My first visit to Switzerland was the biggest culture shock of my life (to that point, anyway), but not in the way I might have expected.
The trip had been organised for the local Girl Guide group which may not seem all that unusual. Unless you count the fact that I was not actually a Girl Guide, I was a 10 year old boy who had been shoehorned into a bus loaded with hormonal teenage girls.
In fact, I don’t actually ever remember agreeing to go on the trip. I don’t think I was asked. I was just bundled into the bus like a piece of luggage by my Mum early one morning. I suppose she thought she was doing a nice thing. I guess she was doing a nice thing, just one that perhaps wasn’t overly well thought through.
I also suspect that she thought it would be good for her sullen, introverted and slightly odd son to go on an adventure with a group of slightly older children. I wonder how many of us who have suffered with depression since childhood have parents who tried to snap us out of it by carting us around from place to place, with different groups of people, hoping that we would suddenly become as they thought we should be? Hoping that we would ‘fit in’.
Anyway, my babysitter, a chain smoking tyrant named Eve* was also the resident ‘Brown Owl’, leader of the local girl guide group. I think they must have been short of adult supervision for the trip, all of the parents seizing the opportunity to have a week off from the teenage drama and angst that must have dominated their lives (drama and angst seeming to have been the height of fashion in the 90’s for any self-respecting teenager).
So, due to the lack of available troops my Mum had been conscripted into service by Eve. As my Dad was a stubbornly ‘old fashioned Man’ (his words, not mine – I prefer ‘conceptually challenged’) who would be living off beans and toast for the week had absolutely no idea how care for his offspring, I would need to be dragged along too. And of course ‘It would be good for me’.
It took forever to get to Switzerland, and the bus trip was hell. Well, it was actually more like a battleground. Chewing gum flew around until it got stuck in hair. There was an unofficial competition to see who could kick the back of the chair in front of them the hardest. Notes were passed around until they inevitably found their way to the one person they weren’t intended for. ‘Smelly Susan’, ‘Greasy-Gemma’ or ‘Nit-haired Natalie’ would immediately have the expected fit of histrionics before turning the offensive messages into tightly screwed up missiles of paper to be launched at the suspected author.
A cacophony of noise built to a crescendo about halfway through the trip. Argument over argument over argument fought to be the loudest until Brown Owl Eve ordered the bus driver to pull over in a layby. She threatened to turn the bus around and cancel the whole trip unless everyone calmed down. I didn’t think it likely considering we were already half way across France, but hey, what did I know? I was just a little boy who shouldn’t be there. Regardless, the threat seemed to have the desired effect, and an oppressed calm settled on the group.
I think I cried a little bit when Eve shouted at everyone. Even now I take things a little too personally, a little too much to heart. I struggle to control my emotions the way other people seem to be able to. I had done nothing wrong, I was on a bus full of teenage Girls who at the time were as alien to me as could be, and I wanted to go home. And it just wasn’t fair.
My anxiety had been telling me I wasn’t cool enough to fit in with these older kids. Now I knew they would see me as the ‘sniffling little boy who shouldn’t be there’ for the rest of the trip. Instead of being excited to explore a new place, being thankful for the opportunity I had been given, I was nervous and scared. And I was depressed, not that I knew what depression actually was as a 10 year old. I mean I knew intimately what it felt like, I lived with it every day, but I didn’t know it had a name. I just thought that’s how I was. Inadequate.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, somewhere high in the Alps off the beaten track. The ‘oppressed silence’ had now been replaced with a different sort of quiet, and I felt a lot calmer. It’s strange how many of us who suffer with anxiety seem so attuned and affected by the mood around us. We seem to have some sort of emotional empathy that we can’t quite control. For me, at least, it really isn’t fun to be able to feel my surroundings this way. I often think how I would love to be more oblivious, how I would be happier if I were.
Eve got us all in marching order and off the bus we trudged. In front of us was the large log built hostel made of 4 dormitories and a large central hall and kitchen that would be our home for the next week. All around the pine forested ground was covered in snow.
Something strange happened as I stepped off the bus and down onto the floor with an icy crunch. As a chill wind cut across my face I felt, just for a moment, lighter than I could remember ever feeling before. Aside from our group there was no one to be seen’ and the only noise was the wind and the occasional chirrup of whatever birds could survive this high in the cold mountains.
I realised, there and then, for the first time how big and beautiful the world is. How there were places I could go where no one would judge me, or bother me or tell me I wasn’t good enough. Where no one would know me, and no one would care. I realised there would always be a place covered in a blanket of untouched snow, waiting for me to explore. There was something pure about that cold, crisp, beautiful quiet landscape. A purity that I hadn’t known existed.
There, as a 10 year boy, I caught the Wanderlust and have held onto it ever since. It serves me now as it served me then. A counterpoint to my depression and anxiety, giving me something to hope for and dream of and search for. It leads me to new experiences that fill some of the gaping spaces in my heart and soul, if just for a moment. It gives me something to live for when living is hard.
Back then the 10 year old me couldn’t wait to explore this corner of the world that would be my home for the next week….
*Some names have been changed to protect the identity of a chain smoking tyrant