Wildlife Weekend

For once, we spent a whole weekend at home. The weather has been beautiful, spring is in the air. So, we were outside most of the time, and the kids developed a new past time — watching the wildlife in our backyard pond. In our pond, we discovered one dead koi fish, one alive koi fish, one or two frogs, and about a dozen salamanders. Henry is terrified of the frog, and he screams at the top of his lungs whenever it hops out of the water. The other kids had no such fears, and they held the frog and caught several salamanders, until James fell into the pond. At that point we decided we should let the animals be and just watch them.

Emily and James also spent a lot of time up in their tree fort. And Henry likes to play in the pebbles just below the fort. He kept a close eye on the frog, who was sitting by the pond and croaking the whole time. We had our first outdoor fire and even roasted Cervelas (fat Swiss hot dogs) and ate dinner outside. It was almost like camping in our own backyard.

On Sunday morning, we went for our first Schwab family bike ride of the Spring. Joe had seen something from the train on his commute that he wanted to try to find. So, we biked north from Münsingen, and when we were nearly to the next town, we saw some large animals grazing in a field. These were not cows, as we are accustomed to seeing in Switzerland. These were buffalo! We stopped and watched them for a while, and tried to read the sign about the buffalo farm. It was all in German, so we aren’t completely sure of the details, but it looked like the original buffalo on the farm were brought to Switzerland from Wisconsin! Okay, so technically they don’t count as “wildlife,” but they were still fun to see.

Other wildlife spotted this weekend: an eagle soaring above us on our bike ride, lots of worms in the garden, and songbirds in every tree. It might not seem like much, but for the kids, its like a zoo in our own back yard.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Newest member of Team Alps

Another beautiful weekend in the Alps. What can I say? We left on Friday afternoon for Hasliberg, where we stayed in a 400-year-old guest house in the mountain town of Reuti. We ate out at the restaurant next door twice, a rare treat!

Our primary objective for the weekend was to ski. The season is rapidly coming to an end. Snow is long gone in the lowlands of Switzerland, but the mountains are still open for business. Emily and James have come so far in just a couple of months! We wanted to squeeze in every opportunity we can.

As you may know, Emily and James have become such good mountain kids that we call ourselves “Team Alps.” We use it especially when we are in difficult situations. For example, this weekend when I led Emily and James down the wrong ski piste at the end of our final day. We ended up on a long, flat, slushy run that went to the wrong town. We had to take off our skis and walk part of it, and face the possibility of missing our bus back home. But, as always, we gathered our strength and said, “Come on, Team Alps, we can do this!” And we did!

Henry, on the other hand, has really just glided through our trips to the mountains. He usually gets pulled on a sled, carried on someone’s shoulders, or just stays back for a nap while the rest of us take turns hiking and skiing. But he has started noticing that he is the only one in the family who doesn’t get skis, and he insisted he wanted to ski with the rest of us. I was skeptical, to say the least. The one other time we put him on skis was a disaster. But Joe agreed to be in charge of Henry, so we rented him the smallest skis in the rental shop and headed to the slopes.

I have to admit, Henry really stepped up to the plate! Granted, we mostly kept him on extremely small bunny hills, which abound in this area known for the best ski school for kids in Switzerland. Joe or I had to be right with him the whole time, but by the end we could let go and let him glide on his own for 20-30 feet. And he loved it! He also had his 2-year-old moments, as one would expect. But, he walked around in clunky ski boots for two days, didn’t get a nap all weekend, and got a sun burned face. It’s official — Henry has earned his place on Team Alps.

His accomplishment completely wiped him out, and he passed out on the train on the way home. It’s okay, Henry, you earned it!

You can see a video of Henry skiing on our video page.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Caught in the Middle

What is it about March? Maybe its the nicer weather, more physical activity, or just the passage of time. It was last year at about this time that James turned a corner in his kindergarten class. Things we had been working on for months just started clicking for him. And it’s happening again.

James is in the difficult position of being our middle child, a role he plays extremely well. He is both an older brother and a younger brother, and he has mastered the delicate balance of tormenting his siblings while simultaneously endearing himself to them. He loves playing video games and computer

games, and while that hasn’t changed, he has discovered a number of new interests in the past months. He loves cooking and baking, skiing, riding his two-wheel bike, and generally enjoying nature. Just yesterday, James and Emily spent an hour running around our yard spotting all the little flowers and new plants that are sprouting up through the dirt – and they LOVED it!

