Swiss Christmas Stender

Is it 2017? Oh yes, it is. How is that possible? I cannot say. But the last 6 months have felt like a blur. A glorious, always-new-horizons kind of blur. So it seemed like the right time for a post. Do I have any New Year’s resolutions? Nope. But we DID have a fantastic Christmas season which is much more important than pretending I’m going to drink less beer this year.

 

My mom came for a nice extended visit here in Switzerland. I met her at the airport in Geneva and we spent the day cruising the city. The city is a feast – of wealth as seen by Ferrari FF’s and tangerine sized diamond necklaces in store windows. But also of food – as enjoyed at the lunch joint named Au Pied de Cochon or The Foot of The Pig, which instantly appealed to my inner meativore.

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Christmas in Switzerland: Advent Calendars

Christmas is coming and we’re soaking it all in here in Switzerland. Some traditions are new, some familiar and some have left us scratching our head. But I would say that on the whole, Christmas is a bigger deal here than in the States. We’re in a smallish city and it looks like Santa’s workshop everywhere you go.

For instance, the jewelry store around the corner has decorated the outside of their windows with stacks of cut wood, trimmed with garland and holiday trinkets. And that’s just the outside. There are many topics to cover, today we’ll look at advent calendars.

I’ve been out of the advent calendar scene for many years so perhaps I’m just not up to date on the happenings in this industry. I remember, as a kid, calendars that you opened each day to find a piece of chocolate inside. Knowing that a Swiss human eats around 20 POUNDS of chocolate per year, I figured we’d have plenty of options. On a side note, Americans eat roughly 9 ½ pounds of chocolate, per person, annually. And they say we’re savages!

As expected, there were endless selections of chocolate themed advent calendars. The stores are stuffed to the gills with them. At the other end of the scale, you could spend nearly $50 on a calendar that reveals a different plastic doodad each day, culminating in a fully functioning remote controlled drone. EXCUSE-MOI!?

We went for the middle ground, thinking in our infinite wisdom we would be doing the kids a favor by not serving them candy each morning. PlayMobil makes advent calendars that unveil a new toy each day leading to the creation of a fully functioning play set. Pirates are a theme – which Hendrick chose – or farm animals – Maren’s pick. Milan, however, keyed on the calendar with shiny jewels all over the packaging.

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1 of 4: A seemingly innocuous lineup of advent calendars

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND: 3 OF 3

I thought I could fit this all in 1 blog post but I know Tyler doesn’t like to read more than 1 paragraph at a time so I try to keep that in mind. Today’s post is a continuation of this post. This is last part of the 3 part series.

 

Jiu-Jitsu

I’ve found a local gym with a great jiu-jitsu class. The instructor, and most of the students, don’t speak English. The results are interesting.

Throws

The approach here is different from what I was practicing in St. Louis and involves a lot more throws. One technique involved someone running at you, you grabbing them and tossing them onto their back. BUT, the key here was to grab them, then effectively sit down/fall backwards while throwing them over your shoulder. I missed the whole sitting down thing and instead was bodily heaving people across the mats. Marc, the instructor, tried explaining it to me in French but then gave the universal sign for “It’s ok, you’re a buffoon, continue”. Of course once I saw someone else do it, I understood.

Lesson for Grasshopper – Don’t go first

 

Rolling

At the end of the class, there’s some freestyle rolling with a partner. My first day on the job, I assumed this was like how it was done in St. Louis – roll until one person submits the other. But out of the gate, I could tell something was different. My partner would suddenly stop trying to submit me. So I would stop. Then he would say something in French and sort of point/flail his arms. I would look at him confused. He would start up again. I would be unsure. Very odd. But what I ultimately learned – after the fact – was that he was not wearing a cup – between his legs. This was clear when my knee, accidentally, found its way to that area that all men fear and he squealed like a stuck pig. Horrorstruck, I asked what happened.  He pointed to his groin and said “BALLS!”

