Next Stop: PZM

Last weekend we once again visited the Dampfbahn in our town of Münsingen. It is a small sized train that people can ride. Kind of like a cross between a model train and an actual train. It is run by a club of train enthusiasts, the Dampfbahn Aaretal, who are really serious about their trains. They have several real steam engines that require them to shovel small hunks of coal with a tiny shovel and to fill the tanks with water from the watering stations. The track is quite extensive, taking riders about a quarter mile from the main station, train sheds, and turn-table, around a playground, past switches, and through a tunnel. The kids love it, especially Henry. He waves at all the spectators along the way.

Some of the spectators here, however, are a little… different. See, the Dampfbahn is located on the campus of the PZM, or Psychiatriezentrum Münsingen, a huge psychiatric hospital located right in our town. It is actually a beautiful campus with nice architecture, a green house, a cafe, playground, mini golf, and of course the Dampfbahn. It is a popular place to hang out, especially for families. But, between the kids and parents sitting on the train, you will often see a patient riding on the handicapped train car. They wave from the steps of their buildings or from their wheelchairs as they are pushed around by nurses. Depending on their level of care, they also ride the buses in town going to and from the center.

The whole point is to integrate the center with the community as much as possible so it doesn’t become isolated. And, from what I can see, it has been highly successful. It reminds me a little of the St. Ann Center in Milwaukee where both Emily and James went to daycare a number of years ago. There was an adult daycare program for elderly and mentally handicapped people along with the children’s daycare. They got to interact with each other, which is wonderful for both groups. But, St. Ann’s didn’t have a Dampfbahn!

We have visited the PZM many times, even bringing some of our guests there. I put together a collection of pictures of the good times we’ve had at the PZM:

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

It’s the Little Things – Mustard and Bat Caves

It’s been a while since I wrote a post in this series. The kids and I are home this week, playing and going on outings. So, I thought I would highlight a couple of things that continue to make our daily life here a little different than back home.


I took all three kids to the grocery store this week, a feat that is even more challenging without a car and without those neat car-shaped grocery carts, which would never fit around the corners here. There are tons of little differences in the products here, starting with different brands and languages. But, there are a couple of categories I wanted to mention specifically. First, a lot of the food that we buy here is similar to what we have back home, but it is just packaged differently. Mustard and mayonnaise come in large, aluminum tooth-paste tubes. Apple sauce comes in tin cans. And juice and milk often come in rectangular cartons, like a giant juice box. There are a couple of things here that are taboo in the US like Aromat (a seasoning shaker of MSG) and saccharine tablets for sweetening coffee. The supposed health risks of these items have been debunked, but they never recovered in the US. And there are a couple of things that I just can’t find here, including baking soda and brown sugar (I’ve learned to substitute “raw cane sugar,” though it doesn’t pack the way I’m used to).

These are just a few of the many differences in food products that make grocery shopping or opening my refrigerator almost a cultural experience.

Bat Caves

Today I took the kids to a place called Papiliorama northwest of Bern. It has an outdoor petting farm and playground, and three large enclosures: butterflies, jungles, and nocturnal animals. The latter enclosure was very dark, lit only by dim blue lights. There were night sounds playing as you walk through a maze past owls, fish and other animals. We were squatted down looking at some fish when I noticed something swoop by. “Was that a bat?” I wondered to myself. And, sure enough, moments later another one swooped by just ahead of us. I didn’t say anything, as I didn’t want to scare the kids, so we just kept walking. More and more of them flew by, and James finally said something. I explained that they were just little fruit bats, and they wouldn’t hurt us. The kids seemed okay with this, and Henry repeated my explanation every time one flew by.

The trail led into another area through some of those thick plastic blinds intended to keep things from escaping. Suddenly there were even more bats flitting around – apparently the first few were just the ones that had gotten out of the enclosed area. Several bats flew so close to me, I felt the breeze as they passed. Then the path led into a cave. It was no more than 6 feet tall or across and about 15 feet long, and there were bats everywhere. They were hanging from the ceiling and swooping through at breakneck speed. I tried to keep my strong, confident mom face on, but all I could think was “You have got to be kidding me!”

The kids and I had a quick discussion about how bats can’t actually see, and the only way they don’t run into things is by sonar. Then I ducked my head down to Henry’s stroller and walked through with bats dangling above and whooshing all around. Every time I lifted my head to see where I was going, a bat would swoosh within inches of my face before turning at the last moment. I definitely felt a wing tip on my head, and I may have screamed a couple of times. Although it raised my adrenaline levels, I have to admit it was actually a pretty cool experience. And the kids loved it!

