Wanna play?

June 23rd, 2011

The parking lot was full, the street parking around the arena where Small Boy has summer hockey training packed. I had left home early, knowing that there was a fair at the convention center and fair grounds next to the hockey stadium (and we had been informed by the head trainer that the fair would be no excuse for being late for practice), but I was still circling, looking for parking. I didn’t want to go too far afield – we had a bag full of hockey equipment and a stick, and even if the bag does have wheels it’s a drag to haul it five city blocks and the longer the walk from the car to the rink, the later we’d be. So I pulled over in front of the stadium and let Small Boy out of the car. I gave him the bag, his stick, and pointed him down to the stadium.

“Once you get to the stadium, you know how to get in. Go ahead and get started putting on your equipment, I’ll find a place to park.”

“But how will I do everything?”

“Honey, you already put on everything yourself except for tying your skates, and I’ll be there in time to help with your skates. Don’t panic, you’ve got plenty of time, just change into your stuff like always.”

“Okay.” He tipped his stick over his shoulder, grabbed his bag, and marched off towards the stadium as confident as can be.

I found parking several blocks away, near the Swiss Pentagon (which is actually built in the shape of the Swiss cross, and the fact that I’m tooling around the Pentagon parking lot on a Tuesday night looking for parking says a lot about Switzerland and deserves a post of its own), and trotted to the stadium, down to the locker room in the basement where I found Small Boy in his long underwear (it’s cotton stuff, needed to protect the skin from chafing under all the velcro holding the equipment in place), shin guards, cup, and starting on his elbow pads. He told me a woman had helped him carry the equipment bag down the stairs – I had overlooked that, when I sent him off to the stadium, that the locker rooms are down a flight of stairs – and that the zipper on his bag had stuck and a man helped him get it all the way open. He pointed out the woman who carried his bag, and I thanked her, and she said she had done the same thing, sent her son off early while she looked for parking, and somebody had helped him carry his bag down the stairs, so it all gets passed around. Small Boy finished putting on his equipment, and I laced up his skates, the last thing he can’t do by himself. (And have you laced up hockey skates lately? I can’t always get them tight enough on the first try.)

The hockey is good for Small Boy. The confidence to do that, to march off to the stadium without me, go into the locker room alone, that’s new and it comes from his experiences with the hockey program. He knows some of the kids, but more importantly he knows how to be one of the kids, to say hi to everybody when he walks into the locker room and to shake the trainers’ hands (that’s very Swiss, and very important), to maybe chat to whoever is sitting next to him. And he’s familiar with the stadium, having trained in it all last winter and now these summer in-line trainings. It’s his world, hockey world, and he knows how to negotiate it.

Last winter, in addition to practice, we went skating a lot because it was a fun thing for the boys and I to do in the afternoon. All the different rinks we checked out had a section blocked off and dedicated for kids to play pick-up hockey, and no matter how old the kids were in there, Small Boy dove right in and started to play. Look at this:

That little green-coated boy in the goal is my Small Boy, in there with the big boys and not backing down for a second in the goal. Hockey has given him that. He doesn’t even know those kids, and those are much older boys, they’re just the ones who happened to be there with sticks. When we ran into a friend now and then from the hockey school Small Boy was always very happy about that, but it didn’t matter to him one bit whether or not he knew any of the kids playing hockey. He had his stick. He was good to go.

All these things on the margins, the ways I see hockey being good for Small Boy in areas that have nothing to do with hockey, are why I’m happy to stick with this even if the scheduling is challenging (which it is, and if he survives the cut in this particular program it will only get more challenging with each age group he moves through). I’ll do that for him, I’ll schlepp him hither and yon if it means he’ll be the boy who marches off to the stadium without me, who walks up to a bunch of kids he doesn’t know and says “Hey, wanna play?”

Thirteen minutes

June 7th, 2011

That’s how long it took to renew the Boychen’s Swiss passport and Swiss national identity card yesterday. Well, that’s how long we spent in the offices of the Amt für Migration und Personenstand des Kantons Bern Pass- und Identitätskartendienst. I spent some time last week on-line filling out the forms in advance and securing an appointment via email, so that when Boychen and I arrived at the offices for our appointment all they had to do was type a few things into the computer, take his picture, punch holes in his expired documents, and give me the bill, which I then paid at the cashier. Thirteen minutes, spit-spot, in and out.

It takes a good couple of hours to renew the US documents. It’s not possible to make an appointment at the Embassy here in Bern, though I have recently learned from Cosmopolitan Friend that such a thing is possible in US Embassies located in other lands; we just seem to have a crappy system here: first come, first served. It is possible to fill out some forms in advance, but that hardly saves any time – it’s not filling out the forms that takes the time, it’s then waiting to have them looked at. If we could fill out the forms on-line, the way I can for the Swiss documents, then they could also be reviewed prior to my arrival at the Embassy. Imagine that.

