Tuesday, 30 July 2013


Lots of people have asked - "so, what's it like to be back home?" and I still don't have a clear answer.
It's simultaneously great and weird, exciting and confusing.  I feel both inspired and sad.  In some ways, it's like we never left, but at the same time, I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

sunset over the swiss alps
I have been surprised by the considerable research out there on "reverse culture shock" or "re-entry shock" pointing to the challenges in returning home after living abroad.  There are lists of feelings that include sadness, isolation, disorientation and confusion among others.  There are a number of different phases you may go through when you move back - honeymoon, shock, recovery and reintegration.   Who knew?  Not me, but apparently I'm not alone.

When we moved to Switzerland, I was both prepared and excited by the idea that there would be a transition of sorts, but since we weren't moving to India or Taiwan, I was hesitant to even think in terms of "culture shock".  Of course, there were challenges as we got used to a new country, a different culture and foreign languages.  As we tried to build a new community for ourselves, there were moments of homesickness and loneliness, mix-ups and occasional frustrations, but for the most part, we muddled our way into our new Swiss lives with comfort and ease.

sunset over georgian bay, ontario
Coming back home has been much harder.  The Swiss adventure that we planned and looked forward to is now over and I find myself a little bit in mourning.  That party is over and even though I'm excited about a new one beginning here, it's a struggle.

And we're only at the beginning of the adjustment.  In theory, this should be the easy or so-called honeymoon part - it's summer and we've had an action-packed and wonderful few weeks in Georgian Bay, a place we all adore.  The kids have gone to their beloved overnight camps without a hint of trepidation, keen to jump back in where they left off a couple of summers ago.  But, there have been some bumps for all of us.  Maybe it's a homesickness for our life we made in Saanen, maybe it's the trickiness of re-fitting our new selves into this old home.  I suspect it's a combination of both and probably other factors that we haven't even figured out yet.

The adventures of life continue...

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
- TS Eliot

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

packing up is hard to do

That crazy literary giant, Dr. Seuss, once said "don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened".

While I get what he's saying, there has been a lot of crying in our household lately.  We can't help it.

We are emotionally fragile - there are tears because we miss home, because we want to go home and because we don't want to leave.  I well up every time someone asks me when we're leaving or how I'm feeling about going back to Canada.  One of our children refused to help pack up her stuff last night and screamed "I'm not leaving here".  Then there was foot stomping, door slamming and flopping into bed.  Exhausted, she fell asleep within minutes.

It's hard to wind things up, tough to say goodbye.  It's hard to let go of a place that is special and so breathtakingly beautiful and has captured our hearts.  It's not that we aren't looking forward to "going home".  We are.  We're excited to see our families and friends and begin our next adventure.  There are so many things about returning to Ontario and settling into a new life in the Pretty River Valley that get us all fired up.

We know that saying "see you soon" is so difficult because we've loved being here.  I asked the kids the other night - "I know it hurts, but hasn't it been worth it?"

So, Dr. Seuss, we are both smiling because it happened and crying because it's over.  We think they go hand in hand.

Monday, 27 May 2013

shit happens

Judy Burgess always had a wise saying for every occasion.  One of her favourites, "into each life, a little rain must fall" was quickly re-coined with her humoured blessing into "shit happens".

Shit happened on 28 March when Jeff had a fall skiing on a foggy day in Sannenmöser.

I got a call from him midday, "I've fallen and my leg is fucked.  I'm waiting for help, but I have the car keys in my pocket, can you find a ride up here to meet me?" I could tell from his voice that he was in a lot of pain and that this wasn't going to be straightforward.

