A normal life

2 years of living in Switzerland and life is … well, normal. A new normal which contains excessive amounts of chocolate, phone calls back home and the use of the F-word to get me through my days. A new normal where I am now a mother of a teenager. A new normal which includes a foreign language, one which on some days still feels as unfamiliar to me as the day I arrived. A new normal where cups of coffee are shared with loved ones over the phone instead of around a kitchen table. A new normal which includes driving on the right wrong side of the road. A new normal which feels a lot like falling into a swimming pool and not knowing how to swim.

Before we left, everyone said that it would take approximately two years to feel ‘at home’ and familiar with our new country. Two years later, and I can honestly say that it still feels as familiar to me as my brother-in-laws-sister’s-husband’s-uncle’s-cousin’s-ex-wife. The language is a huge hurdle for me. I spend an enormous amount of time learning (and re-learning) my German words. I have literally adapted my learning technique to that of a Grade 1 student and now use flashcards as my learning method of choice. I have weekly on-line lessons with a private tutor as well as a weekly in-person lesson with another Tutor (aka my Guardian Angel, Monika), although due to the arrival of Covid-19, these have now been replaced with weekly telephone calls. “Deutsch mit Heidi” was also (pre-Corona) a much anticipated weekly cup of coffee and catch-up with my favourite neighbours in German.

So much of who we are is expressed through our language and not being able to communicate proficiently means that so much gets lost. Humour and quick witted responses are a thing of the past, it’s difficult enough to think of how to respond to someone well enough to be understood, let alone to come across as intelligent, charming and funny. Often by the time I have interpreted a passing comment of a friendly stranger, that person has moved on before I’ve even had a chance to think of how to respond.

English is and will probably always be our home language and my language of choice although as time goes on and thanks to the current lock-down, our home has come alive with the sounds of German. Julia, who is now completely fluent in German, spends all day, every day video calling her friends. Whether she’s doing school work, playing a game or lounging on the sofa, her phone is always on and connected to one of her friends. So much so, that there is absolutely no chance of walking around the house naked on slumming it in our PJ’s because, and I learnt this lesson the hard way, someone is always watching.

As with everywhere else in the world, the Corona virus brought our schooling year to an abrupt halt. The shut-down was announced on the news at 15:00 on a Friday afternoon and by 9:00 on Saturday morning we received a letter, in the post, from the school confirming the same and outlining the way forward. The teachers scrambled to put content and classes together and by the following Tuesday morning we were back up and running online – Swiss precision! Much to Julia’s surprise (and my delight) the teachers had also included some extra activities which needed to be done, documented, photographed/filmed and submitted … learning a new dance routine, baking a Zopf (Swiss bread), washing up and vacuuming the apartment!

We are now in our 5th week of lock-down and I am not hating it! In December Julz turned 13, which felt no different to any other day however as we entered into 2020 things started to change. My once shy little girl had turned into a confident young woman who suddenly wasn’t scared to venture out into the world with her friends, catching buses and trains to get to her destination, managing her own money and returning after dark without a care in the world. She was loving and living her best life. I on the other hand, was not. It caught me completely off guard and I felt like I had opened my motherhood toolbox only to find that all of the tools which I had collected were suddenly made of play dough and of no use at all. I was completely unprepared and just wanted a little extra time with my girl … Corona gave me that and I will be forever grateful. I have unpacked my tools, left them in the sun to bake and although I know they’ll still be fairly useless, I am hoping that I’ll be a little better prepared in the future.

My other child (the fury one) is doing really well. I often look at her and wonder if she somehow knew what she was doing when she failed her gun test that day, sealing her fate to become a Monticelli. Over the last few months, the pressure has eased up and we’re no longer focussed on her training like we were before, if strangers put their hands out to greet her, she’s now allowed to say hello and she sometimes follows this through with a ‘hug’ too. She reminds me of Disney’s Frozen character, Olaf – “Hi, I’m Quila, and I like warm hugs!”

In a little over a year, we will enter a new programme where she will be trained to become a social dog, allowing her to visit old age homes, schools and hospitals. A job which I think will suit her friendly yet gentle personality perfectly. A job where my dodgy German skills won’t matter as much because Quila can communicate her purpose perfectly … 26kg’s of pure love!

Benito has continued to work throughout the lock-down period which means that whilst he doesn’t need to worry too much about who’s lurking on Julia’s iPad he still needs to look presentable for his colleagues. He’d been hinting for a while that he needed a hair cut and wouldn’t entertain my suggestions for a man-bun, so when he turned to me on Saturday morning holding hair clippers in one hand and his phone with a YouTube tutorial in the other, I knew he meant business. I later realised that this was the ultimate test of trust and love … and one which I’m going to insist that Julia does with any future boyfriends going forward, because if you can drop an “Oh f@#$!” whilst reviewing the back of his freshly amateurdly cut head of hair and he responds with “That bad huh? It’s okay, it’ll grow back”, then you know you have a winner!

