July 13th, 2011

We have the Small Boy’s first grade class schedule – called the Studenplan – and classroom assignment. There are two first grade classes here in the village, and SB will be with the teacher he wanted (he wanted this teacher based on the second-hand information that a friend’s brother likes this teacher) and is staying together with his entire Kindergarten class minus one child who for some odd reason is the only one from his Kindergarten class going to the other teacher, which strikes me as awfully unfair for this particular child. (The life, it’s all about the unfairness right now.)

The first grade curriculum looks like this: he’ll have German (reading, writing, literature – this is the same as a US first  grader having an English class); math; “Natur-Mensch-Mitwelt,” which I’m assuming is basically social studies with some physical sciences thrown in; P.E., which they just call Sport here; art (including textile work), and music. There’s still a lot of down time – he only goes to school five mornings and two afternoons a week – though I confess I have no idea what the Swiss homework situation looks like in the first grade. I’m willing to find that out as we go along and if there isn’t a lot of homework all the better since he’ll have hockey practice twice a week and an extra “class” outside of school, from me.

I’m looking through first grade curriculums this summer – at the moment I’m reading What Your First Grader Needs to Know – to figure out what U.S. history Small Boy would get in the first grade, if he were going to the first grade in the U.S. and I’m going to put together a little extra class for him outside of school. I hope to be able to expose him to the highlights primarily through stories, especially in the early grades, so that it doesn’t feel like I’m sitting at the kitchen table tutoring him. Neither of us take to that particularly well, but he learns remarkably well  – and I pass along information fairly well – in the context of a walk, outing, or adventure. But him sitting there listening to me tell him Something Important? Not so much. I can imagine if I took him on vacation to Boston, for example, he would have a blast and eat up all the stories and learn ten times more about the Revolution than if I tried consciously to sit down and teach him about it. So I’m hoping for some good children’s books to lay the ground work.

Sooooo, American readers of young children, here’s where you come in. What should a first grader learn about US history? What are some good age appropriate books or movies? What did your first grader learn? (I’m thinking specifically US history here. I’m perfectly happy to have Small Boy learn world history in the depth and order the Swiss kids do. It’s just the U.S. stuff that he obviously won’t get here that I’m interested in.)

Aaand, expat parents of children of all ages, I’m looking for your advice too. Did you teach your kids about your home country? How? How much? How often? Which subjects were the most important to you? (For example, given time constraints, did you teach the literature of your native country on top of what they were getting in the local school?) Did you present it clearly as learning about where you came from, or did you just try to sneak it in in the form of stories and vacations? When did you start, and how long were you able to keep it up? Did your kids rebel against this extra workload? I’m looking for information galore here, so please feel free to pass a link to this post along to your expat friends.


And spare a thought for the Small Boy, who is about to be confronted with another of life’s little unfairnesses: he has to learn the history of two countries.

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!

Bring on the falafel!

January 26th, 2011

I mentioned in this post how the shopping hours have liberalized oh so slightly since I first moved to Switzerland ten years ago. But where I’ve really seen a change is not on the sign showing the grocery store’s opening hours, but what’s inside on the shelves. Ten years ago, when I came here with a shipping container filled with everything I own including two dozen cookbooks, most of my cookbooks were immediately rendered useless. My cooking isn’t exceptionally out there, but it leans to international vegetarian. Tried and true cookbooks that came across the sea with me include: Martin Yan’s Asia, Martha Stewart’s Healthy Quick Cook, Moosewood, Moosewood Low-Fat Favorites, Madhur Jaffrey’s World of the East Vegetarian Cooking, and A Taste of Heaven and Earth.

Let’s take a look at some of the ingredients called for in these wild and crazy cookbooks. Soba noodles. Japanese eggplants. Bok choy. Monterey Jack cheese. Oyster sauce. Thai basil leaves. Lemongrass. Wonton wrappers. Ten years ago this stuff was impossible to find. Ten years ago, I was hard pressed to find, wait for it, whole black beans. (When I found them, sold by the lovely lady who cooks tacos at the market in Bern twice a week, they were five francs a can. Yes, I still bought them. Together with the newly available and somewhat radical sweet potato, they made a lovely Navajo Stew.) Martin Yan’s Asia moldered on the shelf.

Slowly, a few speciality shops opened up, or I expanded my horizons enough to find them but I think it was the former more than the latter. Maybe a bit of both. The Loeb food shop in Bern has an entire section devoted to Asian food. I can get mung beans and chinese broccoli and two types of tofu and oyster sauce and my god I can even get galangal. Globus foods always carried specialty items, at a steep mark-up – for years they were the only place to get fresh cranberries. (Now that I’m thinking about it, I think for a few years they were my only reliable source of sweet potatoes as well.) Then we found an Indian market where we got cardamon pods and turmeric powder and coriander seeds. About five years ago I might have had to go to three shops to get the ingredients for an Indian curry or Singapore noodles, but I could find what I needed. (Actually, had I thought about it and dug around more, I would have realized that the large population of ethnic Sri Lankans and Thai in Switzerland had to be shopping somewhere and I would have tracked down their secret shops.)

