On tracing my Swiss roots

Have I ever mentioned that I am Swiss? Not in the passport carrying way, but in the way that Americans brag about their heritage–“I’m Irish,” “I’m French”–since we all seem to find being simply “American” so un-exotic.

At any rate, my great-great grandfather Henry Rüedi immigrated from Switzerland to California in the 1890s. He was 14 years old when he left his family’s farm with eight dollars in his pocket and boarded a ship for New York. He worked his way across the U.S. as a blacksmith, finally settling in Oakland as a hotel dishwasher. A few years later, he owned the hotel.

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I was always proud of his story and enjoyed bragging about my Swiss roots growing up. I had every intention of tracing my family once I arrived in Grandfather Rüedi’s homeland… and then…two years passed without me ever doing so.

That is, until last October.

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Two things happened last October: I felt our baby kicking for the first time and my grandfather suffered a stroke.

In the months since, he has recovered beautifully and those first, tiny kicks have become less magical, but at the time I was in crisis mode. I was flooded with emotions ranging from helplessness and homesickness to joy, but the one that surprised me the most was guilt.

I suddenly felt as though I had squandered two years in Switzerland visiting every place besides the one my family is from: Gächlingen. Here I had a living link to my relatives and my grandfather’s stories about growing up as a Swiss kid in Oakland, but I had failed to really take advantage of this gift.

I resolved to not let another week pass without finding “my people.”

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So off we went one Saturday on a three-hour train ride to the northernmost Swiss canton, Schaffhausen, where Gächlingen is located. Gächlingen is a tiny farming village outside the canton’s capital city with a population of 700 residents and one cafe.

Armed only with a photo of my great-great-grandfather’s home, we caught the bus to Gächlingen unsure of what we would find.

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This is the photo of the family home–ours is the one with the eaves jutting out over the entrance. When the bus dropped us off in Gächlingen, this is what we saw.

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Minus the modern cars, paved roads and a few renovations, the silhouette matched perfectly with the one my great-great-grandfather had left us.

Could this really be it? The family home? Did people who looked like me live here?

Around the side of the house was the entrance to the stables. The Rüedis, like most Swiss families, kept their animals on the ground floor of the home to help heat the upper floors where the family resided. A manure pile outside of a home’s entrance indicated a family’s prosperity: More animals equal a bigger manure pile. My grandfather proudly told me that when he visited our family in the 1960s, we had the biggest manure pile in town. I’m happy to report that the manure pile trend is no longer in fashion!

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We walked around town to see if we could find any other clues about what life was like for the Rüedis. From what I gathered, not much had changed since the 1890s. Gächlingen still appeared to be heavily agrarian, charming and quiet. We had run into almost no residents (besides livestock) and still had hours to go until our bus returned.

Then we spotted a major clue: Rüedi’s Market.

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We had to see if these Rüedis were my Rüedis.

Inside we met two older women, who quickly called in their English-speaking niece when they realized how poor our German-speaking skills were (very poor). Through translation we discovered that all three of the women were Rüedis. My cousins! In fact, about half of Gächlingen was populated by Rüedis. They also confirmed that the house we’d seen was Henry Rüedi’s home and that my cousin Jakob had sold it in the 1990s to move to Zürich.

Before the shop closed, we bought some local wine and honey. I was given the family rate, so I think I’m “in” with the Rüedis.

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Before catching our bus, we snooped around the graveyard behind the town’s only church. At least one-half of the graves were for Rüedis, which was strangely exiting. Obviously, my background comes from many places. My Swiss line represents maybe 20% of who I am, but finding such a great concentration of people I share blood with in Gächlingen was like finding my clan. And my future son’s. I can’t wait to share my Swiss stories with him in the years to come.

