Bathing At Hotel Sternen

by David Williams

This is an old essay that I wrote ten or twelve years ago about my time at the Hotel Sternen in Brienz, Switzerland. I spoke briefly about my job at the hotel in my second post for Trailwriters. Although the subject seems fairly innocuous and, at least to me, had some humor as well, it opened my eyes to things we have taken for granted in this country for really our entire history on this continent, particularly cheap and plentiful energy and resources. Figures I have seen repeatedly in articles on independent news sites the last few years claim that Americans represent five percent of the world’s population yet use twenty-five percent of the world’s resources. If these figures are accurate, and I believe they are, then what we have done and continue to do is tantamount to gluttony. Setting aside any entertainment value my essay may have, this profligacy should make it still relevant today. I hope you don’t mind if I dust off this old relic and include it here. 

Water and bathing quickly became problems for us three Americans working at and living in Hotel Sternen. Back home we were used to taking a bath or shower every day. In Europe we learned that water is more precious and the energy required to heat it more expensive.

Denise and Diane stayed in one of the hotel rooms. It had two small beds, a chair and small table, and most important, to me at least, a small sink with hot and cold water. This arrangement was common for lower priced lodging in Europe. The girls had to “bathe” in the sink; they had to sponge-bathe, as we often call it here. 

When I had arrived at the hotel, our boss and the manager of the hotel, Vreni Michel, had given me a room on the east end of the second floor hallway. It was not a hotel room and appeared to be set aside for workers like me. Unlocking the door to enter, I had first to make my way along a narrow path through a roomful of discarded and unused hotel furniture. The path led to the door of my room. I  liked my room. It wasn’t cramped, contained an adequate small bed, an old writing table and chair, a bedside stand, and an armoire in the far corner against the east wall. This wall also held a window that looked out over the town to the east and thus down the main street through the town. Standing at the window and leaning out slightly I had two lovely views: one to the right with the Brienzee and mountains on the other side of this lake; the other to the left with the towering mountains rising up above the town. In both vistas rooftops and houses from my vantage point on to the east. 

My parents visited Brienz in the early eighties and returned home with a brochure about Hotel Sternen; this and the photo below come from that brochure. This one is a photo of the hotel taken from a boat in the lake. My niece and her friend visited Brienz recently, quite a coincidence since she did not know that I had worked there in 1976, and said that the hotel is still open for business. . 
This view of the church and west end of the town is one that Diane and I saw only once, when our work was completed and we caught a ride with a couple from Florida who offered to take us as far as possible towards Geneva. We would have seen this view  on the way out of town, turning around in the back seat of their car for a final look. 

There was a sink, as I recall, in the bathroom at the west end of the hall at the top of the stairs. Only cold water came from the tap. 

What I didn’t understand was how to bathe myself. When I asked Vreni Michel, she raised her eyebrows inquiringly,—a typical response from her—mumbled something to herself in German and said, “Yah, I’m finding something for you now.” She disappeared into the kitchen and promptly returned with a red plastic water pail. It held about three gallons of water. 

“Me thinks you using this now,” she explained, and thrust it into my hands. 

And thus I learned how to sponge bathe and did so in my room every evening after work. Filling the pail with hot water from the kitchen or, if I could find it open, the laundry room, I carried it to my room for my evening ritual. First I poured out some water to shave in. After shaving, I took a quick sponge bath, and while the water was still hot, I soaked my feet, a heavenly sensation after being on them on the hard floors all day.  

In the two months that I worked at Hotel Sternen, I went through this bathing routine every evening. Well, there was one exception. 

Within a week of our arrival, we discovered the large, deep bathtub in the laundry room on the second floor. Diane worked as a chambermaid, cleaning rooms and changing linens on beds. The used linens she took to the laundry room, so she probably spotted the bathtub first. Naturally, she and Denise began to discuss the prospect of a deep, hot bath. This idea seemed to grow and take on added dimensions of meaning as the days passed and they tried to adjust to bathing themselves in the sink. I didn’t envy them that sink either. It was small and probably held about half the water of my bucket. There was no way you could soak both feet in it at the same time. As for shampooing hair, I have no idea what they did. Well, the girls worked themselves into a state of longing and expectation that only a deep tub of steaming hot water would satisfy. You might say that they were obsessed with the laundry room bathtub. In reality, they likely would have been obsessed with any tub. Or a shower for that matter. 

