Saturday, 17 December 2011

graydon skis the powder

Hi, it's Graydon here and I want to tell you about the best thing I've ever done in my life!  Today, I went powder skiing for the first time ever.  It's been snowing here in Saanen for 4 days (ok, there was a little bit of rain  mixed in down in the valley) and today the lifts were all closed because of too much snow, wind and snow drifts.  We were all ready for skiing this morning when we found out that nothing was open, so my Dad drove Eli, Esmée, my Mum and I up the Saanen Eggli, the mountain right behind our chalet.  He dropped Eli, my Mum and I off with our skis, poles and helmets to have a run on our own.  Here we are at the top:

Every turn felt like I was in heaven!!  I've never skied in powder snow like that - it was like God dropped lots of flour on Switzerland when he was baking!  The snow was up to our knees and was light enough so that it flew up when we skied through it.  Here I am part way down our run:

After we got to the bottom, my Dad called to say that he was stuck on the road down the mountain because a car in front of him had jack-knifed and blocked the road.  So we had to walk home, but it's not very far so it was fun. I can't wait to ski the powder again.....

Here I am walking down the hill into the Rubeldorf area where we live:

Monday, 5 December 2011

the sky is finally falling

Two weeks of bronchitis is to blame for the radio silence.  But, I'm back in action and just in time for the arrival of winter here in the Saanenland.

It's been snowing in the alpine for a couple of days, but today in the valley, we got those huge, wet flakes that twist and twirl from the sky, almost like they're dancing their way down.  It was the kind of snow that collects in the hood of your coat, melts instantly and then runs to the ground when you bend over to undo your boots. The kind that means you have to start laying out your hat and scarf to dry when you come inside because they're too wet to stuff into the sleeve of your jacket.

There is something so deeply exciting about the first real snowfall.  Walking alone from the grocery store to the post office today,  I caught myself tilting my chin to the sky and opening my mouth wide, trying to catch the snowflakes.  When I told the kids about this, they said that the whole school was doing the same thing at morning break and lunchtime.  Must be an instinctual response for those of us that love winter.

Esmée turned 8 yesterday.  Her party is this coming weekend at the local community centre, but last night she had a few friends over for a raclette dinner.  Freeze dance, playing with new playmobil and bugging the older brothers were the activities of choice.  And of course, the requisite sparklers and loud (off key) singing....

Thursday, 17 November 2011

it's in the air

I am sitting at our dining room table, the kids are at school, Jeff is still in Canada and it's so quiet that I can hear the hum of my laptop beneath my fingers.  I love that.  

The sun is slowly making its way across the valley, taking with it the evidence of last night's hard frost.   We have had weeks of sunshine and mild temperatures, not typical of November and I feel like every drop of sunshine and ounce of warmth is a gift.  We are living on borrowed time.  Winter will be coming to stay anytime.  We were teased with a couple of early snowfalls around Canadian Thanksgiving in October, each one creating great excitement about the coming ski season and our first winter living in the mountains.  

There are many signs of what's coming.  The shorter days - dusk arrives around 5pm (17:00 Euro speak) bringing an end to the sunshine and making me want to shut myself inside in front of the fire.  The layer of frost that coats the ground each morning stretches as far as the eye can see, it's hue changing with the undulations of the ground.  The shop windows in town tantalize passers-by with skis, ski suits, winter boots and lots of fur!  Christmas is, of course, sneaking in already.  A sparkle here, a bauble there.  I even noticed some twinkling white lights outlining the entrance and windows of one of Saanen's hotels last night.  Esmée has been playing Christmas music all week.

For ski enthusiasts like the Swiss and ourselves,  a new sign almost as significant as the first real snowfall appeared this morning.   It was still dawn, the early morning light was just starting to emerge from behind the mountains to the East.  Eli noticed what he claimed to be a fountain of snow in the air a couple of hundred meters outside of our chalet.  At first I thought it was smoke because they have been doing a lot of brush burning in the mountains lately.  After much discussion and a few moments outside to listen for the distinctive noise of snowguns, our household decided that snow-making has begun on the Saanen Eggli.  

It was all the talk at school drop-off, confirming our conclusion - "did you see that they've started making snow on the Eggli"?, "yes, also in Rougemont", "it's getting late, they need to start making a base"...  The excitement was palpable, skiers had an added spring in their step and I know that visions of carving turns danced in every one of their heads.

puddles of snow at the base of the snowguns -
the early beginnings of a ski season  

And so, like the chair lifts below, we wait for that exhilarating first run of the year and the promise of a long, snowy winter in the Saanenland.  We're ready, bring it on....

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Buda and Pest capture my heart

Part of the beauty of living in central Europe is the proximity to the rest of this continent.  So when my friend Maggie asked if I'd like to meet her and her dear friend Sandy in Budapest, I jumped at the opportunity. Jeff is in Canada for three weeks working, so there were some logistical hoops I had to jump through.  What to do with my children, for one.  Well, actually that was really the only hoop - another beauty of living here is having the freedom to get up and go - no dogs, cats or donkeys to have to worry about.

