Living in 1800s Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains Switzerland

Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains SwitzerlandSurviving in our rustic little chalet chiseled out of the side of the Jura Mountains, a few miles from the French border, is challenging as we adjust to living in the 1800s.

In the morning I shiver under my duvet, while Gerald cleans out ashes and then starts a fire in our burning stove, which holds two, foot long logs at a time and provides our main heat.Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains Switzerland

From the outside our chalet looks cute, but inside I feel like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Nothing fits. I bump into furniture and hit my head on low hanging beams. The Swiss were short especially at the turn of the century.

A stone wall divides the main room, the size of box car, into a kitchen and living area. Our refrigerator is the size of one like in a college dormitory. Ditto for the freezer squeezed under the stairwell.

Fortunately, we have indoor plumbing at least downstairs. Our water closet, the size of a telephone booth, is as cold as an out house. If you perch too long on the porcelain stool, which feels like squatting on a block of ice, you end up chiseling icicles from your bottom.

Heidi Hut in Jura Mountains SwitzerlandThe staircase, so steep and narrow, must be navigated sideways and leads to 2 bedrooms. In our bedroom, the antique armoires are too narrow to hang things, so I rolled up our clothes and stored them in baskets under our bed.

Knotty pine walls and a wood beamed ceiling make it cozy. Two shuttered windows overlook the little red train track, where a 2 car train shuttles workers, skiers, hikers up and down from the mountains to Nyon in the valley.

The other room upstairs, used as a make shift office, has a bunkbed piled with junk awaiting our move. Between the rooms an open area with a ladder, gives access to an attic that we never enter for fear of stirring up ghosts or wild animals.

Upstairs, lacks plumbing. I cannot safely navigate the stairs a dozen times a night to the bathroom. Instead, I use a porta potty balancing on a crate in the closet sized nook at the top of the stairs. The seat, sized to accommodate a toddler’s butt, is so tiny, I fear I’ll tumble head first down stairs every time I pee.

Like in Laura Ingall’s Little House on the Prairie, in order to survive the winter, a local lumberjack dropped a truckload of timber outside our door. We stack 3 cords, a ton and half, of wood in precise neat piles like Jenga blocks. Now I understand why Swiss make wood piles so tidy. It’s to keep them from rolling down the mountainside.

Chores are endless living in the past century. Like laundry. I wash 5 articles at a time in our miniature machine. Then like pancakes on a griddle, I flip socks, long johns and t-shirts on racks in front of the wood burning stove.

We don’t have a phone line or TV, but we can access Netflix - limited over here - so we watch any international series available. We followed Scandinavian murder mysteries, Spanish dramas, Italian comedies. Last night, so desperate for entertainment, we tuned into an Egyptian soap opera with French subtitles.

But when I wake up in the morning and throw open my shutters, the view of sun rising above the evergreen covered mountainside is inspiring.

Part of the reason for moving here was for this… to drop right down smack dab in nature when walk outside our door.

We are living in a scene from Heidi.

The only way we could get closer to nature would be by camping out. Sometimes I think we are.

Sold Our House in Two Days

A year ago, after our realtor sent photos of our place to his client list, we sold our house in two days, before it even went on the market. Of course, it sold immediately! It is the perfect house, which makes me wonder why we decided to leave it.

We found another place just as fast. After visiting only three houses and talking to two builders, my husband announced, “We must decide. I hate shopping! I don’t like dithering around.”

“Gerald we aren’t talking about buying a pair of shoes! This is a house. We need to be sure what we are doing?”

But when was I ever sure what I was doing? Our reasons for moving from our old house… too big, too many stairs, too much yard. So what do we do? Build as big of house, with as many stairs, in the middle of a mountain.

We signed on a new place, not yet built in St. Cergue, Switzerland in the Jura mountains. Since our new house, a triplex like apartment, will not be ready until July 2022, we are living like vagabonds.

To make thing more complicated, we are guests in this country. I am American, Gerald French. We scramble to figure out details like how many days we could spend in the states without losing our C residency permit allowing us to live in Switzerland. Even harder to negotiate was how long we could hang out in America, especially since Gerald as a “foreigner” is required to leave the US within 90 days of entering.

What started almost as a whim, snowballed into a major life change and my head is spinning, still unstable from my brain surgery almost 2 years ago.

Is it from brain injury or circumstantial, from trying to pack 23 years of living into a dozen boxes and start over again on a mountaintop in my mid 60’s?

