One year in Switzerland

Guys, it’s been one year in Switzerland!

One year ago

A little over one year ago, we changed our lives completely. We quit our jobs, sold almost all of our possessions, bought one-way tickets to Switzerland, bid farewell to our loved ones and started our new lives.

Our reason for leaving

There are many versions to this story. A dream. A simpler lifestyle. A better future for our daughter. A safer environment. An opportunity to learn more, to become more and to grow more as a family. Someone (we won’t mention any names) might even tell you that he dreamed of sending his daughter overseas to study later on in life but his wife threatened to leave him and go too and so he decided that he had no choice other than to ship the whole family abroad.

The Swiss awakening

I still remember walking off the plane and suddenly being hit by an incredible sense of self-doubt. What the f*** were we doing. Other than having an apartment to stay in for the first three months, we had nothing. No jobs. No home. No family. No friends.

We agreed to take some time off from the working world to get settled. We needed to get Jules enrolled in school, we needed to find a place to stay, we needed to furnish our apartment and there was a ton of paperwork that needed to be completed but as the weeks rolled by our anxieties grew and whilst I quietly cried myself to sleep at night, Benito sat in the lounge by himself facing his own demons. Each of us trying hard to protect the other from our overwhelming fears. In the mornings, we would go for long walks together and on one of our morning walks we eventually opened up about our evening rituals of torturing ourselves with all the “what ifs”. Benito placed his arm around my shoulders, pulled me in to the biggest bear hug and said, “I know it’s difficult now, but one day we’re going to look back on this all and laugh.”

The very next day, Benito got a call inviting him to attend an interview for a leadership role in a print company. We decided to go shopping for a new suit for the interview to give him the absolute best chance of making a good first impression however due to the fact that we were still converting our precious Rands to Swiss Francs R15 = CHF1), we decided to go to a factory outlet which was selling top brands at a fraction of the price. We carefully picked out his outfit, got his hair cut and off he went for his interview a few days later. Hours went by without any word from him and eventually he called to say that he had gotten the job! “Oh, and by the way, I know why those pants were on sale” he said. “I’m sitting on the train and just realised that the inner leg seam is completely split open.” He was right, we were going to laugh!

Becoming bilingual

One of the hardest things about moving to another country, especially one where you don’t speak the language, is the loss of identity. So much so, that the way I see myself now compared to how I remember myself is sometimes such a strain on my brain, that I just forget who I was and collapse into being a middle-aged mom without a life.  

I initially tried watching a lot of TV because everyone said I needed to watch German TV in order to learn the language. This however will only work if you actually enjoy the German TV because otherwise your mind will quickly wander and you’ll find yourself wasting hours in front of the TV, day-dreaming about nothing in particular. I then switched over to British TV and whilst [slightly] more entertaining than the German TV, I still don’t understand a ‘bloody’ word that is being said even though the Brits are speaking English!

Language is a funny thing … 90% of the people around me speak English to me, which is very difficult when you’re trying to learn another language. However, even when we are all speaking English to one another, there is still a lot of information which gets jumbled up or lost altogether because people aren’t always familiar with the nuances of the language. Benito will often ask me what someone has said and I my reply is usually “I’m not 100% sure, but I think she said …”, even though the person was speaking English to me.

Julia commented the other day that I always smile when people talk to me and I laugh when I don’t understand what’s being said. I hadn’t realised it until she pointed it out to me but I think this has become my coping mechanism. People don’t mind repeating something, trying to explain themselves or switching to your language altogether if you’re friendly to them. Just. Be. Friendly. (And smile, always smile)

I’ve been attending puppy socialising and obedience training classes with Quila which were initially given in German but are now being given in Swiss German. One of the ladies that I attend with has been kind enough to translate the Swiss German lessons into English for me and has been taking her role as my translator very seriously. Last week though, there were only two of us at the lesson, myself and ‘my translator’, and because we both spoke English, the instructor decided to give the lesson in English. This did not deter my translator one bit, she listened carefully and summarised the entire English lesson for me in English. (Smile and wave people, just smile and wave!)

