Saturday, September 26, 2020

Belonging and Longing to Belong

Chapel address given virtually at EMS on September 18, 2020.

Hello, my EMS friends, my name is Don Clymer. I retired several years ago from teaching Spanish and other things just up the hill at EMU. Previous to that, I worked with Virginia Mennonite Conference and Missions, which is also located close to you. My daughter and her husband both graduated from EMS as did my son. In fact, my son Mattias, is on the alumni board of EMS. I also had several nieces and nephews graduate from here. My wife and I have been fans of your touring choir for many years, even before our children sang in it. In fact, when my son was in the choir, we spent several days with them in Switzerland during their European tour. My wife is from Switzerland and both of my children are Swiss citizens as well.

Speaking of Switzerland, the roots of my family lie there. Most of you, if not ALL of you, are from families of immigrants as well. Our families came here from every part of the globe. We have been cut off from the roots of our family tree, and because of this, many of us have a longing to find out where we belong. And to whom we belong. After I married a Swiss woman, I was quite interested in knowing more about where my family had come from since we were always told that we were either from Swiss or German background. I had a longing to know this link to my past, to belong to somewhere. So, I started to do some research.

I discovered that Thoman Klymer, the earliest ancestor that I could find, was born around 1536 in Montbeliard, France. That’s a long time ago!  Over 480 years ago. This was right near the beginning of the Reformation and the establishment of the Protestant Church. Thoman became a Protestant in France. They were called Huguenots. The French government didn’t take too keenly to the Protestant movement, so Thoman Klymer had to flee for his life, so he fled to Affoltern am Albis in Switzerland, where his great-great grandson, my immigrant ancestor, Valentine Klemmer, (Klemmer and Klymer have been interchanged throughout the centuries) was born in 1665. Somewhere around 1685, he became an Anabaptist. Now it was his turn to have to flee for his life! Something in my background makes me a bit of a radical! He fled to Germany for about 20 years then immigrated to the USA in 1717. More than 300 years ago!

Finding all this information made me feel like I belong! I belong to a family tribe that goes back to at least 1560! I also belong to the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith, which for me stretches back 340 years. My longing to belong has been satisfied! However, if you only stick to your tribe, you exclude a lot of people! They feel unwelcome in your presence!

I got abruptly kicked out of my tribes when I went to Honduras for two years as a 19-year old to serve in voluntary service with the Mennonite Church. When I got there, I felt completely alien, like I didn’t belong! I recently had a book published about my two years there.

When I first arrived, I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know all the cultural nuances, and I felt like a duck out of water. I made plenty of cultural mistakes, but, as the years went by, I began to feel more at home, if not ever completely. My language improved, I made many friendships with Hondurans, and I began to really love the food.

As I developed closer friendships with Hondurans, I discovered that the way I viewed the world, and many of the assumptions that I made about faith and life, were not understood the same way as Hondurans. I had a very arrogant view of my country and how blessed by God we were for all the wealth and material blessings we had.

However, they pointed out to me that much of the wealth of the USA came thorough exploitation of Honduran and other Latin American people and their natural resources. In Honduras it was bananas. We typically pay under a dollar for a pound of bananas in the US. In order for them to be so cheap for us, workers slave in the hot tropical sun in the fields for a mere 2 US dollars a day. While thousands of acres of the best land are planted with bananas, people in the villages surrounding these plantations are malnourished. Was my blessing their curse?

            In Harrisonburg, I have met many Hondurans living here. We immediately connect with each other when they hear about my time in their homeland. Most of them are here to improve their economic situation. However, they don’t really feel connected to the wider culture that surrounds them here. They often feel hateful stares and racial slurs thrown at them. They certainly don’t feel like they belong. So, they stick together in their neighborhoods seldom mixing with the broader community.

            Many of those in the white majority here in the US think that our country belongs only to certain groups of people from Europe, and our language is English. These people haven’t studied their history very well. The first city found in the USA was St. Augustine, Florida in 1565 as a Spanish-speaking settlement. Pretty interesting that that date is about the same date as my earliest discovered ancestor was born.

            By the time the first British colony was founded in 1607 in Jamestown, there were Spanish missions already established in all of the southwest from Texas to California and north to Oregon, as well as in Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. Spanish was already spoken in a large area of the United States before English got a toehold. Today, after Mexico, the United States is the second largest Spanish-speaking country in the world!

            My longing for belonging took me from my sheltered life to Switzerland, Germany and then to Honduras. I developed skills in culture and language in each of these places. In addition, my Mennonite tribe has been extended to belong in all of these countries. I have found where I belong and then opened my tribes to others different from me. I have been truly blessed, but not in the way I had originally thought.

            Where do you belong? Where do you long to belong? Will you include those who don’t speak and look like you as well?

