(With a nod to the late Hunter S. Thompson)
“Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits — a false doorway to the backside of life, a filthy piss-ridden little hole nailed off by the building inspector, but just deep enough for a wino to curl up from the sidewalk and masturbate like a chimp in a zoo-cage.”
- Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
We were circling somewhere between Basel and Zurich when the booze began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit light headed; maybe the Captain should land…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge advertisements for chocolate, uberexpensive watches and little red pocket knives with endless accessories; the plane screens flashed crass consumerism in cramped tin compartments hurtling in a 666 km/h descent on Zurich. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! Who are these goddamn animals?”
We were greeted in grand style in the Swiss Airlines airport lounge. And by ‘grand style’ I mean there were a half dozen of us in the lounge; none of the other feckless fools standing outside with their noses pressed against the glass were allowed in. I pushed passed the greeting committee and went straight to the bar. Singapore Sling? No. Long Island? No. This was getting worse by the second. Goddamn it, you swine! I’m a doctor of journalism! The barman poured me a white wine and I gave him a ‘this had better be chilled, or I’ll sick my Samoan attorney on you’ type of look. It was. So I didn’t. They dragged me out of the lounge after only 15 minutes and two rapidly swilled white wines. They pointed to their uberwatches and The Schedule.
There was no welcome wagon, no van and no minibus. We were given a 3 day public transport ticket and taken to a crowded train. I stuck my head into the Swiss Airlines swag bag and spied the little chocolates. There was a moment of chaos while the cabin pressure, the pre- mid- and post flight booze were wearing off, then a moment of clarity and a sudden burst of snorfling sounds as I sucked down the whole bagful of chocolate. Next we had to transfer to a street tram to complete our journey to the hotel. What kind of atavistic Hun made this schedule?
I was told by my editor to ‘be on my best behaviour.’ But since he included the British ‘u’ in what We Who Use the Modern English call ‘behavior,’ my inner attorney advised me that I had the perfect loophole to unleash the Gonzo Beast on these Chocolate Clock People.
We arrived at the hotel, a gaudy, modern monstrosity in a barren, treeless suburb. There were strange, crudely drawn critters on the interior walls and a reception desk hidden beneath a godawful concrete stairway. I started to see lizards crawling everywhere. Then they wanted to put a lien on my credit card. To cover the extras, they said.
“Extras? What extras? Like room service?”
“We don’t have room service, sir.”
So I refused to give them my card. How can a ninja go Gonzo and stagger around the hotel room with a snorkel full of Margarita if there are personal consequences? After a spell, I got a pass from the Swiss Miss in Charge with a promise to only raid the mini bar if she was invited. If only I had the time, Missy.
I lugged my own bags into the room. This was a ‘design hotel.’ Which meant you didn’t get room service, bellhops or any other of that other superfluous shit. But you got a room with enough critters drawn on the walls to elicit the most heinous hallucinations and flashbacks. The only thing for it was to dive headfirst into the mini bar. The ‘mini bar’ had only two tiny bottles of beer and a huge amount of useless mineral water. They were clearly fucking with me now. Big mistake, Bubba.
Cocktails with True Grit
“But our trip was different. It was a classic affirmation of everything right and true and decent in the national character. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country—but only for those with true grit. And we were chock full of that.” - HST
After only 15 minutes at the hotel the cattle wrangler stuck the electric prod in. We snapped to attention at the shock and were taken to meet our next guide. His name was Marc and he was introduced to us as The King of Night Clubs. I saw my chance. Maybe this trip wouldn’t go completely tits up after all.
Marc welcomed us into a big dirt parking lot with stacks of shipping containers everywhere and a sign reading Frau Gerolds Garten. He insisted it was an open air bar. There were people seated on skip furniture laughing giddily with drinks in their hands, so I chose to believe him. Minutes later we had two liters of Margarita in front of us, strawberry and raspberry. He showed us the gardens from which the strawberries and raspberries had sprung and how the Swiss love nature blah blah blah. I missed his speech while I was spitting a gob of fruit seeds into the bushes. I wasn’t being rude; I was recycling. Those seeds would take root and grow a Margarita plant one day…
We climbed up some makeshift steel stairs attached to the side of a huge shipping container. On top of this was a smaller shipping container with the front cut out to make a bar and a large sun deck filled with many humans drinking. Marc explained that the area was once a major industrial area full of warehouses and (apparently) shipping containers. I looked around: train station, warehouses and tall buildings. Yup, it looked exactly like Detroit in 1970. I needed another drink. A line of gin and tonics appeared with sliced cucumbers and whole chunks of black pepper corns floating on top. I horsed mine down and looked at my squeamish British compatriots. What? You don’t like flotsam and jetsam in your drinks? I took the one slid over to me and horsed it down.
