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.