Separated for a decade, these Swiss lovebirds reunited to build their Canadian dream in B.C.
On a hillside overlooking B.C.’s Shuswap Lake, trees and blossoming bushes all but envelop Piero and Marianne Vezzani’s cedar-sided cottage. Movement in the sky attracts my eyes upward in time to see an osprey glide overhead, a fish in its talons. “We love this place because of the nature,” Piero says, as he jogs the final steps toward me up a steep path alongside the cottage. The vigorous septuagenarian has been out this morning for his regular trail run. “Marianne will be back from her painting class soon,” he says, with a strong Swiss-German accent. “I could use a glass of water.”
Piero and Marianne live in Zurich, and have been making an annual migration to the Shuswap for almost four decades. They spend May through August at their 2,200 sq. ft., two-level cottage near the town of Salmon Arm, on one of the four arms of the roughly H-shaped lake.
I follow Piero inside, where the main floor offers cool relief from the rising heat of the day. Blue awnings shade large picture windows that showcase the lake from the open-concept living, dining, and kitchen area. The criss-cross of fir trusses in the airy vaulted ceiling make the interior seem larger than the modest two-bedroom cottage appears from the outside.
Artwork throughout includes Marianne’s landscape paintings and works by other local artists, including the painter and architectural designer Linda Franklin, who drew the plans for this cottage. In the family room downstairs, Canadian and Swiss flags hang side by side, along with medals that Piero has won in cycling races. There’s a map too, of the Shuswap region, which outlines the lake’s 15,520 sq. km watershed. “That’s more than one-third the area of Switzerland,” Piero observes.
Marianne arrives, a tall, gracious woman with a calm presence. As she prepares sandwiches for lunch, we chat about her weekly painting classes. Though she showed artistic talent in school, Marianne says, and her father painted later in life, it’s only since she retired that she’s found time to develop her skills.
We settle in the shade of an umbrella on the balcony, which juts lakeward over the edge of the slope like a ship’s prow. Below, sailboats glide across the Shuswap among the slow, hulking houseboats popular with summer renters. Piero leans back and opens his arms to the panorama. “This is about as different from our home as it gets.”
Piero Vezzani and Marianne Haemisegger grew up in Andermatt, a small ski village in the Swiss Alps. Their families knew each other. Her father, a photographer, had a photo shop, and Piero’s family ran a deli. Young Piero actually had a crush on Marianne’s older sister, but, in 1953, when Marianne was nine, the Haemiseggers emigrated to Canada.
Marianne’s uncle, who built trails and guided mountaineers in B.C.’s Glacier National Park in the 1920s, bought land on the Shuswap after the Second World War. After Marianne’s father visited in 1952, there was no going back. “He so quickly fell in love with the wilderness and wide-open spaces that he sent my mother a telegram: ‘Sell the house and the store and come here,’ ” Marianne says with a laugh. “So she did!”
The Haemiseggers homesteaded at Celista with no running water or electricity, and Marianne attended a one-room school. “We grew our own food and became pioneers,” she says. After a year, the family gave up their wild idyll and moved to nearby Salmon Arm for school and work.
In 1964, when she was 20, Marianne returned to Switzerland for a time to relearn the German she had lost. She was working in Zurich as a secretary when Piero contacted her. He’d moved to Zurich by then, was working as a travel agent, and had heard that she was back in the country. They met and found they had much in common. Both loved the wilderness. Piero, who enjoyed trail-running races and mountaineering, was working weekends as a ski instructor. She too was an active skier, swimmer, and hiker.
The couple dated for a few years before Piero travelled to Canada, in 1967, to lead a group of Swiss tourists across the country. When they reached Niagara Falls, he telephoned Marianne and proposed. “The romance of all those newlyweds inspired me,” he says. “He told me he was on his way to Salmon Arm to ask my parents for my hand in marriage,” says Marianne, taking his hand from across the table. “I said maybe.” They married the following year.
“I went to Switzerland for one year and stayed for 50,” Marianne says, catching her husband’s eye. “He only married me because he loved the idea of going to Canada,” she quips. Piero raises his hands in mock self-defence: “It’s only a rumour.”
