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!