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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Bullies Have Feelings, Too…


…I just haven’t figured out where they hide them. I’d like to ask the boy that tormented my son last year what he enjoys doing after school. What movies he watches or games that he plays. Is he more tech/computer geek or more of a sports fan? Is he a real person in there? Somewhere?

He lives in our neighborhood. When they were 7 or 8 years old, he even invited my son to his birthday party. They both played with Bakugans at the time and I think the party was good fun for everyone.

Sometime in the middle of the year last year, during 5th grade, this boy started harassing and bullying my son. I only know part of the story and a few of the things he said –




He got the other boys to laugh about it. Yeah, that sounds so f*cking funny. He made sure that the others brushed my son aside and made fun of him, too.

At home, our son didn’t say anything, but he acted explosive. The littlest thing would set him off:  ranting, yelling, slamming things, tearing into his sister.

What’s wrong with you?


The boy’s parents used to say hi, good morning to me out on the street. Now I don’t exist. This works for me—I’m not necessarily blaming them for how their son acts, but…… Would I have the strength, the good graces to say hi if our shoes were switched around? I’d like to think I would, but it’s so unimaginable for me for my son to be the kid who is mean. Maybe they felt the same way until the teachers called and filled them in.

Our family’s home is where we are allowed to be ourselves without being judged or mocked. As much as possible, we keep it a haven from fear, violence and the ugliness that is out there—right out there as soon as you step into the big world. The country where we live helps, and for the most part there’s not too much to fear, but it’s still out there.

No matter we do at home, ugliness worms its way into our lives. The teachers called me to tell me what they had noticed. Unfortunately, it was during the very last days of school, so no time for a big conference, but they did hook my son up with the school psychologist and contact the other kid’s parents. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Just because the bullying stops, though, doesn’t mean everyone starts being friendly. The 6th grade classes (my son and the other boy are in separate classes this year) left for ski camp this week. This is real thing in Switzerland. The kids were choosing roommates, and my son overheard the boy in his group of friends –

I can’t stand him, I’m not getting stuck in a room with him!

Jeez, kid, would it kill you to be nice or at least keep your d@mn opinions to yourself?

The morning that camp started, I drove my son and all his gear to the meeting point and had to stand around watching while he wandered from one group of peers to the next, trying to fit in, talk, joke, or be noticed. I saw myself at that age, kicking up stones on the playground, pretending I preferred to be alone, wondering if the other girls invite me to their girl huddles if I was prettier.

I don’t mind being alone in crowds. I know I’m an introvert and I have fought enough battles (metaphorically) to stand on my own all by myself when necessary. But I’m screaming and trying not to die a little inside when I see my son peering over the shoulders of his classmates so he can pretend to be part of the crowd.

What goes through the minds of these bullies and mean-spirited popular kids? Never having been one, I have no idea. When the students filed onto the tour bus, my son sat by himself.

One Swiss teacher, when confronted with a case of bullying and harassment between 8 year olds, reportedly said, “Children can be cruel.” Then she did nothing to rectify the situation.

Children can be very cruel, every adult knows it’s true. Nature is cruel.

The Nazca booby, a Galápagos Island seabird, lays two eggs at a time. The first one is a day or two older and therefore hatches a day or two earlier. When the second egg hatches and the younger sibling emerges trembling, small and weak, the older one proceeds to slaughter it. This behavior has been linked to hormones which in turn guarantees a higher survival rate of the one chick left in the nest. A natural example of weeding out the weak or survival of the fittest.

Nature is cruel.

It could have been worse for my son. He says the psychiatrist taught him how to stand up for himself. The 8 year old girl from the other school was harassed to the point of contemplating suicide. In 2012, three children between 10 and 14 actually committed suicide in Switzerland.

I hate that this happens. Hate it. There shouldn’t be any weeding out of the vulnerable or different. I wish we could invite that boy over for movies and geeky computer games – because I know there is a real kid in him. Somewhere. And he isn’t mean or evil. I don’t believe that the parents or families of bullies raise their kids to be cruel; on the contrary I think most parents want their kids to be healthy, happy and kind. They want them to succeed.

I want those kids to see the hurt they cause and to feel the hurt they have inside that lets them do it.


My soon-to-be-adolescent son is cleaning his room

It seems like only yesterday he could put together a new set of Legos in less than an hour, but couldn't quite manage to close the cereal bag

It seems like only yesterday he could put together a new set of Legos in less than an hour, but couldn’t quite manage to close the cereal bag

It boggles the mind. He isn’t just piling his papers together, shoving Lego pieces in big boxes and dumping his dirty laundry in the basket; he is cleaning his room. He asked for help to clear the trash.

 “Mom, can you hold the trash bag so I can empty this?”

 Dropping the spatula and leaving the fish frying in their pan, I raced to his room to lend a hand. I always have a hand to lend if it means holding the trash bag open in one of my kid’s rooms. Trash in there collects like driftwood and debris after a flood. I come from Missouri, right next to the Missouri River. I have seen driftwood and debris piled up after a major flood. I know all about it.

What kind of messy place do I live in? Well, it’s not that bad. Nothing that the police need to be notified about, thankfully. The kids just bring home stuff constantly. Their loving grandparents and gracious aunts and uncles supply them with it. Toys. You know. Cute, little toys with slews of batteries, larger toys with a thousand pieces for construction play, humongous toys that show how much the grandparents love them every Christmas. Personally, I buy the kids very small, easily organized toys. Like books and underwear.

That’s not always true. But there are too many toys and I try to keep things under control by suggesting that family members do ‘outings’ for Christmas and birthday presents. Somewhat a pack rat myself, I make the effort to show the kids how to organize the construction toys and doll house trinkets in one place or in labelled boxes. I have my stash of yarn nice and neat in the bottom of my closet.

