Making Tracks

Summer is a laid-back season for events and competitions in writing and the arts, but there are always a few tasty morsels out there in the wilds of Zürich and beyond … especially for those who like a writing retreat.

Partial image, courtesy Paul Neale

Partial image courtesy: Paul Neale

Kaufleuten has a selection of cultural events and readings planned for the coming months, including an evening with Donna Leon on 13 June www.kaufleuten.ch/event/donna-leon

Openair Literatur Festival Zürich, 11-17 July: Readings and other lively lit events, mostly in German but also with David Mitchell and Nell Zink www.literaturopenair.ch/hauptprogramm

Geneva Writers’ Group, 11 June: End-of-year panel discussion in Geneva on “What’s New in Publishing and Marketing” www.genevawritersgroup.org/Programs-Workshops

Webinar, 9 June: The Germany/Austria chapter of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), with literary agent Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, on “Creating Memorable Middle Grade Characters”  germanyaustria.scbwi.org/events/creating-memorable-middle-grade-characters-webinar-with-agent-stephanie-fretwell-hill/

Writing, music and yoga retreat, 19-26 June: Writing in a wellness context, with Deborah Moffitt, in the Italian part of Switzerland. www.awakeintheworld.com

Paris Writers’ Workshop, 26 June – 1 July: this year with workshops for novels, short stories and novellas, poetry and creative non fiction, as well as expert panels, author readings and social events. pariswritersworkshop.org

Writing retreat, 29 August to 4 September: gain writing confidence in a French Château, with teacher Clay Tennis.

Paris Writers’ Retreat, 5-9 September:  www.pariswritersretreat.com

Video interview series: As part of the Zürich-meets-London festival, art and performance collective Neue Dringlichkeit and ImpactHUB Zürich are releasing weekly video instalments of interviews with Zürich creators and entrepreneurs around entrepreneurial futurism, including the future of work and the creative economy. Watch this space: how-dare-you.org

The Voyage Out: Mr. Pinocchio

Susan Platt

A stone’s throw away from Zürich’s traffic nexus Bellevue, at a safe distance from Bahnhofstrasse’s extravagant and standardised luxury retail windows, sits one of the city’s best-kept, playful secrets. Behind glass windows, an eclectic selection of books, toys and vintage calendars with motifs from the 1950s vie for attention, giving off just the slightest hint of the million wonders that await inside.

Mr Pinocchio by Lyle Deschant

Mr. Pinocchio signage, image courtesy Lyle Deschant, license CC BY

Italian born and bred, but having moved to Zürich for love in her twenties, Antonella Ghelardi Keiser had a passion for stories and storytelling that sparked the idea of opening a small bookshop to be able to provide reading material in her mother tongue for her own two children. When a small location in a side street off Rennweg became available, Antonella jumped at the opportunity and opened Zürich’s then-first multilingual children’s bookshop in 2001, with a modest selection of classic children’s books in Italian, English, German and French. Honouring her roots, she named it after one of the world’s most beloved characters in children’s literature who had sprung from the pen of an Italian author: Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio.

Antonella

Image courtesy: Antonella Ghelardi Keiser

The lovingly selected choice of books and toys soon caught the attention of Zürich’s international community, and Mr. Pinocchio became a popular hotspot for both parents and young readers of all ages and nationalities. Four years into its existence, the shop had outgrown its premises and moved into better-located grounds on Oberdorfstrasse, where it still resides today.

From the get-go, the store has been powered exclusively by a small group of women, among whom is Antonella’s daughter Giulietta—when she is not tied up in her studies at Zürich University. “It is a real family affair,” Antonella laughs, and her eyes sparkle with joy whenever she talks about her ‘libreria’ and the small team that keeps it going.

Antonella’s zest for life as well as her knack for nostalgic items have been infused into the small space, and are almost tangible. More often than not, those who enter Mr. Pinocchio’s magical realm find themselves hopelessly lost in childhood memories, discovering and re-discovering books and toys from their own past, while on the hunt for the perfect gift for their youngster or a god-child.

Those looking for the latest commercial toy craze will not be successful here. Everything on the shelves has been handpicked and acquired in small quantities by Antonella, on her frequent travels throughout Europe.

