Castles in the Sky

We took a road trip this past weekend to Lake Como.       When we used to live in the US, you could count Waffle Houses on any given drive on I-95 or similar Southern highway.   Here in the heart of Europe, we can count castles.

Castles are typically on hills.   This is for two main reasons:   1 – so that they could watch over the valleys and know about any incoming intruders and 2 – it is harder to overtake a castle while having to climb a big mountain to do so.

I find it incredible to drive through these valleys and see the castles still towering above.   It is eery to think about what must have happened over the course of the hundreds of years of each castles’ lifetime….the battles, the deaths, the prisoners, the changes in lives that happened.

I thought I’d share a cross section of castles we saw.  Mind you that this is in just one weekend trip!

And of course, had to include our favorite, in Sion:

Related links:

The Swiss Watch Blog:  Castles of Sion

The Swiss Watch Blog: Chateau Chillon

Four Seasons of Geneva’s Crazy Trees

When you visit, one of the first things you’ll notice is Geneva’s “crazy” trees.  Right now, they are just starting to bloom.

Springtime blooms in Place du Fusterie

In the winter, they stand out because of their nobby growths.

Sometimes they prune the growth off of the “nobs” and sometimes they don’t.

Every single guest we have had has made a comment about these peculiar arbors, more formally called plantane trees.  I agree that they look like something out of a sci-fi movie.

Crazy trees covered in snow

Line up of snow-covered plantanes

In the summer, they are quite glorious.  It looks like there are pom-poms are attached to the ends of the branches.

Crazy trees, full of growth, in a photo from last summer

Beautifully lining the shores of Lake Geneva

When I was working on my art show last Fall, I did a painting of them along the left bank.   My friend N has it in her house in Kansas now to remember her drive from city centre Geneva to her village of Vesenaz.

“Shores of Lake Geneva”

I also think that they have the most beautiful bark, resembling a smooth skin.  Wouldn’t you agree?

My French tutors told me these are only common to lake regions of Switzerland, France and Italy.

Since it has been a year that we have lived here, it’s pretty neat that we’ve seen them in every season.

Gratitude Friday: We survived our first year

This gratitude Friday, I wanted to express my thanks for a good first year in Geneva.  Yesterday, marked the anniversary of our move.   We have now seen all the seasons in Switzerland.   An amiable summer, an elegant fall, a mind-curdling winter, and a rainy spring.

 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that it’s been with ups and downs.  However, the positives of our experience have far outweighed the negatives.

— –We continue to love the travel and our central location in Europe.  Somedays, it feels like we are living inside of a Busch Gardens theme park, hopping around to different countries in a weekend.  The ‘cool’ factor of that has definitely not worn out with us.   This is the best part about our expat experience.

–It is still doesn’t feel like home.  I am not sure it will before we have to leave.   I was talking with a woman the other day who has lived here 26 years and still says she feels like she is still a foreigner.

–We love our lifestyle.  I never feel rushed or stressed.  People enjoy life at a more leisurely pace and it has a positive influence on us. Especially me who needs all I can get of this example.  In fact, Gabe just returned from two weeks in the US and said it was remarkable to see the comparison of  tension &  hurriedness when he was back.  He said at the end of his time, he was starting to walk faster as a result.

–It has been interesting to watch our reaction to culture shock over the course of a year.  I mentioned on a previous post how this is a continual process.   It usually forms as a result of multiple inputs, not just one thing.  We knew that this would happen.  We have heard it would continue 1-2 years.  We’ll outsmart it just as its time to return.

–Knowing the language makes it easier.  My french is still not beautiful and nowhere close to fluent but I can make myself understood in simple conversation and getting things done. I no longer avoid making phone calls / appointments — I tackle them head on.  And it feels good to finally be able to do that.

We are very grateful for this year.

Bon weekend, everyone!

Caves Ouvertes 2012

This past weekend was our favorite day of the year in Geneva:  Caves Ouvertes.   You may remember that we attended Caves Ouvertes our first Saturday in Geneva and it’s where we met A & A and D at the bus stop.  It’s crazy we’ve been hear a year and are having a second round of activities.

The reason its the best day in Geneva is that you pay 5 CHF for a wine glass and you can taste wine all day at any of the 90 open wineries in the canton.  This is hands-down Switzerland’s best deal.

