Friday, August 22, 2008

Our Switzerland Adventure - Part I

Trying to write about one of our greatest family adventures ever is like trying to describe Michael Phelps’ extraordinary feats in one sentence. It just can’t be done. So I am going to try to explicate it bit by bit so that it begins to make sense to you and to me.

Today I’m going to write about travel.

When this whole missions trip thing started, my husband and I looked at each other and said, “Sure, we can be the leaders.” Which, in Wild-speak means, “Sure, Shelly has time to do that.”

So, by default, I became the leader of our band of 16 people—7 adults and 9 kids, mostly teenagers and two 10-year-olds. None of us knew each other very well before we started and some of us hadn’t travelled much. Since I was the leader, and since my family has dubbed me “Julie the cruise director” on countless family vacations, I got to arrange travel for 16—something I had never done before.

The responsibility of getting 16 people to Europe and back weighed pretty heavily on me both before and during our trip. I was nervous, frankly. I felt sure that something just had to go wrong with a group that big.

Just trying to get there proved me right.

Our adventure began at O’Hare airport where we all met up, along with some type of high school Oompah band from Germany. (How do I know it was an Oompah band? The tubas kind of gave it away.) So our group, along with about 50 German high schoolers, boarded an Air France plane to Paris.

Our connection was going to be tight, I knew that, but after a 45 minute delay in perfectly beautiful weather in Chicago—go figure—I had a feeling we weren’t going to make it. When we landed in Paris we found that our plane to Zurich had just left and that we would have to wait seven hours for the next flight.

We were off to a not-so-great start. But, hey, we had sandwich vouchers!

Of course, some in our group had never been to Paris and were just happy to set foot there, even if it was in the Charles De Gaulle airport.

“Honey, I always told you I’d take you to Paris,” one man in our group quipped to his wife while we sat, bleary-eyed and jet lagged in the waiting area of the airport. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what she had in mind.

We finally arrived in Zurich, only to find that three of us had lost our luggage. Well, “WE” didn’t exactly lose our luggage, Air France did, but we were without it, and it was lost. We were told we’d get it back the next day, so we left Zurich with high hopes of clean underwear on Saturday.

Now, the village where we were going to serve was a tiny village of about 4,000 people, high up in the Alps. To get to this village from Zurich we had to take a train to Bern, change trains in about three minutes (no kidding!) and get on another train to a small town called Frutigen. At Frutigen we were to board a bus for a 30 minute ride to our village. We had timed everything just right so that we could catch the very last bus at 11:30 p.m., putting us in our village at midnight.

But have I mentioned the luggage? Each of us had one checked bag, plus we had brought five extra bags full of craft supplies, games, balls, etc. All of the essentials for taking care of a group of kids for a week.

Thank goodness three of our bags were lost! That only put us at two extra bags, so it’s all good. Right? Wrong.

Getting 18 huge bags, plus our carry-on bags, onto a train after about 26 hours of travel was . . . how shall I put it . . . comical at the least. We schlepped and hauled and grunted our way to the upstairs section of the first empty train car we found. Luggage was everywhere, piled onto seats and underneath shelves and scattered all around us.

But we were sitting on a train. Finally. On our way to our village.

Until the train conductor came.

“You are sitting in first class. You must move to second class,” he said to me after I showed him our group ticket.

“Really? Where’s second class?” I asked.

“Back there, through the dining car.” His thick Swiss-German accent reminded me of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“Really. And you want us to drag all of this luggage through the dining car, disrupt all of your other passengers who are probably sleeping right about now, and MOVE TO SECOND CLASS?”

“No, your luggage can stay here. You all have to move,” he said without batting an eye, and then he moved on to the next car.

Hmmm. Major dilemma. The adults in the group all stared at one another, trying to decide what to do. Should we leave our bags and head back to the proper car or should we protect what belongings we had left? Should we drag everything we had with us through the dining car for the remaining 30 minute train ride? What kind of message would we be sending to our kids if we didn’t obey the train conductor?

We decided that the best thing to do was to continue trying to decide. So we discussed and debated and tried to decide the best thing to do until, 30 minutes later, we arrived in Bern and had to change trains. Problem solved.

Of course, a new problem immediately presented itself. How do we haul 18 bags off of one train and onto another in three minutes? Very carefully. And quickly.

With lots of teamwork and a little bit of shouting we made it. Sure, we caused a typical American scene in the middle of the night, but at that point we didn’t care. We were on the correct train heading toward the correct city. If all went well, we’d make that last bus of the night.

We arrived in Frutigen on time, and I ran ahead to alert the bus driver that a group of 16 would be coming off the train and to ask him to please hold the bus. As I was doing that, the rest of the group began the schlepping process. Off the train, down the stairs, under the tracks and up a ramp to the waiting bus.

What I didn’t know at the time was that Mark, one of the dads in the group who was the last one on the train, had turned his back to make sure all of the bags got off the train, and while he was doing that the doors of the train closed! Everyone was yelling and screaming. A riot was about to ensue. But someone found the emergency “Door Open” button which released the door, allowing Mark to jump out just before the train took off again.

Disaster averted. Again.

Busses in Switzerland are so cool because they carry with them a trailer on the back which, in the summer, can carry luggage, but during the rest of the year can carry your SKIS! How awesome is that?! A ski trolley right on the back of the bus.

Our bags were thrown into the trailer, and we all got settled in for the 30-minutes-that-seemed-like-two-hours ride to our village. By the time we pulled into the bus station it was midnight. We were exhausted after 30 hours of travel, but so very happy to have made it to our final destination.

And like a pool of water in a desert, there were our missionary friends waiting for us at the lonely bus stop. About seven people had walked down from the hotel to greet us in the middle of the night. All I could do was sit there and cry. I had completed half of my task—I had gotten everyone there—and like a small blessing, an acknowledgement of how hard we had all worked to get there, our friends were there to greet us.

Our one last travel task was to walk about a half a mile to our hotel. We looked ridiculous rolling all that noisy luggage down the street, but it was the middle of the night and we didn’t care very much.

We dropped into our beds and slept very well that night.


  1. Shelley,
    Wow...that is incredible. I could just picture every word as you described your trip. I have always wanted to travel to that part of Europe (any part actually)! I am looking forward to reading about the rest of your time!
    PS I found you at Lysa TerKeurst's blog.

  2. Gruetzi! I've been coming back to your blog to see how the Swiss adventure went. I'm so glad you enjoyed your visit 'here.' We will truly miss it when it's time to return to the States. I am always interested in other people's perceptions and encounters here.
    You were lucky to "decide your way" in 1st class until you got off. I've had the opposite experience. Schlepping 2 large bags with 2 kids on a commute train in the heat (trains don't all have air conditioning) to the airport with 1st class ticket in hand. But after crawling through 3 full cars of 2nd class riders finally plopped down in the nearest empty seat - to have the conductor say " But Madam, you have a 1st class ticket. It is only 3 more meters to the 1st class car." I told him I'd move after I caught my breath after the next stop.
    Look forward to hearing more.