We had already been in Switzerland for five and a half weeks and, even though we couldn’t have been more frugal, our money was nearly gone.
It was early August and Mommy, my sister and I had been staying at a chalet in the Swiss Alps for two weeks. We subsisted on diet of white bread and jam for breakfast, a Cornet ice cream cone for lunch and white bread with jam for dinner. We were so busy going from one exciting place to the next that sometimes we forgot to eat altogether. Mommy would have seen that as beneficial and perhaps consciously decided not to remind her two girls that we entirely forgot about dinner some nights. She was trying to stretch our depleting funds.
Earlier that year, in the spring of 1986, Mommy asked my sister and I how much money we had saved up from our newspaper routes. We discovered that, with some additional sacrifice (i.e. no more trips to the candy store!), we would have enough money to pay for our very own Lufthanza flights to Switzerland. This was no small feat since I was only 11 and my sister had just turned 13.
Some would wonder what kind of harebrained idea it was to go on a 6 week trip to Switzerland without sufficient funds. I’ve often wondered that myself. My mother looked at the world differently than most. Where others saw dead ends, she saw opportunities. This particular opportunity presented itself when, two years prior, my Oma died (my mother’s mother by adoption) and she left a small but useful amount of money as an inheritance. To my mother this money meant only one thing … travel!
Mommy had a friend named Hedy in Switzerland whom she had gotten to know as a child at the refugee camp in Germany when she was 11 years old. She was a nurse, now retired. Mommy called her up and suggested we could come for a visit. If Hedy had known how long we planned to be in Switzerland, I wonder if she would have agreed to open her home to us. If Mommy was being true to her style, she probably left that little detail out. Six weeks was ambitious and probably best not to mention casually over the phone. That would be a little surprise for later. Our trip was planned for that summer.
Coincidentally, this happened to be the same summer Daddy moved out of the house. At the time, in my 11 year old brain, when we finally returned home from our six week hiatus, his absence seemed like it could have been an accident or a mistake. Maybe we were gone too long and he got lonely and moved on or something. Later, I would put the pieces together to discover that it was all part of a plan called “The Divorce”.
Hedy, the Swiss nurse, lived in a town called Ostermundigen, a suburb within walking distance of Bern, the capital of Switzerland. Four weeks into overstaying our welcome at her home, Hedy, our head-strong and militant nurse-host, was clearly growing weary of her Canadian guests. Soon thereafter, we had an incident.
“The Incident” involved her kitchen table, a lunch of rubbery fried liver with onions and one 13 year old girl in a full-out battle with our nurse-host. The more my sister choked on the liver, tears spraying out of her eyes, the more Hedy continued to shove it down her throat. Hedy won the battle with one final aggressive maneuver, grabbing my sister’s face with two hands and forcing her jaws to chew the liver.
Soon after “The Incident”, we were delivered to a mountainous village in the Alps (called Adelboden) and offered a two week stay in the lower level of a chalet. No charge. Mommy felt that she’d hit the jackpot, even though, technically we had been kicked out of Hedy’s place. My sister and I were elated to be rid of our nurse-host. I’m sure the feeling was mutual. It was just the three of us again. No Hedy now, but also no food. A fair trade, as far as us girls were concerned.
When Hedy drove away in her car we did as were were told. We smiled and waved. But not with feeling.
There was much to explore in Adelboden, the only catch being that we now had to get there on our own two feet, no matter the distance. The luxury of car had also disappeared with the nurse-host.
Mommy had heard about a woodcarver (Trummer Woodcarving) that seemed worthy of the 3 hour round-trip on foot. We embarked on our pedestrian journey after breakfast. After a tour of his amazing handcrafted woodwork, we girls had our hearts set on finally getting a souvenir! I picked out four wooden napkin rings for the family. The woodcarver was personalizing them with a wood-burner by adding our names to each. Just as he was about to do the fourth ring, Mommy stopped him. “We’ll only need three”, she said, returning the fourth ring to the shelf. Later I would understand this was a clue. A foreshadow of our future life.
