From behind the bar, Frau Steffen looked me up and down as if appraising an animal at a livestock show. She was not quite thirty, tiny and blonde, birdlike with sharp features and large blue-gray eyes. Her nails were manicured with pink polish. Her voice suggested a hint of glass breaking. [End Page 126]
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[End Page 127]
Herr Steffen strode out of the kitchen, wiped his hands on his apron, and offered a handshake. He was flouting a European rule I’d learned: women initiate contact. In his forties, he had the florid look of a drinker.
Frau Steffen led me downstairs, below street level. I thumped my heavy suitcase on each step. When she opened the door to a room, I saw that each of the other waitresses had claimed a bed already covered with her things. Mine was in the middle, with about a foot on either side, and I banged my shin trying to get to it. The brunette waitress flicked the ashes from her cigarette into a glass ashtray on the windowsill.
The blonde waitress, Suzanne, was placing her clothes into the bureau that crowded the door. After introducing us, Frau Steffen left. I wondered how to unpack without space to open my suitcase. The two women did not speak. After what felt like a long silence, I asked, “Where are you from?”
“Zurich,” they said, not in unison. “Like the Steffens,” Suzanne added.
“I’m here to learn to ski,” I offered. They exchanged looks. “I was working for Daimler Benz in Stuttgart and I wanted to stay in Europe but I didn’t want to au pair.” Their silence made me continue. “I want to know Switzerland.”
We spoke high German, a tongue almost as foreign to them as Swiss German was to me. Disdain emanated from them like the smell of cooked cabbage. They spoke to each other in rapid dialect. The brunette was younger than I but entering her fifth season of waitressing. Suzanne had worked in a grocery store before her two seasons of waitressing.
Like me, they’d found the job through seasonal-employee want ads in the fall of 1977. My Swiss friend Ursula had sent me the booklet when I told her I wanted to continue working in Europe. She suggested the village of Grindelwald, located twenty miles from where she lived in Thun, six minutes from the train station. To inject excitement into her life as a biology teacher, Ursula left her apartment exactly six minutes before her train. That way, if something delayed her, say, a conversation with a friend, she missed the train. This, she said, made her feel that her life was unpredictable. There would, of course, soon be another train. I liked the wry way she told me this, as though describing a stranger’s idiosyncrasy.
My own life felt unpredictable enough—every day I encountered a situation that baffled me, an idea that made me revise my own. In Stuttgart one of my coworkers had been a Vietnamese woman who met her German husband while he was motorcycling through Asia. She was [End Page 128] afraid to have children because they’d be mixed-race. “I wouldn’t mind a girl. But what if it’s a boy?” she said. In the US, I told her, many people are mixed-race. “But we live in Stuttgart,” she replied.
The Eigerblick had offered one hundred francs a month more than the other hotel in Grindelwald—eighteen hundred francs—eight times as much as a Roman countess offered for an au pair position. I’d heard stories of au pairs being exploited, so it was easy to choose waitressing. Luxury restaurants and hotels still employed exclusively male servers. The Eigerblick had only three stars, but saving even my Eigerblick salary would enable me to travel for many months and then pay my way back to the United States. I wanted never to ask my parents for money.
Managing their last hotel in Ticino had left the Steffens with debts, the waitresses told me. Whether...