James also loves to read, a remarkable feat for a 6-year-old boy in kindergarten who has never been formally taught to read in English. His abilities are attributable to one thing: Calvin & Hobbes. James has found a soulmate in Calvin. He is unfocused, mischievous,

and a pain in the butt. But he is also funny, imaginative, curious, adventurous, and occasionally sensitive. The other night when I walked into James’ room before going to bed, I found him clutching his stuffed tiger named Hobbes (yes, that’s the truth) in one hand, and his laser gun made out of tinker toys in the other hand. They protect him from any monsters that might be lurking under the bed.

Tonight, James’ kindergarten class put on a play called “Es Klopft bei Wanja in der Nacht.” And guess who got to play Wanja! For the past two weeks he has been talking about it as they practiced at school. We all came to support him, and it was great to see our middle child finally get to take center stage. He was so excited, he kept waving at us when he was supposed to be sleeping in his bed. Of course, the whole production was in German. I’m not sure acting is in his future, but we couldn’t have been more proud. (You can see the show on our video page.)

Oh, and James finally has his first legitimately loose tooth – at age 6 1/2! He’s been waiting for this for at least a year as his sister lost a whole mouthful of teeth. He should be getting his first visit to the tooth fairy in the next week or so. He probably could have wiggled it

loose already, but he insisted that “Wanja” had all of his teeth. Now that’s dedication!

Either way, James has always had a killer smile that could make me melt. I’m going to miss it. But it’s all part of growing up.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Wait, why are we here again?

It came up recently that I had not been posting much about my work, since that is the reason we ended up moving to Switzerland anyway. I’ve had a number of friends email me assuming that work is keeping me very busy since Sarah authors most of the posts on this blog. Work does keep me busy, but not so busy that I can’t take time off to spend with my family.

So when I looked back, it turns out the only real meaningful post I have written about my job was from back in August, and that was within a week of me starting at the hospital. So I guess it is time for an update. Make sure you grab a drink for this post, because it may be a little dry, and pictures will be sparse.

You may remember that I am here to learn about “hip preservation surgery.” This is a new field in orthopaedics that was really started here in Bern within the last 20 years, and has come into its own here over the last ten years or so. One awesome thing about my job is that I get to work with, and learn from, the world leaders in hip preservation. The Inselspital is used to having people come visit for varying lengths of time to learn their techniques. Most people will visit for four weeks, six weeks, or maybe three months. Six months is not common, and a whole year is not very common at all.

But with that said, there are some very cool benefits that come along with being here for a full year. Unlike most other fellows, I get an office (with a great view of the northern Jura mountains), a new computer, and an ability to really delve deeply into what they’re trying to do here. Research here is plentiful, but not much can be done in 6 weeks. So when a new fellow comes, it’s difficult to integrate them meaningfully in research. Since I am here for a full year, I have as much research work as I can handle, and then some.

My mentors/coworkers are like every other group of orthopaedists that I’ve had the pleasure to work with; they’re fun, irreverent, enthusiastic, and sport a great sense of humor. They have taken the time to teach me their trade, but also to integrate me into their culture and social life. I’m learning history and language and medicine and so much more.

As far as how things compare to what I am used to back home, there are some definite differences. First of all, surgical scrubs are only to be worn in surgery, no exception. I repeat, no exception (and when someone says that with a German accent, you listen). Not only that, but there are communal-use surgical shoes (sterilized after each use) that you must wear. And for infected cases, there are a separate pair of shoes that are to be worn only in the Operating Room (OR), itself.

The OR lounge for nurses, surgeons, and staff has loaves of fresh bread, platters of cured meats, and fresh soup brought in daily. There is also an excellent coffee maker and taps for naturelle (no bubbles) and frizzante (bubbles) mineral water. While lots of time can be wasted here, I rarely see people linger her for more than 20-30 minutes.

Lunch is A BIG DEAL here. Back home, “eating lunch” meant shoving cold chicken strips in my mouth as I walked between the OR and the ER. But in Switzerland, lunch is the main meal, and the Inselspital is really no exception. Most of the orthopaedics department gathers for lunch between 11:30am and 1:00pm. Lunch is a time to sit, relax, eat a LARGE meal, drink a coffee, and… eventually… go back to work.

