My Dad, the Globetrotting Businessman, Paleographer…and Spy?

Growing up, I thought everyone’s parents told them bedtime stories about being chased by the secret police and dodging bullets. As an adult, I started to wonder just who Dad really was.

My Dad, the Globetrotting Businessman, Paleographer…and Spy?

“When I came home from work, the cook told me that some men had entered the house with machine guns drawn,” my father recalled dramatically as he tucked me and my brother in to bed.

At bedtime, instead of reading us stories from the pages of fairytales or books of cartoons, my dad used to tell my twin brother and me stories about his own life. This particular tale was from 1972, when he was working in the tea trade in Bangladesh. He’d been in his early 20s at the time, living in Bangladesh just six months after the country had been partitioned from Pakistan following a bloody war.

Growing up, I didn’t know that it was unusual for a parent to tell stories from their own life when tucking their kids in, nor did I realize that most parents didn’t have the type of stories he did. But this is what we did, and we were engrossed by my dad’s nightly adventures in Colombia, Bangladesh, Germany and Lebanon. We even had our fan favorite stories that we asked our dad to tell frequently. Our most commonly requested story was about the time my dad and my late grandfather played a soccer match against an entire team of kids in Bangladesh.

My father, whose name is Daniel René Métraux, was born on November 13, 1948, in Nyon, Switzerland, a French-speaking town not too far from Geneva. Never a dedicated student, he’d had to repeat a year of school, then dropped out at the age of 15. He joined an apprenticeship program, where he went to school one day a week while working at a bank. Like a lot of people, his life seemed to get more interesting after he left his hometown. But he didn’t move to start university or a desk job. Instead, my dad played backup point guard in West Germany’s top basketball league.

My father, Daniel Métraux, at age 19 in 1968. (Photos courtesy Julia Métraux)

I started to tell people stories from my father’s life a few years ago when I went to university. I was friends with a bunch of student journalists and writers, and, as we were preoccupied with telling stories, it felt natural to bring up stories from my dad’s life. One of the first questions that I always got was about how he went from being a high school dropout with little motivation to living such an interesting life. A few people, perhaps a bit jokingly, also asked me if he was a spy.

At first, I found this to be weird because my dad is my dad — the person who annoyingly corrects my American pronunciation of French words; who teaches ukulele classes to elderly people in his retirement; who has spent hours asking me questions about how Zoom works so that he could continue teaching ukulele classes when the coronavirus outbreak came to Massachusetts. But … was he more interesting than I’d always thought? Was he maybe even hiding something? I’d never known much about his work, but I did know that he had a strange habit of popping up in places going through turmoil: Germany during the Cold War, Bangladesh after its partition, and Colombia while the drug war was raging during the early 1990s. The more I talked to people, the more I started to wonder if my dad really was a spy.

I had to find out if my dad had really just lived a very full life, or if there was something he wasn’t telling me. As a journalist, I have looked into and reported on many different issues — what kind of reporter would I be if I didn’t look into my own family?

I thought about this for a full year before finally asking my dad if I could interview him. There are no guides on how to ask your parents if they actually are who they say they are.

I had already been trying to research his side of the family for years, just like I had my mother’s. But I couldn’t find anything. Ancestry.com and other sites don’t publish documents from Switzerland. My late grandparents didn’t speak English (and I didn’t speak French growing up), so every detail I knew about my paternal side of the family was through my dad. I started to realize that pretty much every single thing I knew about my dad had come directly from him.

Before I called him to ask if I could interview him, I wrote down a list of unique stories and facts from his life that I want to ask about.

  1. My dad’s neighbor growing up in Switzerland was Edgar Snow, the first Western journalist allowed into Mao’s China. Snow’s daughter was friends with my dad’s late sister.
  2. My dad played professional basketball for the team Hannover 96 in West Germany during the Cold War.
  3. My dad worked in Bangladesh six months after its partition from Pakistan.
  4. My dad was in Beirut on a business trip the day a violent scuffle broke out between Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon and the Lebanese military.
  5. My dad dated the Colombian singer Isadora, whose real name is María Teresa Villegas Garcés, in the 1990s after his divorce from his first wife. He lived in Winnipeg, Canada, at the time, so I had no idea how they met. I knew that when he traveled to Colombia he had interactions with someone who said they were a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent.
  6. In high school, my dad had given me files about a boat that had gone missing in the 1960s, while it was doing work for the company he later became the president of.
  7. My dad has various degrees of fluency in seven languages and is also a paleographer — someone who deciphers and reads ancient texts.

