Archive for the ‘Switzerland’ Category

Last week I had a George moment, which is rare for me.  Aside from the fact that I prefer to think of myself as more of an Elaine, I also tend to be more of a Friends girl than a Seinfeld one.  Though I watched both shows religiously, I must admit that no tears were shed when the cell door slammed shut on Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer.  In contrast, the night that Rachel ditched her flight to Paris and showed up at Ross’s door, in an absolutely perfect culmination of ten years of relationship angst, was a sob-fest at my house.  On a sorrow-scale of one to ten; one being sniffling over a Hallmark commercial (hey – it happens, the lonely old lady whose face lights up after reading a card from her neighbor kills me every time) and ten being the time I cried so hard while watching Finding Neverland that I vomited (in my defense I was about six months pregnant and teeming with crazy hormones and weird morning/all-day-long sickness), the Friends finale was a solid eight.  Even now, almost seven years later, I have one to two Friends flashbacks a week.  When I come down with a cold, the first thing I do is sing “Sticky Shoes” in my best sultry Phoebe voice, and I often end arguments by saying “It’s a moo point.  It’s a cow’s opinion.  It’s moo.”  (If there had been a debate team at my high school, I would not have been on it.)  Last week, while window shopping in Geneva I saw what looked a lot like an apothecary table from the days of yore, and every single time I move a large piece of furniture through a narrow stairwell/hallway I am consumed with the urge to scream “PIVOT!” at the top of my lungs, and nine times out of ten I succumb to the urge.  (This scenario played itself out recently when trying to haul our large Thule roof box up our teeny, tiny European staircase.)

Enough with the Friends memories, this is all about the George in me.  It happened on the way home from a well deserved night out with some friends.  We met in Geneva to forage for fondue in the big city, celebrate a belated birthday, and luxuriate in a meal without crayons, crackers, and be-wheeled toys careening across the table.  Mission accomplished.  We shared some delicious fondue, even more delicious wine, and lots of laughs.  The only wrinkle in the night came after we left the restaurant and located our car, which, due to insane amounts of traffic we had parked in the bowels of a hotel parking garage.  Apparently the very same night we were enjoying our simple ladies dinner, the Genevois Glitterati (including Gwyneth, hot off her SNL gig, who I was on the lookout for all night long) were out on the town for a ritzy watch convention.  First of all, I really think Gwynnie would have had a much better time kicking it mom’s night out style with a cheese laden fondue stick in one hand and wine glass in the other than hobnobbing with a bunch of snooty Swiss watchmakers, and second of all, I had no idea that watch conventions drew such large crowds.  The parking garage was packed to the gills, like a showroom crammed with shiny, high-priced automobiles.  We were thrilled to find a spot that was large enough to fit our car, and we didn’t think much of the fact that we had been forced to park so close to a concrete wall that my friend had to slide out the passenger side.  At least we weren’t in danger of dinging any Jaguars.

When we returned to the car after dinner, I thought it had to be a joke.  Some moron with a tiny, little Euro car had squeezed himself into the space (and I use that term loosely) next to ours.  I actually looked around for a hidden camera.  The cars were so close together that none of the doors would open.  We could get the driver’s door cracked just wide enough to slip our purses through.  No one, not even Gwynnie (who let’s face it, with those vegan tendencies would never join me in a cheese eating extravaganza) could have squeezed into the front seat of that car.  And the jerk who parked next to us?  There is no way that he was able to exit his auto in a dignified manner.  You can bet that he had to slink out of his tailgate.  Staring at our car sandwiched up against the diminutive hatchback, I could feel the warm, blissful glow that comes from spending time away from my children start to wither and die.  It was replaced by blind Costanza-like rage for the offensive driver who callously squished his car into a too-small space, much like the way I try to squeeze myself into my pre-pregnancy jeans.  Well, you know what dude?  I know better than to leave the house with my circa 2006 jeans on, and you should have known better than to park in two tired mamas who were just trying to enjoy a night out on the town.

In true George fashion (and fueled by a nice Swiss Chasselas) I stomped my feet, shook my fists, and whined at the unfairness of our situation.  What kind of person would park like this?  How were we ever going to get home?  Would we be stuck in the parking garage until the jerk who parked us in deigned to return to his car?  Luckily, my much calmer, Jerry-like friend, assessed the situation and noticed that we could wedge the door to the back seat open just wide enough for even a non-Gwynnie-sized person to squeeze through.  So lamenting the fact that I had taken those extra swipes of fondue, I made myself as flat as possible and shimmied my way into the car.  In all honesty, the path to freedom was not as tight as I thought it was going to be, but this did not quell my anger.  I demanded that we leave the imbecile a note.  I could not imagine exiting the garage without unleashing my fury in witty, piercing prose.  I procured a pen and an old receipt and readied myself to write the most cleverly insulting note in my literary history.  But, in that moment, with emotions running high, I pulled a George.  When faced with grave malfeasance and a chance to right a wrong, I choked.  Like George in the meeting room at Yankee Stadium, who when insulted by a colleague is struck dumb and unable to muster a comeback, I was left mute in the parking garage.

I finally mustered up a half-hearted note, the contents of which I cannot really remember, but definitely included the words “How rude!” (which is way more Stephanie Tanner than Costanza) and “Learn how to park!” and stuck it under the offending driver’s windshield wiper.  The note was a weak, awkward expression of my true feelings, and I shudder with embarrassment every time I think about it.  In  homage to George I should have at least written “The parking store called and they want their spot back,” which I admit makes no sense, but here I am, two weeks later, still searching for the perfect comeback.


The perfect comeback.


