Ah, the glorious summer of 1970. As adults, we can look back at our lives and specific forks in the road stand out and define themselves as life-altering, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.
That was the summer of 1970 for me.
Sometimes our life course needs to be altered and we don’t even know it. Call it Fate. Call in Divine intervention. Call it whatever you will.
A test and a trip redirected my life forever.
There was no turning back.
During the school year, students throughout the country took a test to qualify for studying abroad. The highest scorers were offered the opportunity to travel to Europe during the summer and study overseas.
That trip wasn’t free, but it was quite reasonable, comparatively, at $1200.
For our family, any amount over about $10 was a lot of money, and anything over $100 meant it wasn’t going to happen. A hundred dollars was more than an entire week’s wages for my mother. Minimum wage was all of $1.45 an hour and I don’t think she made $2 as a bookkeeper.
I tested anyway at the encouragement of my French teacher. The possibility seemed remote, and the entire class was testing so it was much easier to simply test than suffer the embarrassment of explaining why I wasn’t.
The days turned into weeks, and I had all but forgotten about the test when a letter arrived at home.
Yes, I was one of the selected students, and so was one of my classmates, Kim.
We were overjoyed, but, BUT, how was I ever going to afford the trip?
Studying abroad was expensive, even though these trips were designed specifically with “students” of working-class families in mind. There’s a difference between working-class and single-mother-with-deceased-father finances. We lived in daily fear of something breaking, because we knew we couldn’t afford to fix anything.
The Collège du Léman in Versoix, Switzerland (and other universities) filled their empty summer dorms with foreign high school students in the hope that they could recruit them as students later. Of course living abroad promised amazing adventures, trips to picturesque cities we had only heard about and days complete with castles and romance – the stuff movies were made of.
The trip accommodations were a bit more humble than those fantasies – traveling by train or bus and staying in youth hostels.
Still, a trip like that would be the adventure of a lifetime. And far beyond the reach of Mom and me financially.
My father had been dead for 7 years and my mother worked every overtime minute possible, along with side jobs. We both wore hand-me-down clothes and what garments I could make, I did. I sewed for both of us.
Our car ran on a wink and a prayer and some days, didn’t run at all. We used a lightbulb in the winter under the hood to keep the engine warm so that the battery wouldn’t have to work so hard, or would work at all – because everything on that car was old. I remember the day a bicycle beat our old clunker across an intersection. Mom cried.
A breakdown of any kind of anything required money we didn’t have. We ate out ONLY once a year, when I was promoted from one grade to the next. That’s just how life was. I had never known anything different.
Mother was distraught. She wanted to provide me with this opportunity, but how would she pay for the trip? My grandparents were dead too – there was no one to help.
I wasn’t yet old enough to work, but I would be later in the year and the following summer. I already babysat, had for years, and performed other jobs available “for cash” for those too young to actually have a “real job.”
My mother was one determined lady.
Mom visited the bank on her lunch hour and arranged for a $1500 loan, $1200 for the trip and $300 for spending money for the summer. Her employer where she had worked since I was an infant co-signed. Our agreement was that she would initially pay for the loan by working overtime, or getting a second job, and I would take over the payments as soon as possible. I would also pay her back, which I somehow seemed to be doing for the rest of her life😊
That not only seemed fair, I was ecstatic and incredibly grateful. I was afraid to even dream that the trip might be a possibility. I still remember jumping up and down, our arms locked together when we received the news that her loan was approved. She must have worried about how she would pay that bill too, in addition to everything else, but she never let on.
I saw the words in the brochure; London, Amsterdam, Geneva and Paris. I savored the words, “Study French at the Collège du Léman, outside Geneva.” I looked in the encyclopedias at school to see where those places were located. That was long before the days of google or any home resources. I devoured the history of those locations.
Our French teacher began to prepare us for our “grande aventure.” Never in my wildest dreams could I have comprehended even at a rudimentary level what awaited.
My world was about to change, and the one to which I would return would look entirely different from the world I left. My life upended, turned upside-down.
My pictures from the trip have been badly water damaged, plus the ravages of almost 50 years. Many are out of focus, and their colors have faded.
Not to mention, I did a bad thing and wrote on the backs in ink, which transferred to the photo behind the picture. At least I DID write something, because I would be lost without those memory joggers today.
I recently scanned the few that have survived and will attempt to crop judiciously as I share this wonderful journey to the land of my ancestors. The photos may be damaged, but my memories, more of events and people than places, remain crystal clear.
My mother saved my letters that I wrote home during that trip, which I inherited in her “Suitcase of Life” when she passed away. They were like a time capsule from the past, hearing a younger me speak. Some are amazingly prescient, and some are quite cringe-worthy. I’ll be excerpting from them. You’ve been warned!
If there’s anything I take away from those letters, in general, it’s that growth is much like an internal tug-of-war. I’m both enchanted and horrified as I read those letters today.
Grab a cup of tea and come along!
New York City
The flight departed from New York City. My mother discovered that the cost of the flight from Indiana to New York City was not included in the package and was quite steep. My great-aunt who lived in upstate New York volunteered to pay for that part of the trip if we would stop and visit for a few days on the way to New York. Visiting with Aunt Eloise was an added bonus.
We were Hoosiers, not the least bit familiar with New York City traffic and my mother, bless her heart, drove straight into the heart of the city to the hotel and, a couple days later, to the airport. I’m amazed that we didn’t die. She didn’t realize what she had gotten herself into, but the only way out was through, and she wasn’t letting anything stop her now. That was before the days of GPS, navigation or even Google maps. We navigated with accordion folded maps, squinting as the car moved.
While we were in New York, we ascended the top of the Empire State building, visited the United Nations building and of course, boarded a ferry to view the welcoming Statue of Liberty. Iconic New York. For me, it was a wonderful sendoff. For her, the first vacation she had taken since my birth. One of her girlfriends came along to split the cost. We had a great time!
From the minute I discovered that I was actually going to be able to go, I had sought every possible opportunity to earn money. I had saved my babysitting pay and cleaned houses to purchase fabric from the remnant bin to make my clothes for the trip. I made Mom a new dress for New York City, shown below at some NYC landmark.
