Kicking off Summer!

We kicked off summer with the last day of school and our little town’s “Fête des enfants”. If you recall last year, it was a nice evening with a parade after school, and then the kids get a few free hours to go crazy in a fairground set up for kids only. It’s a nice way to end the year and the kids were really looking forward to it.

This year was… less fun. The day was pretty rainy and we kept expecting the event to be cancelled, but the sun came out by the end of the day and we never got “the call”. So we headed downtown and joined up with the mayhem that is a street full of a few hundred kids, some out-of-tune fife players, and all the teachers and parents in the area. Then it started to rain. I mean, really, really, rain.

The parade came along, and sure enough, all the cardboard outfits were disintegrating and the kids (and fifers) were soaked to the core. But we snapped our obligatory photos and let them head over to the fairground while we went to a friend’s house for some celebratory wine.

After about 30 minutes, I got a phone call from a teacher to come meet up with my child who wanted to go home – but it was a wrong number, in fact, I don’t know what happened to that kid – but it made me think our kids were also not going to last a few hours as planned. We went to pick them up and discovered a fairground full of wet children, shivering like frightened kittens, all ready to come home. There was even some crying (mostly theirs). So, instead we made them come back with us to our friend’s house for a BBQ and an evening of parental celebration before walking home late at night… in the rain, again. At least they were already wet, so it’s ok, right? Hooray for summer vacation!

By the weekend, it was time to celebrate our great nation’s 150th birthday! The local Canadian expat group was hosting a Canada Day dinner in Geneva, so we spent the evening eating and drinking some hometown favourites: Moosehead beer, Okanagan wine, President’s Choice cookies, Pop-Tarts (are those Canadian??), Timbits (flown in from Montreal that morning, nothing like kind of stale Timbits for a taste of home!), and a good old fashioned barbecue dinner.

We sang bilingual O Canada with a singer who couldn’t get the sound system to work, but the 75 of us or so made up for that lack. We met people from NB, ON, AB, SK, QC, BC and several “honourary” Canucks who were just visiting – but that’s ok, Canada Day is all-inclusive. We missed the Ottawa fireworks, but went home happy nonetheless. Here’s to the start of a great summer!

 

New Year’s in La Ville Lumière

New Year’s Eve isn’t all that exciting once you have kids – basically we stay in and I usually sleep through the ball drop every year. But it is fun that we have managed to start a new year in different time zones and places over the past few years: Jakarta, Sydney, Banff, Leuven and now Paris!

If you recall, BigB was pretty sick, but I managed to pack him into the car and drive us on to Paris. It’s only about a 5 hour drive from here, and the weather was in our favor. As usual, there was plenty of fog along the way so the views were not exceptional, but the sun came out a few times and gave us glimpses of some beautiful frosty landscapes.

We arrived at the adorable, tiny apartment we rented. It was probably the most parisian place ever, filled with weird knicknacks, old theatrical posters, a bathroom plastered with books and maps, a collection of VHS tapes from the 80s, and the tiniest kitchen I’ve ever seen (we couldn’t even figure out how to get the over door open because it kept getting stuck on the door frame beside it). So, basically, we loved it. It also had a huge balcony (it was the top floor of a large apt building) with views of the Eiffel Tower, Montmartre and across the city. Well, theoretically it did. Mostly we saw fog. And it was cold. We didn’t spend much time out there.

We arrived on NYE itself, so we grabbed a few groceries from the store and settled in for the night. A few bottles of wine and a viewing of “Conan the Barbarian” went down well. We brought some sparklers to light outside, but forgot a lighter, so we just looked at unlit sparklers for a while, and went to bed by probably 10 pm. Happy New Year!

We woke up the next year and headed out for the day. New Year’s day in Paris is celebrated quietly, but there was a parade happening in the Champs Elysées – so we checked that out. Their Christmas market was still going on, which meant we filled up on vin chaud and crepes, poked around at the shops, and saw some depressing animatronic “christmas” dinosaurs. The parade itself was a bit of a mess – it wasn’t well organised, just clumps of people crowding around a handful of marching bands from the US and some random other acts. The best part was probably the tiny firetruck blowing confetti at everyone. We followed it around for a while to get extra confetti. By the way, air-blasted confetti gets everywhere.

The next day we did a little walk around to see the Bastille (which was under construction, so instead we checked out the Starbucks next door), visit Notre Dame (where the kids were only interested in the spinning play structure at the playground), and exploring Saint-Germain (where our rain-soaked kids just cried until we fed them hamburgers and went home on the metro). So, we managed to see Starbucks, a few playgrounds, a hamburger joint and some metro stations. All in all, I guess it was a typical vacation for us!

We ended the trip with an evening of sparklers (we finally remembered to buy a lighter), watching “Peter Pan” in French on VHS (watching something on “tape” blew our kids’ minds), and a microwaved frozen pizza (recall the oven issue) – and we left town the next morning on our way to the Netherlands!

Swiss fall

Before we knew it, it was autumn. Glorious summer was over, and the shorter, cooler days began. But we still made the most of it! We spent weekends enjoying the area, with all-season farmers’ markets and sunny afternoons.

The skating rink opened in town – a cute little covered arena that is free to the public (plus the cost of skate rental, if needed). We took the kids several times. And I enjoyed the attached “buvette” – pop-up refreshment stand that serves hot chocolate and vin chaud (mulled wine). Basically vin chaud is my favourite drink of all time. I spent most of the season looking for opportunities to visit markets and events to “sample” the various vins chauds, you know, for science.

