Field Trips

Our last week in Switzerland has been filled with both work and play. Lots of packing, cleaning and organizing has meant a chaotic house, and not many toys available to play with. (Even fewer than usual). So, the kids and I went on several “field trips” to get out of the house and cool down, as it has been a beautiful and warm week.

First, we went to Spiez, a beautiful town on Lake Thun only about 20 minutes away from Münsingen by train. We have past it many times heading toward the mountains, but we have never gotten off the train. So my plan was very simple: go to Spiez, get off the train and see what we can see. We just walked toward the waterfront and explored along the way. The kids found a fun playground with a beautiful view and a rotating seesaw that Emily and James loved. While they spun and laughed, Henry picked me a bouquet of wild flowers. We had a picnic lunch, found another bigger playground by the water, splashed in the lake, and visited the local castle. Sometimes having no plan turns out to be a great plan.

On Wednesday, we visited the city of Bern for the last time and did something I’ve wanted to do with the kids all year… splash in the spraying fountain outside the Bundeshaus. I was so glad this worked out in our last week here! With the way Swiss weather is, there aren’t a lot of days when it’s warm enough to be running through a giant outdoor sprinkler. Plus, there is a market on the Bundesplatz several days a week, which covers the fountain. But we finally had our chance!

We spent one afternoon at the community pool complex in Münsingen and one afternoon splashing in the Aare river. Then, for our final outing, we invited the kids from across the street to Bern Aqua, a waterpark at a mall on the west side of the city. I bravely took 7 kids to the waterpark by train, and they all had a wonderful time with their friends.

We were also invited to a few friends’ houses for coffees, dinners, and farewells. And somewhere in there we managed to pack up our suitcases, sell our bikes, ship most of our stuff back to America, and get the house ready for its next occupant.

It was a wonderful last week in Switzerland. It is hard to believe that the time has come to say the last good bye.

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Lasts

We leave Switzerland one week from yesterday. Yikes! Our life has gotten a little hectic, to say the least. But we are also trying to enjoy our last days that we have here.

In the past couple of weeks, we have had a lot of lasts. The kids’ last day of school. My last choir practice. Henry’s last spielgruppe. And now we are having more and more lasts, of all kinds. This morning I had the last bowl of my favorite Swiss cereal. We have started selling our bikes, and James rode his for the last time tonight. In the coming week, we will have our last trip to the farm, last time seeing lots of people, last Swiss meals.

I was getting a little overwhelmed by lasts, until I realized that people have lasts all the time. Most of the time, we don’t even think about it. Often it is firsts and lasts at the same time. Going to a restaurant for the last time, meeting a friend of a friend for the first and last time, last diaper change on your youngest child. (We’re not there yet, but getting closer…) Lasts happen all the time, but somehow they seem more poignant in our life right now.

It might just be the sheer quantity of lasts in a short period of time. It is also the permanence of it. In the lasts of everyday life, you don’t always know its a last because the possibility is there for it to happen again. You could run into that person again. You might decide to go back to that restaurant someday, who knows? Even when you move or graduate, you believe you will keep in touch with people or maybe see them at a reunion.

But for us, the likelihood that we will see most of our neighbors, classmates, and acquaintances from Münsingen ever again is extremely low. Sure, we will visit Switzerland, but it will never be quite like this again. It reminds me a little of when Henry was a baby. We declared that he would be our last child, and it was like a gift. We cherished every sweet moment because we knew it was the last. And the difficult moments seemed somehow easier since we knew we would never have to do it again.

It is a blessing to conciously experience a last as it is happening. Which means, amidst the mess of suitcases and boxes, this week is filled with blessings.

Newton’s unpublished law

Newton’s First Law

Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.

[translated from Latin into English]

Every body persists in its state of being at rest or of moving uniformly straight forward, except insofar as it is compelled to change its state by force impressed.

An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an unseen force. Newtonian Physics. This law was devised in a time when people rarely moved, apparently. I can tell you, with great certainty, that when a person (or a group of people) are preparing to move, and especially when that move spans several continents and oceans, the law can be written thusly:

During transoceanic relocation, every body persists in the state of being at rest, and in motion, as the two states are neither mutual nor exclusive, and will move spasmodically in all directions when compelled to change its state by various governmental or relocation agents.Sisyphus.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Packing and Stuff

The moving company comes one week from today, and we – make that I – have started to pack up our things to be shipped back to America. And while moving is always a little daunting, there is a lot less stuff to worry about on our way back than there was last year at this time. We moved to Switzerland with about 13 suitcases and boxes of stuff — mostly clothes, toys, some technology and paperwork, and a box for Joe’s guitar. It seemed like a lot when we were lugging the majority of it through airports and train stations during our initial travels. But for a family of five for a whole year, it’s really not that much stuff. Especially when you compare it to the gigantic storage garage that is packed from floor to ceiling awaiting us back in Milwaukee. What is all that stuff?!

