By Mary Al-Akhdar
Just before we moved away from the U.S. to be expats for the first time, I stood on my front porch and observed the homes across the expanse of my rolling neighborhood. Brick fortresses, each with its front door closed tightly.
The years at home raising children, the many moves from one city to another, and all the feelings of isolation that go along with that, I never felt as an expat in Switzerland.
I struggle to put into words the why behind that fact. The U.S. has apartment living, which I had experienced. And I was a homemaker in Switzerland, just as in the U.S. But it was actually difficult to feel isolated in Switzerland, even if you were at home raising children.
My husband and I found ourselves enjoying our natural surroundings in Switzerland much more than we did in the U.S. It was part of the fabric of living. People with homes or apartments too small for gardens could apply for a spot of land in a collection of garden plots for rent. So even apartment dwellers could have a shed somewhere, pots, a trowel, soil and seeds.
I clearly remember a walk my husband and I took during our first spring in Switzerland, because it was the first time I was consciously aware of feeling integrated. We followed the little paved throughways between apartment buildings, littered with children ages five and under on their little trikes, wearing their helmets, mommies and daddies sitting on benches nearby with steaming coffees in hand. Narrow strips of landscaping featured blooming shrubs, lots of daffodils and pansies, heath and heather, along with a variety of terra-cotta pots newly prepped for seeds.
I said “Hallo” as I passed the neighbors, and they said “Tag,” which is like saying “day” in the U.S., or “good day.”
After leaving our complex and passing several small housing clusters, we emerged into farmland, passing pens of smelly cattle and horses ridden with pesky flies. Then came the little farm with fragrant fresh hay where you can drop off your money in a basket, put your empty glass bottle under the spigot for fresh milk, and leave your money in another collection basket to select fresh green apples from a stout, gray-brown barrel. Shopping on the honor system? A new experience for this American.
The sky was so blue that day, and the temperature 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought, “God is good with us.” This is a phrasing I am borrowing from my dear Swiss friend Margaret.
We decided not to follow the road out into exposed sunny terrain, but to return to the neighborhoods where I could chase down patches of shade cast on the road from houses. As we strolled up and down the little side streets among the homes, I could look toward the horizon at the end of each street and see the rolling layers of shades of lavender in the far distance. These are the mountains, the lavender getting lighter as each mountain receded farther behind the ones before it, until there remained only an ill-defined haze. I thought, if each day here reveals such pleasures, it is more than enough to sustain me. No need to vacation when you live in paradise – our little village of Oberwil, Switzerland.
In Switzerland, it seems that life is not compartmentalized into business, dwelling, and nature, into concrete and green. In fact, our apartment complex lawn service was not allowed to trim certain areas of vegetation until the wild flowers had bloomed and produced their seed pods. Although the tall creeping “weeds” in front of my bedroom window created sturdy green ladders for fuzzy spiders of all sizes to easily enter my bedroom, I loved the notion that these rules were in place to ensure plant diversity. I had never heard of this practice before, but I was struck with the Swiss stewardship of plant life. My apartment was not just my home; it was a biosphere.
And culturally, people appeared to instinctually know how the many could function as one, like fish that are shoaling. When the four-year-olds were on their way to school, the entire community was aware and cushioned the journey in safety. It was my very first week in Switzerland when I was surprised by this phenomenon – ever-so-young children walking all alone, obviously to school, shouldering small backpacks made in primary colors and wearing what I was told was the traditional reflective material around their necks.
I recognized this reflective material as something I had seen heaps of at IKEA. Imagine an Olympic gold medal, a necklace, except that it is not made of metal, but from wide strips of stiff, fluorescent yellow weatherproof reflective material, with a circle at the bottom landing somewhere close to the chest.
Over the years in Switzerland, I noticed the procedure for teaching young children how to get to school. The first week, parents would walk with them to show them the path. The second week, parents would walk a portion of the way and then stand back and wait until their child was far in the distance. And after that, the children arrived on their own, a concept that blew my mind during the entire first fall I lived in Switzerland. What was this safe environment? Could such safety possibly exist in this volatile world?
