How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise! Selah.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob! Selah.
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed!
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the one who trusts in you!
It’s been about eight weeks since I moved here, and it will be about eight more weeks until my family arrives in Geneva, piles into the rental car and drives up to Echallens to pick me up for Christmas. I’d be more than happy for that to happen tomorrow, but for various reasons. One moment it’s because I miss them so much I’d go home tomorrow if I could; the next, it’s because I love my new friends so much and can’t wait to introduce them.
This experience is not what I’d expected it to be. Out of all the students I know who studied abroad, only one told me that for most of her stay, she didn’t really like the experience. The others briefly covered their initial shock and homesickness and then gushed about how much they loved their host country, how they made friends they still visit when possible, how they’d move there in a heartbeat . . .
Those are the experiences I wanted to have, even if I wouldn’t have admitted that to myself before leaving. I thought I’d have a brief brush with homesickness, then quickly adjust and end by falling in love with Switzerland before Christmas. I remember that even though I tried not to, I told myself that my experience in Switzerland was going to be like the time I’d spent in Ireland.
Bear with a little pertinent digression.
All my life, I’ve been raised on the stories of my ancestors. That’s the great thing about being American—we have storied pasts from all over the globe. My family happens to include a lot of recent immigrants, most of whom came from strong cultures. Having some Irish on both sides of the family meant that out of the French, Swedish, Russian, and Irish heritage that mainly makes up my family, Irish culture was the most represented growing up. (This may also have something to do with the richness of Irish culture, storytelling, and music). I grew up singing Irish folk songs, listening to Irish folk tales, and wondering why a version of St. Patrick’s Day didn’t exist for every culture. To this day, most of my favorite literature is Irish.
Not surprisingly then, several years ago when my parents had an opportunity to spend two weeks in Ireland with some friends, they seized it. And then they went again a few years later with my younger sister and me, taking us up and down the west coast of Ireland and finishing in Dublin. The trip was fantastic, though I can probably chalk some of that up to the fact that it was the first holiday (can you tell that most of my anglophone friends here aren’t American?) for just my parents and the two girls. (Usually the little brothers were in tow too, and it made me feel so grown up to be included in something the adults were doing). What I remember most distinctly was climbing up to some abbey ruins we’d spent all day trying to find, sitting down with my sister Julia, and singing together the haunting melodies of hymns in minor keys (our favorite keys): “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore! Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and power.” We didn’t plan to sing. No one asked us to sing. I think it started because Julia noticed how great the acoustics were in the remains of the ancient abbey—regardless, I know it must have been her idea because I was never the spontaneous one.
There we sat singing song after song, looking down from the hill at the little chapel and cemetery below us, surrounded by the lushest green grass you can imagine. At first, our parents were our only audience, but soon two men (also tourists, if accents are a good indicator) climbed up the hill to the abbey too, and they stopped and listened to us. One turned to my parents and said, “This is why we came here. There is a God who made all of this.”
Two years ago, in celebration of my parents 25th anniversary and the end of my mom’s cancer treatments, we went back to the west coast of Ireland, this time bringing along the brothers that—even two years ago—we couldn’t really call “little” anymore. To say it was magical sounds implausible, I know, but it’s the truth. I thought then as I thought the first time, that Ireland was a place where I could feel at home, were I ever to move there.
How does this connect to Switzerland, you ask? Remember: even though I tried not to, I told myself that my experience in Switzerland was going to be like the time I’d spent in Ireland. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Of course, the culture is different and I’m not on vacation with my family—but those were both factors I had thought about before moving here. I was excited to dive into the new food and music and literature and dance and festivals and all the wonderful things that make up culture. Before leaving Nebraska, I briefly remarked that I hadn’t been able to find much about Swiss culture online, despite hours of searching. I chalked that up to perhaps a language barrier (maybe it was all written in German?) and didn’t take further notice, knowing that the best way to find out about culture is to be on the spot where it happens, anyway.