Home

I know that I joke and make light of situations and then write blog posts a year later telling people that I actually cried myself to sleep but the truth of the matter is that we are happy! We absolutely love living here and whilst our hearts will always be in South Africa our home is now here nestled between the woodlands and the farmlands.

One year in photos


Winter in Switzerland


I have now experienced all four seasons in Switzerland, each so very different and beautiful in their own way but Winter, Winter is by far my favourite!

The Winters here can get long though and we need to take all the necessary precautions to maintain our Serotonin levels. Morning vitamin D Drops with breakfast – check. Eat lots of veggies – check. Follow the sun on weekends – check. Create a killer play list to sing along to loudly – check. Have a healthy stash of chocolate readily available – double check.

But then, last week, I stumbled upon an even better solution to the “Winter Blues” (okay, it wasn’t so much of a stumble as it was a 3 hour drive) and her name is Quila.

Quila is my “foster child” and has been entrusted to me by the Stiftung Schweizerische Schule für Blindenführhunde (The Swiss Foundation for guide dogs for the blind). One day, in the not so distant future, she will become somebody’s eyes but for now she is mine and my job is to love her and to help her develop into the brave, dependent and strong-willed dog that she needs to become. Also, all of Quila’s commands are in Italian, which has to be the happiest language ever! My heart smiles every time I praise her with a loud “Brava!”

Speaking of languages, something magical is starting to happen in our household. Whilst Julia fully understands everything that is being said to her in German, she has been slow to start speaking however lately when she speaks to someone in English, German words are bubbling to the surface before the English words have a chance to come out which means that she’s starting to think in German!

This is a big step in the right direction as being the perfectionist that she is, she only speaks in German when she has to (e.g. to her school teacher) or when she feels comfortable enough with a person to make a mistake and not feel judged. Now that the words are automatically coming out, soon it won’t be a choice.

Life is starting to change for all of us as we’re all finding our own place in this new world of ours. Benito has joined the local fire department as a volunteer fireman. Our village is really small and our fire department consists of only volunteers however the facilities, training and camaraderie are fantastic! And if you know Benito, you know that he is in his element!

Julz is heading into the final stages of her primary school year and will soon be heading off to High School. As I’ve mentioned before, the Swiss schooling system is completely different from back home and offers a wide variety of options to students based on their different learning abilities and academic capabilities. After being in the school for a little over 4 months, Julz has managed to achieve the goals she set for herself and surpassed all of our expectations and will be going through to Sec. A.

She’s growing up fast and our time with her is fleeting. There are a million messages I want her to walk away with but mostly, I hope she always knows that her mom and dad chose her dreams. That we chose to live our life a different way even when we were told we were crazy. It may not always be easy, but it’s definitely worth it!

—ooOoo—

Sharing our Winter in Switzerland so far …

Yes, Winter in Switzerland is my favourite. Add to that, a wet nose and wagging tail and it’s damn near perfection!

A big fat Swissmas post

Warning: You may or may not encounter unicorns flying around this post because Christmas in Switzerland is absolute magic!  (As well as a little odd especially if you grew up believing in a big fat jolly guy who flies around the world in one night, on a sleigh pulled by reindeer, who crawls down your chimney on Christmas Eve and leaves presents under the Christmas tree – because that’s not odd at all, right?!)

The festive season started for us on the 22nd November with the lighting of “Lucy”, the affectionate term given to the Christmas lights on Bahnhofstrasse in Zürich. On this day, at precisely 18:00, 12 000 crystals containing luminescent white, red and blue LED lights were switched on, signalling the beginning of the Weihnachtssaison and transforming Bahnhofstrasse into a romantic, twinkling wonderland.

We love “Lucy” and we visit her often but I secretly can’t wait until Christmas is over and the crowds have dispersed so that I can slip out into the streets and have her all to myself.

