Six months in Switzerland, 1967

Casa Rosada  

The short flight from Pôrto Alegre to Buenos Aires was crowded that evening. We usually tried to occupy a whole row, six abreast, in the old 737s, but this time we were scattered over the few remaining aisle seats. Buenos Aires was cold and cloudy, like my mood after the all-too short visit to my parents. We visited the zoo (we got to know the zoos of at least ten different countries), walked around the old Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada, and broke the toilet in the ancient hotel. Let me explain: the toilet tank leaked. Robert, endowed with nerves tight as an E-string, couldn’t have a moment’s peace with the constant sound of running water, so he lifted off the porcelain lid to, hopefully, fix the leak. But, instead, he dropped the lid on the tile floor—not the first time we destroyed something to save it. We got away before the cleaning staff arrived next morning.

Monrovia, 2004

Two days in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, broke up the long flight to Europe and also took us back two hundred

years of human development. We thought Colombia was backward, but this was the real Third World. The clerk at the Pan Am counter handed us a voucher for a night’s lodging, even though the stop was our choice. We didn’t argue; a free night is a free night. Perhaps we would have gotten two nights courtesy of the airline, if we had complained. Arriving at the hotel, late at night with four cranky children in tow, a clerk herded us into a room with one large double bed. As they say about the US and England, we are divided by a common language. The official language of Liberia is English, but it took many exasperated gestures to get the message across to the blank-faced employee: we needed cots for four children in addition to the double bed.

Colegiata de San Isidro, Madrid  

Next day we wandered the dirt streets of downtown Monrovia. The merchants were primarily transplanted Indians; the locals loitered about smoking and drinking. I understand the natives resented the Indians for “taking away” opportunities, when in fact they were probably the only ones willing to work. At the hotel we bought eight 5¢ postcards. The clerk added eight fives by counting on his fingers.

Pan Am next took us over the east coast of Africa to Madrid. Robert had lectured me on proper garb—no pants for women, this is a traditional Catholic country. I planned on wearing the only skirt I'd packed. But I needn’t worry. Richard came down with a 103º fever, and I spent next day at his bedside. All I saw of Madrid was the expanse of red tile roofs from our hotel window.

Switzerland felt like home at last. By now we had spent a whole year in countries where food and water could not be trusted. Now we could drink the water and eat the salads. Elizabeth had flown into Geneva ahead of us and haggled for a special rate at a small, family style hotel, dangling the prospect of our lodging there for a minimum of two weeks. But a fully furnished farm house in Commugny, on the road to Lyon, became available for rent by the month, and Robert jumped on it. We took off after four nights. The woman who owned the place made very obvious her contempt for the chintzy Americans.

Laura, Carol, Richard. Villa le Sapin, Summer 1967

We enjoyed a wonderful summer in a plain, rustic, old Swiss farm house looking out on an expanse of countryside. It was called Villa le Sapin, after the hundred-foot fir tree that provided shade out back. Cows grazed close to the back door, separated from us by a barbed wire fence. The kids played in the fields and used a trough as swimming hole. The photo below was taken on a drive into the woods for a picnic. We marveled at Swiss picnickers eating by the side of the road, at a table complete with white tablecloth, crystal glasses, and bottle of wine.

Elizabeth with Eric, Geneva woods, 1967

Elizabeth spent three weeks with us before flying back to the US. She was responsible for the famous salty applesauce. After a morning of peeling and quartering apples fresh off the tree, with kids watching and helping—mostly watching—a couple of large panfuls of applesauce were ready for canning. Unfortunately, Elizabeth didn’t know any French, and she sweetened it with several cupfuls of “sel.” To throw it all out was pure heartbreak.

Deborah (Monica) in Commugny, Carol by Lake Geneva


That was a summer of endless thunderstorms. One afternoon, Robert and Elizabeth had taken the kids downtown while I stayed behind for some peace and quiet as clouds gathered for the show. Alone in the house, I found myself right in the heart of an electrical storm I’ll never forget. Thunderbolts came ever closer—how close can they get?—until lightning struck the tallest object around, our sapin tree outside the back door, with a mighty crack. My hair stood on end as electricity tripped several circuit breakers on its way through the house and my body. The cattle out back had gathered under the tree for shelter, a rather poor choice but I guess they didn't know, they were cows, not know for brilliance. Their gut was affected by either fear or electricity or both, and I watched openmouthed as in unison they emptied their bowels in a concerto of splats.


Villa le Sapin, Summer 1967 (photos by Elizabeth Wesson)

Geneva lived up to its reputation as the most beautiful, quaint and orderly country of Europe. The children guzzled fresh milk, packaged in soft plastic pyramids. There’s milk, and then there's Swiss milk. We drove by CERN, the world’s most advanced nuclear accelerator at that time. As fall approached, along with the beginning of the school year, we looked for another house closer to the American school, to the consternation of the owners of Villa le Sapin, due to be away for another few months. They really wanted us to stay, and we left with regret. Our new address was the remodeled servants’ quarters of a huge old house on several acres, Villa les Bessards.