It has been liberating to live without much of our stuff for a year. Granted the kids complained every now and then about toys they remembered that are currently hibernating in a dark, rectangular cave (or at their cousins’ house). But, they were quickly distracted by other activities using the things we do have here. It’s amazing what you can do with paper, string, sticks, water, balloons, and repurposing other toys. Henry is the easiest. For starters, he doesn’t remember any of his toys that were left behind. Plus, all I have to do is fill a sink with water and put a few things in it, and he’ll splash happily for quite a while. Emily and James require a little more creativity than that. We found great origami projects on YouTube to make the best paper airplanes and boats, Joe taught them paper football, we made home-made playdoh, a backyard bow-and-arrow, and much more.

I enjoyed the freedom of not having a lot of stuff to worry about, clean up, locate, put up, take down, etc. Less stuff definitely equals less stress and more time. It also helps me to live in the present. Without the stuff that you are saving from different parts of your life, it is much easier to really focus on what you have and what you are doing right now.

There were really very few things that I missed. At Christmas time, we had brought a small box with some of our holiday items, and I made a lot of improvised decorations. I missed our stockings and other holiday things with family significance at that sentimental time of year. In the kitchen, there were a few times I needed something I didn’t have here, like a funnel or a cupcake tin. But, other than that, I can’t say I thought about any of our stuff. Which, again, makes me wonder what exactly is in all of those boxes back home.

It is kind of fun to think about it as I pack up all of the stuff we have lived with all year. For the kids, unpacking their toys will be like Christmas in August. For me, I think it will be more like a reunion. Like old friends you haven’t seen for a while, seeing my stuff will bring back all of the memories and associations I have with them. Some things may not have aged so well, and it might be time to move on. But others do have real meaning. At least I think they do. After this experience, I might be even more picky about what stuff is really worth keeping, and what stuff is just adding stress, mess, and holding me back.

As I go to pack up the next box, and face the task of relocating all of our stuff once again, it also helps to be able to laugh about it:

Quick Hit: Grocery Stores

In this Quick Hit we have to mention something about Switzerland’s grocery stores. Switzerland has a number of grocery store chains including Denner, Lidl, Avec, Proxi, Aldi Suisse (don’t mention this one to Swiss people, though), Spar and so on. But if you want to really talk about grocery stores in Switzerland, there is only one discussion: Coop versus Migros.

MigrosBoth Migros (pronounce ME-grow) and Coop (pronounced like cope) are Swiss-run grocery store chains based on the co-op philosophy. You are not just a customer, you are part owner. Their primary difference is that Coop has a large selection of brand-name items, and also carries products with any of their various Coop labels (indicating various levels of quality and, therefore, varying prices). Migros, on the other hand, predominantly carries products that are made specifically by, or for Migros. Want Ovomaltine? You have to go to Coop. In fact, for a long time Migros would not sell Rivella, Switzerland’s national drink, but a knock-off called “Mivella.” Migros has softened their stance and there are certain brand-name products you can buy there including Rivella, Coca-cola, Nutella, Thomy (makers of mustard and mayonnaise), etc.

CoopThe other major difference is that Migros will not sell alcohol or tobacco. Never have, never will. Coop is happy to serve your vices up alongside fresh meats, cheeses, veggies, and anything else you could want.

But both Migros and Coop are more than just grocery stores… they are Swiss instiutions, aimed to offer ANYTHING you could want. Both have grocery stores, hardware stores, sporting goods stores, gas stations, travel offices, electronics stores, banks, clothing stores, fitness centers, furniture stores, bookstores, adult education centers, golf courses, and just about anything else you can think of.

While Switzerland is decidedly neutral, politically, they are fierce loyalists when it comes to their grocery stores. I have been in the middle of a conversation with Swiss friends who turn their nose up in disgust at someone else for being a “Coop person.” I have also been in conversations where people get so fiercely upset with Migros for not carrying their favorite brand of something or other. Simply put, when you have company over for a party, shop carefully, and hide your packaging! 

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Big weekend!

