I just returned from a school reunion in Lugano, Switzerland. I went to boarding school there many years ago and this year about 65 of us gathered to retrace our steps and relive old times. Some people brought their spouses, some were from different classes so we didn’t know everybody going in but we made new friends and our family expanded.
We ate risotto, cannelloni, pizza, spaghetti, and ended the trip with a six course meal. We drank Prosseco and lots of good wine. The first night we were entertained by a local group of Italian men making traditional music. One of our friends put together a slide show of photos of all of us when we were in high school.
We spent a day in the Versazca river valley. Our buses had trouble making some of the hairpin curves up and down the mountain. We stopped in a small village and hiked to the river and some went to the falls. Our second stop was at the famous Roman bridge that everybody jumps off of. It was a tradition at school every year and we would cheer people on as they jumped. This time it was even more impressive to see the over 50 crowd jump into the icy cold water.
We took the funicular up Monte Bre and enjoyed the spectacular view. A group of us walked back down the mountain and were sore for days but they had a great story to take home with them.
On our last day we took a boat cruise to the nearby town of Marcote for dinner. It was raining on the boat but we had a live band and dancing and it was still beautiful.
That last night we gathered in our common room and I was sitting next to an old friend of mine. She said, “I hate good byes. We never put down any roots.” I knew exactly what she meant. I looked around the room at people I had known most of my life. I said, “ This is our home. These people are our home. We are a family”. And I started to cry. It was so hard to have to say good bye to the people who understood what it was to be a third culture kid, where no explanations were needed, where we could be ourselves with no compromise or pretending. Some people call us chameleons because we adapt and adjust to our surroundings but we are never truly comfortable and never feel completely relaxed except when we are together.
It was hard to leave Lugano, one of the most beautiful places on earth but the hardest part was saying good bye to each other.
When I was sixteen I went off to boarding school in Switzerland. My parents were living in Nigeria. My roommate traveled from Tanzania. My best friend’s parents were living in Tokyo. Walking down the hall in my dorm there were people from Saudi Arabia, Germany and various US cities. In a couple of weeks I will be going back to stay in the new dorms of my old school for a big reunion. I will see several of my old dorm-mates. We will haunt the old stomping grounds reliving old memories and making new ones.
One of my tasks for this reunion is to write a speech. I am having trouble sitting myself down and focusing on this task. Do I draw on the memories of particular events from those days?
The time Kelly saved my life at the Duomo in Florence. I didn’t know I had vertigo but turns out I did and he took my hand and guided me through it. The trip to Dachau and how quiet everybody was on the bus home. Leaning to drink warm beer at the HofBrauHaus in Munich. The other great thing about Munich was we saw our first McDonald’s in Europe and became “American” for a weekend. In Venice we got around on water buses and discovered a small disco. Plus a pigeon landed on my head in St Mark’s Square. Hiking up the side of a mountain just to lie in the grass and stare at the sky. Instigating “all school skip day” that stuck as a tradition.
Traveling through Greece having to hear about every single ruin by the side of the road and never getting to listen to rock and roll music. Taking a cruise through the Greek Islands and being bombarded by wet toilet paper rockets in the hallway outside the girl’s cabin. Listening to boring lectures about the mosaics of Ravenna and Giotto’s Chapel. Wishing there were horses in the square in Siena.
Palio Di Siena
Or do I talk about the overall experience of living with an exceptional group of people, teachers and students alike who influenced the rest of our lives.
We were taught to be independent, curious, adventurous, supportive and respectful. We were only 16 or 17 and we traveled the world on our own without thinking twice about it. We would seek out art and architecture wherever we went. We enjoyed each other’s company, had fun together and sometimes tolerated each other. We became a family.
And now many many years later, we are still family. We have a unifier that brings us all together. That time in Switzerland made us all different. We experienced something together that other people could never understand. It was our unique world and we came out of it as a unit. So when we meet each other now, even if we didn’t know each other then, we immediately have a connection. We have a common ground to work off of. In some cases it was a jumping off point to forge new relationships. Even now the family continues to grow.
Or do I just tell a story and thank everybody for coming. Of course all memories are subject to change and embellishment. I could probably make something up. But I won’t. I will keep it simple and short. Who wants to listen to a speech when you are sitting eating French food on one of the most beautiful lakes in the world?
On another note, I am going bi-coastal. My Baltimore Post Examiner blog, Eclectic Global Nomad has been picked up by the Los Angeles Post Examiner so you can find me in both.
Resilience is defined as the ability to bounce back quickly, to cope with stress and adversity. According to some people Third Culture Kids are very resilient. I never thought of myself that way. I just dealt with things as they came up and moved on. It was like being on auto pilot.
