A happy ending

December 31st, 2010

I just saw my brother-in-law J head off for a ride on his chestnut horse, the one that has been limping for months, the one that’s been lying down to sleep, the one that J hasn’t let out in the pasture all winter. He has been walking him, gently, with a firm grip on the halter, around the farm for – I can’t remember how long: since the days were warm, I think. Certainly since before the snow. Since well before Thanksgiving. Vets have been out to look at him several times. I have been hoping for a good ending to this story. For my own sake, that I do not have to explain to the boys about putting animals down. For the boys’ sake, because they are attached to the horses, but for Boychen especially, who is crazy about them. For J’s sake, because he loves that horse.

They just headed out, slowly, into the dusk, with light-reflecting bands wrapped around the legs of both man and horse. They just headed out, towards the woods; towards, hopefully, a happy ending.

2011 Writing Goals

December 30th, 2010

For the past few years, inspired by January O’Neil, I’ve listed out my writing goals for the coming year. I want to push myself, but I want my goals to be manageable: I have learned at last in life – perhaps from mothering these boys, from leading them gently from one stage to the next, from three-letter words to six letter words, from standing on the ice to walking across it – that setting the bar unattainably high tends to discourage more than it inspires. It’s been a fine line with the Small Boy, for example, teaching him to read: leading him to what I know he is capable of without pushing him there so fast that he gives up in frustration. We had some false starts as I tried to move him too fast, and we had a long lull over the summer when I did not move along the ladder fast enough. Certainly the first year he was in hockey school I expected too much of him and very nearly turned him from the sport that has become his six year old passion and which has taught him so much; because of that experience we are handling Boychen’s time on the ice much differently. I try to treat myself with that same balance and gentleness – pushing but never too hard; setting goals, but never too high – that I’ve finally found with the boys.

I also believe in making specific goals, goals with numbers and dates, whenever possible – I learned that from January’s poetry action plans. It’s easier to be accountable with numbers attached: did I write 52 poems or did I not? And making my goals public, here, also pushes me to accountability.

So here are my writing goals for 2011:

  • write 52 new poems
  • send out 20 submission packages
  • attend a juried workshop, preferably this one
  • have a contest-ready chapbook manuscript by 1 September (did I really just say that out loud?)
  • write two blog posts a week
  • read 52 poetry books in 2011

And just to make sure I keep my life bigger than my notebooks, I plan on continuing with my armchair bird watching (which Marge would say could only improve my poetry) and registering for a photography class.

The year in review, ever so vague

December 29th, 2010

2010 was a strange year in poetry for me. The highlight of the year was attending Marge’s workshop. The low water mark has to be my plummeting acceptance rate; I published a grand total of one poem in 2010. Yet I feel like my writing has really developed and deepened this year. I stumbled onto a theme at Marge’s workshop: a simple exercise in using sound in our poems opened up a whole new avenue for me. Since June I’ve written just over dozen poems that work together as part of a collection. I’m half-way to a chapbook. These poems are new territory for me both in the topic they directly or indirectly address and in the voice I’ve found myself using in them. I believe they are good. They are certainly, for me, exciting to write.

I am trying to focus on that rather than the acceptance rate for the year. It’s easy to get hung up on the publishing game. I can fritter away hours on “market research.” But prior to the publishing has to come the craft and maybe 2010 was a craft year for me. I hardly published anything but I have found all this new work, this new vein to mine, this new voice to deepen.

Cecily wrote about her word for the year; I’m hesitant to put a word on 2010. It’s been a strange year. I haven’t written about the half of it. I figured some things out, and made some decisions, and even made some changes, or tried to at least, and have pin-pointed a few more changes that need to be made. I’ve been clearing some underbrush, literally in the garden and figuratively in my life. Navigating my way towards something different, yet still grounded in the here of my life.

Maybe I’ll call 2010 my navigating year. Which means perhaps in 2011 I’ll come in to port.

The Good Shepherd

December 20th, 2010

Boychen and I were coming home from the grocery store when we saw the shepherd with his flock. He was driving the last of them them across the street. His pack donkey was already in the new field with one of the dogs, the other dog was working the stragglers across the road. Cars had stopped. Even when the sheep cleared the road cars slowed, watched. Boychen and I pulled into a (questionable, rutted) service road that bordered the field to look at the herd.

