“It’s cleaner than I expected,” I think to myself as we step down from the train, landing on the platform in the middle of Zürich station; we are underneath a ceiling of opaque glass in a cavernous airplane hangar emitting a blue topaz glow. The unspotted floor has received a recent power wash, and the stone tiles leading to the escalators were buffed this week. The public restroom, I discover, costs 2 francs to enter and is staffed with a dedicated custodian at all times (and as one may well expect, they are by far the cleanest public restrooms I’ve ever seen).
Spring has sprung, and the wide, waist-high, square-framed cement flower beds that give the paved courtyard outside of the station a few flamboyant pops of color are slightly parched; the flowers slumping, some leaning on a sturdier neighbor, languishing, drunk in the sunlight. I’ve brought with me a sheer celadon shirt with gold trim to add my own flourish to the start of our weekend away; C carries our soft Patagonia bag of durable black polyester on his shoulders as we walk between glass office buildings lined up alongside the train yard. Our hotel is also on this street; it is centered in an up-and-coming quarter of Zürich, filled with bike and skateboard shops, cafés, and restaurants of all shapes, sizes and smells inspired by the food of the rest of the world. One such restaurant is where we will have dinner this evening. Simply named “Brisket”; it was formed when a collection of like-minded BBQ snobs hailing from Zürich just so happened to land in Texas and fall in love forever with the southern art of char; so much so that they brought a smoker from Dallas back home with them. Their culinary linchpin is, of course, their smoked brisket, rubbed with coffee and black pepper before it takes half a day’s nap inside of the smoker.
After winding through the business park, we at last come to another open area with dozens of patio tables and umbrellas, parked bikes, and above it all a neon sign that amongst other varying descriptive words surrounding it like romantic and surprise, reads 25 Hours Hotel in a jolly, technicolor red.
The 25 Hours Hotel is a feast for the eyes: the lobby ceiling features an enigmatic spiral display of multicolored Freitag bags, a popular brand from Switzerland that makes weatherproof bags from a recycled tarp material; the elevators are mirrored and glow with recessed black lighting, highlighting inspiring messages written in a luminescent tint; the 7th floor boasts a wooden sauna, terrace, and a gym that overlooks the somewhat post-apocalyptic-looking train yard, a transposition reminiscent of a National Geographic cover; and our room is a minimalist masterpiece of cement flooring and ceilings, storage nooks and a rope hanging from a hook in the ceiling that provides three rigid, curved divets (onto which I hang my dress and both our coats), and the shower and toilet, both encased in their own closed-off, reclaimed wooden cubicle, inside feature floor-to-ceiling steely black reflective tile, with the shower employing both a chic, lofty rain shower head and a smaller detachable nozzle for people like me who’d like to keep from having to dry their hair. In our little studio, there are even small toys and baubles placed throughout, like an adult coloring book with sharpened colored pencils on the desk, an animated flip book, and a cup and ball game, with which C and I play across the room from each other for a good thirty minutes.
As the natural lights of Zürich dim, and the lamps in each small tenant window of the flats we pass with the ornate graffiti sprayed at the base, pop on like popcorn up the side of the faded tangerine towers, we stroll through quiet suburbs on our way towards Brisket. Racing past us on bikes are young schoolboys shouting excitedly in Swiss German: “Lass uns gehen!” Let’s go! They charge through to a clearing in the middle of the neighborhood, where scores of young families have congregated on the grass to take in the ebbing sun and have a game of pétanque (the French version of bocce ball), and let the kids run wild and play on the swings and obstacle courses along the far northern wall. One sight we find particularly amusing is a small toddler in a child-sized reflective workman’s jacket; obviously a boy prone to wandering off on his own and requiring constant supervision at a distance. C and I walk hand in hand along the fence line, observing life as it is lived on the outskirts of Zürich silently, in one brief, momentary snapshot.
As we cross the street to the restaurant, I catch a giddy glint in C’s eye, in turn reflecting some of my own back to him. We can smell the meat from the sidewalk. As we are seated, C uncharacteristically blurts out to the waiter, “She’s from Dallas!” as I nod at him, proudly.
We order a giant platter: brisket (of course), baby back ribs, brats, and pork belly, with sides of mac and cheese (yes I brought my lactose pills) and bbq beans. As it is laid before us in all its majesty, a cascading stream of 90’s hip hop is playing overhead. It is everything I can handle without embarrassingly bursting into tears right there at the table. For nearly an hour (we eat the platter in record time), I am encased in a magic bubble, which blips me into existence, after over a decade of being gone, right back into the culinary soul of Dallas. In the afterglow of the meat parade, C and I lean on the table, a glass of the bartender’s favorite Kentucky bourbon in my hand, “zse smokeest mezcal you ave” in C’s, and the remnants of a freshly destroyed banana cream pie between us. They bring the bill while C is away from the table, and with it a long, rectangular business card positioned face down, left by the waitress with such haste that I briefly wonder if we’ve offended her in some way. The truth is that she’s thinking the very same thing about me, for when I flip the card over I’m surprised to see a comically crisp $10 bill printed on the other side, with Barack Obama’s face where Hamilton’s normally would be shown. Under the face of our former Commander in Chief, where one would see nothing, is written “DO YOU MISS ME NOW?”
