What Makes a Good Life: A Visit to Switzerland Sheds Light on the Question
By Hantian Zhang
In August, five years after our last visit, we arrived in Basel, Switzerland to see my in-laws. We walked past the Spalen Gate and across the Middle Bridge, strolled along the Rhine, and stood in the breeze.
The crowd frolicked around us, floating with the current as I remembered. The visit’s actuality sunk in only at that moment, my memories of the good Swiss life sparking like the wave glints.
Some aspects of that life remained the same. My psychiatrist father-in-law still spent his retirement fishing and reading, and my nurse mother-in-law spent her time making art.
The city and its surroundings were blessed with rich resources for their pursuits: valleys and rivers, museums, and art shops.
Contentment shone on their faces as they talked about the fish caught and the collages exhibited, small but solid achievements to anchor their septuagenarian lives.
The Ingredients of a Good Life
That night, over laughter, conversation, and an unseasonal raclette dinner, I chewed over the ingredients for making a good life.
While I was tongue-tied about the precise definition, my intuition was that work, hobby, art, and family all had a role in shaping it.
After all, I had just witnessed their positive effects over the past few hours.
Thinking of my own life back in San Francisco, I saw my long working hours wasted in useless meetings, our social circle stunted by our immigrant backgrounds.
At home, money dashed to cover the high living cost and subpar public service; on the street, homeless with mental illness roamed multimillion-dollar mansions and raved obscenities.
Seen from the middle-class comfort of Basel, life in California not only had too many sharp corners and rough edges but also painfully disassociated from the core that mattered.
Gathering More Good Life Clues
So for the rest of the trip, I set it a task to gather more clues for a good life. Consider work for a start. Like others, the Swiss worked for income and meaning.
While I did not get to observe their work in action, I did see factories booming in the middle of verdant valleys, twenty-somethings producing cheese in geranium-adorned villages.
My stock idea of work was challenged at such moments, as the work tasks here were not always tied to cubicles, and the work attitude was fueled by motivations other than material gain.
And as the comfort of Swiss life could attest, admitting such variations did not necessarily sacrifice the living standard; on the contrary, they probably contributed to well-being by reducing stress.
Other than more flexible work, nature also enabled a good life. After Basel, we headed to the Alps to stay at Hotel Maderanertal.
To get there, we first zigzagged along a one-way road to Bristen, a fairytale hamlet on a carpet of the freshest green, granite mountains rising two, five, and nine thousand feet high from right behind the backyards.
We parked our car there, then hiked for two hours through the forest. A milky blue rivulet kept us company. Time and again, we stopped to appreciate the astonishing cut of a ridge or to pick a crystal from one of the roadside farms stands.
When we finally saw the hotel above a thicket and against white-capped peaks, “Grand Budapest Hotel!” vaulted out of my mouth, as nowhere else had I seen another hotel thus situated.
Hotel Maderanertal in Bristen
Unlike that fictional hotel in the Wes Anderson movie, where a comedy-drama unfurled over the inheritance of a dowager, Hotel Maderanertal offered less dramatic backstories.
Built in 1864, the hotel rode the rising tide of Alpinism until the early 20th century, when the tide’s reversal led to its decline.
When the new owners reopened it with minimal revamping ten years ago, they kept its anachronism like exposed wires and porcelain plugs.
Age-old floorboards perfumed the air with a pungent scent, bringing to the fore the surreal feeling evoked by the lawns, cliffs, and waterfalls framed by the window.
Standing on the observation deck, I found my lungs filled with fresh air and my ears nonstop cowbells. Something inside me woke up, realigning my mind-body to a harmonious whole.
Nietzsche and Brahms Stayed There
Although now quaint and low-profile, the hotel boasted a guest list featuring Nietzsche and Brahms.
The moment I saw their signatures in the dining room’s display case, I recognized the sense of history was another conduit for a good life. It felt good to relate to something bigger, to keep loneliness at bay.
Over the drip, my mother-in-law regaled me with stories of Basel history, and my father-in-law peppered conversations with tales of human settlement in the Alps.
Taking a seat by Nietzsche’s signature, I animated his photo image and seated him by a neighboring table.
Suppressing my jitters, I approached him, and our drink quickly segued into a conversation about Übermensch, his penchant for mountain living, and his favorite cottage in Engadin.
While history created meaning by connecting us to a place, social ties linked us to contemporaries who can laugh with us. After savoring the dewy greenery of the Alps, we headed south to Ticino for some sun.
A morning of driving famished us, so we stepped into a Quinto grotto at 2 p.m. and ordered a banquet of food.
A white-haired man took our orders, but another heavyset woman brought our food in rounds. A quick conversation revealed that she owned and operated the grotto almost alone—almost, as the earlier man helped from time to time, but now he had just excused himself, claiming other matters to attend to.
“Ugh, men!” Hugo, the gay friend traveling with us, rolled his eyes. We all laughed, and the loudest peal came from the owner. “I’ve never expected this from a man!” she declared, at which we laughed louder.
Laughter from good old times also resonated, and we know the bigger the cumulative pile of good times grew, the lighter the journey onward would feel.
Afterward, we stayed in a few Ticinese towns around Lake Lugano. One of them was Montagnola, where Hermann Hesse had lived for decades and penned about good lives.
In Demian, the protagonist tries to make a wholesome life inspired by a friend, and in Siddhartha, the title character pursues an enlightened life but insists on choosing his own route there.
Hermann Hesse Museum in Lugano
At the Hesse Museum, a documentary framed the author’s life itself as a seeking one. I took the lesson as this: you had this one-off chance to craft who you are, and it is up to you to define what your good life is.
In this individualist approach to transcendence, a good life can accommodate any project, and it is the individuality that fuels the becoming that matters.
Twenty minutes walk away, Hesse’s tomb lay in the corner of a walled cemetery. Standing by the simple headstone, I conceived a good life as a seeking situated in but transcends the time-space it takes.
That being is situated is simply a human condition, and it is from that positioning one seeks transcendence through work and with nature, history, family, and friends.
A realization came that subscribing to Hesse’s individualist model or not, life is already good so long as it is open to these conduits, their roles felt and cultivated for compounding effects.
You would keep seeking, of course; but nothing is guaranteed. A passage in a Hesse poem, Steps, acknowledges this: “High purposed we shall traverse realm on realm/cleaving to none as to a home.”
A good life is a life-long pursuit, the destination defined and achieved on your terms.
Standing by Hesse’s tomb and at the end of my trip, I felt no weariness toward the challenge it entails. Instead, hugged by the green hills and the turquoise water, I was at peace.
It felt like within grasp, my good life nurtured by work, hobby, nature, history, friends, and family, already infused with all the wisdom I would learn along the way.
Hantian Zhang is a data scientist and writer based in San Francisco. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Offing, Eclectica, Manifest-Station, Waxwing, and elsewhere.