Obwalden: Learning to be Urchig

urchig (Swiss-German) Lit. “earthy”; Of being connected to the land and the traditions of times past; Old-fashioned in a funny manner.

As you saw in the last post, getting into Switzerland was anything but a pleasant experience to me, and thus by the time I finally got off the train in Lucerne, with only one more connection to make before my final stop, I was cranky and weary.  That is until, out of nowhere, I body plowed into me and crushed me into a hug.  After a few moments to regain my sensations, it registered to me that this wasn’t some random strangerbut my friend, Sinah, the guy I would be staying with for the next ten days.  Between my struggles and stresses of the day and the fact that I wasn’t expecting Sinah to meet me in Lucerne, the reunion took me completely off guard but after just a few minutes, we were talking as if no time had passed.  “You look just the same,” Sinah told me, which I’m never sure whether to take as a good thing at tis age yet or not.  “So do you, except you’re hairs long,” I said, pointing to his mass of strawberry blonde curls he had been working on growing out

You see, Sinah actually spent his year abroad during high school, a common thing for a lot of European students, at Bigfork High School during my senior year.  Though he wasn’t technically a senior himself, he joined our class for the entirety of the year and was even allowed to graduate with us.  Aside from the bulk time we both spent in our favorite teacher, Mr. Applyby’s room throughout the year, we were also on the Speech, Drama, and Debate team together.  In other words, Sinah saw me at my best and my worst.  Senior year was a rough time for me.  I was constantly stressed and angry, but I also had a lot of things happen, and looking back those stand out more than the constant anxiety that weighed on me.  I’d like to think I’ve changed since then though, learned to handle myself better, grown up.  I think Sinah thought so as well.

During the short train ride from Lucerne to the village of Alpnach, Sinah and I instantly fell into talking about old times, about people we knew in high school and where they were now.  “Can you believe so and so is married?”  “Well this person actually had a kid right now!”  It’s odd getting to the age where that conversation comes up more and more frequently, especially because I can still hardly be made responsible for making myself breakfast let alone caring for a child.  When we got to his house, I was introduced to his family: his mother, Karin, his father, Victor, his four year old nephew/godson, Pedro, and Pedro’s mother Paula.  Since Pedro and Paula were from Brazil, the household was already a cultural mix with Swiss-German, Portuguese, and English words flying around at random.  Thankfully, everyone spoke English except for Pedro, who I could just as easily communicate with via smiles.  Everyone was instantly so kind and welcoming and I found myself experiencing that inclusive family life for the first time in quite a long time.

That night, I called my mom to tell her I had finally made it to my last stop and for the rest of the night, we sat up in my room, talking about the okay old days.  We talked about George, the loveable if not slightly annoying exchange student from Israel who lived with Sinah while he was there.  George, wanting to be a famous singer living the high life in LA, was always so disappointed that he been sent to Bigfork, Montana, a place just about as far away from L.A. life as you can possibly get.  We talked about the time when my best friend Zoe and I met up with the two of them in Las Vegas where were both spending spring break on some odd coincidence.  Going through old photos, we were reminded of a “Coke Around the World” taste session we did at the Coca Cola World there, and the grimaces on our faces brought back all the memories of some of the terrible ones.  We talked about classmates, teachers, senior project, and a host of other things I haven’t thought about in years.  A lot of conversation revolved around the speech team, as that dominated a large portion of our lives in high school.  Sinah and I did completely different events, me doing the depressing Serious Solo drama event and Sinah doing Impromptu.  I always admired Sinah for picking that event, as I considered it to be easily the hardest of any of the categories.  In Impromptu, you go into a room with your competitors, you’re give some topic, usually in the form of a political cartoon, and you have a small amount of time to write an entire speech on that topic.  Me?  I liked having a single piece that I memorized at the beginning of the season and stuck to for the rest of it.  Impromptu was even more difficult for Sinah considering English isn’t his first language.  He recalled the time when he got a cartoon portrayed two kids on a seesaw.  Not knowing what seesaw was in English, he called it “a scale in toy form”.

