Jules and Yolanda Wyden: Tales of old Ernen and a Story of Bells

It wasn’t easy to find the doorbell. Fact is, there wasn’t a doorbell. I had called to ask if a visit was in order at all: I’d been encouraged to go, but I knew Jules and his wife Yolanda were elderly, that a call might be an intrusion. On the contrary, the couple were glad, I found, to share a little of their story.

At the front corner of their building, the Wydens’ sitting room overlooks Ernen’s regional bus stop and the sharp turn in the road that heads up towards the Binntal. I had often seen Yolanda’s face and shock of white hair at the window as she watched the locals and tourists bustle about below. And when I made my way up the steep wooden stairs that led to their modest apartment, they both welcomed me kindly. Around us were two bouquets of field flowers on a round wooden table, two day-beds, personal memorabilia. A massive stone oven took up the space of three men in one corner, and displayed a motley collection of meaningful objects on its top.

When I asked how the couple had met, I got a fast answer. “Out on the field. We were farming,” he said. Like most of the “Erner” in those days, they both came from farming families. Yolanda had grown up in the impressive Kreyg-Haus, the solid, three-story so-called “Blockbau” that was built right beneath the church in 1677. She and Jules had gone to school in the village, he told me, but back then, the boys and girls had separate classrooms, so they hadn’t known much about the other at school. She was a good dancer, though − “a very good dancer,” he intoned, and they danced at “Zur frohen Aussicht,” the restaurant between Ernen und Ausserbinn  − now abandoned −  that staged dances on Sundays when the season allowed. “We boys had to wear pleated trousers, a white shirt, and a tie,” he recalled, “and everybody danced in a big circle, always circling to the left. There was order in it. Real order,” he said, “and that’s what we did for fun… nothing like what people do today.” I asked if he did any drinking with his young friends. “A schnapps, maybe,” he said, “but there was only beer in the summer.” Yolanda nodded in agreement.

Jules moves slowly and carefully, but is still quick to engage in conversation, and was proud of his 70-year tenure as a bell ringer at the village church. His engagement there was treasured in turn: Ernen’s was one of the last of the manually-operated carillons in the Oberwallis. What’s more, harnessing the iron power of the larger bells along with the effervescent sounds of little bells is an athletic musical feat that few can master. The bells are rung thanks to cords that glide over return pulleys to the player’s console, which sits high in the tower. It takes terrific muscle power and coordination in the player’s arms and legs to generate the sound, and it’s one that can be heard even out beyond the village. Nowadays, Jules’s fingers were too inflexible to play, he said, but a plaque marking his 70-year achievement hung on the wall, and he wanted to be sure I took note of it.

Being digital-friendly, Jules had at one time carefully entered the numerous melodies he had composed and played at the church into a file on his computer. Sadly, though, all had been irretrievably lost when his hard-disk suddenly crashed some years ago. According to all accounts, that was a terrific piece of Ernen history lost.

Back to the present: When the doorbell rang, the neighbor who often cooks lunches for the couple came up the stairs. “What’ll it be today?” she asked. Yolanda gave her a few words from the window, and the cheerful Gabriela left for the kitchen, a little room off the landing that was teeming with pots, plates and pans. A few times a week, she comes over, it seems, to make sure that the couple ate “things that were healthy,” − commitment and compassion that’s worth its weight in gold.

The Ernen I know is the Musikdorf in a stunning alpine landscape that stages first-rate classical music concerts, offers great hiking trails, hosts inspired art exhibitions, and attracts a crowd that is largely attuned to both. Jules didn’t know that an art exhibition entitled “Zur frohen Aussicht,” − coincidentally enough − was being shown around town, and he was cautious with a definition as to what qualified “art” as such. “When you see something drawn as it really is,” made perfect sense to him. “I see,” said I. while just out the window, artist Moritz Hossli’s clever installation of the golden bird that chirps on the hour from the Rathaus window opposite called to us − at exactly noon − twelve times.

Ernen, Friday, 21 July 2017, by Sarah Batschelet