A Look Back: A Year After Neuchâtel

John Isbister '60
The following contribution was originally published in the 1961 yearbook.  At the time, John was studying at Queen’s University.  It contains his reflections of Neuchâtel after a year’s absence in Canada.
What kind of a place is Neuchâtel? What sort of things do you do? Do you like it? These are all questions to which everyone now at Neuchâtel has very definite answers.  In my year, 1959-60, everyone was most enthusiastic, and I don’t suppose my year was very different from any other.  But, as we tend to forget while we are in Neuchâtel, the year is short and soon over.  What do we think about Neuchâtel now that we have been away for a year, two years, or three years?  Is it just a memory, or is it, in a sense, part of us?  For what they are worth, here are some of my impressions of Neuchâtel after my first year of university.

There come to mind some rather obvious things, and a few that are not so obvious.  Foremost among the former, I suppose, is the fact that I have “seen” Europe.  It was a rather quick sight, but I have wandered through the Acropolis of Athens, I have stood on the spot from which Cicero orated two thousand years ago, I have skied in the Austrian Tirol and under the mighty Matterhorn, I have eaten gâteaux au beurre and sipped red wine in Valangin, I have cycled around the French châteaux of the Loire valley, and I have spent a week in the Left Bank Quartier Latin of Paris, to name only a few sights and activities.  I greatly enjoyed all these things, and I am very happy to have had the chance to do them.

Yet, as I look back on the year from a safe and sobering distance, I become increasingly aware of the fact that, although things are interesting, people are both more interesting and more important.  I got to know quite well a small number of European people, both individual students and full families, from Germany, Holland, Italy, France, German Switzerland, and, of course, French Switzerland.  In knowing these people I think I finally became aware of something that I am fairly sure no one who has spent all his life hemmed in on the North American continent can fully realize.  It is this: there are other people in the world, people who are in many ways better than us, people who count just as much as we do.  Nothing, of course, should be more obvious, but I am afraid that those who have not lived with other people cannot appreciate what it means, even to the rather limited extent that I have come to feel.  In fact, now that I have spent a full year back among “my own people,” I am becoming less conscious of it.  

I learned a new language, a living, exciting, beautiful language which bears little resemblance to that linguistic monstrosity we had drilled into us in high school French.  With this language, and a more limited knowledge of another, I was able to sit down with Swiss, French, and German people, and learn what interests them, what worries them.  I came to realize that central Europe is not just a tourist attraction and a bulwark against Communist aggression to be bolstered with NATO troops, but the homeland of real people. I talked with a student from West Berlin, and tried to imagine living in Ottawa with the rest of Ontario and Quebec occupied by Russians.  One of my best friends, Emil, was a child in Holland when he had to live on tulip bulbs for six months and was smuggled into Belgium under the seat of a carriage.  My friends were not just statistics or curiosities, but people like myself.  

There are, of course, many other things to be noted.  There was the esprit de corps of our little group of eighty Canadians, the memory of the wonderful times we had together, and the lasting friendships we made.  We meet each other now and then, sometimes at organized reunions, sometimes at not so organized reunions.  We talk over old times, but we don’t live in the past.  We became good friends last year, we remain good friends this year, and we continue to enjoy ourselves together.  

Perhaps less concrete but certainly just as important, in my case, was the fact that I arrived at university with the experience of having already spent a year on my own, with all the decisions and self-discipline that are inherent in “independence.”  Many of the people in my year at Queen’s had great difficulty adjusting to university life, but those of us from Neuchâtel seemed to sail right through, without too many initial problems. 

Without a doubt, the year at Neuchâtel was the best year of my life to date.  Both in terms of enjoyment and even more in terms of lasting value, I count myself among the fortunate few.  
Neuchâtel Junior College offers the unique opportunity to study Canadian curriculum abroad. While living in Switzerland in a French community, students enjoy an international education through travel and experiential learning in Europe. Gap year and Grade 12  high school students gain international experience and develop independence and life skills that prepare them for university and the global workplace.

A Canadian high school in Switzerland | Grade 12 & Gap