The reason I am writing about this here is that something like this would never happen in America. I’ve seen bats at the zoo in Milwaukee, but always behind glass. I’ve had access to animals up close, but not fast-moving animals in a claustrophobically confined space. It’s too scary! Or dangerous! What if someone got scratched?! They might sue! Well, the Swiss don’t seem to have these concerns. It’s not that things don’t happen. They do. I saw a kid from a field-trip group holding his arm and complaining that a bat scratched him. But they didn’t seem to mind. Scratches happen. That’s life. Besides, that kid was probably flailing his arms around, so that’s what he gets. The Swiss would never change something for everyone because of minor risks or the stupidity or carelessness of a few people. Besides, that kid, as well as all the kids who gathered around to see his scratch, learned a valuable lesson about personal responsibility…  Always keep your arms down when walking through a bat cave.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Churning up Memories

The kids have another school vacation — something about “Whitsun,” an ancient holiday revolving around Pentecost that I’m pretty sure no one except Switzerland acknowledges anymore. So, last Thursday we went to Basel again to visit Isabel, our former host daughter, and her family. We visited them back in October for Basel’s Fall festival. And they invited us again for a nice weekend in Basel, including a day trip to Alsace, France just across the border.

We arrived on Thursday, and Isabel’s parents showed us around Basel’s old town. We ate lunch on the Rhine river, took a tethered ferry boat across, and went into the Rathaus or city hall. Then, they took us to a local festival in their suburb of Basel where we had a couple of beers, heard a local band perform and the kids got to ride ponies. After a nice dinner back at their place, they took us to our B&B to rest up for the big excursion the next day.

Isabel’s dad had planned a lovely drive through the wine region of Alsace, France, stopping in a few towns for picnics and sightseeing. He picked us up in the morning, and the nine of us split up into two cars. Joe and Henry rode with Isabel and her boyfriend, Marco, in his nice BMW, while Emily, James and I rode with Isabel’s parents. They drove us along the small, windy roads in rural France, which was beautiful, but much more motion than we are used to. Remember, we have been riding trains on nice, straight tracks and haven’t been in a car for any extended period of time for 9 months. So, about 30 minutes into the ride, I was feeling a little car sick. Meanwhile in the other car, Henry wasn’t feeling so good either and he kept telling Joe he wanted his mommy. Joe was trying to console him when Henry said, “But I just want mommy!” and then puked all over the back of the car.

Isabel called her dad to tell him what happened, and we turned around and drove back about a mile where we found them on the side of the road. Joe had stripped Henry of his puke-filled clothes, so he was running around in his underwear. Poor Marco was trying to wipe the vomit off of his seats. After much discussion, it was decided that we would go a little further up the road to the next town where I could buy Henry some new clothes.

With one less seat, I had to sit in the back seat with all three kids and Joe sat in the front with Isabel’s mom. No more Schwabs in the BMW! I had a plastic bag for Henry in case of a repeat. After just a little while back on the road, the kids and I were feeling nauseous again. I looked at Joe, who had his head back and his eyes closed. I asked him how he was doing and he said “fine” but it sounded more like “leave me alone.” We rolled the windows down, but a few minutes later, James said, “Mom, I need the bag!” I handed it over to him and he immediately threw up into it.

Emily was sitting right next to him, watching (and smelling) the whole thing, and then she said, “Ooooh, I’m next! It’s my turn!” So I stretched the top of the bag toward Emily, and both kids hung their heads in and puked their guts out.

Joe lifted his head and declared “Okay, that’s it. We’re done.”

Both cars pulled over. There was more cleaning and stripping. With a little fresh air we felt much better. It was almost lunch time and we were a little scared to get back in the cars, so we decided to have our picnic right there. Isabel’s dad was concerned that the spot wasn’t scenic enough, but we assured him it was fine. After the picnic, we took the highway back to Basel hoping the straighter roads would be better, and we made it without further incident.

Having completely ruined the trip to Alsace, we spent a relaxing afternoon at Isabel’s parents’, and then went to a nice park in Basel for dinner. On Saturday, we were on our own. We made a family visit to the Basel Zoo before catching the train back home. This was probably the last time we will see Isabel’s family, and it was certainly memorable!

Family Ties

This past weekend, my cousin Elissa and her family came to visit us. They are in Zurich for a couple of weeks for work, so we had to take the opportunity to get together. We weren’t expecting to see any more family or friends until we return home. So when we heard they were coming to Switzerland, it was such a treat!

