Wengen, Switzerland. I was packing for a European sojourn when a Facebook post caught my eye: A traveler reported that her Apple Watch had been stolen from her wrist as she snoozed in an aisle seat during a transatlantic flight.
Herlinda Heras, who often journeys from her base in Sonoma County to judge beer competitions on the other side of the pond, digressed a bit when she shared this experience with the more than 21,000 members of the Travel Fashion Girls group. The conversation had started with someone else’s query about whether an ensemble of capri leggings and a tunic looked too much like pajamas to wear on a red-eye. After various participants suggested accessories to avoid the pajama effect, Heras chimed in. Advising against valuable embellishments, she offered the anecdote of the Apple Watch as a case in point.
With much ado and some flight-attendant involvement, the story had a happy ending when a passenger across the aisle shamed her husband into surrendering the watch that Heras had lost and he had “found.” Earlier in the flight, Heras had offered that same woman a cough drop. And this kind gesture from a stranger was apparently enough to overcome what in other contexts might qualify for the husband-wife privilege.
When stuck on flights with other people’s screaming children (mine, of course, always behaved like an angel), I have fantasized about carrying lollipops that could buy me some quiet. But cough drops to share with the grown-ups? Why yes, says Heras, who hosts a live broadcast radio show about beer, cider, food and travel. Not any old cough drops will do, though. Her preferred brand is A. Vogel’s Santasapina bonbons, which she buys in Europe. According to the company’s website, these confections are made with extracts from the shoots of spruce and honey.
“They are miracle workers – and expensive,” Heras told me in an exchange via Facebook Messenger. “But they were a bargain, as they got my Apple Watch back.”
Though I’m always delighted to discover a new travel hack, I am discomfited by the idea of spending many hours aloft in an enclosed capsule with people who might try to rob me in my sleep. Of course I lock doors and suitcases, and take obvious precautions against pickpockets. Still, I prefer to think that other travelers are generally trustworthy. I have met so many people during foreign travel who have opened my eyes to new places and perspectives.
As I write these words, I am sitting on the terrace of a rented apartment in Wengen, Switzerland. Bundled against the early-morning chill, I glance up from the screen of my laptop to observe how the shifting sun illuminates the snowcapped mountains directly in my line of vision. Cows graze on a nearby hill – it was the melodic but persistent clanging of their bells that stirred me from my slumber. A twisting path, also visible, leads down from this car-free village, in the Berner Oberland region, to the verdant Lauterbrunnen Valley.
On the other side of that valley, in another car-free village, lives an Englishman who has spent the past decade probing the limits of travelers’ honesty. David Waterhouse owns the Honesty Shop, in Gimmelwald, a place that my husband and I discovered about seven years ago on one of our first visits to this region. On that trip, we hiked for 35 minutes downhill from the carless village of Mürren, where we stayed on that journey, and stumbled upon this unusual store.
It sells Swiss bric-a-brac and an assortment of other items that are widely available elsewhere, from soft drinks, to cowbells, refrigerator magnets and suspenders. But more intriguing to me than the merchandise is the method of payment: You put the right amount of money in an “honest envelope” and deposit it in the red “honesty box.” The latter is an old London mailbox, which is locked and bolted to the wall. Though farm produce stands in Europe and elsewhere have long operated on this method, it’s unusual to find an entire shop run on the honor system.
After several more trips to the region, during which we passed by the shop, always unattended, last August I went to Gimmelwald with an appointment – to see Waterhouse. I was curious to meet the man behind what struck me, as a native New Yorker, as a somewhat idealistic venture.
Situated at an elevation of 4,485 feet, on a ridge overhanging the valley, Gimmelwald is a hamlet with a population of about 130, most of whom are farmers, work in the tourist industry or do both. Travel guru Rick Steves, in his guidebook to Switzerland, turned it into a legend, writing that “Gimmelwald, though tiny, with one zigzag street, offers a fine look at a traditional Swiss mountain community.”
According to Steves, Gimmelwald’s residents, in a defense against development, played up the risks of avalanches in the surrounding terrain. Indeed, avalanche barriers (and several waterfalls) line the path that leads from Mürren to Gimmelwald. And compared with other carless villages in the vicinity – Mürren uphill, and Wengen, across the valley – Gimmelwald remains relatively untouched. Another attraction is its spectacular view of the famous trio of Alpine peaks: the Eiger, the Mönch and the Jungfrau.
