By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
Chocolate, cheese and children
We stepped inside, seeking shelter from the rain. Deep, melodious voices filled the reverent space, rising to meet the soaring ceiling. Three pilgrims sat in the front pew, hymnals in hand. They sang in a language I couldn’t discern. Was it German or French or maybe Latin? Their backpacks and walking sticks lay sprawled on the cathedral floor, just beyond the vestibule. Theirs was a journey of tens or perhaps hundreds of miles to visit the holy places.
Fribourg’s Cathedral of St. Nicholas rests on the site of an early Christian chapel. Construction of the gothic structure commenced in 1283; it was completed in 1430 with an enormous bell tower rising seventy-six meters above the Old City.
St. Nicholas is the patron saint of this Swiss town founded in the 10th century. The Cathedral is central to the annual Festival of St. Nicholas when, on December 6th, “St. Nicholas” leads a procession through the city, tossing traditional spiced cakes to children.
Fribourg is my daughter’s city, her home for one year. My husband and I arrived as mere interlopers, breezing through with Aleksandra serving as translator, guide and cultural consultant. We learned a Swiss greeting requires three distinct kisses on the cheek and that men don’t kiss each other—real Swiss men shake hands.
I realize that the sacrifice of letting one’s child go can pay incalculable dividends: they learn to thrive in a foreign culture. In this year away from CVU, our daughter found her place as an exchange student, learning the history and culture of this French-speaking sliver of Switzerland while forging deep friendships and a special connection with her host family.
Walking along the periphery of the pews, I studied the Stations of the Cross, depicting Christ’s passion. Absent were the plaques, so common in European churches, honoring congregants who served in the World Wars.
Switzerland’s neutrality stance has allowed this multi-ethnic, landlocked nation to avoid war since 1815. This is a luxury on a continent bombed, mined, occupied and collectively traumatized during World War I, World War II and subsequent outbursts of ethno-religious and ideological conflicts. The terrorist threat does not appear to loom over this nation of chocolate, cheese and the soaring, snow-covered Alps.
Enormous stained glass windows spoke to me for their artistry and evocative storytelling. A multi-level masterpiece portrayed Heaven, Earth and Hell in a mélange of vibrant hues. The top tier captured the majesty of Heaven with angels swirling amid luminescent clouds. The middle tier featured the Adoration of the Magi. The Three Kings—Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar—greet a newborn babe bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. Intricately cut and fused glass of ruby, emerald and sapphire contrasted the opulence of the Wise Men with earth-toned simplicity of a family in a stable. Hell, populated by sinister devils and desperate souls condemned to eternity amid flames, appeared in shades of blood red and singed orange, colors sharp as shards of glass.
“The stained glass windows remind me of the ones in Cracow,” my husband whispered.
I noted the name of the artist appearing at the base of the exquisite windows: Jozef Mehoffer. A little research revealed that Mehoffer (1869-1946) was a Polish painter and decorative artist who studied at the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts. He was a frequent collaborator with Stanislaw Wyspianski, creator of renowned stained glass windows in many of Cracow’s churches.
Cracow is my city, the medieval gem in which I studied abroad. The connection made me smile as I reflected on finding Mehoffer’s work in what has become my daughter’s city.
Our whirlwind visit to Switzerland included visits to Bern, Chillon, Broc and Ovronnaz. We learned about the Swiss parliamentary system and the witchcraft hysteria from centuries ago. We lingered—perhaps a little too long—in the tasting room of Maison Cailler, Switzerland’s oldest chocolate factory.
We sipped local wines and savored authentic Swiss fondue—made with local Gruyere cheese—at our daughter’s host family’s chalet in the Alps. We spoke of history, politics and family values, comparing notes on our respective countries.
We realized how blessed our daughter is to have found this family—a welcoming family with six children—that runs on loads of love while maintaining the precision of a Swiss watch.
An ancient Swiss proverb offers the following advice: “Avoid those who don’t like bread and children.”