Inspired by our relived nostalgia, Sinah pulled out a folder of stuff from his days at BHS, even finding the end of the year certificate our speech coach gave out.  Sinah got the award, “Best Attitude Except for When Bread was Involved” invoking memories of our coach’s humor and the fact that Sinah was constantly complaining about how bad American bread was.  I can’t say I blame him in that respect.  I started thinking about my award was, but I couldn’t remember.  Something to do with a horror movie, probably because my state championship piece was something I adapted from the Sixth Sense, but I’d have to dig through my own nostalgia box to find out.  Sitting there reliving those days felt strange to say the least.  It’s an odd thing when you reach the age that you suddenly realize how long ago high school actually was.  It was kind of this youth shattering realization, the epiphany that time is actually moving on as a staggeringly high pace.  When I left Montana after college, I didmy best to leave high school behind me.  That’s why I went so far away, that and the small town suffocation I was feeling at the time.  But I must admit, it was nice to relive those days, if for no other reason than to appreciate how far I’ve come since then.

That night, Sinah let me sleep in his bed while he took the couch downstairs, despite my protests, but after one of the best nights of sleep I had gotten in a while, I was glad for his generosity.  The next morning was leisurely, with coffee (even non-instant!) refills and an actual breakfast spread of various types of bread (of which I had a high expectation thanks to all Sinah’s complaining about American bread), spread like Swiss cheeses, jams, and honey, and other various things like yogurt fruit.  It was all amazing.  The bread wasn’t disappointing in the least and the only problem was deciding which combination of spread to try on each piece. And the cheese, oh the cheese!  As a self-proclaimed cheese connoisseur, Switzerland was for me, having some of the best cheeses I had ever tasted.  Funnily enough, our American version of “Swiss cheese” is actually called Emmentaler and most Swiss people hate it, so I find it funny that the cheese they hate is the cheese we associate with them.  Actual Swiss cheeses are actually typically strongly flavored, hard cheeses.  A lot of the stuff was local made as well, and one of my favorite cheeses was an Obwalden made cheese I found at the local Migros grocery store.  The only thing better than the cheese was the chocolate.  Not to self: If necessary, throw away ALL clothing to make room for chocolate to bring back to the States.

Aside from the food itself and the abundance of it, I immediately liked Sinah’s family’s approach to eating.  As much as I love food, I also feel the need to sometimes be a bit overly polite, declining things offered to me for fear of taking advantage of peoples’ hospitality.  I am a firm believer in “no means no” but in the case of food, no for me usually means “yes but I’m too polite to say so.”  Right off the bat, however, Sinah’s mother told me, “Just take whatever you want.  In this family, you don’t take, you starve.” While it still took me a few days to get used to that concept, I felt welcomed and at home with them.  Sinah’s mother also quickly grew to understand my eating habits.  One time, when she asked if I was hungry, I half jokingly responded with, “I’m always hungry. It’s my perpetual state of existence.”  From then on, any time she would start to ask that question, she would stop her self and say, “You’re always hungry, right?”  I guess I’m pretty predictable.

For most of the day, we sat around the house relaxing.  In the afternoon, Sinah’s friend Linda came over and while they were hanging out and chatting, I used the opportunity to catch up my blog (which I actually managed to do for the first time in the last two months!).  Later on, Sinah met up with his band, a small trio of guys called The Rooted Amps (seriously you should check them out and I’m not just saying that because Sinah let me live with him for ten days).  On this particular day, they were working on doing some recording and they needed some background singers/yellers and guess who got volunteered?  That’s right me.  The song we were recording?  It was a song called, “Fuck the Army”, so I went in their makeshift recording studio with a few other guys I had never met and got to yell, “Fuck them all!... When they call!” a few times until they got the recording they needed.  That, right there, was what I call a unique travel experience.  How many people can say they’ve gone to Switzerland and done background vocals on a song called “Fuck the Army”?  Probably not many, I would guess.

The following day, Sinah decided to drive me around Obwalden, the canton within which Alpnach was located.  Switzerland is essentially broken into 26 cantons, or municipal districts, each with their own local direct democracies under the overall government of Switzerland.  It’s a bit like the U.S., but condensed into an area the size of one single state, and not only of the larger ones.  Like the States, there is a lot of pride that comes for one’s canton, especially in Obwalden where the lifestyle it a bit traditional.  It even has a bit of a rivalry with the adjacent canton of Nidwalden.  Their names even convey that; Obwalden means “above the forest”, while Nidwalden means “below the forest”.  Obwalden is technically the geographic center of Switzerland, essentially a valley comprised of seven villages or districts running between two mountain ridges, with the famous Pilatus rising just above Alpnach and the equally as large Stanserhorn on the opposite side.