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Comments on "Coming of Age in Honduras"

I've received over 15 comments on my book from family and friends who have read it. It has been gratifying for me how many have taken the time to comment. Something about the book reasonated with them in some way. This is the hope of every author! Below are some of the comments:

Many ex-volunteers, or people who had lived abroad, especially in underdeveloped countries, identified my story with theirs. The wrestling with poverty and faith were especially strong. It was also a walk down memory lane for many. 

Most identified it as a good read. Kept them engaged as they read.

Several wrote about the "vivid" pictures I painted with my writing. "I could imagine with my mind's eye the scenes and the people you describe."

Several couldn't believe that I could remember so well things that had taken place so many years ago (Over 50 to be exact). 

One reader chuckled as they remembered the 60s and how the cultural milieu deeply influenced us.

Some struggled with my Conscientious Objector position, others admired my strong ethical stance to the temptations I faced. One thought I portrayed myself as too innocent. One thanked me for remembering the ramifications of  people my age who had to go to war in Vietnam. 

One thought that the book was a "delightful combination of analysis and narration." In other words, I painted a historical/analytical backdrop for my stories. 

One reader was the widow of one of my companions and was grateful for some new insights on her deceased husband's work while in Honduras.

One reader with a Latino background said that my description of Latino culture was "spot on." 

Some readers called me adventurous. 

Several readers couldn't believe the amount of responsibilities I had as a 19-year old; work in the credit unions, building of a chick starter house,  an addition to the house we lived in, and preaching in Spanish.  

These comments are extremely gratifying for an author. Many times we feel like we are writing in a vacuum, so when our work touches someone, it makes the expended energy worthwhile. Thank yo to those who took the time to write. I hope to hear from more of you soon. 

Friday, September 4, 2020

Foreword to Honduras Memoir


This memoir is about the two and a quarter year period of my life that I spent in Honduras as a volunteer with a voluntary service (VS) program of Eastern Mennonite Missions (EMM). At the time, the organization was known as Eastern Mennonite Board of Missions and Charities (EMBMC). I was 19 years old when I left and returned four months before my 21st birthday. My stint in Honduras covered a period from January 1968 to April 1970.


The United States was embroiled in a seemingly endless war in Vietnam at the time. Every 18-year old male had to register with United States Armed Forces and be subject to a subsequent draft; it was obligatory. We all knew that we would be drafted to serve for two years at around age 19. All my high school friends and classmates had to prepare for this upcoming event. Not only did the males have to think about this eventuality, but the young women who were in a relationship with a young man also had to prepare for what this unavoidable reality would do to their relationship. 


I registered as a conscientious objector (CO). This meant that I was opposed to serving in the Armed Forces in any capacity. This was the position of the Mennonite Church, of which I was a member. The United States government recognized the Mennonite Church as a “historic peace church” because they had theological positions on peace and nonresistance that dated back to the 16th Century. Members of historic peace churches were granted an exemption from serving in the Armed Forces, but they still had to serve for two years of what was called “alternative service.” These alternative service programs had to be approved by the US government. The VS program in Honduras was one such program. During this journey, my Mennonite beliefs were put to the test. Nevertheless, this period really solidified my theological views of peace and nonresistance: that Jesus is the “Prince of Peace” and that his teachings and life are pivotal to Christian life and faith.


The memories contained in this book are my memories; mine alone. Other people may remember the story differently, or they may have lived through the same experience while coming to different conclusions. Memory is admittedly highly selective, and we are often gentler on ourselves than we would have been on other people who are experiencing the same thing. I apologize in advance for the times that I have committed this error.

Nevertheless, the memories that I relate in this memoir are ones that made a profound impact on me and have indelibly shaped my life. My worldview was expanded, my faith was stretched, and my innocence was shattered. Some of my stories may be shocking to some readers, but I share them to give a complete picture of what I experienced.  


I hope these stories will give the reader insights into how a CO experienced the time of obligatory draft in the USA. I am of the opinion that the Mennonite Church was greatly impacted from what happened to COs of that time. At my 50th High School anniversary, classmate after classmate shared how their service had impacted them. Although many of our youth still serve, because it is not obligatory, many do not. Our current generation of young people are missing out on some incredible adventures and life-changing experiences. More importantly, the church is missing the insights of these changed individuals returning to their pews. I hope that sharing my experiences will open a window into that tumultuous period of time. I want to challenge my readers to share a period of time with marginalized peoples wherever they may be found, “in the name of Christ.”


For my Latin American readers, I acknowledge that these memories are from a U.S. American perspective, despite how much I was changed through my time alongside you. You have taught me an incredible amount about your history, your culture, and your language. Through your patience with me, I gained many new perceptions about the world and my personal life. I have returned to you time and again for further service, study, and teaching others about your beauty.

