Lost hour in Basel

On Saturday, we went to Herbstmesse, a two-week long Fall festival that takes place in Basel, Switzerland. We had been invited by the Brumanns, the parents of Isabel, a Swiss teaching intern we hosted in the US in 2009-10. We started the day early, since it takes about an hour and a half to get to Basel from our house by train. Herr Brumann picked us up at the train In Baselstation and brought us to their apartment, where we reunited with Isabel and the rest of the family. Since her parents don’t speak much English, all of the conversations took place in German, and Joe and I were very proud of how well we were able to carry on.

After a hearty, Swiss-style lunch around the kitchen table and a little nap time for Henry, we headed into the city for Herbstmesse. We feel like we have a really good grasp on Herbstmessewhat a European festival is like now. This one had the same rides, and booths selling a lot of the same things — and some decidedly Swiss things. But Herbstmesse is spread out right in the center of the city of Basel. There are several main areas in the major city squares including Barfuesserplatz and Muensterplatz. We rode the ferris wheel and other rides, ate some lebkuchen (anise flavored gingerbread) and wienerli, and checked out the view over the Rhine river. By around 6:45pm, Henry was already yawning, and we still had a long journey home. The Brumanns led us through one more platz to the tram stop.

Coming from the Midwest, we are accustomed to infamously long goodbyes. We are used to announcing our departure, and then continuing to talk for up to an hour before actually making it out the door. But the Swiss goodbye is a whole new level. If they aren’t ready for you to go, they simply don’t acknowledge your goodbyes or hints that your children are already up past their bedtime. This has happened to us twice now — the only two times we have been invited to Swiss homes in the evening.

In any case, when the tram stopped at the train station and we started to stand up, they simply looked at us and said, “But you must come back to our apartment for dinner.” So, we obediently sat back down and looked at each other helplessly. At this point, they told us that it was daylight savings, so we had an extra hour anyway. (If they hadn’t told us, we probably would have missed it completely, and showed up at school/work an hour early on Monday.)

Bridge over the RhineFortunately, since lunch is the primary meal in Switzerland, dinner is fairly simple. By 8:00, we were sitting down to fresh bread, cold cuts, an assortment of cheeses, and yogurt. After checking the schedule, it was determined that we would catch the 9:30 train. Don’t get me wrong, the Brumann’s were wonderfully gracious hosts. But, by 9:00pm my brain hurt from over 10 hours of German language conversation. The kids were strung out. But it was all out of our control. Suddenly, at 9:15, it was like the goodbye gods gave signal, and Bam! we were out the door with kisses on the cheeks and on our way to the train station.

Now, I’ve judged other parents I’ve seen with young kids out late at night. But, this time it was me. When we were changing trains in Bern at 10:30pm, several people gave us a look that I recognized. And we wouldn’t be home until 11pm. Somehow, knowing it was an hour earlier with the time change wasn’t all that comforting.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Swiss Food – more than just cheese and chocolate?

When most people think of Switzerland, the first things that comes to mind are cheese and chocolate. Indeed, these things are a big part of Swiss culture and cuisine. Although “Swiss cheese” as we know it in America is not actually Swiss. Swiss cheeses, of which there are many varieties, are typically firm, pungent, and have a strong flavor like Emmentaler and Gruyere. No cheddar to be found here!

Fall is the perfect time of year for Swiss food. On our recent trips to the Alps, I was introduced to some new Swiss dishes, all of which involved melted cheese, that warmed me up on cool nights. Like German food, Swiss cuisine is not fancy and features a lot of meat and potatoes, only with a lot more cheese. Here are some of the highlights:

Raclette: This dish is literally just melted cheese over boiled potatoes. It is usually served with pickles and small onions. At home, we have a Raclette grill, so each person gets to melt their own cheese and pour it over the potatoes and other items. We usually add extra items like salami, mushrooms, garlic, and more, which can also be cooked on the grill. Because Raclette cheese melts so well, it is also used in many other dishes. Broiled over a thick piece of toasted bread and a slice of ham, it is called käseschnitte (or croûte au fromage in French areas). This is also traditionally served with pickles and small onions. I had another dish called aTartiflette (French) which was another combination of these things – a shallow bowl of cubed potatoes and ham swimming in melted Raclette cheese.

Rösti: This is like a giant potato pancake made from shredded potatoes, chopped onions, and a little gruyere cheese, pressed and cooked in a pan. It is served as a main course by cooking an egg on top.

