Saturday, November 26, 2011

We found a permanent apartment!

For the past 6 weeks we've been living in a temporary apartment in the Champel area.  It hasn't been that bad, except for when the internet was down for multiple days two weekends in a row.  Also needing to go down to the basement to do laundry in the communal laundry area (very common in Switzerland) has been really inconvenient.  But we're very close to a nice playground, and there's a Coop grocery store just around the corner.

During our apartment search, I think we saw about 9 apartments with our agent.  Geneva is well known for being very difficult to find housing in, and there was so little available that she just showed us what there was, most of which was not suitable for a number of reasons.  The eighth apartment, in the Champel area like our temporary apartment, was the first one that was reasonably close to what we were looking for.  The apartment search here is kind of like a job hunt—you "apply" and either are successful...or not.  Well, when we applied for this one, the owner apparently didn't like our application for one reason or another, so our agent showed us another apartment that had just come up, this time in the Eaux Vives area.  This is where I work as well, and my commute would be a 5 minute walk—nice!  That, plus the fact that this apartment was less expensive and there was a third additional (very) small bedroom, made it worthwhile applying too.  The extra bedroom is an old maid's room, off the kitchen. It's tiny—you can stretch out your arms and easily touch both walls—but we could use it for an office or guest bedroom.

Anyway, after lots of back and forth, our application to the Eaux Vives apartment was accepted , and we'll be moving in next Thursday.  On the same day, the kids will be starting at a new school (their commute will be much shorter as well)  And—oh happy day!—they'll be in the same school all day, and we won't need to walk Kenny to another school for his French welcome lessons.  That was the HUGE hassle of our current situation.

We'll still be pretty close to a playground, but it's not quite as nice as the one in Park Bertrand, in Champel.  However we'll be quite close to the lake, where there's another playground.  And shopping (all the major grocer chains, such as Coop, Migros, and Denner) are very close.

The apartment does have some negatives.  We'll have to put the dining room table in the entry, because there's no other good place for it.  And—this is the big negative—there's no shower, just a tub.  Hopefully we can fix that by putting up a shower curtain, and putting up a fixture to hang the shower head up so we don't need to hold it.  But all in all I'm VERY much looking forward to being in permanent housing, having the kids in a permanent school, and being more settled in general.  We went to Ikea today because there's quite a few things that we'll need to buy, and we want to get a head start on them.  For example, lamps.  When you rent an apartment in Switzerland, the light fixtures are missing, and there's just bare bulbs on the wall.  Somehow I think it must be a big scam by the electrician's union (you need an electrician to install the lights, no DIY allowed) but what it means is that we'll be buying quite a few lamps.   Also something for coats and jackets in the entry, a small table for the kitchen, etc.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Picking up a visa in Paris

Eric's visa came in to the Swiss embassy in Paris, so that was as good an excuse as any for a visit.  And really, it wasn't an excuse, because without the visa you can't get a permit, and without a permit there's a number of things you can't do (i.e. get a cell phone plan, etc).    We stayed at the Novotel in Les Halles, a very central location just about 7 minutes walk from Notre Dame (triple that time for walking with the kids, though).  The kids loved the breakfast buffet - and what's more fun than a breakfast buffet for a kid?  With croissants, all kinds of breakfast cereal, hot chocolate, fruit salad, and all kinds of other yummies.

We spent a lot of time in the playgrounds!   Our favorite was the one at Jardin de Luxemboug, where you actually had to pay to enter (2.5 Euros each for the kids. 1.5 for the adults).  They loved this spinning carousel there.

While we were in the tourist areas, scammers were all over the place.  While walking along the Seine, somebody tried the gold ring scam on us (bend over, pretend to find a gold ring, offer to sell it to you at a discounted price because they're in the country illegally and can't sell it themselves, of course the ring turns out to not be gold).  They were pretty easily put off by us just walking on and ignoring them - they must not have been real pros.  Kenny was very impressed by the whole thing after we explained what had happened.  It may be the first time that he's ever seen a real, honest-to-goodness "bad guy".  He went on and on about how it was just like stealing.

