Posts Tagged 'Switzerland'

Swiss memories

We drive, daily, along many supermarkets of the national chain Migros. This too brings back many memories from my childhood vacations in Switzerland. I remember how, in the 50s, Dutch yogurt (plain only) was delivered in liter or half liter glass bottles, predating the tetra packs and plastics of today. But in Switzerland at that time you could get small containers (waxed cardboard with pastoral scenes, plastic later) with fruit yogurts. I remember the excitement of going shopping and selecting the flavors.

Switzerland was also the place where I got meningitis. It was 1961 and the end of the school vacation. We stayed in a rented chalet on a hill and above an ice cold brook.  The headaches started a week before we were supposed to return. They got so bad that I couldn’t tolerate even the slightest sliver of daylight, the curtains drawn all day. My mother, a medical doctor, recognized this was not an ordinary headache.

I was admitted to the hospital in Einsiedeln after being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis. My mother got a room in town. She sat outside my window, reading or knitting. Because I was highly infectious she couldn’t be at my bedside for the first few days. For that same reason I had a six bed room all to myself.  When my father and brothers left to return to Holland at the end of the school vacation they could only stick their heads around the room and wave goodbye.

My most vivid memories are the three-times daily penicillin shots in my bottom (I screamed each time at the top of my 10 year old lungs) and the sweet rolls and lukewarm tea which made me nauseous. I handed these to my mom through the window. I developed a penicillin allergy, probably because of the mega doses, that also may have saved my life.

The hospital was run by nuns and was a first (and only) experience with nuns, having been raised protestant. I was intimidated by them and tried to avoid them as I could. I refused to call for assistance when I had to pee and did so in the sink at times the nuns where least likely to come in. I did this with great trepidation because I imagined that being discovered would unleash a fierce reaction.

After the penicillin had kicked in and my piercing headaches were over the experience was not bad. I had nearly died which was interesting and gave me a good story. I got to fly back to Holland, in a noisy Swissair Caravelle airplane and was waved goodbye and given flowers by the family where my mother had boarded. When I arrived home my brother Willem had decorated a slide of brown bread with sprinkles, lined up around the edges in the shape of a heart, and ‘welkom thuis’ written in the middle.

And then I got to go to school, which was already in full swing, and got a seat in the front of the class, with the instructions from the doctor to be gentle on my brain, which I interpreted as ‘not think too deeply.’ I remember struggling with that advice, straining not to think while thinking hard about how to not do that, an impossible task. Now I wonder, diid the doctor really say this or did my recovering brain made this up?


There are more memories from my 3 month stay in Geneva, after my marriage with Peter in the winter of 1975. He was so excited about his new job at UNHCR and busy with his orientation. When we drove by the headquarters on Monday, on our way to ICRC’s headquarters I realized that he never took me to meet his new colleagues and see the inside of that building that would be his anchor in Europe for years to come.

While he was away I roamed the streets of Geneva, bored out of my mind and very unhappy, having given up my former life as a psychology student and a highly coveted internship place at a prestigious family therapy clinic in Leiden. We stayed at an international place catering to foreign students, a high rise on Rue des Paquis, with tiny apartments with just the basics for living: two small burners for cooking, to small rooms with  narrow twin beds, and 2 cups, plates, saucers, forks, spoons and knives, 2 pans and sets of flimsy towels. Downstairs was a cafeteria where I would take my meals, feeling lost in a crowd.

I bought a bike and explored Geneva until I had covered each centimeter of the city. Soon I had visited all the musea, watched all the movies, but such lonely excursions just made me more depressed. A Czech refugee who also lived in the place took me under her wing once she discovered that I was a fellow, albeit not quite legitimate, psychologist. It was thanks to her that my last few weeks in Geneva were bearable. She took me along to a lecture by Jean Piaget at the university of Geneva, and other classes. Watching Jean Piaget in Geneva and meeting Anna Freud in London are still one of the highlights of my early psychology days.

Eventually I returned to Holland after Peter left with his best friend, by car, to Beirut. This was to have been our honeymoon but Beirut was no longer a family post and spouses were not allowed. At least, that is how we both took it. Thirty three years later, when I was posted in another non-family post, I realized that we probably could have gone together, with me unofficially, and paying my own way. I think I cried all the way home; and then I was back in Leiden, picking up the thread I had dropped earlier.  Now, looking back, I can see that the marriage was doomed, already then.

Wet bear

Because of the 2016 Auto Show in Geneva all the hotels in and around Geneva were booked. We managed to get an AirBNB apartment for the three of us for our first night in Geneva.  After that we had to go far away to find beds for ourselves and the 13 ICRC folks who had flown in from far and wide. We are lodged at the outskirts of Lausanne and are bussed, every day, to the ICRC training center at the other end of Geneva, a one hour ride.

Our hotel sits forlornly between highway overpasses and parking lots. It is betting on a big stream of tourists to, what will be, the biggest Aquarium in Europe, according to the writing on the wall that separates the hotel from the unfinished aquarium shell. The brandnew hotel is all aquarium-themed, including its name, Aquatic. The colors are blue and turquoise; the pictures above the beds are backlit aquarium pictures, as if you have part of the aquarium right in your room. My colleagues have calm pictures of water with or without fish, but I have a picture of a giant bear, its snout prominently displayed above my head and small pieces of organic material (salmon?) floating in the otherwise clear shallow stream. The bear is submerged, walking on the riverbed, looking for things to eat. It is rather creepy.Aquatic-bear

The ICRC training center is located in an old cloister on a gentle slope overlooking the lake, surrounded by apple orchards and vineyards. The white topped mountains of the Swiss and French Alps form a seductive backdrop, bringing back memories of ski adventures in my teenage and young adult years.

I have been taking advantage of the gastronomic delights of Switzerland: cheese for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a variety of forms: ‘raclette,’ fried little ‘tommes vaudoises’ (the pungent local cheese) with a crusty outside and runny inside, rösti, yogurt, and Bircher muesli.

February 2019
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