OK, it's been awhile between posts. About 5 months, to be exact. It's not that I've had nothing to write about, but to say that the past few months were busy would be a huge understatement.
There have been a lot of changes in my life lately, and there are plenty more on the immediate horizon. Nearly two months ago (wow, has it really been that long?) I said goodbye to my job, my friends, and my two years in Switzerland to move home to DC. The decision to do so was made for many reasons and it was definitely the right thing for me, but that doesn't mean it was easy. Quite the contrary. Saying goodbye to Switzerland and especially to my friends really really sucked, and I really don't do goodbyes well. They had to deal with my ridiculously emotional self for far too long. Sorry about that. One day I will learn to better control my emotions. Maybe.
Coming back to your own country they always talk about reverse culture shock. Luckily, I have a wonderful network of family and friends here who have been so supportive, so although I miss being there, I haven't experienced too much of that. But there have been some things, ridiculous things, things I would have never thought of, that have made me realize that the line between what is Swiss and what is American has become more blurry and confusing that I thought.
Just yesterday I was getting ready to take out the trash when suddenly I froze, puzzled. Wait...I don't have the proper trash bags....but no, I don't need specific bags...or...wait, do I?? I stood there looking confused for a minute and eventually asked my new roommate. She looked at me with some amusement as she assured me that I could put anything in there and I didn't need a special trash bag.
Haha, <blushing>, of course. Yes I knew that.
Katie also just returned from two years abroad, Thailand for her. We got dinner last night and cracked ourselves up sharing the idiotic things that we have done, said, or been excited about since being home. So I know that it's not just me. I think that one of the biggest things that you learn living in another country is to not sweat the small stuff. You live in a culture that's not your own, so things are not always (or are rarely) going to go the way that you think they will. And I'm finding that as I readjust to living here, that holds true sometimes even more than it did there. You can't take yourself too seriously, and when things don't go according to plan, just laugh and know that it's going to be ok.
It started out like any other Thursday.
Wake up, make coffee, get ready for work..
But as I turned the corner, I nearly collided with a brightly-colored, metallic-looking, frilly, enormous dress and a ridiculous hat, similar to this:
Then there was this:
Mmhmm, Fasnacht had arrived.
I missed it last year, this crazy February festival when the Swiss lose the rules (what??), dress in elaborate, often homemade costumes, and have a 5 day party.
But I wasn't going to miss it this year! This year, I donned my (not homemade and not even mine) frog costume and joined the fun.
Everywhere you went, people were dancing in the streets, throwing confetti in your face, and having a great time. Considering how quiet and reserved the Swiss normally are, it felt like entering the twilight zone for a few days. Costumes ranged from simple to "how in the world did they come up with that?"
Bands were playing everywhere you looked. We found one group wearing giant cat head masks, so we asked to try them on...
We also made friends with another band. One of them disappeared into nowhere and left his drum kit on the ground, so I decided to help them out.
We encountered balloon people and lighthouses, Super Mario, and every animal imaginable. There were vikings and creepy masks, kings and queens, and costumes that just didn't make any sense. For five days everything you think you know about this country is suspended.
And then just like that, it's over.
The confetti disappears, normal clothes make their comeback, and the streets are quiet, like nothing had ever happened. And everyone starts planning for next year...
The sun was out today.
That shouldn’t be such a notable occurrence, but we have had weeks of endless fog, gray skies and no snow and it gets a bit depressing after awhile. So a sunny day definitely comes as a pleasant surprise.
On the train this morning I could actually see the mountains beyond the lake, and for the first time in a long time I had to adjust my position at my desk because the sun was in my eyes. People seemed more cheerful today, and even the trees with their lack of leaves seem prettier.
Of course, if you go up in the mountains you can escape the fog anytime you want and enjoy the beautiful snowiness. Last weekend a number of people took a trip up to Wengen for a weekend of skiing (and it also happened to be Australia day, so of course we celebrated).
It was my first time on skiis in 13 or 14 years. I’m pretty sure that the last time I was on skiis (before switching to ski blades and then a snowboard) was the time that I was still living in New Jersey and I went with my friends Jamie and Amanda. Amanda had never been skiing before, and during the course of the day I managed to accidentally cut her off and she went flying off the side of the slope. She said then that I scarred her for life and she would never get back on skiis again. I wonder if that's still true...
Regardless, I managed to remember most of what I used to know. On my first trip down the mountain I somehow missed the blue markers and wound up on a steep red (the levels are slightly different here, blue-red-black). It starts as a gentle blue and then suddenly you find yourself flying down a steep hill, with various mogul-type things and a lot of people in your way. After a stressful first descent, I managed to pull it together to go down again. And again and again.
Being up on the mountain here has a different feel than being at a ski resort in the states (at least the ones I’ve been to). Everything seems more open. People are skiing off piste, and it is definitely easier to get lost. Skis lifts are going every which way. There isn't a single lodge where you get your skis and your lunch, but at the bottom of many of the slopes you find small cafes where you can sit and relax. And since this is Switzerland, everyone sits outside. I also really enjoyed that they were playing "La Bamba" at the place I stopped for lunch.
