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The Other Einstein
Author:Marie Benedict

“Mitza, please let me help. I can handle another bag more easily than you.” He chortled. “Not to mention that your mother would be horrified if I let you struggle through the Zürich train station.”

Placing my bag down, I tried to extricate my hand from his. “Papa, I have to be able to do this alone. I’m going to be living in Zürich by myself after all.”

He stared at me for a long moment, as if the reality of me living in Zürich without him just registered, as if we had not been working toward this goal since I was a little girl. Reluctantly, finger by finger, he released his hand. This was hard for him; I understood that. While I knew part of him relished my pursuit of a singular education, that my climb reminded him of his own hard-scrabble ascent from peasant to successful bureaucrat and landowner, I sometimes wondered whether he felt guilty and conflicted at propelling me along my own precarious journey. He’d focused on the prize of my university education for so long, I guessed that he hadn’t actually envisioned saying good-bye and leaving me in this foreign place.

We exited the station and stepped into the busy evening streets of Zürich. Night was just beginning to fall, but the city wasn’t dark. I caught Papa’s eye, and we smiled at each other in amazement; we’d only ever seen a city lit by the usual dim, oil streetlamps. Electric lights illuminated the Zürich streets, and they were unexpectedly bright. In their glow, I could actually make out the finer details on the dresses of the ladies passing by us; their bustles were more elaborate than the restrained styles I’d seen in Zagreb.

The horses of a for-hire clarence cab clopped down the cobblestones of the Bahnhofstrasse on which we stood, and Papa summoned it. As the driver dismounted to load our luggage onto the back of the carriage, I wrapped my shawl around me for warmth in the cool evening air. The night before I left, Mama gifted me with the rose-embroidered shawl, tears welling in the corners of her eyes but never falling. Only later did I understand that the shawl was like her farewell embrace, something I could keep with me, since she had to stay behind in Zagreb with my younger sister, Zorka, and my little brother, Milo?.

Interrupting my thoughts, the driver asked, “Are you here to see the sights?”

“No,” Papa answered for me with only a slight accent. He’d always been proud of his grammatically flawless German, the language spoken by those in power in Austro-Hungary. It was the first step upon which he began his climb, he used to say as he badgered us into practicing it. Puffing up his chest a little, he said, “We are here to register my daughter for the university.”

The driver’s eyebrows raised in surprise, but he otherwise kept his reaction private. “University, eh? Then I’m guessing you’ll want the Engelbrecht Pension or one of the other pensions of Plattenstrasse,” he said as he held the cab door open for us to enter.

Papa paused as he waited for me to settle in the carriage and then asked the driver, “How did you know our destination?”

“That’s where I take many of the eastern European students to lodge.”

Listening to Papa grunt in response as he slid into the cab alongside me, I realized that he didn’t know how to read the driver’s comment. Was it a slur about our eastern European heritage? We’d been told that, even though they adamantly maintained their independence and neutrality in the face of the relentless European empire building that surrounded them, the Swiss looked down upon those from the eastern reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And yet the Swiss were the most tolerant people in other ways; they had the most lenient university admissions for women, for example. It was a confusing contradiction.

Signaling to the horses, the driver cracked the whip in the air, and the carriage rumbled down the Zürich street at a steady clip. Straining to see through the mud-splattered window, I saw an electric tram whiz by the carriage.

“Did you see that, Papa?” I asked. I’d read about trams but never witnessed one firsthand. The sight exhilarated me; it served as tangible evidence that the city was forward-thinking, at least in transportation. I could only hope that the way its citizens treated female students was also advanced to match the rumors we’d heard.

“I didn’t see it, but I heard it. And felt it,” Papa answered calmly with a squeeze of my hand. I knew he was excited too but wanted to appear worldly. Especially after the driver’s comment.