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The pissheads of Zurich

By thirsty hack Ignatius Rake

Posted June 04, 2012
zurich big chess peices
Zurich: Where even the chess pieces are pissed. © Ignatius Rake

If you thought Zurich was just some dull town full of sober bankers, you might want to think again.

Having no interest in skiing, I had never before been to Switzerland.

As a result, all I really knew or thought I knew about this landlocked country was that it has a long history of neutrality1; the roads often double as runways for the air force; practically every adult male is a part-time soldier with an automatic rifle at home; it's lawful to own a howitzer; and the army can take out a tank with a multi-bladed penknife.

Other than that, all I could think of when I did a spot of brainstorming on the train from Milan were cuckoo clocks; yodelling; Alpine horns; big round cheeses with holes in them; St Bernards with brandy flasks round their necks2; William Tell; Dr Fischer of Geneva; secret bank accounts; pharmaceuticals; pricey watches; and Nazi gold.

Consequently, I wasn't expecting much from Zurich, itself ranked second behind only Vienna in Mercer's 2011 quality of living stats.

In fact, I was prepared for something pretty dull and certainly not the full-on Bacchanalian boozebath that greeted me the moment I stepped off the train.

I shan't dwell too deeply on what unfurled over the course of my Saturday night in Zurich, largely because all I really remember is a series of disjointed blurs as I lurched from one bar to another, chatting with very friendly locals who proved only too happy to clink my glass and then tell me how sorry they were that I had to live in the "Soviet" and "anti-democratic" EU.

"The people themselves make the laws in Switzerland. We have direct democracy and we don't want some unelected bureaucrats in Brussels taking that away from us," as one youngish chap in Safari Bar put it as the Ramones belted out around us.

Anyway, suffice it to say, it all kicked off big time when I chose to head down Marktgasse and then onto Niederdorfstrasse in the city's huddled old town.

Instead of sleepy tedium, the scene I encountered was one of wanton slaughter, like something from Goya's The Disasters of War but with booze replacing bayonets.

Everywhere there were seriously pissed-up men and women of all ages laughing, shouting and yodelling at the tops of their voices3.

It was about 8pm and even the abstainers had been on the lash since before midday.

To be honest, the gulf between my sobriety and the locals' massed inebriation was a tad intimidating, although it should be noted that no air of menace pervaded.

I just felt seriously out of place, my lack of drunkenness making me feel like Morrissey at a meat-themed orgy in an abattoir.

After passing up myriad opportunities to break my duck, I eventually came to what looked to be an olde worlde pub.

Thinking that it would probably be a fairly quiet place populated by grey-haired types and that it would therefore provide a sheltered bay in which to cast off my boat, I tentatively pushed open the door.

Only to be bowled off my feet by a whirlwind of noise and pub fumes that shot past me like a malevolent ghost finally freed from a witch's bottle.

The interior was indeed that of a traditional Germanic boozer, replete with lots of wooden tables.

However, what geriatric drinkers I spied were clearly outnumbered by a hoard of young beer-swillers all singing along to Alpine umpah-umpah music set atop a cheesy techno beat.

It was Jive Bunny with tubas.

Hesitantly, for my ears failed to recognise this as any music emanating from the earthly plane, I approached the bar and squeezed into a narrow gap between a couple of old gadges and a gaggle of twenty-somethings.

From the latter group's clothing I would have expected them to have preferred hip hop but they were more into Arse Trumpet's Greatest Hits than anybody else present.

They were also very clearly into their drinking.

By the time I had dispatched half my Hürlimann, these young whippersnappers had done two rounds and were ordering another.

One-litre steins to boot.

"Welcome to Zurich," a spectral voice whispered into my ear.

From that point on it all went downhill, albeit in a rather pleasant manner.

a latex vacuum bed in a sex shop in zurich switzerland
I'll have one of those, please: The ingenuity of the human mind. © Ignatius Rake

I'm not sure exactly when I called it quits for the night but it was broad daylight and other people were still going for it.