A & A kicked off Caves Ouvertes 2012 with a scrumptious Canadienne Buffet at their house: American style.   We knew we’d need the hearty breakfast to fill our tummies before the big day.  They made eggs, bacon and biscuits & gravy.  L brought hash browns.   We brought Duncan Hines blueberry muffins (thanks Mama Mia for bringing us the mix from the US!).

The hosts with the delicious spread

My plate of yummy brunch

After brunch, we headed to Rive to catch the bus up to Vesenaz where the special Caves Ouvertes bus would pick us up.

Reminiscing our meeting one year ago.   D moved back to the US  in August and we have missed her.  Notice that A made a new “D on a stick” and she accompanied us this year in spirit.

As we waited for the bus, it started to rain.  Boo.  But it wasn’t going to stop us from enjoying a day of free wine.

Storms on the Swiss countryside

We tried to go to Cave de la Chena again as it was so cute and quaint.  However, they didn’t open until 1pm this year.   Luckily, it was at the location where the bus looped back around 5 minutes later.

We re-boarded the bus and headed to the next stop, Domaine Château-L’Evêque.   It is a organic winery and we really enjoyed a number of their wines.

Approaching Domaine Château-L’Evêque – home of bio wine.

Spirits were high at our first stop

We enjoyed a lot of their wines.  We noted we wanted to buy 7-8 bottles.  However, there were a delivery fee up until 24 bottles.  We decided to come back on another day to purchase as it wasn’t going to be fun to tote that many bottles on the bus.

After an hour, we decided it was time to move on.  We hopped on the bus and traveled to Jussy.

2nd stop: Château du Crest

Gorgeous castle turned winery

We really enjoyed this place last year.    New this year, Château du Crest had a game – you had to guess what type of wine was in each glass – blanc, rosé, or rouge.

The Wine Game

Gabe trying to guess

A got a few wrong.  Guess we’ll have to continue drinking to improve her wine skills. 

After trying out the game, we went for the wine tasting room.   We were encouraged to try their new wine, Surprise.

Gabe and A intrigued by the sales pitch

Château du Crest had almost 20 wines to try.  We think this would also be a nice place to come with guests.  Their website says they are open 5-7 on weekdays and 10-12 Saturdays.

My rating sheet

After we left, we took time to pause in the same field as last year, with D on a stick.

Missing D

We hopped back on the bus and headed to stop #3:  Domaine de la Tour.  It was a cute little winery and they gave us a free platter of cheese and meat.  So kind!  We each bought a bottle there in gratitude.

It was 1:30 so we decided it was time to head to a town that had multiple wineries before Caves Ouvertes ended at 4pm.

Only in Switzerland can you interact with local farm animals while waiting for the bus

L gave up her newly purchased bottle to the cause since we had a long wait.  This may or may not have been a mistake.

Only in Switzerland can you drink on the bus.

We rode twenty minutes to Anières.   Our first stop was lively, with a live band and a huge crowd.

Stop #4

At this place, they were serving raclette.    It smelled delish.  All five of us got our own plate.

Specialty of Switzerland: raclette

After a few tastes there, we stopped next door.

Enjoying Anières with its three wineries within steps of each other

Stop #5

At 4:45, we headed across the street to La Cote D’Or.   I only had one taste before I decided my feet couldn’t make it anymore.  They’d been standing maybe 2-3 hours on and off.

Stop #6

We trudged through the rain to the bus stop but missed the one we had intended to catch.  We huddled under the shelter and tried to keep warm waiting for the next.

When we arrived back in Geneva, I headed home to rest, elevate and ice the feet.  They’d had a big day.   Gabe headed out with the rest of the group to Old Town for a few drinks to continue the fun.

Another great Caves Ouvertes!

Cheese Wars

This week, a big debate was settled.  It involves one of Switzerland’s most precious assets – cheese.  A US subsidiary of a Swiss cheese company was using the Swiss name Gruyeres on its cheese.    The Gruyeres region AOC was very upset as the US has very weak protection on designation of origin.

In Europe, its very common for wines to have AOC or DOC, ensuring that with this designation, the product you are buying comes from the original source.   Kind of like how champagne can’t come from anywhere but Champagne, France.  Everything else is just sparkling wine.

Gruyeres specifically comes from a special region in Switzerland.  They didn’t want to dilute that designation with cheese made in a similar fashion in a different area….like in this instance, the US.

I noticed today a tram advertisement for Le Gruyère that reads “Never forget where it comes from.”

Gruyeres Pride Tram

Take note – don’t mess around with Swiss cheese.