As luck would have it, there were three beds available in the Boarding House and for a sum (not small, but definitely worth it), they could stay there while I travelled.  The kids were very excited and have, in fact, been asking to board since we arrived in September.  The boarding house is more like a frat house really, our kids come up with all sorts of excuses to hang out there after the school day is over.  Last Sunday, we packed up their uniforms, sports equipment, books, ipods and all the requisite charging devices and I dropped them off bright and early Monday morning.  Esmée was the most nervous - she would be the youngest boarder and was rooming with nice girls, but she didn't know them very well.  The boys barely said goodbye, eager to assimilate into the boarding culture, unpack and hook up with their roommates before heading to class.

I arrived in Budapest just before sunset and met Maggie and Sandy outside St Stephen's Basilica, a Roman Catholic church built in the mid 1800s-early 1900s and it houses the mummified hand of St Stephen, Hungary's first King.  It is a stunningly beautiful Neo Classical building and the most important Church in all of Hungary.  Ironic maybe, but that was where we started our whirlwind tour of Budapest.  

St Stephen's Basilica

Budapest was once 2 separate cities on either side of the Danube river, not surprisingly called Buda and Pest.  Although they were formally united in 1873, the two feel quite different, even today.  Historically, Buda was more residential, host to royalty and the wealthy while Pest was the more commercial centre.

sunset on the Danube
from Buda looking towards Pest

As Budapest locals for some 10+ years, we took our friends' Todd and Alex's recommendation and hired a guide for our first full day to help us get oriented and figure out where we wanted to dig a little deeper.  It was a wonderful way to get to know a new city that is not known to be tourist-friendly and Oliver was fantastic.  He was engaging and knowledgeable and drove us around while re-calling endless information about the country's tumultuous and cyclical past of domination, occupation and revolution.  The last Russian soldier left Budapest in 1991 - not that long ago in the grand scheme of things.  It feels like a lifetime ago that I studied Eastern European, WWI + II politics at Queen's and Oliver helped unearth the knowledge.  Some things even sounded vaguely familiar!  

We spent a few solid and intense hours at the TerrorHaz which commemorates the victims of terror under both the Nazi and Soviet occupations during and post WWII.  Until 1956, the building itself was used as a Police Headquarters under both regimes and many, many Hungarians were brought there to be interrogated, detained and killed.  It has since been transformed into an aesthetically beautiful, but haunting museum that includes among other things, photographs and lists of victims and victimizers (many of whom are still alive and living in Budapest today), a propaganda room, examples of weaponry and reconstructed cells and gallows.  

Another highlight was our trip to the Kiraly Baths.  Budapest is known as the spa city with several public baths left over from the Turks.  Kiraly, built over 500 years ago and supplied by thermal waters, was recommended by Oliver as his favourite bath in the city.  Once in our suits, we emerged into an underground cave-like room with a number of pools.  The ceiling was domed and the only natural light sparkled gently from the tiny circular holes in the roof.  It was magical, like bathing under a starlit sky. There were only about 10 or 12 others there – all Hungarian. There were no English signs to explain each bath, no one was speaking our language and Oliver’s recommendation that it would be the most local experience did not disappoint.

Maggie, Sandy and I 
on our last morning together

A really wonderful trip full of intense history, delicious Hungarian foods like goulash, goose liver pate and loads of paprika, beautiful scenery, art + architecture.  It was a real treat to see Maggie and get to know Sandy, we travelled well together and had a ball.   

All's well that ends well.  I arrived home to happy children who have made it known that they would like to stay at the boarding school again.  They even went as far as asking if I would please go away again soon!  I was aghast, offended, but once the bickering and fighting started among them, my mind started to wander.  Where could I go next......

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

our first hospital visit + halloween treats

Eli may be a little accident prone.  His friends from Belfountain PS call him "Crippie" because he was laid up on crutches and casts more than a few times over his years there.  Well, on Halloween afternoon, we got a call from the Kennedy school.  A parent never likes to see the school phone number on their call display.  You tend to answer the phone half holding your breath.  The call went something like this -

  • Hi Kara, it's Gareth (head of school).  
  • Hi Gareth, is everything ok?  
  • Well, Eli has had an accident, not an emergency kind of accident, but he's hit his head and I think it requires a visit to the hospital and possibly some stitches.  Are you able to come and fetch him?  
  • I'll be there in a few minutes, thanks Gareth
  • Ok, we'll see you soon.  You don't need to rush.  He's here in the office with me and he's fine, a little dizzy maybe, but don't break any speed limits on the way!
Here's what he looked like -  

 We  drove 4 minutes down the road to the Saanen hospital.  To use the word "efficient" doesn't even do the experience justice.  We arrived and the school had called ahead to say we were coming.  We followed the green dots on the floor to the next level and the "waiting room".  Before we even had a chance to sit down, a man dressed in whites (not the tennis kind) collected us and took us into a room that had so much equipment I almost wondered if it was an operating room.  There were 2 doctors (at least I assume they were doctors).  They took a look, asked Eli a bunch of concussion-related questions, cleaned up the wound (small, but deep) and gave him a stitch.  
Eli asked me, are you one of those mothers who is going to be less concerned about me and more focussed on getting the pictures?  Of course, I replied, you're fine and we need blog material.  The doctor asked if I was going to post them on facebook.   It's a different world....
my mother wondered if this was part of our halloween prep!
With no signs of concussion, they were happy to let him go home.  A quick report written by the white-coated facebooking guy who was in charge and we were off!   Twenty-eight minutes had passed since we first entered the hospital.  I kid you not.  

