Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Monterosso al Mare, Italy

For our first Thanksgiving overseas we decided to head to Italy and visit the region of Tuscany. We left bright and early (4am) Wednesday morning and headed out for the 7+ hour drive. Our hope was that leaving early in the morning would make it easier for Jack to sleep the majority of the drive. But as soon as we got him out of bed he was wide awake and excited for our trip. Thankfully I brought our small DVD player to keep him occupied in the car:

We drove through France and through the Mt. Blanc tunnel and into Italy. The first thing we noticed in Italy is how careless the drivers are. We were warned about the Italian drivers, but I couldn't believe how bad they actually were! I don't think the white lines on the road mean anything to Italians. The cars were swerving in and out of the lines like they were drunk. We were almost side swiped several times.
Note, these are not cars who are changing lanes. They are just swerving back and forth without regard for the lines.

Another thing that took us by surprise were the tolls to use the freeways. As soon as you enter the freeway you have to grab a ticket
And then when you exit, you pay the fee. 

We decided to take a short detour and spend the afternoon at one of the cities of the Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre ("the five lands") is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera consisting of five villages. We stopped at the largest of the villages: Monterosso al Mare:

 An intense game of tic tac toe before lunch

Another observation about Italy is that there are cats everywhere!
 After lunch we decided to take a short walk along the coast to the old part of town:
But we had to stop for a while and let Jack play in the rocks. Unfortunately he got a little to close to the water and was taken down by a large wave. Thankfully I had a spare pair of leggings in my backpack so that is why he is wearing tights in the rest of the pictures. 

 Jack could spend all day throwing rocks into the ocean
 Attempting to find walking sticks for everyone

 A view of the old city of Monterosso al Mare
 A castle on the side of the cliff. Luke is standing on the old WWII bunker in the middle of the photo

 The old town was filled with tiny little streets

The long drive started to take its toll on Luke
 Center of town
 Time for coffee!
Jack is ready for his nap
Fell asleep before he could even finish his sucker
Gotta love nap time in the car! We were able to drive the rest of the way to Pisa in quiet.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Gurten, Bern

We just got pack from a week in Tuscany and I have over 700 pictures to sort through. So for now, here are some pictures from a few weeks back in Gurten. 

Gurten is a mountain near Bern that is off limits to cars. To get there, you take a funicular up the mountain, or hike up. Once at the top it is a haven for kids with tons of things to do, including a miniature train

 A huge playground with slide
 Mesmerizing ball puzzle/game

 More playgrounds

 Nice place to eat lunch
 And an amazing view of the city

I have also heard that Gurten has a great "nursery" slope for kids to ski. Now that we finally have some snow on the ground, I can't wait to get Jack on his skis!

Now to work on the Italy pictures...

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

6 Months. Taking off my rose colored glasses

It's hard to believe that we have been here 6 months already! It seems like just yesterday I was sitting at Chic-Fil-A enjoying my XL Dr. Pepper while Jack played on the indoor play set with his friends. Moving to Switzerland was much harder than we expected and only recently have we started developing a new routine and started feeling comfortable in our new surroundings. I think one of the reasons I had such a hard time adjusting to this new place is because I had a vision of what life in Switzerland would be like... and the reality is that it is nothing like I imagined:

Here are some of my (naive) visions that had prior to moving here:

1. Living in Switzerland is akin to living in "Heaven on Earth"
Neither Luke nor I had ever been to Switzerland before moving here. The only image we had of Switzerland was a place filled with mountains, waterfalls and cows with bells. We pictured ourselves living in a little cottage next to a waterfall in a village where the women wore dresses and men wore lederhosen and blew alphorns, and everyone was happy and carefree. When we arrived in Neuchatel on our first day here we were sure that we were in the wrong place. Where were the alps? Where were the waterfalls? Where were the men with their alphorns? We were in a daze those first few weeks trying to adjust to life in a city we didn't expect to be in. And then just as we started to get used to life here we were confronted with the harsh reality of the daily grind. The truth is that life in Switzerland is much like life elsewhere. Day in and day out there are dishes to clean, laundry to wash, errands to run, bills to pay, etc. Most of our day is spent doing things that we did back in Colorado... only here we have to deal with the language barrier which makes it 100 times more difficult. Slowly but surely I started to realize that life in Switzerland is much like life elsewhere. It's a good lesson to learn because it's easy to look at someone and think "wow, they have it good" or "that must be nice (to have a million dollars, a big house, a nice car, etc)" but the truth is that everyone, everywhere still has to live a life that is sometimes monotonous, sometimes boring but almost always different from what we expected.