While all of this sounds great, I can’t help but think how different it might be if I were really able to speak the language. My relative shyness in talking, mixed with the Swiss’ natural tendency to not be very welcoming into their friendship circle, naturally means that my ability to make friends with ancillary staff, techs, nurses, etc is not easy. Back home this was not a problem, but here it can be a bit isolating. But even with those obstacles, I’ve been able to make some work friends. Or perhaps my ridiculous way of speaking is just a novelty to them. I’m like a monkey. A monkey who is poor at speaking Swiss German.

But with all of that said, I could not be happier with my decision to come here. The opportunity has been great, and will hopefully provide a continuing productive professional relationship well into the future. It’s exactly what I want to be doing right now. And in a way it really makes me appreciate what I have to look forward to back home. Sarah and I say it all the time: we’re blessed. We’re extremely lucky to be here.

In fact, I’m the luckiest monkey I know.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Another Perspective

We are in the middle of a slow week back in Münsingen — school, work, laundry. We were thrilled to find an e-mail from Mark and Kelly, our friends who visited about a month ago. Here is what they had to say…

Alas, we have finally crafted our coveted Switzerland Blog. We apologize for the month long delay. Unfortunately, it coincides with exactly how long it has taken us (mostly Mark) to get back on a normal sleep schedule. And in all honesty we wanted the trip to soak in for a while prior to putting “pen to paper.”

Where to begin? How about the beginning. It was early September when I (Mark) booked the trip. Kelly and Joe work together, but I had only met Joe a handful of times, and Sarah even fewer. (Joe barely remembers any of them as he was lost in song – and booze – around a campfire.) Nevertheless, I broached Joe at his going away party with an idea of a winter visit. It would be surprise to Kelly for her college graduation gift….and Christmas gift…and birthday present.  Joe ate up the idea and it was revealed to Kelly in mid-December. A month a half later we arrived in Zurich.

Our first full day was full of rainy adventures.  We started with a short walk along the Aare River followed by a hike into the foothills. After a short rest at home and a Zvieri (afternoon snack — not to be confused with a Znüni or morning snack), Joe, Kelly and I commandeered Henry’s stroller and walked our ‘beer baby’ to the store for a refill. Kelly was at the wheel and received many an odd look. That evening we celebrated Kelly’s birthday with a dinner at the oldest restaurant in Switzerland (1371 A.D.!) and followed it with Quollfrisch and a fire. Joe may or may not remember.

Saturday was a fantastic day. The seven of us jumped on a train and headed to Kandersteg for a day of hiking and sledging (sledding) where each of us enjoyed a fantastic spill at a high rate of speed.  Smartly Emily and James kicked their sleds down the steep portions and walked them back up to enjoy a more reasonably sloped ride. As you can see, Kelly and I were not as smart.

Unfortunately winter weather was relentless and only shared the sun with us twice for a total of 2 hours the entire week. On Sunday, we skied Lenk in some sort of cloud/fog/haze for the entire day, sometimes only being able to see a few feet in front of us. On our last run of the day, we jumped on a chair lift and took it to the highest point on the mountain. Riding through more haze we got off the lift and skied into this! We were high above the clouds, incredible.

On Monday, we embarked on our first solo Swiss adventure. It started with a bus trip at 6:30 a.m., had us standing on the ‘Top of Europe’ by lunch and skiing down the slopes of Grindlewald in the afternoon! We managed multiple train jumps but survived the day only because a sweet English speaking teller helped us through the dizzying options presented to us in Grindewald.

That solo adventure was one of a number of firsts for us:

  • first plane ride(s) over 5 hours
  • Kelly’s first observation of a Swiss surgery
  • Mark’s first diaper change
  • paying $72.00 for two pizzas
  • Mark’s first train ride
  • losing a digital camera battery for two hours only to find it under some slush filled tire tracks – in working condition
  • and most importantly, our first trip to Switzerland. We hope it was not our last.

We cannot thank you enough, Joe and Sarah, for the opportunity provided. You were terrific hosts and made our first trip out of the country (sorry Canada) incredibly simple and easy. Your kids are wonderfully behaved and left quite an impression on us. Be proud.