In addition, I gained a profession which allowed me to share what I learned from you to a much wider audience. However, because of the insights that I gained from you, I have been plagued throughout my life with a deep restlessness; a searching for deeper meaning about the world around me and the world within myself. I have had a longing for a deeper relationship with God, and a longing for a more fulfilling way to share my life with the world. I am deeply grateful for this restlessness; it has helped to remind me that I am a “stranger and a pilgrim” (Heb. 11:13) on this earth, and that I “have here no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). I belong to the Reign of God.

Book can be purchased here: Masthof Press 


Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Meanings are not in words, they are in people

I was sitting at the dinner table in Switzerland with my wife’s mother and uncle along with my two children. Someone said something interesting and I innocently said in German what I thought was the English equivalent of “holy smokes.” I immediately realized that I had said something wrong when Esther’s jaw dropped, and her face reddened like a beet. Apparently calling anything other than God “holy” is considered in religious circles in Switzerland to be breaking the third commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain. In English, we have countless expressions using the word holy and use them with frequency. “Holy guacamole” is my recent favorite.

On the other side of the table, my face had reddened numerous times when I heard many good, pious Swiss people throw the “S” word around in dozens of apparently good German expressions without any hesitation or embarrassment. These are two simple examples that proves the aphorism in my title to be true. “Meanings are not found in words, they are found in people.”

What makes a word “dirty” or “impolite,” is defined by people in a given time and culture. Words can shift in meaning over time as well. The word “gay” is a good example. Two blocks from me in my town there is a “Gay Street.” I don’t think the namers had the current meaning in mind when they assigned a name for the street. Even more obscure in meaning, my conservative Mennonite culture distinguished between us and the world by calling us “plain people,” and whom we considered the world “gay people.” Again, I don’t think they had the contemporary meaning in mind. “Meanings are not found in words, they are found in people.”

This aphorism applies to translation work as well. Many people think that translating is word-for-word, or at least phrase-for-phrase. It isn’t that simple. I’m not talking only about “dirty” or “impolite” words. I recently translated a document from English into Spanish that had many cultural nuances which could have been seriously misunderstood had I translated portions of the document word-for-word. The amount of head scratching I had to go through to try to convey the proper cultural nuance was agonizing. I was looking for the meaning behind the words; the cultural intricacies. Google translate, however good it has become, can’t do that.

Bureaucratic and technological lingo present potential problems as well. We take for granted that our way of doing business and talking about it are universal. They are not. Technology is changing so rapidly that words for new equipment or concepts are not standardized and vary from country to country. A simple example from the current pandemic is the word for “facemask.” It is called “tapacaras” in some Latin American countries and “mascarillas” in others.

Be careful what you call “holy” in Switzerland and endure without embarrassment German language speakers using the “S” word in their ordinary speech. Afterall, “Meanings are not found in words, they are found in people.”

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Rhythm and Rule for Times of Isolation

My prayer altar
Rhythm and Rule is a term used by Spiritual Directors to describe how to create a balance between work and prayer in one’s normal day. The idea originally comes from the monastic traditions. They use Jesus as an example of one who creates such a balance better than anyone. 

However, these are not normal days. Many of us are sheltered in place, working at home. Many of us experience either isolation or overload if we are juggling work and home schooling or childcare. Many of us have extra time on our hands that we don’t know how to fill. We would rather face the demands and distractions of the work world than be alone with ourselves.

I am certainly no role model on how to manage my time, but I will share with you how I have been organizing my days since the onset of the quarantine. Please understand that there is no "one way" or "right way" to construct a rhythm and rule. This is simply my way. The times are quite flexible and can be interrupted at any time for family or friends or other demands that come up occasionally. My schedule varies somewhat from Fridays to Sundays when my wife Esther is not at work. For example, we participate in a virtual prayer group on Friday mornings and a virtual Sunday School meeting on Sunday mornings.

This “schedule” gives me a “rhythm and rule” for the days that I am alone and in isolation. This gives me a day with lots of variety to keep me from becoming down or bored. It includes both physical and spiritual exercises along with productive time and relaxation.  

5:00-6:00 am Exercise: Stationary bike at home.
6:00-6:30 am Meditative walk outdoors. Sometimes I switch around the times of walking and riding the stationary bike.
7:00 am Breakfast
8:00-9:00 am Read online news
9:00-9:30 am Devotional readings: Thomas Merton (currently) and German Bible (I am reading through the Bible in German)
10:00-10:30 am Centering Prayer in silence
10:30 am Meditative porch time (sitting or pacing in stillness, viewing nature)
11:30 am Lunch
12:00pm-12:30 nap
1:00pm-4:00pm “Productive time” writing, translating, household chores, class prep., etc.
4:00-4:30 Dinner preparation
4:30 Dinner. Early dinner in order to have a fourteen-hour fast: 5:00pm-7:00am
5:00pm-9:30pm Catching up with Esther and relaxation: crossword puzzles, reading novels, social media, listening to music, TV or streaming movies
9:30pm to bed (Consciousness Examen-review of the day. Where have I experienced God today? What distracted me from experiencing God?)

