Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The "Escalade" in Geneva

The Escalade in Geneva is a commemoration of the victory, in 1602, over the Savoy army that tried to attack Geneva.  For more info, check out this website.  What happens now is that on one of the first weekends in December, there's a lot of commemorative events in the Old Town, where people dress up in period costumes, they sell lots of typical foods (like the hot vegetable soup that was poured over the attackers) and mulled wine.  The Passage de Monestier (I believe it follows the old city walls) is opened, and the towers of the Cathedral are opened, for free.  Little kids also dressed in period costumes walk around selling commemorative ribbons for 5 CHF to raise money,

At the kids school, the Escalade is a big deal.  They learn songs, dress up in a costume and have a parade, have vegetable soup, and very importantly, smash one of these chocolate soup tureens filled with marzipan vegetables, while chanting, "Thus perish the enemies of the republic".  Then they all share the chocolate.  The picture below is from the Escalade breakfast that I had at work, at which we had our own soup tureen.  The little yellow and red candies were very cool—there's a big jelly candy inside PLUS a tiny little firecracker that you pull apart with a bang!

There was also a celebration at the school at night.  Featured was a lot of vegetable soup, and a little talent show - the best show was a kid doing a Michael Jackson imitation.  One thing that was interesting was that lots of the kids came with costumes that included a toy gun— pretty realistic looking ones.  In the US, that would be enough to get you expelled, or at least suspended for a while.

Just goes to show, there's more than one way of doing things, and sensible, decent people in other countries have laws, rules, and policies that are very different from ours.  And they can do just fine with them.

Random notes - friendliness and sales clerks

The Swiss are apparently well known for being a humorless bunch.  I frankly don't know enough non-expats here to make a good judgement as to whether or not they're really humorless.  However, I can say that they are certainly very polite - quite a bit more so than in Seattle, I'd say.  For instance, in a public elevator, the person who leaves will usually say something like, "Bonne journée" ("Have a good day").   I get caught off guard at moments like these, and usually what pops out of my mouth is something inappropriate like, "You're welcome".  Or nothing, if I'm stuck for words.  I'm sure I give a less than friendly impression.  Hand shaking is big here.  For instance, when I drop Peter off at school, and stop in to see the teacher, you definitely shake hands, and maybe even again when you leave.

Another thing that people do is, for instance, when going into a room such as a waiting room at a doctor's office, they'll say a general "good day" to everyone in the room.   Also, when people have just bought something and paid the clerk, instead of the clerk being the one to smile and say thank you, etc, frequently it's the customer that will say a whole string of courtesies, like, "Thank you, good bye, have a good day".  Not so much the clerk.  Weird!

Actually, sales clerks in general are exception to the general friendliness and politeness. They're usually unfriendly and unhelpful.  Where in the US, maybe 1 out of 5 sales clerks couldn't care lesshere it's about 4 out of 5.  I was just looking for some jeans for Kenny at the H & M store, which is about the equivalent of Target or Old Navy.  I went back a couple times because there was one pair on sale for 14.99 CHF, compared to the others that were 29.99, that looked almost identical, which they had in all sizes except Kenny's.  I got one clerk who was helpful.  But the rest just pointed sullenly in the general direction of the jeans, and that was it. I hear that H & M is opening up some stores in the US—I hope they have better customer service training. I often think to myself that if a store from the US like, for instance, Target, were able to open up here, they would make out like gangbusters because the general level of service and selection and value here currently is just so low.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Today's adventure - I called the police!

It's been gray and rainy (a solid 3 days of rain - reminds me of Seattle, except the rain is heavier and colder here) the past few days, so instead of walking along the lake, I walked to the shopping area to find some jeans for Kenny.  On my way back, there's a pedestrian underpass that goes under the Mont Blanc bridge.  And I saw what looked like a group of 8 or so teenage boys, huddled around and trying to block passers-by from seeing the kid in the middle, who from the buzzing noise I heard was using a mechanized tool of some sort, maybe a drill, to try to damage the plexiglass windows that allow you to look out on the river.

I was going to call the police on my cell, but then I realized - I don't know the number!  It's not simple like in the US, where you can just call 911.  Here, there are multiple different numbers for police, fire, and ambulance.  There happened to be a phone booth just as I left the pedestrian tunnel, so I stepped in and dialed 117 for the police after I looked up the number.  I wimped out and asked for someone who spoke English, but there was a long wait, so somebody came back on the line and said, in French, "Do you speak just a little bit of French?".  And I do, I'm just a little embarrassed of my pidgen French.  In any case, I spoke with them, made myself understood, and they thanked me for my call.

I should have stuck around and watched the police come, but it was darn cold, and I was eager to get back to the office.  Next time I walk by, I'll check and see if the teenagers really did drill a hole in the window.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Thanksgiving in Paris

We spent the Thanksgiving holidays in Paris, leaving Wednesday evening on an Easyjet flight. That's a major bonus of living in Geneva - cheap, convenient flights to all the major cities of Europe on Easyjet. We arrived around 10:30 PM, only to find nobody waiting for us at the apartment I'd rented at VRBO.com.  It wasn't too worrying, though, because we'd arrived about 20 minutes before schedule, and the guy with the keys came pretty quickly. The apartment (here's the link on VRBO.com) was quite central, and had a very spacious living room with very high ceilings and floor to ceiling windows, plus a MONSTER beam all the way across the ceiling. So, lots of character, and the beds were comfortable. Overall it was pretty reasonable. It was all very last minute - I actually only made the final arrangements on Wednesday, the day we were flying. I would have been a little more concerned had it been the high season, but in November it's not that busy, there were many options.

Peter in front of the Louvre
The first day we spent the whole day at the Louvre. I thought the kids would hate it - they definitely didn't enjoy the Prado in Madrid at all. But the Louvre is a lot friendlier, has more than just paintings, plus it has tons of benches everywhere. I don't think the Prado had any. At the Louvre, as well as benches they had lots of little window alcoves where you could hang out, very cozy and private. We took lots of breaks, and also plenty of candy. The kids really enjoyed our candy contests, which consisted of everyone taking a gummy bear, and then competing to see who could make it last the longest.

On Thanksgiving Day we were having dinner at a little cafe, and started talking to an American woman spending the week with her 10 year old daughter in London/Paris. She asked if we did anything special for Thanksgiving, and that was the first I'd thought of it during the trip! It's amazing how things can slip your mind if you're not constantly reminded by advertising in stores and things. Anyway, Thanksgiving dinner for us was an omelette for Kenny, hamburger for Peter, daily special for me (some meat with a sauce) and a big salad for Eric.

Some other things we did in Paris were the tower at Notre Dame, one of the vendettes (tourist boats that go along the Seine - foggy windows so we didn't see anything!), the Champs-Élysées, and the Eiffel Tower on Sunday, which was beautiful and sunny but freezing cold. When Eric and I went to Paris many years ago, before kids, we did things that were a lot more unique (a fashion show, a huge cemetary, flea market). This time we just did the main tourist attractions, but that seemed to work best for the kids. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Kenny went on a week-long camp with his school class

We picked Kenny up this past Friday from a week long camp with his school class.  Basically, his whole class except for one kid with a broken arm took a bus to the train station, then a train to Versoix (very close, but a pain to get there during rush hour) to stay in an old mansion owned by the school district for the week.  I was worried about him when he was gone, but thank goodness he came back happy and would have stayed longer if he could have.

The old mansion where the camp was held
The kids were given a choice between different activities.  Kenny chose theater (wouldn't have guessed that!) and pottery.  Some of the other choices were mask making, drumming and making string figures.   They also played a lot of soccer on the little soccer field there.  The mansion was on Lake Geneva - I'm sure if they sold the property, it would be worth many millions.

And the whole thing was only 150 CHF!  Which is now just a little over 150 USD - a bargain for the whole week.  I'm sure it's heavily subsidized.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Learning another languages comes with a cost

Second languages don't come for free, even (especially!) for kids.  Maybe people will say that kids just absorb another language if they're immersed in it...and they do, mostly.  But it has an effect on their previous language.

