Being Jurgen

There’s only a bit more than five days left to enter the Goodreads giveaway. The Amazon one ends today. Enter if you haven’t already. Here’s a post about my most recent trip and what that journey has to say about my books.

As my first night in Geneva ended, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’d arrived in the city, invited as a contributor to a summer school regarding critical perspectives on globalization. My roommate had yet to arrive.

This situation was ironic to me. A couple of locations in Switzerland figure prominently in my books — namely Fribourg and Steckborn. Most of those scenes take place in a dorm room.


I’ve lived in Europe for six years. Despite this,  I’d never been to Switzerland. Being mostly a city person myself, I’d heard that the price-quality ratio of the Helvetic Confederation’s main metropolises was a bit on the unfavorable side. Upon arrival in Geneva, I could confirm that it was indeed more expensive than Brussels, which is rather affordable as far as North-Western European cities go.  The free afternoon I had on my first day gave me the time to take in the majority of the city’s old town as well as its lakeside and famous fountain, the jet d’eau.

photo (4)

The bottom line: Switzerland has always been something of a storied land to me. And, I don’t mean the kind that I’d always dreamed of traveling to. I’m an Eastern Europe person. I’d always assumed that Switzerland was an even more rules-obsessed form of Germany. Jurgen — the Swiss German character in my books  reflects this. Part of his personality is based off of Swiss-German family friends that I grew up around.

I’d actually hoped to go to Fribourg: the town where most of the main interaction between Jurgen and Stas — one of my novels’ main characters — takes place. Unfortunately, the cost of the train ticket proved prohibitive. I could do a whole other blog tour for the price of it. Still, during my time in Geneva I had a different experience (in addition to eating cheese fondue in 32 degree heat). One that allowed me to gain a new perspective on my own characters:P1070634

The research for my books  proved largely correct about Switzerland, in concrete terms. Upon arrival at the university hotel in Geneva, I knew that as a PhD candidate, I’d have to share a room. However, while checking in, I found out that my roommate was from South Africa.

Before coming to Switzerland, I’d always been led to believe that I’d be received like Stas — a proud ethnic Pole by partial-blood. The son of a political refugee, who grew up almost completely in Africa and has never been to Europe. Yet, as I met my apartment mate for the next week, — on the day after I’d arrived — I was surprised by how much the tables seemed turned.

He was a resident of South Africa; that was following his flight as a refugee from the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). It was his first time in Europe.

At first he seemed flummoxed by the place.  Even dismissive of it, the more he saw. To him it was expensive. And, overrated, compared to his native sub-Saharan Africa. Most of this was never directly said to myself, but rather overheard. I could understand him conversing with friends in Portuguese (He worked for the Angolan embassy. I speak fluent Spanish).

Granted. Geneva is expensive. It’s also not the end and be all of Europe. But, I’d aspired to live in Europe since 2010. His dismissal was hard to accept on a visceral level. I’ve never been to sub-Saharan Africa.  Yet, I must admit that his reception of the continent I’d spent years aspiring to seemed  implausible to me on an emotive note. One that I hadn’t expected.P1070652

Like I said, upon arrival in Switzerland, I’d always expected to be treated as the beggar. But, over the course of the week, I was struck multiple times by how much I felt like Jurgen.  The Swiss youth in my novels, who holds his own heritage in unquestionable regard. Though, in my tomes  I’m often highly critical of him for this attitude, I found myself cynically courting it during my own week in a Swiss dorm room.

Viscerally, I wanted to dismiss my South African roommate’s opinions as a sour grapes inversion of schadenfreude. Yet, if anything, he was more organized than myself.  Everything he did, exuded a kind of formal self-pride that’s unknown  in the parts I’ve grown up and lived in.  On the first morning after his arrival, he insisted on making both of our beds, saying that he grew up in a boarding school. He shined his dress shoes, belt and any other piece of leather that he wore. Daily. At the end of the week he stated that he couldn’t wait to go back to Africa. “I see” was all I could think to respond.

One evening he joined as a group of seminar participants camped out in a park near the WTO. Taking in the view of the lake and the mountains beyond. Many of us had the intention of imbibing heavily. He didn’t.

jet d eau

In Keepers of the Stone, I — as the third person omniscient narrator — am often questioning of Jurgen and his closed-minded, essentialized worldview.  He looks down on Stas, simply because of his sub-altern upbringing.

When writing my novels, I did research regarding the locations that my characters go to in the country. Yet, I was unprepared for the reality of actually spending a week in Switzerland — as it turned out — with a African roommate.

We hold the regions we aspire to dear. That means all of us have a dark side. This remains true, no matter what those places are.  On this trip I learned how narrow the gap between closed and open mindedness can be. From both the northern and southern hemispheres. And that — like it or not — showed me that our own biases still exist regarding various parts of the world that we’ve barely been to. Or, know little about.  Maybe my roommate was right. We all choose our own homes.P1070641

For my own part, I like Europe.  And recently, I found myself in Switzerland —  a country I always thought would look down on myself — justifying it.  To one I never thought it would need defending from.


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