Secret Service Pin on Blue Knit Sweater
A Nebulous Number of Days of Atomity and Memory
Secret Service Special Agents and Switzerland
I’m a European trapped in a Canadian body. I’ve always felt out of sorts living in Canada. But it wasn’t until I went on my first trip to Europe at the age of 15, using earnings from my first summer job to travel to Barcelona on a school trip, that I started to truly understand the incongruence.
Although my parents did not have much disposable income when I was growing up, they instilled a travel bug in me by doing family road trips to places like Niagara Falls, Sudbury, Montreal, Edmonton and the Rockies, as well as to New York City and the Jersey and Maryland shores. Many of my Ukrainian friends’ families didn’t travel at all, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I appreciated my parents’ efforts to expose us to more of the world to the best of their abilities.
After University, my trips abroad became more frequent, and were not restricted to Europe, but Europe has always been where I felt most comfortable and tears have always flowed when I had to return to Canada. At one point, in my late 20s, I even plotted to move to Paris. Perhaps that is not a unique dream, but as part of this plan, I studied French for years, including doing French immersion programs in France and getting half-way through a university French Language and Literature program while working full-time at the Royal Ontario Museum. The only reason I didn’t complete the second B.A. was because, at that level, the focus shifts to French literary analysis – and all I wanted to do was to become more fluent in French.
My life, however, took a different path. I fell in love and decided to stay in Toronto. A decade later, when that relationship ended, the first trip I took on my own was to visit friends now living in Europe. My jumping off point, as it often was for my travels in Europe was Paris, which I have visited eight times in my lifetime, and on this particular stay, I finally made it to Montmartre, Sainte Chapelle, and the Musée Rodin. From Paris, I journeyed to Poitiers to visit an American acquaintance who had an infant son and a much older and odd French husband. But the highlight of the trip was a visit with a good friend (a former Parisienne who had lived in Toronto for several years) who had settled with her Swiss husband and their two young boys on the edge of Geneva.
My friend and her husband were gracious hosts, but they were working parents, so I spent my days getting acquainted with Geneva on my own, and doing day trips a bit further afield. Mes amis had suggested I venture to the Chateau de Gruyères which boasted one of the most famous castles in Switzerland, and to end the day with a stopover in Montreux, which is known for its annual jazz festival, mild climate, and romantic location along the shores of Lake Geneva.
So, off I went, tutto solo, on a two-and-a-half-hour train ride to Gruyères where I soon found myself exploring the medieval fortress. But the structure is more than a fortification. It is also home to a museum which includes a collection of nineteenth-century landscapes by artists such as Corot, as well as a whimsical collection of modern Fantastic Art. The mélange of old and new made for an amazing juxtaposition of treasures and were a gift to the senses.
While strolling leisurely through the castle, I kept encountering a group of about a dozen Americans. For some reason, they presumed I was European (possibly because I wasn’t wearing jeans and sneakers as they all were) and did not speak English, so they were voicing their opinions about the art quite freely, sometimes mocking pieces of the unusual art. At one point, I finally said something to them in English, completely catching them off guard – which, as it turns out, was rather ironic.
We continued to run into each other repeatedly and I kept striking up longer and longer conversations with various members of the group (which was mostly male, but there were a couple of females). They weren’t part of a tour, but they weren’t forthcoming about what their connection was. And they seemed fascinated that I spoke both English and French and was a Canadian on my own in Switzerland. And this was even before I mentioned I was also fluent in Ukrainian and had a smattering of Italian. Remember, 25 years ago, it was a far, far less globalized world with many North Americans speaking only a single language. So, they latched on to me. I can only suspect they felt comfortable being with someone who spoke one of Switzerland’s official languages and might be able to help them out as required.
We eventually sat down together for a beverage or some food, but I was still having a challenge getting any of them to disclose what tied them together. Finally, a few of them let their guard down and confessed that they were United States Secret Service Special Agents who were in Geneva as part of President Bill Clinton’s protective services team. Of course, I laughed. I thought it was the best line I’d ever heard in my life. But then I remembered there was indeed a hubbub in Geneva because Clinton was in town for the G8 summit and the US-EU summit meetings. Still, I was sceptical until they started pulling out their business cards as evidence.
Not all of them were as talkative as others, but I did glean that they had been given the day off because the staff were rotated on such duties. And they, like me, had chosen to visit the Chateau de Gruyères. At least that’s what they told me. Perhaps the President was planning on visiting the castle and they were scoping it out, but that’s sheer speculation. However, some of them presented me with their business cards (of which I still have copies), and one of them gave me a United States Secret Service pin measuring about a half inch in size.
I actually thought I had lost the pin during my last move, but recently, while on the hunt for something else, I found the pin safely tucked away. It not only brought back these singular memories, but as I tried to figure out in which year I made this trip, I rediscovered the fact that I used to put together inventive scrapbooks of my trips which include photographs, notes, ticket stubs, street posters, and more. I had completely forgotten about my scrap-booking days and hadn’t looked at any of them in decades.
As for the Secret Service Special Agents, they returned to Geneva that same afternoon and I have a picture of them at the Gruyères train station. I made my way to Montreux, on my own again, and with a very different impression of what I would have guessed such Special Agents would be like – normal people with some special training, but who were a tad nervous being in a country where they didn’t speak the language. And I never would have imagined they might think I was more intriguing than they were.