I've been meaning to write this up for a while.  But I got a push just now because as I was putting my five year old Peter to bed, he was telling me about a movie that he watched in his Wednesday program.  I asked him to tell me what the movie was called in English.  Peter said "King" and then didn't know the rest.  He struggled to translate it for a while, repeating the title in French, and then finally I understood what he was saying.  It was called "Le roi et l'oiseau".    That means "The King and the Bird".

Wait a minute - he forgot the English word for bird?  Yikes, that's a little scary.  He's known that since he was a baby.  How could he forget it?

Pretty easily, apparently.  I've noticed over the past few months that there are other basic words he's forgotten in English (for instance, pan).  I haven't noticed it as much in Kenny, perhaps because he reads a lot in English (thanks to the Kindle!).  But with our five year old Peter, English skills slip away much more easily.

I remember when I was Peter's age or younger, our family moved back to Austria, where my parents were from, for about half a year.  I went to public school there (actually it was probably a Catholic school...my teachers was a nun).  When we came back to the US and I went into first grade, I went to the speech therapist for a while because I could no longer pronounce the 'th' sound, which is not used in German.  I had developed a German accent that quickly!

Also recently Peter was trying to chose between two things, and instead of doing the standard English, "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe", he did the childrens equivalent in French.

Sunday, October 28, 2012


During the kids October holidays, we got a cheap flight (yay Easyjet!) to Madrid.  I had lived in Spain many years ago, during a semester abroad in Seville, and my Spanish is still fairly good.  I feel a LOT more comfortable with Spanish than French, I realized that recently when I chatted for a while with the parent of another kid in Peter's class from Columbia.  I can pretty much say whatever I want in Spanish, but in French I'm often digging for words.

Anyway.  Madrid.  We stayed in the center of Madrid, at the hotel Medium Cortez.  It was nothing special, the breakfast buffet in particular was not that great (very inefficient layout) PLUS it cost 10 Euro.  We only went there twice. Too bad because if you ask the kids what the like about traveling, a nice breakfast buffet would be very high on the list.  But it was central, everything in easy walking distance (or would have been, had Peter been a more enthusiastic walker).

Instead of the breakfast buffet one day we went to a little cafe nearby.  I asked for hot chocolate, and was asked if we wanted colo cao or "chocolate".  Chocolate seemed more appropriate, but it turns out that was more like melted chocolate - extremely thick and rich.  Colo cao is what we actually should have gotten, it's basically hot milk with the chocolate powder you mix in.  I guess I never had the real "Chocolate" in Seville.

The first day we went to El Retiro park, kind of like the Central Park of Madrid.  The main attraction was rowing in the little lake, the kids had a good time playing around with the oars.

Later on that evening we went to the Prado museum.  We went after 6 PM, when it's free.  A good thing too, because the kids not too interested in all the paintings and we zoomed through, in spite of all my efforts to make it fun.  They did give out a cool map to the museum, which had all the most famous paintings and which room they were located in.  And they really had some very famous paintings, lots that I recognize from school.

This grocery store reminded me of the grocery stores in Seville that I used to patronize when I studied there. I lived with three Spanish roommates in an apartment, and at that time, and in that part of town, there were no actual grocery stores.  There were little dry good market close by, and then there was a big covered market with all kinds of little stalls (fruit, fish, etc.) and that was it.  My share of the weekly groceries (all meals), was about 10 dollars.  Here in Geneva, that would pay for about half a cheap restaurant meal.

The level of English spoken in even the touristy part of Madrid, like the Royal Palace and the Prado is very low to nonexistent.  Good thing I speak Spanish.  English is much less commonly used than in other parts of Europe.  For instance, in Amsterdam, you could almost stop any person on the street, ask them directions, and they would cheerfully answer in decent English, plus tell you to have a wonderful visit.  Loved Amsterdam.

I saw this sign on many bus stops, marketing a Chinese language course.  Pretty screwy, to be marketing Chinese when English is so desperately needed!

One day we took a high-speed train to Toledo.  It was nice, but with one big negative - loads of heavy traffic speeding through tiny windy streets in the old town!  It was very challenging trying to keep the kids safe.  In retrospect and after having done more research, we should have gone to Segovia.  There, the inner city is pedestrian-only, I'm sure I would have loved it!

We didn't find any good Spanish restaurants that we liked.  After a few mediocre experiences, I looked up an Indian restaurant online, and we went there our last two nights.  The owner was actually Bangladeshi, had been in Madrid 10 years and was just applying for a residency card which would let him work anywhere in Europe.  We talked about the economic situation a bit - he said Spanish people were very lazy, always wanted to go in discos.  Our taxi driver to the airport was from Iraq.  He didn't speak English well, but talked a lot about the economic situation anyway (during our stay there news reports showed that the unemployment rate had gone up from 24 to 25%).  Basically, "very, very bad" - that's what he kept saying all the time.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Random thoughts on living in Switzerland

I had all kinds of notes about topics I wanted to blog about that weren't necessarily worthy of a full post.  So, here they are!

- People commute on bikes a LOT more here than in the US, even in relatively bike-friendly Seattle.  You frequently see men in suits on bikes, and just the other day I saw a women in some very high heels, on a bicycle going to work.  And you'll also see them commuting to work on scooters as well.  People use scooters most often if they're taking public transport, and then have a little ways to go to get from their stop to their workplace.  That's what one of the HR reps in my office does.  It's much easier to bring a scooter on a train rather than a bike.  Also - you see very few people wearing bike helmets.

- Women in Geneva only got the right to vote in 1960!  I just found this out last weekend, at the tree-climbing contest at Parc La Grange next to our apartment.  They had a section of log from an old tree, and had marked significant local dates on the growth rings .  And behold - in 1960 women got the right to vote in Geneva.  Before coming here I had mentally placed Switzerland in with the Scandinavian countries in terms of their attitude towards women.  But nope.

- Geneva has tons of graffiti, but I had read somewhere online that Zurich had solved the problem by immediately painting over the graffiti, and taking away the motivation to tag.  Not so!  On our trip to Zurich, we saw as much graffiti as in Geneva.  In some spots I can see why they don't paint over it immediately (because the graffiti was on stonework, which would requite sandblasting).  But there was lots of graffiti that could have been easily painted over.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Bye-bye summer

School begins again for Kenny and Peter this coming Monday.  We're trying to gradually ratchet down their currently very late bedtimes.  My theory is that the most effective way of doing this is just to wake them up earlier in the morning (possible), instead of trying to force them to sleep when they're not tired (impossible).

The beginning of the school year, or rentrée in French, is much more relaxed here.  No letters from the school at all, no school supply lists, nothing, which makes me think I've missed something.  But after talking to a few other parents, that's the way it is, though you may get a letter from the teacher the first few weeks of school asking you to buy a few things.  But there's no monster back-to-school sales, no massive lists, nothing like that.  In Peter's class last year, he needed some thin-soled slippers, kind of like ballet slippers, which they wear in a gym/dance type class, and also an art smock, and some tissues.  That was it.  For Kenny's class, there was nothing, though I'm inclined to think that was because the teacher was not as engaged.  He's getting a new teacher this year, and I'm happy that Peter is staying with the same teacher, whom we've been very happy with.  Last year she was very involved, arranged a parent potluck, and even sent Peter a personalized letter during the summer thanking him for the stuffed animal Peter gave her the last day of school.

