I may not be the most devoted bicyclist, but I wouldn’t call myself a novice, either. My bike was my only mode of transport in college, for example, meaning come sun, rain, snow, or slush I was often pedaling to work or class. My university was located in a bike-friendly town (Moscow, Idaho) meaning recreational riding was an easy trail map away. Sometimes I would ride the 8 miles to neighboring Pullman, Washington to enjoy the rolling grasslands of the Palouse while thumping techno music seeped from my ear buds.
After it seemed likely we would stay in Europe past the initial Robert Bosch fellowship, I began plotting how I might get my trusty Trek 4300 from storage in Idaho, to my hands in Munich. On a vacation back to the U.S. I had the bike disassembled and boxed, and then we brought it back on the flight. It took some more coordination getting the bike to Zurich, but once it was here and reassembled, it was like I was again a two-wheeled commuter. Zurich has its own hills, and my rides were not always smooth, but it was familiar.
He walks with an air of confidence, of experience, and I feel those traits have been hard-learned by time living on the streets, and going through whatever it is that landed him there. I’ve never spoken to him, and I don’t know his name, but he’s a semi-regular character during my morning commute.
Mixed in with the well-dressed bankers, the manic and overly security-conscious tourists, and the occasional red-headed journalist, is this character sporting a long gray beard to his belt line, and long gray hair down his back; he saunters up and down the light-rail tracks with his eyes scanning the ground with a burning intensity. He’s well-equipped: a bulging day-pack looms from his shoulders, hiking boots, and outdoor clothing complete the look. His image is like ZZ Top mixed with Bear Grylls, but with a life-hardened veneer.
If you were just to see him in passing, you probably wouldn’t know what he is doing. Maybe you would think he is just another neurotic traveler pacing the tram platform. But after a while of watching this man it is clear he is purposefully pacing, and searching intently for something. And it isn’t for what you might first guess.
More than a year after Egypt’s revolution, the country is still finding its footing. Millions of Egyptians flooded into Cairo’s Tahrir square in January 2011, and subsequently all over the country, pressuring President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Since then, Egypt has been ruled by a controversial military council, and streets have sometimes been filled with violent clashes between security forces and protesters unhappy with the regime. Before heading to Cairo for a look at the situation on the ground, WRS’s Tony Ganzer stopped by a restaurant in Zurich where Swiss-Egyptians gather each week and found a group unanimously unsettled by politics and unrest in what used to be home:
On any given Friday night in Zurich Arabic is a common language heard at this Asian restaurant. It’s where a dozen or so Swiss-Egyptians come to meet, talk about family, business, and, of course, Egyptian politics.
MAN 1: “We talk about each other personal things, about our kids. And we’re kidding, making jokes, but if you’re looking into the actual situation in Egypt, of course we’re talking about that. That’s business number one.”
None of these men wanted to give their names, but they readily offered their opinions. Most of them are Muslim, though at least two are Coptic Christians. Many are academics, doctors, engineers, businessmen. A common thought among all the guests on this night is how opaque Egypt’s political situation really is.
MAN 2: “The things of revolution are unclear. We don’t know who is manipulating who. We have a wave which tells there is an influence from outside like countries which finance movements in a religion direction, and others who want to tell that the army want to take the power.”
The views expressed at this table over tea and bowls of noodles remain political and secular, with not much concern for religious influence in revolutionary Egypt. The Coptics here, and Muslims, are first and foremost eyeing the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and how it wields its current control over Egyptian government.
MAN 3: “We are all worried about the whole situation in Egypt. We are all worried and we want the best for Egypt. We love our country very much. If there is a situation that I could go, I would go. I would go and share with them the revolution and do something.”
Across Zurich at a Coptic church, Maher recalls his time in Cairo’s streets in the heat of the revolution.
MAHER: “I had to stay on the street and protect my house because the police had fled the country, more or less, or they were going home to protect their own homes. At the same time all the criminals had escaped from the prisons. And at that time we were thinking okay, this is the end of it, it’s going to be a civil war.”
Maher asked that only his first name be used as his wife and children remain in Egypt afraid to leave other family members. He’s worried that the military is continuing the heavy-handed rule implemented by Hosni Mubarak, all the while so-called Islamist political parties are gaining clout.
MAHER: “What is more worrying is that the moderate Muslims are already fleeing the country, it’s even more than the Christians, because they know that if it turns into an Islamic state, they will not have the same rights. I expect every party to try to kind of gain the power by itself. And the only solution to this anarchy would be a second revolution so to say.”
Despite the time and distance separating those in Switzerland from the revolution in Egypt, the emotions are strong and the concern is real. It’s enough to drive some men to return to Tahrir regularly to check in on the revolution, and to help the family living it day-to-day.
I am not a “Winter person” if there is such a thing. Though I attended high school and college in a snow-rich region, the winter sport bug never bit me. Snow and ice seemed more like inconvenient land mines than charming phenomena for the season. How could I enjoy having to walk slowly and calculated, wet and cold? And I felt more comfortable sailing a boat than even imagining sliding down a ski slope.
If there is a redeeming quality to a Northwest US Winter, it is a relative consistency in the appearance of snow eventually. Here in Zurich, Winter has thus far brought the gloomy gray but spared the snow. Be it La Nina, El Nino, climate change, or Mayan end-of-days, the weather has shifted quickly from miserable and rainy, to miserable and cold, to briefly sunny, to stormy, in the blink of an eye. This week, the first snow fell, causing 100s of traffic accidents in a day. All seemed lost in a fuzzy blur of white. This, too, was short-lived, as La El Mayan Climate Change has done it again.
Phoenix was said to be a place to cure ailments, just by its natural climate. The high-Sonora desert was so dry, and the wide-open spaces so inviting, that residents packed into no-man’s land to be healed. With all of these people came pollution, and now days there are times when people should not leave their air conditioned homes for risk of breathing the dirty air.
Zurich, like much of Switzerland, has been plagued by dryness this year, in what some have called a European drought of the century. (I am sure they mean the last 100 years, and not just the last 11 years of this century.) That dryness, combined with flowers, trees, plants, animals, people, has puffed so much pollen, perfume, and cigarette puffing, that I have been on a non-stop sneeze fest.
It was an unusually pleasant Sunday: the clouds had broken for long enough, and the sun shone bright and warm enough, for us to expect Spring flowers and mornings without shivered awakenings. Our new perch on the edge of Zurich’s suburbs has given also proximity to Route 66–a long trail of 55 kilometers (34 miles) winding along the Limmat River. Unlike US Route 66 this path is paved by just loose gravel for a time, traversing rails and pathways; buzzing apartments and a reformed industrial quarter, to connect a medieval refuge with a quaint town–with the largest Swiss city between the two.
So with an unexpected sun at my back, I took up the same bicycle that I rode through college triumph and strife, to conquer at least part of Route 66.