Sharing our personal "rhythm and rule" is a way to learn from and share with each other. What is yours like? 

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Our Love Story Part 6

Chapter 6: Our Return to the USA

(During my quarantine, I have been sharing a series of stories about how the relationship developed between Esther, a young woman from Switzerland, and me. This is the last chapter. Here are the preceding chapters: Chapter 1: The Encounter, Chapter 2: The Courtship Chapter 3: Meeting the Family  Chapter 4: The Wedding Chapter 5: Our Year in Europe )

We got up early for our train ride to the airport in Zürich, Switzerland. The night before we had loaded our baggage at the luggage drop-off point in the railway station in Bern. From the train they would be loaded directly on to the plane that would take us to New York. For the train trip from Bern to Zürich, we weren’t encumbered with four huge suitcases. That made our sad trip to the airport through the beautiful countryside of Switzerland a bit more relaxing. We arrived in plenty of time for our flight.

After checking in, an announcement came over the PA system that our flight would be delayed for eight hours. EIGHT HOURS! This was during the air controllers’ strike in 1981 when Ronald Reagan fired all the air controllers, and airports in the USA couldn’t handle the normal amount of air traffic. After all the emotions of saying good-bye, and wanting to get on with our lives, we were stuck in Zürich for another eight hours.

Moving internationally was quite a challenge. Over the course of the year we had accumulated a number of things that we wanted to keep, including most of our wedding gifts. To this day we use tableware and some pots that we received. We found the cheapest available international moving company. They provided us with two wooden crates that measured about four feet in height, length and width. We carefully packed everything we wanted to keep into them. They picked them up and shipped them to New York, where we retrieved them later to load into a moving van on the way to Kansas.

Getting rid of our furniture didn’t cause too much consternation. The main items were the living room suite, our beds and the wardrobe. They all went back to Esther’s house. Our beds and mattresses were newer than those at her home, so they replaced the old ones with ours. Whenever we returned to Switzerland, we slept in our own bed! Our couch was located in their closed-in porch and we sat in it frequently in subsequent years enjoying the trickling of the stream running beside their house.

Since we had to give up our apartment before our departure date, we stayed at Esther’s home for the remaining nights. About a month before that we had to share with them our decision to return to the USA. We were sitting at the same table in the living/dining room as we did when we told them we were getting married. It was every bit as difficult to tell them this latest bit of news. Words in Esther’s mother’s warning letter to her during our courtship echoed in my head. “We know he will take you (Esther) away from your homeland and family.” She had been right. There was only one difference. Through our stay in Switzerland, they had gotten to know me, accepted me into the family. Esther’s siblings included me in many of their activities and seemed to enjoy my company.  In some ways that made it easier to tell them we were leaving, but in other ways it made it harder. To soften the blow, I promised them that I would bring their daughter back to her homeland as often as I could. Since I worked in education, I had my summers free. I loved Switzerland as much as she did. I held to that promise. We have returned 15 times over the years, including four full summers with the children, and for a full year after my retirement. Two of those trips were over Christmas with the children.

The home Esther grew up in.
The early morning farewell was very difficult. We gave our good-bye hugs while Esther’s mom held back tears. As we headed for the train station in Bern with Esther’s brother, I took a look back at the family. Tears were streaming down her uncle’s face and I lost it. I am tearing up even now as I write this. Esther held it together better than I. Car to the train station, train to the airport, away we went, leaving behind beautiful mountainous Switzerland for the flat lands of Kansas and new adventures in our married life.

Now we were stuck in Zürich for eight hours. We took a trolley to downtown Zürich and walked around. We invited Esther’s best friend, who was working in Zürich at the time, to lunch. We sat on park benches and watched people walking by and swimming in the Limmat River. We went window shopping without wanting to buy anything. We had a Coupe Dänemark (Swiss chocolate sundae) while looking at our watches about every 15 minutes thinking that an hour had gone by. Finally, the time came to board the plane. We still had nearly nine hours ahead of us till we arrived in New York. We started our adventure at five in the morning and didn’t get to New York until midnight the next day. We would have been underway for 25 hours and were unaware of what other adventures awaited us before we could finally retire for a night’s sleep.