Where are you from? What is your family’s immigration story? It is especially important to keep these stories alive right now. Meanwhile, I’m wishing you a good weekend from Geneva…

On a new year

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I don’t know what is going on with you, but I’m really happy to have officially entered a new year. No matter where your political beliefs lie, 2016 was tough. More than tough. Uncomfortable. Unbearable. Almost unendurable. Well, the last nine weeks of 2016 were all of those things. Which, coincidentally, is about how long we have until our sweet, expat baby arrives in March!

Looking at the calendar in these terms helps me realize how much your world can change in nine weeks (and how unprepared we are for this baby…).

Despite staring down the longest “To Do” list I’ve ever written, I have many posts planned between now and when the baby arrives. I’m ready to write, I’m ready to share and I hope you will join me.

Happy 2017.

Meanwhile, enjoy some of the highlights from 2016:

Merry Christmas!

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“What is Christmas? It is tenderness for the past, courage for the present, hope for the future. It is a fervent wish that every cup may overflow with blessings rich and eternal, and that every path may lead to peace.”

-Agnes M. Pharo

In search of sunshine… Portugal

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I’ve got my sunglasses packed and I’ll be out the door in one hour for a flight to Portugal! We’re spending four days in the south — the “Algarve” region — visiting family and soaking up Vitamin D. We don’t have much planned beyond activities involving sunscreen and tapas. With Geneva temperatures hovering around the 30s and 40s for the past month, I couldn’t be more excited to fly south!

To top it off, Travel + Leisure this week named Portugal their 2016 “Destination of the Year.” The magazine’s editor writes Portugal is “exhibiting a dynamism that feels fresh and distinctive.” I’m excited to discover what he means by that.

Have you been to Portugal? Have you been to Faro? I’ll take any recommendations… meanwhile, a few fun links for your Thursday:

On unfamiliar territory

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This thoughtfully-written piece in the New York Times puts into words some of what I’ve been feeling for two years and some of what I’m just coming to terms with this morning. American journalist Jim Yardley reflects on what it is like to be an expat during these strange times. Be warned, the piece is long and will break your heart. Here’s an excerpt:

I heard it often, traveling around Europe as a journalist. I even heard it from an immigration officer at Gatwick Airport outside London, who teased me as he looked at my passport. I was an American abroad, which meant being held accountable for the strange and fevered state of my homeland, which meant facing some version of the question “What is going on in the United States?” Sometimes the query had an air of schadenfreude, but just as often there was a hint of real concern. The rest of the world already seemed to be going off the rails. It couldn’t afford to have America follow.

I don’t yet have my bearings in this new, unfamiliar territory we’re entering, so I thought I’d do the lazy thing and share what another has written. I can say this much: I feel more American than ever and am hurting more deeply for my broken country than I did when I lived in the United States. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the “distance makes the heart grow fonder” syndrome or maybe I didn’t really know my homeland as well as I thought I did.

It’s snowing in Geneva as I write this and it feels both gloomy and hopeful. Maybe all of this pure, white, heaven-sent confetti will cover some of the ugly, muddy tracks we’ve left.

One Weekend in Zermatt

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We made a pact in January to see more places in Switzerland, but after our two-year Swissiversary came and went we realized we had not made good on our deal. Our list of “must-see Switzerland 2016” had barely been touched and Zermatt was at the top. So, on a Friday we booked train tickets for Saturday to try and soak up as much as we could over a weekend.

What we didn’t realize is that October is Zermatt’s low season. Its very lowest season. Most hotels I contacted were closed until December and many restaurants had signs that read “See you at Christmas!” The town is fueled by tourism and October is wedged between ski season and summer, so I understand why. Still, I’d highly recommend visiting in October.

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If you ski and have only one chance to visit Zermatt, then wait. But if you are in town to hike, snap selfies with the Matterhorn and stay on a budget, October is a prime month. It is warm enough that you’re not likely to run into rain or fog. The high altitude hiking trails haven’t been closed yet and the fall colors are a dramatic juxtaposition to the snow-capped peaks.

