Writer, traveler, maker


Travel updates and occasional commentary

GSP 2: Two sides of Switzerland

The morning after my youngest brother's wedding, I flew from Albania to Switzerland to start research on the global experience of singleness. As soon as I reached Zurich, the train fare showed me that far more than 1,000 miles separates Albania than Switzerland. For a single, hour-long train ride to the small town where I met my Swiss pastor contact, I paid what would have bought me several meals in Tirana.

Once I'd waddled off the last train, maneuvering probably close to 100 pounds of gear, I met the first of what will be doubtless many strangers to help with my research this next year. This woman pastors a small church about 30 minutes outside Basel and had agreed to help me arrange a research stop on barely two weeks' notice.

After we'd greeted each other and stowed my backpack, rolling trolley and various shoulder bags in her small car, she drove me to the village where I'd be staying with a married couple, both retired.

As soon as we'd opened the car doors, an unfamiliar music met me ears: the jangling of cow bells on the other side of the road up the hill we'd just begun to ascend. The sound proved an ever-present companion the rest of my stay there — sometimes audible even through the windows. Even now, almost two weeks later, and in hot and humid Romania, the bells seem to ring on inside me, ushering in this new season of life on the road, life listening and trying to follow the Spirit.

I only spent three full days in Switzerland, but it turned out my hosts had arranged quite a lot. The first day, a Monday, I did two interviews with older single women, both primarily in German. I'm far from fluent, but we somehow bumbled along — even better once I remembered to pray at the start of the second interview.

Tuesday I went with the wife of the couple hosting me to an English-speaking Bible study she attends. Afterward, I had a group discussion with three widows — all ex-patriots from different continents, who'd married Swiss husbands. They contributed the second installment for the letter to singles I'm hope will grow with each stop.

To balance out the women, I spent Wednesday interviewing three single men in various roles at a church in Basel. Then finally on my last day, I combined lunch and an interview with the pastor who'd helped arrange so much, afterward she took me on a short hike to a scenic overlook of the countryside.

In between interviews, I worked on travel arrangements, remaining loose ends around the house and tried to help out around the house where I could. One day I hung out laundry to dry, but the view of their lush green yard and the surrounding hills was so gorgeous that it hardly felt like a chore at all.

The view while hanging laundry out to dry. I didn't get to try their small natural pool, but it had tiny fish living in it.

The view while hanging laundry out to dry. I didn't get to try their small natural pool, but it had tiny fish living in it.

Another day, I helped chop fennel for a simple salad, but it was so delightful to see the both familiar and yet distinctive ways the wife approached our simple meals together that helping her didn't feel much like work either.

Mostly I tried to soak it all in: the white sauce with peas and chunks of chicken, similar to things I've eaten at my grandparents', but served in small pastry cups I'd never seen before. The coleslaw-like salad that came with a delightful herb dressing I liked much better than most American recipes. The silverware rack in the dishwasher that pulled out from above the cup rack so you could lay each utensil in a separate slot on its side.

Before I knew it, my idyllic stay had ended, and I boarded a train south to the French-speaking part of Switzerland, on what felt like a kind of Christian mecca. From Lake Geneva onward, the train ride grew increasingly scenic, until at last I got off at Aigle, dodged a sudden spurt of rain and then boarded a bus whose driver spoke neither English nor French but correctly guessed my destination: Bellevue.

Twenty minutes of switchbacks up the mountain later, he pulled to the side of the road, I wrestled my bags out from under the bus and crossed the road to L'Abri, home of something like a movement, which the apologist Francis Schaeffer started more than 60 years.

I didn't speak much French during my 30-some hour stay (English is L'Abri's official language), but I got a taste of the intellectual discourse that has drawn seekers, skeptics and idealistic Christians there for decades. More importantly, I also got a brief taste of the communal living and eating I'd left behind me in the Bay Area. I got to leave part of the Bay Area with them, though: some of my sourdough starter.

Country snapshot

  • Transit pass: $27.31/2 days in Basel
  • Beer: $.76 at grocer (low end), $6.58 at bar
  • Water: Drinkable without any treatment
  • Recycling: Multisort bins available in most public places