A Swiss Homecoming: A return to my “roots” after 25 years

There is only one way to have a Swiss Homecoming – eat fondue. Twice.

But let me start way back at the beginning.  When I was in my early 20’s, I graduated college, worked for a year, and saved up all my pennies. Then I purchased my 12-month, open-ended airplane ticket, strapped on my backpack, and traveled the next year with friends.

The journey began in June 1987, and my first traveling partner was Kim. Europe treated us well for the next 2 months, we did our Eurail Pass proud, and traipsed through as many countries as possible. Kim left me in Europe to start Law School and I continued up to Sweden to visit friends.

After Sweden, I ventured down to Switzerland to meet up with Kristina, another friend from Seattle. Kristina was working at a Christian chalet in Iseltwald, on the shores of Brienzersee in Switzerland. When I visited Kristina there in the fall, my funds were close to depletion and I knew I couldn’t last much longer before I needed to head back home.

Priscilla, the chalet owner, suggested that I take the cog train up to nearby Wengen, a car-less village in the Swiss Alps, and look for work for the winter. My German was painstakingly poor, my confidence level was low, but my determination to stay in Europe was high. So up I went.

I queried hotel owners and restaurant owners for three hours about working over the winter, and was greeted with every Swiss German, High German, and French version of “no.”

Deflated, I noticed a chapel on the edge of the cliff and walked towards it. No, not to throw myself off of it. A bench stood at the far edge, and I sat down and prayed a simple prayer. “Lord, I want to be here for the winter more than anything. I don’t know where else to look for work here, so if you want me to be here for the winter, please show me where to go. And if you can make it quick that would be great, since the last train down the mountain is in 30 minutes.”

I stood up, walked down the same village street and noticed a new street that I hadn’t seen previously. Looking at my watch, I figured I could head down the hill and still make it back up for the train. I stumbled upon Hotel Edelweiss, and ventured inside. No one was there that afternoon. But as I looked around, I saw a bible (in German) and thought, well, maybe God DID lead me here. I wrote a note in English with my phone number at the chalet, explaining I wanted to work in Wengen for the winter.

Running back up the hill and hopping on the last train, I sat down with little hope. It looked like I would be using my 12 month return trip ticket way before the 12 months was up.

Back at Iseltwald that night, the phone rang. It was for me. It was Hotel Eledweiss! I couldn’t believe it. They needed another person to work at the hotel for the winter, and could I come back to Wengen tomorrow and meet with them? YES!

The next day I trundled back up to Wengen, met the Baertschis and the rest is history. I spent the next 5 months cooking, cleaning, and skiing nearly every day in the Swiss Alps. It was the kind of magical experience that even now I have to pinch myself about. It was a dream come true.  Even better because Kristina found a job at a restaurant in Wengen for the season too – so I had an English-speaking buddy to boot!

Fast forward 25 years, and I’m on a pilgrimage back to Switzerland, this time with my family in tow.

After our recent stay in Budapest, our family headed to Switzerland, via night train from Zurich. Then we traveled from Zurich to Lauterbrunnen, finally arriving at 11:20 am. We hustled to our place quickly. We had to check-in by noon or wait until 3:00 pm and we were way too tired to be waiting around anywhere for 3 hours. Luckily, we made it in the nick of time.

Day 1: Lauterbrunnen. In the valley, boasting 72 waterfalls from sheer cliffs that line the valley, the beauty is overwhelming. Our special accommodations for the night: Valley Hostel. I have to admit, I was not looking forward to staying at a hostel after that train ride. But this is where lack of planning on your trip absolutely pays off. The hostel wowed us. We booked into an 8-person bunk bed room and the kids reveled in the “loft” bunk beds – way up high, like their own secret enclosure with a small window boasting a priceless view of the valley. It was their own personal tree fort without the tree – and they LOVED it!

Too exhausted to eat out, we grabbed supplies at the tiny grocery store and what could be more perfect than cheese fondue? We cooked it up at the hostel, along with a pizza for Zack, mixed a big green salad, and sliced bread, cauliflower and green apples for the fondue. Heaven!! The dining room full of windows faced the Alps and blessed us with a great view.

Day 2: We hopped the train to Wengen, still as stunning as ever. There is nothing like climbing from the valley floor to the middle of the Swiss Alps, and leaving most of civilization behind. Just quaint mountain villages and true Swiss chalets dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. I felt like I was home.

Hotel Edelweiss was home for me for 5 months long ago, and now it would be home for one more night. The Baertschis sold the hotel 3 years ago, but still live nearby. Daniel, who now runs the hotel, greeted us like family and reserved two rooms on the top floor, right next to the room I had lived in.

Our balcony faced the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau glaciers – the same view that left me speechless 25 years ago now made me cry. I was so happy to be back, I couldn’t believe I was really here again. I was so thankful God made a way for me to return, especially to share this with my kids and show them this part of my life.

Lucky for us, the weather gave us a nice, big break. It was raining when we arrived in Wengen, but the next day opened to glorious sunshine and an Alpine view for miles and miles. We boarded the cog train from Wengen (4,000 ft) to Kleine Scheidegg (6,000 ft), my old skiing stomping grounds. Kleine Scheidegg sits in the shadow of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau glaciers – a kind of “in your face” experience with them. The sheer size of them will knock you on your knees. A sense of majesty – about nature, about the power of God – takes over. You stand there awed by it all.

