Volksinitiative Lärmschutz Grindel (or, Why I Can’t Write Fiction)
I started this blog, ostensibly, to write more, especially fiction. I’ve written quite a bit over the past five years, but most of it just falls apart on the page before I can finish editing it together, so very few people have seen any of it. There’s a story about a train, a story about a house, a story about a sniper and a waitress in a coffee shop in the north end of Chicago. Maybe, one of these days, I’ll finish one of these. But in the meantime, there’s this.
We just moved into a new flat near the train station in an old industrial area of Wallisellen, Switzerland. On the edge of town, wedged between a bunch of old warehouses and Autobahn 1, is a little wood. It’s the type of thing that long since would have been torn down in America to make room for a Waffle House across the interstate from the Waffle House, but here, where space is at a premium, there seems to be more consideration of open space. So you find woods, or fields, or pastures, in the weirdest places. There are cows in this country who have a better tram connection downtown than most Americans.
I’ll often walk the fifteen minutes or so through this wood to the tram, listening to music on the iPhone. The wood is rather loud: when I say it’s wedged against the autobahn, I mean wedged. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they left it wooded. Nobody wants this view.
Running through the wood is a stream, a minor branch of the Glatt (“Flat”) River, which having grown up on the Mississippi I’d barely even call a ditch. At a bend in the stream there’s a spot wide enough to be called a pond, around which the city has put a few benches so people can enjoy the quiet of nature amid the roar of cars speeding by on their way to Urdorf or Dättwil or Niederbipp or wherever. In this pond live a bunch of ducks.
Last Tuesday, I was on the way to the office, running a little late, jamming out to Zakopower on the iPhone, and one of the ducks landed on the trail in front of me. I stopped, immediately — ducks don’t usually do this, and I wanted to get a picture of it. I took my earphones out, and — quietly and fluidly, so as not to scare off the duck — raised the phone to take a picture. Before I could even get the camera app loaded, the duck spoke.
“Can you do me a favor?” said the duck. Okay, he didn’t say exactly that. What he said was, “Chönne Sie mir a Gfalle mache?” because, of course, the duck was from Wallisellen and therefore spoke Swiss German, to which I said, “Hä? Entschuldung, ich habe nicht verstanden.” (“Huh? I’m sorry, I don’t understand."), because, well, I hadn’t understood. Swiss German is hard, especially over traffic noise.
“I said, can you do me a favor?” this time in High German, which I can actually speak. I was already running a little late, but I probably see this duck every day without realizing it. It seemed a little impolite to say no. And the time to pretend I hadn’t seen him was well in the past.
“Um. Sure. Depends on what, though.”
“It’s no big deal. I see you’re listening to your iPod. So you’ve noticed, it’s a little loud here.”
“Yeah. Actually, I wondered why there’s a bunch of ducks living here.”
The duck pulled his wings forward a bit; a shrug. “It’s the neighborhood, really. The ducks here are a bit nicer than the ducks down by the lake. And who wants to have to put up with swans all day?” I nodded in sympathy. Swans can be annoying. “Anyway,” the duck continued, “It’s loud. We’d like them to build a sound wall along the road here, to make it a nicer, quieter pond. Good for people, good for ducks. Can I get your signature?”
The duck didn’t appear to be holding a petition. “Um, on what?”
“Over there, hanging on the nail behind the garbage can next to the bench.”
I went over to look, the duck waddling behind me, and sure enough, there was a clipboard hanging on a nail, with a cheap ballpoint taped to a string. “Volksinitiative Lärmschutz Grindel” (Popular Initiative for Noise Protection) it said, and about thirty signatures. It was an actual Swiss initiative, like the one that banned minarets a couple of years back. A rough specification of the wall was there, the costs broken down… “Wait, this is a real thing,” I said.
“Of course it is,” scoffed the duck.
“But I can’t sign this,” I said.
“I’m an American. Can’t vote, can’t sign initiatives.”
“Oh,” said the duck, disappointed. “That does explain your accent, at least.”
“Sorry. It’s a good idea,” I offered.
“Ah, well. You come through here a lot, don’t you?” the duck changed the subject abruptly.
“Yep. I live over by the station, and I take the tram into the university every day.”
The duck pauses. “Wait, the 9?”
“What the hell are you doing taking the 9? The 12 leaves right from the station, and if that’s not fast enough for you, you’ve got four trains an hour direct to the center of the city! Anyone who can read a timetable knows this!”
And that’s why I can’t write fiction: if even a noise-distracted talking duck can point out the holes in my plot, how can I believe it myself?