No, not that one. But the Small Boy isn’t so small anymore, he’s seven and a half, and at four and a half the Boychen could drop the diminutive -chen any day now, and I’ve been a stay at home mom for all that time. I’ll be honest, there are days when it itches. Not a little I’m-tired-of-having-to-tell-you-three-times-to-put-on-your-shoes itch – though there is that; the repeating myself, it gets old – but a big I’ve-got-this-really-exciting-thing-I-want-to-do-and-not-enough-time-to-do-it itch. The kind of itch that makes me impatient with my children and not always the best mother. The balance, after seven and a half years, has tilted pretty far off in one direction; there’s always a boy at home because remember the Swiss school hours? Oh, the Swiss school hours.
I’m hoping that it goes without saying that I love my boys. But at this point, I could use a little breathing room. In fairness, R has proposed getting a nanny or au pair – we would have the space – but my whole problem is that the way my personality is constructed I need time alone, oh just alone in my house, and the thought of having another person in the house – well, I suspect it would introduce as much stress as it would relieve. (I’m keeping the idea in my back pocket, though…) Mostly, I’m holding out on any decisions like that until the fall, after the Boychen has been in Kindergarten for a while and I can see how much having those four mornings all to myself help. My thinking is, they will help a lot. Four mornings a week, that’s an embarrassment of riches around here, people.
Here’s the other thing that’s made the past month or so seem hard, made the past month seem like the boys are always on top of me: there’s no hockey. In spite of my complaining about the schedule, in spite of having to set an alarm for 5:35 on a Sunday morning to make it to a tournament, turns out I really miss the hockey. I miss the way it gave me a few hours to be something other than Mama, I miss the way it forced me to make friends with the other parents, I miss the way watching the Small Boy perfect his imitation of David Jobin’s defensive moves makes me smile (the boy has a good head for defense, I tell you). Crazy and all-consuming as it can be in the peak of the winter, I miss it.
It all comes down to balance, doesn’t it? Feeding all the different parts of you. Constantly checking in on your own life to see what is there and what is missing and what is hungry and what is flabby. Assessing, calibrating. I’m out of balance right now, but August is just around the corner.Mama days, Switzerland, What makes me tick | Comments (3)
(These “My Swiss Life” post are not, strictly speaking, chronological, but for anybody interested, post one can be found here.)
SB had a hockey tournament yesterday, in the blinding cold, that I had to miss. I was at the Geneva Writers’ Conference (more about that in another post). It’s only the second match I’ve ever had to miss – the only other one I missed was when SB got his concussion – so I was feeling a bit superstitious about missing this, but the conference ran most of the day on Sunday; it’s only held every two years and is far too good an opportunity for an English-language writer in Switzerland to pass up, so there I was in Geneva while SB was playing in Bern.
Earlier in the week, it looked like the tournament might have to be cancelled. We, as the home team for this set of games, were responsible for coming up with two time-keepers and two referees and as of Thursday evening we were short one referee (or Schiri in Swiss – pronounced “she-ree” and short for Schiedsrichter and one of my favorite Swiss words). Thursday night we parents received a scathing e-mail from the program head – not SB’s coach, who stayed diplomatically above the fray, but the head of the program, whose job it is to make a fray when a fray must be made – that somebody better step up and volunteer to be the second Schiri or the tournament would have to be cancelled and that would be a shame for the kids and a true embarrassment for the prestigious SCB Future program. Surely not all of you have some other obligation on Sunday, right??
I would have stepped up – I teach in the hockey school, after all, and can certainly handle reffing a Bambini match and I really do want to do my part – but I had the conference and I headed off to Geneva hoping somebody would volunteer. I didn’t receive any angry emails canceling the tournament for Sunday, so I assumed the match was on – in spite of temperatures hovering at minus 15 Celcius – but on Sunday I sent off a quick SMS to R asking “So SB’s tourney is on? Tell him mama says good luck” and received this in reply:
“They are doing warmup now and will start soon. Having coffee with the others. Everybody was expecting you.”