A couple of advils and some make up application later, we were off to Gstaad to trick or treat. Halloween is not a national obsession in Switzerland like it is in North America, but these few families from the kids' school knew a thing or two about trick or treating.  They hosted a fabulous night.  Walking among the 6 houses was spooky enough, very few people live full-time in the Oberbort so it was dark and windy, even a little smoky from the few fires in the homes.  Each house had the requisite glowing pumpkins, creepy music and mask adorned parent or nanny handing out loot bags of candy!  I swear, they brought home more then in past years.  No tricks, all treats.....  

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

the youngest catches up

Esmée has made her debut as a mountain biker - watch out!  On Sunday, we lunched with the Lee family on the sun drenched patio of the Hotel Alpenland in Lauenen.  It was a breathtakingly beautiful autumn day and hard to believe that we were moments away from November.  We sat in t-shirts, noshing on rösti and schnitzel, gazing up at the Wildhorn which sits impressively at the end of the Lauenen Valley.  It was so nice, in fact, that almost every square meter of the patio was occupied and there wasn't a single person sitting inside.

The mid-day feast was followed by a family bike ride through the forested trails that loop around the area.   It was fairly flat and not too difficult, but bumpy - more like a mountain bike trail than a rail trail.  This was really Esmée's first foray into the world outside of driveway or asphalt biking.  She has never been an overly keen bike rider and had only first ridden her bike to school on the previous Friday (a slightly terrifying adventure for Jeff and I to witness as it's mostly downhill).

However, throw in another family who happen to have an older daughter who Esmée hugely admires and it changes everything.  She dressed in her biking shorts, biking shirt and biking gloves.  She was bound and determined to bike with the group and keep up.  It was a wonderful ride.  Esmée did remarkably well and we feel like we're now off to the races, so to speak.

Photos courtesy of Rob + Tina Lee - we were too busy riding beside Esmée and shouting instructions to take pics!


Friday, 28 October 2011

smash up derby with the loaner car

I was in a car accident the day before yesterday.  Everyone is fine.  The worst part is that it wasn't even our car (bought online before we arrived).  Our car was in for service, so we had a loaner car for the day.  One day and I managed to get hit.

I was on the bridge crossing the Saane river, wide enough for one vehicle at time.  The other driver was was coming from the opposite direction.  She drove onto the bridge and I realised that she wasn't going to stop in time.  It happened both quickly and slowly.  Anyone who has been in an accident knows what I mean.  We looked at each other and I braced for what I knew was going to be a crunch. My shoulders hunched up to my ears and my hands gripped the wheel in anticipation of the sound of metal crushing into metal and that horrible feeling of impact.

Thankfully, the other driver spoke English and after making sure that we were both ok, she indicated that we should go see her mechanic, conveniently located just down the road.  I managed to get my car to the garage, but it wasn't driving well.  It felt like the front tire was square instead of round and there was liquid leaking from under the hood.  We limped slowly into the garage and parked.

Then the Swiss system of getting things done really kicked in.  The garage called the dealership (located 20 minutes down the valley), the dealer came to pick me up, the other driver waited with me, the garage filed all the insurance paperwork, the dealer drove me to where our serviced + washed car sat waiting and then I drove back home.  It was all very efficient, of course.  I didn't even have to give my name or driver's license to anyone.  Amazing.

As it turns out, the other driver has been involved with the Kennedy School (where our kids go) for 40 years and is a great friend of the Lovell's.  Main bien sur!  As I said to her, we were obviously meant to meet, it's just too bad that it involved two cars in the middle of a bridge.....

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

hockey games + birthdays

This past weekend, we went to stay with the Cleghorn-Moores in Villars-sur-Ollon where they are taking a "Year off the Back".  Click here to see their blog -  They very kindly offered to put us up in their chalet so that we could spend the weekend together without having to stay in a hotel or holiday apartment.  Their kids were also on school holiday and we were all looking for something to do.

There is something so lovely about spending time with another Canadian family while living "away".  There is a built-in comfort level, a feeling of familiarity, even if you don't see them very often at home.  Greg, Andy et al were fantastic hosts and we spent the weekend bowling, biking and scootering at the Gryons park, eating, hanging out + the highlight - watching the Villars Hockey Club smoke the team from Bulle-La Gruyeres.  The Villars HC's home ice is an open-air pavilion of sorts.  There is a roof, but no real walls to speak of.  It's indoors, but outdoors and it is very cool.