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Lauberhorn Downhill, in the shadow of the Eiger and Monch.

CHAPTER ONE:  Downhill Racing with a Bug and a Goose

35, 000 Swiss can’t be wrong.  This is the thought that ran through our heads as we booked a last-minute hotel room in Interlaken, and hastily threw jackets, backpacks, snowshoes, and survival gear (think Tinkerbell stickers, fruit leather, and diapers) into the car and prepared to make the 2 hour trip up into the Swiss Alps.  We had been planning on going to the World Cup ski races in Wengen, Switzerland for all of five days, but in the waning hours of Friday night we changed our plans from a day trip to an overnight.  It takes a special breed of crazy to book a hotel at 10 pm on a Friday, frantically pack the car and attempt to clean the house, collapse in bed at midnight, only to roll right out again a mere 5 hours later.  We callously yanked the girls from their warm beds, slapped them into their car seats, and were zipping down the deserted streets of Thoiry before they, even knew what hit them.  We didn’t give ourselves an opportunity to think about the enormity of the adventure that lay ahead of us.  We didn’t ponder the fact that the Lauberhorn World Cup races are one of the biggest sporting events in Swiss culture, and they are even (as I just learned from reading Wikipedia) some of the most widely attended winter sporting events in THE WORLD.  Had we discussed these interesting bits of trivia, we may have had second thoughts about dragging our very small children up a cog railway, to stand for hours in the snow at the foot of a glacier, surrounded by tens of thousands of drunk, cheese-dipping ski fans. But, in classic Hirschauer fashion, we didn’t think, we just jumped in our car and drove, fueled by the promise of catching a glimpse of Bode Miller, and the thrill of watching men hurtle themselves down an icy slope at speeds upwards of 80 mph (roughly 130 km/h, for all you metric fans out there).

Train snacking.

We made it to Interlaken in record time, parked our car at the hotel, donned our snow gear, wedged the girls into backpacks and headed to the train station.  We ended up catching the 10 am train, giving us plenty of time (we naively thought) to comfortably make the start of the race at 12:30.  The tricky part about getting to the Lauberhorn downhill is that you need to take three different trains up the mountain to reach an accessible viewing area.  The first leg of our trip was deceivingly easy.  On our way to the station we had met up with another expat family from Thoiry (who would become our compatriots in this adventure even though they hailed from the UK and cringed every time we began to chant U-S-A) and our children played together on the train, and munched on imported Goldfish crackers, as we lounged in our seats and chatted about how freakishly uncrowded the train was.  Where were the throngs of spirited Swiss ski fans?  There was no song-singing, or Austrian/Swiss trash talking on our train.  The first leg of our trip was, to be honest, kind of boring, leaving us with a false sense of security, tricking us into thinking that the journey to the Lauberhorn would be a piece of cake.


The ease of our morning travel was shattered when we arrived in the picturesque town of Grindelwald where we were supposed board our connection to another train to head further up the mountain.  It was in Grindelwald that we discovered where all the people in Switzerland had been hiding themselves.  There they were, 35,000 sled toting, flask chugging, Swiss ski fans all attempting to board one small, antiquated train.  The reason why Interlaken had been such a ghost town was not because we were early (because truthfully when are Hirschauers ever early) but because we were almost shamefully late for the biggest party in Switzerland.


After waiting over an hour in a crowd of noisy, yet jolly and surprisingly polite, race-goers, we finally crammed onto a train and completed our journey to the race.  It is to be noted that our hour-long layover in Grindelwald was worth it because it allowed me to track down some much-needed diapers as we had left ours in the car (quality parenting move).  Diaperless on a glacier with a stubborn two-year old who refuses to even glance at a potty (even though there weren’t really any toilets to speak of, as evidenced by the number of drunk Europeans I witnessed heeding the call of nature with nary a tree, snow bank, or bush to hide behind) was not my idea of how to spend the perfect Saturday.  With diapers in tow we reached our second-to-last destination of Kleine Scheidegg and decided to ditch the train crowd and walk the twenty minutes down to the race viewing area.  It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the kids were ecstatic to be off the crowded trains and allowed to run free in the snow.


Hundschopf section of the Lauberhorn downhill. Notice the adventurous spectators on the top of the rock, that is where we thought we would be able to hike to...only in our baby-backpack-less dreams.

The walk to the race was uneventful, save for the drunk sledders, skittish skiers, and the time that I slipped and fell on my arse with Maggie strapped to my back.  (Maggie was unscathed by the bump, as my well-padded tush took the brunt of the fall.  I, however, was a bit unnerved and considered swiping a can of Eigerbier from a passing sledder to take the edge off.)  We followed the roar of the crowd to the Hundschopf (dog’s head).  It is a famous jump, where racers launch themselves off a rock face and as soon as their skis touch back down to the snow, they are catapulted into a sharp left turn.  It is very popular viewing area, I think that at least 20 of the rumored 35 thousand fans were parked at the Hundschopf.  We had crazy plans to hike up out of the crowd and find a peaceful place to watch the race, but the trip to the viewing area had been so harried that we thankfully entered the crowd, set up camp near some raucous Austrians, and joined the party.

A few of our closest friends watching the Hundschopf jump.

