Sunday, April 26, 2009

Spring Break - 2nd stop - Cinque Terre, Italy

Well. At the rate I'm going, it will take me 'til Summer Break to get Spring Break on this Blog. However, it is raining today which is why I'm sitting at the computer. I think this will be a long one to make up for my absence. Get your coffee.

I run on 4 seasons apparently: 1) Ski season, 2) planting season, 3) hiking/Stateside season and 4) cleaning up before Ski season. Makes sense to me but some things suffer along the way. It has been absolutely beautiful this past week and I find it hard to sit indoors when I could be outdoors. It's planting season.

As I need something to do when I'm outside, I garden. This year, it's more laboring than gardening although I have divided some Rudibeckia and some creepy stuff that will hopefully spread. My labor comes in taming the wild jungle of the backyard that's required each year. We always hire someone to have it done because it's a mess and there's a LOT of it and the ticks and the disposal...

But as we need 4 new tires on our vehicle, I don't feel like doling out extra money for something that I could do. If I just get out and do it. So - I have done about 2,000 chf worth of labor (you're welcome dear) and found one tick for my efforts. Which wouldn't be so bad as long as we don't spend the money I saved on treating me for Lyme disease. AND, the ticks here can cause a form of "brain disease" as they call it - a form of encephalitis. There is a vaccination here for it and the girls and I got the shots our first year here. Bart didn't. I noticed since I found and removed the tick (they are tiny - small as a pinhead, not like IA/MN ticks), he has not really volunteered to help me at all.

So far - I'm fine. I just have the sensation of bugs crawling on me most of the time - normal for me after removing a nasty critter off my person. And various, weird contact allergy reactions to plants. But what's new?

The girls are doing great and helped me plant our veggie garden. We had a little family meeting about what should be in there. 3 (them) against 1 (me) on how much zuccini should go in. Apparently, it was a little much last year. Kendra had a fit when she saw the cucumber seeds "we don't like that!" I told her not to worry, they're for mommy and I wouldn't force her to each it - sheesh! It's MY garden. So we will hopefully have sweet corn, green beans, a cucumber vine, a zuccini plant and some cantaloupe (for Rachel). I put the tomatoes in the terrasse garden with the herbs.

So that's what I've been doing since we came back. Enough of that - let's go back on vacation:

We arrived at our next destination, Monterosso, after another travel day. It is one of 5 villages that make up the Cinque Terre (terraced cities) region of the Italian Riviera south of Genoa. These villages came to be sometime in the 13th Century and the inhabitants were quite self-sufficient with the ocean for fish and their terraced landscape on which they grew everything they needed. This region functions under the equivalent of a Goverment Park in Italy. The government makes sure they have what they need to continue living in this manner and manage tourism.

Since Rick Steve's (and others) highlighted Cinque Terre to the Americans via his travel show/books, the region is a huge US tourist destination. We heard more American English than we had since leaving the States last summer. Weird. But nice to talk to other people here and there traveling through. Many people stay in other locations and take the train into Cinque Terre. I booked last August so we were able to get 2, yes 2!, family rooms at a lovely hotel, Hotel villa Steno, in Monterosso.

You never know quite what you're going to get but this place was GREAT. Comfortable rooms with views of the village/ocean, surrounded by lemon/orange/olive trees and a wonderful breakfast buffet. My favorite was the coffee. Or cappucino. We have experience with these Euro breakfast buffets now and this one ranked in my top 3. Started each morning with a smile on our faces and coffee in my bloodstream. Big happy sigh just thinking about it.

Here are the girls and I on the terrasse outside our room after we checked in. (who is Kendra pretending to be? the girl is drama!) Looking across the terraced landscape/gardens.

And down to the clear blue Mediterranean with a few spring pots.
Bart and girls with Monterosso in the background.
Busy day in Vernazza - their ocean-front piazza is new (still under some construction) and this was the most touristy of the 3 towns we visited. We caught a small ferry boat from here to go back to Monterosso vs catching the train back.
A view along the coast to the end of the Cinque Terre. The city on the hillside is Corniglia - we loved it. It was so quiet and peaceful with not many tourists. There are trails that connect these villages so many people hike from one to another. We didn't plan to do that this trip although the weather was perfect for it - not too hot. The train system between the cities is a good alternative and they're all 3 to 5 minutes away from each other by train. Not a bad commute?It did get warm one afternoon and as kids will, they couldn't resist getting in the water. Our guests got their first experience with Euro vacationers at the beach. If one doesn't have the "proper" swimming gear, just lay out in your underwear/improvise. Our girls improvised - Rachel's undies/undershirt actually looked like a bathing suit and Kendra wore her undershirt/leggings. The bigger kids found suits at the train station shop. But most of the Italian kids just stripped to underwear and kids under 5/6 are just running around nude.
We are used to that now. It takes about 5 minutes and you realize, it just doesn't matter.
We had a lovely dinner at a seaside restaurant and then a bonfire afterward on the beach. Actually, it was a bonfire left burning from the beach debris clean-up but we claimed it for ours for about 10 minutes.
And then strolled back to our Hotel (had another breakfast waiting in the morning!!!) in the quiet night. See - most of the tourists had gone back from whence they came. These are small villages and don't have large quantities of accomodations. I highly recommend visiting and if doing so, making reservations with plenty of advance notice.
Next stop - Villefranche sur Mer - we return and share with our friends, the French Riviera.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Our girls talk funny

