Images: Flowers blooming everywhere.
We visited Niederweningen two years ago. A narrow two lane street, winding all the way, led us into the village from Zürich.
The first thing that caught my eye was the fresh flowers. It seemed to me that every house we drove past had something blooming on the balconies and windows. My favorite was geranium, the red flowers that appeared most often.
Image (left): A lovely house in the village.
Most houses had brown rooves, with dark riegel (beam) covering the walls. The red flowers, brown roof, and beamed white walls together formed a simple and refreshing beauty that never failed to amaze me while I was in Switzerland.
Lying in the smooth hills at the eastern tip of the Jura mountains, Niederweningen represents the small hill villages in the area. The population is less than two thousand. In the village, unsurprisingly, people know each other and notice every new face in town. The first day there, when we walked down from a hill, I picked a few fruits from a strawberry bush on the roadside. Somebody must have spotted that, because on the second morning when I opened the door, I found a basket of red strawberries lying there, still shining in the morning dew. We never figured out who sent them. The strawberries lasted for a few days and gave me the first taste of hospitality of the villagers.
A villager, Urs, is a graphics designer and spends a lot of time traveling and photographing. We watched a slide show in his home, with dozens of pictures he and his wife took in various countries. A few hours into the show, with a vivid description by Urs, we had experienced the most beautiful moments in four seasons of his beloved country: winter snow in the Alps, golden hills in the fall, blooming flowers in the spring, and the outdoor cafeterias along the summer lake ...
Image (right): Niederweningen, one of Urs' favorite spots to use his photographic talents and enthusiasm.
Many of the slides showed folk dancing, gatherings, or just people walking on some streets somewhere in the world. Urs has a genuine interest in people and likes to make friends. There's a notebook they kept, in which many people made comments in their native languages after watching the slide show. The day we wrote on it, there were already more than two dozen different languages in the book. My comments in Chinese increased the count by one.
Some of the people who made comments in Urs' guestbook actually lived in Niederweningen. There were quite a few "foreigners" in the village. A lot of them from Germany. The village lies very close to German border; cross-border marriage is not uncommon. There was a Chinese woman in the village, married to a local. She visited us with her lovely little boy. With a pleasant and kind nature, she was very well accepted and integrated into the local community. There were also people from the Eastern Europe Bloc. For political and economic reasons, there were more and more immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa each year, which had made some people uneasy, especially in the past few years when the jobless rate increased. The time we visited, there were about 1.4 million foreigners in Switzerland. It made up more than 20 percent of the population. The figure was much higher than I had expected.
Image (left): Swiss flag on top of a hill in an old battle field. It looks exactly the same as the Red Cross flag except that the white and red colors are swapped.
Urs and his wife were generous in sharing their talents with others. They often volunteered to photograph important events like family reunions and weddings in the village. And they would carry the zest throughout the events. They were not alone in the village in this respect. As the founder of the International Red Cross in 1863, the Swiss are still a model of providing volunteer help in their communities.
Schnellman is a successful mechanical engineer. He had worked for some time in America, but eventually returned to Niederweningen. He has a beautiful house on a hill, with the living room wall built from glass, overlooking the trees and grassland outside. We stayed there for a night. It was quiet at night, however in the morning I woke up hearing a strange noise coming from a back room. I went in and was astonished to find two trains running on a huge model railway. The 3D model filled a room of 12x12 feet! Later on I learned that it was the 20-year old pet project of Schnellman, who had succeeded in extending his profession of mechanical engineering into his own house. Spending a large part of his spare time in this room, he would build the whole thing around a theme, tearing it apart after it was done to start from scratch on a new theme. The day we visited, the theme was frontier-time Arizona. There were saguaros, shabby liquor stores and motels, cowboys, painted mountains, and of course, sand and stones imported from Arizona. The room had been a popular spot for some local kids, who helped to build small pieces of his models. Among them had been his little son, who later on became a mechanical engineer himself.
Image (right): The moon and star decoration on a public fountain.
His daughter built the interior of the family bathroom. It had a very different design from anything I had seen. The room was mostly made of light brown wood. The most interesting part was the mirror in the center of the room. It was designed in the shape of the sun, and the sun rays, which were decorated with yellow light bulbs, emitting light and heat into the room.
The family infused their creativity into the house like a child playing with his toys.
Another villager, Marta, had never owned a car until all her children had their own families. In fact even if she had had one, she would have been too busy to use it. Being a housewife since her marriage thirty years ago, she worked around the clock before her children finally became independent. Every few days, she would ride the postbus to a nearby city, Baden, to get good cheese and fresh bread on the family dining table.
Image (left): View from the highest spot of Baden city. Many Niederweningers take train or bus to work or shop in Baden, the closest city to the village.
When she had some time to spare, she would chat with the neighbors over the balcony or sit down to do some knitting for her family and friends. Inside her house, we saw her influence everywhere. The table clothes, the carpet, the small handmade decorations here and there were not art pieces for exhibition halls, but nonetheless we could see her dexterity in it. Perhaps it's her unselfish love and sacrifice for her family embodied in the small crafts that impressed me most. Like many other Swiss, Marta breathed happily in the belief of family and love.
Image (right): Village church. Like many villagers, Marta is a frequent church goer.
She was devoted to making her life useful to others. Such a quality I had observed many times in Swiss women, and that constant observation had made me believe in the unfailed morality and the future of the country.
The belief in love was probably one reason that made Switzerland successful in education. For centuries, affluent families sent their children over the Alps to Switzerland for a better and more balanced education. Perhaps the preamble of the Zürich school system tells it all:
"In conjunction with the home, the primary school aims at the harmonious development of the child's physical and mental powers so that the result may be a balanced, vital personality."
Unfortunately, the village, and the country, is not immune from the problems that plague other nations. We had visited the train station of the village and found broken chairs and windows in the small waiting cubicles along the railroad.
Image (left): A view from the train station.
The local government had tried to repair them but they would go back to the same condition overnight. I was told that it's done by some local youth. We had also heard about serious crimes that had been committed in the village in recent years. Just as in the rest of western Europe, industrialization has brought affluence, and with it materialism, competition, and a sense of disorientation, particularly among the educated youth. Undoubtfully there are still Heidis and her grandfathers living in harmony with nature in some remote mountain top villages, but that's more an exception than a normal form of life.
Image (right): Inconspicuous but nevertheless beautiful flowers.
The time spent in Niederweningen has been unforgettable. When I look
back sometimes from my busy life in Arizona, the village seems like a
dream, like a remote and inconspicuous flower, quietly beautiful,
satisfied on its own way of existence and harmony.