Tiny Country, Many Faces: The Story of Switzerland

Welcome to Interlaken
Welcome to Interlaken

There is a joke, or not a joke, that even Swiss people don’t know what they are. The country has four languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch, which even most Swiss people don’t speak. When you take a tiny portion from a tiny population, that makes 200 people in the world who speak a language. That’s a joke; it’s probably closer to 2000. Imagine if your high school spoke its own language understood nowhere else in the world. In a way that is the case, at least if you went to my high school. They/we were a breed of their/our own (I just had my 5 year reunion).

Yet the Swiss are decidedly not German, or French, and definitely not Italian. You should hear the way the Swiss and Germans talk about each other. It’s funny because the other countries hate both of them. And nobody likes the French. And why not throw in the Austrians as well, since they don’t like anybody. I met an anthropology student from Vienna who literally went “blah!” while tossing his head when I asked what European cultures he studied (he was more interested in other continents… fair enough. But “blah!”?).

too perfect
too perfect

Everyone in that part of Europe hates everyone else, and where Switzerland should be that perfect little meeting point of multiple cultures, it gets a reputation for being closed off, haughty, and very self-interested. It’s true that the country takes care of its people like they’re the last of an endangered species. Hell, Switzerland takes better care of its cows than some countries take care of their people (more on this later).

I had been aching to go to Switzerland since I got it into my head that it has a bunch of castles, but it was actually a disappointment in the castle department. The real (highly concentrated) castle culture is in central/eastern Europe, especially Poland, which I was thrilled to discover: my favorite culture was actually the culture of my own ancestors. A fact I would have known if I’d googled my ancestral lands at some point within 23 years.

My first stop was Interlaken. Formerly known as Aarmüle, they changed its name to give it a nicer ring to appeal to tourists. Appeal it has. Most of the people there were visiting Asians, specifically Koreans, which nobody that summer in Europe could understand, why suddenly all of South Korea was flocking to Interlaken. And the other half were American, Australian, and English mountaineers and adrenaline junkies, mixed in with your typical, usually younger backpackers yearning to return home with stories of getting wasted in the Alps.

Backpacker on the threshold of adventure.
Backpacker on the threshold of adventure.

People come to Interlaken for one of two reasons: the views, or because it is an extreme sports Mecca. The latter was a surprise upon arrival to me. I belonged to the former class; I said, “Where do I go to be right in the Swiss Alps” and people told me “Interlaken” with this gleam in their eye and so I went to Interlaken.

Interlaken
Interlaken

Well, it is a gorgeous view. As its new name implies, it’s situated between two lakes, Brienz and Thun, and bordered by the Aare River, which our Interlaken walking tour guide, Sam, spent fifteen minutes explaining the milky, sea green color of (limestone deposits). It really is a color that you cannot look away from, like a mystical river-length, roughly cut gemstone teasing your camera with a shade flitting evanescently between blue and green.

Aare River
Aare River

The river cuts between Interlaken and its neighboring municipality, Unterseen, another one of the 2,596 municipalities dividing the country. We went to the bridge where the two meet, separated by two small plaques bearing each municipality’s crest. One has a goat with two horns and two arms pointing up, the other a goat with one horn and one arm pointing up. In Switzerland they make you memorize all the variations of goats and which municipality they belong to, and then they quiz you. If you fail, you are exiled to Germany, the greatest shame.

The subtle differences among goats foster complex inter-municipality relationships just as nuanced as the crests themselves. Generally they are competitive, each municipality’s claim to superiority backed by, in their opinion, their superior goat, and it is not uncommon to be walking the streets of Interlaken looking idly up at the snowy nearby peak of Jungfrau and hear, when the topic comes to Unterseen, something along the lines of, “…monsters with a one-armed goat…”.

Either way, both are situated in one of the country’s most beautiful valleys, close to one of the highest peaks in the Alps, Jungfrau: it’s on every Interlaken keychain and magnet, and there is an abundance of those in every high-priced store in town, or every store in town. Indeed, Switzerland is expensive. A train ride of forty minutes costs 30 Euros. Coffee costs 4. Pad thai in the only Thai place in town was 17 (there would be no pad thai for me 🙁 ).

