Swiss Values: Children

As you may know, “Heidi” is a famous Swiss children’s novel about a little Swiss orphan girl. In the first part of the book, Heidi is just 5 years old, and she is dropped off at her grandfather’s house in the mountains, where she is left to fill her time with her own imagination. She meets a young goat herder named Peter, who doesn’t seem to be much older than Heidi. Together, the two children wander the mountain side herding goats and overcoming any challenges that arise.

Even though the book was written in 1880, it is still revered in Switzerland. There has been a tv series, several movies, and many retellings of the story in print. There was recently a musical version of Heidi that toured the country, and there is a tourist area in the mountains called “Heidiland.” The book captures many things that are inherently “Swiss,” and it struck me the other day that one of those Swiss values is the independence of children.

In America it seems that parenting is getting more and more protective, valuing safety over independence and life experience. Conversely, in Switzerland, kids are still allowed – no, expected – to spend time on their own and explore their surroundings. As we’ve mentioned before, there are no school buses here, so kids from age 5 or 6 walk to school by themselves (or bike or scooter when they are a little older). The playgrounds here still have seesaws, merry-go-rounds, hammock swings, and other structures that are Spielplatzimpossible to find in highly regulated American playgrounds. The 8-year-old boy across the street rides his bike to his own soccer practices, a common occurrence. The kids all play outside on the streets, ring each others’ doorbells, and disappear for hours until parents call them in to eat or sleep. I’ve also scheduled playdates with kids from school who live a little further away, but it isn’t always necessary.

Last Tuesday when we were at the farm, James saw the oldest boy in the family (around age 8… not sure) doing his chores. To my great surprise, James said, “I want to live on a farm.” When pressed about the difference between what this boy was doing and what James does at home, he said, “But that is real work!” So, let me get this straight. You’d rather shovel cow manure and carry chicken feed than clean your room?! But, upon reflection, I think what James saw was this boy’s independence and responsibility. And to a 6-year-old boy, that is really cool.

Because of their level of independence, our kids are strong and resourceful. They demonstrated it fully back in February when we were in Toggenburg, Switzerland for a winter vacation, in an incident I didn’t write about at the time. We were coming back from a visit to Lichtenstein, and James thought he had left his stuffed tiger (Hobbes) on the ski bus. We were already most of the way up a steep hill to our apartment, and I knew the bus would turn around at the top of the street and come back down the hill in a couple of minutes. So I sent James running back to the bus stop on his own. The bus came, but rather than getting on in the front and telling the driver his situation, James got on in the back to look for Hobbes on his own. To my horror, the bus doors closed and it took off down the hill with James inside. Then, before I could gather my wits, Emily, who had seen this all transpire, said, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll go get him.” And she took off running down the hill after the bus. I think I just stood there for a minute with my 6 and 7 year old children wandering around an unfamiliar town in Switzerland wondering, “What have I done?!”

But at that point, I really didn’t know what to do. So, I took Henry up to the apartment and put him down for his nap. Then I looked out the window, but there was no sign of Emily or James. I paced around a lot and walked back and forth between the bus stop and the apartment feeling helpless. And then, about 45 minutes later, Emily and James showed up back at our holiday village. Emily never did find James until they both arrived back at our bus stop (one on foot and one on a bus). They both loved telling us the stories of their adventures riding different buses in the town and walking around until they were each able to find their way home.

I recently came across the “free-range kids” movement in America, which combats some of the extreme “helicopter parenting” that goes on there. We are lucky to live in a reasonably “free range” neighborhood back in Milwaukee, where kids still play outside on their own spontaneously with the neighbors. No doubt, there are many reasons parenting in Switzerland is so different than in America, but I think one of them is the mindset of the adults. And I mean all the adults, not just parents. In America, the responsibility for a child falls squarely with his parents. Other adults should mind their own business or take up their issues with the parents. If someone else tries to reprimand a child directly, the kid is likely to say something like “You’re not my mom!” and the parent is likely to get upset or defensive.

