How an Anxious Traveler Found Delight in Switzerland
In 1983, my mother traveled with my father and her parents to Europe, her first and only trip out of North America. In Switzerland, she recalls being heartily laughed at—over and over again—whenever she requested a drink of water. “Water,” her relatives assured her, “is for the cows.”
My grandmother, too, quickly grew tired of beer, wine and coffee. At a family reunion picnic in Habkern village, they tentatively asked where they could find some water and were directed to a small waterfall. My mom and grandma both began laughing and shaking from happiness and anticipation, bowing down on their knees at the small pool, cupping their hands to collect the precious substance as fast as possible: deliriously, unimaginably happy for good old- fashioned water.
For years I had dreamed, literally and figuratively, about making it to this continent.
In November 2014, I stared out the window as our train wound down around the mountain, just a few minutes into the three hour journey from Zermatt back to Lucerne. My good friend and traveling companion dozed in her seat, cheeks turning pink with sunburn, bright hot rays of light bouncing off the snow-capped Matterhorn and as we hiked around and took pictures for most of the afternoon.
I picked a spot on the landscape. A small stream carved through the trees, cerulean blue, glittering with the day’s final, fading flecks of sunlight. I could picture my mother and grandmother there, as if in prayer to one god or another, worshipping at the altar of H20. I feel that I understand this now: joy so big it spills over at unexpectedly finding something you’d thought impossible (and had all but given up on but still needed so badly).
My fears of traveling were vague but had previously crippled me. What I’d spent so long hiding from suddenly seemed manageable and inconsequential, silly even.
For years I had dreamed, literally and figuratively, about making it to this continent. I always thought it would be Paris and pictured myself smiling beside L’Tour Eiffel, using my high-school French to order croissant in a charming bakery. But it wasn’t Paris after all. I used to wake from a recurring dream where I was flying in a commercial jet to Rome, impossibly low to the ground as we descended, so close we nearly brushed the Coliseum with our wing tips.
We landed suddenly, in an airplane small enough to park on the street like a car, right across from the best pizzeria in the city. I always woke up before I tasted the pizza. But it wasn’t Rome either. And it wasn’t in the planned and calculated way that I imagined.
On a Wednesday, I was chatting with a college friend who had planned to visit a group of her friends who lived in Switzerland. That Saturday, I was buying my own ticket. It was a whim, the kind that I had entertained many times before, the “what if” that always turned to a “probably not” turned to a “maybe next time.” This time, it was different.
In the Zurich airport bathroom, the lever to flush the toilet was nowhere to be found. I nervously scoured every inch of the stall, panicking at the first small thing that had stumped me. A mix-up with my friend’s flight schedule had me wandering the airport for 2 hours trying to find her, and I accidentally left my laptop at customs.
In Bern, we went the wrong way out of the train station and wandered five or six miles in the opposite direction of our intended destination before some perceptive locals noticed our confused analysis of a bus map, and got us back on track towards Barengraben, Rosengarten, and Zytglogge. We had planned to make some soup for dinner one night, and gathered ingredients from a small market inside the train station.
What was there to be afraid of, really?
At the cash register, an exasperated employee huffed at the small knob of ginger that I had failed to label and weigh. “Ingwer,” I offered, recalling the German word from the sign in the produce aisle. He rolled his eyes and disappeared behind the counter, returning with a price sticker.
But we had the ginger, and the soup we made was delicious. I eventually found the toilet flush lever. Wandering around baggage claim on the verge of tears, a voice over the intercom called my name, notifying me that I should meet my party in Arrivals 2. A few hours after I reported it lost, I got an email from Swiss Customs notifying me that my laptop was waiting at the lost and found.
In Bern, the friendly locals suggested a bus route that took us right to the center of the Old City, where we enjoyed the afternoon eating tomato and mozzarella sandwiches, strolling along the river, and visiting the bear pit. Sunset in the rose garden was serene, sublime. What was there to be afraid of, really?
My fears of traveling were vague but had previously crippled me. What I’d spent so long hiding from suddenly seemed manageable and inconsequential, silly even. Had all my concerns been about a cashier giving me a dirty look for not weighing my produce? In college I cloaked my fears by declaring that I had no desire to study abroad. “I’m going on a graduation trip to Paris,” I told myself and my friends.
Four or five years ago, being confused by an airport toilet would have been enough for me to march back to the ticket counter, cut my losses, and head home. But what I found during my travels was that little challenges led to a little victories that made each moment after it seem easier.
On the plane home I relished my small triumph: I wanted to stay.
In the country just before Christmas, long strands of icicle lights had been hung from the bridge over Lake Lucerne, but hadn’t yet been turned on. We crossed it each night on our way back from the day’s adventures, each time hoping the lights had been set aglow. My friend, Kelly, stayed a few days longer than I did, and later reported that the lights came on a few days after my departure.
I checked Google street view to see if I’d be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the lights. The lights weren’t on, but the images of the bridge were taken in November 2014. I study the faces of the tourists walking past Kapellbrücke, wondering if we might be among them.
After five days in the country, I was ready to leave. It was almost Thanksgiving. I missed my fiance and my pillow and the ease of life in my native country. But I also wanted to stay. We’d run out of time to go sledding down Mt. Pilatus. One more day would have been enough for a day trip to the vineyards in Montreaux. On the plane home I relished my small triumph: I wanted to stay.