Wordless Wednesday: Snow castle edition

February 27th, 2013

This is a test. Repeat: this is only a test.

February 7th, 2013

Every year the sirens catch me by surprise. They shouldn’t; it’s a well-established ritual that Switzerland tests the warning sirens of the civil defense system every year at 13:30 on the first Wednesday in February. But it seems to me that the public service announcements reminding people of the annual test are less prominent than they used to be, or maybe it’s just that way out in the village. Things are easy to miss out here. So yesterday as I was finishing up in the kitchen and the boys were playing a hockey video game (neither of them have school or Kindergarten Wednesday afternoons) I thought I heard sirens. I ignored it for a few minutes, thinking it was background noise on the video game – the stadium sounds incorporated in the game are full of sirens and horns when somebody scores a goal – and then I finally asked the boys to turn the volume off for a minute and there it was: the rolling ascending and descending tones of sirens. Then I looked at the calendar and the clock and remembered: testing the General Alarm.

We live a bit outside the village; the alarm is hard to hear out here but I did hear it. But they don’t take any chances out in the farming village, and part of the general alarm system out here involves a fire truck driving out to the more remote houses. They drove by, siren going, and turned around in my in-laws’ driveway and then, presumably, continued on to the other farm a little further down on the other side of the main road.

For us the testing lasted half an hour. In areas of the country with a number of dams – the Ticino, for example – there is then a second testing of the Water Emergency Sirens. These warning sirens make a different noise from the General Alarm. I’ve never heard them, because they’re not used where I am, but I understand it’s a series of 12 long tones.

Should the General Alarm sound at other than the expected time, residents should turn on the TV or radio for more information; you should also notify your neighbors to make sure they heard it. If the Water Alarm sounds unexpectedly – evacuate immediately.

Over the years I’ve known a few people who flat out hate the siren testing (and yes, they’re no fun when they wake the sleeping toddler from the afternoon nap, but it’s only once a year) but for me it’s one of those quirky, wonderful things I’ve come to love about the Alpine Fortress. I mean, they sent a fire truck out here, just for the six of us! You’ve got to love that just a little bit.

I found this YouTube video sample of what the siren testing sounds like around the Zürcher See (lake of Zürich). Turn your volume down if you’re at work, you might startle somebody!


November 26th, 2012

One of my favorite Bernese traditions is the Zibelemärit, or onion market, held every year on the fourth Monday of November. It opens at 5 a.m., but I’ve never managed to be there in the early morning hours, not even when we lived in the city and it was just a short walk away. The Zibelemärit dates back several hundred years – up to six hundred years, depending on which story about the origins of the Zibelemärit you believe. The version I like, which happens to be the one that probably isn’t true, is that the tradition dates back to the years following the fire of 1405, which destroyed much of Bern. The story goes that the good people of Freiburg assisted in both fighting the fire and rebuilding the city, and as thanks the farmers of Freiburg were granted the right to sell their produce in the markets of Bern during the month of November. In November, you’d have a lot of root vegetables like onions laying about, wouldn’t you? And so began the Zibelemärit. (The other version, the one that’s probably historically accurate, is that the market is simply an outgrowth of the festivals surrounding the feast of St. Martin. I like the legend better.)

And if you’re wondering how big a market devoted to onions can be, I can tell you this: a total of 627 stands this year, 205 of which offered solely onions, other vegetables, or fruit. 145 stands offered food and drink, ranging from the traditional Zibelechueche (onion quiche), Chäsecheuche (cheese quiche, and one of my favorite Swiss words thought not one of my favorite Swiss foods), and Glühwein (hot spiced wine) to “American Style Hotdogs” (no, I didn’t stop to try one). The other 277 stands sold everything from vegetable slicers to traditional ceramics to clothes to cheap plastic trinkets.

Now early in the morning, apparently, plain onions are sold in bulk by farmers to restauranteurs, but the glory of Zibelemärit are the Zwiebelzöpfe, or braided onions:

Stand after stand of lovely Zwiebelzöpfe:

The early evening news stories I’ve seen from today suggest 58 TONS of onions were sold at Zibelemärit this year. A few of them, perhaps, in Nuggi (pacifier) form:

With all those onions around, somebody at some point decided people might need some mints, so you can find these colorful strings of candy everywhere:

People buy these candy strings and then wear them around their necks. Traditionally they were always mint flavored regardless of the color of the wrapping (all those onions, you know), but now there are stands that sell the candy in other flavors as well: orange flavored in the orange cellophane, lemon flavored in the yellow, and so on. I prefer the traditional mint, but this year the boys wanted orange and lemon flavored for their strings.