In Switzerland, it seems like there is a lot more shared responsibility for raising children. You’ve heard the saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, here they really believe that. At first it was a little off-putting to our American sensibilities. I’ll never forget the first time an older Swiss lady told James to get his feet off the seat on the bus. James’s eyes got big, I just shrugged my shoulders, and he did as he had been told. I have since realized that she had the best of intensions. The Swiss want to raise children who are independent, but who also respect the rules and other people (respect for rules and other people are two more very important Swiss values that allow their society to function the way it does. But that’s another post…). And so, it is perfectly normal for other adults, especially in the older generation, to “help out.”

This post is getting a little long and scattered as I try to come to a conclusion, and in the end I don’t really have one. I’m not trying to pass judgement one way or the other by writing about Swiss values. I just think its interesting to compare how and why two cultures are different from each other. And as a family living in “two worlds,” we have to navigate the nuances of both approaches to make sense of our daily experiences.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Birthday Bunny

My little girl turned 8 years old last week. Wow! Joe and I watched our video footage of her birth in 2004… our first child. Now she is a strong young girl who speaks 2 languages, bosses her two brothers around, reads chapter books, and does division. When did that happen!?

As we mentioned, she spent her actual birthday in Sorrento, Italy. But the real celebration was on Saturday when her friends from school came to our house for a 2 1/2 hour long party.

Now, let me just say that my history with birthday parties is mixed, at best. There was the time I planned a swimsuit/water-play party in July, and then it turned out to be 60 degrees. There was the time I spent several hours building an obstacle course as the primary party activity, which took the kids only 5 minutes to conquer and demolish. And there have been several times when I have burned through all my party activities only to look at the clock and find at least half the party time still remaining. Over the years I have done a lot of improvising, and learned that it’s really just better to hire professionals. Some of my prior successes include a rented bouncy castle and an expert face-painting artist.

But in Switzerland, birthday parties are “simple.” There is no birthday party industry like there is in America, no destinations, no bouncy castles. You can buy balloons, candles, and “Happy Birthday” garlands at the store, and that is about it. So, I was on my own. Plus, none of Emily’s friends speak any English. I knew the only way to pull this off was to be really well prepared.

Thank goodness for the internet! Emily had decided on a “bunny” theme, and I quickly found several blogs by moms who are way better at this than me. I picked bunny crafts, decorations, food, and activities. Two days before the party, I hit the stores (at least the ones I can reach on my bike) and came home mostly empty handed, failing to find most of the things I needed. Back in America I would know where to go to find tagboard and puff balls.

And I’m proud to report that the party was a smashing success! The girls had a lot of fun with the crafts and activities. By some stroke of luck, we had a few hours of blue sky during the party, so we were able to go  But here, I don’t know where to find those things, and even if I did, I probably couldn’t getthere on my bike. This is where my improvisation skills came in handy, using what we had in the house to make what we needed. And this year, Emily was old enough and interested enough to help with the preparations. She and I spent most of Friday afternoon sitting at the table cutting, glueing and tying.

outside for a hoppin’ gunny sack race, to make beanbag bunnies out of socks and rice, and to teach the girls the Bunny Hop dance, which they performed for their parents at the end of the party.

I knew we had done it when I looked at the clock and there was only 15 minutes left, and we still had one activity to do. We played Bunny Bingo (with the letters “HASEN” at the top – German for “rabbits”) using Swiss M&M candies for markers until all the parents arrived. The girls all had fun, and Emily only had to translate for me a handful of times.

Given the challenges of living, making friends and communicating here, throwing this party was a huge accomplishment. After her friends had all left, Emily ran over to me with a glowing smile, wrapped her arms around me and thanked me for such a great party. Her smile alone was worth it all!

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Sorrento (Part 2)

As you read in Joe’s post, the last half of our spring break trip did not go according to plan. And yet, we still managed to make some memories, just not the ones we thought we would.

