In the distance, at what appeared to be the base of the mountains, I glimpsed pale yellow buildings, constructed in a neoclassical style, set against the backdrop of church spires. The buildings looked remarkably like the sketches of the Polytechnic that I’d seen in my application papers but vaster and more imposing than I’d imagined. The Polytechnic was a new sort of college dedicated to producing teachers and professors for various math or scientific disciplines, and it was one of the few universities in Europe to grant women degrees. Although I’d dreamed of little else for years, it was hard to fathom that, in a few months’ time, I’d actually be in attendance there.
The clarence cab lurched to a halt. The hatch door opened, and the driver announced our destination, “50 Plattenstrasse.” Papa passed up some francs through the hatch, and the carriage door swung open.
As the driver unloaded our luggage, a servant from the Engelbrecht Pension hurried out the front door and down the entry steps to assist us with the smaller bags we were carrying by hand. From between the handsome columns framing the front door of the four-story brick town house, an attractive, well-dressed couple emerged.
“Mr. Mari??” the heavyset, older gentleman called out.
“Yes, you must be Mr. Engelbrecht,” my father answered with a short bow and an outstretched hand. As the men exchanged introductions, the spry Mrs. Engelbrecht scuttled down the stairs to usher me into the building.
Formalities dispensed with, the Engelbrechts invited Papa and me to share in the tea and cakes that had been laid out in our honor. As we followed the Engelbrechts from the entryway into the parlor, I saw Papa cast an approving glance over the crystal chandelier hanging in the front parlor and the matching wall sconces. I could almost hear him think, This place is respectable enough for my Mitza.
To me, the pension seemed antiseptic and overly formal compared to home; the smells of the woods and the dust and the spicy cooking of home had been scrubbed away. Although we Serbs aspired to the Germanic order adopted by the Swiss, I saw then that our attempts barely grazed the Swiss heights of cleaning perfection.
Over tea and cakes and pleasantries and under Papa’s persistent questioning, the Engelbrechts explained the workings of their boardinghouse: the fixed schedule for meals, visitors, laundry, and room cleaning. Papa, the former military man, inquired about the security of the lodgers, and his shoulders softened with every favorable response and each assessment of the tufted blue fabric on the walls and the ornately carved chairs gathered around the wide marble fireplace. Still, his shoulders never fully slackened; Papa wanted a university education for me almost as much as I wanted it for myself, but the reality of farewell seemed harder for him than I’d ever imagined.
As I sipped my tea, I heard laughter. The laughter of girls.
Mrs. Engelbrecht noticed my reaction. “Ah, you hear our young ladies at a game of whist. May I introduce you to our other young lady boarders?”
Other lady boarders? I nodded, although I desperately wanted to shake my head no. My experiences with other young ladies generally ended poorly. Commonalities between myself and them were few at best. At worst, I had suffered meanness and degradation at the hands of my classmates, male and female, especially when they realized the scope of my ambitions.
Still, politeness demanded that we rise, and Mrs. Engelbrecht led us through the parlor into a smaller room, different from the parlor in its decor: brass chandelier and sconces instead of crystal, oaken panels instead of blue silken fabric on the walls, and a gaming table at its center. As we entered, I thought I heard the word krpiti and glanced over at Papa, who looked similarly surprised. It was a Serbian phrase we used when disappointed or losing, and I wondered who on earth would be using the word. Surely, we had misheard.
Around the table sat three girls, all about my age, with dark hair and thick brows not unlike my own. They were even dressed much the same, with stiff, white blouses topped with high lace collars and dark, simple skirts. Serious attire, not the frilly, fancifully decorated gowns of lemon yellow and frothy pink favored by many young women, including those I’d seen on the fashionable streets near the train station.
Looking up from their game, the girls quickly set their cards down and stood for the introduction. “Misses Ru?ica Dra?i?, Milana Bota, and Helene Kaufler, I would like you to meet our new boarder. This is Miss Mileva Mari?.”
As we curtsied to one another, Mrs. Engelbrecht continued, “Miss Mari? is here to study mathematics and physics at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic. You will be in good company here, Miss Mari?.”