What goes down, must come up.

My last installment before we reach our island destination!

As fourth grade ended I said good-bye to elementary school acquaintances that I would not see again until we moved up to middle school in sixth grade. We were assigned our fifth grade teachers. I groaned to discover that I had Mr. Capizzi, a very popular teacher who I had hoped to have and whose class I would never get the chance to attend. Mr. Capizzi did make a special stop into my class to tell me he had heard about my elementary school sabbatical (a term which made me feel very grown up) and asked if his class could correspond with me during my time abroad. That sounded like fun. I would get to write one letter to the class and receive 21 in return!

With school and softball done for the year, we focused on getting ready for our trip. Our home in Geneva was a California ranch style home with 3 main floor bedrooms. The bottom floor had a family room, an unfinished basement, and an apartment where my Grandparents had lived since I was very young. My grandmother had passed away several years before, but my grandfather remained a very big part of our lives.  I was worried about leaving him alone in the house for so long. We also had an amazingly sweet German Shepherd/Husky named Siva (named after the Hindu god), and I didn’t know how she would survive for a year without our frequent games of fetch the Frisbee. But it turned out the house wouldn’t be empty. A new professor was being hired by the college and he and his family would be renting our house while we were away.  I was relieved that Grandpa and Siva would have companions. As my mother and I packed away the belongings in my room, we took the opportunity to get rid of any cold weather items that I would no longer fit into when I returned. “These boots are made for walking,” said Mom, “but not in the tropics!”

Getting to Sri Lanka was not going to be an easy trip for my parents who had to tote luggage for a year, a ten year old and an almost one year old. The many hours at the travel agency had resulted in a plan to break up the trip with a one week layover in Switzerland.  When my father was in high school, he and his sister had hosted an exchange student from Sweden named Christian. My grandparents had remained good friends with Christian, who had married a woman from Argentina named Kuty. Christian worked as a Swedish ambassador stationed in Geneva, Switzerland.  The couple had a daughter about my age, so I was looking forward to meeting them.  We woke the morning of our departure in early August of 1982 to find Grandpa had already eaten breakfast and checked the oil level in the car. He drove us to the Rochester airport, checking the tickets several times along the way. The Syracuse airport was also about an hour away, and more than one family we knew had driven to the wrong airport and missed their flight.  Despite my nervous energy, I fell asleep during the 45 minute ride to the airport so that, quicker than I had anticipated, I had to say a teary good-bye to Grandpa. Janelle was crying as well, but not because she understood the separation was longer than usual. She wasn’t feeling well and hadn’t been for a few days.  The diaper bag was stuffed with pain relievers, thermometers and teething toys. My parents hoped she wouldn’t be too fussy on the plane, and she wasn’t, but, by the time we reached New York and were bound for Geneva, we noticed a rash on her face and arms. My mother feared measles and wondered if they would let us into the country when we landed.

We had the bulkhead on Suisse Air flight 111. Years later, when I was in graduate school, I was scheduled to take that same flight number and route, JFK to Geneva, for a scientific conference in early September of 1998. I received a call from my airline that the flight number had been changed to 112. From news reports, I knew that flight 111 had crashed into the Atlantic.

The flight from JFK, like many flights to Europe, was overnight.  The almost one year old Janelle was not yet a good sleeper and wouldn’t be for some time. Because prolonged sleep by Janelle was such a rarity, my parents counted the number of times she slept continuously for six hours or more and the total by her second birthday was only 13. Because she was feeling sick and we were taking an overnight flight, my mother came prepared.  “Watch this,” said Mom as she pulled a small medical bag out of her carry on from which she pulled a syringe as she adjusted Janelle on her lap. Using the needle she drew a dose of Benadryl from a bottle. Holding the syringe upright she pushed the liquid through the needle until a small amount squirted out of the top. Passengers around us stared wide-eyed between the large needle and the baby and prepared for her inevitable cry of pain. My mom then calmly unscrewed the needle and dribbled the Benadryl into Janelle’s mouth. “Couldn’t you just use the syringe without the needle to get the medicine?” I asked. “Yes,” whispered Mom with a smile, “but that would be much less dramatic.”

