Morning, minus 14 degrees

November 30th, 2010

Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.

November 27th, 2010

This afternoon we had fifteen people in the house: nine adults and six children with a total of 22 passports, four mother tongues, and seven working languages between us. The kids alone account for twelve passports and four languages – five if you make a distinction between Swiss and German. None of the kids have entered the first grade, when standard German is introduced with the beginning of reading and writing, so they have very little German compared to a German kid but they might know more than their full Swiss kindergarten friends who do not hear their Ausländerin mamas speaking high German out in the world.

I love these expat Thanksgivings, filling the house with people who miss the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, the gathering of family and friends together for a celebration of gratitude. It is the holiday when I feel most foreign, most far away, for it is the quintessential American holiday and it is the one I miss the most living abroad. It might be the holiday all Americans living abroad miss the most. It’s the day we know our families back in the States are all getting together, without us. It’s a day full of family traditions that carry over generations more, it seems to me, than on other holidays so even though I wasn’t there I know my brother used our mother’s china and made his pecan pie. Unless they went to his in-laws – then he still brought the pie but they used his mother-in-law’s cut-glass goblets, one of the few things she still has from her childhood in East Prussia. I know these things. I remember that china, I have drunk from those goblets.

Traditions, carrying on without me.

* * *

You have to make your own traditions, living abroad. You have to get your own china, your own goblets. You have to hold on to the holidays that are dear to you and make the effort to celebrate them. You have to roast turkey on Saturday.

* * *

Slicing apples for the pie, for my mother’s apple pie that makes the house smell like childhood and without which no Thanksgiving is complete, I realize I am singing to myself in Mundart (dialect), singing a Swiss pop song that I often hear on the radio and which makes me happy. If that doesn’t sum up this expat life, I don’t know what does.

* * *

When I lived in DC I had a friend who always opened up his apartment to the “strays” on Thanksgiving. Those of us who couldn’t afford to fly home, who worked retail and didn’t get the time off, who were estranged from our families, whose parents had died. His apartment was no bigger than the rest of ours, but his heart was, and we gathered there for pot-luck Thanksgivings and his good Cuban coffee. It was always warm, and welcoming, and I spent a few Thanksgivings there after my mother died, in my rootless years: no parents, no spouse, no children. No past, no future, a twig that had fallen off the family tree. I always brought pie.

* * *

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in Switzerland, I decided on Wednesday night to do it. We held it on actual Thanksgiving Day – I don’t remember how R and California Husband got the time off on such short notice, but this is Switzerland and they did. We were five, and there was chicken instead of turkey because I had decided at 8pm the night before to invite people over. There was my mother’s pie; one was enough.

Today there were fifteen people in the house, and two pies, and a chocolate cake from the bakery and no left-overs. And much gratitude.

* * *

Australian Friend likes to say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s good advice for anybody, but I think it applies double to expats. Even after ten years, I will have a day when I can’t find what I am looking for in the gardening supply store and I will go home empty-handed rather than ask, in German, where it might be located. And my German is good. Quite good. I read novels in German. But some days I don’t want to deal with it, some days I don’t want to live my life in a foreign language no matter how well I might speak that language. Some days, I don’t want to be the foreign lady. I just want it all to be easy.

But we are here. We are making lives here and so we have to – if we want to be happy, if we want to live genuine lives, lives with opportunities approximating those we might have in the countries of our birth – bloom where we are planted. Live here, live our lives here, embrace our lives here. We integrate and learn the language and go to the local festivals. But we also hold on to who we are and to the things that made us. We sing happy birthday to our kids in English, or Dutch, or Italian. We put out the flag on Australia Day. We wear orange when Netherlands reaches the final of the football world championships. We host Thanksgiving. We make pie.

* * *

We ended up sitting in clusters, the girlfriends all together at one end and the men – who are all Swiss and who are thrown together in these crazy Thanksgiving dinners because their wives are girlfriends – at the other. This led to a language division with the women (who are not all American but are all native English speakers) speaking English and the men speaking Swiss (even though one of them is Swiss-Italian and might have preferred English).

* * *

We moved the kitchen table into the living room, pulled in the table from the balcony. Dusted the snow off it. We set up two tables for the kids. We ate turkey with stuffing – made by Australian Friend and may I say, you’d  think she’d grown up eating Thanksgiving stuffing her whole life – and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and scalloped potatoes and green beans and salad and cranberry sauce. We went back for seconds. We drank sparkling wine, and white wine, and red wine and finished off with apple pie and pumpkin pie and chocolate cake and coffee and port and grappa. The kids stayed up way past bedtime, and ate too much dessert, and got over-excited. I snuck some extra apple pie. Outside, the snow fell all evening.

Thanksgiving, in other words. Even in Switzerland, Thanksgiving. Grateful for the lives we have made here, the friends we have found, the new country we have come to love even as we miss our old ones. Stuffed with food and drink and fellowship. Fifteen people, twenty-two passports, seven languages. One turkey. Pie. Thanksgiving.

* * *

The secret to a good pie crust is this: the water you add to your flour mixture should be iced. And you have to add it gradually. A tablespoon at a time. Add, mix, check. Add again. Mix. Patience. The real secret is patience.

