The Dream

In the past two weeks, we have been in three countries and two states. We have gone from living out of a few suitcases, to unpacking what feels like hundreds of boxes. We reconnected with our families in Minnesota and Milwaukee. And at a wedding last weekend, I got to see more extended family from Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Georgia, and all over the country. We have reunited with neighbors and friends in Milwaukee. And in general, I will say that it is good to be home.

In all of this reconnecting, we have answered the question, “How was Switzerland?” so many times! And usually people are looking for a one-sentence answer. For anyone who has been reading our blog, you know that it is impossible to boil down a year’s worth of experience into a sentence or two. So we just smile and say, “It was wonderful.” And, unless there are more specific follow-up questions, it is usually just left at that.

It is also striking to be back in familiar settings with familiar people. The kids are all a little bigger, but otherwise it is almost as though we had never left. It feels, sometimes, like it was just a big dream and that we have woken up to the same life we’ve been living all along. But it wasn’t a dream! It was a year of our lives, and I have the urge to represent it with more than just an adjective or two. So, here are some pictures to tell a little bit more of the story…

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.

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.

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.

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.