The D&O Diary’s European itinerary continued this week in Zürich, Switzerland, where I travelled for meetings and to attend the inaugural continental European educational event of the Professional Liability Underwriting Society (PLUS). Zürich is a picturesque city in a beautiful setting, but the grey skies and cool temperatures while I was there came as something of a shock after the sunny warmth of Portugal. Between the weather and the meetings, I did not see as much of the city as I would have liked, but I did have a good albeit brief introduction.
Zürich is Switzerland’s largest city, with about 350,000 residents and a metropolitan population of about 1.83 million. The city is frequently identified as the wealthiest city in Europe – the city’s affluence is in fact readily apparent and has certain practical consequences for the casual visitor.
The PLUS event was held in a modern business hotel in a high rise district outside the central city. However, I spent my first two days in the city in the Altstadt (Old Town), the historic city center, which is an extended area of narrow, cobblestone streets and well-preserved older buildings along both banks of the Limmat River, which flows into the city from the northern end of Lake Zürich.
The river’s right (or east) bank has many hotels and restaurants. The dominant thoroughfare on the left (or west) bank is Bahnhofstrasse, which runs northward parallel to the river from the lakeshore to the main train station and also traverses the rarified world of high finance and luxury retail. Sleek black sedans glide up to the discrete front doors of the numerous private banks along the street; the world’s wealthy warm their hands over their money inside the banks, and then, before heading back to Asia, Africa or the Middle East, they drop some pocket change at the adjacent swish shops, such as Cartier and Tiffany.
One consequence of the wealth and of the fact that the city is the center of the Swiss financial services industry is that Zurich is expensive. The fare for my brief cab ride from the airport to my hotel was 60 Swiss francs with tip (a little bit more than $60 dollars). I don’t think I have ever had to pay the equivalent of $9.50 for a beer before, except perhaps at a live sporting event. It quickly became apparent that the 300 Swiss Francs I had brought with me were going prove woefully inadequate.
Just about every time I travel overseas, somewhere along the way I have a “Dude, I’m from Cleveland” moment. On this latest trip, the moment occurred when I went into a retail bank branch to exchange Euros for some more Swiss francs, so that I would have enough walking around money. After having established that the teller spoke English “a lee-tell beet,” I explained the transaction I had in mind. The teller asked me, “Do you have an account with this bank?” to which the only response I could think of was “Dude, I am from Cleveland. Do I look like I have a Swiss bank account?” For failing to have established a Swiss bank account, I paid a five franc fee for the currency exchange transaction.
I arrived in Zürich with ambitious plans to take a boat ride on the lake and to take a train up into the mountains. Unfortunately, the weather steadily deteriorated throughout my stay. The grey skies first turned foggy, then rainy, and by the time I left town the air temperatures were only in the upper 30s. The boat ride and mountain visit were out.
Instead, I explored the city’s old town and walked for miles along the riverside and lakeside quays. Zurich is beautiful and the old town has been well-preserved. But the city itself lacks any dramatic local landmarks (other than the lake and the mountains of course, which blanketed in fog don’t make much of a statement); there are no castles, ancient ruins or cathedrals, and, other than their distinctive clock towers, the city’s various historic churches are relatively modest affairs. After several hours of striding around and window shopping at the exclusive shops, I began to think that Zurich might a little bit of a dull place.
At loose ends as evening approached, I innocently wandered into an old-fashioned beer hall located on the east riverbank quay, and discovered something of a parallel universe that exists alongside Zurich’s orderly upscale propriety. The establishment is called Bierhalle Wolf, which consists of a large wood-paneled dining room filled with long tables and benches. In the late afternoon and early evening, a trio of paunchy, middle-aged men dressed in lederhosen and playing a tuba, a guitar and an accordion played songs ranging from traditional Oompa music to Abba. A crowd of unusually uninhibited people sang along or danced in the aisles, clapping their hands or waiving their napkins over their heads.
During their breaks, the band members wandered around the hall chatting with people in the crowd, including me. In their next set after the break, the band leader paused to say (in English) that their next song was dedicated to their new friend Kevin, from Cleveland. For some reason, they played ‘Achy Breaky Heart,” which brought the crowd into the aisles, dancing and whistling appreciatively. What a place. The schnitzel was pretty good too, or at least appropriately matched to the venue and the beer. I left persuaded that Zurich is not a dull place after all.
The PLUS event itself was a quite success. It was a pleasure to meet many industry colleagues from around Europe. The sessions were excellent. I congratulate the local committee that organized the event, and I also congratulate PLUS leadership for its initiative in extending the organization’s education opportunities to continental Europe. I will say it was very nice to learn that there are so many D&O Diary readers in Europe. I hope that our European colleagues can look forward to many more events like this one in the years to come. Special thanks to the event committee for inviting me to be a part of this inaugural event.
More Pictures of Zurich: