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A Honeymooner's Manners As She Meets His Swiss Family

By Sue Wunder / May 1, 1996



A honeymoon in Switzerland, we agreed, was something worth waiting for. We didn't have much choice about the wait, since we'd wed over the Thanksgiving holiday and Rob had to return to teaching duties right away. But we consoled ourselves with the prospect of spending three weeks in the Alps that following summer.

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The tickets were a wedding gift from Rob's father, who many years before had taken his own American bride to visit his homeland and meet the family. Later, they took their children regularly and often. The magical lakes and landscapes of Der Schweiz had been a part of Rob's experience from childhood.

"You'll love it," he assured me, without really having to.

I found Switzerland just as I'd dreamed, a country of stunning beauty. Old-world charm beckoned from every window in the small lakeside village where Rob's Tante Alice, Onkel Robi, and two families of cousins lived and worked. They all welcomed and embraced me, and I quickly grew to share Rob's love for his Swiss kin.

Over the next week we were dined and feted in their elegant homes and in fine restaurants. Mealtimes demanded manners that had grown rusty during my "fast food" years in college and graduate school. I brushed them up as I tried to do Rob proud and avoid mistakes.

Onkel Robi seemed to understand right where I was coming from. I think he sympathized with my yearning to sometimes put my elbows on the table. I knew by the twinkle in his eye as he ate a bowl of cherries with theatrical, lip-smacking flourishes one afternoon that an occasional lapse in manners was allowed. But he was unmistakably and every inch a European gentleman, as Alice was a lady in the best tradition.

When I embarked on my first unescorted trip into Zurich, wearing a cotton blouse and blue jeans, she looked at me in horror and gently but firmly forbade it. I quickly demurred and changed into a skirt. "When in Rome...," I thought, and gave her a hug before I rushed for the train. I felt a bit guilty later as I left the plush grandeur of the Bahnhofstrasse and strolled around the city's small and somewhat gritty Bohemian section, feeling strangely at home yet out of place in my skirt .

Once, at a gleaming table over another plate of exquisitely prepared food, I thought with a stab of longing of the casual dinners Rob and I were more used to - plates and sometimes a cooking pot on the coffee table as we chatted, played backgammon, or watched the news. Another time, corn on the cob with dripping butter temptingly came to mind. I had yet to find it on any Swiss menu.

Even so, I didn't look forward to leaving Switzerland or the deep generosity and kindness of this family. The peculiar musical lilt to their voices, fluent in so many languages, the sound of bells rippling down the lake each morning and evening - all this filled me with warmth.

Switzerland still awed and dazzled me and compelled me to pay more heed to etiquette than I would have liked. But I was beginning to feel a personal resonance with its day-to-day rhythms. The first tendrils of a deep attachment to the country had begun to take hold.

The next week we left the Zurich area for a tour in a rental car. I looked forward to being alone with Rob and letting my hair down a bit. I could now, I thought, as we ordered a casual dinner at a small inn deep in the mountains. I told the landlady how I loved the sound of the cowbells from the nearby meadow. My elbows inched toward the table's edge.

"They took every bell off when Mr. Churchill stayed," she answered. "They kept him awake." The image of Winston Churchill in my plain wooden chair snapped my arms back and straightened my spine. History had its eye on me.

But as we picnicked in the meadows and hiked to hostels so remote that simplicity was a given, I forgot to take care. I was most fully at ease when we reached Switzerland's Italian canton, and walked down the steep stone steps to the family's tiny fishing cottage. We bought our bread from the local bakery and ate our one-pot meals on a small stone patio a few feet from Lake Lugano. There, listening to the waters lap and the bells ring from Italy, we had our honeymoon.

We returned for another week with the family before flying home to the United States. Again, their warmth and hospitality engulfed us, and my manners took note. Only this time it was a relaxed, less rigid attention. Almost before I realized how much I would miss my new aunt, uncle, and cousins, we were home again.

Although Rob was more attuned to Swiss menus and mores than I, he had "come home" too, and stopped at the first sweet corn stand in Connecticut. We bought two dozen ears, and clattered in our old truck to the home of friends.

The four of us kicked our shoes off and dug in. Talking in snatches, often with mouths full, we ate every last ear. Though my elbows were firmly on the table, I was, I realized, half-listening for the bells.