On a Saturday in mid-February, I called my father to see if I could chat with him about his life for a story. Dad’s response: “It’s not like I was in the CIA.”

I hadn’t even brought up the possibility of him being a spy, and he’d jumped right to denying it! To clarify, I do not think my father was in the CIA specifically, because he’d had trouble getting a green card when my family moved from Canada to the United States when I was young. Even after that, my dad often received a lot more questions than the rest of my family whenever we went through customs when we traveled. This could be because he spent a significant amount of time in places that the United States and European countries deemed to be dangerous … or maybe he was involved in the Swiss intelligence agencies. Regardless, his answer threw me for a loop, and now I definitely had to know more.

My dad agreed to be interviewed when I came home from the New School for spring break. And then I had to prepare for the strangest interview I have ever done in my life.

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A few weeks later, the upcoming interview was the least of my concerns. I could not concentrate on dissecting my father’s bedtime stories when cases of COVID-19 were starting to be confirmed in New York City. After reading tweets from Zeyi Yang, a journalist I had recently worked with at Narratively, about what had happened in his home city of Wuhan, I was preparing for the worst-case scenario. It was unclear how the coronavirus would affect people with my autoimmune disorder, vasculitis, so I needed a way out in case things got drastically worse. So, I called my dad.

“In case it looks like New York City will go into lockdown, I’m taking the Metro North to Connecticut. Can you pick me up there?” I asked him.

“You’ll be fine staying there another week,” my father responded. “The dog is looking forward to seeing you on Saturday.”

“I don’t know. Just looking at how quickly Wuhan went into lockdown, I need a plan,” I explained. I eventually agreed to wait it out until the next week, then I took a train back to suburban Massachusetts, where my dad and my dog, Lucky, greeted me at the train station.

When my school announced that they were moving online for the rest of the semester, and it was clear that I wouldn’t be going back to New York for some time, I pushed our interview off. We both had plenty of other stuff to keep us busy: I was finishing up the coursework for my final semester of undergrad, and he was teaching ukulele on Zoom.

His house was being cleaned on April 5 with scented cleaning supplies that triggered my immune system, so we decided to go on a long car ride. This seemed like the perfect time to interview him.

As we started talking, I noticed that my father seemed to downplay his connections and experiences, which was the opposite of what he had done back when he’d told us stories at bedtime. When I asked him what it was like to live and play basketball in West Germany during the Cold War, instead of the near-death experiences I’d heard in the past, he just told me about the rambunctious things he and his teammates on Hannover 96 would do. “Of course, the guys did not resist going near the border [separating East and West Germany],” he said. They would “open the windows and play Radio Free Europe as loud as they could, but that’s pretty much it.”

“Did you ever embellish any of your stories that you told my brother and me when we were little?” I asked.

“My stories seemed to me that they were interesting and powerful enough, so there was no need to add or embellish anything,” Dad said. “They’re unusual, and you would need a heck of an imagination to create them from nothing. Plus, I had witnesses. I would not lie to anyone, especially my kids.”

Staying true to how he talked when he was younger, my dad still does not swear and instead uses words like “heck.” In his plainspoken style, he started to tell me the full story of his career.

My dad throwing the ball in a basketball game.

After returning to Switzerland, he’d started to work for André & Cie S.A., a Swiss company that had many operations throughout the world, and where he would work from age 22 into his 50s. André & Cie S.A. was an international trading company, one of the five biggest global grain traders. They operated all over the world, and even negotiated deals with countries like North Korea. He’d started as an entry-level employee in Lausanne, Switzerland, and over the course of several decades rose to being the president of their Canadian operation.

