Searching for dead relatives in the Swiss country side
06.22.2013 - 06.22.2013
My wife and I hop on the S7 train at the Berne Bahnofplatz and in seventeen minutes we disembark in the Swiss countryside, in the village of Bolligen.
Bolligen is the home of no one famous; but it is the home of my great-great grandfather, Christian Mutti. A while ago, my brother found immigration papers on Ancestry.com that documented his migration from Bolligen to Valais (a Swiss canton) to Calais to New York, and finally to Indiana.
We leave the train platform and hike fifteen minutes up a steep hill to the village. As we follow a cobblestone path that leads to the town church with a view of the valley, I look out over the Swiss countryside— rolling hills and verdant pastures that reach to a horizon of mountains. It must have been difficult for Christian Mutti to leave this, I think. But I speculate that it was economic, that he was part of the Swiss migration to America in the 1890’s.
We decide to try to find the town cemetery. Maybe we can discover Christian’s gravestone. So we take a seat on the dining patio of the town’s bistro restaurant. We'll have a drink and ask our waitress for directions.
The bistro mixes the modern with the old. The design of the small plaza and a row of several specialty shops is elegant in its simplicity. The landscaping is lush and it looks like they must scrub the streets every night.
I go inside the restaurant to us the WC. The design of the dining room is clean, sleek and uber-modern. No cuckoo clocks in here.
We finish our locally brewed beer, and I ask our waitress if there’s a cemetery nearby. She ponders the word and then lights up. “Yes, she says, “straight up that road.” She says, swinging both arms in the direction of the cobblestone street that runs in front of the church.
So we walk up the hill. The low-slung profiles of the homes remind me of upscale neighborhoods in California— Laguna Beach, La Jolla, or Carmel. I’m surprised that there are Mediterranean-style adobes mixed with cottages. Gardens and flowers abound. We climb for ten minutes but no cemetery in site.
We’re about to give up as we see a man in his mid-thirties approach us; he must be walking to town. As he passes us, he nods, so I ask him, “Is there a cemetery nearby?”
“Cemetery? I am not familiar with that word. Could you explain?”
“A place where you put dead people,” I say.
"Ah," he says, "we call it 'friedhof' in German. Follow me. I will take you there."
"He leads us there and we chat as we go. He just moved here a year ago from Germany to teach art in the local high school. We arrive at a wrought iron gate. He opens it for us and says, “Here is the cemetery. I hope you find what you’re looking for.”
We walk through the rows of tombstones looking for Christian Mutti. Flowers have been planted on tops of the graves. Watering pots and spigots are located nearby to allow people to tend the graves of their lost ones.
We search for a half-hour, but we don’t find Christian Mutti. In fact, I don’t even see the name Mutti on one stone. But I think I found what I was looking for—a feeling for the place and for the way of life where part of the family came from.