When we arrived in Geneva, Switzerland we were greeted by our hosts and taken by car to their beautiful house on Lake Geneva in the village of Coppet. With a manicured garden that led to the water and stunning views of France across the way, the home resembled the Von Trapp family estate in the movie, The Sound of Music. Their daughter, Carolina, and I shared a room with a small window also overlooking the lake. Carolina was incredibly impressive to me. At the age of 9 she could already speak Swedish, Spanish, English, German, French and was learning Italian.  I told my parents that Carolina made me feel very plain. Our first night there I had dinner with Carolina and her brother at a small table in the kitchen while the adults visited in the garden. After we were finished, I followed Carolina’s lead. We said good night to the adults, who were not to eat dinner until about nine, and went up to our rooms, passing an elaborately set table in a formal dining room. It was a very traditionally European set up and I soon understood we were not to bother the adults for the rest of the evening.  Any bedtime concerns were to be addressed to the nanny. But Carolina did not intend on staying in her room.  She showed me the back stairs from the kitchen and together we walked into town and bought some amazing Swiss chocolate. To some passersby she spoke French and to others she instinctively spoke Swiss German. Without a beat –or a perceivable accent – she would easily switch to English. I understand that she married a Russian man, so I suspect she has added at least one more tongue to her repertoire.

After several days exploring Geneva, and one quick excursion into France by Mom and Dad, we traveled West.

“We took a few days to travel to Zermatt, in the Alps just at the base of the Matterhorn.  A real Swiss village complete with a goat herder who drives his goats up the main street twice a day – probably at the request of the chamber of commerce.” –Judith, August 14,1982

The vistas in the region were spectacular. The snow dusted Matterhorn resembled a jagged tooth poking from the grass covered foothills surrounding Zermatt. A Gondola ride to the base of the mountain gave us stunning views of the quintessential Swiss village below. Another day we bought cheese, meats, wine and bread from the village center, where some buildings were as old as 500 years. We took our feast on a cog train which carried us up over 10,000 feet into the heart of the Alps where we enjoyed glacial vistas and snow covered peaks while we picnicked with tiny wildflowers all around us. Again I expected Maria to appear with her guitar, as it reminded me so much of the scenery in The Sound of Music.  A bearded man in red blew an Alphorn and its sound sunk into the valley. The low tones reminded me of the small fire station across the street from my home which tested its horn each evening at six. When we paused to take a break he beckoned me to his side and I took a turn blowing into the traditional Swiss instrument, but I could not get a sound to travel down the long neck of the horn that seemed to be at least three times my length.  After a week in Switzerland I said good-bye to secret evening chocolate runs with Christina and we set off on the final leg of our journey to Sri Lanka. At the gate Christina and her family gave me a giant bar of Toblerone and the traditional European kisses on each cheek. That oversized bar had mostly disappeared before it was “safe for us to move about the cabin.” For years after I associated the triangular chocolate and the satisfying snap of breaking off a piece with air travel, and would search out the treat at airport newsstands.

Our seats were again at the bulkhead, and my parents encouraged me to sleep on the floor at their feet to make the flight seem faster.  As I lay on the thin airplane blanket and pillow I could feel the vibrations of the aircraft passing through the industrial carpet and into my body, seemingly concentrating themselves on my stomach filled with triangle-shaped chocolate. I didn’t last more than 20 minutes before I ran to the tiny cabin bathroom and got sick. Getting car, train, boat, and plane sick became a common theme on my Sri Lankan adventure.  In my parent’s correspondence with their families, the number of times “Johanna vomited” is written is almost comical. For the remainder of the flight I curled up in the seat, thought about what might await us at our destination, and didn’t get much sleep.

Two injections and one game ball.

Thanks for visiting again to hear more about my adventures as a young girl in Sri Lanka. This next installment is part of the “still getting there” set up, but soon I’ll begin writing about the island nation where I met presidents and elephants, so stay tuned!

My classmates were all up in arms. Clogs had been banned from the halls because, as Mrs. Peters had told us, the “constant clomping was distracting to teachers and students.” While the footwear controversy was the topic in the school lunchroom, at home our conversations focused largely on our impending year-long trip to the tropics. For me, the next few months were spent finishing the 4th grade, preparing for the trip and getting one of two reactions about our upcoming travel. My friends barraged me with questions. “Will you have electricity? How will you go to school? What do they eat?” One classmate asked, “Do they have bathrooms there?” “Of course,” I snapped, “I’m going to another country not another century.” But secretly she got me thinking. I had no idea what kind of situations my family would be enduring.