I realized as we were playing Monopoly the other day - oh yes, we have graduated to big kid games. Hallelujah!!! Anyway, I realized as we played that our girls talk a little funny now. We've noticed here and there that differences exist from how they might talk at "home" - in the US.

For example: Rachel says "I need to go to the toilet." Not " the restroom or bathroom." Because in Europe, it's referred to as the toilet. If you ask for a restroom, you'd most likely receive a blank look or be directed to a chair. So you could sit down and rest. If you have to 'go,' you go find a toilet (or a water closet - WC signs are still everywhere). Makes sense.

But 3 years of British English teachers (UK and South Africa origin & they've each had 1 year with an American teacher) and friends from Italy, Germany, Netherlands, UK, etc... has shaped their speech in ways that slip out and make me giggle.

Rachel now says 'give it a go' quite a bit. Kendra does her 'maths' homework. They have 'revisions' of homework instead of reviews. When they play Monopoly (we are currently playing the National Parks Version), they say the names with proper accenture - Padre Island is spoken with a Latin accent, rolled 'r' and everything. They will be speaking right along in regular American English and then switch to a correct pronunciation for a specific word.

When they come across new words in written form, they use a European alphabet to pronounce them. We had some vanilla filled wafer cookies on our trip - they girls look at the bag and pronounce them as 'wah-fers' - half English/half German. Things are a 'pro-cess' not a 'prah-cess.'

And don't ask me about spelling. Most parents work on their children spelling either British English (colour, programme, humour, etc...) consistently or American English consistently (color, program, humor, etc...). The girls stick pretty close to American spelling - I probably flub that more than they do.

It will all work itself out as they continue to learn. I am amazed at the capacity of their brains to accept multiple input/languages and sort it all. I certainly have struggled with some of it myself - my brain is old. How they can learn spelling in German and English so well all at the same time?

In German, each letter of the alphabet has it's one, yes one!, sound (and certain combinations make a distinct sound ex. ei, ie, sch, tsch, ss) and every syllable is pronounced. There are no 'silent' letters. So I have found spelling to be quite easy in German. If I have trouble understanding someone's accent, I just have them spell the word and then I get it. There are so many exceptions in English. I didn't realize how difficult a language it was until I had to learn German. BUT - German grammar - HARDER. How to structure a sentence - Harder. Every noun - has a gender - masculine, feminine or neutral. Harder. See, a flower in English is 'the flower.' In German - I can't remember! Is it der, die or das 'Blumen?'

The girls. They get it. And they talk funny. :)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Spring Break, 1st Stop: Venice - Venezia - Venedig

Our Spring Break plans with our US guests were thus: Travel by train to Venice, Cinque Terra (Italian Coast south of Genoa) and then on to Villefranche sur Mer (between Nice and Monaco). Our friends flew home to the US from Nice and we flew back to Zurich via London where we stayed for the Easter weekend.

I am finally able to sort through pictures and try to coherently blog this trip. Because the girls have gone back to school today and my house is QUIET with exception of the dryer which is humming along.

We had an early morning trip to the Waedenswil Bahnhof to catch the first of what would be 8 trains in total for the week. That's a lot of trains with 8 people, 7 suitcases and various backpacks/purses. We didn't lose a bag - almost but that's for London :).

My big snafu for the trip was the train tickets. Sort of. It ended up not really mattering. BUT as Kendra would start "to explain":

Travel by train in Italy requires not only your train ticket/pass but also a seat reservation. It doesn't matter whether you are traveling 1st or 2nd class - you MUST have a seat reservation. Oh yes, and you pay for it separately - it was approx. $325 or 390chf for just our seat reservations for this trip.

