Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Sion Valley, Switzerland: Immersing yourself in a village....

"You need a village. . . . Your own village of you and the people and the plants and the soil, that even when you are not there, it awaits to welcome you back again."    --Cesare Pavese
My daughter and her husband at a yodeling festival near the Lausanne Valley

My daughter and I are both expats. I live in Doha, Qatar, and she resides in a small French speaking Swiss village with her husband. My new home comprises dozens of languages, dialects, cultures, and traditions here in the Middle East. Wafts of pungent spices and seeing people pray five times a day are my rhythm of life now. I meet people from Yemen, Tunisia, all parts of Africa, Morocco, India, Bangladesh, Nepal every day. Last night a man from Comoros (I responded, "Where?" when he told me his country--learning yet another place I have never known) visited my house. Conversely, my daughter, a non-French speaker (learning to speak French), is living in a charming village where people have inhabited for centuries--tucked next to the French Alps. Everyone speaks French--a place where chocolate and cheese reign. The Swiss French culture dominates every sliver of life. Her valley is a lifestyle that requires you to immerse yourself in one culture and language. Whereas, my life is a mosaic of many colored tiles from remote and faraway places. 

As her mother looking on, I am proud of my doggedly determined, yet fun loving daughter who is embracing a new language, life, and village. I tried to give her that village when she lived under our roof. But now she is submerging herself into a rich culture that is beckoning new friendships and mentors. I tell her it will be worth it--to leave the unfamiliarities, the solid ground. The only way to absorb a new place, a new home, is to walk out to the deep water. and then plunge in. That's right--just dive in with unabashed pride that you can do it--even when you make an embarrassing faux pas learning French. You gotta leave the shore to learn to be a part of a village. No dangling toes on the shoreline.

Being in a village is learning the traditions and customs that never die there. It's talking to the shop owners, and asking them what cut of meat would be good for a recipe you are making. In her case, it is learning about all the cheeses of the valley, and why every cheese is delectably different. It's being stopped on the street to see how your family or dog are faring. It's going to a village play or concert and see your friends and fellow villagers perform--just because you want to support them. That's what new friends do for one another. It's about admiring someone's flowers, beehives, orchards--and then telling them so. And when we see the beauty of our new village, it becomes more lovely to us--more a part of us. Because it is our own village now.

Thank you Sion Valley for letting a new villager into your home. Everyone needs a sense of place. As Wendall Berry, one of my favorite poets reminds us, "You don't know where you are until you know who you are." But I will offer that villages and beloved places help us become who we were meant to be. And when someone new comes in trying to learn your language and culture, invite them through the gate....

On a delightful walk through Sierre where there was a path opening to everyone's personal orchards and vineyards
Everyone has their personal vineyard and orchard here--often times with beehives and gardens.
Looking down into the village of Sierre on a walk down the mountain

If you go to the Sion Valley, of course you must go to a chocolate factory. We went to the Cailler Chocolate Factory in Vevey, Switzerland. Here is a German family learning about the nuances of making chocolate. It takes more training than you think to be a chocolatier. This is Margarite. She had been a pastry chef for about 15  years, and then decided to be chocolatier, which required a few more years of training. She speaks French, Italian, German, and English. Our class was combined of several nationalities. She could speak to all of us in the class, except the tourists from Hong Kong (Luckily, they spoke English). Margarite told me that her father had been a pastry chef, and that "chocolate just ran in her veins." She then added, "I mean, Who doesn't like chocolate? I get to make people happy all day here. Chocolate is the endorphins of life." It's worth going to Vevey--even to smell the chocolate aroma that encircles the town.

Making our own chocolate bars in the class at the Cailler Chocolate Factory.

The quaint medieval village of Greyeres, Switzerland, the town where gueyere cheese is made and produced. Every village is proud of their own distinctive cheese.

Since I play the cello, I was fascinated to be able to go into a luthier shop where there were three men being taught by a master luthier named Dietre Hllewaere. Go visit him. His shop is on a windy cobbled road in Sierre, Switzerland. People come from far distances once a week to be taught by him. It takes about one year to make a violin. The man in the picture above is retired, and makes the round trip from Zurich once a week to learn to make a violin. He told me when he finishes it, he will give it to a lucky musician in Bolivia where there is a youth orchestra, and they cannot afford to buy or rent violins. Needless to say, I was impressed by his talent and generosity of spirit. 

Dietre helping another man make a guitar for his son. Here is a link of a beautiful video of  a luthier's thoughts on making violins: Violin maker and video

Every village has not only their typical, flavorful cheese that is unique to them, but also every village has a certain shape and size of bells for their beloved cows. At the end of the summer, you can hear the bells chiming from different villages as they walk down the mountains, ready to come home for the winter. Each fall there is "cow fighting"--a long tradition that shows which cow is dominant. The winner is called the Queen of the Cows.

In the market in Sion heating up the raclette cheese to put over potatoes or bread--a traditional food of Switzerland
At the Chateau de Villa restaurant you can taste five different kinds of cheese for your raclette dinner. They give you a map of the villages in the region before the dinner. And then you can see which villages's cheese you are eating from. They are both subtly and uniquely different--depending on the village's soil and grass that the cows eat.

A crew of special needs adults who were trimming an orchard in Sierre.
My own son who has autism shaking hands with the "professor" or teacher of the group. We all became friends very quickly, although we speak little French. I was impressed with this group of hard working individuals who were able to work and contribute in the community village.

It seems that a well groomed, tidy woodpile is an important part of being Swiss. 

In early February in the Sion Valley, the weather was uncommonly warm this year. But as we climbed higher up the mountain, we could make a snowman. These are the paths that people run up all year long to get ready for the skiing season.
Maranda skiing in Saas-Fee, Switzerland Ski Resort   Skiing is the alpine way of life there.  
One way my daughter is learning French and the culture is knitting in a rest home with some of the older people. They are teaching her how to speak French and about their village as they click the needles together. An amazing yarn shop in Interlachen, Switzerland


  1. Maryam,
    I love reading your blog. Your enthusiasm for life inspires me and I learn so much about the places you visit.
    We miss you here in the Frontenac ward.
    Karen Lindmark

  2. Sounds like a beautiful place and a beautiful visit! What an adventure it is starting out in a new place, leaving what is comfortable to make new friends, new learn things.