On the road – a great Sunday trip from Basel to Zurich

Traveling abroad is out for me right now. However – from the point of view of Basel, we say that we go “abroad”, when we go to Zurich. This Sunday, Ursula invites me to come to Zurich and see the cartoons of Zen master Sengai.

Zen master Sengai in the museum Rietberg in Zurich

One of the finest museums of German speaking Switzerland is in Zurich. It is the Rietberg museum, founded in 1952 in an old villa located in a wonderful park and enlarged in 2007 by an underground building. I love to visit their special exhibitions of artworks from Asia or Africa. Right now, their special exhibition is about Sengai from Japan.

Sengai (1750-1837) was a monk and the abbot of a Zen momastery. After having retired, he produced modern looking ink sketchings full of humor and wisdom. One example: A small monk is reading the books, but does not understand what he is reading.  Sengai’s comment: “Holiness is without holiness and great wisdom is non-wisdom; he reads the sutras all day and does not understand their meaning.“ Another sketch shows a circle that can be the universe, and Sengai adds this comment: “Eat this and drink a cup of tea” poiniting to the fact that the circle could also be a cake that can be enjoyed with tea. His sketch of a frog is announcing the exhibition – the comment: If by sitting you become Buddha, then the frog would become Buddha as well. Another cartoon I very much liked was the old man pointing his finger to the moon; with a smile he hands over his wisdom to his young pupil.

Sengai Rietberg

“Dear moon, how old are you” is Sengai’s comment here. Source: Postcard bought in the Rietberg museum shop (there is a nice collection of post cards and also beautiful books and souvenirs in the shop).

On display there are more cartoons of grim looking teachers who use a whip or a stick to teach wisdom – a method not recommended by Sengai. A film shows the life of the Zen monks that get up at four in the morning to pray, sing and study. After having retired, Sengai taught his wisdom with the twinkling of an eye.

In the adjacent rooms the museum has arranged their treasures from China – bronze and pottery artwork from 3000 years ago – from the Shang and Shou dynasties and porcelain as well as sculptures from the Qin up to the Quing dynasties. I especially liked the the graciously dancing women (sleeves covering their hands) from the Tang period, the Buddhist sculptures from the 6th to the 9th century and the camel led by a Mongolian with his pointed hat.

A hearty welcome at Zurich

In the morning, I took the express train from Basel to Zurich. When arriving in Zurich after one hour, I found the train station packed with people. What attracted them was the underground renovations that had just been completed this weekend to transform the dead end Zurich train station into a through station for the major train and urban connections. The renovation was a great achievement: It had been completed on time and on budget.

While I walk through the town, a cyclist overtakes me and shouts in his broadest Zurich dialect: “Daas glaaub iich joo nüüd, by däre Hiz en Rukchsakch.” Sorry? To whom do you talk? Oh, he talks to me. He cannot believe (iich glaaub daas joo nüüd) that I carry a backbag (Rukchsakch) though it is very hot today. Hm. Yes, he is right I carry a tiny 10kg backbag instead of a handbag. I am tempted to answer, but then I refrain from that, because he would immediately understand that I am from Basel and would make more strange comments, as Basel and Zurich have a peculiar (but not seriously bad) relationship with one another ;-).

Ursula prepares a delicious light lunch with chicken wings, taboulet, and, as a dessert, baked peach slices with ham and rosemary needles. The baked peaches are a delicious surprise. I will remember them.

Yes, I had a hearty welcome in Zurich.

The river Limmat, the lake and the hiking trail

To get to the Rietberg museum, we take the Limmat boat at the railway station. The boat lies flat on the river to fit under the bridges crossing the Limmat. I stop to breathe to make sure we do not touch the bridge while sliding under it. Our boat enters the lake and drops us at Enge. Through the beautiful park we walk up to the Rietberg museum.

Coming back we take the hiking trail along the lake and the Schanzengraben that crosses the botanical garden. We are in the middle of busy Zurich, but completely off the traffic and amidst the Zurcher that enjoy their Sunday.

