The Price

Many Americans don’t know that they are descended from Swiss Immigrants. I didn’t. Even those of us who do genealogical research might get the information that our ancestors came from a place called the “Palatinate,” or the Alsace, or some town in Southern Germany or the Black Forest. We may not think about how those people might have migrated themselves from towns in Switzerland during the hundred or so years between the Reformation and the moment that families began leaving Europe to settle in the “New World.”

The Price tells the story of these immigrants. The story is (very loosely) based on the story of my own family, a story that could be anyone’s, really. These people were Mennonites, originally from the area around Zürich. Some had fled persecution during the 16th century and gone to more Mennonite-friendly areas in the Alsace. Some fled and returned. Some stuck it out even when it meant imprisonment, confiscation of their property, the kidnapping of their children and death. 

My experience with American history was that all the people who came to America in pursuit of religious freedom wanted to, but my heart and mind told me that this could not be the case. The reality of their decision hit me as I stood on a boat landing on the Rhine in the town of Stein am Rhein in Switzerland. Over the landing was a date painted in bright colors, carved into stone. The date was 1665. 

I had no idea at the time (it was 1997) that any of my ancestors had come from Switzerland or that it was possible that they might have stood on this boat landing to board a river boat that would take them to Basel and from there to the comparatively friendly lands of the Palatinate. I did not know what the Palatinate was.

The boat landing and the customs house, the courtyard, the stairs, all of it contrasted completely with what I knew of life in America in 1665, and I understood at that moment what many European immigrants had left behind as I had not understood it before. For years I was haunted by that boat landing on the Rhine and my realization of what the decision to emigrate would have involved. In The Price I have written about the decision and what it cost those who made it.  

The Price is a loose sequel to The Brothers Path and the final book in a trilogy that begins with Savior


The featured photo is of a cabin built by one of my ancestors, Jacob Leber, as it stood in its original location in Pennsylvania in the early 18th century. It is now in a park, having been bought, tagged and reassembled by someone who valued it. It’s a far cry from the boat landing and customs house in Stein am Rhein or any other buildings of its time in Switzerland.

Navigating Time Travel

Reading a street map is becoming a lost art. Is that OK? I rely on my phone, too. It’s like having a wife who sits in the passenger seat with a map and tells me where to turn. I’m sorry for the sexist remark “wife” here but in my life that person was either my mom or me so it isn’t all that sexist. When I was in Switzerland with my friend L I opted NOT to pay extra for GPS because I was going to have a “wife” who could navigate. I wasn’t thinking that, 1) L drives everywhere in her life because 2) her husband is blind and 3) not everyone LIKES maps as much as I do and 4) she wasn’t really good at reading a map and 5) Switzerland is what one from out here where the second largest town in an area as large as Connecticut has only 4000 people, well, we might call Switzerland “compressed.” Where the next town HERE might be 14 miles away, in Switzerland it might be half a mile.

I can tell you, it led to some pretty ugly moments, but we always got there, and L got better at map reading. All was well.

As for me here in the wild and woollies, my cell phone service data plan doesn’t cover the San Luis Valley. I have a Rand McNally road atlas in my car, but with no co-pilot that’s a bit of a problem but there is this little trick of pulling over and looking at the map. I’m pretty good at that.

Maps fascinate me. In the process of writing my historical novels, I found old maps to be like time machines. While writing The Brothers Path I tried to imagine the moment when Felix Manz was drowned in the Limmat and what kind of panic that might have inspired in some people — including my characters. In fact, the first line I wrote of that book was THAT moment, the moment when the brothers Thomann and Andreas realized they were about to witness something that had never, ever, ever happened before* and one of them, Thomann, quickly apprehended that it could result in a lot more deaths if not a riot. Thomann told his brother to run. In fact, the first line I wrote of that novel was, “Andreas! Run!”

But where? Zürich today is not Zürich of the 16th century. It was a walled city — and it had been walled more than once, a series of walls ever reaching outward as the city grew. I found a map. A beautiful 16th century map with the names of the various gates clearly marked. I saw the roads (old, old roads, still there, paved, lined, traffic filled, but old) that would have taken them out of the city that horrible day. There was a squat little tower called the Ketzitzturli (sp) that would have put him right on the road home.