We’ve also visited many of the Weihnachtsmarkts in Zürich, exploring individual stands, ticking items off our Christmas lists, stopping to warm ourselves by the open fires and fill our tummies with gluhwein and hot chimney cakes.

It was at one of these markets where I discovered, much to my horror, that the big, fat, jolly Santa Claus that I grew up believing in was not the same as the Swiss’ Samichlaus. In fact, he’s based on a 4th century bishop who died on the 6th December and became St. Nicholas. The day of his death then became known as St. Nicholas Day. He’s a much skinnier version of our Santa, travels on a donkey and leaves nuts, gingerbread and mandarin oranges in children’s boots on this day.

But wait, … where our Santa would deliver presents to the good children and a sack of coal to the naughty children, the Swiss’ Samichlaus has a sidekick named Schmutzli who, back in the day, would come out of the woods carrying a stick and an empty sack which he would use to kidnap naughty children and carry them off into the forest for a good whipping. This actually now makes a lot of sense to me … no wonder the Swiss are so well behaved!

As much as I’ve loved all of the Christmas festivities and exploring the many Swiss traditions, I’ve been very aware that our first Christmas away from home could come with a little heartache and that we needed to find a way to make it extra special this year and to start what will become our new family traditions.

So when a friend offered to take us Christmas tree [s]chopping, we jumped at the opportunity. Little did I know that on the outskirts of our forest lies a gorgeous little Christmas tree farm where you can hand pick your Christmas tree and have it cut, trimmed and wrapped up whilst sipping warm punch and eating hot soup and sausages (Do you notice a theme here? I don’t know how the Swiss stay so skinny).


Once that tree is cut though … remember those unicorns? That’s when the real magic starts!

Frohe Weihnachten, Merry Christmas!

Zwölf

It’s one of the words I can’t pronounce properly in German which is fitting because it’s also one of the things I can’t comprehend in life.  My baby turned twelve today.  Twelve.  What is the deal with this kid growing up?  I mean, I’m glad she is an all, but could we slow it down a bit!

She is the perfect blend of a million different things.  Independent enough not to care about the things that don’t really matter.  Funny enough to laugh at her own sense of humour.  Beautiful enough to show confidence but insecure enough to be shy.  Loving enough to know she recognises all that we do and strong-willed enough to make us always try to harder to win her affections.

I like her a lot.  I love her even more!

Sharing what we love with those we love

Anyone who knows me, knows how much I absolutely adore this little country I now call home, but what I love even more is getting to share it with those I love most.  And at this time of the year … Icing. on. top.

My sister and her hubby arrived on Sunday to spend a few days with us before flying back to South Africa after a business trip in Genoa, Italy.  We have 5 days, which isn’t nearly enough but after being apart for 9 months, we take what we can get.  Alarm clocks have been moved forward and bed times are being stretched as we try to squeeze every last minute out of the limited time we have.  

There is so much I want to show them and I want to ‘do it all’ but I know that I have to pare down my list and enjoy being with them more than going, doing, seeing and after two days, they’re already planning their next visit.

My forest was first on the list

followed by my cows

and an evening walk along Bahnhofstrasse

The Rhein Falls

Being an expat is not easy and it’s certainly not a snow globe scene where everything is so dreamy.  But sometimes it is.

Little light of the turnip

I don’t think I truly understood the importance of family traditions until I became a mom and whilst some of my favourite childhood traditions have long passed, preserved only in my mind, others live on and some are just beginning, like this magical little festival of lights. 

Räbelichtli, “rabe” or “rübe” meaning “turnip” and “liecht” or “licht” meaning “light”.  The “li” at the end of the word is the diminutive (and typical of the Swiss – everything has a “li” at the end of it), making it the “little light of the turnip”.

This is the sweetest tradition where children hollow out and carve pictures and patterns into turnips, fill them with candles and parade around the village singing songs.  