We had heard that Italian culture gets more intense as you go further South. Coming through Naples on Friday, we had planned to wear our money belt, walk the crowded streets of Italy’s densest city, and eat a slice of pizza in its birthplace. Instead, we huddled in the train station while Joe figured out how to get to the port. A very friendly police officer named Genarro took a liking to our kids, asking them their names and patting their heads in the Italian way. He seemed to follow us wherever we went. He showed us pictures of his kids and wished us a pleasant journey. I think he was just keeping an eye on us, which I really appreciated.

We dashed through the rain and the sidewalk vendors to a city bus headed to the port. We saw a little bit of the city through the graffiti-covered bus windows, and some more friendly people made sure we knew where to go. We got onto a large, mostly empty boat headed to Sorrento and rode into the rainy, wavy Mediterranean. It was one of the longest 45 minutes of my life. I put my head down and prayed as we crashed through the waves. Some people are made to be out at sea… I am not one of those people.

We made it safely to Sorrento and found our apartment. That night, still optimistic and mostly dry, we went out to dinner at a local pizza place where the kids got to watch the chef toss the dough. His plump mother (or wife? — we’re not really sure which) pinched Henry’s cheeks and literally spooned pasta into his mouth, continuously waving her hands in the air and saying how cute he was — “Bellissimo!” The pizza was cheap but delicious, and the experience was priceless.

For the next several days, we were trapped in our apartment by the rain, going out only occasionally for food. We did walk around most of the town of Sorrento with our umbrellas (until Henry broke mine). We picked lemons from our backyard grove and made lemonade (symbolically appropriate). And made it down to the marina for a nice dinner on the water. Emily celebrated her birthday with a pajama day in the apartment, a few presents we had fit in the suitcases, a dinner of rainbow pasta and a giant Italian panetone birthday cake that she had picked out at the local pasticeria.

In order to avoid going completely stir crazy, we went on one real outing. We decided if we had to choose just one thing to see in this area of Italy, we wanted to see Pompeii. We took the commuter train to the site, and wandered the streets like an ancient Pompeiian family. We saw many of the best preserved buildings, but also wandered off the beated path, as we are oft want to do, where we came across the “house of the surgeon” among other things. It really is incredible to see. Henry had no idea where he was, of course. His favorite part was splashing in the many puddles, from which his shoes did not recover until we got back to Switzerland.

It’s funny… I remember our landlord back in Switzerland telling us that during Spring Break, everyone goes somewhere and sits in the rain. So I guess we got the true European Spring Break experience.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Sorrento (Part I)

Close your eyes.

Now picture a beautiful stone villa dating back over 2000 years. Built by ancient Romans, it is surrounded by a citrus grove bursting with lemons and oranges. Olive plants ready themselves to bring forth delectable fruit. Mount Vesuvius looms on the horizon, overlooking the bay of Napoli on the Mediterranean Sea.

You smell the sea air. You hear the waterfall cutting the bluffs behind you. You taste the fruit. You feel the history deep in your soul.

Now open your eyes.

You see a tumultuous cloudy sky fertile with a nearly constant downpour of rain. And it never gets above 50 degrees. Oh, and you can’t really see the Mediterranean because of fog. This is the reality of our time in Sorrento. For five straight days.

Sarah is our vacation planner. Once we have a destination in mind she gathers all of the information about what to see and do while there, and Sorrento was no exception. Sorrento is a 30 minute easy train ride from the ruins at Pompeii. It’s a quick boat ride to the island of Capri, with its beautiful Blue Grotto. Sorrento is also a launching pad for a drive along the Amalfi Coast – a scenic, harrowing journey along cliff edges overlooking the Mediterranean.

But of all these things, we were only able to make it to Pompeii. We walked the ruins with our umbrellas, fending off the downpour. We began hoping that Mount Vesuvius might erupt again, today even, if only to add some more excitement to the trip. Pompeii was really cool, but the kids showed enthusiasm for only about 30 minutes before umbrella sword-fighting, puddles, and the fascination with all things wet took over.

We couldn’t blame them. They had just behaved spectacularly in Rome, witnessing over 1000 years of civilization, and now they were ready for a break.

