Through Western Switzerland Into France
( Originally Published 1903 )
ONE of the most pleasurable incidents of my stay in Switzerland was my voyage down Lake Thun to Berne, the capital city. On both sides of this lovely lake are picturesque villages, and hillsides dotted here and there with chalets, villas and gardens, backed by the snowy giants of the Oberland. After tramping for so many miles, and especially after my experience of being lost in the mountains, it was exceedingly pleasant to be seated on the deck of the steamer, gliding past such entrancing views. I wished that the sensation might last forever.
Berne is the capital of the Swiss Confederacy and one of the most ancient cities in Europe. It was market-day when I arrived, and I had an excellent opportunity of seeing the peasantry and the market-people, with their quaint costumes and odd style of vehicles. Along the principal streets of the town the houses are so constructed as to form an arcade over the footways, through which the inhabitants walk. This arrangement has its advantages in cold or rainy weather, but I thought the shops looked rather dark and gloomy, being where no sun could penetrate them. A great deal of the trading is done outside the shops, and much of the merchandise is displayed on the sidewalks, so that the customers find it unnecessary to go within. It impressed me as a queer way of doing business, and, as usual, I thought our American way the best.
The Capital of Switzerland
There are many places of interest in the little capital, but one of the first things I noticed was the famous old clock-tower. Whenever this clock strikes, at three minutes before the hour, a cock crows and flaps his wings; presently some bears march in procession round an old man, and the cock crows again. Then a fool strikes the hour on a bell with a hammer, while the old man, representing Father Time, checks off the strokes with his sceptre, and turns his hour-glass. A bear nods approval, and a final bout of cock-crowing ends the performance. Certainly the clock is a remarkable piece of mechanism, and there is said to be nothing quite so original anywhere in Europe. I was amused to see the tourists running down the street to see it strike the hour. Some of them were blocks distant when the first warning stroke was sounded, and they ran as if their lives depended upon it. I was one of the number who ran the fastest, but that didn't lessen any my appreciation of the indescribable humor of the sight.
Berne was a very gay little place at the time of my visit. The Swiss Parliament was in session, and the members and their families had arrived in the capital for the season. There were numerous carriages in the streets, the hotels were well-filled, and the city had the appearance of the other greater capitals of Europe, on a smaller scale.
The Swiss Parliament in Session
When I learned that the legislative body was in session, I determined to visit it, just to see what Swiss law-makers were like. In London I had visited the great British Parliament, and while I knew this one would be nothing similar, I thought it would probably have its own points of interest. I had no difficulty in finding the modest building which serves as a capitol for the Swiss Republic. and when I entered at the main door I looked about for the room in which the Parliament was in session. I saw a sign on the wall, indicating the direction, and after passing through several hallways, I finally arrived at the door of the chamber. I entered without hesitation, for I had no idea that I was on for-bidden ground. I supposed that this was the public entrance. I was soon set right, however, for an official came up and explained that members only were allowed on that floor. I apologized as well as I could in broken German, and then sought the gallery, where I belonged.
I was agreeably surprised at the sight I saw on the floor of the chamber. There was as fine a body of men gathered there as I had ever seen, and I thought that the Swiss could certainly be proud of their law-makers. A debate was in progress on some subject, and at times there were three or four members on their feet, all trying to speak at the same time. One peculiar thing was that some of the members spoke in French, some in German and still others in Italian. I had been told that all these languages are spoken within the Swiss Republic, but I should think the presiding officer would have to be an excellent linguist to understand all that is said to him from the floor.
Since I couldn't comprehend the meaning of what was said, I soon tired of watching the proceedings, and started out to explore the capitol building. I hadn't proceeded far when I came to a door upon which was the word " Praesidunt," which I knew was the German for President. This, I thought, must be the entrance to the office of the Chief Executive of the Republic, and I thought it would be a good idea for me to seek an interview with the gentleman. So I knocked softly upon the door. Some one within said something in German, which I couldn't understand, but I opened the door and entered. I found myself in a plainly furnished office, and seated at a desk was a kind-faced old gentleman. I took him to be a secretary, perhaps, for I thought it unlikely that the door would open directly into the office of the President himself.
