Prairie Lights: Walking a mile, sort of, in an immigrant’s shoes

Dishes

I was an excellent Küchenbursche. Nobody can take that away from me.

I don’t want to brag, but a former employer once described me as “absolutely reliable.” What is even more amazing is that he described my appearance as “impeccable.”

To be more precise, he said my work was “absolut zuverlässig,” and my appearance “einwandfrei.” The job I performed so well was that of a Küchenbursche. I believe that translates as “kitchen fellow.” In truth, I was a dishwasher who occasionally peeled potatoes and polished silver. The exaggerated description of my work habits and appearance was contained in the certificate at left, given to me at the end of my employment.

This was during my short experience as a guest worker in a foreign country, way back in the 1970s. My wife, Lisa, and I spent all of one winter season in Davos, Switzerland, and part of another season there a couple of years later.

This was long before the World Economic Forum put Davos on the map, back when it was still known for ski hills (and before that for its tuberculosis sanatoriums). We went there because Lisa’s best friend, in Missoula, was the daughter of a woman who grew up in Davos.

To be allowed to work in Switzerland, we had to go there first as tourists, find jobs, then leave the country for at least a month while our future employers filled out all the paperwork and while the government, presumably, did background checks on us.

That first winter, Lisa found work as a maid in a small hotel and I as a Küchenbursche in the venerable Hotel Central. Because we were down to our last few francs, Lisa’s employer drove us just across the Swiss border, to a little town in the far north of Italy.

He found a place for us, on the ground floor of a house occupied by a farming couple, and gave us a few more francs to live on. Too soon, we had almost nothing and would have starved if the couple hadn’t allowed us to eat as many potatoes and apples as we could stand.

We figured out later that two bins overflowing with those commodities had been set aside for their pigs. But we were hungry and we weren’t proud. We’d vary our diet every few days by going to a local store and buying 100 grams of grated parmesan cheese, which we’d sprinkle sparingly on our fried potatoes.

Fortunately, I had brought along a pair of skates and a hockey stick, and I soon discovered that at a school on the Swiss side of the border, a group of kids played pickup hockey every afternoon on a little square of ice on the playground.

The border guards stopped looking at my passport after a day or two, just waving me through as I strolled past with the skates dangling from the stick over my shoulder. The Swiss town was one where most everybody still spoke Romansh, an offshoot of Latin that had been preserved in the isolated mountains of Switzerland.

It was like a dream, walking there every day to play hockey with a bunch of kids whose beautiful language was opaque to me, then retreating to my home in another country and another meal of porcine delicacies.

When all the paperwork had been properly stamped and filed, Lisa’s employer fetched us back to Switzerland, where we settled into our new life. My workmates were JoJo and Georgina, a Yugoslavian farm couple who saved every pfennig during the winter and took them all home, where the money went 10 times as far as it would have in Switzerland.

Lisa roomed with three other maids, all Italian. I roomed with Bruno, the Yugoslavian masseur at Hotel Central, who claimed to have once given a massage to Britt Ekland. Maybe it was even true.

Switzerland had a great need for foreign workers and had easily guarded borders, God having built walls of stone around the country some millennia earlier. At Hotel Central, all the grunt work was done by Yugoslavians, while the waiters, waitresses and maids were Italian and Spanish, with a few Northern Europeans thrown in for variety.

The chefs and cooks were all German-speaking fellows from Switzerland, Germany and Austria, as were the clerks and back-office functionaries. I was the wild card. The cooks and chefs seemed to understand that I was there on a lark, though it was beyond them how I could stand washing dishes.

My Yugoslavian colleagues were just plain stumped. I told them I had been going to college and had decided to take a break, but they could not fathom why anyone would travel halfway around the world to scrape burnt schnitzel off a frying pan. And they could see that I didn’t even appear to be saving my money, going out night after night with assorted international riff-raff.

I had no trouble understanding them. JoJo was 50 and looked 70, while Georgina was 30 and looked 50. Life at home clearly was hard, to the point where washing dishes for relatively high pay must have seemed like a breeze. But they wanted to go home, desperately, by the end of the season.

Me? I wanted to go blow my meager savings debauching myself in Greece for a month or two, then go home broke and look for work in Missoula. In other words, though I was washing dishes and not making much money, by American standards, I was still the privileged American, free to parachute into a complex social and economic system on a whim, and hang out as long as it suited my fancy.

Everyone else was there as a result of calculations as to how they could best make a life for themselves. Yugoslavia sent the poorest people into the Swiss labor market, but at least they had homes and farms to return to, and when they were home they lived quite well, and in relative freedom (this was many years before the horrors of what would come to be known as the Croatian War of Independence).

From my still privileged perch I think of all the people who have come to this country in recent years because of living conditions in their home countries that were unbearable, countries where jobs are scarce and violence is pervasive, and where much of the violence stems from America’s appetite for illegal drugs.

What if I were in their shoes, looking to cross a border not for the pleasure of experiencing another culture while I scraped together some money for further travels, but because I saw no other way to survive, or to give my family a long shot at lives free of hunger or violence? What wouldn’t I do in those circumstances?

Whatever immigration policies we come up with, they should combine practical concerns for our own safety and security with an acknowledgment of the basic humanity of the vast majority of the people wishing to come here.

It makes me sick to see all the fear-mongering and hatred aimed at people who only want to work hard to have what we, born here, had handed to us by blind fate. I wish the motives of most of our policy makers were as clear and blameless as the motives of most of the people hoping to make this their home.

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