Bear Hunting at the Dump

Image_copyWhen I was growing up one of my favorite activities was going to the dump to see bear. We filled the station wagon with excited children and parked at a landfill in the middle of the woods off Forest Road, where people dumped trash, old appliances, box springs, furniture, and just about everything.

Like witnessing meteor showers, sunsets or loon dances, bear watching was part of the entertainment Up North. We parked at the dump at dusk and waited with eager eyes for a glimpse of a bear lumbering in from the woods to gnaw at watermelon rinds and table scraps.

Long gone are the old dump days. Now garbage must be sorted into paper, plastics, and glass and hauled to dumpsters that are compressed and carted away by truck.

Garbage is no laughing matter in Europe either.

Switzerland, an ultra clean country, slaps on steep fines for littering. Even garbage disposals are verboten deemed a hazard to the environment.

The Swiss take tidiness to the extreme. Since January 2013, in addition to a local recycling tax, we pay for each sack of garbage. And only in Switzerland would civil servants actually be paid to go through “illegal” garbage bags to locate owners to be fined.

The Swiss are not big on second hand goods either. In fact, garage sales are illegal. Instead communities organize fall and spring event called “troc du village” where you can resell top-notch goods. During the rigorous triage, only the best quality hand me downs make the cut. Twenty percent of your profit from sales goes back to the city. Boy, those Swiss sure know how to make money.

Switzerland is also the only country where you will never see a dumpy car tooling down the road. Dented, rusted-out, old beaters are not allowed on the highway. After new cars are 5 years old, vehicles must past a stringent inspection by the “service des automobiles” every two years, before being allowed back on the motorway.

As unhygienic and pollutant as they were, I miss the dumps of yesteryear when Grandpa would load the kids in the back of the old truck with tin cans and bump along the beat up old back roads of Wisconsin.IMG_3772_copy

Though recycling was not vogue in the 60s and 70s, we learned as children to never waste resources and respect nature. We grew up learning to pick up cans and debris carelessly discarded along Wisconsin’s back-roads.

At the lake now, my dad rounds up the carefully sorted garbage making the dump runs religiously on Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday during the hours that the recycle spot on highway 45 is open for business.

“Any takers for a ride to the dump?” he’ll ask.

With little hope of seeing a bear at the modern day recycling center, no one jumps at the opportunity. Good natured, Grandpa goes anyway, stopping along the way to reminisce with the gas station attendant, postal worker and maintenance man about the good ol’ days when a trip to the dump provided good, wholesome entertainment for the whole town.

Swiss Chalets’ Unique Personality

IMG_4455_copyFrom a distance, the Swiss chalets dotting the Alps look uniform, but on closer inspection, you will see that each one has its own distinct personality and its own name. Native to the alpine region of Europe, these homes are traditionally made of wood with wide, sloping roofs that have eaves set at right angles to the front of the house.

On an overnight jaunt to Ovronnaz, Gerald and I explore winding roads in the Valais region and hike through tiny villages like Les Mayens de Chamoson where homes cling precariously onto every nook and cranny.

Some chalets, dating back to the 1800s, which you have to duck to enter, are little more than sheds once used as seasonal homes for shepherds, sites for making cheese and butter when cows or sheep were brought up from the lowlands for summer grazing. Mazots, the small, windowless huts once used for storing valuables, can be seen near the eldest properties.

Engraved abovIMG_4444_copye the chalet’s front door is the date it was built. The old huts were remodeled to make mountain homes. As historical landmarks, any alteration must be approved by the Swiss government. Many have been restored, renovated and expanded, yet retain the original wood.

We traipse past chalets named after mountain wildlife, like Chalet de Chamois, Marmotte, Aigle, Bergeronnette, Merle, or local places like Le P’tit Cry, La Cordee. Other homes bear the family name, many ending in az typical of this area.

The biggest, most modern chalets are closed up, catering to rich folk who invade the region during ski season. However, the smaller, cozier places look lived in. Shutters have been flung open, duvets hang out to air, flowers bloom on window ledges, and Swiss flags wave in the wind.

I wish I could explore a few to see the decor, but the closest we come to the locals is seeing the old timers enjoying a pint at the bar in the evening or morning coffee at our hotel. A local couple comes in for Sunday breakfast. The Valaisan, a short, stout man with legs like tree stumps from climbing the rugged terrain, wears a plaid flannel shirt, dress pants, and suspenders with metal clasps designed in the shape of the eidelweiss flower. He chats with his wife in the Valaisan patois. Though this is technically the French speaking part of Switzerland, Gerald and I can’t understand a word they said.IMG_4442_copy

Whereas Midwesterners head North to Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota to escape, the Swiss just head up. Chalets tucked in alpine meadows are so commonplace that there is a great migration upward every weekend. I could certainly see why. The closer one gets to heaven, the more spectacular the beauty, the purer the air, and the more profound the tranquility.