If I take one thing away from our racing adventure (and it won’t be witnessing Bode Miller rock the downhill because he came in eighth and we were so late that we missed his run by at least an hour) it will be the art of Swiss tailgating.  The people we saw at the Lauberhorn downhill truly took tailgating to a whole new level.  They built bars out of sleds, displaying bottles of tummy warming liquor and stacked high with  local beer.  Unphased by the prospect of hiking with mass amounts of cheese, wine, and bread strapped to their backs, the Swiss toted large fondue pots up the mountain and set up shop in the snow.  They feasted on hot, gooey cheese, chugged wine out of real glasses, and did shots of schnapps all the while waving their Swiss flags with fierce pride and organizing giant slopeside sing-a-longs.  The crowd was deafening when a Swiss skier took to the course and silent when any other nationality zipped past.  There was a large, loud Austrian contingent near us made up of mostly round, hairy, intoxicated men who looked like they had never skied a day in their lives.  They seemed to be closely related to Bill Swerski’s Superfans (“Da Bearsss!) and took every opportunity to boast about the Austrian skier who eventually won the downhill.  At one point Jim asked the Austrian standing behind us if we could take a look at the starting list that they were smart enough to bring along.  The guy jovially informed us that there was no point in familiarizing ourselves with the skiers that were still to come because all the Austrians had already skied, and there was nobody left in the field (including 2 Americans, thank you very much) that could beat his guys.  It turned out that he was right, Klaus Kroll ended up taking the coveted helicopter ride down to Wengen, beating out two Swiss skiers and crushing the spirits of 35,000 local ski fans.  (The winner of the Lauberhorn downhill gets to ride in heli-style while the other poor schlubs are forced to take a train, albeit a private one, just like the rest of us.)

Maggie and I leaving the downhill. The smiles on our faces are directly related to the free chocolate bar I am clutching in my hand.

I won’t bore you the details of how we got off the mountain after the race ended.  Let’s just say it was a painfully long process, made bearable by singing Austrian superfans, free Milka chocolate bars, gummy bears, and the kindness of strangers.  (One woman gave us a blanket to help protect Emma’s bobbing head, who somehow managed to sleep peacefully in a backpack for the almost the entire way home.)  It wasn’t until we boarded our final train of the day that we managed to secure seats.  Having spent almost the entire day on my feet with Maggie on my back, sitting down was nothing short of bliss (perhaps this feeling was heightened by the teenage boys in the seat next to me who looked like hipster skiers, yet were singing Justin Bieber in broken English.) We eventually made it to our hotel, collapsed on the beds and sunk into an exhausted stupor.  I was even too tired to object when Jim found an episode of the Simpsons dubbed in German with which the girls promptly became enthralled.  (In my defense, the Simpsons seemed almost Disney-like when you couldn’t understand what they were saying.)  And so ended part one of our marathon World Cup adventure, with the girls laughing hysterically when Homer almost sits on Maggie and Jim trying in vain to dole out Simpsons quotes in a foreign language.

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Monkeys watching monkeys at the Servion Zoo, Switzerland.

Yesterday the girls and I packed up the car and made the hour drive into Switzerland to visit the Servion Zoo, outside of Lausanne.  Armed with Raffi tunes, snacks, cryptic google maps directions, and with a clear view of Mont Blanc out our car window, we zipped along the highway in search of lions, tigers, and bears.  I was a little nervous about tackling a road trip without Jim, but as I had a gaggle of supportive moms meeting me at the zoo, I decided to take the chance and head out into Switzerland on my own.

Most of the zoos that I have frequented have been in the middle of cities, thus making for harrowing, traffic strewn driving experiences.  Picture two hyped up children, salivating for a glimpse of a wild animal and doing their best monkey impressions; add two frantic parents, swearing at traffic, cursing the incorrect directions, and vowing never again to venture into any sort of metropolitan area.  Usually by the time I even arrive at the zoo I have a headache the size of a silverback gorilla.  The Servion Zoo, however, like all things Swiss is tidy, organized, and relatively stress free.  The zoo is situated in hills above the city of Lausanne, and instead of navigating around potholes and past aggressive city drivers, the girls and I flew along winding country roads surrounded by green meadows and grazing cows.  (It is nearly impossible to feel stress in the presence of lazy, grass-eating, black-and-white spotted Swiss cows, especially if the pasture in which they are lounging is bathed in sunlight and rimmed with mountains.  Makes me want to be a cow, but then I remember steak.)  Maggie, was so enamored with the cows that she could have possibly skipped the zoo entirely, but her sister was not so easily dissuaded.  Emma is not nearly as fond of cows as Maggie, she finds them stinky (can’t argue with that) and is positively appalled with their propensity to poop everywhere.

We arrived at the zoo with nary a wrong turn, curse word uttered, or meltdown and joined our friends inside.  All thoughts of mooing cows were erased as soon as we stepped into the monkey house.  Cows, animals that we see multiple times a day, have nothing on furry, acrobatic, swinging monkeys.  It was inside the monkey house that I discovered the downfall to this small, tidy, idyllic Swiss zoo.  All the animal signs were in French.  Meaning, each time a child asked me “What’s that, Mommy?” I had to try to read the French name plate and make my best guess.  Often, I knew the animal by sight, sometimes I could read the French word and using my context clues (go first grade teacher) decipher the correct animal name.  There were a few terrifying times when I just had to guess.  Just what were those deer-like things with huge antlers?  Daddy deer, like I confidently told my daughters?  Or some other species of deer entirely?  Luckily I was joined in the zoo excursion by a few women who were infinitely more well versed in animal species names than I and who were patient enough to correct my mistakes with limited laughter.  Like when I declared that the tall, feathery bird in the corner was an ostrich, but it was actually an emu.  Or, when I told Emma the colorful birds in wire cages were peacocks, but they were pheasants.  By the time we actually saw a peacock I was so discouraged by my knowledge of zoo animals that I was certain it was an escaped pheasant, until he showed me his tail.