Where has my common sense gone? How did I get so caught up in my husband’s middle life crisis? Does everyone my age feel this urgency that time is running out that we must rush to do all the things we dreamed in our youth.

Nothing is working out as planned.

What can I be thinking moving into the mountains with my bad back and worn out knees, where every step out the door requires going up or down? There’s no pain-free level ground here.

Fortunately my husband, like a little kid with a new project, is in his element dealing with the architecs, builders, bankers, realtors and notaries. His enthusiasm and expertise keeps me going, because I am lost.

Our biggest mistake was buying a “virtual” home, which builders promised would be ready by June 2022. Last fall, the project manager met with my husband and told him that our house would be finished earlier, by April or May 2022. Then in December, we received an alarming email saying that we wouldn’t get the key until probably the end of December 2022 but June 2023 at the latest. Or if you read the contract’s fine print, it “clearly” states that the very latest deadline would be 14 months from finishing the foundations date, which could mean June 2023 as they started several month later than expected. Anyone following here ???

What went wrong?

In the meantime, we stack another load of wood to heat our “temporary” rental place, a medieval chalet the size of a trailer. To keep from going crazy, we go out everyday. We wander our around our new village, walk by our “plot” and worry.

Why haven’t they broke ground the foundation of our building yet?

Finding a New Path – Beginning Again

The past 6 months have been a blur of pain, disappointment, anxiety, uncertainty and ongoing rehabilitation. I have been off line, out of touch, and unable to write due to doctors orders. I had to refrain from using my upper body while retraining muscle memory.

I am lost. Unbalanced mentally and physically.

My sister will remind me I have been in an existential crisis since age 13, but this time I am really floundering. The parameters measuring my identity disappeared. Studies by Bruce Feiler in his book “Life is in the Transitions, Mastering Change at Any Age,” upended previous beliefs that defined age in stages as popularized by Gail Sheehy 1970s best seller “Passages.”

Transitions never existed in a linear, set pattern, but our chaotic lives are more like a kaleidoscope of constant change. We go through 20 or more transitions in a lifetime and major ones every 3 to 4 years.

For stability we all need to have at least one of three things.

  • Purpose
  • Connection
  • Community

I lack all three. My purpose used to be teaching, coaching, writing, raising a family. My basketball teams and family were my connections; the international school was my community. But my children outgrew me, as they should, I retired from teaching/coaching and my family remains 4,000 miles away.

This summer, though I was so grateful to see loved ones, I felt as displaced as ever, at odds with my body, emotions running rampant due to the lingering after effects of brain injury.

As with any long term recovery process, setbacks, disappointments and false starts prevailed.

The skills I once performed effortlessly disappeared. I relearned how to do things for myself - drive long distances, pack the car, buy groceries, fill the tank, mow the lawn.

Finding a New PathI have been working so hard to recover from traumatic brain injury after a bad fall that wreaked as much havoc with my spine as it did my brain. Once stateside, I spent 6 months, moving between families’ homes in Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and underwent intensive therapy for my back and shoulders.

Back track 9 months. Last April, we sold our house outside Geneva Switzerland and bought a place in St. Cergue in the Jura Mountains. The only problem - the new virtual house was not built yet. No worries, realtors assured us only a few months delay. Further snafus in building means we will remain without fixed domicile for another year.

Finding a New PathMid January we returned to Switzerland and landed back in time in our “Heidi hut.” a rented, rustic chalet, chiseled out of the mountainside and heated only by wood burning stove.

I feel completely uprooted, a stranger in my body, living in a foreign place, surrounded by people I don’t know.

Without a permanent address it is hard to feel grounded.

During my lowest point, at age 26 after my career ending car accident abroad, I thought I had nothing left to give, but I never gave up believing and went on to teach and coach and raise a family. In retrospect, I can see that I still had a lot left to offer and learn from others.

But now what?

This time around, in a later stage of my life without a real home, our rootlessness existence makes it so much harder to reinvent myself, accept my limited options and admit my loss of autonomy.

Yet, every morning when I throw open the shutters, the sun sparkles over the snow-covered mountain top daring me to step out the door on the next adventure.Finding a New Path

So here we go…

“One day at a time…remember all that lies behind you,
Believe in all that lies ahead”

"Dump" in Switzerland

Can Tidiness Be Part of National Heritage

You would think after living in the world’s Most Tidy Country I would have adopted some of their clutter free lifestyle. Alas after residing in the same house in Switzerland for over 2 decades I have amassed a truck load of artifacts, books, T-shirts, photographs, medals, basketballs and other memorabilia.

