Désalpe- The Day Swiss Cows Take to the Streets

No wonder people love Switzerland.  It’s a place where even the cows party.  In October villagers throw a street bash in celebration of the livestock.

Cows were so commonplace in my childhood growing up in the Midwest, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would go out of their way to watch a herd of cattle, but during the désalpe, the day when cows come down from the mountains to the valley is a popular event, as much a part of Swiss tradition as Swiss cheese.

decorated cows

decorated cows

Thousands of visitors jam the cobblestone streets of Saint-Cergue perched on the Swiss side of the Jura, to applaud the herds of cows and sheep that parade through town. The désalpe festival honors the fat, four -legged fellows who keeps the country supplied in butter, milk and cheese.

The shepherds and herdsmen leave the highlands at the crack of dawn to arrive in the Swiss village on the lower slopes of the Jura mountains early in the day. The lead cows, wearing flowered headgear as elaborate as new brides wear, meander through town mooing.  Leather collars a foot-wide hang around their necks, which attach to cow bells the size of lampshades.

For 24 hours at the end of summer, the quiet, ski village turns into a giant block party.  The sidewalks and town square are filled with stands where merchants sell local Swiss specialties; raclette, crepes, sausages, soups, beer and wine.  At overturned wine barrels tourists knock back white wine served in traditional tiny cups barely bigger than shot glasses.

Big burly-bearded men in jeans play the accordion, flute and violin.  Bands of musicians dressed in traditional attire, black smocks embroidered with mountain flowers, black hats and gray pants, representing different mountain villages play the cor des alpes. The red-faced men blow into the the10-foot long straw-colored alpine horns creating sounds as forlorn as the nights of solitude that herders endure in the alpine pastures.  Local choral groups sing equally mournful tunes.  A short, stocky man in a black suit cackles when he demonstrates his whip cracking clearing a 100-foot circle in the crowd.  A flag thrower twirls the red Swiss flag with a white cross.

Swiss horns

Swiss horns

In Switzerland the cow is sacred.  Senntumsmalerei, herd painting, is a special part of Swiss folk art, depicting the semi annual pilgrimage of the cows up and down the mountain.

In the spring another festival will honor the cows as they return up to the highlands for grazing in the summer.  Most likely, I will be there paying homage.  After seeing the désalpe, I’ll never take cows for granted again.

Getting Sick Abroad

Getting sick sucks, especially if you are away from home, homeland.  There is nothing worse than having a medical emergency while traveling abroad.  But don’t let that scare you off the plane.  Take a few travel tips from a seasoned traveler…aka your fav ex-patriot.

My parents have made dozens of cross Atlantic trips to visit our Norwegian relatives and me without a hitch.  After a recovering from 4 different surgeries, my 79-year-old dad attained his goal to fly to Switzerland and almost didn’t make it back when he became gravely ill. Fortunately our daughter, a pediatrician, insisted we call an emergency doctor who demanded we take him to the hospital immediately where they put him on intravenous antibiotics and saved his life.  A simple urinary tract infection had developed into a life threatening sepsis. Luckily, we had a Frenchman aboard, who spoke both English and French and could interpret in the ER.  But in the course of ensuing chaos, it made me realize how frightening illness can be for someone traveling abroad especially if you don’t speak the local language.  When packing your bags be sure to include these items.

  • Medication for the duration of your stay in your carry on bag
  • Carry insurance and medical cards and a photocopy of prescriptions
  • Type up a short resume of your recent medical history
  • List emergency numbers of contacts in your homeland
  • If possible, obtain the number of a friend living in the area you are visiting (this is especially reassuring to parents when their sons/daughters go abroad)
  • In the event of serious illness call SOS Médecins
  • When in doubt, go directly to the emergency room

In Switzerland and France, public hospitals will admit you, but you may have to pay a fee, like the $500 up front that my dad paid at the Hospitale de Nyon before services could be rendered.

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

Jim & Lenore McKinzie in Switzerland

The medical system varies in each European country. In some places, doctors still make house calls.  Many medical people have independent practices in apartment buildings or a room of their homes.  Unlike our clinics or convenient urgent care centers in the states, often times in Europe you will have to go to separate laboratories to have blood drawn and/or X rays taken. Pharmacies display the universal sign, a green cross. In Europe pharmacists will answer simple medical questions and can advise you on minor problems. Major hotels have a doctor on staff or will call a local doctor for you.

Accept that medical practices in other countries, though different from those at home, are not necessarily bad.  For example in France and Switzerland, prescriptions are not counted out by the dose, but boxed in plastic in 7 day to one month doses.

During my overseas stint, I have been hospitalized after accidents and illnesses, for surgery and childbirth.  I‘ve seen my fair share of doctors, but I can assure you that like people, there are good and bad ones everywhere regardless of nationality.

Alors santé! (Here’s to your health) Bon voyage!

Deflated Dollar Leads to European Invasion in America

The dollar is at an all time low, which means almost every European I know is heading to the United States for summer holidays. For some, it will be their first visit and like many Americans who venture abroad, it will be the dream of a lifetime. My dentist is flying to Seattle, a French colleague is heading to Grand Canyon, and our Swiss educational psychologist is off to the Arrondikes.[cincopa AUBA_rqiwimE]

Be kind to the visitors. Smile. If you can, try to speak a few words of their language, even if only to say hello: Grüsse (German), Bonjour (French), Hola (Spanish), Buongiorno (Italian) or Kalimera (Greek). Ask simple questions about their homeland.

Even with the best intentions, misunderstandings are bound to occur. A German friend, studying in the US, once brushed her teeth with denture cream. Years ago a 6’7” French basketball player, walked out the men’s store changing room in downtown Chicago in his skivvies to find another size of jeans, and his teammate peed behind a bush in a public park. I was equally mortified when a well-endowed  French teammate whipped off her top and perched on the bow of a speedboat.