2 years of living in Switzerland and life is, as you can see, pretty normal. Except that it’s not … everything is different. We’re in it deeper now and the stakes are higher. Slowly we’re all changing, no longer clinging to the sides of the pool, some swimming, others (me) paddling.

Hoi Corona

The world is a small place, especially considering that somebody coughed in China and it landed on our doorstep here in *Switzerland* (replace * * with wherever you are in the world).

Today has been Day 1 of a partial lock-down here and although we’ve been social-distancing for a few days now, today was somehow different. It marked the beginning of a new ‘normal’, which looks a lot like chilling on the couch, watching Netflix and eating a stash of freshly baked biscuits that were meant to last just a little bit longer than they actually did.

It also included a morning German lesson in my jammies using Skype and two ridiculously long walks through the forest with Hund Qweela who is loving this new arrangement and has settled into her new ‘normal’ of long walks, long baths and long belly rubs, so really, no change there.

Tomorrow will be different and so will the next. Things are changing quickly and each day seems to bring about new rules and new restrictions. All of our non-essential shops have been closed as well as all restaurants, bars, sports clubs, museums, etc. Only our grocery stores and pharmacies remain open to the public.

As from tomorrow morning, Julia will start school through a digital platform which will run from 9:00 to 16:00 daily. Classes have been prepared and will be presented each morning and FaceTime has been set up on each child’s iPad to ensure that they have access to their teacher. Two books, one English and one German have also been given to read as extra homework during this time.

Benito is still going to work however a home office is being set up so that he can work from home a couple days a week if necessary and the staff are rotating shifts to ensure that the work continues with limited contact. Work is a blessing at a time like this and we are so grateful that there is work and a steady income coming in.

We are now heading into the eye of the storm and we’re being told that things will get worse. I don’t know what worse is, I am scared of what worse is but what I do know for sure is we’re the lucky ones. We have each other and not only do we love one another but we really like one another too, which makes being isolated together just a little bit easier.

I read something the other day that said something along the lines of ‘what children will remember about this time in their lives, will be how their homes felt’ and it really made me think about the type of home environment we need during this scary time. So as much as we will try to keep things as ‘normal’ as possible, we will also be embellishing our days with late morning wake-up times, video game marathons, long phone calls back home, afternoon naps and of course freshly baked cookies, Netflix and belly rubs.

One of us

12 months ago, I started a journey which involved giving up late morning lie-ins, the use of my left hand, wearing pretty shoes and having clean floors. It also involved learning Italian commands, making friends, getting more active, setting new routines and embracing the new little being that had not only taken over our home but also our hearts. Hund “Qweela”.

Right from day one it was apparent that Quila was a special dog. Specifically bred to become a service dog, she possesses the perfect character traits … a soft, gentle nature, intelligence, obedience, friendliness, a strong desire to please, a calming presence and extreme loyalty. The calming presence however is specially reserved for “at home” and “while working” and is N-E-V-E-R present when greeting neighbours, playing with other dogs and walking in the forest.

I often used to question whether our daily walks through the forest were hindering her training and wondered whether more disciplined walks would be better for her. I mentioned these concerns to my trainer on more than one occasion and his response was always the same … “Why would you want to change that? What a beautiful life!”

Puppy socialising classes developed into obedience training sessions where one thing became clear … Quila L-O-V-E-D to play. At first, I didn’t think it was a problem, after all, she was a puppy and puppies love to play however as time went on we realised that Quila’s love for play was different to the other dogs around her. She even started to realise that she played differently to other dogs and that out of all of the dogs that crossed her path, Labradors were in fact the most fun and made the best play-mates … she would recognise a passing Labrador in a train station and try to reach out to them for a game of tag and when that didn’t work she was equally content to play with the stray pigeons that flew in from the open platforms or anyone who happened to make eye contact with her as they walked passed.

Her very own Labrador

As Quila got older, we started to realise that her need to play was a coping mechanism for her anxiety. As my trainer explained to me, there are four responses that dog’s have when dealing with stressful situations … Fight, flight, fidget or freeze and Quila’s response was to fidget. She was literally playing with everything in order to feel ‘safe’.

