As we work our way through the detritus from summer storms and fiscal chaos, it is always helpful to be on the lookout for clues about how better to manage life.
For the past 25 years my wife and I, and sometimes our children and grandchildren, have been hiking in Switzerland for recreation, health and time together. We have visited many places, had many adventures and have made many friends. Out of those experiences we have learned that a family that walks together talks together. It is a helpful and genuine tonic.
Gradually, we have begun to observe some of the outlines of the local cultures and patterns that are reliable predictors of the kind of places we like best. We have been doing this long enough to have watched the changing of the guard at several places we have stayed.
One that is most intriguing is in the Engadine Valley in Switzerland -- a small mountain farm town called Guarda (not the Lake of Garda) -- where 125 years ago a family named Meisser first began taking guests to share the pleasures of summers in their mountain paradise more than 5,000 feet above sea level. The buildings, rooms and décor, while sufficiently modernized, have changed little in a century. We first visited under the management of the fourth generation, who then passed ownership to their son in the fifth generation 10 years ago. (www.hotel-meisser.ch)
This piece is not a travel piece but it is a reflection on how our world works. It is about places that have and maintain a consistent family culture and at the same time adapt and change as the world around them inevitably moves ahead.
In its first two generations the visitors almost entirely came from elsewhere in Switzerland and some from Germany. Whole families came generally for three weeks at a time. Some people came with their own servants. The inn maintained a simple but modestly elegant service with quiet formality and comfort for its 20 rooms. The days were energetic with hiking, languorous with tea and dinner and peppered as well with amiable chat about the Swiss economy and the royalty of Europe.
The third generation began to see visits from farther abroad. Strange languages like English, as well as French and Spanish -- even Russian -- began to be common. Then came WWII which brought normal patterns to a halt and sent the Meissers went back to growing their own food. Thereafter, people still stayed for a week or so but a trend toward more rapid movement had begun. And the Meissers could no longer rely entirely upon nearby regulars to keep their beds and tables full for a whole summer.
The fourth generation, when we first visited, saw the first signs of group travel and a typical stay of less than a week for most visitors. The early Meisser family members had not been formally trained in inn keeping but they had learned from their parents and continued all family traditions. Change was still something to avoid. Visitors wanted to be reassured that everything they had experienced in the past would persist.
Then amazingly, in a new world of massive, rapid change, a son of the fifth Meisser generation, who began in his youth as an independent renegade, took an interest and studied to be a chef and innkeeper. When he was in his late 20s his parents suggested it was time for him to begin to take charge. He found the perfect wife, who bought into the idea of settling into the family enterprise with him. Following tradition, they undertook to buy out the parents and a sister over an extended period. They also had modern ideas which sparked some quiet clashing between the generations.
Changes -- without change -- proceeded in subtle ways. The average stay is again three to four days, and now guests find Wi-Fi, electric mountain bikes, guided mountain tours, a professional chef and a marketing program. There are relatively fewer Swiss visitors today, as many visitors now arbitrage their holiday plans according to the relative value of the Swiss franc, the euro, the U.S. dollar and other currencies, including now the Chinese yuan.
But the fundamentals persist: the scenery, mountain trails, wildflowers (including wild orchids!), fresh mountain air and especially the welcoming family attitude exemplified by the adorable ankle-biting sixth generation of Meisser kids.
While the line between staff and family remains clear in their dress, everyone is focused on making each guest feel like part of the extended Meisser family. No one is ever just a number; everyone is a friend. That sense is palpable and does not come from any modern management ideas but from everyone's sense of community fueled by pride in the continuous five generations.
In today's world of homogenization, TV, clash of civilizations, instant need for gratification and signs of danger all around, this five-generation family inn is an example for hope.
If only we could all pause long enough to enjoy the smell of the new-cut hay, perhaps we could think about what binds us together more than what drives us apart.
And, it doesn't hurt to have fun tickling the belly of a rambunctious two-year-old boy, the likely sixth generation owner, who may someday be host to our present three great grandchildren.
It's not often we get a chance to peek at the future we will not live to see!
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