The door squeaked to a close behind me. I wheeled my bike on the path to the main street. The trees kept me in the shade until I reached the car-lined residential road, where the sun was still melting the tarmac. It was a hot August evening in Zurich, and I was going swimming in the lake.
The only refuge from the heat, was the breeze that come from riding a bike at sufficient speed, but not too quickly so that you heat up yourself. on this day, that speed was a gentle pace in 3rd gear. I pedalled up the street, turning right onto Tulpenstrasse, the tower block there offered some more shade for some way before I was in the harsh sun again. I turned left at that block and began the climb up the hill. the hill is called Zurichberg and the route to the lake goes right over it on a road called Frohburgstrasse. Cycling up this is not particularly hard, but it’s best not to think too much about it if you’re not feeling one hundred percent. At this stage, since you’re working much harder, the breeze is no longer enough to cool you, and coming up by the University of Zurich-Irchel just before the steepest part, I was sweating and up off the saddle. The house and the cars in front of them get nicer and nicer the higher you go up. The reason is obvious when you reach the top. I stopped to appreciate the view. Starting from the northeast and sweeping across to the southwest, there is the Airport, Oerlikon with its tall office blocks and apartment buildings, Seebach, and the portion of the city centre to the west which follows the Limmat river northwards toward its confluence with the Rhine.
This was the highest point of the route. my favourite part of the journey was next. It was all downhill from here to the lake. I hardly touched the breaks coming down Frohburgstrasse until I reached where it meets some main road. Still I glided at speed down towards the lake, smiling, the wind hugging me coolly, steeling my hat and sweeping my hair back. I thought how wonderful that lake water will feel against my skin. I did not pedal once all the way to Bellevue. All the traffic lights were green for me, and there was very little of that particularly troublesome traffic of affluent people in outlandish cars.
Bellevue and Opernhaus Plaza is one of my favourite places to be. The Limmat begins its sluggish journey north from exactly there; the tram station is just as respecable as a train station; and the lake glitters in the evening sunlight. I made my way to the shore and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not so crowded, and that the platform was still there (They take it away sometime in August).
The ten-meter-tall diving platform – which stands in the water a good throw of a stone offshore, beside the bridge which spans the very beginning of the Limmat – is manned by a singular lifeguard until 8pm. It was 7:53. I locked up my bike to a lamp post, walked down the steps to the promenade, took off my shirt and shoes (I was already wearing my swimming togs) and gestured to the man on duty on the platform. He said something in German and gestured to come over. I jumped into the water. The cold stung only for a second before I was properly greeted by my friend, the lake. The sweat which had clung to my body the whole way here was washed away and I was suddenly in an environment in which I felt much better about life than up there on the land. I swam over to the platform, climbed up to the bottom portion and said hello to the man. He said in English “you have time for one or maybe two.” Once was all I wanted.
I swung onto the ladder and began excitedly climbing the ladder to the diving platform ten meters above me. The ladder was metal and slippery and a little small for my feet. As I climbed higher, my confidence grew lower, and a good portion of my excitement became fear. falling from the ladder would hurt, both on the way down and at the bottom. So, I was careful, and I climbed up slowly. My knees were shaking. at the top, I looked around at the unique view of my environment from up here. In a book I read recently, Quicksilver by Neil Stephenson, Mr. Leibniz is walking around 17th century London with the main character, Daniel Waterhouse and is talking about perspective. He believes that if God is omniscient and sees everything from every point of view at once, then to get closer to how God sees the world, one should see it from as many different perspectives as possible. Although I’m not sure if I believe in God, I do agree that there is something very special about seeing the same thing from different perspectives. Try standing on your kitchen table and see how different the room looks from up there.
Because it was on a hill, Bellevue was just a little bit below me 20 meters away. I was slightly above the level of the bridge too. I realised then that people were watching me, a very pale young man on a sunny day standing up there about to jump of course attracted attention. I looked down to the water and was not comfortable with how far down it looked. If I was alone up there, I would have probably climbed down. But the people were watching, expecting me to jump. It was a question of honour.
I put one foot forward, curling my toes over the edge, took a few seconds to gather up the courage and stepped off. floating in the air, falling. I let out a non-descript sound that one typically makes when they get that many butterflies. The water rapidly approached. I spread my arms, and then closed my eyes at the final instant. I hit the water. I love that sequence of sounds right then. the first instant of the splash made by your feet, and then your legs and your waist and shoulders until your ears go under, cutting that sound and replacing it with the deep perturbations of the bubbles floating upwards all around you. I popped up a few seconds later. I let out a triumphant whoop for all to hear and I laughed. I felt fantastic. I swam back to the platform.
“Are you going up for one more?” asked the guy as I climbed up. I wasn’t. I just wanted to tell someone about how I felt. Someone who was here. We spoke for a while. His name was Ralph, and he had been to Ireland. I told him about life guarding. He found my story about training hour really being a breakfast club especially funny. We said goodbye and I dived into the water to swim back to my stuff.
The sun was beginning to set, and I decided to buy a big hotdog and go for a walk down the length of the prom to Zurich-horn. The swans were begging for scraps, the ducks were minding their ducklings, the people were sitting with their feet dangling over the edge of the water or lying in the grass, soaking up the last of the days sun.
This city is beautiful, especially when the sun is going down. On my way back at the top of Zurichberg I saw watched the last of the sunlight run through a wonderful sequence of yellows, oranges, and reds with an old man who struck up a conversation with me on the bench underneath the oak trees. In broken German and then in French, we talked about Zurich, football, and the sunset. It felt really good to just talk to a random stranger. Maybe that’s how my grandmother felt when she used to do it.
I freewheeled happily all the way down Frohburgstrasse to get home in the fading twilight. A day well lived. My loneliness eased by my commune with the water and conversation with strangers. I realised that my life until now was not just my own experience, but that of others around me too. In my normal life there is more to me than just me and I think loneliness comes from missing the parts of yourself which you have left behind. The upside of it is, you get to see how capable you are as the captain of your own ship. I was on the phone to a friend about this and he said that even though our selves are made up of more than just us, “The biggest part of you is always you.” He’s absolutely right about that.