I did not know that my dad had worked in the grain industry his entire life, and he’d never really talked much about his actual job. He was, to us, just a businessman who traveled all over the world. This interview with him was the first time I’d really learned about his career instead of his adventures. After being raised on his dramatic stories, I have to say that finding out his career was all about selling things like wheat and soy seemed boring by comparison.

“Was there a reason why you didn’t speak about what you actually did at work with André & Cie S.A.?” I inquired.

“It was routine work,” my dad responded. “I would give prices to buyers and make sales. That would not interest children.”

“Then I want to know why you think telling us stories where you could have died would interest us.”

“I told you many stories, including ones where I was not in danger. I think you liked the dangerous ones because it reminded you of television,” my dad explained. “Dora the Explorer and The Smurfs had an element of suspense. My stories did too.”

My father’s first brush with death came in 1971, shortly after he started working for André & Cie S.A. He had to go on a business trip to Hong Kong, but to save money, they took an indirect flight and stopped in Beirut for a day. But what was meant to be a nice stop turned into a dangerous experience.

My father was sitting by the hotel when he heard muffled canon blasts, then looked to see tanks rolling down the street nearby. News quickly broke that a group of Palestinians had abducted some Lebanese officers. Wanting to make his flight to Hong Kong and to escape the conflict, he sprang into action. He asked a Pan Am crew that was about to leave the city if he could take their bus with them to the airport, as he could not find a taxi. The captain agreed but told him he would have to follow his instructions closely because it was dangerous. By the time the bus arrived, it already had bullet holes in the side. “We had to lay down on the floor so people could not see us,” he told me. This certainly made for a thrilling, if somewhat inappropriate, bedtime story.

Dad with his then-wife and her family in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 1972.

He made it to the airport, and a year later he moved to Bangladesh with his wife for a new operation that André & Cie S.A. had launched, facilitating a new commercial relationship between the Bangladeshi government and European countries that would “allow Bangladeshis to import items like pesticides from abroad.”

Although I had tried to understand his work during this period before, I was still confused. “What does a commercial relationship in this context even mean? It sounds like economic imperialism,” I told him.

“No, it was a trade agreement,” he responded.

“But didn’t the European company benefit a lot more?” I asked.

“Well, it was a barter deal,” my dad responded defensively. “You trade something, you get something.” He explained how a German manufacturer sold pesticides to André & Cie S.A., and André & Cie in turn sold those pesticides to Bangladeshis who needed them to grow their rice and tea.

My dad told me that he viewed this new opportunity as an adventure — especially as someone who had grown up fascinated by Rudyard Kipling’s portrayal of that region in The Jungle Book. When I asked him if he knew about the harm that Kipling’s work — such as the poem The White Man’s Burden — had caused to countries under colonialism, he told me that he did not, nor had he heard of the poem. But he was struck by the immense poverty and what he perceived to be a lack of hope among the Bangladeshi people.

As an adult, I have always been gripped by suspense thriller films, which often remind me of a particular bedtime story: his close run-in with what he suspected might have been Prime Minister Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s secret police. I’d had a fairly boring childhood in the prairies of Canada, so hearing this moment of the story shocked me every time:

When he’d gotten home from work one day, the cook told him that people with machine guns had entered his house. My father told me that he’d called his company’s Bangladeshi representative, who facilitated communication with the local government; they told my dad to “go somewhere else” and stay there until they could figure out what had happened. At this point in my dad’s story, my brother and I would be on the edge of our seats, or in this case, our twin beds.

Later, my dad realized that it had been a case of mistaken identity. His company’s representative talked to the police and found out that there was confusion because the police were looking for an “enemy of the state” who had a pet white-vented myna — a talking black bird with a yellow beak that is native to Bangladesh — which my dad also happened to have.

Before he was even 30, my dad had already had several serious brushes with danger, something that he finds baffling himself. “There was always something going on, not so much in Canada, but in other countries” where he’d lived or visited, Dad said. “I just can’t explain it.”