I wonder why the police don't crack down on this kind of activity.  I've read online that since most of the perpetrators are minors, they can't arrest them, but surely there's something they can do?  Even just to have a sign in English warning about scams at some of the tourist hot spots would be something.  I did see one man taken in by another scam, the deaf-mute one (a teenage girl indicates with signs that she's deaf, asks you to sign her petition, then at the bottom of the petition is something like "Minimum donation - 10 Euros").  It's usually kindly, good-natured people who get taken in by these scams - the ones who don't want to just ignore people that might need help, or tell them to buzz off.  And once you've done anything other than completely ignore them or rudely put them off, they know you're a potential soft touch and just won't let go.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Volunteering at the Expanding Your Horizons event at the University of Geneva

I was poking around some Geneva specific websites (I think it was Glocals) and found a reference to the Expanding Your Horizons event this weekend (event link), at the University of Geneva.  It's a set of workshops for girls ages 11 to 14, designed to interest them in pursuing science and technology careers.   I contacted the woman responsible for organizing it late on Thursday evening, saying that it was too late for this year, but perhaps she could put me on her contact list for next year.  Lo and behold, she emailed me back, saying it wasn't too late and that I should come and volunteer this Saturday!  So I did, and it was a very interesting and worthwhile experience.  I got up and ready earlyunfortunately Kenny woke up just as I was leaving, and was a little distressed about my not being around today.  I managed to distract him with permission to play on his Nintendo DS.

I started walking towards the University of Geneva, where it was held, around 7:00 am, as the sky lightened (it was fairly dark when I started).  The bus connections would have been really inconvenient, so I just walked, and that worked quite well, using my phone's navigation.  I had missed the orientation the night before, so I was coming into the situation without much background.  The main task for the last-minute volunteers such as myself was to help with registration.  I pity the girls that I helped with the registration, though, because other volunteers who spoke French far more fluently were doing a much more thorough job.  I was hoping that there would be some kind of forum where the girls could ask questions of the women who were working in science and technology, such as myself.  But it was all workshops, such as "The Kitchen as a Laboratory", "Build your own Solar Car", and "Robot Academy".

I can't say that I helped further the girls interest in science and technology very much (my French is too limited for something like that) but I did help out a bit with the registration, and made some good contacts with some very friendly local women, whom I'll try to connect with later.  I also met a lady from Zimbabwe, whose parents left that country (with nothing, but she's happy they made it out—about half of their friends died under the Mugabe regime) when she was 12 years old.  She told me about her planned trip to the west coast next summer, where she planned on climbing Mt. Rainier.  I was a bit taken aback, and told her that it was a pretty serious mountain to climb.  But it turns out that she had been a climbing guide in Uzbekistan for 7 seasons, so I think she'll do just fine!  You meet a lot of interesting people here.

I came home a bit earlier than planned, because I didn't want to leave Eric and the kids on their own all day. We ended up taking the bus to the Perle du Lac park, where the Museum of the History Of Science is located.  It was a little difficult keeping the kids engaged, but the old scientific devices and instruments were quite interesting.  What they like best are the parabolic sound reflectors just outside the museum, where you can whisper to one another quite easily from about 30 meters apart.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The kids are going to Swiss public schools

Yet again, unbelievably, the internet is down at our apartment. It went down Friday around 7 PM, which means (remember nobody works on the weekend at all) that we won't have any internet, except what we have on the phone, all weekend. Incredibly frustrating, because we have so many things we need the internet for. But in the spirit of looking for the silver lining, and all that jazz, here it is - if I did have the internet (read - web surfing) , I probably wouldn't be so diligent with the blog posts (I write them up in Notepad and then post online). So, there you have it. 

Anyway - back to the kids and schooling thing. Both Peter and Kenny are in the public school system here. This is, of course, a huge adjustment for them because they don't speak French, and in the schools here, all instruction is in French. We enrolled them a few weeks ago, and so far they've had 2 weeks of schooling (even though we've been here 3 full weeks, one of them was the autumn vacation). Also - every Wednesday is no school. I had a hard time believing that at first, but that's the way it is - it's just a no school day. Apparently that's the day when the activities (that would in the US be after school activities) occur. 

Peter, even though he just turned 4 in June, is in a class at the same school that Kenny is in. It's called 1P - which is kind of like preschool, except a bit more formal. He's one of the younger ones, but there are 4 or 5 that are younger than he is. At the beginning the parents were allowed to walk him into the classroom. But now that they've beein in school for a while, they're supposed to go in all by themselves, and he's been doing that. He hangs up his backpack on a hook, takes off his shoes, puts on slippers (right now he's just using his crocs), then goes into the classroom. 