We started by driving out to Sarnen, the capital of Obwalden and the next nearest town to Alpnach.  There, we walked around Lake Sarnen, partook in the amazingly efficient and organized Swiss recycling system, visited Sinah’s old home where his parents now run a progressive Montessori inspired school, and even passed by the company that invented muesli (which probably means nothing to you Americans, but trust me, muesli is a big deal in Europe).    From there, we drove on up the valley to the village of Lungern and its unnaturally turquoise lake of the same name.  As we drove and walked around, I was fascinated by looking out the window, watching the quaint little houses sprawled up the mountainsides, until they disappeared into the fog.   The roads themselves were crazy to me, essentially the width of a single car yet still technically two lane roads, with 80km/hr speed limits and blind corners.  Coming from Montana, it’s not often I find a road system that is very scary to me, but both Switzerland was pushing it.  But I guess that’s just very Swiss.

Everything here is very Swiss, in fact, and Sinah has been doing his best to get me to experience the most Swiss things I possibly can, from Flammkuchen, akin to a Swiss version of pizza yet not, to the (in)famous Swiss soda, Rivella.  A lot of foreigners hate the taste of it but I, oddly enough really liked it.  It wasn’t too strong in flavor, a bit neutral, which I guess is appropriate coming from Switzerland.   That night, for instance, after dinner with his family, Sinah, his father, and his visiting older brother Elias taught me how to play Jassä, a card game that is something along the lines of hearts with a few added twists throw in.  Having grown up playing hearts very competitively with my grandfather, the concept of Jassä came more easily to me than it does for most people, and even though I felt like I was doing terrible, everyone assured me I was doing far better than most for just learning the game. 

A few days into my stay, the weather still wasn’t really that great, kind of the rainy, dreary state that it had been in since I arrived.  On the whole, the break in the heat was actually really nice, but it was also preventing me from doing the one thing I really wanted to do in Switzerland: hiking (surprise).  Alpnach itself sits right at the beginning of the Alps, just on the crux between the mountains of the south and flatter, hilly area of the north.  It’s not right by the dramatic 4,000 meter peaks one instantly envisions when they think of the Swiss Alps, but its mountains still stretch up beyond 2,000 meters are just as beautiful as their larger southerly brothers.  While I wouldn’t so much terribly mind hiking in the rain, it seemed pointless to ascend up the mountains if all we would see was cloud bank.  Even from the valley, the view was obscured because the tops of these mountains were all shrouded in fog.  I couldn’t actually see how high the mountains reached until around my fifth day in Alpnach.

Instead, we decided to take most the day off and go into Lucerne later in the evening.   Around 4:30pm, we took the train into Lucerne, paying the extortionate prices for me as a foreigner to go such a short distance.  Of course, we had to first walk across the famous Kappellbrücke, a 14th century wooden bridge and its accompany water tower that people practically line up to take photos in front of.  But the bridge is fairly cool to see, especially with the paintings along its roof that were added in the 17th century.  From there, we walked into the Old Town section of Lucerne, which to be honest, is very much like any other Old Town I’ve visited.  They all have their quirks, but after traveling for so long, I’m finding they’re beginning to blend together.  One unique aspect of Lucerne’ however, was the painted guild houses with bright colored facades indicated what they buildings were once used for.   Of course, there are cliché gift shops and watch stores, selling watches for upwards of 125,000 francs, unaffordable even by Swiss standards. 

From there, we left the Old Town out to the old city wall where we climbed up in the Zytturm clock tower, with a nice view of the city. This particular clock actually chimes one minute before all the other clocks in Lucerne, a play by town politicians to show they had power over the church.  Looking at Lucerne from this tower, I was struck by how pretty it was on the whole, even on a grey and gloomy day,  With Lake Lucerne on one side and the great Pilatus looming on the other, and a small civilization in the center, it seemed the best of both worlds.  My tourist tour of Lucerne would not have been complete had I not seen the famous 6x10 meter lion monument set into the stone wall in Gletschergarten Lowendenkmal.  This monument was dedicated to the Swiss mercenaries who, in service of Louis XVI of France, were killed by French Revolution in Paris when the Tuileries were invaded on Aug. 10, 1792.  Though Switzerland itself stayed out of these wars for the most part, over 40,000 Swiss were actually serving under foreign banners at the start of the French Revolution.  The inscription above the lion reads, “Helvetorium fidei ac virtuti”, meaning “to the loyalty and bravery of the Swiss”

The park itself was lovely as well and had there not been a terrible host of tourists, I might have been inclined to relax there longer.  I am getting very tried of tourists.  I know I technically am one, but the longer I travel, the more convinced I am of the existence of a wide gap between tourist and traveler.  I am a tourist in one sense, but I’m not a “balancing Swiss waterbottles on my head while taking a selfie with a selfie stick in front of the lion monument” kind of tourist, which was legitimately something I saw.  Instead, I’m the kind of tourist that takes pictures of those kinds of tourists. 

