I’m sitting in a train station food court with a Styrofoam cup in front of me, and the buildings are different and the sky is different, but I am myself and my feet are on the ground and time ticks onward. The people threading around my table, beneath these old wood beams, are Tacomans, as are the construction workers banging away outside and most of the people in the train hurtling into Freight House Square from Seattle. I am a Tacoman..
My flight back from Switzerland was uneventful, which is exactly what I’d hoped for, given the debacle on way in. No pseudo-strokes or wheelchairs. No dirty hospitals or IV bags. Just smooth sailing over calm skies as Iceland stretched out beneath us in all of its fjord-y wonder. Deep black rock, milky blue water, snow, snow, snow. The adventure of travel had worn off on in that crowded, but orderly, Basel airport and by the time we were wheels down in America, life had taken on its quality of being checks on a list and steps in a plan. Get the bags. Check. Pick up the car. Check.
We collected a thoroughly happy dog from his dog sitter and we assured our neighbors(whom we had forgotten to tell we were leaving) that we had not died quietly in our house, and that we would do something about the dandelions ASAP. We ogled over the lovely photos from my parents as they continued gallivanting around Europe, but for us, the trip was over. The excursion concluded. The quest completed.
With one exception.
One week before, when I stopped by Roger Martinho’s kiosk to pick up the macarons that I would be taking with me to France, I asked him if there was anything that he wanted me to bring him back. A souvenir? Something he missed? He could think of only one thing.
“This,” Roger says, “This is France.” And he motions at the cup in front of him, the muted crackle of bubbles against Styrofoam. He takes a sip and I watch it hollow out a space in him.
And yet, as I swish my foreign drink and breathe its breath out through my nose I know exactly what he means. This taste of Ricard, will forever be a bookmark for me, same as the smell of schnitzel and the sound of old church bells. A placeholder for the rest of my life for standing barefoot in front of a hospital in the sunshine. For cool blue light on sandy white buildings. For bawdy laughter in a rattle trap van with good, good people. A chapter in my story about the first time I went to Europe, and the adventure that followed.
Rain settled over Basel, rattling on the rooftops and running down the buildings. The morning had been full of little pragmatisms (a trip to the drug store to preempt the flight the next day, a quick breakfast, some packing) and midday found us slipping up Steinenvorstadt in search of what else but food. Melissa and I planted ourselves at a place called Kuuhl behind some smoky glass streaked with rain. Kuuhl makes pasta dishes assembly line style. Scoop of this, pinch of that, hands working knives behind the counter, reloading containers as they emptied. I found myself at the register with a bowl full of elbow macaroni coated in a rich cheese sauce, run through with seared pork and chunks of hearty potato. Just the kind of thing you want to shovel into your steam engine on a cold and rainy day such as that. We shoveled and shoveled and the fires got hot and the pistons got moving and Melissa and I went thundering out of that place with exploration in mind and everything was perfect and everyone was happy.
We walked to the Munsterplatz on its perch above the Rhine as the rain drummed on our borrowed umbrella. The Munsterplatz, or Basel Minster, was built and rebuilt between 1000 and 1500, first in a roman style and when that was destroyed in an earthquake, a Gothic style cathedral. We stood in the courtyard of it watching the river run its muddy way through the city center beneath a chalk and charcoal sky.
South Bank of the Rhine
Alleys for exploring
Art along the North Bank
Down an alley with a stream running between the stones of it, peeking in windows at shops with exotic goods. We crossed a bridge into the northern part of town and stood at the center of it to watch a boat ferry people across the brackish waters, towed between the two points on an ancient looking cable. The only sounds were of rain in all its voices, pinging off of metal, whispering through leaves, cackling on pavement as we walked the north bank, taking in architecture, inspecting artwork. I took a brief break from my blissful introspection to be ridiculous:
And then we continued on our way. Mom and Dad met us as we closed the loop back at the Munsterplatz, and so we started the loop again, down the alley, over the bridge, to the north bank. The chill stopped us this time, halfway between the two bridges, drove us into a coffee shop. 6 out of 10 doctors prescribe Italian hot chocolate for chronic dampness (the other 4 doctors are paid off by the cider industry), so we filled a prescription and dunked a Belgian waffle in it. The hot chocolate was thick and rich and not overly sweet and it filled the crevices in the waffle which then filled the crevices in us and everything was perfect and everyone was happy.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in our hotel bar, snarfling up caipirihnas and people watching. Middle aged men in Basel were a particular point of discussion. Most of their hair was hip, their clothes well fitted, their styles cultivated. Very few had the stateside look of having been dipped in glue and catapulted through a Walmart. We drank our drinks and pontificated and then night fell on the city and it was time for our final dinner together.
