The Morning After: Breakfast at Balmer’s

Travel Stories: Terry Ward explores a travel rite of passage in Interlaken, Switzerland

06.04.09 | 8:39 AM ET

Photo by Terry Ward

The two American college students eating breakfast at Balmer’s Herberge in Interlaken oozed a morning-after awkwardness that prompted me to perk up.

I imagined the duo descending together from one of the maze-like hostel’s dormitories into the communal dining room, dutifully following the instructions at the buffet counter to “have your voucher ready and choose from muesli with fruit or continental breakfast.”

“I like this muesli,” said the girl to the boy, more like a question than a comment, as if grasping for some sort of common ground in the harsh light of day. 

Her True Religion jeans were tucked into UGGs, and she wore a keffiyeh as a sarong around her waist, the latter touch likely a result of her recent Europeanization (the Palestinian head scarf is sported all places but the head by European youth—far more a fashion statement than a political one). The girl was part of a group of American college students studying abroad who had come to Interlaken for the weekend to ski. She spoke to the bed-headed boy with the same sort of enthusiastic yet disconnected rapport that an auctioneer employs with a bidding-frenzied crowd.

It was difficult to tell how much she liked him. But the fact that they had only recently become acquainted was clear. 

“Whaaaa?” said the boy, his voice weary, I surmised, from an alcohol-saturated night. 

“The muesli,” said the girl again, enunciating the word more clearly this time, waiting for the boy to bite. 

“What’s muesli?” he asked.

“This cereal,” she said, gesturing toward her bowl. The bronze cupids beaming down on the pair from a shelf in the Balmer’s breakfast room were a comic touch.

“Oh, muesli,” he ventured, rolling the world around in his mouth. “Yeah, it’s pretty good.”

Interlaken, Switzerland—buffered by clear blue lakes and hammocked by the piercing peaks of the Alps—is a very pretty place. But in a country of endless superlatives, it is also a location so firmly on every American college student’s touring-Europe-radar as to be overwhelmed by them and, as a result, somehow underwhelming in the greater scope of the continent.

For many young Americans getting their feet wet in the world of international travel, however, passing through Interlaken is a rite of passage.

Still, Saturday morning at Balmer’s—“The oldest privately run hostel in Switzerland” and “Where the fun never stops,” according to the website—feels more like a dining hall full of hungover co-eds at a mediocre American university than anything remotely Alpine. The accent of nearly every hostel denizen at Balmer’s is youthfully lilting American. And the staff mumbles and chirps in a clipped chorus of predominantly Australian and Kiwi tones. If ever Swiss-German seemed liked a dying language it is at Balmer’s, where Swiss culture, too, gets sidelined.

College sweatshirts and baseball caps advertising American universities are the unspoken uniform, acting as invitations for conversations about where you’re from rather than where you are. Even the communal showers smell all-American—a citrus-meets-musk wash of Bath and Body Works and Victoria’s Secret.

Balmer’s has about as much local appeal as a Taco Bell would in Mexico City. But who was I to knock the place? After all, a little over a decade ago I probably would have found myself checking in at Balmer’s, too. I ended up here at the ripe age of 33 (ancient history, by Balmer’s standards), thanks to a travel companion’s nostalgia. When he was 20 and studying abroad in southern Switzerland, my friend Denis spent a memorable three days at Balmer’s.

“I really enjoyed the adventure sports they offered,” Denis told me about the hostel, an attempt to sell me on staying there with him for a night. The canyoning and sky diving, he said, were phenomenal.

“C’mon, you got lucky,” I ribbed, knowing full well what being a 20-year-old American on the European hostel circuit is about.

Denis conceded to a certain encounter with a Canadian at Balmer’s, but he assured me he recalled just as fondly the atmosphere of the hostel’s laid-back basement bar, where conversations and cold beer in big glass steins flowed.

“Plus, it’s cheap,” he said. So I agreed to join Denis for a night in reliving his glory days of studying abroad.

The price at Balmer’s was right. I scored a no-frills single room with paper-thin walls, a small desk and vanity with a sink and a phone booth-sized shared shower down the hall for 44 CHF (around $40). And when Denis asked an Australian with a thick Queensland accent working at the hostel about Interlaken’s hot spots, we were assured that Metro Bar, in the hostel’s basement, was the most happening place in town (“Interlaken’s no. 1 party!” confirmed the website). 