Switzerland is a country that’s seen a lot of immigration, not to mention the fact that there are four linguistic regions and many cantons. Coming from a country that was pretty much founded on immigration and that has almost twice the number of states as Switzerland has cantons (and with a vast majority of those states being much, much larger than this tiny country), it never crossed my mind that the diversity here might impede the creation of shared culture. I was excited to observe the diversity in Switzerland and find out what kind of culture had accumulated on this diverse soil.
Turns out, not a lot. The vast majority of the francophone cantons didn’t even join the Swiss Confederation until the early 1800s. Each canton has pretty much its own history, and to top it off, it seems the regions don’t like to interact much. I’ve yet to come across any fascinating cultural tidbits, be they festivals, dances, traditions, or songs. For eight weeks, I’ve told myself that I can’t give up, that there must be some kind of shared culture, even if it’s something small. Well, I’ve discovered the apéro. But still no dance, no music . . .
I should have a more positive outlook, I know. But strong cultures—and their stories—are what I was raised on. Every afternoon spent sewing or cooking with my grandmother, a woman of Swedish ancestry who grew up in a Swedish village in Nebraska, was a time for stories. Whether they were the stories of the pioneers or the stories of Sweden, they were our constant companions as we made little dolls and baked bread. They connected us to our gardens, our recipes, our surroundings. A task as simple as watering the garden was a reminder of my Swedish great-grandparents—the rhubarb alone was steeped in stories, starting with the fact that it came from my great-grandma’s garden, which then spiralled into memories of family meals, jokes, and stories. When we’d take a family outing to pick sour cherries in a field in the middle of nowhere, we would spend the whole time talking about the Swedish farmers and the Irish metalworkers and the pioneers and the French-Canadian fur trappers. We’d sing songs that our family had sung for generations, songs that, in my young imagination, perhaps that very field had heard before. We’d go back to the house and pit cherries by hand, singing and storytelling to pass the time. We’d make jam, and then while the jam set up, we’d take a break to visit the Sergeant Floyd memorial or the Lewis and Clark museum. On the drive back to the house, where the puckery jam and some fresh bread awaited us, I watched prairie landscapes flicker past the windows and told myself a story for every tree, every hill.
The culture of Ireland is so rich that even though I wasn’t raised in Ireland and none of my grandparents is fully Irish, I was able to connect in a similar manner with the Irish landscape. In my eyes, each hill had a story, whether it was about some kind of mythic-god-turned-faerie that lurked around the corner or simply about a fisherman’s sweater, carefully knitted with protective symbols by his wife.
For me, the study of language and culture are entwined. I can’t do one without the other. And here, I’m learning plenty about the French language and plenty about myself, but very little about Swiss culture, except perhaps that it might not exist in the same way as the other cultures I’ve learned do. That’s not easy for me. I’m feeling a bit starved for something with more importance than its immediate usefulness.
I’m learning that life is compartmentalised here. The university is for studying, religion is for your private life, politics are not polite conversation outside of friends and family . . . This goes against my wholistic nature. I’ve never been good at divorcing certain aspects of my character from the others. And life is so well-scheduled here. Work, school, socializing—a time for everything, and everything in its time. As someone who was just learning to be spontaneous, it’s a bit of whiplash to find myself in the kind of place where everything is scheduled, even the spontaneity.
“Food is memories,” say Hassan and Marguerite in the film The Hundred-Foot Journey. While the meals I’ve had with Swiss people are relaxed and very enjoyable, there’s not a whole lot of talk about the food—even when the food is remarkably good! And sadly (though this is coming from a true food snob, so keep that in mind), the food is often only good. I’m one for remarkable food, for memorable meals, because I agree with Hassan and Marguerite: food is memories. Picking up the rhubarb example from earlier, I can think of literally dozens of times—specific, concrete instances—when my family ate or made something with rhubarb. I’ve got stories, feelings, and faces. Some of those faces belong to people I hardly ever get to see. Some are blurred faces of people I wasn’t alive to meet, but whose stories I’ve inherited. I can think of those dozen stories now, but give me a handful of rhubarb—or, better yet, put me in a garden and ask me to pick and prepare some rhubarb—and I’ll think of at least a dozen more. Food—the smells, the tastes, the meals, the process—is memories.