Eric, age 3, Villa les Bessards

I got a taste of the irritating Swiss passion for order and control when we did a walk-through with the landlord, prior to moving in. He had us sign an inventory of everything that wasn't floor or walls, including plastic spoons abandoned in a drawer by the previous tenants. He called them “cuillères de fantaisie.”

As a child, my images of sparkling Switzerland had come from a stereoscope, those picture disks you insert in a viewer—I believe they still exist. Unfortunately, Father could never find disks for it, other than the three that came with the package. One disk featured Switzerland, including views of the 10,000-foot Jungfrau, and I spent many an idle hour peering through the stereoscope at the snow-covered mountain and making up stories about the people playing in the snow. Now was my chance to get to see it. I pestered Robert until he arranged a trip. We spent a weekend doing the Lauterbrunnen Valley in the Bernese Oberland by rail, including the unforgettable cog railway straight up the Jungfrau. It was uncanny to walk on the very same spot that I had so dreamed about, a view from the restaurant deck atop the Jungfrau.

Mont Blanc tunnel exit in Italy, Carol in Courmayeur

We took another, shorter trip by car to Chamonix and Courmayeur. Europe is great for how small it is. In one day’s drive, one can cross several national boundaries with different languages and currencies. The tunnel from France to Italy under Mont Blanc is a seven-mile straight line in the darkness. I began to hallucinate that I saw the end of the tunnel when we still had several miles to go. The tunnel builders (must have been the Swiss) measured so accurately, in those days before lasers, that they had met neatly in the middle. We walked around in the snow before heading back. Robert left his wallet at the customs checkpoint in Italy. We had given up on ever getting it back, but it came back in the mail, the cash untouched.

We nearly burned down Villa les Bessards. Our three rooms and den were heated by a coal-fired furnace in the basement. We figured we could save coal by using the fireplace in the den, and besides, it was fun and challenging to get hard coal to burn. Once it got going, a small pile burned hot and cozy (too hot, it turned out) and warmed up the whole house. One day I smelled smoke. The wood structure behind the fireplace, we found out, was smoldering, the smoke hanging in sheets in the upstairs apartment. The firemen, summoned by the landlord, viciously attacked our dwelling with their axes, repeating like a mantra, c’est assuré, it is insured. We lost the use of that room for the rest of our stay, as snow came in through the hole where the fireplace had been. Never tell firemen your place is insured. And never rent to the Wessons of California.

Eric soaks up autumn sun at Villa les Bessards

The three older children attended the American school until winter, and with winter came the end of our six months in Geneva. We would fly back to the States in time for the winter quarter at UCSB, but not before stopping off in Prague, West Berlin, Copenhagen, Malmö in Sweden, and again Copenhagen for our flight home.

We caused a small commotion as we arrived in Prague, a caravan of two adults, four children and several duffel bags. The customs clerk shook his head in disbelief. I think Czech families with small kids simply stayed put. But the ancient city of Prague offered great shopping, history etched on stone buildings pocked with bullet holes, and grim Soviet military on R&R milling about. From Prague we flew to West Berlin, the glitzy showcase of the West. It wasn't just glitz and brilliantly-lit shop windows that made the place magical for me—I will never forget the bells that rang every hour to herald Christmas, and the burned-out Gedächtniskirche (Memorial Church) standing watch over Kurfürstendamm traffic. We promised to visit again.


We spent Christmas '67 in a hotel room in Copenhagen. We had warned the kids that all this travel was their Christmas, so no presents, but they shamed us with gifts they had crafted in school. The city was almost devoid of daylight in this darkest time of the year, the streets coated in muddy slush. The tantalizing, inexpensive goods in store windows were out of reach, because we ended up spending two holiday weekends there and businesses were locked tight. In between, we took the airfoil boat to Malmö for a couple of days. Sweden was just then changing over to right-hand driving, and all the street corners were pasted with signs to look left before crossing.

I could have made a few bucks as a streetwalker in Malmö, like, I guess, many a Swedish freelancing housewife. I had walked out alone at dusk to buy food for our dinner in the room (we ate in the room a lot). A slow moving car pulled to a stop next to where I was waiting to cross the street. In a traveling frame of mind, I naively thought, this guy must be looking for an address. So I came up to the car window and said, “Sorry, I’m new here and I don’t speak Swedish.” The red-faced man with bulbous nose and greasy hair reached over, opened the door, and motioned to the seat, a broad smile lighting up his face: “No problem, I speak English.” I got back to the hotel in a hurry. I needed to throw up.

We flew back to California on New Years Day, 1968, more than ready for sunshine and warmth. Our flight took us over the North Pole to Seattle in nine hours, to go through customs and passport control before flying to LAX and home. Immigration was especially displeased at my stop behind the Iron Curtain. As a Brazilian citizen, who knows what sabotage I might have planned with the Czechs. Customs grudgingly let me through to join my five decoys. We missed the last flight to Santa Barbara and spent the longest night of our lives sprawled all over the plastic seats of the terminal. But, back home at last, I couldn’t get enough of the perfumed California night and the chirping outside the window. Crickets in January!

West Berlin

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