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Swiss Tempo

Liz Zhang, ’08

“So I hear the biggest giveaway that you’re a tourist is if you wear tennis shoes. It’s like... ‘You’re going running?’”

Antone shared his recently acquired wisdom, and I looked down at my sneakers. The irony was that I really had been running. Shortly after bringing my suitcase to my host Yuliya’s apartment, I had rummaged through its contents, found my running gear, and headed out the door. Though I lacked a command of the French language and any notion of the geography of Lausanne, the day was bright, the city was big and new, and my instinct was to pant down any street that struck my fancy as a shotgun approach to getting to know my surroundings. It took only a few minutes for the realization to rush through my veins: Lausanne was beautiful. Its beauty overpowered its daunting foreignness to me, and I was drawn in as though this place was home.

By the time I ran into Antone and other fellow MIT students, I had begun to savor fiercely and irrationally the lake, the streets, and the buildings of Lausanne. Being happy, meanwhile, to see a crowd of familiar American faces, I darted toward them and slowed to a walk. My running shoes, which had given me the first introduction to Lausanne, quickly switched roles to label me as a foreigner.

Throughout our trip to Lausanne, I was always clearly a silly tourist: the confused soul garnering looks of surprise and disdain as I jaywalked like a good Bostonian. When spoken to, I spat out the line “Je ne parle pas français” like it was a mantra. Two days after our arrival, I met a group of MIT and University of Lausanne students at the metro station to take a train to go hiking, and learned then, as I stood in my denim shorts, that we would be hiking over the snowy tops of the Swiss Alps. I loved Lausanne from the start, but that love couldn’t mask the fact that I was a stranger to the land.

Even sooner than I had shifted to the new time zone, however, I had begun to adjust to and appreciate bits of Switzerland’s strangeness to me. Bill, our conductor, had told us before the trip to expect differences between his and Jean-Christophe Aubert’s interpretations of the Requiem. During the first rehearsal, Jean-Christophe eased the entire room of university students into an explosion of laughter with his explanation: “Now we will sing this movement much slower. It’s what we call a Swiss tempo!”

We sang, trusting the man with the stick, and heard beautiful things.

Outside of rehearsal, I panicked at first to learn that many stores closed by 7 pm, but began to cherish the fact after a while, as it signified to me a more relaxed lifestyle with priorities stacked sanely. On another day, I became worried after hearing that the barbecue that the Swiss students had organized for the MIT students was poorly attended because of rain. Yuliya reassured me with an explanation of the friendly custom of barbecues in Lausanne. No food had been prepared and wasted, as I had feared, because barbecues are arranged so that a hot grill awaits any items brought by the people attending; everyone supplies his own food and then cooks and enjoys it with everyone else. In fact, the lake shore has so many public grills that, if you’re unsure of how to fire one up, you can probably just walk along the shore on a sunny day with a hunk of meat in your hand, and count on running into friends who have already started a barbecue.

After our first rehearsal in the Notre Dame Cathedral, I mentioned finding the bus stop to Yuliya, and she asked, “Why don’t we walk? It will take the same amount of time, and it is beautiful.” My inner American wanted to retort, “So then let’s take the bus...” But she was right, and the walk was revitalizing.

I left Switzerland wanting to brag about hiking in the Alps, exploring the Château de Chillon, or singing an extraordinary piece of music in the Notre Dame Cathedral in Lausanne. But once I returned to MIT, I hardly had returned my luggage to my room before I felt, amid the sights and stories swirling in my mind, a more urgent and powerful lesson I learned from the trip. With me was the foreign and striking presence of a new desire to live carefully and fully.

Like beautiful music, and art in general, our trip to Lausanne enriched my life. I may remain a classic MIT student, thriving off hard work and feelings of accomplishment, but I now realize that I can simultaneously forsake my traditional tunnel vision and enjoy my time and place in life along the way. I can dare to put down the problem set once in a while to enjoy the company of others, the rich culture of Boston, occasional beautiful weather, everything that exists while I attend MIT but may disappear at any moment if I ignore it.

I have become a new fan of the Swiss tempo, keeping every important task on my checklist, but all the while slowing down my life just a bit and savoring details and harmonies that would have gone unnoticed before. A ten day visit to Lausanne helped introduce me to the strange new world of a balanced, more meaningful life, and almost instantly, it felt right. It was like home to me.