Updated: Jan 8, 2019
by Rae Richen
We get it. From our last blog, you were wondering when the cows take over Main Street. You will soon find out.
In our correct train car from Freiburg to Switzerland, we get into a discussion with a Schweizer gentleman from Basel. He loves music, and since he is newly retired, he makes a pastime of seeking out rarely heard operas. He returns this day from Erfurt where he saw an opera by Gaspar Spontini, which he enjoyed and recommended. He also recently heard the modern (1987) opera, Nixon in China (opera by John Adams, libretto by Alice Goodman). “Very interesting. You should see it.”
I understand his focused hope to hear the lost and the undiscovered. With the same intensity, many of us seek rare animals, high peaks or, in my case, the rare Japanese Maple.
During this discussion, we become aware of the soft sound of swift motion. The rails in Germany and Switzerland are now the same gauge. In war times, change of gauge slowed or halted troop transport from invading countries. In these more peaceful times, movement between countries is smooth, unless you are a refugee.
And if you are a refugee, you must know who was most recently elected to office in each country, and what their attitude is toward your people. It appears need for asylum and immigration is the issue that may tear apart the union of European countries. In the same way, U.S. immigration inhumanity and mistreatment are outcomes of fear sold by politicians who ignore human values.
Presently, in peace-time, the trains in Europe share a gauge and a smoothness that is unbelievable to those from the U.S. The rails are welded together, not linked by couplers. It is those hiccupping couplers that give United States’ trains a rhythmic clackety-clack.
After an hour or so, we say good-bye to our friendly Swiss gentleman as he leaves the train in his home town, Basel. Basel is just across the border from Germany and very near the border with France. We ride on into the countryside around Lake Thun, or Thunersee, and up into the mountainous areas above the lake.
Our goal here is to see the home towns of Woody’s grandparents, Caroline Jungen and Peter Reichen. Yes, our name was Reichen when the family arrived in the United States in the 1880s. Grandma Caroline once told me the name was changed during World War One. “People didn’t like Germans,” she said. “They didn’t know Swiss Germans were not the other type, those who start wars.”
To approach Frutigen, our train runs over low passes and through the mountains (I counted five tunnels of substance) The train emerges from a wood, allowing us our first glimpse of long Lake Thun, a blue and calm water dotted with sails. The main lake lies east to west in a substantial valley. Nearby, a very steep funicular, or tram car, rises on slender tracks into the hills near Lake Thun.
I remember seeing a historic photo of just such a tram which once rose into the west hills of our own town of Portland, Oregon. By the nineteen fifties, that Portland tram had been replaced by a road. Our modern OHSU hospital tram is suspended above ground. Portland's old tram ran on tracks on wooden framing, much like the one we see near Lake Thun.
The church, built first in 1433, overlooks Frutigen, Switzerland. The graveyard uphill from the church has many headstones for people who share a last name with Woody's grandmother and grandfather.
Grandma's Jungen family had lived in the town of Frutigen, near the confluence of the Enstlige River with the Kandar River. the Kandar empties into Lake Thun. The lower portion of the Enstlige and Kandar valleys, are referred to as Frutigland. The Enstlige, Kandar and their tributaries are glacier-fed by the many mountains that we know surround the town. However, as we enter the area, we cannot see those mountains, only impressively huge hills.
Frothy clouds hover between us and the nearby hills. The hills are steep and dark-green with pines and spruce. Our hotel host bemoans the fact that “our mountains hide from you today.”
She invites us to dinner in our Landhaus Adler (Eagle) Hotel and gives us keys to our room on the first floor. As I haul my suitcase up thirty stairs, I remember that in Europe the main floor is street level,also called the rez-de-chausée, the floor for wearing shoes, or as they call it in Switzerland, the Ētage. The first floor is up a goodly height, allowing the main floor Étage to be expansively tall. We go into our room and gratefully take off our shoes.
Looking around at the pine walls, the very small desk, and the minuscule space between furniture pieces, we realize Landhaus Adler in Frutigen expects to serve skiers and hikers who will not be in their room very much. We will not be in the room either, except to recover from jet lag. Woody is out and down along the Enstlige River almost right away. I take a nap.
When I get up, we both go for another walk, along the river, which has been controlled by a concrete channel which may save the town from floods. We wander past tree stumps which have been carved into animals, and through meadows of wild flowers to the upper town where we find the church and the church yard with many Jungen and Reichen tombstones.
Headstone for Marie Schmid Reichen Der Lieben Mutter.
As evening falls, we wonder about the lives of the family members back in 1880. What did they do here? What forced them to leave this beautiful place and face the long journey to America? Woody's grandma once told me, "We didn't have enough to eat. We had to find a new place."
We also find this headstone for an Ernst Werthmuller-Jungen, so we know that Reichens and Jungens remained behind when our family emigrated to the United States. Between 1880, when the grandparents left and 1990 when Margrit Schmid-Reichen died, Switzerland was buffeted by two world wars and the flight of refugees from those wars to this neutral land. They have lived during the formation of the European Union and are now watching to see if that union will hold. We think about what experiences they and we share, and the differences in our lives.