Just Thursday

November 25th, 2010

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, but in Switzerland it is simply Thursday. For the Small Boy there was kindergarten to get to and tonight there will be a hockey practice. For the Boychen and I there was yard work: raking piles of dead wet leaves and hauling yet more wood to the wood pile. We potted some heather. Boychen helped Grossvati muck out the stalls (my brother-in-law has been sick and both R and my father-in-law have been helping with the horses) with his little plastic wheelbarrow and his little shovel; my father-in-law loves the worker bee side of the Boychen and doing this chore with him made his day. There was a bath, because if you help muck out the stalls you end up smelling like manure and not even a three year old can make that cute; then a bath for the car, because if you have a dirt driveway in this part of Switzerland in November, your car is going to look like you live on a farm. This afternoon I’ll do a shopping run to pick up a few things for Expat Thanksgiving, which we’re hosting on Saturday. Because this is just Thursday in Switzerland, and people had to go to work, and kindergarten, and daycare. But on Saturday, it’ll be Thanksgiving around here.

Happy Thanksgiving to everybody celebrating it today.


November 22nd, 2010

It’s a very Bernese tradition, the Zibelemärit: the annual onion market held on the fourth Monday in November. There are conflicting stories about how this market got started – Bernese legend has it that in appreciation for helping to fight a devestating fire in Bern in 1405, the people of Freiburg were given the right to sell their produce (and their produce, apparantly, was onions) at the market in Bern. That’s probably apocrophal, but it’s the story I like best and it’s the one my father-in-law would tell if you asked him about the Zibelmärit. Other more likely but less resonant stories point to a connection to festivals surrounding St. Martin’s Day. Whatever the origins, Zibelmärit has turned into one of the biggest festival days in Bern, probably second only to Fasnacht (carnival).

It’s actually a pretty big deal for the farmers of the region, who have their stalls up and running by 5am. Up to 50 tons of onions will be sold at the market, largely in the form of decorative Zöpfen

or garlands

You also all manner of onion figurines – these ones are dressed in the different uniforms of the teams in the Swiss National Hockey League:

(The predominantly yellow jersey is our local team – that’s an old jersey design – and the red one to the left is our local rival.)

Farmers also sell plain onions in bulk. Those are gone early and I’m assuming they’re snapped up by restaurants. There is Zibelechueche (an onion quiche which I’ve never liked) and Chäschueche (cheese quiche for the people who don’t like onion quiche and I’ve never really like that, either) and onion soup and to drink, plenty of Glühwein, which I do like.

And there is confetti. I don’t know how old the throwing confetti at people and wacking them on the head with plastic hammers tradtion has been around, but my husband did it when he was a boy so it’s been around a while. We got the boys spring-loaded confetti launchers and a few bags of confetti and they had a great time shooting people. And us.

And each other.

Because if you can’t shoot your brother in the face with a little confetti, what’s the point of Zibelemärit anyway?

Happy birthday, Boychen

November 19th, 2010

I’ve been sitting here for nearly an hour trying to figure out how to write about Boychen’s third birthday. I start and stop and delete and copy and paste and start again. I want it to be beautiful, the way he is, and I want it to be perfect, the way I think he is, and I want to capture that intangible shiny thing about him, the thing that makes me think of shiny new pennies or dew-drops sparkling in the morning sun or hoar-frost on the trees. My shiny boy.

It astounds me nearly every day how simply happy he is, the way a puppy jumping into a pond after a stick is happy. From my perspective, there was so much sadness in the first nine months – twelve? – of his life, my post-partum depression months, all those days of his that I feel like I missed. So many clouds for so long. And yet this shiny boy.

Who can make a game out of anything.

Who is always doing something.

Always smiling.

This beautiful boy who started his life near sadness just pushed all of that aside and turned out so bright and shiny. It astounds me, sometimes, even today, his happiness. Maybe he is not so special, maybe other people don’t see the shimmer that I see, maybe I only see it because I know, I know, how much of my sadness surrounded him and it seems so exceptional to me that none of it stuck.

How grateful I am for that, how deeply, deeply grateful. How relieved I am, nearly every day, that I did not break him. I missed a lot of his babyhood, but I didn’t break him and he is a happy child and he is three today and he is growing up so fast it makes me weep.

Not the Boychen though, no weeping for him. He can’t wait. For everything, for all of it, he can’t wait. It’s all such a joyous adventure, a great and wonderful thing. What’s not to smile about?

Blog Carnival

November 16th, 2010

My “Röstigraben” post is part of the first >Language>Place blog carnival which is full of stories and impressions about travel and language and fitting in and sticking out and all the things that flash through your mind when you peek behind a different cultural curtain. Check it out – the contributors will take you all around the world.

Protected: Thursday Night, Hockey Practice (A Poem)

November 11th, 2010

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Other people’s rhythms

November 11th, 2010

I am sitting at the kitchen table where I like to work in the mornings because of the light that comes through the window, because of the way the light falls on the willow tree, because of the woods across the street. I am watching a delivery of wood being unloaded from the flatbed and added to the wood pile. It means that the chipper will come in a day or two to chip the wood and blow it into the cellar where it is used for heating. Out the other window, the window above my kitchen sink, my brother-in-law is mucking out his horses’ stalls.

It is strange, sometimes, to live on this farm but to be outside of these labors. To be on the farm, but in many ways not of it. It was agreed, when we moved here, that we were not becoming an active part of the farm – R has his job and though I may want a garden I do not want a field – and that’s the way I still want it. All the same, it is a shock, sometimes, to walk into the kitchen and see a tractor with a load of wood in my driveway. To watch, nearly every morning, my brother-in-law muck out the stalls. To judge the temperature by whether he closes the windows on the stalls before he goes home in the evening. To be on this farm and not having quite figured out, yet, how to be part of the rhythm.

Protected: A location poem

November 4th, 2010

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Protected: Poetic Interlude

November 2nd, 2010

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