The restaurant on the ground floor of the 25 Hours Hotel is waking up in earnest as we stroll in at 9am. The hours of their breakfast buffet are the most forgiving I’ve ever experienced, with the morning service spanning all the way from 7am to a musician-friendly 2pm. The spread is yet another sight to behold: breads and pastries, cereals, yogurts (quark, Greek, natural, kefir), fruits and jams, and a whole host of middle eastern offerings like house made mango chutney, hummus, a cucumber chickpea salad, and carrot ribbons pickled in a spicy harissa brine. But the thing we must discuss, above all other items, is the french toast. Holy moly. It doesn’t matter if you’re ‘just not that into sweet things’, or are ‘trying to stay away from sugar right now.’ You have never had toast so perfectly transformed into an egg custard delicacy in your life. Crispy on the outer layer, and then light as a feather yet as rich as a fine cognac, and irresistibly decadent like a perfectly executed creme brûlée on the inside. Once I come to find this sleeping beauty, dozing away underneath a heat lamp on the far end of the bar, I forsake all the other offerings, claiming this as my preferred vacation breakfast.
One more helping of french toast and an unrecommended amount of black coffee later, we freshen up in our room and then hit the town. The spring sun sizzles the pavement at 11am, but the light breeze registers in the shadows of the buildings, which is the path we follow for most of the day. Like Lucerne, there is a lovely river that runs through the center of town, which itself is an offshoot of the larger lake from which it feeds, and on this spring Saturday there are people, young and old, congregating along the shorelines to dip their toes in and feel warmth on their snow-addled faces. We see sailboats on water, children with balloons running through green parcels pasted into the middle of bustling shopping districts, Zürich residents lined up in front of churning food trucks emanating ambrosial smells, and the largest Globus I have seen to date. 7 floors, as big as our hotel, of silver framing and jet black windows. I ask C why it’s SO big; he replies that Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland, so why wouldn’t they go all out? I couldn’t argue with that.
The size of the old city more than accounts for the heightened crowd of tourists visiting on this Easter weekend; as we are winding through the pathways, pointing at elaborate wrought iron sconces and ornately painted door frames, not once do I feel a rogue shoulder rub against mine, or have to stand in a queue to have a peek inside of an old church.
European terrace culture is on full display outside the various eateries; the main difference between German outdoor diners and those of the French persuasion, to my eye, is a boisterous sense of community. There is a kind of beer hall brouhaha that you just don’t witness occurring in a grouping of chic, black turtleneck-wearing Frenchmen and women.
Humans mill about between shops, hopping down to the edgeless cobblestones, worn like sea glass, and back up again to another stoop in one elongated step. The locals seem to own this city, each tarrying in their own preferred haunt on this holiday weekend, with C and I having the opportunity to walk through and observe it like some color-coded Petri dish.
Three sights stood out to me throughout our Saturday in Switzerland’s largest city: first was standing on the hill next to the 12th century Protestant cathedral of Grossmünster, looking down at the lovely clock tower of St. Peter on the water, parts of which date back to the year 1230; the second was on the stark white promenade of the Zürich Opera House, with its colossal winged angels on the rooftop calling heaven down to the mortals below, the stark light at 2pm making the shadows cast behind us on the smooth pavement long and alien-like, on some distant colorless planet; and lastly, there was the biergarten.
C and I find our way back to the south side of town with just enough time for a snack before our last stop of the day. We again walk through the neighborhoods south of our hotel, pass the park, and continue further towards an open lot up ahead. Swiss locals are streaming in and out of the entrance, an archway made of clambering vines threaded through bent scrap steel. This is Frau Gerolds Garten, a millennials’ eden. People are congregating underneath strung up, mismatched bulb lights, on benches and reclaimed patio furniture strewn amongst garden plots and tiny boutiques selling African jewelry, enjoying a scoop of gelato, or a beer or a cocktail, or a freshly grilled bratwurst while looking out across the spidering rusted train tracks below. As we find our own table, C has the sun in his eyes, but refuses to stop smiling, his lips pulled tightly together, the corners of his mouth pointed to the sky, threatening to pull the curtain wide open. “That’s a great place.” He says, forgetting to say “this is.” That’s how I know he really means it.
