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Report 1204: Zig and Georgia's Trip of Gifts

By zig from Kentucky, USA, Fall 2006

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Page 4 of 18: 09/27/06 Bern, Jegensdorf, Iffwyl, and Fraubrunnen

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Iffwyl, Switzerland

We did find a giant chess board in the dark and set up all the pieces. I was shocked that they were all actually there. Can you imagine how long a 3’ tall chess man would last in a typical American park, let alone a complete set? And these pieces were obviously not brand new. They showed the scuffs and buffets of many playground fianchettos and alligator gambits. As we were searching out wounded soldiers in the underbrush a stealth-policeman buzzed by on his bicycle to see what we were up to. I guess that explains why they haven’t deserted. Determining that we were harmless he pedaled silently away.

After feeling our way around in the rose beds we sat by the low garden wall, picked thorns out of our thumbs, and waited for the sun rise. It was now only a little after 6am with just the faintest hint of pink peeping over the distant snow-capped mountains. The bench was frigid and there was just enough of a breeze to frost your grandmother’s crabapples. After 30 seconds of waiting patiently we decided the sunrise would look just fine from down at the warmer riverside.

The descent was certainly faster than the trip up, but I noticed that my knees seemed to be getting a little rubbery. The famous bears (for which Bern received its name in the 10th or 11th century) were evidently still abed. Their pit was therefore empty. Eventually Dieter opened the little breakfast nook and we feasted on stupendous bread, hot croissants, butter, and jelly. The coffee was to die for of course. We wrapped up the leftovers in a napkin and took them to snack on as we hiked back across the river, up the cobblestone streets, and toward the train station.

Along the way we did manage to visit an “old Catholic” church that was being refurbished. It had some lovely stained glass, one especially gorgeous blue rose window with Christ as a pelican, bloodying his own breast to feed his brood. We also passed a dour Protestant Cathedral which seemed to be the unofficial homeless hangout. That was a little spooky. Hard for me to think of the thrifty and industrious Swiss having any homeless population at all. Also saw a stained glass atelier with some really lovely things in the window. I made note of their hours with the intention to come back after our road trip.

Back in the train station: Boy, those Swiss run their trains like a fine watch; sort of like a fine Swiss watch, I guess. They are clean and on-time to the second. The area between Bern and Jagensdorf to the north seems to be about half residential and half agricultural. Even the clearly residential parts harbor little garden plots with the ever-present, over-laden, apple trees. It was just a twenty minute ride with one stop at a busy shopping mall and outlet center. Georgia didn’t want to get off. She didn’t seem to have a fever.

In Jagensdorf no one in the station spoke any English. We searched out a couple of words in our phrase book and pantomimed that we needed to rent a bicycle. There were hundreds of them under low open sheds beside the station. The station master was emphatic that there were none for rent. I guess there are a lot of bicycle commuters. So relying on the crude map we were able to print out from the web, we set off walking toward Iffwyl. At least we hoped we were walking toward Iffwyl. The map was pretty clear about which side of the train track it was on so we knew the right general direction and the map only showed two main roads heading that way. Both of them went there, more or less, and it was only supposed to be 2.5 kilometers. We did see what appeared to be a bus stop but were afraid the bus would just carry us back to Bern, so we took a deep breath and started off hopefully. Soon we were deep into tiny little village streets and alleys and never really completely sure which way we should go.

Eventually we pushed through to the outskirts of town and saw a farm lane leading through some really fine pasture land. It narrowed and narrowed until it became a dirt track, but one being serviced by a street-sweeper. We asked the driver if this was the road to Iffwyl. He must have been hard of hearing because he had a terrible time understanding what I was asking. Eventually he smiled and nodded and indicated that we should turn left at the next paved road. That was only about another 50 yards or so, so the constant drone of muttering that I’d been hearing behind me seemed to subside. The paved road, unfortunately, was only six or seven inches wider than the dirt track we’d been on and because the fields were muddy we had to walk right on the road. Mysteriously, the muttering started up again, and seemed to crescendo whenever a car whizzed by. Swiss drivers are no more likely to pick up hitchhikers than Americans so we walked smartly only diving off the road when one bore down on us. The only part of creation interested in our progress seemed to be the cows in the nearby fields. We could see a little town clearly about a mile or so away and were greatly relieved to find a sign indicating that it was actually Iffwyl.

If you look up “charming” in your Funk and Wagnals you’ll see a photo of the place. Why in the world would Johannes want to leave such an obviously peaceful and quiet village? A young couple getting into their car pointed out the restaurant, Wirtschaft Kreuz, for us.

Lisa Konig Staub knew that we were to arrive sometime on the 27th, but she didn’t know exactly when because we didn’t know exactly when. She’d warned us that the restaurant would be closed for the Swiss vacation season but that we should just knock loudly and be patient. We did and we were. The building was enormous. It had obviously once been a gigantic household with an attached dairy barn. The whole complex must be 200 years old and Lisa showed us a photo of her father as a young boy playing outside the house with his parents and brothers and sisters. Except for a new coat of paint the building was unchanged. The whole village was pure Switzerland and the restaurant looked to be the center of the village. It had been in her family for five generations.

