in Germany it was always a difficult time to get through because I always wanted to go rushing outside after lunch and burn up energy, but my grandparents insisted that I stay in the living room and take a nap on the couch. It was much the same here in Switzerland; I wondered what Japanese or American tourists would think, with their inability to stay still and wait.

Naruto Rushes

The popular tourist spots always exhaust me after a while and for the time I stayed in Zürich I often took refuge in the alleys and out-of-the-way hills. Here I could watch the local populace go about their daily lives in peace. Since these walkways were so small and narrow cars never passed through and the tranquility gave me an inkling of what cities must have been like thre hundred years ago.

Zurich Main Train Station

I would have wandered Zürich for a week, but I had come to go walking in the Alps. So, after three days of rewinding my clock I headed off to the train station to take the train west.
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I’ve only begun to work on the 850 photographs I brought back. Looking through them and working with PhotoShop on them I’m beginning to find a few that I really like. To think that I was honestly considering not bringing the camera because of the weight!

17 Responses

  1. Wonderful photos! I’ve not been to Switzerland other than a drive around Lake Constanze. Your images remind me of Germany. I can see why you would feel comfortable there, and I agree that people are friendly in Europe and treasure the beauty of their surroundings. You’ve awakend a longing for another trip to Europe.

  2. If I could speak personally for a moment, I want to say that it’s obvious to me that you are an artist. Your writing and photographs are wonderful, always I feel the emotion and they, you, communicate so strongly.

    I have a question for you. I wonder if your sense of dissatisfaction with your job and where you live may have more to do with you not doing the job you were obviously meant to do? Surely, if you want to travel, write, take photographs, illustrate, there must be a way to make a living doing that. What about freelance travel writing and photography? I so appreciate your generosity in sharing your work, but would be equally pleased to pay for it.

  3. I will never make Switzerland so I have to thank you for the photos and writing you have posted.

    It sort of makes me sick that countries as old as Switzerland can be so beautiful and then take a look at most American cities. They look old, dirty and unliveable.

    Awaiting more postings and again thank you.

  4. Back in 1990, my then husband & I took our 2 sons & his mother to Europe – London, Paris, Munich & Luxembourg………Our purpose of this trip was to take my husband’s mother to visit her husbands grave at the Hamm cemetary. We flew back to the U.S. from Zurich, spending only one day there. But I was so thrilled at the beauty of Zurich. I think I might like to visit Zurich again someday.

  5. Sounds really lovely, and the contrast you observe with Japan is very interesting – flies in the face of the accepted wisdom about japanese closeness to nature, blah blah blah. Suddenly Switzerland sounds like a much more attractive destination than I’d thought.

  6. Relatively Retiring

    What a blessing that you took your camera – although probably the time spent now, revisiting your travels in photographs and words, may prove unsettling? I hope not. I hope it heralds a time of peace and happiness for you, where ever and however you build your future.

  7. wonderful photo (^^)

  8. Beautiful photos of a city I enjoyed too, though just for a day! I’m really looking forward to seeing more of your photos of the trip – the thought of you not bringing a camera is awful!!

  9. Butuki-san!

    These are beautiful pictures of Zurich – I love the slightly desaturated look you gave them, they look very elegant and give the city a great atmosphere…

    850 pictures! Nice. I remember seeing your post where you discussed whether to bring the camera – good thing you did! :-)

    Echoing some of the other posters here, it is interesting to see you compare the people in Zurich to the people in Japan’s cities. I think I feel the same and understand from your writing how you arrived at these thoughts, but at the same time I have doubts about my own experiences with the effect of where and when I thought that the locals are more open/friendly/relaxed/etc. to wherever I just came from. It’s strange, but I almost think it works both ways between any two places where I have spent enough time.

    When I lived in Munich I really liked the way people in San Francisco appeared to be, and now that I have been living in San Francisco long enough, I have the exact same feelings about life in Munich. Maybe it’s just some sort of meta-Grass-is-Greener-on-the-Other-Side effect…

    Now I can’t wait to see how your hiking in the Alps went…

  10. Hey everyone! Sorry to take so long to reply. I’ve been taking some kind of sleeping pill/ anti-depressants (first time ever to use those!) and I’ve been feeling a little “unfocused”. I sit down to write something and the next moment I am up making cocoa or flipping through a book. Kind of disconcerting, especially when I don’t quite remember getting up to do whatever it is that I decided to do.