My in-laws just left a few days ago after their visit.  We really enjoyed having them here, did a lot of day trips in the area, and the boys miss them tremendously.  I think our favorite trip with them was to the Signal de Bougy, a  huge park area up in the hills west of Nyon with playgrounds, animals, views, picnic areas, and also an adventure rope park where the kids were roped into harnesses and were able to clamber through the trees, and then descend again via ziplines.  They loved it, and next time I'm going to be up there in the trees with them!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A weekend in Gruyeres

We're just back from our trip to Gruyeres. We spent the night at a very forgettable small hotel - that's what you get when you book on Saturday morning for Saturday night, in the high season!  It was a mini apartment, the previous tenant's garbage had not been removed, and for the free breakfast, there was sugar free cocoa (and this is not artificially sweetened cocoa, this is just - no sugar, just chocolate powder), with no sugar on the side - just little Splenda pills.  Plus flies everywhere, but that seems to be par for the course at restaurants here.  For what you pay, you'd be getting gourmet meals in the US, but here you're waving flies away all the time, and nobody blinks an eye (okay, except when the flies come buzzing around your eyes).  Maybe it's because of all the cows around.  

Peter, looking through one of the windows at the Gruyeres castle
Enough complaining, it was actually a nice trip. We went to the chocolate factory, the cheese factory, the town of Gryuere and Gruyere Castle, played at a few playgrounds, did a hike through a gorge, saw a lot of cows...what else...Eric had horse meat yesterday.  It was a little tough and a touch gamey, but otherwise very like beef.  Cheaper, too!   We were both wondering if they actually raise the horses for slaughter.  Gruyere is an amazing area in terms of scenery, just beautiful and very much what you think of when you think of the Swiss alps...except not quite as high, since these are the "pre alps", instead of the actual alps.  Gruyere was completely touristy, absolutely nobody there but foreign tourists and the people working in the shops.  But in the gorge hike, we may have been the only foreigners, all the cars I saw seemed to have local license plates.  People were very friendly - 100% of the hikers walking by greeted us.

The tour at the Cailler chocolate factory was unique.  It was completely high-tech and there were no tour guides!  There were some people who took our money, shepherded us to the beginning of into the main area, and told us what was going to happen, but the main part of the tour was completely automated, and a little like a Disney ride.  In each room they explained a little bit of the history of chocolate, but in a very jazzy, "light and sound show" way, complete with moving props, dry ice vapor, etc.  And the doors opened into the next room when the spiel in the previous room was over. And they can, of course, switch between languages - our tour was in English, but I saw on the guide's touch screen that he had all kinds of options, including French, German, and Spanish.  Very fancy.  Just imagine, even the profession of tour guide can be (at least partially) automated!  

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The kids are enjoying summer camp

As of this Monday, Peter and Kenny are going to a summer camp run by the local community center, or Maison de Quartier.  They'll be going there the next 3 weeks.  It's convenient, I can walk them there in about 10 minutes, and from the community center they take a bus to the camp in Jussy, about 20 minutes away. They were a little apprehensive about going there, especially Kenny.  But now they both say they love it, and can't wait to go in the morning.

Every day we need to put together their kit, which includes the obvious (sun hat, towel, bathing suit), but also a plastic plate, cup, spoon, and fork for lunch.  Lunch is provided, but they need to bring the dishes, and also wash the dishes by themselves.  So far the lunch has been spaghetti with bread and salad, ham with rice and green beans, and today shrimp kebab with rice.  And dessert has been fruit salad, cookies (but only if you can find a piece of trash to pick up), and today ice cream, in the cups that they drink water from, so they needed to finish all their water. They definitely avoid all disposables.

So far I've been quite happy with the staff.  They're all very friendly, engaging with the kids, and patient with my broken French.  Today one of them explained to me that Peter started crying for some reason while they were off on a little hike in the woods, and they absolutely couldn't figure out what the problem was.  She was speaking to me a little too quickly, so I had to ask her to slow down, but mostly I understand things.  I finally got from Peter what the problem was, hours later, after bribing him with the promise of a lollipop.  It turns out that during their hike in the woods, an insect had been flying around his eyes, and he tried to brush it away and either accidentally brushed it into his eye or touched his eye with his finger.  

We saw some of the staff at the park next to our apartment, they were all puffing away with cigarettes.  But smoking is just so much more common here that it's not seen as the big negative it would in the US.  As long as they don't puff directly onto the kids, I'm fine.

Kenny really has been enjoying some of the games that they play involving tagging, and multiple teams.  Today they played a game with two teams, where each player could be either a troll, a leprechaun, or some other character he couldn't translate.  It involved a lot of running, bases, tagging people out and rescuing them again, which he really likes, so he was happy.  He's still not talking at all, but they say that it's apparent he understands everything.  I was also told that this morning, before Peter's incident with the insect in the eye, he had started talking quite a bit.  So hopefully Kenny will start too.  

Kenny told me that Peter is always being told by other kids, especially the older girls, how cute he is.  He doesn't seem jealous, just amused.  In any case, Kenny doesn't aspire to be cute, he wants to be cool.

Wednesdays is the field trip day.  This week, they went on a field trip to a really huge pool in Lausanne, with tons of slides, and also the Museum of the Hand.

Today was the last day of summer camp.  After pick-up, I went to get Kenny for dinner and found him sobbing on his bed. It turns out he was just so sad about summer camp ending!  He talked about how much fun he had there, how nice all the counselors were, how fun the games were, how much fun it was to build the cabins (they let the kids build some cabins in the woods).  And today, when they had a parade to the park with a paper mache dragon, he got to walk in front of the dragon, holding an orange cardboard flame.
I guess he did start talking to people, even though at one point he wasn't talking much, because he said that many of the counselors told him how well he spoke French.

Well, I'm glad it turned out so well.  And the kids are both going to the Wednesday program (there's no school on Wednesday, so you have to figure out some other kind of childcare arrangement), which is also at the Maison de Quartier.  I think they'll really enjoy it.

One more note - when I pick the kids up on Fridays, the counselors were all sitting around drinking beers.  This doesn't bother me, but it's something that would really not happen in the US.  Or only furtively.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

New flash - green hills in the Swiss Alps mean lots of rain

We're spending the week in a campground rental cabin close to Brienz, in the Berner Oberland area of Switzerland - pretty much the heart of the alps.  All good and well, and I love the space efficiency of this cute little cabin.

But...dang!  We've had some miserable weather.  Today's been pretty much the worst, we've had solid rain pouring down for the past 5 hours or so.  The rain right now is briskly drumming down on the roof here in our cabin.

We did have a reasonably good day yesterday, Kenny and I went on a hike on the KristalWeg in the Grimsel area.  It's an old mule path, and is build up with some neat old bridges, and steps cut into steep stone paths.  In one area there was a path - quite a wide one, probably about 8 feet or so, but on the other side was a very steep slope down to a churning river. I grabbed Kenny's hand and didn't let go until we got to an area where a misstep wouldn't have been fatal.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Fête des écoles

The Fête des écoles, is the end of school festival.  I had no idea what a big deal this is, but it's huge.  There's two of them - one for younger kids (Peter's age up till about 8) and another for older kids.  This past Wednesday, which is normally a day off school, the school festival for the younger kids took place at the Parc de Bastion, close to the old town.  Peter got dropped off at the school, then he marched with his class to the park, where there were all kinds of rides, exhibitions, and shows.  There were many shows focusing on Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the famous Genevan philosopher of the 18th century - anyway, as much as you can focus on a philosopher when your audience is between 5 and 8.  Peter was there all afternoon, and then I took the tram to pick him up at 5:30.  As I got closer in the tram, I saw just how jam-packed it was.  It seemed like thousands of parents were there, waiting for the gates of the park to be opened so they could pick up their little kid.  I searched for Peter about 20 minutes.  The organization was a little bit lacking in terms finding your kids again.  Then after I found Peter, getting out again was pretty tricky.  But overall Peter liked it.

Then Friday evening was the Fête des écoles for Kenny's age and up - around 8 or 9 to 12 or so.  The festival was in Parc La Grange, very close to our apartment building.  They had huge bouncy houses set up, climbing walls, a concert stage that played pop music at a surprisingly reasonable volume, and all kinds of other things to tickle the fancy of kids that age.  Lots of kids were running around in groups, and Kenny found some kids from his class to hang out with, which was nice.

