It’s the Little Things – Garages and Language

Another Monday. It was, in all ways, a normal day for our life here in Switzerland. Henry and I went to music class and to the grocery store. James had a friend over for a playdate in the afternoon. But, throughout the day there were many little things that made this day different than it would have been if we were in America. I’ve chosen just two to elaborate on…


There are no garage door openers here. No buttons to push. No machines to effortlessly open the garage. Everyone still manually opens their garage. Ours flips up with the help of two gigantic cement blocks attached to the lever. Some have springs, some slide sideways, but I haven’t seen any that roll up the way garages do in America.

Also, I have never seen a double garage. There are only very narrow single-car garages. This is probably because no one here has more than one car. Unlike us, most families have one car, and they negotiate who gets to use it when. Whoever doesn’t get the car rides their bike and/or takes public transportation. As you might expect, the average size of cars here is smaller than in America. Although there are also vans and other large vehicles. I love watching the family across the street park their van in the tiny one-car garage. All passengers have to get out before pulling it into the garage, someone has to manually open the garage door, and then they have to help guide it as close to the wall as possible on the passenger side so the driver can squeeze out, exit the garage and manually close the door.

At first the garage, among other things, made me feel like Switzerland was several decades behind in terms of technology. But, I have since come to understand that the Swiss value things like sustainability and durability over minor inconvenience, while in America we choose convenience over quality and reliability every time.


It could be argued that this isn’t really a “little” thing. It was, in fact, the thing that scared me the most about moving here. I studied German independently for over two years in preparation, but was told that Swiss German is so different I wouldn’t be able to understand them. Indeed that is true. I still have to ask people to speak “high German,” and even then I have to concentrate really hard to be able to keep up. Every time my phone rings, my heart beats a little faster as I answer and then try desperately to understand who is calling and what they are asking. If Henry interrupts me while I’m on the phone, as two-year-olds are oft want to do, then I’m screwed. My brain can’t do that much.

At music class this morning, I understood most of what the teacher said, some of what the other parents said to each other and to their children, and a few words of the songs. This is a huge improvement over what it was like in my first music class. But half the time I still have no idea what we are singing.

We are quite adept at greetings, transactions, even small talk. And we find that, even when people know we speak English, they still address us in German/Swiss German. Originally I assumed that was because most people in our town can’t speak English. However, I have since learned that most people speak English at least as well as I speak German. They just prefer not to. Now I choose to take it as a compliment and a reflection of our integrated-ness.

Swiss German is a spoken language only. There is no written form of this language. When my parents visited, their tour guide told them that when people speak Swiss German, it sounds like they all have a terrible throat disease. And from the outside it can sound strange. But the more I hear it and start to understand it, the more respect I have for this language.

I looked around for an example of the language we hear ALL THE TIME. This video is a Swiss woman who could very easily be any of the parents in music class or school. Listening to the full 8 minutes isn’t necessary, though it gives you an idea of what we encounter every day.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

How Sweet it is

Switzerland is the land of chocolate. Did you know that the average Swiss person consumes over 26 pounds of chocolate every year?! We always have a few bars of wonderful chocolate in the kitchen. I’m on a mission to try every kind of chocolate in the amazing aisle at the grocery store. But this week, we had a chance to go a little deeper into Swiss chocolate culture.

On Wednesday afternoon, when the kids are not in school, I took them to the Kambly factory. Kambly is a Swiss company that is best known for their cookies. At their factory, they have a special program for kids to make a cookie creation. I had registered Emily and James, so when we arrived they received an apron and got to work. I was expecting them to churn out a batch of cookies, but no. They made a work of eatable art, complete with a cookie base, cake ball snowman, chocolate tree, and marzipan decorations. At the end, after over two hours of hard work, they didn’t want to eat it! (You can see their finished creations in our gallery). Fortunately, there were plenty of Kambly cookies laid out to sample, so we all spoiled our supper before returning home.

The next day was my birthday, and I had another treat for my sweet tooth. Recently, I discovered a great blog called “My Kugelhopf” written by an American living in Zurich who loves sweets, chocolate and traveling. It’s perfect for me! She gives a tour called “Sweet Zurich,” so I signed up. Joe’s gift to me was staying home with the kids for the day (he worked late a couple of nights to make up for it). So, I grabbed my book and my camera and hopped on the train.

