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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 5 of 18: 9/27-28/06 Fraubrunnen to Bern to Lausanne

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Lake Geneva

In Fraubrunnen we walked over to a little café called “Café 22” for lunch and enjoyed a tomato salad with tuna, a hard-sausage sandwich, and very timid Swiss beer. We caught the express train from there back to Bern. I can’t believe that I was the one who wanted to stop and shop at the Mall we passed and it was Georgia who didn’t want to get off the train. What is wrong with this picture? Isn’t it odd that you can be married for 37 years, raise four children together, weather any number of major and minor catastrophes, and still provide your spouse with liberal doses of mystery and amusement? I leave it to your imagination which of us is mysterious and which of us is apparently an endless source of amusement.

Then when we got back to Bern, Georgia wanted to go shopping. It was just as well because I wanted to visit the Atelier I’d seen earlier: “Martin Haler: Glassmaler.” The shop was right by the Landhaus, not 20 feet from the edge of the river in a little cul-de-sac of downstairs shops with upstairs living areas. The leaded glass lantern above the door showed clearly that Herr Haler was an innovative artist. It was an open-bottomed cylinder with a wide brass coolie-style cap. Blues and greens swirled in a lovely watery pattern. Really lovely. The lead looked different from the lead we use in the US. I was anxious to watch over his shoulder.

A bell tinkled when I opened the door and Martin looked up. He was sitting, hunched over, on a tall stool in front of a small glass easel. A gorgeous coat of arms was coming to life in front of him, illuminated by the natural light from a bank of windows. The ceiling was low and ancient wood paneling glowed softly. The only sound came from the soft murmur of the river outside. Martin said something to me in German but didn’t stop his work. He was applying a thin film of tracing black to the enameled colors to add shadows. His precise and deliberate motions bespoke more than just a lifetime of practice. There were yellowing news articles on the wall showing him as a young man standing next to an older glass painter, evidently his father.

Just then Martin’s assistant came through the door and spoke to me in German. “No sprechen zie Deutsch,” I said. “You speak English?” he replied. “Yes,” I said gratefully, “Do you speak English?” He said that he spoke a little but that Martin spoke none at all. I complimented them on their work and showed them one of my brochures. I told them I was visiting Europe and taking every opportunity to visit other glass artists. I asked if I could take some pictures of them. There was a brief exchange between the two. Martin rolled his eyes. The assistant said “No pictures please, Martin has had problems with people stealing designs.” I understood his concern and put my camera away. Martin seemed to relax at that.

I asked where he had learned such painting skill. It turns out that he is both the son and the grandson of Glassmalers. And he is often called upon to repair ancient windows that have become cracked or broken over the centuries. That gives him time and opportunity to learn from the best of the best. Did I say that I was jealous?

I followed the assistant back to his work bench and watched him flux and solder the entire length of the leads rather than just the joints as we do in the US. That was what gave their lead such a distinctive look. And as far as I could see they used only the German hand blown glasses. The gleam and transparency of that glass contrasted exquisitely with the silvery leads. And then finally, Martin used thin brass rebar as part of his design. Normally the rebar is just tacked on to support glass work or left off completely with really inexperienced workers. Martin took this functional part of the craft and gave it an esthetic part to play. He had a series of flowers, for instance that used the rebar as stems. Quite remarkable. Coupled with his exquisite painting and enameling I knew I was watching a master craftsman. I wished that there was some way I could study with him for a few months but I knew I was in their way so I made leave to go. They gave me several of their advertising brochures and told me how to find their web address. I think they realize how much I really admired their work and I think they were glad I’d stopped by. For learning my craft this one stop made our trip to Europe worthwhile.

Outside I sat on one of the benches along the river and made notes to myself about Martin’s technique. It was chilly, but not really uncomfortable, and I was wholly wrapped up in my notes when I heard someone clear their throat. I looked up to see an elderly woman pulling a two-wheeled grocery cart behind her with a pitifully small paper bag perched on it. She was dressed rather shabbily, that is to say, her clothes were clean, but a good 30 or 40 years old. Her shoes were black and what would have been called “sensible” even in the 1960s. Her sweater was blue-black and threadbare. “She’s homeless,” I thought.

She cleared her throat again and wheezed something to me in that peculiar brand of German-Dutch that is spoken in the “German” cantons. I hadn’t a clue what she was saying but figured that she was hitting me up for money. “No sprechen zie Deutch,” I said and went back to my notes. I looked up and she was staring at me incredulously. Seriously, she looked dumbfounded. “She can’t believe I’m not Swiss,” I thought. Neither of us spoke. She just stared at me and the river gurgled behind the low wall. “Sprechen zie English?” I asked. “Nay,” she huffed in obvious disgust. “Englisher?” she asked. “Ya,” I replied. She shrugged and wagged her head as if to say “Can you believe THAT?” She pantomimed being tired. I stood and bowed, motioning that I would love to have her join me on the bench. She bobbed a slightly ironic curtsey, and sat down heavily. We sat in absolute silence for about 10 minutes. Ten minutes is a pretty long time when both of you would like to say something but can’t. Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer, “Parlez vous Francais?” I offered. “Nay,” she replied with great disdain, as if speaking French would be even more humiliating than speaking English.

