Boarding School


Lugano, Switzerland – the view from my window








My senior year in boarding school in Switzerland, I lived in the bottom of a house in two big rooms with six other girls.  We had two bathrooms and lots of windows and a large patio.  The view of Lake Lugano and the surrounding mountains was spectacular.  I woke up to it every morning.  When it was warm out we would open all the windows and the door and it was like we lived outside.  We were pretty isolated from the rest of the campus so people rarely came by to check on us.  After supper everybody had two hours of study time when they were to be either in their rooms or in the library.  We usually had the stereo going and somebody always had a card game going.  It was rare to see anybody studying.  I did my studying in the afternoon or just before class.

The teacher who was on duty went around and checked up on people to make sure they were studying but they rarely came by our room.  And if they did it was to escape or because they wanted something.  There was one teacher who spent the entire evening in our room copying our Rolling Stones tapes whenever he was on duty.  We hardly knew him and we thought it was a little odd but he never hassled us about anything so we just let him do his thing.

There was a small village grocery store that sold sandwiches and drinks just up the road from our house and everybody knew the guy who owned it, Angelo.  He would also come to the snack bar in the evenings to sell sandwiches and chips.  He made the best ham and cheese sandwiches.  I usually slept through breakfast and skipped dinner but I often was hungry in the evening and if I could scrape the money together I would go to the snack bar and get something to eat before going home for the night.

Seniors were allowed to travel by themselves instead of hooking up with a school trip and so my friend Choni and I decided that we would go to Corsica in the spring.  We were hoping it would be warm and we could lie on the beach.  The night before we left, four of our roommates caught the night train to Amsterdam.  Another roommate had her family visiting and they were sleeping in the back room.  Well, Choni and I decided we would pack for our trip and just stay up all night since we had to leave so early the next morning. People kept dropping by to see us and some of them were loud and obnoxious.  The people trying to sleep in the back room didn’t appreciate all of this and kept coming out and asking us things like – “is there a cheap hotel near here that we could move to?”  We promised we would be quiet and we really did try but we were not in control of the situation.  It took us about four hours to get Choni packed.

My friend Suzie stopped by and the people in the back really started to complain so we decided to go home with her.  When we got to her room it was all dark and she just crashed on her bed but the stereo was hooked up so it just kept playing the same record over and over again.  I don’t know how long we sat there. When we got back to our room the sun was just starting to come up. We gathered up our stuff and sat outside and had a cigarette and watched the sun come up.

From there we went over to the gym teacher’s house because he had agreed to give us a ride to the train station.  He gave us coffee and I burned my mouth on it.  We took the train to Milan, a bus to the airport, a plane to Nice, another plane to Bastia, Corsica and arrived at about four in the afternoon. Once we found our pensione we fell on our beds and slept.  It rained the whole time we were there.

It turned out we pretty much could see all Bastia in one day.  After a couple of days of rain we decided to leave early and head for Nice.  We pooled all our money and sprang for a hotel room in one of the best hotels right on the beach.  Everybody looked at us weird but all we wanted was a hot bath and a comfy bed.  It was money well spent, but the next day we didn’t have enough money left for a cab to the airport so we threw on our backpacks and walked.  It turned out most of the way we could walk along the beach so it wasn’t so bad!

Chapultepec Castle

Chapultepec Castle

I lived in Mexico City for seven years.  I never saw any Cinco de Mayo celebrations until I moved to the USA years later.  In Mexico it is a regional holiday centered around the state of Puebla.  It commemorates the defeat of the French in the Battle of Puebla.  Napoleon III decided it would be a good idea to invade Mexico – for several reasons I won’t go into here.  The French army landed on the coast and marched in toward the capital.  As they reached Puebla, they met with heavy resistance.  Although there were only 4,000 ill equipped Mexicans, they were able to overcome and defeat the 8,000 well equipped French army on May 5, 1862.

Yay!  Margarita time!!

