Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Time

Hooray! Christmas LEGOs!

So finally Christmas time is here. It has been a hectic December, so I'll try to go in order of the events as they happened:

New Apartment
This place is crowded. With 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a living room/kitchen, this place is definitely not enough for the six of us. Especially since the largest room is inhabited by 3 children, and one of the "bedrooms" is actually an office, so that I can have a place to retreat when the office calls me for an emergency of some sort. It was a requirement that I could escape the noisy rambunctious kids.

To top it all off, something we never considered when I found this place, (or rather, when it was presented to me) is that we're on the fourth floor; the kids have never been in an environment where running was strictly prohibited. I'm sure our neighbor below us, a very nice French Swiss named Ann, is quite aware of the exact moment that the kids wake up in the morning; and also quite familiar when bedtime is. I'm sure somebody could map out a pretty good chart of seismic activity (from the thumping sound of running feet) versus the awake-time for the kids.

A few months ago, a Human Resources person had a conference call with my co-workers about our relocation experience. Stacy got an opportunity to vent all of her frustrations: coming without a permit; the long time to get the paper work in order, the long time to get the contact in order, the size of the apartment. She complains a lot. I could be perfectly happy with a tent and a few sleeping bags for the 2 years here. I guess she is more in-tune with the needs of the family than I am, since I'm not in the house 5 days out of the week. During the conference call, she got the idea that maybe moving to a bigger apartment is what this family needs.

So she began her search. This started around October. After looking at lots of places, some in quite convenient locations (a few blocks from the train station), and some that were terribly inconvenient (like some that were closer to Thun than to Bern; and another in the middle of nowhere, with 2 bus rides to the downtown train station ( horribly horribly inconvenient for me). After several visits where I sighed, "this is going to make my commute suck even more", some places where they looked at the "Four Kids"part and replied, "You will never find this place suitable", which to me means "there is no way we will allow four children to live here", We finally found one that was convenient for 5 of us, and only a little more inconvenient for me. The new place is in Rüfenacht, just outside Gümlingen -- very close to the kid's school. More inconvenient for me in terms of miles traveled, but not necessarily much longer in terms of time spent commuting (strangely enough). Best of all, the new place is essentially the same rent as the older one, with more space, a view, and a yard. I'll get more into the amenities later.

I pretty much gave up fighting back a long time ago. Stacy found out how to advertise the current apartment in ImmoScout24.ch, in the local newspaper, "Die Anzeiger". We found a few prospective tenants to take over our lease. Unfortunately, for the meantime, we will have to pay double rent, which really hurts my pocketbook. (Yeouch!)

As we had our multiple visits to see the apartment, which is really a house divided into three parts, the kids played chase outside in the yard. They would come inside being their typical loud selves, and we told them "Go back outside.", and they did. The house was built in 1777 (yes, really), and has recently been renovated to be completely modern inside. The downstairs was renovated several years ago, and the upstairs has been renovated within the past 3 or 4 months, I suppose. The upstairs still smells like fresh paint.

I don't have many pictures, only a picture of the outside hieroglyphs, the view of the Alps in dusk, and a picture of the wrap-around view from the patio. More pictures will be sure to come, and will get put into this folder on Picasa.

Opening Christmas Presents
Recently Joey has been enjoying a particular DVD over and over again. He first saw the trailer at the beginning of some other DVD, and called it "the commercial movie." Probably in response or to the question, "Do you like that commercial, Joey?" The movie in question is Pixar's "Cars."

Of course, the Christmas present that will be the biggest hit with Joey is a present of the same theme. One day in a toy store with Joey, he found the Lightning McQueen Talking Car toy that just has to be had. He screamed that he needed the toy. Thankfully, Stacy was doing this shopping with a girlfriend, who was instructed (quietly) to go purchase the car discretely.

Definitely, this toy was the biggest hit for Joey. The Bob the Builder shirts -- meh. The train tracks, usually a hit -- meh. The puzzle of the construction vehicles and Thomas the Tank Engines -- meh. The Duplo Legos of the "James" engine from Thomas the Tank Engine -- meh. But this toy was the choice on Christmas Day. In the display box, the toy had the "Try Me!" buttons that could be pushed to see if this toy was any good or not. Of course, Joey was pounding all those buttons to make the wheels spin, make him talk before I could get it out of the package.