I smiled – everybody had been expecting me. That’s where I’ve finally gotten to in my Swiss life. I have people expecting me. I’ve written before about how most of these people probably will not become friends outside of the hockey context – though possibly two or three families might – but that’s also okay. I remember my mother and the other hockey moms, winter friends, stadium friends, the way they sat together and drank their bad coffee from styrofoam cups and I think: this is good too, this locational fellowship, this contextual friendship. When I show up at SB’s practices and games, I’m welcomed, I have people to sit with and chat with, I am part of the crowd – no longer hovering around the edges – and when I don’t show up, people ask where I am. That feels like a huge thing. It’s a good thing in my life, and if it is bound my the time and space of hockey seasons and ice stadiums that’s fine. I think we all have contextual friends – work colleagues we enjoy but somehow never socialize with outside of the office, the people in our yoga or boxing classes we see every week but rarely if ever meet for lunch. And those people occupy important places in our lives, they anchor us, they make us feel as though we belong. They add texture and dimension to our lives and I’d been missing that for a long time and now, thanks to the Small Boy and his love of all things hockey (which is, at heart, thanks to me for enrolling him in the first place all those years ago), I’ve got it. And when I’m not there, people notice.
It’s a little thing, being expected. Except that it’s not really so little at all is it?
(And if you’re wondering, SB’s team won all three games and SB scored three goals.)expats, hockey, My Swiss life, Switzerland | Comments (4)
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.expats, My Swiss life, Switzerland, What makes me tick | Comments (4)
On Wednesday the Swiss Parliament held elections for the Bundesrat – the Executive Council, I guess, for lack of a more precise translation. The Parliament is directly elected by the people, but the Executive Council is not: it is elected by the members of the Parliament. It’s shown live on Swiss TV and it’s possibly even more boring than watching C-Span because you don’t see any actual voting. For each of the seven seats, ballot papers are distributed; members mark their ballots in private; the ballots are collected and counted out of sight; and then the results are announced by the head of the Parliament. So really on TV all you see is a bunch of people milling about and you hear the murmurings of three different languages and the TV commentators try to fill the time between results. Each of the seven seats is voted on individually and to win the seat a candidate must achieve an absolute majority of the votes cast; in the absence of an absolute majority, a second round of balloting is held, then a third, and so on until a candidate gains a majority. Yesterday only one of the seven votes went to a second ballot – the seventh seat, which incidentally was the only seat that had been vacated through retirement. The other six members of the Executive Council were all incumbents (bisherige) and they were all reelected with a single round ballot of balloting.
There’s a lot of party jockeying and coordination in the weeks leading up to the Bundesratwahlen - party leaders need to corral the troops, to make sure for example all the FDP members are going to vote for the FDP candidate but they also make alliances with one another – if the SP members all stick with the BDP candidate, the BDP will in turn deliver votes for the SP. The actual voting for the council members should be orderly and largely unsurprising, as everything has been worked out in advance and because there is an unwritten rule about which parties should end up with seats in the Executive Council.
Everything is supposed to be run according to two principles: the “magic formula” and Konkordanz. The “magic formula” decrees that each of the four leading parties in Switzerland (Switzerland has a multiparty system and representatives of no fewer than ten parties sit in the Parliament) holds at least one seat in the seven member Executive Council; typically, the three largest parties hold two seats and the fourth party, one. Konkordanz – agreement, collegiality, accordance – is the linch pin of Swiss politics. Everybody agrees, gets along, sticks to their word, works together, achieves compromise. There is nothing more Swiss than a good compromise and there is nothing Swiss politicians like to speak of more than Konkordanz. And there is nothing lower than violating the spirit of Konkordanz. If you want to blast your opponents in Swiss politics, say they violated Konkordanz.
The Swiss People’s Party – the SVP – is the largest party in Switzerland (you can peek at the most recent election results here) but they currently hold only one seat in the Executive Council as a result of an internal party split that saw Bundesratin Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf split from the SVP and help form the BDP. It’s a bit inside baseball, but basically the SVP is becoming increasingly rightist, nationalist, and strident; what used to be a solid conservative party has become increasingly extreme to the point where many of its own members were no longer comfortable with the party’s positions and its Zurich-based leadership. Think Tea Party v. normal conservative Republican. So in 2008 some members split and formed the BDP and one of these members was Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, and when she left the SVP she took her Executive Council seat with her.* It was quite the earthquake in Swiss politics, and the SVP has been under-represented in the Executive Council ever since.
