Same Same, But Different

  • Barbarella

From age to age, nothing changes, and yet completely different.

-- Aldous Huxley

David and I were distracted from the conversation when two young boys cruised by on bicycles. It wasn't the shiny red of the blond boy's bike that caught our attention, nor was it the unnatural cleanliness of the brunette boy's clothing -- what caused us to turn our heads away from the man speaking to share an astonished look with each other were the sounds the boys had made as they passed. David's lips parted to comment, but, because my mouth is faster than both of our minds, I was the first to blurt out our mutual thought: "Those kids must be incredibly smart, they know how to speak German !"

Our friend Urs, the man who had been speaking, stared in puzzlement at David and me as we cackled with laughter at our shared joke. When our guffaws tapered to giggles, Urs ventured, "Well, yes, of course they do."

It was hard for me to grasp the idea that the average person in Zurich speaks at least three languages. Urs and his wife, Gudrun, each speak six -- fluently.

"Right," I said. "I'm sorry for interrupting you. It's just that I had forgotten we weren't in Kansas anymore." Again, Urs looked confused, his blue eyes blinking behind red, thick-framed glasses reminiscent of the heavy, round spectacles favored by the famous architect I.M. Pei. Gudrun (in an equally striking pair of thick and colorful rectangular glasses she designed herself) smiled politely, though it was clear the humor David and I had found in our ethnocentric isolationism had escaped her.

This was my first time off the North American continent. I had expected Switzerland to be a foreign land composed of stereotypes -- young "Heidi"s singing atop green hills with long, blond braids and full flowing skirts. But only one of my preconceptions proved true -- Zurich is clean . The world's biggest banking town runs with the order and efficiency one would expect of business-minded bankers. Swans float on the river that runs between cobblestone-ridden Old Town and the Bahnhofstrasse, a newer, Rodeo Drive-meets-Madison-Avenue area. The water in the river is crisp, clean, drinkable, and so clear you can see to the riverbed beneath it.

Walking alongside the water was like stumbling onto the set of a beer commercial -- healthy-looking, beautiful young people posed on bicycles or swam in their bikinis and Speedos, flaunting magazine-perfect bodies. Zurich was a cleaner, quainter, prettier version of New York's Soho or Boston's gentrified South End.

Because everyone with whom I interacted could speak perfect English, it was easy to forget I was not in the U.S. Things are done pretty much the same way in Zurich that they're done anywhere else I've been to -- people worked, shopped, ate, and socialized over cups of coffee. There were, however, differences in the details -- little things that made me think I was crazy for a moment before I remembered where I was -- things that operated on a similar, but different level, like the outlets into which my plugs would not fit, the weird buttons instead of light switches on the walls, and the toilets.

Compared with the safe and consistent, off-the-factory-line copies with which I am intimately familiar, every toilet in Zurich seemed unique. On the third day, after finishing my small portion of ravioli (in Europe, when they say "small" they mean small -- the $30 plate could be consumed in under five bites) and downing a cup of very strong coffee, I left David at the table and went in search of the restroom.

Everything was business as usual -- hover (or sit, depending on the availability of toilet seat covers -- of which there were none -- and how much you trust the cleanliness of the joint), pee, wipe, stand, zip or button, and turn to flush. It wasn't until the last step of this procedure that I noticed things were not quite normal. There was no flusher handle on the side of the toilet. Nor was there a foot pedal, or even a red-light sensor thingy to indicate automatic flushing.

There was, however, a blue and white image of a hand beside a bunch of squiggly lines. Next to the image was a small bright green light over which the word "STOP" appeared. I waved my hand over the image and nothing happened. I pushed on it with the back of my hand -- nothing. After a few more waves, during which I experimented with distances from an inch over the image to a few feet above it, I stood back to assess the situation from a fresh perspective.

It was then that I noticed the panel above the toilet, the bottom half of the horizontal white rectangle jutting farther from the wall than the top. There were no words around the mysterious piece of plastic, but that didn't stop me from pressing the knuckle of my index finger to the widest area of the panel and giving it a little push.

Relief flowed through me like the water that began its course through the bowl. But then there was another sound, a grating, mechanical whine, an unusual sound for a mere flush. I staggered backward in alarm until my ass hit the stall door and I could go no further; I watched helplessly as a vertical panel, one I hadn't noticed before, protruded from the wall above the toilet. Eager to undo my mistake, I waved my hand like a crazy person over the word "STOP" to no avail.

Metal unfolded from behind the panel until it resembled a motorized arm pointing at my feet with a white clothy sponge-thing at the end serving as its hand. I stared in amazement as the toilet seat raised itself a few inches to meet the hand-like sponge-thing. The raised toilet seat slowly rotated a full 360 degrees as the arm washed and dried the surface upon which I had just been sitting -- like a miniature car wash...for toilets.

Realizing I was not being attacked, and that, contrary to my initial belief, I did not press Zurich's version of the "Big Red Button," I relaxed against the stall door and experienced a sense of awe as the now-disinfected toilet seat returned to its original position and the mechanical arm retracted into the wall. I was convinced I had just witnessed the underappreciated cousins of Hasbro's Cybertron Tranformers win a battle against the Evil Germs.

"You feeling okay? You were gone for a long time," David said when I joined him outside the restaurant. He raised his brows in response to my devilish grin. "What it is it? Another weird toilet?" Earlier I had regaled him with the tale of a brushed stainless-steel unisex Porto-a-Potty that looked like an alien battle cruiser and shot water and soap from holes on the inside wall when the right combination of buttons was pressed.

"You'll have to see this one for yourself," I said.

"Is it like the other ones?"

"Yeah, sort of," I answered. Then, quoting the T-shirt we had seen that morning emblazoned with the four words that have come to sum up my first European experience, I said, "Same same. But different."

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