We did encounter some animals that could not be misidentified.  There was a huge brown bear taking a dip in a pretty cushy new enclosure that was outfitted with trees to climb, snuggly caves, and a large watering hole.  The kids were delighted to happen upon three lions, who were being fed a delicious afternoon snack of huge hunks of raw meat, and two beautiful striped tigers enjoying the same treat in their own enclosure.  We saluted our fellow North Americans, the buffalo, petted some goats, howled with the wolves, quacked with the ducks, and had an all around wild time at the zoo.  The girls were asleep in their car seats before we exited the zoo parking lot, Maggie may have been out before I snapped the final buckle on her car seat.  Saved from the gentle, yet immensely annoying voice of Raffi by two sleeping children, I tuned into my favorite Euro pop radio station and enjoyed a relaxing ride back to France.  The snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc still visible out my window, guided us home.

Maggie and her friend Eva on the swings. Such sullen faces for fun times on the swings. This is one of the two pictures I took yesterday. I brought my camera determined to document our day, but left with only these (bad) pictures, taken five minutes into our trip.

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I grew up in Maine, very close to the New Hampshire border, where interstate travel was very common, almost a necessity seeing that the largest grocery store, nearest movie theater, and closest mall were all located in New Hampshire.  An added bonus being that there is no sales tax in New Hampshire so those Guess jeans with zippers AND bows on the ankles were a real steal.  (Who am I kidding, I don’t think I ever owned a pair of real Guess jeans, just some decent knock-offs, but, oh, how I longed for them.)  Now, many, many years later, I find myself living in another border town, but instead of crossing state lines, I frequently cross international borders.

We live in France, but Jim works just ten minutes away in Switzerland.  We pass through a usually empty border crossing a few times a day without so much as a pause, merely a dip in speed to navigate the barriers and bumps.  There are a handful of activities that we enjoy across the border such as  swimming at the Meyrin pool, visiting the library and using our illegally procured card to borrow English books.  We frolic in Swiss vineyards and sample their delicious wine, and our most recent (and possibly favorite) field trip is journey into Geneva to play in the fountains at the United Nations.  It was on a trip to the fountains that I had my inaugural scrape with the Douane (French/Swiss customs).  On the few times that I have seen uniformed Douane patrolling the border stations, I have slowed down, given them a meek look (hissed at my monsters in the back to stop arguing/crying/stuffing food in their faces and to look darling and adorable) and then smiled gratefully when they waved me through.  I am always gripped with fear when I see a Douane in uniform, as if at any moment he could yank me from my car and throw me into a grimy French/Swiss prison.  (I still cling to a vague Clinton-rescue fantasy.)  They never seem to give my car a second glance, however, even though we have expired Illinois license plates.  We are patiently waiting for our green Euro tags, but everything in France takes forever.  So, my interactions with uniformed Douane agents of either country have been stressful, but nothing more than smiling, nodding, and waving a heartfelt and grateful thank you.

On that fateful day as we journeyed to the fountains at the UN (of all places) my luck with the local Douane ran out.  Finally, some top-notch, overachieving guard eyed my Illinois plate, and, not liking the looks of my banana encrusted children, flagged me down and asked me to stop.  Terrified, I obediently pulled over, cursing myself for not taking the “fast lane,” or the lane to the right, through which I had followed my (infinitely more savvy and worldly) friend just the other week.  I panicked and did not take the easy lane seeing that I did not have the requisite “nothing to declare” sign.  Instead, I followed the rules and unwittingly pointed my car in the direction of a strict, unyielding, and exceedingly grumpy Swiss border patrolwoman.

I meekly pulled over, took the car out of gear, and rolled down my window, giving my best, most polite smile to the blond, shortly cropped guard.  She said something to me in French (as if she didn’t know I was American with my Illinois plates, baseball cap, and wide, terrified eyes) to which I replied my standard “Je suis désolé. Je ne parle pas français.”  (A phrase I am becoming extremely adept at uttering, by the way.)  The guard smirked (or was it my imagination) and briskly said “Passports, please.”

My heart stopped.  My skin crawled.  I went numb.  (Ok, I am a bit dramatic, but I was really scared.)  I did not have our passports.  They were in a drawer back in our apartment.  Jim and I had discussed extensively the pros and cons of me carrying three passports during my daily dalliances.  The cons being that I would inevitably misplace the crucially important books, leave them at the checkout counter at Migros, the bathroom at the pool, or buried in the sand at one of the many playgrounds we frequent.  The pros, however, obviously being that I would avoid terrifying circumstances such as the one I was currently facing.

I took a deep breath, gave the guard my best confused, apologetic, angelic face and said, “I am sorry I do not have our passports with us at the moment.  But, we live just over there, in Thoiry, and we are going to meet our friends at the UN to play in the fountains.”  (Note the airy use of “at the moment” I am apparently becoming a bit of a Brit, but that is for another post.  Madonna would be proud.)

She demanded my driver’s license, which of course, was in the trunk of my car in my diaper bag.  So, I had to get out of my vehicle, and accompanied by two uniformed Douane, open my trunk, spilling sand toys, a pink princess ball, and a bag of pretzels onto the ground, and dig out my wallet.  Once I had located my wallet I was able to produce my driver’s license (from Colorado, a state I haven’t lived in since 2007, but still valid), my CERN picture ID, and my French residence permit and identification card.  I triumphantly handed all three impressive forms of identification to the disgruntled Douane and waited for her to bid me adieu.  To my surprise she flippantly discarded my precious documentation and said “We need to see passports.”

I was stunned.  I did not have our passports and was not sure what was going to happen next.  (Clinton?  Anybody have any Clinton connections?)  She indicated in broken English that we must return to Thoiry and get our passports.  I had never heard of this happening to anyone before, so I thought that she meant we could go to Geneva, and then from hereafter make a point of traveling with our passports.  So I said, “OK, we will go to the fountains, and then go home and get our passports?”