While Mom was thrilled to be visiting New York City, she was understandably reluctant to put me on the plane to England. I think she had some last minute remorse. I didn’t look back – although had I realized the traffic nightmare my Mom faced leaving New York, I would have been worried. I was far safer airborne than her.
I had never been on a plane before, and I was flying alone. I would meet the rest of the students in Stansted Airport, 42 miles outside of London, the following morning. We would meet up with the counselors later in the day, in London.
I fell asleep, literally, flying into the future.
I don’t know what I expected, but I guarantee you, this wasn’t it.
DO YOU KNOW THEY DRIVE ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD????
Holy moley, we lost a mirror on the bus – and I’m sitting on THAT SIDE. The bus driver looks irritated, but nothing more.
BUSSES ARE TOO BIG FOR THIS ROAD!!! WHAT ARE THEY THINKING???
The roads are miniscule!
I can’t look!!!
Slams eyes…waits to die.
Ok, I’m peeking, and I see quaint cottages with beautiful flower gardens, much like these buildings today.
Not soon enough, we arrived in London, in one piece but shaken.
Other than the 2 students from my school, I had never met the other students, of course, since we lived all over America. Soon we were chattering like magpies and quickly became acquainted. Two hours later, you’d have thought we were one big family on vacation together.
In spite of flying all night, no one wanted to sleep. After all, we were in LONDON, home of pop music, hip fashion and a cosmopolitan flavor we had never been exposed to before.
My first letter home was written on July 20th, on toilet paper. Yes, toilet paper. The toilet paper there was very “different” from Charminesque TP as we know it today. Think of see-through thin, non-absorbent and crispy. Kind of like super-crunchy tissue paper. Not at all comfy to use as TP, but made great stationery.
Toilet paper was one of my least favorite things about Europe. However, air mail was expensive, toilet paper was very lightweight and free, so I wrote on UNUSED TP regularly.
Here’s proof – the first paragraph of a letter.
Excerpts of my letter to Mom continued:
“We toured London on foot today. My feet and ankles are all swollen, but I had fun. Went back out tonight. Haven’t seen hide nor hair of the chaperones.”
Of course, it never occurred to me that if my feet and ankles were swollen, I should stay home and put my feet up. HA! That wasn’t about to happen. I’m sure that chaperone part made my Mom feel just wonderful. At least we were together as a group.
Wide-eyed, we walked until our legs gave out, then rode the subways everyplace, drinking in the heady cosmopolitan ambience.
We visited Big Ben, of course, and the Queen’s residence, Buckingham Palace with its massive gold gates.
Little did I know that the Queen is my cousin – albeit very distant, but a cousin just the same. I’m suspecting she wouldn’t have welcomed a visit from a poor but extremely starry-eyed and enthusiastic American student who is her 18th cousin 3 times removed and hadn’t the foggiest idea how to curtsy. How to behave in the presence of royalty wasn’t a concept I was familiar with.
Nevertheless, I enjoyed the pomp and circumstance involved with the changing of the guards at Kensington Palace.
My cousin, the Queen, is a horsewoman herself, shown below, riding in the center.
We tried our best to distract those guards, somewhat of a local sport, since they were reported to be unflappable, of course setting themselves up as targets. We were quite unsuccessful – they were oblivious to our amateurish shenanigans. We, however, giggled uncontrollably with the sheer headiness of being in London combined with what to us was brazen misbehavior.
Ohhh, that guard was so cute and so was his horse.
I had no understanding of city gates, or even a comprehension of what medieval actually meant. Why would there be a gate or a wall??? Who needed to be kept out, or in, and why?
I had never seen castles and fountains or formal gardens. I lived in heartland Indiana, land of soybeans, barns and cornfields, not castles that functioned as fortresses towering over lakes in major cities, harkening back to the days of Lords and Ladies, Queens and Kings – many of whom were my family – albeit entirely unknown to me at the time.
This park and pond is located in the center of London, with Buckingham Palace in the distance.
Little did I know that my ancestors, yes MY ANCESTORS, are buried in Westminster Abbey. In fact, several repose there, including King Edward who died in 1307. My roots in London, and in fact, all of England run deep. Very deep. My ancestors’ DNA litters the English soil.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but my fascination with architecture, history and medieval buildings had been born, although my photography skills were abysmal.
That was long before the days of digital cameras and cell phones where you can see the photo you’ve just taken. These pictures were developed after returning home months later. You just crossed your fingers, clicked and hoped for the best. In fact, I rationed my film, so many photos allowed per day or location.
Next, we visited the massive Parliament buildings that overlooked the Thames River. Decades later, I would learn that the Thames was a central theme in the history of my ancestors, the ultra-rich, the abysmally poor and refugees alike.
I fed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square. During my last trip, a few years ago, we were informed that the pigeons had all been exterminated via poison, victims of “progress.”
London was the fashion center of the world. Just ask any teenage girl on that trip! Londoners had clothes so wild we Americans had never even imagined them. What seems old-fashioned and tame now was radical at the time.
Carnaby Street was so MOD! And look at those shoes in the window – to die for! Actually, I think they are back in style again.
Little did I know that Henry Bolton, a poor child who lived in the oldest part of the city near the docks in the shadow of London Bridge was my ancestor. He was born in what was then the ghetto about 1760, along with his brother, Conrad.
Little did I know that my German 1709ers had stayed, albeit somewhat unwillingly, as refugees, in London in 1709 in a make-shift tent city at St. Katherine’s Wharf on the Thames River. I would visit them there some 43 years later.
Little did I know.
My Speaks ancestors lived near Gisburn in Lancashire, but I wouldn’t know that until Thomas Speak’s Y DNA match to a cousin from New Zealand led us home more than four decades later.
And my Pilgrims – mother would have been thrilled to know that she descended from William Brewster whose home was in Scrooby, Nottinghamshire before he became a religious refugee in the Netherlands prior to sailing on the Mayflower in 1620. Not to mention John Lothropp of Yorkshire, Stephen Hopkins of Hampshire and their wives.
Little did I know that my Estes ancestors, whose surname I carried then and still carry, originated along the White Cliffs of Dover, but I wouldn’t visit that location until decades later. I had no idea at that time that Estes was English. I had never thought about genealogy, as hard as that is now to believe.
I would know none of that until much, much later.
