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 Alps
Traditional mountain chalet with geraniums on the balcony
Dandelions & primroses dance along mountain trails await for the hardy hikers
A piece of paradise halfway to heaven
Stop in at the local Auberge for the meal of the day
Even the cows are looking good, donning their Easter bonnets
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.
My New Year’s resolution: never let the weather get me down. Celebrate each season. Even winter. That said, I struggled to step out the door when staying at the Carlson’s in Golden Valley, Minnesota in early January. My first achievement in 2014, surviving the Deep Freeze.
While visiting my Big Kids, nieces, sister and brother-in-law in the Twin Cities, I experienced those record breaking frigid temperatures that made even European news channel headlines.
My niece, Hannah, told me that it was so cold that if I threw a glass of water outside, it would turn to ice before it hit the ground. Exposed skin would be frost bitten within 5 minutes. Sure enough, when I walked out the door, the cold felt like dry ice peeling the skin off my cheeks. Yet, Karen and I made it around the block on foot during the coldest day of the last decades.
Weather advisory – stay indoors. Even residents accustomed to long, harsh winters headed to the grocery to stock up on staples, just in case. Shops closed early. Sporting events were postponed. My folks in Illinois said even church was cancelled.
Due to extreme cold, the Minnesota governor mandated statewide school closing prolonging the holiday. Karen, a teacher, screamed with joy, « youpie another pajama day. »
We made the most of our moments together. We spent a super special Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field via satellite, enjoying spicy chili, nachos and cheese from the comforts of the Carlson’s living room. My first time tailgating indoors in Siberia!
Like I reminded my sister, who begrudges the long winters, « it’s a healthy cold. » Unlike Switzerland where the mountains lock us in a fog trap of pollution, when I stepped outside the door in Minneapolis-St. Paul, my lungs felt invigorated from the pure air. The dazzling sun, reflecting off snow under cobalt skies, created an extraordinary light.
It is no surprise that so many Scandinavians settled in Minnesota. Folks up North come from a hardy stock used to harsh elements. Youngsters sledded, teens played ice hockey, couples skated, and « cheerful » ol’ men ice fished. Dick took us for a spin in his jeep on frozen Medicine Lake where we admired elaborate ice shanties and peeked through the lit up windows of the lake front mansions.
While the atmospheric pressures created record-breaking cold temperatures in North America, warm currents blew across Europe. Back home people were out and about in shorts and shirtsleeves enjoying a balmy 50F. Arriving in Geneva airport, felt like landing in Florida.
We never begrudged a minute of our holiday on ice because warmhearted northlanders magically thaw winter souls by welcoming travelers into their homes and hearth with open arms and a joie de vivre. Gotta love Minn-A-so-Ta. You betcha.
Home for the holidays takes on new meaning, when you live 4,000 miles away. Never has my longing for America been greater than after the birth of my daughter in Paris. The expatriate craves the loving cradle of family most during moments of great joy or sadness. Within the span of that year I had endured my fair share of despair. I struggled to recover from an accident that ended my athletic career, and a miscarriage that broke my spirit.
That winter of ‘84, I courageously tucked my 10-day-old daughter into a kangaroo pouch, navigated through the crowded Metro station and waited at the American Embassy for my baby to be issued her first U.S. passport. Just a short time later, with even greater trepidation, I swaddled my seven-week-old in a hand-woven blanket and carried her solo across the Atlantic aboard a 747.
At O’Hare airport, my sister’s and parents’ smiles lit up the universe as they welcomed the newest member to the family with tears of joy.
Outside the family homestead, light snow dusted the open fields and colored lights glittered, while inside, an aroma of gingerbread wafted through the air, a newborn’s cry rose above my brother’s piano rendition of Silent Night and my mom hung her handmade first grandchild ornament on the Christmas tree.
From Cleveland, to Omaha, to Chicago, to Eureka, to Sterling my siblings and grandparents coordinated the time and distance between a dozen careers, three states and two countries to be home for the holidays. That Christmas, I dressed as a svelte French Papa Noel to pass out presents.
But the greatest gift was not under the tree.
In the early years of marriage, we could not afford a cross-Atlantic flight, so in a gesture that showed incredible generosity and profound compassion, my Frenchman along with family contributions, gave me a round trip Air France ticket Paris-Chicago, so that the McKinzies could meet baby Nathalie.
This Christmas gift symbolized my husband’s love for his firstborn, his foreign wife and his American in-laws. By sacrificing his own holiday time, he acknowledged the importance of fostering family ties and respecting one’s cultural heritage in a mixed marriage.
The magic of those shared moments is engrained in my heart forever.
This December, that precious baby, now a dedicated doctor, offers another selfless gift. She sacrifices her family time to spend Christmas Day in the Children’s Hospital, taking care of kids too sick to go home for the holidays.
