November 20, 2020 | Narrative
au revoir, switzerland
twelve years of memories in geneva
Winter was the worst time to move.
That was what I thought, trailing close behind my parents as they walked through the looming black gate. We stepped into a courtyard boxed in by three-story buildings with washed-out walls; at the far end, bare trees framed the edge of what I was later baffled to learn was a Greek theatre. In what world was this considered a school? The imposing scenery bore no resemblance to the long, low buildings and homey colors of the school I’d left behind in North Carolina. I looked to the ground, intimidated by the incomprehensible vastness of this “campus,” and grew even more afraid that I wouldn’t fit in. As if changing schools in January wasn’t enough, I was also being abruptly catapulted into middle school.
Swaddled in the thickest jacket I’d ever owned and fitted in clunky snow boots (both of which were foreign to North Carolina, where temperatures rarely dipped below freezing), I felt as swollen as a balloon and moved with all the dexterity of a bowling pin. Even then, the wind gnawed at my face, unbearably cold. I’d almost decided that European winters were horrible, when I noticed the mounds of snow piled to the edges of the courtyard—the most I’d ever seen in my life. These were mountains compared to the mere whispers of snow that I was used to during NC winters. The piles looked grisly: browned slush and ice, a far cry from the marshmallow softness that graced my Japanese picture books. But, as I experimentally nestled my boot atop this mountain, I was awed by the way it glinted with the light, a quiet promise of future White Christmases in Switzerland.
When I entered high school, I crumbled under the pressure to commit myself to something—so I joined the track club. That fall was a string of sunset afternoons running grueling laps through a grove of pines, always failing to notice the dirt that clung to my legs until my mom stopped me from coming into our apartment. My stint on the track team ended when, that winter, I participated in the yearly Escalade run, a two-mile affair that ended with me clutching onto my mom while dark spots jittered through my vision. That was a tiny wrinkle, though, ironed out by the festivity of the Escalade: Geneva’s annual celebration of triumph over Savoyard invaders.
As I stumbled through the sloping Vieille Ville streets, fighting down the taste of copper, I thought of escalade, French for “scaling walls.” I envisioned my own struggle through the eyes of the Savoyards, who were prevented from scaling Geneva’s walls because one woman poured hot vegetable soup on their heads. Slowing to a walk, I wondered: If running the Escalade was the invasion, where was my saving grace—my hot soup?
I found my soup eventually. Roaming the grocery store next to my apartment, I came across a pyramid of boxes, a bunch of marmites proudly on display. These were chocolate cauldrons embossed with Geneva’s seal which, when cracked, spilled out vibrant marzipan vegetables. In year six, my class had flocked around the innocuous marmite; as was tradition, I, the youngest, jointly took hold of a paper towel roll with the oldest in the class and slammed it into the pot. Not the best of weapons, seeing that the marmite didn’t crack; but, when we eventually shattered it, I was warmed by the rich chocolate taste seeping onto my tongue. No use buying one now, though—no one wanted to eat the marzipan anyways.
I’d never thought of myself as kin to water, even though my dad’s hometown is built around a shrine that worships one of the many Shinto sea gods. I often forget how much my family is “of the sea”; I was even surprised to learn that sometimes my dad would commute home by boat instead of bus. Geneva’s public transit boats are a tacky yellow, so low that they look like they could sink at any moment; on board, with their erratic rocking and water lapping at the windows, that fear appears dangerously close to reality.
Basking in the freedom of summer, my friends and I headed across the dock bordering Lac Léman, the lake at the heart of Geneva, to the rental hut. “The motorboats have already been rented out,” my friend lamented. All that was left was the yellow boat’s cousin, a pedal boat of the same garish color. The rental worker pushed us out into the water and we pedaled, little by little, as far as we could go—a yellow inchworm traversing the vivid blue water. We stopped only to feel the undulations of the boat as the water rippled around us. The rev of a motorboat, the chatter of tourists, the laughter of people sunbathing on the beach—the harmonies of Geneva’s summer were lost out on the lake. I watched the outlines of the algae, their dance exposed in the mid-afternoon sun.
I refused to jump into the lake because I was still a little scared after, some summers ago, I’d inhaled lake water through my nose. But from my tiny boat, I laughed as I watched the ducks plunge themselves, tails-up, into the water for a drink, and I laughed even more when they flipped over to bob back into place—as they should be. On the lake, heat shimmers made the world blindingly bright, and the burn of the sun against my skin made me feel alive.
At Faunce, I gave my name to the International Orientation committee and received a lanyard in return. Boldly printed under my name was my “home”: Switzerland. Self-consciously, I hid the name tag in my palm; after several days, I shoved my ID into the plastic sleeve so no one could see it anymore. I was tired of explaining how “I’m actually from Japan, but I live in Switzerland” as if that wasn’t already an abridged version of my confused cultural origins. I was even more embarrassed by this proudly-printed lie: After all, there were bound to be people here who were actually from Switzerland, right?
In answer to the inevitable where-are-you-from’s, Switzerland was tacked on like an afterthought, a feeble attempt at explaining why I pronounced croissant the French way, or why I liked meat medium-rare. I didn’t like to consider how Geneva was the place I’d spent most of my life; for me, a UK citizen by birth and Japanese by blood, it was impossible to make sense of the hold that Switzerland had on me—a country to which I had no claim. Yet I couldn’t ignore the familiarity that had bloomed in me over the past 12 years: The walks through bustling streets, the smooth glide of a tram, the picnickers sprawled across the grasses of the neighborhood park, the outdoor ice rink set up as soon as it was cold enough.
Last March, I’d been longing for Geneva, even before Brown sent us away due to the pandemic. When we were told to “go home,” I fooled myself into thinking I would choose to stay in Providence when I’d long ago decided that I needed to go back. I still can’t quite explain why, waiting for my luggage at the Geneva Airport conveyor belt, I had to choke back tears.
My last vision of Geneva would have been the stretch of pavement between our apartment and the grocery store, had we not been running out of rice. As it was, my dad and I made our way to the other side of the lake to the Asian market. On our way back, we cruised past the lakeside: Lines of trees, the dock, and the water to our left, hotels and restaurants to our right. Approaching the bridge, a massive jet of water materialized across the lake. It curved into an arch, too tall to fathom, and cascaded downwards, a rainbow glistening where the light hit the falling stream—a beacon against the Geneva sky.
And, nine years old again, I shouted: “It’s the Jet d’Eau!”
Several days later, I boarded a different kind of jet and sailed into the open air—an anticlimactic goodbye, the end of my life in Switzerland. This coming March, when my parents return to Japan permanently, there will be no more paths to lead me back: No visa, no cozy apartment, no family to welcome me. But, even as I lose the right to say “I live in Switzerland,” there are things I’ve received in these past twelve years that have seared their place into my memories. In the quiet moments to come, maybe when the snow winks with light or the water ripples with laughter, I’m sure I’ll think back to the day I first caught a glimpse of you, Switzerland—the peak of Mont Blanc from the airplane window—and how I couldn’t possibly have imagined how much you’d give me.