Basel

During my four years in college, I only did the spring break thing once. I never went to Ft. Lauderdale or Cancun with a group of giggly girls in search of hot, tanned dudes. Girls at U of D and I never did seem to get along, so I wasn’t really included in their giggly groups.

My spring breaks usually consisted of a blissful week in New Jersey where I would chow down on my mom’s awesome cooking, hang out at a museum or two in New York City, and lay out on a lawn chair in my backyard. I’d usually head back to college with a better tan than anyone in my dorm.

Who needs Cancun?

But one year, my sophomore year (we’re talking 1984), I took the most fantastic spring break trip imaginable. That was the semester I was studying abroad in Vienna. We were required to vacate our pension rooms for that week, so staying in town wasn’t an option. Other students sharing my European semester made plans to go here or there – many opting to travel to Greece or Dubrovnik.

Me? I was heading to Switzerland. Basel, to be exact. My dad had set it up before I left. Some distant relative, or one-time resident of my father’s hometown in Czechoslovakia, had moved there and was doing very nicely. I was to go stay with him and his family. I’d never met these people before, nor heard of them. I just know I was supposed to go and live with them for a week.

How uncomfortable does that sound? I was going to live with perfect strangers, but in Switzerland! To visit such a magical place I was willing to squirm for a day or two.

I remember the train ride through the Austrian countryside. The train would stop at in these breathtaking little towns, and I’d wonder what it would be like to live there amongst all that green with majestic mountain views? Growing up I had the New York skyline to marvel at, but this…it was just so beautiful.

I remember when we crossed the border into Switzerland the train was stopped and passports checked. Some poor woman who was trying to smuggle some Vodka got caught, and her choice was to pay the duty or surrender the booze. I watched as the conductor poured the contents of 3 bottles out on the track. What a waste.

When I finally arrived in Basel I was both excited and nervous. I was worried these folks wouldn’t show up and I’d be stranded on the train station platform with bad German and a teddy bear sticking out of my backpack. But the Kalla family was waiting for me, greeted me warmly and took me back to their apartment.

The first day was awkward. Their sons, Robbie and Rado, had school and the parents had to work. So I was left alone in their apartment. I remember reading, sitting on their balcony looking at the city, and eating numerous portions of buttered bread. I couldn’t help myself. The bread was just so good.

One day I ventured into downtown Basel on the trolley. The city was beautiful, filled with old world charm, cozy, narrow little streets. I remember I bought a tank top that had a houndstooth pattern on it – yellow and black – and the label had a drawing of Marylin Monroe on it. I wore that thing for years and years.

I remember seeing “Terms of Endearment.” It was in English with German subtitles. I roared with laughter at things Jack Nicholson said while the entire theater remained silent. I guess the phrase “bug up your ass” doesn’t translate well, even when good old Jack is delivering it.

Another day the family took me to a small town in France to go shopping. It was just over the Switzerland border – looking at a map, perhaps it was Saint-Louis, but I can’t be sure. I do know I was thrilled because I was in France! Shopping! In France!

It seemed as if the family just integrated me into their life that week. If they had to go somewhere, they just took me along. I’m surprised the father didn’t bring me to his office one day. But it was all great. It was Switzerland – everyplace they took me to was fantastically beautiful.

The mom had to take a class one day for her work, which meant we had to travel on the train to Lucerne. I was game – it was better than sitting in the house eating buttered bread. When we arrived she bid me farewell and gave me a time to meet up to head back to Basel. I was going to roam/explore the town on my own.

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One look at my surroundings and I was giddy with delight. Pinching myself, sheer and utter delight. Have you ever seen pictures of Lucerne? Well they don’t do it justice. I sat along the river on a clear, sunny spring day, swans floating by, Alps in the background. It was the kind of scenery that made your breath catch in your throat. I know I shed a tear more than once.

Picture 7That afternoon? I was fairly certain I was one of the luckiest girls on the planet. I had one up on all them Ft. Lauderdale gals. Hell, I had ten up.

I spent a lot of time with Rado, their youngest son, and his friends that week too. They took me along on whatever excursions they had planned. I never participated, I just sat and enjoyed the scenery. Once day they went windsurfing – I didn’t (and still don’t) know how, so I just laid in the sun, read my book and enjoyed watching the water.

Another day we went dirt biking. We drove to a place in the country where there was a dirt pit with all sorts of trails. While they were doing their thing, I sat with my back to the dirt and looked at the countryside. It’s an afternoon I’ll always remember.

I was reading some odd science fiction story about a guy who came up with the cure for the common cold with dire consequences. I gazed at the hillside across from me and the little valley below. Small white cottages with red roofs dotted the landscape, and I thought, “people live there.”

While my home is a white 3 story four square in Leonia, New Jersey, these folks live in the Switzerland countryside – scenery that could be on a postcard or in a movie. I half expected Maria VonTrapp to run past with all 7 children in tow. That scene where they are on the mountain getting ready to learn their Do-Re-Mi’s? That’s what this scenery looked like.

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My week came to an end, and I boarded the train back to Vienna, with hugs from the Kalla family and a bag full of sandwiches. Salami and butter. It was one great spring break.

I go back there every now and then. Not on a plane or anything, but there are times when I am sitting in the car, or waiting in line at the store, and I’ll think of that hillside, green and lush and so incredibly picturesque, and I am really there. 19 years old, thin, tan, and having the greatest adventure of my life.

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