I was at a wedding recently, sitting at a table with two guests who once fell in love. But their feelings changed, and after many years and three children, they parted company. Time passed. The children had children. At the wedding of their daughter, the two guests sat together again—still whispering, still giggling, still bickering. Their relationship was profoundly touching, like one of those Japanese pots that gets repaired with gold to become better than ever; a symbol of life in flux, the fading pain of breakage, and the strength that comes from healing.
An expat posting is also a love affair. It starts with anticipation. Long before you arrive in a new country, you dream of its landscape with all the giddiness of a lover. Its language will be the voice of your paramour—could you wake up each day to its unique melody? And you wonder what life would be like if you moved in permanently.
When I first arrived in Switzerland, to your charming city of Zürich, I fell for it hard. My husband travelled a lot in the early days, so I was alone to spend warm evenings beside the river Limmat. The glassy water was so clean that I found a spot where I swam against the strong current, getting breathless after a few minutes and walking home in damp clothes at dusk.
Our relationship developed at breakneck speed after that summer fling. You even managed, after years of my trying elsewhere, to give me a child. It was time to commit: we found a farmhouse, a fixer-upper in a tiny village perched on top of a hill. As so often happens when one is immersed in a new love, I let my old life drift away.
I didn’t miss it at first, but once babies arrived I surfaced, looking around for familiar things that would keep me buoyant: close friends, a career, my mother tongue. For six years, I lived on top of that hill while my love for you, Switzerland, began to plateau.
It’s hard to define a zenith moment, a single event or factor that marked the end of the upward trajectory. With the benefit of hindsight and physical distance, I can see that it wasn’t you: it was me. You didn’t change; I did. Motherhood changed me. It brought about a gradual dawning of our incompatibility. I wanted to work as a journalist as well as a mother, but childcare costs, your school system and the language barrier prevented me. The tiny village became a gilded cage.
So, I walked. And I wrote. These two activities became inextricably linked. And the landscape that felt like a trap opened a door on the inside: during those long hikes in the forest, with a baby strapped to my chest, I dreamed up a story about isolation and motherhood. About survival—literal and metaphorical. The novel flowed out of me like the current of the Limmat, and it was just as refreshing. I pushed against you, Switzerland, and because you refused to yield, I was forced into motion. Energy has to go somewhere.
Inevitably, though, discontent caused my eye to roam. When my husband suggested we visit pastures new, I agreed: we ran away to Singapore. She’s like you in many ways—petite, well-groomed, well-heeled—but, of course, she’s a younger model. How could I resist?
Time passed. Our babies became toddlers became school children. My story of survival became a published novel. I settled down with Singapore.
But like the two friends at the wedding who once fell in love, you and I, Switzerland, will always be bonded by flesh and blood: your name is stamped on my children’s birth certificates and their passports. You are part of them and, therefore, of me. Your minerals and pollens are fused inside our bones from all the times we swam in your glassy rivers and played in the spring flowers outside the farmhouse. Your forests are written on the landscape of my novel.
So, finally, I’m writing this letter to thank you, Switzerland. It wasn’t always easy living with you, but without you, I’d be missing the heart of my life: my children. And also a story that was born in isolation on top of that hill.
Ich wünsche dir alles Guet. Mit freundlichen Grüssen, Jo
Jo Furniss is the author of the best-selling survival thriller ALL THE LITTLE CHILDREN (Lake Union, August 2017). Originally from the UK, Jo is a former BBC journalist who has lived in Cameroon and Switzerland, and now resides with her family in Singapore. You can visit her at www.jofurniss.com