PART ONE – In the beginning…
When people ask me why I left my comfortable life in Canada to move to Switzerland, they usually are hoping to hear a story that involves hiking in the Alps, eating chocolate for breakfast and fondue for lunch, and meeting a charming man in leaderhosen called Hans who stole my heart with a bouquet of edelweiss he collected himself… The truth is only…um… slightly different. I have hiked in the Alps, and it’s amazing. The majestic beauty of the mountains, the sparkling lakes, the charming villages, the serene quiet stillness interrupted only by my 10 year old, Jesse, asking for the 10th time “How much further?” and my 6 year old, Daniel, complaining, for the 25th time: “Jesse keeps staring at me.” In moments like these you take a deep breath, taking in the wonderful smell of fresh crisp air and wild flowers, and calmly look at your two perfect children and say: “If either of you say either of those things one more time I swear I will throw you off the nearest cliff.”
Ok maybe you don’t actually say it, but you do think it.
At that moment (if this story were true, and I’m not saying it is), a man walking in the opposite direction along the mountain path, wearing jeans and a baseball cap (but potentially named Hans) sharply says something in Swiss German to me. I do not speak one word of Swiss German (can’t even pronounce “Gruetzi” properly, which means hello. Every time I try to say it I inadvertently start coughing.) But looking over at Jesse I know immediately what he means, which is something like “Your undisciplined child has picked some flowers which is illegal as they are protected, which any intelligent person would know but clearly you do not as you are not Swiss and probably have not been walking around in the Alps your whole life, so you should probably get off my mountain before you cause irreversible damage.” I quickly mumble something unintelligible and snap at Jesse to drop the flowers NOW, to which he replies (of course) “But why?”, so I grab the flowers and toss them on the ground, which has the effect of making the man shake his head and walk away. So much for Hans.
Jesse is now very sad, having chosen the flowers “just for me” (he says innocently, and a part of me actually falls for it), and Daniel says “I want some flowers too.”
I realize we need a break from the hiking thing (seriously, the Swiss actually do this all day, their kids happily trotting along not picking flowers and admiring the beauty around them without once asking for an ETA or complaining about any staring sibling. How do they do it? It’s one of the many things I love about this country, the absolute respect for the natural beauty around us, which is learned from a very young age). So I decide to stop at a nearby mountain restaurant to eat, but of course since it is 10am all they have are chocolate croissants (this is the chocolate for breakfast part of the story), so I cave and get one for each of the boys. Let it be known, my children are different from all the Swiss children (other than clearly being undisciplined protected-flower-pickers) in the sense that eating sugar and chocolate (especially on an empty stomach) actually affects their behaviour (in a negative way, to be precise).
As soon as the chocolate croissant is placed in front of them, the sugar effect wafts up from the table, enters their body surreptitiously (or through their mouth, but it sounds better my way) and they do their Jekyll and Hyde transformation. From two charming, clever, polite, smiling boys sitting patiently at an outdoor table quietly admitting the mountain beauty around them they suddenly grow long shaggy hair on their backs and sharp claws on their fingers, and begin growling through pointy teeth like wild animals, their bloodshot eyes darting about looking for a potential victim, and coming to rest on me, mouths drooling in anticipation.
The other children at other nearby tables are eating their croissants or escargots calmly, smiling quietly as their parents chat over coffee, occasionally wiping their mouths with their napkins. They are all dressed in perfect little matching outfits that appear to be made from unwrinkleable and unstainable linen, wearing pale hats and smiling calmly, probably reciting complex mathematical equations to themselves for their grade 2 math test on Monday. Or at least that’s how I remember it. It is a few years ago now…
We finish our food and the noise at our table is growing and we are starting (starting? Who am I kidding?) to draw attention to ourselves, with Jesse leaning his chair back so far on it’s two back legs and laughing hysterically while Daniel kicks the bottom of the table with his feet repeatedly so my coffee cup rattles and slides slowly toward the edge. I am trying to get the waiter’s eye so I can get the bill and make a getaway, but he apparently has forgotten we exist (wish I had that ability sometimes). I actually half-stand and wave at him finally, getting desperate as Daniel has starting singing “Jingle Bells, batman smells” quite loudly, and the waiter finally makes eye contact and nods his head in disdain, sighs and walks away. I am hoping this means he is getting my bill, and am starting to feel downright claustrophobic (despite being in the open air), imagining that all the families at the other tables are throwing disapproving looks our way every few seconds, when suddenly, I spot them. Well actually, I hear them first.
A boy’s voice is saying, in English “Amy touched me!” A girl’s voice saying “Jack smells!” and a mom saying “If you two say that one more time I’m going to throw you off a cliff!” (Well I didn’t really hear her say it, but I know she thought it.)
I zero in on their table. The boy is crawling around on the floor under the table and the girl is wiping her nose on her skirt. The mom is looking scared and exhausted. She spots me looking at her. I smile. She smiles back. A moment of shared compassion between two people caught in a world in which they don’t belong.
Then Jesse’s chair teeters back and he crashes to the floor and erupts in hysterical cries of outrage and pain.
Yes, this was one of my first real hiking experiences in Switzerland, one to match the many more I would have in the years to come. But back to the original questions, how did I get here? For the answer to that, we have to go back to the beginning, before this crazy adventure began…