Our only real tactical error all weekend can be chalked up to a rookie mistake.  On Saturday night, before the game, we went to Villars' take on a Mexican restaurant for dinner.  At The Gringo, you can have anything from fajitas to hamburgers to cheese fondue (of course).  The food was great, but when we arrived at the game, we discovered that there is a restaurant/bar along the top of one side of the "arena".  Being Canadian hockey fans, we re-named it the Hot Stove.  Here you can dine on cheese fondue and drink till your hearts' content, all while staying warm and watching the game.  Despite our being bundled in long underwear, toques, mitts and down jackets, we were chilly outdoors and were frequent visitors to the Hot Stove in search of hot chocolates and other libations.  After all, even if you're freezing in an outdoor arena in the mountains on a cold late October night, what's a hockey game without a few beers?
dinner at the Gringo

Yesterday was Jeff's 46th birthday.  Wow!  That means that I'm going to be 43 soon.  Time is literally flying by and birthdays kind of force us to pause and take stock, if even for a moment.  How did we get here?  It really doesn't seem that long ago that we met in a northern Ontario tree planting camp.  Our wedding was merely a few years back.  Kids?  They just arrived on the scene.  Now, here we are living in Switzerland, about to celebrate our 14th anniversary.  We are lucky enough to be spending many of our days hiking and biking and soon, skiing.  We are learning some languages, meeting new people and experiencing a new kind of life, different than the one we know.  We are spending lots of time together, as a family.  This is a gift.  We are learning together how to enjoy the glorious moments and how to help each other through the tougher times.  It's all good and Jeff and I, in particular, feel incredibly grateful and blessed.  Happy days....

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

squeezing lemons

Half term break.  Honestly, didn't they just start back at school?  We have opted for the stay-close-to-home, explore-our-own area kind of holiday.  A "staycation" of sorts, but that is a word that bothers me.

geared up + ready to go...
First stop on the holiday tour was a trip to the Seilpark, in Zweisimmen just down the valley.  It's quite a vast ropes course, one that would never fly in Canada.  The park appears to be safe, but the Swiss do not seem to be as concerned with issues of liability.  Before you are allowed on the course, the one staff member walks you through how to do the course safely - clipping the carribeaners on and off (one at a time), only 3 people on a platform, using the zip-line (including braking) etc.  Once she is satisfied that you can participate safely, you're cleared to go.  Pumped with enthusiasm and armed with their Kilcoo training, the boys took off with their friends and quickly moved through the lower courses and onto the really high and challenging ones.  Esmée was more restricted because of her height and had 3 of the lower courses to choose from.  I even participated and moved between Esmée and the boys, but to be honest, they all left me in their dust. There was no keeping up with any of them.  Both Jeff and I were amazed to watch them focus and work hard, to be scared and work through it, to be both challenged and exhilarated.

On Sunday, after a delicious mountain-top lunch of schnitzel, rösti, pasta and a couple of "alpine rings", 17 of us headed off on what ended up being a 3 day hiking trip.  Four families, including 13 kids, set off from the Relleri for the Grubenberghütte, one of the many alpine huts run by the Swiss Alpine Club.  The 3.5 hour hike (give or take) was beautiful, mostly gentle traversing along alpine meadows, but with a 30 minute kick-ass hill climb right at the end.  Again, I was amazed at how well the kids did.  Now, Esmeé did not carry her own pack very far, but she hiked and hiked until we got to the hut, chatting, playing + singing with her friends all the while.  The boys hung with their friends, closer to the back of the pack, exploring everything along the way and according to one witness who walked with them for awhile, telling disgusting and inappropriate jokes.

 dinnertime at the Grubenberghütte
We arrived at the Grubenberghütte just in time for a well-deserved cold beer before dinner and we settled in for the night.  The hut sleeps a total of 34 people in 2 dormitories.  It is cheek by jowl so you had better hope that your dorm-mates do not snore, fart or both!   Dinner was deliciously simple - tomato soup, salad and pasta - and all prepared by Hans, keeper of the hut.  While the huts here evoke some memories of hiking in Nepal, this is a far cry from the Nepalese experience.   This is Switzerland afterall, so you can count on neat, clean + organised.  The woodpile outside is impeccably stacked and the dorm beds are stocked with perfectly folded duvets and identically placed pillows.  There is cold running water and depending on the hut, the WC may be an outhouse or indoor toilets.  One thing is for sure, the views are outstanding everywhere you look.

sunset from the Grubenberghütte
After a cosy, but somewhat chaotic sleep, a smaller group of 8 decided to continue on and make our way to another hut - the Chalet du Soldat.  We were relying on the advice from 2 Swiss hikers who had the misfortune of spending the night with our group of 17 at the Grubenberghütte.  We did not have a map or GPS, but they pointed us in the right direction after breakfast.  Again, this is Switzerland and in the name of order, almost everything is marked.  There are yellow trail signs posted all over the country pointing the way for walkers, bikers, hikers and red + white trail markers painted on rocks and trees indicating the hiking trails.  And if you mis-read a sign, chances are you will run into another hiker somewhere along the way who can set you straight.  It is not impossible, but it is hard to get lost in Switzerland.  

