When I was almost seventeen years old, I left the country without my family for the first time, and travelled outside the US for the second time in my life. It was a school trip to Italy and Switzerland, officially the “German trip.” Even though I was almost half German by heritage and spoke English, a Germanic language, I had never taken German in my life, and only knew phrases like “danke,” “bitte,” and “sprechen sie Deutsch?” Which was a ridiculous phrase for me to know, as I did not sprechen sie Deutsch.
Luckily we only stayed in Switzerland a few days, and spent the rest in Italy. I had nine years of Spanish under my belt and knew many more phrases in Italian than I knew in German, due to my mother’s southern Italian heritage.
I did not like Switzerland one bit. For one thing, it was raining and snowing and cold, as northern Europe is bound to be in late March, so that was unpleasant. For another, I found the Swiss in Lucerne to be rude and unwelcoming. In hindsight, it might’ve just been the weather making everyone – myself included – cranky.
The trip got off to a rough start. We almost missed a flight out of Germany, thanks to me, and once in the Swiss airport I felt small and insignificant and dawdling. It was so clean and bright and white and streamlined that I felt like a wasteful, provincial American.
We got on the bus that would be our vehicle over part of the continent. There was our guide, Richard. Richard was an incredibly pink-faced, British gay man with a superiority complex and jet black hair. He took the microphone and said, “Listen up. Now, this will only take a few minutes. Bear with me.”
It did – if a few minutes means almost an hour. The students struggled to stay awake and pay attention. I especially tried to listen. But after half an hour of forcing my eyes open, I looked around and realized everyone else had fallen asleep. I settled comfortably into my seat and napped deeply, the sweet sleep of the weary traveler with the weary ear from listening to a pedantic, condescending British man.
On our first day, Meg, my friend Laura, her father il dottore, and I ducked into a bakery cafe to escape the cold and wet. The three of them ordered hot chocolate. I was the only student on the trip who had paid her own way, so I ordered nothing.
Now, in America, the fact that seventy-five percent of the table had ordered something would excuse the remaining twenty-five percent from having to leave. Apparently this was not so in Switzerland.
A small lady – whether old or young, I don’t remember – came to our tucked-away corner table in a huff. She told me either I could order something or I had to leave.
I wish I could say I told her that was stupid and unfair and that by God I had a right to sit where I wanted and she could shove it up her stupid ass for wanting a visitor to go out in the cold rain instead of welcoming them, but I didn’t.
I ordered the damn hot chocolate. Stupid thing was delightful down to the last exploitative drop.
There were good parts of Switzerland. The light, sour local beer, the hotel bar where we didn’t get carded and had a traditional Swiss drink, and Mount Pilatus.
We couldn’t see the mountain, or any mountains the entire time we were in Switzerland. It was too foggy and cloudy for us to marvel at the beauty of the Alps.
It was forty Swiss francs, but I figured if I was going to spend money, I should spend it on an experience rather than a thing (ahem, ahem, cafe lady). So we, Meg, Laura, and I, boarded a four-person cable car and started the climb.
I was terrified, not by the height but by the shakiness and insecurity of the car. Eventually I let myself get lost in the tall forests below, where fog and snow filled the spaces where massive trees were not, in the cabins and houses far from civilization, in the few ski tracks in the snow.
By the grace of God we made it and met the others at a landing, where we all clambered into a large cable car. We had to stand. Richard told us it would go faster if we stood on one leg. I and a few other gullible ones did it, then realized how ridiculous that was, because body mass doesn’t work that way. If it did, everyone would stand on their scales on one foot.
On our way through the last leg of the journey, we passed through clouds. Clouds! I’d only ever been inside a cloud on a plane. Everything around us was bright white. There was just this bright nothingness. I felt like we were being transported to Heaven.
I wish I could say the summit of Mount Pilatus was inspiring and beautiful. But no one could see a damned thing. It was windy and snowing and cloudy and foggy and altogether less than ideal. We couldn’t even go to the real summit because of snow and wind. There were railings where, in good weather, you could stand and look down the mountain. But when we were there, all there was was that bright nothingness. It was thrilling.
So, Switzerland. I’m sure you’re better than what you presented to me years ago. But I don’t think I’ll be back anytime soon. There are other places on my list.