When training in and around the city, Quila will often show signs of anxiety and I find myself being led in a completely different direction to the path I have chosen due to a strange looking statue, a noisy street sweeper or a busy construction sight. At home there are also certain triggers that send her running to hide under the bed, however these are easier to recognise and manage. She loves to watch TV but this too can be scary. The other day I was watching ‘The Crown’ and those pesky little horses had her running to hide behind the Christmas tree.

Throughout this process, the one thing that became perfectly clear is that the Guide Dog Association will never force a dog to do something they don’t want to do. A guide dog needs to absolutely enjoy every aspect of their training and eventually their ‘work’. At every stage the dogs are closely monitored and if at any point the training is proving to be too much then it is stopped.

At a training session last week, Quila had to take part in a Gun Test. Our trainer stood approximately 15m away from us and fired 6 shots into the air. A guide dog should not respond to the noise but rather continue to walk calmly with its handler. Proud Mamma over here thought that she handled the situation really well because she didn’t run for the hills, but simply kept looking over her shoulder to see where the noises were coming from. (I do think, however, that at this point, if Peter had taken one step in her direction that she would have bolted.). This was not the desired response and unfortunately Quila was removed from the guide dog training programme.

Quila is no longer an “Allschwili”, the affectionate term given to the Guide dogs from Allschwil, Basel but rather a “Monticelli”, officially one of us, and my heart can’t stop smiling.

Roger A. Caras said, “If you don’t own a dog, at least once, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.”, but I think my trainer Peter said it best …. “What a beautiful life!” and I get to share it with her.

Winter, Christmas & family

Four years ago, we came to Switzerland on holiday not only to check a few items off our bucket lists but also as a Winter ‘test-run’ to experience a European Winter – within hours of arriving, I knew we were in trouble. We’d stumbled upon something magical and there was no going back.

There are certain things in life that will take your breath away – the birth of a child, a sleeping baby, a beautiful sunrise, an incredible act of kindness. Let me add to the list … snow covered landscapes!

That holiday became the gateway to my love of Winter, with sub-zero temperatures outside, bundling up in Winter woolies, Christmas markets, open air ice rinks, twinkling lights in every window, frozen lakes, huddling around outdoor fires sipping Gluhwein and hot chocolate, the coziness of home and the soft, quiet, calmness of falling snow.

And it’s not just me, my ‘sun baby’ loves it too!

and so does her Dad!

Side note: When you find a man who’s enthusiasm for snow matches your own and who doesn’t bat an eye lid at your suggestion to spend 5 hours driving in the car to find it – hold on tight, he’s a keeper!

This is now our second winter living here in Switzerland and the excitement of it all has still not worn off, although busy work and late school schedules mean that we need to get creative with our time to ensure that we get to experience all of the Christmas festivities. I also have to keep reminding myself that we live here now and that if we don’t get to it this year, there’s always next year.

The only thing that’s missing this time of the year is family, so when I received a text earlier this year from my cousin asking if they could spend a few days with us, my heart was over-joyed. These are my people, we live the same, we love the same …

We squeezed in a lot over our four days together but the best part, was climbing into bed at night after a long, fun day and snuggling up with a contented heart knowing that just outside my bedroom door was family. Big cousins, little cousins.

Merry Christmas!

lastminute.com for the win

My hubby and daughter have nicknamed me ‘Lisa Where’s-my-phone Last-minute.com Monticelli’, a name which I thought was only half true (the phone part – that little device is nearly impossible to keep track of), until Friday night when I grabbed my purse and my hubby (notice I didn’t say phone) and headed for the nearest SBB office with the intention of taking up a special offer to buy a day ticket to anywhere in Switzerland which was going to expire in the next 48 hours, a special that has been running for the last 2 months.

With no idea of where we were headed, we asked the lady at the counter if she could recommend anything worth seeing and nearly ended up with a 12-hour-return ticket through the mountains on the Bernina Express before we remembered that we have a dog. Plan B involved opening a map of Switzerland and pointing to a destination which we had not yet explored … Ascona, Lugano!!!

Ascona is located on the shore of Lake Maggiore in the Canton of Ticino and as soon as you step off the bus you are welcomed with palm trees, rolling hills, colourful houses, cute little cafe’s overlooking the lake, narrow cobblestone streets, and warm sunshine. Not only are you greeted by the friendly Italian-speaking locals but it feels like the landscape is shouting “Benvenuti in Paradiso!”

After lunch in one of the gorgeous little cafe’s along the shoreline, sharing what can only be described as the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, we discussed where our next destination should be. The local trains weren’t running which meant that we had to head out of Lugano on a bus and our travel time would increase significantly. Whilst Benito scanned a map of the area, I got out my secret weapon and the only way to find beautiful travel destinations … Instagram! (Also, the more exotic the name, the more beautiful the destination.)