AliceInWonderlandPopUp

Image courtesy: Susan Platt

Each item here tells a story, tickles the brain or takes you on a trip down memory lane. The paper pop-up books, of which there is a whole array on Mr. Pinocchio’s shelves, attract collectors from all over Europe and have been a staple product of the business for over 15 years. Today, they are flanked by children’s classics and picture books in English, Italian, Spanish, French, German and even Russian and Croatian.

Alongside the books, masterfully crafted hand puppets, wooden model sets, colourful instruments and room decorations jostle for attention with building- and experimental kits, gruesome fake teeth and whoopee cushions—all of these comprising the many quirky and ever-growing categories of treasures.

When asked how the addition of these items came about, Antonella simply smiles and quotes Italian writer and educator Gianni Rodari:

“Vale la pena che un bambino impari piangendo quello che può imparare ridendo?”

“Is it worth it for a child to learn while crying, when they could learn while laughing?”

*

www.mr-pinocchio.ch

Notes from the Unexpected: Piercing and tattoos à la Rue de Framboise

Images and text by D.B. Miller

Soft lighting, the strains of Celine Dion and a plush couch: all signs point to cake and coffee with a favorite aunt. But once the eyes adjust to the rings, skulls and list of body parts considered fair game, it starts to make sense. This is a full-service piercing and tattoo studio, and it unquestionably belongs to Beatrice.

brass door-knocker

She still remembers the moment, flicking through an edgy fashion magazine, when she saw body piercing, for real. The kind that caught her breath, touching something deep and ancient, and lifted her out of Thurgau, to the shores of Brighton and into the arms of the few who could pass down the craft—because that’s just how it works. After the hands-on English education, came the return home, piercing after piercing and, in 1997, the opening of the first Rue de Framboise.

If the name does not evoke pricks and pokes behind closed doors, that was the point. Beatrice says, “I just wanted it to sound more artistic, more feminine, more French, even if an English name would have been trendier, because we’re in Switzerland.” Yet for all of the soft touches, body piercing and tattooing were considered back-alley trades. Nearly two decades on, today’s studios are flanked by tapas bars and sneaker shops. 

NFTU Rue de Framboise - Beatrice 3 by DB Miller

“Many more places do this now,” she explains, “so it almost looks like mass production, but that’s a different mentality. Sometimes people come in and want what they want, right now, for cheap. We can’t work that way because we depend a lot on word of mouth. If we feel something isn’t a good idea, for whatever reason, we say so. The other thing is, we don’t really want our work to look mass produced. I mean, all this …”

With one sweep of her elaborately inked arm, Beatrice encompasses the lot of studs, spikes and barbells, the tattoo operations upstairs and the winged skeleton in the window.

“All this still needs to be a little Rock ‘n’ Roll, right?”

*

Niculin, one of the studio’s resident tattooists, has a bit of downtime before his next appointment. A fine arts graduate who long ago turned from oil paints to ink, he is working out the design for a new tattoo. 

Niculin sits at desk

“Tattooing has existed in every culture in the history of man,” he starts, eyes fixed on the fierce blueprint. “I think the role of tattooing in society today is the shaman. What did you need when you went to the shaman, priestess or guru? You went for healing, change, to express yourself or make something part of you that was missing.”

He pauses mid-stroke, lost in thought or distracted by the thrashing guitar one room over. Matt, another tattooist, has been cranking Earthless while hunched over a man’s nipple. The customer mustered up a pinched smile when Matt invited me in to say hello. 

Niculin goes back to his sketch. After a tangent involving Maori warriors and his library of cultural metaphors, he says, “Tattoos are more socially acceptable now, even fashionable. Still, it’s our duty to warn people that, yeah, people will formulate opinions about you based on your tattoos. Even five years ago, if someone wanted a finger tattoo, we’d call it a ‘job stopper.’”

He stops to study his own hands, a swirl of myths and legends. “People think they can walk into any studio and get the same thing, but that’s not the way tattooing works. There are apprenticeships that last two to five years, and you’re done when you’re good enough.”

