Sunday, July 31, 2011

The City: Zurich

Alain de Botton celebrates a place where nothing is flashy.

Zurich, Michael Schnabel / Gallery Stock
The most sincere compliment you could pay Zurich is to describe it as one of the great bourgeois cities of the world. This might not, of course, seem like a compliment—the word “bourgeois” having become for many, since the outset of the Romantic Movement in the early 19th century, a significant insult. “Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of wisdom,” felt Gustave Flaubert, a standard utterance for a mid-19th-century French writer, for whom such disdain was as much a badge of one’s profession as having an affair with an actress and making a trip to the Orient. According to the Romantic value system, which today still dominates the Western imagination, to be bourgeois is synonymous with laboring under an obsession with money, safety, tradition, cleanliness, family, responsibility, prudishness, and (perhaps) bracing walks in the fresh air. Consequently, for about the last 200 years, few places in the Western world have been quite as deeply unfashionable as the city of Zurich.
Zurich is exotic. We normally associate the word “exotic” with camels and pyramids. But perhaps anything different and desirable deserves the word. What I find most exotic about the city is how gloriously boring everything is. No one is being killed by random gunshots, the streets are quiet, the parks are tidy, and, as everyone says (though you don’t see people trying), it is generally so clean you could eat your lunch off the pavement.
What most appeals to me about Zurich is the image of what is entailed in leading an “ordinary” life there. To lead an ordinary life in London is generally not an enviable proposition: “ordinary” hospitals, schools, housing estates, or restaurants are nearly always disappointing. There are, of course, great examples, but they are only for the very wealthy. London is not a bourgeois city. It’s a city of the rich and of the poor.
People are happy to be ordinary in Zurich. The desire to be different depends on what it means to be ordinary. There are countries where the communal provision of housing, transport, education, or health care is such that citizens will naturally seek to escape involvement with the group and barricade themselves behind solid walls. The desire for high status is never stronger than when being ordinary entails leading a life that fails to cater to a median need for dignity and comfort.
The rest at Newsweek.

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