Since Esther was immigrating, we had to go through a special line. The waiting room was teeming with would-be immigrants from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. I overheard some Spanish conversation among the Dominicans stating that they had been waiting over four hours and still hadn’t been processed. We were the only white faces in a sea of black ones. The immigration official with a folder containing Esther’s papers ushered us into the room an put her folder at the bottom of a pile of folders that was at least two feet high. There didn’t seem to be any action taking place. After all, it was midnight. Esther and I exchanged desperate looks. We concluded that we were in for a long haul.

After about 15 minutes, a different immigration officer entered the room and spotted us. “What are you doing here?” he asked, thinking we didn’t belong to the Haitians and Dominicans. “My wife is hoping to immigrate to the USA, I stated, probably looking both tired and anxious. “Where are her papers?” he asked gruffly. I signaled to the two-feet tall stack of folders and pointed to near the bottom. He ruffled through the stack, found our papers and signaled for us to follow him. Relieved, we did, too tired to protest our white privilege. He signed and stamped a few documents and sent on our way.

Our next stop was the normal immigration line at any international airport, that even citizens must pass through when arriving from abroad. The attending officer smiled broadly when I explained that my wife was immigrating and showed him her documents. “I am so glad to see someone coming here from Switzerland,” he stated. “I am so tired of all these g..d…d Haitians and Dominicans coming to ruin our country! I was really taken aback by his prejudice. Again, I was too tired to argue with him. Meekly we slinked away, grateful that we had gotten through that process unscathed.

We hired a cab to take us to a nearby hotel. While we were approaching the hotel, we saw a police helicopter circling around the area with a huge spotlight searching the ground. “What is going on?” we wondered. When we got to the desk of the hotel, the clerk told us that there was a murderer on the loose and they were trying find him. He said it so matter-of-factly, that I was stunned. I can’t imagine what our faces must have looked like. We hurried to our rooms on the fifth floor of a 12-story hotel. We sheepishly entered, looking behind us carefully. When we entered the room, I pulled back all the curtains to be sure the murderer wasn’t hiding in our room. I even checked the bathtub. Satisfied that he wasn’t hiding in our room, we double bolted the door to the hallway and fell into bed exhausted. It was 2:00 am. Our time without a bed had stretched to 27 hours.

“Welcome to the USA,” I said to Esther before we hit the sack. She grinned. We both considered getting on the next plane back to Switzerland, but there too much water passed under the bridge by then.

My father picked us up at the airport in New York. We went to the warehouses of the international moving company and loaded up our goods. Everything passed through customs without a hitch. Our journey back to Kansas through Pennsylvania was rather normal, considering what we had gone through in the previous two days.

We will celebrate 40 years of marriage in December 2020. We had two children, a daughter born in Harrisonburg, VA, and a son in Mexico. The initials of each is MCC. Marisa Carmen Clymer and Mattias Carl Clymer. MCC (Mennonite Central Committee) played a significant role in our lives. Without them, Esther would never have come to the States, and we spent three years serving with them in Mexico, where Mattias was born. We now have four lovely granddaughters. Life has been good. We have been privileged and blessed to experience many exciting things from Switzerland to Hesston, KS, Harrisonburg, VA and Mexico.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Our Love Story, part 5

Chapter 5: Our Year in Europe

(During my mostly self-imposed quarantine, I will be sharing a series of stories about how the relationship developed between Esther, a young woman from Switzerland, and me. Here are the other chapters so far: Chapter 1: The Encounter, Chapter 2: The Courtship Chapter 3: Meeting the Family  Chapter 4: The Wedding )

I was sitting on a train between Basel, Switzerland, and Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany. As I listened to other passengers talk in what seemed like a myriad of languages, and watched the German countryside fly past me, I had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was even better than the scenes I had remembered from movies shot in Europe. I was now living the dream! The dream of Europe and the dream of marrying a very special person.

This was the first time I was on my own without Esther’s help since I arrived in Europe about three weeks earlier. I was both apprehensive and excited. I was heading to study German at the Goethe Institute for three months. Once again, our relationship had to continue from a distance. It was about a three-and-a-half-hour trip by train. As soon as my classes let out on Friday afternoon, I would hop on a train and head for Switzerland to be with my beloved and return to Freiburg as late as possible on Sunday evening. I was preparing myself for a year in Europe, mostly in Switzerland, by learning German. I was also preparing myself for the wedding, all in German, coming up in fewer than four months.

There are 13 Goethe Institutes within Germany and 159 throughout the world. They have a reputation of being the finest places to learn German. Most of the German ones are located near a university where international students can prepare themselves for university studies with proficiency in the German language. This was the case in Freiburg. In my class we had a mixture of prospective university students and others like myself who were interested in learning German for a variety of reasons. I remember students from Japan, Chile, Belgium, Turkey, France, Australia, and the former Yugoslavia.

