Being an only child, like everything else in life, has both positive and negative aspects, the importance of which often depends on how you look at things. I have never longed for a sibling, nor have I spent much time thinking about what life would have been like had I had one. My parents never forced me to leave home and attend boarding school; they just presented the facts (well, I suppose I may have been given some hints) and I simply opted for, what seemed to me, the most adventurous option. So, in the winter of 1973, when I was just 9 years old, my mother raised the topic of my schooling one night over dinner. I later discovered that, at that time, the provincial government had been experimenting with new teaching methods, and she did not want me to be part of their experiment. In any case, she asked me if I would be willing to go to school in Switzerland; she had done her research and learned that they had the best boarding schools in the world. My mother explained that, as Switzerland was on the other side of the world from Canada (where we lived), it would only be possible for me to see my parents every three months. She then went on to explain that there would be lots of other kids there – and I could ski every day. Well, skiing every day, are you kidding me? It was an easy sale. Not only was I already skiing at the time, I knew where Switzerland was: I had seen some World Cup downhill races on TV, and those skiers were my heroes. Not seeing my parents for three months did not seem like such a bad thing – after all, I was already at camp for a month during the summer. The next autumn I would be off to boarding school – in Switzerland!
I have to say, my birthplace, Shawinigan, is not particularly nice. It’s an industrial town. Its location on the St-Maurice River made it an ideal place for electricity generation and a paper mill. It went on to attract other electricity-hungry industries, most of which stank! Organised labour and the political climate, as well as a bunch of other factors, finally choked profits and investment. The town then went through a long recession before emerging as the gateway to the Parc National de la Mauricie – 536 km2 of protected wilderness. With its 155 lakes, it is a paradise for anyone who loves canoeing – and mosquitos! To ensure you sleep well at night, in your flimsy tent, you are given strict instructions by the forest ranger as you enter the park: under no circumstances should you keep food in your tent. Doing so would attract the bears, which is not too good for the park’s health and safety reputation. So much for midnight snacks! You are also told that, at night, you should hoist a backpack containing all your food 4 m high into a tree – at least 50 m from your campsite. Now that’s what I call adventure: uncomfortable in a tent and in danger of being eaten by a bear. The Europeans love it; they come in their droves, and the town’s prosperity has now been guaranteed. However, back in the days when I was a 9-year-old, the prospect of going to school there was not all that appealing. Switzerland – and skiing – was much more attractive.
Finally, the day came when I was ready to go off to school. It had been a long time since that dinner conversation the previous winter. My anticipation was prolonged due to the fact that in Switzerland school didn’t start until the 1st of October. During the summer, my restlessness had been tamed by being around all the other kids at camp. In September, once they’d all gone back to school following Labour Day, my excitement grew stronger. You can imagine my delight the day we finally made it to school. Up in the Swiss mountains, at an altitude of 1500 m, there was already 40 cm of snow. We’ll be skiing soon I thought. Well, I thought wrong; this was just a freak snowstorm and, as it turned out, “skiing every day” was only for the winter months, between Christmas and Easter. So, after all this anticipation, you can imagine my deception; I cried that night, alone in my bed. The room was so dark I could not see my hand 5 cm in front of my face. Back at home we’d always had the city lights reflecting inside my room, so I’d never experienced such darkness. I would just have to be more patient. I reasoned that, if I’d been able to wait eight months to get here, I could wait another three before finally skiing in the Alps.
The next day we were woken up by the noise of the shutters being raised. The sun’s rays flooded the room, and we were told to get ready for breakfast. When I arrived at breakfast and saw the panoramic view from the corner window, I witnessed, for the first time, the majesty of the Alps. Besides, there was a cute Italian girl that kept looking at me, so I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Switzerland. At that time, I spoke only Canadian French, so I said, “Bonjour.” She answered, “Buongiorno, mi chiamo Marina. Tu, come ti chiami?” Needless to say, I had soon forgotten all about skiing as I was busy learning Italian; even though I had just learned a hard lesson about patience, my encounter with Marina had taught me even more, as it had opened my eyes to another culture.
As it turned out, I learned that patience is good for your character: it makes you appreciate things more; it spices things up: it raises the expectations. Naturally, of course, there may be some disappointments along the way, but that is all part of our learning experience: we calibrate our ambitions with reality and potential, in order to find a way to reach our goal. It took me a while to understand that, but finally it sank in. This is what is meant by taking control of your own destiny. Sure, you can say that I was perhaps one in a million (Canadians) who was offered the opportunity to attend school in Switzerland. I can’t help that; I can only say that I seized the opportunity.
Francis Lambert – Zabok, 4 August 2013