It’s hard not to get along with Gaby Tysinger. The bubbly 87-year-old Ardenwoods resident abounds with enthralling tales of a life well-lived, of travels and adventures recalled in such impeccable detail that you’ll find yourself walking the streets of Kathmandu — or watching a Burmese sunset — right alongside her.
Though she was born in Berlin, Germany in 1935, Gaby grew up in Switzerland, “halfway up a mountain” in the city of Lugano, where her family moved when she was only three months old. “We were very close to the Italian border,” she explained. “Once you got to the top of the mountain, the other side belonged to Italy.”
Taking refuge among the snow-capped peaks, Gaby and her family were spared from much of the dangers of war — though she still recalls watching smoke billow on the horizon as Milan and the neighboring city of Como, just across the Italian border, burned from Allied bombs.
After the war, Gaby attended schools all across Western Europe, though she admitted she “was not very keen on school.” In fact, “I hated school with all of my heart,” she said, laughing at her own bluntness. “But I was lucky to have encountered a lot of different people, in many different places, from many different countries.”
Despite this aversion to schoolwork, Gaby developed a keen interest in geography and history at a young age, poring over maps and globes and imagining the landscapes that rolled across each country. It was through these daydreams that she became interested in the Himalayas — Nepal, in particular — which first opened its borders to foreigners when Gaby was a teenager.
“I saw the name Kathmandu, and I just thought: ‘Wow. It must be something.’ The name Kathmandu sounds like something from heaven.” she explained. Decades later, when presented with the opportunity to travel extensively with her mother, she was asked where she’d like to go, “and out of nowhere came the name Kathmandu,” she said. “My mother looked at me a little confused and said: ‘Where is that?’”
A whirlwind romance
Prior to her globe-trotting travels through the world’s tallest peaks, though, she first had to meet the man of her dreams, pack up her life and move half-way across the world to the Appalachian Mountains. She met her husband, Jones Tysinger, in Frankfurt, Germany, while he was stationed in the area with the U.S. Army.
“I met him in January, we got engaged in April, married in May, and I came to America with him in July,” she explained. “My husband always joked with me: ‘Gaby, you’re the one who asked me to marry you. It’s supposed to be the other way around.’ And I would say: ‘I know.’ But 10 days after we met, I told him: ‘You know, we’re going to get married.’”
At first, Jones wasn’t so sure. There was a girl he was interested in back in North Carolina. But Gaby was charmingly adamant, telling him: “No, you had a girlfriend in North Carolina, but no more. You and I are going to get married.” He told her that he’d think about it and call her back. Four days later, he rang her back to let her know he’d start getting the visa paperwork together. It was certainly a whirlwind romance — prompting her worried father to give Gaby a one-way ticket back home as a wedding gift, “just in case” — “but it worked out very well,” she said. In fact, “I’m the only one in my family that never got a divorce.” The two were married for 53 years, until Jones’ passing in 2011.
Alps to Appalachia
When Gaby arrived in Knoxville with her new husband, she was just 21 years old. “It was a shock,” she explained. “Everything was a shock. There were vegetables I had never seen before in my life.” Luckily, she was welcomed into her husband’s family by her “super” sisters-in-law, who helped her adjust to life in Tennessee — and to the local produce, like butternut squash.
It was there that they began a family, welcoming a daughter, Chris, and a son, Michael. Her family is one of the greatest joys in her life, she said. And, despite not knowing how to cook upon arrival, she soon found herself truly enjoying making meals for those she loved. While her husband worked as a hydraulic engineer for the Tennessee Valley Authority, Gaby enjoyed taking part in her children’s education on their school’s PTA, and she also volunteered at a local home for pregnant young women, taking them to and from doctors’ appointments.
Prior to moving to Asheville in 1979, the family briefly lived for two years in Bryson City, which Gaby describes as a bigger culture shock than her initial move to America. “My English wasn’t very good, and I wasn’t used to the accents,” she explained. “So they couldn’t understand me, and I couldn’t understand them. For a while, I didn’t know what anyone was talking about. But I found a bridge club, and, after that, I made friends very quickly.”
Himalayas and beyond
Though she settled down in the Southern Appalachians, Gaby never lost her passion for travel and adventure, frequently visiting with family in Europe and taking trips with her husband, mother and other friends.
“I was very lucky,” she said. “My husband was very generous. And when my mother invited me to travel in 1972, he was so supportive. We flew from Zurich to Iran,” she paused for a moment, then continued: “and from there we traveled to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sikkim, Nepal, then back to Europe. It was a wonderful trip. This was when Afghanistan still had a king, back before the Russians invaded the country — before we invaded the country. It was still very much in the old ways and very interesting. I loved it, and the people were so nice.
“That was the first trip,” she added. “The second trip, we went to Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, to Jakarta and Bali. My mother always wanted to travel, but she was not a very outgoing person. She said, ‘Gaby, I wouldn’t do this alone for anything, but I would love to travel. I would be happy to go anywhere with you.’”
She’s not quite sure how many countries she’s been to over the years, but to put her travels into perspective, she began collecting coins from each country she’s visited — then attaching those coins to a charm bracelet. “Finally, we couldn’t put any more on the bracelet, and I have maybe four or five coins that should be on there but won’t fit,” she explained.
Though she’s visited every continent over the years — hiking up to Machu Picchu in Peru and enjoying a family reunion in Namibia, Africa — her favorite countries are Bhutan and Burma (now Myanmar).
“Burma was a dream,” she said. “It was so peaceful, and there were so few tourists, because it was very hard to get a visa there at that time. One night, my mother and I were visiting a Buddha (statue) in Pagan that was bigger than a hotel — it had a staircase that came out to a terrace — and I just remember looking out over the river, watching the barges and boats traveling along. The sun began to set and the river turned golden. And below me, all the monks in yellow robes were walking by, going home from wherever they were working. It was just me and my mother sitting out there, and all you could hear was the birds. Our tour guide let us know we had to go back before dark, and I really didn’t want to leave. It was such a personal moment that I’ll never forget. It went really deep within me.”
From Asheville to Ardenwoods
After Jones passed away in 2011, Gaby realized she no longer wanted (or needed) to maintain the couple’s large two-story condo alone. While visiting Ardenwoods with a friend for supper, she fell in love with the bright, spacious rooms and stunning mountain views. She immediately made up her mind: Ardenwoods was the place for her.
For the last four years, Gaby has enjoyed her time in the Ardenwoods community by playing bridge, socializing with friends, and actively participating in the German, French, and Italian language clubs.
Though she’s no longer able to travel due to neuropathy in her legs and feet, the social butterfly is happy to chat about her many adventures with friends in the community — she may even encourage you to get out and explore yourself.