NFTU Rue de Framboise - Window by DB Miller

Aware of the clock, he surges ahead. “Think of the Old Italian Masters. They had to make a hammer by smelting iron, banging two pieces of metal together until one gave, and then using the softer one—and human effort—to finish the hammer. People don’t know how to grind their own pigments anymore, solder their own needles or wrap their own coils. This idea of being able to make the tools to make the tools, of self-sacrifice and sheer human effort: that’s what makes a true master. The relationship between master and apprentice keeps the principles alive. It’s a trade, which is why we don’t look at ourselves as artists, just ‘tattooers’ …”

The doorbell rings, time’s up. I wind downstairs to the parlor and peek into the empty piercing room, which could be a doctor’s office but for the large framed photograph. It is hard to miss: a young girl, from somewhere far away, pierced, maybe just. There is no mustered smile for the camera, just the hard, quiet truth of ritual—and the labor behind it.

Three studios, a reputation to uphold and a brain logged with the tales of all those who have come to physically mark a passage, release, second chance or whim: it is no wonder Beatrice admits to feeling tired, at least until we step outside for a picture.

As she gamely poses, feet flat on the cobblestone, I ask what makes her most proud.

“My son,” she fires back, eyes alight, as if the only possible answer is the one that roots her to flesh.

*

www.ruedeframboise.ch Spitalgasse 6, 8001 Zürich

Also in Bülach and Wallisellen

Notes from the Unexpected: Les Millionnaires

Images and text by D.B. Miller

On a prim cobblestone lane that makes nearby Bahnhofstrasse look like a strip mall, there is a showroom. It stands out a bit, what with the kaleidoscopic marble arches and golden sweep of letters announcing, in case there was any doubt, that those who enter have arrived. Inside, however, the hush and impeccable glass cases suggest a typical Old Town affair—for about a second.

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 3 BW

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2Les Millionnaires. This is the jeweler steeped in the tradition of turning Zürich’s discreet aesthetic on its head, yet appealing to folks who, if held upside down, might start raining coins—to adapt an image furnished by co-founder Urs. But long before the acclaim, international expansion or foray into watchmaking, Les Millionnaires boasted just five rings and an ironic name. That was over 30 years ago, when Urs, designer Francine and goldsmith Ernst were sure of only one thing: they had no idea what they were doing.

“We’re a little crazy, all three of us,” says Francine, not without a hint of pride, while trying to recount exactly how jewelry inspired by fairytales, the animal kingdom and the dark sparks of their imagination took them this far.

Les M by DB Miller

The first three Millionnaires: Ernst, Francine and Urs

“My designs can’t always be sold,” she goes on, happy enough to defer to the experts, in particular Ernst. With his magic hands and years of experience, he is better placed to work out which ideas can be painstakingly brought to life for a limited series, one-off, or not at all. I think of the startling sculpture with the snail perched on an olive-sized stone—around here, called “a ring”—and have to wonder what never made it past the cast. Are there limits as to what can and can’t be done?

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1 BW“No,” she says, right before Ernst quips, “Yes.” And then they laugh in the way people who have spent hundreds of thousands of hours working together, might.

*

In the atelier across the river, five craftsmen hunch over precious metal. They hammer and file, one thumbing through a plastic tub of diamonds, just as other Old Town jewelers once did before striking out on their own. In this métier, timeworn techniques die hard, even if they are now accompanied by tinny pop music and the stops and screeches of machinery.

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 2 BW

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 1Just off the basement workshop lined with tarnished rods and helmets, Urs weaves past the floor-to-ceiling shelves. They overflow with a jumble of twine, scraps and crates stuffed with the makings of Les Millionnaires’ offbeat displays. Elsewhere: dusty cases of champagne, swaths of iridescent velvet and wooden gift boxes, each carved by hand.

“Everything we’ve ever done,” says Urs, “comes from the gut.” 

We are a long way from the sleek and sterile—from creativity that can be deconstructed or cloned in bulk. Every glittering beetle, seahorse and gargoyle is birthed in this bunker. Every dream and walk in the woods lives in metal and stone. A geometrically imprecise shape is sometimes the most perfect, and a patch of shadow can split into a thousand tiny stars.

“The eye,” says Ernst, “tends to linger on what it can’t work out.”