We lived in a brand new “Studentenheim” (dormitory) which was part of the University of Freiberg system. We also could eat in the university “Mensa” (cafeteria) at student prices if we so desired. The dorm was divided into suites, each consisting of two bedrooms and a separate bathroom. The two students shared a common kitchen. My roommate was from the former Yugoslavia. I don’t remember which ethnic group or language he was from, but of course I didn’t speak it, and he spoke no English. To communicate with each other we had to use German, our only common language. Sadly, he was more interested in seducing the women in the building than learning German.

As the train sped along the mostly flat countryside, I carefully studied the packet of materials I received from the Institute to try to orient myself to what I was going to do when the train arrived in Freiburg. Luckily, the Institute was almost directly across the street from the main train station. The dormitory was about a 20-minute walk from the Institute, mostly along the Dreisam River. The university cafeteria was nearer to the Institute, but in a different direction. To get there we had to go through the “Altstadt” (old, preserved downtown area with only pedestrians allowed), a rather lovely walk.

I decided to eat my main meal of the day at noon, like most Europeans. I would buy that at the university cafeteria, then eat breakfast and supper at the dormitory. That consisted mostly of coffee with bread and sweet spreads for breakfast, and bread, cold cuts and cheese. This system worked well for me, since I didn’t need to cook a hot meal, and was typical of what and how the Germans themselves ate.

Since the distances weren’t too great, I walked to get from place to place. I did this for two reasons, I was afraid I’d get lost navigating the public transportation system, and it saved me money. I walked more during those three months than I can ever remember walking before. That combined with a fairly limited food intake, caused me to lose a good bit of weight. Just in time to fit into a well-tailored wedding suit in a few months.

The train came to a screeching halt in Freiburg. I grabbed my bag, too heavy and clumsy for walking very far, and got off the train to survey the scene. I felt a little more at home than when I alit from the airplane in Frankfurt, but things were still intimidating. It didn’t take me long to discover how to cross the numerous tracks separating the platform I was on and the street which I assumed was the one the Goethe Institute was on. I followed the people! There were underground paths and overhead bridges. The whole city seemed to be set up for pedestrians and public transportation. There were city buses, inter-city buses, trolleys and taxis, all with curbside service from the train station. In addition, there was a huge bike garage. It was packed with bicycles.

I found the Institute quickly, registered and took a German placement test. I was placed in Intermediate II, which I thought might be too advanced for me. I soon got used to the routine of class in the morning, lunch at the university cafeteria, studying in the afternoon, sometimes at the university library, and sometimes at home. There were ample opportunities to party among the students at the Institute, but for the most part I wasn’t interested. I spent my evenings listening to my portable shortwave radio and dreaming about the weekends with Esther.

I made several good friends in my class at the Institute. The woman from Chile and I spent breaks speaking Spanish. It was so nice to be able to communicate in a foreign language that I felt comfortable as opposed to German. She made friends with a Japanese woman, so I also spent time with her. She spoke her German with the same lilt as her Japanese. Then there was a man from Belgium, Matthias (pronounced Mattias with no “th” sound). For some reason, his demeanor really appealed to me. I was so impressed with him, that when Esther and I had a son, I lobbied to name him Mattias.

I am an avid baseball fan, especially for the forlorn Phillies of Philadelphia, the losingest team in the history of baseball. As luck would have it, they made the playoffs and the won the World Series that year, the first time in my lifetime. With no Internet or the MLB AtBat App, I was dependent on Armed Forces Radio for any information I could get. However, search as I may on my shortwave radio, I could not find a signal. It might not have mattered anyway, since I was in Europe and the games were broadcast at 2am and were usually over by the time I got up. I would buy the International Herald Tribune, a daily English language newspaper with a sports section dedicated to US sports. Problem was, the games were going on when the papers were printed, so I had to wait an extra day to find out the score! Oh, the sacrifices one makes for the love of their life!

Other than romancing during the weekends when we were together, the main task for Esther and me was to make invitations for our wedding and send them out. At the time, the custom was to make the invitations by hand. We were taken by Michelangelo’s painting “Hands of God and Adam” in the Sistine Chapel in Rome. We depicted that on the front of the invitation with black-colored pieces of straw (see photo). We also had a star on the invitation to represent Christmas which was two days prior to our wedding. To this day we have a huge painting of Michelangelo’s “Hands of Adam and God” hung above our bed. 
Our handmade wedding invitations in both
German and English

During my weekend trips to Langnau, we attended the Mennonite Church to get to know the people in the church. It was not easy, despite of my enthusiasm for my heritage and faith. Everything read or sung was done in High German, while the worship leading, and sermon were in the Swiss dialect. Sometimes the accent of the readers was so Swiss that I couldn’t tell if they were using the standard German or the dialect. Another challenge was to break through the patterns and friendships that were already established at the congregation. People did not rush up to greet us and invite us in. With a few exceptions, we felt like strangers and pilgrims. It was worse when Esther had to work, which she often did on weekends. I don’t know if it was the shoes I wore, but they smelled a foreigner immediately. Later I learned that most couldn’t speak English and they didn’t think I spoke German. How pleasantly surprised we were when they came out in force for our wedding and how many participated in the choir that sang for us.

