A Tale Of Two Cities: May Day In Zurich & Edinburgh

Zurich to Edinburgh

May 1st.  An innocent enough day to this American travelling from Zurich to Scotland. But an offhand comment about riots and tram disruptions from Lara last night over sushi gives me pause.  May Day riots?

A Google image search whilst doing last minute packing yields some disturbing results: riot police controlling the normally placid Swiss with water cannon and tear gas.  I had expected an uneventful travel day, my major concern revolving around finding a reasonably healthy wheatless meal on the go.  Suddenly I am strategizing how to get to the Hauptbahnhof if the trams are not running and roads are blocked by angry Zurichian mobs.

“Why are they demonstrating?” I ask Lara between bites of sushi that seems more like astronaut food.   “Oh, you know, it’s Labor Day,” she says matter-of-factly.  Swiss working conditions hardly seem unjust, and unemployment stands at 3.4%.  But Lara seems uninterested and ignorant of the details of this annual spring event, and anyway, she is going mountain biking.

A little more late-night, last-minute research convinces me that my best bet is to leave early, before the parades start.  It seems the sequence of events is: parades, demonstrations, riots.  It degenerates.  Parades start at 10am, so I am standing at Stauffacher with my Starbucks latte in hand at 9:30, boarding the 14 to the train station.   And apparently I missed a rather eventful day.

May Day in Edinburgh

The healthy breadless, sugarless meal is not forthcoming, so I throw back a couple cups of milky tea on my flights to London Heathrow and then to Edinburgh.  Finally in Edinburgh on an unusually nice day, I load my luggage into the back of an immaculate black taxi and the lady taxi driver takes me on a miraculous drive through the city.

Miraculous because it is sunny and warm, and it has been for a week straight.  The last time I was in Edinburgh was December, and it was the worst winter in over 60 years.  Now it seems I arrived in time to enjoy the warmest spring of the century.  It is a time of extremes.

“Do you have demonstrations in Edinburgh on May Day?” I inquire.  “Oh heavens no,” says the Lady Driver. “Why would we?”  Indeed.

I ask the Lady Driver how business is and this sparks an unguarded emotional conversation that takes us all the way to my apartment.  “I started driving a taxi nine years ago, and I thought it was just the easiest thing to do,” she explains.  “I would just get in the car and drive, and it was a good living. How difficult is that?  But now that times are hard, people will take the bus rather than a taxi, won’t they?  Taking a taxi is a luxury, isn’t it?”

She used to take vacations every year, she tells me.  She’s been all over the United States, and particularly likes Florida.  But now she can’t afford to take any time off and hasn’t had a proper break in over a year.  “It’s starting to wear on me, you know? I feel I’ve nothing to look forward to.  And even when I have a day off, I don’t want to go out, I just feel like staying home.  I don’t feel social anymore.”

I would guess my Lady Driver is 55 or so.  She would like to get another job, but doesn’t have a clue as to what that would be.  She is on the verge of tears and her voice becomes plaintive as she describes an additional hardship.   She can’t drink alcohol when she is driving and since she rarely gets any time off she hasn’t had the opportunity to go to the pub for almost a year. From the sound of her voice, I feel this is a real travesty for her, underscoring just how bad things have been.  But since I don’t drink at all it takes me a moment to even understand what the point is. “I think there’s more hard times to come before this is over,” she predicts.

It’s 5pm and my total daily food intake so far has been milk and caffeine.  I bid goodbye and better days to the Lady Driver and pick up the keys to Scottish Chez Fabulous, hoping it will turn out to be more or less like the photos, without any surprises.

Quartermile is genius.  My flat is on a pedestrian path than leads to The Meadows, an expanse of green grass with tree lined paths.  There is a small, poorly stocked Sainsbury and a Starbucks on the ground floor, as well as Peter’s Yard, a Swedish bakery whose name makes people light up.  They say the cinnamon hot chocolate is brilliant.

I put my luggage in the apartment and go out in search of food.  I head to a fresh juice kiosk on the corner with a sign advertising home made feijoada, but the lovely Brazilian man explains that it’s only on Saturdays.  So I start walking towards the park, thinking there might be food on the other side.

But what if there is not?  As I walk further I can see the other side, and it looks decidedly residential.  I stop two men who are walking toward me and ask if I’m headed toward Princes Street or away from it, trying to get my bearings. They are both tall, appear to be locals and in their early to mid 30s.  One lanky ginger haired and the other brunet.