Funny thing about this toy is, that seeing as we bought it in Switzerland, of course Lightning McQueen speaks German. I don't think Joey cares much. It took us a while to figure out that there is a switch underneath that makes him get out of "Probierfunktion" (trying-out-mode), into the "Ein" mode (on). No matter what button you pressed, Lightning McQueen would always say, "Ich bin schneller als schnell." (I'm faster than fast). When the green "go" button is hit, his wheels would spin for about a second, and he would repeat his one liner.

We later discovered that this toy has a whole programmable set of command you can put in. Go forward twice. Turn left. Turn around. Turn right while going backwards. Of course, each time you type in a command, the voice responds, you guessed it, in German. Vorwärts! Vorwärts nach rechts! Kreis! Vorführung!" (Forwards! Forward and right! Circle! Demonstration!).

There's a "Sprachknöpfe"button, which makes him say a few more one-liners,
  • Ich suche meinen besten Freund. (I am searching for my best friend)
  • Wo ist die nächste Tankestelle? (Where's the nearest gas station?)
  • Wo geht's nach Radiator Springs? (How do you get to Radiator Springs?)
  • Wo geht's zum Highway? (How do you get to the Highway?)
  • Bin ich falsch abgebogen? (Did I turn the wrong way?)
  • Hua! Wo bin ich? (Huh? Where the heck am I?)
Of course, Joey doens't use the program function. He just crawls as he pushes the car along. There's no real need for batteries in this car for Joey's appreciation. Just the wheels. Hope it holds up to the abuse.

This wasn't the only hit for Christmas. Up late last night wrapping presents, getting everything ready, putting the stuff under the Christmas Tree... uh.. wait. Stacy did all that. I was just playing video games. That's right. Anyway, we were up late last night, and I was quite tired this morning, but not too tired for me to hear the sound of an excited kid, not sure which one -- running down the hall at full speed. I'm sure the neighbor below also heard this. The sound ended with a pause, as if the pause was long enough to take in the view of the spoils of Christmas. The brief pause was immediately followed by a running of full speed back up the hall to the bedroom, a pause only long enough to wake up the sibling, and then followed by two sets of excited feet running full speed down the hall.

Somehow the kids restrained themselves from opening all the gifts. I am quite honestly amazed at their willpower. Somehow I'm reminded of a movie once where the bad guy and the good guy meet. The bad guy has two well trained attack dogs ready to destroy any interluder. The bad guy throws a juicy steak to each dog. The dogs sit and wait for their command. The tasty morsels at their feet are untouched. The bad guy snaps his fingers and the dogs then proceed to devour the steaks. This was the restraint that the children exhibited this morning. I guess all the housebreaking lessons are finally starting to pay off.

I was awoken later to Joey, who burst into our room with his proudest discovery: A box of cereal -- not just any cereal -- AMERICAN cereal. Kix! Kid-Tested, Mother Approved! Joey burst into our bedroom with his newest prize, "Look Mommy! Kix!" A very thoughtful co-worker sent a care package of the things we can not get here in this country. While America has crappy food that could never be found here in Switzerland, such as Velveeta, Wonder Bread, Ritz crackers, there is also a huge gaping hole of selection for some of the good things that America has to offer.

Breakfast Cereal Rant Tangent
Come to think of it, I think that a good breakfast is a sure sign of a nation ready to grasp the spoils of victory over communism. This enthusiasm for truth, justice, and the American way of life can only be explained by the most excellent selection of breakfast cereals that America's amber waves of grain have to offer. Upon our arrival here in Switzerland, it was quickly noted that such champion breakfasts as "Cookie Crisp", "Kix", "Cheerios", and "Raisin Bran" are not to be found in the pathetic breakfast food section of the local Migros. I am presented with insults to my breakfast pallet, Müesli, some other sorts of suicide breakfasts -- various mixture of nuts, anaphylaxis and death. (For those who don't know me well enough, I am horribly allergic to most tree nuts).

You Swiss should be proud of your cheese technology; your pocket knife technology, your technology for well-made windows and doors surpasses even the most luxurious homes in America. (Our windows are usually painted shut) (No wonder we don't like to go outside, we're constantly sheltered from it). You should be proud of your chocolate technology, and maybe even your snappy hats and scarves. The skis I brought from America were (literally) laughed at by the ski maintenance shop.