As a history collector, a memory keeper, how do I part with boxes of stuff.

Am I missing the clean gene?

Or can tidiness be part of a national identity inherent in small countries where space is at a premium?

I do not have any messy Swiss friends, nor has a “native” ever entered my home without automatically taking off his/her footwear. Even the children are trained to park their shoes at the door.

Marie Kondo, a Japanese woman, created a global movement of mindfulness to organize space and eliminate the vicious cycle of clutter. She would love Switzerland.

The Swiss must instinctively adhere to her number selection criteria – “does it spark joy?”

She insists: keep only those things that speak to your heart. Do Beanie Babies, books and bags count?

Am I the only one who finds joy in preserving plastic bags triggering memories of special people, places and events? Yes, I have bags labeled NBA store in NYC, Nathalie’s Boutique in southern France and Nicolas Wine Shop in Paris.

According to Kondo when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.

I suffer from both making it doubly hard.

Another tip she stresses, don’t let your family see what you are doing. They will inevitably want to keep everything you want to pitch.

“People have trouble discarding things that they could still use (functional value), that contain helpful information (informational value), and that have sentimental ties (emotional value). When these things are hard to obtain or replace (rarity), they become even harder to part with.”

When you were raised in the American midwest where garages are bigger than European homes and filled with more junk than a Dollar Store, downsizing stuff does not come naturally. It so much easier to just chuck it in the garage.

After living in a country so clean you could eat off the street, where wood piles are stacked as neatly as Jenga blocks and spotless garages contain nothing more than shiny new cars, I still wonder where the Swiss store junk?

Chalet like style outbuildings are surrounded by gardens of flowers and shubbery.

At some, like ours, secondhand wares are tidily diplayed as gift shops. Since garage sales do not exist here, people can browse the local recycle centers that look more like lending libraries.

In a country as wealthy as Switzerland even junk is topnotch quality. Unfortunately I am no longer allowed to go to the dump here. I always bring back home more stuff than I threw away.

 

 

Walk in Nature – Rejuvenate Brain Power, Lift Mood, Improve Health

 

Remember when our mothers used to throw us out of the house commanding, “Go out and play!”: we spent the day climbing trees, making mud pies and inventing games.” Well, they were right all along. We grew strong, healthy and resilient.

Scientific research shows that you need to get back outside. Walking in nature may benefit not only your heart and lungs, but also your brain.

Studies back what humans once knew knew instinctively. Norman Doidge, MD, notes in his fascinating bestseller, The Brain that Changes Itself, that nature and staying active help the brain stave off dementia, ward off depression and heal from injury.

Physical exercise and learning work in complementary ways: the first to make new stem cells, the second to prolong their survival.

Not only does physical activity create new neurons, but exercise also strengthens the heart and blood vessels that supply oxygen to the brain helping you feel mentally alert.

Humans were not designed to live in a world of cement, artificial screens and sounds.

“This artificiality is draining our brains and damaging our health,” nature writer Professor David Gessner explains, “some scientists would say technology is slowly ruining our lives.

One US study by Harvard and Stanford researchers shows how workplace related stress can significantly reduce life expectancy. The link between low stress and longevity is well established.

The Swiss, the second most active people in Europe after the Swedish, have one of world’s longest life expectancy. Forty-four percent of Swiss exercise several times a week and 92% are motivated to move by getting in contact with nature.

Not everyone, like the Swiss, enjoy the privilege of living in a mountainous and lake regions. Nor can everyone be located on coastal sea areas.

But even the American Midwest offers accessibility to nature. Minnesota - land of 10,000 lakes - offers miles of paved trails. Minneapolis-St Paul is known as one of the nations best metropolitan areas for biking/hiking. Escape to Wisconsin lives up to it’s motto as being a great get away for its lakes and forests.

The Chicago Park District owns more than 8,800 acres of green space, making it the largest municipal park manager in the nation.

Anyone living in the Cleveland area should contact my brother, who could have 2nd career as tour guide. He can find you a beautiful walking, hiking and running areas within a 20 mile radius of the city and give you directions how to get there.

National and state parks and nature reserves abound across America. Even smaller communities boast of green space, like Sterling, Illinois where I grew up, which has 20 different parks, including a favorite Sinnissippi.

Unfortunately not all of us have the ability to walk. If that is no longer an option, ask your loved one to take you to a park where you can sit on a bench and benefit from listening to the wind in trees, watching the birds and feeling the sunshine on your face.