Peter fell in love with the climbing wall, and waited in line to go up it 4 times!  The last time he was on his own, without any friends.  He managed to get to the front okay, and got himself strapped into the harness.  But then he stood around so long, without going up to do the climbing, that one of the people working there assumed that he'd already gone up, and unstrapped him from the harness!  A kid from Kenny's class who knew Peter ran up to me, and told me Peter was crying, and after Peter had calmed down I got the story from him.  We managed to get him in the harness again, and he climbed up to his heart's content.  It really struck me that in the US, they would NEVER have allowed 5 year olds (or any kids or adults, for that matter) to go up on a climbing wall without lengthy signed permission slips, etc.  Here they had a semi-automated system where the kids could go up without anyone manning the ropes - somehow the ropes stayed taut while they were climbing, and then let them down when they reached the top.  And hundreds if not thousands of kids had fun on the climbing wall without a lot of bureaucracy .

Kenny's been bringing home all the projects that he's worked on throughout the year.  He sewed up a pillow, made a hand-sawed jigsaw puzzle - a lot of projects that, in the US, would not have been done because they would have taken away time from subjects that are evaluated on standardized tests - math, reading, etc.  I think doing that kind of handicraft has been a really good experience for him.

My new workout routine

I blogged previously about how I've been getting on in terms of setting up an exercise routine - Getting started on an exercise routine again.  After slacking on the home exercise routine quite a bit, I joined a gym really close to work (mostly paid for by my work).  And went...maybe 4 times in about a month.  I think it's a combination of not getting it done in the morning, the need to take an extra shower during the day, having to change clothes at work, etc - it's just a hassle unless you're exceptionally motivated, which I'm not.

On the positive site, what I have started now is doing a stair-climbing workout right here in my apartment building.  Basically, I go up and down the stairs 3 times - that's 8 flights times three, so 24 flights.  It takes me less than 15 minutes.  Then I do a few squats and other exercises at the top, and call it good.  My goal is to do it every day, but I'm probably actually doing it once every other day.  I can tell a big difference when I climb the stairs now, in that I get winded a lot less.  I think I'll aim to do 4 sets in about the same amount of time, so speed it up a bit, and then I'll be good.

It's hot!

We're had a stretch of very hot weather here in Geneva - a high yesterday of 33 degrees Celcius (91 Fahrenheit).  The air conditioning situation is this - almost no buildings have air conditioning, including our apartment.  There's lots of blinds and shutters to block out the sun, which is very handy - critical, really, when the sun is streaming in.

The office building where I work has air conditioning...kind of.  In reality, it never works.  Really.  It's not standard air conditioning, which is apparently forbidden in Switzerland on the grounds of high energy consumption.  It's these weird ceiling mounted pipes, that have cold water flowing through them.  They worked one morning, a lot of condensation formed on the ceiling (it's designed for that, made of metal), and it was pleasantly cool.  That was nice, but it was just for one morning.  The rest of the time, during this stretch of really hot weather, it's just been really warm at the office.  People are wearing shorts, and some little USB fans have been distributed, they help a lot.  Also yesterday I brought a frozen water bottle from home and sipped on it throughout the day, that cooled me down tremendously. I wasn't even warm while everyone else was complaining about the heat.

At home, we keep the blinds down, turn on the fans at night, and we manage to beat the heat.  Occasionally when I come in from walking around outside, and am really hot, I fill the bathroom sink with cold tap water and soak my arms for a while, that cools me down quite well.

EDIT: The air conditioning at work is fixed now, and it's actually quite cool there!  I need to wear a fleece in the office to feel comfortable.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Football (soccer) is REALLY big here!

Just now it's the middle of the Euro 2012 cup, England vs Italy.  I have the windows open because it's still quite warm out, but it's LOUD out there, even though it's 11:30 at night!  The noise is coming from people yelling and screaming while watching the football game.  We live in an apartment complex, and you hear it from so many of the open windows, shouting, exultation at goals scored, etc.  

I'll have to show Kenny the highlights on YouTube tomorrow morning just so he's not completely out of the loop at school.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

I eat Peter's popsicle

It's been a stressful few weeks, but I wanted to share this funny story.  Kenny, Peter and I (Eric is on a business trip to the US) walked to the park next door yesterday evening, with popsicles, for a little stroll before bedtime.  Peter was walking behind me, Kenny was ahead of me, and then I heard Peter crying from behind me.  I tried asking what's wrong, why he was crying, etc.  This goes on for a while, but he can't tell me what happened.  I keep on asking, "Don't you want to eat your popsicle?"   He kept on shaking his head.  So I end up eating much of his popsicle as well as mine (they're pretty small).  At one point there was a hard bit that I spit out.

Later on Peter had calmed down, and I asked him again why he was crying before.  He said, "I dropped my popsicle on the sidewalk".  Yech!  And I ate that thing.  To realize the depths of my disgust, you need to know what the sidewalks are like here - they're truly disgusting, with dog poop everywhere.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The kids and how they're settling in

If you asked Peter and Kenny, the most important thing that's happened recently is that they've FOUND FRIENDS!  It turns out (now that it's warm, kids are out and about) that there's a family in the apartment block just next door, which along with our building and 2 others, surround a little courtyard.  This family has twin 8 year old boys, and a 4 year old boy too, the same ages as our kids.  How perfect is that?  They've been having  an awesome time playing soccer in the courtyard, until some busybodies told them not to.  Apparently there's a policy of no loud games in the courtyard.  I just sent them out to the courtyard again today, but sans soccer ball, just with a little tennis set, and they played happily for a long time.  It's nice - if I leave the door to the balcony open, I can hear them out there.

Since Eric has started working again, we've hired a Moroccan lady, Malika, to pick them up from school, and also watch them on Wednesday, the day they don't have school.  She's a lady who's been doing some babysitting for the mother of classmate of Peter.  She's very sweet, and Peter especially loves her (he wrote her a note, "Malika is so nice")

Kenny has been picking up French quite well, from what I can tell.  When the kids watch television in French, and I ask how much he understands, he says, "Most of it".  When I ask Peter the same question, he'll usually say something like, "Nothing".  But I know he understands and speaks some French - I've heard  him speak with his friend from the next building.  He's not as fluent as Kenny, but he's getting there.

Both Kenny and Peter have been going on a lot of field trips recently with their school - to the local pool, to the natural history museum, and next week to a local park and mini-zoo.  I need to arrange a meeting with Kenny's teachers and see how he's been doing - we had one a few months back, but other than that, I haven't been getting much feedback from the teachers on how things are going.  And he won't be getting any grades this year - apparently that's the policy for the first 2 years when a child is just learning French - no grades at all.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Another Sunday Evening in the Emergency Room

We try to get Kenny to bed around 9 PM.  His usual routine is that he brushes his teeth, flosses (hopefully) and reads in bed for a little bit.  Last Sunday he was in the middle of his routine, when I heard, "Mom, I think there's something stuck in my nose!".

Okay, big emergency.  I got out the flashlight, sat him down, looked up his nose.  "What did you stick up your nose?", I asked.

"I don't know."

After I saw something in his nose that reflected the light, I asked, "Was it something shiny?"   Yes, he said, it was shiny.

To make a long story slightly shorter - he had found strong super magnets.  He said he tried to put them in his nose, just on the bottom part, keeping hold of them with his fingers, but the magnetic attraction was so strong that they slid  up right onto his septum.  And once that's happened, there's no way you're going to be able to pry them off again with your fingers.

After I had experimented with trying to get some pliers in there and get them out, I figured that I'd need to take him to the emergency room.  We took a taxi to the pediatric emergency room (there's a taxi stand right next to our apartment block) and didn't have to wait long before we were seen by a doctor, who took a look at the magnets, and tried a little bit to remove them with various surgical implements.  Then she gave up, and told us that we needed to go to the adult emergency room, where supposedly there was an ear nose and throat doctor on call.