Daniel Métraux left Bangladesh in 1974 and moved to the Netherlands, where the first of my two older half sisters was born, in 1975. Three years later, he moved to Winnipeg to lead the grain division of André & Cie S.A. Things were calmer in Winnipeg, other than once being held at gunpoint during a robbery at a pharmacy where he was shopping. Then, in the early 1990s, my father got divorced from his first wife, and soon after began going on business trips to Colombia.

The first time my dad was picked up from the airport in Cali, he says that he thought he was in a warzone, because the driver had “so many machine guns on his dashboard.” The 1990s were without a doubt a tumultuous time in Colombia, with drug cartels impacting almost every aspect of life in the country. He made about 10 two-week trips. While in Colombia, he met and dated the Colombian singer Isadora, who, then around 40 years old, had released 10 albums with RCA Records; the success of her fourth album, Llamarada, had made her a celebrity in her native country.

Isadora brought him to elite parties in Colombia. At one of these parties, Dad met Colombia’s then-President Ernesto Samper Pizano, who told him about the time he’d been shot at the airport two years earlier. “Many judges and politicians were killed at that time, it was very dangerous,” my father recalled. My dad did tell us about these parties when we were kids, even though we could not comprehend the violence from the cartels that shaped Colombia at the time.

His relationship with Isadora lasted about nine months, until his business trips to Colombia — his last great adventures — ended. The same year, my dad met my mother in the Bahamas, and they moved to Winnipeg, where my twin brother and I were born. (My parents separated when I was 12.)

After I was born in 1997, my father did not have any more close calls with death — that I am aware of — and André & Cie S.A. closed in 2001. SwissInfo reported at the time of its closing that the commodities trading company was bankrupt and $400 million dollars in debt. André & Cie S.A. sold many of its operations in Singapore, Argentina, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Myanmar, Japan, Vietnam and China to another company. My dad mostly retired after they shut down, apart from doing some translation work and finishing his doctorate in French medieval literature from the Université de Lausanne.

My family moved to the United States when I was 6. One day when I was in high school, my father gave me memos from a maritime agency about a boat that had gone missing while it was doing work for André & Cie: the SS San Patrick. The boat had left from British Columbia for Japan but had been damaged upon hitting Ulak Island, roughly 1,200 miles from Alaska. The San Patrick was declared missing at sea, and the 32 people who were on the ship were presumed to be dead. Only one of the bodies of the people on the SS San Patrick was recovered, and the vessel itself fell apart.

When I asked him why he’d given those papers to me, he said he thought I would find the story interesting. I did find it interesting, but it was just like so many other aspects of his life — a small but fascinating story, with no context. I wanted to know more. So I decided to pester him.

“Why did you even give me those memos in the first place without telling me any background information about the SS San Patrick?”

“I don’t know. I just thought it was interesting, simply that,” he said, avoiding eye contact with me.

I knew my dad had lived an interesting life, and the fuller details he’d now told me settled my questions about whether he was a spy (well, mostly). Maybe business trips and relocations can be as interesting as he made them sound, but I hope the ones that I go on won’t be as dangerous as his experiences in Lebanon and Bangladesh.

Me and my twin brother, David, waiting for a bedtime story, 2004.

When I was younger, my dad’s bedtime stories made me want to move to different countries and have experiences that I would tell other people one day. That’s one of the reasons why I learned French when I was a teenager. But my dreams of being a world traveler were somewhat squashed when I developed an autoimmune disease that makes it hard to travel due to chronic pain, and because I’ve always need to develop a game plan for what to do if I get sick abroad.

But, after talking to my father again about his life, I realized something. Sitting on my bed, typing up this story at 7 a.m. after drinking two cups of tea and rewatching episodes of Avatar: The Last Airbender, I realized that I have my father’s thirst for adventure. I realized that I want to find my own stories.

Since interviewing my dad, I’ve been accepted as an English teaching assistant this fall in Avignon, France. While my ability to explore Southern France will be impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, I’m excited to move to a new country and try my luck at a new profession for a bit, like my dad did when he played basketball in Germany. As a writer, I tell other people’s stories for the most part. I love that, but it’s not all I want to do. I want to be able to have experiences that are worthy of bedtime stories. Maybe I’ll have such great stories that one day people will start to question whether everything in my life adds up.