When I was just entering 1st grade, my father’s job took him to Switzerland. We would all live in Zurich for a year, and my sister and I would go to school there. The company had found us an apartment, but it wasn’t yet ready for us when we arrived, and we spent a week or two living in a hill-top hotel while my father began work. The school I was to attend was just for grades one and two; my sister, in third grade, was going somewhere else.
Before my first day of class, the headmaster came to our hotel and walked us to my school. Our route followed sidewalks and sets of stairs down the hill toward the shore of Lake Zurich, and my school turned out to be a beautiful old house across from a park. It all seemed very delightful. I was well satisfied.
The next day, my sister was given instructions to make sure I got on the bus back to the hotel at the end of the school day; our school bus would be stopping first at her school, and then coming to get the smallest kids. At the end of school, I waited out front, watching the buses come and go, and all the children departing. If my sister was waving frantically from a bus window I never saw her. When it was clear there were no more buses, I decided as only a 7-year-old can, well, I walked here yesterday, I’ll just walk back.
I set out confidently, marching up any set up stairs I came to, striding along the sidewalks, zig-zagging my way in an uphill direction. I have no idea how long it was before I realized that I really had no clue which sidewalks and which stairs to take. It finally dawned on me that I was completely lost. In a foreign country. And I was seven.
That was when I got scared.
Most of the fairy tales I’d heard so far were more or less localized to this place – if this wasn’t the Black Forest of Germany, Switzerland nevertheless had children named Hansel and Gretel. When I realized I would have to knock on somebody’s door and ask for help, the quiet and orderly Swiss neighborhood took on a terrifying hue. In my memory, that moment featured sunshine suddenly blotted out by dark clouds. Before me was a house, selected at random to be the site of my ordeal. What witch might open the door I dreaded to discover.
The terror of that moment is clear to me by the fact that I remember nothing after bursting into tears as the door opened, and I sobbed, “Hotel Sonnenberg! Hotel Sonnenberg!” My next clear memory is saying good-bye to the white-haired old lady (good witch) who had answered the door. She had given me an apple and put me in a taxi, sending me to the hotel and my frantic mother.
All told, I hadn’t been missing for very long. By the time the Jennifer-less bus had arrived I was already well on my journey, and the minutes were short between my mother’s first frightened knowledge that I was lost, and the phone call from the good witch.
I don’t know if the experience would have been more or less scary if my imagination hadn’t been fully stoked with fairy tales already. But it seemed to me at the time that this was the stuff of story, that indeed this was exactly what happened to little children in stories; if I was the hero of my own story then I must do the difficult thing, and do my best to face whatever witch, giant or ogre I found behind the door. I had to muster my emotional courage and raise my hand to knock.