So, for the sake of the kids (and forced by the weather), Sarah and I decided that Sorrento would be a time to sit back and veg out. The kids became familiar with Cartoonito – the Italian Cartoon Network – which they happily watched despite everything being dubbed into Italian. They spent an ungodly amount of time in their pajamas. But they loved every minute of it. Especially when they got to accessorize with makeshift capes.

Sarah and I found ourselves in unfamiliar territory. It was a struggle at times, but nothing a good book couldn’t cure. We got outside here and there to go to dinner, or the local markets to buy food. The kids never wanted to leave the villa, unless Gelato was involved (which it frequently was).

So while we mostly missed out on all of the great things Sorrento has to offer, we got some much needed rest and relaxation, and spent A LOT of time together as a family. So much time, in fact, that we may need to take separate vacations next time. Ha!


See all of our pictures from Sorrento, Italy. 

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

A Quick Interlude

We will take a quick break from reporting on our Italy trip, to bring you this highly solicited message from our most recent visitor, Jeff Schwab, a.k.a. “Gramps.” We loved having him visit and, as always, love to hear his thoughts on his time in Switzerland:

I visited Joe, Sarah and the kids and now I have homework. Joe “invited” me to write for his blog. And pointed out that no previous guest had failed to write something. Even though I was taught that blogging was a sin (at least I think that I was), here goes…………..

Well, let’s get the “Switzerland was beautiful, the weather perfect, the mountains majestic, the cows contented, etc., etc.” out of the way. Why? Because it is all true and well documented long before this blog.

What has been noted, but deserves reiterating, is what great hosts Joe and Sarah are, and how fun Emily, James and Henry are to be around. Grams couldn’t make the trip, bum knee (still supporting MCW Orthopaedic Surgery), and although I missed her greatly, the trip was a smashing success.

Now what are the memorable moments? (see Sarah’s blog account for full details) Well, in no particular order:  Squinkies*, roasting cervelas by the Aare, the farm, biking to buy beer, ping pong, Team Alps, Rubigen by night, but mostly seeing everyone live and up close after almost eight months.

I thought at first I was in Lake Wobegon because Sarah is strong (bikes and walks everywhere), Joe is good looking (Grams made me say that) and the kids are clearly above average.

Emily is the official Swiss translator, gave a great fashion show complete with a Skyped Grams, skied like a champ, and warmed my heart with an early morning read of Calvin and Hobbes.

James and I hit about 1,000 ping pong balls in a row for a new personal record (as I remember). He introduced me to his own Hobbes and reintroduced me to Calvin and Hobbes; skied faster; and reminded me to stop and smell the roses (in his own inimitable fashion).

Henry was amazing; just what Joe deserved. A child without an unspoken thought. His line of the week was “Yah sure, why not”. He is a fabulous traveler, hiker and holder of Squinkies* (up to 10 in one hand). He is also an excellent jumper, especially when least expected, and thrower of rocks.

Sarah made me feel at home, almost like I was family (wait…….I am family) but it was nice and comfortable. It was fun to spend two days at the Bernese Hip Symposium with Joe. I was able see him professionally and meet his worldwide cadre of colleagues.

Friday night I was supposed to babysit. Well, I got to see Rubigen first. This is a small town one stop before Joe and Sarah’s. Instead of the recommended reading the town names when the train stops method of knowing when to get off, I used the counting stops method. It failed and I got off in Rubigen, a picturesque Swiss town usually; less so, however, in the dark while waiting 30 minutes for the next train with no way to notify Sarah and no restroom in sight. I finally made it to Munsingen, to be met by Sarah on a bike which wasn’t planned. I did get to babysit and Sarah did get to the Symposium dinner but I missed over half of “The Empire Strikes Back” and I was really looking forward to it. The rest of the night went well.

We went to the beautiful Lauterbrunnen (or something) Valley. Left our luggage unguarded (I was assured this was just fine and it was) then went and had a great time. Trains, buses, cable cars, hikes, snacks and nearly “Top of Europe” views. The next day I found out, while skiing for the first time in 10 years, that Swiss snow tastes pretty much like all snow. But the kids welcomed me to Team Alps anyway.

