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.