They made trips to the Shuswap every few years to stay with Marianne’s family. After baby Viviana came, in 1978, visits to the grandparents became annual events, and the couple dreamed of having their own place at the lake.
In 1988, they found their land. While running along the rail line that skirts the Shuswap’s southern shore, Piero heard hammering from the slope above. Curious, he bushwhacked up to a building site, where a man was working on a new house with an expansive lake view. “I just bought this lot,” he told Piero, “and the family has three more for sale.”
Within weeks, the Vezzanis had their own patch of Shuswap forest with 300 metres of lakefront. In Switzerland, a country not much bigger than Vancouver Island with a population of eight million, “this would be impossible,” Piero says. “On the rare occasion when something does come up for sale, only a sheik of Saudi Arabia could afford it,” he explains. “And it certainly wouldn’t be 10 acres of waterfront.”
Of course, every cottage paradise has its small irritants. As we chat, the chugging and clanking of a train on the rail line below fills the air. “They go by day and night,” says Marianne, “but we hardly hear them anymore.”
From inside the cottage comes a baby’s bubbling laughter. “That’s the General calling,” Marianne says, bounding in to pick up her granddaughter, four-month-old Ava. Her mother, Viviana, 38—the Vezzanis’ only child—lives in Zurich with her husband, Karl. Together, they run the Zurich Film Festival, and they relish their visits to the Shuswap.
“At home, our family discusses art, film, and culture,” Viviana says. “But when they’re over here”—she nods toward her parents—“our phone conversations are constantly interrupted with ‘an eagle just flew over’ or ‘you should see the deer that just walked by.’ There’s simply no talking to them,” she says, her voice affectionately chiding.
As Viviana and Marianne fuss over the baby, Piero suggests that we explore the property. Just steps beyond the cottage, we’re engulfed by a tangle of fir and cedar trees, maples, and birches. Cicadas zing in the heat. “This is where we saw our first bear,” Piero says, indicating a septic field area that he cleared in the early 1990s, lively now with lupines, butterfly bushes, and cascading salmonberries. “We knew there was a mom around somewhere,” he adds, so he and Marianne retreated to the cottage to watch the cub gambol about the hillside. Another time, a full-grown black bear came within metres of Marianne as she sipped coffee on the back patio. She sat quietly, watching the bear sniff around, until Piero stepped outside and inadvertently startled it away.
We transition from sunshine to deep forest shade on Piero’s Grandmother Trail. The route is part of a two-kilometre network of trails that he created and maintains. “It’s so easy, anyone can do it,” he says. As we walk, he points out patches of verdant moss and areas of crushed grass where deer have slept. “On trails in Switzerland,” he observes, “there are always other people around.”
At the edge of the woods, a long rustic staircase incorporating logs and driftwood follows the natural contour of the steep hillside. “I built these 130 steps—100 are wooden and 30 are stone,” Piero says. “It took me three years.” For many of the steps, he laid a foundation of rock—often anchored with iron rods—and built the wooden structure on top.
We follow Piero’s Panorama Trail along a short, open ridge. As we stop to rest on a wooden bench, which he also made, and take in the splendid lake view, Piero points out a large nest in a nearby tree where bald eagles came to roost for more than a decade. “They would fly their newborns in circles right over our house, like they were showing them off to us,” he says. “Then, last year, they didn’t return. We hope they are nearby.”
After Marianne’s mother passed away, in 2002, and her nephew moved into the family home in Salmon Arm, the Vezzanis decided that it was time to build their own place. In July 2003, they called a friend of a friend on the lake, the architectural designer Linda Franklin, to help them realize their vision for a modest, single-level “Canadian house” with a crawl space. “We called it a ‘Canadian house’ because it would not be a European stone cabin with small windows,” says Marianne. “We wanted a cottage with wood siding, high ceilings, and plenty of big windows, built on the hillside and surrounded by wilderness reaching almost to our doorstep.”
They’d planned to build the following summer, but when Franklin suggested an August construction date—which would have the cottage ready to move in for their return in May—they jumped at the idea. The next three weeks were a whirlwind of pre-construction details: selecting the roofing and building materials, the flooring, and the fixtures.