And the view is just breathtaking.
On the ski lift you reach a point where all noise is deadened by the snow and everything just goes silent. Such a great weekend.
Also, a very happy 2nd birthday to my adorable nephew Nathan! Nathan celebrated his birthday this weekend with an unintentionally extended road trip, 2 dead car batteries, and of course, cake! Read more about it on Valerie’s blog.
I first found out that there was another baby on the way on a very eventful moving day in 2011. Natalie jumped out of the car as soon as they arrived and said, “I’m going to be a big sister!” My eyes got big as I looked at Val for confirmation, and then, of course, when I got it I screamed. Typical.
A few months later, this little cutie arrived, and he's been smiling ever since. :-D
Happy birthday, Nathan!
The perfect place exists only in the imagination. No matter where you choose to live and how much you like it there, there are going to be the parts that you love and the parts that you don't. When you choose to live in a country (or culture) that's not your own, you also throw in those cultural differences that seem so strange and take some getting used to.
I have been in Switzerland for over 18 months now, and in Luzern for nearly a year. I've learned a lot. I know to expect chaos from the upcoming Fasnacht, how to navigate the trains, and I know where to go for karaoke. I know that I need to weigh my fruit before checkout, that the bakery around the corner is the best place to go for coffee and bread, and that if I run really really fast I can make it from my door to the train in 3 minutes.
So here I sit, 18 months in, 6 months to go, looking back at my Swiss experience thusfar.
And I give you my personal list of the good, the bad, and the just plain weird.
The people you meet can make or break an experience. The people I have the privilege of spending time with here are welcoming, fun, and up for anything.
Want to jump off a mountain? Sure!
Want to go to the wine boats? Why not?
Want to go surfing this weekend? Of course!
Max Chocolatier in Luzern has ruined me for any other chocolate.
It can be difficult to travel to other countries from the US. It's a big place and it's expensive to leave.
Switzerland? Not so.
The Swiss lifestyle
Time in the outdoors is encouraged, and even old men ride their bikes around town. Life is far from sedentary. Cars aren’t a necessity, and you can find some sort of festival pretty much all the time. I like when the wine boats come to Luzern.
The 24 hour kabob shop a block from my house
Midnight craving? No problem.
The 24 hour kabob shop a block from my house
It's a problem.
They are the American specialty I miss the most (well, that and Chipotle). I'm sorry, Switzerland, but you just don't do burgers very well. Even at the places that other expats recommend. Give me Five Guys or Fuddruckers any day, thanks.
Swiss German is not the same
You think you know how to count in German. You studied. You practiced.
And then you speak to a Swiss cashier.
You know nothing.
Rules that you don't know are rules until you've broken them
There are so many little things that you're supposed to do that are far from obvious (if you're not from here). Then you end up with a letter in your mailbox that you have to translate in order to find out why you are being fined a ridiculous amount of money.
This has happened to me more times than I would like to admit (is it just me??).
Switzerland and Virginia are not close
Oh to be one of those people who can fly home for the weekend...
The just plain weird
The anarchic sidewalks
Everything in Switzerland is organized and efficient. Trains are (almost always) on time, and there’s a rule for everything. Even the escalators have little feet decals showing you which side is for walking and which is for standing. Except sidewalks. It seems like common sense that if everyone walks on the right, we can all go about our business with minimal collisions. It works on the roads. But despite the country's intense organization, people here walk wherever they please. Left, right, center, zigzag. More than once I have nearly (or not so nearly) run into someone else because I’m walking on the right and they’re walking toward me on the left and we end up playing chicken because neither one wants to move out of the way.
I just don’t get it.
The bugless environment
It’s like the Swiss all got together in a town meeting and decided to banish all the insects. Sure, you’ll see a few bees every now and then, and the ladybugs all decided to take refuge in my office when it got cold. I’ve seen two small (and I mean so small that I had to look twice just to figure out what it was) spiders in my apartment once, but I just got my kitten and let him go for it. I'm sure there are bugs around somewhere, but you never see them. Coming from an apartment in DC where I was scared out of a few years of my life thanks to a disgusting, monstrous, lightning-fast, centipede-like thing right near my head, the lack of bugs is just fine with me, thanks.
There may not be a lot of bugs around, but there is certainly no shortage of giant, slimy slugs when it rains.
I love it here. But Switzerland can be a strange place to live. It is like living in a bubble.
A beautiful, chocolate-filled, rule-crazy bubble :-D
No matter how great your host country is, as an expat there will always be things that you miss from home. Like Chipotle, or knowing that you'll be able to communicate with the person on the other side of the phone, or being able to find a simple can of black beans.
For me, fall is the hardest time to be away. It's my favorite season, especially in Virginia. Fall to me is football, apple picking, wine tasting trips to Charlottesville, drives in the mountains to see the changing colors, and of course, Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday. I love going to my parents' house, cooking with my mom and my sisters with the parade in the background, and the first sounds of Christmas music.