We were also awed by our picnic lunch “surprise.” I packed big salami and cheese sandwiches, yogurt, apples, carrots and chocolate bars. We sat down at a bench in the face of the glaciers and unpacked it, hungry and ready to eat.

But wait, where are the sandwiches? OMG. I forgot to pack them! Somehow I had left the sandwiches back at the hotel…..oops! Oh well, we loaded up on chocolate instead.

We spent the afternoon hiking around on those fabulous Swiss hiking trails, sunshine at our heels and vistas for days. An old, mountain man served us hot chocolate and coca-cola from his shack. We bought a postcard.

Just before the train was to leave, I decided I just had to go on one more quick hike, since it seemed to go right into the glacier. I promised, only 5 minutes up, and 5 minutes back. Up I went, huffing and puffing because at that altitude, it’s not like you run up these hills, unless you’re Zack. I wanted to get to the turnaround in 5 minutes. Zack and I snapped pictures hastily and turned to head back down.

We were late, it was time to run to the train station! Down we went, running as fast as possible, all the way to the train poised to depart. I could hear Curtis yelling to us. We hopped on the train, sat down exhausted and sweaty, and the train took off. Phew!

Back at the hotel we sat out on the balcony watching the sunset over the Alps. Picturesque!

That evening we wandered through town and visited the little church I sat at 25 years ago to pray for God’s help in finding a job. It was special to have this moment with my family, and share the story with them again, as a reminder that God hears, he answers, he loves us and gives us the desires of our heart.

Was it coincidental that I sat there at the church on this day, October 11, the same day as my last official day of work at World Vision? It was a sobering reminder that I can trust God in the leaving of my job. In the same way that he provided in a big way for me 25 years ago, he will provide for me again. And he just may give me a desire of my heart that today I know nothing about.

Of course we needed to have more fondue that night – so we did. At Bernerhof Hotel, sitting at a table in the greenhouse, seated by a matre d’ who was also our waiter and our chef. In low-season, there’s not many tourists and most places are closed down for an extended holiday for the owners. It makes for a nice, quiet stay with lots of opportunities to connect with the locals. When we left a nice tip for the matre’ d/waiter/chef, it made his night.

Back to the hotel to snuggle down under the big, feather down duvets that are the signature for all Swiss hotel stays. So comfy good, you never want to get out of bed in the morning.

But we finally did. The pouring rain had returned, but we didn’t care, we had our glorious day the day before. It had been an extra blessing from God – a brilliant day of unbelievable sunshine sandwiched perfectly between 2 days of rain.

Day 3: On to Wilderswil (next to Interlaken) to meet the Baertschis. Werner picked us up at the train station. I was worried he wouldn’t recognize me after all these years, but I shouldn’t have. He gave me a nice, big hug (well, it was a big hug for a Swiss person, they are usually very reserved). I thought my heart my burst, it was just so good to see him.

We loaded our backpacks into the car and Werner shuttled us home, where his wife Vreni was waiting for us. Truly, they are the nicest people ever. They treated me so well when I worked for them, and here they are treating us amazingly well again after all these years.

They put on a full spread for dinner with the Swiss favorite, raclette. Raclette includes using a cheese melting cooking device. Each person gets a small tray in which you place fat slices of raclette cheese, then put it in the raclette thingy. The cheese melts and gets crusty, then you scoop it out and pour it over small, boiled potatoes. Total deliciousness! Even better when you throw a piece of bacon into your cheese tray, cook it for a while and then add your cheese on top. Zack ate so much I thought he would explode!

So while were were initially drowning in fondue, the raclette really pushed us over the edge.

Over dinner Vreni explained that Werner was diagnosed with leukemia 18 months ago, and spent 4-1/2 months in the hospital beating back the disease. Thankfully, he is now in full remission and doing well. They are now 65 years old and retired, living in a 3-bedroom “flat” in Unterseen which is next to Interlaken. Their “kids,” the ones who were teenagers when I was last here, are now 39 and 40 years old! And Werner and Vreni are still faithful Christians, fully engaged in their new church of 3 years. They lived in Wengen for 30 years, so the transition of actually leaving was hard, but Vreni said once they left, she hasn’t missed it at all.

On that last Saturday morning in Switzerland, we enjoyed breakfast with Vreni and Werner, then headed off to the train station for our journey to Venice. Thank God, it’s not a night train.

As Werner drove us to the train station, we could see the Jungfrau shining down on us. Werner said, “Bye Bye Jungfrau,” speaking English with his typical Swiss German accent, and Zack has not stopped imitating it since. It brings a little bit of Switzerland with us wherever we go.

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5 thoughts on “A Swiss Homecoming: A return to my “roots” after 25 years

  1. Eating raclette from a raclette is so weird to say, but I understand it completely. I am completely jealous of all the food on your travels. Jason misses Zack. And now at 7:09am, I am craving fondue with my friend Lori.

  2. Lori – this made me tear up with joy for you! What a wonderful way to share an important part of your life with your family. Love you, Catherine

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