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.....

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

back in town

The kids and I arrived back in Saanen safely almost two weeks ago.  We have been settling in and reacquainting ourselves with life in the mountains.  

Last weekend, we joined a few other families and drove way up a mountain above a town called Zweisimmen.  We parked our cars, gently hiked through a valley and up over a ridge and down to Seebergsee.  The sun was shining and the sky was blue.  It was hot and the ripples on the lake sparkled.  We picnic'ed and swam (ok, so I didn't, but literally everyone else did) and lazed around the lake for the afternoon.  It was the perfect way to enjoy the waning days of summer and unwind after the first week of school.

And, of course, there was a guy playing his alphorn by the lake.  I do not doubt that this happens all the time throughout the Alps.

The first day of school brought with it the requisite mixture of nerves and enthusiasm.   Eli, Graydon and Esmée were all happy to see old friends, meet a few new ones and keen to get to know their teachers.  It almost goes without saying that I am happy to be back in a daily routine that brings structure to our lives and while it may be selfish, I'm honestly thrilled to have some time to myself.   

one the way, day 1

It's exiting to come back to somewhere that was, just one year ago, a foreign and unknown place.  Last August, we turned up in Switzerland a little dazed and nervous, but thirsty for adventure.  We were full of questions about our new lives - What was it going to be like living in a different culture, surrounded by different languages?  Would we make friends?  How homesick would we get?  What were Jeff and I going to do all day while the kids were in school?  We were a family of five changing things up for awhile and we stuck together, trying to figure it all out as we went along.

This time, I'm on my own with the kids (Jeff is coming at the end of September) and there is already a level of comfort and security.  As the train carried us into the Berner Oberland, the landscape resonated and the familiar silhouette of the mountains brought a smiles to our travel-weary faces.  It felt like we were "home".

We are not here forever, not even for a few more years.  Yet, it feels like home because this is where we have chosen to spend our days and nights.  We have become a part of this community, at least for now and what matters most, is that we are here together.


Wednesday, 25 July 2012

school's out for summer

Kind of an excuse for not writing, but the last couple of months have been a whirlwind. Honestly, I have no idea how we jump from day to day so damn quickly.    

At the end of May, the kids went on their class trips - Eli to London, Graydon to Paris and Esmée to Interlaken.  Jeff and I took advantage and travelled to Ticino, the Italian region of Switzerland for a few days where we wandered around without any real plan, stayed in beautiful hotels, ate delicious Italian food, slept in and enjoyed the quiet.  

Lake Lugano

In early June, we met Jimpy (my mother) in Paris to take in the sights and a few matches at Roland Garros.  We rented an apartment in the 6th Arr., a great location in terms of its proximity to all the places we wanted to go.  Coming from the serene mountain life of the Saanenland, however, it was possibly the noisiest place on earth.  Thank god for the Parisien bakery downstairs.  Without its fresh pain au chocolats, croissants and it's piping hot café, we wouldn’t have survived the sleepless nights marked by the incessant sounds of traffic and people in the City of Lights.

rue de vaugirard et raspail

Roland Garros was a real highlight.  Thanks to my mum's great friend at NBC Sports, we were able to see three matches: Nadal-Almago in the Quarters, the Sharapova-Errani final and the Sunday portion of the Nadal-Djokovic final.  I love watching tennis on TV, the analysis and commentary is of real benefit.  However, the energy and excitement in the stands at the French during those matches was incredible.  It was such a treat to be a part of the action. We watched Rafa's precision and focus in placing his water bottles in exactly the same spot on the clay in front of his bench at each changeover.  His ritualistic bum picking, sweat wiping, hair tucking, nose wiping before each point was all the more poignant from a mere 25 m away.  Sharapova clenches her fist and walks to the back of the court between each point, a moment to focus and prepare.  It was thrilling to see her win her first French Open title and to cheer Nadal on to winning his seventh.

Giverny and a day in Monet's garden was a hit.  Graydon had been there with his class a few weeks earlier and he relished in being our tour guide and noting all the changes in the garden.

We also did lots of walking and sight-seeing and had a great day with The Beatty-Walter family who, by chance, were staying two blocks away from our apartment.  A highlight for the kids was The Catacombs, an underground labyrinth of skulls and bones, the burial grounds for 6 million Parisiens around the end of the 18th century.

the artfully created catacombs
Esmée was determined to see the Mona Lisa, so we weaved our way through the Louvre crowds one afternoon in search of DaVinci's masterpiece.  It had been pouring rain all morning, but the sun had emerged just enough to generate steam off the backs of every tourists' raincoat.  Every last one of us in that museum brought the wet heat indoors, virtually turning the place into a crowded steam room.  Once Esmée successfully wormed her way to the front of the crowd to get a few pictures of the famous lady, we quickly escaped back outside and headed for our favourite spot, the Luxembourg Gardens...  