Now, in an ordinary grocery store (okay, it has to be one of the larger stores but still, it’s an ordinary chain grocery store) there is this:

and this

I can get ramen noodles – which Small Boy loves eating Thursday nights after hockey practice – and your standard Old El Paso mexican foods plus the real stuff the lady sells at the market. I’ve seen blue corn chips and humous and falafel mix. Ten years ago I used to screw up my courage to ask the butcher for ground lamb and he’d sort of give me a “that’s a waste of perfectly good lamb, lady” look and now ground lamb is so popular it is pre-packaged at the Coop. Pre-packaged, people. Coop sells a little package of all the fresh spices needed for a basic Thai curry. I cannot tell you how much my culinary life has improved over the past five years in particular and I think it will only get better.

Bring on the falafel!

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.

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.

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.

Call for help from US readers

September 26th, 2010

So Small Boy just lost his first tooth. I was all prepared for this in Swiss francs, but what’s the going rate for a tooth in US dollars??

Culture clash, child-rearing version

April 19th, 2010

And this, my friends, is why social services will end up at my door in twelve minutes if we ever move to the states while the boys are still small. In Rochester, New York, a mother is discouraged from leaving her five year old alone in the children’s room of the local library for three minutes while she goes to check out a book (link via A Little Pregnant’s Twitter feed). The overwhelming response among the commenters falls into the “I would never leave my child alone in a public place” camp. Meanwhile, I think nothing of leaving the two and a half year old Boychen in the play area of a certain book store I frequent while I search for books; he’s not always in my line of sight, though I circle back frequently to take a peep. Ditto the toy section of the department store: the boys can look at the Playmobile while I go across the aisle to the stationary section. Again, not always in my line of sight. The escalator, however, is so there’s no way out that I wouldn’t see. (Now that I think about it, the same does not hold true for the book section.) 

Here in Farming Village, Switzerland, Small Boy’s kindergarten teacher is encouraging me to encourage Small Boy to walk part or all of the way home from kindergarten alone or with some friends who live in the same direction – the point being, he should not need an adult to pick him up from the school house door and walk all the way home with him; perhaps I could meet him half-way? Frankly, I’m very much looking forward to the time Small Boy walks home for lunch alone; going to get him at noon-time is a pretty inconvenient round trip for The Boychen and me. However: we live 1.8 kilometers (1.1 miles) from the school house door and we have to cross the main road, the road that cars use when the traffic on the highway is too heavy, to get to the school. For the last half kilometer (last if he’s walking home; first if he’s walking to school) there are no houses around. The sidewalkless and narrow – and I mean narrow, in the European sense of the word – but hardly ever trafficked road runs between my brother-in-law’s fields and during the winter can be seen from my in-law’s balcony but when the corn is up, the road is obscured from view. (As an aside: wow, there’s a sentence that I never imagined would apply directly to my life.) So I’m torn about this. Much as I want him to make the walk himself, he’s five and a half, after all. Culturally, however, I am seen to be coddling him a bit with this walking him home from Kindergarten business. Said in an entirely different tone of voice: he’s five and a half, after all.

What’s the current status on getting kids to school and from school where you live? I’m especially interested about how it stands with the younger grades in the US. Are your Kindergarteners getting to school by themselves, or are you all thinking the Swiss are crazy? Here in Switzerland they pretty much all go alone; at this point in the school year there are only about five parents who routinely pick their kids up from Kindergarten (out of a class of twenty), and they’re all the parents of the young Kindergarteners like Small Boy; the six year olds ALL walk without an adult). Younger school kids – Kindergarten, first grade – get their Leuchtweste on the first day of school (in the city Small Boy would have gotten a triangle; here in the suburbs they get vests) and they all wear them and get scolded if they don’t and the kids walk it in all sorts of weather. 

I have no memory of how I got to kindergarten. Although my family was pretty firmly blue-collar (father, cop; mother, receptionist when my brother and I were older; college degrees, neither of them), we lived in a very white collar suburb* of Chicago, one of those places that people with children choose for the school system, a neighborhood that certainly would have been perceived as safe** enough for kids to walk to school. There were sidewalks the whole way, and the streets were pretty quiet. I do remember clearly that in the later grades, say 3rd and 4th grade, I walked the half-mile to and from school together with H, who lived one block closer to the school than I did, and L, who lived one block further away. I walked to and from Junior High as well, a distance of .8 miles, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. Only to get to the high school, a distance of 4.5 miles, did I start riding the school bus. This was also (mumble mumble) thirty years ago and I’m well aware that the world has changed. How do kids get to school these days, and what is the reaction when parents go against the grain? (Here in Switzerland, driving your kids to school is frowned upon and the teachers come right out and tell the kids it’s better to walk.) If your kids walk alone, how far is it, and how old were they when they started to do it alone? Is there a lot of biking to school in the older grades? (That’s very popular here.) I’m really curious about this; talk to me.

* Said suburb is routinely one of the ten wealthiest zip codes in the state and is shockingly high above the statewide average income and we never kept up with the Joneses. To this day I believe that the feeling of never fitting in far outweighed the benefits of the admittedly excellent public schools. I think my parents were only able to manage getting a house in this neighborhood because my grandfather must have helped them with a down payment. How they kept up with the property taxes all those years; well, our family financial situation was one thing my mother never discussed with me, to the point of me not knowing what colleges I could afford to apply to, but looking back it’s all a bit of a wonder that my parents bought that house when my brother was born and that my brother and I sold it only after my mother died and that there was money left in the estate.

** This didn’t happen until I was in college. My father was on duty that day and took the first emergency calls.***

*** I’m making a mockery of my vague attempts to be coy here, aren’t I? I grew up in Glencoe.