Posted in Foreign Service

Farewell 2020; Farewell Blog!

At our first post in Belize in 2011.

Well, I think it’s about that time, folks, to wish you all a fond farewell. In April it will have been 10 years that I’ve been writing about our lives, and this June will mark 10 years since I joined the Foreign Service. This is my 446th blog post.

If we were going back to the States for a tour or two, I’d probably keep it going. But if we’re going to be there for the better part of the next decade, that kind of takes the “foreign” out of my Foreign Service blog. So instead of looking back at 2020, I will briefly reflect on 2011-2021.

The first five years were definitely the best for our family. If you like, you can read my Five-Year FS Anniversary post here. We started in Belize, then went to London, and afterward started our tour in Iceland. London was where we were the happiest. And I have loved living in Europe in general…the history, the architecture, the variety of cultures, the food, and the easy travel.

The last five years have been full of loss and disappointment. But never in the career choice. The Foreign Service and the Department of State have been a surrogate family, providing resources when life outside of work got hard. Even now I have a place to land when we leave Geneva and will continue to stay in the Foreign Service, hopefully until I retire at age 65.

Now that we’re heading back Stateside, I am thankful for what has been an amazing period in my life serving my country overseas. I’m thankful for all the friends that I have made along the way and all the family and friends that made the effort to come and visit us abroad.

And I’m thankful for my readers! I’ve loved reading your comments and knowing that someone out there was sharing and enjoying our adventures. I wish you all the best in your future and the very happiest new year in 2021. Stay safe and healthy out there!

Ciao!!
Posted in Switzerland

Preparing for Departure (Again)

I think I had one more item left on my Geneva arrival checklist (buy the mandatory annual Swiss highway sticker) when I started my departure checklist. I have yet to buy the sticker since it expires at the end of the year and have just been avoiding the highways, for the most part. So I probably won’t bother.

And now I’m a good way into my departure checklist for our second international move within six months. So far, it looks like this:

Initiate curtailment process. Considering that I don’t actually want to leave, it was ironic that I had to chase a few people along the chain of approval to get this taken care of. But I’ve learned that the more control you’re able to have over the transfer process, the less stressful it is in the end…kind of a controlled crash rather than one that leaves an impact crater.

Request official packout and shipping of household goods and POV. Schedule packout date and POV pickup. Coordinate pre-move housing inspection and shipping survey. Complete half a dozen import forms for Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Get travel orders, reserve plane tickets, book and pay for cat on all legs of flight. There are still no direct flights from Geneva to DC. So the “best” route we could get is going to take 15 hours and involve changing planes twice. But I was able to find something that didn’t involve us getting up at 4am or spending the night somewhere along the way and having to drag the cat and all the luggage out of and back to an airport.

Shipping the dog! That’s right, not only did I have to pay an exorbitant amount of money to ship our dog to Switzerland in the time of COVID…but now I get to do it again in the other direction! I nearly had a heart attack when our US-based shipper said that prices were now three to four times what we paid in August, which would be more than what I paid for our car.

But since then the prices have come back down, and I’m actually relieved to “only” be paying a fee similar to what it cost to import him the first time. It’s all relative, isn’t it. I still need to get both pets examined by a veterinarian and get health certificates and fill out the shipping and customs forms, but this time I don’t have to jump through the hoops of driving three hours away to get anything stamped by the USDA.

Find somewhere to live. I am working on buying a place, so that’s been an interesting process as a first-time home buyer. But we won’t have any furniture until our stuff arrives from Switzerland, so I also had to find temporary quarters until then, which happily the State Department does subsidize. So I’ve been figuring out how all that works.

Register my son for school. Thankfully, he will now be in US public school, so we don’t have to go through an application or acceptance process. But I do have to send them all of his school records and fill out a dozen registration and health forms.

Beyond that, it’s all the usual preparation…updating addresses for all the banks and credit cards, cancelling cable and internet services and returning equipment. Setting up new cable, internet, and cell phone service back in the US.

Speaking of school, I picked up my son’s personal items from the office the other day. And considering the impact of their decision on our lives, I tried my very best to be kind and diplomatic. There were two people there at the time who wished us the very best for our future and happy holidays.

On the way out, one of them came running up to me and handed me his school pictures that had just come in the day before. His beautiful school pictures in his cute little uniform. I held it together until I made it to the forest path across from the school…and then cried the rest of the way back to our house.

Posted in Switzerland

Thanksgiving in Zermatt

View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt!

In the absence of the usual Thanksgiving get-togethers, I figured this would be a perfect opportunity to get out and about. Even though the COVID situation is still fairly dire in Europe, Switzerland eased up a bit on the regulations this week and let some non-essential businesses like hair salons reopen.