He was a Wanderhirte, a traditional wandering shepherd who even today moves his flock from field to field in search of good grass. From mid-November to March 15 – a time when much agricultural land in this region is at rest – the shepherds have the right to graze their herds where they can find good feed. Perhaps a dozen or so Wanderhirte still criss-cross Switzerland, summering in the Alps, coming down into the Mittleland in search of grass over the winter months. His herd was maybe 150 sheep, but I’m bad at judging these things. They were half-way out into the field, I didn’t have a good camera, so you’ll have to take it on faith: fifteen kilometers outside the capital city one of the last wandering shepherds in Switzerland ┬átends his flock.

(If you can read German, I found a profile of a Wanderhirte here.)

Blog Carnival

December 18th, 2010

The second Language>Place blog carnival is up, and I’m thrilled that my post “Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.” has been included in the round-up of posts from, and about, around the world. Check out all the pieces here.

Field guide to right here

December 16th, 2010

One of the many bits of advice Marge gave in her workshop was to buy field guides. Star maps. Tidal charts. Anything that helps you name the world in all of its specificity. The act of naming – that is not a songbird feeding outside my kitchen window right now, it is a great tit – in turn teaches you to notice the details, to play closer attention to differences. That other bird, that is not a great tit although it looks very similar – it is a blue tit. And really, there is a world of difference between telling you there is a bird standing on the bench outside and telling you there is a jay standing on the bench outside.

We live on a farm, next to the woods, and my mother-in-law and I put out feeders for the birds in the winter and they stay here, all winter, flitting from her trees to mine to the high limbs of the willow when one of the two half-wild cats on the property comes prowling by. (Half-wild because they live outside and hunt things but my mother-in-law also puts out food for them and manages, somehow, to get them to a vet every year; as cat lives go, I’m thinking these two have got it made.) I want to name these birds and the water fowl in the pond in the woods. That is going to be my winter project, to come to know the farm and the pond in the woods next to us as well as Thoreau knew his Walden Pond. To name things.

A few years ago I read the novel Letters From Yellowstone. It tells the story of a field study in Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the century; the main character is an amateur botanist who manages to get herself attached to the team (no small feat, in 1898, given her gender; she goes by her initials and the leader of the team of course assumed that such an accomplished botanist would be male). She collects, identifies and sketches the local flora; she is precise about using scientific names because she believes that using common names leads to confusion and misunderstanding when two people have different names for the same plant. Thoreau, too, knew the Latin names for the things around him and I think I am going to try to learn these too, or at least take note of them.

Outside my kitchen window I can see a jay (Garrulus glandarius) and he is my favorite – I have a weakness for the Corvidae, after all – half a dozen or ten great tits (Parus major), one blue tit (Parus caeruleus), blackbirds (Turdus merula), one robin (Erithacus rubecula), and a mob of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). I caught sight of a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging a hole in our yard at lunchtime; I’ve never seen him before. Or have I simply not noticed? But now I have noticed him and looked him up in a field guide and named him. We honor the things around us by allowing them to have their names, to take up space on the page. To be seen.

There is a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) digging in my front yard, and I would like to thank him for visiting. For giving me the gift of him.

UPDATED December 17 to add: I’ve spotted the second jay. I knew there had to be at least one more…

The long-delayed post about Swiss school schedules or: Are you people *trying* to make it hard for stay-at-home moms?

December 13th, 2010

So I had another Twitter exchange with Jacquie that made me realize I still haven’t described what a typical Swiss school day looks like (more or less: in Switzerland, as in the US, education is extremely local) and rather than let this slide any longer I’m going to take a cue from Alexa (see number three, re: perfectionism, which is the number one reason I put off writing the 20 or so blog posts I have in my head; number two is a dearth of time to actually write them, reasons for which should become abundantly clear by the end of this post) and just describe a school day and not worry about making it perfect, or witty, or just the right flavor of sarcastic. It will be, simply, informative.

Oh, Swiss school system, where should I even start? The typical school day? The numerous vacations (some of which, like Sport Week, I can really get on board with)? The tracking system that determines at about the fifth grade whether or not a child is university-bound? The fact that I’ve been here for ten years and I still can’t quite get my head around how it all works?

Small Boy is in his second year of Kindergarten; the first year is optional though it seems to me that at least in this town most of the kids go both years. Kids are eligible to start Kindergaren in August if they are four years old by May 30 of that year. Small Boy turned four in January 2009, so he started his first year of Kindergarten in August 2009 when he was four and a big half. This is his second year of Kindergarten; he’ll turn six in January and be six and a half in August of 2011 when he enters the first grade. (How does this age of entering first grade jive with where you live?)