When I landed in a country I had never been to before and there was nobody to meet me at the airport, I didn’t hesitate at all. I changed money and went looking for some kind of transportation. I wasn’t going to sit around worrying about it. Although, had I sat around for a while, I might have seen my father come looking for me instead of missing him as we crossed paths.
When I went to boarding school at 13 and people thought I was weird I did whine about it a little. But I moved on. I slowly figured out that I needed to adapt and try to fit in. I was young for my age and had lived overseas all my life. I landed in the USA in the middle of a cultural revolution I knew very little about. I absorbed all the information I could and not only did I adapt to it all but I embraced it.
When we moved to Africa a few years later and I went off to boarding school in Switzerland, I was prepared to live away from home and up on world topics. I was ahead of the curve.
Once again it all broke down when I went to college in the USA. I was too international now. I had to rein it in and become more local. I had to adapt to another culture. I was so used to discussing travel, European art, and world politics with my peers that I didn’t think before I opened my mouth and blabbed about my high school experiences. My new peers could not relate and thought I was bragging.
My new persona emerged and I was quiet inside my shell for a long time. No more story telling here. But I managed to eventually adapt to that as well. I made friends and existed on a different level. I became one of them.
So who was I? How could I find myself and figure out what I should be doing? All I wanted to do was get out of town. To move on. That’s what I had always done, wasn’t it? Just dealt with the immediate problem and moved on. I didn’t know why. I never really thought about it that much. I just knew I was not comfortable. I was searching for something but didn’t know what it was. I was living between cultures. I didn’t feel American but I didn’t feel Mexican or Colombian or Nigerian, or Swiss. I was unique, I was different.
Years later I learned I was a Third Culture Kid – somebody who grew up in a culture not their own. I discovered I was not the only one who felt this way. Norma McCaig of Global Nomads wrote:
The benefits of this upbringing need to be underscored: In an era when global vision is an imperative, when skills in intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy, and the management of diversity are critical, global nomads are better equipped in these areas by the age of eighteen than are many adults… These intercultural and linguistic skills are the markings of the cultural chameleon — the young participant-observer who takes note of verbal and nonverbal cues and readjusts accordingly, taking enough of the coloration of the social surroundings to gain acceptance while maintaining some vestige of identity as a different animal, an “other.”
I wish I had read that when I was eighteen! 🙂
Does knowing all of this solve my restlessness, make me more comfortable? No, it doesn’t solve it but it helps me understand it. I know what it is and why I am the way I am. It isn’t a bad thing. But as I grow older, I think I have become less tolerant of ignorant people. If somebody doesn’t know where France is or hates Muslims, or thinks Berlusconi is a type of pasta, I just don’t really bother to put any effort out. I let it go. When I was younger, I would try to educate or sometimes I would just brush it aside and try to make myself acceptable to them. I don’t do that anymore. I move on.
I recently published a book about all my trials and tribulations, joys and challenges and adventures growing up all over the world. But it was not easy. I spent a lot of time writing with tears streaming down my face. I suppose I need deep psycho therapy to figure that out. But when it was all done. I felt better. Something had been resolved. I had accomplished what I set out to do and I felt positive. I still do. Although I am now facing another hurdle. Being single for the first time in many years. Not sure if that is a good thing or a bad one. Oh, well. I guess I will just have to deal with it and move on….
It is not very practical to fill up a book with photos but on a blog I can do that. Here is an excerpt from my book with additional photos, although they are not in the best of shape. Enjoy!
I was born in Rangoon, Burma in 1956 while my parents were living in Pyinmana. My father’s memory of this:
“We made our first road trip by car to Rangoon in May, on narrow, broken up blacktop. Whenever we met another car, truck or animal drawn vehicle, we had to get off the road. There were no possible toilet stops so we just chose a clump of bamboo or some shrubs. We carried extra tires, gasoline, and of course took our own food and water. The trip was bumpy and we averaged about 25 mph, and made the trip in 10 hours (about 250 miles). We went for Virginia to have a checkup with the doctor at the Seventh Day Adventist hospital (where she would go for the birth of the baby). This was the best hospital in Burma and the doctor she was seeing, Dr. Dunn, had been born and raised in Nebraska City, Nebraska, just 30 miles from my home in Shenandoah, Iowa. Dr. Dunn found Virginia to be in good health and anticipated no problems so we returned to Pyinmana to stay until about the first of July.