From there, we went over to Sinah’s friend Luana’s flat for a small party she was having.  Luana also spent a year abroad in the U.K. and several of her British friends were down there visiting at that time, so I had the opportunity to fall back into British banter.   And I miss it.  Yet, my lack of British conversation hasn’t been enough to normalize some of my speaking habits yet.   Sinah’s been making fun of me for some of my Briticisms.  “Is it quite lovely, Amber? Or is it just fair enough?” I can only imagine the shit I’m going to catch when I go home. One of the British guys there, Liam, was particularly fun to talk to about, especially after I shattered his illusion that Squash was a worldwide thing.  “No, mate, Squash is very British.  It’s literally the only place in the world that has it.”  That simply blew his mind.  And of course, we bonded over our love of Digestive biscuits, which is probably one of my most missed things about the U.K.  Dear any British friends reading this: my address at school is 450 S. Easton Rd., Glenside, PA 19038.  Please send digestives at your earliest convenience.  Much love!

The night passed as more and more people slowly showed up. Despite the fact that most of them were already friends and could speak German, I never once felt excluded.  For the most part, they all spoke in perfect English.  If they did ever divert to speaking German, I simply zone out into my head.  It’s something I’m so used to at this point that not being able to partake in conversation no longer feels isolating in the slightest way.  It’ll honestly be more of a shock going home were I can understand everything. It’s amazing, really, how the mind is able to adapt and redefine what normal means.  For dinner, we all ate pasta, then sight on the chilly rooftop terrace under a blanket of stars drinking Quöllfrisch beer (again very Swiss) and just talking until the time came when we needed to catch the last train back to Alpnach.  Sinah insisted on getting me a ticket, despite the fact that I had to see anyone get inspected and despite the fact that it was late at night.  Swiss people are funny in that they almost always abide by rules, whether someone is there to enforce them or not.  I probably would have taken the small risk to not buy a ticket in this instance, saving an extortionate amount for a 20 minute train ride, but to the Swiss people, such a thing is almost entirely unheard of.  Maybe that’s the reason the Swiss manage to stay out of conflict.

In other news, I’ve been attempting to start learning Swiss-German while staying here, though my lessons have become a funny mixture of Swiss-German and high German, the official language of Switzerland, since Sinah believes high German will probably be more useful to me.  I have to say he’s probably right but Swiss-German is still fun and I like the fact that it’s an uncommon and eccentric language.  And the dialects of Swiss-German are as diverse as the cantons to which they belong.  You can drive five minutes down the road and suddenly not be able to understand what people are saying, at least according to Sinah, because, let’s be honest, I can’t understand what anyone says, except for the occasional important “scheisse” which he claims is the most important word for me to learn.  I’ve also been learning my numbers (at least to ten), important words (like the ever important käse, or cheese, and schokolade, or chocolate) and simple phrases.  Mi name isch Amber.  Grüezi!  Guete morge.  Prost!  Yah Gaaden. Chaisch dui ai aito fahrä? (That one more because it’s fun to say rather than useful).  I’m like a child again, questioning the meaning of everything Sinah and his family say, repeating them in order to get a taste of the words in my mouth.  German, particularly Swiss-German, comes more difficult to me than Spanish did.  I choke on the phlegmy “ch” sound though with the “r” flip I am doing remarkably well. 

Yet of all the words I have learned in both high German and Swiss-German, none has been so important and reoccurring as “urchig”.  It is the theme of my time in Alpnach.  While I defined the word loosely above, that definition doesn’t quite do justice to the true meaning of what it means to be “urchig”.  The thing about Swiss-German is that nothing is absolute.  There are zero rules, not even about spelling to Swiss-German because it’s more of a colloquial language than anything.  Even Sinah and his father disagreed about how to spell “urchig” when writing it out for me. 

