The Infamous Onion Market

The Bern Onion Market or Zwiebelmarkt is infamous, at least in this area of Switzerland. Of course, we had never heard of it, but we had been told we had to check it out. I wasn’t exactly sure what could be so great about an onion market that takes place on a Monday from 6am – 6pm. But, I packed up the boys, picked Emily up at school and headed to the train station.

As the kids and I got off the train in Bern, we noticed confetti all over the floor of the platform, and throughout the train station. When we stepped off the escalator into the streets of Bern, they were covered with confetti as far as I could see. I was still taking it in and trying to figure out which way to go when a total stranger came up and threw confetti all over us. Once we were covered, we started to join in the fun, scooping confetti off the street and throwing it at each other, and anyone else who seemed willing. (Though we later learned that using street confetti is frowned upon, and we bought a bag of fresh confetti).

The market itself consists of thousands of stands throughout the streets of Bern’s old town. The majority of them sell — you guessed it — onions. But not just any old onions. Perfectly proportioned yellow and red onions that have been tied together with dried flowers into hanging decorations. They come in any size you could want, from tiny ones made with the smallest bulbs to huge ones hanging over 5 feet tall. Some were made into wreaths. The kids even got little onion pins.

Besides onions, you could also buy necklaces made out of breath mints wrapped in colorful plastic wrap, festival items like confetti and squeaky hammers, seasonal baked goods like magenbrot, and food stands selling onion cakes and glühwein (Swiss mulled wine), among many other things. Emily opted for a blue mint necklace, while James chose a confetti gun, and of course I had to buy a small bunch of onions.

The streets were crammed with people, and we walked around getting bonked with toy hammers and covered in confetti. It is said that this is the one day when Bern, a city that is thought of as reserved and a little uptight, lets off some steam and goes a little crazy. I realized it would be too difficult to try to eat downtown with all the crowds and three young kids, so we made our way back to the train station and headed home for dinner.

When it was time for bed, and I was getting Henry into his pajamas, I took off his diaper and it was filled with confetti! We did our best to shake off as much as we could, but it keeps turning up in pockets, purses, hoods. We can now say that we have experienced the phenomenon that is the Berner Zwiebelmarkt.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Thankful

There is no Thanksgiving in Switzerland. I knew that intellectually, but it is so strange to live somewhere that is completely oblivious to the fact that millions of people in America are traveling, gathering together, eating turkey, and watching football. At least for Halloween, there was some acknowledgement of its existence. But, Thanksgiving is literally unknown here. Nonetheless, we managed to have a very nice day with many Swiss modifications.

After the kids got home from school, they helped bake our Thanksgiving dessert – a Swiss fruit and custard torte. I carved the sugarbeet I had bought at the farm into a traditional Swiss räbeliechtli lantern, which we used as part of the centerpiece. The kids helped finish the centerpiece and set the table. When Joe walked in the door from work, our mini Thanksgiving dinner was ready. We had a chicken instead of a turkey, left-over mashed potatoes, and peas. But, compared to our typical light Swiss dinners, this was something special.

After dinner we went to Emily’s school for her Fall program. The theme was fire, and as we arrived there was a large campfire in the middle of about 100 lanterns the children had made, each lit with a candle. We laughed because at the Laternenacht celebration at our school back in Milwaukee, the lanterns were not allowed to be lit with a candle, only battery operated lights. But, here, the 1st and 2nd graders sang and danced among their lanterns, and then paraded with them to a field behind the school for a show by a fire performance squad. I don’t know how to describe this experience, but it involved fiery jump ropes, swinging buckets of fire, a fire juggler and, for the grand finale, a giant baton with fireworks shooting out of it.

We walked home in time to watch the second half of the packers game live. Coincidentally, the kids don’t have school tomorrow because of a teachers conference, so we let them stay up to watch the Packers beat the Lions. A great way to end our day!

Holiday or no holiday, there are still so many things we are thankful for…

  • people who are patient and kind when speaking German with me.
  • the warmest Fall in Bern in 150 years.
  • mountains and rivers and the fact that I can see them from my town.
  • a loving extended family, whose love is even more important from far away.
  • music, that enriches my life through my choir, my husband’s guitar, and even Swiss toddler songs.
  • three beautiful children who keep me on my toes.
  • a whole aisle of amazing chocolate at the grocery store.
  • and so much more…
Happy Thanksgiving!!