So, we took yet another taxi to the adult emergency room.  That was a whole different scene from the pediatric emergency room.  No friendly little mobiles hanging from the ceiling, no cute animals painted on the walls, and nobody was sweet and friendly like in the pediatric emergency room.  Nope, there was blood smeared on the floor, and we saw a handcuffed man being walked out the emergency room door with three policeman surrounding him (Kenny asked - "Was that a real bad guy?").

We did get seen pretty quickly, not by an ear nose and throat doctor, though.  Kenny was checked out by a very young resident - barely in his mid 20's, I'd say.  He tried with various implements to get the magnets out of Kenny's nose. Kenny was having a very hard time keeping still, even though I was encouraging him, telling him he needed to be brave and tough and be very still so that the doctor would be able to take the magnets out.  Eventually the doctor got 3 nurses, and me to try to hold Kenny down while he prodded in his nose to try to remove the magnets.  It was not a happy scene. The doctor caused some injury to his nostrils while trying to separate the magnets, and blood started dripping from his nose while Kenny was squirming and crying, which freaked him out even more.

So, he gave up and said he'd need to call an anesthesiologist.  This meant general anesthesia for Kenny - not something I wanted to happen!  We were relegated to a stretcher nearby, and told to hang tight until the anesthesiologist got there.  Kenny really wanted his teddy, and was hoping that we could go home and get it.  That was not going to happen, so I asked the nurse if they had any stuffed animals there.  They had nothing.  She tried, though - later on she came by with a coloring book and a few pencils for him.

Kenny was doing some coloring, so I decided to do some web searching on my smartphone.  I had done a little bit of Googling before taking Kenny to the emergency room - I believe I searched for  "magnet stuck in nose" or something like that, and didn't find anything useful.   So while we were waiting for the anesthesiologist, I did some more searching - I searched for for "magnet nose septum"  The word septum was the key - that's the cartilage between the nostrils.  The very first article I found was this one: An attractive approach to magnets adherent across the nasal septum.  It's an article in a medical journal called The Canadian Journal of Emergency Medicine about this very same problem - also in an 8 year old boy! The author used a handle of a medical instrument, attached it to the magnet just using the magnetic properties of the metal, and then was able to pop off first the one magnet, and then the other, "painlessly and without trauma to the nasal septum".

"Painlessly and without trauma to the nasal septum!"   That sounded really good.  I searched for the doctor to show him the article on my phone.  He looked at it, and then said, "Let's try again".  So we sat Kenny in the chair again.  It took some convincing that this time it wasn't going to hurt, because he was traumatized from the previous attempts.  The doctor didn't quite get the gist of the article, so I had to explain it to him.  We searched for some tools that might work.  He ended up using some tools that look like they were designed to open up the nostril to look inside.  He put one in each nostril, and voila!  Just like that, the magnets popped off and were gone, adhering to the metal surgical tools instead of Kenny's septum!  I was so relieved that I practically yelled, "Thank the Lord!".  The doctor shook my hand.  I think he was pretty impressed that I had found the article.  I was frankly very happy with myself as well, that I had found this information and managed to avoid general anesthesia for my son.

After a little checkup inside his nose, we were free to go.  The nurses that had held him down while the doctor first tried getting the magnets out wondered where we were going, and when I told them that the magnets were gone, were shocked and asked how the heck we did it.  I didn't explain that well - it was late (past midnight) already and my French, quite shaky, was not really up to it, but I think I managed to convey what happened.

Then - another taxi to our house, and the whole dreadful experience was over!  No permanent damage, just a story to tell.

And now I know the word magnet in French - aimant.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A tour of the mansion next door - the Domain de la Grange

We live right next to a beautiful park called Parc de la Grange.  It's a large grassy park with a beautiful view out onto the lake, and I absolutely love it, especially now that the weather is getting summery.   It has playgrounds, a wading pool, a rose garden, and even some old Roman ruins (not much to look at, just the foundation from a house, but still interesting).

There's also an old mansion, that belonged to a series of very wealthy families.  The last of the first family to own it, Jean Lullin, was bankrupted when all the money he'd loaned King Louis XVI of France was obviously never going to be paid back when the King lost his head in the French revolution.  Francois Favre bought it from him, and his son established an extensive library there, acquiring about 15,000 books (which, back in the 1700's and 1800's, was a big deal and very expensive).  His grandson William Favre donated the house and grounds to the city of Geneva in 1918, under a few conditions (one of them was that his room in the house be preserved exactly the way it was when he died).

The mansion is almost always closed to the public, except on 2 very limited tours (20 people each) in spring.  I saw them mentioned in the city of Geneva newsletter, but missed the signup time.  Eric was the one who ended up successfully signing up, but when the time came he decided not to go, so I went in his place.  It's a good thing, too, because the tour was completely in French, and involved about 2 hours of standing around listening to a historian discourse on the history of the house, and the details of the furnishings.  It was interesting, kind of, but by the end my back was absolutely killing me. Lots of the rooms had chairs, but they were antique, and we were told only to sit in there if absolutely necessary, so one woman on crutches did and the rest of us stood.  Towards the end the guide gave us free range in the upstairs, which was more interesting than standing in one place.  We also saw the room of William Favre, who donated the home and the grounds.

The front of the mansion.  It's normally all closed up like this, but the day of the tour all the windows were opened

The tour group waiting to enter

A bathroom from the 1840's

Kenny likes his Kindle, too

We brought a lot of children's books with, but most of them were for younger kids, and we had very few chapter books.  Since Kenny has developed the habit of reading in bed, he ran through them very quickly (the ones he wanted to read, anyway).  Because a Kindle is now only $79, PLUS the Bellevue library system has lots of children's chapter books on the Kindle that can be downloaded over the internet, I decided to get Kenny one for himself.

Eric picked it up when he went back to the US recently.  Kenny is completely enthralled with the Boxcar Children series, and has read a few dozen of them on the Kindle so far.  There's 121 Kindle books in that series in the  Bellevue library system, so he has quite a few more left.  And then there's some other series available (Magic Tree House, Hardy Boys), so he should be good for quite a while.

I can't get over what a good value the Kindle is, if you have access to a library system that carries Kindle books.  If you had to buy the books, then it's not such a good value - it's not like you can sell the books back or anything.  But free books, on a $79 Kindle - can't beat it!

Monday, April 23, 2012


This weekend we took a last-minute trip to Lyon, about 2 hours away by train.  I had been talking to a coworker on Friday who said that she often goes to Lyon just for shopping, because there's a large mall next to the train station.  We had no plans over the weekend, so why not?  I thought we'd do some clothes shopping (I haven't bought any clothes the entire time I've been here!) but we ended up just sightseeing.

It worked out well in general, the train was pretty convenient, the weather was rainy but not for the whole weekend.  The hotel wasn't that nice, but you can't have everything.  We ended up taking the bus to the old town area, where a medieval festival was taking place, with sword fighting, archery, cannons, etc.  Went to the main church, a museum of miniatures (hung out there quite a bit because it was raining outside), had dinner at a decent restaurant (Lyon is famous for its food).  People were quite friendly and helpful when we asked directions.

A couple notes - when we went to the train station on Sunday morning to store our baggage and catch the metro into town, I saw a group of 4 red-jacketed young people.  It must have been some kind of make-work program.  I didn't think very highly of it, they were doing very little useful work. They were apparently there to help travelers, just like they had in Amsterdam, though I think the program was run much better in Amsterdam.  Here they just chatted with one another, and formed into groups that didn't easily allow anyone to break in and ask questions.  I did end up getting some help from one of them who was quite friendly and wanted to practice her English. She led me to the ticket desk to pick up a map of town.  That's where I saw a total of 8 train personnel, hanging out and shooting the breeze with one another.  Why did they need 8 when there were no customers?  It's probably a union requirement.  I was thinking about all the train strikes they have in France.  Not the most efficient system!

