Showing posts from 2014

Learning a lesson

It was late November and too warm to snow. Brenda* and I were chatting and walking our dogs in the Oberbort, Gstaad's affluent neighborhood. Behind dark green evergreen hedges, mammoth chalets stood vacant, their shutters closed, as they are for most of the year. My dog Bizzi was free to roam and sniff the scents under every tree and bush. Brenda kept her aging and deaf terrier on a leash.

We were deep in conversation about the beauty of life, when we came upon a chalet that stood close to the road. A gardener was trimming the hedge in front. All of a sudden, a woman appeared from behind that hedge. She had immaculately coiffed shoulder length grey hair.

“Do you always walk your dog off the leash,” she asked me in perfect English.

“Uh…” I managed to utter. “Yes, uh… sometimes.”

“Well, I have a very dangerous mean dog,” the woman said. “You're lucky he’s not out today.”

I didn’t know what to say. Brenda and I kept walking.

“Is your dog mean?” the woman asked me, as we passed he…

Well-meaning relatives

As I sat down at the "Stammtisch" or local's table at a restaurant to drink a tea while waiting for my son to come out of his drum lesson, I recognized her as the old lady I had given a ride to a week prior. She had been walking past my friend's house on her way to the next town, five kilometers away, while my friend and I had been chatting on the street. I had been struck by her healthy appearance. After exchanging pleasantries, I had offered to give her a ride, and she had accepted even though she had seemed fit. In the car, she had told us how she walked to the neighboring village every day, that she was a grandmother of five, that she lived in a house "up the mountains" and that she had spent her entire life tending cows.

Today, sitting in front of a tall glass of beer, her sparkle was gone.

I asked her how she was, and she said, "Not so good. Today is moving day."

I asked her what she meant. She said that her family and the town powers-that-b…

On our walk today...

Despite yesterday's blistery north wind, my son Oliver, our dog Bizzi and I managed to go out for a walk.

Five minutes into our stroll, and while passing a farm, Bizzi yelped.

"Bizzi touched the electric cow fence," Oliver said.

I think Bizzi's eyes are going (he's nine years old after all), because on more than three occasions, I've seen him running after what he thought were cats in the fields only to be chased by a growling farm dog, or only to find a spool of electrical wire or a water bucket.

On the downhill part of our adventure, Oliver decided to test the speed of his bike as well as its braking ability. When I finally caught up with him, he showed off a bloodied knee.

Further down the road, the way was corded off. A herd of cows dawdled on their way back to the barn munching on a luxury chalet's hedge. Two neighbors chatted next to their parked cars, while waiting for the road to reopen. The rosy cheeked farmer, an expectant father, smiled and sai…

Mailbox design alpine style

On a walk today, I noticed cute house letterboxes encased in wood and covered with shingle roofs.

Upon our arrival in Switzerland, I had wanted to cover up our mailbox with a little house, like the ones I had seen in Maine. But a local warned me that letterboxes in Switzerland needed to be visible and remain uncovered.

So after the walk, I googled letterbox rules in Switzerland and learned that it is the Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications (DETEC) that imposes requirements regarding location, design and minimum dimensions of house letterboxes. Here is a the fact sheet by the Swiss Post office (for those who can read in German). SO it is possible to encase them! So much for believing everything I hear!

Disappearing trust

The Swiss are trusting. They use honor boxes to sell cheese; train passengers are expected to punch their own tickets before boarding; florists leave thousands of francs worth of flowers, plants and packaged soil outside shops over the weekends; car salesmen hand over keys before receiving the money; and businesses extend credit to customers by allowing them to purchase by invoice.

According to the Swiss Mail Order Association, 89% of Swiss online merchandise is purchased using invoices.

But times are changing. The use of credit checks, credit cards and Paypal is increasing. Insurance companies are starting to sell credit insurance.  Businesses are getting wiser. When I applied for a credit card a few years ago, the bank required me to deposit the equivalent of my maximum credit limit into a savings account.

Recently, an architect friend has run into problems with an American client, who is refusing to pay his and other contractors' bills using outrageous excuses and tactics. All …

Drinking cultures compared

During the past 12 years of living in the Alps, I've noticed that alcohol abuse is nearly as pervasive here as it is back in Newport, Rhode Island.

Although the two places are poles apart (different languages, cultures, and histories; one is land-locked and mountainous and the other is flat and by the ocean) the one thing they do share is a transient, holiday, party atmosphere, with alcohol being an intrinsic part of society.

I asked my therapist if alcohol abuse was worse in the mountains than it is in the lowlands, and she said "yes" and she attributed the problem to it being a holiday destination.

So, I took my research to the internet and found that the US scores a little worse than Switzerland in terms of the cost of alcohol abuse. According to a recently published Swiss government study, the cost to society, companies and to the economy of excessive drinking was CHF 4.2 billion ($4.75 billion) or CHF 632 (or $721) per person in 2010. Interestingly, men were respons…

Driving on mountain roads for health

All in all, living in the mountains has its advantages, except when things go wrong and you need to see a specialist. Visiting such a doctor involves a one-hour-plus drive on curvy, sometimes icy, mountain roads.

