In the Swiss Alps, Teachers Come with Nailshoes

Olle and Maria balance modern teaching with village tradition in idyllic Gimmelwald.
By Rick Steves

I'm high in the Alps of Switzerland in my favorite area, the Jungfrau region just south of Interlaken. With plenty of daylight left on this long summer evening, I skip dessert at Walter's hotel. I hike down the shortcut stairs through the village to the home of Gimmelwald's schoolteachers, Olle and Maria.

Looking from the trim and tidy rough-hewn homes of Gimmelwald up to the towering hotels of Mürren, I marvel at the vision of Helmut von Allmen, Gimmelwald's retired schoolteacher. He foresaw the coming struggle between maintaining traditional life and developing tourism and pulled Gimmelwald out of the coming rat race. A wise and visionary community leader, he became part of the folklore of this village.

But as a member of the community, Helmut von Allmen found it impossible to keep everybody happy. They needed an outsider who, while a member of no particular clan, respected the culture. In a town meeting, the consensus was that the next teacher needed to be an outsider but someone who "wore nailshoes." Nailshoes are used for haymaking. Someone who wears them respects and understands the farming culture.

The next teacher was actually a couple who split Gimmelwald's one teaching position (which disappeared altogether when Gimmelwald's school closed — but Olle and Maria still teach elsewhere in the valley). To some, Olle and Maria were known not by their surname (Eggimann) but as Olle and Maria Nailshoes. During my visit, Olle and Maria are on their back porch, which sits above the cliff. Not a nailshoe in sight, Maria is sorting through a basket of berries and Olle is studying the far side of the valley with his telescope. There's nothing but air between their deck furniture and the rock face of the Jungfrau a mile or two away. Kick a soccer ball wrong and it ends up a mile below on the Lauterbrunnen Valley floor.

Olle knows the view from his back porch like those with a sea view know the shipping lanes. With strains of Mozart tumbling through the sliding-glass door and onto the deck, Olle spots an ibex with his telescope. Ibex, the size of a big deer with curving ram-like horns spanning four feet, majestically roam that zone between people and glaciers. Panning to the next rock face, Olle shows me the spot where the rock ruptures and an underground river spurts out mightily — like a gargoyle in a rainstorm. Just another cascade in the valley of loud waters (as "Lauterbrunnental" aptly translates).

Their friendship with me brings a refreshing break from their village social world. I'm curious about the life of a modern, outward-looking teacher in such a confined social world. Conversation flows easily. As teachers, honoring both traditional and modern ways is as challenging as teaching evolution in a Catholic school. They are paid to teach the "three R's" — not to change the culture.

Olle says, "Here in Gimmelwald, when you plant, you do it on certain days. You harvest on certain days. People are close to nature. They don't need some modern, city-taught teacher messing with their ways. Their relationship with nature is almost mystic."

Olle and Maria have designed the ideal life. They have a fine house and a good income (Swiss teachers make about $80,000 a year). Their minds are freed by a modern university outlook but not chained to a big-city pace of life. And their kids are growing up in a traffic-free village wonderland.