Moreover, the hotels that are open offer their best rates of the year. We stayed in an adorable Alpine room with a Matterhorn view at the Hotel Bella Vista for half what it would run us during ski season–about $150 versus $300. The hotel has a spa open to all guests (with jacuzzis facing the Matterhorn!), a delicious complimentary breakfast and a romantic fireplace. We really enjoyed indulging in a luxury room on a mid-range budget.

Oh and we didn’t go hungry either. We enjoyed wood-fired pizzas and homemade tiramisu at Vieux-Valais. You can practically see Italy from Zermatt, so we had to try the local pizza.

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On the advice of friends, we took the Sunnegga funicular up where we began the Five-Seenweg or Five-Lakes hike with a view of the Matterhorn. There seemed to be a surprise around every bend of the trail, be it wildflowers, birds singing in the pine trees or a new perspective of the Matterhorn that I had to snap 25 times on my camera.

But after spotting four lakes and missing lunch, I got cranky. I’ll admit it. I had hit my hiking quota for the day much to the chagrin of my boy scout husband, so I suggested we take the Gornergrat train up to the peak. Luckily, he acquiesced. Once on the train, the scenery quickly changed from autumn to winter and I was glad I had overdressed in my ski parka.

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At the peak is an observation deck, two restaurants and a gift shop. We opted for the less expensive a la carte cafe and my husband was rewarded with some locally-brewed beer–which always tastes better with a view of the Matterhorn.

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Another reason we made visiting Zermatt a priority is because apparently babies and high altitudes do not mix…and by next spring, we won’t be able to visit.

It’s true. We’re honored to announce we’re expecting a baby in March!

It is sure to be the biggest adventure we’ve ever embarked on and we could not be more thrilled. Meanwhile, I’m excited to share what I’ve already learned about traveling while pregnant and sometime next year, what traveling with a little one is like. Here’s wishing you all something to celebrate this week, the big and small!

On the differences between Switzerland and the U.S.

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I came across an interview of a Swiss woman traveling in New York City and just had to share since it perfectly captures some of the differences between my home country and my adopted country. The original interview appeared in New York Magazine.

Americans do not know much about Switzerland.

“We’re from Bern in Switzerland. Even though it’s the capital of Switzerland, no one knows where it is.”

Yep. Although every Swiss person I’ve encountered knows that Washington, D.C. is the capital of the U.S., I’m guessing many Americans could not point to Switzerland on a map of Europe. Most people believe I live somewhere near Norway or Sweden. They think I live in someplace unbearably cold and snow-covered. Switzerland is actually down by Italy and Geneva’s winters are milder than D.C.’s.

Americans smoke far less than the Swiss. 

“We’re staying at an Airbnb in the East Village that’s very, very nice, but the fire alarm has gone off three times!”

I have not encountered a smoke alarm in Switzerland ever — I think, because smoking is so acceptable here. I have even seen my neighbors lighting up in my apartment building’s elevator since they can’t wait to get outside. Yuck! Smoking is outlawed even in public parks in California, so I’ve found this cultural difference very difficult to stomach. We actually brought a smoke alarm back from the U.S. for our Swiss apartment because we needed that little blinking red light for our peace of mind.

Americans are more aware of each others’ space than the Swiss.

“I was really surprised by how respectful people are of one another here. Except when we were having trouble with our MetroCard at JFK. An American lady yelled at us.”

I never realized the unspoken codes I adhere to in public spaces in the U.S. until I started living in Switzerland. When on a bus or metro in the U.S. it is considered polite to move to the inside seat to leave the outside seat free. One does not crowd around the door of a bus or elevator when new passengers are boarding. You always stand on the right of an escalator to allow people to pass on the left. Not so much in Switzerland. There is an “every man for himself” mentality here. As far as the woman who yelled at the Swiss traveler — well, welcome to New York.

I can’t wait to share more photos from our weekend in Zermatt. Meanwhile, a few, fun links: