It was the Thursday before the Friday of Christmas break of my sixth-grade year. The skies were overcast, as usual in Oregon, and it was late afternoon. Already you could see the twinkling of colored Christmas lights that donned a number of the roofs in the neighborhood. I was over at my best friend’s house under the guise of working on a group project, but truthfully was more interested in playing video games and avoiding my family’s Thursday tradition of fried chicken from the grocery store deli.
We went through the motions of opening our book bags and reading over our respective homework agendas, talking out loud about how much we hated science and math, complaining about the new pieces of music we were supposed to practice over the break, gossiped about the mean girls who bullied us and the saga of my forbidden yet mutual like-liking of Greg Winslow, and more or less lamented that being eleven years old was the worst.
After getting so far as putting my name on my pre-algebra homework, we both decided that this was boring and that there was no harm in vacationing early. My friend made a quick call, and we abandoned our schoolwork to cross the street into a stately looking home with fine Christmas decorations and the sort of furniture you’re not sure if you’re supposed to sit on. The downstairs basement had been converted into a sort of rec room complete with a big screen television and foosball table. I recognized one of the boys as another sixth grade student from a different class, and upon our hellos I realized he recognized and knew a lot about me. He and one of his brothers were already seven levels into a game, but promised to start over with us when they beat level eight.
In those days one had to patiently wait one’s turn for the video game controller; if your friend’s Mario had several successful levels, your Luigi took up knitting or basket weaving or something else to pass the time until your turn.
So I played with a massive orange cat named Milo for a few minutes, enjoyed a couple of brownies their mother brought down awhile later, and eventually found my way to the downstairs bathroom – which almost felt like a hazardous mission as it was clearly for three teenage boys.
As I stepped out, I was nearly bowled over by the oldest brother, I think he was 16 or 17, who quickly scrambled up the stairs only to return thirty seconds later with his arms full of what looked like granola bars, fruit snacks, and a box of Frosted Mini Wheats.
I heard Christmas music blaring from his bedroom and briefly glanced inside to see piles upon piles of clothes, books, accessories spread across his bed. In the center of the room sat a duffle bag that appeared to be designed to inconspicuously transport several bodies.
He quickly glanced up at me with a polite, “Oh, hello,” and started the process of loading some of the piles into the bag.
I shyly greeted him in return and let my curiosity span the social chasm that keeps eleven year old girls from interacting with boys who look like they’ve already started shaving.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
He stopped packing and turned toward me, face wrinkled to one side, his brows lifted as his eyes took on a glint as though he was about to tell me some grand secret he could not wait to share. He said slowly in a very proud voice, “Switzerland.”
I remember images of A-frame Alpine huts laced with snow, St. Bernards, and cheery, rosy-cheeked folks dashing about on skiis flashing through my brain and thinking that it was just some place I had read about in Social Studies. The name and images that came to mind made me think it more Disneyland than a country… Oh yes, now I remembered, Switzerland is a country. Yes, that’s it.
As if on cue, his mother popped into the room tossing him a little satchel she instructed him to wear at all times around his neck, then produced a small blue booklet that she waggled in his direction with stern words about how very important this document was…
It was a passport.
I had never seen one before. A few of my teachers would often talk about travel and every now and then my grandparents would go off on some vacation and bring us back souvenirs… oh yeah, they went to Switzerland and sent me a little Velcro wallet when I was eight years old, while they were in Europe. Switzerland is in Europe…
He’s going to Europe! But… he’s just a kid! And a normal kid at that!
It existed in my brain for a long time that overseas travel was reserved for millionaires and television. No one like me, no teenager, could ever do such a thing, especially without their parents.
It’s hard to explain, but I almost felt excited for him, and ventured more questions.
“Do you speak Swiss?” I asked.
It made sense at the time. One doesn’t travel to a country unless they speak the language, I thought. They speak German in Germany, French in France, Chinese in China… and cheese made in Switzerland is called Swiss Cheese, there was a little girl on a chocolate box called a Swiss Miss, and my dad had a Swiss army knife… obviously it was a way of describing the culture.
He just rolled his eyes. “They speak French. That’s why I’m going.”
I remember feeling terribly stupid, but I couldn’t for the life of me take my eyes off the bag. He packed and unpacked and repacked several times and all the while I asked him other questions about how long he’d be gone, if he was nervous about the long airplane ride or sad that he wouldn’t be home for Christmas.
“My group is spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a medieval castle,” he grinned.
Oh gosh. Wow.
I sometimes wonder if he wanted me to leave, but he answered all of my questions. I think there was something he liked about being able to share about an experience he was honored to have.
And when he zipped up the bag the last time, I remember feeling in my stomach that I wanted to go to the exotic land of Switzerland, even if it meant I had to learn French and become a millionaire.
It was dark when I came home. The night air was crisp and smoke from a few chimneys meeting the waft of decayed leaves affirmed that it was winter. Soft crystals of what just might turn to snow clung to my brow, and I could hear my neighbor practicing O Come All Ye Faithful on the piano as I passed their house. I dragged my feet up the steep drive and was grateful no yelling was bouncing in the breezeway. The door was unlocked, as usual.
My intention was to walk straight to my bedroom at the back of the house, but that meant passing my father who was engrossed in a new game on the computer. I was rather certain he didn’t even know I wasn’t home.
“In case you were wondering, I was at a friend’s.”
Dad nodded and didn’t even bother looking up.
“Also…” I paused dramatically…” I’ve decided I’m going to Switzerland someday.”
I watched him stab a fanged squid with his magical dagger a few times with a few curses under his breath. In fairness, the game was captivating.
“They have cheese. And knives,” he said flatly as he hurled some flames at the monster.
And that was that.
I started down the hall, but backed up enough to hear him to chime in once again.
“Swiss chocolate’s supposed to be good, I think.”
I noticed a couple of dimes and nickels on the corner of the desk and quickly pocketed them in hopes he wouldn’t notice, and then shut my bedroom door behind me. I dropped my bag in a corner and wasted no time in taking down a little wooden box from my shelf in which I stored things important to me. I had to smile upon opening it as I found that silly little wallet my grandparents had sent me – I didn’t believe in signs, but it was an encouragement that perhaps this dream could become a reality one day.
Twenty two dollars and fourteen cents sat at the bottom of the box.
I never earned allowance as a kid so the few dollars I did have were from joint lemonade or cat-sitting enterprises as a kid, selling some of my junk at the annual cul-de-sac yard sale, and what I found on the playground during recess. The cash was originally purposed for an emergency escape fund for when I finally chose to run away or, if I was feeling optimistic, the beginnings of a fund for law school.
But as I dropped in the 35 cents I had swiped from the desk, I formed a new goal: owning a passport.
This was exciting – going, leaving, packing up and blowing this popsicle stand for days, weeks, months, however long – it was an adventure and getting ready for it was fun and good and what I wanted. I swore to myself that I would travel.
When I got sick about a year later and my life fell apart, I had to change my goals a little bit – mostly because I was certain I’d never make it past my 21st birthday. Surviving the day had become my priority and I gave up on a future that involved living a normal life or experiences that didn’t consist of feeling confined to my bedroom and living in constant pain and anxiety. Travel was definitely out of the question, especially to anywhere overseas. Besides, it was expensive… and even though I was able to get my life back on track by the time I hit my mid-teens, I was both broke and flat out rejected by the high school’s travel program to England, France and Spain because the lead teacher said I’d be a burden to the group with my asthma… those were her actual words.
At 17, I almost proved my young self’s prediction in never making it into adulthood, but the failed attempt to end my life transformed into a new lease on it, and I was going to be a success, I just knew it in my heart. And even if I never left the USA, my great adventure would then be my road to becoming the district attorney of Multnomah County – another goal I had formed at ten years old.
When I got to college, a good number of friends from my youth were starting on their own grand adventure: marriage and parenthood. In my community, and particularly for the girls, this was considered the natural next step in life. I already felt like an outlier choosing an education that I knew would go beyond my typical four year BA. I was going to be a strong, confident and successful career woman, but in so would have to sacrifice my ability to relate to most of the girls I grew up with.
Well… that is until my boyfriend, who, despite our attending different universities and working hard at long-distance relationship, was under the same societal expectations of having a ring on his finger by the time he graduated, started the conversation about marriage a few weeks into my sophomore year.
I was deeply conflicted.
On one hand, I thought he’d be my only chance; I wasn’t really the type of girl who made dating a normal part of life, so I just assumed he was the one and only that would ever come along. I was already considered a late bloomer and I hadn’t even reached drinking age, and I didn’t want to miss the ship others said had finally come in. I wanted to be like my friends back home, to do the ‘normal’ life. And I did love him. Perhaps not quite enough yet to love on the scale of a wife… but we had been friends for a long time, so I at least had a platform to jump from, and I figured we could grow into the sort of deeper love that I knew I was supposed to fall into at some point.
On the other hand, I was also falling in love with adventure – something that I decided I would fill my college years with because, well, once I finally did do the traditional marriage and ‘normal’ life I’d probably be less likely to ever really do. Besides, when else are you going to have long weekends and breaks and summers off to explore and take chances and build memories? I used college as a base from which to try new things (for the record, not the new things many of my university friends were trying). I went outside of my comfort zone and started to push the limits of what my poor lungs and stubby legs could do. I went on retreats and trips around the country with the university newspaper staff, I braved a three-day kayaking trip on the Columbia, tried cross country skiing, learned how to camp and hike. And I road-tripped with new friends who were also aiming to become strong, confident, career women.
But it’s worth mentioning that part of my foray into new hobbies and travels was, in large part, because of my other love.
Two weeks after suggesting we start seriously considering marriage, the love of my young life called, told me to sit down, and confessed that he had not only met someone else, but had been seeing her for the last four months. No need to do the math.
I’ll be honest, there were tears shed. I think I was more in shock than anything, though my tears turned to anxiety that I’d never be loved again and then anger that life wasn’t making sense. Though my relationship with God was still rather fruitless and self-focused, I slid off my bed in the middle of the night, lay face down on the floor, and told God that I needed a new direction and that I wanted Him to not only be the fire under my feet to make it happen, but ultimately the goal of whatever I was meant to achieve next.
The next day I walked into the International Studies office, took an application for Study Abroad, and grabbed a program guide for every single program they offered.
Switzerland was not on the list.
Because my language skills were poor and, at the time, my interest in Asia was nonexistent, I focused my attention to Britain. In my eyes, London was London, not England, in the same manner that New York City or Los Angeles are not the USA but their own culture separate from the rest of us.
Wales, though… with four million people and twelve million sheep, it appeared that I could get away with English but not suffer the culture shock of living in a metropolis. I would likely be one of only a few Americans at the university, making it truly a unique experience. I could go for as long as I wanted (and I wanted a long, long time), and they had a special program for international students to travel and experience the culture extensively. Best of all, no one had ever heard of it…
My application was completed promptly, my letters of recommendation requested, and arrangements with my advisors made to complete a history certificate while abroad.
There was little discussion on the matter aside from mutual excitement from three of my dorky friends who were planning semesters in Australia, Scotland and France, and a little encouragement from an older friend who had done the same program I was interested in the year prior. I didn’t even tell my parents about it.
The new plan was to get the hell out of Dodge. I would forget about my broken heart, reject the ‘normal’ life course of family and settling down I felt pressured to follow, and start what I truly believed would become the beginning of a life full of rich memories and experiences that were beyond compare.
Two days before Christmas break, just as I finished my last exam, I went by the mailroom and found the precious letter I had been waiting for.
I had been accepted.
I wasn’t a millionaire and I had never learned French, but exactly nine years after I discovered Switzerland, I was given my first real chance to explore the world – another country I wasn’t sure really existed – and find out what God had for me as I started a new chapter overseas.
There was no turning back, and what happened after was not only one of the greatest experiences of my life, but the first of many that would only become more exceptional and incredible and wonderful as my story would take another unexpected turn in the years to come.
But those are stories for other days.
Today’s the story of how an eleven year old girl made a promise to herself that would form the foundation for a lifetime of adventures with God across the planet, and the first steps toward that great journey that I’m still very much on.
It just looks a little different.
And who knows, maybe one of those days I’ll make it to my Alpine dream.