Lesson for Grasshopper – Some things are universally understood

Swiss Things of Note

  • Swiss people consider Americans friendly. Unless you yell at them, slowly in English like they’re deaf idiots – “WHERE…IZZZ…THEEE BATH-ROOOOM!?”. Which we don’t.
  • You can pick up a rental car by entering a 5 digit code into a parking lot lockbox, on the side of a pole, and drive away with no rental agency in site. You can also fill up a gas tank with diesel. Even if it takes unleaded. Or so I’ve heard…
  • Vanilla extract as we know it in the States is not available. But their molasses-like vanilla syrup is pretty damn good.
  • Fondue is awesome in French Switzerland. So are croissants filled with ham, chocolate, mushrooms and produce. But the best food is found in the German sector – because burgers. And bratwurst. And also beer.
  • The Elsa doll from Frozen, speaks French here. I hate you Disney.
  • Using Google translate to figure out how to cook a box of frozen macaroni and cheese is a crap shoot. For example, here are the directions in French:

Cuire les macaronis montagnards surgeles sur la grille du four prechauffe selon les instructions. 

  • And here they are, in “English”, after being entered into Google translate:

Cook the macaroni frozen mountain on the gate of the preheated oven according to instructions.

Ahhh, that’s so much more helpful than the French version. Thanks Google.

Living in Switzerland: 2 of 3

I thought I could fit this all in 1 blog post but I know Tyler doesn’t like to read more than 1 paragraph at a time so I try to keep that in mind. Today’s post is a continuation of this post. Here is part 2 of a 3 part series.

Gruyere

Gruyere, where they make the cheese, is also the site of an epic Swiss chateau. That’s a fancy word for castle. (Thanks Nancy). We’ve now been there 3 times – with Tiffany, with Howard and with Linda. And I’d go back again. The views are amazing. The castle is more of an art gallery than anything, which is fine because there is a ton of surreal style work which is right up my alley. There is also the medieval hamlet leading up to the castle. Although I’ve seen their cheese in the States, a local delicacy served at all the restaurants in town called “Gruyere double crème” was a new one to me.

 

It’s along the lines of freshly whipped cream but a little thicker. It’s not sweet, just decadent. When my mom and I visited, we sat down at a café to have some with coffee. The owner did not speak English and my broken French was not enough to prevent us from ordering two menu items which loosely translated to “berries with double crème” and “meringue with double crème”. Surely our host thought us gluttons because each plate had around 2 heaping cups of crème on it. And I’m going to be honest, he was correct. Yes, we finished it. When in Rome right? Ah, and I almost forgot, coffee was served with a small chocolate bowl filled with the stuff. We had two. That day, I thought I might keel over. Writing about it now, I want more.

 

School

Sarah could not have done a better job nailing it with the kids’ school. They alternate days of speaking French and English. So, naturally, Milan now talks with a British accent (the head teacher is British)

Dohhddy, my ponts are a bit tight. Are we having porridge for breakfast? Oh, brilliant!

If the pupils don’t want to nap, they can meditate. And their lunch menu looks like it was created by Julia Childs. “Finish your salmon now, it’s crème brulee time children!” They also go on awesome field trips. The one shown in the photos was a sort of All Your Senses day. Hendrick – who is soaking wet and covered in dirt before we go outside in general – was in hog heaven. Milan – who may not get as dirty as the little man, also enjoyed parading about in the mud with no pants on. And then there was Maren. When the bus arrived back at school, where we waited, Milan and Hendrick got off looking dirty but otherwise chipper. Their sister stumbled off the bus, hair in full bird-nest mode, scowling and LESS than happy. This sort of thing is NOT her cup of tea.

