So many pieces, from school essays onwards, have titles that have been encouraged to be positive, appealing, in-drawing for readers. But after my day in Zurich, I have no choice but to tell the truth. What I set out to do failed, entirely, and in so many ways.
I have to say that for many years, a free day on tour would follow this pattern: long sleep in, meet several friends in the foyer of the hotel and go off for a big lunch involving lots of meat and beer, and laughing. Probably some staggering back to the hotel, and possibly via a bar or two on the way, then a siesta. Early evening, meet again in the foyer, and out again to repeat the procedure of a huge meal, featuring much the same ingredients, and possibly even in the same restaurant, then a ramble through darkening streets before leaving the darkest one at 3am, to stumble home.
Nowadays, the biggest difference I suppose is that I’m on my own. No following a crowd any more. That slows things up so much. And I do things in a different time zone; what I call Kazakhstani Time. I start earlier, and do something worthwhile in the morning (though as the title gives away, this particular morning was almost completely worthless, a bumbling attempt at a plan), then a late but really substantial lunch (of my choosing, not a gang decision that takes hours of polite discussion, rejection of about eight restaurants, ending up somewhere that at least two of the party don’t want to be), winding up with a bracing walk back to my room at about teatime, probably to have a drink and a snack if needed there, and do some writing of some sort. That’s it. That’s my Free Day now, whether in Kazakhstan or not.
Such high aspirations today. On a quick, one might even say swish Swiss tour (if one could), we were waiting for the coaches from Geneva to Zurich one morning, and I got talking to David Hockings, our Principal percussion player, and he told me and showed me many photos of the spectacular Modern Art Musuem in our next city. From a name like his you take almost all advice there is about art, and I decided there and then that my free morning would be spent there, before perhaps a tentatively robust Swiss lunch of schnitzel, rösti, beer, wine, fondue and whatever else me and the waiters could think of. Ice-cream probably, here. (Is the famous writer written Salman Rösti here?).
The next morning, surprisingly strident and sprightly after a suitably celebratory soirée after Sibelius’ Second Symphony – I’m going to suspend this sickly sibilant sequence now – I was on my way around 10.30, to the Künsthalle, which I’d cleverly found on my phone. Not usually very good at these things – phones or art, or directions – I was glad to have found its name in Swiss, or German, the Künsthalle, the Art hall, and even more pleased that it seemed quite near our hotel. About half an hour’s walk, which after last night smashing of several Sangiovesial swigs (stop it – Ed) was a thoroughly good and healthy plan.
I had some difficulty getting the blue dot on my phone to land directly on my destination, it seeming to want to guide me through a sort of concrete park centred round a well-named Black Tower. But eventually I climbed a set of steps into a wide open-plan area. I found a desk with a groovy-looking guy behind it, exactly the sort of person you’d expect to work here, paid him what I considered to be a reasonable price for the treasures within (David had kept saying ‘There’s SO much stuff…’ and we’d talked about Mondrian, Dali, Giacometti was much featured, Kandinsky, Picasso – is Picasso still modern? – and many more) and went through. I’d asked the chap about audio guides, and was surprised that he seemed unsure if they had them. But none of this was ringing any alarm bells with me. The setting, in a back street in a clearly residential area, the fact that there were hardly any other visitors at this massive national art depositary, in fact it was just me; no, my plan was going well. It was half 11, a couple of hours here, then a nearby Stube to reward myself for such a grown-up and cultured morning. Yes, well done me.
I wandered past the desk into the first room. Obviously, being a museum of Modern Art, we’d be giving some fresh stuff a chance before moving onto the big hitters. There were several very small and abstract pictures in a row on a couple of walls. There was a sofa, from which sprang a mass of garbage, a spewing of modern waste from a traditionally home comfort, perhaps? Portraying the idea that even at leisure, mankind is strangling the planet with plastic and debris? There was a rack of T-shirts on hangers. Erm, cheaply- or mass-produced garments longing to cling to a more formal and solid structure? But I really wanted to see bigger, more substantial work. David had described one Monet as being the size of a whole wall.