One of my fave pic of Paris - a drive by....

After paris, we were into the last stretch of school days with all of that inherent craziness – play dates and musical dress rehearsals, cleaning out of desks and the resultant piles of notebooks, artwork and stuff at home, assemblies, good byes and the excitement and anticipation of a couple of months without tests and homework.  In amongst this madness, I snuck in a glorious 5 day tennis clinic here in Gstaad lead by Aussie legend, Roy Emerson.  Fresh off my spectator experience at the French Open, I was in heaven. 

The end of school is a time of real emotional conflict. From my own school days, I remember the feelings of relief and excitement mixed with sadness as everyone scatters and goes their separate ways.    It’s a time of goodbyes and see ya later's, some intended for a couple of months, but some for longer.  We've had a fantastic year.  We've all met wonderful people and made great new friends and thankfully, we are able to put off our own longer term good bye's for now.  

Monday, 14 May 2012

changing seasons + a punk rock concert

It's time to put away our winter gear and watch the snow melt.  The mountain peaks are still white around here which makes the green of the valley even more striking.  The grass is glowing like emeralds and flowers, both planted and wild, are shooting up from the ground.

I love spring, there is so much hope and renewal and warmth in the air.  We have had loads of rain the last few weeks, but today the sun is back out and it's gorgeous.  One of the things I love most about spring is the infinite shades of green everywhere you look.

I went for a hike a few days ago, on one of the very few gloriously sunny days we've had. It was hot (28C), but breezy and it was so fantastic to be back out on my feet again.  I always miss walking during the long, cold months of winter.  The mountains are coming alive with wild crocuses, white and purple.  There are also yellow flowers which I have yet to identify (not dandelions, but there are those as well).  It is stunning and inspiring, all around.

Apple blossoms abound and the lilacs are just popping.  Asparagus, both green and white (Euros love the white variety) line the produce shelves at the grocery store.


And the cows, sheep and goats are back outdoors.  After a winter of being cooped up in their barns, they are on the move and once again, the valley is full of the sounds of ringing bells.  

our cow neighbours

our sheep neighbours
On the weekend, there was a music festival in Saanen. Taking place every May, "Rock the Village" is but one marker of Spring around here.  Imagine my delight when I looked at the line-up of bands on this year's poster.  There they were - The Fucks - in all their glory!  I HAD to go....

Thankfully, I was able to convince my friend Diana to join me in my obsession-guided adventure Saturday night (Jeff is in Ontario).  It was freezing and pouring rain and of course, the concert was taking place in a tent at the Saanen Flugplatz (airport).  Our enthusiasm waned throughout the day and early evening.   But, we pumped ourselves up and went, feeling kind of hip and cool, at least while we parked the car and before we entered the tent.  The Fucks are a punk band so there was lots of slam dancing.  We stayed their whole set, took pictures and videos for our kids who were quite mad they weren't allowed to come (16+).  It took me back to the days of being a teenager, going to wild concerts at the Masonic Temple in Toronto, getting drunk and dancing your face off with your friends.  Only this time I was more of an (old) observer.  We even "met the band" afterwards (well, actually just the drummer, but he's the Main Dude).  It turns out that Diana knew his grandfather and knows his father, we were practically groupies.  We went, we saw and yes, we bought the Tshirts to prove it.

the fucks onstage

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


Located on the southern tip of Egypt's Sinai peninsula, Sharm el Sheikh overlooks the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea. It's well known for it's diving and snorkelling and is home to a number of hotels and resorts.  From Europe, at this time of year, there aren't as many choices for hot weather destinations without committing to long haul flights and time changes.  The Sinai, however, fits the bill with 5 hours flying time from Geneva (through Cairo) and daily temperatures in the high 20s.  I was almost desperate to go. I needed a break from the sometimes frantic pace of skiing and a winter of the dizzying cycle of packing and unpacking all the equipment.  I needed to feel true heat and hear the birds sing.  I wanted to see these trees...

I thought I had my work really cut out for me as we already had plans to go to Lech, Austria after Kitzbühel and then back to Saanen for more spring skiing.   However, the I-can't-go-on-a-holiday-without-lots-of-activities-to-do angels were on my side.  As soon as Jeff discovered there was a kiteboarding school in Sharm, run by a couple of Aussies and appropriately called "Kite Junkies", he was in.