From adults I received a completely different reaction. “What a wonderful opportunity. You must be so excited! I bet you can’t wait for your big adventure!” I’d smile and say, “Oh yes. I can’t wait.” However, change to a fourth grader is scary and a year, which to an adult seems to slip by so rapidly, looms like lifetime to a ten year old – especially spending an entire year away from what you have always known. One late spring evening my parents hosted a dinner party with some of my father’s colleagues. These academics were squarely in the “This will be an experience of a lifetime” camp and I had endured their recounting of magical sabbaticals in Portugal, the Philippines, and Mexico all throughout the meal. I asked to be excused to go outside and play a bit on the wooden swing set my grandfather had built for us, before it grew too dark. The sun was low and, although the air was cool, the rubber swing seat still radiated heat . As I swayed back and forth I composed a song I entitled “Why me.” The lyrics were simple. “Why me? Why is it always me? Do do do do.” I was clearly not a great lyricist. Generally I was not a sullen child prone to composing angst-filled ballads about my life, but traveling abroad for a year seemed very daunting to me.

As school wound down in June our preparation efforts vamped up. My girls’ softball team was in the league playoffs and there were games and practices to fit in around trips to sit for new passport photos and various other administrative chores. I spent what seemed like hours at the travel agent’s office with my parents, challenging myself to see how many times I could spin around in the brown leather chair next to the agent’s desk before I felt dizzy, while Mom and Dad organized flights for the four of us and the college students. One Friday, we visited the college health office where we received gamma globulin and Tetanus shots. The shots were painful, but not a big deal; there was nothing else to do that night except rest up for the championship softball game the next day.

Our team, Malcuria Trucking, had been the little engine that could since the start of the season. We were a younger than average team with consistent base hits and a great pitching duo. My contribution was largely to stand at the plate, and present a strike zone so tiny that I would almost always draw a walk. I would then disappear into right field, an area rarely reached by hits from 3rd and 4th grade girls. Saturday morning, however, I woke with a swollen sore right arm and an achy backside. Mom helped me pull my red uniform over my head and indicated she thought the soreness would fade as I moved my arm. We were to face Mr. Twisty – the other team with pitching chops – but my arm remained as stiff as our team performance that day. My right field counterpart began the game. When I would usually sub in, the coach asked if I felt up to it and I reluctantly declined. “I’ll put you in for the last inning,” he said. As I sat watching the other team’s lead grow to three, I chalked up another reason why this trip to Sri Lanka was a huge pain. So I spent most of our championship game on the bench, trotting out to my spot in right field only for the final at bats of the other team. Although it was early June I was hot in my polyester uniform and felt feverish from the reaction to my vaccinations.

When Malcuria Trucking came up for its last licks, it was three up and three down in the bottom of the inning. With the last strike, the other team jumped for joy and celebrated their championship while we began to shuffle out of the dugout for mandatory good game salutes to the other team. Suddenly the young umpire waved her hands and called the coaches over. The Little League had a rule that all players must get up to bat before a game was official. Malcuria Trucking still had one active player to take the plate.

“Now batting, the right fielder, Johanna Bloss,” boomed the announcer as the coach explained to me that we still had a chance. If I got on base the game would continue until we got another out. “A walk is as good as a hit!” yelled my teammates. As the consistent walker I was used to this kind of encouragement. However, on this day, I really just wanted to quickly put an end to the angry stares from our opponents who were eagerly awaiting their celebratory ice cream party. So after taking one ball I swung at the second pitch. Much to everyone’s surprise, the ball zoomed down the first base line and into right field, where I am certain the right fielder was as shocked to see action as I was to have hit to her. “Is it foul?” I asked. “Just run!” yelled the coach, and I ran to second base before I heard him scream, “Hold up!” Twelve red shirted girls now clung to the dugout fence with hope that Malcuria Trucking might pull off a miracle. I would like to say that my hit started a rally that cost Mr. Twisty the championship that year, but the truth is the next batter struck out and the other team got their victory party after all. I did, however, get the game ball.

softball

“For swinging away despite a sore arm, and for good luck on her adventure,” said the coach. In addition to our second place trophies we enjoyed a pizza party! I have to admit that helped my arm feel a lot better.