2. I would be fluent within 6 months
Blah. This is the thorn in my side. Everyone encouraged me that I would learn french quickly, that it would just "come." After six months of living in Switzerland I was sure I'd be fluent. Well it's been six months and I am ashamed to say that I'm not fluent, not even close. I think part of the problem was that we couldn't start our language lessons right away (we arrived in the middle of the summer courses and then the schools closed for July and August). So we spent 4 months trying to pick up words here and there and trying to speak, but it just wasn't happening. Finally we signed up for the fall language classes which were supposed to start in September, but then were delayed until October. I go to class on Monday nights and Luke has class Thursday nights. On top of that we bought the entire Rosetta Stone french set which I practice for an hour each night. Finally I can understand and speak at about a preschool level. But I feel like French is finally starting to become familiar. I can't say where I'll be with my french 6 months from now, but I can say that I have found the learning curve to be exponential and the more I learn, the easier it comes.

3. I would make all sorts of new mom friends with toddlers
When we moved from California to Colorado we knew no one. After a few months of living there we found a church and got connected with several other young married couples. Then all the girls were pregnant around the same time and we all had babies at the same time. Being a stay at home mom was great with other moms around to socialize with while our babies played together. I figured I would find a similar network of friends here in Switzerland. Wrong! Several things prevented me from having friends here:

#1 the language barrier. Where we live in the country not many people speak English. I have met 2 moms who speak English and those are the only 2 friends I have (and one of them is moving away in February, I'm so sad).

#2 daycare. Everyone puts their child in daycare here. The babies/toddlers go for a minimum of 2 days a week (usually Wednesday and Friday) so for those 2 days we see no kids at the park, museums, etc.

#3 swiss culture. The swiss tend to be reserved people, not open to making friends easily.

#4 no churches. There are churches here, just not like the ones back home. We found one Vineyard 45 minutes away in the German speaking area. It is worth the drive once a week to go to a good church, but too far away to make any friends at the church.

So there you have it. A recipe for disaster. Me and Jack alone all day in a place we don't know, people who don't speak our language, and no one to talk to. Most days I don't talk to another adult until Luke comes home at 7pm. Even though I tend to be an optimist, I started feeling myself wondering how long I could continue keeping Jack and myself sane all day, day in and day out. Then my friend invited me to a mom-baby gymastics class. It was great! Even though it was all in french and I made so many mistakes I loved it and Jack loved it! I signed us up for another gymnastic class and swimming lessons. So now we have plenty to do during the week with gymnastics on Monday and Tuesday and swimming lessons on Wednesday and I'm searching for classes to take on Thursday and Friday as well. Not only has it been great for Jack to interact with other kids again, but is has really helped me practice my french since all 3 classes are taught completely in French. It makes the days so much better for both of us when we have a chance to interact with other people.

4. We would be jetsetting around Europe
When we decided to make the move to Switzerland I knew it would be difficult. Even though I had no idea HOW difficult it would be, I knew packing and selling our stuff, moving across the ocean and learning a new language would all be difficult. The main reason I was willing to go through it all was because I LOVE to travel! And since Switzerland is in the heart of Europe it seemed like a dream come true for any travel lover. I imagined us visiting new countries every weekend, going to exotic places we've never even heard of, enjoying local cuisine with local people and experiencing other parts of the world that were too far away from us in Colorado. The truth is that we haven't been able to travel near as much as I have wanted. We've done a few drives into Germany and France but thats about it. We haven't even been able to scratch the surface this land called Europe. Part of the problem is that Luke is finishing up his last class for his masters. So most weekends he needs to do homework and study for tests. Thankfully he will be done next month, but then we still have the money issue. Switzerland is outrageously expensive! Before we moved here, Luke's salary was adjusted for the cost of living in Switzerland. It seemed like a huge raise and I had dreams of swimming in the sea of overflowing money that we would use to travel the globe. But once we got here and saw how just how expensive everything is, Switzerland started to look like an endless money draining pit. Just take a look at some of our expenses:

Food costs in Colorado (monthly) - 400
Food costs in Switzerland (monthly) - 1000

Gas cost in Colorado (monthly) - 150
Gas cost in Switzerland (monthly) - 600

Car insurance in Colorado (yearly) - 1100
Car insurance in Switzerland (yearly) - 3120

Medical insurance in Colorado (monthly) - 400
Medical insurance in Switzerland (monthly) - 1000

Even our rent for our apartment is hundreds more each month than our mortgage on our house in Colorado. And forget about going out to dinner. You will easily drop $100 if you eat out at a resturant. My dreams of swimming in all our overflowing cash have been replaced with me searching empty pockets and scrimping on purchases so we have as much money as possible to travel. The future looks bright ahead though. We are planning a week vacation in Tuscany for Thanksgiving, a week in Barcelona for Christmas and if we can manage it, we're going to squeeze in a weekend in Munich to celebrate when Luke finishes up his last class for his masters. And I already have big visions for 2011: Greece for Easter, a Scandinavian summer and maybe Austria in the fall. Even if it means we eat rice and beans all year to make it happen :-)

I guess it is pretty fair to say that the first 6 months here have been tough. If I were to be honest with you, I would say that most days I wondered why I even did it. It would have been much easier to just have stayed back in Colorado. But one piece of advice that I've found to be true was "be prepared to hate it the first 6 months to 1 year. But stick it out for 1 year or more and you will start to like it and by 2 years you will love it." I feel like I have just crossed over the hating it part. I am starting to forget all the things I liked about the US and learning to like things here just as much or even better (i.e. cheese, bread, escalators you can take your shopping cart on, etc). Now that I am finally starting to learn French and have plenty of activities to keep me (and Jack) busy I am looking forward to see what the next 6 months holds. I'm excited to be on this adventure and I'm glad we did it.

To end with a recent video, here is Jack practicing his french:

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Now if only we had some snow!

$15 total for skis, boots and a helmet. I think the price savings is worth it even if it means Jack has to wear pink boots. He doesn't seem to mind...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Swiss Halloween

Pumpkins are a big deal here. Halloween is not. The grocery store I shop at had one display case of Halloween masks and hats, but that's it. But you will find pumpkins everywhere. Even the gas station sells pumpkins. But these are cooking pumpkins so they are much smaller than Jack-o-Lantern pumpkins. Here is Jack with his hand picked pumpkin, which we cooked and made some tasty pumpkin fondue with:
We were prepared to just skip Halloween with the rest of Switzerland, but then we met an English speaking couple when we were in Neuchatel a few weekends back and they invited us to celebrate Halloween at their village. They live right by the Valangin castle that Jack and I visited earlier this month and they told us that the castle was hosting a Halloween event for the kids. So I threw together a quick costume for Jack and we went.

Here is my little duct-tape Viking
Walking up to the castle:

Jack's battle cry:
 Cute little Viking
 At the castle there were several games for the kids and Jack was able to try most of them. Here he is shooting an arrow:
 Attempting to throw horse shoes
 Cheating at croquet:
 At the entrance to the castle door was a huge hedge maze
 The kids had a blast in here
 Of course, you have to mind the 100 foot fall on the other side of that short wall
 But I think these kids were used to it as no concerned parents were watching

 Jack's friend Matthew

 A band outside the castle door
 A view of the city below
 Inside the castle were more activities. Here are Luke and Jack painting a shield
 Here is the entrance to the pumpkin carving room
 Jack was frustrated that he couldn't use the knife to carve his own pumpkin
 There was also a "search and find" game for the kids that eventually led you into this room where candy coins were hidden in front of the pumpkin:

Back outside there was more exploring to do:

 Luke with the finished masterpieces.
 Jack's pumpkin which was carved directly from his scribbles
 Another view of the town

 After the castle, we went back to our friends house for the afternoon. Jack loved having another boy to play with!
That evening the village organized trick-or-treating for all the kids. It was very Swiss. All of the kids showed up at 5:30 and then they all went as a group to each door. This way you don't have to spend all night going back and forth to answer the door. You open it once, and give candy to 20 kids and you're done. Jack loved it!

 Jack was out within minutes into the drive home
Here is Jack's awesome pumpkin lit up. Who would have thought that the scribbles would look so cool... 
And there you have it. Our first Halloween in Switzerland.