In early July, Virginia, Tim and Tom accompanied the Ford Foundation Representative and Assistant, John Everton and John Eddison, to Rangoon where she and the boys moved in with the Methodist Minister and his wife, George and Mary Hollister. She would stay with them for about a month before the baby was due.
Virginia went into the hospital on August 5 and Kathleen was born on August 7. We also gave her a Burmese name, Ma Sein Hla (Pretty Diamond), fitting the day of the week on which she was born (Tuesday). It took two days for me to receive the telegram from Rangoon, but Virginia’s parents in Iowa got theirs the same day announcing the new arrival.”
I spent the first three years of my life in Pyinmana speaking Hindi, Tamil, Karen (a Burmese dialect), Burmese and English. We had a cook, who spoke Hindi and Tamil, my nanny, Naw Paw who was Karen, the “mali” or “houseboy” who spoke Hindi, and the driver Mg Thein Mg who was Burmese. We lived upstairs in a huge old brick house on the campus of the Agricultural Institute. The downstairs had been used as a pigpen and there was still a sow there about to have a litter of pigs when my parents moved in. The house had two bedrooms, two bathroom, two large storerooms, a roomy kitchen, dining room, living room and a nice large veranda all the way around the house. The refrigerator and stove ran on kerosene, as there was no electricity. There was an outhouse out back and a well with a hand pump. At night we slept under mosquito nets even though my parents hired a carpenter to install screens on the windows. The house looked out over rice fields to a range of wooded mountains that provided us with cool breezes.
Our house in Pynmina
There were still insurgents in the area and we would hear the occasional gun fight off in the distance. My brother Tom delighted in this. “Are those REAL bullets?” , he would ask excitedly.
At 7 months, I embarked on my first international trip. On March 6, 1957, we headed out from Rangoon to Beirut, Lebanon. Because of the different electric voltages around the world, my parents carried a 110 electric hot plate as well as a 220 one, a pan in which to sterilize bottles for my milk and all my food for the trip. I did okay except for a loud crying session in first class after the Vice Chairman of the Board of the Ford Foundation boarded in Karachi and sat down next to us. We stayed a few days in Beirut and my brothers went and saw the ruins at Baalbek. I guess I was too young to appreciate them.
From Beirut, we flew to Rome on a Viscount Turbo Prop plane, Middle East Airline. We stayed at the Excelsior Hotel on the main avenue in the middle of the shopping area and I was taken for many walks in my stroller.
Our next stop was Zurich, Switzerland. The Hotel Spugenschlos had been recommended and it turned out to be very nice near the lake. We took the train and funicular up Mt Rigi and watched the skiers. From there we took the funicular down the other side of the mountain, a boat across Lake Lucerne, and a train back to Zurich.
Mt Rigi, I believe
From Zurich to New York we had a four-hour stopover in Paris. My Father recalls:
“We found the French sales clerks in the airport shops were not very nice to children, so we were glad to move on. From Paris to New York we had our first flight on a Pan Am double deck Stratocruiser with a 4-course dinner, 4 stewardess in first class and an almost empty plane. We each had a sleeping berth but Kathy and Virginia spent most of the night catnapping in the lower deck bar (they were not drinking) with a dog in a cage. It was a 14 hour flight.”
After a few days in New York, we boarded a train to Wisconsin with a change in Chicago arriving on March 21. Luckily we had a long home leave.
On July 10, we made the return journey. We took the train to Chicago and a taxi to O’Hare Airport. We had 14 bags plus hand luggage and had to pay for excess baggage. My father remembers this leg of the trip:
“We left about noon and arrived in Frankfurt the following day, after stops in Shannon and London. It was our first ever stop in Germany, which was still suffering shortages after the war. The Customs Officer found it hard to believe that with 14 bags we had nothing to declare. With the amount of luggage we had, we always had to take 2 taxis from the airports to our hotels.”
We spent three days in Frankfurt and then took an SAS plane to Athens. We went to the Parthenon and other sites, and even went to the beach our last day there.
From Athens, we flew to Bombay on a TWA Constellation and arrived in the monsoon rain. We stayed at the Taj Mahal Hotel and could see the famous Gateway to India from our hotel room.
After some sightseeing we flew to Madras and took the train to southern India – the Kodai Station. My father registered Tom (9) and Tim (11) and we left them at Kodaikanal School. I always thought that was very young to be sent off to boarding school but I have since learned that there were many children at that very school as young as 6 or 7.
I arrived back in Pyinmana at the age of 11 months, my first grand tour completed.
Today I am happily re-posting a review of my book. Maggie at FlyAwayHome was kind enough to share her thoughts. Have a look at her blog and her book as well (it is a good one!)