Many of the streets in Zürich carry the names of the towers to once they led. I found it pretty easy to drive in Zürich because I knew this old map so well.

*The leader of the Reformed church, Huldrych Zwingli, executed his former friend, the Anabaptist, Felix Manz. It was the first execution of a Protestant by a Protestant and it happened only 3 years after the beginning of the Reformation. Both men had once been priests.


This is one of the wisest things I’ve ever read. It puts things squarely where they belong, and it is sometimes difficult to remember:

“…whatever we nourish in ourselves grows; that is an eternal law of nature. There is an organ of displeasure, of dissatisfaction in us, as there is one of opposition and doubt. The more food we provide for it and the more we practice it, the mightier it becomes until it turns from an organ into a malignant ulcer and banefully eats up its environment, drains and strangles all the good humors of the body. Then repentance, self-reproach and other absurdities are added to it, we become unjust toward others and ourselves. The joy at ones own success and action as well as that of others is lost. In our desperation we finally look for the reason of all evil outside ourselves instead of finding it in our mental perversion. We should see every person and every event in its real light, one should step beyond oneself to be able to return to oneself all the more free.” Goethe quoted by his friend, Friedrich von Muller.”

I’ve been watching the British art historian’s –Waldemar Januszczak — series’ off and on for a couple of years. The most recent one I’ve looked at is Rococo Before Bedtime. I don’t always agree with him when he starts inflicting his taste in art on the viewing public, but as MY taste in art conflicts with the Rococo, I never learned to appreciate it. I never even put it in its place in time. I’ve seen some of it. I got to spend a day at the Nymphenburg Castle in Munich trying to fathom it and what my new acquaintance was telling me. He was a docent from the Haus du Kunst the formerly Hitlerian government art museum building. He didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak any German, and we relied on something loosely resembling French. The architecture was beautiful, the interior ornamentation? I didn’t get it.

And this grossed me out:



Carriage, Nymphenburg Castle


It’s pretty impossible to escape personal taste. The baroque and rococo (the baroque becomes the rococo) churches I’ve visited in Europe are still over-the-top to me. The first one I visted was Einsiedeln Abbey in Switzerland. Entering that sanctuary for the first time was scary. I’d NEVER been in a place like that — or even in a Catholic church. EVERYTHING was there in a vast 3D illusion — and some actual 3D legs and arms made of stucco (plaster). I felt the full and intended effect, I guess, of what I have now learned the Catholic church wanted me to feel. My friend and I retreated from that place and took a walk in the woods.


Ausschnitt Weihnachtskuppel Einsiedeln

Ceiling, Einsiedeln Abbey


It was interesting to learn, however, that the baroque (which led to the Rococo)  was (in Januszczak’s opinion? Or really?) a church sanctioned art movement that was part of the Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent had sent out the order? Edict? that Catholic churches should VIVIDLY depict Bible stories on their walls in reaction to the burning of the idols. Einsiedeln is one of the pilgrimage churches and, according to Januszczak, pilgrimages were big during the baroque and rococo. This also made the pilgrimage churches even richer BUT they had to give the pilgrims some bang for their bucks which contributed to their ornateness. I believe that. Churches I’ve visited that were NOT pilgrim churches but were decorated around the same time are still ornate, but not over-the-top, every square inch peopled with saints, angels, madonnas, and various random people in the “audience,” the faces of donors.

I wasn’t even clear on the YEARS that comprise the baroque and rococo, but watching the program I got it. It was much of Goethe’s lifetime. When I realized that I thought of Goethe’s incredible mind that was, literally, everywhere — science, poetry, drama, erotica, government, mining, botany, geology on and on — and realized that the zeitgeist was such that the fecundity and fluidity in the visual arts and music was everywhere, as elaborate and wildly creative as a rococo ceiling.

Meditation on Precipices

There are a lot of theories about mountains and I don’t mean geological theories or theories about their existence, but theories about the way people perceive them. One theory says that it was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that people started to regard mountains as objects of wonder and inspiration.

“During the 18th century altitude became increasingly venerated…The fresh attitude to altitude was a radical change of heart and one which made itself felt in every cultural sphere, from literature to architecture or horticulture. In the early part of the century, the so-called ‘hill poem’ established itself as a popular minor genre…” (Robert Macfarlane, Mountains of the Mind)

Before that they were “mere” obstacles with dangerous precipices people had to cross to get from one place to another.