The first year kids go to Kindergarten Monday – Thursday 8:20 a.m to 11:50 a.m plus one afternoon a week. Second year Kindergarteners like Small Boy go five mornings a week, 8:20 to 11:50, and one afternoon. The afternoons run from 1:20 p.m to 3:40 p.m and the kids come home for lunch between the morning and afternoon sessions. Let me repeat that, because it’s the bane of my existence and will continue to be the bane of my existence for the next ten years: the kids come home over lunch. There is no lunch room. Some schools are slowly moving to a “Tagesschule” schedule (all day school) but it’s slow and hit-or-miss and locally controlled and socially controversial and frowned upon. You are kind of a horrible mother if you let somebody not related to you feed your child over lunch time. The school Small Boy would have gone to in the city had, if I recall correctly, a lunchtime option for which parents were charged on a sliding scale. Swiss scales slide fast and the irony is that R’s income is high enough that we often can’t afford – or I cannot stomach paying – the rate we generally slot into for these sorts of things (lunch programs, day care, play groups). So had we stayed in the city there might have been a lunch option in that school but there is not one here. And I’m not just talking about the Kindergarteners. They all come home over lunch. For, seemingly, ever. (The daycare center that opened in town this past August seems to have a lunch program where school kids can go there for lunch. I shudder to think what it might cost.)

There is also no school bus. Oh if you live out in the back-of-beyond on a farm somewhere in the Emmental there might be some sort of bus but mostly the kids here, as I wrote about before, hoof it. Bless those sturdy Swiss school children humping it rain, sleet and snow. There’s a reason the Swiss Post is so reliable, they were all trained as children to brave all sorts of weather. However, think about what that means if you are the parent of a Kindergartener, especially a young first-year kid: you walk to school with your kid in the morning, walk back home, then turn around and return at lunchtime to meet your kid at the school and walk home. Then heavens, if it’s your afternoon day you have to turn around and walk back with them. This is why the kids are start walking by themselves at such an early age: the parents just can’t take it anymore. We live 1.8 kilometers from the school – it’s a forty-five minute round trip on foot for me to walk to school with a child walking at the rate of a small child and then turn around and come back home. And I’ve got to schlepp Boychen with me. (Don’t Swiss people have cars, you wonder? Yes, yes we do but using them to drive our children to and from school is frowned upon. Have you ever been frowned upon by a Swiss grandmother? I’ve become exceedingly fond of the Swiss but my god, they can frown upon you like nobody you’ve ever met.) In the interest of full disclosure we use the car on double-kindy day because we live 1.8 kilometers from the school house and I’d have to mess with the time-space continuum to walk to kindy, get the boy, walk him home, cook and feed him lunch, and walk him back to kindy in the 90 minutes we have at lunchtime.

Have I mentioned that school lunchtime is the bane of my existence?

On the upside, because there’s got to be an upside here somewhere, there’s a one-week school vacation in February called “Sportwoche.” Sport week. Yep, it’s a vacation to go skiing, because February is when the snow is really good and there aren’t as many pesky tourists clogging up the slopes. Sportwoche, people, is something I can get behind. (We’re going here, which should come as no surprise to any long-time readers.) As long as I’m talking vacation, and making this post all about the information and not so much about the stellar prose and eloquent transitions, here’s the 2010-2011 Kindergarten school year at a glance:

  • August 9 beginning of the school year
  • September 24 – October 17, 3 week fall break
  • December 24 – January 9, 2 week winter break
  • February 12 – February 20, 1 week Sportwoche
  • April 9 – May 1, 3 week Spring Break (oh. my. god.) (it’s only 2 weeks for the upper grades)*
  • June 2 – June 5 long weekend for Auffahrt (Ascension)
  • July 8 end of school year


So. I dread even asking, because the answers coming from the US are probably going to make me cry, but what does your typical school day look like? Don’t worry, I can take it. I’ve got plenty of chocolate lying about. It’s Switzerland after all.

* Which is charming if you’ve got, say a Kindergartener and a second grader. No three week long family holiday for you! Nope, your older kid goes back to school but your Kindergartener is still at home.

Speaking of hockey…

December 7th, 2010

… have I shown you the cutest. picture. ever?

