Canadian redhead in a Swiss marching band
Heather Conn, Roberts Creek B.C.
You wouldn’t believe it but there are quite a lot of Canadians who harbour sweet memories from a stay in Switzerland.
And sour memories, too, depending on the wine they consumed there.
When you are lucky enough, they come out of the closet and confess having had a whale of a time in good ol’ Switzerland.
Heather Conn (54), a journalist and writer, was sweet seventeen when she arrived in Neuchâtel, a picturesque town in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
First, she did not want to go but her father wanted her to travel and learn French. There is a Canadian college in Neuchatel, the Neuchatel Junior College.
Have a look at the school’s website: www.njc.ch
Heather stayed there for the 1976-77 academic year, taking the equivalent of grade 13 curriculum in Ontario, where she originally is from.
One month after her arrival, Heather thought: “What if I had missed out on this opportunity!”
I think it is safe to say that her year in Switzerland was a life-changing experience.
Heather loved to be one of the “Neuchies”, as the students at the college called themselves.
And she savoured “all the new discoveries, taking the train to school, living in a Swiss-French family, being in the middle of Europe, the sense of history in Neuchatel, the cobble-stone streets and the old buildings, hearing everybody speak French.”
“I got my love for the mountains from Switzerland”, she adds.
Of course, this seventeen-year-old enjoyed her freedom away from home. “On Friday nights, we sometimes went to the disco. That was the first time I heard the Swedish pop group Abba.”
Heather stayed with the same Swiss family her sister had lived with five years before her. Heather still raves about how good a cook her landlady was.
Of course, she fell in love with a Swiss guy (how could she not!). He was the trombone player in the marching band where Heather played clarinet.
“Jean-Claude did not speak one word of English”, she says, “so we spoke in French.”
Well, I always say if you want to learn a language, get a local boyfriend.
But the Swiss-Canadian connection can be dangerous! Some weekends, Heather went with Jean-Claude and his friends to a beer garden. “By Canadian standards, I was drinking under-age”, Heather says, “but in Switzerland, it didn’t matter.”
When you are in an area full of vineyards, it is kind of difficult not to drink any alcohol. And it is natural that wine-tasting is part of the Swiss culture the students were acquainted with. “At first we were allowed to taste as much wine as we wanted during one visit”, Heather remembers. “But some of the students got a little bit out of control, so they limited that.” But they still had lots of fondue.
The Swiss influence did not end there, though. On school outings, the students traveled all over Switzerland, from Lucerne to Locarno. And they went skiing in Gstaad and Zermatt. “The skiing was amazing”, she says, “I had never experienced this deep powder snow – and the chalets were idyllic.” And of course they were introduced to Raclette, the table grill with melted cheese, and Alphorn music.
Heather also caught a glimpse of some inter-Swiss stereotyping. “I had the impression that the Swiss French made fun of the Swiss Germans for being slow. When there was a slow driver ahead of us, they said: He must be a Swiss German!”
But for her, the Swiss French seemed to be more uptight and conservative than the French in France.
Heather traveled to other countries “because everything is so close: Italy, France, Germany, Holland, Spain, Morocco.”
Having a Swiss boyfriend, Heather decided to stay over the summer. She worked as a waitress on a tourist boat that cruised three lakes: Lake Neuchatel, Lake Bienne and Lake Morat.
But it did not turn out as she hoped. As she did not see much of her Swiss boyfriend, out of the blue, she returned to Ontario/Canada. Ten days later, she traveled to Vancouver where she was born but had never lived.
A teacher at the Canadian college in Neuchatel had convinced her that the University of British Columbia and its student newspaper were the right places for her.
After she had seen the mountains in Switzerland, she could not live without mountains anymore!
That is the risk that one takes when one travels to Switzerland. You might want the same stuff here, too…
Here are the Can-Swiss Quiz questions for Heather Conn:
What gift did you bring home from Switzerland)?
I didn’t bring home any gifts except photos. I received a wonderful gift from my history teacher in Neuchatel, who advised me to go to Vancouver for university which turned out to be a blessing because there are mountains like in Switzerland!
What Swiss product do you miss most in Canada?
I miss the wonderful fondues and Raclette, and open-faced fruit pies. I also miss the fete des vendanges and the sound of the cow bells in the countryside. It’s not a product, but I miss the easy access to so many different countries when you’re in Switzerland. Everything is close and available by train. In Canada, you can travel for days and still be in the same province or country.
Which are the 3 qualities you cherish most in Swiss men or women?
I don’t think you can generalize. My Swiss boyfriend had a wry sense of humour and appreciated the ironies of life.
Which are the 3 qualities you cherish most in Canadian men or women?
Again, you can’t generalize. A much higher percentage of Canadians travel the world than Americans, and I appreciate that eagerness to explore.
What triggered a culture shock for you in Switzerland or Canada (in one sentence, please)?
All the cars in Canada seemed obscenely huge when I returned from Switzerland. The size of everything – homes, shops, etc. — seemed overdone and unnecessary compared to those in Switzerland.
Which Canadian or Swiss personality fascinates you?
I’m not aware of any Swiss personalities who fascinate me. I enjoyed reading the story “Heidi” when I was growing up.
I’ve always wondered why Shania Twain chose Switzerland as her home. Of all the countries she could have chosen, why that one and why in Europe? Also, I believe that the Canadian actress Gillian Anderson, who used to star in the TV show X-Files, makes Switzerland her home. Again, why that choice?
P. S. Have a look at Heather’s website and blogs:
Heather Conn is a free-lance editor.
Heather is the author of the childrens’ book “Gracie’s got a secret”.