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Keeping it Local

It was another beautiful, sunny fall weekend in Switzerland. People here keep telling us this is not normal, and in fact this is the warmest November on record in Switzerland in over 100 years! Is it global warming? Who knows, but we are enjoying it anyway. Though the Swiss people are complaining that there isn’t any snow yet, as they are itching to start skiing. We stayed home this weekend and did our best to be like the locals.

On Saturday morning, we headed outside to bring our yard and our garden up to snuff. The Swiss are meticulous about their gardens, and ours has been sorely neglected for the past several weeks. So, while the kids played in the street with the neighbors, Joe and I raked leaves, swept walkways, turned over the garden and covered it for the winter. It felt great to dig our hands in the dirt one last time this season.

On Saturday night, we rewarded ourselves by going to the Chäs-Fescht or Cheese Festival that was put on by the local yodeling club (Jodlerklub Alpenrösli Münsingen). Talk about local! It was a lot like a church fish fry in Milwaukee, only instead of fried fish and french fries, they served all-you-can-eat Raclette and Fondue. It took place in a school gymnasium packed with families intermingled at long tables. There was an accordion trio playing traditional music. Unfortunately, there was no yodeling, as all the club members were serving food.

Sunday, we spent the morning basking in the sun by the Aare river. Henry worked up an appetite throwing rocks into the river. As we’ve mentioned before, people are allowed to build a fire anywhere they want in Switzerland. So, Joe built a nice fire on the rocks and we roasted hot dogs for lunch.

To finish off the weekend, I had a performance with the community choir I belong to. In Switzerland, there are a lot of community “clubs.” From sports clubs to cooking clubs, outdoors clubs, music groups, cultural clubs, etc… Once someone joins a club, they often stay committed to it for years and years. I joined the local choir, Kantorei Münsingen, and it has been a great way to meet people and get out of the house one night a week! We performed Antonio Caldara’s Missa Dolorosa at a service in honor of Totensontag or Sunday of the Dead. It is a traditional German holiday, similar to Memorial Day, honoring those who have passed away. The choir performed with a chamber ensemble and four soloists. I don’t have a recording of our performance yet, but you can hear a selection of the piece here.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Q & A – The Daily Grind

Most of our posts are about our weekend excursions and interesting aspects of our life abroad. But, that’s not really representative of our daily life. That’s because our daily life isn’t nearly as fun to write about. Joe goes to work, Emily and James go to school, and Henry and I stay home and take care of everything else. But, I’ve gotten some questions about our daily life, so here’s a little Q&A. If you have any other questions about Switzerland or life abroad, feel free to send them to us.

How DO you manage without a car? Are you basically house-bound or do you and Henry get out with the bike much? I am certainly not house-bound. Henry and I have gotten very adept at getting around on the bike. Every morning during the few hours that the older kids are at school, I plunk Henry in his trailer and off we go. Without a car and with the limited time we have, we are usually limited to our town. I have about a mile radius in which I live most of my days. But, within that distance is: 3 grocery stores, butcher shop, farm where we get our milk, café with toys for kids, playgrounds, library, music class, choir practice, restaurants, walking trails, the Aare river, train station, and more. There is actually quite a bit to explore in our little town, and I’m getting to know it really well. This morning, for example, we went to the third grocery store, stopped at a bakery (my first time at both of those places), and then went to the farm for milk, potatoes and a sugar beet (not sure what I’m going to do with that last one yet!) It’s pretty cold out, but a lot of people are still biking around here. If I don’t feel like biking, I can turn Henry’s trailer into a stroller and walk. And, if the weather is much worse, there is a bus stop about a block from our house that takes me around town.

Do you have to go grocery shopping almost every day? The main items we need to buy on a regular basis are bread and milk. The bread here is all fresh, bakery bread that lasts about 36 hours before turning rock hard. And the milk we get at the farm is sold in liters, not gallons, and it isn’t pasteurized. So, I do a big grocery trip about twice a week. (“Big” being only whatever I can carry home in the back of the bike trailer.) We go to the farm every other day, and Joe often stops somewhere on his way home from work to pick up some fresh bread or other small items.