We live in a small village however the planning that goes into this little event is huge.  At 6pm the village streets are closed off to traffic and the street lights are switched off.  Residents decorate their homes as well as the pavements with candles, whilst watching and waving to the kids as they pass by.

We have two schools in our village, each school starts at the opposite end of the village and then they meet in the middle for a light dinner.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to capture any images from the evening but our afternoon looked a little like this …


7 months and a few good nuts

Our seven month anniversary in this [not so] foreign land brings with it the reality that those gloriously long Summer days that I so lovingly referred to a couple of months ago get replaced by short Winter days and loooong Winter nights.  Our sun currently rises at 07:26 and sets at 16:56.  I’m not complaining as Winter also brings with it the promise of cosy evenings in front of the fire, woolly jerseys, beanies, gloves and scarves, Christmas markets, hot roasted Maroni nuts, cheese fondues and of course, this …

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pretty pink cheeks after a very cold walk home from school.

We are no longer ‘new’ to Switzerland and yet everything still feels so new and unfamiliar.  We are learning our way around a fairly complicated schooling system and Julz is in the midst of testing for high school next year to see which tier she will fall into.  Guys, my baby is going to high school!!! (When did that happen?  I swear she was two just yesterday.)

Until then, we are soaking in the delight of primary school as it is not as intense as back home with a strong focus on play – letting them stay little for just a little bit longer.  There is also a strong emphasis on creativity and Julz is now pretty comfortable using a hand saw as well as a sewing machine (both skills learnt from Hand Craft). It almost feels like we’ve enrolled her in Scouts or Girl Guides as opposed to formal schooling.

Language is also a big part of the schooling system with German, English and French all being taught in the local schools.  My guardian angel, Heidi, gives Julz extra French lessons after school which gives me a good excuse to join them for a cup of tea and to listen to my child being taught another language in another language.  I am in complete awe!

As for me, learning a new language has come with many challenges.  When my nearly 40-year-old brain actually remembers a word, I am often unable to get my tongue around the word to pronounce it correctly.  The good side to this though, is that I am providing Julz with hours of entertainment as well as added opportunities for her to practice her German because she’s constantly needing to correct me.

Luckily for me, the people here are extremely patient and kind and are happy for me to fumble my way through this journey with little judgement.  The Swiss have a bad reputation for being cold and closed off but I’ve come to learn that they are just overly polite and don’t want to intrude on someone’s personal time/space.  We joke that the Swiss are like nuts, difficult to crack.  Once you’ve cracked that outer shell though, they are warm, wonderful and genuine people.

We’ve managed to crack a few nuts so far and our little circle of 3 is gradually growing into a beautiful community.   One that feels a little more like family.

Benito is already in his second month of work and whilst I don’t envy his early morning wake-up calls, I do envy the fact that he has somewhere to be every day with a purpose.  I’ve never been a stay-at-home mom so this transition has been a tough one, but we have set some goals and will work towards bridging this gap in the new year.  Also, I booked my first photography shoot!

Speaking of photos (my language of choice) … this is what we’ve been up to lately …

The Chinese Gardens in Zürich

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Hiking from Uetliberg to Felsenegg

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Caumasee

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My cows.  I visit them often and they’re starting to know me (Swiss cows are happy cows).

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Saying “Yes!” to the unknown

A little over five months ago, our family of three took our first steps into the unknown of “what could be”.  The only things we knew with absolute certainty when we stepped on the plane was that we were headed to Switzerland and that we had an apartment to stay in for the next three months.

We made the decision to move together as a family, each one of us fully aware that this would not be easy and that we needed to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.  The fact that we made this decision together has helped in the many ‘WTF’ moments that have followed as no one can be blamed for making the decision to move alone.

We are learning to turn our backs on fear and to look to the unknown with great anticipation and excitement.  We’re learning to embrace the unknown and are trying to take advantage of any and every opportunity to say ‘yes’.  Well, two of us anyway … the tweenager seems to becoming more and more comfortable with saying ‘no’.  In fact, for someone who used to reach her 20 000 word allocation per day by 7:30 in the morning, her vocabulary is getting rather limited.

