Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back in Bellevue, Washington - we're no longer expats!

We can no longer call ourselves expats anymore - we're back in Bellevue again.

It's great to see all our old friends again, and plug right back into our former social life.  I do miss Geneva and our friends there a lot, though.

We're back in our old house - it feels so huge!  It's 3200 sq ft, so large, but not incredibly huge by American standards.  Our our apartment in Geneva was about a third of the size, though.  It feels like acres of rooms,  vast swaths of counter space...sheesh, and the cabinets...what did I ever put in there?  The kids can play downstairs, and I can literally not even hear them.  But I never really felt cramped in our Geneva apartment. I've always liked smaller spaces, and to me it seemed that there was plenty of room.  Also storage was set up more intelligently in Geneva - there weren't these huge cavernous closets like we have here, there was more easily accessible shallow storage.

Some of the differences between Geneva and here that struck me the most are:

  • Nobody's walking on the sidewalks!  And that's where sidewalks even exist.  One of the most traveled roads close to my neighborhood, Newport Way, has a library and a community center on it, but no sidewalk at all.  You're forced to drive, or take your chances on a really busy narrow road.
  • Back in Geneva I drove maybe 5 or 6 times total once we bought a car - it was just rarely necessary, and usually I let Eric drive.  Here I've already driven at least 20 times, and have just slid right back into the driving lifestyle.  There's really no alternative, not in the neighborhood that we're in.
  • Customer service is incredible here.  You go to a store - not even a high-end store, a regular store like Target or Walmart - and clerks are usually helpful, friendly, and even chatty.  Very different from in Geneva.
  • Finally, no more sticker shock.  Prices at stores are reasonable.  We just went to a mega grocery store (Winco) to stock up on groceries since we have nothing, and came away with a car full for about $300.  It would have cost at least $1000 in Geneva.  

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Finishing up in Geneva

All good things must come to an end, and thus it is with our time here in Geneva.  We're headed back to Bellevue in late August, and the kids will start school there the next week.

I've experienced so much here, met so many great people, and seen so many amazing sights.  It's been a life goal of mine to live overseas for a while, so that has been checked off my bucket list.  But it has certainly left me with a greatly expanded appetite for the novelty and freshness of living overseas!

The minutiae of moving has been occupying my days recently.  Selling the car, getting the attestation de depart (an official document stating that you're leaving the country, without which you can't cancel any contracts), arranging movers, selling the things we won't be bringing back - all takes a lot of time.  I've been having to make a lot of phone calls in my broken French.  I have a decent accent in French, so people assume I speak pretty well, but my vocabulary is quite scanty, so basic things sometimes stump me.  Then I'm there on the phone, trying to fire up Google translate and hit speakerphone at the same time - stressful! But so far everything is going okay.

Not having a routine (no work, kids not in school) is definitely something that sounds better than it actually is, for me anyway. I find I got a lot more done in the little bits and pieces of time I had outside of work than I am now.  But as soon as I find a job back in the US, maybe I'll be longing for the free time I have now!

What will I miss most when we're back in the US?'s a long list.  I think how I can walk to everything, and living right next to a big park and very close to the lake are close to the top.  I've been swimming with the kids at Baby Beach almost every day now for the past few weeks, and it's been awesome. I'm able to go out with my goggles into the deeper water - it gets quite clear out there too, I can see all the seaweed and yesterday saw a bunch of perch too.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blind people in Genvea

Assuming there's about the same amount of blind people in Geneva as there are in Seattle/Bellevue, I think they're a lot better off here in Geneva.  Why?  Simply because I see them out and about, tapping away with their white canes, going places and doing their business.

I see them taking the bus frequently, there was one at the train station the other day when I went to Bern, using her cane and a guide dog and taking a train, independently, for crying out loud.  I just can't imagine that happening in the US.  In any case, I haven't seen it, maybe it happens in other cities.

I saw another blind guy, with his two children at the playground, supervising them, and accompanying one of them to the bathroom.  Impressive.

Monday, July 1, 2013

School's out for the summer!