The helicopter couldn't fly so he endured an excruciating toboggan ride down the hill and a twisty mountain road ambulance drive to Zweisimmen.  A series of Xrays confirmed that he had severely dislocated his knee, fractured his fibula clean through and smashed his lateral tibial plateau.  Later, an MRI showed that he had also ruptured his ACL, PCL, MCL and both meniscus.  Never mind that he had not been hurtling himself down a hill at over 100km/hr or that he isn't racing World Cup these days.  They told us the injury was similar to Lindsay Vonn's, but worse.  It was a total blowout.

before surgery

He was moved to the Inselspital in Bern and the orthopaedic team took great care of him.  Four hours of reconstructive surgery and Ali nick-named him the Swiss Million Dollar Man.  He's plated, bolted, sutured and wired.  Much to their medical excitement, the surgeons were able to use a new technology to repair the ACL and his prognosis for a full recovery is good, albeit the time frame is long.  Within twelve months, he should be walking pain free and without crutches or his fancy, carbon-fibre brace.  If you ask Jeff, he'll be doing more than that.

after surgery
The road has been long and there's still plenty to go.  We know that it could have been much worse - a neck, head or back injury - but it has still been hard.  Jeff is determined and committed to getting back on his feet, looking after himself and regaining his active life.

It isn't the end to our Swiss adventure that either of us hoped for, but if you're going to wreck your knee, Switzerland is a great place to do it.  The six weeks he spent recovering here were full of wonderful care by his surgeons, home care nurses and physiotherapists.

Now he's back in Collingwood and as the kids and I start to close out our adventures here, Jeff begins our next ones there.  One step at a time....

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

plumbing van

When I arrive, I see them.  A father and son.  My car bounces in and out of the potholes in this makeshift parking lot.  In the summer, this is a farmer’s field and I wonder how the tractors navigate these craters without damage.

He is a plumber, the writing on the side of his van gives it away, but I can also see what’s inside. Each of the back doors is propped open by a pair of skis.  There are welding tools, putty guns, piping and an air compressor. Everything is lined up and in its place – very Swiss in its organization and tidiness.    

We are parked beside each other at the bottom of a ski lift. The sun in shining and it’s what skiers call a “perfect bluebird”.

Father and son are both hunched over, putting on their ski boots.  The father tries to jam his foot into the soft liner encased by a hard plastic shell.  He starts to fall over and he flaps his arms around his body to re-gain his balance.  The boot tips over on its side with his toes still stuck in the top.  With some flicking, his socked foot comes free and he almost steps into the muddy puddle beside his van.  This dance is a familiar one.  Years of practice getting dressed for skiing in parking lots, on the side of the road.
Finally, they both get their boots on.  When the father stands back up, I get my first good look at him.  I guess he’s probably in his sixties, has grey hair and tanned skin.  By the deep wrinkles on his forehead, around his eyes and mouth, I suspect he spends a lot of time outdoors.   The son is maybe ten years old.  He looks like a younger version of his father, dark hair, round face and dimples in his cheeks.

I am so taken with this scene that I am fiddling with my own boots, taking a long time to get ready so that I can watch them.  

There is little conversation between the father and son as they go about getting ready, but they are both smiling.  They each take their poles out of the van and prop them up against their skis.  The son’s poles fall over and narrowly miss being run over by a car that’s pulling in.  He quickly picks them up and looks to see if his father has seen.  His eyes are wide, but he smiles when he sees that he's fiddling with something in the back of the van and hasn’t noticed.  They both put on their helmets, snap the buckles under their chins.  

“Ok, bist du bereit?” the man asks his son.  Are you ready?  

They share a smile and the son replies, “gehen wir!” Let’s go!  

They close the van doors and the older man slides the keys into his ski jacket pocket.  He pats his son on the back and they walk together towards the chairlift.  

I don’t really know anything about this father and son, but they stay with me.

Thursday, 24 January 2013

getting around

We've been getting around.  There's been plenty of skiing, ski racing, ski touring and snowshoeing going on here.  We had an early start to the ski season, so early that Jeff had already logged 35 days on snow before he had to return to Ontario 3 weeks ago.  He comes back home on Sunday and will no doubt re-start the tally that afternoon.

