Surviving Switzerland

an expat's experiences navigating the land of mountains, cheese and chocolate

Science, anyone?

DSC01347It’s been non-stop science at our place these last few days. This morning we had a ¾ eclipse. Yesterday during dinner my husband got out a globe-shaped table lamp, a pingpong ball and a marble to show our kids (ok, and me, too) how a solar eclipse works. Great stuff. I had a terrible time getting my daughter to eat her zucchini after they’d gone cold, but she was very excited about astronomy.

My husband, the scientifically minded soul that he is, thought that watching the eclipse would be much more interesting than working, so he called me up during the morning and invited me to join him. He found the last pair of eclipse glasses available in town at a nearby jewelry store (don’t ask). The campus cafeteria next to my husband’s office opens up to a courtyard, and while we were having coffee and passing the one pair of glasses back and forth, college guys and girls tiptoed up to the table to ask if they could borrow them a moment.

Unfiltered photo during eclipse

He and I whispered together and laughed at stupid things that only people who have been in love with each other for over 15 years find funny. I figured out that if I covered the camera lens with the solar glasses, we could get a picture of the eclipse and my husband found a couple of settings that gave fairly good results for the photos.

At 10:30, the moon moved into Cheshire Cat Smile position. Cool.


“Yeah, Mr. White! Yeah science!”

One kind of science talk had led to another and I blurted out our favorite quote (so far) from Breaking Bad. Switzerland has only picked up Netflix recently and we are embarrassingly behind on awesome TV series, generally speaking. We have a one month free trial for Netflix, though, and have been making up for lost time with as many episodes per week as we can emotionally handle. Between psychotic drug lords, bad trips, overdoses, a baby being born, Walter’s cancer treatments and the hilarious quips that Jesse shouts out, my husband and I have to pace ourselves with this series. No more than 6-7 episodes per week. Or thereabouts. Cue Cheshire Cat Smile again…..


To recap what I’ve learned from science this week:

  1. Solar eclipses are fun and a great excuse to teach the kids cool stuff during dinner instead of eating vegetables (and not feel guilty) and to not work (and to really not feel guilty!).
  2. Drugs are bad. Very, very bad.
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Ballenberg—Ode to an Open Air Museum


Herbal Medicine Garden and Historical House


The weather has been just about perfect the four times I have visited the Ballenberg Museum. Luck? Or fate? Perhaps Ballenberg loves me as much as I love it. It delights in my visits as much as I do. I can always dream; the patient houses from days long past that populate the museum certainly do.


DSC00732    DSC00758


Where once wooden and the occasional stone floors were warmed with bare feet of running children and answered loudly to the hard soles of women’s boots and farmers’ shoes, now echo timidly to the tourists creeping over them.  We tiptoe while we explore the odd nooks and crannies of rooms crowned with ceilings that threaten to attack our heads if lifted too high. Watch out in particular low hanging doorways.DSC00743


Ah, Ballenberg – the table is already set for lunch, but no one is coming in from the fields to eat there. The laundry has been washed and hung to dry, but no one rocks in the chair by the window to enjoy the peace and quiet. The ghosts are busy, but not intrusive. I’ve never heard a baby fuss in her tight bed or any mothers humming a lullaby while working at loom or wheel.


Even though the houses have been uprooted from their place of birth and painstakingly pieced together again; there is no sense of the monster brought back to life. They have found new homes in the deep valley near the Aare river, sprouted new roots from their cellars and original foundations that moved with them, and now enjoy the hills and mountains as well as the flowers that grow all about. Some of the granaries, however still stand on their stone stilts for fear of mice.




For anyone hoping for more practical information and not just my affection for the place, I invite you to visit the official web site, which is in English, French, German and Italian. I can highly recommend staying a night in the area of Interlaken (we stayed in the town of Interlaken) for the scenery going to and from the museum. Also, we were able to arrive early and stay longer which was greatly appreciated by all.


There are stories in every room, every corner, every whisper of air blowing through the gardens. Even the rocks have stories in Ballenberg. Plan on walking quite a bit; there are 100 historical buildings, after all, as well as fields, gardens, vineyards, ponds and paths through the forest. Enjoy the food that is prepared on site and enjoy the weather if you are as lucky as I have been.




Birthing chair and bucket


The Trip to the Jungfraujoch


The second to left col is the Jungfraujoch, the right peak is the Jungfrau


The Jungfraujoch’s elevation is approximately 3500 meters, or 11,480 feet above sea-level. It houses the highest railway station in Europe, as well as an observation platform, an ice-carvings cave walk, a glacier hiking trail and some pretty spectacular views. By the time we reached the outdoor fun area, though, all I could think was, “I’m gonna get sick all over this white snow.”


The train trip up the mountain is more than half the adventure, in my opinion. Which is not to belittle the views or experiences visitors have at the Jungfraujoch, it’s just that the valley of Lauterbrunnen that we passed through is one of my favorite vistas in Switzerland. Waterfalls, towering cliffs, deep forests—I love it.