Peter, Jeff and I, along with 5 kids (2 of Peter's and 3 of ours) made our way, following the signs.  It was amazing hike, not too long or difficult, but the geology of our surroundings changed and it was fascinating.  As it turned out, we were hiking along the "Sentier géologique des Gastlosen",  also known as the Swiss Dolomites.  It was breathtaking.  

The Chalet du Soldat was a much larger hut, more like a mountain hotel.   It was packed with other families - tables full of kids playing Uno + drawing mountain-scapes, parents drinking wine and taking in the sunset.  While we waited for our fondue dinner, Graydon spent a long time trying to build the perfect house of cards, Eli drew optical illusions, George and I played an inspired game of Scrabble, Esmée + Madi mastered Spot It, Peter drew the mountains and Jeff read Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence.  It was a really lovely night.  

sunset reflecting on des Gastlosen

As I've mentioned a number of times, Switzerland is country that expects order and detests clutter or anything out of place.  The huts 
have rules, like any other establishment in this country.  When you enter a hut, there is a mud room of sorts where hiking boots are to be left, in an orderly fashion.  

NO boots inside, only slippers, which are, of course, provided.  There is always a rack of slippers in the mud room, organised and labelled according to size.  At the first hut, Hans took tidying up to a new level.  When I came down at sunrise, I found all the hiking boots neatly lined up in rows with the laces tied together! 

Tuesday morning, we left the Chalet du Soldat, headed for a town called Jaun that we had never heard of and quite frankly, had no idea where it was in relation to Saanen.  We suspected that we might have to take a bus and/or train to get home, but we really weren't sure.   Another gorgeous hike into the valley and it all worked out.   We're now back in Saanen, trying to figure out what to do for the next few days before heading to Villars to see Andy Cleghorn and Greg Moore for the weekend.  

The adventure was a total success - we all loved the hiking and staying in the huts.  We were dirty and smelly and a little overtired, but so, so happy to be out hiking in the mountains for 3 days under a glorious blue sky.  

One of the things I loved most was being able to give into whimsy.  We had a vague idea of what we were doing - going up a mountain to stay at a hut - but with a little spontaneity we decided to continue and figure it out as we went along.  It has been a long time since we, as parents, have been able to make on-the-spot decisions like that.  Our lives have become full of schedule and structure, always having to be here or there.  There is too little room to indulge in the vagaries of wanderlust.  

At the Chalet du Soldat, Peter struck up a conversation with a man from Paris who was on a brief holiday by himself.  He arrived in Geneva by train with no set plans.  He decided to go hiking, picked an area and set off.  He told Peter that he only had a few days in Switzerland and wanted to see as much as he could in that short time.  He wanted to "squeeze all the juice from the lemon" before he had to return home to Paris.  

I love that.  And I get it.  I want to squeeze the juice from lemons to.  


Friday, 7 October 2011

proud parents

We are proud of all our children, well from time to time when they aren't fighting, bickering or behaving badly!  However, Eli in particular, has really made us proud.  First, there was the skateboard situation...  Since then, he decided (all on his own and without even letting on) to run for School Council Vice President. He wrote a speech that he gave in front of the entire school and was up against other kids who have been here for years.  Unfortunately, he lost to a kid who gave Ibiza t-shirts to anyone promising to vote for him - the lesson in politics wasn't lost on any of us.  Regardless, he chose to put himself out there and that took guts.

Eli also made the JFK U13 football (soccer) team and he's thrilled!  They've had 2 matches - one win and one loss so far and they are having a great time.  Go blue!

Because we all love to talk about the weather, the tides are turning here.  Yesterday was sunny and warm, I think it might have even hit 25C.   Today was a different story.  Rain in the valley and snow not too far up the mountains.  It definitely feels like winter is coming...

tonight's sunset

the swiss do hot dogs right

Earlier this week, Jeff and I had a hot dog lunch at the Saanen market. While it may not sound particularly exciting, it did result in a very interesting culinary discovery.  At the sausage stall, you choose your type of grilled hot dog or sausage.  A baguette is cut in half and shoved onto a phallic looking piece of stainless steel that toasts the baguette from the inside!  Your condiment choices, while somewhat limited, are hung from the canopy of the stall and are squeezed (kind of like from an udder) from the Costco-sized bottles into the bottom of the baguette.  Et voila, your hot dog, swiss market style!  The best part - no leaking condiments since they're all contained in the bum of the baguette.  Brilliant + delicious, a winning combination!  The Optimist Club at the Erin Fall Fair, makers of the world's best back-bacon-on-a-bun, could take some cues....

Sunday, 2 October 2011

un bon weekend

It's been a great weekend!