She scowled, and said, “NO.  Turn around, go home, bring back passports.”  At which point the tears began to well up in my eyes (a pretty impressive fact, that I waited this long to cry, considering that anything from Hallmark commercials to the death of Tommy Boy’s dad can render me a blubbering mess) and I said, “But the children are going to play in the fountains.”  But, this Douane was a Terminator-like automaton and immune to the big, woeful eyes of my children.  She watched me dejectedly get into my car and make a U-turn back towards France.

At this point, Emma, who had been surprisingly and blessedly silent during this whole mess, said “Mommy, that lady was mean!  Are you angry, Mommy?  Because you have angry eyebrows.  Can we still go play in the fountains?”

A few yards down the road I pulled over, because I couldn’t see through my tears, and desperately wanted to call Jim so that he could drop whatever gobbledygook data he was compiling on his computer and come down to the border and beat up the entire Swiss border patrol.  Instead, I freaked him out, as he assumed that I had been in some sort of accident because I was crying so hard on the phone.  Once I calmed down enough to set the story straight, he commiserated with me, and then in his practical way, suggested that I merely drive a few miles out of my way and enter Switzerland at a different, un-patrolled border station.  Which, I eventually did, but not before grumbling about the European borders, and complaining that no one I had ever met had had this problem, and who did that lady think she was, anyway?

A few hours later we were enjoying a fabulously sunny day, splashing in the fountains in front of the UN with the flags of over a hundred and ninety counties waving proudly in the background.  I had to pinch myself as I watched Emma and Maggie frolic in the water with their friends, surrounded by important looking men in suits, protesting Iraqi citizens, and camera toting tourists.  Even three months into our stay here, it is still hard for me to believe that we live in Europe, and that, for my girls, traveling to Geneva, Switzerland for a morning playdate is akin to my childhood trips to Portsmouth, New Hampshire (minus one crotchety Swiss Douane).

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The Hirschauers in Interlaken

After our whirlwind trip to Normandy, the Griswalds needed a few days to unwind.  The last leg of our road trip home had completely drained us of our adventurous spirit, and we recovered with long walks on Thoiry farm roads, tours of CERN (for Grampa), and visits with friends at toddler group.  We did manage to squeeze in a Geneva day, where we fulfilled Grampa’s wish to swim in the glacial waters of Lake Geneva (and to escape unscathed by the dreaded Lac Leman duck mites*), toured the streets of Old Town, and gazed upon the Geneva cityscape from the top of the Cathedral bell tower.  So, in reality, the Griswalds really only rested for one day, (battling crowds on cramped Geneva sidewalks with a stroller the size of a Smart Car does not a relaxing day make) and then we hit the road again, this time with Jim (our captain) in tow, to bask in the beauty of the Swiss Alps.

The drive to the Interlaken was infinitely easier than the drive to Normandy, which had almost scarred me for life.  We spent less than three hours in the van, and the scenery was so gorgeous that the last hour of the trip flew by in a blur of sparkling ice blue lakes, and jagged, snow topped mountains.  When Emma first laid eyes on the Jungfrau from the car window she was left speechless (a rare treat for those of us sharing the backseat with her) and finally blurted out the word “HUMONGOUS” in her best Murray from Sesame Street impression.  She was right, the mountains around Interlaken were gigantic, and mesmerizingly beautiful.  We happened upon a cute playground area complete with picnic tables just as we were entering the city (couldn’t have planned it better if we had tried, and of course, had we tried, we never would have found such a great spot) and stopped for lunch and a romp.

After the girls had sufficiently tired themselves out on the playground equipment we took to the crowded streets of Interlaken.  We spent some time watching paragliders float down from the mountain tops, bobbing and weaving in the cool alpine breeze.  Marring the somewhat idyllic mountain scene was the neon orange lights from a Hooters sign in downtown Interlaken.  Yes, Hooters (ye of the chicken wings, dangerously short orange hot pants, and painted on tank tops) in Switzerland.  What the what?  Just what we needed to complete our authentic alpine vacation in a Swiss mountain town, greasy wings and scantily clad waitresses.  (Instead of ranch or blue cheese, I wonder, do they serve fondue with those wings?)

We walked through the city of Interlaken, always with one eye turned to the snow-capped peaks above us, and succeeded in putting the girls to sleep in their strollers.  When traveling with small children it is critical to not let an opportunity like two comatose toddlers in umbrella strollers pass you by, so we promptly stopped at a Swiss cafe (not Hooters, to the dismay of some in our party) for some very large, very refreshing beers.  After being in France where they eschew cold beer in favor of wine and sell warm beer in miniature bottles and munchkin-like glasses, the extra-large chilled beer steins of Switzerland were a welcome sight.  We ordered four of their largest local lagers and settled in for a relaxing chat.  Amazingly both girls stayed asleep for our entire happy hour and were coaxed (bribed with ice cream) into sitting patiently while we enjoyed a second, slightly smaller, yet still refreshing, beer.  Upon leaving the idyllic cafe we walked straight into a toddler paradise, complete with jumping, bubbling fountains to frolic in and giant-sized chess pieces.  Without thinking twice we stripped the girls down to their French finest and let them loose in the fountains.  Interlaken was very good to us that day; sun, mountains, playgrounds, fountains, beer and ice cream, the stuff dreams are made of.