The week went by fast, but for me was great. Sarah pretty much captured it all on her blog report EXCEPT for my big THANK YOU to all the Swiss Schwab’s.

I also had to leave to get home to Grams and to let Joe and Sarah get ready for Italy. It is my and Grams fervent prayer that they make Pope Squinkies* so the kids have something for the train.

Thanks again for a great time with you all.



* For those unfamiliar with Squinkies I suggest Really. Mary Lou is online buying some more Squinkies – this might be a good stock opportunity.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Bella Roma

For the first 4 days of our Spring Break in Italy, we “did” Rome. We dragged the kids to many of the major sites in the city. Having forgotten to bring our stroller for Henry, we literally had to drag or carry him to everywhere. To write about everything we did would take far too long. We took over 400 pictures, so if they are each worth 1,000 words… you can do the math. We visited the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Borghese Gallery, Vatican Museum, and Sistine Chapel. We played junior archeologists at Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum. The kids learned some important life skills about how to deal with con-artists in Piazza Navonna. And we had our own miracle at St. Peter’s Basilica. (After seeing the Basilica and rubbing the foot of St. Peter, we walked back out to St. Peter’s Square and found a stroller in a garbage can! The “miracle of the stroller” made our movement much easier for about 48 hours, until the already broken wheel completely collapsed and we put it in another garbage can.)

While the major sites of Rome are amazing, if somewhat difficult for kids under 8-years-old to comprehend, some of our favorite memories of the city were from the food and from our experiences off the beaten track. The kids loved eating pizza and pasta. We had gelato at least once a day, and discovered the best gelateria in our area where they make their own gelato, unlike most of the little stands and bars that sell it. We explored the covered market just behind our apartment, where I got our breakfast every morning and the kids ogled octopus and other creatures in the fish market. The last morning, the owner of the market cafe recognized me and bid me farewell and the lady at the bakery squeezed the bread to show me how soft it was (“You like it like-a dis? Or like-a dis?”). We got to know Alberto at the excellent take-out place down the road called Non Solo Pizza, or “Not Just Pizza.” He made excellent gnocchi, huge pannini sandwiches sliced and sold by the length, pot roast, sea food, and much more. Our adventurous kids even tried calamari – and liked it! The last night, we ate at a nice seafood restaurant, where James and I shared a Mediterranean lobster that they pulled out of a tank right behind us.

We did all of this by riding Rome’s confusing public buses, quite an accomplishment for a family of tourists. We felt like we got a pretty good feel for the city in the short time that we had. And, though Rome is not known for many kid-friendly activities, the Italian culture makes up for it with their adoration of children. Everywhere we went, waiters and merchants would smile and complement our children, touching their heads and saying “Bella! Bello!” We may be biased, but we have to agree!

A selection of our many pictures help fill in the rest of the story.

Posted from Sorrento, Campania, Italy.

Signs of Spring

Spring is here. Many of the signs are familiar to us — daffodils and tulips are blooming in our yard, the kids are playing outside with the neighbors who we didn’t see often during the winter, and the stores are filled with bunnies, chicks, and colorful eggs. The clouds moved in on Tuesday and have stayed all week, bringing the infamous “April showers.” There are, however, a few things that are different about Spring here than back home.

For the Swiss, spring means gardening in a much more pervasive way that we are used to. I have spent hours in our yard, our raspberry patch, and our vegetable garden trying to get them ready. And they still don’t look as good as all the other gardens we see. Many people who live in apartments, which is very common, rent a garden plot in one of the many community gardens in the area. Gardening is like a religion here. Neighbors greet each other over the bushes and talk about the plants and the weather.

Many other flowers have come up in our yard that I don’t recognize. Little purple flowers that look like styrofoam balls stuck to a q-tip are growing under our elderberry tree. Clumps of 5-petaled flowers in white, yellow and violet are everywhere! And our peach tree, magnolia bush, and giant cherry tree are all flowering. It is really quite beautiful. And though there is a shortage of robins, the ducks have returned in large numbers. We have even seen them in the road and one took a bath in our backyard pond!