The resort was beautiful and the service amazing.  For 6 days, the kinds of  difficult choices we had to make were whether to sit by the pool or on the beach and what kind of omelette to have for breakfast!  

view to the Red Sea and the island of Tiran in the background
The kids had a blast swimming, snorkelling and they all did some scuba diving.  They each did an introductory dive, one-on-one with a dive master and then the boys were able to go on and do a "discover scuba diving" 4-hour course where they did some theory, a pool dive and a sea dive to 12m.

esmee on the descent
graydy + eli after their dive

Jeff took the boys for three full mornings to Kite Junkies where they learned how to kite board.  They loved it and did really well.  Two of the three days were windy enough for Jeff to get out on his own.  He was in heaven...

the scene at Kite Junkies beach


As for me, I did not dive or kite board.  I swam with my kids, but mostly sat on my ass by the pool.  I spent some quality time with the likes of Raymond Carver + Ernest Hemingway, among others...   

It was a wonderful break, a true holiday where parents and kids alike were happily at ease.  It was not a cultural adventure, there were no tourist excursions, just pure fun + relaxation in the sun.  It's embarrassing to admit, but I'm not even entirely sure where the Pyramids are.  We'll save them for our next trip....

Thursday, 12 April 2012


We spent the first part of the 3 week school holiday visiting the Duras family in Kitzbühel, Austria.  Kitzbühel is most famous in the skiing world for The Hahnenkamm, the most terrifying and demanding men's downhill race on the World Cup circuit.  Our hotel was at the base of the Hahnenkamm Gondola, so even though the race takes place in January, it loomed large in our minds the entire time we were in Kitz.
Graydon in the start of the famous Hahnenkamm

The course itself is called the Strief (german for streak) and having now skied it myself (slowly and carefully, with lots of turns), I can assure you that all the hype about this run is true.  It has it all - huge jumps, narrow passages, hairpin turns and really steep pitches.  As Jeff said - you're on the gas from the moment you leave the start and you can't let up until you cross the finish line.  There's no room for error and nowhere to relax, even for a second.  Just ask Todd Brooker or Brian Stemmle, 2 Canadians who have had spectacular crashes on The Strief.

Imagine our pleasure on the first morning as we climbed into the gondola, only to discover a large sticker on the window with Didier Cuche's name, a Swiss flag and a list of all his wins at Kitzbühel.  It only took a few seconds before we realized that each gondola cabin is named after Hahnenkamm winners, so it became a race to see who could read the names on the cabins first as we passed each one.  Big Canadian cheers when we passed Steve Podborski (1981+1982), Ken Read (1980) and Todd Brooker (1983) - a 4 year reign of the Crazy Canucks!  On our last day, Esmée and I waited at the bottom to get a picture of her beside Craigleith's own Steve Podborski.

It was wonderful to see Matthew and Veronica and get to know their lovely daughters, Isabella and Valentina.  Veronica is Austrian and her family has a beautiful working dairy farm in the Kitz valley where they all gather for weekends and holidays.  Matthew is Canadian, but has been living and working in Czech running his family's farm since the early 1990s.  They met skiing in Kitz and now live in Tetin, just outside Prague.  

dinner with the duras clan
Spending time with Matthew, an old friend of both Jeff and I, and getting to know his family better was tremendously good for our souls.  Amid the constant reminiscing about the good 'ole days of tree planting and ski racing, there were many, many laughs and lots of exploring on the ski hills together.  Plans are already underway for an excursion to the Czech Republic in July...

esmée, isabella + valentina
delicious lunches on the mountain
amazing views
old school double chair with swing out bars and foot rests

Monday, 19 March 2012

NZ 13, we will miss you

This past week has been incredibly difficult.  Last Saturday, 10 March, we all went to Grindelwald to watch the last World Cup Ski Cross race of the season.  Our friend from Craigleith, Nik Zoricic, was racing and we wanted to cheer him and his Canadian teammates on.  Jeff coached Nik when he was a young ski racer, about the age of our boys now.  He worked with Nik's Dad, Bebe, on and off at Craigleith over the years.  We were all excited to see Nik on the World Cup stage and to be there to support him so far away from home.

It was an astonishingly beautiful day.  A perfect bluebird, just above freezing.  For skiers, it was the kind of day that just doesn't get any better.  We arrived in time to see a few of the final training runs and after the Canadians came down, there was Nik, standing in the finish area wearing bib # 13.

We had a brief visit and wished him luck.  He was relaxed and happy and told us how much he was enjoying being in the Alps. He marvelled at the beauty of the mountains around us and at being able to race on the doorstep of Switzerland's notorious Eiger.  His eyes shone bright and his smile stretched from ear to ear, as it always has.