Our next stop … Lavatezzo!

I’m starting to think that the ‘last-minute.com’ thing was actually meant as a compliment and if it means days like this, then I’ll keep it!

Shout-out to this little pooch who has got to be the best little travel companion ever… yesterday, she traveled on 8 busses and 4 trains for a total of 7 hours, cuddled up at my feet and every time it was time to get up and go, she’d look at me, wag her tail and jump into action eager to go on the next adventure. Someone is going to be very lucky one day!

Fall comforts

This past weekend marked the beginning of Fall which meant that when I heard the gentle rain tapping on the window at 07:00 this morning, I whispered “Let’s go back to bed” to Quila who happily obliged and by 9:30 I was still in my jammies googling recipes for Pumpkin Soup, Pumpkin bread, Pumpkin fritters and Pumpkin jam. My inspiration? The annual Jucker Farm’s pumpkin festival …

We visited the farm yesterday and spent hours sitting on the grass, soaking up the sun overlooking the beautiful Pfäffikersee eating pumpkin soup, fresh pumpkin bread and Berliners filled with pumpkin jam (it’s impossible to live a gluten-free life in Switzerland).

Julia loves to bake her own bread over the hot fires, making it crispy on the outside but soft and slightly doughy on the inside.

The festival is so popular that people have to be bussed in as there is simply not enough parking for everyone. Yesterday was extremely busy as everyone flocked to the fest determined to enjoy and make the most of the last of the warm sunshine.

And then this morning, as if on cue, the clouds blew in bringing with them the cool Autumn temperatures and gentle rainfall signalling the start of the last three months of the year. I am looking forward to our first fire in the fireplace, cuddles on the couch, watching movies by candle light, entertaining friends over cheese fondues, more crafting, more baking, more cozy, comfy, home.

She eventually got me out of bed and into the rain.

Raising Quila

It has been a little under 8 months that we have loved the baby of our family, Quila (“Hund Qweela” as she is known here in Switzerland), and our hearts and home will be forever changed.

The experts say that an adult dog has the intelligence of a 3 year old child, and a trained dog, a 5 year old child. Needless to say, it feels like we have a toddler in the house. I’m constantly tripping over toys that are left lying around the house, regular naps are a must to avoid over stimulation and melt-downs, the word “no” is easily ignored confused for “yes”, and I have an audience every time I go to the loo.

Hund Qweela is no ordinary dog though, her path was decided long before she was even born and when she reaches 16-18 months of age, she will leave us to start formal training in Basel to become a working dog. Depending on her personality and her skill set at approximately 1 year of age, we will hone her training towards a specific job. She could become a guide dog for a blind or partially-sighted person or an assistance dog for a disabled person (someone in a wheelchair).

There is also a third option … 50% of the dogs that are trained don’t pass the final testing phase, either due to a disability (elbow/hip dysplasia) or lack of concentration, skills, etc. These dogs then get retired and and can become family dogs. Ever tried to teach a dog to walk with a limp? If so, you know where to find me. 😉

She bit the dust on a walk earlier this week and grazed her chin

Our job at the moment is to raise a happy, confident, well mannered, social dog who responds well to her basic commands. She needs to be comfortable travelling on public transport, walking up and down stairs, getting in and out of elevators, walking through crowds, etc. Quila shines in most of these areas, however she does have her weaknesses which we are working on. She gets easily distracted by other dogs (a lot like me actually) and is over-friendly to anyone who even looks her way. She could get away with this behaviour when she was a puppy but as she matures, dogs (and grumpy owners) are less forgiving.

She’s the friendliest little pup I’ve ever encountered and although we’re supposed to encourage people to ignore her, Quila is happiest when eye contact is made and a hand is extended.

We are working on building up her confidence in certain situations. When she was a puppy, we stopped to look at some sheep through a fence, she got a little too curious and got zapped on the nose by the electric fence and since then we can’t even “baaaaaaa” without her running away from us. She also runs away when the toast pops out of the toaster in the mornings but funnily enough, she’s not at all scared when there’s thunder and lightening or fire works.

When I got involved in this process, I thought that I’d be helping. Helping the school to raise a puppy, helping a puppy to reach her full potential, helping someone build a life with an assistance dog. Little did I know that she would actually be the one helping me. She became my companion when I didn’t know anyone, she helped me to make friends, she got me to start talking to people and to start practicing my German, she’s become the child I never had, a sibling to Julia and a very best friend to us all.

The question that I’m asked almost daily is how am I going to give her up … I can’t answer that. I try not to even think about that. For now, I just enjoy every walk, every cuddle, every lick and every second that I have with this little sweetheart.

Dog love is like no other love in my book.