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Discovering Zurich

I'll start with a confession. For the better part of 20 years I've been carrying on a string of illicit rendezvous in various corners of the world. The locations have largely been familiar, the names recognizable, and the intensity of the liaisons universally equal. I have done my best to be discreet, have always been respectful of the feelings of others, and have lavished all with the attention they rightly deserve.

In the summer of 1983, at age 14, I had my first summer fling. With my maternal grandmother as my chaperone, we embarked on our own self-styled Grand Tour of Europe. It was my first extended trip without parental supervision, my first transatlantic crossing, and the first time I experienced those odd, unfamiliar feelings of obsession.

Our journey started in London, jumped to Paris, went north to Stockholm, and then circled back down to Essen for a visit with family. Using the Ruhr Valley as a base for visiting other cities, we planned a brief jaunt through Switzerland. Having already been on the road for nearly a month, I was well versed in which nations had the best rail networks. British Rail was in a steep decline even then, France's SNCF was comfortable and punctual, Sweden's national railway had charming living room–style seating in first class, but nothing quite prepared me for my first trip on Switzerland's SBB.

Stepping into the dark-olive carriage in late July, we had the entire car to ourselves. The setting was immaculate—the cotton headrests were crisp, the windows were spotless. Two decades later I can still smell the cabin, a scent that could only be described as reassuringly "railroad," the product of various petroleum-based substances sticking to the undercarriage, horsehair in the seats, and sweet tobacco .

We crossed the Swiss frontier, and I don't think I uttered a word for the next two hours. Hurtling by outside was an entire childhood spent playing with model trains brought to life in full size and vivid color . Like most boys of my generation, model-train sets made up an essential part of my toy box, and the towns of either Switzerland or Austria seemed to have provided the blueprint for the miniature replicas made by brands like Mârklin and Herpa.

From my rear-facing seat, I watched as perfectly proportioned villas with orange-and–chocolate brown awnings zipped past. On the shores of tiny lakes were picnicking families and small stands selling sausages. Cheerful villages were a blur of window boxes, bursting with geraniums, and leathery-looking pensioners taking the sun in their garden allotments. Everything in Switzerland was just as it had appeared in the perfect world of my model-train catalogues .

Ninety minutes after we left Germany, the greenery gave way to the start of a city. The geraniums were still visible but were now housed on the balconies of lean high-rises; silent trams carved through the leafy neighborhoods . As soon as this ordered urbanism appeared, our boxy little carriage started jolting from one track to the next and, before long, platform signs for Zurich started slipping into view. Stepping off the train, I was smitten. Zurich was the capital of my faultless model-train world, an instant infatuation, and the start of an urban obsession.

The city that greeted us was a deeply civilized, if somewhat buttoned-down , affair. Perfect for a recently retired grandmother and her grandson companion . It was compact, safe, easy to navigate, and a pleasant mix of quaint and unswervingly modern. Having budgeted only 48 hours to see Zurich, we spent our days along the Bahnhofstrasse eating dainty cakes, drinking freshly pressed blood-orange juice, and buying up as many of a new type of plastic Swiss watch as our bags would accommodate. The summer of 1983 saw the launch of the Swatch—and a turnaround for an industry that was fighting hard to stay relevant in the face of stiff competition from Japanese brands.

Sitting in the dining carriage on our return to Germany, I wrote in my journal: "Zurich is the most pleasant city we've visited over the past four weeks. All cities should be so easy for visitors." I went on to praise our little hotel, in the city's Old Town, with its voluminous duvets; the carved-wood farm animals I bought for my mom; and the glamour of buying a Rolex from a very elegant lady at Bucherer, on the Bahnhofstrasse. Once I was home, in Montreal, Zurich was the only city I spoke of to family and friends. London and Paris scarcely got a mention in conversations about my first tour of Europe.

It took me almost a decade to get back to Zurich. In the intervening period I'd managed to fall for other cities too. I loved the physical beauty and optimism of Sydney. After a series of quick trips to Tokyo, I found little to fault in its unfailing attention to detail and boundless energy. And London, snubbed the first time round, had become home . But I was never able to shake my abiding fascination for Switzerland's biggest city.

Yet Zurich is not big. It might punch above its weight internationally in areas of finance, insurance, and pharmaceuticals, but no matter how many surrounding suburbs and villages you might want to add to its head count , it would never qualify as a large, sprawling metropolis. At a stretch , Zurich proper can muster a population of just 400,000. Locals like to say the surrounding area brings the number up to a million, but it's tricky to see how they get to this tally. Besides, they shouldn't bother. Despite being generally quite expensive, the city consistently takes top place in quality-of-life surveys because it's able to combine compact proportions, global influence, and a strategic position at the heart of Europe to lure corporate headquarters and give residents a lifestyle that has few competitors . The only problem with these surveys is that they tend to miss out on the emotional, occasionally intangible, qualities that make cities truly great.

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