The taxi pulls up to Theater 11 on the north side of Zürich at 7:40pm, and we head to the front desk, where I try to ask for “will call”, and absolutely no one, including C, knows what I am talking about. Instead I just give them my name, which thankfully prompts them to produce an envelope which contains two backstage passes. I stow them away in my purse and C and I find our seats.
Almost two months ago, I received an email from my friend, and genuinely one of the most talented musicians I will ever know, Gabe Dixon. Gabe and I met nearly a decade ago in Nashville, but all of that is a story for another day. The entire reason for our trip this weekend was this show; to see Gabe perform with the Tedeschi Trucks Band and possibly get to hang with him after. There were no guarantees. I had assured C that he would love the show, especially seeing Derek Trucks, who is undoubtedly one of the best guitarists of his generation. Gabe would be the first musician I would see since moving to Switzerland, and to me it was extra special, because it was him.
The lights dim, and the show begins. Gabe looks like a tried and true European donning a foggy blue looped neck scarf over a loose black blazer. On the band’s opening tune, he absolutely rips into a Hammond organ solo, earning an appreciative roar of approval from the sold out crowd.
Susan Tedeschi, who wields the reins as the band’s lead vocalist, holds sway like a valkyrie before her Greek chorus of three powerhouse vocalists in their own right singing backgrounds, and three horn players: a saxophone, a trumpet, and a trombone. Tedeschi, whose voice sounds like a cool stream running over craggy river stones, seems to fluidly transition between bluesy ballad and floor-stomping funk tune before your mind gets the chance to catch up.
Also, there are two drummers. TWO drummers. The funny part is C doesn’t even notice this until I point it out to him on the second song. He, along with the audience, has just been sucked into a maelstrom of limitless syncopation.
The show comes to a close after an encore cover of Sly and The Family Stone’s “Higher”. The lights are raised, and the audience begins to file out. C and I make our way to the front of the auditorium and wait by the speakers, where a nice roadie hands me a set list, thinking that’s what I’m waiting for. I thank him and look back at C, who is puzzled by the exchange.
At last, a stage manager comes to lead us back, and we pass through the security door, nodding ‘thank you’ to the burly bouncer holding it for us. We are led down a few labyrinthine staircases which all look exactly the same, until we arrive at a thin, long hallway; under a cloudy fluorescent lantern further up ahead, Gabe is standing.
The band are neck deep in the normal post-show flurry of great vibes (there was an excellent audience tonight) and the laundry list of things needed to be done before getting on the bus; one of which literally being the laundry. Open suitcases litter the green room as we enter, and in the middle of them stands Derek Trucks, who cordially shakes my hand and then makes his way out to the tour bus. Gabe, I, and C sit on the old dilapidated green room sofas as a band member opens a round of beers for us with his lighter. We talk the show, Nashville, updates on my new life here and his growing family back home, and before long I feel like it’s the old days again: waking up at noon; heading off on a grueling month-long solo tour before finding an oasis amidst the chaos in some city with a folk festival, or somewhere where you’re on the bill with a friend; there, you knock back a drink or two to cool off your post-show adrenaline until someone in the crew tells you it’s time to leave. But you’re never really ready.
And that’s exactly what happens to us; the tour manager pops his head in while drummers and horn players whiz behind him, piles of half-dry crumpled clothing hanging out of battered luggage, to tell us we’ve got about 15 minutes before the ship will leave port. Gabe and I share a look; it’s the one I’ll never get used to. Of all of the wonderful shows I’ve been lucky enough to play, there is nothing like the communion I feel with another meat-and-bones musician, sitting on a dingy couch, talking about music. Someone who has been there, someone like Gabe who has played to multitudes, traveling the globe over so many years, and yet I can still sit here with him and geek out about the key changes in the organ solo he played two hours before. We talk about the time he sat with me on stage to record my album live at The High Watt in Nashville; he and I sat face-to-face singing together for the entire night. He sang my words. My friend sang my words.
C and I walk with Gabe out through the heavy one-way door at the back of the club in front of the TTB tour bus. There is a fan waiting there for him; he asks for Gabe to autograph his vinyl record. Gabe of course obliges. He then turns to us both and we all exchange hugs. He and I promise to stay in touch; I wish him a safe journey back to Nashville.
C and I are on the corner waiting for our Uber, overlooking the Zürich skyline. I turn to him:
“I just wish I could’ve talked to him the whole night.”
He puts his arm around my shoulders. “I know.”
We climb into the back of our transport and descend into the city center; my mind is still racing from the show. C holds my hand in silence; the driver starts to ask us a question, but falters. I catch his accent. Do you speak French? I ask him, in French.