Swiss Airlines flight from Tehran to Zurich, August 2006

The writer aboard SwissAir

Due to a deep faith in the metaphysics of Helvetic safety standards, my parents invariably flew Swissair during my youth, and the flights on Swissair aircrafts are one of my few consistent childhood memories. This is what I remember: a Heimatgefühl engulfed in a vague but luscious aura of privilege, embedded in a carefully composed symbolic universe. I recall the adorable little cross on the tailfin, the marineblue vomit bags, the comic-strip emergency regulations, the Cailler chocolate before landing, the sturdy women and tender men in ink-blue uniforms, cautioning and thanking the passengers in the many marvelous accents of the Confédération Helvétique.

Any country as tiny as Switzerland, packed with communes and cantons, multiple languages, celebrated design traditions, émigrés famed and unexceptional, petty regional contentions and ruling government coalition partners is indeed the perfect starting point for any cutting-edge sense of habitat. It’s as liberating as it is synthetic, a product of historical circumstance and meticulous risk management, rather than any deep-seated psychosymbolic consensus.

Sitting next to me on my flight from Tehran to Zurich is an elderly couple talking in a Swiss-German dialect I cannot understand, but I make out the terms “Shiraz” and “prostitutes.” “Moll, Shiraz isch huara-schön gsii. Chash nüd sägä. Moll moll.” Both of them are wearing baseball caps, LA Gear sneakers and Michel Jordi wristwatches.

The inflight entertainment package offers an audio “punk rock retrospective” that includes not only Sammy Hagar, Boston and Oasis, but also the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band I find more revolting than ever these days — perhaps because they remind me of teenage years of armchair existentialism and beatnik bravado. I try to concentrate on the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, but end up listening to the Chili Pepper tracks from beginning to end, immersed and attentive.

Chili Peppers aside, I rarely turn away from whatever I find mildly repugnant. I always stare, transfixed, every time I come across magazine close-ups of medical anomalies, particularly acute skin diseases or body parts with cysts, crusts and craters. I’ve never been able to resist the sight of zoographic blowups of fleecy invertebrates devouring oozing insects.

The Swiss Airlines stewardess slowly approaches with a tray of transparent plastic cups of Coke and orange juice.

“Coke or orange juice?” The flight attendant looks very much like Leonid Brezhnew, only shorter. I wonder why she’s addressing me in English, despite my speaking to her in flawless German only minutes before, when I asked for an additional refreshment towel, and before that, as I was, incidentally, hesitating between the Frankfurter Allgemeine and Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

“Orangensaft, danke, vielen Dank.” When she returns with the food, I cannot help but hold the Neue Zürcher Zeitung demonstratively aloft, like a courtly insignia at a medieval jousting spree. “Chicken or fish, sir?” “Huhn oder Fisch? Huhn, danke.”

Later, just before landing at Zurich airport, she says, “please put your seat in the upright position.” I ignore her and pretend to stare out the window at the vast, murky fog of blinking streetlights below. She reaches over to push the button on my armrest, yanking up the back of my seat without comment.