Some travelers discover Gimmelwald from the back of the village as they transfer from the Stechelberg cable car, which comes up from the valley, to a separate one that ascends to Mürren, and then to Birg and Schilthorn, which was the backdrop for the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Waterhouse, a 67-year-old serial entrepreneur, arrived in 2008, by foot. He was hiking through Switzerland, following a route between the old mountain hotels that are open only during the summer months. A chance encounter with a traveler whose name he does not know, and whom he never saw again, led him to Gimmelwald. In a manner of speaking, he never left.
Instead, he bought the ramshackle Hotel Pension Gimmmelwald, which had been closed for two years. Waterhouse, who was a hotelier and restaurateur in Spain, thought it just “needed reinventing.” He turned the terrace, with its spot-on view of the Schwarzmönch Mountain, into a beer garden and started a microbrewery. Today, travelers linger there over a tall glass of Schwarz Mönch – a dark beer named for the mountain, which in German means black monk. (It is now brewed and distributed by JungfrauBräu, in Brienz.) One recent customer described it on the social media site Untappd as “Malty with chocolate and coffee notes.”
But before this frothy product developed digital footprints, the Honesty Shop, attached to the hotel, was getting foot traffic. It’s situated in the 70-square-foot first-floor space that was once the village store. (Rick Steves aside, the lack of a food store in this village has always deterred us from staying there.)
The initial plan was to create a place where people could buy gifts to take home, Waterhouse told me on the morning that we met, in the hotel dining room just as the breakfast dishes were being cleared. They would offer local antiques or crafts and small modern souvenirs – “nothing too big or too expensive.” That ruled out alcohol, even (or maybe especially) Schwarz Mönch beer.
Has it worked? “We lose less than most British retail stores,” Waterhouse replied, and what disappears tends to be “minor stuff, like chocolate.” Some people actually overpay for their purchases because they don’t have the exact change, he adds. “The ritual of the honesty envelope is self-disciplining.”
To be sure, there have been lapses. The red honesty box has replaced a wooden one that was broken into during the Honesty Shop’s second year of operation (20 Swiss Francs, or about $20, was stolen). One other, memorable, theft was of a wooden painted cheeseboard worth about $36. Given the risks, Waterhouse considers his experiment a success. Any losses from the occasional filched item are offset by the saving in Switzerland’s notoriously high labor costs, he figures.
Maybe visitors to the village are a self-selecting group, or perhaps the vibe of the shop inspires people to do the right thing. “I don’t think in the modern world they get much chance to be trusted,” so it’s an appealing notion, Waterhouse says. For that reason, he has chosen not to install video cameras, which send the message, “We don’t trust you actually.” One visitor, perhaps reflecting on past misdeeds, left a note saying, “’This shop has made me a more honest person. I will be more honest in the future.’”
The shop earns several thousand dollars per year, Waterhouse says. And from a marketing perspective, it’s a place to cross-sell his hotel, beer garden and Schwarz Mönch beer.
Up the road from the Honesty Shop is a little store called Misch Masch that also operates on the honor system – but only sometimes. As its name suggests, it sells a variety of items, most of them homemade, from crocheted hats, scarves and baby clothes to jams and brownies. “It’s an honesty shop when I’m not here,” Ursula von Allmen, the owner, told me when I stopped by on a recent Sunday and bought some smoky beef salami, produced by a neighboring farm.
En route back to Wengen, I couldn’t help noticing a sign on the train designed to ward off fare cheats. In six languages, it warns, “Passengers traveling without a valid ticket pay a fare surcharge of CHF 90.” That’s a $90 penalty. I flashed back to the T-shirts and tote bags that I saw for sale just an hour earlier in my latest visit to Waterhouse’s store. “Honesty is freedom,” one T-shirt reads. “Trust is everything,” says another. I wondered whether the threat of punishment or the more affirmative maxim was the stronger deterrent.
What if Heras had been wearing one of those T-shirts on that eventful overnight flight? Perhaps its message would have been enough to dissuade the sticky-fingered traveler from swiping her Apple Watch.
Deborah L. Jacobs is the author most recently of Four Seasons in a Day: Travel, Transitions and Letting Go of the Place We Call Home, about her adventures – and misadventures – living in France. Follow her on Twitter at @djworking and join her on Facebook here. You can subscribe to future blog posts by using the sign-up box on her website’s homepage.