After a brief snooze in my hotel, I was gripped by an uncontrollable desire to drink something cold, fizzy and sweet.

Thus, without bothering to even check let alone redress the state of my face and hair, I threw on some clothes and sans socks staggered outside to search for some suitably sugary substance.

Spying no shops within the immediate vicinity of my hotel, I headed deeper into the old town warren until my gaze fell upon a discrete little bar.

Perhaps if I'd splashed some water on my face I would have twigged that this particular hostelry had a certain theme to it.

Clocking a collection of grumble flicks behind the counter but not really thinking too much about them, I asked the perfectly normal-looking middle-aged barwoman if I could buy some bottles of sweet fizz to take away.

The three or four punters at the bar turned to look at me and muttered something in Swiss German.

"Upstairs," the woman said, pointing aloft.

'Upstairs', I soon discovered, was a sex shop and smut cinema.

Seriously wanting something to drink and uninterested in walking much further around the city like a tramp, I ventured in.

Amid the racks of scud movies and skin mags there was indeed a fridge with bottles of pop in it.

As I strode towards it, the young chap behind the counter looked up at me.

From my lack of browsing he probably assumed I was about to hurdle the turnstile and cop a free eyeful of the on-screen action next door.

"Hallo," he said in that 'I seen ya' manner.

"Trink, bitte. I really need a drink," I explained, pointing to the fridge.

"Oh, OK," he said then went back to his reading.

I helped myself to two half-litre bottles of tooth-rot.

There was no piped muzak to subliminally influence my purchase, just the sounds of an adult Heidi being serviced by a celluloid fanny mechanic with an extensive tool kit.

I pondered the chances of Asda FM switching to such a soundtrack.

Would moans and groans work at the deli counter?

Sod the olives. Slip us a length of that sausage...

"Just those?" the surprised assistant asked in English when I went to pay.

"Yep, that's right," I said.

"Do many people come in here just to buy a soft drink?" I asked once he'd rung up the till.

"No, not really. Mainly they come to buy magazines and DVDs."

He paused, then added, "And to watch the f--k movies."

"You don't say. So what's it like working here? Is it a good job? Do you like it?"

"Ja, it is OK. It gives me time to read."

"What, bongo mags?"

He looked puzzled.

"Pornographic magazines," I rephrased. "You know, art pamphlets."

"Ha! No! No! I am studying at the university."

He flashed me the cover of the book he was reading.

It looked pretty heavy – a philosophical tract, I believe, something like New Kants or Teenage Hegel.

"I have a lot to read for my studies and this place is quiet."

Cue Heidi barking "Ja! Ja! Ja! Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!"

We looked towards the cinema entrance then back again.

"Most of the time," he added with a smile.

I took my change.

"Do you want a bag?" he asked, offering me a plain, dark plastics carrier.

"Nah, it's all right, thanks," I replied.

We bade each other farewell and I departed out the door, clutching my two bottles of pop for all to see.

I realise now that had I accepted the bag, it would probably have looked to anyone watching that I had just purchased a couple of dildos.

Not that anyone, it seemed, would have batted an eyelid had I wandered outside brandishing a six-foot cock with bells on it.

The centre of Zurich, you see, is home to quite a few grot shops, not to mention numerous 'night clubs' and movie houses playing the latest art films.

But whereas in other cities such a relatively high frequency of bongo booths would foster a sense of seediness, in Zurich, as far as I experienced4, this was very much not the case.

Perhaps it's all that clean air or, more likely, the general lack of pink and red neon that usually accompanies the commercialisation of human rutting.

Whatever it was, in quaint old Zurich the presence of such emporia just seemed mundane and unremarkable.

There was a feeling that, hey, they're just shops that happen to stock gimp porn and Throbbing Rogers rather than, say, sweets or furniture.

Even the night club photo displays of strippers with their norks out failed to turn the locals' heads one way or the other.