Braces and Suitcases

In 1982, when I was ten, my family spent a year living in the island nation of Sri Lanka. I had many amazing experiences with ancient ruins, elephants, Buddhist nuns, jungle vistas and a few movie stars! Near the end of my adventures, the country plunged into a civil war that lasted 26 years. Now that the nation has stabilized, I am planning my first trip back to Sri Lanka in the summer of 2017 with my family. Leading up to our travels, this blog will chronicle the time I spent in Sri Lanka from 1982-1983 and some information and history about this wonderful country. My year on the island was a great influence on my life and because of the lengthy conflict that began while I was there, I am likely one of very few foreigners to have had such an experience in several decades.   I am sure the island has changed greatly since I was there 33 years ago, but I am excited to travel back to the place I briefly called home as a young girl.

Braces are the least of my concerns

4thgade_Johanna

Johanna – 4th Grade

Dr. Gringeri had probably told hundreds of children that they needed braces.  For me, a girl of 10, I’m sure the news would have been memorable from any source, but Dr. Gringeri  made it all the more unforgettable because he liked to sing opera to his patients.  Even pulling teeth, he happily sang to the music of the dental tools.  With his deep baritone muffled only slightly by his paper mask, he sang a rhyme about braces that impressively included the word orthodontist.  It seemed like devastating news to me.  Would braces lead to acne?  All the girls on my school bus with braces had pimples too.

I was having such a lousy day.  I’d been for a check-up at the doctor’s office just an hour before.   The doctor had said I was healthy.  On went the lights behind my x-rays hanging next to the exam table.  She showed my mother something about the spaces between the bones.  “I think she’s likely to grow no taller than 5 feet,” she said.  “So, I’d hate to see her get over 100 pounds or she’ll be chubby.”   As I heard the word chubby my gaze zeroed in on the full cheeks that bulged out from under her large green glasses.

Driving away from the dentist with my parents, it seemed like I could never get more annoying news than that just delivered by these two doctors.  The diagnoses of the day added up to a short, chubby girl with pimples and metal mouth.  I cried as we drove past the farmland I’d grown up with in The Finger Lakes.  My mother recounted the words of my pediatrician to my dad and made a sarcastic comment about the height and weight of the doctor which made me chuckle despite my mood. Mom and Dad exchanged a knowing look and told me they had some news that was sure to cheer me up.

My father was a professor of religious studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York.  I’d lived in the town at the tip of Seneca Lake with my mom and dad since I was just a baby.    A few months before, I’d become a big sister.  Janelle was 9 and ½ years younger than me and sat in the car seat next to me sucking on the strap of her jacket.  Dad explained that his recent meetings with professors from several other colleges across the Northeast had resulted in the creation of a new study abroad program in Sri Lanka. Students from any of the colleges could apply and participants would travel as a group with a professor from one of the consortium members.  As one of the key founders of the program my dad explained he was tapped to be the first person to lead the program.

“How long will you be gone?” I asked.

“That’s what we are so excited to tell you,” Mom said.  “Your father is due for a sabbatical, so after the program ends he can take the semester off from teaching and do research. We’ll all be going there together and staying for the whole year!”  An expectant pause followed during which Mom and Dad had I guess anticipated I would shout, “Hooray!”

I was stunned.  I could not believe my parents would think this was good news. I’d heard of Sri Lanka before.  My father had traveled there with some other professors setting up the program in the tiny tear drop shaped island off the Southern coast of India.  A third world country!  I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant, but I was sure that it sounded worlds away from my friends, from Girl Scouts, from piano lessons, from my grandparents – from all the things I knew.  My parents had spent time in India before I was born.  I thought it was exotic that I’d almost been born in a mysterious far away country. But to live in such a place?!  I thought of the stories I’d heard of my parents’ time in India.  I didn’t think of their stories of the beauty of the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains or the friends they’d made.  My head swam instead with tales I’d heard of dysentery.  Of the time my mother had seen worms in a patient’s throat as she inserted the intubation tube.  Of the lepers that begged outside of the temples in Agra.  Now, being a plump shorty with braces seemed like the least of my concerns.