Fondue: You are probably familiar with this concept – a pot of melted cheese served with bread cubes. It is a lot stronger than I had expected as it is made with real Swiss cheeses, white wine, some kirsch alcohol and other spices. But, once you know what to expect, I find it really grows on you, and there is nothing like it to warm you up on a cold night. There are fondue pots and sets all over the place, but I find it easier to buy the pre-made, microwaveable fondue-in-a-tub at the grocery store.  Of course, for dessert, there is also chocolate fondue served with fruit, butter cookies, marshmallows, etc… Yum!

Wähe: Speaking of dessert, one of the most common sweet treats is a fruit and custard tart called a wähe or kuche. It is made with just about any fruit you can think of – apples,plums, berries, rhubarb, apricot, and more. You put the fruit in a pie crust, pour custard over it and bake it. It is very simple to make, and I have even made several from

scratch with raspberries, rhubarb, apples and pears from our yard. (I’ll be making one tomorrow to bring to James’s kindergarten potluck party.) You can buy them by the slice at the grocery store, train station, or coffee shops. For those of you who can’t buy a slice and want to give it a try, here is the recipe. It’s really very easy, if I can make it, then anyone can.

Some other common foods here are Gipfli (croissant), Käsekuchen (cheese quiche),Vermicelli (stringy marzipan dessert), Birchermüsli (yogurt with oats and fruit in it), and so much more. I hope this gives you just a taste of what Swiss food is like.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Team Alps

Sarah had a nice post about our recent trip to the Jungfraujoch, but she has left the bulk of the weekend’s activities to me. You see, we took the train back from the Jungfraujoch to Kleine Scheidegg where we had lunch. There is a 10km hike from Kleine Scheidegg to Lauterbrunnen (at the base of the valley) that was supposed to be very scenic. I had wanted to take one or two of the older kids on the walk, but Sarah felt that she would be a sure lock for the “Best Wife Ever” award if she let me enjoy the hike back in the peace and serenity of being by myself. So she offered me the “once-in-a-lifetime” deal of taking the kids back to our village while I walked back down the mountain. How could I say no?

Hiking TrailThe vertical distance from Kleine Scheidegg (2061m) to Lauterbrunnen (795m) is around 1.3km covered over a 10km walk. This is about a 13% grade averaged over the length of the walk, but for those of us who are not used to walking down that grade, your quads can begin to burn pretty quick (and that fire usually smolders for a few days).

Mountain hikeRegardless, it was a beautiful walk through grassy fields, snow, forest, and meandering streets in mountain villages. The sky was perfectly blue and cloudless all day. It took about 2 hours to get back to Lauterbrunnen, and a short bus ride and cable car later I was back in Gimmelwald.

The next morning we awoke to another beautiful morning with plans to take the kids on another hike. Emily and James told me that they had decided yesterday that they were such good mountain kids, that they had started “Team Alps.” This team currently consisted of them, Mom, and Henry. They were interested in seeing if I wanted to join, but they needed to make sure I was ready to carry on the spirit of the team (whatever that was). I felt ready.

Around 11am we took the kids by cable car up to Mürren, and set out along the Northface Trail. This trail starts with a reasonable climb up paved village roads, but quickly turns to grassy passes, wooded trails, and muddy paths dotted with cow manure. Suffice it to say, the kids loved it. We followed the trail about 2.5km in (and 300m up) where we came upon a small farmhouse on the edge of a cliff that led down to a rushing creek.

Our host, Olle, told us that campfires can be set along the trail anywhere if you want to stop and cook sausages. He further demonstrated this point to us by giving us frozen sausages, matches, and paraffin paper to start a fire. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “Look. Your children will not be impressed that you are a doctor, but what will impress them,” he holds up the matches, “is if you can start a fire.” The smile afterwards sold it.

Roasting sausages on the ShilthornSo here we sat, in a field spotted with cow manure, overlooking a rushing mountain stream, in front of a small Swiss farmhouse, roasting sausages over an open fire. The sky was clear, the sun was warm and inviting, the air was crisp, and the sausages were delicious. Team Alps enjoyed a “moment of Zen,” and then headed back home.

If only my damned quads weren’t still burning from the day before, the walk back (and down) would have been that much better. But hey, I can’t let my team members down.

Not when I’m the newest member of the group.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Jungfrau Weekend

We are addicted to the mountains. Last Thursday, we noticed that the forecast for the weekend was clear and gorgeous, so we decided to spend the weekend in the Alps. And on Friday night we were at Olle and Maria’s B&B in the beautiful town of Gimmelwald, on the Schilthorn mountain. We were directly across the valley from the Jungfrau, and the view is amazing. You really have to look at our pictures to get an idea of what it was like.