Graydon, Esmée and I (Eli was sick so he stayed home) went with some great friends to see the Men's World Cup Slalom in Adelboden a couple of weeks ago.  

on our way over to Adelboden from Lenk
We drove to Lenk and from there, skied over into Adelboden, arriving just as the first few racers took on what is said to be one of the most difficult slalom races on the circuit.  The course is long, very steep and rock hard.  There is something so incredibly exciting and inspiring about seeing the best in the world do their thing, no matter what it is.  But, this being Switzerland and the thing being ski racing, the vibe was awesome, the whole place was fired up.  We watched the first run from just below the start where we could see the racers live and then turn to the jumbotron to watch them finish the bottom section of the course.
In between runs, we were groupies.  Outside the athletes' tent, we saw the Canadian men with their coaches huddled in a post race de-brief.  It had been a rough morning for our men, with no one advancing to the second run.  We (sort-of) respectfully hovered until we saw an opportune moment to barge in, say hello and ask for autographs.  The kids planted themselves in front of the tent, wanting to see who else would show up and it was well worth the standing around. Graydon was so excited to get this picture, I thought he might explode.
Ivica Kostelic with Graydon + Esmée 
graydon, alex + harrison in adelboden

The last time I went ski touring, it was a beautifully snowy day.  We climbed the Walliser Wispile above Lauenen and skied thigh-deep powder all the way back down.  Once we hit the snow covered road, we skied it, occasionally having to call out "car coming".  Suddenly, our guide, Hansueli, veered off to the left and stopped.  Claiming that we were at the barn of the best alpkäse (alpine cheese) in the region, he took off his skis and asked "who wants to go shopping"?    ME!

Who doesn't love a shopping opportunity, especially an unexpected one that involves cheese?
park your skis here and shop
a self serve, honour system -
the fridge is full of various ages of alpkäse

My back has been very sore so I'm taking a break from skiing, but have managed to do some gentle walking and snowshoeing.  Just outside the door of our chalet, there are hundreds of (marked) trails and summer roads (not cleared in the winter) to explore.  A couple of the coolest things I've seen...

I never tire of seeing a Swiss woodpile - I swear to god, they are all this neat and tidy.

I came upon this colourful collection of bee houses.  Bee colonies have been devastated in Switzerland and it's estimated that up to 50% of the bees here didn't survive last winter.  I've been thinking a lot about bees lately and much to Jeff's disbelief, I have been threatening to become a bee keeper when we get back to Ontario.  Clearview Bee Farm has a nice ring to it, no?

Monday, 29 October 2012

saas fee

The kids just finished "half term", a week long holiday that gives everyone a break just when they are all getting settled into the routine of being back at school!   

Driven partly by knowing this is our last go-around living here in Switzerland, but also by our love of all things skiing, Jeff and I decided to take the kids to Saas Fee.  Quite quickly, our family getaway evolved into a larger trip that included Jeff, myself, Katja (a phenomenal ski coach) and a total of 11 kids whose skiing keenness matched our own.  

the group gathers in Saanen

Saas Fee is a vehicle-free village.  We arrived at the village parking lot, left our vehicle and loaded up all our gear into an "elektro" (kind of a cross between an electric golf cart and a small pick up truck or van).  The kids and I wandered through the village to the Hotel Mistral where we were staying.

jeff rides the elektro, loaded up with all our gear

The first morning, we were all a little jumbled.  Sweaty and awkward, we juggled our equipment for the first time in months.  Most of us wore our shoes and carried our boots.  Rookie mistake.  Not only did we have backpacks to carry, but also skis, poles and then heavy boots dangling over our shoulders, whacking everyone around us and sliding to the ground every few minutes.  We staggered our way through two gondolas and then a metro (funicular) - a 45 minute ride that took us from 1800m in the village up to the "top top" where the glacier sits at 3500m.  

lining up for the first gondola

At the top and once we got on our skis, we all felt more "at home" and we were off...

It was quite the scene up there.  Among others, the Swiss, Canadian, French, Spanish, Finnish + Russian teams were training GS, slalom, ski cross, freestyle, boarder cross and even the Canadian para-alpine skiers were there.  Everyone's heads were on swivels, trying to take it all in (even me, I have to admit).   Hard not to be impressed and inspired by the talent and hard work of all those athletes gathered on a single glacier where you could see almost everyone from any vantage point.  Graydon carried a Sharpie in his pocket all week, asking who was who, darting off in search of autographs.  A little shy at first, he made me come with him to say hello to some of the Canadian coaches.  It's always a comfort to connect with people from "back home" and see the red maple leaf.  
Over the four days, we skied hard, did dryland training, tuned our skis, had meetings, explored the village, ate great meals, laughed and enjoyed each others' company, both on and off the glacier.   

