(Photo by Cheryl-Anne Millsap)
On my last day in Switzerland, I walked around Zurich, visiting museums, wandering up and down cobblestoned streets window-shopping and trying to lock it all in my memory. I strolled along the river and over bridges, people-watching, stopping to look at the sailboats on the lake. I was leaving in the morning, catching a Saturday flight and I was tired, ready to get back home and to see my family. But I didn’t want to miss a moment while I was in such a beautiful place, because Zurich is very beautiful.
Finally, after an early dinner, I made my way back to the hotel. Back to one of those spaces Americans just don’t appreciate. We’re too used to modern boxes with uniform spaces. My room was the last room on the hallway on the seventh floor, the top floor of the building. The elevator stopped at the sixth floor and I had to carry my suitcase up one more flight. I thought how my friends would fuss and grumble about that little inconvenience, but, perversely, I liked the idea of being tucked away.
Inside the room a double bed was tucked against the wall under a sloping ceiling and a single, tall, narrow, arched window opened up to a splendid view of the city. It was a storybook place, like something from a movie or one of the romantic novels I’d read as a girl. I propped my suitcase in the corner and crossed over to open the window, grateful for the cool breeze that filled the room, making the curtains dance.
I could see the tower on the Uetilberg - I’d been there the day before - and all the buildings of the city spread out below me. The train station and landmark hotels were easy to identify. The lake was just out of sight. On one side was the tall spire of the cathedral. On the other a row of old attached houses curved along the street in the University district. As they do in so many European cities, many of the houses had small patios or terraces built on the narrow, flat rooftops and the owners had decorated these private spaces with potted trees and hanging plants. Where there was room, some owners had added a small table and chairs.
The view was so different from what I see when I am at home, I stood there a long time, soaking it all in before turning back into my room to pack.
Just a few minutes later laughter drew me back to the window, and the sound of knives and forks on crockery and corks being pulled from wine bottles.
When I looked this time, I noticed that all around me the skyline had come alive with movement. Men and women, college students and young couples had moved up to the roof and were silhouetted against the sunset. The day was dying but the air was suddenly filled with the musical sound of people at ease and happy; celebrating the end of the week; just as they do in my neighborhood when people sit on the patio and fire up the grill, laughing, calling out to one another or children as they play in the back yard.
As I watched, one by one, lights came on in the houses around me and windows glowed like golden gems in the deepening twilight. It was nothing special but it was, at that moment, extraordinarily beautiful.
That’s the thing about travel. You can cross oceans and continents, time zones and cultural divides, but ultimately, in the most ordinary, unexpected ways, like the universal sounds of people relaxing on a Friday night, you discover not just the ways we are different, but the simple and striking ways we are all alike.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap writes for The Spokesman-Review. Her essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at email@example.com