Staff Stories: Growing up and moving out

Study buddy coordinator Barbara Frei shares tales of her childhood in Switzerland

Taryn Lam and Aashi Venkat

From adventures in small town cafes to fond memories of collecting berries with her grandmother, Barbara Frei shares a variety of formative stories.

Small town tales: 

BF: I grew up in Switzerland in a very small town with only about 700 people, so it was quite different from what it is here, obviously. I grew up in the mountains with snowy winters and lots of mountains all around, [it was] a very beautiful place. It’s called Goschenen and it’s about 50 miles from Lucerne — I think that’s a town that more people know. There was a coffee shop we used to go to that had very good desserts [and food]. Sometimes we would go and just hang out there, drink coffee and eat sweets and it was a lot of fun. It was called Danioth, [and] they had those little open-face sandwiches that were really good. Especially the tuna, [the] asparagus and also [the] thinly cut celery root. And [they had] coffee and they had really good ice cream and ice cream floats. And [for] dessert, they had hazelnut puff pastries and all kinds of yummy stuff.

EE: What is that dynamic like? [For example] living in a small town versus living in Cupertino?

BF: Well, I think the biggest difference is that everyone knows everything about everyone else’s business, so there’s basically no keeping secrets or anything like that. When you do something, everyone knows right away. On one hand, it’s nice, but on the other hand, it’s also — especially as a teenager — very annoying when you do something and then your parents find out right away. So there was no doing secret stuff. For example, we used to go to the train station and behind the train station, we would smoke sometimes. And my grandmother had a little kiosk there at the train station, so people would go and tell her about what we did. Of course it would go back to my parents. Well, my parents were pretty cool, actually. I didn’t get into too much trouble, because back then it was one of the things that everyone did so we wouldn’t get into too much trouble. And they would just have a stern talking to and life would go on.

Goschenen is pictured, which is the town Barbara Frei grew up in. Photo courtesy of Barbara Frei | Used with permission


BF: I had a very good relationship with my grandma, so she was kind of a role model [to me]. When she was not working and had some time off, we would go and collect berries to make jams. So we would go out into the wild and just look for berries. Blueberries in particular grow very well there, so a fond memory that I have [was when] we collected the berries and then we made jam. When I was young, I always looked up to her because she didn’t fit the traditional roles that women had at that time, so I always admired her for that. She was always a single woman, she never married a man. She worked, which was also unusual at that time because most of the women stayed home and looked after the children while the man went out and worked, so she was very independent and I really liked that about her. Well, sometimes you just have to do things your way. Regardless of what other people say or think, you just do what you feel is best. And it’s OK to not fit the norm once in a while and be a little bit of a rebel, nothing wrong with that. One of the things that definitely impacted [me] was that I emigrated to a new country when I was only 22 years old because that was definitely not something [that was] normal to do. Being adventurous and trying new things, it kind of helped with that.

Barbara Frei (right) and her grandmother Marie Jager (left) in the 70’s. Photo courtesy of Barbara Frei | Used with permission

Growing up and moving away: 

BF: I [was] always interested in biology so I thought maybe I would go into that direction, but it just never happened that way.

EE: And how do you feel like that’s evolved into the job that you have now?

BF: In Switzerland, after you finish high school, you do an apprenticeship. So I went and became an apprentice at our municipal hall [and] I learned all those things. And a lot of that was basically administrative work, like typical office work. I would do that and I learned a lot about business administration [there]. And it [made] sense to continue that path, but I tried many different things — I worked at a hotel at one point and I worked in sales for a little bit, so there’s a lot of different things that I worked at. But I really like working at this school because it’s just a nice environment with the students and the other staff. It’s great and I’m happy about the past and how it ended up.

EE: If you don’t mind me asking, how did you start in Switzerland and then end up in the United States?

BF: That’s kind of a complicated story. When I was 18, I met my husband. We dated for three years and he is Canadian so we moved to Canada. We got married just before I turned 22 [and] we moved to Canada together and then we lived there for a long time. Then we moved back to Switzerland for a bit. And then his job brought us back into the United States and we lived in Chicago for a few years. And since 2014, we live here in the Bay Area.

Barbara Frei, age 18, smiles at the camera. Photo courtesy of Barbara Frei | Used with permission