With all the traveling I’ve been doing this summer, my blog is starting to resemble a travel blog. To mix things up, I thought I’d try writing a book review. I just finished reading a good book, so here goes…
If you’ve ever lived or simply dream of living in a foreign country, then Kathleen Gamble’s book Expat Alien: My Global Adventure, is for you. I was first introduced to Kathy and her well told stories of travel and adventure through her blog, also known as the Expat Alien. Kathy and I are two American girls who were both born in the fifties, but while I grew up on the steady shores of our homeland, she grew up wandering the world.
Last week I was away spending some well deserved time alone with Husband, Son and Daughter. After the hectic and emotionally draining summer we’ve had, it was nice to enjoy the sun, surf and sand on Captiva Island in southern Florida.
It was good for us to reconnect as a family, relaxing individually and collectively as one day slipped into the next. We also made sure to store up the sunlight for colder, darker days ahead back home in Nederland, but we needn’t address that at the moment.
One thing I did do while relaxing was to catch up on some expat reading.
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!
I spent a couple of weeks last summer visiting my brother who was living just outside Zurich, Switzerland. One of our activities was to take a trip to the recycling center. We gathered up all the (cloth) shopping bags we could find and loaded them with the glass, plastic, paper, and aluminum that had been collecting in the kitchen and headed out to the shopping center. At one end of the parking garage were large bins labeled for all the different types of items. We managed to get rid of everything although some of the pictures were a little confusing.
According to the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs:
The Swiss are champion recyclers. In 2003, 47% of all urban waste was recycled – a new Swiss record. They recycled 70% of paper, 95% of glass, 71% of plastic bottles, 85-90% of aluminum cans and 75% of tin cans.
So recycling has become a Swiss way of life.
However, the really interesting thing we found were bags. Purses, messenger bags, tote bags, wallets, backpacks and even iPhone sleeves all made from recycled goods under the Freitag name. This is from the Freitag website:
In 1993 the Freitag brothers…developed a messenger bag using old truck tarpaulins, used bicycle tires and seatbelts in the living room of their shared apartment. The old tarps were washed in the bathtub, then cut between the sofa and the television and sewn into the first FREITAG messenger bags on Mom’s sewing machine. Even today, every bag is handmade and unique. Unbeknownst to them, the brothers’ creation released a wave of innovation in the world of bags, and the Individual Recycled Freewaybags from Zurich have been conquering the world ever since.
These bags are a common site all over Switzerland.
The main Freitag building is housed in recycled containers.
This is my purse. They are not cheap but they are very cool!
Last summer I went to visit my brother who lives in Switzerland.
I have a soft spot for Switzerland. I went to boarding school at the American School in Switzerland in Lugano. It was an amazing time in a beautiful place. We traveled all over Europe, hiked up mountains, skied, figured out train schedules, learned to drink beer, and generally had a great education. In 2000, I went back to the school for the founding Director’s 90th birthday party.
Mrs Flemming (we always called her Mamma Flemming) started the school in 1956 with 12 children, three were her own. When I graduated in the 70’s there were 200 of us. And now there are several schools around the world and many more students.
The birthday party in 2000 was a lot of fun because some of my dear friends were there. Two old roommates and an old boyfriend. We hiked up to see Herman Hesse’s house. There was a lovely garden at the bottom of the steps where people would hang out and smoke cigarettes and make out. Now they have a small museum next door dedicated to him. We looked around for our old stomping grounds and found that the “hole in the wall” where Serafina served us wine and beer out of her own kitchen was now closed up. But the main restaurant in the small village of Montagnola was still there. We spent a pleasant afternoon sipping grappa that the owner had made himself. He even sold us several bottles.
Now I was back in Switzerland with my teenage son. Mamma Flemming died at the age of 98 and is buried in the cemetery just down the mountain from the school. The same cemetery where Herman Hesse can be found.
In the 11 years between this and my last visit, the place had changed dramatically. Lugano was still as beautiful as ever although much more built up and congested. The piazza was there full of tourists and the pizza was still good. The local department store where we had purchased my son his Action Man toy in 2000 was still there but had a new name and was under new ownership.
And I almost didn’t recognize the school. There were so many new buildings! It has become a formal school with students in uniforms and actual rules. When we went there it was very much a family atmosphere and we all were encouraged to strike out on our own and explore our surroundings. Now TASIS is all grown up.
While I was wandering around the campus, I ran into an old friend in the lobby of the main building. Angelo, the guy who owned the local sandwich shop was now working in the business office of the school. He pretended to remember me but I don’t know if he really did.