A Sweet Surprise Halfway between Nothing and NowhereAugust 28, 2018
Windhoek Lager supports Save The Rhino InternationalSeptember 6, 2018
Text and Photographs: Nina van Schalkwyk
A doorway, wedged in the corner at the back of the café, led to somewhere special. I wasn’t really allowed to go through there, and if I did I had to promise that I would not be noisy. Beyond that doorway was another world. Exotic birds hooted and whistled, there were big green leaves and branches from a courtyard garden. Silently, like a secret agent on a special mission, I’d move over to the trampoline. That’s what I’d come for: to grab the air in my fists while I propelled my skinny legs from the taut surface.
That was back when I was a child, when Café Anton was part and parcel of my family’s December holidays in Swakopmund. In the misty chill of the early morning, we walked from our fat to the café, hands tightly clasped together inside sweatshirt pockets, to purchase a Mandeltörtchen, one for each of us. The brown paper bag weighed heavily on the way home, daring me to open it, daring me to eat the almond tartlet before I reached the fat. It was a ritual. A ritual like when my mother took my brother and me to Café Anton for tea and cake. She’d order the chocolate nougat ring for me, except I didn’t know what nougat was and believed it to be some kind of banana mushiness. My brother and I would resist fighting; resist making a nuisance of ourselves, squabbling over the last crumbs. The hushed atmosphere in the café was infectious. We knew to sit nicely in our chairs.
And if we did, if we promised we wouldn’t make a racket, we were allowed to go off by ourselves – to the secret garden at the back. Through the doorway, into the small hall with the winding staircase that leads to the hotel rooms on the upper floor which, of course, I didn’t know at the time. I wouldn’t dare go up there anyway. Only special people ever came down those stairs. Ahead, though, was the door with the yellow stained glass windows, through which you had a blurry view of the outside. Push the door open and slip out before anyone notices.
Naturally, the courtyard garden was meant for the guests at Hotel Schweizerhaus. That’s why we had to keep super quiet. There was something about being a guest at the hotel that seemed extra special to me. Which is why, in honour of its 50th anniversary this year, I grabbed the opportunity to be a guest there. To experience the world hidden from me as a child.
Hotel Schweizerhaus is family-owned in the third generation. Owner Heidi Snyman, née Anton, born in Namibia, was five when her parents, both from Germany, bought a “Swiss-looking” house in Swakopmund, which is how Hotel Schweizerhaus got its name. Later the Anton’s added the café, which Heidi’s father, a master baker, made into the icon it is today. She grew up in the family business, a witness to her parents’ commitment and sacrifice in running it. “Immer alles für die Gäste” – everything for the guests – she remembers complaining to her father. Now, of course, she understands it, the sacrifice. And the family always managed to make time for lunch together, a tradition that has continued into the third generation. Today, Hotel Schweizerhaus and Café Anton are still run by Heidi, along with her daughters Sylvia and Desireé.
I meet up with the ladies on my first morning at the hotel. We’re sitting around one of the tables in the dining room and in between sips of coffee talk about how far the hotel has come and about working with family. Desireé has taken over behind the counter, producing the famed confectionaries that her grandfather taught her to make. Both daughters spent time in Germany, learning the ins and outs of their trade before heading home. Neither was pressured to get involved. In fact, Heidi was shocked when Sylvia first announced that she planned on working in the hotel. “I told her, about the long hours, the hard work. But it didn’t matter.” As we talk, Sylvia’s 15-month-old daughter sits on her lap. Apparently, she is already getting involved in the family business. “She follows the housekeeping staff around like a shadow. She’s learning all about how to clean”, Sylvia says.
The past is indisputably part of the hotel’s charm, but how will it translate into the future? In the café, Desireé still uses her grandfather’s original recipes – to the relief of customers. When even top restaurants use pre-mix ingredients, she still makes the pretzels from scratch. Lately, though, she has slowly added a few new cakes and biscuits to the range, experimenting with seasonal fruit and international trends. Some, like the lemon meringue cake, do well and stay on, others, like macaroons, don’t. The hotel, too, has seen some changes over the years. Most are too subtle for regulars to notice. The interior of the café and hotel is refurbished every few years, replacing bedding, carpets, curtains and seat cushions. Gradually the big television sets reminiscent of the nineties are being replaced with their fat screen counterparts. One characteristic of the business that seems unlikely to ever change is the team of loyal staffers who have been with the family for decades. The “new” employees are those that have worked there for “only” six years, says Shaheed Abrahams, who is part of the management. Shaheed has been with the family since he left school, starting as a waiter and working his way up. Now he has a hand in every aspect of the business and helps Hotel Schweizerhaus adapt in the face of modern challenges.
In fact, the staff often come together as a team to brainstorm ideas. The latest is a goulash soup special on Sundays that has become popular in a town where most establishments are closed on the last day of the week. I ask him why no one seems to want to leave. What makes it so great to work there? “We are a like a family,” he says with sincerity, “we just all gel.” And when he walks back to the reception counter, I watch the employees converge around him, making jokes and chatting in that familiar way that only comes with time and shared experience.
And while everything changes, everything stays the same. Climbing the staircase to the first floor, the hallway still retains the hushed quality, the thick carpets absorbing the sounds of my steps. My room looks out onto the promenade below, beyond which the ocean reflects the sun’s afternoon rays. Out on the balcony, I toast the weekend and watch as the evening falls over Swakopmund.
This story was first published in the summer 2017/18 issue of TNN.