We were looking forward to having a few beers after the race, meeting the team and having dinner together.  Our kids had their sharpies, ready to collect signatures, but we held off asking because the guys were getting ready for their race and we didn't want to be bothersome fans.  We could do all that after the race.  I didn't take any pictures either.     

Nik was in the fourth heat of the race with teammate Chris Del Bosco, a German and a French racer.  We were in the finish area, jumping up and down in the stands, screaming our heads off as we watched the four racers on the big screen and then finally, as they came over the last jump.  Nik was in third, came off the final jump too far to his right and slammed into the safety netting.  In an instant, it was all over.  He slid into the finish area, unconscious.  

Silence.  Everyone was stunned.  We simply couldn't believe our eyes. 

Over the next forty-five minutes, we watched as a medical crew worked on Nik 100m away from where we stood, now shivering in the warm spring air.  Helicopters came and went, landing directly in front of us in the finish corral.  Sponsor banners blowing up into the sky each time.  Faces all around us grew increasingly solemn and pale.  With each minute that passed, Jeff and I knew that Nik was in real trouble. 

Our kids kept asking us if he was going to be ok.  "Will he be able to ski again?", "When are they going to take him to the hospital?".  Their questions and tears punctuating the quiet of the stands.  They were looking to Jeff and I, searching our ashen faces, to find a sign that everything would be alright.  As parents, we tried to soothe their fears, but the unspoken truth was that we were both terrified.  

As soon as Nik was taken away by helicopter, we left.  It was only once we were in our car, on our way back to Saanen, that our worst fears were confirmed.  Nik had died from 'severe neurotrauma'. 

We pulled over and in voices barely above a whisper, gave the news to our children.  I think that in their own beautiful and innocent ways, they had truly believed that Nik was going to be ok.  They sat inconsolable in the back seat, tears streaming down their goggle-tanned faces.   

We drove straight to our local mountain and went up in the gondola.  We took out our sharpies and paid tribute to Nik on our helmets - NZ 13, we will miss you.  At the top, consoled by the mountain peaks around us, we huddled together and said a few prayers for Nik and his family before we skied down.  We wanted to finish Nik's run for him.

We have gone from being unbearably close to the tragedy of Nik's crash and death, to feeling so far from home.  We are missing our family and our friends.  We are missing the comfort that we share in being together in times of crisis and catastrophe.  We are grateful for our friends here and their wonderful support of our family as we try to heal.  We are thinking about Nik's family, Bebe, Silvia and Kat, and his wide group of friends as they move forward with their lives.  

Life is so fragile.  On a magnificent sunny day in the Swiss Alps, Nik was there, standing with us and skiing with his teammates.  He was doing what he loved to do and then, he was gone.   

Nik Zoricic  19 February, 1983 - 10 March, 2012

Friday, 2 March 2012

the family tree

Moving to a new place is not without its challenges.  There are the most obvious language and cultural differences.  There are new people, strangers who may or may not be interested in becoming friends with newly arrived Canadians.  We have been lucky to meet some extraordinary people and begin to develop some really good friendships here.  But still, when you come from a wonderfully close and supportive community of family and friends, like we do, starting fresh can be an overwhelming and sometimes, lonely endeavour.

We did not, however, start quite from scratch.  We choose to come to Saanen largely because of the JFK School and the Lovell family (Alison Lovell is married to my brother Ryan).  Forty one years ago, Bill and Sandy Lovell (Ali's parents) came to teach at a tiny school here in Saanen.  After one year, they were asked to take over the school and have been here ever since.  They raised their two children here (Ali and her brother, Bryce) and did a fabulous job growing the JFK International School into what it is today.  They sold the school this past summer, but Bill + Sandy and Bryce + his wife Vickie and their kids continue to live here in Saanen.   That means that we have the good fortune of having family close by.

The other day, I ran into Sandy in the grocery store and found myself quizzing her on all the different kinds of mountain cheese.  When the kids had to find sponsors for a charity ski race, we knew where to go.  We've celebrated Canadian Thanksgiving and Christmas together.  There have been a couple of times where our kids have been in the local (swiss german) paper and they've called to let us know or dropped off a copy.   Our kids are enchanted by their "Swiss cousins", Ava and Sadie and love to run into them around town or get together for dinner.    Most importantly, I know they're all nearby, just in case...

Thankfully, for this temporary transplant, the family tree is as wide as it is tall and always, always expanding....

A few of my fave photos as of late....

a perfect day ski touring

graydy gets a haircut

this morning on the chalberhoni - videmanette lift