"Thank God for all I missed / Cause it led me here to this."
Whenever I travel to a new destination, I play a game. The game involves finding ten words from a countries’ native language (or languages) that do not have a direct English translation. As I sat on the plane that would take me to Bern, Switzerland, my finger skimmed the dictionary until I located my favorite Swiss-German word: gemütlichkeit. The word describes the feeling of contentment and coziness someone experiences when surrounded by family or friends in a pleasant environment. For example, if you are sipping warm tea with close friends while staring out the window as snow blankets the ground, you might say that you are in a gemütlich environment. After the plane landed and I approached the custom’s officer at Zürich Airport, he asked, “Are you traveling alone?” “Yes,” I responded. He nodded. “That is very smart,” he said. “You will make many more friends and meet a lot of cute boys that way.” He added a stamp to my passport, and I laughed. While gemütlichkeit may not have a direct English translation, most human beings who travel will understand this term. We all want to better understand different cultures, to share food and laughter with people who shape our perspectives about ourselves and the world, and to connect with others. As the custom’s officer predicted, I found close friends on my trip to Bern. I also learned the meaning of gemütlichkeit.
One week after I arrived in Bern, I sat on the bed of my hotel room at the Hotel Schweizerhof, staring at my phone as my eyes teared. I was reading a text message my Swiss friend Jonas had just forwarded to me on WhatsApp from his mother. Jonas and I had met several years earlier when he was traveling alone in New York City, and I offered to be his tour guide. This July, I traveled to his home country, where we spent two weeks climbing mountains together, going to concerts, swimming in lakes at 1 a.m., and jumping off bridges into rivers. During the first weekend of my trip, Jonas invited me to a barbecue at his family’s farm in the Swiss countryside. Although his parents, who are in their 60s, only spoke a few English words and I do not speak Swiss-German, the experience helped me finally define gemütlichkeit. His family, roommate, and I sat at an outdoor picnic table his parents decorated with a tablecloth covered in Swiss flags, since their Swiss National Day was the following week. The sun began to set behind the green hills on his family farm, and I smiled as I passed delicious pasta salad, beef kebabs, cheese, and wine back and forth between Jonas’ family. When his mother learned that I was from New Jersey, she excitedly asked me about Bon Jovi and suggested she should have made a cake with Obama’s face on it, rather than one with the Swiss flag. His father took us to meet the cows and horses in their barn, pointing out each animal to me and pronouncing their names. Next, he pointed to the family tractor and asked if Jonas’ roommate Jessica and I would like a photo riding on it. I was nearly 5,000 miles from my home in New Jersey, but at that moment, I felt right at home, as I began to better understand gemütlichkeit. Later that evening, I took the train back to my hotel and reread the message from Jonas’ mother, after using Google Translate to understand her Swiss-German message:
“America means to me the great world, and I will never be able to see this great wide world, and get to know these people, and now I have had the great, unique happiness that the great world which has been unattainable for me has come to me through Christine!!! I’m sooo happy!! Thank you Christine and thank you Jonas for this happy day.” She added a series of thumbs up, smiley, and heart emojis to her message.
As I sat on the bed, I thought about how content I felt in Switzerland and how travel transforms people. I felt happy my evening seemed to be just as special for Jonas’ family as it was for me, especially since I had fallen in love with the Swiss people and culture. I thought back to a few days earlier when Jonas and I sat next to one another on a green hill on his old college campus, sharing our favorite songs as the sun went down. We were having a few beers, and I held the beer bottle like a microphone as I sung my favorite Darius Rucker song to him:
“For every stoplight I didn’t make / Every chance I did or I didn’t take / All the nights I went too far / All the [boys] that broke my heart / All the doors that I had to close / All the things I knew but I didn’t know / Thank God for all I missed / Cause it led me here to this.”
As I sung, I thought about the missed opportunities in my life that seemed disappointing at the time, but pointed me in the right direction. If my life had turned out differently, I likely would not be sitting on a hill in Switzerland, singing into a beer bottle, and enjoying life. If I had taken a different path, I might not have strolled through the streets of Zermatt later that week—an area surrounded by mountains that looks like the Swiss Christmas villages you see in postcards—with my Swiss friends, creating imaginary love stories about some of the strangers we passed on our walk. As a young child, I remember my uncle described me as “painfully shy.” My grandpa added, “She’s not shy, she’s just quiet. She only speaks when she has something important to say. More people should try that.” While I wish I still had this trait, and I have become a lot more talkative over the years, it has been exciting branching out of my comfort zone, traveling independently, and meeting people from all over the world. I am frequently inspired when I see people my age pursue similar journeys.
I believe anyone who jumps into the lifestyle of an independent traveler learns how to conquer his or her fears. While I love thrill seeking and some of my favorite adventures include riding Kingda Ka—the highest and second fastest roller coaster in the world—, zip lining between two skyscrapers, and bungee jumping, I am terrified of heights. On one of my last days in Switzerland, Jonas pointed to a bridge people were jumping off, into the Aare River in Bern. I wanted to jump, but I was horrified. “We don’t have to jump,” Jonas said. I looked down, noting the distance between the bridge and the river below us, thinking about all the rocks I might hit. “No, I want to. I just need a minute,” I said, as I began climbing onto the ledge of the bridge. Jonas climbed next to me and we stood on the ledge as the river’s current continued rushing below us. I handed Jonas my sunglasses. “Maybe you should hold these. I don’t trust myself. I’ll probably drop them,” I said. “Funny, you trust me more than you trust yourself,” he said, laughing. Before we jumped, I thought about his words and how much I had experienced within a two-week period. I needed more faith in myself and that everything would turn out okay. He grabbed my hand, we counted to three, and jumped. My body soared through the air, shot underwater, and I eventually emerged from the water laughing, while the river took us downstream. “That was amazing!” I said. I was thrilled I decided to jump: into the river, into a virtual career that gave me the freedom to work and travel while in Switzerland, into lifelong friendships with people, and into a world that effectively taught me the meaning of a new word. This thought, and the gemütlich environment Jonas introduced me to, encouraged me to jump. If you want to better understand gemütlichkeit, I would suggest traveling to Europe and getting your passport stamped in Switzerland.