An example of our daily discussions:

Me:          How was school today?
Jules:       Fine.
Me:          What did you do?
Jules:       Nothing.

Every.  Single.  Day.

For us, it is more practical and effective to actually just do it with her then to tell her it is a great idea with our words and this is exactly what I did when Heidi and Christian knocked on our door on Tuesday evening and invited us to join them for a “little” walk the next day.

I jumped at the opportunity without little thought and managed to convince Jules that it was a good idea.  “Let’s go for a walk”, I said.  “It’ll be fun!”  My eagerness was short-lived when I saw the look on Heidi’s face yesterday whilst she was [disapprovingly] inspecting  our choice of footwear, and completely disappeared after she told me that she’d packed some minerals for our water to stop our legs from cramping during the walk.  (At this stage, we were already buckled into the car, heading swiftly towards Canton Uri – well played Heidi!)

What followed was the worst 4 hours of my life most gruelling, steepest uphill hike through the mountains in which I learnt a lot about myself.

Lesson #1:  Don’t answer the door to Heidi
Lesson #2:  ASK MORE QUESTIONS!!!  (Although in all fairness, I would have said ‘no’ had I known).
Lesson #3:  Buy good hiking shoes.
Lesson #4:  Always pack warm clothes when travelling into the Alps.
Lesson #5:  What you think are warm clothes won’t come close to keeping you warm when you’re in the cold, windy, wet Alpine weather.   Buy warmer clothes.

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This was our halfway mark – see the little rocks at the top of the mountain … that was our end destination.

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The end was in sight.

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IMG_28641SMLThis girl though, she didn’t complain once (at least not within earshot of Heidi and Christian).  She simply soldiered on putting one foot in front of the other, twirling her hiking sticks as she went and even managed to do “the Floss” mid-way.

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Whilst the effort was huge, the rewards were even greater!  Yesterday we were rewarded with the perfect cups of hot chocolate and the fluffiest and lightest Maroni cake served in a traditional Swiss chalet, Bratwurst, Rosti, warm beer and süssmost at the top of our summit, dinner in an authentic Italian restaurant, Prosecco, new friends and the biggest sense of accomplishment.

Everybody needs a Heidi in life.  I’m so glad I found mine!

P.S. If you’re wondering where Benito was in all of this … he was at work!  He officially joined the working world on the 1st October and sadly couldn’t join us.

 

 

 

 

Autumn in Switzerland

It’s the September 25th which means that we’re officially in Autumn.  Coming from South Africa where the seasons blend into one another without much fuss, I am really enjoying the definite shift from Summer into Autumn.  The weather has cooled down to a crisp 15C, the leaves are turning various shades of red, orange, yellow and brown, our days are getting shorter and everyone is decorating their homes for the Fall – think pine cones, candles and pumpkins! (while I want to pitch a tent in Migros’ Fall isle and watch it transform, because we all know what’s coming next … twinkle twinkle)

Speaking of pumpkins, we visited the Jucker Farm this weekend and all of our senses were treated to the magic of Autumn in Switzerland … apple picking, hot pumpkin soup, süssmost, pumpkin carving, apple throwing, pumpkin filled Berliners, freshly baked bread, etc.

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It’s so pretty here right now.  Cool, calm and promising, a taste of the best months to come.

 

 

 

Being ‘prepared’ for life abroad

They say that being “ready” isn’t enough, that you need to be “prepared” for a significant change in your life and so I read up and researched everything I could possibly find on moving abroad once we made that final decision to do so.  I also spoke to friends and family (and a few strangers, okay, basically anyone who would listen) who had made similar moves before and I questioned everything.