But alas, Metro Bar was no longer the quaint watering hole of Denis’ memory. The club was throbbing with Euro pop. Lighthouse-like strobe lights emitted blinding shafts of neon-hued rays at a regular rate. And American college kids loitered in loose groups, waiting for the liquid courage to kick in. The beer, much to Denis’ dismay, was proffered in plastic cups.

Still, there was a palpable energy to the place that went beyond the thrumming bass beats. For most of the people in Metro Bar, the world was a new, thrilling and very free place. And even if the party consisted mostly of Americans behaving badly, the rest of Europe was just out the front door.

The next morning, eavesdropping at the breakfast table, I was quite sure that the awkward couple dining next to me was the direct result of a match made on “Interlaken’s hottest dance floor.” 

“Do you drink coffee every morning?” the boy was asking the girl now, continuing on the favorite foods theme. 

“Not every morning,” she said, putting the ball back in his court, “but how can you hate coffee and then, like, drink black coffee? That’s sick.”

Happily, they found common ground over beer’s morning-after appeal. 

“I definitely can’t drink those beers this morning,” she said, “Can you?”

“Screw that,” he obliged.

“I need to go get postcards today,” she continued.

“Go to the skydiving place,” he offered. And they got up to leave.

I was ready to head out, too. Full of nostalgia for my early travel days—and simultaneous relief they were over—I hoisted my backpack and walked through the Balmer’s beer garden, a brown patch of grass in the dead of winter with lonely picnic tables that suggested sunnier times. I wandered out the back gate and away from the bubble of the hostel.

Interlaken, and Balmer’s in particular, wasn’t a place I wanted to linger. As I headed to the station to catch my train, the town was waking up. 

A barrel-chested man in rubber boots walked by with a huge pipe crooked like a tire iron in the corner of his mouth. Birds yodeled from the rooftops. And an elderly but able woman ambled along the sidewalk, pulling a canvas roller bag loaded with groceries behind her. “Grüezi,” she said to me as I stepped to the side to allow her to pass. I felt apologetic for being just another American backpacker in her town who’d spent the bulk of my night at Balmer’s, but I was grateful that she’d greeted me all the same.

My thoughts returned to the couple. I imagined them back in the dorm at Balmer’s, under the hostel’s Heidi-esque red and white gingham duvets, the twang of American voices in the hall. Something told me that there was a dawning realization in the back of their minds that where they were was merely a stepping-off point for someplace broader. 

That somewhere beyond the gates of that hostel was a new world waiting to be seen.

Terry Ward

Terry Ward is a Florida-based writer and a long-time contributor to World Hum.

7 Comments for The Morning After: Breakfast at Balmer’s

Julia Ross 06.04.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Thanks Terry. Nice story.

Wendy Boucher 06.04.09 | 11:47 AM ET

Thanks for the memories.  I stayed there over twenty years ago when I was traveling alone through Europe.  I still have the Swiss Army Knife I bought there.  I befriended a large group playing beer drinking games outside and then we spent hours in the dark playing hide and seek around Interlaken.  I’ll never forget it.

Jennifer 06.04.09 | 11:52 AM ET

The described atmosphere at Balmer’s would irritate me even if it was in the states!!!

smh1977 06.04.09 | 4:24 PM ET

yep, she pretty much hit the nail on the head. Sadly, I suppose I first started traveling when I was 29, so I did Balmer’s as a 29yr old ... good times, but now I do cringe a bit at the ripe old age of 31 at how green I was there, but wouldn’t take it back for anything!

Jed Smith 06.04.09 | 6:09 PM ET

Cool stuff terry.  i love that hostel, great place to get some ladies.  i even had two in one night one time i was there.  the ones from switzerland are the best, and they speak with funny accents.  i’ll go back fur sure real soon.

Denis' mommy 06.04.09 | 8:58 PM ET

Nice story Terry….I feel like I’m ease dropping in a corner of Balmer’s breakfast room.

Jeffrey 06.05.09 | 2:22 AM ET

Thanks for sharing… great story..

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