Saturday, October 15, 2011

Obergurgl, Zurich, and the Dark Prince of Burkliplatz

Rail transportation has a distant civility about it in Western Europe, a quietness with which a train arrives precisely on time, the methodical motions of the embarking and disembarking passengers like two insoluble streams of fluid, and a hushed whisper with which the train plunges through wonderfully engineered pathways.  Heading out of Zurich I had changed trains at a small station in Austria, Landeck-Zams, en-route to Obergurgl, a small town high in the Austrian alps.  The lady at the Zurich airport train station had, with unwavering politeness,  outlined for me departures, arrivals and changeovers precise to the minute under whitish fluorescent illumination that seemed to bathe the place in a cloak of efficiency.  So I was now in Landeck-Zams, waiting for it to leave, at exactly  the time that she had said I would—in a few days I would be disembarking at stations looking at my watch rather than the station’s name on the platform.

My train compartment is largely empty except for a gaggle of ten year olds on their way back from school.  They travel by themselves on the train, running around, pummeling each other playfully.  When the train stops at a small village with a cute brightly colored micro car parked by the station road (these autos seem to be the mascots for small railway stations, just like the rickshaw stands by the railways in the outer towns of Kolkata), a couple of kids hop off (there is no platform), jump over the tracks and head on home.  My train creaks as it climbs up the Alps, past angry mountain brooks fed by waterfalls and man made networks of gutters, coniferous forests, sheer walls of rock, past little villages with tidy houses, farms, pickup trucks and bales of hay sealed in plastic sheaths.  I get off at a little station called Otztal and then am driven up a winding mountain road with snow on the ground, through hairpin turns and dollhouse villages, taverns with signs for “Table Dancing” (a sign of the large tourist trade during skiing season), the roads wet with constant rain.  49 kilometers later I am dropped off with my bags at a tiny village, Obergurgl, one of the highest towns in Austria at 2000 m with moutains all around me, and a conference center run by the University of Innsbruck where I will stay for a few days. 

I am here for a conference and taking advantage of a break one afternoon I head for a hike following a small road that heads towards the mountains.  A while later it changes to a dirt road, and then to a hiking trail.  I feel awkard in dress slacks that I have tucked into my socks  to avoid the snow, as I am passed by a purposeful hiker with walking sticks, his long, leathery, alpine-sun tanned frame gliding past me like a vigorous dancer.  This is a ski paradise--the white mountains are criss-crossed by ski lifts and the dormant hotels come alive starting November as the tourists arrive in droves, but for now I have the place more or less to myself.  The resident population is in the few hundreds, but it winter swells to close to a hundred thousand.
Most of the locals are long time residents.  The older gentleman who drove me out to Obergurgl has been in the Otztal valley since birth and runs the local car service outside the train station with his wife.  He had been to New York once, as part of a firefighters delegation a decade ago, and described his memory of the city as one with a narrow view of the sky above, with his peripheral vision blocked by walls of concrete. New York City always brings about a wistful look in the eyes of those who have visited it only once and they will recount the city often with a single defining experience. As he spoke of NYC, this gentleman had the same look, the same symbolic wave of the hand, that I had seen in the Minneapolis cabbie years ago who, upon learning I was headed to NYC, declared that his one visit there with his girlfriend years ago gave him “the best sex that he ever had”. The city stands as a singularity in their imaginations, these two cabbies, one passing slower trucks with deft maneuvers in his Mercedes on an alpine mountain road, the other in a boatlike town car surging through the St. Paul suburbs in a cabin full of crimson upholstery.

A few days later I return back to Zurich and one evening I meet up with my old high school buddy S, a long time resident of Switzerland.  She takes me for ice cream to Movenpick, a chain store about 5 mins from the Burkliplatz neighborhood.  Listening to us speak in Bengali, the counter attendant responds in in the same language.  Originally from Bangladesh, he has married locally and settled down in Switzerland.  Overhearing us, a customer seated in the restaurant folds his hands and addresses us with a  Nomoshkar kemon  aachen (hello how are you).  It is nine o’clock at night, downtown  Zurich--as is normally the case--has started thinning, and here are 4 Bengalis in a Movenpick by the lake.  The customer is a dapper young man in a black suit and a goatee and we end up sitting at the table next to his.  Debonair and engaging, he has worked in Zurich for the past 4 years after graduating as an engineer from Jadavpur.  Koto din Aachen ekhaaney (how long have you been here) asks S in polite conversation.  Ami apnar cheye onek choto, amakey tumi bolben (I am much younger than you, please address me with “tumi”— which is a form of address directed for people younger than you).  I can see that S, who looks younger than her years, is not amused. The man’s Swiss girlfriend arrives soon after and following introductions, they drop off into deep and at times anguished conversation.  We pick up snatches-- there is a misunderstanding, he had not expected her to get as emotionally involved as she had.  This does not help his stock in S’s eyes--the young lady is probably around our children's age.  After a while, preparing to leave, he bids us farewell.  “Dekha hobey kokhono” (see you later) says S in parting formality, her lips pursed.  With a gaze that Rajesh Khanna reserved for his heroines he looks her in the eye “Nishchoi hobey.  Sundar mookh ami kokhono bhuli na” (we will certainly meet—I never forget a beautiful face).  And with that, the dark prince of Burkliplatz glides off into the darkness with his flame. S remains unimpressed, though deep inside, I suspect that the flattery has made some amends.

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely written Supra.Loved the imagery. :Satyajit