In the summer of 1970 in London, I was captivated by the atmosphere so vastly different than anything I had ever experienced. Even the language sounded entirely different. As they say – two countries divided by a common tongue.
I wrote to mother:
“We’ve seen a lot of neat things and a lot of different customs too. I can’t begin to describe it“.
This would only be the first of many times on this journey that I found myself without words.
And then, not that I was conflicted or anything:
“London is OK but I like home better. But I’m not homesick. However, I would like to be there.”
Two days later, in a sleep-deprived brain fog, we climbed aboard a train and slept all the way to the coast as the train rumbled through the English countryside, occasionally bouncing our heads against the windows we were using for pillows.
We departed England by crossing the English Channel, boarding the ferry at Harwich for a 125-mile crossing. I can’t tell you much about the English Channel, because, well, I was distracted.
I met Robin.
I met Robin on the misty rain-drizzled upper deck of the ferry boat, the St. George, sailing between England and the Netherlands on a rough 6-hour crossing. I had never been on a ship before, or on the sea for that matter, and I told mother:
“I’m not seasick, but I feel drunk.”
Truth be told, I had no idea at that time what being drunk felt like either.
A little later:
“I’m starting to like this. I met a Dutch boy.”
Tall, older and handsome, Robin bought me my first beer on that ferry – AFTER I wrote that part about feeling drunk, just for the record. However, I didn’t mention that “beer” detail to mother. Nosiree…
Robin was just a month shy of 19, a merchant marine, and handsome – that cute guard on the horse from Kensington Palace quickly faded from memory.
Of course, teenage girls have a boy-memory-half-life of about 30 minutes on a good day anyway.
Here’s a picture of Robin when he married, five years later, and no, not to me. Our relationship took a decidedly different turn.
Robin and Joan, his lovely wife, and I are friends today, but on that rainy summer day in 1970, Robin hadn’t yet met Joan and he was enjoying “holiday,” on leave from officer’s school in the Dutch Merchant Marines.
Robin and I chatted during the crossing…OK, so we might have flirted a tiny little bit, but Robin was absolutely a perfect gentleman. A few hours later, I watched Robin ride away on his motor scooter as my group waited together to depart for parts unknown. Robin looked up and waved goodbye from the parking lot as we stood on the ship’s deck, watching over the railing. Robin and I had exchanged addresses and promised to faithfully write as penpals. It never occurred to me that I might actually SEE Robin again someday, nor that he would actually write to me, beginning while I was in Europe.
I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I exchanged addresses with the best of intentions over the years, then and now – but the absolutely amazing thing is that we actually DID write – for decades. I suspect, in retrospect, that part of our sustained friendship was due to the fact that Robin was sequestered for weeks and months at a time onboard ship. So he wrote, to me, to my Mom and to his wife after he met Joan. Robin was a wonderful penpal. I loved receiving his letters where he waxed philosophic about his dreams and aspirations, detailed his career advancements, and sometimes, regaled us with his stories of adventures in port. Like the time the taxi somehow wound up in the canal…but I digress.
A year later, Robin visited America and stayed with Mom and me. Looking back now, it’s funny, because Mom gave Robin her room and slept on the couch like a watchdog in the living room which separated her bedroom and mine. Robin and I were just friends, but we had several adventures and mis-adventures which included swimming, meeting a few officers and Robin managing to get his rental car stuck in a cornfield (without me along,) adventures we never told mother about – EVER. Just the memories bring a smile to my face today.
Decades later Robin would celebrate his 50th birthday by visiting his “American Mom” once again. It’s a good thing Robin returned when he did, because Mom didn’t have much longer.
Last year, my husband and I met Robin and Joan in Amsterdam, and this summer, we’ll see Robin again to celebrate his retirement after he rides a Harley across America.
Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to make a lifelong friend on a ferry in the English Channel.
I have three vivid memories of the Netherlands.
- I lost my camera. If you’re wondering how I have the photos of London, I didn’t lose the film. It was tucked safely in my suitcase. But the camera was gone, and along with it the film in the camera at the time, including the photos from the ferry, a few of Robin and many from Holland as well. I was heartbroken, not to mention a new camera was not in my budget, but I purchased one nonetheless.
- The Netherlands is the cleanest country I have every visited. I recall vividly the “housewives” sweeping and then scrubbing the sidewalk in front of their house EVERY SINGLE MORNING about 5AM. Needless to say, I was shocked and very curious. They were equally as shocked that we NEVER swept and scrubbed our sidewalks. Nor were we up at 5 AM unless there was absolutely no other choice.
- In Amsterdam, there was no drinking age. My student friends and I decided to purchase Heineken beer. We didn’t sit at the bar in the hotel, because somehow we just knew that we surely would get “caught,” so we took the beer back to our room, crawled in bed and drank it. Then we decided to write letters home, laughing the entire time. Everything was suddenly funny!
No, I don’t know why we thought writing letters was somehow a good idea.
However, when I returned home, my mother pulled out that letter, written all cattywampus across the page and asked me if I cared to explain myself.
From that letter:
“Last night, my roommate had a beer and got drunk, sick and giggly. My other roommate and I died laughing. I felt sorry for her though.”
And then, in an effort to redeem myself:
“I really miss church.”
Let me translate, “I feel really guilty about this, but I’m having the time of my life.” (And I’m going to be hell on wheels when I come home…just saying’!)
In the Netherlands, I discovered my lifelong love of beer.
Little did I know that my Vannoy ancestors had stayed in Amsterdam before departing for the New World. Little did I know that Govert Van Oy died in route in 1664 and was buried on the island of Texel.
Little did I know that Govert was baptized in the church in Venlo, above, where I would one day visit. Or that my Andreissen ancestors who married into the Vannoy line in New Netherlands had lived in Leeuwarden along with my Ferwerda ancestors who immigrated 200 years later.
Little did I know that one day I would return to the Dutch island of Vlieland where my ancestors lived on the part of the island washed away by the sea in 1736, and that 47 years in the future I would stand at the end of that island and stare, transfixed, across the channel to the island of Trexel where Govert Van Oy was buried.
Little did I know.
William Brewster, my Pilgrim ancestor from England lived in Leiden in the Netherlands as a refugee before embarking for Plymouth.
The Pilgrims, in 1970, were only impersonal figures in history books and not at all connected to me.