I'm sure it is the work of the International Brotherhood of Italian Train Workers or something like that. Being the offspring of a half-Sicilian Union man myself, I figure these things out pretty quick. All I knew was - those train workers better not go on Strike while I was due to catch any of those trains. Italian train workers love to go on strike.

I'm trying to deflect attention from myself here. :) So - it was my task at our local Waedenswil Bahnhof to get the seat reservations made and purchase our family's tickets. Our friends already purchased their Eurorail passes - note, you get a much cheaper deal buying a pass from the US. We can't get the same deal from Europe. BUT - from the US, if you are not a student, you must buy a 1st class Pass. It is about the price of 2nd class for a European ticket. The class difference between cars varies depending on trains and countries.

So - 8 people, seat reservations for 8 trains, a girl in training at the ticket office and a child in the car waiting for me. Mistakes happen. I was flustered enough with the trainees struggle to get through all the train connections we wanted. I was astounded at the total we were paying in seat reservations. And I didn't notice that she missed my request for all 1st class ticket travel.

We got on the first train - and when he came to check our tickets - Ooops! We were sitting in the wrong place. I then frantically checked all our tickets - including our friends. The trainee had booked all our seats in 2nd class wagons for the entire trip. I felt so bad. And per our inquiries, the only way to change them, even though it was a mistake from the agent, was to pay new seat reservation fees - Yes, even though we have paid for 1st class tickets. We were not up to paying another $600 for the 2 families to change their seat locations. GRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!

While this would have been a problem on the Swiss trains for luggage, etc... and OH YEAH they don't require seat reservations, this proved to not be a problem on the Italian trains. Even 2nd class was individual compartments with overhead luggage racks.

The main difference is that the Italian 1st class wagons had carpeting, faster trolley/beverage service, complimentary biscuits/hand wipes and English speaking passengers (all the US tourists with EuroPasses and commuting Italian businessmen) while 2nd class was FULL, we rode with the locals and European tourists and was occasionally a bit fragrant. So - it was really a more authentic European travel experience due to the mistake - at least that's what I keep telling myself. I even used my German a bit - and the old Italian lady thought the girls were "bellisima."

So - here we are at a train station. Based on the time, I can see we are in Monterosso waiting for the 10:55 train to Genoa. :)
What can I say about our kids this trip - they were AWESOME! Sometimes, I think we adults were ready to lay on the ground faster than our kids did. Our kids are also spread out in age - S - 14 yrs, B - 12 yrs, Rachel 10 and Kendra 8. They entertained themselves with movies - when the transformer worked for the battery chargers , their DS's, writing in their journals and reading books. I can't remember any whining or crying or irritability. There was a little but so little I can't recall - that's awesome. B even brought himself around to playing Kendra's pink DS - don't let his curly, dude locks fool you - he is ALL boy.
Kendra and S hiding from Susan's camera. Kendra bought this hat in Venice and wore it the whole trip. Finally - in London, someone called her "little Michael Jackson" - they did mean it as a nice compliment. Bart and I giggled - I wanted to call her that all week but knew she just wouldn't get it. Now if I get her some black pants and a silver glove - she'll have it down!
OK - after 8 hrs of train travel! - we arrived in Venice and we were tired. We just wanted to get rid of our luggage! Do we take the water bus or splurge on the water taxi? We splurged (water taxi below). At the urging of the kids. After that, we took control of the purse strings again and used the water bus. But it was a fun way to start our trip in Venice.
I went a little camera crazy this trip. It is taking me a while to sort through them all. Venice is a very special place. I would certainly like to go back if given the opportunity. But not in the summer - I can see where it would get a bit smelly.
We bought some souvenirs and one of the memorable shops was a paper shop. This gentleman still makes watermark paper, they have beautiful journals and wax stamps. He was showing us how to use the stamp with the wax.
Of course we had to take a gondola ride. It was quiet and beautiful - imagining that people have lived here for hundreds of years in this way. It would be claustrophobic for me for long term but is beautiful for a visit.
Example of a Venetian Carnival Mask - they were works of art.
I'm such a tourist - couldn't resist taking this.
Grand Canal looking toward the Rialto Bridge.
We had a great time in Venice, visited one of the Murano islands, enjoyed ice cream in St. Mark's square and just as we got our bearings - it was time to move on to Cinque Terra (Monterosso).

Friday, April 17, 2009

The ink isn't dry yet, well the contract's probably not written yet

BUT - I will let you know that the Olson's are staying in die Schweiz (or der Schweiz - depends on which context you are speaking in and I always get it wrong) for another year.

Unless, someone get's their nose out of joint and decides they don't want to keep him (Bart) in Switzerland after all. It could happen. Which is why the title doesn't say "We have a decision! They made a decision!"