After the big hospital party we hosted on Friday night, we had another party of a very different kind on Saturday. It was James’s 7th birthday. The day started off a little slow, as James wasn’t eating his breakfast because one of his teeth was really bothering him. It was very loose, but he was scared to pull it out. The whole family gave him suggestions, and in the end we all laughed and hollered and did anything we could to distract him while Joe pulled it out. Woo hoo! What a way to start your birthday.

In the afternoon, we had a few of his friends over for a Lego-themed birthday party. After having done Emily’s party back in April, I was ready with Lego projects, activities and treats. The Lego candies Grams sent all the way from America were extra special! We did Lego stamping, played Lego toss and Lego Bingo, ate Lego cake, and much more. After a while, the Swiss kids started commenting on how everything was “Lego.” I don’t think they are used to such pervasive themes at their birthday parties. But, it worked anyway, and everyone had a good time.

The next morning, we woke up, packed up our backpack, got everyone ready and caught the train to Lucerne. This city is the center of Swiss tourism, and yet we spent 11 months in Switzerland without going there. We also needed to see Isabel one last time, and so we decided to meet up with her in Lucerne. Perfect! Upon arrival, we walked around the old town which hugs the Reuss River and features Lucerne’s famous covered bridges. We ate lunch at a restaurant on the river before catching a boat to our primary destination.

The Verkehrshaus is a very well-known museum in Switzerland all about transportation. It is huge, containing a whole building filled with real, historic train cars and engines, another building dedicated to automobiles, one for air and space travel (including two real airplanes in the center courtyard), and one building for boats, cable cars, and other mountain transport. There are lots of hands-on exhibits for the kids to explore and play with as they learn about force, buoyancy, wind resistance, etc… We saw two of the buildings (trains and boats/cable cars) and spent a lot of time in the outdoor area where there is a hands-on construction site, harnessed trampolines, a parcours for scooters and bikes, and exhibits about racing cars and motorcycles. It was a fantastic place, and I would certainly go back to see the rest. But, after 3.5 hours, we were exhausted and the clouds had blown in, so we caught a boat just as it started to rain.

As we crossed the water toward the train station, a rainbow appeared behind us. It was a great way to say our goodbyes to Isabel and to end a very big weekend.

More pictures from the weekend are in our gallery.

Beginning our Goodbyes

Last night we began the process of saying our goodbyes to people here. We hosted a farewell party at our home for the members of the hip team from the Inselspital. Despite the rainy weather, people from the clinic gathered, many with their children, and we grilled out Swiss-style and drank local beer. After almost a year of their kindness and hospitality, it was the least we could do to say thank you. I also passed out a few t-shirts from Milwaukee’s own Lakefront Brewery as a small token of thanks and encouraged them all to visit us in America.

They had one last surprise for me, though. While we were all sitting outside on the porch, I started to hear a loud gonging sound. It sounded like a Swiss Cow was walking through our house. When I looked through the window into the house I saw my fellowship mentor walking through our living room with a large swiss bell around his neck, ringing away to announce his arrival.

He brought the bell outside and, much to my surprise, presented me with the very same Swiss Cow Bell that I had seen made just the previous week. They had decided to get it for us as a gift. We were all so touched! It added another fond memory that will undoubtedly come to mind when we look at that bell back in our home in America.

You can see pictures of our new bell below:

 

Posted from Münsingen, Canton of Bern, Switzerland.

Family Vacation in Meiringen

Last Saturday we left for our last family vacation during our year in Switzerland. We stayed three nights in Meiringen, a beautiful town just East of Lake Brienz at the foot of the Hasliberg mountain. There are several things in the area that we had wanted to see and do, so we checked them all off in 4 jam-packed days. On Saturday, after traveling to Meiringen by train and checking in at our hotel, we returned to the town of Brienz. We ate a late lunch in an outdoor restaurant overlooking the lake. Then we boarded the Rothornbahn, a 100-year-old cog-wheel steam train that still takes tourists on a beautiful hour-long trek up the mountain to the Rothorn Kulm, which has a stunning view over the lake and surrounding mountains. That was all we could manage on the first day, so we returned to the hotel where the kids played on the little playground before getting ready for bed.

On Sunday we visited Ballenberg, a Swiss “outdoor museum” that features buildings from around Switzerland dating from the 16th to the 19th century. They strive to preserve the history of Swiss culture and architecture. We saw a beautiful Victorian era Swiss home, herdsmens’ sheds, working mills, cheese-making huts, and more. We watched people grinding wheat, weaving cloth, and making charcoal. We were even serenaded by an alphorn ensemble during lunch.