However, you Swiss seriously are behind in at least one category -- LIGHT YEARS behind us... Breakfast technology. Have a bowl of Cookie Crisp sometime. You will bow to our might! Chocolate Chip cookies IN A BOWL ! FOR BREAKFAST! Now that is just genius in a bowl. Seriously. You have no idea.

Back to Christmas
.. or ...
On to the very important subject of LEGOs
Yesterday, I spent the day re-assembling Joshie's busted-up LEGO toys. He had a friend back in the US, Steven, who could not be trusted with Josh's LEGOs. Invariably, 5 minutes of our backs being turned, Steven could be counted on to destroy the LEGO creation that *I* had to put together. Actually, I don't mind the destruction to much. It's the random re-distribution of the LEGOs that drives me nuts. Once Stacy would go through cleaning up the basement, some pieces would be lost, some eaten by the bunnies, (that's my only explanation), or distributed to various bins of LEGO toys (the worst).

Yesterday, I spent most of the day re-assembling some of the long-busted up LEGO creations. Of course, Josh doesn't make me reassemble the ones that I could probably figure out by myself, he makes me reassemble the horribly complex ones. If they were space toys, I might be able to put up with it. But no, this was the Medieval Castle. Ugh. I could not bare to look at the castle after reconstruction was hampered by the search for a part that did not exist in 4 different tubs strewn with zillions of legos within.

I opted for the easier fix, the Trade Federation's Droid dropship. This was a "welcome to Switzerland, Josh" present, bought a few days after we arrived to Switzerland, before any of the air shipment had arrived. Its demise was met a few weeks ago when the sound of shattering glass, followed by shrieks of horror and pain actually turned out to be the dropship falling off the shelf and blowing up in to a zillion pieces.

At least this destruction was caused by a more innocent "It fell off the Shelf and blew up into a million pieces" instead of the wanton destruction from the neighborhood hell-boy Steven. In its reconstruction, I had pieced together most of the parts myself, without much reference to the manual. There were a few times when I had to refer to the original construction plans to make progress. But: One piece can not be recovered. We don't know where it is. No clue. I can't blame it on the bunnies as they live outside now. With this omission, the drop ship remains blemished by this external and patently obvious corner-stone. Literally: the corner of the ship has gone missing.

I surfed online to Lego.com to find that you can get them to ship replacement parts. To Switzerland! I didn't get charged online, so I have to wonder if they're going to send me a bill. I found the Lego unique number for this toy, selected the piece that was missing, gave them my address (I gave them the address in Rüfenacht), and that was pretty much it! I also discovered that they have the plans from all of their lego toys as far as I could tell. If you lost your construction plans, you can always go find the PDF online and use that as a guide.

This following the instructions business was never my strong suit as a kid. I seem to remember following the construction plans long enough to build it the first time, and then the plans were lost, probably the cat puked on it or something. My LEGO foo was enhanced by my own creations -- I would model toys from my own imagination, or from cartoons I watched, or for some new space ship I imagined on my own. I made submarines from LEGOs that were water-tight (no small feat, I might add). I made VOLTRON out of LEGOs. There was no feat that could not be accomplished with my 3 boxes of worn and chewed-on LEGOs. Even to this day, I have a hard time envisioning any sort of construction tasks being solved without the ample use of LEGOs.

They stopped being such a huge part of my personality around the age of 13. Junior High school. We're all supposed to be grown-ups so quickly after 6th grade, when just a few weeks ago you were still expected to still be a kid. Now in Junior High school, you're not supposed to wear Garanimals any more, you're supposed to wear a denim jacket preferably with some sort of hard-rock band on the back. There was harsh punishments of ostracism for any behavior that could be construed as Elementary school, childish. You're expected to like girls, not think they have cooties.

You're expected to not play with LEGOs. I was caught by a girl whom I fancied playing LEGOs. Upon this discovery, and the threat of imminent ostracism, the LEGOs quickly were repositioned to the darkest corners of the closet. No longer cool. No longer fun to play with. It happened so quickly. I also lost, in a sense, that magical ability to create anything with simple blocks, or to have the same story-creation imagination I had as a kid. After that day, I lost the ability to come up with a plot of some fantastical whimsical intricacy that I had before. I don't think I have ever gotten it back. Gee, it's no wonder Teen-agers are so depressed.

