Friday, December 30, 2011

On the Swiss slopes

Considering all things cliche about Switzerland, we have done a pretty good job checking things off the list: had lots of fondue and cheese, and admired vast displays of luxury watches and happily grazing cows.  The one thing missing thus far from this Swiss story has been winter fun.  We took the opportunity the other day to make up for this oversight, and went skiing in Villars-Gryon on season opening day.

Right off the bat, our adventures began in this mountain village when our car (along with 10 others) got stuck on ice and snow on a particularly steep street.  With tires spinning, and car sliding sideways and backwards, we came to rest on a sidewalk.  Our ski instructor was waiting for us at the resort and on the clock, so we felt our spirits dampened at this situation -naturally- until I got out of the car, and realized that we broke down literally in front of a mom-and-pop auto shop.  Ten minutes later we had the right size chains in hand, and twenty minutes later we were on our way to the train station to catch the cog wheel to the top.

J removing the chains -end of the day
We arrived late and exhausted but Snowboard Dude did not seem to mind.  All kids except Small Fish were on boards today, with Big Fish and Small Moose taking lessons with Snowboard Dude.
The kids with Snowboard Dude

The truth is, the weather was quite wretched. We had whiteout conditions, strong winds and snow fall, and couldn't see the surroundings. However, Big Fish had a successful first time on snowboard, and after and hour of instruction, Snowboard Dude took her on a Blue Diamond trail. Small Moose did great as well. Big Moose has been snowboarding for a few years so he was on his own.

J and Small Fish: Ski buddies

We had great fondue lunch with Snowboard Dude. He leads an enchanted life divided between that of a ski /snowboard instructor in winter, and of a cycling guide on wine tasting tours in the terraced vineyards of Lavaux during summers. Yes, really.

Big Moose in big snow
Back in Villars

All in all, a good trip measured in no broken bones and a safe return home.

Friday, December 23, 2011

When you are in Geneva around December 12

Old Town Geneva
chances are you will find yourself among soldiers in 17th century period costumes, marching bands parading to the music of drums and flutes, the air filled with the thundering sound of cannon fire and thick smoke from hundreds of torches.  If you also find a cup of mulled wine in your hand then you can be sure that you happened upon La fête de l'Escalade, an annual historic celebration marking the defeat of the Duke of Savoy in 1602.  

Here is the gist of it:  the Duke of Savoy launches an attack on Geneva in the middle of the night, night guard raises the alarm, church bells are rung, the good citizens of Geneva fighting alongside their militia defeat the attack.  But legend has it that a mother of 14 children who lived right above the town gate took a cauldron of hot vegetable soup and poured it onto the attackers who were scaling the walls, killing a few and helping the cause.  For this reason, and to commemorate soup flinging Mother Royaume, street vendors sell hot vegetable soup, while candy shops offer miniature cauldrons made of chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables called a marmite.  Of course we had to come and see all the commotion.  Since children also dress in costumes and participate in a lantern parade, Big Moose decided to wear his Guy Fawkes mask to town.
Marmites and marzipan vegetables
Big Moose en route to Geneva

We really enjoyed the Old Town atmosphere.  But the real highlight was the secret tunnel that is only open to public once a year, on this momentous occasion.  The Passage de Monetier takes visitors along the base of the old fortification walls under the Cathedral.  Legend has it that this secret passage played a key strategic role during the night battle.

Big Fish and Big Moose entering the secret passage

J and the torch boy
At the end of the tunnel guess what awaits those willing to walk in the footsteps of these historic ghosts:  more mulled wine.  This is a picture of me waiting in line to get some:

It is customary for children to break the chocolate cauldron and shout: "Ainsi périssent les ennemis de la République! " (Thus perish the enemies of the Republic)  In the end, amid many guns, much liquor and battle reenactments galore, we, and the good citizens of Geneva, saved the town from peril once again at the Escalade 2011. 

