A Swiss near-miss

It helps to know the language when you're headed to another country.

click to enlarge NOT JUST CUCKOO CLOCKS: The Swiss had lots more to offer than timepieces, it turned out. - Jeanne Meinke
Jeanne Meinke
NOT JUST CUCKOO CLOCKS: The Swiss had lots more to offer than timepieces, it turned out.

. . . and if one happened carelessly to cough

a little blood upon the tablecloth

why in a minute it was whisked away . . .

The body asks for healthy nourishment. The mind asks for new challenges and adventure. The heart asks for companionship. The soul asks for beauty and quiet. Seldom do these requirements come together for any length of time. For the Meinke family, they converged dramatically in 1971-72, when we lived in Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

We've been living those days over again, because Richard Mathews, editor of the University of Tampa Press, suggested doing a 35th anniversary edition of my first gathering of poems, a chapbook called Lines from Neuchâtel, illustrated by Jeanne and published in 1974 by Richard's Konglomerati Press in St. Petersburg. For this revival, I've added some later poems and an essay about the experience; and Jeanne's added a dozen more of her line drawings. We've had great fun doing this: It was such an important year we'd forgotten that it almost didn't happen.

In the fall of 1969 I was sitting in the office of my friend, Ken Keeton, a professor of German at Eckerd College. While waiting for him to get off the phone, I picked up a newsletter from the now-defunct Association of Mid-Florida Colleges (AMFC—Rollins, Bethune-Cookman, Stetson, Eckerd); a notice in bold print caught my eye: Wanted — Professor fluent in French to take 18 students to study for a year at the University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland.

C'est moi! I lied to myself, visions of chalets and snow-capped mountains popping into my overheated head. I tore out the ad, filled out the form and sent it to the group's headquarters in Stetson, along with my resumé. Academics are weird, I thought, they might be glad to get a poet. I could study French later. I actually could read French (un peu), having taken French in high school, where I never did any homework, along with a year of literary, not conversational, French in college, reading works like Voltaire's Candide and Camus' L'Étranger, which began, I remembered, Aujourd'hui, maman est morte. "Today, mother died." I could try to work that into conversations.

Apparently, in all of Florida, no French professor was available to undertake this job, and I received a letter asking me to come to Stetson for an interview in two weeks. Another teacher at Eckerd had directed the AMFC German program in Freiburg, so I asked him what the interview was like. "Should I be honest about my French?"

"No problem," he said. "My interview was entirely in English. After you get the job, you'll have all year to study."

The interview was on a cloudy Halloween night, October 31; Jeanne was helping our four kids put on their giraffe, lion, mouse and cereal box costumes as I drove off toward DeLand. Adieu! I shouted with aplomb, meaning Au revoir. It started raining outside of Tampa, and by the time I pulled onto the Stetson campus, I was already late and it was pouring. Stopping at the wrong building (merde!), I got soaked sprinting across a lawn to a dimly lit hall, raced up a damp corridor and burst into a room with four watery figures clustered around a table. Through my soaked glasses their silhouettes ran together like a Monet watercolor. Below my heavy breathing, they seemed to be all talking at once. I didn't understand a word they were saying, but I knew it was French. Then, suddenly, they were silent. We looked at each other. I hesitated just a moment, before blurting out, Je pleut!

I'm raining.

In a serious context and poem, Langston Hughes asked, "What happens to a dream deferred?" In the comic drama of my own life, I drove back to a disappointed house, faced the music, and punched out the friend who said the interview was in English. Well, I didn't do that; I just thought about it. I sat in on another friend's French classes for two semesters, applied again, and we all went to Switzerland the next year: it was worth the wait.

In the novels I read as a young man, young Englishmen often had what was called their "continental education," when they'd be sent by their families (or just head out) to spend a year in Europe, seeing the great cities — Paris, Florence, Barcelona, Munich — and the famous sights — the Alps, the Rhine, the chateaux along the Loire. I knew Switzerland's bourgeois reputation ("500 years of democracy, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!" So said Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles, in The Third Man). But Switzerland proved to be far better than that, its young artists as crazy as those in San Francisco; and indeed we traveled all over Europe in our new VW van, big-eyed Americans, leaving President Nixon (who devalued the dollar in 1971) and the Vietnam War far behind...

. . . At least we thought so

being unable to see.

And of course, we bought a cuckoo clock, which still works perfectly. But that's another story.

The lines quoted above are from Peter (www.petermeinke.com) and Jeanne's new book, the 35th Anniversary Edition of Lines from Neuchâtel, just published by the U. of Tampa Press ([email protected]). It's in English, bien sûr, but includes a small number of perfectly spelled French words.

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