Yesterday, Widmer-Schlumpf was up for reelection to the Executive Council; her candidacy was the second to be voted on and she was reelected with a single round of balloting. The SVP then announced that they would fight vigorously for every remaining seat (even the FDP seat, and the FDP might be the only semi-ally the SVP had left at then point) and oh boy did all heck quietly move about after that. (Hell does not break loose in Swiss politics, by US standards, but by Swiss standards yesterday was quite the political show-down.) At the end of the day the SVP still only had one seat in the Executive Council, they had turned on any potential ally they might have had, their leadership was shown to be ineffective, and this morning most political commentators agree that they were the big losers of the day yesterday.
Them, and Konkordanz. Say what you will about the conservative, nationalistic politics of the SVP, they’ve held the most seats in the Swiss Parliament since 1999 and in the last two elections for the Executive Council they’ve ended up with one seat, the same number as the BDP with only 5% of the vote nationwide. It’s a situation that can’t hold. I’m no fan of the Swiss People’s Party, but if Switzerland is going to have its “magic formula” and its Konkordanz, then the Parliament is going to have to hold its nose and find an SVP member they can vote for. (Admittedly the party leadership does not make this easy – they demanded a second seat in the council while removing possibly the most likable candidate from consideration). And if not, if members of the Parliament can no longer be corralled and parties can no longer come to agreements that will hold – well, maybe it’s time to stop talking about Konkordanz as a guiding principle of Swiss politics.
To add to the bitter blow for the SVP, the Executive Council then elected Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf President. The Swiss presidency is largely ceremonial – because it’s awkward for a visiting head of state to be greeted by a body of seven, you know? – and the president holds no more sway in the Executive Council than the next member of the Council, her vote is not weighted, she holds no special powers. The title is ceremonial and rotates steadily among the members of the Executive Council but nonetheless: a woman representing a party that gained about 5% of the vote nation-wide holds the presidency. The SVP must be loving that.
What does the SVP do now? Go into opposition? Revamp their national leadership? Can they hold on to their voters? How many of the rank and file members of the Parliament, tired of the shenanigans, will jump ship to the BDP? Swiss politics – which basically prides itself on being staid, orderly, and predictable – is getting more interesting all the time.
* I’m shortening the story here: Widmer-Schlumpf, then with the SVP, was elected by the members of the Parliament against the will of the SVP. They had put up as their candidate Christoph Blocher, who in 2008 was unacceptable to many members of the Parliament. In keeping with the magic formula the parliament did go ahead and elect an SVP member to the cabinet, just not the one the SVP leadership wanted. Political infighting, bickering and party-splitting ensued; Widmer-Schlumpf was essentially forced out of the SVP; the BDP was founded; and Swiss politics has been a bit more interesting ever since.Switzerland | Comment (0)
I’ve talked a little bit about the Swiss schools here – in which I describe – and here – in which I complain – and today I’d like to balance out the complaining a bit with some of what I see as the positive aspects of the Swiss schools. First and foremost, it seems to me that the Swiss schools respect the fact that Kindergarteners and first graders are still very much children and have the developmental needs of children: they need to move; they need to play; they need unscheduled blocks of time to follow their own interests; they need to learn a great many social skills. Swiss Kindergarten, especially, provides this. There are almost no “academics” in Kindergarten, especially not in the first year. The focus instead is on socialization: for many kids, Kindergarten is the first time they are away from home every day. Kindergarteners learn how to play with other kids, how to take instruction from teachers and not just parents, how to deal with the rough-and-tumble of being out in the world: negotiating for toys and books, deciding what game to play and with whom, agreeing to rules, figuring out your place in the world and how to hold your own. Small Boy’s Kindergarten play was pretty physical: his first year, especially, there was a lot of rough-housing of the kind that would send him home with grass-stained pants, and the teachers tolerated a lot of this, letting the children figure out how to set their limits and only stepped in if things started to get out of hand. I got the sense that the kids were given a fair amount of time and space to figure out how to settle their own differences, which is a life skill if ever their was one, and on the whole I appreciate this pretty straight forward approach.