Lautebrunnen ValleyJoe and I have actually been to Gimmelwald once before when we visited Switzerland in 2010. We loved it so much, we wanted to go back with the kids and make it our home base for our Jungfrau adventure. The only way to get to Gimmelwald is on a cable car that lifts you over the impressive cliffs of the Lauterbrunnen valley. My heart still skips a beat every time the cable car goes over the edge of the cliff on the way down, and I am suddenly looking down the sheer wall of the cliff several hundred meters to the valley floor.

On Saturday morning, we woke the kids early to begin our journey to the Jungfraujoch, the “Top of Europe.” It is the highest rail station in Europe at 3,454 meters (11,332 ft). The railway and station are 100 years old (or will be next August), making the ascent even more impressive. The views are incredible as you climb up the base of the mountains. Then, shortly after you pass the last town of Kleine Scheidegg, the train enters a 9km tunnel through the Eiger and Mönch mountains. The train station at the Jungfraujoch is actually inside the mountain.

Once you arrive, there are several ways to take in the stunning landscape. We went up the elevator to the Sphinx, the highest viewpoint. We walked out onto the snowy plateau where we slipped and slid with all the other tourists. We looked out the panorama windows of the main building. And capped off the visit with a tour of the “Ice Palace,” a labyrinth of tunnels through an ice glacier filled with ice sculptures that the kids loved. It’s hard to describe how incredible it is to be at the top of the alps. Which is why it has become an international tourist destination, marked by hundreds of Asian tourists trying to take pictures of our children.

We stopped for lunch in Kleine Scheidegg on the way back down before the kids and I returned to Gimmelwald. We bought some fresh milk, eggs, and cheese from our neighbor in the little mountain town. Then I sat outside and watched the sun set behind the tops ofthe mountains, while Joe had an adventure of his own.

Swinging in GimmelwaldWe feel so blessed to be living just a couple of hours from such a paradise. The weekend was so clear and beautiful, we never saw a cloud in the sky. One of my favorite moments was sitting outside in Gimmelwald after putting the kids to bed and looking up at the stars. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that many stars in the sky. It was just one of the many memorable moments in a magical weekend.But I’ll let him tell you about that himself…

Just Call me “Emily’s Mom”

After the three-week fall break, the kids returned to school on Monday, and Emily began 2nd grade. Yes, it’s only October, but her 1st grade teacher had noticed immediately that Emily was ahead of her fellow classmates. See, in Swiss schools, they don’t do much academics in Kindergarten. So, most kids enter 1st grade at age 7 not knowing much more than the alphabet. Emily would have been in 2nd grade in the U.S. anyway, so when her teacher approached us about moving her up, we were not surprised.

But, having just started in a new school in a new country in a new language a few weeks earlier, I was worried about how she would take it emotionally and socially. She had already made friends in 1st grade. How would the other kids react? Well, I am happy to report that Emily is doing great in her first week in her new class. She has already made more friends and likes her new teacher. She speaks German/Swiss German all day long and loves going back to school (even though she has to walk a total of 1 hour and 20 minutes most days — two round trips!). I know I’m biased, but my 7-year-old daughter

blows my mind with how brave, how smart, how independent, and how strong she is.  I am incredibly proud of her.

Emily’s reputation has spread throughout our town. I guess they don’t get too many German-speaking American kids at their local school, so a lot of people seem to know who we are. I have been stopped several times when I am out at the grocery store, at choir practice, and most recently at a cafe. They usually hear me speaking English to Henry, and they always ask the same thing (in German, of course): “Are you Emily’s mom?” And I proudly answer “Yes.”

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Mountains – the highs and the lows

Fall has finally found us. The day after our arrival in Zinal, Switzerland, the sun came out and melted the snow, at least at our altitude. We have had a few beautiful fall days in the mountains (and one rainy day, too). The mornings and evenings are quite brisk, and since On a mountain topwe are in a valley, the sun doesn’t rise over the mountains to the East of us until 10:30am, and it sets behind the mountains to the West at 3:45pm. Between those hours, it is gorgeous, even warm. But, even though it is still light out when the sun is behind the mountains, the temperature drops instantaneously. We have gotten to be very good at Swiss-style dressing – lots of layers.

During the sunny hours, the kids and I hiked down into the valley where a beautiful river flows through the town. We also took a cable car to the top of a nearby mountain for a Mountain Slidefabulous view. We found several great playgrounds (I’m still amazed that they build a playground at the top of a mountain!). There have been so many beautiful simple moments with things that both the kids and the adult can enjoy. But it isn’t without effort.