We left Interlaken and drove a bit farther up into the valley to our hotel in the town of Wilderswil.  In true Griswald style we had booked our hotel at the last-minute and we weren’t quite sure what to expect as we made our way through the quaint, winding streets of Wilderswil and up the hill to the Hotel Berghoff.  I half expected to round a corner and find a rickety, single level motel establishment with dingy curtains and a blinking vacancy sign.  I was pleasantly surprised by the pristine Swiss style hotel, nestled in the hillside with striking views of the Jungfrau and a Maggie-approved proximity to grazing cows.  The Hirschauers were lucky enough to have a family suite in the “Chalet” with a balcony looking out into the Alps.  Alas, poor Nana and Grampa were stuck in the big hotel, with a stunning view of our balcony from their only window.  After dropping our stuff in the rooms we hightailed it to the pool and enjoyed a surreal evening swimming and watching the sky turn pink behind the Alpen giants.

The next day Team Griswald split up and my parents took the trains up to the tip-top of the Jungfrau and hiked the glacier while we conquered the Alps at a slightly lower elevation.  The girls loved the cog railway that inched its way up the twisty, turning tracks past mountain towns, ski resorts, and various farm animals.  In Maggie’s world, every animal she sees is a cow, and there are no distinctions made between goats, donkeys, or horses.  She loved spying the many species of “cow” out the train window, and Emma kept a keen eye out for gushing waterfalls, that spewed snowmelt off the side of the mountain at awesome rates.  We got off the train at Kleine Scheidegg, a little resort town that boasted its own family of tame mountain goats (goats Maggie, not cows).  The girls loved playing with (harassing) the goats and feeding them (shoving dead grass in their faces) and were surprisingly unfazed when one of the smaller goats, having had his fill of weeds and greasy toddler hands, butted them angrily.  We finally tore the girls away from the goats and stuffed them kicking and screaming into backpacks so we could enjoy a short, yet extremely steep,  hike in the Alps.

We followed the well-worn path up out of Kleine Scheidegg and found ourselves in a mountain meadow straight out of a scene from the Sound of Music.  Frauline Maria was lucky enough to be alone, spinning through the wildflowers in blissful solitude, we, unfortunately had to pick our way past throngs of Japanese tourists who were possibly more enthralled with the adorable children on our backs than the impressive rocky peaks of the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau.  Countless pictures were taken of Emma and Maggie as they sat in their backpack thrones, waving and smiling to their adoring fans.  We finally found a quiet resting spot for lunch, one situated far enough away from people that we felt like we were alone in the Alps, yet not so remote that the girls were in danger of tumbling down the rocky mountainside.  Emma and Maggie frolicked in the meadow and picked flowers in the shadow of the Eiger, while Jim and I rested and basked in the beauty of the mountains.  On our way back down into Kleine Scheidegg we stopped to rest our hot, sweaty, weary feet in an ice-cold mountain pond.  The Swiss have come up with some ingenious ways of enjoying nature, my favorite of which is the foot soaking pool with benches and jacuzzi-like bubbles.  It felt sinfully luxurious to dip your feet in the cool bubbly water, surrounded by the natural beauty of blue sky, green grass, and white-capped mountains.  And, of course the girls are always game for anything that involves taking their clothes off and splashing in water.

After enjoying a well-earned beer and sharing a tearful goodbye with the goats in Kleine Scheidegg we boarded the train and headed back to our hotel to meet up with Nana and Grampa.  They had had a fabulous day hiking and exploring the Jungfrau glacier.  Though tired, they came down from the mountain looking ten years younger and full of smiles, adventure, and happiness.  That night we dined al fresco at a cafe in the town of Lauterbrunnen, and then collapsed into our beds after a day spent hiking, playing, and laughing in the Alps.  The next day we took a family hike to another mountain village called Wengen, and after a delicious picnic and one last train ride, we bade our new friends Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau “Auf Wiedersehen” and made our way back home to Thoiry.

Peaceful slumber in the Hirschauer Chalet.

Riding the rails.

Making new friends in Kleine Scheidegg.

Soaking our feet, Swiss style.

*A note about “duck mites.”  After we mentioned that we had all gone swimming at a beach in Geneva, a friend disclosed her secret fear of parasites called “duck mites” that live in duck feathers and become a problem in the summer, when the lake water become warmer.  While I listened intently to her warnings and shuddered at the thought of tiny parasites boring their way into my skin and causing a nasty rash, I dismissed the issue, thinking that perhaps my friend was over-reacting.  But then, not even an hour later, I heard a health report on the English-speaking radio station sternly warning people about the dangers of duck mites.  Now, I realize that duck mites are not fatal, and something as simple as showering immediately after swimming will greatly reduce your chances of catching them, but I do not fancy getting an itchy rash that may last for weeks, or even months.  No thank you.  I count myself lucky to have swam in Lake Geneva and escaped rash-free and I will not chance fate again.  I haven’t so much as dipped a toe in the lake since I have been alerted to the existence those sneaky parasites.

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The Griswalds (minus Jim, the photographer) in Interlaken, CH

I have taken a two-week hiatus from blogging.  My computer has lain dormant, collecting dust, while I traipsed around France and Switzerland with my visiting parents, leaving a trail of tears, cracker crumbs, and accidentally abandoned (and frequently cried over) plastic princess figurines in our wake.  Initially I really missed my blog, and was continually looking for scraps of paper to jot down notes and anecdotes from the road.  Eventually though, exhaustion and the need for sleep at night overtook all writing urges and just today I am finding it bearable to open my computer again.