I'm trying to figure out why I now dread being called back into the kids' bedroom to repair the busted LEGOs. I used to love these toys so much as a kid. Perhaps it's this new style of play that leaves me with such distaste for LEGOs now, and not some sort of L. Ron Hubbard-esque engram of the Junior-High social ostracism from LEGO enjoyment. The LEGOs can not be built any way you want, they have to be assembled as per the instructions. No deviations. Any deviations will result in the incomplete or busted project being returned to the LEGO bin.

This attitude, I think, comes from Stacy. Her brother Bryan recently gave to us a vast treasure trove of 1980's space LEGOs, many of the same models I had as a kid. I only vaguely remembered the original LEGO models, as I mentioned before, because I soon lost the box, the construction pieces, or a random LEGO went down the bathtub drain, or the cat puked on it. I went on to use these pieces to power my own creations.

This vast treasure trove of original almost mint-in-box LEGOs was because Stacy's mother dictated the style of play that Bryan had to follow. You will construct the LEGOs as the plans dictate. Upon completion of playing with the LEGO, you will dismantle either completely or partially dismantle the original LEGOs, and replace them in the original box. While I certainly befitted from this in the form of these awesome original LEGOs that we get to play with, I think it came at a price. Perhaps Bryan preferred to play with his LEGOs this way, and it didn't bother him. It would have driven me crazy as a kid.

As the so-called LEGO expert from childhood (I guess Stacy was painting, or putting on dresses, or playing with dolls or whatever girls are expected to do at that age), the role of LEGO guidance counselor for Joshie falls to me. Jake doesn't understand LEGOs, having gone directly Baby Crib toys to computer games, without any interest in any of the logical progression of kids' toys along the way. The LEGO construction gene/meme has certainly taken root in young Joshua.

Josh (6) is coming along quite well. When we got the Trade Federation Dropship, I was expected to do all of the construction. I had Josh help though. I had him sort the pieces by color, which made my task much easier. With each new LEGO toy which has been gifted to Joshie, we have assembled the LEGOs with more and more help from Josh. Recently, as a birthday present, I had him do the entire assembly of a Fire Marshall Helicopter, as I only told him what pieces to use and helped him with each step. When he received an identical LEGO set as a birthday gift, I had him do the whole assembly without my supervision, and he performed the task flawlessly. Now he can pretty much assemble, with the help of instructions, any simple to medium LEGO toy unsupervised. Repairing LEGO castles, and Drop Ships -- not so much. But he's coming along fine.

Cecilia got a Barbie doll and a matching Horse that I picked out for her at the local Loeb. Some of her promised gifts have not yet arrived from the US, so her celebration of Christmas for some toys will have to be delayed. She also recently got a book about a dog called "Mitsy." This is a book she insisted on having. The strange thing about this book is that it's entirely in German. Of all the kids, Cecilia has the most genuine interest in learning German -- not just something that is forced upon her to assimilate like a good kid.

Jake enjoyed Christmas immensely. Or so I heard. He's not here. We shipped him back to the US so he could be with his friends. We could not get the company to approve his travel on company money, so I sent him with my United Airline Frequent Flier miles. I had 106,000 miles on account, which I work out to be about 212 hours of me sitting on some commercial Jet-liner. I spent 80,000 to get him home for Christmas.

Did I mention he went business class??! That is because it took us so long to make the decision, that we couldn't fit him on to a flight to the US in Economy class, and I had the miles to do it. These are the frequent flier miles I have been saving up since 1999. To put this in perspective for Jake, I noted that 106,000 miles is almost half-way to the moon (225,000 miles). I hope he really enjoys this, and comes back to Switzerland less-miserable. His lack of enthusiasm is like a morale Kryptonite, poisoning those around him, and I sincerely hope this change of venue with the new apartment, along with the trip back to the US will change his attitude.

Me? I scored two cookbooks, so Stacy won't have to eat "Pizza and hotdogs and schnitzel and pasta" (her words) day after day because of the picky eater children. One a Vegetarian cookbook, the other a traditional Swiss cookbook. See the biggest problem we have with our American cookbooks is that they require ingredients that simply don't exist here. For example, Velveeta cheese, and Wonder bread. (no, I'm kidding). I also got a Flight Simulator for Gliders called "Condor." The disappointment for this gift is that once installed, it asked for a registration code that could not be found anywhere in the box whatsoever. I wrote to the email support, and expect a response something to the tune of "Please return it to the vendor." Thankfully we still have the receipt.

