A Visitor in Bern

It is raining. We haven’t made it more than a block from the hotel before the map in my hands begins to melt into a pile of mush. We trudge up to the third floor of the public library, leaving small puddles of water on every stair.

The woman behind the information desk takes us in: four young women more closely resembling half-drowned scarecrows holding out a rain-soaked paper. We want to know how many books there are in the library system. For some reason, this request seems to resolve the question in her eyes. I wonder how many other American students she has had in here on scavenger hunts. None so far from our group, though, as she has to look up the answer in the library’s database: 40,000. And what I wouldn’t give to keep those books company in this warm old building. Instead, we descend the polished wooden staircase, duck past the repairman and his ladder in the doorway, and emerge once more into the freezing sheets of rain.

We wait under the clock at five minutes to noon to capture the show that goes on every hour, on the hour. I stand under the cover of an alcove with my hands in my pockets, hoping to defrost them sufficiently enough to cross out the next item on our list. A group of Asian tourists stand under a wide blue umbrella, cameras poised, as the American family next to them rearranges waterlogged children in front of harried-looking parents. At precisely his time, the mechanical man with the golden hammer begins to ring the bell in the tower. Murmurs carry through the small crowd of spectators while locals weave their way through the momentary roadblock. I suppose even this marvel of archaic engineering must fade into the background after a while. We capture enough of the show on video to fulfill our requirements and move on.

We reach the Parliament building after navigating through an open-air market full of local cheese and cut flowers. There are a few brave shoppers out in the downpour, but we are mostly alone, a situation which suits our purpose later, when the attractions of the shooting fountains in the square are too much for Erika and Hanna, who dance between the columns of water while Lauren catches them on film. I am either too sensible or too frozen to follow their lead, though it is hardly possible to get any wetter.

The bridge we cross isn’t long, but it feels that way when our umbrellas continually catch in the chain-link guard rail and in each others’ hair. We jump over the puddles that are fast becoming small rivers in the streets and take refuge in the lobby of the Einstein Museum. We crowd around a conveniently located space heater and pull out the copy of the map that hasn’t devolved into tree pulp and discover with some relief that we are over halfway through with our assignment. My down jacket has become a sack of wet feathers, and I linger a bit longer in the warm air before we venture out again.

The old cathedral is dry, at least, if not warm. I am afraid, at first, of sitting on the wooden pews, but discover that I am dry enough-at least to perch on the very edge without leaving a lake behind me. We count the number of organs and agree that we much prefer this church’s elegant austerity to Il Duomo’s comparative infestation of finery. In what we later discover to be a forbidden move, we capture a picture of Death himself on film, his skeletal image wrought in glass behind one of the organs.

As the bells of a different church clang, we cross the last bridge and make our way to the bear pit, which these days much more resembles a modern zoo enclosure. After watching a video documenting the two bears’ arrivals to Bern, we hurry inside the gift shop to dry off once more. I purchase a chocolate bar while Erika contemplates the postcards and Hanna continues her quest to find strange gummy candy for a friend back home. After watching the rain continue to pour down outside the steaming gift shop window we make a collective decision not to hike up to the gardens and instead return to the hotel in relative triumph.

Later that afternoon, our still-damp clothing is draped over chairs and towel racks, our dinner of bread and cheese hangs out the window for lack of refrigerator, and a cup of hotel-grade tea sits steaming on the nightstand. The wheezing of an accordion fills the cobbled square four stories below. This is a Switzerland much different from the one we left behind in Ticino three days ago. The country seems to be made of several different worlds stitched together with highways, connected by a series of tunnels that divide the land into places reminiscent of Italy, Germany, and France without really being any of them at all.

I wonder if this exercise could have taught us anything about the city we were supposed to have explored. Surely it would have been better if it had not rained, the wet and cold having shortened tempers and attention spans, but even had the weather been nice, out exploration would still have been limited by a list and a time limit. There was little time to investigate anything that had truly caught our interest or to allow the city to speak to us on our own level. And yet, without the tasks we had been given, most of us would have likely chosen to stay indoors or, in the case of our group, to spend the afternoon in the library. If, as in Riva, we had several months to find our own way to relate to the town, a scavenger hunt may have been inappropriate. But our hours were limited in Bern and, like the walking tours we took on our spring break trips, the scavenger hunt served the purpose of allowing us to gather the maximum amount of information in a minimum amount of time. Though I dislike this mechanical approach to discovery, it served its purpose: of the cities we visited during our trip to the north, Bern is the one I remember the most.

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