Back in Saanen, we were welcomed by snow flurries, turning our vibrant green valley into a winter scene.  Perfect timing.  Our local glacier opens back up this weekend and now, we are ready for the ski season...

Some other pics from the trip...

the village of saas fee

watching the ski cross athletes on their track

the end of a long training day...

swiss speed team technician hard at work in our hotel

esmée eats her lunch in between training runs

Thursday, 11 October 2012

les champignons

On our property in Terra Cotta, there was a circle of mushrooms that grew on our front lawn.  One day, a friendly neighbour stopped by to let us know that they were safe to eat, delicious in fact.  "Thanks very much" we said with polite smiles on our faces, but we didn't cut, cook or eat them.  A week later, I found a mushroom field guide in our mailbox.  Our neighbour had placed post-it notes on the pages indicating the species of mushrooms that we had on our lawn.  Proof of their safety and his helpful advice.  Still we didn't touch them...

When Graydon's teacher asked me if I'd like to come on a mushroom picking trip with his class, I jumped at the opportunity.  Much to the mortification of my children standing beside us, we joked about going on a magic mushroom trip.  We laughed, because of course we were hilarious.  They rolled their eyes and muttered "so embarrassing."  

The truth is that I am intrigued by wild mushrooms, where and how they grow, but mostly how to know which are safe and which are not.  Mushroom aficionados in Ontario are very secretive about their picking spots and they sneak around the countryside loading up their baskets.  I asked a friend once if she'd take me with her to pick Morels and she looked at me, eyes wide, amazed that I'd be so bold to ask.   

While I was being offered a guided exploration, I found that mushroom picking is just as covert here in Switzerland.  Our local expert Sebastien made cracks about blindfolding the adults on the trip as we drove to his favourite picking place.  Not that blindfolds were necessary.  I don't think I'd ever find my way back despite my best attempts to memorise our route - up a road, a sharp right at a barn, past another barn, through a field and up into a small clearing in the woods.  Oh, and there were a river and mountains nearby.  

We had a discussion about mushroom safety and Sebastien was adamant that no one touch or pick anything without his approval.  This was done in a combination of French and English (curriculum multi-tasking) to ensure that everyone knew the rules.  He had made a Dossier Champignons for each of us with illustrations, diagrams, classifications and at the end, a recipe for omelette aux champignons. This was my kind of field trip!

Ms Anne Marie + Sebastien show the parts of the mushroom

Armed with our baskets, bags and dossiers, we followed Sebastien up into the forest.  While there were lots of trees, it felt more like a forest of moss - under foot, the floor was carpeted in both brilliant and drab shades of green and the moss dripped from the trees above.  I am sure that this forest is home to fairies and it was magically quiet.  Quiet, at least, until the first kid spotted a mushroom and then another and another... "M. Sebastien, is this one", "over here, can you look at this?", "can I pick this one?" And so it went, all of us caught up in the fervor of finding the right mushrooms.  My own hopes pinned on the possibility of une omelette aux champignons for dinner.

off we went into the fairy + mushroom forest

We were looking for Chanterelles and another variety called Laccaire Amethyste.  At first, I had a hard time spotting either and was getting rather annoyed by all the twerps who couldn't help but show off how many they had picked.  Even Graydon got a head start after finding a huge patch of Chanterelles when he wandered a few meters away from the pack.  I tried to suppress my competitive spirit and reasoned that, at least his spoils would count towards our family dinner.  Once I found my first few, however, my eyes were able to pick out the purples and oranges in the moss and I became a little obsessed.  Unlike some of the other parents and teachers, I did not offer my findings to any of the kids - I had a family of five to feed after all!

my haul of chanterelles + amethystes

It was a fantastic afternoon.  Who doesn't love a "field trip", especially one that brings all kinds of interesting learning and fun together?  And after combining our efforts, Graydon and I made dinner that night.  Et voila.....