I had a Christmas present from several months ago, that I played with again today. The Ghetto Copter. I have promised to share this tale, and since I'm in the rare writing mood, and not the more common video-game playing mood, I'll share the tale with you.

The Ghetto Copter is what I called my repair attempts for my previously-super-cool Blade CX2 remote controlled helicopter. The day after my depressing Bautag with the Swiss glider club, where I was isolated in my non-Bärndütsch stage-two nadir, I realized that it would be a long winter without any soaring. On 7 October, the Swiss Toy expo was being presented at the Bern BEA Expo on the northern side of town. I took Cecilia, Josh, Joey and Stacy to see what could be found. Jake stayed home with an upset stomach.

The Swiss Toy expo was a huge arena of toys, toys, toys. They had train sets that Joey could not be torn away from. They had a huge video game area that Jake certainly would have loved, if it were not for stupid region encoding on all console video games sold outside the US. (i.e., any video games we purchase here in Switzerland for the Game Cube, PlayStation, or Xbox can't be played on our US equipment. Region coding is the stupidest invention of all time, and I can only hope that the WTO finds it in violation) (for you geniuses out there who invented on this idiocy, upon meeting you I would seriously be tempted to kick you in the sack).

In the Swiss Toy arena, they had a huge netted-off area with remote controlled toys. Airplanes, and remote controlled helicopters. The local Helicopter RC shop had a demonstration of the counter-rotating helicopter called the Blade CX2. This copter was so maneuverable that he flew it over to an object that he picked up with the heli, flew it over to the other side of the demonstration, dropped it off, and repeated. Not only did he have real skills in doing RC heli flight, but this beast actually obeyed his commands.

My previous experience with RC helicopters, especially the counter-rotating kind, was the MicroMosquito, sold exclusively by Radio Shack in the US (and only for a limited time). Although quite fun to fly around the house, it also had some really bad habits. Because it was so small, it was vulnerable to even the slightest breeze. How slight a breeze? If you had a cigarette, and its column of smoke was not perfectly vertical, this MicroMosquito would not be able to fight upwind. It also had a bad habit of getting into what we call a divergent oscillation -- an uncommanded oscillation of increasingly large swooping circles. As the blade speed was low, and the diameter of the blades not very long, the tendency for coning was huge, which led to this oscillation. With counter rotating blades, the upward coning blade met with the downward coning blade spinning in the opposite direction, ending in a crackling smack, followed by a crash. With one blade-strike too many, some parts of my MicroMosquito (which I carefully included in the air-shipment from America), made it no longer airworthy.

From the expert handling of the demonstration at the Swiss Toy expo, it was quite clear to me that this battery-powered helo Blade CX2 did not exhibit the fatal design flaws of the MicroMosquito, and therefore must be purchased immediately. I bought the boxed set for way too much money (all in Swiss Francs of course), along with the trainer kit. The trainer kit was essentially four ping-pong balls with precision holes cut in them, and some long plastic rods. The assembly was installed under the landing skids, so any landings not truly vertical wouldn't result in a dynamic roll-over causing blade-strikes with the ground. The diameter of the training set was also long enough to prevent blade strikes with the wall.

I set outside the next day to play with my new toy. It was a dream to fly. After watching the video that came with the helo (on YouTube), I adjusted all the adjustments, and managed to hover it very nicely, much easier to fly than the MicroMosquito. Of course, hovering doesn't last long until you think, "what else can this thing do?" It wasn't long until I was doing turns, flying forward, backwards, sideways. I flew it down the sidewalk. Hmm. Battery is getting low. I will have to shut it down soon. Too low! Not! Into!


...the concrete bench.

Pieces flew off. I winced. I approached it slowly. Two rotor blades eaten by the concrete bench. Good thing this guy is in Belp, and I can easily go and pick up replacement parts. Wasn't that training rig supposed to prevent blade strikes? Somehow I managed to crash the blades into the overhanging part of the bench, and out of the reach of the protective gear. Arrgh This is going to be not-cheap.

I bought some replacement blades that week, and set out in the local Soccer field instead. This should be plenty big, and won't suffer the same fate. And when I do crash (it always ends in a crash, doesn't it?), at least I will crash into soft grass. I can do this in the morning, before any soccer players show up.

