Sunday, September 17, 2006

Six Years on Another Planet

September 17

In June of 1978 I was married to Jim Adshead, who had just been named Director of Public Affairs and Advertising for Du Pont Europe. This event catapulted us both into a realm neither of us had ever dreamed of.

I, a struggling journalist and public relations practitioner in New York City, single mom of a teenaged girl, and Jim, the respected, charming and too-often-overlooked executive in a big international corporation based in Delaware, were all at once endowed with the gift of living in Geneva and given more money than we had ever had. The biggest leap for me was at last having a husband with job security, and having a status in a mainstream community in a fabulous European city. For Jim, it was having a supportive and interesting wife 17 years his junior, and being given opportunities by his beloved company to do his best work for them. Life in Geneva changed us both.

It didn't take long for me to realize that I was blessed to be removed from the world of New York Magazine, where trends were inaugurated and dropped so fast you hardly had time to learn of them before they were "out." In Geneva, it was still okay to discuss astrology as a lighthearted opener for cocktail party conversation.

And there was a great deal of that. People who worked for us gave parties; people Jim worked for gave parties. As for me, being the wife of a American corporation executive all but removed me from the work force, as the job market in Switzerland is tightly controlled. I had never been in a situation in which I not only did not have to work, I couldn't get hired if I tried. Women on the lower rungs of the ladder, even writers, were expected to be fluent in at least three languages.

My college French was rusty, and I thought a quick brush-up would do it -- but, for heaven's sake these classes were in conversational French and you were expected to converse! It wasn't a matter of memorizing a few key verb conjugations -- it was listening, understanding, and framing whole sentences in a nanosecond (and pronouncing the words in a way that a francophone could understand). A year of daily lessons didn't do it for me. I could make the right sounds, and sometimes come up with the right words, but I never got as good at it as I thought I would.

Immediately I joined the Geneva American Women's Club. For the most part the members of this club were wives of American corporate executives, ex-Junior-Leaguers who were good-hearted, wise and beautiful in appearance and spirit. They welcomed newcomers with the attitude, "How lucky we are that you've moved here! What can you do for our club?" It was a unique situation, and ideal for me in my first stint as corporate wife. I joined the newcomers on field trips to local historical and cultural sites; I helped edit the monthly magazine, and started a play-reading group which met on Monday nights at the clubhouse. I said to Jim, "It's like being at the Organic School again!"

I never learned to ski. Not being a snow person, or an athletic person, I was awkward and unhappy on the only trip where I bothered with lessons.

I decided to concentrate on learning French and on American Women's Club activities. From those early play readings grew an actual performance group, which soon split with the club because it violated the by-laws of being exclusively female. I had been on the Board of Directors of the Geneva English Drama Society (GEDS) and edited their newsletter, but when I didn't get re-elected to the board I took my marbles to my own society to make a viable organization out of the American company, the Little Theater of Geneva. We would do only American plays, mostly comedies, and include one family play per season. We were launched with an old chestnut, The Man Who Came To Dinner, which miraculously came together on opening night after a series of shaky and unpredictable rehearsals.

As a producer I had an epiphany. While my experience in theater had been as an actress, I had read scores of American plays and, like many actors, had a secret desire to direct. When reading through the script of The Man Who Came to Dinner I worked on updating it by changing the many references to celebrities from their 1930's origins to 1980's counterparts. Here my husband was very helpful. I would say, "Who was Hamilton Fish?" and he would say "A rich playboy." Hamilton Fish became Prince Andrew. (Don't forget, we're in the early '80s here.) I spent hours struggling on paper with the blocking of the show. I felt a connection to the writers as I worked on it. Even though I knew nothing specific about how to block the action, the set-up in Act One where Mr. Whiteside is introduced to a couple of eager fans, and they gaze on him him rapt admiration, I had the whole stage of characters in a semi-circle. Mr. Whiteside, a cynical New Yorker, is rolled in in his wheelchair, takes one look at the worshipful gazes, and turns to his secretary (who happens to be downstage of him so the audience gets full, deadpan face), and says, "I may vomit." The night we blocked the scene the theater was full of stage crew and performers, and the line brought down the house. I swear I heard George S. Kaufman say to me, "You see? It always works." And I knew I was onto something.

There are dozens of miracles-in-Geneva stories, many many based on the adventures of the American little theater company. While over there, I missed out on many fads that took over in the U.S., some I will never know about. But I felt so relieved to be out of it for awhile, doing something I loved and felt I was destined to do.

I was saddened to learn of the low regard in which my country is held internationally. Apparently many of the English still chafe at our late entrance to World War II; the French, well the French feel we are naifs -- don't forget Jimmy Carter was President -- and the Swiss hardly pay attention to any foreigners except for the financial gain they promise. This gave strength to the American Women's Club, and to our husbands in their careers, as we Americans formed a critical mass in the operation of our activities in Europe.

When it came time to leave, I was ready to come home, feeling I could translate my experience to a working environment here. Jim's career, helped not a little by my community visibility, (she said immodestly), had soared; he would have been happy to live his life out there, sipping red wine on a restaurant patio on the quai overlooking Lac Leman. It was not to be; I knew it was time to get home, and I have never regretted it.

But on mornings like this one, my heart goes back. Perhaps I'll visit Geneva again.

Jim and I did go back once, a year after we left, and already things were changed. The American expatriate group had dwindled. Numbers in the American Women's Club were much lower. Only a few people I had known remained, and they all said, "It's not the same."

When retirement time came, Jim and I chose Fairhope, and ever since my arrival I've seen how it, too, is not the same. Maybe it's me. But I know, of course, that I'm hardly the same either. After my six years in Geneva, I had four years back in the Northeast -- New York and Wilmington -- to say nothing of the other years during that little 30-odd-year gap between Fairhope and Fairhope again. Nothing remains the same on this planet.


John Sweden said...
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Finding Fair Hope said...
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