Wandering back to our hotel, we meet a black-faced brown-wool sheep who wonders why we are messing about in his territory. At the moment, the sheep looks big and fence looks flimsy.
Atop a faraway hill in the mist sits a tower. Below is an armature over the railroad tracks that emerge from one of two long tunnels under the hill and the mountains behind.
One morning, we hike out of town to the south heading for a hill we have seen with a tower on top of it. We pass along a busy road and onto a less busy way until we come to a path with an arrow pointing up to Tellenburg. Any reference to William Tell? Maybe, but no one knows for certain.
It is known that the freedom of Switzerland rested on the fires lit atop high hills to warn others in the confederation of the arrival of a Hapsburg representative and his retinue who might try to regain control of the cantons. Was this one of the communication towers? It certainly can be seen for a long distance.
Another possible explanation for this tower is that a burg is a fortified town. There are references in signs to Tellenburg castle, so this may have been part of a castle or one tower in part of a fortified town. Not easy to tease out the meanings of old things. In this part of the world, there are layers on layers of old things.
Tellenburg Tower is fragile, but has reconstructed safer steps to the top.
While Woody climbs the Tellenburg Tower, I take pictures from the lower reaches and realize this tower is built on a basalt intrusion. The edges of the columnar basalt have been squared off with blocks of stone to form the foundation of the tower. This once defensive tower has long been a hikers’ goal. A nearby barn next to the trail has public toilets added to its side for hikers. At the foot of the tower, is a picnic table and a ring for a fireplace. I wonder how many hot dogs and ‘S’mores have been cooked over that fire.
The valley below includes the rail tracks, an old arched bridge and a newer iron bridge, side by side. One track for incoming, another for outgoing to the nearby town of Kandarsteg. In addition, in another direction below us are tracks from a tunnel that has been carved under the mountain.
As we hike home, we pass the tunnel and a display in German telling about the engine that carved the tunnel. In fact, it carved out one long tunnel, as well as another shorter one on a track that heads off into a different valley. The photos of the tunneling machine are very familiar. It is very like the machine which dug our Light Rail tunnel under our Portland west hills and out toward the towns of Beaverton and Hillsboro.
One morning, we take a bus up fifteen miles to Adelboden. Our bus drives along a winding mountain road where the rider is very glad to have wonderful views – mountains of unbelievable rugged beauty surround the area. But the rider is not so glad to look down into the possible fall off the narrow way. Our bus must wait at certain corners to allow another bus or large truck to make the turn first. Both will not fit around a tight corner.
Enstlige Falls seen from a terrace in Adelboden, Switzerland.
Grandpa Peter Reichen’s family had lived up this mountain-side in the high-pasture town of Adelboden. He was here until a teenager, and then his whole family came to America’s west, to the Swiss settlement of Helvetia, near Portland, Oregon. What did Peter and his family do in Adelboden? What did Caroline’s family do in Frutigen? We know too little. And what they might have done is now covered by the present ways of living in this town. Both Frutigen and Adelboden now seem to rely on winter and summer sports to bring tourists.
Many chalets have been built and are being built in this area. Some are homes. Some are homes with rentable rooms. Some are hotels. They all sport the carved rail, the dark outside wood and the scallop-curved fascia board under the wide steep roof that we all picture in our dreams of a ski vacation in the alps. Hard to find your chalet among the clones. Pay close attention to the small variations in banister posts, the carved railings and the color of the flowers in your chalet's window boxes.
Owning or managing a hotel and restaurant is not that new to the inhabitants to Adelboden. The first hotel up here was opened in 1902. And there may have been hostels or boarding houses before that. Indeed, after arriving in Helvetia, Oregon in the 1880s, and then moving to Portland, many in Peter Reichen’s American family were owners and managers of hotels and of restaurants. Peter himself owned that famous hotel in Alaska mentioned in a previous blog. He also, for a time, owned or partially owned the Hoyt Hotel in Portland near the railroad station, and for a time, he owned the Lotus Café and Card Room near the Swiss Cleaners on Third Avenue downtown Portland. So hostelry as a way of earning a living also may have been important in Adelboden before the 1880s.
(Regarding the Lotus Cafe: For old times sake, we have celebrated some Richen/Reichen family birthdays in the Lotus Cafe in Portland, but just this summer, it is closing. Its famous cherry-wood bar is sold to McMenamins and much of the city block will be torn down to make way for new buildings.)
The Swiss family shield indicates that Reichens were carpenters – a compass, a right-angle rule and an axe form a triangle within the shield. Cousin David Richen once explained to us that the Swiss had guild shields and not family coats of arms. David was pleased with the shield. He was an architect. In his visit, many years ago, he found a home somewhat uphill from town that had writing carved in old German script. The carving announced that the building had been constructed by A. Reichen. During our visit, we don’t find that building, but we do see others that have lettering carved on them. Most carvings are painted gold or red to stand out from the dark chalet wood. Most include a philosophical quote of the “Home is where the heart is” sort, in German, of course.