Big Moose in the moonlight

Lanterns and cobble stone

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Wintertime, and the livin' is easy

It is true: in Switzerland one really can go from doorstep to the top of a mountain via public transportation with incredible ease.  We tested this hypothesis a couple of weekends ago with a trip to Les Pléiades, a small ski resort nearby. This place is not atop a huge mountain by any means. At 1500 m it is just a big hill. But it is a gorgeous and popular place for weekenders to ascend by train, and ride down on mountain bikes following a picnic.

Flowers growing out of the stone terrace wall of a vineyard

The short 20-minute train ride was just long enough to remind us of the beauty of this region. From our speeding coach we admired the vast stretch of vineyard terraces carved into the hillsides as far as the eyes could see. What is it about vineyards that evoke images of a straw-hat-wearing, older version of myself tending vines and pondering the importance of terroir? Such a life will probably never be mine and yet this thought bubble never fails to pop up.

From Vevey we hopped on a cogwheel to ascend to the top. Somewhere in the process we broke through the cloud layer blanketing the whole region, and found ourselves in bright sunshine, summer weather and perfectly still, quiet air. The sweaters quickly came off as we wandered around the meadow in amazement and realizing we were getting sun burnt noses and cheeks. But, apparently Swiss preparedness is rubbing off on me, as I have been carrying a tube of 50 spf sun block in my purse since our trip to Zermatt. This really saved the day believe me, the sun was incredibly potent.

Not much else to say, except that we played at an awesome playground, had hot chocolate and ice cream on the deck of a chalet with a million dollar view (well, adjusting for Swiss rates probably a 9-10 million dollar view) and looked at happy cows. The whole day was so awesome, I found myself singing a new take on Porgy and Bess to the kids. And when I got to this part:

Your daddy's rich 
And your mamma's good lookin' 

I had to agree. It was THAT fine a day.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

My nuclear bunker is full of junk

but more on that later.  This is just to let you all know that we are now insured for 100 million francs in car liability insurance.  Although this comes with a nuclear facility clause (one must always read the fine print!) so that if we were to damage a nuclear plant our insurance will only cover 20 million.  In case you didn't yet know, in Switzerland one must be insured for all sorts of things.

There is also Civil Liability insurance of course for non-vehicular instances, such as a scenario in which Small Fish breaks a toy at her preschool.  Imagine my surprise when I naively showed up on her first day and the teacher asked for a copy of our CL insurance.  Her eyes got wide too in disbelief at how unprepared we were in such matters.  "But what if she breaks something?" she gasped.  It was a mutual culture shock moment.

Yep, the Swiss are prepared.  By law every dwelling must have a fallout shelter for every resident, so it is not surprising that Switzerland is number one in the world in nuclear war preparedness with a shelter to house  80% or so of its residents. Some towns hand out iodine tablets as new residents register, but we were not so lucky in Lausanne.

Our nuclear bunker is full of construction materials and tools, but I guess it's still good to know that we have a place to wait out a bomb raid.  Then we will perhaps see if the saying is true that after a nuclear fallout only cockroaches and Swiss will remain....and a few lost Alaskans.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

This little piggy went to market

Potted olive tree for sale at the florist
...and came home with exotic delicacies to delight all senses.  I love Saturday markets in Lausanne.  There is a special atmosphere in the old town beneath the Cathedral on Saturday mornings, where street vendors sell local fruits, vegetables, cheeses, flowers, wine, as well as produce imported from far away.  We have enjoyed Moroccan spices, Italian artichokes, flowers from Provence, cakes from Algeria -the list of items is too long.  You just have to go check it out for yourself some day.  By the way, having come from Alaska, I am still amazed that there are olive trees around us, ones that bear fruit in November.  I like this climate (although I admittedly miss Alaska too).