Last week was the kids last week of school this year - and their last week of school in Geneva, since we're headed back to the US in fall.  There's lots of "lasts" now!  I think the actual school work ended more than a week before school ended, because the last week of school here is spent in a frenzy of room cleaning. Apparently absolutely everything in the school room needs to be emptied out, and the students are pressed into service for the cleaning.  Mine didn't mind at all.  Here's a Facebook comment from an expat friend who had a child in Geneva public schools:

"Mommy, guess what I got to do in school today?
"what, sweetie?"
"All morning we got to clean the classroom! then we went to recess, then we got to clean the classroom some more, then after lunch we still got to clean the classroom!"

So, overall, how was school for the kids?  I have to differentiate quite a bit between Peter's situation and Kenny's.  Peter's teacher did have a few peculiarities.  She sometimes was overly directive with the parents, and was really strict on certain paperwork issues, like giving 10 days notice when the kids were going to be absent from school.  But aside from things like that, I liked her.  The kids liked her, she communicated regularly with the parents, she arranged lots of outings, and she set up a potluck dinner for the families.

Kenny's teachers, on the other hand, were a total mixed bag.  My biggest problem was the whole plural "teachers".  At the beginning of the year he was split between two teachers - each of them a mother with young kids, who was teaching only 2 days a week.  Then one of these teachers went on maternity leave, and another teacher stepped in.  It was a real mess, I never knew who to communicate with, and basically the whole split teacher situation was awful.  I never got any kind of notes from any of his teachers, and a lot of tasks - like creating a class contact list - slipped through the cracks.

Both kids really liked school, though.  Peter was a favorite with everyone, and numerous other parents told me how sad their kids were that Peter was leaving.  Kenny, being older, had a harder time adjusting.  Also at this age lots of the kids have known each other for a long time, and already have all their friends.  But he did make friends, and has come away with happy memories.  He had a sewing project that went on, every other week, for the whole year, and has now come home with a huge stuffed caterpillar as tall as he is, which he's very proud of.

Last Friday there were 2 "fêtes des écoles" - school leaving festival.  One was for 1P to 4P (Peter is in 2P). The little kids paraded with their teachers to the Parc de Bastion, where they had all kinds of rides and entertainment set up.  No parents were allowed to be there until it was time to pick up the kids, at 5:30, and it was incredibly crowded - young school kids from all of Geneva were there.  But Peter said he'd only been on 2 rides - I think with the number of children there, logistics must be a real mess.

Peter and his teacher
Kenny's fête des écoles was much more satisfactory - it was in the park right next door to us, and was basically an open air festival, with a band, some bouncy houses designed for older kids, climbing walls, etc. He enjoyed running around with his friends for about 4 hours - from 7 until 11 PM.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Swiss parents are more hands-off in playgrounds

Yesterday Peter and I went to a new playground at Parc Beaulieu while Kenny was attending a classmate's birthday party.  There was a really exciting piece of playground equipment there that the kids - older ones, too - were lining up to use.  It's kind of like a maypole, with four chains attached at the revolving top.  Kids need to cooperate, but when they get going, they can swing around in a a circle quite nicely, kind of like an amusement park ride.  

There was an American mom there with two kids, both around 10, and I watched as she coached her kids on how to use this piece of equipment.  I guess I'm more used to the Swiss way of doing things now (much more free-range), because it really shocked me how very managerial she was with her kids.  There was no question at all of letting her kids learn how to do this on their own.  She was there the whole time, unraveling the chains, coaching them on where to run, giving one of them a time-out when the other got bonked on the head by an errant flying handle, even though the first had nothing to do with it.  

Previously some other older kids had been doing a great job of helping the younger kids enjoy the ride.  But with this mom around, they just faded away.

Do kid's activities really need to be micromanaged like this?  I don't think so.  And I think we're doing our children a real disservice in not letting them be more responsible for themselves.

Also, while we were there 2 boys, one about 4 and another about 6, asked Peter if they could kick around his soccer ball with him.  The 6 year old chatted with me a bit, asking how Peter had learned to play soccer, etc.  In the US, these kids would be warned away from ever talking to an adult, because of "stranger danger".  

Friday, June 14, 2013

On my own in Amsterdam

We've been on a lot of family trips recently, but I also wanted to do a trip all by myself.  What with cheap fares on Easyjet to Amsterdam, and my 50% work schedule, it wasn't hard to arrange.  I packed super light, so that I wouldn't have to go to my hostel (yes, I stayed at a youth hostel, more on that later) to drop off my things before going sightseeing.  I basically carried everything with me all the time.  It turned out to not be a problem at all - I have a thing for ultralight travel and lightening my load was a fun exercise.