A Mutual Surprise
When I advanced to his side the man spoke to me in German, and when he saw I couldn't understand, he tried French. Then he spoke at last in English, and I was astonished when he remarked that he was the President, if that was the person I wanted to see. I told him that I was from America, and apologized for entering so unceremoniously. He laughed as he replied. He explained that what he had said in answer to my knock was not for me to come in, but to go three doors down the hall, where I would find his secretary. " But now that you are in," he said, smiling, " you may as well stay. It is a long time since I've had a call from an American boy, and I am glad to see you." I was surprised to learn that this Swiss President had lived in the United States when he was young, and had served as a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. When the great conflict was over he had returned to his native land, and had prospered there, until he was now holding the highest position in the gift of his countrymen.
The President, of course, had a great many questions to ask about different places in America, and I answered them all as well as I was able. I was delighted to find that he had a very high opinion of my country, but when he remarked that Switzerland is the very best and the model republic of the world, I was up in arms. He said that he was always sorry to read of the strikes and labor troubles of which we have so many in the United States ; he said that they are never burdened with such problems, and the Swiss people were wonderfully happy and contented. I replied that if his country were as large as ours, he would probably find much the same difficulty in dealing with strikes, and there we sat, a President and a sixteen-year-old boy, arguing a question of sociological importance. It seemed a very funny situation when I thought about it afterward, but at the time I was wholly in earnest, and argued as if my reputation depended upon it. The President, of course, was amused, but he said he was glad I was so patriotic. " The Americans and the Swiss are alike in that respect," he said. I must have remained with him for nearly half an hour, and when I at last took my departure, he gave me a warm invitation to call again if ever I were in Switzerland. I was delighted with my visit, and was sorry that I had to start so soon for Paris, because I would have liked to have seen more of such an amiable man.
Departure for France
It would hardly have been comfortable for me to have remained longer among the mountains, even if I had possessed sufficient money to enable me to prolong my stay. The season was now very late, and the nights, and days, too, were cold and chilly. I longed to reach France, and enjoy the warm sunshine which I was sure of finding there. All my life I had delighted to read of the land of Napoleon and Richelieu and so many other interesting characters. French history and the French people had always seemed unusually attractive in my eyes, and when I left Chicago I was more anxious to visit France than any other European country, except England. So it was with many pleasant anticipations that I set out upon the long road from Switzerland to Paris. I wished for money to enable me to ride by train, but I had prolonged my stay in the Alps, and it would now be necessary for me to economize in every possible way to make my money last until I reached Paris. I thought I would be all right when I arrived there. The money from the newspapers would surely be awaiting me at the office where my mail was sent, and my only concern, therefore, was to make ends meet until I covered the distance to the city.
I had somehow gained the mistaken impression that all of France enjoys the warm climate of Nice and Monte Carlo, so that after I left Switzerland my first disappointment was in the weather. My experience with it was really funny, but at the time I was thoroughly disgusted. It was a fine October night when I finished my first day's tramp in the French provinces, and on the morrow I expected to see a beautiful country bathed in the warm sunshine, and I planned that I should be able to cover at least thirty miles on my way to Paris. So I ate my bread and cheese and coffee, and went to bed in a very cheerful frame of mind.
A Dreary Beginning
When I awoke the next morning and looked out of my window I saw that a drizzling rain was falling, cold and dreary and disheartening. I felt like crying at the sight. It was bad enough to be alone and scarce of money in warm weather, but under such circumstances as these it was enough to make one home-sick. I felt like crawling back in the warm bed and staying there through the day, for all my ambition seemed to have left me. Only the knowledge that I must reach Paris soon or be without money, forced me to start out in the rain. I ate a meagre breakfast, shouldered my knapsack, and trudged along the muddy country roads, mile after mile, hour after hour. My opinion of France had changed. " La belle France," indeed ! I was having one of the most uncomfortable times I had yet experienced, and this was the country to which I had looked forward with such delight. It was no wonder I was disgusted with everything I saw.