You said the kids were watching Spongebob Schweitzmer or something, so does that mean you have a TV, or were they watching online? First, in German, it’s called Spongebob Schwamkopf, which translates as “Spongebob Sponge Head” (“Spongebob Square Pants” has too many syllables in German.) Thanks to the internet and Joe’s savviness with technology, we have a whole collection of ways to watch TV. We have a regular TV that shows Swiss/German programming. The older kids like to watch Nickelodeon in German, but otherwise we really don’t use it. Then, we have several ways of watching English programming, some that are on the TV and some on our computers over the internet. Henry’s current favorite show is Dinosaur Train. Joe bought a special package from Yahoo! Sports so he can watch NFL games, especially the Packers. Sometimes it’s nice to turn on a favorite show and forget that I am in a foreign country for a while.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Losing Ourselves in Paris

By the Eiffel TowerWhen Joe and I travel together, his job is always to navigate because he likes knowing where we are and he’s really good at it. Whereas I am happy to follow along blissfully unaware of which direction we are going. So, for my mother-daughter weekend in Paris, something I have been looking forward to for a long time, I turned on my navigation skills, only to be reminded that they are not one of my stong suits. We arrived in Paris at around 7:30pm on Friday night, and I found the Metro (Paris underground) to take us to our hotel. We made the right connections and arrived at the stop that was supposed to be “steps from the hotel.” But I failed to consult the last page of my meticulously printed directions, and simply started walking around looking for the hotel. We actually went right past it and carried our luggage all the way around a very large circular plaza. When we started passing things for the second time, I dug out my pages, reoriented myself and found the hotel about 30 feet from where we had started.

We hadn’t eaten much, so after dropping our things at the hotel, we decided to have a Paris-style dinner. At 8:30pm, which is normally Emily’s bed time, we were sitting in a café eating dinner and having a glass of wine. Café culture in Paris is deeply ingrained. There are cafés on every street, and Parisians go to their local cafés to pick up an espresso and croissant for breakfast, have a late leisurely dinner, or sit and enjoy a relaxing, afternoon drink. We did our best to take part in the café culture and try out French food. We had croissants at our neighborhood café for breakfast, we sampled crêpes at a café on the Île St. Louis, we had a late lunch in a café in the Latin Quarter, and finally a light dinner at a café near the Arc de Triomphe.

In between cafés, we saw a lot of landmarks and snapped a lot of pictures. We started at the cathedral of Notre Dame on the Île de la Cité. We walked much of the main island and the Latin Quarter on the Left bank of the river Seine. We took the Metro to the Eiffel Tower and braved the crowds to get a few prize shots, though we didn’t wait in the insanely long lines to ride to the top. Instead, we headed to the much shorter line at the Montparnasse Tower for a beautiful view of the city and the glowing Eiffel Tower at twilight. Lastly, we viewed the Arc de Triomphe, after which we got completely lost trying to find our hotel again, which didn’t look that far away on the map. After making at least one wrong turn and ending up in alternately sketchy areas and fancy areas, I finally caved and we took a cab.

That was all in one day! So, on Sunday we took a decidedly slower pace. We spent the morning in the Louvre museum, and again found ourselves completely lost. To my credit, that place is humongous and confusing. Like a labyrinth completely filled with incredible art. Once we abandoned the audio guides we had because we couldn’t find the things they were talking about, we just walked around and enjoyed the majesty of the place. Once, we were turned away at a stairwell, so we went a different direction and ran right into the Venus de Milo! We also came upon several pieces completely by chance that Emily recognized from the Louvre’s website (which has a great set of videos and explanations for children.) If you’re going to get lost, the Louvre is a great place to do it!

After two hours in the Louvre and lunch at a café, we were pretty tired from sensory overload. So, instead of seeing Sacre Coeur in Montmartre (Plan A) or taking a boat ride on the Seine (Plan B), Emily opted for Plan C — head to the right bank of the river and lay in the sun with all the Parisians on a Sunday afternoon. There was a street musician playing accordian on the next bridge and leaves falling from the trees above us. It was a beautiful way to end our weekend in Paris.

We spent my last Euros to ride the carousel in front of the Hôtel de Ville. Then we got on the Metro to our train station, where we got lost one more time trying to find the TGV trains, and then trying to find platform 23 when all the platforms seemed to be labeled with letters! I pannicked for a while, thinking we were going to miss our train, but we are now safely on our way back to Switzerland. Au revoir Paris!

Don’t miss the pictures in our gallery: Weekend in Paris.