“Hiking” with the kids really means walking slightly farther than they are used to, which isn’t very far. In order to go anywhere in the mountains, you are automatically going either up or down. And getting back to our apartment means climbing up for about a quarter mile, the last part of which is rocky, so the stroller doesn’t work. Getting three kids, including a two-year-old, up the hills (and then up three flights of stairs) is quite a workout! No wonder you don’t see many overweight Swiss people.

SwimmingWhen it isn’t sunny out (i.e. the other 7 waking hours), there are still lots of options for the kids. They spent one morning at a supervised children’s program, so I had two hours to myself! We have gone swimming every day, and I have three little water bugs. There is also an indoor playroom for children with lots of toys. All in all, it is a fantastic vacation. The only thing that could make it better is if Joe could be here to share it with us.

Don’t miss the pictures of our mountain adventures in our gallery.

Posted from St-Jean, Valais, Switzerland.

Swiss Banknote Series: 1000 Franc Note

Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897)

1000 Swiss Franc NoteFrom the SNB website:

Jacob Burckhardt decisively shaped our understanding of the development of our modern culture. He is best known for his scientifically sound and aesthetically appreciative studies of the Italian Renaissance. But Burckhardt was also a persistent and far-sighted critic of the state’s aspiration for power. Today Burckhardt is admired as a brilliant historian, seminal art historian and prophetic critic of his age. His writings in historiography are literary accomplishments as well as pioneering works that helped to establish art history as a modern academic discipline.


Today the banknote bearing his likeness will get you a trip up and down from Grindelwald to the Jungfraujoch for two adults, three times.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Fall Break: from the city to the mountains

We are still on Fall Break (Herbstferien), which is ironic because the weather went from feeling like summer right to winter, skipping fall altogether. Granted, we traveled several hundred meters of vertical altitude, making the transition even more stark. You can see the sudden change clearly in our photo gallery.

Last week (the 2nd week of Fall Break), we stayed home recuperating from our trip to Germany and preparing for our next excursion. At the GurtenI unpacked, did a lot of laundry, and hung out with the kids. We spent one day at the Bern Zoo and a gorgeous day at the Gurten, a park at the top of Bern’s biggest hill which you have to take a funicular to get to. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny, and we did our best to enjoy it.

On Saturday, we packed up again and headed to the Mountains. Zinal in the region of Valais, Switzerland is only 2.5 hours from home, but it took three trains and one of the scariest bus rides I’ve ever been on up a zigzagging mountain road to get here. As we climbed, the rain that had started in Bern turned to snow. Val D'anniversWe arrived in a winter wonderland of snowcapped mountains, frosted trees and wooden Swiss mountain chalets. It is beautiful, but colder than I had anticipated or packed for.

Zinal is in the French speaking area of Switzerland, which has sent my brain into overdrive trying to recall high school French, most of which has been lost or overwritten with German. We are staying at a Feriendorf, or holiday village, that is specifically set up for families. It has an indoor pool, a large playground, some minigolf holes, ping-pong table, and daily activities for kids. Not to mention that it is surrounded by mountains. So, even though Joe had to leave after just one night to go back to work, the kids and I are planning to have a wonderful third (and final) week of Fall Break.

Posted from St-Jean, Valais, Switzerland.

A Tribute to German Food

During our recent week in Germany, we were reminded of the delicious culinary treats that are traditional German food. Okay, so Germany isn’t known for fancy cuisine, it is very “meat and potatoes.” But nothing beats a good Schweinshaxe with a large Kartoffelknudelpaired with a giant mug of beer. (That’s what Joe had at Oktoberfest). Here’s a little run down of some of our favorites:

Wurst: There are many types of wurst (pronounced with a “v”), or German sausages. They are all surprisingly different, from the soft and mild Bavarian weisswurst that is typically eaten early in the day to the best known bratwurst, usually eaten in a bun. Wieners are just hot dogs, and are common on the children’s menu. Currywurst is actually aschweinwurst (pork sausage) covered in curry ketchup and curry powder. Nürnbergersare small brats from the Franconia region typically served six to a plate, or three in a roll (known as “drei im weckla“).

Schnitzel mit Pommes: This was our kids’ favorite dish. The infamous Wienerschnitzel is actually more Austrian. But Schweinschnitzel,

made from pork instead of veal, is very common in Bavaria. There are other schnitzels as well, pretty much any meat that is pounded out, breaded and fried. It is typically served with pommes, or french fries.  Our kids ate so many french fries in Germany, I actually bought vitamins to ensure they would get enough nutrients.