The next room was done up like a studio. An artist’s studio, with pots of watery colours, brushes strewn around, a paint-splattered desk with half-empty coffee mugs and so on. I went through this, and saw that there was no next room. This was it. And this WAS a studio, not an exhibit. There couldn’t possibly be space for wall-sized masterpieces and SO much else anywhere in this building. Now things were starting to go click, at last.
I retreated to the first room, sat down on a large orange plastic amoeba, and looked at my phone for help, and of course spotted where I’d gone wrong. This was the Kunsthalle. The world-famous exhibition of art was the Kunsthaus, miles away, along and across the river and high up in the Old Town. This place was near some flyovers and a bus station. I’d mixed up the words halle and haus, in my enthusiasm. The Kunsthalle had come up first in my search for Modern Art Museum in Zurich (and now I could see why) so no wonder I’d thought myself clever for finding it so quickly. It was now about 12.
After some explaining from me, telling some friendly staff where I actually wanted to be (I could see the bearded chap was disappointed in me), and some directions and pointing from them, I set off again, under the Black Tower and across the river. A lot of the directions had involved taking various tram numbers from various places, but I’d insisted on walking. I could say this was because of the permutations of foreign trams and me not knowing where I was supposed to be going, but the truth is that despite my long experience I just haven’t got much confidence travelling on public transport abroad. Tubes and trains are OK, but it’s buses and trams that I blow up at. Once you get on, it’s so close, everyone can see me, and they can see that I haven’t a clue what to do next. Nobody carries cash anymore, so I don’t have any coins to insert anywhere, nor do I have a book of tickets to get stamped in a machine; I presume the only option nowadays is contactless, and where is the machine? It’s the haplessness of this situation that puts me right off, and I’d rather walk for miles rather than do that. You see a LOT more when you walk anyway.
Today, I’d been told to follow the river, so I followed my blue light for 10 minutes, in the wrong direction. When I realised, I’d arrived at a sort of junction, a crossroads with a roundabout, tram lines and another flyover. This was a low moment. I crossed the roads, went back to the river, considered trying the hapless tram thing, and decided enough was enough and that it was time for a cab. Feeling slightly more positive now, I changed from side to side of the various roads and managed to avoid all the cabs that appeared. It was a sort of motorised version of Whackamole, in that I would position myself on one side of the junction, and a cab would appear on the far side. So I crossed the road and immediately a taxi would nose out from where I’d been standing. Eventually, one did come my way, I tentatively put out a hand before realising I’d hailed a police car. With my positive yet often-really-quite-slow outlook, I was now just starting to think things weren’t going very well this morning.
That was that. Back to the river, go back the way I’d come, and keep going for about an hour. It was quite a narrow towpath for a large river and I got in the way of a lot of joggers. I could hear their eager footsteps running on the spot behind me as I tried not to get run over by a bike from the opposite direction. This hour was quite dull, and despite the usual fact that you do see a lot more when you walk, that didn’t apply today as the sun was constantly blazing in my face. I could only refer to my blue dot when standing in the shade of a bridge; it was moving very slowly. This was going to be a long walk.
Finally, with a freezing face and after brooking the flow of about 200 joggers, I branched away from the river and started on the sloping streets up to the Old Town, and to where I knew the enormous Kunsthaus to be. It was bigger than two rooms anyway. Somehow, the sun was still always in my face, so I couldn’t appreciate the medieval passageways, or increasingly importantly, see anywhere that looked a good bet for my hearty lunch. At last, 2 and a half hours after leaving the hotel – 2 hours 20 walking, 10 minutes looking at T-shirts and amoebas and coffee mugs – I saw the Kunsthaus up ahead. I had a vague look for the main entrance (it was vast, as I really should have known a long time earlier), but by now, at 1pm, after my healthy but prolonged and cold walk along the river and through Old Zurich, I was very hungry. And not at all sure if restaurants, even here in a tourist hub of Europe, stayed open all afternoon. I’d imagined 2 hours seeing all the wonderful original masterpieces, then a late and unhurried lunch. Yet it now looked as if the Plan wasn’t going to be possible.