When they go into the classroom, they shake hands with the teacher and the teacher's assistant, and say "Bonjour". That's a big deal, and they're quite formal about it - the kids stand in line to do it. He has two main teachers, one teaches on Monday and Tuesday, and the other on Thursday and Saturday. There may be more overlap than that, because I've seen the Monday-Tuesday teacher around on Thursday. We're supposed to buy him a smock to cover his shirt for when they paint, and they've mentioned it a couple times, but even after looking at a couple places, I couldn't find it. I think it's one of those things that is only sold at the beginning of the school year. We also had to buy a special pair of very thin slippers that are used in their dance class, I had no problem finding that at a shoe store close by to where I work. 

Kenny needs a gym shirt and shorts, we'll try to find that this weekend. Kenny was started in the 4P class, in which all the kids seemed quite small, but after they gave him a math test, they transferred him to the 5P class. His classmates are his size and age, and even older now. They split the kids differently by birth dates here than in Bellevue. In Bellevue, Kenny was among the oldest in his class, but now he's one of the younger ones. His 5P teacher is a man (Kenny likes that!) and speaks English quite well, so that's good. I don't think his 4P teacher spoke English at all. There's 1 kid in his class who speaks some English. I thought that there would be many more international kids who spoke some English, but no. Maybe everyone else is going to private international schools. 

Kenny has done a lot of what in the US would be after-school activities - for instance, they go to a flute class, and they also go to a swimming class as part of the regular class activities. He's also started German class, which is not necessarily something that's good for him now - yet another language. 

I try hard to wring some more information out of the kids about how school was when I come home from work, but I've been about as successful as I was in Bellevue - that is, not very. I do hear from Kenny frequently that school was "great". Peter has generally been saying school is "good". I ask Kenny if he plays with other kids at recess, and he says, "of course". So I guess he's not being excluded from things. Apparently one kid in Kenny's class has been assigned to work with him on things like making sure he stands in the right spot when they're lining up, telling him what's going on. This is not the English speaking kid, though, so Kenny says that he uses a lot of hand signals. I need to be a little smarter about getting information out of the kids about their day. I'm thinking bribery - specifically, I just bought a bar of chocolate which I think I'll use. I'll sit them down, say "tell me an interesting tidbit about school and you get a piece". I think that could be quite effective in jogging their memory. 

I ask the both of the every day, "What words have you learned in French". And I usually get back, "nothing!". Not what I want to hear. But then Peter told me yesterday that he learned jeuene and bleu (yellow and blue) so that was good. Of course those are words that we went over in French kids dictionary too. I'm sure they're learning things, just perhaps not articulating it too well. 

Kenny told me a story about how the boys in his class took a girl's jacket, and kind of played keep away with it. He seemed a little shocked. Did that kind of thing not happen in his old school? Also he said boys chase girls sometimes, but they don't seem to mind. The school itself is a little dingy looking. Or maybe it just seems that way because when I'm there, I'm dropping off Peter in the morning and it's a large covered area that doesn't get much light. 

The playground has more interesting equipment than his school playground in Bellevue. I'll have to put some pictures in, but there's an interesting concrete pit/depression that the kids are always playing ball in - bouncing it off the sides to one another. Also there's an outside ping pong table that always has kids playing on it. And I haven't seen it yet, but there's a zip line that Kenny is really excited about. 

So up till now Kenny has been going to regular classes with other kids, with no special French language instruction at all, at a school called Ecole de Contamine. Starting next week, he'll be going half time to a different school, I think it's called Ecole Crete Champel. That's the only place where they have the French language instruction. I'm hoping it'll really jump start his French learning. For Peter, they don't have anything like that - I guess they figure at age 4, he has plenty of time to pick it up before things become too academic. 

It's great that Kenny will be getting special French classes, but it also poses huge logistical difficulties. The school schedule is from 8:00 to 4:00, with a 2 hour break in the middle for lunch. During this 2 hour break, Kenny needs to switch from one school to another, but of course Peter will still be going to the original school. We're still figuring out how this will work, but I know it will cause major hassles, probably including me needing to come home from work during the day. Not something I'm looking forward to.