Related links:

SwissInfo.ch – Emmi surrenders Gruyere label in US

The Swiss Watch Blog – Famous Swiss Foods: Cheese

The Swiss Watch Blog – Gruyeres, Switzerland

Swiss San Francisco

When we were out on Neuchâtel Fun Day, we made a stop in La Chaux des Fonds as S was hosting two architecture students for the week, just prior to them returning from their studies abroad.   She wanted to show them another side of Switzerland and figured they’d like to see a few of Le Corbusier’s early designs.  Le Corbusier is a famous Swiss architect (I didn’t know either).    He happened to grow up in this city which is also a UNESCO world heritage city, for mechanical watch-making.

We visited both houses and drove around the city.

What was far more interesting to me in this Swiss city was the grid system.  S had noted that in addition to Le Corbusier and watch-making, that it was notorious for its checkerboard grid plan.

This is very uncommon in Switzerland.  Usually the roads cling to the shape of mountains, creating lots of curvy roads.  This makes it hard to drive in Swiss cities, with crazy intersections.  Especially when you add trams.  And bikes.  At angles.  Not that I know (since I can’t drive a stick), I just observe Gabe and my friends struggle with the traffic pattern.   If you haven’t read A’s Driving Handbook, you should.

Typical Swiss cities, like Neuchâtel, which we saw earlier in the day have more windy roads

However, La Chaux de Fonds is perfectly gridded and linear.  And, it is not flat all all.

Look at how the streets resemble San Francisco*!   As I mentioned, you don’t get these views in other Swiss cities because of the curve factor.

The hills

The next week, I told my physio that we went to La Chaux des Fonds with a group of friends.  He understood better when I mentioned the architecture thing.  He chuckled when I said I now called it “Swiss San Francisco”.

*In no way did the city & people resemble San Francisco except for the streets.   No bohemian vibe.  No bowls of chowder.     No adorable noisy seals.   And probably no nightlife.   Although I bet La Chaux des Fonds might rival Ghiradelli on chocolate….

Gratitude Friday: Mothers

This week, we are grateful for our Moms.

My mom and me, just over one year ago

It’s not just because its Mother’s Day on Sunday.   Actually they do celebrate this holiday here in Switzerland, Fête des Mères.    The cards read, “Bonne fête, Maman!”   To learn more about what countries have Mother’s Day and when, wikipedia has a handy reference.

Image courtesy of super toinette

Regarding mothers, we consider ourselves pretty lucky all year long.   For instance, all the things they did for us when we were young.   Also, all their contributions to make us who we are.  The list is endless.

Celebrating a birthday!  She handmade the Strawberry Shortcake cake!

I am grateful for my mom for:

–Instilling my creativity and helping encourage it

–Teaching me how to do things for myself and giving me boundaries.  I apologize for complaining about all the chores I had in high school.  And my curfew which happened to be the earliest out of anyone I knew!   However, I realized in college that every rule I had was for my own good.

–Generating a sense of empathy and awareness to be cognizant of with others

–Giving me wings – she was always supportive and encouraging no matter what path I took

I also find it is neat as time evolves that my mom has become more like a friend.

Gabe also wanted to share a few of the things he appreciates about this mom (known as Mama Mia on the blog).  This is what he wrote:

Gabe and his Mom.

The safe and supportive environment I felt while growing up (and still exists today)

–Her willingess to always listen…providing perspective while not judging.

–Keeping her three men in-check.  (though I think we could have handled that ourselves!)

–The endless generosity and love she showers on her family.

I also appreciate these things greatly because it contributed so much to his character and the person I love.

Thanks, Mama Mia!

Gabe got to see his Mom twice in April.   I get to see my Mom twice in June.   So we are pretty lucky that a world away, we can still see them on a fairly regular basis.  We know its hard to know we are in Europe, but we are thankful for their support and unconditional love they give us through this distance.

Gabe and his Mom, this past April, on the Swiss train. Don’t they resemble each other so much?

Also, when we are mentioning special matriarchal women, we can’t forget about this one:

Celebrating with Gabe’s grandma, July 4, 2010

So, thank you.  We appreciate all you have done for us.

Bonne fête and bon weekend!

Sunshine in Neuchâtel

I had been feeling a little glum lately – I think a combination of missing the U.S., friends, Gabe, and a little cabin fever from the rain and surgery recovery.    So, S invited me to join her, T and her two guests on an outing to Neuchâtel last Friday.