On Monday, we stayed in Meiringen to see two of its best-known attractions. First we walked over to the Aare Gorge (Aareschlucht) and walked 1.4 kilometers through the narrow, towering gorge. Much of the trail is man-made with wooden planks on a frame bolted to the rocky walls. The Aare river rushes below your feet, the mist moistens your skin and drips from the walls, and the sunlight bounces off the walls. It was fantastic. Then we headed over to the funicular that would take us up to see Reichenbach Falls, the location of Sherlock Holmes’s infamous demise. The falls are tall and imposing, rushing over the side of a cliff several hundred feet before crashing the rest of the way down the mountain. We hiked up the trail along the falls and across a bridge over the falls before getting to the top where a restaurant is perched on the mountain. After having a little lunch there, James and Joe opted to descend the mountain on the “Monster Trotti Bikes,” which were like giant scooters with hand brakes. Meanwhile, I returned with Emily and Henry to the funicular and we all met back at the hotel. The afternoon we filled with a little shopping and dinner at a restaurant in Brienz.

The last day we took the cable car from Meiringen up the Hasliberg mountain to do the Muggestutz hike. The Muggestutz is a Swiss children’s character. He is a white-bearded gnome or dwarf who lives with his family and friends in the mountains. Their stories are told in a number of children’s books and Hasliberg has two trails named for them. We hiked the “Dwarf Adventure Trail” which has stations occasionally with the homes, work places and playgrounds of the dwarfs to keep the kids interested. Unfortunately, about halfway down, clouds blew in and began to rain on us, so we had to hurry past the rest of the trail and begin our journey home.

Enjoy more pictures from our trip in the gallery.

Casting Our Bell

As a unique remembrance of our year in Switzerland, we decided to have a customized traditional Swiss Glocke style cow bell casted for us. We had our bell made by the Gusset family in Uetendorf, Switzerland near Thun. Their factory, the Glockengiesserei Gusset has been making bells in Switzerland for seven generations. Our thanks go out to Hans, Peter, the other Hans, the other Peter, and the Gusset brother whose name we never learned. They were kind enough to let me stand there and videotape the entire casting process. So you can see our bell made from start to finish. Enjoy the video below.

Posted from Münsingen, Bern, Switzerland.

Lessons from a Year Abroad: Normalcy

Growing up, anything out of the ordinary was “weird.” If someone did something different from me, we’d say “you’re weird.” Of course, with time it becomes clear that the vast majority of the world lives very differently from yourself, and we stop using words like “weird” to describe other cultures or life choices. Knowing there is a plethora of options in the world, we set about making our own choices and establishing our own life, and creating our own sense of what is “normal.”

What is normal depends on the eye of the beholder. You can’t just ask “What is normal?” without knowing “for whom?” And of course, most people don’t think about this question very often because the answer is almost always “well, for me.” And most people have a well-developed sense of what is normal for them in their daily lives. It’s like gravity. A set of assumptions we have about the world, which are usually confirmed by our experiences.

Of course, Einstein flipped gravity on its head. His equation for gravity (which incidentally he developed while living in Bern, Switzerland) changed many of the basic assumptions of physics up to that point.

Gμν = 8πG/c4 Tμν

This little equation says that gravity (as well as time!), which used to be considered constant, are relative to the speed at which an object is traveling. Bam! The special theory of relativity. It is somewhat mind-blowing when thinking about the ramifications of this on the universe. However, this is not intended to be a physics lesson, and here on earth, it really doesn’t affect our daily lives much. We live contentedly with Newtonian laws regarding earth’s gravity, since that’s where we are.

Living abroad was a bit like moving to an asteroid hurtling through space. Not that I’m comparing Switzerland to an asteroid. Just that all of our assumptions about what is normal were useless. It was like jumping from Newton’s gravity to Einstein’s gravity. Things just work differently here. There are different assumptions and different constants. And, like a scientist, you have to do a whole bunch of experiments to figure out the laws of this new place you are living.

Of course, it isn’t always a very scientific process. It usually just feels like making a lot of mistakes and learning from them. But, as you start to understand the underlying assumptions and rules, and make choices about how to live your life, your own sense of “normal” changes. Just like gravity, it is relative. So, I made up my own equation…

N=E*T(E-e/e)

It says that normal is relative to your current experience, how different it is from your past experiences, and the length of time you experience it. Anything can become normal with enough time for you to adjust to it. The more different the experience, the more time is required for it to impact your sense of normal, and the greater the shift will be. But just knowing that “normal” is relative and not constant, even in your own life, changes your perspective. Just as the theory of relativity opened up the secrets of the universe to physicists, the relativity of normalcy opens your mind to the world.