The weather didn’t cooperate, so on Saturday we mostly stayed inside. Her little boy is just a couple of weeks younger than Henry, so it was a blast to see them play together. On Sunday, we took everyone up the Niesen mountain for a taste of the Swiss Alps, but unfortunately it was foggy and cold up there, so they didn’t get much of a taste. Though they did get to see Lake Thun and the Aare river from the windows of trains and buses. Fortunately, the weather cleared up at the end of the day so I could give them a tour of Bern before they caught their train back home – barely making it, as we ran from the bus, through the underground train station, and to their platform in 3 minutes.

I caught my own train back home for a small mother’s day celebration. I had gifts from each of the kids that they had made at school – a sachet and soaps, a paper maché picture frame, and a heart-shaped box with decorative stones glued to it. I also had a couple of cards, including one that Joe had made on the computer. It was the most perfect card for this Mother’s Day, so I wanted to share it here:


Mom, Mommy, Mama, Mother, Sarah:

We will follow you anywhere. We are your loyal, if ragtag, group of hangers-on. When you climb mountains, we hike beside you (unless you carry us). When you swim the seas, we float beside you (especially if we have our floaties on). If you put skis on our feet and point us down hill, we careen down the slopes with you (unless Daddy plows into us).

We do it because we trust you. We do it because we need you. We do it because we love you.

You are our Mother. And today is your day. Happy Mother’s Day.

Love, Your Kids – Emily, James, Henry (and Joe)

I am so blessed to have a great family, both near and far!

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

To every last mother…

Swiss cows traditionally wear large metal bells on decorative leather belts around their necks. It’s not just a quaint tradition, but it has a real purpose. In each herd, every cow’s bell is tuned to a different pitch. As the cows go from the pasture to the barn, the farmer can keep track of his cows by listening for the tune of the herd. If one cow is missing, a farmer will hear it before he sees it.

The weekend before Mother’s Day, our farmer noted that one cow had not come back in from the pasture. He found her lying down, ready to give birth. He wasn’t surprised by this. After all, he is in charge of making sure how and when each milking cow becomes pregnant. And he knew it was her time. But still, she seemed to be struggling a little bit. He felt around for the calf inside her. The calf was facing forwards, but the head was turned backwards. A dangerous situation for the calf, and the mother.

Meanwhile, Henry and Sarah were showing my college friend Will around the farm while I bottled milk. I was in the milking room when the farmer came in, speaking to me in his usual Swiss German:

“Hey, Doc! Good thing you’re here. There’s a cow giving birth and she’s having some trouble. I called the vet, but since you’re here…”

“Uh,” I replied, not knowing what to say next. “What kinda trouble is she having?”

“Oh the calf’s head is turned backward, so she needs help delivering. She’s in the next pasture.” He paused. “I’m kidding you. I know this isn’t your thing.” Relieved, I asked if we could go see her. “Sure, no problem,” he said, “The vet will be here soon to help.”

At this point, it became clear that this was not just another normal day at the farm. Sarah, Will, Henry and I went to the pasture next door where a large cow was sitting down in the field. There were a few spectators there, and kids were coming and going as well. I’m sure the cow was uncomfortable, and may have preferred a smaller viewing audience, but she was otherwise fairly docile.

Soon the vet came and administered some relaxing medicine to the cow. Then things “got real” so to speak. The vet, now shoulder deep in cow, was busy threading some ropes into the cow to grab hold of the calf’s front legs. He was not able to turn the calf’s head forward, so they would have to pull it out. Once the ropes were applied, and the front hooves delivered, the Vet, the Farmer, and a Neighbor (who supplied a bucket of water to “wash” the cow’s backside) all began pulling as though they were in a giant, epic game of tug-o-war.

For a few minutes the cow laid quietly, sedate, while three grown, strong, Swiss men pulled this calf to its birth. Within about ten minutes, the calf was out. It was a boy. The farmer rubbed the head of the calf to stimulate him. The vet “cleaned” his tools and put his gear away. The Neighbor took his watering can back home. Kids came and went. A light rain fell and quickly subsided.

And very shortly, within a minute after the calf was born, the mom, previously sedate and unable to lift her head much above her shoulders, rose up onto her feet, turned around and quickly moved everyone away from her calf, so she could clean him. She licked him from head to toe, letting him know that she was there, and things were going to be okay.

