Have you ever seen a Toyota Corona? Not a Corolla, but a Corona? The Toyota Corona was a classic 1970s econobox: underpowered, not much to look at, and pretty obscure, at least here in the States.
I graduated high school in 1987. Thanks to my less than stellar performance in high school, every single college to which I applied rejected me save for two: Occidental College in Eagle Rock, California (now famous as Barack Obama's alma mater) and UC Berkeley. I went with Berkeley because it was cheaper: I suppose my parents would have gladly paid for either of them, but I figured that Berkeley was not only somewhat more prestigious, but also a hell of a lot cheaper. This turned out to be a mostly good decision; the big problem was that I was overwhelmed by it all when I started there as a 17 year old. That first semester was depressing and rough, but it got better the second semester.
My high school friend Kevin started at Cal the same time I did, and he was the proud owner of a Toyota Corona that barely ran at all. He was living in an apartment upstairs from the Radio Shack on Shattuck. From a graduate class of about 120 students from my high school, about ten of us were at Cal, but we didn't see each other much; the others were generally what I can only describe as good students, and I wasn't: I'm pretty sure I was only there thanks to incredibly good SAT scores (as I'm fond of pointing out, I had the highest combined SAT scores in my class, but was the only one out of 12 National Merit Scholarship semifinalists not to actually get a scholarship, presumably thanks to my pathetic GPA). It wasn't that I was disinterested in learning - not all all! - but that I had a habit of not turning in homework, figuring that exams would prove I knew what I was doing (which they did, but you of course don't get the grades except by doing the homework). Regardless, it happily turned out that I was a better college student than I was a high school student, and I managed to graduate with a 2.99 GPA, which really wasn't bad considering the competition.
So: the second semester of college saw me taking the usual kind of classes. Because I'd taken a bunch of AP exams and done well, I had virtually no requirements to fulfill save for the ones required for a major. I'd decided to do a double English and German major, which left plenty of room to do pretty much whatever I felt like. This mostly became spending hours and hours in the library reading up on things that interested me, none of which was valid as coursework, but what the heck. Anyhow: as you can imagine for a German major, there was always kind of a low level buzz about who was going to go abroad for a year, a semester, or even just the summer. In the spring of 1988, I heard incredibly last minute that a local community college over by Cupertino had a summer jobs program in Switzerland - and the only way I could get there in time was by borrowing Kevin's Toyota Corona, rust yellow, and a few jugs of water for the inevitable radiator boilover.
Two hours and fifty miles later, I'd arrived after several radiator refills, interviewed with the creepy Swiss guy running the program, and got a job. A few weeks later, I packed up all my stuff, drove home to Stockton, and found myself on an Air Canada flight to Zürich via Frankfurt a couple of days later. After a chest X-ray to prove I didn't have tuberculosis the Swiss approved my work visa and I went to work a day later as a lifeguard/sauna attendant at Säntispark, a shopping mall, bowling alley, sauna, swimming pool, hotel, restaurant, you name it complex, then newly built, about an hour east of Zürich on the way to St. Gallen. I spent the summer living in a lovely room in a large apartment shared with a Swiss-American couple (the American woman, an Italian-American from New Jersey, was teaching aerobics at Säntispark) and a young Mormon Cal student in the next room over. Lots of memorable things happened that summer: the Mormon turned out to be gay and a huge enthusiast of cruising parks for sex, which he tried to introduce me to (I demurred), and it also marked the first time I was ever hit on (which I didn't understand at the time, sadly, leading to my first big regret of my adult lite).
At this point, you're probably asking yourself what the point of all this is - and of course there's no point, not really. I worked at the swimming pool for three months, clad only in short turqouise shirts, a Säntispark polo shirt, and a Speedo underneath for when I had to jump in the pool. I taught water gymnastics, fanned the air regularly in saunas after dousing the oven with eucalyptus scented water, and made sure small children didn't get sucked into the wave machine. It was a wonderful summer, even if I couldn't afford to eat anything for the first month (they hadn't paid me yet and I didn't have much money), living off of fried potatoes, onions, and mint tea for a while. I got along fine with my coworkers, learned to speak Swiss German reasonably well, and was treated to a wonderful couple of days in Ticino by the company at the end of the summer. It was a blast.
The only weird thing, though, was the Muzak that played in the sports complex. I don't remember any of it except for this one song, done of course in a 101 Strings manner:
Sitting in the cafeteria on my lunch break, eating a carefully chosen, small selection of salads (because it was the cheapest thing they had), drinking out of a carton of Ice Tea brought in from the supermarket, watching affluent Swiss splash about in the pool, my attention would occasionally wander and then I'd suddenly realize that White Lines, Muzak-ified, was once again playing throughout the complex. I'd look outside, up towards the Alps, smiling, happy because life was so strange.