Yet I don’t regret coming here. I don’t want anyone to worry, so it bears repeating: I don’t regret this. It’s hard, yes. It’s not what I expected, and it’s a far cry from being a situation I’d want to move into without an end date. But I’m with Édith Piaf on this one: “Non, je ne regrette rien.” (Not even getting a barely-ridden young Trakehner/Arabian/Saddlebred mare as my first horse—even though I still use people’s reactions to that fact as a judge of how much horse experience they have). Every experience I’ve had—no matter how difficult or discouraging—God has used to teach me something. Usually more than one thing, in fact.
Sometimes I think I’m grasping what He’s trying to teach me here. Those are the happiest moments here, the moments when I don’t worry that I’ve yet to make francophone friends at school and I embrace the challenges of living in a place where I’m starting from square one. Then there are other times when I feel totally lost. In these times, I desperately Google things like “English Country Dancing in Lausanne,” wonder if I could find any Irish students who wanted to sing folk songs with me, and think about a summer program in Sweden. Sadly, the past two weeks have been in that space, though the realist in me points out that being sick hasn’t helped. Perhaps that’s why, even though school’s picking up, with due dates and tests and the like, I’m exercising my spontenaity by taking a train to Milan next weekend, where I’ll meet up with some friends I met at Wesleyan. I’m really glad for this, as right now I’m desperate to be around someone who’s known me for more than eight weeks.
Eight weeks. It’s been only eight weeks, and I understand a lot of French now. A lot—music, films, lectures, newspaper articles, conversations . . . not perfectly, but increasingly it’s no longer a question of how fast or what accent, but rather whether or not I know the words being used. And I’m learning to be comfortable here, and even how to communicate a bit, including successfully navigating a doctor’s visit (where the secretary and her assistant made several comments about how nice my passport photo was…?). I throw a party inside every time someone makes a comment about how great my French accent is. It’s easy to be discouraged that I’m not talking as much as I’d like to, but I have to remind myself that it’s been eight weeks, and that not once in my history of school-switching have I had any good friends at the eight week mark. Here, I have several. The hardest part is remembering that vulnerability takes time to develop in a relationship. I’m a person who often seems to have a lot of walls—I get labels like “shy,” “timid,” and “quiet” a lot—but in a friendship, I like to be completely vulnerable. The hilariously sad part is how long it takes to develop that between two people. Again, I tell myself to remember that it’s been eight weeks. I will make close friends here. I might not ever bond with this country, I might not ever find the Swiss cultural heritage that’s hiding somewhere between these mountains, but I will make close friends. I know that because of the simple fact that I already have friends here. Developing deeper relationships with those friends is going to naturally follow.
I dreamt more often in French in Nebraska than I do here. Here, I dream about the people I love who aren’t here. And the animals too, especially my Grace. But here I often wake up with an inner dialogue that has transformed into French. And every now and again, it’s easier to think in French than in English. I’m very happy in those moments, because it’s proof that French is becoming more natural. Yet it’s simultaneously fantastic and frustrating when I sit down to try writing poetry and find that while I can express myself in two languages, I can’t seem to exploit either one to the point of creating something with linguistic value. And don’t get me started on how many things I’ve forgotten since moving here. My brain is literally a sieve.
Yet I won’t lose hope—can’t lose hope. God will not fail; He will make something beautiful out of all this. On days like today, that’s easy to remember. Today after the service, the people at church took their time talking, being together, sharing about their weeks. The single women had lunch together, again taking our time to just be together. Once home, I took a walk through the forest. It’s a beautiful autumn. Nothing is more peaceful than walking through a world this colourful. I’m rejoicing, enjoying the beauty both of creation and of my new friends. Tomorrow, I might struggle with discouragement again. I probably will. Yet God is faithful, and I will rejoice again as I allow myself to be renewed by His word and encouraged by His church.