Mountain Masterpiece

“Great are the works of the Lord, they are pondered by all who delight in them.” Psalm 111/2

Last Sunday, I went to the mountains alone. Joe stayed home with the kids to give me a “day off.” As I was walking toward a mountain lake, I saw this sign. Being surrounded by such beauty, it is easy to feel the grandeur of everything. Switzerland is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. The landscape is its gift, and it has shaped much of its culture and history.

In my experience touring other places in Europe, a lot of time and attention are put on churches. Beautiful, old churches with incredible artwork, stunning architecture, and rich history. They are amazing to see. In Switzerland, churches are plain. In the German speaking cities, this is because the large churches were stripped of their artwork and ornamentation during the Zwingli Revolution in the 1500s. But in the mountains, churches in the mountains are small and plain for many reasons. The population is small, so they don’t need large spaces, plus it would be logistically difficult to build a grandiose church in the mountains (though the Swiss seem to manage to build whatever they want in and on and through the mountains). But mostly it just seems silly to try to build something that could demonstrate the “works of the Lord” better than the very surroundings.

Instead, the Swiss do their best to share their natural gifts with as many people as possible. Rather than building impressive things to visit, they simply build things that make it possible for people to appreciate what is already there. The Swiss transportation system extends deep into the mountains, with long tunnels, impressive bridges, cable cars, and funiculars that can take you just about anywhere you want to go. They also maintain an extensive network of “Wanderwegs” or hiking trails, as well as mountain biking trails, that are like a web throughout the entire Alpine region.

The fountains, like the churches, are practical. Unlike the ornate, sculpted fountains that gush water in Italy, fountains in Switzerland are simple. In the cities they may have a sculpture of some kind above the fountain. In the mountains it may be as simple as a hollowed-out log. But the water flows steadily from small spouts into basins, and it’s drinkable! People regularly reach over and fill cups and water bottles from the fountains in public squares, or just lean in and take a drink. There are no bubblers here, just fountains. And, sometimes there’s even a shorter basin that water flows into for dogs to get a drink.

The Swiss are very practical and concerned with functionality. This has allowed them to live and enjoy a beautiful, but challenging landscape in an often difficult climate. And they do enjoy it. The trains going to and from the mountains on Sunday were packed with hikers  of all ages…. families with young children, elderly couples with walking sticks. Who knew you could put a stroller on a gondola! They don’t need to build masterpieces, because their practicality allows them to enjoy the masterpiece that is already there.

Quick Hit: Rivella

Time is quickly winding down for us, but there is still so much to experience and write about. Instead of having the occasional long post, I thought I would present a few “Quick Hits” to cover a few things that I wanted to mention.


Sarah mentioned Rivella in her post about going to the movies. Rivella is Switzerland’s national soft drink. It is a cultural icon and a powerful craving. Rivella comes in three (main) varieties: Red (rot – the original), Blue (blau – sugar-free) and Green (grüne – it’s got green tea in it, or something). It is a refreshing drink that, in all honesty, seems to create a very powerful taste memory. Whenever I am riding the trains towards to mountains, I crave Rivella.

The interesting thing about it, though, is what it’s made of. Switzerland produces so much cheese, that it has a surplus of “milch serum”, or whey – the thin proteinaceous liquid that is left over when cheese curd is extracted from milk. An enterprising Swiss gentleman, Robert Barth, decided to carbonate the leftover milch serum in the 1950s, and Rivella was born.

When I was here for only a few months, there was another fellow visiting from the U.S. We were at lunch one day and he had a bottle of Rivella. I asked him if he had tried it yet. He said no, but he had noticed everyone drinking it. As he started taking a sip I casually explained to him that when they say the main ingredient is “milch serum,” that is really a disingenuous term. “You see,” I said, “when they wash the udders of the milking cows, they use a special non-soap solution so the udders don’t get irritated. Then, when they’re done, the ‘udder washings’ are concentrated, and then carbonated.” He was looking at me now with a mouthful. “So there may be a little milk in there, left over on the udders,” I continued, “but it’s really just udder washings.”

I will forever remember his face as he choked down that first mouthful… right before I burst out laughing.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

It’s the Little Things – School and the Metric System

It’s been a quiet week at home, work and school. Nothing particularly exciting to report. So, it’s a perfect opportunity to examine a couple more things that make even an ordinary week here a little different than back home.


I was a little surprised when Emily came home from school yesterday and said that her homework was knitting. “What do you mean knitting?” To which she responded, “You know… knitting,” and pulled out a small ball of blue yarn and two knitting needles with the beginning of a small knitted square. She sat in a chair and knitted three more rows. Later, she said that, since she can knit she is sure to be a good grandma, which I find funny because neither of her grandmothers knit. This interesting form of homework came from Werken. As in America, Emily’s school has music, gym, and library. But Werken seems to be a combination of home economics, art and shop, except in elementary school. Emily’s class goes to the workshop twice a week, and she has learned to do some woodworking, painting, sewing, and now knitting. Children here continue to learn such skills throughout grade school.

