Back on country roads in Switzerland

Debashree Majumdar | Updated on June 04, 2020

Over hills and dales: The Alpine valley of Aeschi is straight out of a picture postcard   -  DEBASHREE MAJUMDAR

A break in the Swiss countryside — after weeks of lockdown living — helps map the brain with the new normal of life

* On May 11, the Swiss government allowed domestic travel to resume among other relaxations from the lockdown

* Covid-19 statistics in Switzerland hover near 31,000 infected and nearly 1,700 deaths

* The number of new infections is falling each day

Switzerland is opening up — albeit gently. Grandparents are now allowed once again to hug their grandchildren, though they cannot babysit them for long hours. People can cross borders to meet partners, and restaurants and shops are returning to business.

On April 27, the Swiss government announced the partial loosening of a nationwide lockdown by permitting hair salons, physiotherapy practices and garden DIY shops to reopen. Two weeks later, on May 11, it further allowed for primary schools, public transport and domestic travel to resume. Currently, Covid-19 statistics in the country hover near 31,000 infected and nearly 1,700 deaths. But the number of new infections, marvellously, is falling each day.

While our newly acquired habits in early March — rigorous and frequent handwashing and social distancing to combat the virus — continue to rule our lives, some semblance of what is being touted as the ‘new’ normal is being provisioned like hard-earned rations.

Given that I endure the dispiriting European winter in the hope of seeing the sunny and stunning Swiss countryside in summer, I dart to the local house rental site the moment I learn of these new developments. Once I find a suitable rental, I write to the owner asking about the rules thereafter and if, just to be extra certain, they are indeed ready to have visitors again. The response to my mildly anxious email arrives immediately with the host green-lighting our stay in the Alpine valley of Aeschi, nesting at the foot of Mount Niesen.

My husband and I pack for our first short getaway from the busy city, where one can already spot young, pretty people hugging each other on the high street, men chugging beer sitting closely around a table by the sidewalk and groups of friends picnicking in the neighbourhood parks. Face masks, which the government hasn’t made mandatory, can mostly be seen on the elderly taking the trams or the bus. Social distancing, from the sample size of people frequenting the busy areas of the city, can be said to have been largely ‘cancelled’. While I find it a relief to see the number of new cases decreasing steadily, the enthusiasm, which is readily available to me on the eve of travel, seems to have vanished. This feels not only contradictory but deeply uncomfortable. I absolutely can’t wait to be amidst nature again, to hike across mountains under a shimmering summer sun, to hear birdsong at dusk, to stop and take in the infectious melody of the shady woods, and build vivid memories. And yet, attaining all of this within a few hours of embarking on a journey seems like an excess after weeks of diminished living. I go to bed looking for that smidgen of familiar emotion, but it eludes me.

When, the following morning, I notice markedly fewer people at the station, I’m besieged with guilt, wondering if we should have stayed home instead. But then the rules have been relaxed, I reason, as I board the train. Only when the ticket checker shows up with a smile, hidden behind a face mask but visible through his crinkling eyes and uppity tone, do I stop feeling like a thief on the run.

It’s early afternoon when we reach our B&B in Aeschi, around 200km north of Geneva. Sitting at the porch, the perfectly triangular Niesen stares down at us with its brown heaving weight, now punctuated with the creeping rash of fresh green growth of an almost-settled summer. Magpies fly in at lunch with their long dark tails trailing behind them. They commandeer the patch of garden that we’ve rented, peck around the shrubbery, dance on treetops, hunt for crumbs before chasing off a baby squirrel and, at one moment, having lost all interest in this particular plot of green, take off beyond the sycamore, allowing for the butterflies to return to the line of magenta hydrangeas.

At around three in the afternoon, when the heat becomes unbearable, l watch the so-far-invisible neighbours spill out of their cottages with mowing equipment, gardening gloves and weed clippers to trim away the unruly rise of the daisies and the buttercups that clump over the velvety green smoothness of their lawns. They ignore the harshness of the sun as they weed out the unwanted roots and shrubs, making their utterly perfect garden look identical to their neighbours’.

When I stand at the edge of the garden facing the valley that lines the horizon, which seems within touching distance, I hear the mild tinkle of cow bells. The chime grows louder until I can see a herd of Simmental or Swiss Fleckvieh cows, their brown-and-white spotted hide healthy and shining in the slanting light, dawdling back to their sheds in a perfect, single file — like a group of obedient children summoned to dinner by a doting grandmother.

I linger in the garden, letting the chill in the air travel through my flesh and reach my bones. At long last, the sun disappears, travelling one more day away from the pandemic’s (all digits crossed!) loosening grip. Time seems to lose its terror, as I feel the joy of travel return. We have a hike in the isolated mountains planned for the morning. Nothing seems to have changed. Yet everything has.

Debashree Majumdar is an independent writer-editor based in Geneva

Published on June 04, 2020

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