Like Ontarians with their Fall Fairs, the Swiss love to celebrate the turn of the season.  On Saturday, Bill Lovell took the kids and I to a festival in Albeuve, in the canton of Fribourg.  The festival was fantastic - crowded, boisterous and steeped in alpine culture + tradition.   Decorated cows and goats paraded through the fair a number of times throughout the day,  bell ringers marched in formation, alphorn players entertained while flag throwers wowed the crowds.  Like all fairs, there were candy stalls and a "fish pond".  There were also lots of stalls selling local specialities - cheeses, salamis, bread, honey, wild boar paté, to name a few.  The best purchase of the day, however, was Graydon's.  Right off the bat, he eyed an original painting on wood that he really wanted to buy. It has it all - a river, snow capped mountains and a farmer with a horse. It now sits on his bedside table and will always remind him of our time in Switzerland.

The whole weekend has been, in fact, quite social.  We went to a lovely and lively pizza night at an Australian family's home on Friday + a BBQ today with a group of JFK families.  The BBQ was at the Arnensee, a glacial lake about 20 minutes outside of Gstaad.  For you Georgian Bay'ers, think the McCoy's meets Swiss Family Robinson.... Everyone brought baskets of food - sausages, baguettes, kebabs, salads, desserts, cheeses + salamis, vegies + hummus and of course, chips/crisps.
a public Swiss bbq which you find along many hiking trails.. it comes stocked with paper + wood, of course!

The kids found old fishing lours in the shallows, rigged up fishing poles and tried to catch some mountain trout.  Of course, there were a few that got away....

Most of the kids swam until their lips were blue and their feet numb with cold.   At one point, the 20 or so kids divided into 2 groups - one on each bank of the river that fed the lake.  They slung mud at each other for what seemed like hours.  Despite what appeared to be the beginning of a Lord of the Flies moment, every kid had a huge smile on their face and was having the time of their life.  

I thought how amazing that all these kids, some almost strangers with just a few weeks of school in common, fall into step with one another so easily.  Despite their differences in language, culture and backgrounds, they are all kids looking to create a great time on a sunday afternoon picnic.

I can't help but continue to be amazed by how lucky we are to live in this place. The people we've met and been fortunate enough to spend time with are interesting and interested.  Everyone has a different story.  Conversations meander from english to spanish to german to french to italian and back again.  It's truly fascinating and inspiring to be in the midst of such cultural and personal diversity.

Monday, 26 September 2011

out of the valley, but not far away

This past weekend, we tore ourselves out of our valley and drove to Lauterbrunnen to catch the train up to the Jungfraujoch - a place they call the Top of Europe because it is the highest accessible peak on the continent.

The 3 famous mountains in this area are the Eiger (one of the most deadly ascents for mountain climbers), the Monch and the Jungfrau.  The rail line that takes visitor's skyward was built in 1912 and the trip winds through Wengen - home of the oldest and longest dowhill ski race on the world cup circuit.  After Wengen and a station called Klein Scheidegg, the train heads into a long tunnel right through the Eiger.At 3571m / 11,782 ft up top, the air is thin, the views are spectacular and we were all in awe.

looking to the Aletsch Glacier from the Jungfraujoch

As if the views, the Ice Palace and glacier weren't enough, Jeff and the kids went on a huge zipline in the "adventure park" - a definite highlight for the adrenaline junkies!

graydon flies through thin air

Today's adventures took us to Thun to get our Resident Cards which will legitmately allow us to stay in Switzerland for the year.  After the signatures, fingerprints and photos (they don't mess around), we wandered around the market town built on an island in the River Aare.  We then headed further north to IKEA to pick up a few things to better equip our rental flat.  I find it disturbing that IKEA actually felt like "home" - the same layout, same meatballs, same junk at the check-out.  And the worst - the same feeling of wanting to burst into tears by the time I made my way around the store.  IKEA, swedish for "get me out of here"......

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

peas in a pod

Well, in my tennis world, things are looking up.  Jeff and I have been playing together quite often at the outdoor clay courts in Saanen which has been fantastic.  But, for anyone who knows the social and physical outlet of a regular tennis date with female friends, you'll understand that it has been something I've missed since we arrived here.  So last week, in a moment of strategic bravery, I accosted a woman dressed in a tennis skirt in the parking lot of the kids' school.  I gushed about how much I love to play tennis and asked if she would like to play sometime.   Thankfully, Laura is a lovely woman who probably took pity on me (so desperate did I appear) and arranged a game for this morning at the indoor tennis zentrum in Gstaad.  She found a third and we played with the local pro for one glorious hour!  Here's hoping it becomes a regular gig...

Now, here's a sight.  Three screen peas in a pod.....

This, I guess, is what happens when all the homework is done, you're skateboarded out, you've read all the books in the flat and everything on TV is in German!  Tomorrow, they are going on a 2 day hike with the whole school + they're staying overnight at the Wildhorn Hut at 2303m!  Doesn't that sound amazing...?