Additionally, there is a day next week when Emily’s class goes to their third grade teacher for next year. One of the reasons they already know who will be in which class is that the classes stay together all the way through grade school. So, even though there are several classrooms in each grade at Emily’s school, the kids you have in your first grade class will be the same kids in your class every year for at least six years. Once I realized this, it helped to explain why it was more challenging for Emily to make friends in her second grade class. The whole class had already known each other and been together for over a year. But at this point, Emily has made her mark and has a lot of friends, and they have all said they will miss her next year when they are all together again in third grade.

Finally, I have to mention a couple of units that Emily did this year. Around Easter time, she came home with a 7-page book she had made about the creation of the world. And it was the creation story from the Bible. The one where God created the heavens and the earth, night and day, water and land, plants, animals and people all in 6 days, and then rested. There was a different artistic rendition for each of the days. With all of the debate that goes on in America about the teaching of evolution, I was very surprised by this. Then, about a month later she did a whole unit on the story of Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob from the Book of Genesis. You know, the one with the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Again, I was a little surprised by this. Emily goes to a public school here, but apparently the separation of Church and State isn’t something the Swiss worry about.

We have mentioned some other differences in school here in the past. And of course, as our friends back home are starting their summer vacations, we are still in school here for another 2 1/2 more weeks!

Metric System

Switzerland, along with most of Europe and the rest of the world, uses the metric system. Even though it is part of so many things in our daily lives, it has taken me a long time to adjust to this, and I still haven’t completely switched over. When I check the weather, it is in celsius, so the high today was 22ºC, which is about the same as the temperature in the “heated” pools around here. When I cook, the oven usually gets set to something between 150º-200ºC.

In cooking, there are no cups for measuring, but rather everything is in grams or deciliters. And the same is true at the grocery store. Produce and meat are sold per 100g or kilogram (and you better look closely because there’s a big difference!) Liquids are sold by the liter or deciliter at the store and in restaurants. A small soda is usually 3dl while a regular beer is 5dl.

Distances on a map are in kilometers, though without a car, I don’t deal with that much. But other measurements of length are also metric, so when we would rent skis and they asked us how tall we are, they needed it in centimeters. Incidentally, I’m about 168cm tall. And then they always needed our weight in kilograms. This is the one I actually really like since 68kg sounds so much better than the equivalent in pounds!

This isn’t really a metric thing, but they also use a 24-hour clock here rather than AM and PM. So, since it is nearly 22:00, it’s time for me to get ready for bed.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

The Beginning of the End

In just 7 more weeks, we will be back in America. It’s a little hard to comprehend what then next couple of months will be like for us. The work of moving our family back across the ocean has already started. We’re working with moving companies, we’ve bought our plane tickets and started completing paperwork. And in terms of our life here, it feels like we’ve entered a sort of “lame duck” period. There is no point in trying to establish anything here anymore. We want to get as much out of these last weeks as possible (especially since the weather is finally nice!). But every conversation we have with people here involves talking about how soon we are leaving.

On Wednesday evening, Emily’s class did a play at her school. They performed “The Valiant Little Tailor” (“Das tapfere Schneiderlein“) by the Brothers Grimm. Emily got to play Princess #2, and she did a great job. After the show, there was a little pot luck reception where all the families could mingle. We talked with some other families, and they always started the conversation by asking, “So, when are you leaving?” We answered questions about where we live in America and whether we are looking forward to going back. It is a conversation I have had a lot recently. But this time it ended with our first goodbyes. We probably won’t see the parents of Emily’s classmates again, so they wished us a nice summer and a safe trip back home.

It was very nice of them, but also a little strange. After all this time trying to integrate and and fit in, we were definitely the strangers again. I get the feeling the next seven weeks are going to be a long series of good byes. Going back home should be comforting, except that so much has changed I get the feeling we may be strangers there as well, at least to a certain extent.

I’m not sure Henry even remembers America. We have all changed and grown, though it is a lot easier to see it in the kids. I found a couple of pictures of Emily that really illustrate how much can change in one year. The first was taken at a farm in Germany last July, and the second was taken at our local farm just a few weeks ago:

emily-bunny-11       emily-bunny-12


Flashback from a Friend

Our friend Will came to visit back in May. We met him in the mountains for some cloudy hiking, and spent four fun-filled days together. Now that he is settled back in Chicago, he had a chance to send us his thoughts and memories…

I finally made it to Switzerland to visit the Schwabs this May.  When I first heard they were going to spend a year there, I knew I wanted to visit and fortunately was able to make it out there and everyone went way out of their way to make sure I had a good time seeing the country.