And if you think about it, if you really sit down and think about all the new social skills a Kindergartener has to learn, it’s a lot. It’s hard for a kid to come into a classroom and play nice with all the other kids: first they have to learn what the teacher considers “play nice” to be and then they have to learn how to do it. They have to learn to sit still and listen and share and play games they don’t enjoy and be in the same room with people they might not like and negotiate rules and consequences and who’s friends with whom. I think we forget, or fail to appreciate, how hard that all is for kids, and how much of their brain is engaged by that kind of learning in school. And how important it is. Now imagine adding actual school work on top of it. It’s a lot to ask, and it sound to me like US Kindergarten is asking an awful lot of little kids all at once. And because there is actual academic work to be done, kids have less time to practice and learn the social skills and kids who need time to figure it all out are labeled “discipline problems” because the teachers don’t have the time to let the kids have time to just go on the playground every day and figure it all out.
The first grade in Switzerland gets more serious than Kindergarten, in that there are now actual academics with homework and tests, but the kids still have recess every day and go wild on the playground – again, the green pants – and have gym class three times a week. Although the kids are learning now to sit still and listen to the teacher and there are consequences for too much goofing around – the dreaded thunder clouds – the system acknowledges the fact that six and seven year old kids still need to burn off a lot of kinetic energy. I appreciate that. As the mother of a very kinetic child, I really appreciate that. As for the hours, which compared to a US school day are limited indeed, I can see some benefits to that as well – the kids have a lot of time in the afternoons to play and screw around and just be kids. And especially in the first grade, I highly doubt the Small Boy is falling behind in any serious way by not being in school longer – there is only so much a small person needs to learn, after all, and I know a fair number of homeschooling parents who report that at every grade level they teach their kids what they need to know to meet state standards in half the time a public school day takes. He’s learning to read and write and count and add and carve a Fischertucan out of wood. I’m not worried about the content of his days.
No set up is going to be perfect, and no set of hours is going to satisfy the needs of all the different families that use a school system, and everybody is going to find something to complain about, but if I look at the Swiss school day purely from the point of view of my first-grader – if there were no demands to satisfy other than those of the first-graders themselves – it looks like a pretty good day.Switzerland | Comment (1)
From what I understand from my friends with school-aged children in the States (and from reading blogs), in the US, Kindergarten is the new first grade. Kindergarten is not, as I understand it, the way we experienced it when we were kids. There is less free play, and more sitting still, and the actual work of learning the ABCs. Some Kindergarteners come home with homework, even if does only take 10 minutes twice a week. The amount of time allotted to doing whatever you want with whichever classmates strike your fancy at the time seems to be limited, though from my distant perspective it seems to vary wildly from place to place. Certainly today’s Kindergarten does not seem to be a place where socialization and play are the priorities and hey, if you walk out of here writing your own name that’s pretty much a bonus.
US Kindergarten sounds a lot like the Swiss first grade. Small Boy did not have what we adults would recognize as “work” in Kindergarten. Fine motor skills and pencil control were trained through art projects rather than writing. Oh, the art projects. Cutting and pasting and drawing and sewing and weaving and carving and once, for this past Mother’s Day gift, etching a design into a rock with a stylus. Language skills and memory were covered in song and rhyme and story time. The rest of the time, they played. The children were largely free to choose what they wanted to do and with whom, although if Small Boy and Best Friend sat at the drawing table four days in a row they were encouraged, on the fifth day, to maybe do something else with somebody else. There was time to play outside every day, unless it was pouring rain (snow was fine), and judging from the knees of the Small Boy’s pants there was a great deal of wrestling and tackling involved. There was structure in the day, in terms of time blocks, but within the structure there was a great deal of freedom.
Towards the end of Small Boy’s second year of Kindergarten the children who would enter school the following year started practicing the type of work they might be presented with in school. The older kids (Kindergarten classes are mixed between the 5 year olds in their first year of Kindergarten and the 6 year olds in their second) gradually started having to sit still more; art projects became less paint whatever you want and more do here what the instructions are telling you. They did start practicing writing letters and yes, every single one of them could write their names. They took home a little bit of homework, and they visited the school building. Fridays, when the first year kids don’t come to Kindergarten, were almost, almost like school.