Little did I know that my mother’s Ferwerda grandfather had been born in the Netherlands. While my English ancestors had left England long ago, my mother’s family had immigrated just over 100 years earlier, in 1868. How quickly our history is lost – just three generations and that epic journey was already erased from family memory.
My time in Amsterdam in 1970 was quite limited. In a whirlwind bus tour, we saw where Rembrandt was buried and where Anne Frank lived. My heart was saddened to learn about Anne Frank’s story, and that there was no happy ending. I had heard about the Holocaust, but seeing Anne Frank’s house where she hid and was ultimately betrayed for myself was my first up front and personal introduction to the evils wrought by an insane dictator that sanctioned brutal acts of discrimination while the populace stood idly by, hoping it wouldn’t affect them.
Our student group stayed in private homes outside of Amsterdam, a few with each family.
“I’m in Holland now, in a tourist home where no English is spoken at all. Groovy huh?! The woman who lives here smiles a lot, so I know she’s friendly. Our bus driver was so funny. We couldn’t understand a word but we communicated OK. It’s funny how far away you have to travel to find out what a big grin will do for you. I think you’ll be surprised how much I’ve learned about life in general since I’ve been gone. I know it’s odd to say, but I can see all of us kids growing up in a hurry. It’s odd to watch yourself growing up.”
“I’m not homesick, but it’s a good feeling to know you have a home waiting but you can still be free for awhile. Give Snowy (our rescued cat) a kiss for me and chirp at Babe (our rescued parakeet) for me.”
After a busy final day in the Netherlands, we boarded a train for the next chapter of our journey.
To mother, just in case she was wondering about that Amsterdam letter:
“My writing is jolty because the train is. I’m tired, but the train is too noisy to sleep. I didn’t much care for the tour in Amsterdam, because we didn’t get to get out of the bus much, and the tour consisted of them constantly saying “there are two hippies on the right.” I think the boat from England to Holland was my favorite part. I’m lonesome. I feel like a misfit here.”
Never write home when you’re tired.
Most of the train trip was at night, so we missed the scenery, changing trains in the middle of the night and awakening in the train station in Geneva in the morning.
Again, to mother:
“It’s early morning now, and we’re coming into the mountains. They are really beautiful in the sunrise.”
We shuffled our tired bodies to a local train and arrived just a few minutes later in Versoix, Switzerland, a tiny village about 7 km away, on the shores of Lake Geneva which is also known as Lac Léman.
Our destination, of course, was the college in Versoix, our new home.
I still couldn’t believe I was actually going to be living in Switzerland, LIVING there.
My state of mind and the tone of my letters immediately changed:
“We’re in Geneva now. Had the best meal when we got here, although the train ride was 13 hours and they didn’t feed us. Got my first taste of French on the train. There were these 4 guys in the service…”
The full-time students were gone from the college for the summer, and we took up residence in the modern dorms, shown below, each student adopting a bed and dresser. We didn’t realize or care that our attendance was a way for the school to keep the teachers and staff employed year round, and perhaps a small source of revenue as well.
Our teachers spoke French and no English, which was very frustrating. We tested to be assigned to a class based on our fluency.
Our group included 4 chaperones from the US, but two of them, a male and female were very interested in each other and none of the 4 were interested in us. They eventually disappeared “to attend to business,” which left us with little if any oversight, which pleased us immensely. I’m not positive what they were actually doing, but according to the student speculative grapevine, the couple had eloped. Imagine our disappointment when they showed up sans wedding rings. We were perhaps a little too young to understand the nature of their relationship.
What they were doing mattered not one iota to me, I was very busy falling in love with Switzerland.
The campus was small, quaint and hypnotically beautiful in a way only European villages can be, with a villa and a courtyard for all to enjoy. Villa Portena was a typical European “home” and served as the campus social center where we gathered and ate most of our meals. Europeans don’t have the same concept of “old” as Americans. Three hundred years there is not yet old, perhaps nicely broken in and comfortable with a lovely patina. 800 or 900 years, that’s approaching old. The enclosed grounds were lovely with freshly manicured gardens, artistic wrought iron fencing and circular benches built around trees. Lovely for reading and studying.
Every morning we walked to the local bakery a block or so away to purchase a French baguette, butter and some kind of fresh jam. We ate it, sitting outside on the rock walls by pulling chunks off – the crusty outside and the soft center – my mouth is watering just remembering.
Our dorm was entirely female, with many pajama parties in the common area. My friend, Kim, from my home town, is in the middle in blue.
Did I mention that there was no drinking age anyplace in Europe? Wine was simply served as a part of meals and no one thought anything of it. We sampled the local wares – food, bread, cheese, wine and hard liquor. No one seemed to care. We had pajama parties almost every night. Life was good!
For the most part, we were responsible for ourselves. We thought we were quite grown up, but we didn’t realize that in many ways that we couldn’t yet conceive, we did grow up that summer. Growing up is a process, not an event. In our case, the process was accelerated by the lack of adult supervision which means we had to depend on ourselves. And truthfully, we were amazingly well-behaved.
The college was just three or four blocks uphill from Lake Geneva. This contemporary photo shows Versoix, a tiny village, from out on Lake Geneva.
The Versoix waterfront sported a couple of restaurants along the marina, and a night club type of pub. Our walks to the lake shore often culminated in drinks and long talks about our aspirations for the future looking out dreamily over the lake. Life in America seemed far away and nothing was impossible – after all – we had managed to travel to and were living in Switzerland. What could be impossible after that miracle?
The trip to Switzerland allowed me to dream dreams that I would never have considered even remotely feasible before. Every great achievement in life begins with a dream, no matter how seemingly impractical. After all, I was living proof of a miracle every day in Switzerland, so there was no limit to what dreaming might achieve. Flights of fancy didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore.
Our dorms might have been segregated by gender, but there was a boy’s dorm. We quickly made friends with international students from all over the world, our bond being that we were all strangers together. This young man was a member of a royal family, complete with his own security detail. Apparently, they didn’t think that American girls were terribly dangerous, because we walked to the waterfront almost everyday and enjoyed talking, eating and soaking up the lusciousness of Switzerland. His security detail remained distant, but ever-present.
