What We Learned from Georg, Ella, and Johanna

Oh Switzerland. Forget our Florence and Siena campuses, sign me up for a German class and plant me in the rural Swiss countryside and you’ll never meet a happier teacher.

Yesterday we saw the places that inspired Spyri, today we saw the hometown that gave her beginnings. After our trip to Maienfeld, we asked the Swiss information desk how best to get to Hirzel. “Hirzel? Why do you want to go to Hirzel?” She said. “Tourists do not go there, people live there.”

We bought tickets anyway.

The Johanna Spyri Museum in Hirzel is only open three days a week and only from 2-5PM on those three days. We arrived a little before 2 and took in the small, quiet Swiss town nestled on a hill with views of the Alps in the distance before we went into the building and met Georg, the museum director.

The museum underwent a major renovation a little over a year ago, and it includes several “stops” along the life of Johanna, from her beginnings in Hirzel to finishing school to her marriage and move in Zurich to her writing career. The museum has worked extensively to have passages of her books laid out to reflect her life, a few belonging to Johanna herself and all of which you can pick up and thumb through if you know some German. Many outline the gender roles of her day, and stated how powerful it was for her books to not only have children as protagonists, but an orphan girl: the unwanted of the time. Each stop is detailed with photographs of the places, times, and people of Johanna’s life, and with small displays giving grounding to her world, as museums do.

Several times the signs mention (they had an English guide to carry!) the freedom she longed for and the restrictions on women at the times. In one display is a long, metal, pink corset-hoop skirt model similar to what Johanna might have worn in her day. When we asked the museum director what it meant, he explained the tight restriction it symbolized of women of her day, and pointed out the small bird inside of the metal cage.

“Johanna was Heidi,” he said in accented English and clutching his chest. “She wanted liberty.”

The museum director, Georg, is a retired schoolteacher from Hirzel who lives in town with his wife. Given we were the only two museum visitors for the day (and looking at the guestbook, most likely the only visitors in a week or two) he walked is through the exhibits, offering insights, additional information, and postcards of Johanna. We talked about the Fund trip and he told us about other well-known Swiss women. We stumbled through German and English words all together. He shared photos of Hirzel with us he had taken for a book about the village he had written. He shared the book, too. In the book, he included the stories of expats who had made Hirzel their home and spoke of the kindness of the villagers.

As we left and took photos by the museum sign, he stepped out and flagged us down. He asked if we wanted to walk down the street and speak to his wife and grab some water. “She speaks better English than I do,” he said smiling.

The hospitality of Switzerland, y’all.

We walked a few minutes down the road, passed a newly built Catholic church and knocked on the door of an old, large school house with flowers in the window to meet Georg’s wife, Ella.

For the next hour we sat in their garden behind the house talking everything from politics, traveling, life in Hirzel, life in the United States, how many languages she speaks (4), and Johanna Spyri. Ella is also a retired school teacher, and the kindergarten still meets in the large school building where they live on the second floor. She talked about how much Johanna suffered when she moved to Zurich, her unhappy marriage, and the death of her son. But she also talked about how, despite the norms and culture of the women of the day, she found freedom in her writing.

When we asked Ella why she and her husband chose to live in Hirzel, she just laughed and pointed to the landscape. “And the people,” she grinned.

We hugged her and she wished us safe travels as we hurried to catch the bus that would take us to the bus to the Horgan to the train back to Zurich so we could fly on to Amsterdam.

What a world, this sweet couple and their hospitality to strangers.

Yesterday I mentioned what I think we love about Heidi is that she transcended her circumstances by being rooted in a place deeply founded in relationships, and that she shared those relationships with others. And today we meet Georg and Ella who welcome us gladly and warmly, sharing stories of their lives and their home.

I think we nearly cried on the walk to the bus because of how perfect it all was.

I am sure that the Hirzel of today is probably not the same Hirzel of Johanna’s childhood, but goodness if it is similar at all, we see how, in this small day, she could believe so much in the power of relationships. She saw in her community and life what it means to allow others into a narrative, to share new friends with old friends, to welcome the stranger into her home, to know true freedom exists with others. Johanna knew our songs of liberty sound a little louder, are a little harder to silence, when we sing together.

I think yesterday we saw the full blooms of Heidi and her mountain and today we saw the roots.

When we were still at the museum, there was a small display of all of the translations of Heidi from across the world: German, English, Arabic, Japanese, and more. Georg told us that next to the Bible, Heidi has been translated into more languages than any other book in history.

“People really love the story,” he said.

Johanna’s story of a girl on a mountain, the most unlikely of protagonists, sung all around the world loud and strong.

I am so excited to share this story time and time again, especially with my students. I am also excited and forever grateful that we work so intentionally at Odyssey to create a community like this where we are rooted in place and relationships, where we introduce new friends to the old, where we make time to hear the stories of each other. I so hope that our students carry this with them to others they meet, as Johanna has done for the world, and as Georg and Ella did for us today.


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