It’s the worst experiences that change us, define us, allow us to become what we want to be.
In the summer of 1998 I took a job teaching at a Swiss hotel management school in the French speaking part of the Alps, in order to escape my American life. (I was a nomad before the adjective “digital” had been anchored to it). I wanted to write, and I found it impossible to write while teaching at an expensive private college in Los Angeles. So I left.
The Swiss school itself turned out to be the worst school in the world. Hyperbole, I know, given that it wasn’t a one room shack in some devastated developing nightmare landscape, but still…hear me out.
It was run by a former West Point Colonel who modeled his personality after Robert Duvall’s Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. He roamed the hallways, classrooms and meeting rooms with a list of rules and regulations, dress, behavior, and draconian morality codes, all the while screaming at students and employees alike, “Five star! Five star!” We taught 36 hours a week (the normal teaching load at an American university is 9–12 hours a week) while Colonel West Point shouted commands like “Polish your shoes!” “Get a haircut!” “Button your coat!” Rule after rule after rule, enforced with a scream of “Five star!”
The school also had a private security team of reserve Swiss Army members. They followed students at night, took down names and numbers for even the most minor of infractions, even walked into dorm rooms unannounced at two or three in the morning, in search of sex crimes. I later found out they also followed us, to see where we went at night. But for the first two months, we didn’t go anywhere. We were too scared and exhausted to do anything but sleep.
Expats usually experience culture shock and sometimes mild depression over being an outsider in a foreign environment, not fitting in like at home, but this was like being an expat on another planet orbiting a sun in distant galaxy. If a two-headed, five-armed, androgynous silver mesomorph had walked down the hallway, I wouldn’t have blinked. Unless its tie was unknotted, or its shirtsleeves were rolled up. Five star!
We spent twelve hours a day, six days a week locked up at the school. The students slept through classes, cooked and served us breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening, the administration fired a steady stream of critical salvos at us all. After months of constant criticism and complaining about the pettiest of regulatory infractions, I was ready to apply for political asylum in France or Italy.
Then there was the slave auction.
Once a semester, the graduating seniors held a “slave auction” to raise funds for their graduation ball. I can imagine the response to a slave auction in the hallowed halls of liberal American academia.
And who were the slaves?
The lobby of the school was transformed into a throbbing simulation of a Euro disco and one by one the faculty were auctioned off to the students, slave labor to whatever whim the students had. Most were silly things, like cleaning dorm rooms or cooking a meal for them, but still, the optics of the whole thing were rotten. My student owner simply took me to a nightclub with her.
The next week colleagues whispered to me, “You’ve were seen in the bars and discos in town, with a student!” The horror, the horror.
That weekend one of my American colleagues and I drove down the steep, winding, mountain road toward the valley below in his VW Golf, to escape the not-so-magic mountain, the temperature dropping and snow starting to fall. Hmm, this is starting to sound like the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead” or Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” Instead, we hit a patch of black ice and started to slide out of control off the mountain road.
I still don’t understand how I’m not dead, the passenger side wheels slipping off the edge of the road, the mountain, looking down into the darkness, about to drop off into the void, and suddenly, instead of being crushed in the Rhone River 9,000 feet below in the Switzerdeutch speaking part of the country, I’m on the crushed hood of the car, having gone through the windshield, the car sliding into the side of the mountain and not off the mountain, thin glass shards like acupuncture in my scalp, blood flowing down my face. Seatbelt? I don’t remember. Maybe it broke, maybe I forgot to buckle it. There’s a lot I don’t remember about that moment, and sometimes I believe that maybe I died there and everything that has followed since is some kind of Lost-style flash-forward afterlife, or a just dream, like Izzy Maurer’s in Lulu on the Bridge.
The next day I was fired. Illegally.
The school was required by Swiss law and my labor contract to give three months’ notice of termination. When I explained my situation to the cantonal officer, he threw his hands up in the air. “Pas possible! Pas possible!”
Not only would the school have to pay me, I was also eligible for Swiss unemployment compensation: eighty percent of my salary with no tax deductions. I could spend the next six months collecting unemployment as a ward of the Swiss welfare state. But the school simply refused to pay up. I would have to sue them to get my 11,000 Swiss francs, but it would cost me about 11,000 Swiss francs in legal fees. “You have a good case,” the official said, and urged me to sign up for unemployment and free French lessons, so I could become a contributing member of Swiss society after my benefits expired.
That afternoon my new Swiss credit card arrived in the mail. “Every exit is also an entrance,” Rosencrantz says in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I packed up my two suitcases, took a cash advance of 5,000 Swiss francs from my new credit card, cut up the credit card, and moved to Paris.
Since then, I’ve lived in France, Italy, Germany and Dubai. I’ve written four books, a dozen screenplays and lots of other things. It’s the worst experiences that change us, define us, allow us to become what we want to be. And walking away can be the best experience of all.