Interlaken Castle
Interlaken Castle

In spite of that, I managed to do Interlaken pretty cheaply by staying in a tent village and getting all of my food at the grocery store across the street. It was Bulmer’s Tent Village, the cheaper outcrop of Bulmer’s Backpackers’ Villa, the first of many hostels. You’re put in a cozy, waterproof, 6-bed little tent with an abundance of outlet extensions. In a place with no A/C and where the showers, toilet, and kitchen were uncomfortably close to each other, my biggest complaint was not enough kitchen counter space. I would stay there again without thinking. Plus they had a cat and an excellent Wi-Fi connection. “Only in Switzerland can you get a better Wi-Fi connection in the mountains than you do in Baltimore city!” my dad remarked one night when we were skyping.

I like how enthusiastic they are about road repair.
I like how enthusiastic they are about road repair.

The hostel’s epicenter was the bar/reception desk at the front, manned by a couple girls from the US and a guy from Germany. Both girls told me they had just been passing through in their travels and simply… stayed. Now they were working at the hostel. This was the first I heard of something like this and it blew my mind. They didn’t know when they were going back. They didn’t know where they were going onward to. How romantic and liberating and amazing, I thought, like the life of a wandering nomad.

Every night a bunch of muscular, tattooed, and nipple pierced English and Australian men would return from leading a canyoning group or guiding skydivers and sit around the bar, haggling the American girls some but mostly talking about what was on the menu for tomorrow’s extreme adventures with the casually amused air of expecting a new product in the grocery store. One of the girls had to lead an all-Spanish-speaking group ice climbing the next day. “That should be interesting,” she said in an amused tone. A couple times bikers showed up, riding through, in the form of one group and one lone soul. Tattooed and world weary, they immediately found a place among the sports instructors.

We would hunt them for sport.
Paragliders. The sky was full of them.

This was the crowd the tent village attracted; thrill-seeking extreme sports enthusiasts twice my size. It was a much more relaxed atmosphere than the nearby party hostels filled with… well… people like me. But this wasn’t Switzerland. This was a fascinating subculture of travelers I’d never encountered before. Occasionally I saw a real citizen of Interlaken. You could pick them out because they went quietly on their way without ogling their postcard surroundings. Interlaken is the town of perfect Swiss ski lodges. In every detail each one looks so much like the ideal Swiss cabin that it’s probably more like the original than the original.

The whole town goes too far with this image, exceeding the inspiration to become a parody of itself. It’s too cute to be real. And by real I mean authentic.

A traditional procession of cows. One of the cows became intrigued by my camera and walked into me. It's on video.
A traditional procession of cows. One became intrigued by my camera and walked into me. It’s on video.

Well, it would be a waste to have come to Interlaken and not done at least one extreme sport thing, and a guy from the tent village, Eric, agreed. What to pick? 400 Euro skydiving? 100 Euro lift to the top of Jungfrau? We narrowed it down to bungee jumping or canyoning.

What’s better? Sixteen seconds of absolute thrill or a few hours of still-much-higher-than-average thrill? We shelled out 100 Euro each on canyoning and didn’t regret it.

You traverse a river in a wetsuit, following the current into natural slides with freezing plunges and jumps into deep pools. Like most of the novices I stumbled across slippery rocks ungracefully and uncertainly, watching the instructors (whom I was surprised to later find at the tent village) glide through it like gazelles skipping across the savannah, which is probably how they felt, doing this for a living.

At the big jump, for the first time in my life my body froze and said point-blank “no.” It was non-negotiable. I mean, I did jump, because otherwise I would’ve been the only person not to, but that momentary reaction…. I’ve fantasized about going skydiving. Now I’m not so sure.

It was amazing. I know it sounds cliché but you really know the river this way. It’s like – I can’t believe I’m going to post this publicly – you are part of the earth. There’s nothing more real. T.T Forgive me. Send me to Germany.

Afterwards we did another must and got fondue, eating on homey plates with cows on them. There was easily enough for two people and splitting the cost made it taste even better as we savored the quaintness and fresh mountain air and Eric told me about the best hostel in Prague to stay at. I mean, Interlaken is a beautiful place! The views are unbeatable! It’s just so expensive and touristy.

Lake Thun
Lake Thun

I was going to continue on about other parts of Switzerland, but I’ve written so much about this little heaven that it’s all we have time for. Until next time then.

And it is around 35,000 people who speak Romansch.

I have too many photos of dogs in fountains.
I have too many photos of dogs in fountains.

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