January 30th, 2012

Really? Seven? Can you slow down, universe, just a little bit?

Because honestly, when did this happen?

And what will the next seven years bring?

Oh, boys. And oh boy.

January 27th, 2012

Playdate Friend is over this afternoon – over right now, in fact – and he, SB, and Boychen are raising a ruckus and a half. They played hockey down in the garage for awhile, and did you know that the sound of three boys happily playing hockey in the garage is a dead ringer for the sound of three boys killing each other in the garage? Yes, really. Now they’re playing with dinosaurs, and you know dinosaurs are loud, right, with the roaring and the eating and the running away shrieking, right?

They are loud, my children. Playdate Friend too, who likes to complain about how loud Boychen is (and Boychen is loud – I’m beginning to think we should have his hearing checked because the child is loud) without realizing that he himself is not exactly the quietest earplug in the box.

* * *

Last night waiting to get on the ice for the hockey school the Juniors were warming up. They were doing jump squats while holding a medicine ball, ten in a row, and then after the tenth they handed the medicine ball to the next guy in line and  jumped five hurdles. Not the way runners jump, but from a dead stop. It made me tired just to watch them and made me once again marvel that my boys – my crazy running down the hall pretending to be dinosaurs eating each other boys – are going to turn into men. It’s the chest and shoulders that kill me, the way the boys suddenly fill out, get tall and broad. SB just grows up and up, he’s so wiry and lean I can’t picture him filling out at all.

* * *

I suspect SB’s hockey coach wants to build a goalie out of him. From his birthdate, he’s the perfect pick once the two Bambini boys who are goalies now age into the next group. I don’t know how I feel about this.

* * *

I’m definitely burning the candle at both ends these days. I am tired, so tired, and yet I’m also having fun – the hockey school, making friends with other parents of kids who play with SB, a poetry workshop and lots of drafts coming along – but I am so tired. I need a vacation. (I suspect some of the letting the world rub me the wrong way is a symptom/warning sign of stress.) This can’t go on much longer. Hockey school ends in just over a month, which I am both looking forward to and regretting, as this whole concept of having work colleagues is new and wonderful to me; I think the benefits of the fun I’m having outweigh the added crazy to my schedule, but the crazy is taking its toll.

My Swiss Life (Part I)

January 23rd, 2012

I’ve been trying to write about what I’m calling my New Swiss Life for at least a month now but I’m suffering from perfection syndrome, trying so hard to express myself so perfectly that I end up not expressing myself at all – so I’m just going to start. I expect this to be an ongoing story – I can’t possibly say everything in a single blog post and there is a lot to be said because for a blogger who’s an expat, I haven’t been writing much about Switzerland or culture clashes or integration lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, because I’m (yes, finally) applying for Swiss citizenship, so maybe it’s time to start thinking out loud.

I moved to Switzerland in December of 2000 and for a variety of reasons that in retrospect R and I both agree were not good enough reasons, we lived in a small village near Bern even though he was at the time working in Zürich. (The price and availability of housing in Zürich was certainly one of the reasons.) I was taking intensive German lessons four hours a day five days a week; if you throw in my commute and studying time, my German classes consumed a good six and a half hours a day, but R was, that whole first year, gone thirteen hours a day. We were in a small village, I didn’t know anybody, there was not another native English speaker in my German class (for which I am very grateful – it did wonders for my German to be forced to try to make friends and small talk in German – but it certainly limits the speed and ease with which you can form friendships when, for example, you can’t even speak in the past tense), R was gone a lot, and even in the best of circumstances I am shy and reserved and not terribly good at making friends. That whole first year was miserable. Sometimes, even now, R will say to me with a sort of amazement that he can’t believe I didn’t leave him and go back to the U.S. during that first year or eighteen months. Sometimes, even now, I will think with a sort of amazement the same thing. I was miserable that first year.

The thing about learning standard German in Switzerland is that the Swiss don’t speak standard German, they speak Swiss and the two are not the same. If I had it to do all again, if I could have peeked into a magic ball and seen the way my life here has played out, the things I’m involved in, the things that matter most to me now, I would not have enrolled in a standard German course, I would have gone straight into a Schweizerdeutsch course and managed the written German later. Because not being able to speak Swiss is a real stumbling block in trying to build a Swiss life. My standard German, thanks to all those intensive lessons, is very good but it marks me instantly as an outsider no matter how long I have been here. Oh the Swiss understand me and I, at last, understand the Swiss but my German is a constant reminder of my foreignness, a little division between us, a stumbling block to overcome. A small one, perhaps, but it is there, a little hitch, a little hiccup.