I don’t agree with this theory, though I do agree that during the 18th and 19th century people did (apparently) begin to travel to mountains for the sake of the mountains themselves, and romantic poetry does love the precipice — as a metaphor at least.

The precipice is the place where the faint-hearted, ordinary, unimaginative, dim and cowardly person NEVER goes. In real life a precipice is a dangerous and scary place with extreme exposure where no one goes unless they must. I get the metaphor — and after reading Zorba the Greek I was determined to “walk to the edge of the leaf” and look over the side. (The Boss’/Kazantzaki’s metaphor for the metaphor of the precipice).

“Some men — the more intrepid ones — reach the edge of the leaf. From there we stretch out, gazing into chaos. We tremble. We guess what a frightening abyss lies beneath us. In the distance we can hear the noise of the other leaves of the tremendous tree, we feel the sap rising from the root of our leaf and our hearts swell. Bent thus over the awe-inspiring abyss, with all our bodies and all our souls, we tremble with terror. From that moment begins…”

“I stopped. I wanted to say “from that moment begins poetry,” but Zorba would not have understood. I stopped.

“‘What begins’? asked Zorba’s anxious voice. ‘Why did you stop’?

“…begins the great danger, Zorba. Some grow dizzy and delirious, others are afraid; they try to find an answer to strengthen their hearts, and they say: ‘God’! Others again, from the edge of the leaf, look over the precipice calmly and bravely and say: ‘I like it.’! (Nikos Kazantzakis/Zorba the Greek

There are some really nasty, scary passes through the Alps. One, the Via Mala (evil way), is notoriously terrifying. Goethe went there on a trip to Switzerland and sketched it. The lyrical lines of Goethe’s ink drawing reveal some of the romanticization of the precipice.


In real life it’s more like this:


Imagine crossing that ice-covered stone bridge in the 15th century early on a late spring morning with the wind blowing.

The trail itself, leading to the bridge, was cut into the side of the mountain and it looks like this:


Another fun pass from the past is the Devil’s Bridge on the Gotthard Pass. The pass itself has been in use since the 12th century. Before the bridge was built (and that means several centuries) people died trying to get across the river when it was in flood. The story is:

The legend of this particular bridge states that the Reuss was so difficult to ford that a Swiss herdsman wished the devil would make a bridge. The Devil appeared, but required that the soul of the first to cross would be given to him. The mountaineer agreed, but drove a goat across ahead of him, fooling his adversary. Angered by this trickery, the devil fetched a rock with the intention of smashing the bridge, but an old woman drew a cross on the rock so the devil could not lift it anymore.

Turner painted this bridge with a mixture of romanticism and actuality that works for me.


The precipice of the mind, however, is another thing. Henry Miller wrote about that, in Nexus.

“Don’t be afraid of falling backward into a bottomless pit. There is nothing to fall into. You’re in it and of it, and one day, if you persist, you will be it…Did I fear unconsciously that if I succeeded in letting go, I would be speaking with my own voice…and would never again know surcease from toil?”

I understand the precipice of the mind and I understand the precipice of the mountain. I am very afraid of heights and it’s a fear I don’t particularly want to face. There are slopes I was always happy to climb and some of them look precipitous, but they were not. The angles were friendly and accommodating, the exposure was doable and I did not have to look down any drastic drops if I did not want to. That is not the challenge life meant for me. As for the precipice of the mind, Henry Miller was right. I have fallen backward into the bottomless pit and there I found liberty.

Quiet Morning in Monte Vista, Colorado

Back home again and the lilacs are in full force. ❤  Like most trips, this one was long and strange. The flight was normal for a transatlantic flight; the big difference was that it was half as long as most I have experienced, but none the less grueling. Still, I think of the people about whom I’m writing with their three+ month voyages, death, disease and disaster and I think I don’t have any room to complain.

The dogs are fine. Mindy stayed with Lois’ husband and their three dogs. Dusty and Bear stayed in a nice kennel. Bear was definitely relieved when I picked her up from the kennel and Dusty was ecstatic and told me all his stories from the two weeks. Bear and Dusty are tired still this morning, but I know that by tomorrow they — and I — will be “normal” (for us!) again.