After leading us through liters of margaritas and ginormous amounts of gin and tonics, our fearless leader was showing signs of the drink; his tour jive started slowly sinking into complaints about the costs and hassles of running the bar. “Why should I pay 30,000 EUR to make the bar containers fireproof? I mean…they’re made of METAL…” Marc mentioned that he was a lawyer. “As your attorney I advise you to drink up and forget,” I offered. “And don’t spare the gin, Jeeves.”
The evening continued very much in this manner, with Marc showing us one bar after the other. At one point one of the Limeys mentioned the schedule. And dinner. Marc apologized for the lack of food at one of his river bars and ordered us some pizza. “That’s ok, Marco,” I offered, “You don’t have to feed us. You have to get us DRUNK!” Those were apparently the magic words. A whole bottle of gin, a bucket of ice, bottles of tonic and a cup of black peppercorns appeared. The Limeys stared cross-eyed at the pepper. The….horror. The…horror. I reached for the bottle of gin and the ice.
Smoke on the Water (and Fire in the Sky)
The fireworks filled the sky as techno music shook the speakers. Somebody said something about sync. I don’t see how you can match lake cannons with speakers squawking 120 beats per minute.
- Brit Blogger #1: Does anybody think this (techno) is music?
- Me: Only pitiful, young, ecstasy-addled fools.
Our first guide abandoned us to the lake creatures and empty bottles. I glared at her as she walked away. How in the holy hell were we supposed to get back to our nondescript concrete bunker in the suburbs without a semi-sober guide? Sensing my confusion and discontent, Marc the Night Club King grabbed me by the elbow and led me in a wavering line up some fancy steps leading to a swanky nightclub with a killer lake view. Swank has guards. In this case, a muscular thug in a tight fitting tuxedo and an earpiece. Marc began arguing with the well dressed goon when he stopped us at the entrance. The Swiss words began to flow like fondue: hot, cheesy and heavy on the wine. Marc insisted that he was partner in the nightclub in question—in fact, the bouncer’s boss—and that he would have no compunction whatsoever to drink champagne out of his empty fucking skull if he didn’t let us in (or my imagined Swiss equivalent). The bouncer was having none of it, and I feared our Night Club King would get crowned.
‘Way-HAAAAYYYY! Marc!’ I interrupted, ‘Don’t sweat it, man! As a rule I never drink in any establishment with large, well dressed thugs at the door!’
He flashed me a drunken smile and apologized for the arrogant brute at the door. As we staggered away, it became clear that nobody would be able to guide us back to our hotel. In fact, only 2 of our original group were still in tow. The others had fucked off to bed like proper working journos. They would miss most of the booze and the entire bouncer thug story. Poor bastards.
Clockwork, My Ass
“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride...and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well...maybe chalk it off to forced conscious expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.” - HST
The whole city of Zurich ground to a halt for their little festival. Public transport was stopped in the city center after dark. It was pushing 2am and nobody had told us. They had flown us there, stuck us in a weird hotel in the industrial suburbs and abandoned our drunken asses by the waterfront. Clearly they hated bloggers. That could be the only explanation. Did they think we wouldn’t write about it? Did they think we were legally and morally bound to blow sunshine up their kiesters just because they gave us chocolate and booze?
I won’t go into detail about the trip back to the hotel—which I will call The Horror Show—but suffice it to say, there was no working public transport and a metric fuckton of walking. I got back to the hotel at 4am.
Four full hours of sleep later and the next tour guide was knocking at my door.
A sweet and hesitant female voice ventured: “Craig? We’re leaving in 20 minutes!”
“FUCK OFF, YOU SWINE!!!”
I pulled my underwear off my head and put it back on my behind. I have no idea how it migrates. I blame evil hotel gnomes. And Nixon. I stumbled downstairs for the coffee. Midway through my 2nd cup I loaded up a plateful of breakfast buffet and sat down just as the other bright-eyed and bushy tailed morning people were getting ready to leave. You’re not journalists or even bloggers. You wake up early and you like it. You are librarians at best. When our new guide (how many do we need?) tried to beckon me to the door I wrapped my arms around my plate and growled like a badger with a bad hangover. They backed away slowly and told me they would meet me at the second tourist trap on the schedule. I would miss the chocolate factory tour. Well, fuck me. But as much as I love Oompa Loompas, I love my coffee and greasy bacon even more.