After a day or so on my own near Lake Geneva, I arrived to meet the Schwabs in Zermatt – the home of the Matterhorn.  Joe met me at the train station – beer in hand – and helped guide me back to our hotel.  Which was good because our original hotel had apparently closed for renovation and re-booked us elsewhere.   After getting situated, I got to meet the adorable Schwab children (some of whom called me “Will” and some of whom called me “Uncle Will”), and we toured the very touristy (by Swiss standards – still very quaint) town and had dinner and made our plans to summit the mighty Matterhorn the next day.

However, it was quite foggy the next morning.  Despite this we boarded the train to the Gornergrat and went up almost 10,000 feet.  We couldn’t quite make out the famous Matterhorn peak, but saw many gorgeous sites along the trip (lots of waterfalls!) and the train ride itself was very cool.  Then we hopped on the train to Grindelwald, which despite 3 train changes was an extremely scenic and beautiful ride past Lake Thun and various other scenic Swiss regions.   

Joe and I went to the “Top of Europe” station the next day on the Jungfrauoch.  It was also a bit cloudy but a very cool experience.  I especially enjoyed the exhibit at the top where we were able to walk inside an actual glacier.  And, at 11,000+ feet I definitely felt the altitude.  We met Sarah and the kids a bit lower in the mountains at Kleine Scheidegg and hiked down a bit to the Wengeralp station.  The weather alternated wildly between snow, rain, sun … and we had a very pleasant 30-minute hike while examining the terrain (frog eggs!) and hearing what we thought were avalanches. 

Then we took the train back to Munsingen, and immediately headed out to the nearby farm to get some groceries, but there was a lot of commotion.  Apparently, a cow was giving birth in the field but there was a small breach, so there was some additional attention needed.  Naturally, we biked immediately to the cow-birthing field and watched a baby calf being born!*   It was quite the experience, if a little bloody.  And we had a nice Swiss Raclette dinner at home – melted cheese and potatoes.

The following day, we relaxed in Munsingen a bit and then I got the tour of Bern from Joe and had dinner with the Schwabs at the Rose Garden – a huge park that overlooks the city from the top of a hill.  It was a beautiful view and the kids had fun with the nearby playground as well. 

Sarah and Henry showed me around Bern a bit the next day and after a quick lunch with Joe, it was time to say farewell. 

All in all – it was great to see my friends and the Swiss countryside.  Everything in Switzerland seemed super-efficient – even riding the trains was fun (I recommend the Swiss Pass to help reduce the travel hassle). 

Thanks again to Joe, Sarah, Emily, James and Henry for making this a great trip out to beautiful Switzerland!

Check out more pictures from our weekend with Will.

* The baby calf was a boy, and after we told the farmer that our friend from America had arrived just in time for the birth, it was decided that the cow would be named “Willi.” How many people get a cow in Switzerland named after them?! Probably not too many. We had a great time with you, Will, and we think about you every time we go to the farm and see little Willi.

Action Cooking

Our diet in Switzerland is extremely different than it was in America. There are several reasons for this. One is that, since lunch is the primary meal of the day, our typically-Swiss dinner usually consists of fresh bakery bread (really the only kind to be had here) and a table full of sliced meats, cheeses, and spreads. This was great for a while. Its easy, there’s no cooking in the evening, and, since each person gets to grab what they want, everyone is happy. We tried all of the multitude of bread varieties in the store and sampled the equally plentiful selection of Swiss cheeses. Though James mostly subsisted on peanut butter and jelly, still his favorite combination, and definitely NOT Swiss. (They do have peanut butter here, but only one generic option, and I think we are the only ones who buy it.)

Meanwhile, I have to cook lunch for all the kids, since Emily and James come home from school at noon each day. Cooking a hot lunch each day for myself and three kids has proven to be more of a challenge. For starters, they’re kids. They are fairly picky, though they have learned to try anything I put in front of them. After some trial and error, I learned that it is NOT worth spending an hour making something that I consider to be nice, only to sit down for 15 minutes and watch them pick at it and complain that it isn’t very good and be stuck with a ton of leftovers.

The other reason our food is so different is shopping. Technically, most of the food we get in America is also available here. It’s just so darn expensive! Meat is particularly expensive. Cheap meat includes a variety of sausages, leberkase (a bologna-like meatloaf), pork chops and some chicken, and usually costs about $9-10 per pound.* Better cuts of meat, especially beef and fish, usually cost around $20 per pound or more. Needless to say, we haven’t eaten much beef while living in Switzerland. In fact, what we eat is really determined by what is on sale, or “Action.”