We also saw the red-jacketed young people at the Roman amphitheater (great place for the kids to run around).  I asked one of them if he could tell me anything about the amphitheater, and he hemmed and hawed.  Finally I asked, "When was it built?"  And he didn't even know!  He said, "I always forget that".

Our dinner on Saturday was at a very nice restaurant.  The only problem was that...I ended up ordering a Lyon specialty, which turned out to be innards!  I absolutely couldn't eat it - I think you have to grow up eating that kind of thing.  I had asked what it was, and the waiter said, "It's from a pig".  Little did I think I'd be staring at a plate of pig intestines, all full of little tubes.  Yech.

Also Eric ordered tiramisu.  But instead of being the standard tiramisu with coffee, it was more like a vanilla pudding with raspberries in it.  Not a hint of coffee at all.

The upshot?  Overall quite positive, especially for something so last-minute. We'll probably go back to Lyon at some point, stay at a different hotel, and check out the restaurants online before choosing one.

Peter and I among the ruins

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Amsterdam - I could live here!

We got back from our 5 day trip to Amsterdam yesterday. I would have titled this blog post "I love Amsterdam", but I already used that theme for Fribourg. But I really did love Amsterdam.

To elaborate a bit on the bike thing - biking is extremely popular here, probably more so than anywhere in the world. It seems like all major and minor roads have bike lanes, and not just dinky little bike lanes that are basically just bicycles painted on the side of the street, but real, separated bike paths. You not only need to watch for cars when you cross the road, you need to watch for bikes. It can be a little disconcerting.  The bikes are most often these huge heavy looking one speed black clunkers, frequently rusty. I was told it's because of the problem of theft. Also, gears are not as necessary because there's no hills at all.

I don't think I saw even one person wearing a helmet. Parents regularly have one or two kids on their bike, using rear seats, front seats, front carriers, or standing behind them on the hubs of the back wheel. And really, nobody wears a helmet! It really goes to show how culturally conditioned our extreme safety consciousness is. In the US, you would be thought of as a bad parent if you let your kids ride without helmets. Yet in Holland, an advanced, progressive, first world country if there ever was one, nobody does and it's just fine. It's all about perspective.

Non-motorized push scooters are extremely popular in Geneva, even for adults, for commuting. But you didn't see ANY scooters in Amsterdam. Just bikes.

People in Amsterdam were so friendly.  Anyone that I asked for directions (in English, no less, I didn't even learn how to say "excuse me" in Dutch) answered cheerfully and extensively, in English, and they all ended with something along the lines of "have a great holiday in Amsterdam". Very impressive.  Also we were on the tram one day, and a group of people of different ages that didn't seem like they started out knowing one another started chatting, and passed around a photo and had a good old time before they got off, separately.   Okay, maybe I'm idealizing a bit, but people really seemed cheerful.

About garbage and litter in the street - I would say it's about the same as Geneva. The graffiti wasn't nearly as bad as in here in Geneva, though.

Geneva is nice enough, but after visiting Amsterdam, I was really wishing that our stay in Europe could have taken place there.  Luckily I found that the weather in Amsterdam is about like Seattle - lots of rain and gloom.  So I didn't feel quite so bad about it.   Although the weather here in Geneva right now is nowhere near as nice and sunny as it was in March - that was apparently an anomaly.

So...what did we do?  Lots of kid-focused stuff, really.  Along with just walking around the canals, here's where we went:

Artis - the zoo, we went here Easter Sunday and had to wait about 45 minutes to get in because it was so popular.  The kids favorite part was a cool playground with a great slide.  At the chimpanzee house we had a long talk with a lady who was very knowledgeable about chimps.  The chimpanzees were supposed to all be sterilized, but one of them had a baby which unfortunately died a few days after it was born.  The mother chimp apparently carried it around for a few days, but when we went there, it was laying on the floor.  A little macabre.

TunFun  - a huge indoor playground that's actually a converted overpass, complete with concrete pillars supporting old highways, and old traffic lights.  They had one slide which included a sheer drop of about 5 feet. Kenny, after some initial hesitation, ended up loving it and going on it dozens and dozens of times.  Lots of trampolines, huge climbing area, ball pits, inflatables, etc.

We weren't planning on spending the day there, as a matter of fact we started to leave after a few hours, but after we'd packed up and walked out to the outdoors, we saw that it was pouring.  So our plan to walk around the canals was not that enticing, and we decided to just stay there.

Pancake Cruise - this was a fun evening activity, incorporating a cruise along the waterways (not the canals) and a Dutch pancake buffet. The boat had a little ball pit downstairs.  Also we met a Moroccan woman with two boys who was very friendly, she's a real estate agent living in Amsterdam.  Lots of cool-looking modern architecture along the waterfront.

Nemo - a science and technology museum for kids.  The kids liked the bubble building section the best.

Canal cruise - the standard tourist canal cruise.  Nice and relaxing, the kids played on our phones the entire time.  Trying to get them to be interested in seeing the sights is a losing battle.

The main library - interesting modern building with a good kids section.  There was a fascinating exhibit called the Mouse Mansion made by artist and author Karina Shaapman.  She wrote a book to go along with it (actually I guess she built the Mouse Mansion to go with the book!) We spent a long time there going through the book that is set in the mouse village, trying to find the room from each page.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

First impressions in Amsterdam

We just arrived here today via an Easyjet flight from Geneva.  First impressions:

  • Wow!  Everybody is really tall here.  I'm not the tallest woman around, like I am in most places
  • There's a lot of bikes!  There's massive bike parking lots all over the place, bike lanes everywhere.  It's a bikers heaven.  Most streets seem to have separate bike lanes, and not just a line painted on the street, but rather real separate lanes.

We went to an Indonesian place for dinner, and Eric had the traditional Indonesian rijsttafel.  It's basically rice, with all kinds of curry, etc, as toppings.  He had about a dozen tiny little dishes of toppings.  Not an inexpensive meal, but it was good.  The kids and I shared some chicken satay.   We were eating in a tiny room, upstairs, along with one couple.  The couple kind of sounded like they were on their first date, maybe, but something was a little off...far too much talk about previous relationships.  Anyway, it was interesting to listen to.  The woman had been a "living statue" in a previous job.

We're in a hotel called the Hotel de Munck, in central Amsterdam, build in the 1700s.  It wasn't my first, second, third, or fourth choice (things were really booked up, maybe because it's tulip time), and it's a little run down, but I'll say this for them - they have very fast wireless internet.  It's a good thing, because I haven't done that much planning, so I'll need to be doing that here.

The stairs are extremely steep and narrow - apparently it's typical for this type of house.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I love Fribourg

We took a really enjoyable day trip to Fribourg today.  Friboug is an old medieval town on the border of French and German speaking part of Switzerland.  It used to be more evenly spit, but right now it's only about 20% German speaking.  The train ride takes about 80 minutes, through beautiful scenery, with old chateaus to the left and right. Train rides work out quite well with the kids - they alternate playing on the ipad, they can go to the bathroom if they need to, and we have snacks. I brought my kindle with, after having downloaded some books from the library, and also played some games on my phone.

Once in Fribourg, we got off to rough start. I had done some research online, but mostly had a list of things I wanted to ask at the tourist office. The tourist office was poorly marked from the train station, so we walked down one street, up another, until finally we found it - and it was closed on Sunday, anyway. So, back to the train station.  There was a placard there with a suggested walking tour, so we took a photo of it, and started walking. I thought we'd to a little side trip to a famous fountain on the way, but what looked like something close by was actually quite far down a hill that we'd have to climb up again, so we retreated, followed by a drunk guy shouting at us. Eric had goose bumps because he'd brought only his fleece vest instead of a jacket (it's been so warm recently). But when we arrived, it was chilly and windy, and the sun was behind clouds.  The kids were even a little chilly in their insulated jackets.

Then things started looking up.  Thankfully the sun came out and warmed us all up, and we discovered that the walking path was fairly well marked and went through the really interesting old medieval section of town. And there were very few tourists, practically none. I don't know why that is, it's certainly very picturesque and worth visiting.