The Swiss have a reputation for being reserved, hard to get to know; I myself have called the Swiss “a tough nut to crack” (you can read the comments on this post, especially those from Gretchen, for some more insight into this) and I think there is some truth to this (though I also am in the middle of seeing how very untrue it is) but I also think that half of it is simply the language and I finally understand the Swiss – not just linguistically, but emotionally – on this point. German and Swiss are not interchangeable and speaking German is not an approximation of speaking Swiss. I wish R had insisted on this point (but R is funny, and to this day thinks I did it the right way by mastering standard written German). But I wish I had done it differently; I would, if I could, go back and do it differently but I can’t, of course, so I am trying to make up for lost time and working hard to pick up Swiss. I don’t want to speak German anymore. And I think those first few years would have been so much easier if I had learned Swiss from the start. I get it now, the Swiss love of their dialekt, I really do.

I didn’t have Swiss friends, other than the Swiss spouses or partners of my English-speaking friends, for years. R’s job situation when we first moved here – working in Zurich but living outside Bern – didn’t help, because it made socializing with his work colleagues difficult, although of course now with the benefit of hindsight I can see all the ways we might have made that easier. And because if you talk to expats living in Switzerland you’ll hear the “Swiss are so reserved” line a good ninety percent of the time, it’s easy to fall into believing this and giving up; to not explore if there aren’t just little cultural differences you have to pick up on and adapt to; to not wonder what about your own personality and behavior are contributing to the situation. Yes, the Swiss are reserved but I am shy and self-conscious in German. And if I am honest with myself, I am shy and self-conscious in English. I grew up in a house where my parents did not socialize and learning how to do this – how to invite people over to dinner just for the sake of inviting people over to dinner – has been hard for me. It was, when I remind myself, hard in English. It was hard back home. At some point, it became clear that I was using the old Swiss reserve schtick as an excuse and that I needed to do some heavy lifting.

And so I started lifting. And my life now, ten years on, is so different. “Bloom where you’re planted,” Australian Friend likes to say and yes, yes, yes to this. It has taken ten years, but I am blooming.

One thing, every day. (For ten years.)

January 20th, 2012

I’ve been letting a lot of the little things, and perhaps a few of the big things, rub me the wrong way lately. And I am aware, when things rub me the wrong way, that a good half of it is my reaction to whatever situation is annoying me as much as the annoyingness of the situation itself. For example, The Boychen isn’t much of an eater: the things he’ll eat are quite limited, he takes forever to eat just enough to sustain life, at the table he squirms and plays and gets up and wanders away. It’s exhausting, and annoying, and has seriously reduced my ability to take pleasure in food, and I eat less than I used to because at some point the food has been drained of all taste and enjoyment. It’s annoying, no doubt, but I also let it upset me more than it needs to, which of course is the completely wrong reaction with regards to the table dynamics, but that’s a whole different post. The point I’m trying to make is I know I’ve been letting things get under my skin.

A corollary to letting things rub me the wrong way, I think, is that it’s hard to savor the little moments when I’ve built up a steam of annoyance. And I don’t want to miss all the little moments which are, after all, the moments that make up life. So one of my personal – as opposed to writing – resolutions for the year is to learn how to let go of minor irritations and, at the same time, pay more attention to the small happinesses. To help me focus my mind on a good, small moment from each day, I bought myself a 10Jahresbuch (10 year book) for Christmas. It’s basically a diary: there is one page for each day of the year, starting with January 1, and each page has ten lines. At the end of each day, I write one short line about the best moment of the day. When I hit December 31, I go back to the beginning of the book and move on to the second line on the page for January 1 – the best thing about January first 2013 – and so on until the book is full. Ten years of best things. It is simultaneously spectacularly ambitious and ridiculously simple.

The boys feeding the swans on New Year’s Day has been a moment, and a full moon on the way home from a hockey game that the whole family had tickets to, and sitting alone at Starbuck’s with a caramel macchiato and the first draft of a poem. And it’s early in the year, but it’s a good thing to spend five minutes at the end of the day remembering something special.


January 16th, 2012

It is cold and clear, a high blue sky day with temperatures below freezing but sunshine and crystalline air. I love these days, and the only thing that would make it more perfect would be snow on the ground. It won’t snow today, of course, or tomorrow – these beautiful days are usually the result of a high pressure zone hovering above Switzerland and keeping away the clouds. The cloudless sky is lovely but it carries no snow.

* * *

The whole family went skating yesterday – R has been learning, seeing suddenly that two hockey-playing sons and a skating wife is going to mean a lot of weekend days at some ice rink somewhere, and he wants to be part of it. He and Boychen are good partners right now, and I can still keep up with the Small Boy in skating, but his hockey skills have already surpassed my rusty ones. We were playing a pick-up game of one-on-one yesterday, fighting over the puck in a corner of the rink, pressed up against the boards, when he hooked his blade under my stick and flipped my stick up off the ice and away from the puck. He snagged the puck and skated off. “Hey! Are you even allowed to do that?” I called. “Sure,” he said, truly surprised, “Herr Trainer likes when we do that.” Well, shoot. He’s actually learning how to play hockey down there on the ice. How about that.