Then there is the confetti fighting, and the hitting of people on the head with foam hammers, which is, I’m sure, a much younger tradition than the Zibelemärit itself. Although my husband participated in the confetti and hammer madness as a child, so it’s not brand new. It was rainy today, which made for some soggy dirty piles of confetti on the streets but sometimes it also almost looked pretty.

Summer is ending

September 21st, 2012

There’s fog in the mornings now, sometimes just threads of cotton candy curling around the hills, sometimes so heavy I can’t see our nearest neighbors 500 meters across the fields. It burns off slowly, as the sun rises, and by nine o’clock, most days, I can see the church steeple in the village. But I know what this morning fog means, in this part of Switzerland: summer is coming to an end and soon will come days and days when we’re socked in with fog, when the sun is weak and the sky is grey and all the colors will be muted.

Maybe that’s why the Swiss fill their flower pots and window boxes with winter hard Erika – flowering heather that offers up some color through the winter. Winter is better for me now, with the enforced social life that comes with SB’s hockey team and with the time I spend skating outside either at the hockey school or playing pickup hockey with the boys on some rink somewhere, but still – the winter months sit heavy on me and this fog creeping in on cat feet in the morning is my early warning. It’s time to start storing up color. It’s time to put Erika in the flower boxes on the balcony, and in pots by the door.

Swiss schools: what a report card looks like

July 6th, 2012

Yesterday was Small Boy’s last day of first grade, which is sort of an I can’t believe it moment all of its own, but it’s also the day he came home with his first written report card, or Beurteilungsbericht. Back in January we had an Elterngespräch, the parent-teacher conference, but that was strictly oral. We did take home a self-assessment the SB had to do in which he evaluated his own readiness in certain areas, but nothing written from the teacher. The self-assessment was adorable – it was an apple tree, and for each competence Small Boy had to color the apple more or less red – red being ripe, being good. He then talked to his teacher about why he thought that about himself, and the teacher shared this with us. When the teacher first slid the self-evaluation across the table to us, before he explained the business about red being ripe being good, I saw all this red and was very worried, since red marks in school are usually associated with problems. But it turns out red on the apple tree is a good thing.

So this is our first written evaluation of SB’s progress in school – the details of which I’m not going to share, because that’s private, but in broad strikes Small Boy and I are pleased – but I thought some of you might be interested in what a Swiss first grade report card covers.

The first page covers the Obligatorischer Unterricht – performance in the required subjects. The four possible marks are sehr gut (very good), gut (good), genügend (satisfactory), and ungenügend (unsatisfactory). This is pretty much what my early grade school report cards looked like in the U.S. back in my day. And sorry for all the German that is about to follow – don’t worry, everything comes with a translation – but I thought it might amuse some of you to see what I have to muddle through in order to figure out how the Small Boy is doing. (Yes, the Swiss husband will help a great deal in these situations; naturally he’s out of town until tonight so I was on my own yesterday. I understood almost everything but had to look up Vorstellungsvermögen.)

In the first grade, the required subjects are Deutsch (German), Mathematik (math), Natur-Mensch-Mitwelt (which I’m going to translate as social studies with some biology thrown in), Gestalten (art), Musik (music), and Sport (P.E.). German has three subcomponents, each of which receives its own grade:

  • Hören und Sprechen (listening and speaking)
  • Lesen (reading)
  • Schreiben (writing)

Math has four subcomponents, again each receiving its own mark:

  • Vorstellungsvermögen (which can mean imagination or spatial sense)
  • Kenntnisse, Fertigkeiten (knowledge/proficiency/skills)
  • Anwenden/Mathematisieren (application, to mathematize)
  • Prolemlöseverhalten (problem solving).

The second page covers Arbeits- und Lernverhalten (work habits, basically – this is the softer social stuff, you know, “plays well with others.”) Here the skills are graded along a four point continuum ranging from Trifft meistens zu to Trifft selten zu (applies most of the time to applies infrequently). The way they’ve got the skills here worded, Trifft meistens zu is always optimal and Trifft selten zu is always a red flag. There are four groupings here, each of which has subcomponents:

Lernmotivation und Einsatz (motivation and effort). (In sports, for example, a player who goes full-bore all the time is said to give Volleinsatz). This is broken down into:

  • Zeigt Interesse am Unterrichtsstoff (shows interest in the subject matter)
  • Entwickelt gute eigene Ideen (develops one’s own good ideas)
  • Zeigt auch nach Misserfolgen Einsatz (applies oneself even after mistakes).