We had lunch at a restaurant just over this bridge.  It was a very local place, not touristy at all - not that there were any tourists around.  I had some very oily Rostli (kind of like hash browns) with cheese and eggs. I asked the waiter for tap water, which is not commonly done here.  He hesitated for a moment, but brought some.  He spoke German, so I was able to practice that a bit.

Moments after taking this picture, Peter burst out crying.  We peppered him with questions that he didn't answer - did the goat bite you, did it butt your hand, etc.  We couldn't figure out what happened!  It turned out that the fence is actually electrified, in a weird way - the plastic woven cord has tiny wires in it, and Peter happened to touch one of them.

I just read in the paper - this beautiful, sunny, warm weather is not normal.  Apparently it's the sunniest March on record since 1953.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Laundry in Switzerland

When we first arrived at our temporary apartment in Geneva, getting used to the washer/dryer situation was big. I'd read that washer/dryers are uncommon in apartments in Switzerland, and that there's usually a common  room in the basement where people do laundry. It was really inconvenient, and involved multiple trips down to the basement over the course of the day, checking whether the machines were finished, whether dryers were free, etc.

Thank goodness in the permanent apartment we're in now, we have our own washer/dryer, no more trips to the basement. That's the good part. The bad part is that it's a combination washer/dryer (it's in the kitchen, under the counter), which is not as effective in washing, and as for drying - forget about it. Unless you put in a much smaller amount of clothing (about half of what you can put in during a wash cycle), there's a scorched smell while running the dryer cycle, which lingers in the clothes, too. Eric claims that it doesn't bother him, so he just puts his clothes in the full wash/dry cycle. But for me and the kids clothes, I use the wash cycle, then hang the clothes up on a folding clothes rack in the kitchen. There's not much humidity in the air here, so they usually dry overnight or during the day. I don't wash clothes as frequently as I used to, because of the extra hassle. Overall, though, I have the routine down now, and it works pretty well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No Craigslist in Geneva!

Here's something I really miss here in Geneva - Craigslist. Back in the US, you always knew where to go to buy or sell anything used. There's really only one place, and that's Craigslist. We sold both our cars, and our travel trailer on Craigslist before we left. I had some big gripes about the lack of various features, but it's big, it works, and everyone posts there.

Here in Geneva, the story is very different. There actually is a Craigslist in Geneva (http://geneva.craigslist.ch/) but it's a sad empty little shell of a website, with some spam and not much else.  There are places to buy and sell used items online. The problem is, there are far too many of them, and none of then have a solid lead in the online classified marketplace.  Also, many of the expat websites have a little classified section.  And at all the grocery stores as well, there's a well-used bulletin board where people post little notes, advertising this and that.

It adds up to a very fragmented classified marketplace. So it's just not worth it for me to try to buy or sell anything used online, except perhaps for something large like a car, because I'd need to learn how to post in so many places.

Maybe that's why I see so much large furniture on the street here, on the day of the month that the city picks up large items. Much of it is in reasonable condition, but where on Craigslist you can easily put up a "free to the first person who'll pick it up" type thing, here it's just too much work.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Walking distance to everything...

Now I'll write something positive to make up for my gripes about graffiti and dog poop in my last post.  And that is...I really enjoy living so close to everything, practically in the city center, and right next to a beautiful park, Parc Le Grange.  Here's where I went today:

  • walked the kids to school (3 minutes)
  • walked from the school to my work (5 minutes)
  • took a walk along Lac Leman at lunch
  • walked to school to pick the kids up (5 minutes)
  • walked with the kids to the park (6 minutes)
  • went home from the park (3 minutes)
  • walked to the Coop grocery store (4 minutes)
And, it was a beautifully sunny day, warm, no jacket needed.  The playground at Parc Le Grange, very close to us, has a great playground area, a sand pit, a water fountain, lots of trees to climb, a wading pool, and ROMAN RUINS.  Yes, roman ruins.  Nothing extraordinary, just a few dug up walls from an old roman villa.  But still, living so close to roman ruins is pretty exciting, especially for Kenny.

And yes, groceries are crazy expensive.  But some of the store brand items are pretty reasonable. They're tucked out of the way, but for instance, a two kilo bag of apples was 2.50. That's not bad at all. And kiwis, of all things, go on sale for really reasonable prices - 1.30 for a kilo.  Yogurt is pretty cheap, too.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Pristine Switzerland?

I try to stay away from negative posts, but I have to write about this, since it's such a contrast from what I expected.  Before coming to Geneva, I had an image of Switzerland as being completely pristine, clean and tidy.  That ideal was dashed on the way to our temporary apartment from the airport.  There's graffiti everywhere, on everything.  And not nice, mural style graffiti, but just plain old tags and scribbling.

Also, the amount of litter around is tremendous.  Maybe Bellevue, where we moved from, is particularly clean, and so the contrast is significant.  I don't know why there's so much litter here, in a wealthy, super-expensive city.  But it's there.

And last but certainly not least - the dog poop!  It's worse than I've seen anywhere.  I'm baffled at the level of irresponsibility of the dog owners, letting their dog poop on sidewalks all over the city, without even an effort to clean it up. I was also seeing lots of dog poop bags, with poop in them, just sitting on the sidewalk. I was astounded - why would someone take the trouble of putting the poop in a bag, then not even put it in the garbage (conveniently placed on almost every city block)? And yet they do. Just a few days ago I actually saw a guy picking up his dog's poop, put it in a bag, and then TOSS THE BAG IN THE STREET!  I stared at him, but didn't say anything. Amazing.

I wonder if Zurich, in the German speaking part of Switzerland, is any different? There was an article in a Swiss magazine recently, about how the Romande (French-speaking part of Switzerland) are the "Greeks of Switzerland" (in a bad way, free-spending and lazy).

Friday, March 9, 2012

A public gaming evening

Very close to our house, within a few blocks, is what's called a ludotheque (toy library/community play space). We've been there quite a bit, to have the kids play and "check out" some toys.  But also on occasional evenings, they have game evenings or "soirée jeux".  Tonight was one of those evenings, and, with a lot of trepidation, I went there on my own.  Some friends showed up as well (parents of another child in Peter's class, from Germany, he works with the UN human rights commission), but that was after I'd already been there a while.  It went pretty well, I got there pretty early and was able to sit down right away to play a game.

The game was called something like Pix.  It was a little like Pictionary, except that instead of just being able to draw freehand, you put magnetic squares on a grid, and get extra points for making the drawing with the least number of squares.  It was a lot of fun, though trying to understand what was being said, and also speak a little bit of French, was very stressful.  People were generally quite helpful, and they had many facilitators (from a group called Joca) to help with the games.  

After the Pictionary type game, I played another one with my friends, which was not nearly as fun.  It was one of those long-running strategic games that I'm not very good at.  

Overall - I'm proud of myself for going here!  It took some guts, especially since I've barely been able to practice my French at all and I'm quite rusty.  But it's always good to get out.  I talked to one of the facilitators, he said that the Joca association mainly organizes game evenings, and is supported financially by the city of Geneva.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Warm and sunny, just how I like it!

The weather the past few weeks has been giving us a break - it's been beautifully warm and sunny, day after day.  We took advantage of it to do some day trips this weekend.  Saturday we walked on the Sentier de Sous Terre, on the north side of the Rhone.  The water is beautifully clear and blue.  There was a lot of evidence of homeless camps around, though - mattresses stuck in corners and caves everywhere.  At the beginning of our walk was an archeological site - Saint-Jean-hors-les-Murs, an old priory.  The kids were most interested in the lizards scampering around on the warm sunny rocks.  The lizards were never in any danger of being caught, but the kids tried anyway!

We got to the same area we were last weekend - La Jonction, where the rivers Rhone and Arve meet.  But this time we were below, right down by the river.  There's a pumping station there, which pumps sewage to a treatment plant.