I’d heard it was a neat Swiss town so was excited for a chance to see it.   Traveling with S is like having a personal tour guide.  She has an amazing knack for history and even better, the retention and relation of this knowledge.  I love the history, just can’t remember it and relate it all.   So, as we walked the colorful streets, she pointed out a neat things to take note of (you can learn more about these on her blog).

 

As we walked, I just enjoyed the sunshine.   It hasn’t been too frequent lately so it was glorious to soak in the rays and even remove my jacket partway through the day.    Don’t you just love the puffy white clouds in the blue Swiss sky?

 

 

 

We concluded our walking tour of Neuchâtel with a picnic on the lake, all sharing things we brought along, before heading to 3 more interesting stops on the eastern side of Switzerland.

 

Thanks to S and Neuchâtel for the beautiful day.

Reason which I wish I spoke better French #241

Gabe just got back from being in the US.   One of the things we do when we go back are all our appointments – hair, dental, doctor, etc.   Before he left, we booked all that stuff for him.

I have slowly started to wean myself off my US appointments.  For all of 2011, I managed to get by with going to get my hair highlighted and cut in Charlotte when I was visiting.  And, with the 350 CHF price tag that a certain popular English-speaking salon has here in Geneva for highlights, I concluded that it might be cheaper to fly back to the US for these services.

Luckily, I found a wonderful hair gal who is super reasonable, so in 2012, I didn’t need to plan any hair-centric transAtlantic trips.

In 2011, I also managed to make two dental visits in during my trips home.   However, I decided, like the hair, it is time to find a more local solution.  So, now I am walking a little better, last week, I made an appointment with an English-speaking Geneva dentist.

This leads us to today’s lesson:

Lesson #1 – just because you find out a doctor speaks English, doesn’t mean their receptionist will.    Oh well, its okay.   I am used to it with my foot surgeon’s office and nurses.  And, I have basic French so while it is not pretty, I can accomplish things like taking an appointment.  So, I asked for a check-up / cleaning.  Success.

And, last week, I went.  And didn’t get a cleaning.   Fail.  Which leads us to Lessons 2 & 3:

Lesson #2 – do not celebrate an appointment as successful until you leave.  As I sat down, I was in awe of how cool the office was.  Everything was pristine and cheerful.   I envisioned how many friends I would tell about how awesome this dental office was.   However, I should have remembered my episode at the pedicurist and not to celebrate too early.

Lesson #3 – which I now know after yesterday, a dental appointment does not constitute a cleaning.   I was greeted by a superbly English speaking dentist who asked me what was wrong.  I presented her with my digital x-rays and just indicated nothing was wrong, that I was just in for a cleaning.  And she responded,   “Well, you should have made an appointment for a cleaning.  This was an appointment for a check-up.”

So my French could have been better.   I think I asked for the equivalent of a house cleaning instead of a teeth cleaning when I was on the phone.  And I was in the wrong assumption that the cleaning / check-ups are combination.   Nope. Separate altogether in Switzerland.

So, take heed, fellow ex-pats.  Maybe your French is better that mine.  But in case you are like me, ask for a “le détartrage” to avoid a little embarrassment.

Next week, I’ll go back for my actual appointment.

Swiss Driver’s Licenses

We officially have Swiss driver’s licenses.   As a foreigner from the U.S, you are permitted one year to get them.  Guess how long it took us?   Yup….. 11+ months.

It is a good thing we got them in time.  If you don’t do it within the year time frame, you have to take a driving test.  With a French-speaking DMV person.  With a stick shift.  No one wants that.  Especially me.

You have to pay 150 francs for the license.  I think the pleasure of taking the formal driving test costs an additional 120 francs or so.

If you are from a country that drives on the left hand side like the UK or Australia, you must take the test to prove you can handle the right hand side.

In addition to the normal stuff (residency card, cash), we also had to prove we had valid driver’s licenses in the US for the past 3 years.   If you don’t have that, you have to take the driving test.

You also have to bring a eye test from an authorized eye doctor with you.  We did this the evening before at our local Visilab.

Even though the entire thing went down in French, it was remarkably easy.     It only took 20 minutes, far less time than I spent in any DMV in the US.

And the DMV people are remarkably happy.  Friend T commented she wanted to work there if she could as they appear as they have a jolly good time having conversation, enjoying coffee and dolling out drivers licenses.   You don’t really see that back home.

Sweet new license

Now all I have to do is learn how to drive a stick shift, and I’ll actually be able to use my new drivers license.