The Kindness of Strangers

Solitude is a writer’s prerogative, and as my feet wander the earth, my brain wanders the terrain of my creations. It mostly works out. This last week was a challenge, with a painful falling-out with someone dear to me, and the supportive editor-spouse traveling to the land of his birth, to ponder on his origins and connect with his tribe. As usual, I packed my hiking pack, made some snacks, and got underway, ready to challenge myself with a difficult route. A funny thing happened though.

I was on the train which runs along the Walensee, the place I wrote about in my previous post. As I sat there, waiting for my stop, I heard voices—English speaking voices, some with American accents. It looked like a group was going on a hike. I curiously asked, and was invited along to the Zurich Outdoor Meetup excursion. Solitude is a prerogative, which also becomes a habit. I declined. I listened to everyone laugh and chatter. The leader asked me again to join them.

Underway by boat to the trailhead
Underway by boat to the trailhead

He made it easy to say yes to a route I’d already taken. (I don’t like to repeat routes or plots.) Well, this time, I wasn’t complaining about the crowd; I was part of the crowd. Two young American accountants from Zurich chatted easily with me; then I had an interesting talk with a doctor about how important it is for patients to assume some responsibility for their own well-being. It made me think again about differences in culture.

Like my heroine, Peppa Mueller, I’m Swiss in character and expectations, yet attracted to the ease and friendliness of Americans and other expats. The loose jokes, the voices ending on an uplift, the gangly ease of it all, creates a breezy feeling, sparkling like the lake of the water itself.IMG_4491

You have to write alone. But once in a while, it’s good to come out of your shell and gather impressions.

The Valley of Light

Writing about travel, because it broadens the mind and deepens the story.

My first clue that I’ve returned to the Canton of Graubünden  (Grisons) is the friendliness. People are open and chatty. I’m visiting the Eastern part of the canton, the Surselva, literally “above the woods” in Rhomansch.

Valley view

Rhomansch? That’s the fourth language of Switzerland, left over from the Roman Empire. To further confuse you, the inhabitants of Surselva speak their own variation of the dialect. Luckily for me, they also speak Swiss-German, which I speak as well.

A generous friend is allowing me to use his vacation apartment, so I’m exploring the Val Lumnezia. This week in late May, the valley is living up to its name. The sky shimmers with sunshine. Unlike some other valleys, this long broad valley is relatively dry, and the mountains aren’t as high. It’s accessed through a bus that starts in the town of Ilanz, which is located by a green turbulent river that bolts its way through a canyon. Rafting is popular, but I’m not in Ilanz for rafting. I’m here to get supplies for me and my hiking buddy, as the next day is a holiday. Unfortunately, I’ve underestimated the Swiss holiday fervor. All the stores closed at five instead of six-thirty, which means I have nothing for tomorrow’s meals except walnut pesto and a bundle of pasta. Okaay.

Ilanz old house

On the way to the old part of Ilanz

I have a few tricks up my sleeve though. Find a nice restaurant, relax, order off the menu, and then beg for whatever is transportable. I head towards the old section of town and find the restaurant Obertor, which turns out to be as nice as I hoped. As I enjoy a glass of the local Pinot Noir, which comes from Maienfeld, I discuss my victual challenge with the apple-cheeked waitress. Would I like them to heat up half a kilogram of frozen bread to take with me? Sure. How about some cheeses? Ditto that. A sausage? Now I’m in heaven. They’ve saved my bacon.

It’s still a tight community in the Val Lumnezia. My bus driver introduces himself by his first name, and gives me hiking tips. (If this doesn’t seem abnormal, you don’t know the Swiss-Germans). A woman picks me and my friend up during a steep up-hill climb with luggage. The passenger on one of my bus rides carries seedlings in a big woven basket. On another bus ride, the driver pulls up by a restaurant to everyone’s puzzlement. A minute later, newspaper handoff accomplished, he drives away again, leaving behind a satisfied co-worker who now has something to read with his coffee.