It was here, at the Saturday market last week that we came to know Fatiha, Algerian angel, pastry chef, and our new best friend.  Fatiha and her husband Jean-Pierre run La Maison des Amandes, a pastry shop in Vevey.  On Saturdays they set up in Lausanne and sell their hand-crafted oriental pastries in the street.  Well, let me tell you these cakes taste even better than they look.  But more than that, you rarely meet a woman as energetic, kind and magnetic as Fatiha.  We are repeat customers now, and we come back to talk to her as much as we do for her fine pastries.
Fatiha's craft

The quality of food in Switzerland would deserve its own blog entry, but really, there is so much to blog about and so little time.  We still shop at big chain grocery stores too just as we did in the US, but even the big store-experience is a bit different.  For one, as you enter you will see that many shopping carts are equipped with a giant magnifying glass to better read ingredients with.

I will share a quick anecdote though.  Some time ago here in Suisse, I caved to the onslaught of begging from my children to score some Fruit Loops, thinking this small treat will ease their homesickness.  I inconspicuously buried a box at the bottom of my shopping cart feeling like I was acquiring a banned substance in a land of well-groomed, well-fed offspring.  At the checkout, I half-felt like I was fulfilling some negative stereotype of Americans and their junk food as I placed the colorful box on the belt.  I figured the health-conscious Swiss never stoop so low as to serving Fruit Loops for breakfast.  When we got home, and the young ones immediately dug into the box, we still felt like we were getting away with something.

Until we poured the first bowl.  "What the heck?" said Big Moose.

Swiss Fruit Loops look different.  Their colors are muted, because they are, as it turns out, colored with natural ingredients such as spinach, carrot, and paprika extracts.  Swiss Fruit Loops taste the same, but much less sweet.  As it turns out, Kellogs manufactures a much healthier version for some markets (EU, Swiss, Australian) than the US due to strict food regulation.  Check out the difference, here is a quick comparison:

Swiss Fruit Loops (each 30g serving)
sugar: 7.5 g
protein: 2.5 g
calcium: 29 % of recommended daily intake

US Fruit Loops (each 30 g serving)
sugar: 12 g
protein: 1 g
calcium: 0 % (except when milk is added)

Reading the list of ingredients gets even more interesting, as the Swiss version has roughly 7-8 listed ingredients with the first being cereal flours in 76 % by weight.  What is the number one ingredient in the US version?  Yep, you probably guessed it: sugar.  I will not read all the ingredients on the US box, but let's just say the list is far longer, and the words a lot less likely to be found in a regular dictionary.  Looking at the Swiss box, I see words like carrots, vegetables, and cereal and my brain doesn't hurt.  Looking at the US box, I see the preservative BHT.  Not good news for US kids.  Anyhow, the moral of the story: The Swiss are looking out for their junk food junkies.  Thank you Switzerland.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What do Swiss millionaires do for fun?

source: Bloomberg

The CEO of Hublot, Jean-Claude Biver herds cows.  His cows adorned with flower bouquets and bells, Jean-Claude herds his heifers every winter 16 kilometers from their summer mountain meadows down to his farm.  Cows that, by the way, produce five tons of Gruyere-styled cheese annually.

According to this article, having a life outside the office makes for better CEOs.  

I will add that perhaps the opposite is also true: having the office of a successful CEO makes for a better life outside the office.  At least it sure seems that way.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

On random things Swiss

Some random thoughts on everyday Swiss life:

On banking
The rumor is true:  Swiss banking is indeed marked by efficiency and security.  For example, customers are given one of these calculator-looking things for internet banking.  It provides an extra step in security, as one needs not only web-based credentials to log into their account, but also one of these gadgets with a bank card inserted into it.  The procedure consists of a series of steps in which the magic calculator and bank mother ship go back-and-forth generating security codes.  Internet code to type into calculator.  Calculator code to type into internet.  Many codes, user names and such later VOILA! you're allowed access to your account via the net.

On a different "note" - I am not used to banknotes in the denomination of one thousand.  On a special occasion I had to withdraw some cash, the kind of amount that would take a few minutes, a few counts and re-counts by the teller, and an envelope in my hand in the end in the US.  Well, not so en Suisse.  I was surprised when the lady at the counter handed over 4 banknotes.  Counted once.  No envelope.  That's all, next!  Yep, banking is a totally different experience here.

