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I could have strangled the cat. Heidi, my wife, was seven months pregnant and we were sleeping on a crappy air mattress on the floor of our empty apartment in Bern, Switzerland, a dense city of arcades and cobblestones. We had nothing, not even blankets, so we lay there shivering in hoodies and whatever extra clothes we’d packed. Even our cat—the one we’d brought from America—hated it. At 2 a.m. she pawed toward our heads, grunted, then hurled all over the floor. I turned on the light with murder in my heart. Then something caught my eye. Did the cat just barf up…
“Worms!” Heidi screamed, her hair merely inches from the wriggling sick. You! She glared at me, utterly horrified at what her life had become. This is your fault!
The barf was just the most recent in a list of indignities we’d endured, all of them my fault. A few months earlier I’d convinced Heidi to quit her job so we could mothball our lives in Bend, Oregon, and move to a furnitureless shoebox of an apartment in a foreign country where she didn’t speak the language and probably wouldn’t have any friends.
But it wasn’t just any country. It was Switzerland. Plus I’d been offered a job as a journalist. The deal seemed too good to be true. I’d get a Swiss bank account, a fat raise, 27 days of paid vacation, and a couple of three-day weekends each month. We would be able to see the Eiger from our windows. Ski season was rapidly approaching.
I’d been gunning to move to Europe since the early 1990s, when I lived outside Geneva as a pimply exchange student. That winter I spent every weekend in the Alps, taking trains at dawn with a backpack to ski areas like Verbier, Saas Fee, and Portes du Soleil. I skied more than 30 days that season—at the time, more than I ever had in a year—and felt the cold bolt of my first powdery face shot. I’d seen huge resorts with 200 lifts spanning two countries and an area the size of a dozen Vails. Europeans stuck to icy groomers and left lines untracked for days. No one gave a scheisse if I ducked a rope or drank beer in the train on the way home. It was my first brush with Old World ski culture. Now we could live there. I pictured us driving a Euro-ride, like a Renault, and taking off to Engelberg, all of us in scarves.
But we were six weeks into our new Old World lives and we’d been reduced to wormy cat puke. I scooped it up and put it in the freezer for the vet, hoping I wouldn’t confuse it for pizza.
Killing the cat would have been easy. What I really wanted, however, was to throttle our movers. Back in America, they’d promised they’d get us our skis, bikes, helmets, warm clothes—200 cubic feet of everything we needed—in six weeks. So we hit the ground running in Switzerland, desperately looking for an apartment in the fall. At first I thought the rental terms were a joke. No showers after 10 p.m. No banging out rugs between noon and three. No work whatsoever on Sundays. One contract stipulated that gentlemen must squat to pee. The Swiss analness was overwhelming.
We finally found a two-bedroom place on Bern’s east side. I called the shipping company to give them our new address and got voicemail. I called again the next day and nothing. I called for three weeks and never heard back. It looked like a classic mover’s scam: Company takes goods, disappears, then demands an exorbitant sum to deliver.
One night I got a call. A guy with a heavy accent said he was “pretty sure” he knew where our shipment was and that he could help us get it back. He was in Jerusalem. I wondered if this was an Israeli mafia racket. The reality wasn’t much better. The company had taken our $3,000 and then gone bankrupt, leaving our goods marooned in a warehouse in Rotterdam. It would cost us another $1,200 to hire someone else to bring it here, and it would take a while. That meant no crib, and no baby clothes. Try explaining that to a pregnant lady.
So the start of our immigrant life in the Alps was tragic enough to qualify as farce. But things had to improve. And they did. One morning in late fall I opened the curtains to find Bern glistening under a foot of fresh. You could practically pick up the scent of P-tex and wax wafting over town. Storm after storm lined up and I didn’t see the Eiger for weeks. Soon, winter would prove to be one for the ages. I just hoped I’d packed the scarves.