Rio to Zurich

Rio to ZurichAs the airplane prepared for landing, I strained to make out the landscape below through the white blur of a mid-winter snowstorm. The staggered flight from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Zurich, Switzerland (through São Paulo and Frankfurt) had taken nearly 24 hours; I was groggy with lack of sleep and the strange, untethered feeling that comes from taking big leaps across time zones.

The fog and swirl outside my window matched my own nebulousness. I’d never been to Zurich, never read a book about it. I had no Swiss friends. The vague outlines distinguished through the small, round window were all the information I had about this place that would be my new home. With no solid details on which to hang my expectations, Zurich seemed make-believe, a life-sized snow globe into which I was landing with two large suitcases and my laptop.

The plane taxied to a stop. The disembodied voice overhead reminded passengers to gather their things, “aware that contents in the overhead compartments might have shifted during the flight.” Through my gritty-eyed exhaustion, I felt the surge of adrenaline. I recognized this feeling, the alertness that comes with starting a new life, charting new terrain. It was familiar, reassuring — an idiosyncrasy of mine, this comfort with newness that was born of having moved so often in my forty years that the state of transition itself felt a little like home.

I’d made my last move just over four years ago, leaving the United States, where I’d covered immigration for the Associated Press from San Francisco, for Brazil and my dream job: Rio de Janeiro correspondent. Brazil was home, in so far as I had a home. I had been away for more than two decades, but it was where I was born, where people looked like me and spoke the language I shared with my family. It was there my parents had settled after many years abroad, and where my siblings were raising their brood of five curly-headed kids.

Those were not easy years; Rio brooks no indifference. The city I found was habitually amazing, frequently infuriating, and often left me feeling more foreign than ever. But even as it goaded me to fury with its bureaucracy, its faulty sewage pipes, its jarring inequalities, it reclaimed me.

The more I had struggled with the place, the deeper the tendrils of belonging had worked their way in. Even the indignation over inefficiency, corruption or worse that sent me raging over the morning paper was born of a growing sense of ownership. I knew Rio’s stories, its people, its streets. For the first time in my adult life, I lived in the country of my citizenship, and for the first time, I cast votes for mayor, for president, feeling the weight and the satisfaction of being part of a place, responsible for it.

This change became clear when, three-quarters of the way through writing Dancing with the Devil in the City of God, I realized I had inadvertently switched from referring to Cariocas as “them” to speaking about “us.” Simples assim, just like that, it happened: I was home.

When my partner, an American academic on a visiting professorship, got the email offering him a research gig in Zurich, we were sitting in our Rio living room. The wall-to-wall windows were open to the lush green hill outside, and white sailboats bobbed on the bay that opened to the left. The bald dome of the Sugarloaf looked down over it all.

Neither one of us had planned a move to Europe. We had no connections there, no family. Neither one of us could speak German, much less Züridüütsch, the local Swiss German dialect. There was no place that seemed as removed from Brazil in any terms we could think of: culture, weather, politics, economy, environment. We started laughing. There was nothing to talk about. Of course we’d go.

Having found a home meant one thing: it was time to move on.

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