In a Wodehouse story, the hero finds himself at a similar crossroad. Spiritually, he wants to make a grand gesture, a sacrifice and to Do The Right Thing. ‘But his material self wanted steak and beer’ and as with Archibald Mulliner, this was what weighed heaviest with me. After 2 and a half hours of self-misdirection, exasperation and haplessness, I’d reached my destination, some of the greatest art in the world just through the door, and I went off to find food. Steak and beer would be just fine, actually.
With a shred of an optimistic idea that the hearty lunch wouldn’t put me off trying the Kunsthaus afterwards, I hoped to find my Stube nearby. But that wasn’t to be either. The damn sun was still everywhere, and with my prescription needing an upgrade, even without the glaring light obscuring everything, my ability to spot a Stube at 200 paces was severely curtailed. Further and further from the Kunsthaus I walked, then drifted down towards the river again, thinking that waterfront bars would surely be abundant.
They were, but it was also a sort of giant bus terminal area, and though there were pavement cafes and bistros, the whole place was pretty busy. I wanted an off-road, quiet and rustic bar where I would now settle for a veal escalope with mushrooms and cream sauce, a couple of rösti and a flagon of lager.
At last, veering slightly back into town, I saw a sign I’d been looking for, the Stube sign, a circle with a brand of Swiss beer on it. And as I followed my stomach in, I noticed that a speciality was Kalbsleber. A huge favourite of mine. Things were looking up.
After a thoroughly unsuccessful morning, whose high points included not being hit by a tram in the blinding sun and not falling in the river, I marched into this haven and up to the bar. It was now 1.30 and the place was nearly empty. The patron was a rather stereotypical large, bespectacled, moustachey roundish man with a jolly smile. My own evaporated slightly when he told me that the kitchen closed at 2. No wonder it was so empty. But I couldn’t see the problem, although my long, luxurious lunch of several fondues, pork cutlets, beer, wine and possibly a brandy around 4ish was obviously now not going to be possible. But I knew what I wanted, and having already ordered a beer, I mentioned the calves liver speciality on the sign outside. He then said ‘You can eat in half an hour?’ with a raised eyebrow which, looking back, probably didn’t mean ‘You English are so uncouth’ but ‘I think a guy of your girth will take a bit more filling than that!’. Either way, I was soon sat at a table in the corner with my long-planned beer, waiting for a favourite dish.
It soon arrived, a proper pile of liver chunks, served thicker than they are in England or Italy, and I wondered if I’d misread the sign, and it was lamb’s liver after all. But one taste confirmed my luck; you just don’t get that silky texture with lamb. It came with several potato croquettes and some veg, all of which were gratefully mopped up, and washed down with a big red wine. Perfect. It may not have been a rack of T-shirts but it hit the spot.
I wasn’t sure if the whole bar closed at 2, or just the kitchen, so I asked, and it was the whole place. Very good job I chose to eat after all. However rewarding the Kunsthaus would have been on the eye, it would have been too tough on my stomach and spoiled the whole experience. The waiter was quite clear that they were about to close, and as he fetched my bill, in an utterly surreal nudge to the very few of us that remained, the tape started playing ‘Bye bye baby’ by the Bay City Rollers. So I triumphantly handed my plate over with ‘Voilà! Nicht zwei Uhr!’ (we’d begun this tour in French-speaking Geneva, this was German-speaking Zurich and my languages were a bit of a plie-up), he smiled, I paid up and left.
Out in the sunshine again, there was no way I was going back up to the Kunsthaus now, nor was I about to attempt the apparently 60-mile walk back to the hotel. A taxi spotted my flailing arm and I was on my way. Not to the hotel though, I’d decided to put in a shift at the fantastic bar we’d been in the night before. It was near the hotel anyway, a small, dark but neony cave of a place, and I thought I’d slink into a corner there and write about my inept and hapless day.