Everyone's still been asking and we had still been waiting. Got a call the night before we left for Italy to say that things were worked out (and there were THINGS) and we could proceed with life on the expectation that we are definitely staying. So the contract is in the works.

Unless, like I said, someone pulls the plug. Which we don't think will happen but in these uncertain times - one never knows. Which was part of the problem. Since Sept., when we were hoping to have an answer, things have been a little, um, topsy turvy in the Financial world. You probably noticed. If not, I advise you to not look at your portfolio accounts for, say, 5 years.

We were pretty sure by Dec. we were headed back to the States this June, and then the client made a significant change to operations. Therefore, it looked like we might stay. But economics comes into play as well with Expat employees and the Swiss office was trying to get their head around the fact he needs to stay. We've been given the go ahead. Whew!

If you are newer to SwissFamilyOlson, Bart is a CPA and works in the field of audit for financial service companies - primarily banking and mortgage. This last 14 months have included huge challenges in his job.

Quite honestly, it will be good when he's finished with this job by next April. It may sound "cool" that we get to live in Switzerland BUT this particular job has been very difficult and demanding. His work team has been great over the past 3 years but it is changing, due to rotations and client changes and will add a new element to the job over the next 9 months. He needs every travel break we take to get away and relax. I appreciate that he does not take his laptop on vacations and rarely checks his Blackberry.

I will let you all know when the ink is drying on the contract. And yes, we will be taking our annual summer trip to MN and CA to see family. We'd love to get down to DM but aren't sure our jet-lagged bodies would be able to handle the drive down and then back up. We tend to recover at Bart's folks - in the deep, quiet woods, with all the bugs and frogs and mosquito repellant. We'll see.

Now - I have to email my sister's because I didn't tell them yet we are staying!!!!!!!!!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

I got pulled over!

I kept thinking there was a funny to share while I was running around with our guests.

OH - that's right. I got pulled over by the Polizei!

We had returned from Engelberg, I ran into the little COOP by the school and was headed down the little road when I saw cars in the street, policemen/women and people loitering at the bus stop.

I kind of stopped there at the bus stop as I didn't know what was going on AND there was a Ped crossing.

If you've never been in Switzerland, Pedestrians have the right of way. If you come across a Ped crossing (yellow lines in street or yellow/black road markers) and hit someone - it's your fault. Even if they step right in front of your car. Because once they step in those lines, it's up to you to stop. You should have seen them coming of course. Even when they bounce out between buildings wearing black at twilight. Not that I've ever come close to hitting someone who did that. Just commenting....

ANYWAY, the policeman motioned me to move forward and pull into the empty lot. I noticed another car and there was one on the opposite side of the road as well. My friends are asking "why are you getting pulled over?" "I don't know!" Ahhhhh!

Policeman starts rattling in German - words that aren't in my vocabulary as I did not study the "Getting pulled over by the Police" chapter in my homework. Actually, I don't think it was ever included. "Sprechen Sie Englisch, bitte" I politely ask. "Uh, OK - car paperwork please and license"

I hand everything over. Then he asks for the documentation showing our car's annual check-up (required by law - another rule). And he checked the plates and around the vehicle all while the policewoman glared at us fiercely. And my friends are still asking "why did you get pulled over." All I can think is that, like at the end of Jan./beginning Febr. when they are checking for Autobahn passes (yes, you pay an annual fee to drive on the freeway), it is a routine check for proper paperwork, license, etc....

He comes back with all my stuff, gives it to me and says "OK - you may go." No explanation. I waited and said "It's OK?" He said "Yes, OK" And we drove off for home.

This is where living in a foreign place where you can't understand everything can drive you absolutely batty. My friends are sitting there saying "they'd never let the Police get away with that at home. Pulling drivers over left and right without a posted warning. Somebody'd be yelling about discrimination and rights being violated."

Tis true.

I'm just glad they let me go!!!!!!!

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

We had guests!

We had guests arrive from CA to stay with us (March 28) for a week and then travel for another week during the Spring Break. Sooooo, haven't been on the computer much. And after 2 days, I am almost, almost done with the laundry that threatened to take over my life. I'm also wound up about getting all these things DONE and CLEANED UP at home - which is not good for my sanity. So my goal is to relax today. My poor husband - stressful job and crazy wife.

OK - back to guests. So happy to have them. My friend (28 yrs of friendship :) ) came over with her family. We became a household of 8 overnight. The kids all got along great for 2 weeks (ages 8,10,12 & 14)! I was so impressed.