This tour was deliciously sophisticated, like a chocolate appreciation class. We walked around the beautiful old town neighborhoods of Zurich visiting small, boutique chocolate and pastry shops. We learned about the different tropical regions the cocoa beans come from, the ingredients and process involved with making chocolate, and how different decisions affect the taste and quality of the final product. I tasted a dark chocolate with ginger and orange, a white chocolate with lime, an unconched chocolate with raisins (and learned what “conching” is!), among many other things. At a specialty cupcake shop, they even had a candle in a cupcake for my birthday.

Before I knew it, I was back on the train, but there was one more sweet treat on my list. After reading the blog and meeting the author, I wanted to try a Kugelhopf. I stopped at the store on the way home and picked one out. I opted for the less traditional chocolate kugelhopf (or gougelhof in this area.) At home we had a little celebration with the cake and a few cards and presents. I feel very blessed, and very full. I think I need to eat salads for the next week!

See all the sweet pictures here.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Over the Hump

This past weekend we were lucky enough to be invited to stay with some friends of ours who have a house in the mountain town of Lenk, during which we got “over the hump” both physically and metaphorically. See, we have been debating about whether our family is really cut out for skiing at this stage. Emily and James have had virtually no experience, and our first effort over Christmas was not enjoyable for anyone. But, the family we stayed with has been coming to this valley and skiing their whole lives. So, we had no choice but to go with the flow.

On Saturday morning we all got geared up and headed over to the first ski area. They even had skis in Henry’s size and insisted he should suit up with the rest of us. We got to the top of the lifts, and skied down the first hill. I was holding Henry, who was screaming the whole way down. He was pretty much done for the day. But everyone else took off with enough adults to help. After lunch I got to ski down with Emily (holding her between my legs for most of a medium run) until we got to the kids area or “bunny hill,” as my family calls it. We skied for a couple more hours, with the adults taking turns staying with the kids. This was far longer than we have ever managed before. By the end of the day, the kids had made a lot of progress, but we were all pretty exhausted. Fortunately, there was a gondola to take us back down the hill and a great swimming pool complex where Joe and I took all the kids to unwind.

That night, another family joined us at the house, so there were two Swiss families with spouses from Sweden and Namibia and us. Everyone mostly spoke English, but we understood what they said in Swiss German as well. They complimented our kids, and even us, on our ability with the language. We kept up with a conversation about Swiss cultural quirks and compared the virtues of the two primary Swiss grocery store chains. Though it seems small, I felt like we had really gotten over a cultural “hump” and were no longer the outsiders.

On Sunday, we were off again. After a scary ride up an icy mountain road on which the direction of the one-way traffic changes every half hour, we made it to the ski area on the other side of the valley. I stayed in with Henry and played in the snow for most of the morning, and Joe was able to take both Emily and James on his own and help them as they skied independently. This was huge! They had clearly gotten over a critical hump in their ability, and they started to become more confident.

After lunch, Lorenz offered to stay with our kids so Joe and I could explore a bit. We literally went over the mountain and down to Adelboden in the valley on the opposite side. We humiliated ourselves on a black run that was directly below one of the busiest chair lifts, but fortunately no one was hurt, so we’ll just gloss over that. Otherwise, we had a wonderful time and returned to our kids just as the lifts were starting to close down. The mountain had mostly cleared out, and this time there was no gondola to ride down. The only way to get to the car was to ski down the mountain.

Lorenz was nice enough to carry Henry down (we didn’t even bother to put his skis on anymore). Joe and I followed with the other kids, and I am proud to say that they did a great job. We were the only people on the mountain as we snowplowed slowly back and forth down the slope. My heart was swelling as I watched my kids skiing on their own as the sun was setting behind the mountains across the valley. It was a moment I will never forget.

So maybe, just maybe, we can be a skiing family after all.

Photos of our skiing weekend.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Breaking the Law

Sundays in Switzerland are very quiet. And that is how they like it. In fact, there are a number of customs and some actual laws to help keep it that way. For starters, it is illegal to employ staff on Sundays, which is why most stores are closed. There are, of course, some exceptions, but generally there is no grocery shopping or shopping of any kind on Sundays. It is also illegal to hang laundry outside or wash your car on a Sunday. It is considered an offense to mow your lawn or vacuum on a Sunday, or generally do anything that makes too much noise.