With this in mind, I figured we’d escape a bit and try to see some more of the country before we leave next month. Zermatt and the Matterhorn have always been on my bucket list. The 1959 Disney movie Third Man on the Mountain with James MacArthur and Janet Munro was one of my favorites when I was a kid…they starred together again the following year in Swiss Family Robinson.

I wasn’t sure what the roads would be like in the Alps in November, and I never did get around to buying winter tires. So we took the train there and back in a little under four hours each way. This also allowed me to look out the windows and enjoy the scenery instead of concentrating on the road.

I was a bit concerned about being crammed onto a train with a bunch of other people, but I needn’t have worried. We were literally the only ones in the compartment the entire way there. Thursday mornings are a good time to travel at the moment! Things were a little busier on the way back on Saturday, but we got to ride in the double-decker intercity train, which was fun, and we still had plenty of room.

Doing the emtpy-platform dance.
Had the train compartment all to ourselves.

I booked our accommodation on Booking.com, and instead of splurging like I usually do, I tried to take into account our impending reduction in income and get something a bit cheaper. We still ended up with a cute place with a little balcony and a lovely view of the mountains only five minutes’ walk from the train station and a grocery store. There was no reception desk, but our key and an envelope with our name on it were waiting on a table inside, and they’d emailed us the code to the front door ahead of time.

You do get what you pay for though. The refrigerator was barely above room temperature. The microwave was prehistoric, and the start button kept sticking when you pressed it. The internet connection was so slow that my son complained ENDLESSLY in the evenings when he wanted to play on his iPad. There was a fan in the bathroom that turned on and off again in five second intervals during our entire stay. And the room was so warm that I hardly slept the first night until I finally just opened the window and left it open, even though it was 35F degrees outside.

Selfie on the chalet balcony.

But we did have excellent weather and amazing views of the Matterhorn from town! I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t a single flake of snow…in the Alps at the end of November…and there were only a handful of buildings with Christmas lights. But we were able to do the one big thing that I had planned. On Friday, we took the cable car up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise!

What an amazing ride that was! You start out in the village in a small gondola (enclosed ski lift, not Venetian boat) called the Matterhorn Express that takes you not just up the mountain…but up one side and down the other and up another one, passing through three ski stations where you have the option to disembark, before depositing you at Trockener Steg mountain station (elev. 9,642 feet).

From Trockener Steg you can either take further gondolas down the back to Italy…or you can take the shiny new (2018) Matterhorn Glacier Ride cable car the rest of the way up to Glacier Paradise at Klein Matterhorn. Not to be confused with the actual Matterhorn, Klein Matterhorn is a ridge between the Matterhorn and the Monte Rosa massif with stunning views of the mountain.

The Klein Matterhorn mountain station that is home to Glacier Paradise is located at 12,739 feet in elevation compared to the Matterhorn’s 14,692. And the cable car drops you off after a dizzying ascent that dangles you 650 feet above the ground in your little cable car. If I had known that ahead of time, I might not have gone on it.

Great pic of the cable car ascent from https://minimeexplorer.ch blog. I had my eyes closed and was unable to take pictures.
A great shot of the descent from Zermatt.ch website. At this point I had shoved my self into the back of the cable car, so that I couldn’t see how far down we would fall.

I don’t think of myself as being particularly scared of heights, but I’m starting to discover that that’s an inaccurate assessment. Apparently I’m quite terrified of heights and had to cover my eyes for the last few minutes of the ascent to keep from having a full on panic attack. But the 10-year-old was a champ! He wasn’t a bit afraid…although he did get a little nervous when the car stopped on the way back down…to let some crazy maintenance person climb on top of a passing car.

But we survived and finally arrived at Glacier Paradise where we took a little elevator down three stories into the glacier where they’d dug out a big tunnel and created some lovely ice sculptures. Again, we were the only people in the entire installation, so it was a bit eerie to walk around under 45 feet of ice…hoping that it didn’t collapse…because no one would hear you scream…and no one even knew we were down there.

Here are some pretty pictures:

Self-explanatory.
Cool dragon ice sculpture.
Walking along the empty ice tomb.

After we were done with our self-guided tour through the ice tomb, we stood around by the restaurant (because all the seats had been taped off to encourage social distancing) and ate a salami sandwich that I had brought from the store in town. From there we enjoyed a nice quiet descent down the mountain. It took about 45 minutes each way, so you really do get to soak up the surroundings. It cost 90 CHF for adults roundtrip, including admission to the ice tomb, and kids are free with the Junior Travel Card.

