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Lose Your Wheels
May 2009 | Henry Abarbanel, writing from Zurich Switzerland

Henry Abarbanel (left) and Drew Keeling (center) enjoy reconnecting in Zurich after learning they were temporarily in the same town and authors on the same page of the May Sandpiper.  Beth Abarbanel joined them for a "passionate discussion" of the fantistic Swiss public transit system in comparison with that of San Diego.

Snow is not my favorite form of water, especially when driving home. However, Beth and I started our sabbatical for the year 2009 in Zurich, and there really was little choice. After meeting our daughters, Sara and Brett, in Zurich on New Year’s Eve 08/09, we had to drive the rented car back up the hill where we have a lovely apartment courtesy ETH where I am a Visiting Professor. Sara worked hard at being ballast while others pushed and guided us home though snowy, slippery streets.

Henry, not acquainted with water in its solid form, learning to walk again in Sion, Switzerland; January, 2009

We eventually solved this problem by sending the car back to Avis and the daughters home—one to Paris for the Winter and the other to Las Vegas.

And the absence of the car is the first thing that has been really deeply impressive about Switzerland. I have had a car for 49 years, and as a Californian, reveled in the ambivalence of wishing I did not need it, and loving having it. The Swiss, who vote on everything and make Del Mar seem dictatorial thereby, have chosen to invest heavily in public transportation. It is a real lesson for us: we get about Zurich by walking or riding trams or buses, and we travel about Switzerland on the pervasive, on-time train system. We not only do not need a car, we are better off without it. If we in Del Mar, clearly along with our neighbors in the region, would just say no to requiring a car, indeed making it more painful to park the thing around town, we too could enjoy the pleasures of going anywhere, anytime, safely, quietly and inexpensively by public transit.

We bought two wonderful transit items after arriving here: (1) a Zurich region transit pass that allows us unlimited use of trams, buses, trains, and boats within the Zurich transit region. We shop, travel to restaurants, museums, … by transit. (2) a half fare ticket on any Swiss rail/bus route anywhere. We have been to the Southern Canton of Ticino (Italian speaking and, hey, Italian!), to Basel, to ski areas (well, Beth skied—I “après skied” if that is a thing one can do), to Lausanne, to sun and snow and lakes and mountains.

The picture shows me learning to walk on solid water (i.e. T is less than 32 F) in Sion. This is a town in the valley of the Rhone River where it rises in the Swiss Alps, heads to Lake Geneva, and on to the Med. This is a crossroad where Romans and Carthaginians (Hannibal and elephants!)  and Crusaders and now American tourists have passed for millennia. It also is a place where one speaks French (not I, but Beth) and at the Cheval Blanc eats even better than the French themselves.

Zurich has revitalized itself and achieved many of the goals Del Mar seeks in that process: there is a vital (expensive) downtown with great cafes, restaurants, retail shops, bookstores, and parks—all easily reached by public transit. Above all stores are residential living spaces of high quality and real calm—remember, cars exist but are somewhat rare within town. The combination of residential and retail and office space is successful and convenient. I, frankly, do not know how Zurich (and all other Swiss cities) enforced this, but we in Del Mar should find out. Part of it is constant voting—constant—on what people want that meets their views of the quality of their lives.

Switzerland is not really much larger than San Diego and Orange Counties combined with a Federal government and 25 or so cantons, and numerous local governments. They speak four languages (five if you include my version of German/French/X) and they do not like disorder. To stay here four months, we needed a visa and had to go to the Swiss consulate in LA in person to deliver, in cash, our $48 each. I had to prove I had a PhD ( I took a digital picture of my diploma in Latin and sent them a pdf file of it—it worked, so maybe they speak more languages than advertised), and we had to send them a copy of our “marriage certificate” of which we had none! This almost resulted in our getting remarried on Kearney Mesa last November to the unending amusement of Brett and Sara!

However, once the documents are in ordnung the place works smoothly. We travel to open air markets for cheese and meats and veges, have developed our special, rather wicked fondue working with the local “mom and pop” store where we buy cheese, garlic, fruits and vegetables and, of course, more cheese. We walk to super, unbelievably expensive, restaurants, and local versions of “Costco” where songs in English blast away while we spend 10 Swiss Francs (about $8) for a music CD.
Soon we will depart this comfortable place designed by the Swiss. These folks have—OK they have been at it for 1000 years, not 50 as in Del Mar—created a safe, comfortable place to live. Parks surround residential and commercial areas, public transit takes you everywhere (even to foreign lands 45 miles away!), and local mom and pop shops survive along with large Vons and Ralphs stores.
This was to be a year to refresh the tired, but still firing, neurons, and it has proven so. Yet, there are a lot of great lessons for our small piece of paradise only 50 years old.

I’d like to end on a note recalling a time when I somehow convinced Lauraine Brekke-Esparza, then our City manager, to speak to a class of grammar school kids (including that very Brett of which reference above) . The kids somehow knew that there had been a huge snowstorm in Chicago the day before, and the city had stopped in its tracks. They demanded to know Del Mar’s snow removal plan. Well after unsuccessfully suggesting we might not face that problem, she said that our “plan” is to let it melt. The kids were happy indeed. In Zurich, if a snowflake is seen within kilometers of the city limits, there are cheerful, amazingly helpful public employees out on the streets removing those offending solid water artifacts and spreading sand on the streets. If we have Plan A, their Plan S is on the job!


Henry Abarbanel lives on Crest Road, when home; he has been in Zurich and is now in Munich through September.


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