Loving Football – Catching Brazil’s World Cup Fever

brazilian-soccer-fans-commemorating-group-happy-victory-flag-background-34849799Born in the U.S.A., the only football I knew growing up was the one where men wearing girdles wrestled over an oval pigskin on the gridiron in a sport that excluded girls. The game Americans refer to as soccer and the rest of the world calls football was not popular in the States.

But when I moved abroad, I fell in love with the other football. My German basketball club teammates taught me how to play. I loved chasing the round ball down an open field as my appreciation and understanding of the game evolved. In international schools where I worked, I even officiated PE class games where students “explained” in no uncertain terms how to call offside.

Whether I was living in France, Germany or Switzerland, once every four years, the planet stopped spinning on its axis during the World Cup Football Championship. Shops close early, giant screens light up, and riots break out as world cup frenzy hits the streets. In Switzerland roadways are blocked because the game is on the big screen in Geneva’s central square, in France traffic halts for merrymakers spilling onto the Champs-Elysées and in Germany a 100,000 fans erupt in joy by the Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.football fans

With 3.3 -3.5 billion fans and played by 250 million players around the globe, football is the world’s most popular sport. Requiring virtually no equipment, football can be played anywhere from the favellas of Rio de Janeiro to the slums of India.

At its inception in 1930, the 1st world cup, held in Uruguay, included only 13 invited teams. Today, teams battle across every continent to qualify for the 32-team tournament.

National victories become political statements reflecting global tensions. The World Cup was not held in 1942 during WWII or in its devastating aftermath in 1946.The 1954 world cup, held in Switzerland, was the first to be televised, which brought unprecedented marketing opportunities.

Brazil estimates to bring home $11 billion from 600,000 tourists and 3 million Brazilians in attendance, however financial experts are skeptical. South Africa showed a reverse effect where countries are harmed economically from hosting the event. Brazil’s hosting has been controversial from the get go with protests breaking out daily. Should a country with such a great poverty level be hosting a billion dollar event making stadiums that cost hundreds of million dollars?

As with any sporting event involving big bucks, controversy follows suit. Rumors of official bribes and FIFAs questionable tactics abound. And for the first time ever, a player was suspended for biting an opponent when in the heat of battle Uruguay’s Louis Suarez chomped down on the shoulder his Italian opponent. Seriously?

National pride escalates with each victory, boosting ratings of the leadership in countries that advance to the next round. Team affinity becomes extreme, but with my own personal ties to several countries, I am content when USA, France, Germany, Switzerland, or any Scandinavian country wins. Though I would never admit to my French family, I was the only one who wasn’t too disappointed when France lost to Germany in the quarterfinals. With fond memories of my time in living in Marburg, I still feel loyalty to the country that once hosted me.

With youth soccer clubs booming, I am tickled to see that America finally caught the football bug. Germany's Mueller challenges goalkeeper Howard of the U.S. during their 2014 World Cup Group G soccer match at the Pernambuco arena in RecifeUSA advancement to the final sixteen and goalie Tim Howard’s stellar performance versus Belgium put USA on the map in world football scene.

Politics, money and fan violence aside, football at its purest level, is good, clean fun. During the tournament, boys and girls around the globe fill sandlots, dead end streets, and empty fields, running around, kicking balls, juggling their own World Cup dreams.

Normandy Today

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the beach in winter.
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

I have seen Normandy at it’s best and worst. I married a Norman. On stormy days, like June 6, 1944, waves crash the shoreline, icy winds whip off a black sea, rain falls in sheets and every joint aches with the cold. But in a ray of sunshine, Normandy is as beautiful as an Impressionist’s painting.

Orange cliffs along the coast drop off into purple waters. Inland, reddish brown Norman cows and pink apple blossoms dot a velvet green hillsides under powder blue skies. Soft light whitewashes the gabled, half-timbered houses and solid stone farms that remain as they were centuries ago. It was on one of those perfect days, over three decades ago that I pedaled a bicycle through red poppy fields behind my new beau. Later a table with authentic Normans in a Trouvillais fisherman’s flat, somewhere between courses of scallops and roast, cheese and salad, strawberries in cream, I fell in love with a Frenchman.

Millions debark on the beaches to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day following the circuit du débarquement and traipsing through the museums. But in my opinion the countryside, itself, is even more inspiring than any landmark.

The narrow, winding back roads, shaded by a canopy of trees, run into the “route du cidre” which intersects the Calvados region, my favorite part of Normandy. It is famous for history, art, architecture, seafood, smelly old cheeses, (Pont l’Eveque dates from the 13th century and Camembert from the 19th), and Calvados, a strong apple brandy. I love the area not so much for its regional specialties, but for the special family that lives in the region. They embraced me like lineage, when I, the foreigner with the funny accent, married their very French son.