After the wedding (See: Chapter 4: The Wedding ) our first priority was to find a decent apartment. Esther had been living in a one-room basement studio apartment which was no larger than the living room in the house we currently live in. It contained a kitchenette. She had a single bed and a futon for her sofa, which converted into a bed for me to sleep in. There was a dining room table in the middle of the room. There was barely room for four people around the table. The bathroom and bomb shelter were down the hall.

The housing market in Switzerland has always been very tight. We were quite lucky to find a two-bedroom apartment right across the street from where we were living. The address will forever be etched in my mind: Kreuzstrasse 49, Langnau i.E. It was within walking distance of Esther’s workplace; a nursing home where she worked as a nurse.

Another challenge for us was to find furniture. Furnishing a home or an apartment in Switzerland is very expensive. At the time, couples often bought the best available, thinking they would keep the same furnishings for many years. Our situation was a bit more tenuous, so we didn’t want to outfit our apartment with expensive furniture. We found a number of alternatives. Esther’s father found an old wardrobe (not many built-in closets in Switzerland) at a used furniture store, and we found a used living room suite, and other relatives chipped in with some odds and ends that they were no longer using. The only new items we bought were beds and mattresses. Slowly but surely, our apartment felt like home.

The next challenge was for me to find a job. As I stated in other places, because of the language and new culture, I was totally dependent on Esther. This included getting our marriage license, registering our names with the town hall, getting my residency established and other necessary paperwork. I was not used to being so helpless and not in control of my own destiny. I was a great lesson in humility.

My first purchase with my own money.
Not only was I dependent on Esther for all the paperwork necessary for our existence together, but I was also dependent on her for money. My savings had pretty much run out with my language school and weekend trips to Switzerland. However, with the very first Swiss Francs I earned I bought a Neuchâtel wall clock. I had seen these clocks hanging in living rooms all over Switzerland. I fell in love with them and decided I wanted one. It still hangs on our living room wall.

I was also dependent on Esther to help me find a job. We first looked to the school system, since I wanted to continue teaching. My work permit was very limiting, however, and I could not become a permanent citizen until I had worked seven years in Switzerland. The schools were very friendly but assured me that my teaching credentials would have to be updated to Swiss standards, and that I would have to become a citizen before they would consider me. Wow, seven years! I felt like Jacob having to wait for Rachel!

So, Esther started inquiring with language institutes which had looser standards for their teachers. They were impressed with my CV but many of them told her that I was overqualified. I was beginning to get discouraged. This was before my writing days and we had no TV or internet, so I was getting bored and restless. Finally, she found a language school in Bern, 30 or 45 minutes away by train, that would hire me to teach English as a second language. I had wanted to continue teaching Spanish, but they replied that they only hired native speakers to teach. They taught some 20 languages including Spanish and English, both American and British.

The school was named Inlingua, and had its own methodology which the new instructor had to learn. They offered both class and individual instruction; the classes were usually held in the evening. I was given one evening class, two nights a week, to prove my worth, and was soon assigned another. When a Swiss army officer who was assigned to a UN post on the DMZ between the two Koreas requested American English, much to the chagrin of my British colleagues, I was assigned to him. He wanted three hours of instruction, five days a week for three months. Since I had to learn a new methodology, I had to spend numerous hours in preparation. My mornings were filled with lesson planning and afternoons and two evenings a week teaching. It was grueling, but I really loved getting to know the wide variety of people who came to the language school, both colleagues and students.

One of my colleagues was a refugee and poet from dictator Franco’s Spain. He taught the Spanish courses. We spent a significant amount of time speaking Spanish with each other during breaks and other events, and after three months, the director of the school took me aside and told me that if the need arose, he would assign me to a Spanish class. I left that day walking on air. He had somehow come to the conclusion that my Spanish was good enough for his “native speakers only” rule.

At precisely 12:30, when the National Swiss Radio broadcast gave their five beeps to mark the time to begin the news, I would leave the apartment to walk to the train station. It took about 15 minutes. Esther and I would eat lunch together. She had enough time off for lunch that she could walk home to eat with me before I left. My train ride took me through the western part of the Emmental Valley stopping in such quaint towns as Signau, Bowil, Zäziwil, before arriving in Konolfingen. The “Schnellzug” (fast train) only stopped once in Konolfingen before arriving in Bern and saved me 15 minutes. However, on the way to Bern, the most convenient train for me was the “Regionalzug” (regional train) which stopped in all these picturesque towns. One of the benefits of the Regionalzug was hearing the local dialect. I would listen intently as little old ladies would board the train in one town and get off at the next one, gossiping away. I was soon able to catch most of what they were saying, and slowly built my vocabulary and pronunciation of the dialect and filed it away in my brain. Interestingly, the most frequently used words and verb conjugations were the ones that were the most radically different from written (High) German. The larger the word, having learned the pattern, the easier it was to guess how to say it in the dialect.