Back home, before my weekly grocery trip, I would plan out meals and put the ingredients from the recipes on my grocery list. Here, when I go to the grocery store, I head straight to the Action meat case at the front of the store where all of the meat is discounted. Whatever is on sale usually becomes our meals for the next several days, and once we get it home I figure out what to do with it. However, it tends to be the same things, and there is only so much you can do with sausages, pork chops, and whole chickens. Recently, I’ve been walking past the Action meat without getting anything because I am craving something different.

A few days ago, I bought one of the larger cuts of meat in the Action section, which I usually avoid because of their size and because I don’t really know what to do with them. I picked out something called Schweinsbraten Hals, which was only $7.25 per pound, but it weighed 2.6 pounds. Today, I looked up what that is, and found out it is a pork neck roast. I looked up a recipe, and it takes 3.5 hours to roast! So, it’s in the oven now and it will be our dinner tonight. And that’s the last thing I have in the refrigerator, so tomorrow I’ll head to Migros and see what’s on Action.

* Note: Food here is sold by the 100grams (or sometimes by the kilogram), and is priced in Swiss Francs, but I did the math.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.


Since Sarah and Emily got to take a trip to Paris France, just the two girls, James and I decided to take a trip as well, just the two boys. Henry, being less than 3-years-old when we left, is considered gender neutral by the Geneva Conventions and is therefore ineligible for any “all girls” or “all boys” events. Fortunately, he turned 3 on June 3rd, so this is all a moot point.

Anyway, James and I set our sights on Salzburg, the City of Music, birthplace to Mozart, and the namesake of the Salzach River. Salzburg is a stone’s throw from Munich, nestled between Innsbruck and Vienna, and within view of the Austrian Alps. It sustained a reasonable amount of damage during WWII, but, like many European cities, has retained or restored its altstadt (old town), around which it flourishes with modern architecture and pedestrian-friendly layouts.

James and I boarded a train from Bern on Friday afternoon, and by 8pm we were at our hotel in Salzburg. We stayed at a charming hotel in the altstadt right off of the Mozartplatz. Get used to seeing that name everywhere as Salzburg loves its native son. Nearly every cafe, platz, strasse, steg, and saal has a name associated with the famous composer. Even though Mozart gladly moved from Salzburg to Vienna, to get out from under the thumb of the Bishop of Salzburg, the town still holds tightly to his legacy.

We arrived a little bit late in the evening, but James and I were hungry so we took the bus to the Augustiner Bräustübl (beer hall), just on the outskirts of town. Augustiner is a kloster (monastery) that supports its religious mission with a vibrant brewery (not uncommon in Germanic lands). James was very excited to visit the beerhall. We went up to the shelves in front and both grabbed ceramic mugs. James filled his with water, and I filled mine with Augustiner’s flagship Märzen beer. We sat in the beerhall, two Schwab men, quaffed from our mugs and ate sausage. When it was too late for James to keep his eyes open any longer, we headed back to the hotel.

On Saturday, James and I woke to a delicious breakfast, and headed to the Museum der Moderne where there was an exhibit for kids about Monsters. We looked at the pictures, dressed up, went into a scary room, and looked at different artist renditions of monsters for an hour or so. Then we made our way from the museum, via Salzburg’s catacombs, to the Funicular that goes up to Salzburg’s fortress.

High above the cliff over Salzburg the fortress is now a museum and restaurant. We saw images from Salzburg’s Marionettetheater as well as lots of relics from the origins of the fortress all the way up to munitions from WWI. James loved seeing all of sights, but eventually we got tired and headed back down to the old town for lunch.

In the afternoon we headed to Mozart’s birthhouse where we walked around with approximately 1,576 asian tourists. Fortunately James’ hair has gotten dark enough that these tourists were not stopping us for pictures. After the Mozarthaus we went to dinner in the eastern part of the old town while bands played for a festival being thrown by the University of Salzburg.

In the evening, James and I boarded a bus to the outskirts of Salzburg in a town called Anif. Anif houses Schloss Hellbrunn, and the Salzburg Zoo. We took the tour of the “night zoo” where we saw brown bears, wolves, snow leopards, and flamingos eat before their bedtime. We also saw lots of frogs, turtles, red pandas, alpacas, tapirs, capuchin monkeys, capybaras, parrots, and so much more. The Salzburg zoo is reportedly the oldest zoo in the world, but, as James learned, does not house the oldest animals. It is a beautiful zoo with cliffs as the backdrop, and Alpine foothills across the other side. You can see why the Salzburg royalty would build their palace right next door.

Sunday James and I awoke later, ate breakfast, and made our way to the train station to head back to Switzerland. James got a few small commemorative items, and we got some famous Mozartkugeln for the rest of the family. It was nice to spend some time with my son, getting to spoil him a little bit on one hand, but getting to see him grow a little bit on the other.

See the gallery of our trip.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.