By Shreya Sen Handley
To the strains of the church organ playing quietly on a sun-drenched late afternoon, splashes of colour coalesce on the mosaicked floor; they dart, spin and fuse into a shimmering pool. Then they fling themselves apart to become solitary spots again. Preparing for sundown, the sun dips behind the quintet of stained glass windows before which I sit entranced, and the dance of the techni-coloured sunbeams take on a new urgency. Inside the darkening church, Zurich’s famous Fraumünster, I am as rapt in this waltz of the elements as I am mesmerised by the magnificence of the windows I have wandered in to see. Panes of such breathtaking beauty created by the artist Marc Chagall in the Seventies, that it draws thousands to this 9th century Swiss church annually. Today its dazzling dance with the sun, and the rare semi-deserted state of the church, lured me in, even though I hadn’t come to see it. I hadn’t even known it was here – these windows, that church, or this cobbled street. Or that I would find such peace in it. I hadn’t planned any of it!
In fact, I hadn’t even planned on being in Zurich. After four years of putting one foot in front of the other to get from one day to the next, of meticulously planning and executing survival strategies to keep, not just going, but alive, all I wanted was to be. I had been in a violent marriage for too long. One that had left me battered, and bewildered. To make matters worse, I had been serving out this time in a strange city far from the one I called home. The Northern English city of Sheffield and Kolkata, my hometown, were 5000 miles and much else apart. Yet, ironically, the tonic I required was the same anonymity; of a city that didn’t know me, to lose myself in, and shed the skin I was about to outgrow. And to learn quickly, like only a new place will allow, to revel then in the weightlessness of being without it.
But lucre-loving, sharp-suited Zurich, the jewel, or indeed bank vault, of Switzerland, wasn’t the sort of place people go to for spiritual healing, was it? Doesn’t enlightenment blossom where souls, rather than bank balances, grow? Did Buddha find any greenbacks under the Bodhgaya tree? No, he found Nirvana. And yet, much has been mended amidst the mountains and lakes of Switzerland. From Heidi’s wheelchair-bound friend finding her feet, to the dawning awareness of Thomas Mann’s magical mountain-dwellers, to the well-heeled Victorian hordes who convalesced from consumption, catatonia, and conjunctivitis in Swiss (and swish) sanatoriums, history is studded with stories of the Alps conferring a kind of peace. So, when circumstance and the generosity of a friend put me in this unexpected place that late summer from thirteen years ago, I partook of this peace too – a piece of chocolate to be precise. And cheese. And a great big wedge of good cheer.
I started walking that first, crisply sunny morning, without plan, purpose or destination in mind. And I found, on top of the delicious by-products of cows with which I’d begun my day (soft cheese on fresh bread with a steaming mug of hot chocolate), cows themselves. Cows by the dairy truck load. Cows of an unusual persuasion. Not the divine bovines or gau-matas of Hindutva, but so much better somehow and then some.
Ambling past the deep blue of Lake Zurich, where families read, ate, and basked in the sun and couples canoodled on brightly bobbing boats, I came upon a flamboyant bottleneck of people and stalls. Hagglers and happy browsers had descended on a flea market full of antique wares, where the roads narrowed and became cobbled. But I pushed ahead to older things still. Just beyond it loomed Lindenhof or Old Zurich Town, a self-contained world of elegant mansions, grand münsters and quaint yet fashionable shops and restaurants. I couldn’t wait to nose around, discover its sophisticated delights, yet round the corner and up a hill, and my nose had led me straight to a cow. Muddy, musty, hefty cows with consternation in their eyes I had encountered plenty before, both in England and in India. But a vivid orange, gold and eggshell blue cow? A life-sized, hand-painted, pipe smoking cow! I did a double take. It really was gripping an oversized pipe in its shiny, oversized teeth. I looked around me for a tobacconist’s to explain its presence. Or a chocolatier or cheese monger’s at least? But in the absence of any, it had to be a charming anomaly. I chuckled and walked on, feeling decidedly lighter. Like one of the sandbags holding me down had shifted.
Three houses down, while admiring their well-maintained facades, I was brought up short again. I had spotted another cow. A pretty pink one wearing a bonnet, looking down from one of the many wrought iron balconies that adorn Zurich apartments, especially in this old quarter. A large cow was an improbable thing to have on a tiny verandah but there it was. As I tittered at the tight fit and even more ludicrous headdress, further weight lifted off my heart.
But taking the next turn gave me another turn. I was looking into the eyes, no, eye, of a pirate cow with a sequined eye-patch and the jolliest red bandana. As I reached out and touched the first one I’d dared to, my fingers left prints on its now patently obvious fibreglass body, but not, I hoped, for posterity. And this time there really was a lovely little chocolatier’s nestling behind it, with every conceivable cocoa-infused confection on its shelves. It twinkled with fairy lights and smelt of heaven. At the behest of the bubbly lady behind the counter, I sampled and I swigged. I then took my purchases to a tiny table outside, and scoffed half of everything I’d bought to the strains of a most accomplished roadside orchestra. My husband might have sneered, “cow!”, yet all of a sudden it had the ring of a compliment, and another wound had scabbed over.
I meandered through more winding streets then, full of stalls selling fresh produce, a jaunty parade that seemed to spring from nowhere, and a charcuterie from which billowed mouth-wateringly meaty smoke. Smiling back at the young man who’d twinkled at me from behind its bar, I resolved to return for lunch the next day. Admiration felt lovely after so long, but I was now on a mission more important than snagging a man. I had cows to spot. And this time I wanted to understand them, too; what were these bovine beauties about? Who made them and why were they here?
The day had begun to shorten, and a slight wind picked up as I made my way down a series of stone steps to the Fraumünster on Münsterhof. And lo and behold, another classy, glassy duo came into sight just then. These were perfectly turned out in pastels, as if in their Sunday best, with their placid snouts pointing churchwards, and beside them for the first time, a placard! These über cool cows fashioned from fibreglass and the Swiss fervour for gilding lilies were, I learned, the work of the sculptor Pascal Knapp, commissioned by their tourism board to add points of interest to the already beguiling Aldstadt. Yet they had done so much more! As the lowering sun lit up the gorgeous Chagall windows of the Fraumunster, I was drawn into its stately stone interiors, now dappled with dancing light. Settling into a pew, I thought about the unexpected delights of my unplanned holiday. With every en-cow-nter, I had lost something. The dread that had lived with me for so many years. The shackles that had bound me for as many. But with every sighting, I had gained something, too. The pounds from all the chocolate and cheese wolfed in the vicinity of these cows of course, but also the giggles, the wonder at their very existence, and the confidence that I had all the joie de vivre required to see myself through a nasty divorce and out the other side. Every utterly butterly divinely bovine friend I’d made had not only sent me into peals of laughter (which drew human smiles in return) but a little bit closer to tranquillity, and battle-readiness.
Because if you do not seek you’ll most likely find. I did.
A former television producer for multinational channels, Shreya Sen-Handley is a columnist and illustrator for the British and Indian media. She also teaches creative writing for a range of organisations including the Universities of Cambridge and Nottingham. Her short fiction has been published on three continents, with her first collection of short stories due out next year. Shreya’s Harper Collins India book, Memoirs of My Body is out now.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.