*

www.lesmillionnaires.ch, Storchengasse 13, 8001 Zürich

NFTU - Les Millionnaires 4

DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Eulogy for Orell Füssli The Bookshop

by Susan Platt

My Dear Old Friend,

it was with great sadness that I recently learned about your fate—from Switzerland’s biggest tabloid, of all places. And although it does not come as a complete surprise to those who have been close to you in recent years—who saw the writing on the wall before and after changes in ownership and circumstances that made it increasingly difficult to thrive under the corporate thumb—the news that you are indeed being shut down this coming spring, while in still excellent health, made no sense, and still came as a shock.

OFTB Xmas

You and I, we go back some 23 years, my dear. While this may be but a trifle in your lifespan as a bookshop at house zur Werdmühle, since your inception by Kurt Stäheli & Co. in the early 1930s, it means you’ve been along for the ride for more than half of my life. And that, to me, is quite a feat.

I remember walking through your doors in 1992, with a rather long, Xeroxed (yes, Xeroxed) list of choices for required reading material, handed out by the University of Zürich, where I had just started to study English literature. Several sheets of paper listed essential and optional reading material, including the King James version of the Bible (yep), Beowulf (of course), and a myriad of choices of drama, poetry, prose and fiction spanning five centuries.

Needless to say, I felt a slight pang of overwhelm knowing full well that my picks would have a great impact on my further academic path. But how was I supposed to know which books to choose, when I hadn’t read them yet?

Conundrum alert!

Enter your booksellers: the beating heart and breathing soul that is at the very core of you, many of whom had been with you for decades and some of whom I have had the privilege to get to know over the years.

10505617_656115401142404_3089419575731868589_n-1 10364042_655690444518233_476183408151460026_n 10583999_673576786062932_6339658163721532732_n

Ah, yes, your booksellers. A passionate lot, each and every one of them. A special breed now as they were then, taking pride in guiding those who have entered their domain, glowing with a smug joy at a satisfied customer leaving the store with a copy of their favourite book or a book by a beloved author when they made a successful recommendation. It is they who made you what you are today, my dear bookshop, because—let’s face it—your new parents, the Orell Füssli AG, never really knew what to make of you over the last dozen years or so since they acquired you in 1998.

You were their red-headed stepchild, in their eyes merely the English branch of a German bookstore chain, sticking out like a sore thumb with your talent of catering both to the English expat community in the greater Zürich area as well as the Swiss readership with your cunning mix of extraordinary in-house events providing local as well as renowned international authors and small businesses with a platform to promote their work, your knack for knowing how to truly make your customers happy by including English comfort food section (Marmite! Vegemite! Cheerios!), and bringing the joy of reading to people of all ages and walks of life.

But you do not merely sell books.

IMG_2120

You are a nexus of human connection. And a home away from home for so many. A place to meet, to sit and to chat on your red leather sofas.

You celebrate the English language, its multi-coloured culture and basically life in general.

Every. Single. Day.

And it works.

In an increasingly dire economic climate, in times where online giants were starting to take over the bulk of the book sales and the naysayers predicted the imminent end of the book as nigh, you managed to consistently make a healthy profit over the last ten years*.

Mindbogglingly, at a location on Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich—one of the world’s most expensive shopping miles.

And, even more surprisingly, you managed to pull this all off without the support of a proper web- or social media presence.

Because, sadly, the fact that you always have been—and always will be—neither a department, nor a branch of a chain, but your own persona (or brand if you will) with your own loyal (!) tribe, went largely ignored by your parent company who repeatedly smothered any advances by your management to bring you into the 21st century with a decent online presence.

Yes, you are unique. One of a kind. And successful. So much so, that other bookshops such as German KulturKaufhaus Dussman came to visit you for inspiration of their new books section of their store in Berlin.

But none of this seems to matter to the new powers-that-be since the latest merger with Thalia a little over two years ago.

While your old adoptive parents may have never fully understood you, they at least allowed you to continue based on the fact that you were somehow, miraculously, thriving.

But your new guardians, the Orell Füssli Thalia AG, have decided that neither your successful past nor present mean anything and—without even as much as conferring with the people who have effectively guided you for more than a decade—determined you had no future, and sold your rent contract at a bargain price for the sake of a quick buck.

So it goes.

I accept that the dice have been cast and your fate has been sealed.

However, I take comfort from the fact that I understand that you will not go gentle into that good night.

