A Swiss Goes West

Laurent Giovangrandi

Who would have thought that my father, who had never truly been away from his parents, would move from Switzerland to the West Coast just to develop his independence? My father, Laurent Giovangrandi, was born and raised in Montagny-près-Yverdon, a small town somewhat close to Lausanne. He had one older brother, with whom he was close. He was close with his whole family, really. Even through university, he had remained mostly within a 50 km circle around the his family’s home, and always saw them over dinner or on weekends. Said university was EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Française de Lausanne), where he studied microtechnique, which was composed of roughly a third each of computer science, mechanical engineering, and electrical engineering. Being a Swiss citizen, he would have had to serve in the armed forces, but his bad eyesight meant he was turned away and allowed him to focus on his work. While in university, he met my mother, and they married shortly before moving to the U.S.

After graduating from EPFL, my father wanted to continue his work in the domain of his thesis. But what dictated his move to the U.S. was rather a desire to move away from his parents. During his search for a place to continue his work, my father found labs in the U.S., the UK and Germany, but chose the U.S. because the other countries, being in Europe, were too close to Switzerland. He was worried about it being too easy to run back home to his family if it got tough, and the costly plane tickets from the U.S. to Europe would be a good deterrent. All of this was part of his overarching goal of getting away from his family a little, and have a chance to grow and develop on his own, which he had not gotten a chance to do in university. He and my mother’s plan was to live for two years in the U.S., then move back to Switzerland to be closer to family, after having learned to live completely independently.

His actual journey from Switzerland to the United States was a rather normal flight, although he does not remember the specifics. My father, in his interview, remembered it as a Swissair flight direct from Geneva to San Francisco, but my mother later reminded him that Swissair was much too expensive and so it must have been another airline, with a layover in London or Amsterdam. However, one aspect of the trip that struck him was a letter given to him by his brother. As he was the first one of the close-knit family to move abroad, his brother wrote him a letter and told him not to open it until he was on the plane. My father read the letter on the plane and, seeing how emotional the letter was, wept profusely.

Once my father and my mother arrived in San Francisco, they had not planned more than a week in advance, apart from my father’s job. Having chosen Stanford to continue his work (as a post-doctoral student), he began working pretty much the day after arriving. Because it was a university job, the lab was very understanding about his lack of availability in the first few weeks, which was good given the number of things to be acquired: transportation, housing, etc. The first week or so of being in America, they crashed at a fellow Swiss person’s house, but obviously this was not a permanent solution. As they had arrived during the Dot Com Boom, housing prices in Palo Alto had ballooned, making finding an apartment very difficult. In order to keep searching for an affordable place to live, my parents did a catsitting job that allowed them to stay at the house and stayed in a motel for a few weeks. In the meantime, they purchased a used car, a 1990s Ford Escort wagon, but were shocked at the price of the car for its worth – with the dollar at the time being worth 2 Swiss francs, it seemed to cost double for them. Eventually, a college friend who had already settled in managed to convince their landlord to rent out an adjacent and coveted apartment (my father was worried by the fact that every other application was from Intel or Motorola workers). All of this took one to two months, but my parents were finally ready to begin their life in the U.S. For my father, this was working at a Stanford lab, which was aimed at developing a cell-based sensor to detect chemical and biological weapons (one reason why he chose Stanford over Harvard: more interesting research to be done).

Today, 18 years after my parents moved to the United States with the intention of staying for two years, they are still here, settled in Palo Alto. My father says that “there was always something more to do,” which is why he and my mother didn’t move back. After two years on the original project he worked on at Stanford, he stayed continued on to spinoff projects, and later became a full researcher at the university, leading him to stay longer. There was never really a set decision on staying longer, he says, opportunity just came along and my parents took it. Looking back on his immigration story, he reflected that he has never fundamentally regretted immigrating to the U.S. His main regret is not to be closer to his family, especially when his father fell ill, but at the same time, with the life he has built here with my mother, his family is here–enough to keep him here instead of back in Switzerland! Today my father works at a medical startup he co-founded, and for the foreseeable future will remain here in Palo Alto. He demonstrates that immigrating to America can result in little regret and many opportunities opening up, and that it’s one’s own responsibility to take those opportunities and see where they lead you.

The story of Laurent Giovangrandi was written and recorded by his son, Thomas.

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