First appeared in The Woolf
Notes from the Unexpected
Just up from Sechseläutenplatz, where 110,000 blocks of superior Vals quartzite can be trampled underfoot, there is a boat. It is spired, asymmetrical and, weighing in at 85 tons, as aerodynamic as a gingerbread house. But if it’s bobbing on water, it must be a boat.
When November comes, and the ‘Herzbaracke’ arrives via tugboat for its four-and-a-half-month Zurich run, any Alemannic reserve goes right out the tinted window – at least, once the 40-odd people constituting a full house come aboard for dinner and a show. On land, it can still take the ‘captain’ a little time to re-adjust. “Even last night,” says Federico Emanuel Pfaffen, “I was told, ‘Don’t talk so loud! Don’t laugh so loud!’ I am so sick of all this uptightness,” he barks, unable to finish the mock tirade in his chair.
Mostly, though, this is a story of love that seeps out of the plush quarters where every nook is spoken for (just ask the taxidermy owl), and love that pulls in the crowds. They cross the gangplank for jazz, classical and folk, for Piaf, tango and swing, or maybe because they can.
Nearly two decades ago, after all, Herzbaracke was just a late-night, genie-in-the-wine-bottle vision – but not for long. Getting permission from the authorities for a do-it-yourself, Belle Epoque-themed floating venue was, to hear Federico’s account, a no-brainer. Just another one of his impossible projects made possible by a rather poorly-concealed weapon: “I really like people,” he confesses, stopping there because, every once in a while, less is more.
The ‘people’ embraced by Herzbaracke not only include the cool-headed Zurich types who, undone by the kitchen’s famous soup or the blues in such close proximity, have been known to break character. Federico and co-director Nicole Gabathuler haven’t forgotten about those further down the lake, or out there yonder, who just don’t feel the need to grapple with Waiting for Godot or some such high culture, thank you very much. Different people, different problems – but no matter where the anchor drops, they manage to find each other and, under the right conditions, grow, thrive and create something much bigger than the upright piano dwarfing the stage.
For Federico, it’s just ecology. “We’re not event organizers,” he says. “We’re a biotope.”
“Or a habitat, like a pond,” adds Nicole, in a measured tone at odds with her art. For seven years, she has created the graphics that bring the Herzbaracke aesthetic to life – a burst of swirling waves, butterflies and sighs, an existence unfettered by logic. Over the faint cry of gulls, she says, “It’s a shame there isn’t more room in this culture for the unpredictable. On the other hand, it’s given us the clean design, the typography…” And, as Federico is the first to admit, the boatloads of Herzbaracke fans.
“Around here,” he says, getting worked up again, “everything needs to have a function. People don’t see the point of something that has no point… But,” he is smiling now, “that makes us exotic.”
As one half of tonight’s entertainment tunes his cello, Federico fiddles around on stage. A couple pops in for a look, taking a minute to get their bearings. Then the boat rocks, someone breaks into song and the lure of solid ground, in all its enduring, enlightened beauty, slips away.