Although, that said, I did clock a group of student-aged girls having a right good giggle at some of the kit on show in the window of the Magic X Erotic Megastore, itself sandwiched between a perfumery and a shoe shop on the prosaically respectable Limmat-Quai.

I don't know what it was that so tickled these women but after consuming my bottles of fizz and showering, I too saw something in the window of a similar high street outlet that briefly took my mind off my hangover.

It was a latex vacuum bed.

The sign beside it read in English:

"Vacuum sealed rubber framed bed with a small hole for breathing and an entry to the genital area for added stimulation with vibrators or any other kind of stimulation. The system comes complete (disassembled) with perforated 1 x 2 meter [sic] PVC tube framing, two-ply rubber bedding and carrying case. Add the vacuum by using a standard vacuum cleaner with hose."

Now I'm no prude, but on seeing this I couldn't help imagining a situation where you pop round someone's house for a cup of tea only to stumble across such a 'system' installed in a room you've accidentally mistaken for the khazi.

Now imagine that the said bed was occupied and you were only in that house to meet your new flame's parents for the first time.

"I'm terribly sorry. I thought this was the toilet."

"Oh, don't mind me. You must be Tom. Wendy's told us all about you..."

female drinkers by lake zurich
The new black: The local ladies love their lager. © Ignatius Rake

Anyway, grot shops aside, Zurich, it has to be said, is a really pleasant place to endure a hangover thanks in no small way to the chilled-out parkland flanking the north-western banks of Lake Zurich itself.

A big wet wobbler for the care-free bobbing of boats, floats and swans alike, the lake covers the best part of 90 km2, its ceaselessly shifting surface juxtaposed nicely with the palpable mass and solidity of the two-tone mountain backdrop.

With the autumnal weather bright, dry and summer-coat mild, I proceeded to gorge myself back to life on imbiss-bought sausages as I lumbered from one outdoor café to the next.

As I knocked back endless cups of tea, families out for a Sunday stroll trundled passed canoodling couples while well-to-do young ladies topped off their ensembles with must-have cans of lager.

In Zurich, you see, booze is the new black.

Indeed, as Sunday drew on it became readily apparent that the locals don't limit their serious drinking to Saturdays alone.

After leaving the lake, I lost count of just how many paralytic young women – and yes, sisters, they were all women – I encountered stumbling around the city like marionettes with broken strings.

One in particular sticks in my mind because while being aided to 'walk' by her equally drunk friend she came within a gnat's bawhair of crashing through the window of a shop selling nothing but garden gnomes.

Not that it was just the ladies who were maxing out their weekend, mind.

At the splendid bar in the splendidly named Splendid Bar on Rosengasse, for instance, I was repeatedly mistaken for a Floridian by some massive bloke with eyes as red as Old Shuck's.

"You're from Florida," he kept telling me between equally big swigs of lager.

I was having none of it, of course.

Until it looked like he was about to punch me.

At this point I conceded that I did indeed live in a swamp outside Tallahassee.

"See," he said, "I knew you were from Florida."

Then he clinked my glass and got a swift refill.

As I lunched on pouletbrust outside Zum Roten Kamel the next day (zum putrid Bactrian was sadly off), I felt a definite glumness knowing that I would soon have to wave Zurich goodbye.

Whether or not this city is a fair representation of the rest of the country, I cannot honestly say, although I have reason to believe it isn't.

"People from outside Zurich hate it. They say Zurich is not Switzerland," one chap told me when I complimented him on the general drunkenness of his city.

Back inside the main train station, I stopped for a farewell pint as men on ladders strung up fancy bunting.

"What's going on?" I asked the barman.

"There is going to be a beer festival," he beamed.

Bollocks, I thought.

I'd already bought my ticket.


1) The country's neutrality dates back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia.

2) Actually a total myth.

3) Well, maybe not yodelling but you get the picture.

4) Not being on a jizzness trip, I never visited the Langstrasse district, which is apparently the place to go to catch a few crabs for a small fee. It’s also said to be pretty bohemian, so there’s your excuse if you get caught on camera.

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