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Bern! Somehow, the word sounds familiar. I try to remember — difficult; after all, I’m a very old dog. Almost 16! Wow …
Berners include people, dogs, food, mountains, and anything else that pertains to the Canton of Bern. (A Swiss canton is a political and administrative unit roughly equivalent to a US state.) The Canton of Bern is named after its largest city, the beautiful capital of Switzerland. The official abbreviation for the canton is BE.
The first four legged Berner I met was Ziggy, who turned out to be my best friend and brother. He was huge and I was tiny. After realizing how much I needed him, he let me hide under his immense furry body whenever I was scared. That situation happened frequently, when strangers appeared; humans or canines alike.
My Female has this ambivalent relationship with Bern.
A descendant of railway enthusiast Alexander Kocher and his love Martha Bürki from Grosshöchstetten, BE, the Female was very fond of her grandparents who had settled in Lucerne, the city where they raised their only daughter and where Alexander advanced to Deputy Chief of the city’s railway station.
He was a modest man, feeling more at ease at the third class restaurant and waiting room, where he often took his only grandchild, who was equally happy sitting on long crude benches, hearing loud noises, inhaling the foul air of sweat and cheep cigars. Heideli, as my Female was called in those days, loved these precious moments with her père who calmly talked with strangers he considered friends among friends. He always carried a crumpled pack of Mary Long cigarettes—a habit he treasured until the end of his days—yet rarely smoking one of them.
Martha died in a rural assisted-living facility, shortly after the female visited her for the last time.
Widower Alexander befriended a Jewish hatter and employed a kind, tiny elderly woman as his housekeeper. My Female was eager to taste Mathilda’s delicious meals every Friday for the three years she attended her photography classes. (Those were the times when working people still had a two-hour lunch break.)
After graduating, she left for England to spend the rest of the year learning another language and culture; a time she never regretted. She spent her free Sunday afternoons in London’s theatres, learning words from plays by Terrence Rattigan, Lionel Bart, and the Bard of Avon.
Upon returning to her hometown, her father and one of his colleagues had arranged a job at the town’s largest camera shop eager to ultimately dominate the town’s photo business. Two months into her new career she was asked to poach a client of her former master James. After declaring she wouldn’t participate in the scheme, her employer asked her kindly to quit. And she did — gladly.
Alexander Kocher became gravely ill and passed away on a cold February night in care of faithful Mathilda.
The Female’s life continued. She told me episodes from the fast lane. About fashion intrigue and deceit. About years of loneliness. About a lifestyle she never grasped. And how she resolved to move to Bern. After all, she felt, she was half a Berner and with the Bernese dialect being charmingly slow, she would feel right at home.
She got an assistant job at a small studio. The owner, unfortunately, turned out to be a member of a spiritual Christian sect, unheard of by the Female. Her only clues to this sort of faith derived from having read Elmer Gantry. She was deemed touched by the devil and had to listen to frequent salvation tirades throughout her Bernese summer.
Otherwise, her loneliness peaked. Lunchtime became a new regimen after she reconnected with a colleague from art school, who happened to have been her predecessor at the holy job. Vreni, feeling sorry for the insecure “Afghan hound,” as the Female was called by the group of new acquaintances, invited her to participate in their lunch breaks.
Architects and photographers, along with Gitanes, Gauloise, and Marlboro smoking writers could be seen in smoke filled holes-in-the-walls, under the arcades in the old town, or lunching in the Matte quarter (a strip along the river Aare♥), which was just getting fashionable after having served for centuries as a trading venue for the city. Old working class eateries became bistros, mills were renovated into fancy lofts and studios for the creative elite.
My skinny Afghan hound Female (long straight hair, weighing about 110 lbs) never really bonded with the Bernese crowd. And frankly, with nobody else in all the months she lived in the city.
Her love life wasn’t anything to brag about either. She was kind of fond of a lanky photographer. Thinking back — with his gnarled face, he looked more like one of today’s heirloom tomatoes. After a brief, forgettable encounter, he invited her to ride along to an existentialist party spiced with the sound of Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brél. The host was an architect living in one of the houses his group had built in a Le Corbusier-inspired settlement near the asylum where Adolf Wölfli spent his last years, creating some extraordinary artwork. When the evening came to an end, Gnarlyface lingered around until everybody had gone back to town. Then he vanished — and the female experienced one of her “me too” moments.
The following day happened to be Bern’s famous Onion Market. Her unwanted bed companion took her there and bought her a beautiful onion braid. Good thought! Loved onions, no matter where they came from …
After this creepy event, my Female decided that Bern was for the dogs. (That would turn out to be the absolute truth — many years hence.)
For the remaining weeks—until she got kicked out due to “bad influence” (bought mortadella for her boss’s vegetarian raised little boy)—she drove every Friday, after work, for two hours through two of Switzerland’s most beautiful valleys. The Emmenthal borders on the Canton Lucerne’s Entlebuch. Her old yellow Citroën 2CV huffed up the steep hills to happily descend at full speed of 80 km/h toward Lucerne.
When passing the small town of Langnau, BE little did the Female know that one summer ten years later, she and her Wolfman would choose a real Berner dog named Rigi from this very picturesque place, to be raised in the United States and become a group winner and AKC champion.
As to the persons mentioned in this tale: Gnarlyface, the talented photographer became famous for his large b/w prints before his untimely death a few years ago.
The onion giver still lives in Bern, a pillar of the artistic community — we reckon.
Vreni met with the Female once more, before she and the Wolfman moved to the United States. No trace to her whereabouts since.
The Apostolic photographer might have left his studio to his meat craving son to worship his beliefs.
To me, Bern means my sister; her delicious smell, her gentle soul, shiny black coat, and being a good barker who helps my deaf ears pick up her sound, so we can woof in unison.