Lauterbrunnen Valley

Lauterbrunnen Valley


We went up together with my parents and nephew starting from Interlaken, where we had a hotel room. We had to change trains three times, and I wound up forgetting half of the picnic food on the second to last train. This did not make me a popular person. I mean, I could not forgive myself for being so thoughtless. All of the chocolate was on the bag I left under the seat of the cog-wheel train that took us up the valley. All of the chocolate. My dad offered to kick me so I could stop kicking myself. Fortunately, there is a solution to every problem and there are several restaurants from self-serve to fine dining at the top, and since this is Switzerland, there is even a chocolate shop. Not my favorite brand, but I had only myself to blame for my heart-break.

Several highlights for our group was probably the Ice-Palace (even the floor is ice), the zip-line at the top of Europe (not particularly fast or long, but how often can you zip somewhere at over 3,500 meters?), and the observation deck. It was warmer than I thought it would be considering the glacier below our feet, so I was glad that an acquaintance had recommended sweaters and wind-breakers instead of the ski-jackets I wanted to take. Gloves and scarves also come in handy, but I have to say I cannot recommend wearing beach thongs for shoes. Yes, I saw some people wearing those.

Zip-line starting point

Zip-line starting point

And now I know that elevation sickness can show itself in many ways. We weren’t up there long, but it was enough for my step-mom to grow weak and faint, for me to feel decidedly nauseated and for my son to start rambling incoherently for nearly 10 minutes before sitting down suddenly and asking for a Coke to drink. I am happy to say that no one upchucked on the snow and after sitting down and having some tea and water everyone felt better.

The entire trip started at 8:00 and we were back to Interlaken by about 5:00 that evening. It was exhausting—the trains were overcrowded and each change was stressful, but all-in-all it was an amazing experience, a once in a lifetime day.

Views of glacier

View of glacier

Train travel tips: visitors traveling for several days up to a month in Switzerland should check out the Swiss Travel Systems  for deals. We bought the half-fare tickets for my parents and when we booked the Jungfraujoch trip (at half price) we recouped the initial cost and saved an extra $60 or so. Then, every time we took the train during their stay we saved half on the normal price.


Give that banjo to the Acadian

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI knew I was going to hear some great music at the Francomania Festival my husband and I went to. Nothing surprising about that—The Plaza Francia was the feature group that evening, and is comprised of two former members of The Gotan Project (Argentinean tango melodies set to pulsing electronic rhythms) and French singer Catherine Ringer, a legend in French music. So I was expecting a sensual journey through Latin America, full of dazzling colors and whipped up French passion, and probably some shadowed alleys were lovers cross and tempers flare. I was not disappointed.

But first, I went somewhere else. I went with my husband to the side stage, where three young women from Canada were singing and playing a guitar, a ukulele and a banjo. The group was Les Hay Babies, and I found myself stomping my feet and clapping my hands above my head to the music. For the most part the lyrics were in dialect which is a shameless mish-mash of French, Canadian patois and a smattering of English, either pronounced in English or à la français.

The last time I had this much fun was on Bourbon Street in New Orleans—it’s not what you think. My husband and I had found one of the many bars that offered live music, and this particular one had a Cajun group strumming and pounding away on various instruments and occasionally inviting audience members to fill in on the rhythm section with a tin washboard and pair of spoons. Feet stomping worthy.

Les Hay Babies said (if I understood their French through their heavy Canadian accents, odd dialect and the noisy crowd) that they were Acadians, descendants of the original French settlers in northeastern Canada. Side note about Acadians—these are the same groups of people that were forced from their land and went south to Louisiana to populate the bayous and rivers, later becoming known as Cajuns.

Side note about the side stage bar—I ordered a Canadian whiskey in honor of the band, and the server asked me if I wanted to fill it up with Coke. Coke and whiskey, what? So I asked for just a little bit of water instead, and she finally gave me what seemed to be about a tablespoon of whiskey with four ice cubes and a half a cup of bubbly water and charged me about $8. Ah, Switzerland.

The question I hear the most often when someone finds out I’m an American living in Switzerland is, “Don’t you miss home?” I usually answer that what I miss the most is the people, but not so much the place. But in a way, the people are the home, they are the place.

One of Les Hay Babies’ songs stood out for me in particular. Néguac and Back is a song about taking that long drive home, but that the singers do it less and less because the old hometown has less and less to offer. The Acadian regions and culture are slowly drying up and the youth are moving to the cities, where life is just more interesting. Living in one place, but yearning for another.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Switzerland is more interesting than Missouri, where I grew up, nor would I say Missouri has less and less to offer. Au contraire; the whole Midwest has amazing cultural sites, scenery (maybe not as amazing as Switzerland, let’s be honest), food, sports, events, you name it. It’s just a long drive, so to speak, to get there. I am torn in two. I am homesick today—wishing it wasn’t such a long, long way to get back to windswept plains, rolling hills, wide rivers and the soil where banjos and guitars are played with abandon and accompanied by an audience who clap their hands and shout out loud. I miss the place and I miss the people, just as I am always missing them, even when I’m glad to be living here.

The second album by Les Hay Babies, the aptly named Mon Homesick Heart, has its first clip out. Now, if you are in the mood for some traveling, I put the video to Fil de Téléphone (telephone wires and long distance relationship blues) here below.  Then, if you haven’t got enough, go the Plaza Francia website ( and watch their video, too, for an old fashioned, New-World voyage through a guitar, ukulele, banjo strumming indie-folk girl band and then a tango, sultry vocals, electro, French, Swiss and Argentinean ensemble.


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