Earlier this year, Heather Stefanski reached out to my wife Karen and asked “Do you guys want to meet us in Switzerland this summer?” On the surface, this was an easy question, and it took us less than 2 seconds to contemplate this before saying unequivocally “Yes!” After all , Heather and Ben are two of our very dearest friends, and our four boys have, in some ways, grown up together. Jackson and Ben were born within two weeks of one another and Luke and Cassius are close in age as well. As transplanted Clevelanders and old friends, we have attended birthdays, stayed at one another’s homes, and taken some trips together over the years. In addition, Karen and Heather have built a wonderful friendship independent of the 6 males. We had also never been to Switzerland, and the prospect of inhaling the country’s renowned beauty together was very exciting for us.
However, meeting the Stefanski family in Zermatt, Switzerland is sort of like taking a skiing trip with Bode Miller and Lindsay Vonn, or something along those lines. They are truly in their element immersed in nature’s unforgiving wilderness, whereas the Josephs are accustomed to more modest outdoor undertakings. Last summer, when we visited them in Santa Barbara, they took us on a ten mile hike. I asked Ben what was the furthest their boys had ever hiked in a day and he said 23 miles, just to give you a sense of their capacity. To give you a sense of mine, that 10 miler was my longest. In the afternoon, we took it a little slower and only chopped wood in the front yard. No joke! By the way, for those of you who haven’t done so, chopping wood is an incredible workout and an even better adrenaline rush! It was absolutely awesome and we had a great time. We always do when spending time with them, but the Stefanskis do have a superhuman component for those of you who may not be aware of this.
Our preparation for this expedition was limited to the purchase of hiking shoes, real hiking shoes–not merely shoes you can hike in. We put on our new kicks and felt like our own kind of superheroes leaving Spain bound for the Swiss Alps, knowing we were likely wholly unprepared for what was in store. We stopped for a day in Geneva, visited the United Nations, and then took the train to Zermatt. The Stefanskis got in earlier in the day, and we figured that Ben had probably ascended the Matterhorn prior to our arrival.
When we arrived, we walked through the lovely mountain village of Zermatt to an incredible 4 bedroom place in the center of town. It was really exciting to see them and feel the warm welcome of old friends. There is nothing like meeting old friends in a new place, and we fell into a routine like family. The couples had a real chance to talk and catch up and the boys played Clash Royale on their phones, shared war stories of school, and laughed a lot. All this in a place where the air is fresh, streams run cold, and the great Matterhorn vanishes into a sea of clouds. The entire environment made this visit all the more special.
Over the four days in Zermatt, we tried to breathe in all of the natural intoxication we could. We hiked to nearby villages, tackled a ropes course, played soccer, swam, and spent a wondrous morning hiking the “5 Lakes Walk” with the Matterhorn soaring overhead, having revealed itself in full just in time for us to take it in. At night, the eight of us played “dice” and then basically collapsed after another active day. But we also found time to visit the Matterhorn Museum, and Ben took the older boys on a “vertical” training session that likely would have left me in need of medical attention. But most of all, we had the chance to enjoy the gift of friendship–to talk and laugh and detach from the trying unknowns life can throw and just be together in such a beautiful place. Our boys have always felt a kinship with Ben and Luke, and for all Granada offered, you don’t create friendships like the one our families share overnight. It was just a week to savor and remember.
Before we departed Switzerland, there were a couple other notable excursions. Jackson was intent on playing futbol at the highest pitch in Europe (6,561 feet) so the two of us made a pilgrimage to Gspon, Switzerland that included two harrowing cable car rides but was well worth the effort. The field is open to any who are brave enough or foolish enough to get there. It was truly breathtaking, and there are few futbol settings on earth more magical than this one. Jackson trained for over an hour with the snow capped Alps surrounding him on all sides, and I struck a ball or two as well. Pretty astonishing.
We wrapped up our time with the Stefanskis in Zurich (our respective points of departure) with a trip to the FIFA Museum. Don’t be dissuaded by the recent FIFA scandals, because the museum is really well done, not too big, and is interactive, educational, moving, and fun. It was a great way to conclude an incredible week right in the heart of Zurich.
As we said our goodbyes, it felt like the week had made a real impact on our family. Cassius, for starters, enjoyed speaking English again, and he bonded with Luke over books (they are both avid readers), games, and a bevy of stories. They grew much closer, and it was nice to see at the conclusion of a year where friends weren’t easy to come by.
Jackson and Ben have always gotten on well, and they reconnected with the maturity of boys who will soon be independent young men. From afar, we watched with the knowledge that these family trips won’t be so easy to come by in a few years, but that the friendships the boys have made should be strong enough to sustain beyond these fleeting moments.
And as for us, there are few people we enjoy being with more and admire more than Ben and Heather, and it was hard to say goodbye. Parting really is “such sweet sorrow”, but we were grateful for the chance to connect abroad amidst so much staggering, natural beauty.
On our visit to the Matterhorn museum, we learned about a man named Ulrich Inderbinen, who climbed the Matterhorn more than 370 times in his life–and stood at the peak for his final time when he was 90 years old. He said, “I live how I climb a mountain: my walking rhythm is slow and deliberate, but steady and determined.” That’s pretty much my approach.
At the same time, we always feel somewhat compelled to thank the Stefanskis for slowing down the pace for us just a tad and somewhat regretful that the Josephs (with the exception of KB) do little at breakneck speed. But, as Ulrich Inderbinen proved time and time again, you don’t have to move at a blistering pace to reach the summit. When spending time with Ben, Heather, Ben, and Luke, we always seem to make it to the top.