The First Week: Vignettes

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been in Switzerland for a week this Tuesday.

I could say that the week has passed by in a blur, but that wouldn’t be quite accurate. The week went by quickly, but I remember the days clearly and have vivid recollections of the moments that make up the hours:

When I was going through the Zurich airport, there wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of disorientation like I’ve had in the past in other foreign countries. Perhaps airports are becoming familiar to me, so much so that it doesn’t matter where I am. I could be anywhere and still follow signs to get my luggage and get out.

The jetlag is different for me each time, but this was a few concentrated bad days before things evened out. While I’m still not sleeping through the nights, I no longer feel like falling asleep during the day. In the past, the nine hour difference was a source of tears and exhaustion, but now I am able to find some humor in it. The following illustrates my thought process of my first night here:

At 8:30 pm: “So tired….bed. Shower? Bed…tired.”

At 3:00 am: “While I don’t know how I feel about the lime green accent wall, the room itself has very good feng shui.”

At 6:52 am: “Why couldn’t I sleep more?”

And I feel like my body and I are just not on the same page. If we use some anthropomorphic personification, the conversation might go like this:

Body: Wheeeeee! It’s time to get up!

Me: No, body. It’s 3:00 am. We’re supposed to be sleeping now,

Body: But we’re hungry. It’s dinner time. Why don’t you go upstairs and eat the rest of that shish kebab you couldn’t finish last night?

Me: No. In a few hours it will be breakfast. No shish kebab. Now go to sleep.

Body: We already slept. It’s dinner time. We’ll sleep later.

Me: I’m giving you a fair warning. I am not going to let you sleep during the day. No sleep until the evening. If you stay up now you’ll make it worse for us later.

Body: Lalalalalala. I can’t hear you…

Luckily there are good cures for jetlag. I’ve been walking a lot (because it’s Europe and I walk everywhere), but on Friday some friends invited me to go outdoor rock climbing with them. We took a train to a neighboring town, and I was surprised at how picturesque it was: vineyards, backyard vegetable and herb gardens, colored shutters, pointy gables and flowers in window boxes. When I commented on the town’s beauty and expressed my desire not to be jaded by such consistently gorgeous scenery after a year, my friend (who had lived here before) smiled and said that I wouldn’t be jaded; I would just come to expect it. We hiked partway up a mountain (that the Swiss would call a hill) until we got to the rock face.

I can’t even begin to describe the sense of exhilaration that came over me when I reached the top of the route and looked out over the town, the lakes, and the distant mountains. When I climb, everything else disappears—the exhaustion, the stress—all gone. Conquering that route made me feel like I could do anything, even spend a year learning a new language away from my friends and family. Leaving is always so hard, but arriving can have moments of sweetness and triumph.

Would that it could always stay that way. After a few days of excitement and wandering around beautiful scenery, I came to the realization that I’m living here and that this isn’t a vacation. I need to learn French, and I need to speak it in order to do everything. It may sound stupid, but one of the hardest things for me right now is buying food. I know it will get easier, but for now, grocery stores (which close on Sundays and after 6, who knew?) are overwhelming. I can’t find what I need, and when I do, I can’t always read the trilingual labels well enough (in German, French and Italian) to know what is what. So my little kitchen is pitifully stocked, and I still don’t know where to find peanut butter. The challenge is almost enough to make me not want to cook at all, but after one of my successful shopping trips, once I got the ingredients in my hands and was chopping onions, mincing garlic, and stir-frying vegetables, I could relax in the familiarity of the movements and the routine. Tomorrow I don’t have class, so I will make an expedition to the grocery store and will be making dinner.

Today was our first day at school, mainly getting to know each other and taking placement tests. There are about 60-70 people representing 40 different countries. I love the international environment and am excited to learn French with these people. The professors all seem nice and like they genuinely want us to succeed. Apparently instead of choosing different classes each semester, we take the same classes for a year. I imagine that helps with overall mastery, but I’ve never done that before and hope that I don’t hate my subjects by the second semester.

Everything is new. I’m still shell shocked and learning my way around in a new city, a new culture, and a new language. There are days when I feel like I don’t get it. But I know that it’s important to be patient and to take in everything I can. My head might explode, but I will love every minute of it.

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