Vacationing is hard.  You would think a two-week vacation with free babysitters (Nana and Grampa), a personal chef who specializes in farm fresh omelettes by morning and meat on the grill by night (Grampa even had to purchase the grill himself), and a laundress/maid (Nana worked double shifts cleaning clothes and windows) would leave me feeling refreshed, relaxed, and rejuvenated.  Well, I feel anything but fresh, but this could be in part due to the 35 degree weather that has settled into the valley and refused to leave (don’t let that tricky Celsius scale fool you, it is HOT, practically 95).  I am exhausted, and feel more like I have been racing in the Tour de France for the past week, instead of enjoying a vacation.  I have a sneaking suspicion that relaxing vacations are not made up of  10 hour car treks across France with a whiny three-year old and a one year old who enjoys practicing her ever-growing vocabulary at an ear-splitting pitch.  Thank goodness for portable DVD players and Lady and the Tramp, which we watched on repeat despite the fact that we had quite a selection of other toddler favorites.  By the end of the trip I was hard pressed to choose the more annoying sound, whining/crying from the peanut gallery or the squeaky (and dare I say offensive) singing of “We are Siamese if you Please” heard for the billionth time.

My family has a history of crazy vacations, a la Clark Griswald and his gang.  We aren’t great planners, but we are spectacular doers, and this combination makes for some harrowing but memorable last-minute vacations.  The first big trip I remember taking with my parents was when I was 8 and we flew out to Utah for a Christmas ski vacation.  Sounds great in theory, but as our plane touched town in Salt Lake we became suspicious of the lush green hills and snow-less peaks.  There was not a flake of snow to be found when we arrived at our hotel in Park City, and the resort was closed, with no open trails or lifts.  Unfazed by the odd weather and their horrendous luck, my parents collected their refunded money, rented a tiny car and drove through the canyon to Alta, where there were a few trails open.  We managed to find a room and had a great time that week.  Especially when, a few days into our trip it snowed so hard that there were avalanches.  Sometimes being flexible has its advantages, if we had hightailed it back to Maine, defeated, we would have missed out on some spectacular skiing (or so I am told, I was only 8 and don’t really remember much about the skiing, mainly I remember the ping-pong table in the basement of the hotel).

Our flexible vacationing style reared its head again on a spring road trip from Maine to South Carolina when I was in seventh grade.  When passing by the exit for Gettysburg at 4 am, my Dad, suddenly filled with a thirst for historical war monuments and battle fields, got off the highway, yanked me out of my comfortable bed in the back seat (being an only child has some perks, like being able to lie flat with a pillow and blanket on long car trips) and forced me to tromp through the cold, muddy fields with him.  At the time I was far from pleased, in the way that any miserable, moody, pre-teen would be on a road trip with her parents.  But now I look back on that trek through the misty Gettysburg battle fields with fondness.  It was pretty amazing to walk around those historical grounds when they were quiet and we were the only people around.  I remember grumpily trailing after my parents as the fog lifted, rising from the grass like a thick curtain and covering the forest with an eery film.  In that moment it was not difficult to picture the battlefields as they were in the Civil War, and I was spooked enough to shed my sullen attitude and join my parents as we finished our clandestine tour of Gettysburg.

Many years later, while I was studying abroad in London, my parents came to visit me over their Thanksgiving break.  The highlights of that trip include, accidentally bumping into the Queen and her caravan on the opening day of Parliament, and eating at the same restaurant three nights in a row.  (In our defense we were overwhelmed country folk in a big city.  We ate at the Hard Rock three times in two different cities, London and Edinburgh.  We just always seemed to be right next to a Hard Rock when we were tired, cranky, and ravenous.  Rick Steves would have been extremely disappointed in us.)  Seeing the Queen, however, was an act of kismet.  My parents arrived in London, dropped their bags off at the hotel and I (being the worldly Londoner, having lived there for all of two months) took them on a tour of the city and promptly got us lost.  We were wandering around the streets of London, my parents dazed and jet-lagged, and me teetering about on high-heeled boots with blisters the size of quarters because I refused to wear sneakers for fear of looking too American, when we ran smack into a parade of horse-drawn carriages carrying the Queen, her staff, and various other members of Parliament.  We couldn’t have planned a better first day if we had tried, blisters and all.

Nana and her girls. Someone is in desperate need of a nap, well, probably all three ladies are but two are dealing with their fatigue a bit better than the other.

So, when my parents came to Thoiry for a two-week trip with plans to visit Normandy (way up in one corner of France) and to climb the Eiger (well, choo-choo train up the Eiger and hike around the glacier) in the Swiss Alps, I knew we were in for a roller coaster of a trip.  The fact that when my parents landed on a Tuesday, we hadn’t cemented our plans for Normandy, meaning we hadn’t rented the necessary mini van, booked hotel rooms, or mapped out a route, didn’t faze me much, but it may have freaked Jim out a little bit.  He sprang into action like a magical Travelocity gnome and found us a rental car, printed driving directions, and prodded us to book a hotel.  With his help we were ready to storm the beaches of Normandy a mere forty-eight hours after my parents landed in France.

All gripes aside, we had a fabulous time exploring the beaches of Normandy, the jagged, ice-capped glaciers of the Alps, and all the flower filled French and Swiss villages in between.  As I said before, vacationing with children is hard, but amidst dealing with the high-jinx of nap-deprived toddlers there were moments of pure magic.  Watching the girls pick wild flowers in a grassy meadow beneath the three Swiss giants, the Eiger, Monch, and Jungfrau mountains, making sand castles among World War II era concrete pilings, getting lost in Paris but not caring much because we were too busy gazing out the window at the Eiffel Tower (the girls, of course, were too consumed with soap opera-like affairs of pasta-eating dogs to notice), these are memories I will never forget and for them I am more than willing to endure a few days of bone-numbing fatigue.