Indiana was far away, another time, another place, and I was entirely disconnected. I had been homesick before, but in Switzerland, I never wanted to go back.
About this time, another student became memorable as well for an entirely different reason.
One of the female students was blind and a specific chaperone was supposed to be a personal aid to the blind student.
Unfortunately, that chaperone wasn’t terribly interested in that aspect of her job, for which she was being paid extra and may have been the only reason she was along.
As students, we had a lot of individual freedom. Mostly, we ranged in small groups as we explored our new home away from home, branching out to ride the train into Geneva and further. However, we were required to let people know where we were going, and to be back by curfew. Kim and I managed to miss curfew.
We were busted, and the chaperone who was supposed to be attending to the blind student is the person we found waiting for us. Let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant. That chaperone was never pleasant, in her best moments. Our punishment was to be the guide for the blind student.
In retrospect, I feel terribly sorry for the blind girl – but at the time, everyone was unhappy. Kim and I both, for obvious reasons, and the blind student because I’m sure she felt more than a little betrayed by the counselor, vulnerable and afraid. She wasn’t very friendly and she assuredly did NOT like us, or at least didn’t like me.
However, if the chaperone thought that assigning us guide duty would slow Kim and I down, she was sorely mistaken.
We introduced the blind student to worlds she never knew existed – and while the counselor couldn’t have cared less, the blind girl was not entirely too pleased about that turn of events. We were told we had to take her with us, and so we did – everyplace, much to the blind student’s chagrin! As irritating as she was, we felt sorry for her.
Our EuroRail Pass was our ticket to the world, including Geneva, just a few miles around the lake. Geneva, a multi-cultural center with amazing entertainment and night life was quickly becoming a favorite. Nothing was lacking. The summer stretched out before us endlessly.
Geneva was beautiful with the fountain in Lake Geneva called Jet d’Eau visible from every vantage. Everything and everyplace was stunning. Swans graced the lake, gliding by, people were friendly and a smile was your ticket to anything.
I was in love – and it wasn’t with a boy, but with Switzerland itself – with or without our blind unwilling protege. I couldn’t drink enough of this dew.
Of course, our entire purpose for being in Switzerland was what would today be called immersive French, the language, the culture and the history.
We attended our classes at the college every day, but we weren’t the most well-behaved or attentive students. After all, the city, the lake, the waterfront establishments and the beaches called – and we heard that call loud and clear. Imagine our shock when we discovered that topless beaches in Switzerland and in fact, in many places in Europe were simply “normal” there.
From my letter to mother:
“We took our placement tests today. Classes start tomorrow. Dinners are formal here, with wine. There’s nothing else to drink. We have to dress and my two dresses are dirty. I’m doing laundry in the sink, which has no plug. Our room looks like the United Nations flags with clothes hung all over to dry. I hope Snowy doesn’t forget me. Did you call my boyfriend? Did his song sell in Nashville? I’m not getting letters from him very often The bathing suits here are vulgar. Mine is considered here like a one piece with sleeves and tights would be at home. One lady wasn’t wearing at a top, at all. I was shocked. I’m enjoying Geneva much more than London and Amsterdam, put together. I love the campus. Makes everything worth it.”
“Nothing else to drink”…please. I’m sure she knew better.
We were supposed to be focused on French, and we were while in class, but outside of class, we were distracted by everything else. Let’s just say we were having an immersive cultural experience.
I struggled with the class. To mother:
“My French is really improving but I get so frustrated in class. I can’t answer questions because I miss one or two words. I feel really dumb. I want to get into an easier class, but they won’t let me. I may have to buy an iron for my clothes if I can figure out what to ask for. Plus, they don’t let us lock our dorm rooms and someone broke in my room. I think they were looking for money, but I had mine on me so I’m fine. My roommates are gone on an optional trip to Rome and I would have been alone in my room tonight. It scared me so I’m bunking in with someone in another room. I’m getting homesick and feel like I don’t belong. I should be at home instead of here spending money we don’t even have. When I feel down, I want to go home. Before I came over here, home was just a word and a place to me. Humans are so ignorant they don’t know a good thing until they are without it. The cost of the trip is worth it if I get nothing else out of it.”
If anyone doesn’t think that teenage girls have mood swings, have another think.
The next day, I wrote to my mother that I disliked my French teacher because she kept us late in class, making us late for lunch. Then I promptly told her that I wasn’t homesick, that most of the people are very nice and the scenery is awesomely beautiful and I wished I could share it with her.
Suffice it to say, the only time we spoke French was when we couldn’t communicate with another person in English. In other words, it was only French by necessity. That was, until I met the Prince. He spoke no English and I didn’t speak his language, so we were both very motivated to learn French quickly😊
All of a sudden, my French teacher and I got along MUCH better and French became much easier too. A little motivation does wonders!
Problem = Opportunity
Monsieur Francis Clivaz, the owner of the college, had a problem. He had somehow overbooked the facility.
A very large group of Japanese students arrived, unexpectedly, and there weren’t enough dorms to accommodate everyone. The college wasn’t just overbooked, it was double booked.
We were already jam packed, and there just wasn’t room. I was furious at this unwelcome interruption, just when we had settled in and gotten comfortable.
Monsieur Clivaz called us all into his office, including our chaperones. A hush fell over the fidgeting, restless students. We loved it there and a sense of foreboding crept over the group. This couldn’t be good.
He explained the overbooking situation. He chastised us for not being more focused on speaking French. We just knew we were being sent home. Some began to cry.
However, Monsieur Clivaz was a clever man, and he provided us with an opportunity to redeem our sorry selves.
His brother owned a resort in the tiny sleepy alpine village of Montana, today a part of Crans-Montana, a world class ski resort community. Montana occupied less than 2 square miles and was not heavily developed at that time. Montana in this contemporary photo is every bit as stunning as it was then.
Seeing this photo caused the memories to come rushing back in an avalanche.
Monsieur Clivaz made us a deal. If we would solemnly PROMISE not to speak anything but French, he would send us, with a bus, driver, our teacher, and our chaperones, to Montana for the duration of the summer.
Cheering erupted. We couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were saved. We didn’t have to go home in shame, not that he had ever actually threatened that.
All of the students at the college went to Montana and the Japanese students stayed in Versoix.
