I lived in Paradise, on a slope of the north shore of Lac Léman. This was not the Paradise of my childhood, but of my early adult years.
It all started with drying dishes. Early December 1981, I was still living at home. This chore was one of the family expectations, just as lolling around without a job or an immediate plan was not. Mother set me an ultimatum—find a job within a week or move out.
A childhood friend from White Rock called a little later that evening with a job offer in a door assembly plant, Surrey Door in Surrey-Newton. And I would be living with them in White Rock.
At the same time, I discussed with my parents the wish of mine to experience Camphill life, originating in 1979 when a former Newton Dee peer of father’s, Hartmut von Jeetze, came to visit, talking about and showing slides of Camphill Copake in upper New York State. I was much impressed by what I heard and saw. The seed was planted.
My parents both had experiences and still some peripheral connections with Camphill and Rudolf Steiner communities—father as a gardener in Camphill Newton Dee, Aberdeen, Scotland from February 1951 to February 1954; mother also as a gardener, in Bussigny near Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland from April 1955 to autumn 1956.
I wrote to ten different communities—names and addresses we pulled from a list we had from an Anthroposophical Initiatives directory booklet, focusing on Westdeutschland, France, and Switzerland. Two months later, only two or three had responded. St-Prex was my only hope, the others at that time not needing workers. I answered with a detailed life story, curriculum vitae, reiterating my wish to learn French and gain an initial experience working with Children in Need of Special Care. Plans were made for me to attend, summer 1982 to summer 1983, for a practicum year and a chance to learn the language, leaving the door open for a longer stay dependent on the outcome of my initial year there. I still had a current passport and saved most of my working money for a return airline ticket and some initial spending money.
I already knew from father and reading that the Camphill Movement was born in 1939–1940 out of the initiative of Dr. Karl König. In the late 1930s in Wien he had gathered a small group of students, studying the teachings and indications of Rudolf Steiner. He and the students fled in different directions with the Nazi invasion of Austria. England opened its doors to refugees and Dr. König entered by invitation. He was given a twenty-five-acre estate called Kirkton House, about seven miles from Aberdeen, Scotland. One by one the students found their way there during 1939. The war broke out, the men were classified as enemy aliens and interned on the Isle of Man. Meanwhile, the publisher W.F. Macmillan purchased a larger estate called Camphill House, hence the movement’s name, and the women moved there June 1, 1940, commencing their work with twelve children, one of the first attempts at living in residence with special needs children.
A few weeks were spent at home again; relaxing, swimming, and tubing in the Cowichan River with six-packs of beer, Labatt Blue, tied to the air valve stem; and getting some gear and possessions together. I purchased the red 1982 edition of Baedeker’s Switzerland, pouring over it in some detail, slung out in our backyard hammock between the walnut tree and a tree pole. I was to show up in Genève as a tourist and Perceval would take care of procuring me a work permit.
Like many, I believed (somewhat) in the clichés about the Swiss—brown cows, Alps, yodelling, chocolate, watches, and cuckoo clocks—but within days of my arrival I was already learning and experiencing how much more of this fascinating people and country there was.
I had always been impressed with Switzerland’s neutrality and admired her form of democracy, which only deepened during my residence there—this small, mountainous confederation on a very unique path of destiny and practicing a direct form of democracy through her constitution, structure of government, and the many cantonal, regional, and federal referendums the Swiss vote on throughout the year. To this day I see the Confoederatio Helvetica as the best and only authentic example of democracy so far in existence. Other nations laying claim to this title are little more than half- or pseudo-democracies.
Over time, Switzerland revealed more and more the multitude of riches in her history, geography, food, literature, and culture, many of her qualities distinct along linguistic lines. I experienced almost nothing of her Romansch and Italian aspects, but sampled a decent taste of her Schwyzerdütsch regions, and became immersed in many aspects of la Suisse Romande, comprised of Genève, the western half of Valais, Neuchâtel, the Jura, most of Fribourg, and above all the canton Vaud with its historical imperative of Liberté et Patrie as the centrepiece of its flag and cantonal shield of white and green. Looking back, La Romandie has become my second homeland, in fact, my spiritual home just as Canada is my physical home and Germany my ancestral home.
I borrowed a half dozen books from the Cowichan branch of the Vancouver Island Public Library, where I worked the last two years of high school earning my escape money correctly reshelving returned books and magazines in the stacks, flirting each shift with my co-worker Laurie Hamilton.
I read that Switzerland’s beginnings can be traced back to the 12th millennium BC. Finds of Stone Age arrowheads have been made at the Bieler See and Lac de Neuchâtel. Near Brig, archaeological digs have uncovered elaborate burial sites indicating settlement of the western region and the Valais in the early Stone Age. From the Iron Age there is evidence of the existence of a pre-celtic culture. Later, the Celtic Helvetii resolved to unite and settle the Jura. The Romans were unable to set foot in the Valais until about 58 BC, when Caesar and Augustus were the first to conquer Helvetian lands, making them part of the Roman Empire. About the year 300, the Primicerius Maurice and his Theban Legion, recruited in Africa, were martyred at Agaunum, today St-Maurice, for refusing to worship the Roman deities and slay their fellow Christians throughout central Europe. Soon thereafter, Christianity spread throughout the southern Swiss region.
I savoured the descriptions of the various regions and drooled over the large-format colour images in the calendars my godmother, Ursula Nitschke in Winterthur, sent us at Christmas each year. In particular: the Jura, made in large part of gentle rolling hills in gradual ascent, lonesome woods and fields in between, and scattered about, attractive little towns and pretty villages; the slopes of the Jura falling to the shores of the Bieler See and the Lac de Neuchâtel, with a number of castles and burgs scattered among the vineyards; in contrast, Biel/Bienne and Neuchâtel, modern industrial towns; across the larger lake the Murtensee and Murten/Morat, and a little further along Fribourg/Freiburg, due to its mostly preserved medieval character, one of Switzerland’s most beautiful cities; down in the farthest western corner of the Confederation, at the lower end of the Lac Léman where the Rhône leaves for its long route through France, Genève, pulsating with life under a somewhat austere protestant past, business-like and of great importance in the world of international politics and science; Jura-like landscape accompanying the lake about halfway, then receding northerly behind the Vaud hinterland; and the Rhône valley predominated by the massive Alps.
I noted the humorous words of the Swiss writer and essayist Ludwig Hohl, 1904–1980, “Die Schweizer sind stolz darauf, so schöne Berge geschaffen zu haben.”
In the years since, my parents find it on occasion amusing to remind me, that span of five years (1982–1987 with a year off in-between) was my Finishing School.