In one of those matrimonial negotiations familiar to no one except strange expatriates such as myself, my husband Brian agreed that if we went through with it, I would get the Frank Lloyd Wright.
Brian and I were considering divorcing, you see. Not from each other, but from a country I had grown almost as close to as my own husband. It was a love triangle: me, Brian, Switzerland.
But after living in Switzerland for almost a decade, Brian wanted to move home. Move home? But Baden, Switzerland, was home. Home was a small, two-bedroom apartment below a larger-than-life 11th-century castle. Home was a view of a medieval clock tower that dinged every 15 minutes, 24/7. Home was not always understanding everything my 80-year-old Swiss neighbor said but keeping our communal laundry room as lint-free as she insisted. Switzerland was home. I hadn’t really considered redefining the concept again. One move across the Atlantic had been dramatic enough.
But no matter how much we loved Switzerland, we couldn’t do anything about the influence our nationality had on what our definition of home should be: We were Americans, and after a decade of living and working among everyone but Americans, my husband thought a place that spoke English might be kind of novel. Exciting, even. And we missed our Chicago-based family.
Which brings me to Frank Lloyd Wright. He was for sale. Two of his houses in the Chicago area were on the market. What’s more, they were as affordable as a Frank Lloyd Wright was going to be. And if I moved back, Brian agreed: We could make an offer on the Frank Lloyd Wright I wanted.
We were each drawn to a different Frank, you see, as if Frank had a split personality. The house I loved was an early Frank—it came complete with, yes, bands of leaded glass windows, but also with grand Queen Anne style. Think octagonal bays, projecting dormers, and an octagonal dining room with a leaded glass window that framed a redbud tree like a work of art. My husband liked the Frank that was square, stucco, and more traditionally Prairie style.
So you could say I gave up Switzerland for Frank. The house was love at first sight—and it was love down to the doorknobs. It had been meticulously restored, and had even won a Wright Spirit Award for its dazzling conclusion. We couldn’t imagine how the previous owners could have left such a house—especially when we discovered receipts in the basement showing their restoration project cost over a million dollars.
We also couldn’t imagine why no one else had wanted the house—over the three years it had been on the market, its price had been cut 17 times, giving us a monthly mortgage payment on an American five-bedroom treasure for the same price as the rent on a two-bedroom Swiss apartment. Americans, other than the strange repatriate type, appeared to have no interest in Frank.
But if that were the case, why were groups of people on my sidewalk taking pictures of my Frank Lloyd Wright house? If that were the case, why were movie location scouts ringing my doorbell? If that were the case, why were cars lingering along my curb? The real estate agent didn’t mention that besides the garage and the large ginkgo tree, this Frank also came with paparazzi.
The worst part was that I became as strange as my living situation. No matter where I went, my own country didn’t feel like home. Even my house didn’t feel like my house—it felt like Frank’s. If I nicked the wall while vacuuming or scratched the soapstone counter while slicing, I’d apologize to Frank as if he owned my house. I was treating a dead architect like God; while my house might have been perfect, I was a mess.
Everything I did in the house seemed wrong. Sorry, Frank, for that Ikea bed under your band of leaded art glass windows. Sorry, Frank, for the 10-foot Swiss alphorn that takes center stage in the room where your built-in furniture should be starring instead. Oh, and sorry, Frank, for hanging pictures of Switzerland all over the walls of your American architectural masterpiece.
It felt wrong to long for my past life when people were standing on the sidewalk taking photos of where my current one was taking place. But I couldn’t help it; I missed the kind of public transportation that made it possible not to own a car. I missed feeling safe from gun violence. I missed pedestrian-friendly cities. I missed a country that thought every single citizen deserved health care and four weeks of paid time off. And I missed my old job—even the one where the boss who couldn’t speak English critiqued my English. In classic regretful repatriate style, everything that happened to me in this strange new American life I compared to Switzerland. One night, when my husband said he wouldn’t be able to take time off from his job to go on a trip, I blew up.
“If we were in Switzerland, we’d take the vacation! If we were in Switzerland, you wouldn’t be working between Christmas and New Year’s! If we were in Switzerland, cars would actually stop for me at the crosswalk!”
I stomped across the perfectly shellacked oak floors, resenting both Frank and my husband.
“Stop it!” Brian said.
Frank creaked. Brian sighed. I screamed, “Why should I stop?”
After all, it was Frank and Brian who had convinced me to come to a place I no longer recognized as home. Even beautifully restored art glass framing a redbud tree can only do so much for homesickness. No matter how classically American my house was—and no matter how American I was on paper—in those initial months, I had never felt so Swiss. I compared scheduled train departure times with actual ones, I had an alphorn in my living room, and although I didn’t go as far cleaning my sink spouts with vinegar, I acknowledged that, yes, even they held the possibility of filth.
Now that I was “home,” I felt like a very fluent foreigner rendered speechless. I found myself sitting around silently questioning hundreds of things that most Americans would not. These included, but were not limited to, things like: Why are there so many squirrels? Why does my dental hygienist grin while she says words like “fluoride treatment” and “comprehensive oral exam?” Why do children’s pajamas feel the need to tell me they are flame resistant?
To his credit, Brian often tried to make me feel better. Ten months into our homecoming disaster, he had an idea.
“Look,” he said. “I know you miss Switzerland. So let’s have a party celebrating Swiss National Day.”
I secretly thought this was a bad idea. A party celebrating Switzerland in a house that was famously American? There would be no fireworks like we used to watch above the castle from our apartment. There would be no place to buy Swiss decorations. And who would even care besides us? And who would come (besides the paparazzi)?
Turns out, over 40 people.
The day of the party, Brian hung Swiss flags in front of the house. As friends and family arrived, I greeted them. Some wanted the house tour. Some wanted to hear about Switzerland. But everyone was there for one reason—to see us.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” said one of my childhood friends as I sliced Gruyere.
The doorbell rang.
“Here, let me do that,” she said, taking the knife.
When I came back she pointed to a small white scratch in the blue soapstone. “I’m really sorry. I didn’t realize this counter would scratch so easily.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, bad design.” Then I smiled. Take that, Frank.
Chantal Panozzo is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known and 99.9 Ways to Travel Switzerland Like a Local.