Let me tell you, we got the better end of that deal, although I loved in in Versoix and initially felt extremely cheated! But, that was before we arrived in Montana.
We packed our things and boarded the bus. Mail would be delivered once weekly from Geneva, along with anything else we wanted. Monsieur Clivaz was very generous and agreed to show us the countryside as part of our education. Field trips abounded. No more being left behind when the rest of the group went to Rome on an optional trip.
Montana was about a 4 or 5-hour ride from Versoix, through the utterly breathtaking Alps.
My memory of that trip, aside from the heart-stopping scenery in every direction, was the utter terror of navigating switchbacks in a bus. Those roads were made for mules, then small cars, not busses.
I remembered the bus ride from the airport in England. That was child’s play by comparison. Training wheels. This was nail-biting white-knuckle serious. Straight down on one side and straight up the other. An error didn’t mean a missing mirror, it meant plunging over the edge of the road to sure and certain death. How many busses are down there anyway?
I tried not to think about death. In some places, the bus actually had to stop and inch around the hairpins using both lanes, occasionally backing up and hitching. The rear of the bus was hanging over the cliff edge. I wasn’t Catholic, but you could tell the Catholics because they kept crossing themselves. I started crossing myself too. It couldn’t hurt! You’ve heard of foxhole religion? This was bus Catholicism.
As we climbed through the mountains, small chalets dotted the countryside along the road which ran alongside the stream that trickled through the center of the valley.
The houses became increasingly distant from each other, and the granite walls of the mountains began towering overhead.
Waterfalls cascaded free-falling down the sides of mountains, and glaciers were evident in the distance. We could see snow on the upper peaks which were drawing increasingly close.
We continued our slow climb in our lumbering bus until we reached Montana at about 5000 feet above sea level, almost 3800 feet above Versoix. The temperature had dropped dramatically, and it was chilly.
Montana occupies one the highest peaks of the Alps, affording an utterly stunning view of the surrounding lakes and mountains. Taking the ski lift to the top of the mountains provided a birds-eye view from, literally, the top of the world. We had died and ascended Heaven.
Click on this link and view the photos, including some of the 360 views and videos. Heart-stopping is the only word that comes to mind.
My world-view was expanding minute by minute.
Zermatt, gateway to the Matterhorn was visible about 25 miles in the distance, across the roof of our neighbor building.
We settled in to our new home, wowed by the scenery that was taken for granted by all those who lived or worked there. Like cornfields and soybeans were at home.
I had never seen mountains before driving to New York and arriving in Europe, and I couldn’t believe my eyes to discover glaciers in the distance outside my bedroom window, above. New York’s mountains were baby mountains compared to these.
“I’m in Montana now and it’s really beautiful. The most beautiful of all the places – of all the places I’ve ever seen. You’d love it here. You wouldn’t be able to help it. It’s about 2/3rds way up a really tall mountain with skiing on the top.”
A month before, I had been sweltering in the heat of a Midwest summer. Now, I was in Alpine glory where we needed jackets and snow was still very much in evidence at the higher elevations. In the photo above, I was hiking in the mountain pass.
Just outside our hotel, the bases of ski lifts and gondolas were anchored, shown by the red lines in the map above. Since skiing was out of season by this time, but some snow remained, the area was deserted of tourists. It was our lucky day, as we had free and immediate access to lifts. We could walk anyplace in the village, and the restaurants and nightclubs were very welcoming. Especially one particular nightclub, but I digress.
Montana and nearby towns were sleepy, partially trapped in an earlier time, and supplies were often transported by the slow plodding of horse-drawn wagons that weaved between people walking on the street. Watering troughs made of hollow trees served both horses and people. While this was a ski area in the winter, the townspeople clearly lived here as evidenced by a school, grocery and church. Everyone lived for Oktoberfest.
We were true to our word and spoke only French. Our teacher decided we might learn better in an outdoor setting, and our lessons often took place on the bus on the way to a new destination.
We absorbed culture in Zermatt, Chamonix and Mont Blanc, about 70 miles and 2 hours distant, in addition to countless meadows, mountaintops and picnics packed by the hotel or picked up impromptu at the grocery.
We hiked in the snow.
And in mountain meadows. Yes, despite my fear of heights, I was in the gondola with the camera.
I came to love Edelweiss and mountain meadow flowers. I plucked and pressed a few in my Bible.
“Kim and I walked up a mountain today. We found a gorgeous meadow with the remains of a little swiss house in it. We walked and walked and finally got to a spot where you can look down and see the whole valley. It must be a good 2 or 3 miles down. We found really cool rocks and wild mountain flowers. Tomorrow we are going to the top of the mountain for a picnic lunch.”
We literally lived with our teacher and we loved everything about French, history and Switzerland. Sometimes, we couldn’t find the right words, so we talked with our hands. Our friend the Prince, below, didn’t speak English so French and hand-speak was our only option.
This is the one and only photo I have of myself from this entire trip.
If you notice on the map below, the dividing line for the Canton of Bern, a primarily German speaking region of Switzerland on the north side of the Alps begins not far from Montana. French was spoken on the south side of that dividing line. To see stunning photos from the top of the mountain, click here.
Canton of Bern
Little did I know at the time that my mother’s paternal grandmother Miller’s line was originally found in Schwarzenmatt, about as far across the mountains to the north as Zermatt is to the south.
You can’t see Schwarzenmatt from Montana (at least I don’t think), because the peaks of the Alps are in the way. As the crow flies, I was perhaps 25 miles distant from what may be the oldest location of an actual known ancestor’s home in a Swiss village. No wonder I felt like I had come home. I literally had.
Little did I know that my links to the Alps were genuine and real – an ancestral memory perhaps. Heinrich Muller, in his son Johann Michael Muller’s 1684 marriage record is stated to be from Schwarzenmatt, in the district of Bern, and the Muller home is known to have been in the family from before 1615 until the late 1800s when it was sold to a son-in-law. It remains in that family today.
Dreams, Dates, Drama and Grief
I spent my days consumed by all things French, immersed in possibilities, thinking about how different my life might be than what I had always assumed it would be. My French teacher told me I had a very large French vocabulary and hoped I would “do something” with it someday, maybe as an interpreter. No longer was “getting married” my priority. Life had so much more to offer. Georgetown University in Washington DC, far from my home town, had a foreign language and diplomatic services degree I needed to consider.