Recently, I damaged my shoulder by undressing and ended up with adhesive capsulitis or "frozen shoulder". The injury occurred in November but it wasn't until January that I finally went to our family physician. The x-rays showed a four millimeter bone in my joint. Afraid to hurt my shoulder any further, I stopped moving my arm. Big mistake! One week later, I couldn't move my shoulder at all.

To find a reputable orthopedic doctor, I had to leave the Alps. Now, after three trips down the windy road to Bern and an MRI, I know what I must do: three times per week physiotherapy and daily exercises. One problem is that all the physiotherapists in our area can only offer me one appointment per week. Grrr… I guess that's the subject for another post. Do people i…

Spreading the black gold

Newcomers are shocked when they witness the spraying of "Gülle" or the black liquid cow shit and piss, considered gold by local farmers.

So what's going on?

In the olden days, farmers mucked out their stalls, scraping the liquid and solid cow excrement into wheelbarrows and dumping the mixture onto a pile outside. Problems began when farmers increased the size of their herds, and the shit piles grew. Run-off from these piles contaminated the ground water and made people sick.

To solve this problem, the government began requiring the installation of tanks to collect the black smelly, liquid manure. This liquid--which gets particularly stinky after stewing all winter long--is then pumped into a movable tank that is strapped to a tractor and sprayed onto pastures. As you can imagine, the stink is violent.

The benefit is that the spray feeds the grass without going deep enough into the ground to pollute groundwater. Much evaporates before it even hits the ground.

It can be …

Alpine cure for the going out craving

When friends come for a visit they say the same thing.

"This place is breathtakingly beautiful, but what the hell do you do for entertainment around here?"

 "Don't you go stir crazy?"

"How are you going to meet a man here in the middle of nowhere?"

Answering is a struggle.

"Uhm… we have a book club,"  I say. "We sometimes go to the movies, er... to dinner or to a concert…. Oh and there's bowling!"

The truth is: I don't crave entertainment anymore. No longer do I fear missing out when I stay home on a Saturday night.

Has living in the Alps cured me?

Now I like: trying out a new gluten-free recipe, reading life-changing books, practicing a Chopin Nocturne or Brahms Intermezzo, hanging out with a cup of herbal tea and playing boardgames with family and friends.

Perhaps it's my age or having kids, or perhaps I've been living in a place where people are in nature often, work hard, and spend time alone. Perhaps, these val…

Swiss thrift goes a bit too far

Francesca*, an American expat, told me a story the other day that not only made me giggle, but that is an example of Swiss thrift going a bit too far.
You see, approximately 13 years ago, Francesca had just begun a relationship with a Swiss man who lived in the Alps. Upon moving in with him, she made a strange discovery in the bathroom: a section of dental floss draped on the mirror. When she asked him about her finding, he confessed his economizing habit of reusing dental floss at least two or three times.
She is no longer dating the man. Apparently, he was otherwise pretty normal.
*Name changed

Not paying church tax

When I moved to Switzerland in 2002, I filled out a form at the commune, declaring my residency. At the "Religion" line item, I wrote: "Protestant." My religious affiliation has always been complicated to explain. When I was one, I was baptized in the Swiss Reformed Church. Five years later, I was baptized again in the French Roman Catholic Church.

Returning to my Swiss roots, it now made sense to go back to my original religion. Plus "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." I was now living in a Protestant part of Switzerland. I remembered studying Henry IV of France, who was known for changing from Protestant to Roman Catholic in order to avoid further bloodshed and for saying: "Paris is well worth a Mass."

So for years, I paid taxes to the Swiss Reformed Church. Even after getting married, my residency card continued to list me as a Protestant, even though my then-husband, an atheist, was listed as "other." But upon my divorce and name …

Is academia the be-all and end-all?

Last week, my 14-year old daughter's friend Lea* came over. During lunch, I asked Lea which subject she was planning on studying after completing school. For those of you who may not know, the ninth grade marks the end of obligatory schooling in Switzerland.

"Florist," she answered with certainty.
"Wow, wonderful," I responded.

I haven't always sounded so positive about the Swiss educational system.

Being a product of a "liberal arts" education, I have struggled to understand the benefits of  Switzerland's "dual system."

The Swiss "dual system" begins at the end of primary school, or the sixth grade. Kids with good grades are separated from those with less than good grades. Those children with good grades are put onto an academic track and enter "Sekundarschule;" at 16 they go on to "Gymnasium"which leads to the "matura," a requirement for entering university. Those who didn't get such good…

Thoughts on immigration vote

A few weeks have passed since the February 9 vote to reintroduce immigration quotas. I live in a largely conservative German-speaking canton, where 51.1% of voters approved the Swiss People's Party's initiative.
How do I feel about it?

I am glad that my country has exercised its sovereignty as well as its democracy, while standing up to Brussels. We are not a colony of the EU.

Secondly, we haven't voted to end immigration. We have voted to end mass immigration without controls. Every sovereign nation has the right to control the influx of newcomers, as does the USA and Canada. Even Liechtenstein, which is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) was able to negotiate quotas with the EU. Switzerland as a non-EEA member, should have the right to do the same.

I am quite confident that things will pan out. The cabinet and parliament have three years to come up with a detailed plan. The facts are: one quarter of Switzerland's eight million inhabitants are foreign; ther…