* * *

I went drinking and dancing with some girlfriends Friday night and was reminded that I need to do that more often (also: I need more fun clothes). As Australian Friend put it, I like to talk and be serious, but sometimes it’s good just to go AHHHHHH! It was a bit rough waking up and heading off to hockey school the next morning, but luckily my end of the rink is half in shadow.

* * *

Now it is sunny and clear and cold and SB is at school and Boychen is with the Tagesmutter and I am at Starbucks about to close my computer and pick up my copy of When the Only Light is Fire by Saeed Jones.

* * *

I kind of love that I’m a person who plays pick-up hockey on Sunday and reads and writes poetry on Monday.

* * *

Life is good.

Sometimes, the hockey rink is like a time machine

January 13th, 2012

So one thing that’s interesting about spending all this time around hockey rinks is that in the coming and going with Small Boy and Boychen we cross paths with most of the other age groups. SB plays Bambini hockey – officially Bambinis have 2004 and 2003 birth dates though SB is one of seven kids one his team who are younger than that. After this season, he can legally play another two seasons of Bambini hockey before he ages into the next group, the Piccolos. Then he’ll get two seasons in that age group before he ages up to the Moskitos. The “Mosi’s” practice right after SB on Tuesdays and Thursdays and we see them running drills as we’re leaving. It’s hard to believe they’re twelve and thirteen; a handful of them are just one helping of steak and potatoes away from being as tall as their coach. I suppose right about twelve and thirteen is when the testosterone starts kicking in and they start shooting up and filling out, getting real muscles and broad shoulders; but before practice I can see  them screwing around, throwing snowballs at each other and stealing each other’s hats and they’re still very much boys. Just bigger.

Thursday nights the hockey school practices in the arena where the pro team plays, and hockey school overlaps with practice for the Junior Elites – the last step before a kid tries to make it in professional hockey. They’re 17, 18, 19 year old boys – men – and while I’m on the ice with the little kids the Elites are running their warm ups in the stadium. They run the stairs, playing a game of follow the leader where the first boy in line sets the drill: sometimes they run up as fast as they can touching every step with the balls of their feet, sometimes they jump up two steps then back down one then up two again, sometimes they run up on every other stair, sometimes they hop up on one leg. However they do it, it’s full gas to the top, then they jog over to the next aisle and down to get back in line to run the stairs again. These boys aren’t kids anymore, even if they are seventeen – if a kid is still in the SCB program by the time he ages into the Junior Elite level, he’s hands-down one of the best youth hockey players in the country. Those boys aren’t kidding around anymore, they’re looking to play professional hockey. Period.

I see these guys around the rinks, various versions of the future Small Boy – SB at twelve, SB at fifteen, SB at eighteen – and it’s disconcerting and exciting and mildly terrifying to imagine SB morphing into a big boy and then a man. It’s not the hockey I’m talking about here, I’m not imagining SB playing Junior Elite hockey, it’s just the vision of him tall and broad and muscular that’s hard to reconcile with my long stretched out boy of tendon and bone and high child’s voice. Somehow seeing these hockey players on a regular basis, and seeing them in their stair-step age groups, makes them more real to me than the fifth graders I see around town or the teenagers who take the train to school and work in the city. I know exactly how old those hockey boys are – the kids who take the ice Tuesday after SB have 1999 – 2002 birth dates – and I know exactly how far away SB is from looking like those boys. If I squint my eyes and tilt my head when the Mosis drill, it’s like seeing a vision of the future.

It’s like this, the now and the then in the same frame, and the staircase between them suddenly so unbearably short:

Why I write

January 9th, 2012

I drove to a friend’s house last week and there is a point in the drive where I crest a wooded hill and at the top clear the woods and make a slight turn and BAM all across the horizon snow-covered peaks. In the foreground there are fields, and a few traditional Swiss farmhouses, and below the village. It was a pretty day when I drove, in the mid-afternoon, and I topped the hill and the Alps bore down on me and I actually said “Wow” out loud. More than once. It can still do that, after ten years, that sudden panorama. It can still nearly stop my heart.

What would happen if I opened my heart to every pink-blue sunrise, every red-streaked sunset, every first crocus of spring? Would it burn up from the rapture of it all? Explode? Get stronger? Sometimes I look up at the Eiger and wonder how we even manage to move through the day at all rather than stand rooted to the spot – any spot, the Alps or the sunrise or the blossoming plum tree – saying wow wow wow over and over. If we opened the valve, really opened the valve, we’d be ripped from shore and carried downstream by the sheer fact of the world. How to open the valve just enough to be alive and not so much we’re uprooted? Or is that the living, the moment of feeling your roots ripped from the soil of the ordinary?

And it is that, that BAM that ripping that rapture that is the first time every single time that I’m reaching for every time I pick up a pen. I want to crest the hill, to clear the woods, to be brought face to face with the extraordinary and to realize, finally, that it is extraordinary and I want to take you with me.