It’s easier to witness than spell, and I witnessed “urchig” everywhere around me; in the little chalet houses, with dark wood scalloped sidings, like the scales on a fish, adorned with brightly painted wooden shutter and cleanly kept flower beds as a status symbol; in the broken down barns located right in the center of a town, standing simply because they always had; in the cacophony of lawnmowers and cowbells that constantly filled the air with a calming pastoral idyllic image like something out of a Wordsworth poem.  In Obwalden, at least, it was everywhere.

Though I witnessed it most strongly when Sinah and I took a quick trip up to Fang with his grandparents, Ursi and Fridel (even their names are urchig), to the house his grandfather grew up, a typically Swiss renovated farmhouse on the mountainside above Sarnin.  There, I was even farther removed from the modernity of the valley that wasn’t even that modern to begin with.  Up there, it was just houses speckled across bright green fields, freshly mowed after the previous days’ rain, and cows.  The house itself was stunning, situated right on the hillside, you could sit on any one of its four levels surrounded by rustic décor and looking out at the line of Alps and Sarnen lake below.  It was beautiful and peaceful, a place I could picture myself living, through I knew the impossibility of such a thing.  Even if I could afford to buy a house in Switzerland, I could never buy one of these ones.  Because Switzerland is small and a large proportion of its land is used for cattle farming, it is actually illegal to build new houses on much of the land.  You can only rebuild a house if a previously existing one is destroyed, for instance, in a fire.  Because of that, the existing houses are not only expensive, but actually invaluable.  People rarely ever sell them, more often handing them down within their families or selling them to people they know. 

Next to the house was a large barn for cows and pigs, the largest in Obwalden, to be exact, that Fridel allowed a local farmer to use for free.  The third building on the property was a garage, in which Ursi had created her very own museum, probably only visited by a couple people each month.  I was fascinated and utterly charmed by the fact that she just decided to create an antique museum.  I mean, how often do you hear about someone doing something like that in their spare time?  And the museum itself was no less fascinating.  For nearly an hour, Sinah endured being the feast of numerous mosquitos and we looked through the two levels of old farm equipment, furniture, photos, dollhouses, you name it.  I’m a sucker for antiques (like the time I dropped nearly $1,500 on an antique roll top desk from the mining days of Butte, MT despite not actually having a house to put it in yet).  I absolutely love them.  It’s actually funny because everything in that museum, which I and anyone else in American would consider “antique”, were simply relatively old household items for them.  Once again, the youngness and inexperience of America glared me in the face.

After we left the makeshift museum, we joined Fridel out on the family bench, poised directly on the edge of the mountain overlooking a stunning view of the valley below.  Fridel was just about as adorable as an old man could be, in his pink pinstriped shirt, maroon cardigan with elbow patches, square glasses, toothy grain, and grey sand streaked hair.  He couldn’t speak a word of English and even my name was foreign to his mouth.  Instead, he resorted to calling me “Edelstei” which is the Swiss-German word for gem and this eventually evolved into jewel.  Though it was simply because amber is technically a type of stone, I was flattered, and also glad that he didn’t just called me “bier” instead.  As we sat there on the bench, Fridel gave each of us a German cider, saying, “I want to do something nice for my grandson and the gem.”  Sitting there staring out at the rippling blue mountains on the horizon, listening as Sinah talked to his grandfather in Swiss German, laughing at nearly everything he said, I couldn’t help but miss my own grandpa.  I couldn’t understand a word they said to each other, and yet there was something so strikingly familiar in the very tone of their interaction, something that I could relate to and missed terribly.  My grandfather would have loved Switzerland.  Between going to mountain man rallies, starting fires with flint and steels, and shooting black powder, my grandpa was, after all, very urchig in a Montana way.

Despite all that description, there is still something distinctly untranslatable about what it means to be urchig.  After spending enough time here, I began to gain an understanding of its true meaning, but even still I can’t really verbalize it.  Urchig is a feeling, an innate understanding, a synchronicity with the rhythm of the countryside.  Maybe I’ve grown to understand it so easily because Montana is a bit urchig in its own way.  I think about our neighbor Dave, a seventy-something year old man who still plows our driveway, chops our wood, all with the most fantastic handlebar mustache.  That’s urchig.  I think about tiny wood cabins and a lack of locked doors.  Urchig is simply urchig.