I received some really great advice and information along the way and listened to what made the most sense for us as a family.  A lot of the information we received provided an insight into integrating into a new cultural environment, new schools, people, etc. however most of the information revolved around our physical possessions e.g. “sell your furniture as it’s likely to get damaged in transit” or “book this airline as you’ll be able to take more luggage”.  Looking back, I’ve realised that very few emotions were discussed and maybe I didn’t ask the right questions but no matter how hard I tried to prepare myself for this move, nothing could have prepared me for the emotional rollercoaster that lay ahead.

We’re quickly approaching our 5 month anniversary living in Switzerland and whilst I absolutely love living here and wouldn’t change it for anything, it has not been easy.  I also promised myself very early on that this blog would provide an honest view of our lives here and so I decided to list a few things that I have struggled with the most and lessons that I have learnt along the way.  These are just a few things that I wish had come up in some of those earlier conversations.

  1. You will ‘forget’ how to cook/bake

    Being someone who is always in the kitchen, this one has been tough.  I’m still trying to figure this one out but the majority of my favourite (South African) recipes simply don’t work here.  I’m not sure if it’s the flour or the butter but I have more baking and cooking flops here than ever before and it’s driving me insane.

    The Swiss recipes work perfectly however the palate here is completely different and I often find myself craving one of the sweeter South African treats.

    My tip to others:  Keep trying.  It’s also a good excuse to phone your Mom daily with requests for new recipes.

  2. Make a list of all the reasons why you love your spouse

    This move, although completely new, feels vaguely familiar to the move we made all those years ago when we decided to first move in with one another.  Given that neither of us are working and that we’re spending more time together than ever before, we’ve had to relearn how to be in each other’s space, what works, what doesn’t and how and where to compromise.

    My tip to others:  Make a list of all the reasons why you love your spouse and revisit it often.

  3. You will become a living, breathing contradiction

    I feel happy yet sad, fulfilled yet lonely, smart yet stupid, at home yet foreign, angry yet at peace, and and and …
    My tip to others:  Be kind to yourself

  4. Out of all the people you will miss, you will miss yourself the most

    It’s difficult to put this into words, but I miss myself the most.  My old self.  My confident self.  The one who didn’t have to think twice before doing something and if I wasn’t sure of something I could just ask someone, knowing full well that I would be able to understand whatever was said.

    I don’t have a tip for this one as I’m still trying to figure it out for myself.  In some of the advice I received, people said that the second year is easier and my mantra has simply become “How do you eat an elephant?  One bite at a time”.

  5. There is no logic in emotions
    This one hit me like a ton of bricks the other day.  I was walking through the airport on my way to catch a connecting train and I heard a whistle.  The very same whistle that my Dad would use to get my attention when I was little, the same whistle that my sister now uses to call her boys.  My head flew around as my eyes frantically searched for the source and whilst I knew it couldn’t possibly be one of them, my heart was convinced otherwise and when reality finally kicked in, I slowly turned around and walked to my train, tears streaming down my face.

    It’s the little things like this that catch me completely off-guard and wreak the most havoc with my emotions.

    My tip:  Phone home often.  Every day if needed.  (Also, WhatsApp have an awesome feature that allows you to do group calls so I can now call my mom, my sister and my daughter all at the same time!)

  6. Your memories will become your most treasured possessions

    It’s amazing how you can decipher between what’s important and what’s not when you have 4 cubic meters of space to fit 3 full lives into.  For me, when I looked at the contents of my house, there was very little that couldn’t be replaced and there was so much more that we didn’t even need.

    It quickly became clear that I was unable to part with the photographs and canvases that were displayed on my walls.  These were all carefully packed into a container and, fingers crossed, will hopefully reach us by October/November this year.

    My tip:  Pack a few of your favourite photographs with you and display them throughout your house whilst you wait for the rest to arrive.  Share new photos with family back home and encourage them to do the same.  (My folks send me daily updates of themselves with my dogs and these are often the highlight of my day)

Sharing some photos of my most prized ‘possessions’ in life …

(Photo credit:  Sugar Tree Photography)