On Monday, I arrived around 9 AM after cutting it WAY too close with the flight (I missed one of my buses, and then the security line was very long).  I went straight to the Rijksmuseum, the biggest and most popular one in Amsterdam, and then just strolled around town.  I went through the red light district, but there wasn't much going on - it was only about 5 in the afternoon.  I thought there was nothing going on, just a bunch of windows with curtains on them and red lights over them, but I was wrong - I did see one lady in a window.

In the evening I attended a Quantified Self meetup.  It was interesting - all the talks, etc, were in English, although with a few exceptions all the people attending were Dutch.  Also it was less...rigorous, less scientific than I thought it would be.  I would have liked to stay longer except that I was really tired from getting up so early to catch my flight, so I bailed early, and went to the youth hostel.  The youth hostel was totally fine, except that I was sharing a room with 5 other ladies.  One of these ladies must have been passed out or something, because her phone alarm went off at 6 in the morning.  She didn't even wake up.  Another woman tried to turn it off, but just hit the snooze button.  This happened 2 more times at 10 minute intervals.  Finally I asked the woman that was hitting the snooze button to hand it to me, was able to turn it off completely, and got a few hours more rest.  A good thing, too, because I was about to toss it out the window.

I ended up chatting Tuesday morning with 2 American women who were studying violin in Manchester (apparently it's cheaper there, though they still quoted costs of somewhere around 20K USD a year, just for tuition - seems very high!).

Then I took a tram straight to a bike rental place close to the train station.  I soon had my 1 speed, back-pedal for brakes bike, and took the ferry north of Amsterdam.  It was a gorgeous day.

The bike was fairly comfortable - the seat was actually more comfortable than mine - but after using it, I now appreciate bikes with gears and hand brakes much more.

Here's a few pictures from my ride

Very flat, but the wind can make it difficult 

In the town of Holysloot
After my bike ride, I had coffee and cake in the restaurant on the top floor of the Amsterdam library.  It has a really nice balcony with a great view of Amsterdam.  Very pleasant to sit there after a long bike ride!

My flight back to Geneva was late in the evening, around 9, so I got to the airport with plenty of time.  There wasn't a soul at the security line - great, I think to myself.  Not really - they exercised all their equipment on me, including the full body scan device, and then totally picked apart my tiny backpack.

Overall  a great trip, especially the bike ride.

Friday, May 24, 2013

I get to bike to work!

My commute starts with getting my bike out of the "bike garage" in the ground floor of my apartment building, folding up my right pant leg to avoid the bike chain, and pedaling down to Lake Geneva.  I bike along the lake, passing a lot of famous sights - the Jet d'Eau, the English Gardens, the Bain de Paquis.  On a sunny day (which have been scarce recently, unfortunately), it's a glorious ride, most of it off the road or on bike paths.  There's lots of pedestrians, but it's actually kind of fun to avoid them - it's like playing a "dodge 'em" type video game.

On the way to work - looking north on Lake Geneva

I'm on an old clunky bike, so lots of people pass me - even ladies with skirts and high heels, sometimes.  (Yes, some women here bike to work in skirts and high heels - and I've seen plenty of men in suits, as well.)  Maybe I shouldn't blame the bike - maybe it's me that needs to get in better shape?
On the way home - Jet d'Eau and Mount Saleve are visible
There's substantial amounts of other bike commuters sharing the path with me.  And almost nobody wears a helmet while biking.  A few more than in Amsterdam, perhaps, where from what I saw, literally no adults wore bike helmets (and yet, they have by far the highest percentage of people biking to work and school).  

We had a few days of rain last week, and I got absolutely drenched on my way home.  I didn't mind so much my jeans getting soaked, though maybe I would have if my bike ride had been longer (it's about max 20 minutes).  But my hands did get very cold.  So until the weather gets a little better, I'll be bringing my rain pants and gloves with me.  Even in the rain, it's an enjoyable bike ride, except that the fun of dodging pedestrians is gone because they stay inside.  Another bonus - I don't need to work out anymore, except a bit of strength training here and there.  I figure with 40 minutes of biking on the days that I work, I'm good.  

My route to work now is pretty settled, but for the first few weeks, I constantly tweaked the route to try to make it shorter, safer, and find the shortest waits are at intersections.  Here's the route via Google Maps.