My niece, Hannah, a nurse in training at Creighton University, joined a medical service project in Dominican Republic where she dedicated 5 weeks to helping treat impoverished Dominicans as part of Institute for Latin American Concern Program (ILAC). During the week volunteers from the center in Santiago went to work in campos where they were housed by locals and treated like royalty. Host families insisted on providing the best they could offer and showed their gratitude in countless ways by making special treats and cleaning their guests’ clothes.
My niece’s host family, Madeline, and her husband, Chico, niece Saira 9, and daughters Maireli 4 and Mailesi 3 months lived in a tiny house smaller than Hannah’s two car garage back home in Golden Valley, Minnesota.
“The living room was tiny with a small TV. Curtains separated three small bedrooms. The bathroom, connected to the house, had a toilet that didn’t flush, and the shower was a bucket of water with a drain,” Hannah explained, “The kitchen has a mini fridge, counter and stove. The dining room had a table, chairs and a china cabinet, but no china.”
Hannah, who studied at a Spanish Immersion School in the Minneapolis area until high school, found that her background in Spanish was invaluable. She interacted with the locals and took medical histories, urinary samples and treated minor illnesses with minimum equipment in rudimentary facilities.
“While another nursing student took vitals, I did the intake form, figured out the chief complaint and symptoms and did any other translating. We saw lots of skin rashes, kidney infections, colds and body aches from all the work the Dominicans do.”
The most striking difference was the extent of poverty and lack of modern health care and medicine.
“Even in the best hospital in the country, everything is open – doors, windows (without screens,) and the units in ER (diabetes, labor, trauma.) There are no monitors except for ICU/NICU. Restraints are by rope and heavy weights.” Hannah wrote in her journal. “Patients were pushed around ER with entire families following and holding medical supplies. (If a patient needs medicine, a family member must purchase it outside the hospital.) Floors were torn up, paint chipped off and I never saw a nurse in a patients room.”
There were many cultural differences from diet to lifestyle. The volunteers joked about the leisurely pace of Dominican time – which meant a few hours late.
“Beautiful girls with model figures came into the clinic asking for ways to gain weight,” Hannah said. “In their culture being overweight is a sign of wealth, but we tried to tell them they were perfect as they were.”
Biggest challenges that volunteers faced included communicating with the language barrier, feeling comfortable in a different culture, and adjusting to living with lower standard of hygiene.
“Even though I never felt clean,” Hannah said, “I learned how to co-exist with spiders the size of my hands and lizards in my bed, how to throw rocks at trees to get mangoes down and how to take a bucket shower with 3 small scoops of water.”
I felt privileged that Hannah shared her journal of events with me. Even reading it made me feel ashamed. I was spoiled with riches that I no longer noticed or appreciated like indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.
Life, when stripped to bare necessities, seemed purer. Good health, family, and community matters more than material goods.
After meeting a prosperous land owner and visiting his rice plantation, Hannah, unimpressed, wrote in her journal, “I hope that as times change and technology advances in the DR that the people will stay the same: doors are always open, people are always outside talking with neighbors, the community is your family and sometimes you sleep at your neighbors because it is just like sleeping at your grandmas.”
“All the Dominicans were so hospitable, they would do absolutely anything to make us feel comfortable and happy,” Hannah said. “They showed me how to appreciate time with people rather than things, how to slow down and how to make the most of each day.”
I have fed chipmunks peanuts from my palm, stalked beaver around the lake in a canoe, tossed bread to wild ducks from the dock, caught and thrown back more fish than I could count. I’ve admired the flight of a bald eagle, a great blue heron and a twittering hummingbird. I’ve seen porcupines shoot quills, white-striped raccoon tails glow in the dark and deer dart gracefully through the woods. Part of the appeal of the North woods is this privileged relationship one develops with the forest animals. Living so closely to wildlife teaches respect, but in all my summers spent in Wisconsin, I’ve never considered what to do if a bear comes calling at my cabin door.
The locals at Summit Lake recount bear sightings every summer, but we had heard it so often, it sounded like folklore, the bear being like the Hodag, the mythical beast of the old lumberjacks of Rhinelander.
Still when living in the woods, bear is always in the back of your mind. When I grill out and hear a thrashing in the forest, I think, “Bears, burger, me…dead meat.” Just as I turn to run, I’ll see a white tail flip up in the green brush and a deer dart across the path.
So one drizzly afternoon, when my mom exclaimed, “Oh my, there’s a bear!” at first it didn’t register. I reluctantly put down my book and looked out the picture window in front of the lake. Not more than 15 feet away, a bear stood on his hind legs sweeping a clumsy paw at the bird feeder. His black coat was sleek and glossy from the rain and made him look slim. He had a cute, round snout and beady, black eyes. Standing five feet tall, he didn’t look that big or that bad. Before I could grab a camera, he lumbered back into the woods towards the lake leaving us with nervously reassuring one another we weren’t hallucinating.