The Simple Life

When we finally realized we were moving to Switzerland, one of the things I was looking forward to was the fresh food. We’ve talked about what the Swiss eat, but I’m not really talking about that. When you go to a Swiss grocery store, most of the items that you see in the dairy and produce section were probably produced within a few kilometers of where you are buying them. Preservatives are uncommon here. Yogurt and milk usually come from local dairies. Potatoes and apples are also usually local.

Well when it comes to getting it fresh, we got more than we bargained for. Starting in late Summer, we had started taking the kids on bike rides throughout the town to get to know it better, and to enjoy the scenery. Fairly quickly we stumbled across a farm a few blocks down from us. We knew one must be close, by the smell if nothing else, but when we finally found it, we noticed a sign out front that indicated it sold some simple farm items: milk, eggs, potatoes, apples, etc.

Farm shopWhen we finally looked into it seriously, we found a small stand behind the barn, off the road, that housed their “for-sale” goods. There were baskets of apples, potatoes, various fresh vegetables. There was also a refrigerator filled with eggs. There were also some jarred items like honey, and grape jelly. And in the corner is a scale to weigh your produce, and a small money box that you leave your payment in. There’s no person guarding the stand. No one checks your math. No one even knows if you really even paid.

Buying applesWe went and bought some items one day: potatoes and eggs. The potatoes were labeled by their type (a classification of which I was wholly unaware… they all looked the same to me). Eggs were mixed brown and white, and I believe we met some of the generous chickens while we were there. We wanted to buy milk, and it seemed they had it for sale, but we couldn’t find where it was.

Getting fresh milkAs we were leaving the farm one day, the farmer’s wife was around, so we asked her about milk. She asked us, in German, how many bottles we had. We looked at each other and thought, “bottles?” She smiled, went into the house and brought out a 1.5L bottle, freshly washed. She took us into the milk room which contained a huge stainless steel vat of milk, and explained that we can fill bottles ourselves anytime we want. Just leave payment in the stand for each liter.

Groceries from the farmSo now, about two or three times a week, we head back to the farm, wave to the cows, chat with the farmer, his wife, and mother, get our basics (milk, eggs, apples, potatoes), check on anything new they have that day, pay for our groceries and leave. The milk has never tasted so good. If we want cream for our coffee, we just pour it off the top of the milk in the morning. And better than that, I can check on the cows anytime I want, just to make sure they’re doing fine.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

The Honeymoon is Over

In the world of international education, which I worked in just after college about 10 years ago, there is a well-known graph called the “Cultural Adaptation Curve.” We used it to help prepare college students for 5-9 month long study abroad experiences. It is also well known in the world of expatriates, which we are just dabbling in at the moment. It’s a little awkward at times, actually. Our length of stay of one year is too long to be considered a “visitor” but it is too short to be taken seriously by the true expatriates. So we fall somewhere in the middle, traveling a lot to take advantage of the time we have while also trying to establish a life that we can sustain for a full year. But we can’t grow roots fast enough or deep enough to ever really feel stable.

Which brings me back to the Cultural Adaptation Curve. It looks like the letter “U” starting off high with what is referred to as the Honeymoon stage. It is sometimes also called the Tourist stage when everything is new and exciting, and I do mean everything. Going grocery shopping is novel because of all the new foods and different prices (i.e. more expensive). If I managed to have a conversation with someone, I was thrilled. Just waking up in the morning, I would think to myself, “Holy crap, I’m in Switzerland!”

As you might expect, this level of excitement can’t last forever — although we have managed to push it pretty far. The timing of the curve across the bottom is quite variable depending on your length of stay, personality, etc. As of yesterday, we have been in Switzerland for 100 days (we’ve been in Europe for 119 days), which is a little mind-blowing in itself. And all the little things that used to be exciting just aren’t so exciting anymore.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! I still recognize that we are in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I am making the most of it. But, as the little things about Switzerland start to lose some of their excitement, we also start missing some of the little things from back home. A few times in recent weeks, I found myself in circumstances that would be much easier to manage if I had a car. I am craving slightly deeper conversations with people in a language I feel comfortable with. Just today, after a week of cooking things the kids complained about, I missed the convenience of just grabbing a box of Mac n Cheese and eating a familiar meal without any whining. Joe mentioned on Monday night that he missed being able to talk to his coworkers about the Packers and American football, and having them know what he is talking about.