Friday, 16 September 2011


Nothing like a 360 degree view of glaciers, mountain peaks and sheer drops to remind us of how small + insignificant we really are in this world.  Jeff and I did our first big climb today.  The Oldenhorn sits 3123m above sea level and towers over the local glacier at Les Diablerets.  From the glacier below, it looked like this:
I really wasn't sure that I was going to be able to get up there, but with some huffing and puffing, putting one foot in front of the other and a little scrambling while clutching a steel cable, we made it up to the top of that peak in time to have a sandwich jambon fromage and marvel at the views.

Today was an amazing experience and reminded me of my time in Nepal with Daphne and Claire and of how much I love to hike.  There is so much beauty and majesty and awe in the mountains.... No matter how hard the climb, there is no feeling like standing at the top looking out and down, knowing that you made it ...

Thursday, 15 September 2011

this mum + dad are so not rad

there's a brand new, state of the art skateboard park that just opened in the community of saanen.  i think it's meant to keep the youth of saanen out of trouble and off the proverbial streets.  it's a happening spot and since we arrived, our boys in particular have been like moths to the flame with that park.  they are DYING to get in there.  we, of course did not bring skateboards with us, nor did we ship them in the sea container whose arrival is still pending... eli and graydon took matters into their own hands last week and made some english posters announcing to the mostly german-speaking world that they are in the market for second-hand skateboards ("doesn't matter what brand, but they must be in good shape").  everyday, we have been checking the posters to see if anyone has ripped off any of the homemade tabs that they diligently crafted with scissors and wrote out by hand.  after day one, there was a tab missing from one of the signs, but we haven't heard from a soul...  fast forward to today when jeff and i decided to bite the bullet and drive 60km out of the valley (so much for living locally, but when it comes to shopping, resort towns don't offer the best deals) to a sizeable town in the french speaking canton called Bulle to find some skateboards for our well intentioned, but coming up short, sons.  we planned to find used, but of course there weren't any and we got sucked into all the new, flashy ones at the store.  language was a bit of an issue, but i muddled my way through with my rusty french and we went to have lunch while the shop built the boards.  there was much excitement and anticipation to see the new rides after school.  graydon had already won the toss to pick his first and he picked the one he liked.  eli picked up his new board, turned it over and after a few minutes put it down and asked if we could return it.  we scolded him for being ungrateful, but he complained that the pictures and sayings on the bottom were inappropriate and disgusting.  so, we took a look and low and behold, it's covered with a cartoon of a hotdog holding a jackknife and there are all sorts of captions such as "biggest porno bargain in NY" + "pleasure unlimited, live + hot" + "make her hot! fast! this potent new sex formula".  you get the idea....  eli refused to use it, full stop.  he said it goes against everything he stands for and that he won't ride a "board covered in porn"....

hmmmm... how to handle this delicate situation?  while we admire eli's ethics, we don't want to drive all the way back to Bulle to return it.  thankfully, graydon is not as principled and offered to switch boards as long as we buy a can of spray paint and some stickers.  eli has offered to help him to paint "graydon" on the board, graffiti-style...  it was a lovely moment, graydy's generosity towards his brother and eli's relief that the mistake made by his loser parents wasn't going to stick to him.  in the future, i think we'll be in charge of equipment we know and understand - skis, tennis racquets + bikes - and stay away from the ones that are way too rad for this mum and dad.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

living local

this is our swiss chalet... well, actually just the ground floor 
flat on the right side...

it's not large, but well laid out and has the most amazing view towards gstaad.  the pic below was taken at sunset last night, complete with the alpenglow....

our immediate neighbour is a farmer and on saturday afternoon, his herd of sheep were turned out into the field.  the sounds of sheep bells now fill our ears morning, noon and night!  much relief last night when we discovered that sheep do settle down eventually and so do their bells...

this weekend we did a lot of local exploring - on saturday we went up the wispile in gstaad for a hike.  it seems the swiss have playgounds at the top of many mountains and this one included a petting zoo + adventure park.  the kids loved it - the highlight was our picnic lunch perched on logs overlooking the 360 degree views of our valley. 

today we hiked up the saanen eggli trail which is literally right out our back door.  we went with an australian family who live 3 chalets away and who's son and daughter are in eli and graydon's classes.  they are a great family and came last year for one year and have extended their stay until this coming  christmas.  both tina and rob have been amazing resources for us as we muddle our way through the logistics of everyday life here in the saanenland.  we have spent quite a bit of time together and it's been wonderful to make such fast friends.  the boys sailed up the mountain, esmée found it rather challenging, but with lots of rest stops and an impromptu scavenger hunt along the way, we finally summitted the mountain with much celebration!!  

for those of you who have experienced esmée's love of sleepovers, it didn't take her long to pursue her favourite passtime on swiss soil... she had australian twins from her class for a sleepover this weekend. all went smoothly and not surprising from the girl with a dramatic flare - esmée is now speaking with an almost perfect aussie accent :)

one of the nicest things about living here has been how much we walk and how little time we spend in the car.  we walk almost everywhere and once our bikes arrive next week, we'll be able to ride into gstaad and beyond easily.  there is a convenience about life here which we don't have living in rural ontario.  the locals say they get "valley fever", that they need to get out for a breath of fresh air every now and again.  for us, the simplicity of sticking close to home is a refreshing and welcome change.  come dark and rainy november when it's too late in the fall to hike, but too early in the winter to ski, we may feel differently.  but for now, we're happy to stay put and live local.  