The French peasants with whom I came in contact were a poor lot. The men especially were the objects of my scorn. I used to meet them as I walked along, dressed in their baggy bloomers and calico blouses, and I thought they looked more like animals than human beings. The women I liked better. They were not much like the fairy ideals I had pictured in my mind, but they were very neat and industrious. It had been my idea that most French women wore their hair pompadour, and powdered and painted themselves until they looked like fashion-plates. But in the provinces I found that they were very far from being that sort. They seemed to be energetic and courageous, and many of them seemed busily engaged in supporting their worthless husbands, who were to be seen in large numbers sipping wine at the numerous cafes. My blood boiled when I saw the men sitting about, watching their wives earn a living for the family.
The Drudgery of Women
It seemed to me that the women of the lower classes throughout Europe had a hard time. In Switzerland, I saw them drawing heavy loads and carrying on their backs, up the mountain-steeps, deep, burdensome baskets, and even harnessed with a cow to a cart. In one instance, a cow and a man on one side, and a woman on the other, were drawing a load. The cow having become frightened at a railroad train, they were in danger of being run away with, and were holding on to her horns. In one German city I saw women serving as hod-carriers, bearing great loads of mortar and brick wherever building was going on, and in another they were carrying long bars of iron upon their shoulders.
In France, the women and children seemed to be doing most of the heavy work on the farms. There seemed to be no hedges or fences between the fields, and one employment of the children was to keep the cattle from straying from one to another. Apparently, it was cheaper to use the children in this labor than to spend a little money on fences.
The women in the villages through which I passed were usually engaged in keeping shops. Often I would see some tired mother tending store, while the children played about her skirts. She would be knitting with her hands, perhaps, and rocking a cradle with her foot. Such industry seemed almost heroic, considering that she was apt to be interrupted any minute to serve a customer. The French peasantry have a world-wide reputation for frugality, and I found that they were not particularly hospitable to strangers. There were times when I had difficulty in finding a place to sleep at night, and there was one occasion when I found it necessary to remain outdoors. I had entered a tiny hamlet at dark, only to find that there was no inn where I could obtain lodging. I then called at several of the cottages, and tried to explain my situation, but the surly countrymen refused to understand, or if they did understand, they refused to take me in. After several rebuffs, I was so angry that I determined to make no more attempts to obtain a shelter. The air at Ieast was free, I thought, and no one could refuse me a bed in the open.
Sick and Impoverished
The night was cold and damp, and when I awoke in the morning I found that I had been rash to expose myself to the weather. My lungs were choked with inflammation, and I was so hoarse I could hardly speak. I felt more like going to bed than continuing my walk toward Paris, but I had but little money left, and I had no time to spare. I feared that I might fall ill among these inhospitable peasants, and for the first time during my trip I was really afraid. I knew it would be a terrible thing to fall into the hands of absolute strangers, especially when they were so ignorant as these provincial Frenchmen.
But though I passed some sleepless nights and some miserable days, I was finally able to throw off the cold. It was a long time, however, before I felt really well again, and during this unhappy period of the trip I determined that I would reach Mattoon in time to spend Christmas with the dear ones at home, for after several months of this traveling under difficulties, I longed to be near some one who cared for me, and where I could be sure of my night's lodging, and of where my next meal was coming from. I had accomplished all that I had set out to do ; no one could say that my trip had not been a success, and there was now no good reason for prolonging it.
So I pushed on toward Paris, sleeping where I could find a bed, and eating as little as possible in order to economize. I had learned that it was bad policy to economize too much on my food, but in the state of my pocket-book there was no other course open to me. As things were, I was apt to reach Paris with a very few cents in my pocket, and then, if there were no checks awaiting me, what would I do? But I always refused to consider that possibility. There was no need of crossing the bridge until I came to it.