Once back in town and no longer fearing for our lives, we walked along the Vispa river that runs through the middle and is fed by the Gorner and Zmutt Glaciers. On the way, we stopped into the picturesque little cemetery and paid our respects to all the climbers who actually have died at the mountaineers’ memorial.

The pretty little cemetery.
Dedication to climbers and the mountains they died on.

Since we weren’t there to ski, and there wasn’t much open in the way of shops and restaurants (even for takeout), we only stayed one more night and then decided to head home the next day. But Zermatt is a really cute town. There are no cars allowed, but it only takes about 20 minutes to walk from one end to the other. So it’s super convenient. I’d love to go back sometime when the pandemic is over, and it doesn’t feel like such a ghost town.

Posted in Switzerland

Castles and Standing Stones

Château de Vufflens and vineyard.

This could very well be a British blog post from the title, but we are indeed still in Switzerland for a few more weeks. The Swiss border with France is still somewhat closed (you can cross with written permission). The UK is still locked down. And Geneva is the hub of the second wave of COVID in Europe and under partial shutdown…non-essential businesses are closed, but restaurants are still open for takeout.

Fortunately, Switzerland is a beautiful country full of cool outdoor stuff that doesn’t require interacting with other people. So over the last couple of weekends, we have made a few short excursions in the car to get outside and get some fresh air.

Coppet

The first outing was to a little suburb about 10 mins up the road from us called Coppet. Every time we drive through it, my son says it reminds him of Rome, so I figured we should stop and check it out. And he might not have been that far off as it first appeared in the history books in 1294 as the very Latin-sounding Copetum.

We parked the car, admired the central fountain, bought some decadent chocolate desserts at the patisserie, and ate our treats on the waterfront. Then we walked up the Rue de la Gare, checked out the exterior of the château (private property), and then ambled along a wonderful path lined with tall trees that stretched away in front of the castle before heading home.

The main street in Coppet.
Fountain and chocolate shop.
Coppet castle.

Château de Vufflens

Our next excursion was to see an amazing privately owned medieval castle about 30 minutes north of us before you get to Lausanne. Parts of the current castle were built in 1425 on the site of a previous castle owned by the Vufflen aristocracy. The whole area is called Vufflens-le-Château.

We parked on the side of a little road in front of the castle, then walked along and enjoyed the view of the vineyard. Then we strolled along in the opposite direction and into a bit of the village. What we saw was all residential except for a town hall, the Bolle & Cie winery, and a protestant church from 1864.

The winery wasn’t open at the moment, but they often do tastings and tours. And they did have a little table out front selling homemade cookies and jams on the honor system. Across the road was a little house with a small orchard in front, and they too had a little table with sweets and jams for sale. Just drop your coins in the little money box. So we picked up some quince, a small bag of caramels, and some sugar cookies.

Another view of the Château de Vufflens.
Sign for jams and honey.
Checking out the wares with the château in the background.

Yverdon-les-Bains

From the Château de Vufflens we continued another 30 minutes north to Yverdon-les-Bains. I had wanted to come here on my own previously to enjoy their massive thermal spa…it had been a spa town with a sulfur spring since the Roman era. And, of course, it had a lovely medieval castle. But today we had come to see the standing stones.

The regional tourist website says, “The unique formation of the Clendy Menhirs is the most important Neolithic site in Switzerland. Situated on the shores of Lake Neuchâtel, it comprises 45 standing stones that were erected more than 6000 years ago and are carved with human form. Some are 4.5 metres tall and weigh up to five tonnes.” The stones were erected by the first permanent settlers of the region who were a Celtic tribe called the Helvetii. The circle is extremely easy to get to and is just off the side of the road with a small parking lot.

After we soaked up some good vibes, we drove five minutes into the town center in search of lunch. We parked by the castle and walked through the pedestrian zone on Rue du Milieu in search of food. The castle was lovely and designed in the 13th century by Jacques de Saint-Georges, who also designed Caernarvon Castle in Wales.

Deciding to branch out from my usual ham and cheese on a baguette, I found a kebab shop that was open and ordered a box of chicken nuggets with fries for the kiddo, and I had their kebab box also with fries. (Unfortunately, it was probably the worst Middle Eastern food I’d ever had in my life. The meat was flavorless and dried out even though we’d stood in a line of four socially-distanced people, so the place wasn’t lacking in business.)

The Clendy Menhirs.
A corner of the castle in Yverdon-les-Bains.
Pedestrian street of Rue du Milieu.