They give me the lay of the land, speaking over and with each other, almost as though I was not there.  Before they continue too much further into the intricate navigational details, I let them know what my objective is.  “I just flew in from Zurich and all I’ve had to eat today is tea.  Can you point me to the nearest restaurant?”  That changes things.  “Well, if you go down to the end of this path and turn right, then left and follow that street up, you should find something.  But we’re having a BBQ on the lawn just back there and you’re welcome to join us.”

Brain freeze.  Low blood sugar.  Snap decision.

“I’d love to join you, but are you having the BBQ now or later, because I’m starved?” I have been to so many BBQs that are supposed to start at 3 but the coals don’t even get lit until 5.  I need food, people.  This is probably not my most polite or diplomatic moment.  “We’re having it now.  Our wives are just down there and we are going to the store to pick up some beer.”

“In that case, I gladly accept.”  We walk to to store and get to know each other a bit.  Or rather, I tell them a little about myself.  I pick up some salmon for the grill and a couple packs of beer for everyone else.  “It’s a bit random,” Ginger says of my invitation, as though it had popped out of his mouth and he was just now thinking about how odd it was.

“You’ll have to pick out the beer,  because I don’t drink,” I say.  Ginger looks down at me in a mild and friendly way.  “I respect that,” he says thoughtfully.  I feel it means something more than I understand.

We walk back toward the wives along the footpath, one on each side of me, chatting.  As we approach, I feel the women looking at me, very obviously alarmed, wondering what is going on.  “This is Fabulous.  She just flew in from Zurich and she’s hungry,” says Ginger.  Not the introduction I was expecting, and I’m met with silence and wary looks.  “Oh, that sounds so awkward,” I say with my friendliest smile.  “Perhaps we should back up a bit and explain.”

I sit down on the blanket next to them and tell them how I met their husbands and how it was I got invited to their May Day BBQ.  “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, I’m very grateful for the invitation though I know it must seem strange.”  After the initial shock of sending their husbands off to get beer, and having them return with a woman from another country to feed, they are friendly and welcoming.

The wives are two pretty women in their late 20s.  Bridget, Ginger’s wife, is a massage therapist.  They are from Northern Ireland.  She has a beautiful complexion and an easy smile.  Evie is the wife of Brunet, and they are from the Isle of Man.  She is a physical therapist. Evie is friendly, but more reserved. I’m very relieved that they both warm to me as the evening goes on, and conversation never lags or gets awkward.

Their tiny lime green portable grill produces an amazing feast.  I chat with the women while the men take charge of the grill, as men everywhere seem to do, and before we know it there is steak, sausages, gammon, grilled haloumi cheese, salmon and grilled corn on the cob.  All from a grill about a foot in diameter.  It is delicious and I make up for my previous abstention and then some.

The wind picks up as we finish eating and it gets cold.  We’ve had a great dinner and good conversation.  These people are really nice and I’m pleased at my good fortune to be spending a lovely evening with locals.

We start packing up and Bridget says in her lovely, Irish sing song voice, “Would you like to join us at our house for tea, Lady Fabulous?”

Bridget and Ginger live just down at the end of the Meadows.  We are, for the next two months, practically neighbors.  It’s an old building with a winding staircase, and Bridget and Ginger live at the top.  Their flat is the opposite of my brand new ultra modern apartment.  The rooms are large with big windows opening onto picturesque views of Edinburgh rooftops and stone buildings.  The ceiling is high and ornate with thick, intricate mouldings.  This was clearly a stately, large house before it was cut up into apartments.

Bridget serves me a gorgeous China rose tea with milk and we all sit in the living room talking until the doorbell rings and Kimberly stops by unexpectedly.  Kimberly tells an animated story about finding a dead mouse on her kitchen floor earlier today and how she had to call her father, who talked her through disposing of it. She is a character, with big blue eyes and a pale Irish complexion.

Over the course of the evening, 5 more people stop by.  It gets lively and we retell the story of who I am and how I was invited to dinner for each guest.  And finally at the very end, Evie, who has been sitting next to me the whole evening, confesses.  “We saw the guys walking back with a girl. I asked Bridget who you were, and she didn’t know.  As we watched you get closer, we thought, who is that?”

It’s past midnight when we say goodnight to Bridget and Ginger.  I walk across the park with Evie and Brunet to my flat, where we say our farewells.  A random, but perfect May Day I’ll never forget.