I began to dream. Young people can’t dream of a world they don’t know exists.
I grieved when the day came to leave Montana. I knew the discotheques well, the people, and I even had a real date – or at least I tried, with a young man named Francois from Italy. Our common language was French and flirting, although to be perfectly clear, I did NOT kiss on the first date. Do Italian boys kiss on first dates? (Yes, Italian boys kiss whenever possible.) No one explained THIS aspect of the culture.
My next letter home reflected conflicted feelings about this date and my boyfriend at home. Like most girls that age, I felt that this “affected my whole life.” By the time I came home, I knew that I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life with the boyfriend back home and had to figure out how to explain that to him.
The date in Montana was challenging with the blind girl in tow. Yep, she was still somehow my responsibility. She wasn’t amused either, I assure you, and told the slacker chaperone that she had heard things “unzippering.” Never mind that we were in public the entire time, and the unzippering was jackets and my purse as my newfound beau and I exchanged addresses. Yes, we were penpals for a year or so, right up until he proposed marriage by writing a letter to my mother, twice in a row. That ended that.
Montana wasn’t without drama. Kim’s purse was stolen with her passport, all of her money, and replacing it was going to take “a long time.” Overseas calls were expensive, but she called her grandparents, in tears, to ask for help. I told my mother I thought I was having an appendicitis attack but didn’t want to spend the money to go to the doctor. I’m surprised I didn’t give her a coronary. By the time she received the letter, called Monsieur Clivaz who in turn called our hotel in Montana, I was fine and had forgotten entirely about the episode. Poor Mom was always working with at least 10 day old information.
Our adventures in the area surrounding Montana included Zermatt, visible over the horizon and Mt. Blanc, shown below, the highest mountain in Europe. Literally, in that time and place, the zenith of the world – also the watershed line between Italy and France.
I had just begun the climb to my own summit, but I had inadvertently stumbled across one of many personal watershed lines.
As the summer drew to an end, I grieved as I left Montana – the tears silently rolling down my cheeks as my beloved mountains slipped away into the distance, but never from my heart. As unhappy as I was to be displaced from Versoix to Montana, I was exponentially more aggrieved to leave. My heart was broken. I loved that place in a way I didn’t know I could love any place on earth.
I would write my last letter home to mother, fundamentally changed. I asked her advice on how to break the news “gently to Tony,” the boyfriend, that I was not returning as the person who left, in spite of the fact that he had faithfully written and waited. That old adage about having nothing to do with you, and everything to do with me was true. I knew he would never understand. He didn’t.
He returned the most expensive gift I had purchased for anyone, including mother and myself, a ring, in pieces.
I also knew, in some fundamental unspoken way that I had changed and in ways mother wouldn’t understand either. She didn’t.
Nor in ways I yet understood myself. An internal metamorphosis that would take a lifetime to complete had been set in motion. I looked like the same person, but I wasn’t at all.
We returned to Versoix for a few nights to regroup and repack at the Collège du Léman. Spending time back there made me realize just how the world had expanded in the weeks since we left.
Kim received her replacement paperwork in the nick of time. Our flight was out of Paris a few days later. Monsieur Clivaz had to assist several students with various crisis, such as not having enough money for the French airport tax on the trip home.
Our unexpected time away from the school drained our personal coffers, so he extended loans to anyone who needed them. After one final trip to the bakery, one final walk to the lakeshore and one final pajama party, the next morning we said our goodbyes to our many international friends, Monsieur Clivaz and our teacher, who we now loved, and silently boarded the train for Paris.
I looked longingly back at my beloved Switzerland and ached for a final look at the Alps.
Little did I know.
I loved Switzerland. I fell in love, passionately with the Alps. Paris was supposed to be the high point of our trip, saved for last.
I enjoyed Paris, but I had already left my heart behind.
Still, Paris beckoned with a mystical allure too. Paris is an ancient city full of history.
In our short time there, we visited the Eiffel Tower, of course. Ironically, it’s one of the “new” attractions built in 1887, but it’s also one of the first things that tourists see.
I didn’t climb the 704 steps to the top, but I wish I had, because the panorama of Paris, shown above is stunning and shows many of the historical locations. Neither the ride up nor the steps was free and cash was in very short supply by this time. I had only taken about $300 for the entire summer’s spending money, and it was already depleted.
The Arc de Triomphe, also known as La Place de l’Etoile is standard tourist fare.
We lodged at a youth hostel, the Maison de Mines which still exists as a dorm in the winter and a youth hostel in the summer. Bathrooms were community, and each floor had one. At that time, air conditioning didn’t exist in Europe, but I didn’t miss it because we didn’t have air in the US either.
However, Paris was exceedingly HOT when we were there, and the open windows provided exactly no ventilation because the air was not moving at all. Let’s just say the city didn’t smell inviting either.
By this time, we were all quite sick of the chaperone who was supposed to be caring for the blind student, and she couldn’t do much to make us miserable anymore. She could punish us exactly how?
The chaperone had washed out her underwear by hand and had made the mistake of hanging it in the community dorm room to dry.
Innovative students that we were, we used coat hangers to suspend her rather matronly underwear outside her room from the window ledge to dry from the windows, hanging over the sidewalk, flapping like large white prayer flags. Not only could she not see it from within her room, everyone else could see it outside.
We laughed until we cried. She didn’t.
I’m sorry, I still have no remorse for that prank.
This hospital dome was the view from my window, well, when not staring at the counselor’s underwear.
Paris is a beautiful city. History permeates every step, every building and perhaps unknown to the Parisians, every person too.
The Seine River runs through the city center, and not surprisingly, the earliest settlement was established here on an island mid-river, Ile de la Cite.
Today, barges and tourist boats traverse the waterway while the rest of Paris watches from the many bridges, each of which has it’s own personality and story.
I loved the right and left banks of the river, La Rive Gauche and La Rive Droit, populated by artists and students, sitting alongside the river. Paris is a city for walking, and walk we did – plus walking was free. I sat alone in the beer gardens amid the hustle bustle energy of the city. I strolled along the Seine, longing nostalgically for the peace and quiet of the Alps. At the same time, I anticipated and hesitantly embraced a future that would unfold fundamentally differently from the trajectory I previously expected, and would assuredly have lived without this experience. There was no “going back,” and returning home was going to be challenging.
