Christmas 2013

Chances are you got our Christmas card. You were either brave enough to type in the URL, or you have a smartphone with a QR Reader, AND you know how to use it. Either way, welcome to our 2013 Holiday letter. We’ve done digital before, but Sarah and I were feeling so pressed to “perform” on our letters, and we know that you’re mostly interested in how the kids are doing. So we decided to make the kids do most of the work for this year’s holiday letter. So here you have it… Emily, James and Henry summarize 2013 for your benefit. They’re ours, and we’re proud of them…

From Lasts to Firsts

We have only been back in America for 2 1/2 weeks. But somehow it is hard to believe that less than one month ago I was at home in Switzerland. It seems almost like another lifetime. Our last days and weeks there were filled with lasts that we tried to cherish. They were very special, and also challenging and emotional.

Being back in America for the first time in over a year has brought a different set of emotions. We have gone from lasts to firsts. Or at least firsts in a long time. And it turns out firsts are wonderful in a completely different way. On our first day we went to Gilles’s Frozen Custard, which is an old family tradition and some of the best frozen custard on the planet (in my opinion). It was SO GOOD! And it brought back feelings of happiness for being home.

But, I’ve noticed that it’s not just the good stuff that’s new again. It’s everything! And it’s funny because even things that I probably wouldn’t have missed if I didn’t do them for a whole year before, somehow have significance again just because I couldn’t do them for a whole year. It’s kind of like being a tourist in my own country. Like seeing everything with new eyes.

When we arrived back in Milwaukee, the kids were thrilled to unpack boxes of old toys that were suddenly new and exciting again. They spent hours playing with things that they never even looked at before we left for Switzerland. “Look mom!” they shouted every few minutes, “I remember this! It’s my old toy laptop!” …or doll, or stuffed animal. It truly was like Christmas in August. I watched them as they tried to play with everything all at once, which doesn’t work very well and only leads to an extremely messy basement.

I recognized that same feeling in myself during my first trip to the grocery store. First of all, I had a car (!!) so I could carry as much as I wanted. After a year of grocery shopping by bike, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Then, I started recognizing items I hadn’t eaten for a long time. MMmmmm, red pepper hummus! Ooooh, Wisconsin cheese curds. Oh my gosh! Look at that cereal aisle! Pretty soon, my cart was full, and I had only made it through half the store, and I still had no meal plans to speak of. But, I wanted to eat it all right now.

It turns out, trying everything all at once is not good for your diet. I learned pretty quickly that I needed to slow down with trying everything again, for the first time. After all, I live here now. I have plenty of time to enjoy all of these firsts. Probably more time than the new feelings will last. So, I’m just trying to enjoy each first and the feeling of newness that comes with it, before it all fades back into normal once again.

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.

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.