More meat: German meals are always centered around some sort of meat. We hadSchweinshaxe (leg of pork), Sauerbraten (German pot roast, usually beef), Hirschfilet (deer steaks), Ochsenbäckchen (Ox cheeks). It is interesting to note that in German, meats are known by the name of the animal it comes from, so once you know some German animal names, you have a headstart on figuring out the menu. For example, we also had duck (Ente), lamb (Lamm), horse (Pferd), calf (Kalb), and many more. Then there is Leberkäse, which is a sort of bologna meatloaf (another favorite of the kids), and there is no telling what kind of meat is actually in it. It’s virtually impossible to be a vegetarian in Germany.

Potatoes and pastas: All of this meat is served with a variety of starchy side items that come in very different forms.  There are the knudels, large round dumplings that can be made out of potatoes (kartoffel) or bread (semmel). Spätzle, short thick chewey German noodles,

are served with butter or sauce or as a main dish with cheese (Käsespätzle). Schupfnudeln are like gnocchi but shaped like long footballs, and are usually served with saurkraut. Potatoes are common in many forms — boiled, baked, and of course, potato salad (kartoffelsalat).

Miscelaneous: Other staples in the Bavarian diet include giant soft pretzels (Breze), Obazda (a cheese spread common in beer gardens), Strudel (well known German desert). Also, anything that says “teller,” which literally means “plate,” will be a large assortment. Emily once ordered the Schwabenteller because it had our name in it, and it had four large pieces of meat on it served with Schupfnudln. Talk about left overs!

There is so much more, but this gives you an idea of what we ate during our weeks in Germany. We don’t claim that German food is particularly healthy. But it feels like comfort food, and we love it! Here are a few pictures so you can really see what we’re talking about:

Post from Grandma and Grandpa

My parents visited us for a week at the end of September, and we asked them to share their thoughts. Here is what they said:

They are doing great.  Sarah, Joe, Emily, James and Henry have adjusted well to their new life in Switzerland and are enjoying it immensely.  In short form, that is our assessment from being there for a recent week.  For the longer story, read on.

Emily and James have made friends with, among others, four kids from a good family across the street.  After school, they are out playing soccer or hockey, riding their bikes or secretly spying on the neighborhood while hiding in their tree fort.  It makes a grandparent’s heart swell with glee to hear them chatting away in German as if it is the normal thing American kids do.

We each walked James to school on different days.  Walking along hand in hand, we chatted away and stopped to greet the neighborhood black cat as is the morning ritual.  Nothing superstitious about this kid.  As all In Munsterplatzthe kids were funneling into the building, he ran off to excitedly tell his friends, in German of course, that his Oma/Opa was with him.  James is enjoying his half day kindergarten.

Sarah and Judy with Emily nearby were having a conversation about careers and jobs. Overhearing this, Emily piped in: “Kids have a job too.  Our job is to go to school and learn as much as we can so we can grow up and be good adults.  Parents’ job is to have a house for us, feed us and buy clothes for us.”  Judy asked: “What is the job of a grandparent?”  Emily quickly replied: “Your job is to love us and care about us.”  Emily is doing very well at school, at home and in the neighborhood.  She is also the backup German speaker when Mom and Dad run into problems with the language.

Riding with GrandmaHenry’s German is limited, but he knows “spielplatz” (playground) and “dampfbahn” (a miniature train).  He, however, speaks the universal language of an uninhibited, gregarious two year old.  On the bus or the train, he sits with a family member and chats away, sometimes being engaged with German speaking riders.  Whether young or old, those who have been near him leave with smiles on their faces.

Sarah is a gourmet chef of Swiss food.  We tasted much of the traditional Swiss fare and thoroughly enjoyed it.  She also orchestrated our travels to the Aare River including a raft trip with everyone but Oma and Henry; a bike ride with Emily and James to a neighboring town with the Jungfrau in the background; a city visit to Bern, and our last night at the oldest restaurant in Europe still standing (1371).

Joe seems more relaxed than he has been in the last several years.  He enjoys his work at the hospital, orchestrating travels for the family and, of course, watching and cheering the Packers.  By the AareOk, he is not more relaxed about the latter.

All in all, Switzerland is a beautiful country and Sarah and Joe are A-Plus Hosts.   We say “Thank You” for a truly memorable visit.

Oma and Opa