It’s an Expat Thing

December 5th, 2010

The Small Boy is back in hockey school for the winter and with him, the Boychen. It’s Small Boy’s third winter now at the SCB hockey school, which is the training program associated with Bern’s professional hockey team. The hockey school rents out a full set of gear for 50 Francs and charges…well, I’m pretty sure they don’t charge anything. It’s in their interest – they want the first crack at young talent. The hockey school is the first step in the talent development program for the professional team. It’s the program Roman Josi came up through, and he got drafted by the Nashville Predators before his twentieth birthday. It’s a competitive program – only about ten percent of the kids in the school will be selected to play on the kids’ team, and you age out of the school at 8. Some of the kids in there are already really good little skaters and you can tell that they, or their families, take it pretty seriously and those kids spend more time on the ice than two trainings a week. A lot of the people associated with professional hockey in Bern have kids in that program. People associated with the hockey team or the stadium in front office capacities have kids in that program. Two of this year’s active players have kids in that program and the son of at least one former SCB player is in there right now too. It is the prestige hockey school in Bern. I don’t have any illusions about the Small Boy’s talent, I don’t see him being selected for the official youth teams, but it makes him happy and proud to be associated with the SCB so for as long as he’s age eligible for the school I’m happy to take him. And I’ve written before about my respect for the program and the trainers. Small Boy is learning a lot, and if he ages out of the school without getting selected – which is how I see it happening – we’ll find a club for him somewhere.

This is our third winter, and I’m on nodding familiar hello terms with a handful of parents I’ve been seeing over the past two winters but not much more than that. Except for one couple R and I are becoming friends with and it’s the funniest thing, because he’s one of the professional players and R and I are so not connected in the Swiss ice hockey world, but it’s totally the expat bonding thing. The English thing. He and his wife are Canadian, and our hockey practice friendship started one Thursday night last year when he overheard me trying to shepherd Boychen around the seating area – last winter, at 2 years old, Boychen was the tag-along little brother. And I was talking to him in English as I always do. The player, who was at practice with his kid,** overheard me speaking English asked me about an email the school had sent around – in German – about some changes to the upcoming Saturday training. So we started chatting off and on about this and that. Turns out he used to play in the Chicago area, where I’m from. So we’d chat about this and that and laugh at what the Swiss consider a traffic jam, because if you’ve ever been on the Dan Ryan at rush-hour you have to laugh at a Swiss traffic jam.*** This winter his wife is doing the same thing I was, taking the tag-along little sibling too young to be allowed into the hockey school onto the ice next door. So we started chatting as we bent over double to hold up our little ones. I’m pretty sure we devolved into bitching about our aching backs pretty fast.

No matter how long I have been here, no matter how good my German is, it is still so much easier in English. I’ve been seeing some of the same hockey moms for going on three winters now and have never gotten past hello and in just a few weeks I’ve gotten to the point with this Canadian couple where R and I are trying to find a date to invite them to a something. There’s just a click – it’s more than just sharing a mother tongue, although it’s hard to underestimate how much easier that makes things – when you find somebody who carries the same (or similar) cultural baggage you do. I know the invisible rules, the standards for when you’re allowed to broach which subjects. When you are allowed to make a joke about your family, when you are allowed to complain about your kids, when you are allowed to tell a story about your childhood. When you can bitch about your aching back. I know where the lines are – or at least I have a much better general idea of where the lines are than I do when I’m talking to Swiss people. Even after all this time – and I think I’ve gotten pretty good at following the Swiss social script, I think I catch my cues the overwhelming majority of the time – there are these invisible things going on under the surface threatening to pull me into a faux pas like a rip tide. And when you find somebody who’s got the same underwater currents as you do, it clicks. Sure, over time you find out if you have more in common than just the English. You learn, living abroad, to ask yourself: would I be friends with this person at home, or is it just because we both speak English? But at the beginning, it just all works in a way I’ve never been able to make it work with a Swiss person. It’s an expat thing.

* Why yes, Boychen is only three. Technically he’s not allowed in the program and I started out the season teaching him to skate myself on the rink next to the training rink, but three weeks ago the trainer in charge of the first-timers said she would take him on the ice, seeing as how he was able to stand up and walk on the ice in his skates. Score!

** Sometimes he gets on the ice during practice and helps out with the training, which is unbelievably cool. SCB is the reigning Swiss National League champions, so him getting on the ice to help with the 6 year olds is the equivalent of a Chicago Blackhawk getting on the ice with the little kids. Which is another reason I’m happy to schlepp Small Boy to these trainings, because that’s just cool to get tips from a professional hockey player.

*** Except for that one that made Small Boy and me late for practice two weeks ago. That qualified as a real traffic jam.