If Europeans don’t ask a lot of personal questions, it does not mean they aren’t interested, only that they are respectful and fear invasion of privacy. Food and weather are safe topics; work and income are not. Sharing food is a special time of interaction. Mealtime is sacred.

Talk slowly. Use hand gestures. When people do not speak the language, they will pretend to understand even if they really don’t.  I know this from my own experience of feigning knowledge to avoid appearing dimwitted.

I have dined on local specialties in European homes, sipped wine in private cellars and shared coffee in living rooms across the continent.  Each time I learned far more about the culture and customs than guidebooks could ever divulge.

Greet my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances with a big grin as they travel from sea to shining sea. It takes so little, really, to make someone feel welcome…a smile, a handshake, a kind word. Not only is it good for business, it is also good for the soul.

Certainly the Europeans will be awed by our spacious landscapes, daunted by our city skyscrapers, and enamored with our natural beauty found in our Badlands, Grand Canyon and other National Parks. But what I hope they will remember mos,t is the warm, embracing spirit of the American people.

 

Expat Women: Confessions For Gals on the Go

In 1980, I became a globetrotting professional basketball player and my plane touched down in Paris.  When I saw little women with baseball bats (baguettes) slung on one shoulder, and vegetable-laden baskets over the other, stopping on cobblestone street corners to kiss, I thought I’d landed on another planet. I moved dozens of times between continents and countries and have three decades of experience teaching in international schools abroad. With the world as my classroom, everyday is a learning experience, but when I first moved abroad I was clueless.

Expat Women: Confessions, 50 Answers to Your Questions About Living Abroad hits home with me.  The authors, Andrea Martins and Victoria Hepworth, address issues any woman faces leaving home, yet the stakes are higher as an expat.  In a simple-to-read, down-to-earth, no nonsense style, the authors tackle the toughest questions with aplomb. They touch on complex topics women confront in their roles as partners, mothers or employees, which are more complicated when living overseas. The book includes sensitive issues from transitioning-in to, to child raising, to culture shock and repatriation, to divorce and death abroad.

Expat Women: Confessions (http://www.expatwomen.com/expat-women-confessions.php) is a must read for anyone leaving the homeland.  It offers insightful advice from women who have years of experience living cross culturally. As valuable as the Berlitz Language guide, I would highly recommend this for anyone contemplating the expat life.

Thirty years ago, I lifted weights, ran laps and shot hoops to train my well-honed body for the rigors of international ball, but my mind was ill prepared for life abroad.  I had no idea where to locate Paris on a map, how to ask for the restroom in the local language or how many times to kiss cheeks in greeting.

In retrospect, for anyone contemplating an overseas assignment, I strongly recommend 5 basics before signing the contract.

1.  Research – find out as much as you can about the country, culture, customs, and language including work place protocol

2.  Network before leaving your home – sign on to newsletters and blogs that entail expat life (http://pattymackz.com/wordpress/subscribe-to-my-blogs/)

3.  Make sure the salary allowance includes or covers health insurance and costs of trips to the homeland for holidays or family emergencies.

4. Be open minded, flexible and willing to make mistakes (a sense of humor helps)

5.  Read Expat Women: Confessions, the book I wish existed when I first moved abroad

My Norwegian great grandmother, Eugenie, immigrated to America in 1902.  Her four-year-old daughter died a fortnight after arriving at Ellis Island; then, Eugenie passed away 5 months later giving birth to my grandmother. Leaving the nest and striking out for a better life elsewhere is as old as time; yet with high tech connections shrinking our globe, no one needs to be blind-sided as to what awaits. Sacrifice has long been the female’s role, but no one no longer needs to lose the self in the transition.

From the pioneer women loading wagon trains Westward to the trailing spouse and adventuresome entrepreneurs paving new trails in Africa, Asia and Europe, women, round the globe, have always been bridges between generations and cultures. Bon voyage!

 

 

 

Seven Spring Cleaning Tips from Small Countries

Switzerland could win awards as the tidiest nation on earth.  As a compact country, the Swiss are born with an extra chromosome, a clean gene, to help conserve space. The streets are so sanitary, you could  eat off the sidewalks. I have never been a neat freak, but I have adopted a few helpful spring cleaning tips from our European neighbors.

  1. No shoes in the house. Ever. The Swiss are trained at an early age to automatically remove footwear at the door.
  2. Commune rule. Divide heavy tasks with household members on a rotational basis.   When I lived in an apartment complex in Germany, the residents on each floor took turns mopping the stairwell.  Same rules should apply in a family.
  3. Cut down laundry. Throw bedding out the window for a weekly breather.  Europeans, great believers in the curative properties of fresh air,  hang duvets over wrought iron balconies and wooden framed window ledges.
  4. Recycle bread crumbs (another French custom) Shake table cloths out the window.  First make sure pigeons, not people, inhabit the balcony below.
  5. Eliminate dust. Triple stack books on the shelves, that way there is no shelf left to collect grime.
  6. Clean sweep.  Push-everything-under-the bed-trick.  It’s a great storage area for books, essays, newspapers, laptops, and used Kleenex. Technique also works well in the living room using space between the couch and floor as magic drawer. (another personal invention)
  7. If all else fails, follow my Norwegian mom’s wise advice – hide the incriminating evidence, (including children):
    • Move the messy kid to the basement
    • Close the door
    • Condemn the area as a natural disaster

That is how my parents and I co existed during my adolescence. Consequently, I grew up serenely in comfortable chaos as a cellar dweller and only had to clean my room semi annually when the basement flooded.