We drove home through banks of fog punctuated by sunshine. There’s quite a bit of mist in the lake region in the fall. So the weather had been very misty and British for checking out standing stones, but we’d found a lucky clear patch earlier in the day at our first chateau. I realized after we got home that Yverdon-les-Bains also has some Roman ruins. Maybe next time.

Posted in Switzerland

2020 – The Gift That Keeps On Giving

I am extremely sad and disappointed to announce that we will be curtailing and heading back to DC in January. The single event that I have dreaded the most since learning we were going to Switzerland has come to pass.

My son’s school has decided that they cannot offer him sufficient special needs support, and they’ve kindly informed me that they “no longer feel that their school is the right place for him.” So they are terminating his enrollment at the end of this term.

My frustration is compounded by the fact that I had sent them all of his information, his IEPs, his psychological evaluations and test results when we applied, and they had no problem accepting him then.

The sad thing is that my son loved his homeroom teacher when we first arrived. And she sent me occasional emails telling me what a great kid he was. Unfortunately, she quit a few weeks into the school year to take care of sick family, and things have pretty much gone downhill from there.

Right before autumn break, the school called me in for a meeting and told me that they were having issues and needed to discuss options for further support. I came away from that meeting thinking we actually had “options”, but we did not.

So I have spent the last several weeks scrambling to try to find alternatives, so that we don’t have to pack up and go home before we’ve even hung the art on the walls. I’ve had meetings with all of the relevant medical and educational professionals, and I’ve queried the other international schools in the area, and even offered to homeschool him since we’re all still in lockdown…but to no avail.

I had been holding on to a small flame of hope that once we got back overseas, we would hit our stride again, my son would flourish in the welcoming environment of an international school…and we would live happily ever after…in free government housing. But that fairytale is now over. The bottom line is that the best thing for my son is to stay in one place in the US where there are federally funded schools with special needs assistance.

So I was forced to reevaluate my reality and felt that I had three choices. A) I could quit the Foreign Service and move somewhere affordable where I could buy a house and we could form some kind of stable community. B) I could keep my job, return to DC, and attempt to survive in their overpriced economy indefinitely. C) I could combine the two previous options and go on Leave Without Pay status for up to five years without losing my job. But they all sucked as far as I was concerned.

First of all, I’d have to be crazy to quit a secure job that I love in the middle of a pandemic with high unemployment, which made me sick to my stomach to even think about. Second, if I went on LWOP for five years, that would mean my son would have just enough time to really dig in somewhere and possibly make some great friends…for me to pull him out by the roots his junior year of high school and drag him overseas again (assuming he could get a MED clearance). So believe it or not, I’m going with option B.

The ONLY way that I can survive in the DC area is to buy a place instead of rent. That way I won’t be flushing away tens of thousands of dollars in said rent and would theoretically get SOME of it back again once the place was eventually sold. So I’ve done some preliminary searching and have found a habitable property in a good area in Northern Virginia (which I have grown fond of) with decent schools.

I then went online to assess my chances of getting a home loan. Happily my credit score is higher than my SATs, so I’m in pretty good shape there. I’ve been a customer of USAA for a decade, so I used their online tool, but they said they were only offering VA loans at the moment, and I’ve never been in the military. I went to the State Department Federal Credit Union, the credit union of my employer…but they couldn’t pre-approve me because, wait for it…I don’t make enough money. Let’s just sit and soak up that irony for a while.

But I was preapproved for a Federal Housing Administration loan, which, because I’m so poor by their standards, I actually have to take out insurance to cover, in case I can’t pay it, which increases my actual monthly payment. Anyway, even with the insurance payment, my mortgage would still be $700 less per month than I was paying for rent in Falls Church. So I’ve got that going for me.

I will actually have to start budgeting again every month, which I had been blissfully and financially secure enough not to do since joining the State Department a decade ago. The fact that I’m currently at, and now have to leave, one of the highest paying posts in the Foreign Service (without being in a war zone) to plunge into financial hardship is beyond depressing. But children are more important than money and career, right?

So I am trying to remain somewhat optimistic. Even if we stay in DC for another seven years until he finishes high school, I will still have nine years left in the Foreign Service. Barring any middle-aged health crises of my own at that time (knock on wood), that gives me three more three-year tours overseas or four more two-year tours, which could still be pretty exciting.

We shall see…

Posted in Switzerland

Halloween 2020

A little autumn door decor.

Well, Halloween has come and gone. As most holidays and events this year, it was fairly underwhelming. Even my son expressed his disappointment at the end of the day, which is always sad to hear. But there really wasn’t much that I could do about it.