The best mezze in Switzerland

We complete our day in Le Cedre. This is a Libanese restaurant at Badener Strasse that serves the best mezze in Switzerland – they are as delicious as I remember them from Damaskus and Aleppo in Syria some ten years ago. The mezze are small plates with hummus (chickpea cream), smoked aubergine cream, falaffel, taboulet and secrets wrapped up in pastry. With the mezze we drink a mint tea made from fresh mint leaves. And we top it all with a libanese coffee.


Waaauuuu, this is the roaring sound that we hear while walking to the main railway station. It is shortly before eight on June 15th. Right – the world championship – Switzerland and Ecuador… now we know for sure that Switzerland has won this game. Later I understand, the Swiss team scored the decisive goal in the very last minutes. The game ended 2 – 1.

Back to Basel in the train

There is a joke in Basel: The best place in Zurich is their railway station, because from here  you can return to Basel. Well, I like to return home. But – I enjoyed this Sunday in Zurich. And I envy Zurich for the Rietberg museum, the river Limmat, the lake and the hiking trail through the city center.

On the road to Belarus – while at home

On the road –  while at home?

Traveling has been and will be canceled for me for some time due to my eye operations. Instead inviting guests to my home is an opportunity to emulate being on the road…


Guests from Belarus

There is a wonderful opportunity: The Youth Choir Festival 2014 takes place in Basel end of May. I write down my name to host two members of the Student Choir of the Belarus State Academy of Music.


Belarus? I want to know more… and I look forward to welcoming my guests

To make my guests feel welcome, I want to know more about Belarus. I read that it is a landlocked small country with about 9 million inhabitants. For centuries, the area has been tossed between Poland-Lithuania and Russia. The idea of an independent Belarussian nation emerges in the 19th century. In 1919 the Byelarussian Soviet Socialist Republic BSSR is founded. As Belarus, it declares independence in 1991. Minsk is the capital. This is a very young nation.



Source: Google Maps


As a soviet republic and also now as an independent nation, Belarus is leaning towards Russia with Lukashenko as the current president (Source: Wikipedia).


The official languages are Russian and Belarussian, with Russian being dominant, also in education. Standard Belarussian is used by some intellectuals in towns, while a dialect mixed from Russian and Belarussian is spoken in rural areas (called Trasjanka). Belarussian uses the letter “i” (instead of Russian “и”) and an additional letter ” ў”. Like in Polish “yes/ no” are “tak/ne” (“так/не”) and “welcome” is “witaju/вiтаю” which reminds me of Polish “witam” (Source wikipedia and Omniglot).


27th of May – my guests arrive

A huge two storey bus waits in front of the protestant church of Bottmingen, and about 40 students in their early twenties are waiting for their guest families. Two girls, Ira and Vera, will stay with me. “Здравствуйте, вы будете жить со мной?” (Welcome, you will live with me?), I ask. Ira and Vera shout out: “Нам повезло, вы говорите по-русски!” (We are lucky, you speak Russian). Yes, I can speak Russian, and we will become good friends in the next five days. With a Raclette, Ira and Vera recover from the long bus journey. While I introduced them to Basler Läckerli, they give me a box with Belarussian chocolate “Zefir” (“Зефир”, well, not only Switzerland has good chocolate…), a bottle of Belarussian wodka (“на бярозавых пупышках” or “on silver birch leaves”) and some towels with the typical Belarussian patterns:



The festival lasts from 28th of May until 1st of June – a packed program for the choir from Belarus 

The festival program is packed with rehearsals, workshops and performances. I attend some of the concerts to see my guests and some of the other youth choirs on stage:

  • The opening concert in the protestant town church of Liestal. Inessa conducts the clear voices of the young ladies and the darker voices of the young men – outstanding. They sing “Gostok” which is about the birth of a child and Vdol po Piterskoj which is a traditional Russian song (this youtube registration is from the Leonhard church).  They also perform two songs jointly with the Ensemble Cantalon from Switzerland. For two hours I listen to the excellent choirs from Switzerland, the Czech Republic, England and Spain. My favorite performance is the joyful “Lambret Twist” by the Swiss children choir Coro Clairière from the Ticino.
  •  On ascension day, Thursday 29th of May, I attend the service in our protestant church which is accompanied by the choir from Belarus and which is then topped with a buffet served by the guest families or “parents” (“родители”), as the students call them gently. Later in the afternoon, the choir sings in the catholic church of Mariastein – every seat is taken. I particularly enjoy the choir from Island with their song about the lover in the red forest – while singing the members of the choir walk through the audience that now becomes a forest… and, as the song ends, they are all back on stage – just in time, clapping their feet to mark the end.
  • On May 30th the choirs run lunch concerts in various churches. The Belarussians sing in Leonhardskirche, and the whole performance is available on youtube. The great applause motivates Inessa to come back and have the choir sing one extra song. In the evening,  they sing in Theodorskirche.
  • On May 31st there are choir performances on stages set up in town – e.g. on Claraplatz and Rümmelinsplatz (“Singe uff dr Stroos”). In the evening, a perfomance takes place in Martinskirche – the concert ends with the festival song. The singers only return after midnight.
  • On Sunday, June 1st, the final concert takes place in the Basel theatre – and then the team takes their bus back to Belarus. They will arrive on Tuesday.

Yes, a packed program, and I discover a world that I had never thought about before – youth and children choirs from all over the world.

28th of May until 1st of June – also time to exchange with the students

Two guides from the area around Basel guide the choir from one place to the next (meals, rehearsals, performance stages or returning home) and solve all problems such as hiring baby sitters, roping in students lost on the way or organizing Swiss cheese etc. Both guides speak Russian. I join them from time to time.

There is not much leisure time for the students. After all this is a professional undertaking. For all participants there is a cruise on the Rhine River and an evening in the Grün 80 – a park in the outskirts of Basel.

On Thursday, Misa drives my car to take Vera and Ira to Augusta Raurica (the Romans never made it as far as Belarus…). We then take them to some places in Basel such as the old city gates and an overview of the city line along the Rhine with the cathedral, the old university and the white and blue houses of the silk ribbon manufacturers that became rich in the 19th century. Our highlight on the way to Mariastein is the meadow with sheep and the newly born lamb that the farmer kindly carries to the fence to be stroken by Vera and Ira – their cameras capture the moment.

The students would love to see the mountains (the real mountains in the Alps), as Belarus is flat. Four of them ask me, whether they would make it on to Pilatus and back in two and a half hours on Thursday. Well, no, this is impossible, I have to tell them, and then the weather is cloudy anyway, as the Webcam shows. Standing in clouds on Pilatus is no fun, there is no view of the mountains. They believe me. Later I comfort them with booklets about Pilatus from the tourist information in Basel.

On the last evening after the performances, we share a tea and have a long discussion about the plans of Vera and Ira. They will have to pass exams immediately after having returned home from the festival. Jobs that allow to earn a living are rare in their profession.  Nevertheless they love to sing and travel as they have done with the choir so far. They are confident and optimistic. I will keep my fingers crossed for your exams and for your future and hope to see you again next year!

Addendum: Two impressions that I took from Belarus two years ago

Two years ago I traveled by train from Basel to Moscow and we crossed Belarus. As Belarus was part of Russia in the 19th century, they have Russian rails which are narrower than the European rails. The solution made a huge impression on me: In Brest the bottom part of our wagons with the wheels were removed and replaced by the narrower wheels required in Russia.

P1010304 P1010306P1010308P1010309

And – we were also offered berries, when arriving in Brest, an opportunity for the locals to earn some additional money.


No more memories from Belarus, as we were heading to Moscow in the night train. Perhaps I should visit this country one day? Provided my eyes will allow me to do so.