For the second year, I wasn't home for Thanksgiving. But, thanks to some great friends, I still got to celebrate!
These wonderful people came to my house for a not-so-traditional Thanksgiving meal. With three Americans, one Swiss, one Chilean, and two Scots, we didn't have all of the typical meal offerings (especially because I could not find fried onions anywhere to complete my green bean casserole. So sad). We started with curry soup and ended with cupcakes, with turkey and mashed potatoes in the middle. And it was delicious!
We laughed, we ate, we made the neighbors angry (no formal complaints so far!), and we had a great time!
It was so nice to celebrate my favorite holiday with such fun people!
About five and a half years ago, I was about to walk into the Kroger in Charlottesville to do some grocery shopping when I got a call from my sister Valerie.
This was odd, considering she and her husband lived in Tanzania at the time.
I stood outside to talk to her, slightly concerned about what would warrant an unexpected phone call from across the world. A minute of chatting, and then,
A second's pause, a moment of processing the meaning of what she oh so casually just announced, and then my eyes got really big and I yelled,
way too loudly for a public place. Everyone within earshot (most of the shopping center) stopped and stared in my direction. I smiled sheepishly and shrugged my shoulders, Val laughed, and I started imagining the baby who was soon coming (yes, I have reacted similarly to the announcement of all 5 nieces and nephews. I never do seem to expect it.)
A few months later I was spending Thanksgiving 2008 with my parents at the hospital in Harrisonburg, waiting to meet my new niece.
She was so beautiful!
Natalie had an enormous amount of hair when she was born (must have been the Kenyan side!), and she soon grew into an adorably chubby baby.
She turns 5 today, my beautiful, sweet, crazy, fun, wonderful, adorable Natalie.
Give her a huge happy birthday hug for me please, Val :-D
Did you know that by imagining a trip and planning it in your head you can lower your stress level and increase your happiness? You don't even have to go, it's simply the possibility of it that can make you happier.
Right now I'm mentally planning a trip to Peru to hike the Inca Trail summer after next, and at some point in the near future I want to go to Iceland or Norway or Finland to see the northern lights (you can rent a heated glass igloo in Finland). Stonehenge is on my list, as is bungee jumping in Interlaken and throwing tomatoes at La Tomatina in Spain and riding a donkey in the Grand Canyon and visiting Yosemite and going to Petra and Sweden and Japan and Brazil...
I want to learn the guitar and become fluent in Spanish and publish a book and play steel drums.
In fact, my bucket list is almost 3 pages long already, and I keep adding to it.
Will it happen?
Who knows, but it's really not the whole point. Some things on the list are realistic and some not so much (I probably won't ever get my pilot's license, but it's nice to dream!), there are certainly a lot of factors that would get in the way, and a lot can and will change as time goes on.
But it's fun to just imagine the possibilities.
When you're waiting for the train to leave, you see a lot of people walking by. Some are rushing, some meandering, many on phones or talking to the person next to them.
And then there are those people who walk by with a grin on their face. No phone, no music, no other people. Just them and their thoughts. And you can't help but smile too, wondering what it is that's making them so happy.
Not necessarily something that comes to mind when you think Switzerland.
Chocolate, yup. Cheese, sure. But pretzels? Not so much.
But they are delicious.
You can get them with pumpkin seeds. Amazing.
With cheese. Even more amazing.
With ham and butter. My breakfast this morning.
During a 4 minutes stopover, I have even run from the train down the stairs to the Brezel König and back up to the train in Zug just so that I could get a pretzel for my train ride home.
They are that good.
They are the coolest little kids I know, and I miss them like crazy.
Skype remains on my list of one of the best inventions ever, but "visiting" on the computer is just not the same.
I remember one day, before there were any kids in the family. I was in college, living in Lambeth with 5 roommates, and I was sitting at the table one morning with my cup of tea (I had not yet discovered the joys of coffee). Allison rarely called me in the mornings, so I was surprised when my phone rang.
We chatted for a few minutes, and then she hit me with it.
"So I just thought you might like to know that I'm pregnant."
There was a second's pause as it sunk in, and then I screamed. Really loudly. Allison laughed and Katie came running into the room with a huge smile on her face, because somehow she already knew what I was screaming about.
A few months later, there was a beautiful baby girl in our lives.
Well, today that beautiful baby girl turns 7!
And she is awesome.
She is clever and hilarious and creative and just so much fun! Happy birthday!!!
Anyone who's met me in the last 7 years knows how much I adore my five nieces and nephews. We play superheroes and go on pretend journeys to the moon and fight dragons and play in the park and draw pictures and play legos and chase each other around and laugh. My sisters and I are spread on three continents at the moment, so I don't get to spend as much time with the kids as I would like. But I have been lucky enough to see all five of them within days (most within an hour or two) of their birth, to play with them, hear them laugh, read with them, and celebrate with them.
And I am one proud auntie :-D
Kelly is an American teacher living in Switzerland and enjoying everything the country has to offer.