The cottage’s vaulted ceiling—one of Franklin’s trademarks—was built with conventional techniques, but with the posts and trusses clad in fir to mimic more costly post-and-beam construction. “I think people find spaces more pleasing and comfortable if they can see the structure,” she told the Vezzanis. It was Franklin’s husband, Michael—a contractor and an excavation expert—who convinced Piero and Marianne to expand to two levels. “You already have the 40 by 28 footprint,” he told them after a site assessment. “It wouldn’t cost much more to add a lower level.” So, just a week before the couple was to return to Switzerland, they went back to the drawing board with Franklin to convert the crawl space into a full basement.
Construction continued in their absence, and come mid-December, Franklin sent a package to Zurich. Inside was a small red wooden canoe containing the keys to the cottage and a note: “This is probably the most expensive Christmas present you’ve ever bought.” Within months, Marianne retired from her secretarial work, and Piero left his managerial position with the Head ski and tennis company in Switzerland.
In early May 2004, the Vezzanis returned to B.C., filled with anticipation. “The cottage was roomier than we expected,” Marianne remembers. “And it smelled like fresh wood.” Franklin had left a gift basket of champagne and homemade bread. When she saw the lights of the cottage go on from her home across the lake, she phoned and welcomed the Vezzanis to the Shuswap.
Two years later, Franklin—who took her training in Britain and, in the late 1960s, worked as Arthur Erickson’s only female architectural designer—won an honourable mention for her design of the Vezzanis’ “little jewel,” as she calls it, in a Cottage magazine competition.
The hot afternoon passes slowly, with Piero on the window bench, reading a book on his tablet, while Marianne, at the kitchen counter, works on her painting of a sockeye salmon migrating up the Adams River. When little Ava awakens, she becomes the social focal point.
Piero shows me five books in German that he’s written and published in limited editions to share with friends and family—stories of his mountaineering adventures; his bush-plane exploits with Marianne’s pilot nephew, Steven; and his encounters with business clients such as the tennis legend Björn Borg. Marianne brings out her father’s black-and-white prints of Swiss mountains, taken in the 1930s and exhibited in Andermatt.
Later, we head outside to her small flower and herb garden. “We once had a vegetable garden, but then the birds came, then marmots—big and small—and deer. By the time the bears arrived, there was nothing left!” She laughs, acknowledging this as the price of living in nature. “For me, the Shuswap is home,” she says, watering her plants. “It’s where I grew up, where my family and my old school friends live. From the moment we arrive here, we are calm. We can breathe easily.”
While their Shuswap retreat is a place for relaxation, the Vezzanis are far from inactive here. They hike and swim and spend hours paddling the shoreline in their canoe. In 2011, they took sculling lessons at the Shuswap rowing and paddling club, then started taking a double out twice a week at six a.m. “It’s heaven on the water in early morning,” says Piero. In 2014, he started volunteering as field marshal for the Shuswap dragon boat races. “He just liked it because he could give orders to a bunch of women,” Marianne says, teasing.
The talk of paddling and swimming inspires Piero, Viviana, and I to head for the water. We make our way down the staircase and across the railway tracks to set up an umbrella on a narrow strip of pebble beach. By late summer, the level of Shuswap Lake will drop by about three metres, extending the family’s beach by as much as 65 feet. Right now, the lake is at its high point from spring snowmelt. The water is nippy, but father and daughter are undeterred. “I didn’t learn to swim until I was 24,” Piero says, “and now I’m making up for lost time.”
As the shadows grow long, we make our way back uphill for a barbecue dinner that Marianne is preparing on the rear patio. Just before we reach the cottage, I spot an eagle’s eggshell on the side of the path. Piero is excited. “I knew they were here somewhere.” He carefully notes the location, then hurries on toward the house. “I must show this to Marianne right away.”
Writer and photographer Margo Pfeiff profiled a French family’s Bowen Island, B.C., retreat in our Spring ’16 issue.
This story was originally published as “Passport to the Shuswap” in the Summer 2016 issue of Cottage Life.