Again, the most important member of Team Griswald, the brains behind the operation, is also the man behind the camera.

Stay tuned for more in-depth analysis of our two-week adventure coming soon!

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Yesterday we packed a lunch, said “Au revoir” to France and made the two-hour drive to Bern, Switzerland.  Guten Tag, Bern!  Finally, an opportunity to flex my German-speaking muscles, stun Jim and our companions with my incredible bilingual abilities, and make Frau Chappel, my high school German teacher, proud.  In my rose-tinted memories my German was flawless, my vocabulary vast, and my pronunciation pure Germanic perfection.  In reality, however, I found that I could only remember useless, text-book phrases.  I was a bit depressed when I realized that a hip, smartly dressed Bern resident was probably not going to inquire on the method of transportation I used to go to school.  (To which I would swiftly reply, “Ich gehe in die Schule mit dem Bus,” OR because I am such a stellar student, “Ich gehe in die Schule mit dem Auto.”)  Gradually, though, as I eavesdropped on conversations, and read every sign I passed out loud, I began to recapture bits and pieces of my former bilingual prowess.  It did not help that nearly every person we encountered spoke perfect English.  They would initiate a conversation in an incomprehensible mixture of French and German, take one look at our befuddled faces, and begin again in almost accent-less English.  The Swiss that we came across yesterday were so nice, so polite, and so accommodating that I found myself wishing, more than once, that we lived in Bern.

Our main objective in Bern was a trip to the zoo, but as I look back upon our outing, the zoo was really the least exciting part of the day.  It served as a convenient spot to rendezvous with our friends who had also made the trip to Bern.  There was also a lovely playground, a wooded picnic spot, and the requisite animals to entertain the toddler set.  We saw an array of reptiles, some penguins (always a crowd pleaser), a moose, a snowy owl who hypnotized Maggie with her head spinning abilities, and some monkeys to delight our friend Eva, who was adorably clad in the sweetest monkey dress (making her, in my opinion, the cutest mammal at the zoo).  As soon as the children grew sleepy, however, we plopped them in strollers, high-tailed it out of the zoo, and set off for a nap inducing stroll into Old Town.

Leaving the zoo, we walked along the Aare River, a gorgeous, fast-moving water way that snakes around the Old Town.   For a little en route entertainment we watched crazy Bern youths jump off bridges into the chilly (think fresh Alpen snow melt) blue/green river.  They wouldn’t have seemed so crazy were it not for the amazing speed at which the river was flowing.  People would land in the water with a splash (and a yelp as their blood froze in their veins) and immediately go zooming down the river in the strong current.  We were concerned, at first, as we watched these people practically body surfing down river, but a friendly Swiss man assuaged our fears by describing the net-like apparatus that gobbles up straggling swimmers and saves them from a close encounter with a damn.  If a swimmer were unable to make it safely to one of the many staircases that are situated along the river bank, the net would surely save him.

The view of the old town from the River Aare. On the left is the last exit point for adventurous swimmers before they are swallowed up by the net.

We followed the winding waterway into Old Town, leaving the daring river surfers behind, and began to climb the hill up into the old city.  It took my breath away, not the hill, though it was steep, but the cobblestone streets, the alpine detailing on the houses and apartments, the colorful flowers decorating window boxes.  The beauty in Bern is truly in the details.  We saw elegantly curved shutters, brilliantly painted awnings that stood out against gray stone buildings, circular windows that contrasted to the clean lines and symmetry of orderly apartment buildings.  We rewarded ourselves with a beer in a street-side cafe after the hot hike up to the city, a dalliance that would have been infinitely more enjoyable had our napping children stayed asleep.

Fortified by our beers we set off to explore the city.  I discovered that Bern was a mecca of cute kitchen stores, and because I am a firm believer that one can never have too many brightly colored bowls or adorably patterned ceramic pitchers, I found myself in shopping heaven.  (When shopping for kitchen wares you are guaranteed to have a good time because, in my experience, a bright orange colander, or embroidered dish towel, can never, ever make you look fat.)  Aside from being a treasure trove of overpriced decorative items, Bern was, more notably, the home of Albert Einstein when he wrote his Theory of Relativity.  While this means very little to me, it is of course, very exciting for my physicist husband.  We explored Albert’s apartment, which has been made into a museum, and spent a few minutes looking at pictures of the famous scientist, trying in vain to keep Maggie from lounging on the actual couch upon which Einstein once sat.  (Which had a large sign with bold letters, imploring people in four different languages to please refrain from sitting on or touching the furniture, presumably, especially if they have sticky, cracker encrusted fingers.)  We also paid reverence to the clock tower that Einstein stared at every day and that was the inspiration for his revolutionary ideas about time.  Here is the part where I should probably elaborate on Einstein’s theories, but I won’t, because as I have unfortunately discovered over the years, marrying a physicist does not magically make physics less mystifying.

Present Physics Geek

Future Physics Geek

We had a wonderful time exploring the city.  Bern on a beautiful, hot summer day is glorious place to spend time with friends.  We capped off our urban walkabout with kababs in a small, grassy park with safe places for the girls to run, and gorgeous views of the river and city limits.  I am glad that the zoo brought us to Bern, but equally happy that we ditched the caged animals in favor of cobblestone streets, cold wheat beer, a physics pilgrimage, and joyful wandering with good friends.  There is still a great deal of Bern we did not have time to explore and I am already excited for our return trip.  Maybe next time I will be brave enough to join the locals in floating down the Aare River, perhaps a few more Weissbiers and some floaties would be in order.

Most. Beautiful. House. Ever.

The weary traveler finds respite in the welcoming arms of a Swiss giant.

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