This post was contributed by Till Kaeslin.
After a few months of eating too much cheese, drinking too much wine and “treating myself” to one too many chocolate croissants in Paris, I decided it would be a good idea to wrap up my semester abroad in Europe by biking through Switzerland.
Because surviving off of bread, cheese and wine for a semester really screams Tour de France.
Well, it wasn’t actually my idea – it was a friend of mine who I was planning the trip with who came up with the plan. I say “plan”, but I cannot possibly stress to y’all just how little planning went into this whole event. One day, while sitting in a cafe in Le Marais – our favorite district in Paris to hangout in – we were mulling over the idea of what we should do and see on our trip, when my friend turned to me and said, “What if we did the trip on bikes?”
And honest-to-god that wasn’t too far off from the final draft of our “plan”.
Now, you might be wondering, ‘Why Switzerland?” If you’ve heard rumors about the country being both extremely expensive and extremely mountainous, well they’re true … both of which were not throwing us a bone here in any way. On the other hand, the country is also absolutely choc full of breathtaking (and I mean literally breath-taking) views, as well as an even more breathtaking selection of cheese, chocolate and everything else your lactose intolerant soul could dream of, so if you’re considering booking a trip to Switzerland, let me tell you there are more than enough good reasons to shut up and go.
But that’s not the reason we settled on Switzerland as our end of study abroad banger. The real reason was that for all the amazing things we would do and see there (and all the mountains we would have to push our bikes up) this trip also meant I was going home.
Not going home to mom and dad, my brothers and my two furry-friends (all of which are in Connecticut), but to the place where all of those things almost were – the place where I was born.
Although my family left Zurich, Switzerland when I was just one-and-a-half years old for our globe-trotting-life, we could never truly leave Switzerland behind. It was my parent’s home for nearly 30 years, and aside from the two kids they took with them (that’s me), the rest of the family all stayed in Switzerland. All told, there is only one person from my parents’ life in the motherland who lives near us in the United States – someone who’s like family, and whose kids I’ve always just casually referred to as our cousins.
It’s not like I’d never been back to see my family or Switzerland at all. Since I can remember, we’ve pretty much been able to make it back for a week-or-so visit about once every two years – a massive privilege, I’ll admit (not only for being able to afford the trips, but also that we are freely able to do so – we all know many immigrants in the U.S. can’t say the same).
And although I’d basically just been with my family for our bi-annual week-long visit over Christmas, I knew immediately that I wanted to go back a second time before I left Europe. For the first time in my 21-years of life, I wanted to take the chance to visit my birth country without my immediate family; the chance to explore freely with my friends, speak my mother tongue (Swiss German) with people that wouldn’t (and literally couldn’t) settle for the broken “Swinglish” I spoke with my family, and to see everything for what it was with my own eyeballs only.
It was worth it – I can say that for sure.
I got the chance to get to know people I’d “known” my entire life – some of my family and some of my parents’ closest friends (who have always been like family). I walked with my cousin through the city I was born in, I laughed and drank too much wine (a motif!) with someone who knew my parents since before they were my age and I shared it all with my new friends (albeit sometimes through some stressful and rough translation … anybody who’s a translator reading this, my hats off to you).
I got to experience the good and the bad of some of the culture I was this close to growing up in.
I had to fend for myself against the Swiss brand of subtle yet devastating shade: I asked the waitress in a road-side restaurant if the Easter eggs set up on the table were meant for us to eat (her answer: A perfectly timed blank stare, followed by a simple, but cruelly effective, “Why else would they be there?”).
And I got to experience the equally Swiss branded small-town hospitality and stubborn determination:
My friends and I rolled up to a village in the middle-of-nowhere without a place to stay for the night and somehow ended up with a local lady who called her entire phonebook (yes, a physical book) and stopped her neighbors on the street just to help us find a place for the night (End result: Three comfy beds in a family’s refurbished barn-loft – what did we do to deserve her?)
When the whole trip was said and done, bikes returned and boarding passes in hand, I knew two things for sure – 1) My ass hurt like hell (the importance of some good butt pads on a lengthy bike trip CANNOT be understated), and 2) My heart (and camera roll) were as full as they’d ever been.
Although my passport would beg to differ, I don’t really identify as Swiss (or American, or any other nationality for that matter). My family left when I was too young to really anchor myself in the country at all, and since we didn’t really hang around anywhere else for longer than a few years at a time, I can’t really say I feel like I’m anchored anywhere else in the world either. And yet still I feel connected to my birth country in some way. It’s where my parents grew up, it’s where all their stories take place, it’s where all of my extended family live their lives today and it’s where people speak the language that makes me feel like I’m home.
To all my fellow first generation immigrants out there lucky enough to have the privilege and the means to visit your birth country: do it, and do it as often as you can. Try it without your family too, see what you can make of it on your own.
If nothing else, do it for those that don’t have the same opportunity to do the same.
You won’t regret it.
Meet Till: 21-year-old, new-New Yorker navigating post-grad life, figuring myself out along the way and writing it all down. Keep up with with him on IG.