Unfortunately Napoleon III did not take this well.  The following year he sent a much larger army and was able to take over the Mexican government and place a puppet emperor at the head of it.  Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian was a Hapsburg and Commander in Chief of the Austrian Navy.  In May 1864 he arrived in Mexico as Maximilian I, Emperor of Mexico.  He was accompanied by his wife, Charlotte, Princess of Belgium.

He was liked and supported by the conservatives but had problems with the liberal forces led by Benito Juarez who refused to recognize his rule.  Battles continued over the three years he was Emperor.  When the US Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln supported Juarez and Napoleon III started to withdraw his troops.  Maximilian fought until the end but was captured and executed in June 1867.  In 1866 his wife, Charlotte, had returned to Europe seeking support for her husband but was unsuccessful.  She never returned to Mexico and spent the rest of her days, until her death in 1927, in seclusion.  They say she went insane and never acknowledged her husband’s death.

During the time they were in Mexico, they lived at Chapultepec Castle.  It is reminiscent of the palaces of Europe with one room leading into the next and all lavishly furnished.  It has big terraces with views overlooking Mexico City.  When we were in grade school we had school trips to see what is now a National Museum.  We could walk up the hill to the castle or we could enter the hill through a dark tunnel and take the elevator.  It was both scary and thrilling to risk taking the elevator!

Every year they would show the American 1939 movie “Juarez” on Mexican TV.  Bette Davis played Charlotte and she was wonderful.  It is a classic and I made sure I watched it every year.  I felt sorry for the European Emperor and his wife but the triumph over the French every year was exciting!!

Viva Mexico!  Happy Cinco de Mayo!!

Famous Expat Women

Karen Blixen’s farm in Kenya

I watched Out of Africa last night for the umpteenth time and it got me thinking about all the amazing expat women through the ages.  Here are a few of my favorites.

Karen Blixen was Danish.  She married Baron Bror von Blixen and they moved to Kenya in 1914.  He was kind enough to give her syphilis and she returned to Denmark after one year for arsenic treatment.  She lived through it and returned to Kenya for another 16 years. She ran a successful coffee farm for a while but always struggled with it and eventually was forced to sell the land.  Her lover, Denys Finch Hatton, was a big game hunter who died in a plane crash just as she was dealing with the loss of her farm.  She returned to Denmark and lived there for the rest of her life.  She wrote under the name Isak Dineson as well as a few others and a couple of her more famous books are:

Out of Africa  (1937)

Anexdotes of Destiny  (1958) – includes Babette’s Feast which was made into a movie

Letters from Africa 1914-1931  (1981 – posthumous)


Beryl Markam was English.  Her family moved to Kenya when she was 4 years old in 1906.   She became friends with Karen Blixen even though there was an 18 year gap in age.  Beryl also had a brief affair with Denys Finch Hatton and was due to fly with him the day he crashed.  She had some kind of premonition and did not go.  However she did go on to fly extensively in the African bush and was the first women to fly across the Atlantic from East to West.  She briefly lived in California married to an avocado farmer but eventually retuned to Kenya and became a well known horse trainer.  Her memoir (a very good read) is:

West with the Night  (1942, re-released in 1983)


Alexandra David-Neel was French.  She became an explorer at a young age running away from home at the age of 18 to ride her bicycle to Spain and back.  In 1904 at the age of 36 she was traveling in Tunis and married a railway engineer.  That didn’t last long since she immediately had itchy feet and set off for India.  She told her husband she would be back in 18 months but did not return for 14 years.  Her goal was Sikkim in the northern mountains.  She spent years studying with the hermits and monks of the region and eventually, dressed as a man, snuck into the forbidden city of Lhasa.  Her travels were extensive and you can read more about her here:

Her account of her trip to Lhasa is:

My Journey to Lhasa (1927)


Gertrude Stein was an American Jewish lesbian writer who moved to Paris in 1904.  She held “Salons” promoting modern unknown artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne.  During World War 1 she learned to drive a car and drove a supply truck for the American Fund for French Wounded supplying hospitals in France with her life long companion Alice B Toklas.  Her writing was revolutionary and influenced many modern writers including Hemmingway.  She was a strong minded woman with strong opinions and a copious writer with a great sense of humor.  She was a real character as all these women were.  One of the easiest books of hers to read is:

The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas  (1933)

Another one I like very much is:

Ida, A Novel (1941)


Who are your favorites??





