Thursday, October 31, 2019

Heidi

When I was in the third grade, the teacher organized a holiday gift exchange. In that exchange, I received a copy of the book Heidi, by Johanna Spyri, and a package of a candy called Bottlecaps. Whoever wrapped the book had tucked the flat package of candy under the front cover, permanently affecting the cover and binding. This bothered my third-grade, book-loving self a great deal.

Although I was an avid reader, I am not sure I ever finished reading Heidi. It was an old story, even then, and storytelling conventions and language had evolved since it was written. I had no idea when I received that book as a third grader that eventually I would live in Heidi's homeland of Switzerland.

Recently a friend and I visited the Swiss National Museum to view their special exhibit about the making of the anime version of Heidi. My family and I are fans of many Studio Ghibli anime films, but I had no idea that more than ten years before the founding of Studio Ghibli, the studio's founders collaborated on a 52-episode series about Heidi which debuted in 1974. As part of their research, they visited Switzerland, taking photos of many locations and even Swiss children to use as references as they created Heidi, A Girl From the Alps.

The exhibit showcased photographs from the personal collections of Hiayo Miyazaki and Isao Takahata alongside sketches and actual animation cels from the production of the anime series. It was fascinating to see how Heidi's grandfather's hut in the series looks exactly like the reference photo that they took, and you can see some of the Swiss children they photographed in the anime characters, especially Clara.

The series has been dubbed in nearly twenty languages, including German, and my Swiss husband remembers seeing it on the television as a child. It's popularity endures, and it is one of the reasons that Switzerland is a must-see holiday destination for many Asian travelers. In fact, Heidi, as seen in the series, is sometimes referred to as an ambassador for Switzerland. My friend, like me, is an immigrant here. Whereas my life intersected with Heidi through the book, she first encountered Heidi through the anime series, so our visit to the museum brought back for her fond memories of coming home from school, excited to watch the next episode. Like me, she never imagined when she first encountered the story of Heidi as a schoolgirl that she would someday call Heidi's country home.

The Switzerland of today is multi-faceted. With many cities and high-tech industries, the daily life of most residents of Switzerland doesn't look anything like Heidi's. Yet, more than 100 years after the book's publication, there are still many places in Switzerland where life today is not too different from Heidi's life on a mountainside in the late 1800s.

We've visited many such places on our hikes.

A village only accessed via a privately-run gondola that operates just a few times per day, where a few families live and cows graze with the Matterhorn visible in the distance.

Lone alpine huts, clinging to steep mountainsides, where cows are milked and Alpkäse (alpine cheese) is made (and is sometimes available for purchase by passing wanderers).

A mountain ridge above the tree-line, where cows summer in alpine meadows, the sounds of their bells randomly punctuating the silence.

But those are scenes of summer.

It's autumn now.

The cows and goats have been led down from the mountainsides to the valleys in the traditional Alpabzug. The first flakes have dusted the mountaintops, which will soon be covered in a thick layer of snow. It won't be long until the skiers, snowboarders and sledders arrive, moving through the alpine landscape at a faster tempo, swooshing and zooming where summer's cows grazed and hikers lingered.

But me, I wait.

For spring and sun. For the slowly melting snow to herald the return to the slower tempo of summer. For the time when we too can make our own Alpaufzug, ascending once again to wander, and linger, under blue skies and along alpine trails.

Picture of the character Heidi at an exhibit at the Swiss National Museum in Zürich
Heidi Exhibit, Landesmuseum, Zürich
photo copyright E Norton