And now, Small Boy is starting his sixth week of school. He is fully settled in now, but the first week was rough. I could tell from his behavior at home – reacting badly to situations much more quickly than usual, arguing with me, breaking down in tears when I told him no to something (I no longer remember what – probably if he could watch TV). His behavior at school that first week was fine, no reports from the teacher, no notes home, but that is typical Small Boy: he works very hard to hold it together in places like school or hockey training (the trainers are strict, and I’ve seen them give kids 10 minute go sit on the bench penalties for what seem like minor infractions, but never the Small Boy)* and then he comes home and lets go. So I could tell, that first week, that the new routine – sitting still for 90 minutes before recess – was a lot for him.
The work so far is basic: they are learning letters and numbers, starting to read. There is homework three days a week (Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays), and it never takes very long; they do most of the work in class. So far the homework has only been in either math or German. The subjects covered in the first grade are German, Math, Nature-Mitwelt-Mench (natural and social sciences – right now the theme is Water), Art (drawing, textiles, and woodworking), and Music. He has a fifteen minute recess every day and Sport (P.E.) three times a week. He’s in school five mornings and one afternoon a week, plus every other Thursday.
Every student has a homework notebook in which the teacher writes down the assignments on the left hand page; there is a column where I am supposed to record how long it took Small Boy to do the assignment. I think this is a great idea – it gives the teacher an idea of how hard or easy the work might be for a child (if a kid got every problem right but took 90 minutes to do it, that’s something the teacher needs to know) and it also trains the parents in the idea that they need to be attentive to their child’s homework practices. This might be second nature for some parents and not for others; this way the parents are slowly learning to be involved and it’s done in what seems to me a non-judgmental way. I’m curious what other people think about this, but I sort of love this idea.
The right hand page is for communications between the teacher and the parents. Here on the page in the picture, the teacher wrote a note to remind us that class pictures would be taken on Monday (Mo: Photograf) and that by Wednesday at the latest Small Boy needed to have a toothbrush (Mi: Zahnbürste) because the dental hygienist was coming that day. Progress is noted on a weekly basis: sunshine, sun with a cloud or two, or clouds. (You’ll notice Small Boy got the sunshine. He’s had all sunshines except for one teeny tiny cloud last week because somehow we forgot to do one problem on a homework set. We just skipped right over it, didn’t even see it somehow. Both of us! The teacher told him if Small Boy keeps doing as he’s been doing, he’ll erase the cloud next week.) Clouds seem to be given for not paying attention, talking in class, and not doing your work. Each week, a parent has to sign that week’s page.
Can I just tell you I LOVE the homework notebook? Seriously. Best idea ever.
What does school look like where you live? If you’re an expat, and your kids are in the local schools, are you happy with them? I have to say, although I’ve been known to complain about the, um, limited hours shall we call them?, I can also see some real upsides to the Swiss schools. More on that in another post.
* I approve of this approach, by the way. Hockey is an extremely physical sport with a great deal of contact, and the kids need to learn early that the apparent aggression in hockey is actually quite controlled – there are rules, after all, about what’s a legal check and what is not. There are rules against fighting. If somebody deals you an honest blow, you can’t turn around and whack them for it and you can’t take it personally. The honest check is part of the game, and if you can’t get checked without losing your temper you won’t be playing hockey for long because no coach is going to want to deal with that. I approve of the trainers nipping temper in the bud, calling out every bad hit, and issuing penalties. A kid simply cannot engage in a contact sport without mastering some self-control.expats, Small Boy, Switzerland | Comments (8)
I was writing a poem this morning and I wanted to use the Swiss word for swing in it. Even when they’re speaking English with me, the boys tend to suddenly use the Swiss noun for the swings, so I’ve been using this word for the better part of four years now and have never really thought about it. It’s an odd word, I always think, for a swing and it doesn’t quite intuitively compute for me but I’ve learned it because the boys use it.
Then this morning, for the first time, I wrote it (as best as I could figure, since the spelling rules for Swiss are pretty much: eh, write it how it sounds) and it all made perfect sense to me. Ritigumpfi. Of course. Riti must be derived from reiten, to ride. Gump is jump. Ritigumpfi: ride-jump. What a perfect name for a swing.bilingual boys, Switzerland | Comments (4)