Summer arrived in the San Luis Valley while I was gone — not my favorite season since I hate yard work (I do like gardening) and I vastly prefer cold weather, but we’ll get used to it and be sorry to see it leave when fall comes.

Humans are strange that way.

Iceland was very good for me as a writer and artist. The weather was abysmal while we were in the Snaefellsjokul National Park — a park that circles a huge, sleeping volcano covered with a glacier. Because of the storm that settled on the peninsula while we were there, we didn’t see any of this until we were in the air flying away from Iceland on the one clear day we had during our adventure. It was magnificent. I loved both countries I visited and was sorry to leave both of them, Switzerland because it feels like home to me and Iceland because it remains a provocative mystery, even more tantalizing because of what I did see.


I love Icelandic sagas, so, for me, the fact that Icelanders seem to love them too and will talk about them was great. While they were digging a foundation for a building in downtown Reykjavik some years ago, they happened on the ruins of a Viking turf long house and so, instead of building THAT building, they built the most amazing museum to house the ruins. There I heard a docent — a young woman — telling another tourist about a funny saga and I wanted to know more. When, later, I asked her, she was so happy to talk about it and she and her assistant found a paper about this saga and printed it out for me. I cannot imagine such a conversation or experience here, but, then, I know that Americans generally don’t go around reading Icelandic sagas for fun. I find this strange because they are way more interesting that Game of Thrones.

Everywhere we went, in fact, the sagas were part of the landscape and I think it’s beautiful that 1) the sagas were written down, 2) they are still valued and loved. They are truly the story of Iceland’s settlement and make, for Iceland, a historical record that does not hide or gloss over or sugarcoat or pervert anything.


Big Disappointments

Yesterday was cold and rainy, but I was excited that I was going to meet Mrs. Anglo-Swiss at the main train station in Zurich. We got there in good time, asked where the train from Mrs. Swiss’ city arrived, and waited. She never got off. Meanwhile. Mrs. Swiss arrived at completely the other side of this immense station and waited for us, finally going to the main entrance.  We all waited for an hour or more before giving up. Since I didn’t get a Swiss SIM card my phone doesn’t work as it usually does, but even so I would not have been able to receive messages from Facebook without wifi.

We went to a Starbucks where I logged on and learned the whole sad story. This has made me think aboutour dependence on these machines. 20 years ago we would have been a lot less casual about setting a meeting point but we assumed we’d connect and/or be able to message each other.

The next misadventure was at the little church that inspired Martin of Gfenn — it was locked and there was no caretaker to help us out. We did manage to meet Sonja and that redeemed the day. We went together to the pretty medieval town of Greifensee.

Today we leave for Iceland though, honestly, I’m done with this and would really like to go home.

 Alp Horns

My first visit to Zurich was in 1994 and I did not like the city at all. 21 years later, after many subsequent visits, the city feels like an old friend, even its darker history feels like a poorly resolved and largely forgotten fight between siblings. Just a few years ago, Zurich apologized to the Anabaptists (Mennonites) and even put a plaques beside the Limmar where Felix Manz was executed by “baptism” (drowning) back in the 16th century.

Yesterday we had fewer problems navigating. I drove us over the Uetliberg into the city, parked our car and led Lois through Zurich’s ancient and labyrinthine streets. We spent some time in the Grossmunster, and Lois climbed up the tower. It was a lovely day, a Zurich postcard. There were people everywhere enjoying the sunshine, relaxing at outdoor cafes, kids playing.  

At 5:30 we we to meet a friend of mine, Rainer, and his girlfriend, Kirsten, for dinner. They are both historians, one working in the state archives and the other in the city archives. 

I first met Rainer in 2004 when I was writing Martin of Gfenn. I needed help with the historical accuracy of the story and I found him in a Google search — he had published a paper about Gfenn! When we met that first time, he brought along a map of medieval Zurich. Last night when we met he brought me two more maps — on that is of Canton Zurich (including the tiny village of Obfelden where I’m staying now) and the other showing the Zurich war. They are wonderful!!

Dinner was good, conversation even better, and then, more or less out of nowhere, or so it seemed, four men were standing in the middle of the street playing Alp horns. “For you,” Kirsten said to Lois. I had the same thought. 

I also made more attempts at speaking German and did well enough that Rainer said he didn’t even notice. 