Somewhere in the middle of all this, it was Halloween! But it’s not such a big deal here, so we kept it small. We spent an evening with our friends, which mostly turned into a vodka sampling party. You know, for science.

On Halloween proper, we did some trick-or-treating in a nearby expat neighbourhood with some other friends, and that was insanity. There were a limited number of houses actually giving out candy, and more than 100 kids running wild down the streets trying to figure out who was offering candy and who wasn’t. It was like Lord of the Flies: Candy edition. At one point, we saw a group of kids (not ours) just open up someone’s door and walk into their house… they didn’t have any candy. We wrapped up early and headed home to enjoy the spoils.

Another weekend, we made the trip into Geneva to watch a lightshow on the University buildings. It was a narrated digital projection of – basically – the journey of evolution, told from the perspective of amino acids. Sounds really fun, huh? Actually, it was very well done, with a lot of amazing images, and even audience members who couldn’t follow the French narrator enjoyed the show…

…With one caveat: from the start, there was a single, random lady at the front of the building who was dancing a sort of modern ballet routine in time with the show. She was so tiny compared to the scale of the building and the projections, it was hard to even see her. We weren’t even sure she was actually part of the event – was she just an audience member who was feeling really inspired by the role of amino acids in the formation of life?? Eventually one other tiny dancer appeared and they spent the whole show doing their interpretation of the narrative. The jury is still out about their legitimate involvement.

Other times we played football with friends, went to a hockey game, and hiked around the area. One weekend, there was a festival in Geneva – l’Escalade – which is a celebration around mid-December each year, commemorating one night in 1602 when the Genevois defeated invaders from Savoy by dumping boiling soup on them while they tried to scale the city walls. Hence, l’Escalade, which means “the climb” in French.

Nowadays, it involves getting little vegetable soup-shaped chocolates, which you smash with your fist and yell “Thus perish the enemies of the republic!” and then eat the pieces. We did that. Also, you go into the old town, eat vegetable soup on the street and watch super old army reservists shoot super old muskets in a demonstration of the Genevois prowess. Anyway, we got to see an old canon go off, so that was neat. But the mulled wine wasn’t very good – I know these things because I am a sampling expert now.

School’s out: Fête des enfants

There’s a tradition here on the last day of school called la Fête des enfants.

The kids spend a few weeks making costumes with their class and then go on a parade around town after school, kind of like a little Halloween party graduation. But the best part is after the parade – a circus fair is set up downtown and the kids get to go on all the rides they want for a few hours, no adults allowed!

J’s class dressed up as jellyfish and LittleB’s as puppies. He was less excited about that. But the parade was adorable, and we were especially lucky because our kids were near the front of the queue – so we got to watch them and go drink at the bar while the rest of the parade was going on. It was a win-win!

Watch the video to the end for the whole show!

Cows & hills & wine

So far there are lots of great things about living in Switzerland:

  • Easy commuting – it takes me 10 minutes by car or a short walk to the train for a door-to-door trip of about 40 minutes.
  • Great access to high-quality food and drink – local markets abound for getting fresh produce and meats, and we live in the middle of hundreds of vineyards spread throughout the valley, so the wine is abundant and delicious and local (at a work function, a colleague selected a certain wine off the menu because the winemaker was also his mailman).
  • Beautiful outdoors – although we haven’t jumped into the dedicated outdoor life of most Swiss people, we’re slowly getting used to the idea that we can go outside and enjoy the experience instead of dreading the heat, crowds and stares.

But all this means that my days are disappearing faster than ever, with lots of things to do and wine that isn’t drinking itself. I’m not spending hours in the car or hiding indoors anymore: and that was the time I used to spend writing blogs! Sorry.

To show my apology, I present to you a goodie story that I’ve been saving for a while – the day we went to the Swiss cow parade.

There are a lot of cows in Switzerland. And the Swiss love them. They feed them well, give them lots of room to pasture, and care about their happiness. Even the meat in the supermarket boasts that it comes from “happy animals”. Part of this high level of care (and a very long history of farming) is the use of pastureland in the mountains. But that’s only in the summer, of course – so each autumn, there is a pilgrimage of farmers and their cattle coming down to the warmer, safer fields along the lake.

This cow parade has turned into a big festival, where families dress up their favorite cows in flower headdresses and elaborate bells and tour them around the mountain villages in the hopes of being voted the ‘prettiest cow’.

The rest of us watch the cows go by, try not to step in cow poop (unsuccessfully), and drink wine (very successfully). We also enjoyed stocking up on local goods like sausages, honey, malakoffs and baguettes, and we were serenaded by a chorus of alpine horns.

My favorite part was the guy playing an instrument I’ve never seen before, which I can only assume is called “coin in a bowl” because it is – literally – a coin in a bowl. He would hold this giant ceramic bowl in one hand, spin a coin into its mouth and gyrate the bowl in circles, echoing the sound of a spinning coin along to the rest of the musicians. I’m not sure it enhanced the music in any way, but it was entertaining. And he took his job very seriously.

After the cows continued down the mountain, the magic was over, so we left too. But soon it will be time for the cows to parade back up the hill – and I can only assume the spring parade party will be just as exciting.

To cap off the day, we went into the center of town where there was a wine harvesting party taking place at the castle. There are a small number of communal grapevines, and everyone was allowed to clip off some grapes and add them to the truckful.

Up at the castle courtyard, they were crushing them into fresh grape juice, which was delicious! We didn’t have time to get into the whole experience, but if we had planned it better, we could have bought a tasting glass and sampled all the local wines. Next year!