Knowing you and your quirky bookseller bunch, the next Halloween, the inherent All Hallows Read, the twinkly Xmas lights and Santa’s visit to the children on the monthly Saturday morning story hour and all of your other spunky shindigs before you will have to close your doors in the spring of 2016, will be extra special.

Santa OFTB

Santa reads to the children

I look back fondly and in deep gratitude to all the joy that you have brought into my life, moments of laughter and great pleasure at your happenings that will be forever etched into my memory:

Riding high with David Sedaris on Panta Rhei on the lake of Zürich, journeying along with Michael Cunningham at Sternwarte Zürich, mesmerized by Nicolas Sparks in the Puppentheater Stadelhofen, fascinated by our very own Alain de Botton at the Bookshop and many more … but, to me, most memorably, the epic two-hour roller-coaster ride with Tad Williams in your basement in 2011.

OFTB Tad Williams 2013

Tad Williams, 2011

Oh, how I will miss you and your shenanigans.

Case in point: The Night Circus, the book club meetings, the women’s night, the roaring twenties, the James Bond night, the Harry Potter midnight openings, or the Long Night of the Books … among many, many more.

OFTB 20ies

Roaring Twenties

As both the local media and our city’s culture department barely acknowledged the fact that you will be gone soon, shrugging their indifferent shoulders at the most recent loss of a colourful dot that will turn Bahnhofstrasse into a another grey blur of global brand monotony, I trust that my—and hopefully other people’s—expression of appreciation will help preserve your memory.

‘Tis but a tiny blog note, considering the opposition silence, but it is enough to keep the general show of disinterest from being unanimous.

Qui tacet, consentit.

I hope others will join me by wishing you and yours a safe journey to the next chapters in your lives. #GoodbyeOFTB

Good night, and good luck.

Susan

Susan Platt is a professional spunk, reluctant blogger and occasional hashtag abuser @swissbizchick.

Photos courtesy OFTB Facebook page.

*citing Orell Füssli The Bookshop’s Managing Director Sabine Haarmann

OFTB Night Circus 2011

Night Circus 2011

Notes from the Unexpected: Zürich’s one and only lake speaks up

by D.B. Miller

On certain days, it’s uncanny: the turquoise shallows, cobalt drop and unrelenting shimmer for as far as the neck can crane. The Mediterranean, you could swear it—with a squint and some imagination, maybe even a cove around St. Tropez. Toss in a few gulls and those Boesch motorboats that cost as much as a watch, and you’re living the dream.

Zurisee14

Except the dream is right here, in a landlocked country, fertilizing the shores and giving the lucky people who live on them something to look at. On this, the locals and transient folk agree: Zürisee is the city’s crowning asset. Once an international trade route, today a playground, but still: 88 square kilometers of alpine aqua pura are reason enough to be proud, if not a bit punchy.

Because some have the nerve to call it small—but tell that to the gent who couldn’t quite get to shore on a morning swim. While it was traumatic for that poor girl, wading into his corpse at the Badi, he had to go! When you’re classified as potable, you have a reputation to uphold.

And is “banana-shaped” really the best the guide books can do? Show me the banana that can hike up rents, wow UNESCO and host spaghetti-themed cruises without irony. Show me any fruit that can turn from green to purple to steel in an hour, creeping to the edges like silence or a thousand little blades.

Mix it up, keep them guessing, show them who’s boss. Kick up the surf and blame the boats. Turn up the temp and call out the fleas. For every record-breaking heatwave, there’s ice in living memory. For every preening swan, a coot squeaks like bicycle brakes and never gets the bread. The banks that now teem with people once swarmed with disease. Come in, the water’s fine, but the parent who loses sight of a child for one second ages five years.

Postcards lie, but nature doesn’t. You just keep moving—east to west, glacier to river, liquid to cloud, surface to floor. You’re more than a pretty picture: you’re as deep as the darkness 136 meters down. So the next time your eye skips over the void to gaze at the twinkling hills, remember: lights seem brighter when they’re mirrored in black.

*

DB Miller is a writer of short stories and essays, along with an occasional Tweet @DBMillerWriter

Gallery of Zürisee images from @libby_ol‘s Instagram.

Sign up for The Woolf mailing list.