Roaming With a Passport

Ellie — Well, you just had your first international trip. You even have a passport, with a photo that shows you glaring at the camera. (Passport photos are never good, even when you’re an attractive baby.)

You and your parents met Uncle Nick, his girlfriend Anna, your great-aunt Ellen, and me in Berlin. Your grandfather, who was giving workshops in Zurich, couldn’t be there. We walked, we hung out, we ate, we drank, we talked. You prowled around the building courtyard, trying to make a break for the stairs whenever you could.

Our family in Berlin.

Our family in Berlin.

This was the first time you and your father had ever met Ellen, who’s my younger sister. She’s lived abroad most of her adult life, first in Beersheva, Israel, for a couple of decades, then in Gdynia, Poland, for the past few years. She’s just been through treatment for breast cancer — eight rounds of chemotherapy, a month of radiation, and surgery. I was happy to see how good she looked and how strong she appeared to be.

It’s funny to think that she and I have spent most of our lives on different continents, but when we’re together, the long years and miles fall away. We immediately resume our conversation, as if we’ve never stopped talking to each other, There are so many ways a sister knows — and will always know — you better than anyone else in the world. The depth and strength of those ties impress me more and more, the older I get.

So, we had two short days together, with dazzling fall weather. You didn’t seem terribly impressed with Berlin, but you did seem to approve of the yogurt drinks. Mostly, you sat and watched, with your big blue eyes intent on us.

After that, I flew to Zurich to travel for a few days with your grandfather. We took a stunning train trip, called the Glacier Express, through the Swiss Alps. For several hours, we traveled through peaks and valleys and gorges, meadows and farmlands, waterfalls and lakes. We stayed in a hotel overlooking the Matterhorn, we ate fondue and raclette.

The Matterhorn itself.

The Matterhorn itself.

I can’t imagine landscapes more different than where your grandfather and I are from — the harsh, barren plains of West Texas. There, the sky dominates the flat, windswept horizon and stretches on forever. In mountainous country like this, the sky is compressed and punctured by the jagged peaks, and you almost forget about it. The sun comes and goes quickly across that small sky, leaving behind shadows that lengthen and transform the mountains. I’d grown up with landscapes like that, but only in my mind’s eye, as I read and re-read books like Heidi.

And here we have Midland, deep in the heart of West Texas.

And here we have Midland, deep in the heart of West Texas.

I sat by the window, hypnotized by it all, marveling at how topography shapes our lives — how we earn a living, how far we can see, how big or small we feel, what our ideas are of beauty are, what it takes to make us feel safe.

What a trip! After the family reunion in Berlin, your grandfather and I had escaped to a small, orderly, well-run country where the landscape soared and the multi-lingual conversation was muted and polite. (Muted and polite, yes; I kept feeling like a big, overeager American puppy as I tried repeatedly to befriend other train passengers from Switzerland. They answered me patiently and politely, then returned to their own conversations.)

But, anyway, we were returning to our own sprawling, fever-pitched, chaotic country whiplashed and shaken by the vicious politics of the 2016 presidential election (which I’m sure you’ll read about in your history classes). We were leaving the stunning mountain vistas and calm to come home. We had to come back to where we were from — and, this year, in particular, we had to vote.

See you at Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays.

Love you, my darling girl, Coco

(Copyright 2016 by Ruth Pennebaker)


  1. Jean rather · October 10, 2016

    It seems as If i am right there with you — what lovely descriptions of a country I haven’t seen in quite a long time! Xo

  2. Kerry Dexter · October 10, 2016

    As ever, great storytelling, Ruth. I am glad to hear that Ellen is doing well. Great impressions of Switzerland — and the US elections — in just a few words.