Then there is Konzentration, Aufmerksamkeit, Ausdauer (concentration, attention, persistence). This is broken down into:

  • Lässt sich wenig ablenken (does not get distracted)
  • Folgt dem Unterrich aufmerksam (follows the lesson attentively)
  • Kann auch längere Arbeiten zu Ende führen (can also complete long-term projects and tasks).

Third is Aufgabenbearbeitung, (planning and organizing tasks) with its subgroups:

  • Plant und organisiert die Arbeit zweckmässig (plans and organizes the work appropriately/practically)
  • Teilt die Zeit gut ein (manages time well)
  • Erledigt Arbeiten sorgfältig und zuverlässig (completes the work carefully and dependably)

Finally, Zusammenarbeit und Selbständigkeit, (teamwork/cooperation and independence) with the following subcategories:

  • Kann mit andern zusammenarbeiten (can work with others)
  • Arbeitet selbständig (works independently)
  • Macht die Hausaufgaben zuverlässig (does the homework regularly)

Zuverlässig comes up a lot in the report card and the parent-teacher conference, and for that matter with the Small Boy’s hockey trainers as well. Zuverlässig, with its many possible translations – authentic, dependable, reliable, solid, steady, of good repute – is high praise in Switzerland (imagine that). Allow me this moment of motherly pride: this week more than one authority figure in the Small Boy’s life has told me he is zuverlässig. He’s doing all right, this kid.

Well, that turned into a long post. Ich danke Euch ganz herzlich für Eure Aufmerksamkeit. (I thank you for your attention.)

May Day

May 4th, 2012

Tuesday was May Day, which in Switzerland is celebrated either with water cannons or maypoles, depending. I prefer the maypole version myself, but it seems to be a dying tradition, at least around where I live. This year there is one maypole in our village:

This would have been put up during the night, by a boy who is sweet on a girl who lives in this building and a handful of his friends because it’s not something you can do alone. It’s pretty hard to tell from my pictures, but that maypole is of one piece. That is, it is a pine tree (well, a conifer of some variety) that has been cut down, the branches removed and the bark shaved until the tip, which remains green and is decorated with streamers. It has then been mounted, and whoever it is that’s sweet on this girl is lucky because there is a lamppost right in front of her house so the boy and his friends simply bound it to the lamppost.

If there had been nothing to bind the maypole to, the boys would have had to fashion some kind of stand, and probably dig a hole to boot. All in the middle of the night. A placard is on the pole, with the girl’s name carved on it.

I keep saying “boy” but if you look at the work involved, I’m talking about older boys. This isn’t something a middle-schooler would do. R put up a maypole for a girl once, when he was 18. If I remember the story right – and he’s not here right now for me to ask – another boy had beaten him to the girl’s house and there was a maypole there already, so R and his friends took it down, which is apparently what you do when you’re in a maypole competition to get a girl’s attention. The last pole standing at dawn wins. So boys – young men? I never know what to call that age group (I’ve got 10 years to figure it out I guess) – need to put their maypoles up under cover of darkness, but not too early in the night because then there’s a bigger chance that another boy will come along and knock your pole down. But I would imagine they can’t wait until too close to dawn because putting up a maypole seems like an awful lot of work and must take a while. And make some noise.

The maypole is put up anonymously and will remain up all month; at the end of the month the boy and his gang of helpers show up at the girl’s door and she makes them a spaghetti dinner. I imagine by then she’s got a pretty good guess as to who put up the maypole, but I suppose there are always some surprises May 31st. If SB ever does this for a girl (and I’ve got a few guesses already as to who the girl would be) I feel sort of sorry for her because imagine having to cook a spaghetti dinner for five 18 year old hockey players. Who would even have that much spaghetti in the house?

But as I’ve said, the tradition seems to be dying out. There were definitely more maypoles going up when I first moved here. Maybe by the time SB and Boychen are old enough to do this, it simply won’t be the thing to do anymore. That would be a bit of a shame.

What happened on May Day where you live?