Monday, 6 August 2018

Swiss adventures

It feels like a long time since I last wrote a blog. It’s actually only been a few days, but in that time I’ve been all the way to Zürich and back.

Actually, when you realise how quickly you can get to European cities, and how much you can pack in if you leave early in the morning and come back late the next day, it’s difficult to understand why we don’t do more mini-breaks like this.

It wasn’t really a holiday. I was there to sing at the wedding of two former members of New West End Synagogue, who moved to Switzerland last year. They’re a very interesting couple. She is from Malaysia and converted to orthodox Judaism in order to get married. It is not easy to convert, particularly to orthodoxy. It takes three years and involves gruelling tests and serious lifestyle changes. I’ve heard that some people who want to covert are actually forced to move to different areas so they can be amongst people who are Shomer Shabbos (ie people who eat kosher and take all the Shabbat rules seriously.) As a result, those who convert are often more observant than those who were born into the religion. You’ve got to really love someone to go through all of that!

There were seven of us in the choir and we had been engaged to sing at a Friday night meal and a Saturday morning Shabbat service. The Friday night was all about singing musical theatre songs, which is fairly infra dig for an all male, unaccompanied choir who specialise in ancient Jewish music, but, we’re game for a laugh.

We left London from City Airport at shit o’clock. I was staggered by quite how awful the airport is. By 7am, the loos were already blocked and the staff at the security gates were beyond rude. The whole airport comes across as rather tawdry, bordering on seedy. The only thing in its favour is the relatively small number of flights which leave from there, so you’re not left waiting about in long queues as you can be at Stansted. Luton, of course, will always be the worst airport in the UK.

It’s actually rather shameful when you arrive at an airport like Zürich, and see what an amazing impression a well-appointed airport can offer its tourists. When the UK leaves Europe, I look forward to sinking further into a sordid pile of our own excrement.

Zürich is an amazing city, which is built around a glorious lake. There’s not an ounce of rubbish or graffiti anywhere. I don’t think this is because hoards of people are paid large sums to clear the muck up, I simply think the Swiss respect their environment more. Yes, of course you could argue that they’re all so rich, they can afford to be obsessively tidy, or that there’s something unpleasantly clinical about the Swiss psyche, but it does make a rather pleasant change to hang out in a place like that.

The lake itself is the focal point of the city. It is deep, fresh and beautifully clean, and, as a result, everyone swims in it. Everyone. It’s a sort of fundamental part of most of the city’s residents daily regimes. There are official places to swim with jetties and pontoons, but there are also little public beaches where people wade into the water without having to pay an entrance fee. It’s all the same water, after all.

We arrived in the city and immediately took ourselves off for a swim in one of the official “baths”. It was boiling hot. The sun was glinting on the lake. And we swam about in the cool, clear water, looking out to the mountains behind the city, feeling wonderfully relaxed and wondering if life could get any better.

We rehearsed in the afternoon in searing heat which made everyone fractious. It’s one thing to be rehearsing well-written conventional choral repertoire but quite something else to learn (and improvise) harmonies for well-known musical theatre songs, especially when the groom rushes in and tells you that his mother only wants upbeat music. Les Mis was described as “emo” and rehearsing the gloriously uplifting Anthem from Chess triggered a warning to “keep things light.” Note to self: never rehearse within earshot of your client! 

The evening meal took place within the breathtaking surroundings of a women-only open air swimming pool which, I assume, was fed by water from the lake. It looked stunning as the sun set and all sorts of candles and twinkling lights started to dance. The food was exquisite: an appropriate blend of Asian and Jewish cuisine. We wondered about, singing, unaccompanied. Shabbos rules meant we couldn’t use backing tracks, mics or even a piano so, our voices drifted into the ether and vanished into the sky like the wonderful helium balloons that everyone (but me) was given to release on cue.

The only slight dampener on the night from our perspective was when we performed Love Changes Everything to the mother of the groom and she buried her head in her son’s shoulder as though to say “make it stop,” before disappearing as quickly as she could! At the end of each number we clacked off to the sound of our own heels!

On Saturday morning we accompanied the resident Chazan in the Löwenstraße Synagogue in a wonderful service filled with the families of both the bride and groom. There were a lot of somewhat confused-looking Chinese people in our midst, who smiled very politely, despite the service being in a mixture of German and Hebrew! We were back in our comfort zone as singers, and we sang beautifully. I felt immensely proud. Many of the regular congregants came up to us afterwards to tell us how professional we sounded. Obviously, it’s meant as a great compliment, but it’s hard not to say “well we ARE a professional choir”! Imagine going up to Alfie Boe and saying “you sounded really professional” or telling your surgeon that he made a really professional job of removing your tonsils!

After the service, we took ourselves back to the lake, where I ate a tomato and mozzarella salad which was, in a word, divine. It’s so easy to forget what terrible tomatoes we have to endure in the UK and, when ripened by sunshine and not filled with weird additives, how absolutely delicious a tomato can be.

We went back to the swimming place and swam from pontoon to pontoon, relaxing, drinking coffee sunbathing and gradually unwinding, allowing, for a few glorious hours, the stresses and strains of London to melt away from our minds and bodies. At one point Michael turned to me and said, “this is when I realise that London has it very wrong.” I knew what he meant. Everything in London feels like it’s geared towards people who need to move at a fast pace. We don’t have pedestrianised streets lined with coffee shops. That would slow us down. We don’t have drinking fountains on the corners of all the streets. That would stop us from doing work. We don’t have beaches down by the Thames anymore because the river is filthy. I suppose we have lovely parks and things but you have to fight through the tourists to use them. Apart from the Heath. Maybe I’m being silly. Maybe the grass is always greener. Maybe there are Swiss tourists coming to London and saying “the joy about London is that everyone’s so laid back!”

Would the cleanliness of Zürich bore me after a while? Probably. Could I live in Zürich? No. Would I go back for a holiday? In a heartbeat.

We sat on the terrace cafe in the airport. It’s on a sort of open air observation deck which reminded me of something from the glamorous days of air travel, where being an air hostess was one of the most glitzy and sophisticated jobs you could have.

An hour and a half later, we were touching down at Heathrow airport and the adventure was over. When can I go back?



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