Becoming Swiss

Did you know that to become a citizen of Switzerland, you need to be “approved” by your peers as worthy? If your community doesn’t think you’ve done a good enough job integrating, they can vote to keep you un-citizenized as it were. I think you need to live in the country for something like 10 years to even be considered for this honor so we’re not planning to go this route. However, we have been working on “fitting in”:

 

  • We fed the children horse salami. This was unintentional though the logo, containing a picture of a horse, on the package should have been a giveaway. Seabiscuit is all over the menu here.
  • We are punctual for the train. Locals get very antsy when the train is not at the platform at the prescribed time. And I’m sure they love our 3 rugrats doing backflips once we’re boarded up.
  • We had a birthday party for Milan and invited all her school friends. When the friends arrived and were dropped off by their parents – who left – we were surprised. Not that we had a choice. But somehow, dropping off your 3 year old daughter with a pair of strangers for a couple hours doesn’t seem likely to happen in the States. Just how they do it here.
  • Most importantly we are practicing the language. And for the most part being immediately identified as non-native speakers. Shocking. Par exemple:

               

Hamburger Food Truck

We found a food truck at the farmer’s market with legit burgers. Which is great…if you can order properly.

  • Food Truck Vendor: (in French) “What kind of sauce would you like on your hamburger?”
  • Me: “Oui”

Which you likely know means Yes

Repeat this exchange, verbatim, 3 times while stares from people in line get stronger and confused look on vendor’s face gets more confused. Then…

  • Food Truck Vendor: (in English) “KET-CHUP?”
  • Me: (breathing a sigh of relief) “OUI!!!”

Grocery Delivery

We get our groceries delivered because without a car, we would spend literally all day going back and forth to the supermarket.

  • Me: (greeting the delivery guy): “Bonjour!”

Which means Good Morning and is not used at 8 PM – when the groceries were delivered.

  • Delivery Guy: (in English) “Hi, how are you?”

Or “Not from around here are you?”

 More to come in the next post…

Living in Switzerland: 1 of 3

I haven’t posted in a while and as a result, my already limited ability to remember event dates is completely gone. I regularly get abused for not knowing how old I am. Once, at a triathlon with Dave Russ, he asked me why I had the wrong age written on my calf. Apparently I gave race official the wrong number. Sarah and Tyler just shake their heads when I ask “Have we seen this movie?” The point is, I’m not so big on the dates and times of things. So put me in a foreign country where every day is a new adventure and forget it. As a result, if you’re reading this and the events seem out of order or even completely random it’s because they are. There’s just so much going on, I’ve got to start somewhere. This will be part of 1 of 3 upcoming posts.

Saint Bernard

Along with blanking on dates, I also have blanks in my brain where I may have learned something in school that would be relevant today. Like who Saint Bernard was. Many of you probably know it all started here in Switzerland. I did not, until we visited Barryland, the affectionate name for the St. Bernard Foundation. We lured the kids there with promises of getting to pet huge dogs. They were not disappointed. Sarah and I also may have semi-promised/lied to the children that we could bring one home, along the way.

 

Now that I’ve been up close and see how large they can get there is absolutely no chance in hell of this happening. Did you know they can hit 200 pounds?? Sorry kids, but we just got done with diapers and I know who will get to clean up Fido’s bathroom visits. The dogs and their saint have a lot of history tied to a mountain pass in the area. All this was covered in detail at the foundation but chasing the kids around leaves little time to read up on details like this. All I know is it’s a treacherous place.

Mont Blanc

You see, when Howard visited, we had the town of Chamonix – site of Mont Blanc – on our itinerary. We rented a minivan and hit the road for the day. And quickly found ourselves ascending to drive right through the Saint Bernard Pass. Ascending might not be the right word for it. It was more of a cliff climb to the top. Here in Switzerland, guard rails on the road don’t seem to be a priority. Which is a curious thing to learn while zig zagging up the side of a mountain. Especially with motorcycles passing you at full throttle into blind hairpins. Really gets the blood pumping. Then there is the matter of suicidal bicyclists, also going up the mountain. There is NO shoulder. It is VERTICAL. And you can’t see around the endless blind curves. I wouldn’t say my palms were sweaty as much as dripping wet by the time we got to the peak and through the pass.