“I thought it was a big, black squirrel climbing the tree!” my mom said in disbelief.
“Are you sure it was a bear?” my daughter asked skeptically.
“We couldn’t all be wrong,” I answered, pointing to my parents and sister who looked a bit shell-shocked from the sight.
“I don’t know,” Nat speculated. “How good are your eyes – you all wear glasses.”
Next morning, my sisters and I were apprehensive when we walked down our wooded lane, stopping to chat with our neighbor the local woodsman.
“Nothing to be afraid of,” Steinie said. “Those are black bears, not grizzlies. Won’t bother you. Just give a holler. Tell ‘em to git and they’ll go on home.”
Yep, July 19, 2001, the day a bear came to call was etched in my memory. Over a decade passed before I saw another one. Sure enough Dad and I did a double take as we watched a smaller black bear look right as us then amble back into the woods.
Since ghost walks and flashlight tag were now out of the question, we spent summer evenings peering out the window. Every shadow looked like a bear. When it was too dark to see, we recounted bear stories over again as if to reassure ourselves that it wasn’t just some apparition of our imagination.
A lot of folks tell tales of hitting deer darting across the highway, but leave it to a Frenchman to boast of being hit by a bear. My husband swears that a big ol’ black bear ran right into him after he swerved on highway 64. Of course, the only witness was the bear, so we’ll never know for sure. Sounds like one of those fishing stories where the catch gets bigger every time you tell the tale. But it could be true. One neighbor asked for advice on how to shoo a black bear out of his garage with a yard rake. My sister, Karen, was sitting on the dock admiring the lake when a bear ambled out of the woods aiming to hang out at our house until her dog, Kizzie barked.
It is one thing to see bears in a zoo, but another to see them in your front yard. I know what a caged animal must feel like. While our bear roamed around his woodsy world in freedom, I stared at him from behind our glass cage. It was a humbling experience, a vivid reminder that I am just one little creature in God’s great kingdom.
In a country where every mile is beautiful, it is difficult to choose a favorite spot, but Mürren rates at the top of my list. Perched precariously on a narrow balcony 5,397 feet above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the highest resort village in the Bernese Oberland offers the best view of Switzerland’s most famous trio, the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. Mürren is as close to heaven as it gets.
Part of the splendor is the journey upward on the Lauterbrunnen to Grutschalp funicular. Opened in 1891, it was once the steepest funicular in Switzerland until they replaced it with a gondola. After riding up a sheer incline, we stepped out into a station and boarded a train that crept even higher until the line ended in Mürren.
At first, British tourists invaded Mürren, accessible only in summer months. As early as 1869 a British visitor complained, “It is crowded to excess with English.” Archbishop of Canterbury was appalled to see people playing tennis within view of the Jungfrau. He considered it sacrilegious to participate in such an artificial activity when surrounded by such a spectacular natural sport arena.
In 1910, the hotels persuaded railway lines to open lines for winter season. In 1928, the first Inferno Ski Race from the summit of Schilthorn mountain (9,744 feet altitude) put Mürren on the map. Mürren has also been associated with ballooning since the 1910 crossing the Alps ended in Turen.
Sports enthusiasts aren’t the only ones to enjoy Mürren, one of the larger car free resorts. Every day tourists love strolling through one long main streets where bakeries, boutiques, hotels and resorts perch on a ledge of Switzerland’s most famous Alps. Every 50 yards, red benches beckon gawkers and walkers to sit a spell when the panoramic views take one’s breath away.
One step out onto the terrace of our Hotel Alpenruh overlooking the tips of the Eiger, Jungfrau and Munch in full splendor and felt like we’d tumbled into Heidiland. Several hiking trails offered excursions. We chose the children’s adventure trail, which required more dexterity than my old body could muster. Even with my adjustable walking sticks with three different tips for snow, mountain and road surface, I struggled to maneuver the sheer ledges.
We climbed up a peak where half a dozen chalets – abandoned in offseason -looked like a mountain ghost town. The trail disappeared again in heavy wet snow. The only way back was straight down a sheer drop off that even a skilled skier would have trouble descending. Never daunted, my husband bounded ahead sideways like a billy goat and forged our own trail. My knees screamed in pain each step downward, but I pushed ahead fearing that if I misjudged one step, I would roll into another valley and be lost forever.
We finally saw the village below although it took another 2 hours to reach it. Once back at the hotel, I collapsed on the trundle bed under a fluffy duvet enjoying my hiker’s survival high. I admired the show outside my window as the setting sun illuminated the rugged mountain trio in various shadows and shapes. Meanwhile, much to my chagrin, my husband watched a football (soccer) match on a mini TV. In a land offering this kind of splendor just outside one’s window, television, like tennis courts, should be banned.