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When Tamil Kavithas Jeyabalan arrived in Chur in the canton of Graubünden from his native Sri Lanka in 1984, he had never seen snow and didn’t speak a word of German. Now, the talented expat carpenter is using his skills to keep the Swiss sledge tradition alive.
Known as “Kavi” by everyone in the area around his workshop in Peist (Arosa), Jeyabalan is a shining example of what foreigners can do in Switzerland.
When he arrived in the mountain country after fleeing Sri Lanka’s civil war, the then 20-year-old was unaccustomed to all that awaited him.
But over the 30 years since he came to join his brother, taking a job as a carpenter in Arosa, Jeyabalan has learnt to speak the local Schanfigg dialect like a native. “It is extremely important to learn the language of the country you go to live in,” he tells The Local in perfect German, with no hint of an accent.
He has also built a successful joinery business, employing the carpentry skills he inherited from his father to handcraft traditional Swiss sledges. His so-called ‘Schanfiggerschlitten’, are based on the ‘Arosa’ sledges that his former employer made before going out of business.
“I said to myself, ‘I will start to build sledges — I don’t want them to disappear,” says Jeyabalan. “We made just a few small changes, such as improving the shape. I was really happy to be able to help preserve the tradition.”
Each year, his six-man company Kavi Schreinerei produces by hand 50 to 75 large sledges and around 50 small ones. They are sought after as wedding presents, and have a reputation for quality, with customers coming from across Switzerland and Europe and as far away as China, to buy them.
They have a sturdy construction designed to last at least 20 to 25 years. This is thanks to the mortise and tenon joints used to assemble the 22 separate pieces of Swiss ash wood, which barely warps when moist.
Kavi Schreinerei’s main business is creating fitted kitchens, windows and doors. Kavi’s own house, opposite his workshop off the main street in Peist, is testament to his talent – with its beautiful wood finishes all crafted by Jeyabalan himself.“The sledges are made with love,” smiles Jeyabalan, of the work he refers to as a “hobby”. Although a Schanfiggerschlitten will set you back 490 francs ($540), Kavi makes only around 25 francs profit per unit. The Swiss ash wood and other high quality materials used in their construction come in at 300 francs, and Kavi must factor in eight to ten hours work.
In 1990, he married Vreni, a Peist local, and has lived in the village ever since. The couple now have five children aged between 16 and 25.
Jeyabalan says that he now feels more Swiss than Sri Lankan, and describes Switzerland as a welcoming and friendly country. But it hasn’t always been easy.
“The most difficult thing to get used to was the language,” he remarks. “But also the cold. Before I moved to Switzerland, I had only ever seen snow on the television.”
Nowadays, he is used to it, and is a keen sledger. He often goes for winter walks and takes a sledge with him to whiz back down to Peist.
His support for Swiss tradition, his hard graft in learning the language and his great endeavour to integrate have all made him a popular local in Peist. “I have put in a lot of effort,” he says. “Now I am very well integrated. The whole valley knows me.”
But what does Jeyabalan like best about being in Switzerland? As we return to his workshop in the late afternoon sunshine, the mountains glistening white all around, he shakes his head thoughtfully, saying with a smile that he cannot answer that question — for he would not know where to begin.
Schanfiggerschlitten are available from Kavi Schreinerei, Peist. For enquiries call 081 374 13 01
– The Local