Those of us who can - must keep moving. My mom maintains her routine by taking steps for friends who no longer can. My dad keeps trudging along with his walker by setting daily goals to walk to the corner. And through diligent practice, I learned to regain balance, step forward without stumbling and swing my immobile left arm again after brain injury.

What’s holding you back? Get outside and shake that booty!

Therapists in Rehab Hospital Inspire Hope

Unfortunately at different times in my life, I have been hospitalized in 4 different countries, but none of them could compare to my six week stay in Lavigny, Switzerland.

After nearly 2 months in the hospital, I am still trying to piece together what happened to me. I don’t remember any details about my fall, about the harrowing helicopter transport and emergency brain surgery or the first 2 hospitals where I laid in a bed too weak to stand, too confused to carry on a conversation to process everything I was facing.

Fortunately over time, I began to heal. But I am the first to admit I did not do it alone. I was transferred to the 3rd hospital, Lavigny, a neurological rehabilitation center specializing in treatment for epilepsy, stroke victims and brain injury. Set in the rolling hills between the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva, the bucolic countryside with majestic views filled me with peace, but my therapists stoked the inner fire to thrive.

At Lavigny, I relearned self care, how to use muscles properly and how to regain my voice after intubation during surgery. Everyone was so encouraging and kind and young.

When I arrived at Lavigny, I felt as old as the mountains surrounding me. Tasks that I once completed effortlessly, seemed insurmountable. Maneuvering down the hall 30 feet to the dining rooms without toppling over felt as exhausting as completing a marathon.

The first thing the nurses and therapists did was get me out of bed. With words of support, they refused to let me mope around and feel sorry for myself. We became a team with a common goal— make me strong enough to function independently so I could go home.

Therapist in Rehab Hospital Inspire Hope

The village of Lavigny, with the hospital in foreground

At times I felt like giving up, but my team of therapists wouldn’t let me. With their never ending encouragement, I took one step forward and then another. Nadine taught me how take a shower safely, how to tie my shoes and how use eating utensils again.

Carla and Benoit helped me regain balance and walk without staggering side to side like a drunk. They trained me to lift my left arm again and to make a fist with my left hand. Manon helped me recover my voice, which squeaked as if I had just coached a European championship.
No one knew for sure how much of my abilities I could recover or how quickly, but no one ever let on they had any doubt that I would return to normal, so I never doubted either. That combined with the positive verbal encouragement from loved ones’ nightly phone calls surrounded me with positivity.

Lisa, my neuropsychologist, explained what trauma does to the brain and helped me regain its function even before I realized it wasn’t working. At first I wanted to lash out at all my therapists in frustration over my loss of abilities, ashamed of my dependency, my physical weakness, my mental handicaps. I complained to Gerald over the phone, “They treat me like a baby. They will keep me here forever.” It was as though I couldn’t admit my loss of skills, losses I was reminded of when I saw other patients slumped over in wheel chairs, hobbling behind walkers, unable to walk, to talk, to swallow. Contrary to my misperception, each action was a challenge to become more self-reliant, so I could live independently again.

Each day was the same rigorous routine, 5 intense 45 minutes of therapy — PT, OT, neuropsych, speech therapy —that left me feeling so exhausted between sessions that I fell asleep between each one.

When I was finally released from the hospital, I was convinced that my therapies and my team’s commitment and care, literally saved my life. I was filled with gratitude to Lavigny and its staff.

When I met with the psychiatrist in charge of my case after another month of therapy as an outpatient, he reminded me,”The therapists certainly helped you reach your goals, but what they all told me was that it was your will power and drive that made the biggest difference to come back from such a devastating accident.”

In retrospect I am not sure how I overcame such great odds alone in a hospital in Switzerland during a global pandemic. I wish I could impart that combined force – family, therapists and iron will to readers who may be facing insurmountable odds in their battles against cancer, illness, life altering accidents. The human spirit is so fragile, life challenges so insurmountable, our mortality so fleeting, but don’t give up. Never underestimate the power of love and the role you play in your recovery, in your capacity to heal .

I will always credit the therapists at Lavigny with giving me back my dignity. They celebrated every success – the day I could raise a glass to my lips, butter my own bread and walk to the dining hall without assistance- was worthy of a standing ovation. They acknowledged the courage it took each day to get out of bed and confront the shadow of my past and I will be forever grateful.

Pat leaving the hospital