Lisa opened the door blowing her nose. She had a terrible cold (which she later shared with me) and her eyes were watering as much as her nose. I felt terrible for her, but also very thankful that she was there, and fluent in spoken English. She’d worked in a London Hotel and had only come back to Iffwyl to take over the family business when her father died suddenly. They had made cheese at one time. Now the stables were rented out for catered wedding and anniversary parties.

As bad as she felt she gamely looked through all the photos I’d brought though I could tell her heart wasn’t in it. It was sort of odd. I brought photos of people. She took out photos of buildings and coats of arms to show us. She was sure that there was no relation between her family and ours, but she was very interested in the 100 year old German Dutch obituary I showed her saying that Johannes had come from Iffwyl. She got on the phone and called all eight of the other Konig families in the area and tried once more to find a connection. Absolutely none of them had any family memory of a Johannes going off to America in the middle of the 19th century, let alone taking other family members with him. She did, however, want me to meet her 92 and 85 year-old aunts.

The younger aunt was pretty cloudy, but the 92-year old was absolutely amazing. Just on constitution alone she could easily be related to that first generation of Konig children born in the US. They all reached their 80s and 90s without breaking a sweat. She too was thin and wiry, of medium height, with the brightest eyes you could imagine. Auntie also read the obituary with much interest and brought out a typescript of the family history her parents had begun. In it there was a mention of a Johannes Konig who “emphatically” died in a farming accident. There was some confusion on my part about the exact meaning of “emphatically.” Lisa struggled to explain her translation. The upshot seems to be that people weren’t really sure what happened to Johannes and therefore surmised that he “must” have died in a farming accident. “‘Must’ is ‘emphatic,’ yes?” I admitted it was. The same man was mentioned again in the history as having died of a lung disease. The odd thing is that my Johannes did emigrate about the time this other Johannes “emphatically” died and he really did die of pneumonia in Pennsylvania. There was no mention of any emigration though. No mention of any brothers or sisters or missing wives and children. Could Johannes have slipped out of such a small village without leaving a ripple? Or was there something about his leaving that inclined those who remained behind to drop him down the memory hole?

I showed Auntie pictures of our family. I don’t have a picture of Johannes, but my brother Jim’s picture brought a surprised smile to her face. She had pasted and thumb-tacked pictures of her extended family all over the wall beside her little breakfast table. She took down a faded picture of a smiling young couple and identified them as her mother and father. There was a definite resemblance between her mother and Jim. Auntie loved looking at my photo of Johannes’ grown children. We struggled to communicate with each other for a while then lapsed into silence. Lisa was restless and said she needed to get back to the restaurant. We tearfully kissed Auntie goodbye, and she clung to my hand as we walked out the door. Even when she finally let go, she continued to wave while we climbed into Lisa’s little red car. If we were not family before this meeting, we certainly were afterward.

Lisa had work she needed to do but asked us to come back to the restaurant in an hour or so and we would visit the local records office. Georgia and I walked all over Iffwyl in about 15 minutes. We passed an especially fragrant pig pen then sat on a bench in the school playground for another 15 minutes watching workmen install a sewer line leading toward a new subdivision mushrooming up out of a nearby pasture. We wondered how they were going to like having the pigpen for a neighbor. Then we walked to the bus stop and tried to coax a little herd of cows into petting range with a handful of the ubiquitous apples. Each cow had its own collar with a clanking bell, and each bell clanked lazily as they edged closer and closer to the barbed wire fence. Locals watched me bemusedly as I snapped picture after picture of teasing cows who placidly munched my tossed apples but wouldn’t let me actually touch them. That killed another 15 minutes or so and we hiked around the town one more time snapping pictures before we headed for the restaurant. I would have to honestly say that Iffwyl is less exciting than Bern. The pig pen was as odiferous, in its own way, as the rose garden, but I think the garden had more pure excitement-potential.

Lisa piled us into her stuffy little red car again and we raced off for the county clerk’s office in Fraubrunnen. Unfortunately the office was closed and Lisa promised to return another day to search for records of Johannes’ wedding in 1839, or for records of the brothers and sisters he left behind. We hugged goodbye outside the clerk’s office and promised to stay in touch. She didn’t have time for lunch with us. I’m pretty sure she doubted we have a common ancestor, and even if we did, time and circumstance have now lead our branches off in radically different directions. She has responsibilities to people I’ll never meet, and she can only imagine our life in the US. The visit, though, taught me that family isn’t just the people alive at the same time we are, but also the people who came before us, and those who will come after. And I also learned that there are people, like Lisa, who identify themselves more with where they come from, than who they grew up with. My Johannes only became interesting to her with the mention of Iffwyl in a faded old scrap of newspaper. She would say with our airplane seatmate: “I love family but don’t want to hang out with them that long.” Her breakfast nook, that is, is covered with pictures of familiar places, rather than faces of familiar people.

But Auntie and I studied each other’s face longing to see the features of a beloved family member. And I really think we both did.

(to be continued)

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