Because the drive home involved a winding mountain road and more navigating, we had to leave while there was still daylight, so we all walked back to our parking structure, stopping on the way outside Cabaret Voltaire for a photo evoking photos we took eleven years ago.

I think most of the time people share elements of their individual experiences. But Rainer and I, eleven years ago actually shared an experience. Meeting last evening we picked up our conversation, returning to those moments while telling our stories of our lives through the intervening decade, here at the “Navel of the World.”

Life’s Labyrinthine Chaos Course

“To travel is to be born and die at every instant.” Victor Hugo

Long ago when I arrived in China with my second husband, and the school where we were teaching did not send anyone to meet our plane, Jim laid down on a bench in the airport and surrendered. His year in China was vastly different from mine, but he remembers it now as the great adventure of his life.

I didn’t surrender. I found a taxi driver willing to take us and our two large trunks to the Bai Yun Hotel. I was exhilarated. The school came and got us the next day.

The frustrations and alienation involved in traveling affect everyone differently, I guess. When my friend came to visit us in China, she was basically freaked out by how different it was, by the suspension of customary values. She was primed to see the evils of communism everywhere and none of its virtues. The dirt, inconvenience, not being able to be a master in communication or even read a street sign drove her to a kind of wall. She blamed me for the ubiquitous cockroaches. She was angry at me for (by then) finding everything normal and accused me of “going along with their horrible system.” Our friendship nearly ended in constant confrontation caused by culture shock.

She felt out of control, alienated from herself, unable to find psychological comfort or ease. She (and my husband also) took hundreds of photographs. Each image tied them to home and normalcy. For both of them it was a way to experience the experience later, when the hard part of living, being, in a different world was over and they had survived it. I’m glad they took all those pictures because now for me, they are memories. That world vanished quickly in China’s rapid development

A few years later she returned to China and having had that first experience was able to enjoy China for what it was.

I’ve been in Switzerland many times and other than the language thing, I feel very at home here. Driving is difficult because the distances between places are so short it is confusing for me, and this is the first time I’ve tried it. BUT I remember my first trip to Europe. I did not like Switzerland one bit. Zurich (where my friends lived) seemed ugly and claustrophobic. It frightened me. I had jet lag — something experience has taught me how to avoid. I never knew where we were or where we were going. Everything seemed random and chaotic and I often felt trapped.

The good experiences in that first trip were the moments when I could slow down the “roller coaster.”

That first trip included a sojourn to Venice. In Venice I rediscovered the posture of the wanderer and the beauty in being born and dying “every instant” that took me to China and stood me in good stead, the willingness to be lost.


Deer in the Headlights

Ich Liebe Schweiz but it might not be always mutual. Why? I look like a Swiss grandma but I can’t understand Swiss German. So when a young woman at the grocery store said, €%~€|#%\#}\%#|€%#.£^%!” To me yesterday because I had improperly brought apples to the cash register (no tag for weight) I could only stare at her. Sigh.

Ich bin nicht ein Dumbkopf….

I did a bit better at the airport when the clerk selling overpriced salads told me to order from his colleague because his shift was over. He didn’t speak Swiss German, but so-called high German.

I have actually studied German for three years with Rosetta Stone and yesterday — my first back in Switzerland in 11 years — proved its value at least in the development of the passive language skills, reading comprehension and listening. The problem is I have never tried speaking German. 

We are staying  in a converted 18th century barn owned by expat-Australians. It’s absolutely stunning — as are the owners. It is in the village of Obfelden in Canton Zurich a few minutes by foot from the village in which my ancestors lived. The house reminds me very much of my little stone house in Descanso. The living room floor tiles came from an old church! The floor is heated. 

Living Room Floor

From our window we can see the total romance of the Swiss countryside — and the Rigi, a mountain loved and painted and described in poetry during the Romantic period.  Eight or ten sheep graze in a small field below us, the cheery sound of their bells says “Switzerland.”

For dinner I had Appenzeller cheese and truly good bread and one of the apples of shame. 😬 Breakfast? Yoghurt from Swiss milk and strawberries… And coffee but no Dusty to share it with. 

Today we will be taking it easy. Lois has gone back to bed. I will go out soon to see where the Wanderweg sign outside the front door points and leads. At least my tiny Swiss German vocabulary in the Zurich dialect is Gruezi! = Hello.

Outside the Front Door