Thank you, thank you, thank you and we’ll see you in a couple of months! Unless you decide to stay and then perhaps we’ll see you about this time next year?!?

We will leave you with….

The Top 10 things we learned in Switzerland:
10. We are envious that the Schwab’s get to spend an entire year there.

9. Don’t rent a car. Try the 8 day Swiss pass for endless train, bus and even a few cable car rides. Though not much of a money saver, it eliminates tricky foreign language and currency exchanges AND allowed us to enjoy the “views”, ahem.
8. The Swiss are wonderfully on time.
7. Cats are royalty.
6. Snacks are king. Hot dogs wrapped in freshly baked pretzels filled with ketchup, mustard or whatever you can imagine. Awesome. (Kelly’s mouth is watering as we type this.)
5. If you are lucky enough to visit this place, do take the train to the Top of Europe (highlighted by Matt Lauer on the Today Show).
4. Swiss chocolate gets the attention, but seriously, try the bread.
3. Raclette and/or Fondue = heaven. Yes! hot cheese is a main course in Switzerland.
2. Grüezi (hello) and Merci (thank you). Learn it, live it, and use it on everyone you encounter.
1. Henry…..he just wants.
The week went incredibly fast. Luckily we have 650+ photos to fill in the ’hazy’ gaps.

Kelly & Mark “Schwab”

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Climb Every Mountain

“Love is looking at the same mountains from different angles.”
– Paulo Coehlo

We are in love with Toggenburg. After a week of looking at these mountains morning and night, on skis and by foot, from the valleys and from the peaks, we are sad to be leaving. To be honest, we were already familiar with the grandeur of the Berner Oberland and the Wallis, the Alpine regions nearest to our home. When we first arrived in Eastern Switzerland, we were skeptical of how it would compare. We admit it. We had become mountain snobs.

But it turns out this is yet another beautiful corner of Switzerland. Toggenburg is a string of towns in a valley not far from the border with Lichtenstein and Austria. We have spent the past few days enjoying much of what the region has to offer. For starters, we took advantage of our location and visited the tiny country of Lichtenstein. We took the relatively short and scenic bus ride to Vaduz, the capital of Lichtenstein. We walked around the town, enjoying its beautiful vinyards, cobblestone streets, cliffside castle, and views of the surrounding mountians. Not suprisingly, Lichtenstein feels liks a combination of Switzerland, southern Germany, and Austria. There isn’t much in the way of tourist attractions, so the highlight of our visit was our picnic lunch on a small grassy knoll where the kids had a chance to run around and play before we headed back home.

We are staying at a Swiss holiday village that is specifically for families (Reka Feriendorf). It has a few nice benefits including a pool, playrooms for kids, and a children’s program where you can drop your kids off for supervised activities (Rekalino). It makes for a great vacation that everyone can enjoy. Our kids had dinner at the Rekalino on Wednesday night, so Joe and I had a night out, or rather a night in, all to ourselves. We did plenty of swimming and playing between our other adventures.

Speaking of adventures, Thursday and Friday were our skiing days. We rented our equipment and took the whole family up the first chairlift. Joe and I took turns skiing with the older kids and hanging around with Henry and the sled. It was yet another beautiful day. So beautiful that the snow was pretty wet, and the snow levels were getting dangerously low in some places. Emily and James have really become quite good considering they’ve only skied a handful of times. They are working on keeping their skis straight sometimes (“french fries”) and spreading them out (“pizza slice”) to turn and break. They are handling medium runs like champs.

Friday morning, the kids went to Rekalino again so Joe and I could have a chance to ski together. We made it all the way back up to the Top of Toggenburg above the town of Unterwasser. Then we skied an unforgettable run all the way back down to the town of Wildhaus. It had incredible views and lots of different terrain including wide snowy slopes and narrow trails along the side of a cliff. Whatever you do, stay between the orange poles! In the afternoon, I took Emily and James skiing again while Joe stayed back with Henry. Emily loved to ski back and forth down the slopes singing the Abba song, “I Had a Dream.”

In a way, this whole week was like a dream.

Check out our Sport week pictures here.

Posted from Wildhaus, St. Gallen, Switzerland.