I grew up on a dairy farm in a town that still has no stoplights. There were 400 kids in my K-8 Elementary School that served two communities. "Going to the grocery" meant a thirty-minute drive, and shopping of any substance meant an hour. So when, at age 13, my great-great-aunt Ann (yes, two full greats) took me with her on a tour of Switzerland, I entered a new world.
I have no explanation for why Aunt Ann wanted me to join her on this trip, and it has never mattered to me. We spent eleven glorious days based in Lucerne. I remember our first night there. Jet-lagged, we napped for a few hours then walked Lake Lucerne and bought chocolate ice cream that melted in just-made waffle cones. The mountains overwhelmed me. Everything was pristine--no trash in sight, flowers in every window. Even through the eyes of a small-town 13-year-old, people moved more slowly than in America.
We saw parts of Germany, Liechtenstein, Austria. We rode trains and boats. I realized that Americans are loud and take up too much space. I worried about milk sitting at room temperature in the dining hall of our hotel. I felt embarrassed that I couldn't speak the language. I realized that every single structure I had ever visited in my life to that point was new, that America was a baby-country. I was underwhelmed by the Black Forest, perhaps because of the weird, corn-covered salad I had in a nearby restaurant. I was awe-struck by Mount Pilatus.
The adults on our tour fascinated me, too. Wives constantly apologized for their husbands' off-color, context-less humor. My Aunt Ann rolled her eyes at how lazy the rest of our group seemed. About halfway through the trip, I heard our guide talking about how she drank a bottle of red wine alone in her room every night. I remember feeling disappointed that her life might be slightly less glamorous than I had thought.
There are huge parts of my life that I have trouble recalling at even a high level, but I vividly remember most of this trip--how the hotel butter tasted, the chill in the air at high altitudes, that I met a kind and wise woman named Solange who told me about plants and cathedrals. I think the trip is anchored in my memory because of my connection with one particular attraction: the Lion Monument in Lucerne.
Mark Twain has called the Lion Monument "the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world." I could not stop staring at it. A tribute to Swiss mercenaries killed in the French Revolution, the sandstone lion was majestic, powerful, dying, simultaneously at peace and in agony. It was magnetic for me. I couldn't move. I couldn't look away. I couldn't say anything. Staring into its life-like face, I felt like the lion was teaching me things about sorrow that I would need to understand later--that grief can be strong, that being wounded can be beautiful. Aunt Ann seemed to understand that I needed more time to take it in, so she waved off the tour guide who came over to rush us to the next spot.
I don't know how long we stayed there, only that we caught up with the group halfway through dinner. It's impossible for me to articulate all the ways in which my views on conflict, death, and loss were impacted by seeing this art. When I was involved in a fatal car crash four years later, recalling the image of the monument was more comforting than anything else. It's my mental short-hand for everything that seems to matter.
It wasn't a political trip, but certainly, having seen more of the world changed my understanding of our government, the scope of our problems, our geography, what we learn and don't learn about the rest of the world. Every time I recall the trip, I'm overcome with gratitude for the experience (and for Aunt Ann and my parents allowing me to have it) and with affection for a country that taught me so much. When I learned of the gunman who killed three people in Zurich last week, I almost took it personally. That might be the greatest lesson of my trip--experiencing other places and people make them real, and when they're real, they're precious.