Street Pilgrimage

/ by Faruk Šehić

There is only one street in Zürich that I love. Or perhaps I exaggerate: In Zürich, there is more than one street that I love, but the one that is closest to my heart is Bahnhofstrasse. Only there can you see many luxury watches in such a short stretch of space.

So now you know: I am a watch-nerd. I know everything about watches. Well, again I lie, because I am writer. My job is to lie to my readers and I lie in my books. But this is not about my books. My books are like my children, and now my children are growing up, approaching their teens. There is still a lot of work to be done, to help these children of paper find their paths, since every book has its secret path to readers.

From the monastery in Zug, where I am presently housed on a writer's residency, I have my secret path to Zürich. I usually pay 17 Swiss francs for a daily ticket by train. In Switzerland, trains are as precise as watches, and we all know that there is nothing like Swiss watches for time-keeping. Swiss people are also as precise as Swiss watches. Sometimes it is hard to spot the difference between watches and people. My interest is watches, and I like to start my pilgrimage by fast train.

It takes just 22 minutes from the Bahnhof in Zug to Zürich Hauptbahhof. I buy the ticket at the self-service machine. Sometimes it's better not to have too much contact with real people. Sometimes machines are enough. I just take my place in the train, I usually sit by the window. I don't use an MP3 player or any such devices. I want to hear other people on the train. They are talking to people on the other end of their mobile phones. Italians produce great noise, when talking to their invisible companion, wife, husband etc. Italians pretend that they are alone in the carriage, which becomes just an extension of their living room. Once I listened-in on a mature blonde woman, with big eyes, big lips, big everything. I enjoyed her laughter. I imagined that she laughed like Pilar Ternera in Marques' One Hundred Years of Solitude, and that her laughter could make pigeons take off from the ground, just as in the famous novel.

We are floating through time and space. The Italian woman has ended her conversation. One guy in front of my seat has become an explorer of his own nose. He was digging hard with his forefinger, and I just can't wait to see what kind of diamond he will find. Probably something dazzling and mysterious, from the depth of the amazing underworld of his skull. (It is hard not to remember the poem “Digging” by Seamus Heaney). The train has stopped in Thalwill. Through the window, I can see the lake of Zürich, with thousands of homes on its banks. I wonder if people inside are lucky and happy. Small boats sail under the clear blue sky. Soon my great adventure will begin.

The train will stop at platform 5. I will go into the crowd boldly. I will be a small part of an enormous river of people, one of many who wish to see the miracles of Bahnhofstrasse. I am a believer now. I believe in the gentle mechanism inside my favorite watch, with its black dial made of sterling silver. With silver hands, and a caseback of golden chatons with rubies shining like forgotten stars from childhood. Oh, I am true believer in watches! I am able to stand for hours in front of the showcase and just admire their beauty. There is nothing like a Swiss watch. I imagine them as magical creatures from another universe, which come to visit us, but not to conquer planet Earth. Just to feel our pulse, our heartbeat.

The working subtitle for my next book in the making is Clockwork Stories. In each short story, there will be one particular watch which has an important role within the plot. In one story, a watch is found ticking in a meadow, and we learn that it belongs to a dead man who has tried to flee from the Srebrenica massacre. The watch lies hidden from the enemy soldiers: It is immortal, when compared to the fragility of human life. I also wrote about that kind of fragility in my novel, Quiet Flows the Una.

Sometimes you can't explain why something is important to you. But I know why watches are important to me, as a writer, in this time. Because they remind me of my childhood. They are like time machines that can take me far away from boring, gray reality. Watches are like my secret compass for day-dreaming, from which I draw my energy to write. Sometimes I day-dream through a whole chapter in my book. Sometimes I am just sleeping with my eyes wide open. And that helps me to keep a crystal clear state of mind, something I find necessary for the writing process.

Now I walk into Bahnhofstrasse. My eyes widen with every step I take. It is hard to choose in which direction to direct my gaze, at which showcase I will direct my stare. There is an abundance of watches, an abundance of precise beauty. I will conduct my pilgrimage soberly and courageously. I am now on holy ground. Bahnhofstrasse is my Kanaan, my El Dorado, my Shangri-La. If you go to Google Earth, maybe you can find me there: My small blond head, my self-confident steps. Here I am! In front of the watch shop. I just want to take a glimpse at my most beloved watch... OK, maybe two or three looks. Then I will jump into the river of human bodies, with a desire to become an ordinary citizen. I will walk all the way down to the Zürich lake at the end of Bahnhofstrasse. My head will be full of dreams about Swiss watches. Yet I don't want to buy any of my beloved watches, because then the dream would be over. I want to go on dreaming. Tomorrow is a brand new day, and I cannot wait for the next pilgrimage.

Faruk Šehić

was born in 1970 in Bihac. Until the outbreak of war in 1992, Šehić studied Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb. However, the then 22-year-old voluntarily joined the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which he led a unit of 130 men as a lieutenant. After the war he studied literature and since 1998 has published his own literary works. The literary critics regard him as a shining light of the so-called „knocked-over generation“.

His books have been translated into 11 languages. His debut novel „Knjiga o Uni“ (2011; tr: The Book of Una) was awarded Meša Selimović prize for the best novel published in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Croatia in 2011, and European Union Prize for Literature 2013. He work in respected political magazine BH Dani as a columnist and journalist. Faruk Šehić lives in Sarajevo.