Posted by: Jenny | Friday, 1 May 2015

May Day

It’s the first of May – “giorno della glorificazione del lavoro”, as the Socialist mayor of Brissago announced at a very sedate gathering round the war memorial in that lakeside village, where Martin and I happened to be on 1 May 1978.

The event is memorable, mainly because I can attach it accurately to a date.  Our week’s holiday in Brissago is memorable too.  Martin’s employer at the time was the Dechema research institute in Frankfurt.  In common with many German companies, they owned a holiday apartment which was available for employees to book at a favourable rate.  We duly travelled down to Switzerland by train for a week of sheer luxury, in contrast to our usual humble lodgings in the city.

For a week, we swapped a bedsit with no hot water, one-ring cooker and shared toilet for a two-bedroomed flat with fully-equipped bathroom and kitchen, and a balcony overlooking Lago Maggiore.  Breakfast consisted of fresh rolls which one of us fetched from the local bakery each morning, with coffee and creamy Swiss yoghurt.  We sat on the balcony to eat breakfast, looking East across the lake. On some mornings there was even sunshine – but mostly we experienced very rainy weather.

Travelling across the St Gotthard pass on what still counts for one of my favourite train journeys, we noticed how spring, already arrived in the northern Alps, turned back to winter as we moved south.  We would have expected the opposite.  Notwithstanding the weather, we went out walking and exploring every day.  An iconic rail journey on the Centovalli railway took us to Domodossola on the Italian side of the border.  My memory of that town is that it was singularly unimpressive – but then, it was midday and the streets were empty.  My other memory of Domodossola is of the most delicious ice cream I had tasted up to that point in my young life.

We walked one day over the border into Italy and had lunch in the Italian lake-side town of Cannobio.  The walking in the hills above the lake was not always easy: dense sweet chestnut forests and an absence of the well-made paths and clear signage for which Switzerland is known. It was rural, indeed rustic.  We were young, and our experience raw and exciting.

Twenty-seven years later, we were living and working in Zurich, and sometimes travelled down to Ticino (the Italian-speaking canton) for a day or a weekend.  Arriving in Locarno, we would take a bus or boat to our favourite lakeside town, Ascona, where we would sit on the waterfront and watch the activity on the lake on a summer’s evening.

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One such weekend, we stayed on the boat and alighted in Brissago, further down the lake.  Intrigued as to whether we could still find the apartment where we had stayed that week in 1978, we strolled the narrow streets of the village until we were pretty sure we’d found it. By the front door to the apartment, a family was packing their luggage into a car with a Frankfurt registration.  We interrupted them to ask whether the apartment was still owned by Dechema.  Yes, it was: they worked there, and told us the latest news.

My memory of our first visit to Brissago is clearer and more detailed than the memory of our second visit there ten years ago.  What I recall from 1978 are the sights, sounds, even smells of the place, and the way I fitted these into my developing understanding of the world.  What I recall from 2005 are the sensations: the warmth of summer, the tingling feeling of rediscovered youth, the joy of reaching out over the years and imagining my 21-year-old self running up the hill to the bakery and practising my (then as now) rather inadequate Italian.



  1. Lovely memories. Oh to be 21 again!

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