I get out there, start hovering for a few minutes. Good, the replacement blades are doing fine. Let's do some forward flight. Hmm. Not going very fast. Let's do some turns with me in the center of the circle. Wow, this thing is going faster. Wow that's really fast. Woah that's getting far away from me. oh NO!!!!


This time, I had the upper blade and lower blade collision happen, apparently, I did too abrupt a movement at high speeds, causing lower blade speed, excessive coning, and a counter rotating blade strike. What is worse is that instead of crashing into a bench, or a soft soccer field, I managed to crash it in between a tree and a hurricane fence. The blades of the copter got stuck in the fence. In the terror of the moment, I forgot to shut off the throttle of the crashed copter. This is a fatal mistake that you are sternly warned against in the instruction video, and repeatedly in the manual. Now I learn why.

Strangely enough, the blades are not harmed. I take the copter to the soccer field and try again. This time, the copter won't take off, and spins madly to one direction. One of the blades does not power up at all. I later investigate the matter more closely, and discover that I burned out the left motor, which powers the top blades. Arrgh.

Another trip to Baumann. 30 Francs. Arrgh.

The two extra batteries I bought come in handy because I over-drained the battery when I crashed the helo into a fence. This old battery is useless and won't take a charge any more.

Another trip to Baumann. 25 Francs. Arrgh.

Followed by some good flights in the park over the fallen leaves of fall (and blowing them all over the place, way cool!) Another crash in the soccer field, all blades chipped or broken off. The fuselage is seriously compromised, cracks, some pieces fell off.

Hmm. This is getting expensive. I start doing the low-budget copter approach. Index cards taped where there were gaping holes in the fuselage. Scotch tape for the shattered rotor blades (which actually while I would not recommend for legal liability reasons, worked great), scotch tape wherever there were cracks. This cut down on the violent vibrations I noticed on the tail.

I present to you: The Ghetto Copter -- still flyable! Note the index card covering the vast section of fuselage that broke off, and the (un)healthy supply of scotch tape on the rotor blades and fuselage to hold it together.

I had no idea this was such an expensive addiction. I should stick to soaring. Not nearly as many accidents there.

The flying came to an end for a time when the landing gear broke so badly that I could not repair it with scotch tape, and I could not fashion any paper clips to handle the role effectively.

The helo has since been repaired by a not-cheap visit to Helikopter-Baumann by my wife, who found replacement landing gear, fuselage, and a huge supply of replacement rotor blades. I have been flying it safely indoors now, where I am forced to fly so conservatively that I don't get the temptation to fly fast and high any more. The cold weather causes the parts to become particularly brittle, and much more vulnerable to disaster. There is a huge selection of videos on YouTube for the CX2 in flight, most of the pilots shown there are much better than me.

My favorites so far:

Videos to Share

My friends who also relocated here to Switzerland had a quiet Christmas Eve dinner with their Swiss friends, and made a time-lapse video of the event. It was so clever, that I thought I would share it with you:

... Along with the unwrapping of christmas presents, also in time-lapse. I wish I was as creative as they are.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Bärndütsch

Well it turns out a lot of my answers were just plain wrong. (sigh). This section probably won't make any sense... I mean This section certainly won't make any sense to the non-Berners reading this. I'm including this so that the locals who do happen to read my Blog can actually feel sorry for me and maybe understand that I'm learning.

Äs isch mit mir i Walt chönne.
Should be...
Äs isch mit mir i Walt cho. (It has come with me to the forest)

Äs ha guet spile chönne.
Should be...
Äs het guet spile cho. (It could have been a fun game)

Äs isch nie Rüüme übercho.
Should be...
Äs het nie Rüüme übercho. (It nas never gotten a cold)

Äs cha schnure, aber nid brüele gha.
Should be...
Äs cha schnure gha, aber nid brüelei. (It has purred, but isn't uh.. shrug?)

Äs isch bald Jungi übercho.
Should be...
Äs het bald Jungi übercho. (It has already received uh... shrug?)



A co-worker directed me to the very interesting article about shibboleths on Wikipedia. A shibboleth is a word that can only be spoken correctly by a native. The example most Americans would think of is "Louisville." Everybody outside of Kentucky pronounces this as "Looey-ville." All the locals pronounce it as "Loo-uh-vull", "Loo-vull", "Luh-vull", "Luh-uh-vul" or Loo-ville."