We knew it was our time to leave. Everyone seemed to know that the two cows needed time to be alone. As we walked away towards our bikes, towards our home, carrying with us our youngest child, bringing bottles of fresh milk to feed our own kids, I looked back one more time at the cow with her calf, alone together in the field. A mother, and her newborn.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Mountains in the Clouds

Mountains have some crazy effects on the weather in general, and at this time of year it is particularly unpredictable. We’ve been joking about the fact that the forecast has been the same almost every day for several weeks: “50% chance of rain.” What that really means is “We have no idea what the weather is going to be like!” It might be a beautiful day with a few clouds blowing by, it could be an overcast day with occasional showers, it can be completely different one valley over, and it can change every 30 minutes as the sky swirls around above us.

Last weekend, a good friend from college came to visit. We met up with him in Zermatt to see the infamous Matterhorn and traveled to Grindelwald to see another corner of our favorite mountain region. There were brief times when it was sunny and warm as well as times when it snowed and rained, and everything in between. Fortunately, most of the Matterhorn was visible on Friday when we arrived. The peak was obstructed by clouds as it is most of the time, but it still counts — check that one off the list! The next day it was completely buried in fog. Similarly, in Grindelwald clouds blew in and out of the mountains all day, changing the visibility constantly, and covering the peaks giving them an almost infinite feel.

The weather patterns here seem to be a reflection of how I’ve been feeling about this whole experience. Sometimes its great, sometimes its … well, not so great. And it often changes several times a day. My feelings aren’t matching up with the nice smooth “cultural adjustment curve” that I wrote about a while ago. Aren’t I supposed to be adjusted by now? Shouldn’t I be on a nice, smooth upward path toward feeling “at home” in my new culture? But I’m not.

Looking back, I am definitely more comfortable here than I was six months ago. My accomplishments are getting bigger. But I still make lots of mistakes and struggle with differences all the time. So, I went in search of a new model, and I found it! The “Stress-Adaptation-Growth” model was described by Young Yun Kim in her 2002 book about Cross-Cultural Adaptation. She sees the cultural adaptation process as a spiral in which each new stressful experience contributes toward personal growth. Sort of a one-step-back, two-steps-forward approach. This is much more reflective of how I feel. Many more ups and downs. Both sunshine and rain.

Just like the weather in Switzerland, this model is much more volatile than the original curve, and there is no “peak” in view toward which we aspire. We simply take each challenge as it comes, and do our best to use it as a catalyst for growth. And we recognize that without the challenges, there is no growth. That feels like a universal truth that is not just specific to our experience, but something we can share with everyone. And, as we hike through the cloudy, tumultuous mountains, that is the most comforting thing of all.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

At the fair

On Wednesday afternoon, I took the kids to the BEA, which seems to be the equivalent to the State Fair for the canton of Bern. Now, since the entire country of Switzerland is smaller than most states, this was really more like a county fair. In the past 8 months, we’ve been to the largest fair in Europe (Oktoberfest), a local fair in Germany (Barthelmarkt), a large festival in Switzerland (Herbstmesse in Basel), and so we had to cap it off with our own local festival.

There were some similarities between all the festivals. I swear they all rent the same rides from the same company. Our kids even recognize them and know which ones they like. Emily likes the one we’ve dubbed the “whirl and puke,” which no one will ride with her anymore after our experience in Basel. But, now that she is 8 years old, she can ride it on her own. There were fewer rides at the BEA, but the ferris wheel is always a favorite that we can all do together.

The food is also similar, especially the sweets. I am a softie when it comes to cotton candy, probably because I loved it when I was a kid (okay, so I still do), and my parents never let me get it. So, we bought three huge cotton candies, which my kids devoured with a little help from their mom. The festivals all have more traditional sweets like magenbrot, as well as other food like wurst. I have to admit, I still like the German food best.

The BEA had something the other festivals didn’t… animals. It really felt like a county fair, with local farmers showing off their livestock. We saw horses, sheep, goats, pigs, Bernese mountain dogs, and even birds and rabbits. There were no cows, which I found surprising in a country with such a “cow culture.” However, at this time of year, Swiss cows are all going out to pasture after a long, cooped-up winter. We saw lots of them on the way to the fair, so I guess that’s good enough.

The fair was a lot of fun, but also pretty exhausting. So, when we missed our train home by about 45 seconds, watching it pull out of the station as we were running to the platform, I nearly lost it. You would think after all this time, I would be better at getting to the station on time. But, alas, sitting in train stations is part of every excursion we have. So, the kids and I just made ourselves comfortable for the 30-minute wait, 15-minute train ride on a packed rush-hour train, and 5-minute bike ride – all with 3 balloons in tow!

A few more pictures at the fair.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.