Much like our American 4th of July, Swiss National Day is an official holiday celebrated with fireworks and parades, BBQs and bonfires. It’s a day that was designated to commemorate the founding of Switzerland in 1291 when members of three cantons came together, pledging their allegiance to the newly formed confederacy. Since that early document was first signed, the country has expanded to include 26 unique cantons. Every year on August 1st, folks gather in honor of the country’s ancient and humble beginnings.
A year ago today on Swiss National Day, Travis and I moved into our new flat near Fribourg after nearly a month of living in hotels and Airbnbs. We didn’t own a single piece of furniture. For the first few weeks, we slept on an air mattress on the floor with only the echoes of an empty house to keep us company. We didn’t have a car and were a bit confounded by the Swiss transportation system. We didn’t know about the bazillion types of insurance required, what taxes we’d have to pay, or about banking.
Did you know they don’t use paper checks in Switzerland?!
We didn’t speak French or German or Italian or Romansch. We knew barely a soul in our new host country.
Today, a year later, I’m humbled to reflect on how much has changed since last July, how much we’ve learned and grown, and how fortunate we are to have been able to spend a year in a foreign country. Despite Trav’s unexpected job loss – or perhaps because of it – we realized that more than anything else, August 1st is a day for us to rejoice in the lasting friendships we’ve made over the past year. And as with any kind of festivity, what better way is there to celebrate than with lots and lots and lots of good food?
In the early afternoon on August 1st, we heard a knock at the door.
Still recovering from several days of sleep deprivation due to our most recent relocation, we were lounging about our new apartment drinking coffee, one of the few food items we had left in our cupboards. We’d neglected to go grocery shopping during our move, and stores in Switzerland are shuttered on August 1st in honor of Swiss National Day. Knowing we very well might have to survive on nothing but coffee until Monday, we were grateful to find Nicole at our door, inviting us to lunch.
At the duly appointed time, we arrived promptly at their door in pajamas and spent the next two hours stuffing ourselves with Steak Parisienne, pasta, fresh bread, and caramel meringue with coffee for dessert.
After lunch, we were a bit surprised to hear someone ring the shared doorbell for our two apartments.
Several weeks ago, we saw one of our neighbors at the bus stop in town and gave her a ride to the train station. The same neighbor had stopped by to invite us over for coffee as a way to thank us for the ride. Never ones to say no to socializing and coffee, we happily descended on her house with our roommate, Gintaré, and our friend and landlord, Simone.
Onnens is a small town, and though we’d briefly chatted with our neighbor over the fence, the language barrier had prevented us from being more social. We’ve learned some French but not nearly enough to carry on a decent conversation. With Simone present to communicate in French when necessary, we finally met our neighbor’s husband and spent some time getting to know her two adorable kids, one of whom adores Touille. In fact, she informed her dad she is going to get a dog soon. She’s five.
Though we were expecting just coffee, they insisted we have “a little something to eat.” Within minutes, they spread a traditional Eritrean feast before us. Explaining how they make injera, a traditional soft, spongy flatbread with sorghum flower, I tore off a corner with fascination and was surprised at both the texture and flavor: it was a bit like a thick sourdough-flavored crêpe. After adding generous spoonfuls of a spiced meat dish and several other flavorful dishes, we all dug in. It was delicious! They followed it up with a ridiculously moist yellow bundt cake and more coffee. I was so stuffed by then, I didn’t think I’d ever be hungry again.
While we ate, they shared a bit about their lives as refugees in Switzerland, difficulties in finding employment, and singular desire for their daughters to have a better life here. Though their story is uniquely their own, I heard the same hopeful desire to one day return to their own country that I heard for years from my clients in Oregon. I admired their courage and sacrifice in leaving Eritrea.
I couldn’t begin to imagine the hardships they’d faced, and couldn’t help but compare it to our situation. Apart from a shared sense of homesickness, our situations are vastly different; considering we’re here by choice, are free to return to our native country any time or travel just about anywhere we want, and have never faced persecution or statelessness, I lost any final vestiges of regret because of Trav’s job loss. Now I’m simply grateful. Even if he doesn’t find a job somewhere exciting or new, we would still be happy just to go home to the US.
This sense of peace from being surrounded by friends and solidly connecting with folks we’d just barely gotten to know continued into our third – and largest meal of the day.
Shortly before 7 pm, we realized how late it was; we had reservations at 7:30. Thanking our gracious neighbors, we jetted home and hurriedly freshened up before meeting again out in our driveway. Francis had generously invited us to dinner at a nice restaurant and was patiently waiting with Carlos and Nicole. Along with Gintaré and Simone, the seven of us piled into 2 cars and chatted excitedly as we wound our way through Switzerland’s always green pastures to the shores of Lake Gruyère. Travis and I rarely dine at restaurants, and it was a huge treat to go out to a fancy dinner with friends, particularly in Switzerland where we dine out even less frequently.
Francis had chosen a lovely restaurant, L’Unique, and I liked it immediately. With its giant, round log beams, A-frame windows, and lake setting, we just as well may have been dining at a trendy rustic cabin in Whitefish, Montana.
In no particular hurry to order, I was grateful that our group was content to chat, not only because I still wasn’t hungry but because in our last year here, we’ve learned to “slow down” and just enjoy spending time with friends. For me, simply being unemployed has made me more generous with my time, but the culture of socializing here has also seeped in. Far fewer people watch TV, it’s expected that family or friends will share meals around a dinner table, and eating “on the go” is less acceptable.
Instead of immediately ordering dinner, Francis ordered a lovely bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin, probably the most expensive wine I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking. We all shared life stories and laughed, sipped wine and took silly photos until dinner arrived.
By then, we’d been there so long, I was actually hungry again. I can’t begin to remember what everyone ordered, but we all passed around bites of our own dish so we could sample everything. We had fun watching the server prepare Gintaré’s salmon tartar at our table before trying her salty, spicy dish. My favorite was actually my own meal, tagliatelles fraîches au saumon fumé (smoked salmon pasta). Trav’s entrecôte de boeuf, beurre café de Paris (beef steak in a butter sauce) was also excellent.
Only able to finish half of my pasta, I asked Simone and Francis about “doggy bags” in Switzerland, whether it’s possible to take leftover food from a restaurant after a meal. Though they both said it really isn’t common like it is in the States, Simone was quick to offer to ask the waitress on my behalf. Without giving any indication she perhaps found the request tacky or odd, the waitress smiled and whisked away my plate, returning promptly with it neatly packaged in a to-go container. Travis and I grew up in working-class families and regardless of how much money we earn, it’s ingrained in us simply not to waste leftovers. My mom would be appalled if I threw away perfectly good food.
We remained at the restaurant long after most of the tables had emptied, and we finally left well after dark, pausing in the fresh air outside to admire L’Unique’s cozy exterior in the evening light before caravaning back to the house to continue the festivities.
Travis and I brought out our only fireworks, a small box of poppers, and dispensed them around the circle for a few moments of noise and laughter. Our party moved into Simone’s apartment where we cracked a bottle of champagne and talked until nearly 5 am. Exhausted but content, we fell into bed as the light of day cracked the morning sky on what felt like a “new” year full of untold promise.