Zürich - Mère Catherine


If Rome is the city of a thousand churches, then Zürich must be the city of a thousand church bells. I was sitting with an old friend on a hill that offers a panoramic view over the city and the Limmat River, when I encountered what was not so much a sight to behold but truly a sound to be heard.

It was around seven in the evening, when the bells in the 12th-century Grossmünster cathedral, and likely every other church bell in Zürich began to chime—in that spectacularly random rhythm characteristic of church bells. My friend and I looked at each other with wide eyes, silenced not by the sheer volume of the bells, but by the echoing sense of infinity they evoked.

Apparently, the Swiss either love or have become immune to their church bells, which chime for around a quarter of an hour at once—a remarkable length of time for those unaccustomed to this practice. As Mark Twain quipped in A Tramp Abroad, “...from the length of time [the church-bell] continued to ring, I judged that it takes the Swiss sinner a good while to get the invitation through his head.”

I first heard about Zürich’s church bells from my Swiss professor back in graduate school. During a lecture on German Romanticism, Professor S explained that one of the leitmotifs of this 19th-century literary movement was the oscillating pull between a desire to explore faraway lands and a longing for one’s homeland. While describing the concept of Heimweh or homesickness in German literature, Professor S mentioned the church bells of his hometown Zürich to illustrate the enduring nature of one’s emotional ties to one’s homeland. I have since forgotten the names of the Romantic writers we studied in class, but I still recall vividly my professor’s expression when he reminisced about the bells. Somehow, hearing the bells chime and echo all around me here in Zürich, I could almost feel the sense of nostalgia that must have induced the faraway look on his face.

It is difficult to describe exactly how the human psyche winds strings of attachment around another being or a place. While intangible, these strings can be nonetheless as tenacious as the roots that bind a thousand-year-old tree to the place of its birth. Unlike trees, human beings are free to uproot and explore exotic lands. Yet for many, traveling often consists of moments of fascination interlaced with episodes of homesickness. After all, even for the most seasoned traveler, the final destination of any voyage is home.

Hearing the church bells somehow gave rise to a palpable pensiveness that lingered in my head like smoke from burning incense. Later in the evening, my friend and I decided to have dinner at Mère Catherine, a Mediterranean-style restaurant serving a selection of French dishes such as soupe aux oignons, terrine de légumes, fricasée d’escargots, noisette d’agneau, and tarte tatin. With its quaint courtyard ambience, rustic pastel walls and bistro tables, it is evident that the restaurant aims not only to provide a taste but also to inspire an airy feeling of the French Riviera, right here in the heart of Zürich’s old town.

Having dinner with an old friend naturally led to reminiscing about old times. As I slowly ate my homemade taglierini and pork filet seasoned with a sweet and tart cider sauce, my scattered thoughts were hardly on the taste but on the past. Talking about those with whom I once crossed paths made me contemplate how people appear in and disappear from one’s life in that haphazard and inexplicable manner, as if life is just one series of incidences and coincidences with no apparent grand scheme.

I was unsure if it was from hearing the bells, being reminded of the South of France in the middle of Zürich, or remembering the past—somehow I had the surreal sensation of my body and mind being in separate places. It felt odd, like waking up in an unfamiliar setting and wondering where one is during that foggy moment upon awakening.

I closed my eyes briefly and could still hear the phantom chime of a thousand church bells in my head...