Renewing the Boychen’s Swiss documents was lovely. It went so quickly that we had time to pop over to Starbucks for a coffee (me) and heisse Schoggi (him) and still be back before Small Boy finished morning Kindergarten.

Americans living abroad outside of Switzerland, I’m curious: what’s your experience with the US Embassy where you live? If you have minor children, are you allowed to make appointments to get or renew their passports?

Big bags for big boys

June 3rd, 2011

The Small Boy will be starting first grade in August. In the German-speaking parts of the world – most so, I think, in Germany but here in Switzerland as well – a child’s first day of school is a cause for celebration; it’s not the completion of Kindergarten that is marked here but the beginning of proper school. Entering the first grade is a big deal, and depending on the traditions of the region it might be marked by a special church service or a parade of the children through town or a service followed by the parade; certainly each child will get a Schultüte on the first day of school. Around here, it’s a bit less formal an occasion than in Germany but it is still very much a ritual.

The difference between Kindergarten and first grade is stark here. I’ve heard it said that these days, in the US, “Kindergarten is the new first grade” but here in Switzerland Kindergarten is about socialization and integration and getting ready for school but there is very little formal instruction. They play in Kindergarten, and there is a great deal of learning hidden in that play, but it’s essentially play. Kindergarten is about socialization, learning how to be away from home, and gradually adapting to a structured day in which you follow the instructions of your teacher. Small Boy’s Kindergarten class is a mix of five-year-olds who are in their first year of Kindergarten and six-year-olds who will enter school in August; the teachers do have different expectations of the  two groups in some circumstances, but the age groups mix and mingle during most of the day. Here, children learn to read and write in the first grade, and although from what I can tell all the six-year olds in Small Boy’s class know their letters and can write their names, it’s not a requirement for entering the first grade.

The things that do matter in Kindergarten, the things that define a child as Schulreif (ready for school) have less to do with what the child knows in any academic sense than with social competence. Kids here are expected to walk to and from school by themselves; that means they also have to be able to put on and take off all manner of clothes (including snow-suits and winter boots) without assistance. Children need to be able to sit still. They should be able to play with different kids (having one super best friend you always play with to the exclusion of other kids is a cause for mild concern here) and you should be able to engage in different types of activities (if you play in the building blocks corner every single day in Kindergarten, the teachers will encourage other activities). A child entering the first grade should recognize shapes and forms and be able to draw letters and numbers when looking at a model, but reading and writing is a job for the first grade.* Rather than writing in Kindergarten, the focus is on basteln – art projects. They are a useful measure of so many things, if you think about it: the fine motor control that children need to master writing, patience, the ability to follow directions and patterns (in the case of projects where the teacher tells you what to make), imagination and creativity (in the case where the teacher tells you to draw a picture of anything you want), or memory (in which the child might draw a picture showing a scene from the story the teacher read that day). Small Boy does a lot of art projects. The things we talked about at Small Boy’s parent-teacher conference were all along this line of social competence: if he can make friends, get along with people, get to school on time including getting undressed and changing his shoes, follow rules and pay attention to the teachers. In short, is he independent and confident enough for school? (If you can read German, there is an interesting checklist on this site; the chart on page two lays out the most important aspects of Soziale Kompetenzen.)

For all these reasons and more, the transition from Kindergarten and school is a big one. Kindergarten is Kindergarten; first grade is school. And so there are traditions to mark the move from one to the other; the first day of the first grade is a true milestone in a child’s life in the German-speaking world. There is the ceremony of the first day of first grade, the Schultüte, and the school backpack. Because there is no homework in Kindergarten, the kids only need a snack bag. For school, they need a school bag. Not just any old backpack, a special school backpack. Small Boy and I went shopping for his school supplies last week, and he took his time picking out his school backpack, looking over the different designs and ranking them one a scale of 1 to 4. The school backpacks here are big and boxy with a solid form that distributes weight fairly evenly and – I think more to the Swiss point – protect books and papers inside from getting bent and crumpled. They’ve also got a good deal of reflective material on them, what with all that walking to and from school kids do here. They’re really big, though; they can overwhelm a slight child.

Here is Small Boy’s school bag:

Inside the backpack are his school supplies, all neatly contained in an “etui”:


Buying them was a big deal for the Small Boy, and he is very, very proud of them. He’s getting ready to head on down the road wearing his school backpack, his school supplies tucked neatly inside, his snack bag a thing of the past. My Small Boy, getting Big.

* The other day Boychen’s babysitter** was here when Small Boy came home for lunch; it happened that he had gotten a piece of mail that day and when I gave it to him he asked where it was from. I said, “Read the return address.” “In-ter-hock-ey” he sounded out. “Cool, it’s from Interhockey” – the store where we buy all his hockey gear – and the babysitter was so surprised he could read and asked if was still in Kindergarten. There is absolutely no pressure for Kindergarteners here to learn to read and write before the first grade and no shame if they don’t. That’s what first grade is for.

** I think we’ve found a babysitter for Boychen one day a week. At her house. Rays of celestial light!