For a teenage girl, I did a lot of deep thinking and soul searching while surrounded by the avant-garde atmosphere of the Paris left bank sidewalks full of inspiration and street vendors, accompanied by the ghosts of my distant past. All of that in combination encourages thinking far, far outside any restructive box.
Little did I know.
There was one moment, standing on a bridge near city center that literally took my breath away. Stopped me dead, cold in my tracks as I looked up from my walking and ruminating.
Notre Dame. I took the above photo in 1970, but here’s one from almost the same location on the bridge named Pont de la Tournelle.
I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t even know that I was looking at Notre Dame. But I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt that I needed to go inside that building. I found my way to Notre Dame, bought and lit a candle, even though I had no idea that I was participating in an age-old Catholic ritual.
I was overwrought by emotion. Perhaps part was due to the amazing experience I had just lived over the past several months – even though I had yet to assimilate all that it would eventually mean to me. I’m sure part was due to being homesick.
But perhaps not all.
Little did I know that my ancestor, Jacques “dit Beaumont” Bonnevie, an Acadian man who was born about 1660 was noted as “a native of Paris” on a historical document.
Little did I know what his life would have been like, what he saw, and that he was very probably baptized in Notre Dame Cathedral on the historic Ile de la Cite.
He probably stood very near this location, viewing Notre Dame 300 years earlier.
Little did I know that I was walking in his footsteps, and that I had returned home to his church.
Little did I know I would return again, and again. Called back…summoned by those ancient whispers.
Little Did I Know
I left Indiana full of naïve enchantment, and I returned with a brand-spanking-new world-view, crafted from an expanded consciousness.
I understood that we, me, the US was part of a much larger world that I could not be truly comprehended without experiencing it directly. There’s a massive difference between reading about something and experiencing it personally. Experiences indelibly shape us, and at that age, who we become.
I understood that the way “we” do things is one way, but not the only way, and not always the “right” way. There can be multiple right ways, and someone doesn’t always have to be “wrong.”
I understood that there are many perspectives, and all need to be considered with an open mind. Mine wasn’t. The culture in which I had grown up had already shaped me and my opinions. I had to rethink “me.”
I understood that many cultures embrace different religions, and everyone who embraces a different set of religious values is not going directly to hell. That was a tough realization for the Baptist girl from Bible Belt Indiana.
I understood that prejudice of all kinds, meaning relative to economic conditions, race, gender, religion and more had fomented all forms of hatred, and no love, throughout history, in many if not most of the very places I walked. Bombs had dropped, cities burned and millions died, over and over again – often in the name of or under the guise of religion.
Anne Frank’s poignant story never left my soul. Last year, on the shores of the Danube in Budapest, a memorial in the form of shoes that Jewish people were forced to step out of on the bank of the river before they were shot, their bodies falling into the water to be whisked away like so much rubbish, reminded me once again of the demons of prejudice. I understood that I had to fight those fundamental evils with every ounce of my being.
I understood that good people come in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities, religions and speak any number of different languages.
I understood the same thing about bad people, and that they masquerade as good people, often hiding behind an agenda they believe you will embrace.
I understood that the world looks very different when you are raised with blinders, not because of willful ignorance, but because the people raising you have no other point of reference. Blinders beget blinders, ignorance begets ignorance, but humans, thankfully, can learn and change.
I understood that “because that’s how things have always been done” is not a good reason. In fact, it’s a very bad reason. I learned to think for myself “outside the box.” That was very difficult for my mother after I returned home.
I understood that opportunity is often disruptive, and it only comes knocking if you are willing to function outside of the environment in which you are comfortable. That’s exactly what happened to me.
I understood that I was forever changed, remolded, and it would murder my newly liberated soul to re-conform to the constraints that had previously bound me.
I understood that education was transformative in unimaginable ways and would be my ticket “out.”
I understood that mental ties that bind us are far stronger than physical ones, and infinitely more difficult to break.
I understood that once you comprehend, you’ve lost your excuse for ignorance.
I understood that my path into the unknown was mine for claiming and that if I didn’t choose that path, wherever it would lead, the light I was supposed to shine from my own personal summit would forever be lost. I would have to leap with no net.
I understood fear. In spades.
I understood what it meant to be truly alone.
I also was beginning to understand both tenacity and commitment. That, I got from my mother. Examples, both good and bad, never leave us as we are always leading by example.
I understood that to not leap meant that I would condemn myself to a life of darkness, understanding every single day that I had actively forsaken the light. Worse yet, I would be able to see that mountain I had declined to climb while others would claim the summit.
I came to understand that I could not ignore the nagging hand of fate. I tried, for years. That was slow torture, a fate worse than death. I decade later, I chose the difficult, rockstrewn path and never looked back again.
And so, in those golden summer days of 1970 began a slow transformative epiphany.
I could not be silent.
I could not conform.
Little did I know how much that summer changed my life – every molecule of my being. I left a caterpillar and returned emerging from my cocoon.
On that alpine vista, I knew that I had to walk that frightening, uncertain path into an unknown future to places no one on my family had ever been. No one could, or would, accompany me. It was my own personal watershed.
I was terrified, because I knew that path would lead me away from the home and people where I was raised – and I had no idea what would happen to me or where it led. I knew they would never understand why and many would be critical, or worse. I hoped that at least a few of them would love me anyway, or maybe because of my courage.
I felt an iron-clad bond across generations with my ancestors who left as frightened immigrants and arrived as refugees, embarking on an uncertain, perilous journey from which they would never return.
I prayed that someone, on the other side of that chasm, would understand.
I am tied to my ancestors in ways I didn’t then understand, them to me, and us to the future. Some part of them had awakened in me.
There was no turning back.
There was no going “home,” not that home had moved or changed. I had.
I returned, forever metamorphized, a refugee of my former self, tossed into the swirling vortex where everything you thought you knew and believed is stripped away. A solitary swimmer, navigating upstream into the future, against the current, towards some undefined misty summit in the distance.
This was not the journey I thought I was taking. I was only a student, going to Europe for the summer.
The dawning of enlightenment begins in darkness.
Little did I know.
How small my world had been, or how big the world really is.