Some people, when they leave the Honeymoon stage, fall rapidly into “hostility” as the graph suggests. They often feel frustrated, depressed, lonely, and upset. We certainly are not there, nor do I think we will fall quite so low (though I have met a couple of people who are clearly in that stage, and it’s not pretty.) We are merely leaving the extreme highs of the past few months for a more realistic experience of the country and culture we are in. It’s kind of like ordering banana flambé in a fancy restaurant. It’s exciting as they dim the lights and light it on fire mesmerizing you with the flickering flames. But, eventually you have to blow out the fire and turn on the lights in order to actually taste and appreciate the whole dish.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Into the Woods

Woods in MünsingenFriday morning, James’s entire kindergarten class walked from their school to the woods for their outing called “Morgen im Wald” or morning in the woods. They do this on a Friday morning every 2 to 4 weeks. They walk about a mile to the woods and then play amongst the trees and have an outdoor snack before walking back to the school just in time to walk home again.

We have also started a new family routine in the evenings. Since the sun is going down earlier and the weather is getting cooler, it is easy to stay inside the house a lot. But, since Henry and I are home most of the day and Emily and James are often home starting at noon, we are all a little stir crazy by late afternoon. So, we instituted a nightly family walk. We actually call it our “puppy walk” because we told the kids it would show that they are able to take on the responsibility of caring for a dog, should we ever decide to get one. But, the first night we went out, everyone had so much fun, we no longer have to convince them. Even Henry has walked the entire thing every night Sarah and Emily(usually about a mile). It has been a great family bonding time, holding hands, talking about life, and growing to appreciate all the nooks and crannies in our town.

On Friday, the kids and I did our walk a little early since Joe was planning to go out after work with some colleagues. We went to a path that leads into the woods which is normally too dark for us to take. James recognized it immediately as the same path his class took for Morgen im Wald. He excitedly took the lead and we walked through a beautiful, fall-colored woods until we came to a clearing. James showed us the little structures he and his classmates had built, and the area where they ate their snack. We made music by banging on logs and rocks. We played a little hide-and-seek. It was a magical moment, and we decided to call it our “Abend im Wald” or evening in the woods.

Henry in the woodsWe decided to go back yet again today so we could share it with Joe and take our time in the light of day. It feels a bit like a magic forest. When the kids go there, they completely forget about television and toys, and revert to an earlier time, running and playing with sticks. Of course, as I write this, they are watching Spongebob Schwamkopf. Nothing lasts forever.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Cats and Dogs

There are a lot of animals in our neighborhood. Within a few blocks of our house there are a lot of cats, some dogs, horses, cows, goats, chickens, and even a couple of pigs. We see several of these on a daily basis, and it has become part of our life here. What I find interesting is how differently the Swiss treat different animals.

Those who have dogs seem to always have their dogs with them. They bring dogs to the grocery store, where there is a “doggie hotel”

right outside the main doors with little open cubbies for the dogs to rest in while they wait for their owners to complete their shopping. Dogs seem to be allowed just about everywhere, including in cafes and on the trains. It is also impossible to miss all the “Robidog” stations along the sidewalks and paths in town. These are green metal boxes with a hilarious picture on them that have rolls of plastic bags so dog owners can easily dispose of their dogs’ business when they are out on a walk. There are also signs in many areas requesting that dogs stay on their leashes.

Meanwhile, cats seem to run completely wild. There are tons of cats wandering our neighborhood. We saw three of them on our nightly family walk today. There is one the kids have nicknamed “Blackster” who follows James to school almost daily. I have to chase several of them out of our yard regularly so they don’t attack the two terrified fish in our little pond. There was even one that was bold enough to walk into our house.

All of these cats belong to families in the area, but they wander around at all hours of the day and night. There is no one cleaning up after the cats either, no “Robicat” stations to be found. And they leave their business wherever they please, including in my yard. One of Henry’s favorite things to ask me outside is, “Mama, did you step in cat poop?”

And the horses are even more blatant about it. There are a couple of horses that people ride around here. I often hear the clippity-clop of their daily rounds. And when a horse leaves its business in the middle of the road, it is no joke. So I can’t help but wonder as I pass Robidog stations while swerving around horse poop and tiptoeing around cat poop, isn’t this a double standard?

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.