    Marja-Leena, I can’t quite put my finger on why I feel comfortable in Europe. It is little things, like the smell of bread on the street or the sound of the street car engine or the nonchalance of placing serious news next to photos of nude men and women in newspapers… And everybody talks! Everywhere. Often about stuff that really piques my interest.

    Vegetablej, most definitely my dissatisfaction comes in great part from doing a job that I neither respect (I respect the act of work and making a living, but not the subject of what I focus on every day here at this university) nor enjoy. The reality is that I need to work and make money for survival, but I feel completely uunchallenged and as far away from creative process as I can possibly be. I’m most definitely not alone in this feeling, but it’s frustrating to not be able to collaborate with those I work with and create something extraordinary together. There are basically three things I want to do for work: writer, photographer, and illustrator, as you noted. I’d like to do them within the context of the natural world and be able to spend as much time outdoors as I possibly can. And I’d like this work to be concerned with teaching people to see and experience the world from a very personal and emotional point of view. I’d like to move people.

    Hal, oh you shouldn’t say that about American cities… America has some real gems and some unbelievably beautiful places. Portland (Oregon), San Francisco, New Orleans (before the disaster), Eugene (Oregon), Bar Harbor, Santa Fe, even some parts of Boston and New York all come to mind. And also, Switzerland has a habit of sweeping the everyday dirt under the rug so that it looks all spick and span, and pretends that the garbage doesn’t exist. It does, of course. I didn’t notice it at first, but graffitti in Switzerland is particularly bad. I have a feeling it is a reaction against the overly quaint surroundings that everyone is forced to live with every day.

    Dottie, I didn’t expect Zürich to be such a comfortable city. It is just the right size, not so big that you can’t encompass it in your mind, but not so small that before you’ve taken half a step you’re already outside it. And it’s cosmopolitan, with a great variety of people.Within half an hour you can easily access the hills surrounding the city and be deep in the woods, hiking.

    Dave, I don’t know where Japan got this image that the people are so close to nature. Just like so many other Asian countries the populace runs rough shod over everything in the landscape with no regard for the consequences. I often wonder if the country didn’t have so much money to make things look like a garden if everything would have remained as ruinous as places like the Philippines or China.

    Relatively Retiring, it’s taking a very long time because I have to evaluate each photograph and then decide whether it is worth working on, then I’ve got to go through the whole retouching process, which for some photos takes more than two hours to do. But one of the things I like about this process is that it forces me to take a good hard look at the photos and see better what I only gave a cursory glance at before. By cropping and changing the saturation and sharpening the images I find myself reliving the scenes that I saw and trying to reinterpret them. It’s very satisfying.

    Lilakai, thank you! And a big hug for you!

    Beth, funny how everyone only stays in Zürich for a day, isn’t it? I guess it’s the image of the banking city, with everyone walking about with their pockets stuffed with money. I was surprised that I never found any bills whisking by on the sidewalks; but then there were police everywhere, watching!

    Thomas, thanks for the comment about the photos. That’s a great compliment coming from such a wonderful photographer. You’re right about the transitory feeling of things looking gilded and happy-go-lucky in a new place when you travel (or the opposite, looking unusually desolate or frightening). My feelings about Zürich and Switzerland altered quite a lot as the weeks went by and I began to see more between the cracks. I hope my photos and narrative as I present more will reflect this change I felt. My main problem with the photos is that I set the camera on too high an exposure speed (ISO) and therefore all the early photos show bad resolution and too much grain as I tried to lighten the photos up. Still, I was trying to convey the slightly disoriented feeling I had arriving in a new land with new people and a new language. Even the early photos I took never really engaged with where I was… too often the camera seemed an intrusion into clicking into place.

  11. I visited Switzerland for the first time last summer. I felt completely at home there – sometimes almost more so than here in the UK where I’ve lived all my life. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why; I think perhaps is has to do with the UK these days feeling as though it’s falling apart – politically, socially, commercially – whereas Switzerland feels very much together – a very healthy sort of wholeness.

    The silvery effect of the photos – whether deliberate or a by-product of having to cope with less-than-perfect initial settings – works well. It conveys a sharp,clean quality of light; is it just desaturation or is there more to it than that?