Where do you go on that last night, with the hours ticking down to zero and a thousand mile wedge coming to tear you all apart? Do you find the most authentic place in town and wait in line for the most European experience there is? Do you wallow in decadence at the fanciest restaurant in the area? Do you get so drunk that they have to wheelchair you onto the plane in the morning? The answer, for us, was that it didn’t matter, as long as we did it together. On that final night, we walked into a hole in the wall shawarma place where the seats were aplenty and the cashier looked happy. We filled our bellies with shawarma and we filled the dining room with laughter. The lights were too bright and the food was mediocre, but we were together and everything was perfect, and everyone was happy.
Our fear of commuting into Basel turned out to be mostly misplaced. Sure, there were some wrong turns and a few confusing signs, but we glided into a parking space in the city center without a curse or a threat of violence. The Munsterplatz stood guard along the river, which ran lazy on that sunny day through the center of the city. Alleyways snaked between the buildings, tributaries to catch the stream of tourists like ourselves and carry them past shops and eateries. When we’d finished parking and gotten our stuff over to our rooms, the sun was falling behind the clouds hanging dark and ominous in the distance and we were feeling peckish. Our hotel looked out over a courtyard bustling with people from here and from other places. Neon signs and light rail cars. Cabs along the curbs. It was no Eguisheim, bigger, more developed than that, but it didn’t have the grit of Strasbourg either. It was just different, and I found it pleasant in its newness.
We gathered around beers on the outdoor seating of a place called Kohlmann’s as bodies began to trickle into the square from a nearby college, talkative and jovial and electric with teenage energy. Dad and I ordered bone marrow and more beer and we were quickly acquainted with one of the painful realities of visiting Switzerland vs. living there. The bone marrow was about $17.00 American and the beers (which had been $5 in France and Germany) ran something closer to $12. The higher wages and quality of living that come with residency here make things like that negligible, but it was startling at first for us. Fortunately, the cure for sticker shock is alcohol, and we set about treating our conditions. Students flooded past us in the honey light of the afternoon and the bone marrow came to the table in all its rich, buttery decadence.
Evening found Mom, Dad and I gathered in the hotel lobby, with machinations on dinner. Mel wasn’t feeling so hot, so she stayed behind, left the bloodhounding to us. A set of coliseum steps led down into the town square from our hotel and I don’t recall a time when we walked past them and didn’t find them crawling with youngsters mid snack, or deep in the throes of people watching. This night was no exception, and as we wove our way through the throng, we passed a boy and girl mashing something spectacular into each other’s faces. Flatbread folded over something meaty and cheesy. Arugula peeking from the top of it.
“What is that?” I asked Dad.
“Ask them,” He said.
But considering our rudimentary linguistic skills, neither of us was confident that we could get the point across without accidentally soliciting one of them lasciviously or insulting some distant relative. Since stairs aren’t the funnest place to get beat up, we wiped the drool off our lips and eased out into the orderly fray of Basel on a Friday night.
Earlier, I called the streets we walked alleyways, because there weren’t any cars in them, but these were no narrow back of house spaces with dumpsters in them. Restaurant patios jamming with people lined the sides. Walls of people 20 bodies wide moved in either direction through the center, lights from the buildings playing on their faces. All around us, the smell of food. We went door to door, reading menus, peeking into dining areas, moving along.
“What sounds good to you?” “I don’t know.”
“ Me neither.”
Which was just a lie. We all knew exactly what we wanted and we weren’t looking at menus to see what they had. We were looking to see if they had what we needed. We passed collared shirt restaurants and cargo short joints. We passed wood fired ovens and made to order pasta and all kinds of perfectly respectable establishments, winding up and down these alleys with the current of people. We had almost given up on the fleeting obsession that gripped us all back on the steps of the town square, when we rounded a corner and into the back of a line, snaking away from a single window. To the left and right of it, hunched over the curb, leaned up against the building, draped over tables, people inhaling flatbread sandwiches.
We stuck to that line like moss on a rock in our stream of people in the dark and we followed it to dinner.
“What can I get you?” The woman at the window asked.
There was a mound of dough in front of her. A spatula in her hand.
“Hm. What’s the thing? What’s your specialty?”
She, smiled, nodded, pulling dough off the mound.
“I’ll get you the thing,” She said, and she got me the thing.
She rolled the dough out onto a grill top, steam rising up off it into the night. Ran it flat with pin and got up underneath it with that spatula, one motion, scrape lift, whap, golden brown dough facing up now, other side sizzling. While it sizzled she smeared the browned side with a soft ricotta cheese, began laying prosciutto in it. Handful of arugula, then she knifed that spatula up underneath it, levered the whole thing over on itself and it was off the grill top into a paper sleeve. The thing. I had the thing. I paid her a some of money and I joined my parents at the table that they’d floated to with their “things.” The bread was crispy on the outside, but doughy at the center and ricotta played very well with the proscuitto, thin and salty and chewy with fat. The arugula gave it a pleasant texture and a metallic zing. We ate quietly in the semi-darkness of this new city as clouds that would bring rain tomorrow morning crept in front of the stars. We had come to Basel searching for a pleasant end to a mostly pleasant day, and as it turned out, Basel had just “the thing” we were looking for.