I had decorated our home with faux fall foliage, plastic pumpkins, and my favorite dragon skull that A had picked out a couple years ago. I did leave the Alien cookie jar in the box though since he doesn’t like it. We made a special trip to the local grocery store for candy to eat, if not to pass out. And I picked up two small squash to carve since we missed the actual pumpkins that had arrived and disappeared equally quickly.

But all the Halloween events and trick-or-treating itself had been cancelled due to the explosion of coronavirus cases in Switzerland. And today begins a new partial lockdown for Geneva canton where we live, including the closure of all non-essential businesses.

Tiny squash!
Our panda costumes.
My favorite dragon skull.

I had thought of trying to squeeze in one last hurrah this weekend…maybe the aquarium in Lausanne or the Freddie Mercury statue and Chillon Castle in Montreux. But it didn’t feel right with everything that’s going on. So we stayed home and watched Halloween movies in our panda costumes.

One good thing about chilling at home though was that I got to attack the unpacking of the HHE full time! And I was able to make quite a dent in it! The only things that really remain are the assembly of the dining room chairs and the sideboard for the entryway.

I had bought a few pieces of Wayfair furniture before we left DC. The couch was a breeze to put together…took about 10 minutes. But the coffee table was ridiculous. It had 29 pages of instructions and took HOURS. So now I’m in no hurry to start on the sideboard. I’ll probably need a project over the upcoming weekends anyway.

Trick-or-treating cancelled.
The living room.

Other than that, I need to organize the guest/storage/game room better. But the rest of the place is fairly livable. I have some art up but can’t put up anything that goes into the exterior walls since they’re concrete, and I don’t have a drill. I’d have to put in a work order for facilities to come out and hang them, but, due to the pandemic, they’re only available for emergencies. So it looks like we’re going to be half done for a while. Sounds like this year in a nutshell.

Posted in Switzerland

Glacier 3000!

The Peak Walk at Glacier 3000.

We’ve had an exciting couple of weeks. After two long months, we had our HHE delivered on the 20th, so our apartment is now a total disaster. But it’s nice to finally have our own stuff and some color in our place. And most of it made it in one piece…except for an old full-length mirror that I bought for my ex in London. Two of the three bedrooms and one of the bathrooms have mirrored closet doors, so we have no shortage of reflections.

Breaking mirrors is supposed to be bad luck though, and mine started two days later when I went to swap out our rental car. After nine weeks of sliding in and out of our shared carport, I hit the massive beam in the middle while backing out and scratched the bumper. The Swiss guy at Budget was very nice about it. It was a sizeable scratch, but he marked it as small, did an automatic estimation, and charged my card for $570 worth of damage on the spot.

Happily, the credit card that I used for the rental had collision insurance (since my USAA car insurance isn’t valid in Switzerland). You’re supposed to notify them right away, but it took me about a week to get around to it. I spent a few minutes on the phone with an agent who told me to file a claim online. I did this and was fully reimbursed in about 48 hours. VERY happy about that.

About two days into my next four-week rental, I was told that an earlier appointment had opened up for our POV inspection, and my car would actually be available three weeks early. I was simultaneously thrilled and horrified…what if I couldn’t return the rental early and was still responsible for the remaining three weeks?? But I needn’t have worried. I contacted Expedia via online chat, they called Budget in Geneva and arranged for me to return my car…and only be charged for the days that I’d used. Talk about a relief!

Our car also arrived in good condition. So yesterday, we took her on her first big outing in Switzerland to Glacier 3000! Technically, Glacier 3000 is the name of the cable car company, but it has also become known as a specific tourist destination in the Bernese Alps about an hour and a half northeast of Geneva. The first cable car starts in a mountain pass called Col du Pillon (el. 1546 m) and takes you up to the halfway point at Cabane middle station (el. 2525 m) where you switch cars and continue to the top at Scex Rouge mountain station (el. 2971 m).

One of the many times I pulled over to take pictures.
Cable car descending.
Interactive map.

They have a fantastic website with a webcam and all kinds of information, including which activities are open on the day. The whole place had been closed for the last week due to bad weather or high winds, so I was checking it daily as the weekend approached. Sunday was supposed to have clearer weather, but also 30 mph winds. So I figured I would rather be safe than sorry and scurried around on Saturday morning digging winter boots and gloves out of boxes. Plus after a rainy week of my son being home on fall break from school, we were starting to get pretty snippy with each other. Time to get out of the house!!

It’s about 80 CHF (88 USD) for an adult roundtrip ticket, and kids are half price. BUT the cables cars are considered public transportation, so we stopped at the train station in Montreux on the way and picked up a Junior Travel Card for my son. With the card, you get a year of public transportation free for only 30 CHF. So that paid for itself on the first day. An amazing deal!! Highly recommended.