Here's the view from the bridge

On Sunday, we had planned to rent a car and head out to Lac de Joux, one of the largest lakes in Europe that freezes.   Luckily, I called the tourism office first, and though the lake is still frozen, it's starting to melt and is too dangerous to walk on.  We should have gone last weekend!  So we headed to Nyon instead.  It's a nice little town on Lake Geneva with a castle and nice waterfront.  We took a few buses to the train station, then the train to Nyon.  It's just about a 15 minute ride, very smooth and quiet - I love the trains and am looking forward to a longer trip!

The castle is within easy walking distance.  Unfortunately our timing was off - we got there around 10:30, and the castle and other local museums were only open from 2 till 5.  So we wandered around, had our lunch, and hung out at playgrounds and the beach.  

Most of the castle was taken up with an exhibit of old porcelain - not interesting at all for the kids, and just slightly more interesting for me.  But there were the towers and the interior walkways which were great, and at the top of the castle was a former prison, with scary little rooms.

I don't have pictures of the Roman museum, but we went there too.  It was the first Sunday of the month, so all the museums are free!  I like that, not only that they're free, but I feel perfectly OK just running through the exhibits if the kids aren't that interested, and just catching the highlights.  My main takeaway from the Roman museum was - the Romans actually used cranes to build things!  They had cranes that look quite similar to what we have nowadays, with block and tackle, and slaves powering the cranes.  Amazing.  There was a very knowledgeable archaeology student who talked to us at length about the excavation, the ruins, etc.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

La Jonction - where the Rivers Rhone and Arve meet

Took a bus trip to today to Bois de la Batie - a park with a large playground and small zoo. We brought some stale bread to feed the ducks, some of which swam under the ice for minutes at a time - we worried that they wouldn't find their way out

We crossed over the River Rhone on a railway bridge.

And here's La Jonction.  We're going to have to come again and go to the little pier sticking out at the end of the peninsula, where you can really get a great view of the waters joining. The bus connections were very convenient - we took bus #2 out, and bus #9 back, no changes needed.


We went to Rome over the kids winter holidays. We were teetering on the edge of not going, since Eric was quite sick over the weekend, in bed for 2 days solid with some kind of virus. I got it too, though not as bad, and then Peter got some kind of stomach upset with vomiting and diarrhea. We probably would have stayed at home, but the drainage in our bathroom was being fixed (a major project involving the ripping out of part of the floor), and we wouldn't have had a shower for days, so that tipped the scales in favor of going.

I was VERY nervous on the trip, just in case he vomited or had diarrhea. He actually did vomit, but in the airport and it was easily cleaned up. Poor guy. He got better as we stayed in Rome (we were there 4 nights) but still wanted to be carried most of the time. Sometimes it felt like my arms were about to fall off!

One unusual thing in Rome was that there were no passport checks when coming into the country. Nothing whatsoever, we could have been there completely illegally. We paid 40 euros for a taxi into the center, which is apparently a fixed price, and were at our hotel (Residenzia Frattina) within half an hour. The hotel is quite small and very centrally located. The kids were very excited by the idea of having a breakfast buffet, because they remembered the one at the Novotel in Paris, but this buffet was much smaller.

Italians are famously kid-friendly, and we experienced that as well. They smile more at kids, and ask them questions. At one point I was walking with Peter down a narrow street that cars were zipping through on, holding hands with him, with him on the traffic side. A car stopped, with an older couple, and the driver leaned over and said something like, "bambino sempre parte del muro". I pretty much understood it (children should be on the side of the wall), because I understand Spanish, and it's fairly similar. And the guy was right - I should have been holding Peter's other hand, and walked next to the cars myself.

The Italian food we had was definitely not outstanding. My expectations were a little too high, I think, because I'd just listened to a coworker of mine rave about how fantastic the food in Italy was. But I should have remembered that this particular coworker raves about everything. We tried a few restaurants, but got nothing that stood out as exceptional. One that we went to was called the Life restaurant. The owner or manager was standing outside, coaxing us to come in with excellent English. It all sounded great on the menu, but the actual food was really bland. Plus, there was a "service charge" for the table, which is apparently somewhat of a rip-off. And the bottle of water that we bought was definitely just tap water that we paid 3 Euros for. I later looked up the place on TripAdvisor, and found lots of positive reviews that were almost certainly posted by the owners. Too many mentions of their "stupendous lobster tasting menu". Note to self - the negative reviews are usually more accurate. Also, in very touristy areas, people that accost you and speak English really well are usually scammers.

On the plus side - we REALLY enjoyed the ice creams. We got them every day, because it was pretty warm in the sun (and thank goodness it was sunny every day except our last!). They were too big for Peter, so once he'd enjoyed it a while, and it was getting messy, I would say, "Okay, 5 more licks, and then make it disappear when he'd finished his 5 licks.

On Friday we got a relatively early start and walked to the Coliseum. I should have had us skip it, because I figured as famous as it was, there would be massive crowds even though this is the off season. And yes, there were massive crowds. But it was much worse because of the fact that more than half of the area that's normally open was closed off - supposedly because of aftereffects of the snowfall from a few days ago. Unless there was structural damage, I don't understand why it was closed. In hindsight, if I were to do it again, I'd completely skip the Coliseum - or maybe just do a quick run through - definitely NOT do the guided tour, which was massive and overcrowded.

Instead, I'd spend my time at the Roman Forum, which was much more interesting, less crowded, and had more places to explore. There were vendors - I believe they were Bengali - all over the place, with a serious lack of imagination in terms of what they sold. There were souvenir scarves, sunglasses, and little crystal squares with laser-etched souvenir scenes inside, and camera tripods. And that's it, thought there were dozens of vendors. I imagine they're provided with a bunch of goods that can be sold at a really high margin. They avoided the police, and had all their things set up in such a way that they could run away at a moments notice, which they did, frequently, when the police gave halfhearted chase to them.
Peter at the Coliseum
It was a tiring day for the kids - poor Peter, in particular, was asking for hours when were were going to get ice cream and go home. I carried him quite a bit. We finally decided to go back home, and stopped for ice creams. At the first place we looked, a simple cone was 12 euro each! The normal prices is 2 euro. Definitely pays to look around.

At home the kids relaxed and watched some Italian comics on TV. It's amazing how absorbed they can be in TV, considering they don't speak Italian. Then, after some stomach upset issues and related clean-up with Peter, we went out to dinner at a restaurant near-by (better, but still wouldn't go back) and then hung out at the Spanish Steps a bit. In the evening, the vendors were trying to sell laser penlights, and light-stick rubber band powered helicopters. At the top of the Spanish Steps was a church that was having a service in French. There were four female figures all covered in a white cloak in hood - perhaps it was noviates taking the vows to become nuns?

We did most of the famous touristy things.  We went to the Spanish Steps multiple times (it was within a few minutes walk from our hotel), because Kenny wanted to see the action.  He bargained with a vendor there for one of the squishy balls they were selling (got him to 1 Euro from 2 Euros.

Also we went to the Piazza Navona.  Kenny actually got separated from us there.  He was with Eric, and wanted to run to where Peter and I were sitting, but somehow thought that we were on the other side of the square.  Ironically I had walked around the square with Kenny a few minutes earlier, and we had settled that if he got lost, he would go to the central fountain, which has a big column and is very visible.  But he got a little teary-eyed, and concerned bystanders had him stay with them instead of letting him go to the fountain.

This old fountain can be used as a drinking fountain too

On our last day there, Sunday, we went to St Peter's Square.  We should have timed things differently, because there was a mass being held (which was broadcast outside in the square), so the church was actually closed until 1:00 in the afternoon.  So, we just wandered round the square and absorbed the atmosphere.  There were more nuns and priests than I've seen in my life.  Plenty of younger priests, too, they weren't all old.  I thought there were very few men becoming priests now?  Also, for some reason there were lots of American priests, judging by accents.