Near the end of our stay in Adelboden, Mommy suggested that we visit a waterfall called Trümmelbachfälle. This waterfall has equivalent power to Niagara Falls with one very big difference … it’s inside a mountain!
On our way to the falls, we passed through the village and caught a train to the village of Lauterbrunnen an hour away. (I wonder how we afforded a train ride and sincerely hope that we didn’t dodge the ticketmaster!) From there we headed down a very long asphalt road on foot, in direction of the falls. The road was shiny under the hot August sun. My sister and I filled our plastic canteens with icy alpine water flowing from a small brook. The glacier water seemed extra refreshing in our parched throats.
The flowing water and the rocks along the edge of this little brook transported Mommy back to a time in Eutin when she was 8 years old. At a brook just like this one, she would sit on a rock and wash her feet at the end of each day. One time, her boot slipped into the water and sank straight to the bottom. For the rest of that winter she went barefoot in the snow and ice. Hearing her tell this story, I was once again grateful for all that we had, especially for my shoes! I loved it when she would tell stories of when she was a little girl in Germany. She loved it too.
Bouncing our rubber balls along the road and singing German folk songs together, we had so much fun walking to Trümmelbachfälle we hardly noticed our exhaustion. My sister and I chewed squeeky sweetgrass picked from the side of the road. Eventually we arrived at the entrance to the falls when Mommy noticed one small problem. The admission was awfully expensive. She hadn’t counted on that.
We had journeyed too far and too long on a very hot day to just turn around and go back. Mommy, unflinching, had a solution.
“I’m going to walk over to the nice man at the ticket booth and I want you girls to just wait here for me. When I wave to you, smile and wave back to me. Make sure you look cute.”
No problem. We knew exactly how to do all of that. Especially the “look cute” part. My sister and I were experts.
We watched as Mommy walked over to the man and waited for her to give us the cue. We smiled and waved just as we were told and few minutes later she returned with a huge grin on her face. “I can’t believe he just took a cheque from me! In Canadian funds, too! Well, girls, let’s go on in!”
The waterfall turned out to be one of the most fascinating things I had experienced at that point in my life and still ranks pretty high on my list. We were blown away by the beauty and the force of the water which twisted and turned inside the mountain. Rainbows were everywhere, hanging in the mist. The guide explained that the glacier water was melted snow from three of the nearby Alpine mountains (Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau) and had been filtered by a ga-zillion rocks on it’s way down. I took pictures with my little camera and stood as close as possible to the railing to feel the spray of the water on my face and the rush of deafening sound inside the cave. We yelled at each other over the thunder of the water, saying stuff like “This is so cool!” and “Wow! Look at that!”
Mommy was pleased. She had done it again. There we were, feeling like queens in the heart of Switzerland, inside an alpine mountain, experiencing nature in the most dramatic way we could’ve imagined … all on a tiny inheritance and some newspaper route money.
Walking away arm-in-arm-in-arm, Mommy was still reveling about her luck at the ticket booth and said “I guess they’ll find out later about the rubber cheque.”
“Mommy, what’s a rubber cheque?”
Arriving back in Canada, I spent my last few dollars on a candy necklace at the airport concession stand. Mommy’s wallet contained a single twenty dollar bill.
As it turns out, that twenty dollar bill was all the money she had left in the world. Period. She had held onto it in case we needed a taxi to get home from the airport. The bank account was empty and the credit cards were maxed. Soon, we would be opening the door to an empty house, but our little hearts were full to overflowing with visions of wildflowers and rainbows.
The trip to Switzerland, the chalet in Adelboden, the falls, even the three napkin rings (which I still have!) … for all of these things that my mother gave to me, I love her still. She didn’t always follow the rules and she didn’t always make sensible decisions, but we girls sure had a whole lot of adventures!