Normandy, a feast for senses, is best appreciated at mealtime when land and sea are perfectly marinated. After a platter of seafood served so fresh it look like the crabs could crawl off the plate, Mamie presents la pièce de résistance, leg of lamb. Papie carves the tender meat of a newborn that was romping on the rolling green hillside only days before. A garden of vegetables -beans, broccoli, potatoes, spinach, tomatoes – sprout out of the linen tablecloth.

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Trouville’s fishmarket
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

Trouville, the seaside resort of my in-laws, retains a sense of timelessness. Sea gulls swoop and dive above the fishing boats bobbing in the waves under azure skies. Daffodils dance on iron wrought balconies in the briny, spring breeze. As I walk on the beach, lined by 17thcentury mansions, I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. Young couples stroll the boardwalk with their arms intertwined. Parents with toddlers in tow pick up seashells; small children dig castles in the fine, white sand, school age kids race the waves as they crash the shoreline.

Thanks to yesterdays’ heroes, throughout time’s passage, nothing changes. Normandy, like memories it holds, just grows older and more beautiful. And I thank my lucky, fate-filled stars that crossed paths with my Norman.

fishermen's wharf

fishermen’s wharf
Photo credit Gérald Lechault

 

 

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A Weekend Getaway to Valais Switzerland

One of the perks of living in Switzerland, a small country with such contrasting landscapes, is that within a few hours drive, you can enter what feels like another universe.

Over the long Easter weekend, we drove along the Gold Coast of Lake Geneva, around Montreux, the Swiss Riviera, through the Glion Tunnel into the Rhone Valley and onto the famous wine region of Leytron. Half way up the Alps, we reached our destination, Ovronnaz, an alpine village in the Valais region, perched on a plateau at 1350 meters, known for its thermal spa and ski ranges at 2500 meters. Ovronnaz’s proximity to the plains makes it easily accessible for short getaway trips from Geneva.

Our hotel, located just outside of the village in the Muverans mountain range, offers stunning views of the valley of the Rhone on a clear day, but from our balcony we could barely distinguish the mountains in the mist.

The all-purpose Nordic center offers a winter wonderland of cross-country, snowshoe, downhill and telemark skiing trails. Summer activities are equally enticing for outdoor adventurers and include 90 miles worth of trails for hiking, via ferrata, paragliding, skydiving and mountain biking. We were caught between seasons; no snow remained in the village for cross-country skiing and the downhill ski trails were closing.

To understand why the Valaisan are such hardy folks one must explore the area on foot; it is impossible to walk anywhere without going up. The treacherously steep trails are imposing to a flatlander with bad knees. Invariably, ze Frenchman would bound off ahead on a trail that he was sure looped back down to the village, but at every turn in the trail led upward. Whining about my aching knees, I begged him to turn back. Though the trails are marked, so many overlap, it was easy to get lost.

Yet by venturing off on the beaten path we saw wildlife. We marveled at the mama deer and her doe bounding through the pines. Under a gentle snowfall, we hiked on trails of soft pine needle and through occasional patches of snow. Birds chirped, wild flowers peeked out and trees budded gave hints of the glorious spring soon to arrive.

After a long hike, nothing is more revitalizing than a long soak in the mineral rich baths in one of the three pools with water at various temperature levels. Naturally, I like it hot, so I spent my time in the outdoor pool at 85°. While snowflakes tickled my cheeks, the steaming waters soothed my aching joints. The contrast between the hot water and cold air was invigorating as we floated in a mini paradise surrounded by snow clad mountain peeks.

Forty-eight hours later, we threw open our shutters of our balcony for one last look at the Valais at it’s best. A ray of sunshine illuminates the valley and brings the jagged edges of the surrounding mountains into focus. We wind back down the mountainside toward Lausanne. “Et hop” its back to work in the lowlands.

And if you like wandering around instead of choosing one location, why wouldn’t you take your RV or rent one ?

 

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Happy Easter, Happy Spring

In the so-tired-of-winter Midwest, spring is taking its own sweet time arriving, but over here Europe, we are ahead of the season. My family and friends in Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota are sick of seeing snow, so throw open those shutters, let the sunshine, enjoy a sneak peak of my neck of the woods, back home in Switzerland.

Out my back door, through the fields, step into that breathtaking view of the AlpsIMG_4382_copy

Traditional mountain chalet with geraniums on the balconyIMG_0012_copy 

Dandelions & primroses dance along mountain trails await for the hardy hikersIMG_3660_copy

A piece of paradise halfway to heavenIMG_3637 - Version 2_copy

Stop in at the local Auberge for the meal of the dayIMG_4399_copy

Even the cows are looking good, donning their Easter bonnets IMG_0035_copy

Hang in there. Spring will be tap dancing at your doorstep soon. Flowers will burst into a riot of color like fireworks reminding you to celebrate the survival of a rough winter. Sending love and laughter, chocolate and chutzpa, sweet vibes and sunshine from Switzerland. Happy Easter.

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