Early on I vowed that I would learn Esther’s family’s dialect, Bern German (Switzerland has over 250 different regional dialects, and even Bern German is divided into various dialects). When they spoke to me in written German, they were stiff and formal, like they were reading out of a textbook. When they spoke to each other in their dialect, they were themselves and laughed uproariously at each other’s jokes. I wanted to be included. It reminded me of some of my relatives who spoke Pennsylvania Dutch (German) and roared at the jokes they told. When I asked them to translate for me, it wasn’t half as funny in English as it seemed to them in their dialect.

After about three months of riding the train to Bern, I started using the dialect when I was with Esther’s family. At first, they didn’t catch on and answered me in written German. Soon their eyes widened in amazement when they realized I was communicating with them in their dialect. They never expected that to happen. I also remember the first time I went into a shop in Bern to purchase something and asked for it in the dialect. The clerk responded back in dialect instead of either answering me in English or written German. I felt that my use of the dialect had turned a significant corner.

Esther and I made it a practice to go out for dinner on Friday evenings. We continue this tradition to this day, from Switzerland to Kansas to Virginia and Mexico. These times were wonderful, but also made for some cultural faux pas. One evening we went to what turned out to be one of the fancier restaurants in Langnau; white tablecloth, expensive silverware and china. I know I ordered pasta alfredo with some cut of pork and string beans. A waitress served us very daintily what seemed to me to be very small portions. She left whatever remained of our order on the table. It didn’t take me long to finish what she had served, so I reached out to the bowls with the rest of the string beans and pasta to serve myself. No sooner then I lifted the bowel off the table, then the waitress came charging over to our table with a huge scowl on her face to take the bowl out of my hands and serve me. Little did I know that I was to wait for her to serve me. I felt like a country bumpkin. Truth be told, Esther didn’t know either. That was the last time we ate in that restaurant.

Once we ate at a restaurant near the train station in Langnau. It was not fancy at all. I quickly found something on the menu that suited my fancy. When the waitress came to our table, in my broken German I haltingly ordered what I wanted. Then it was Esther’s turn. She ordered “Wurstsalad” which was like potato salad with sausage slices in it. There was also the option of including chunks of cheese in it. Esther was studying the menu to be sure that the salad was what she wanted when the waitress asked her, “with cheese?” When Esther didn’t respond immediately, the waitress, assuming we were foreigners because of my interactions with her, took in a huge breath, hoisting her ample bosom high in the air and asked very slowly and deliberately, “W I T H   C H E E S E?” Esther answered her in perfect dialect, “No, without cheese please.” The expression on the waitress’ face was priceless.

On another occasion, Esther joined me in Bern after my afternoon English sessions to go out to eat. I had seen this Argentine-themed restaurant on my way to work every day, called Churrasco. I was quite hungry for anything Latin American at the time, so we decided to go there. One of the features on the menu was corn on the cob. Now the Swiss do not each much corn except to add a little canned corn to certain salads, so my hunger to order corn, especially corn on the cob, was quite tempting. I ordered it to go along with my steak. It came with those little corn ear-shaped holders to stick into either side of the ear. I eagerly and hungrily bit into this treat from my culture. Suddenly, I felt the eyes of someone in the restaurant staring at me. They bore right through me. When I caught her gaze, I couldn’t have been more nonplused. She was a very fancily dressed middle-aged woman who had the most disgusted look on her face that I could ever imagine. I have seldom felt more mortified in my life. Apparently for some Europeans, I was committing two unforgivable sins. First and foremost, I was eating with my hands. Secondly, I was eating corn, which is considered by many to be pig food. Even though it was offered on the menu, and included proper holders for the corn, my desire for corn was quickly quashed.

By now I had become proficient in the dialect and had a job. Esther had a job she loved and enjoyed the times she could be with her family. We enjoyed where we lived and most of what Switzerland had to offer us. However, my year-long leave of absence from Hesston College was coming to an end. The job I had, although fun, was not really a long-term solution for me, and I had really loved the four years I had taught at Hesston. We were stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do we stay in Switzerland and wait the seven years for me to become a citizen and get the necessary certification to become a teacher in Switzerland? This was probably the hardest decision of our married life. Ultimately it came down to my need for fulfilling employment. Esther’s skills were needed everywhere. We decided to return to the States.

Next Chapter: Our Return to the USA