How I came to Live in Wellington County
By Jeannette Altwegg
It all started with a dream.
For my dad, it was the dream of foreign lands. It was April 9, 1969, and he’d just turned twenty-one when he first came to Canada. He spent the rest of that year working on his cousin’s dairy farm in Fort St. John, British Columbia. After a brief stint as a roofer in Vancouver, where it rained 19 of the 21 days he worked, he decided the weather was more pleasant up north. He helped out on another dairy farm until May, after which he went back home to Switzerland by passenger boat.
But the West was in his blood now. Once harvest season was over, he returned to Canada, spending three months working for the Canadian Pacific Eastern Railroad laying train tracks between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson. The following winter he cleared trees for pipelines in the Northwest Territories outside of Fort Liard. When he got engaged to my mom in September 1975, he warned her he would never get old in Switzerland.
I grew up with my dad’s stories of winters spent in Peace River Country. Tales of extreme -40 degrees Celsius weather where he’d have to carry buckets of snow from outside into the kitchen to melt water for coffee. Of hitchhiking from Edmonton to Fort St. John, drinking beer with Indians, working 12- hour shifts, and thickening the ice over the river so trucks filled with pipes could cross. There is an entire photo album dedicated to my dad’s adventures in Canada, most of which pictured him outfitted in
cowboy hat, western shirt, and leather boots. He even got married in his Stetson, much to his mother’s chagrin. We grew up surrounded with souvenirs: such as a lasso, boot spurs, huge belt buckles, and a western saddle as further proof that my dad was in love with anything Canadian and the Wild West.
To my dad, Canada was the land of opportunity. Big open skies, plenty of farm land and the freedom to explore new territory. So very different from our small Switzerland with its tiny farms and minuscule sized parcels of land.
Of course, the possibility of immigrating to Canada had come up in many conversations throughout my growing-up years. But it wasn’t until I turned twelve that the reality of such a monumental change hit home. I was at a week-long school ski camp when I received a care package and letter from my mom telling me that the immigration Visa had been approved. We were moving overseas. I recall lying on my bed, the tears blurring my vision as I re-read that letter with heavy heart. My world was ending.
I spent many sleepless nights visualizing living in a one-room log cabin “Little House on the Prairie” style, and riding a horse to school. Then there were the all-important questions that, to my young mind, were the only things that mattered. What kind of place were we moving to? How far would we have to go to the nearest town in order to get groceries? Were there any proper roads? What about electricity? Would we even have a TV? What about indoor plumbing? Would I be forced to go to an outhouse in the middle of the night to relieve myself?
My dad’s dream was quickly turning into my nightmare.
To me, Canada was a foreign land that lacked the modern comforts I enjoyed and was used to. The thought of wide-open spaces deficient of any neighbours within shouting distance frightened me. So very different from my comfortable small-town upbringing where my grandma lived next door and my best friend was a short ten-minute walk to the next town.
So it was with great reluctance that I bid a teary-eyed goodbye to all my friends and relatives. It was
April 26, 1989, and at almost thirteen, I was convinced I would hate everything about this new country. I recall hanging on tightly to my Oma and godmother, promising I’d be back when I turned 16. My dad may have dreamed about growing old in Canada, but I insisted I never would.
After an eight hour flight, interrupted by a three hour stay in London while we changed airplanes, we—mom, dad and two brothers—arrived at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, bone weary and over six thousand kilometres away from everything I knew and loved. It did not feel like an adventure to me.
It seemed we were not welcome. After hours of waiting at the immigration office, the customs officer seemed less than friendly and impatient to boot. We were all exhausted, and my seven-year-old brother leaned over to rest his head on the officer’s desk. The man looked at my mom askance. She tried to explain that we’d just spent the last 13 hours travelling and he was just worn out. The officer’s gruff reply? “I had a long day too.” Whenever mom tells this story, she says she felt the urge to smack him.
I was quite relieved to find that most of my fears of primitive living were completely unfounded. However, the container that was to bring our belongings to our new home in Alma had not arrived yet. We spent the next two weeks living out of our suitcases, waiting at the home of my dad’s friends, the Guggisbergs, in Moorefield. My dad had met Karl Guggisberg at Fort St. John and they’d become good friends. Karl and his family had moved to Ontario in 1984 and he was the reason we ended up in Wellington County and not British Columbia.
Two weeks after our arrival, on my thirteenth birthday, we finally were able to move into our house. I was not impressed having to do manual labour on my birthday. I might have stayed grumpy all day if it hadn’t been for our neighbours, the Hastings, who came over to introduce themselves, then stayed to help unload our many belongings. Even though I didn’t understand a word they said, their smiles were friendly and their hands willing to help with any and every task. I recall they had trouble pronouncing my mom’s name, Liselotte. After several failed attempts, they asked if they could just call her Lisa.
That night, sleeping in my own bed, surrounded by the things I cherished, I felt the first easing of my many misgivings. There were no more nightmares of log cabins and horses after that.
It was thanks to our neighbours that we truly started to feel at home here. The Bauman’s had kids close to our age; also two boys and one girl. We hit it off immediately. We ended up attending the same church they did, and they quickly became our extended family. Our first Christmas away from our loved ones in Switzerland, they invited us over for dinner. We were introduced to turkey and stuffing, fake candles and plastic decorations, plus hours of games and laughter. Christmas dinner with the Baumans remains a holiday tradition, which continues to this day.
Going to school in Canada wasn’t as bad as I’d initially feared either. No horses were required, although I did have to ride a bus. Every morning I was greeted by the bus driver, Mrs. Rickert, who quickly became my favourite person to chat with. Riding to school on a bus instead of my bicycle was a big adjustment. Sitting in an uncomfortably hard seat for an hour every day, without seat-belt or safety device, seemed rather extreme when the school was not even ten minutes away by car... until I learned that it was a great way for procrastinators like myself to finish the homework from last night.
The principal and teachers at the Alma Public School bent over backwards to help us foreigners fit into our new environment. They provided one-on-one English lessons for each one of us Altwegg kids. While the other students learned French, I recall much time spent pouring over my huge scrapbook of pictures I’d cut out of magazines in order to translate things and concepts into English. It wasn’t one of my favourite tasks, but I quickly fell in love with this new language and I and my trusty sidekick, the Duden Deutsch-Englisch Taschenwörterbuch, spent hours and hours of looking up definitions. To my
mom’s dismay, we were encouraged to watch TV to learn the language, but I preferred books. The library was one of my favourite hangouts and once I learned enough English, I can honestly say that I discovered grammar from reading Anne of Green Gables.
Now, as we are about to celebrate 27 years in Ontario, I cannot imagine living any other place. I love the beautiful countryside that, although not as gorgeous as the Swiss mountains, holds its own charm.
I love to walk along the river’s edge at the Elora Gorge with my camera, or stroll through town window- shopping for curiosities. And while we’ve moved three times during that time span, we still call Wellington County our home. It is after all, the place I’ve spent two thirds of my life in.
My dad’s dream of growing old in Canada has become my own.