Many of these laws are in place because most Swiss people live in apartment complexes and share walls and plumbing with other people. Incidently, it is also illegal to flush the toilet after 10pm.

So what do the Swiss do on Sundays? It seems that many of them visit relatives and friends. Others spend weekends skiing in the mountains. They also eat a particular kind of bread on Sundays called Zopf. It is a braided bread that everyone buys on Saturday to eat on Sunday. Although I don’t always go shopping on Saturday, and sometimes we find ourselves without much selection in our kitchen. It’s a good thing the pizza delivery place in our town is open on Sundays! (Though it costs about $48 to get two pizzas delivered, so we try not to do it too often.)

When we are at home on a Sunday, I find myself at a loss. So, today I broke the law and vacuumed and did a bunch of laundry (though I don’t hang it outside). And then, we did what most other Americans do on Sundays, we fired up our Apple TV and watched football.

I’m feeling rebellious, so I think I’ll go flush the toilet before I go to bed.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

It’s the Little Things – Movies and Kissing

Last night Joe came home from work and said that our friend Lorenz wanted to go to a movie. He was going to see Mission Impossible 4, which is not really Joe’s favorite kind of movie, so instead he came home and said he would stay with the kids if I wanted to go out. Are you kidding me! It was like a miracle. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed at how much I wanted to go out! You would think seeing an American movie in an urban movie theater would be a familiar experience, but once again, it was the little things that made it a cultural experience.


Surprisingly, the concession stand wasn’t even open when we arrived a few minutes before the start of the movie. My desire for a bubbly beverage was squashed. Oh well. We walked into the theater, and he led me to our assigned row and numbered seats. Yes, there were reserved seats at the movie theater, instead of first-come-first served seating, which seemed to make a lot of sense. Then, Lorenz informed me that there would be an intermission. Really? Sure enough, right as Tom Cruise was about to jump out a window of the tallest building in India, the screen went dark and the lights came up.

Fortunately this meant I could get my drink after all. I ordered a clear soda, and got a mineral water – something I am slowing growing to appreciate. Lorenz ordered a Rivella, an extremely popular Swiss soda that comes in three color varieties. He got Red. Oh, and the drinks don’t come in giant cups with a straw and lots of ice. In fact, you almost never get ice in Switzerland. If you ask for ice in your drink at a restaurant, the waiter usually looks worried, and then you get one or two cubes in a cup. In any case, at the movie theater, they simply handed us 16 oz bottles of our bubbly beverages, and we returned to our seats for the rest of the movie.

The movie was shown in the original English, which was great for me. But, in Switzerland there is not just one set of subtitles, but two – German on top and French on the bottom. Oh, and when the characters were speaking in Russian, then there were three lines, and I had to read the middle one. Once I adjusted to this, it was no problem, and we had a great night out.


You’ve probably seen or encountered the European custom of cheek kissing, either on screen or in person. I think of it as being very French, but it occurs in many countries. I never thought much of it, but when you are confronted with it face to face, literally, it can be a little awkward. Think about it. Where do you put your hands? Which side do you kiss first? How many kisses – 2 or 3? If you do any of these things wrong, you can end up in a really embarrassing situation with someone whose face is one inch away from yours!

Fortunately, in Switzerland there is still a lot of hand shaking. And I do mean a lot. There is a custom of shaking hands with everyone at a party or gathering when you arrive, and again before you leave. This still occurs at a lot of meetings and social gatherings, even choir practice. Though in my experience, there is a limit of about 10 people before the greetings just get too cumbersome and stop.

Cheek kissing is reserved for people who are more than passing acquaintances. In a way that makes it even more confusing. Which greeting should I do!? There are just a small handful of people who have initiated this greeting with me. And, after some slightly embarrassing trial and error, I have learned that three kisses starting to the left side (right cheek) is customary here.

Though my favorite cheek kisser is Henry. He just puts his lips to my cheek and says “mmmmaa.” And it always makes me smile, no matter how many mistakes I’ve made that day.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.