Since the laundry room was kept locked, we had no way to get in for a bath unless we could come up with the key. A stout, attractive, middle-aged woman of Italian descent, Chaussi, worked in the laundry room a few days a week, and it was to her that the girls went first. Chaussi explained that she could not give them the key, that she had to take and return it each time she came to work from the rack of keys on the wall near the cash register in the restaurant. 

This left them with only two possibilities for bathing in the tub. They could either take the key while no one was looking and bathe without being discovered by Vreni Michel. Or they could ask her for the key and permission to bathe. The first option seemed all but impossible. So someone would have to go to Vreni Michel and ask for the key. 

The girls:

“Go on, she’ll let you have it.” (Diane)

 “She likes you.” (Denise)

“She’s not going to beat you or fire you just because you ask for the key.” (Diane)

“The worst she can do is say no.” (Denise)

So one day after lunch and just before our three hour afternoon break, I approached Vreni Michel in the restaurant. 

“The girls would like to take a bath,” I said. Well, it was partly true. She looked at me, puzzled, with that wonderfully expressive face. The eyebrows rose on her forehead, drooped a bit, rose some more. She studied me with that face, her eyes piercing me as she did. 

“What?” She must have been incredulous.

“A bath. The tub in the laundry room. We want to take a bath.”

My words registered, and in her face I could see her processing them, mulling them over briefly; a fleeting look of disappointment and annoyance, maybe even betrayal, passed over her features. She turned and reached up to the rack of keys. 

“Me thinks I’m giving it to you this time,” she said, and handed me the key.

I took it straight to the girls, who were waiting with anticipation, and a bathing queue formed, with me at the end. I didn’t mind. That afternoon we had our baths. We each ran a deep tub of hot water, soaking and luxuriating in it, indifferent to the cost for the hotel, for which Vreni Michel was ultimately accountable. The hotel, under her management, had fallen on hard times, and I wonder all these years later if she fretted over excesses like ours, which must have increased operating expenses. Well, it was only three baths. 

Tourism and wood carving are the two main drivers of the economy in Brienz. Busloads of tourists passed through the town most every day, and walking along the main street of town one could stop and look in the doors of small wood carving shops. My parents brought home a gift from one of these shops, this carving of a boy and his book. I began reading, as most avid readers probably do, at an early age; as an adult I probably never visited home without bringing along a book. 

It was inevitable that we would ask for another bath. Less than a week later the girls once again sent me, their bathing ambassador, to ask for the key. This time, however, the inquisitive, puzzled look did not show in her features. There was hardly any hesitation.  

“No, I’m not giving you the key this time. No more. The girls they having the water in the room, and you have the…the…”

“The bucket,” I said.

“Yah, that. The bucket. Is enough. You not asking any more the key.”


And that was the end of bathing in the big bathtub at Hotel Sternen. What remained of our time—about a month and a half—I bathed with the bucket. I don’t recall any hardship or inconvenience either. I don’t look back on that time with bitterness. Using the bucket simply became an established routine, one that I quickly grew used to and hardly gave a second thought.  

This house was fairly typical of the houses we saw in Brienz. In the afternoons we were given about three hours off from work and we usually walked though the town and along a small paved road that led up the mountainside out of the town. 

A decade later I would build a woodworking shop on my parents’ land in central Texas. After it was completed I added on a small bedroom and lived there four years. As in the days at Hotel Sternen, I bathed with a bucket most days since I didn’t have a bathroom. Outside, I built a privy—an outdoor toilet. In the shop itself there were two water spigots, both with cold water. In the summer I heated water for bathing and washing dishes on a hotplate; in the winter I used a wood-burning stove. 

This is a view of the south end of my wood-working shop/home, where I lived and worked from 1987 to 1991. The clothesline, incidentally, is not an anomaly; I’ve never owned a clothes drier and have seldom used one.

Looking back on those years, I remember no significant hardships or difficulties because there was no bathroom. I also lived without air conditioning and other conveniences. I still believe that I lived very comfortably. Once I settled into a routine and established what I would need in order to live well—a refrigerator, a wood stove, a hot plate, a fan to sleep under in the worst heat of summer, and yes, later, a telephone—I never longed for the conveniences that people today see as necessities. 

After four years I left the shop and since then I have lived in houses with bathrooms. And although I bathe or shower daily, I remember humbler times and that helps me not take for granted the availability of water and the energy to heat it. Those humbler times began at Hotel Sternen, in the middle of the Swiss Alps, in a country that most people would consider as having a high standard of living. We might look around the world sometimes and take a lesson from others.