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Strangers in the Alps

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Senior Staff

SEPTEMBER 14, 2023

My ego died in Burgdorf, Switzerland in the early hours of the morning.

I like the idea of being chill. In my fantasies, I’m perceived as a down-to-earth, serene sort of person. Unfortunately, I’ve always been painfully high strung. My propensity to anxiety and restlessness keeps me trapped in a near-constant state of stress.

During the school year, my tense nature is even more severe. Coming to Berkeley inflated both my neurotic behavior and my sense of self importance. In an exceptionally competitive environment, it’s easy to tell myself that my academic and professional achievements are integral to my worth.

I decided to study abroad because I wanted a break from the brain fog and back-breaking workload. Madrid was my destination of choice for that reason: It seemed like the perfect place to finally unwind.

As soon as my flight touched the ground in Spain, that mission was put to the test.

Most of my roommates in Madrid were other Berkeley students, and prior to our arrival, we had agreed to travel as much as possible. We planned our first voyage immediately: a skiing trip in the Swiss Alps. Sure, I hated the cold and hadn’t skied since I was six years old, but I wanted to make friends. The weekend before classes began, we trudged to the airport and went on our way.

The plan was to drive from Zürich to Zermatt in a rental car. We chose the cheapest company we could find, which seemed like a great idea until we found ourselves in possession of an electric Fiat with child-sized seats.

The car’s battery drained within the first thirty minutes of our drive. We barely made it to a charging station, whereupon a screen lit up with a message that said: “Estimated time to 100%: 04 hr. 46 min.”

I tried very hard to mask my panic, which was only amplified when the Swiss police arrived to question us. Apparently, they had been watching my roommate try to entertain us by demonstrating her Bulgarian dancing skills through security cameras.

At that moment, I wanted to be anywhere else. I should’ve been back in Madrid, reading my syllabi and buying school supplies. Instead, I was stuck in rural Switzerland with a group of strangers, one of whom was now laughing so maniacally that she was accused of being drunk.

If I had been with friends who knew me better, a full-blown freakout would have ensued. Instead, I took my pride and swallowed it. It was my only option.

Sitting there with ice caking on the windshield and battery power flowing very slowly into our car’s engine, I finally made the choice to chill out.

By the time we made it to our Airbnb, we had been driving for eight hours. We were out of food; my phone kept playing “Budapest” by George Ezra on a loop; we were so deprived of sleep that one of my roommates became convinced that a sign in the distance was actually a man in a suit.

I was entirely happy for the first time in months.

I had spent so much time up to that point convincing myself that only success would fulfill me. At the peak of chaos, I realized that there was more to life than maintaining my GPA and securing a return offer.

Our trip was a flop by all accounts. We only got to ski for one afternoon, most of which I spent facedown in a snowbank. We were screamed at by multiple Swiss men, and our meals consisted of vending machine croissants and cola-flavored gummies. It was the greatest travel failure imaginable, and I didn’t regret a thing.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my roommates would soon become some of my favorite people in the world. There’s something particularly bonding about floundering together in a foreign language and kicking each other in the head while squeezed into twin beds like sardines. They introduced me to the concept of living in the present, and for that, I will love them forever.

Over the course of four months, we kept our promise of frequent travel and trekked through nine different countries. I celebrated my 21st at the Moulin Rouge in Amsterdam; I tried and failed to haggle at street markets in Marrakesh. I split off for my first solo trip to Budapest and almost vomited on a bus from Valldemossa to Deià.

My time abroad wasn’t all sunshine and sangria. I ended up receiving the worst grades of my academic career. As it turns out, weekly flights and nights out in the city aren’t the best recipe for scholarly success. But when my final transcript arrived, I didn’t flip out. I saw a reflection of a semester that I spent learning to love myself for more than my capacity to achieve.

I may not be the poster child for chillness, but I’ve come to appreciate the slower side of life. When I begin applying for grad school and searching for jobs, I’ll do so knowing that some work-life balance isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Contact Olivia Rhee at 


SEPTEMBER 14, 2023