Ascending in the cable car.
View of the valley.
Switching cars at Cabane middle station.

Once you get to the top of the mountain you have several options for activities. They have a ski lift, a restaurant, a fun park for sledding, a snow park for snowboarding, a glacier walk, dog sledding, an alpine coaster (only open in the summer), a snow bus (closed due to COVID), and the pièce de résistance…the Peak Walk. The Peak Walk is a 351-foot long pedestrian suspension bridge and the first in the world to connect two mountain peaks.

We had a wonderful time admiring the fall colors on the way, riding the cable car, and walking around in the snow. My son made an obligatory snow angel, and we walked up to the edge of the Peak Walk. I didn’t feel the need to walk out onto it, and we still had some amazing views. Because of the clouds we couldn’t see the rest of Alps, but I’m still happy with our experience. We could see the dog sleds running on the glacier and hear the sounds of barking carried across the snow. I thought they didn’t start until November 3, so obviously we will have to go back.

The alpine coaster and ski lift.
Snow angel!
Me at the edge of the Peak Walk.

Then we stopped at the restaurant for lunch and shared a mediocre cheeseburger with fries, an iced tea, and an apple juice…for $37 USD. At first I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to eat in the restaurant as many places around Switzerland are now requiring that you download a contact tracing app on your phone.

We’re not allowed to download random apps on US government phones, so some folks from the mission have been denied service at various places. But my kiddo was getting hangry, so I had to at least check…and, even though they had a big sign on the door for the app, it turned out that they were also allowing you to simply write your information on paper.

After lunch, we decided it was time to head back down. We had a lovely time in the snow, and our good moods were restored. We even had our image captured on the webcam…lol.

Here we are on the webcam. 🙂

 

 

 

Posted in Switzerland

Exploring Old Town Geneva

Next to Place du Bourg-de-Four in Old Town Geneva.

October 12 was a US federal holiday, and the kiddo was in school, so I was very excited to get out and check out Old Town Geneva! The two times that I’d visited previously, I’d never made it into the proper Old Town and didn’t realize it was as amazing as it was until I started researching the day’s adventures.

I began my itinerary after parking in one of the massive underground garages in the center of the city called Parking Mont Blanc. My boss had recommended that I visit Maison Tavel, which has wonderful exhibits on the history of Geneva, including a largescale model of how it looked while the old ramparts were still up in 1850. Unfortunately, most of the museums are closed on Mondays, so it just gives me an excuse to venture in again.

My walking itinerary on Google maps.

But there were plenty of other random things that I could still access. On my errands through town, I had noted that I wanted to get a closer look at the bridges. So I figured I would start out walking along the Rhone River. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, and I stopped to admire the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices, which started life as a Victorian-era power plant and later converted to a theatre.

I had learned that Mary Shelley was inspired to write Frankenstein on a visit to Geneva. And I found out that there was a Frankenstein statue that was fabulously creepy and strategically placed in Plainpalais quarter, which was the site of his first murder in the Gothic novel. So I checked that out along the way.

Bâtiment des Forces Motrices on the Rhone river.
The Frankenstein statue in Plainpalais.

Geneva was also a hub of the Protestant Reformation and home to John Calvin in the mid-16th century. So I basked in the fall colors and wandered over to the Reformation Wall in the Parc des Bastions. I had thought of stopping for lunch in the beautiful café in the park, but by the time that I got there, I wasn’t at all hungry and felt like I was on some kind of timed scavenger hunt. I had to see everything on my list before the school figured out I was out enjoying myself and called me to pick up my son for some unforeseen reason.

From the park I walked up the hill into the true Old Town that was once inside the city walls. Along the way, I passed the Marronnier de la Treille, which is the world’s longest bench, of all things. It was built between 1767 and 1774 and is about 120 meters (395 feet) long. And it has stunning views over the park.

The Reformation Wall.
The world’s longest bench. 🙂

Once inside the walls, I scouted out some of the big structural landmarks like the St. Germain Church (first church in Geneva to preach the Reformation doctrine in 1535); the Old Armory and the Hotel de Ville (town hall whose main building began construction in 1473 and had a paved horse ramp that went to the top floor so the aristocrats didn’t have to dismount and walk); St. Peter’s Cathedral (beautiful Gothic cathedral built in 1160 that started out Catholic and changed to Reformed Protestant under John Calvin); and the archaeological museum under the cathedral (amazing space highlighting the different layers of excavation and remains from the 3rd-12th centuries).

