In the shadow of St. Peter’s in Zurich, a beautiful church with the largest clock face in Europe, I found myself chatting with a German tourist. Curious to hear that I lived in Sicily, he asked me what I thought of Zurich. “I love it,” I said. “I feel so at home here. It’s just like Palermo.”
I’m almost certain that, like the tourist, the reader will scratch his head and decide that I have gone mad, as no two polities more dissimilar can be found in all Europe, perhaps the world. “Burundi,” say the Sicilians ruefully when drawing attention to some shortcoming of home life which they wish to excoriate, yet still more often that same effect is achieved by spitting through clenched teeth an ironic “Switzerland!” A fly in your glass of Campari soda? “Svizzera!” An improvised rubbish tip in the middle of an historic square? Stuck in the elevator? The new Fiat Panda won’t start? “Svizzera!”
I was mindful of all that, believe me. I knew I had to make my point to the German with Sophist subtlety. And so I said, “Listen, if an honest man stands on his head, does he become less honest? In Stalin’s Russia people were subjected to ordeals more trying than yoga, yet at the end of the day many of them lost none of their character. The truth is, a crook is unlike an honest man no matter what position either of them assumes. And, by the same token, one honest man is much like another, again, irrespective of all the contortions that time and tide may have them go through. Palermo, my friend, is Zurich that stands on its head.” The preamble went down like a lead balloon.
I recalled the London I had found in the mid-80’s and compared it with the city as it is today. To order an espresso in a restaurant, in those days, was as futile as asking the way to an internet café in an Albanian village during, say, the reign of King Zog, if not actually under the Ottomans. Britons didn’t drink espresso and, while not always proud of this, were never ashamed that they preferred tea or beer. Today there’s hardly a restaurant in London that doesn’t make a filthy, yet odorless, light-brown liquid called “expresso”—“espresso” if the check is more than $100 a head—to please the idiot, the journalist, and the chairman of the European Commission’s putative Cultural Diversity Unit. Now, all I was trying to tell my interlocutor was that Zurich is like the honest London that is no more. Or, indeed, like Palermo.
It hits you on arrival. The airport in Zurich is called the Zurich Airport. Not even Leonardo da Vinci, the official name of Fiumicino in Rome, to say nothing of John F. Kennedy. I mean, imagine yourself a despiser of the fine arts, as well as something of a sceptic when it comes to flying machines designed to imitate birds by flapping wings made of household materials. What right has a municipal authority to conscript you in its homage to Leonardo? Or imagine yourself an upstanding family man with traditionalist leanings. What right has a municipal authority to make you enter your own city through a public thoroughfare it has capriciously named after an adulterer and a socialist?
In London I used to ring up people all the time—the editors of the Times and The Spectator, various members of Parliament, and politicians then prominent, like David Owen. Each of them answered his own phone and, if he didn’t like the sound of me, had no qualms about slamming it down. Try that in our age of connectivity. Those people were honest with life—not more clever, perhaps, not more talented or principled or handsome than their successors today, but ready to look the truth in the eye and call a spade a spade.
Zurich does not like the poor. It does not dote on students, minorities, immigrants, unwed mothers, homosexuals, or drug addicts. It loves watches, cigars, tramways, cleanliness, and tranquility. Such attitudes may or may not represent laudable innovations in ethics or aesthetics, but the point is that the city does nothing to camouflage them beneath garlands of the evergreen plastic verbiage that is the single most prominent feature of nearly every urban landscape in Europe today. Hypocrisy, not the Tower of London or the Eiffel Tower, is what towers over the great cities of yesterday.
By now, needless to say, my German interlocutor had long gone. I might have told him of Palermo, of its brutal forthrightness about the place of man in the universe, its reverence for death, and its restaurants where I can smoke no matter what the law says.
I know, I know; smoking is bad for the health. But it’s one thing when a forthright friend shouts this at you, and it’s quite another if an HIV-positive homosexual politician issues it as a municipal ordinance. I guess what I’m trying to say is that, in their admittedly different ways, both Palermo and Zurich have something about them that brings to mind the honest man.