Tales from Abroad: Switzerland

While studying abroad for a semester in Switzerland, the author bonded with his host family’s son by hiking up the Swiss Alps with him. (credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Abele) While studying abroad for a semester in Switzerland, the author bonded with his host family’s son by hiking up the Swiss Alps with him. (credit: Courtesy of Nicholas Abele)

Our relationships with people are the most valuable things we will ever form in our lifetime. They surpass the value of any job we will ever hold, any beautiful landscape we will ever see, and any ounce of fame we hope to attain. Before traveling abroad, I expected my four-month experience to yield dozens of breathtaking views, cultural anecdotes, and many pictures of me standing awkwardly next to famous landmarks to send home to my family. Now, as I reflect on my time in St. Gallen, Switzerland, the things I remember the most are not the famous landmarks, nor the sheer beauty of the country, but the friendships I made and strong relationships that I still hold close.

Little more than a year ago, I wasn’t even planning to go to Switzerland... ever. The opportunity seemed great, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to invest myself in taking this risk. The day the study abroad application was due was the day I decided (on a whim) to apply because I wanted to be able to tell people that “at least I tried” to study abroad. I felt extremely honored to be selected to participate in the School of Design’s exchange program with the Schule für Gestaltung, St. Gallen. Carnegie Mellon’s relationship with Schule für Gestaltung has lasted 20 years and remains one of the longest-standing exchange programs in the School of Design. Switzerland has historically set the standard for good design, and our exchange program has become a valuable asset to design students. I was excited to have the opportunity, but I had no idea that an eleventh-hour decision and a completely random living arrangement would produce many of the best friendships I have had.

The Swiss people are very proud of their self-sufficient nature, but are very humble, genuine, and loyal. During my time in St. Gallen, I lived with the Osterwalder family in their apartment. The Osterwalders’ daughter, Lara, studied at Carnegie Mellon as a part of the exchange, while I lived with her family in Switzerland. Their son Patrick and I quickly became friends. Patrick’s willingness to show me Switzerland made our friendship all the more special. Patrick led me on a couple of hiking excursions through the Alps. Our hikes tested our trust in each other early and often. I’ll never forget Patrick telling me matter-of-factly, “On part of this hike we tie a rope to each other so that if one us slips down one side of the mountain, the other person can jump off the other side so no one falls all the way down.” Neither of us fell, and after eight hours of strenuous hiking we completed the hike, rewarded by the breathtaking view and each other’s company. It’s hard to put the feeling of walking to the sky and hearing a constant clanging of cowbells into words. Patrick’s immense knowledge of alpine hiking and strong outdoor skills were a huge help. I wouldn’t have made it to the top without him.

Josef Osterwalder: Lara and Patrick’s father, 70 years old, husband, local historian, journalist, author, book collector, and consistent voice of reason who also became one of my good friends. He’s one of those people that I just know I was meant to meet in life some way or another. It’s often weird how we are connected with people. How split-second decisions and a bit of luck can often times put us in the best of situations when we least expect it. I don’t think you can ever expect to be connected to someone halfway across the world, but sometimes the stars align, everything falls into place, and you find yourself experiencing something that must have just been meant to be.

Josef’s first words to me were, “Are you going to teach me better English?” to which I responded, “Only if you teach me better German.” Our friendship took off after that. There were often late evenings that Josef, Sharon (my host mom), and I spent at the kitchen table with a glass of wine, talking about anything from family to politics to school to life in general. These conversations enlightened me to Swiss culture and allowed me to share my perspective as an American. That being said, I tried mostly to play the role of listener to soak up all the great stories.

Josef is a popular man who has earned every bit of respect he’s been given. He isn’t known for breaking any world records, but everyone in the city (and I mean everyone) knows him because he cares. Josef is one of the few people I know whose earliest memory was hearing bombs over Germany, who used to hike in the Alps for an “afternoon walk,” who has interviewed the Pope’s brother, who is friends with famous Swiss designers, who studied theology and philosophy in Rome, and after all those experiences is still humble enough to live a modest lifestyle, enjoy his family, and

welcome complete strangers into his home. I’m also grateful that Sharon spent time to help me with my German skills and often shared her love of music. I am thankful that I was privileged to share four months of my life with them. It made my life in Switzerland more wholesome. I became part of a family.

At Schule für Gestaltung I worked in a design studio along with nine Swiss students and Allison Lenz (CFA’12), my American counterpart. While we were under the direction of four professors the atmosphere was collaborative, much like the community atmosphere of our School of Design here at Carnegie Mellon. Each day we worked in the studio from 8:30–4:30, focusing on a single class or project each day. Our work ranged from developing a new visual identity system for an annual event with the local museums to developing illustrations for the annual report of Switzerland’s main health insurance company. Although the work was exciting and challenging, the best experience within the design studio was having the chance to collaborate with talented Swiss design students. Often our conversations drifted between German and English while we shared our experiences and became good friends. Often, Allison and I joined them after class for dinner or to explore the city.

A week before leaving St. Gallen, the students and professors invited us for a dinner of cheese fondue to celebrate an incredible semester. Andreas Tschachtli, our professor and main adviser, described the experience best when he told us, “Your time here is about making connections to last a lifetime. You realize that acquaintances will become your best friends and it doesn’t matter that there is an ocean in between.”