Thursday, 8 September 2011

a few bumps in the road

i think that day 4 at a new school and in a new community is kind of like day 4 on a ski holiday in the big mountains... it's all so exciting + new + great and then... you hit a wall.  

our wall came this afternoon in the form of tired, overwhelmed and fragile children.  the french is particularly hard - most of their classmates have either been taking french for years or they already speak it fluently at home!  they have made some new friends, but as eli said "i like it here, but not enough yet to stop missing caledon and my friends there".  they had some challenging homework which we mistakenly left until after dinner because we wanted to go to the park after school.  nothing huge or insurmountable, but enough to tip the scales from enthusiasm to despair...

for me, jeff went "back to work" this afternoon and will be spending a good chunk of each day in his swiss home office (aka "international headquarters").  this leaves me more to my own devices.  being who i am and having lived in a community like belfountain where i was busy, comfortable and involved, it's a bit disconcerting to have nowhere to be and no one to check in with.  i know it's good to spread one's wings, to learn and grow in a new place.  it's also good to face intimidation and push on through...

so, tomorrow we push on and continue to count our blessings.  it will be day 5 and it is sure to be full of renewed enthusiasm, sunshine + adventure.... 

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

what the schnitzel?

here is my dad's favourite song up in the alps.

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if this link doesn't work, search for "the schnitzel man" on you tube - hilarious!!

Monday, 5 September 2011

the real "new year"

it's back to school time + not a moment too soon!  over the weekend, between questions like 'where will the other kids be from?' and 'what if i don't make any new friends?' or teary statements like 'i miss caledon and my friends, when are we going home?" we got out and about for a little hiking + exploring.  

on the way to the local glacier, les diablerets, we came across a small herd of cattle barreling down the road.  as alpine grasses thin out in the fall, the farmers bring their cows back down the mountain with much pomp and circumstance.  the cows wear their large bells and are often adorned with flowers.  
it is a much a visual feast as it is a symphony for the ears!

to get up to the glacier, you can either walk (not our choice at this stage of the game) or take 2 cable cars that soar above rock faces, a little unnerving.  the glacier sits at 3000m and on a clear day, you can see the matterhorn and mt blanc!  it is currently closed to skiers, but open for hiking which we did all the way across and back!  it was insanely beautiful, but much more comfortable for those of us with gortex boots. we're all looking forward to skiing there in a couple of months.

today was the first day of school, the real new year...  eli, graydon and esmee dutifully woke up early, put on their uniforms and, in the pouring rain, we headed down the hill to the jfk international school.  they were nervous, excited and brave and i'd be lying if i didn't admit to having the 'first day of school' butterflies myself!  for the past 41 years, the jfk school, has been owned and run by my sister-in-law Alison's parents, Bill and Sandy Lovell.  it is a small international school with all the worldy + magical charm you can imagine!  every classroom has a view to the mountains, some of the buildings date back to the 1600s + the staff and student lists are dotted with names much more exotic than 'taylor' or 'mcintosh'.  it is a truly special place and we are all thrilled and feel so incredibly blessed to be here.  the day went very well for everyone.. at the end of the day, they were all smiles and full of excited stories about so-and-so or what they did at school as we climbed the hill back home.

as he was falling asleep tonight, eli said that he thinks it's going to be an interesting year because there are kids from all over the world who speak different languages and have different perspectives and experiences.  he also really likes his teacher, mr. yon who is from northern ontario, of all places!  esmée made a new friend named antonia (greek) who gave her a bow for her hair and her teacher, miss jane is amazing, so she's thrilled.  graydon's teacher, mr. kevin, is also amazing + enthusiastic and thank god he is a man because there are 11 girls and 2 boys in the class!  the other boy, alessandro (italian), seems to be a good fiery match for our spirited middle child.  

so finally, they're asleep in their beds with visions of the many adventures to come in their heads...  tomorrow, after we drop the kids at school, jeff and i are going for a hike with a new australian friend and then playing tennis.... ahhhhh, i love europe!   over + out for now...

Friday, 2 September 2011

our first full day in the unbelievably beautiful saanenland, deep in the heart of the bernese oberland area of switzerland... a mid day hike included views such as this one, doesn't it make you want to yodel?..  an interesting trip to the grocery store yielded a request to eat like "normal swiss people" so (homemade'ish) schnitzel + rosti for dinner it was...  all that combined with a few new words of schwiizertuuch + we are well on our way to 
total immersion...

Friday, 26 August 2011

five more sleeps...

... until we descend upon the saanenland.  the boys come home from camp on sunday, we do many loads of laundry and then fly out on wednesday afternoon...  

and so the great yearlong adventure begins...