 My children think I’m crazy.

 The place for toys and the bajillion pieces that go with them is on the floor, behind the door, under the bed, in the corners of their rooms and overflowing into the hallway and living room. Legos, Playmobile people, airplanes, cars, My Little Ponies, Disney princesses, train tracks, wooden blocks, Star Wars figurines, spy equipment, dress-up costumes, scraps of paper they cut up after drawing on them, Transformers, board games, puzzles, puzzle pieces out of the box, single Barbie shoes, legions of stuffed animals, random monster teeth, miniature guns, Nerf guns, light sabers made of floaty noodles, assorted markers from 4 ½ different sets, coloring books, crayons, parts of a kitchen play set….I have to stop.

The kids hang onto this stuff like it’s a valuable investment. That it’s gaining in market value. I suggest things such as, “You know, we could give some of these toys you don’t play with away and make space in your rooms….” Yeah, right. They answer that they need and play with all their toys.

My son was never into kitchen or play-house toys. He liked machines when he was little. His first word was ‘beep-beep’ for the sound trucks make when they are backing up. Not ‘mama’ or ‘milk’ or ‘papa’ or ‘kitty’ or something like that. He would shout ‘Beep-beep!’ from his baby seat in the car, his whole face lit up with pure joy: he had spotted a construction machine.

These days, I can’t get his head out of his DS when we are in the car. I confiscated all his electronic games several days ago, though, because the whole reason we started cleaning his room was to find a lost key.

I can’t prove he lost the key and he isn’t in trouble, but we all (my husband, our daughter (otherwise known as the little sister) and I) strongly suspect it is somewhere in his room. The only way to make him believe that I am serious about straightening up and finding the key is to confiscate what he holds dearest: his electronic gadgets.

Searching for that key started out like an archeological dig, only scarier.

But somewhere between the moment that I suggested he deep clean his room, that I went in there to sort his books and board games, and when he continued cleaning after I left to make dinner; he started cleaning all on his own. Emptying his drawers, scraping things out from underneath his desk. And throwing out the toys he didn’t need anymore.

I remember growing up. It didn’t feel gradual or smooth. It felt bumpy, rough. All of a sudden something inside me or my brain switched gears and jerked me forward. I remember the first time I went to a friend’s house and we didn’t ask each other what we wanted to play; we just hung out on her floor and talked. I wasn’t much older than my son is now.

I also remember the first time I asked him to get me something. He was a year and a half old, and I had just sat down on the sofa. He was toddling around and I asked if he could get the phone for me from the kitchen. He came in with the phone and a smile to light the North Pole in winter. His first taste of doing something not all by himself, but of doing something for someone else. It’s a good feeling. It’s a sudden jump forward.

I can’t believe that same kid is old enough to beta-read a YA book I wrote. This boy who popped out scrawny and wrinkly and had beady-black eyes and a holler to wake the dead and was obviously the most beautiful creature to ever exist up, until I saw his sister who might even have surpassed him on the beauty scale. O.K., so I’m paying him to read the book, but he is still happy to do it, proud to prove that he can. A few months ago, he wasn’t ready for a lengthy book, especially with no goofy drawings.

My baby is cleaning his room. It’s been two days since I went in to sort his books and board games. Now, he goes in, closes the door, turns on the radio and when he comes out he says things like, “Can we give this truck to baby Clé (his cousin)?” or “Does this go in paper recycling or the regular trash?” or “I don’t play with this anymore.”

I remember being a teenager. I know this isn’t the beginning of a magical trend where he actually keeps his room clean, it’s just a moment that he sorts through the little boy stuff that he doesn’t need. There’s a lot of stuff he won’t need where he’s going. Some toys will always stay—I have a My Little Pony in my treasure drawer from when I was little. But so many things that he thought he needed for so long just aren’t necessary anymore. He’s jumping forward.

 And we have yet to find that stupid key.

Have you seen me?

Have you seen me?



Language Matters

School has been out for a couple of weeks already in the States, but here in the Canton of Fribourg, we still have one more week to go. In honor of the school year that is ending, I wanted to share some of the language difficulties we have in our house. We are primarily bilingual French and English, but every once in a while a ciao, tchuss-semma, or mein Gott will work its way into our discussions. Most sentences, however, start in either French or English, get thrown in the blender with the other about half way through and then finish in the second language. Depending on the speaker, it’s not always very clear which language is being spoken when.

For example: towards the beginning of the school year, my daughter came bouncing into the kitchen before my morning coffee, and announced, “You know you can take beer bellies to school pour manger.”

The children always pack morning snacks to eat during recess. Usually, teachers recommend bringing apples or little sandwiches. At the mention of beer bellies, though, half a dozen gruesome images popped into my head: mash-ups involving Hannibal Lector, the Children of the Corn and any number of the zombie movies and shows that I’ve tried to avoid.

“What?” is all I could ask.

“Beer bellies,” she said again. “You can take them to school.”

“Beer…bellies?” Without my morning caffeine, I couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was trying to tell me. To compound the problem of bilingualism at home, some of the kids at school also speak Swiss German, Portuguese, Italian and a couple of other languages which must make for some interesting conversations. There are only 7 other kids in her class, but hey, who’s counting?

“Uh, huh!” She bounced around some more until, luckily for me, my husband showed up.

“Oh, you mean Biberlies?” he asked (pronounced bee-bir-lees).

“Yeah! Beer bellies! Tu peux les prendre to school to eat for the recré!” Bounce, bounce! My darling daughter was ecstatic by this point.

Turns out that they are spiced cookies with creamy filling and you can buy them at them the grocery store. Hope your summer is off to a great start!

Alp Horn Blowing Summer Market in Bulle, Switzerland

Alphorns at the summer market in Bulle, Switzerland


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