Total Eclipse of the Sun

When we lived in Moscow we had to renew our visas every year.  This always meant leaving the country.  It was a very good excuse for a vacation.  I renewed my visa in Finland, Italy, and France.  In 1999 there was a total eclipse of the sun so we decided to combine our visa renewal with a visit with old friends and watching the eclipse.

Our son, Noah’s best friend in Moscow moved to Paris with his parents.  They were living in a house in the suburbs.  The house was about a ten minute walk from the train in a quaint little village with a pretty chateau.  The first day was spent getting our new visas organized and trying to do some shopping.  Our friends had a Russian nanny so we could leave Noah at their house and wander around on our own. Nicholas and I explored the left bank and then the four adults went out to dinner at a nouveau French restaurant.  It was my birthday so we had champagne and wine and great food.  The following day was the boat ride on the Seine with the boys and then a walk through the Tulliers garden where there just happened to be some rides and of course Noah had to go on them.

We had decided that Metz would be a good place to view the eclipse.  We rented a car and drove to Metz stopping on our way to see the cathedral in Reims with its stained glass windows designed by Chagall (a Russian – can’t get away from them).  Once in Metz, we scoped out the area and early the next morning we headed out with the telescope, video camera and other cameras.  We set up our camp in the middle of the Esplanade which was a nice park right by the river.  The town had organized a big festival around the eclipse and so there were parades, music, etc. going on all day long.

It was cloudy.  During the first half of the eclipse we were able to see it off and on.  But about 20 minutes before total eclipse it started to rain.  We could tell when the total was, though, because it was completely dark. All the flowers closed up and all the lights came on and it was really night and kind of eerie.  Then during the second half it cleared up a bit and we were able to see more.  Noah kept looking at the “moon” through his glasses.  Nicholas got some good shots through his telescope.  And I got a new umbrella.  When we got back to Paris our friends who had gone 25 minutes north of Paris on the train said they had seen the whole thing perfectly.

From Metz we drove into Lorraine and the Vosges area.  We stopped at the Haut Konningburg castle which is a huge restored castle on top of a mountain in the middle of the forest.  You can see forever from it.  It has a moat and drawbridge and inner yard.  It would be very hard to penetrate.  It was a hike up to it and since it had been raining the path was muddy.  I commented on how “mucky” it was and Noah responded, “monkeys?  Where are the Monkeys??”  He would not let it go and kept asking for the rest of the day.

From there we wound our way around down to La Bresse which is in the heart of a big ski area amid mountains and forest.  Really beautiful.  Our hotel was very nice with a good restaurant.  We drove all around the area and went hiking around a glacial pool where Noah spent the better part of an hour throwing rocks into it and hunting for dragonflies.

On Sunday (the day before Noah’s birthday) we took the boys to the Bois de Bologne to the big amusement park there and I think they went on about 20 rides.  They had a lot of fun.  Afterwards we went home and our friend, Carol had made a chocolate birthday cake and so we had cake and opened presents. Our last day in Paris we had lunch up at Montmartre with all the tourists in town.

After we returned to Moscow, Noah was in bed going to sleep and he asked me if we had been to America.  I said no.  He said, “oh, no, no we were in Caris”.  No, I said, you mean France.  He said, “no, not France, Caris”.  I said “you mean Paris?”.  He said, “yes, Paris.  That’s were Josic lives.  I want to go to Josic’s house!”