Today, we died Easter eggs the Swiss way. There are no egg dying kits in the stores, so I wasn’t sure what we were going to do. But I had recently seen bags of onion skins for sale, which I thought was a little strange. Then a friend explained that they use the onion skins to dye eggs. Huh? I looked it up online, and sure enough it is a common way to dye eggs in many countries. We gave it a try, peeling the few yellow and red onions we had in the refrigerator, and it worked beautifully, producing eggs marbled with yellows and browns. If you want to try it, there are instructions here.

And, finally, today is Good Friday, the start of Spring Break for the kids. Everything is closed today, as it is a holiday throughout the country. Tonight I have a choir concert for the Good Friday service at the main church in town. We will be performing Charles Gounod’s “Seven Last Words of Christ” among other things. I found some samples of the music here. The last movement is particularly beautiful, a perfect piece for a beautiful season.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Keeping Gramps on his Toes

Joe’s dad left on Tuesday after a week-long visit. It was great having him here, and we loved sharing our life in Switzerland with him. It was a lot to fit into 7 days!

In the first couple of days, he got to spend a lot of time with his grandchildren. They bombarded Gramps, and adored having someone new to show all of their toys and tell all of their “funny” stories. Henry showed him the animals in our pond, James demonstrated his ping-pong skills, and Emily got to open a few early birthday presents from Grams and Gramps and did a fashion show of her new outfits. We showed Gramps our town of Münsingen, walking to the farm to meet our cow friends, biking to the Aare river to roast cervelas, extending our bike ride toward the mountains, taking the bus to the town center to play at the playground and eat lunch at the outdoor restaurant.

The next couple of days, Gramps got to spend a lot of time with his son. He and Joe attended the Bernese Hip Symposium hosted by the hospital where Joe is working. They had a chance to “talk shop,” as I like to call it. After the first day of the conference, the kids and I met up with them to go out to a nice dinner in Bern. The second night, Gramps babysat the kids (after a minor miscalculation trying to find his way back on the train) so I could join Joe at the official conference dinner.

Once the Symposium was over, it was time to hit the mountains. We had viewed them from a distance, but we couldn’t let Gramps visit Switzerland without showing off it’s most stunning features. So, on Sunday morning we navigated the trains to Lautebrunnen in the valley between the Jungfrau and Schilthorn mountains. We have been to this area before, and it is one of our favorite places. We wasted no time getting up the mountain and taking the cogwheel train across to Mürren, something we’ve never done before. Then we caught the main cable car to the top of the mountain, a first for Gramps and the kids. We snapped a lot of pictures and had some hot cocoa and a snack in the beautiful rotating restaurant of the Piz Gloria. On the way down, we hiked one leg of the journey. We got off the cable car in Mürren, a fairly touristy mountain town with lots of hotels and restaurants, and walked down to the smaller town of Gimmelwald, a much smaller village where we were greeted by a chorus of bleating goats. We caught the cable car again, giving Gramps the exhilerating experience of riding it over the cliffs beyond Gimmelwald. After returning to the valley floor, we had a little down time at the hotel, ate a warm meal in the restaurant, and collapsed into our beds.

The next day, Gramps joined Joe and the older kids for the final day of skiing for the year. The Schilthorn is the highest skiing area in the Berner Oberland, and while the lower areas are melting, the higher pistes still have good snow. Gramps, who hasn’t skied in about a decade, kept up with the kids who showed him what they have learned this year. Meanwhile, Henry and I took a funicular from Mürren to Allmendhubel, which we had never done, and then hiked a stunning but also snowy trail back down in our tennis shoes. We all met up after our adventures to return by cable car, bus, and train to Münsingen where we made a fondue dinner to celebrate Gramps’s last night with us.

The weather has been remarkably beautiful the whole week — sunny and unseasonably warm. The morning Gramps left, the clouds blew in bringing April showers. We still miss our families, but seeing Gramps was indeed like sunshine for our hearts.

See some more pictures of Gramps’s Visit here.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.