Our girls were still in school for the first week so I played tour guide - and they took an overnight trip to Heidelberg themselves. I'd say the highlight of their trip in Switzerland was the day we ended up in Engelberg and took the Titlis Rotair for a mountaintop view of the Alps.

We were supposed to go to the Lauterbrunnen Valley but my GPS informed me, as I started off driving, that the tunnel in the Pass was closed. The alternate would add 2 hrs roundtrip and I couldn't afford that with girls in school and a funeral that evening.

I suggested we try Engelberg/Titlis and we could have lunch at the restaurant up top. It was meant to be - Thank You God.

This was our view from the top - Beautiful - and those clouds in the distance? Lauterbrunnen Valley. They absolutely loved the views. But not the cold. My blood has certainly thickened up over the years - the minus 4 C was a bit cool for our CA guests.

Bonus - we stopped in the Cafe at the bottom (Titlis) and said Hi to M - the sister of Linds from England who I visited with last December. What a treat! Genuinely nice people who you feel you've known for years. No trip to the top is complete without these pic's:
Our living room became a disco complete with a bit of breakdancing thrown in. That is B, who is a competitive skateboarder - pretty much NOT afraid to do anything with his body. And that was just watching him dance - How my girlfriend survives his skating, I don't know. Wonderful young man - I really enjoyed spending time with him this trip.
And a day in Lucerne. Their daughter S was out last Spring with us and this was one of her favorite places. It's an easier place for her because it is small as well - not as much walking. She has JRA (juvenile rheumatic arthritis) and it was a tough trip for her as she's flared up in the last year and treatments don't always have the desired result. We are continually praying for this disease to go into remission.

I was so happy to have them all here. And last weekend, all we had to say was "see you in a couple months" instead of the usual year long wait. The end of June (CA visit) will be here before we know it!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

8 different trains, 2 water taxis/buses, 2 flights and 3 cab rides later - we are home and not dragging one more piece of luggage for at least a few weeks. Italy (Venice and Cinque Terra), France (Villefranche sur Mer) and London in 10 days. Whew!

The beauty is that the girls are still on Spring Break (we get 2 weeks) and it's 10am - I'm still in PJ's. We had a great time with our friends and I will share soon.

After I do some laundry. Eww! I have a sensitive sense of smell and it's not that the clothes necessarily stink - they just smell like trains, planes and automobiles. Everything gets washed. Even the clean stuff.

My friend S said "Now I understand why you can get behind on your laundry - it takes so long to do it!"

She did a couple loads after they had been at our house for almost a week - right before we left for the week of travel. She found our washer and dryer to be quite slow. :) And they are smaller than what she has at home. It's the drying that takes the longest.

Our dryer doesn't have an external exhaust to the exterior of the house - you know, the big tube that gets filled with the lint the screen doesn't catch. And makes the neighborhoods smell nice with the scent of fabric softener.

It has a compartment that traps the moisture while the clothes dry - and I empty this tray with each load - a big tray of water. So - this method requires a bit more dryer time.

Which is why I have to stop posting now and get that laundry started. Now that I've had a coffee and feel semi-awake. I might even get dressed. Well, I have too. I need groceries too. :)

Friday, April 03, 2009

And we're off....

We've had a busy week - guests from CA.

And now I'm furiously packing for our touristy trip with them.

So I don't have to write - it will have to wait. (I mean "don't have time to write) :)

Best wishes to all and a Happy Easter!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

"Take My Life"

Take My Life by Warren Barfield

"This world is not my home
This life will pass
Only what is done for God will last

With the time we have
Let's not waste it away,
Let every heartbeat, Let every breath
We breathe say

Lord, take my life and use it up
Spread it thin like a blanket of love
Over the world that You gave Your blood for
Take my live, take it all, Lord

Lord without you
Nothing makes sense
Down here the grass dies
On both sides of the fence

So all my vain searching
Will never amount to much
Here's my life, Lord, use it up
For the cause of Love, For Your cause"

For WCQ who went home to the Lord this past Sunday morning, 28. March 2009 and his precious family B, A and N who miss him.

This song sounds much better than it reads and WCQ is who I think of as I listen. He was a man who affected many people here in our little church near Zurich. Our church family is very close - we are drawn to one another by need for family, friendship, companionship and our common belief.

A man who laid out his life for others to see - the good and the bad - so that he could declare what a great God we have. A God who loves each and every one of us - in spite of our sin. He was a man passionate about the Gospel and teaching children/adults alike. We will miss him but rejoice that he is now free from suffering.

Can I ask those we know - Please pray for his wife and children as we are and for their plans to return home to the States at the appropriate time.