I actually held my breath all day for the children I initially interpreted as being in dire straits. But in time, the sight of young schoolchildren became a natural occurrence. I grew my Swiss mentality. I remember the first time I saw a city groundskeeper, dressed in khaki garb and also wearing reflective strips, stop his raking of crisp fall leaves to prevent a daydreaming youngster from stepping off the curb too carelessly. The community actually had its peripheral vision on high alert, nudging some youngster if a child were to suddenly look to and fro, confused. Such confusion prompted anyone nearby to turn the child in the correct direction for the community school. It was heartwarming, and in stark contrast to my memories of raising my own young children in the U.S., not letting them play in the front yard, only the fenced back yard, checking out the back window tirelessly.
And I should note that I observed the same kind of community on trams, another of many other cases of “shoaling.” Once when riding the tram home with my third-grader after collecting her from her school (vestiges of being American), my daughter fell asleep in the tram cabin as she often did. But on this one occasion, several elderly ladies in the cabin with us happened to notice a youngster sitting separate from anyone that might be a parent; I had taken a seat across the cabin from her because of crowding. My sleeping youngster became the object of great concern. Although I did not speak German at the time, I knew what the chatter was about. A sleeping child was not waking up, tram stop after tram stop, and each time the chatter grew louder. They wondered, is this child getting herself helplessly lost? What action should they take? Finally, one old-ish woman reached her cane out to prod my daughter. The old woman’s face looked tense and apprehensive, and I watched the cane lift into the air and travel to my daughter’s shoulder.
But that was my cue to jump in and motion that the child was with me, and they understood, with sighs of relief and smiles all around. So over time, I let my protective guard melt away. One summer morning, I woke up and did not find my youngest daughter in the apartment. She had left a note on my computer screen, knowing I would go there first thing with my coffee. The note said, “Dear mommy, I went to the flower farm to cut fresh flowers. Be right back. Love …” I spread the curtain to the delicious morning outside and just took in the warm sun on my face. How wonderful that my child could experience such a childhood. I was washed in gratefulness. To this day, our youngest daughter comments on the feeling of being compartmentalized in the U.S. – a feeling almost suffocating after a childhood in Switzerland.
Sundays in Switzerland were also a special day to feel part of a community. Few cars used the roads; no, Sunday was a time to go out and walk (not take in all the TV programming you missed during the workweek). Roads and paths presented a hardy sampling of neighbors: the elderly with canes or Nordic walking poles, young families with strollers, power walkers with fanny packs, and yes, joggers. Groups would collect along the pavement or dirt path during beautiful weather, which was understood as entertainment enough. My husband and I felt prodded to be outside, mark the seasons, meet a new neighbor, smile at babies in strollers, try to pet the horses at the neighboring farm while flicking the flies off our sleeves, and maybe cut some fresh flowers for the dining table, leaving a frank or two in the basket.
We always knew we would return home to the U.S. one day. Trips to the U.S. on holiday reminded me of the joy of large parking spaces, Wal-Mart, and the natural easiness of understanding the language being spoken around me. It was comfortable, like a well-fitted, soft glove. Visiting the U.S. reminded me of the ease of living awaiting my return.
But our last night in Switzerland, after we had packed our apartment, swept the floors and locked the door behind us, we had a final Swiss meal with the neighbors across the way. From their dining table, I could view the darkened windows of my little Swiss apartment, with empty walls and nail holes where my pictures had once hung. I ate the lovely meal my friend served me and chatted, but underneath the pleasantries, I kept my side vision on the apartment I was leaving behind. And when we left the goodbye dinner party, I crossed the grassy play area where my youngest daughter had spent her childhood building snow castles or kicking her soccer ball, never coming home from school without a plan for the outdoors.
Today in the U.S., although my husband and I enjoy our own brick fortress and large property, they cannot replace our beloved time living in Switzerland with people and blessed by nature. While the sun is up, I hold the memories of Swiss living at bay, but dreams are the great betrayer of the will. So at night, I ride trains over alpine peaks and alongside milky-aqua glacier melt in bubbling streams. At night, I am above the tree line, or in some verdant valley, a village with terra-cotta roof tops; I can smell the cows and feel the cobblestones underfoot, and I am filled with the longing to feel a part of something greater than myself, something more than my own slot in life. Now, when I see my American counterparts about, I feel a secret wish to whisper to them: “There is a small, beautiful land across the Atlantic … clean, integrated and thriving.”
© 2016 by Mary Al-Akhdar. All rights reserved.
Former college English teacher Mary Al-Akhdar is a dedicated writing coach and editor and a lover of the arts, her family, and the planet we live on. She adores the aesthetic experience, whether musical, visual, or written. She currently lives in Cary, NC, where she is carving out a life once again after repatriating from Switzerland.