At the end of the Val Lumnezia, where the high mountain plateau Greina begins, I visit the village of Vrin. An old man is cleaning his scythe in the communal fountain. Laundry decorate the wooden buildings, which look like they’re blackened from centuries of smoke. I head towards the one place to eat in the village, a bakery, where I’m greeted by a voluble woman who praises the nut cake her husband makes. After she serves me on the terrace, her husband comes up himself to make sure it was all to my taste. Their cheerfulness aside, it’s hard to make a living in these little villages. The income from the months when the tourists come must make up for the long winter months of darkness and few customers.

Bakery Vrin

Stoked on sugar, protein from the nuts, and caffeine, I head off to look at the Hotel Péz Terri. I want climb through Greina over the pass over into the adjoining canton in 2018, and am looking for a departure point. I like what I see in Vrin. The Péz Terri probably hasn’t changed in fifty years. No corporate slick brochures and spa amenities. The young man who seems to be running the entire hotel talks with me about the best times to do the two to three-day mountain pass hike. He probably inherited the place from relatives; he’s cheerful and helpful, and I bet he’s a good cook too.

Entrance to Vrin's pensionejpg

Everyone needs a nice place to stay—even bugs.

Insect refuge

Insect refuge seen on hike

About five minutes out of Vrin I see the hiking path to Lumbrein on my right. I gladly leave the road, though there aren’t many cars. The two-hour hike from Vrin to Lumbrein is a pleasant walk through woods and glades; not too strenuous. The meadows are filled with dandelions, buttercups, clary-sage, and some yarrow. I rest above Lumbrein before continuing, crossing a brook with a newly constructed wooden bridge. As the end of the valley recedes into the distance, trees grow sparser, giving way to huge areas for grazing. With nothing to block my view, I can see the deep rift of the river valleys opposite me, branching off the Lumnezia. The sky isn’t mottled by a single cloud; the sun beats down; one of the first true days of summer.

Next year I’ll be back to Vrin, and I’ll continue to the high mountain pass.

On my way back to my hometown, I decide to stop off in Graubünden’s capital, Chur, perhaps best known internationally as the home of H.R. Giger, who designed the monster and the spooky sets for Sigourney Weaver’s break-out movie in 1979, Alien. However, I’m looking for a more heart-warming experience, one that celebrates community and local character. Luckily, I happen to have arrived on a Saturday, when Chur’s local market is in full swing.

Chur Marketplace

Ochsenplatz and Market

As tempted as I am by all the bread, cheeses, fruits, and other delicacies around, I have more than an hour’s trip back to St. Gallen, and my own kitchen table. I start scouting for a restaurant, and with luck, stumble upon Emma’s, a communal enterprise located near the Ochsenplatz, which translates ox place. The Ochsenplatz, part of the market that winds through several pedestrian streets, abuts the old city wall and a guard tower. According to my doe-eyed waiter, the old city wall still persists inside the surrounding apartments as well, visible in some of the kitchen walls. Emma’s itself looks like an old cellar on the inside, repainted in soothing pastels. Outside there are tables nudging up against the cheese-seller, who has her market stall right next to me. One of the owners, a young woman in a retro skirt, sits on the steps of the restaurant and chats with a table full of friends while her mother brings out drinks. Every day Emma offers one salty snack, and one sweet. I enjoy homemade smoked salmon rolls enhanced with crunchy beets, along with a glass of a local white wine, a Lauber Riesling Sylvaner. While Emma’s has great wines, don’t expect any bottled water. Since privatization of water creates an increasing threat to the well-being of the world, Emma’s serves fresh clean water from the Ochsenplatz. The 4 francs paid for the local water is donated to a project to improve water quality in Asia. (They didn’t actually charge me for the water, but I paid anyway). Clearly, the people who run Emma have their hearts in the right place.

Snack at Emma's

Emma’s snack of the day

And I got a great cup of Fair Trade coffee.

My last discovery of a rare treasure in Chur:

washing machines

The laundromat

Because while the scene below, in the village of Vrin, is picturesque, it’s not convenient for backpackers or hikers.

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The outdoor laundromat, for those with extra time