We lapsed into silence again for another five minutes. Then she stood and said something that nearly choked me. I swear I heard her say “Ich bin Konig,” I could have died. “Konig??” I asked. “Ich bin Konig” I said patting myself on the chest. I wrote the word on my pad for her to see. How in the world could I travel these many thousands of miles to meet my relatives the Iffwyl Konigs, apparently miss them there, and find one on a park bench by the river. God really must have some weird sense of humor.

“Nay,” she said again. “Ich Hunger” she said and wrote the word on my pad. Hungry. I decided that she was justified in thinking we Englishers fools. “Ah, yah,” I smiled and nodded, “Hunger.” She indicated that she lived just around the corner and stood there uncertainly for the longest time. I had the impression that she wanted me to come have supper with her or perhaps she was still hoping for some money? In any event I had no means of saying anything to her and eventually she walked slowly away.

It feels odd to me to meet strangers like this old woman or Lisa and realize that we really are swimming in the same gene pool. I “belong” in Iffwyl or Bern in a way that I’ve never belonged anywhere in the US, even though I’ve lived in 10 different states. And yet, I found Iffwyl humorless and boring and Bern felt just as cold to me as Jacqueline had predicted it would. I guess I’m really glad old Johannes picked up and left whatever the reason. And it must have been some doozey of a reason for there to be no family memory of him at all. I know that in the middle of the 19th century the Swiss government was paying for the passage of landless peasants because of waves of hunger and famine that swept through the countryside. Maybe emigrating was shameful, a recognition that you were a failure. America, then, might have been Johannes’ “do-over.”

Early next morning we were up and on our way to the train station again. We were traveling back to Italy via the city of Lausanne on Lake Geneva. It might take a little longer but it gave us a chance to see more of Switzerland. The trip was similar to the trip to Iffwyl, with very gently rolling hills and immaculately kept farms and garden plots. No farm seemed bigger than 40 or 50 acres, and each house seemed to have its own garden. Apple trees everywhere again. The houses were quaint, usually two or three stories. I don’t remember seeing any single-story dwellings anywhere in Switzerland.

As we approached Lake Geneva the language switched from German to French for both the signs and recorded announcements. I began to feel much more comfortable as I could now understand much more of what was being said though I still couldn’t express myself very well. Not being able to understand or be understood is always the worst part of visiting a foreign country but when you learn to just go with the flow you learn that it’s going to be okay.

Lake Geneva is stupendous, like an inland sea. We saw the water long before we saw the city. Miles and miles of immaculate vineyards slowly gave way to charming pastel towns, which gave way to expensive villas as we approached the city limits. We were only going to layover for a couple of hours and I really wanted to see the Cathedral under repair. It was supposed to be glorious. We should have taken the time to find a locker for our luggage. As always, the Cathedral was built on the absolutely highest point of the city and Lausanne was a city of several mountain-like hills. In French we asked a very nice lady on the street how to find our way and she looked dubiously at our rolling carry-ons. In a mixture of English and French she explained very patiently that we needed to find the road that lead to the bridge or we would find ourselves plunging down tiny streets to the valley between the mountains and we’d have to climb up the other side. As it was we only had to go up, and up again, and up again. We found the bridge to the Cathedral just before my nose began to bleed. I think 12th century bishops just wanted to make it hard to go to church.

The building itself was in very elegant decay because the stone was not standing up well to our gasoline-powered world. Some of the interior decorative pillars were literally held together with Ductape while awaiting their facsimile replacement. The stained glass was only so-so with most of it broken out at the same time the “papist” statues were smashed in the Reformation. There seems to be some regret now about that iconoclasm. We saw several protestant churches in Bern that were putting statuary and figurative glass back. Poor Zwingli must be spinning in his grave like a top. The rose window looked original but either it had been damaged by the smog or over-cleaned by some other restoration zealot. Much of the painting appeared to be lost. That’s the problem with either restoration or reformation, sometimes it cleans things too well. Age adds a patina to windows and institutions that is both natural and often very lovely. It’s good to clear away grime and institutional sin, perhaps, but it’s a pipe dream to think that either cosmetic surgery or an abrasive scrubbing can return a person or an institution to childhood innocence. It’s just not going to work for the long term and it’s liable to introduce as many problems as it solves.

And so we coasted back down to the train station, arresting our freefall only long enough to buy a little something to “smack” on.

(to be continued)

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