I have mentioned before how important it is when living abroad to always agree to join in in anything local. Therefore when our friends David and Louisa asked us the other day if we were going to join in the local Banntag celebrations, we of course said yes. And as always we were rewarded for jumping in headfirst into local tradition.
I have to admit that I had to look this one up. I know the term Bannwald, meaning “protected forest,” as there are a number of them around Karlsruhe. The root Bann means roughly in English “ban” or “prohibition.” However Bann also turns out to be an archaic term for “border,” translating Banntag to roughly “border day.” The holiday stems from a very old, annual tradition of going out in the spring to ensure that the stone border markers of the community are still where they should be, having not been moved or otherwise disturbed in the previous year. Today this tradition is still recognized in a few regions in Switzerland in different ways. In some communities only the men are allowed to participate (as it was historically the men who patrolled the borders), dressing up in local period raiment and carrying old muskets as protectors of the border. Luckily in our village everyone is welcome to take part in the festivities, walking part of the border and then meeting up in the woods at the edge of town for a celebration.
We were very fortunate that one of the first truly glorious days of spring this year was on Banntag, and the turnout reflected the wonderful weather. We met at the tram station and followed the tracks out of town through fields with a breathtaking view over our little valley, now a patchwork of verdant green grass and explosions of yellow from the blooming rapeseed. Just over the French border we cut through the fields past ancient half-timbered horse farms and across streams, traversing rolling fields of hay rippling like a green sea in the cool spring breeze. Eventually we stopped just over a rise, populated by blossoming pear and apple trees for an aperitif, served on an old farming trailer hauled out by a vintage Hürlimann tractor. We enjoyed our wine in the warmth of the sun while watching storks riding the breeze and occasionally swooping and diving over freshly tilled fields, looking for their next meal.
Such sights to behold under azure skies in the fresh air would be enough for me, but of course with a large percentage of the village in attendance, conversation began to start. I am not exactly loquacious in the best of situations, certainly defaulting to taciturnity when in a crowd. However what I am beginning to learn about village life is that one can hardly remain reticent, let alone anonymous. But this familiarity, while new and a bit strange to me, makes for genuinely warm engagement with others who really do want to know you a bit better. I found myself surprised how easy it was to partake in the conversation and readily enjoying myself, gladly explaining to some puzzled faces how an American could end up in our small corner of Switzerland. I was flattered when someone asked if I was studying here.
Eventually we made our way to the clearing in the forest where the local music club, who organized the day’s activities, set up picnic tables and had stands selling beer, wine, and other drinks as they ladled up freshly made soup from large cauldrons directly at the tables along with sausages from the grill. We shared a table with our next-door neighbors and people whom we just met on that day. Later as the music club began to play for us, we were joined by our neighbor from across the street who supplied the party with his freshly brewed beer, ensuring that our glasses were never empty. Heidi of course made friends with our new neighbors and we got to know several new pooches in the area. There was good food, good beer, good music, and good company. But it was when I looked up to the trees dancing in the breeze high above us against the blue skies that I really appreciated the simple goodness of such a day.
David and Louisa asked us the next day how we are feeling in our new village. We might still be the new foreigners in town, but of all the places that we have lived, this is truly starting to feel like home.