The day is sunny. We lunch on the terrace of another Adler Hotel and restaurant. The Adler or Eagle is an important emblem in these areas. Adel -boden literally means Adel -- nobility, and boden – territory. Some say this name may refer to that noble bird and may mean the eagle’s nest. Who knows? We all tell ourselves the stories our parents have told us, trying to explain the meanings of the past.
We’ve seen so many eagles in various styles in these two towns, that we’re bemused at the frou-frou over certain Kosovo-born Swiss soccer players who in their excitement over making a goal for Switzerland used the double-eagle sign to express their elation. So what if the double-eagle sign is from their country of origin? Allow them their emotions. The Swiss seem to have hung on to the Hapsburgian Eagle as a symbol of their love of country, even though it was from the Hapsburg regime that William Tell and others fought to gain independence. The frou-frou seems to be anti-immigrant slop put out by politicians who play on the fears of others by pretending that only certain strains of people can be seen as real citizens. True here in Switzerland, for a few, as it is way too true in the U.S. right now.
While we sip coffee on the terrace of the Adelboden Adler, we stare up at the circle of snow-covered mountains and suddenly two para-sails appear, coming up over the pass between two peaks. We watch them float about and down toward the forest. It takes them over an hour to arrive at a pasture far below us. Surprise for the cows? Or a normal arrival in their days near this recreation area?
We learn that parasail companies can be certified for safety. The advertising says that children as young as four can be safely transported by parasail. I happen to know that six year olds can be sailing like this, but that is a story for another time, when I calm down from the memory.
Later in the day in Adelboden, we get small glimpses of what life must have been in more rural times. We are visiting the church yard near the main street. The church was built in the 1400s and has a mural on its outer wall, beneath a porch roof, depicting heaven and hell with Jesus in between. The mural was first painted in 1477 and has been restored a few times in the life of the church. This congregation once was Catholic and is now Reformed Evangelical. During the Reformation which seems mostly to have taken place without war, we are told that the Catholic priest escaped over the pass to the south. That’s all that is known. Which pass? What was coming his way that made escape seem necessary? No one knows.
Across the street from the church, the statue of a cow stands on the roof of the cheese market. She is pretty much the same cow statue one finds in many towns except Grants Pass, Oregon where they have bear statues. Adelboden's cow is painted white and brown – a Guernsey. Suddenly, that cow begins to moo.
As she moos, pedestrians and cars leave the main street. Soon, we can hear bells approaching. Large deep bells and high pinging bells accompanied the moo of live cows. Herdsmen approach, followed by small, reddish brown and white (are they Jersey cows?). Each cow has a bell hung around her neck. The lead cow begins to stray up the side street next to the church yard, but the lead herdsman touches her flank and brings her back to the main street.
Woody follows the herd for several blocks and sees that within the herd are a few Guernseys.
When he returns, he says, “I’ve been running with the cows.”
While Woody is gone, I visit the cheese market and ask about the mooing cow statue. Yes, they have a button on the wall and Yes, they use it to clear the street before a herd comes through. The herd of about twenty cows and three herdsmen are headed for higher pasture and newer grass. In the afternoon, we take the four o’clock bus back to Frutigen. I realize that many on that bus are women we have seen working around the town, in the hotels and restaurants of Adelboden. I see that they live where they don’t work, which is true in many resort areas of the United States. Those who work cannot afford convenient housing near their job. I once visited Ojai, California and learned that the workers in that area couldn’t afford any home closer than an hour and a half drive from work. In the moment when we disembark with the hotel workers in Frutigen, I remember a comment made by the gentleman from Basel. “Frutigen is known to have five very conservative churches with views like your Tea Party and pandered to by your president. A few of our politicians pander to people who fear immigration in that same manner. But these groups are small, and we are not worried.” I think about people who may find solace in keeping out immigrants: people who feel threatened by those not like us, people who feel that if an immigrant gets a job, we are robbed of something, people who are threatened by those who have new and different traditions and may displace us in our precarious world.
I believe that we need to make life become less precarious for those who fear. We need to make all citizens safe from the edge of financial disaster. We need fair housing policies, access to a living wage and good schools to help all people feel safe. Secure people are less fearful and more able to accept others. Unlike the gentleman from Basel, we should worry. We should worry enough to make certain all our citizens have shelter and a living wage. Let’s worry when the problem is as small as Frutigen. Let’s move to solve income fragility before fear again elects politicians who pander. When we have waited too long, it is much more difficult to change course, but our course must change to include rising prospects for those who feel left behind.
The next early afternoon, we say goodbye to Frutigen and we take the train to Frankfurt for an entirely different kind of travel. Another story about the present and the past, for another day. Gute Reise! Good journey to you.