 

Depending on your definition of the inner Eurasian border, Mont Blanc may or may not be the highest mountain in the Alps at FIFTEEN THOUSAND feet plus. I love Wikipedia. Let me back up. Sarah is the Itinerary Master, which I love. As such, there is no need for both us to work out the details of the trip. Or put another way, I generally have no idea where we’re going or what we’re doing until we get there. Upon arrival in Chamonix, I felt it was time to ask…

 

  • “So, what are we going to do here?” I said.
  • “Go to the top of Mont Blanc on the gondola” said Sarah.
  • “And how big a mountain is it?” I questioned.
  • “The biggest one in the Alps, or thereabouts” noted Sarah.
  • “And we’re riding a gondola up to the top?” I asked.
  • “Yes, is that going to be a problem?” Sarah quizzed.
  • “I’ll know when I see this gondola” I replied.

 

Well, it was a problem. One look at the method of ascent and I was out. I wouldn’t say I have a traditional fear of heights so much as a burning desire not to hang from a cable thousands of feet in the air. So Marebear and I hung back and explored Chamonix. Which is quite a charming little Alpine ski village in the summer. We ate cheesed filled pastries. I drank coffee. Maren didn’t. She received endless shoulder rides. We had pasta and beer for lunch. Watched the paragliders. And then headed to meet with the rest of the crew at our appointed time. At which point Sarah and Howard concurred that although the view was stunning, perhaps they would not do the ride again. For one, it was FREEZING cold at the top and we were woefully unprepared. Then there was the matter of the wooden foot bridge across a chasm that required crossing to access the next gondola. If I recall, it was here the ascent stopped and the descent began.

 

More to come in the next post…

Swiss Family Stender: Kids and Beer

Switzerland continues to be excellent. We walk everywhere, or take a train. Ferrari’s regularly wind up right past our balcony. The kids sing unintelligible tunes in French. And occasionally watch Netflix in German. What else do you need?


Kids

They continue to provide entertainment. Some examples:

  • When Maren wants to ride on my shoulders during an excursion, she claims it because her nose hurts.
  • The director of their school is a British woman named Becky. As such, Milan is now referring to Sarah as “mum”, tells me her snack was “brilliant” and refers to her pants as “ponts”.
  • Swiss etiquette suggests a formal approach to meeting new people. So when the kids say “BONJOUR!” to every stranger walking down the street, it seems to be quite startling.
  • Riding the train is great for saving the planet but terrible for when even 1 out of 3 children isn’t feeling it. Nothing better than dragging Maren up onto a crowded train at 8 am while she whines about her kitty cat that got left behind.
  • Milan ate a bowl of meatballs for breakfast. And yogurt with oatmeal. And toast. And fruit.
  • The Parent Interrogating is completely out of hand. Milan quizzes me on addition, while Hendrick jabbers about the Smurfs and Maren gesticulates wildly about cats with a mouth full of food – all at the same time. It goes like this:

“What’s 8+6? Smurfs don’t aren’t the dragon? My kitty is named Larry? What’s 1 and 2 in the shape of an H plus 14? The Smurf dragon is not the sky? My kitty cat is stinky.”

And so on. Somehow all statements require an answer from me. It feels like having a 20 pound medicine ball bounced off my face repeatedly, with no apparent end in sight. It’s literally 50/50 whether I laugh or cry.

 

Beer

I recently purchased a used bicycle to get to and fro. I do use it to get to the pool and it’ll come in handy to get over to jiu jitsu. But the truth is I needed a bike to obtain beer. The supermarkets mainly stock old style German lagers. The new craft beers coming out of Switzerland and Europe are either in the bigger cities or in a rumored craft beer distributor that sells direct to the public “just up the road” from downtown Vevey.

 

When I Google mapped the location, it came up as a 25 minute bike ride. What I failed to note was the elevation change between My Location and the destination. We live 1 block from the lake and are surrounded by hills and mountains. So, unless you are tracing the lake perimeter, everything is uphill. In my excitement to discover beer, this fact slipped my mind.

