Day 1 in Europe | The Art of Hanging Out in Lucerne, Switzerland
The first days of spring are a cause for celebration in any country and sometimes the best celebration is simply going out into the sun and hanging out. I have always loved the café culture in Europe ever since living abroad as a student and I did my own celebration when the café culture came to the U.S.
This culture of hanging out and epic people-watching did not disappoint in Lucerne, a medium-large city in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, on the Saturday before Easter, when the sun was breaking through the clouds and warming the chilly mountain air just as people were emerging into the public streets.
“Life is meant to be lived on the streets” is a theme that we will visit frequently in this series. It means that people live so much of their lives in the public space: meeting friends and family, shopping, using public transit, playing, walking and more walking. Yes, houses are smaller and millions of Europeans live in dense apartment blocks at the cities’ edges or in dense apartment blocks in city centers which are often more expensive and more elegant. But somehow it just works.
The city centers are more noisy and crowded. You might get a huge whiff of bus exhaust when you least expect it or be jostled by a pickpocket. If you are not used to walking, your feet will feel like they want to fall off. And yet… the draw of city life in European cities with its diversity of people, art, excitement, and architecture all in a historical setting that can go back for centuries. It is a sense of real, true community, not just a bunch of people who are looking for stuff to buy at the mall.
Pushing through the dense crowds on Lucerne’s iconic 14th Century Chapel Bridge, we found a public market with vendors selling impossibly fresh bread, every kind of cheese, olives, spices, flowers, fruits and vegetables. People were getting their groceries in at least three languages. I was busy swooning over a crusty piece of bread when I saw that the rest of my party was struggling to finish a transaction from a vendor selling salamis, chorizos and other cold cuts of meat.
“Just give me your credit card,” he said with a smirk. Uh oh. He had given them a slice of salami to taste and it was so good that they decided to buy some for our bread. With the price at 0.75 Swiss Francs for 100 grams he flashed a price at our group, spoken in rapid German and contradicted us over how he got to that number.
A fellow vendor came over to help translate but he waved him away. With the credit card machine in his left hand, he dangled the package of meat and a receipt in the other hand. Finally, we said no thanks and walked away.
What had happened? The meat vendor “mistakenly” entered the price per 100 grams at 7.5 francs and not 0.75 francs. Had he swiped the credit card, we would have paid $120 for a few slices of salami that could fit in one hand. Vigilance. We doubted that the meat vendor was bothered about losing a sale but we were annoyed as much as about not eating it as we were about getting screwed by a crook on our first day in this beautiful Swiss city.
In the afternoon, the clouds and fog melted away and the spring sun flooded warmth on hundreds of people occupying every corner of Lucerne’s center. Kids, teenagers, families, retirees, and tourists found seats in cafes, in parks, on benches and grass, on the steps leading down to the lake, on docks. They drank coffee, beer or wine and ate pizzas, salads, ice cream, bread, salamis, cheese, fruit.
Or else, people walked and sat with their friends and family and just hung out. For what purpose? How long? Who cares? The point of living you life in the public space is not necessarily to be consuming things but rather to be with friends. Visit the grandparents with your kids. Have a first date. Or a second. What social scientists might refer to as the importance of maintaining social relationships and building social networks, here it is called “living”.
For the first time, however, we are seeing Europe in the Time of the Smart Phone. Much to our surprise, Europeans are just as susceptible as Americans when it comes to burying their faces into their iPhones and Androids, scrolling through social media, email, texts, Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram. Just like Americans, Europeans are sucked in by the habit-forming genius of the handheld device. Oblivious to the history, beauty, community and excitement all around them, they scroll through that tiny screen looking for something that they are not going to find.
Between Charla’s dead phone battery and my data plan that can’t seem to work in Europe, we had to put our phones away. It was refreshing. We are dreading what will happen when we get back home to the U.S. and fire up our phones again, back in our regular daily life.