YFU Switzerland

Walter, USA 1969/70

Walter spent his exchange year 1969/70 in the US. He is convinced that his exchange year opened many doors for him professionally and led to a better understanding of foreign cultures.

How did you travel to your exchange destination?

We were the first ones to go by plane. The Swiss group (I think we were some 20 students) met in Basel Hauptbahnhof. Together we took the train to Hamburg, Airport. There we boarded a chartered plane of PanAm together with a lot of other exhchange students. After an intermediate stop in Paris we flew to Detroit. Incidentally it was the first time I saw the sea – that’s how well-travelled I was.

How was is when you first met your host family?

We were “handed over” in Detroit airport to our host families. Apparently most of us stayed in Michigan. I cannot remember how the others got to their destination State. My family was there with two of their three children. We probably just shook hands and introduced ourselves. I had received pictures of them before, so I did recognize them. Dad then drove us all the way to Grand Rapids. It took us probably some 3 hours through the night. I cannot remember what we talked but I was wide awake and curious about what awaited me.

The first couple of weeks we stayed at their cottage at a little lake north of Grand Rapids (Big Browers Lake). I got introduced to American food – fast and slow – and the casual interaction with many neighbors. A far cry from the rather strict and reserved behavior I was used to in Switzerland of the sixties

What was your most memorable experience?

In the summer of 1970, after school was over and before I went back home, I took a trip with friends to Mackinac Island, at the upper end of Lake Michigan. It was the ultimate holiday experience. Good friends, summer, sun and an island with no cars but full of happy, relaxed people, playing frisbee for hours. I could have stayed forever.

How did you stay in touch with your natural parents?

We communicated exclusively by mail – and I mean paper mail. Except when I had arrived and I sent them a telegram. Phone calls were exorbitantly expensive, relative to my pocket money. I think it was some 15.- per minute. I sent a letter about every two weeks, on special airmail paper – and when it took longer, my mother would write me a worried note.
This very indirect communication had the effect that we really felt remote and separated from home. Sort of all strings cut. This certainly helped to fully and unconditionally immerse in the local culture and habits. Nobody spoke Swiss German, knew anything about the strange faraway country or cared for it at all. Except for the usual unommitting question “where do you come from”.

Are you still in touch with people from your exchange year?

My best American friend is Greg, the exchange student who spent some two months with us in Interlaken, before I left. We email and sometimes make phone calls. But every few years we see each other. Either he comes to Switzerland, or I meet him there; now in Boise, Idaho. In fact, when I had a professional “sabbatical” three years ago, I stayed with him and we had many good chats about life, then and now.

With my “step sister” I exchange emails from time to time and I pretty well know what goes on in the family. Some of my high school friends I have rediscovered on the web.

How did you spend time during your exchange year? What were your hobbies?

The usual routine: school, sports, going out together and a part time job at the local grocery store, as a „stock and carry-out boy“. As I am a lousy sportsman and had no money anyway I chose “track” for after school sports. This cost close to nothing and my long legs were a bit of an advantage – though not to the extent of bringing any victories. But I was never last.

Which national or international topic was in the news when you were on exchange?

It was the time of the Vietnam war with then President Nixon. The war was far away but the effects reached into every town and school. There were former high school students who had fallen in Vietnam. My step-sister dated a Marine who once showed up in uniform. The soldiers were drafted, very few went voluntarily. And the draft was by lottery. In the YMCA summer camp, where I worked as junior counselor, we had long and heated debates about the moral of this war. Many of my fellow counselors stated that they would flee the country, if their number were drawn – probably to Sweden.

Did you fall in love during your exchange year?

Not really. Many feelings actually were mixed, between admiration and critical distance to issues. And no, I did not fall in love with a girl; though I some of them I found very cute at the time 🙂

How did your exchange year influence your life?

Strongly, in my basic understanding that habits, behaviors, believes are a product of the local culture and not absolute. That there are many truths and many good ways of doing things. And that it is best to assume that a foreign thing is good, before I start to criticize or even try to teach about change.

And then of course speaking English fluently has opened many professional doors.