The Old Armory.
The Hotel de Ville.
One of the many lovely stained-glass windows in St. Peter’s Cathedral.
Roman-style mosaic in the archaeological museum beneath the cathedral.

After I checked off my main boxes, it was finally time for some food! I walked along the medieval streets to the Place du Bourg-de-Four and scoped out the cafés. I had imagined that I would relax in a chair outside in the sun and enjoy a cup of coffee, but for some reason, it felt a little too exposed. Maybe I’ve become agoraphobic between lockdown, teleworking, and quarantine.

So instead I made my way to one of the three patisseries that was on my list called A. Pougnier (family business since 1949). They had a decadent selection of sweet creations…and a nice pile of sandwiches. I grabbed my favorite ham and cheese on a baguette and chose a stunning strawberry tart to go. Then I walked to the end of the block, sat on a bench, and ate my lunch and special dessert with the finches and pigeons in the square in front of the Temple de la Madeleine (another famous Reformation church).  

Place du Bourg-de-Four.
Sweet treats and sandwiches on display at A. Pougnier.
The final stop at Boulangerie Pierre et Jean with giant cherries in the middle.

I could not, of course, venture into the chocolate district without getting something for my son. I fully intended on hitting all three patisseries, but the four hours of Google maps had started to drain my phone’s battery. So I decided to quit while I was ahead, visit one more shop, and then head home while I still had some source of navigation.

So the final stop for the day was Boulangerie Pierre et Jean. I have a thing for whimsical food that’s designed to look like other food…so I chose a sweet that looked like a large shiny cherry from a Disney cartoon. Once safely home with only minor contact with the side of the box, I shared it with my son who thought it was phenomenal. The outside was white chocolate coated in cherry glaze, and the inside was filled with custard and cherry preserves. It was amazing…and the perfect way to end the day.

Until next time…

Posted in Switzerland

Settling In

Photo credit: https://theswisswatchblog.com/2012/03/12/the-snow-line/

It’s been fairly rainy the last couple of weeks, so we haven’t really gone out and done much. But it is also nice and cool, so I am not complaining! My kiddo was fighting a cold at one point and stayed home from school for a few days, so I’ve been trying not to push him too much. He is, of course, more than happy to do nothing but play video games on the weekend.

We’ve been in country for two full months now, and we have yet to receive our HHE, which took for-freaking-ever to leave the States. Supposedly it’s in Belgium and should be arriving here in the next couple of weeks. I am seriously tired of staring at bare white walls and white tile floor…I want my fall decorations! Plus I’d like a TV again someday.

Our car is also in Belgium, but unlike our HHE, which is going through customs at port and can be delivered as soon as it arrives in Geneva, we have to wait for our vehicle to pass inspection locally. This week, I was told that there are no appointments available until November, so that’s kind of a bummer. Although I do have a screaming deal on my current rental car at $13/day.

One of the stranger things that we had to do after we arrived was get a dog license. The license in itself wasn’t a foreign concept, but the process was a bit elaborate. First, you have to get third party liability through a local insurance company, in case your dog bites someone or knocks them off their bike. You also need proof of address or your diplomatic ID from the Swiss government (this also takes a long time to get).

THEN you have to go to the town hall to get a registration number for the national dog database, whose acronym was thankfully changed from ANUS to AMICUS. After that, you take the number and the dog to a veterinarian where they can scan your pet’s microchip, confirm rabies vaccination paperwork, and register the dog in the database. Finally, you go back to the town hall, pick up your dog’s médaille to hang on the collar, and pay the extremely reasonable fee of two Swiss francs.

Technically you’re supposed to do this within the first two weeks of arrival. But since we were in quarantine for two weeks, and the town hall is only open during the week and generally closed for lunch from 12-2pm, I didn’t actually finish the process until last week. But at least it’s done! And no one seemed particularly bothered by how long it took.

Another thing they take very seriously is recycling. They have the usual separation by types of colored glass, plastic, paper and cardboard, etc…but they also expect you to dispose of your organic garbage via compost. And they have special garbage bags that you’re supposed to use according to which canton you live in. I’m still trying to figure this out, and I should do so quickly since they apparently have teams of people that intentionally go through the trash trying to identify offenders and will mail you a massive fine.

But even though I’m still feeling a bit transitional living off the welcome kit, we are settling in. I can now get to work, the post office, the grocery store, and definitely the town hall without using GPS. I’ve stopped escorting A to the bus stop in the morning. And I’ve found a fun website that is kind of like the Swiss version of Amazon and have ordered lots of little random things like a crockpot, Royal Canin cat and dog food, a cat litter scooper, a decorative bench for the yard, gardening gloves, and candle holders.

