The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I flew halfway around the world and landed in the middle of a perfectly cloudless day in Zurich, Switzerland. It was my first summer away from my parents, the first time I remember leaving the U.S., and all I had to go on was a picture of the two people I would be staying with – Albert and Angelina, – and two years worth of the most basic German under my belt. It only took me about 15 minutes at the airport to realize that all the German classes in the world would hardly help me as the Swiss, naturally, speak Swiss-German. A dialect of sorts that proved to be faster, harsher, filled with rolling r’s, and far too much for my jetlagged brain to handle. If the rest of my summer had progressed much like those first few minutes in Europe did, I would have been crying tears of joy upon landing back in San Francisco two months later. Thankfully, they didn’t.
Of course, there were still misunderstandings abound, beginning with but not limited to me apparently telling someone that I was perfectly okay with him sunbathing nude next to my towel, and my first few days felt more like a giant game of charades than anything else. But sometime between bridging the language barrier and discovering the endless stock of Luxemburgerli chocolate and Appenzeller cheese that my surrogate parents kept in the fridge for me, I fell hopelessly, irreversibly in love.
Both Albert and Angelina worked on weekdays, so more often than not I would board a train and make my way into the city; camera at the ready and map waiting patiently in my bag. With no tour guide to direct me and no plans to restrict me I simply wandered – stopping at stores that caught my fancy and indulging in slices of pizza or a banana split whenever I got hungry. I spent hours meandering through the cobblestone streets of the city, drifting through the Swiss National Museum, or hiding out in a play structure when a sudden bout of rain decided to shower down in the middle of one of my walks. One day I began walking in a direction I had never gone before, and when I started to get tired and wanted to head back to the central station, I realized I had no idea where I was. Somehow, I didn’t freak out like I’m sure I would have had I still been in America. I didn’t even take out my map. Instead, I looked up and found the position of the sun and figured out which way was west, then headed in the direction where I guessed the river would be. I eventually got to it, but still didn’t know exactly where I was, so I looked down to see which way the current was going so I could figure out which direction the lake was.
On my last day in Switzerland I saw a boy sitting on a bench looking at a map. I wished I could tell him he should leave the map and let himself wander, or that he should go have lunch at the lake, take a boat ride to Mount Rigi, get pie at Hauser in St. Moritz, or a chocolate croissant at the train station. I wished I could tell him to treasure every moment that he had there, and not to take an inch of it for granted. I know I enjoyed every second that I got.
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