    Anyway, it’s good to hear you talking in such a relaxed way – I look forward to hearing and seeing more of your trip.

  12. Butuki, am loving the desaturated images also — as thought they’ve been brushed by something other-worldly.

    One thing I noticed when I was on the East Coast of the US this summer — twice — is how run-down it felt, perhaps because I had been away for so long. It’s good to go to once-familiar places with new eyes and see things as a visitor — you don’t see them as a tourist, but you’re definitely not so “in place” as to be able to ignore, for example, the graffitti…

  13. As always, it is such a joy to see some of the world through your eyes. Looking forward to more of your images and stories. You are amazing talented and I’ve often wondered the same things vegetablej expressed about you finding a way to do the things you love for livelihood. I can say without reservation that you move people with your words, photographs and art I have no doubt you could find a way to get paid for such work!

  14. Hi Miguel:

    Back again with a few thoughts about work. It seems that you have all the materials at hand for a book, or several, a stock of good photographs, great writing talent, a whole host of creative ideas and really, if you think of it , the ability to do it. You have a computer, so there’s nothing
    stopping you from roughing out a book proposal and then sending it around to see if anyone is
    interested, is there? Even if no one is interested now, if you put it together they might be. Or there’s always self-publishing.

    I think that your salary at the university must be enough that you could save up to take a year off to write a book if you wanted. You can always get another job. :)

    Here are some things I would be interested is reading:

    Collection of your essays ( maybe you could edit one together from your blog posts.)

    More of your travel essays and pictures. How about visiting the national parks or other relatively unknown or interesting parts of Japan? I think you’ve already posted a lot of material for this one.

    More of that “science fiction” book about the child that you had posted a part of a while back.

    A field guide in English of Japanese birds and maybe animals. Also wild plants. And one for children, simple enough for us to use in teaching English.

    A hiking guide for Japan with your personal experience and pictures.

    A few more ideas:

    How about free-lance work for a nature or travel magazine?

    How about leading hiking tours?

    How about starting a Nature Centre where you could teach what you like to children and adults? It might be housed in an old restored Japanese house or a ( self-built?) log cabin and offer a lot of different resources and courses for hikers, nature lovers, environmental education, tours, art/illustration lessons, nature photography, whatever you can imagine. I can see this being a success in Japan with the hunger for the back-to-nature experience, especially if it were in or near a beautiful setting. I’m sure it would be of great interest to tourists/ English-speaking residents if you offered some in English.

    I’m sure you can think of a lot more and better ideas but just thought I’d throw these at you. :)

  15. Vegetablej, what a surprise when I opened my mail after a weekend teaching university kids down in south Chiba and found these notes by you. I was quite moved by the effort you took to think about me and ideas for what I might move on to. Thanks so very much. It’s really special.

    I’m trying to actually get a lot of the things you wrote about moving, and so may of your ideas are the same one’s I’ve had for a long time. Right now I’m working on a fantasy novel that I started taking notes for 30 years ago, a guidebook to hiking in Japan, and an expansion of the children’s story you read, called “Letters from the Tipped Tea Archipelago”. I’m also working out my personal life so that I can actually be out doing the nature center work eventually. I have to go visit one of the readers here named Kevin, who is trying to put together a “nature tour” organzation in Nagano, and talk more about how to set it up. If possible, I might even see if I can get this university to help sponsor it, but that might not be the right thing to do. Mainly it’s that I have to get past the personal problems that have been turning my world upside down for long. It’s getting there and I’m doing much better now than a year ago, but I still haven’t taken some of the big steps necessary (I wrote “necesscary” at first!) to allow me the emotional (and financial) openness I need to take the risks I need to be on my own career-wise. But the ball is already rolling and by this time next year I will be well on my way, I hope, to doing what I truly enjoy doing and hopefully be where I want to be in terms of place.

    Thanks, though, Vegetablej. Your words really made my day!

  16. Hi Butuki,

    I’d LOVE to see a guide book from you about hiking in Japan. I always very much enjoy your descriptions of nature and I’ll be first in line when there’s a book with your writing.

    Of course, the danger is that you will then meet all your readers up along supposedly lonely mountain paths… :-)

  17. Great ideas from Vj.
    Good to hear you are making even small steps to change Butuki-san. Ganbatte! Hopefully we will meet sometime in Nippon.

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