 

The bike I purchased runs like a top even though it’s likely over 10 years old. It used to be painted purple judging by the chipping black paint. And comes equipped with 3 speeds, 1 hand brake and 1 coaster brake. As a young boy, we had coaster brakes on a tiny bike with red tires. I recall leaving red skid marks on the neighbor’s white concrete sidewalk with much glee. So I naturally assumed coaster brakes, as an adult, would be neat. Wrong.

 

I left our apartment with a raincoat on and began pedaling. In short order, I was going uphill and then more steeply uphill until I realized that I would be going straight up until I found my destination. Determined not to stop until I arrived (because I was afraid I wouldn’t start again), I made it. Peeling my raincoat off and un-suctioning helmet from head, I walked into the store looking like a drowned rat.

 

Walking around, I decided I had better stuff my backpack to the gills so as to avoid making this trip too frequently. Mission accomplished, I headed out and began sliding down the wet mountainside as my quads threatened to seize from the unabated coaster brake pressure. All the while my overloaded backpack slapping back and forth, threatening to shatter the precious cargo and put me on the ground at the same time. When I got home, I wondered whether my sweat-soaked, leg-cramped, dehydrated state was worth it. Then I unloaded my backpack and realized it was, OH YES, it was.

 

Tiffany and Howard will be visiting us in short order so I’m sure there will be more stories to come!

Swiss Family Stender: The Fast and The Hungry

Life in Switzerland continues to be excellent. We’re getting the food thing figured out so, uh…. Well, that’s really THE most important thing. Why you might ask?

Morning…

At breakfast, we feed our pack of starving children a bowl of yogurt with fruit and oats (which sounds like something you’d feed a horse) and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Then, depending on the tug-of-war between the parents’ level of morning befuddlement and the childrens’ level of demanding, eggs and meat. After this is consumed, we flat refuse to make more food despite their insistence of being hungry.

 

…Noon…

Lunch, thank the heavens, is served at school though we’re told they often politely ask for seconds. I wish they would politely ask at home. When they’re picked up from school, we bring a Tupperware that lately is stuffed with sliced fruit, hunks of Parmigiano Reggiano and oatmeal cranberry cookies. They wolf this “snack” down while we wait for the train (DO NOT put your fingers in the Tupperware at this stage) and then ask if I have anything else. I don’t. So they ask what’s for dinner. This is at 4 PM. I used to tell them what we would be having. It would go like this:

 

“Stewed balsamic chicken with rice!” I announce.

“EWW! We don’t like that”, they respond in unison. “Is it CHEESY rice?”

“Why yes OF COURSE it’s cheesy rice!” I lie in reply.

 

…and Night.

And on and on until I realized the better course of action was to feign ignorance on the dinner cart – “I don’t know what’s for dinner?” Now I can get them home without nuclear meltdown on the train platform. If dinner is satisfactory for the little carnivores, it becomes a contest of who did the best.

 

“I ate mine first!” one blurts out.

“It’s not a race.” comes my attempt at not failing as a parent.

“Did I eat the best Daddy?” is the next question.

“Well, uh, I don’t know” I lamely reply in another attempt at not creating a tableside pissing match between the 3 foot lunatics surrounding me.

My dad tells the story of his dinner table growing up. There were 2 categories of people at this table. The Fast. And The Hungry. If you were Hungry, but not Fast, you didn’t eat. You needed to be both to survive. And his dad was the all caps version – FAST AND HUNGRY. “Are you going to eat that?” my grandfather would ask as he forked someone’s meal into his mouth.

 

As such, I can very confidently say Grandpa Smiley’s soul has been passed down to our children. If one gets up for a bathroom break or just to screw around, the other 2 will circle the unprotected plate. After some furtive glances, they’ll begin the inhalation process while their poor sibling is rolling around the floor making cat noises. No one gets out alive.

 

There are some other things that have been happening in Switzerland besides eating but I would say food dominates about 80% of a given day. I’ll fill in the other 20% next time around.