And our stuff will come eventually. The holidays are just around the corner, and there was the tiniest dusting of snow on the Jura mountains to the west of us, which made me supremely happy. The light and the clouds and the wind are all wonderful. So sometime soon we might actually start to feel at home.

Posted in Switzerland

Yvoire, France

Castle view from inside the Garden of the Five Senses.

I’d love to say that our trip to Yvoire went smoothly, but it was probably the “glitchiest” trip we’ve had so far, as my son would say. Nothing major, just a bunch of annoying little things.

First, he was not at all motivated to leave the house this morning, so he started out a bit reluctantly. We got on the road, and I realized that I was almost completely out of gas, even though I’d just picked up a new rental car on Friday.

I’d just passed the station, so I made a U-turn and went back. Then of course, the tank was on the opposite side of the vehicle (I hate that), so I had to swing around again. I filled it up for about 30 seconds, and then the nozzle clicked indicating that the tank was full. Apparently, it hadn’t been empty, I just couldn’t read the gas gauge. So I went inside and sheepishly paid for my four francs’ worth of gas.

I also couldn’t get the volume on my phone to work so that I could hear the directions. This car didn’t have a navigation system at all, or a convenient place to put my phone, but I finally just gave up and hit the road. From that point, things did improve.

Yvoire is on the opposite side of the lake from us and takes a little less than an hour to get to. (Are you seeing a theme? I do like one-hour daytrips.) You can also take a little ferry from several points along the water. I loved the idea of taking the boat, but I didn’t feel like being a slave to the ferry schedule and preferred the freedom to come and go as we pleased. Plus we got to drive through downtown Geneva, which A hadn’t seen yet.

According to French Wikipedia, “The first mention of the parish appears as Evyre (Ecclesia de Evyre), in a papal bull of Innocent IV, from September 9, 1250, attaching the church to the abbey of Filly [which was destroyed sometime after 1644].” So the village is almost 800 years old. Isn’t that fun?

Lots of stone and pretty windows.

The west-facing Nernier Gate.

It is a walled village, similar to Gruyeres, but instead of being on a hill, it’s right on the shore of the lake. It was run by the usual line of counts and barons and conquered and burned and rebuilt and swapped between medieval France and Switzerland over the years. Must’ve been tough to be a local.

The original quadrangular gate towers from 1318 are still standing. The Nernier Gate faces the west, and the Rovorée Gate faces east. And there is a pretty castle, but it’s privately owned, so you can’t visit it, but it makes a lovely background.

My son was after his usual prize…mango gelato. We didn’t actually find gelato, but we did find a sweet ice cream shop, which still tasted nice and reminded us both that we do in fact like gelato better. Since we arrived, I’ve suddenly become a pistachio fan.

The one thing that I wanted to see, apart from the village itself, was the Jardin des Cinq Sens, aka the Garden of the Five Senses. The garden is modeled after medieval maze gardens. It’s separated into seven distinct areas and, as the name suggests, is a sensory garden.

The first area is dedicated to Alpine Meadows with wild thyme and edelweiss. Then the path moves through sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. The whole place was filled with bright flowers, rows of mint, soft sage leaves, water features, apple trees, beanstalks, and hundreds of other varieties. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to eat anything in the taste garden.

Alpine Meadow.

Feeling the soft sage.

Sign for the Tasting Garden.

Random chicken in the Tasting Garden.

The seventh section was for medicinal plants…some poisonous, so don’t touch. But they had little plaques indicating which part of the body they were used for. And the last section was made to look woven from above, with roses, oats, and wild grass. Great photo ops with the castle here as well.

After the garden, I had promised A a hot dog. But we couldn’t find the place that I’d seen online and were told that it has closed down. So we wandered the streets and eventually found a sandwich shop that…surprise, also sold hot dogs! You had your choice of baguette or panini for bread.

By this time the streets had managed to fill with tourists. I continue to be impressed by how many people are out and about while the American tourists are nowhere to be found. I had always selfishly assumed that we made up a sizeable chunk of overseas travelers due to the size of our country…but clearly we don’t. Or maybe the Europeans are coming out because they know we’re not around…lol.

It was also starting to get hot. The weather said it was going to be cool and stormy, so I’d worn jeans. But it wasn’t cool and stormy…it was about 80F and sunny with no breeze inside the walls. So we packed up our hot dog paninis and went and ate in the air conditioned car before heading off back around the lake.

Incidentally, Yvoire is one of 159 on the list of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. I might have to track down a few of the other ones in our area.