After the third tour guide had come and gone I noticed a trend: Spanish, Italian and other Mediterranean ladies led us through the Zurich streets for the weekend. Where are the Real Swiss? Where are they hiding? What are they hiding? Give me a stout, blonde, yodeling mountain man with steel blue eyes and one hand on the alpine goat teat and the other on the secret stash of Nazi gold. HE and only HE will take us to the treasure! Show me the hidden gold. Fuck the fest. YOU know what I’m talking about: the vats of golden Jew teeth rattling around beneath these pristine streets.
Town and City
I plowed through the old streets of Zurich alone as I am wont to do. Nobody guiding me, nobody telling me what to do, to see, to eat, to drink. I decided that the best way to salvage this Swiss story was to do it as Frank said, My Way. To its credit, Old Zurich is most charming and beautiful. But the romanticism of the narrow, curving, cobblestone streets is stifled by the cold, antiseptic sting of the price tag. Once you’ve spent ten years staggering and stumbling through lantern-lit Old Prague nights full of 50-cent-per-pint beer you are ruined. No other suitor of any price or class has even half a chance. Zurich has cleaner water, though. In fact, it is the clearest water I have ever seen in my life. In a continent full of thousand-year-old cities with mucky, medieval rivers winding through them, the Limmat River runs crystal clear and clean. You can even see the rocks and pebbles on the bottom of the stream. But no gold teeth; I strained and scanned for naught.
If only their banks were this transparent.
The rest of the trip was fraught with the usual peril: walking until the feet were numb, passing hundreds of street stands selling crap that will kill you, followed by the inevitable abandonment at the water’s edge. While Americans are well known for their loud complaints, by the end of the second day of this holy hell even the stiff upper lips of the British contingent were twitching like chipmunks in a mustard gas attack. On my last night in Zurich I was ready to pack it in, go back to my concrete bunker and drink that mini bar mineral water. But my erstwhile comrades in arms, the stalwart British bloggers, wiping mustard gas from their eyes and picking peppercorns from their twisted, yellow teeth—convinced me to stay. As I sat on a wooden bench I filled my swollen feet with as much alcohol as would trickle down my long legs, the Saturday night lake show was about to begin.
And then something truly magical happened: I began to enjoy myself. We were in the eye of the storm and it was indeed peaceful. The giant speakers and the stage were set. The sun was down, the moon was up and everyone looked to the sky. We heard some whuppa-whuppa-whuppa sounds and the choppers were over us. Fireworks began to shoot from below us and the helicopters were weaving between them. One of the chopper pilots was clearly out of his mind. He seemed to be flying lower than the others, faster than the others and closer to the exploding fireworks. It was like a grandiose scene from Apocalypse Now.
“If they play Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ right now I am going to shit my fucking pants!” I yelled at my British Blogger chum.
“If he flies any closer to us I will shit mine!” he replied.
The helicopters swooped upward out of the fury of the fireworks into the empty night sky. And then the parachutes opened in a flash of red lights. The music cued to the action perfectly as the Bond film theme “Skyfall” boomed from the stage speakers. Dozens of tiny white umbrellas lit up in red circled the lake and began their swirling descent through the exploding fireworks and down to the water. Soon they grew larger and you could just make out the humans dangling on strings; puppets dancing in red light. The Swiss had finally done it: they showed me something I had never seen before and would never see hence. They did not play ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and I did not shit my pants. But after the whole ‘Skyfall’ experience, I may have let slip a drop of pee.
Once again, the long journey home was like picking up my own teeth with broken fingers.
Then there was the morning after. Some atavistic Hun had decided that this was to be the way it was: more endless walking, more abandonment, more pain. It was in these sporadic failures in the schedule that I was forced to see through the kaleidoscope that was placed in front of my weary eyes. When suddenly left to my own devices, I could see what a horrible money pit I was stuck in: 10 EUR beers, 5 EUR water, 12 EUR snacks. It was as if the entire Swiss Tourism Board was fattening bloggers up for the slaughter of future tourists. After waiting at the previously agreed meet point for an hour all alone, it seemed abundantly clear that they wanted to teach me something; maybe patience; maybe perseverance in the face of gross incompetence. In any case, it was working: my plane was leaving in one hour and I was nowhere near the airport. Phone calls to our Mediterranean guides fell on deaf voice mails and text messages went unanswered.
In spite of all their attempts to waylay and befuddle my progress, the Swiss lost. I made it to the airport with minutes to spare, swore jovially at my British Blogger chums as I ran past them in their check in lines, and I wondered to myself if Nixon was laughing at me in the middle of this chocolate-coated clusterfuck. Sure, Tricky Dick. You were looking up from Hell on me while I was walking on the same cobblestone streets which cover the buried fortunes of the entire Right Wing from Hitler to…well, YOU. And I was too distracted by the Big Golden Chocolate Clock Festival to notice.