On Shopping
What is the one thing you must have when shopping on foot in hilly Lausanne?  A Granny Cart like this one:

Thank you Granny Cart, for making my life easier!

On Cooking

Things aren't always what they seem.  This is especially true when doing benign things such as shopping or cooking in a foreign land.  Your stew meat might come from Seabiscuit.  Those meatballs?  Turkey testicles. Yesterday's mishap wasn't quite as exotic as that.  However, the baking dish I used for preparing Saturday's lunch, the one that looked and felt like glass wasn't glass at all.  My first clue came when, peering through the oven door, I saw my lunch morph into a Dali painting.  By then it was too late for the dish and for our lunch, although it did have a special ambiance sitting on the counter.

Just stuff

Then the small stuff, the subtle things that often signal when you are in a different place are signs.  Store fronts, street signs, traffic signs, and even bathroom signs.  These are the signs for boys' and girls' bathrooms in local elementary schools in Lausanne, at least in the few I have been in.  So cute, so different somehow.

----What I really like are the self-cleaning toilet seats that are so common here (link is not my video by the way).  Going to the bathroom abroad is a true cultural experience in itself.

And there you have it: all you didn't know you needed to know about banking, shopping, cooking and toilets in Switzerland!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Zermatt, Chillon, CERN: Time travel in three days (Part 1)

As September 19th was a federal holiday here in Suisse, we enjoyed a long weekend.  We decided to not waste a second of it, and planned 3 eventful days of autumn fun.  Right off the bat, we had to change our plan to watch the Sion air show, due to intense rain fall and fog on Saturday.  No big deal we thought, and we headed into the mountains instead to get above the clouds in Zermatt.  Zermatt is a quaint, cute quintessential Swiss village, most notable for being the base for viewing the Matterhorn and for visiting / skiing nearby peaks.

Fooling mother nature was not quite as simple as that.  We parked in Täsch as usual -well I say this because the kids and I visited Zermatt in August and did so,  and took the 10 minute train ride to Zermatt.  This journey just brought us closer to the rain clouds, but not above them.  So A) we could not view Matterhorn, B) the weather alternated between drizzle and torrential downpour.  They say Zermatt has approx. 300 sunny days a year, this was not one of them.  We kept our good spirits however.
J and Small Moose on the Zermatt train

In Zermatt
We went back to Forest Fun Park where the children ziplined and tree climbed in August in scorching hot weather.  Today they repeated the same activities in the rain.  All part of their rigid Ninja training schedule we keep.
Big Moose overcoming obstacles

Big Fish tethered

Downtown, we literally walked into the middle of an amazing performance of Mozart's Requiem, called Hark! Requiem Reloaded.  At first we thought it was a flash mob with umbrellas.  It was a truly moving performance.
Here are some sunny shots from August to give you a better idea of what it is like in Zermatt on better days:
Matterhorn in background

Small Moose navigating the treetops, Matterhorn below him

Big Moose enjoying bratwurst from a street vendor
We arrived back in Lausanne late at night, tired, wet but happy, ready for the next big thing.   

Friday, September 30, 2011

Zermatt, Chillon, CERN: Time travel in three days (Part 2)

Part 2:

On Sunday we took a short drive just a few villages yonder on the shores of Lac Leman to visit one of the most visited historic sites in Switzerland: Chateau de Chillon.  Chillon's history dates back to the 11th century.  It is a massive castle / fort, made up of over 100 smaller buildings or units that got connected over time.  It was a site to behold, and lucky for us, the place of medeival reenactments for the weekend.  This meant that the castle and the yard were full of people dressed in period costumes, acting the part of castle folk.  We walked around for a couple of hours, visited the dungeon, saw Lord Byron's name carved into the wall, climbed a few towers, and took in the site of the lake from the castle rooms.

Small Fish in the cellar / dungeon

Kitchen maiden

J and Small Moose by the lake

The site

The good stuff
Following a fondue dinner across the street in the tavern, we went down by the lake to play and watch the setting sun:
Big Fish in the sunset

Small Fish, Small Moose, Big Castle


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