The lady driving had classical music on her stereo, and as I get older I don’t resent talking about that as much as I used to, so I started the conversation. And of course I’d managed to hail probably the only cabbie in Zurich who was regularly booked by Marcus Stenz, so much so that she’d been to his house and knew his extended family. I was glad I’d at least worked with him, and liked him too.
Meyer’s, the neon cave, was shut. I suppose if you’re happily serving a gang of musicians at 2am, you can’t be reasonably expected to be open to serve a returning member of the same gang at 2pm the following day. I paid the chatty lady, who had only taken me reluctantly (she was on her way home) but was charming after that, and set off to walk to the hotel. I could do my writing there, after all, and probably pick up a bottle of wine on the way, to help the pen flow.
But the day wasn’t done with me yet. I passed a sign for a Billiard Club, and reversed. It pointed to the parking area of a housing estate but I investigated anyway. A large set of windows with a glass door in the middle, I could see that nobody was in there. But something made me gently try the door anyway, and it eased open.
It was a huge place, with about 20 pool tables on the right, and three – and this never happens – snooker tables to my left. Bon Jovi was playing overhead. There was a bar area in the middle, and a guy came out to greet me. I could still hardly believe this place was open, but he poured me a beer and gave me a set of snooker balls, Bon Jovi changed to Toto, and I was in heaven. This place was built for me. I could have jumped at this perfection, as indeed Van Halen were now encouraging me to do.
If only I could still play snooker. I used to play a lot, and imagined that as long as I kept playing, some slow improvement would be made throughout my whole life. Perhaps by the end of it I’d be able to make regular breaks of 30, instead of sporadic 20s. But it doesn’t work like that. Glasses are not an aid to playing snooker, despite what Dennis Taylor successfully did with them in the 80s. The varying distances between your eyes, the cue ball, the one you want to pot, and where you’re trying to pot it are like four different viewpoints, and the result is virtually just a thrash in a general direction. After about 25 minutes of frustrated fun, my only break had been a single pink, and sadly, for the only time ever, I gave up. I didn’t even finish the frame. It wasn’t just that my eyes weren’t helping, my back was having a thing or two to say about the business, and it wasn’t liking it much. Not having played for well over a year, telling my back to bend over and straighten up several times a minute, however much I prolonged the gaps in between with slurps of beer, didn’t go well. It was sad.
But I had another option. Pool is, of course, played on a much smaller table, with much bigger pockets, and I changed the set of balls to try that game. The place was still empty – unbelievable to have that peace – and incredibly, establishing the class of this Xanadu I’d found by some garages in Zurich, there was even a proper ball-cleaning machine on the counter, a mechanism I was aware of but had never seen before anywhere in the world, a sort of multi-egg poacher, which the balls sit in and are gently polished as they rotate.
Pool went much better, my back eased up, and the distances were playable, or at least seeable. Bryan Adams and Bonnie Tyler were maintaining the playlist, so a much more successful hour or so was spent here, with a couple more beers. Not much could have diverted me from my plan of writing in my room, but this was an opportunity impossible for me to ignore.
Time came when I’d had enough at last, but I felt sated by this swerve in the day, the pool hadn’t been half bad, and I happily paid up and left. Continuing the final part of the day, I nipped into a supermarket for a snack and a bottle of wine, and settled down happily in my room to start writing this story. It certainly had been a spectacularly unsuccessful morning, full of incompetence, haplessness (my word of the day) and underachievement, but I guess things had picked up since then. My deviation from what used to be the normal routine for a day off had for a time been a spectacular failure, but had then most definitely gone north. My aspirational cultural visit to see and learn about some of the greatest paintings and sculptures had been diverted at the very last minute by base corporal urges. I’d climbed the mountain up in the Old Town, but sidled round the peak for lunch.
In my room, I scribbled for a while, not very effectively, drank the wine rather easily, and went to bed at half past 8, to give myself a chance for tomorrow morning perhaps to be a bit less wayward.