Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
This was not to be, as I had hoped, a trip with some kind of inflated meaning about the immigrant experience in Canada or the connections we have with our ancestral lands. Expectations, I discovered, sometimes get in the way.
My grossmutti, my brother Matthew and I had set out from Toronto for Switzerland to retrace the steps of a Second World War love story that brought my grandparents together.
In the summer of 1946, Johanna Fluckiger bicycled from the Emmental and headed south into the Alps and over the St. Gotthard Pass. She was on her way to a summer job as a hostess at the Ponte Tresa resort before training to become a United Nations translator. But, and there always is a but, a young Dutchman showed up in town. Leo Tummers had gone from the Dutch resistance to a Nazi labour camp, escaped, and then lived under a false identity in a monastery. Ponte Tresa offered more than bright blue waters and alpine sun; it offered a new start.
Leo would eventually charm his way into becoming my grandfather. They moved to Canada and, 65 years later, you have my generation. It's a Canadian story that has as many variations as there are families in Canada.
We drove straight to Sigriswil (40 kilometres southeast of Bern) and gathered on the terrace with our extended family. The heat was exhausting in the noon sun and my eyes wandered down slopes of blue plum, apple and grape and across the hazy blue waters of the Thunersee. On the opposite shore, the ancient castle of Spiez lay at the foot of Der Niesen, a lonely mountain known as the Pyramid of Europe.
Over lunch I fumbled through German while my brother drank Feldschloesschen lager and my grandmother told everyone our plan for the next nine days.
One thing that separates Europeans and Canadians (other than the belief that bread should be edible) is the fact that a kilometre is much larger in Europe, psychologically speaking.
So when we told our Swiss family that the next day my brother and I would breakfast in Fribourg, mountain bike in France and dine in Montreux, they were in awe.
When we told them Grossmutti and her twentysomething grandsons would roadtrip through four cantons, two countries and every ancestral place in the Emmental, including the eighth-century hamlet where our earliest recorded ancestors originate, they were incredulous.
But in the end, there isn't much to say about any of the family landmarks we visited. The Ponte Tresa resort where Grossmutti had worked was rebuilt and the sombre town unrecognizable from its past of crowded cafés and promenades lined with palm trees. Grandmother's birthplace, from 1795, was torn down for a pigsty. Her childhood home in pastoral Juchten was now owned by a middle-aged man renting the upstairs to his ex, while he occupied the rest of the house with his young Indonesian wife and their five-year-old son. A marijuana plant grew in the backyard.
Grossmutti put it best, "There are some places you can never return."
During those 10 days with our grandmother, my brother and I found something quite different than a simple and straightforward family history.
I first noticed it when she pointed out a rare alpine Columbine to us during a lunch stop at a kasserei, or cheese shop, on the scenic Susten Pass in the Alps. The flower wasn't the only thing growing amid the mist and wood smoke; this trip, I realized, was about rejuvenation, not revisitation.
The year before, her health had been waning and her mobility poor. This trip had been postponed indefinitely. But now, whether it was the youthful company, revisiting her early memories or a random act of biological grace, Grossmutti seemed 20 years younger.
From the kasserei she had us detour to the nearby glacier, where she encouraged my brother to longboard down the road while we followed and filmed him from the car.
Four days later we were on a logging road in a remote part of the Emmental. The car was hopelessly stuck in the mud. Grossmutti said we needed a miracle to get the car out and I suggested that the miracle might be finding a farmer's tractor. As the three of us walked down the valley to look, she waved the pine branch I'd cut for her as a walking stick. "Get out of the way," she said, pushing my brother aside.
And maybe that's just it. Get the past and the expectation out of the way and start living a completely new history. Where you're from isn't all that important, and where you're going doesn't matter that much, either. It's how you get there that makes your story.
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