There are several Shibboleths in Swiss German. "Chuchichäschtli" and "äuä." But honestly, to me at this point, I just think the whole dialect is a huge collection of shibboleths.

An American co-worker is in town to meet an arbitrary deadline set forth by the East-coasters. Since he is headed back to the US on Thursday, yesterday, we decided to take him to a nice restaurant in Gruyéres, to experience the Swiss custom of Fondue. Eight of us went to the restaurant and enjoyed a long 2 hour lunch (the first time I have done this since in Switzerland, I might add). We had wine and cheese and bread and potatoes. I call this the "Lipitor Lunch." There was much guilt after the lunch was complete, and I did not manage to have the will to eat dinner or even breakfast the next morning.

In case you're curious where this is, here's a map:

View Larger Map

Tuesday, December 18, 2007


What do you call somebody who knows three languages very well?

What do you call somebody who knows two languages very well?

What do you call somebody who speaks only one language?

As a topic of conversation, people often ask me what languages I know. I proudly respond that I know English (of course), know German pretty well, at least to the conversational level, know Japanese to a much more puny level. My ability in Japanese is impressive enough only to impress people who have never learned Japanese, and impressive enough for the Japanese to realize that an American can say more than 大丈夫です "Daijoobu desu," but not really much more than that. The grammar is OK, but I lack sufficient vocabulary after a point, where I am reduced to pointing and grunting. My knowledge of French consists mostly of pointing and grunting in the caféteria at the office. Boeuf, s’il vous plaît.

As I have mentioned before, I'm also taking some tutorials for Bernese German, locally known as "Bärndütsch" That funny "ä" character is pronounced closely to the American accent of the 'a', like in 'fan' -- not like how a British person would pronounce it. Phonologists would describe the monophthong as a central rounded vowel. The ü is pronounced like a sound that does not exist in English. But something close to it would be somebody emphasizing the 'e' in true. With a weird accent.

This evening, I was working on my Bärndütsch homework. The lesson is to convert sentences from the present tense into the past perfect tense. This dialect doesn't have a past tense, like "I ran to the store," you would have to say "I have run to the store." Kooky.

So let me share my homework with you so you can feel my pain. Note that this should not be a representative of actual Bärndütsch, but a pathetic attempt by a frustrated American trying to figure out this dialect.



  1. I ha deheim es Büssi.
  2. Äs chunt mit mir i Wald.
  3. Äs cha guet spile.
  4. Es chunt vor, dass äs fulänzet.
  5. Äs überchunt nie Rüüme.
  6. Äs isch scho elfi.
  7. Es chunt nie vor, dass äs bysst.
  8. Äs chunt mir gärn aa.
  9. Äs überchunt bald Jungi.
  10. Äs isch gent glücklech u ufgstellt.
  11. Äs het lieber Milch als Wasser.
  12. Chömet'er druus?
  1. I ha deheim es Büssi gha.
  2. Äs isch mit mir i Wald chönne.
  3. Äs ha guet spile cho.
  4. Es isch vorcho, dass äs fulänzet
  5. Äs isch nie Rüüme übercho.
  6. Äs isch scho elfi gsy.
  7. Es isch nie vorcho, dass äs bysst.
  8. Äs isch mir gärn aa cho.
  9. Äs isch bald Jungi übercho.
  10. Äs isch geng glücklech u ufgstellt gsy.
  11. Äs het lieber Milch als Wasser gha.
  12. Syt dihr druuscho?

The course is taught based on a book called, well... "Bärndütsch" by Ursula Pinhero-Weber, (ISBN 3-7225-0010-9). This book is written in High German, and really seems to expect the audience to a native German speaker, for example coming to Switzerland from Austria or Germany. There are many new words that I don't even know in German, which are making this kind of difficult for me. It is clear to me that it is probably quite rare for an English speaker (much less an American) to actually wish to comprehend this dialect, because there seem to be very few books on this subject. In other words, there probably isn't a market large enough to justify Rosetta Stone in making a Swiss German version of their software.

Stacy bought a book for me a while back, which also doesn't seem to be filling my need well: Hoi! Your Swiss German Survival Guide. What I really need is some spoken Bärndütsch spoken slowly with Hochdeutsch subtitles and maybe also the phonetic subtitles for Bärndütsch. Since my office is all English, and I work in the French sector of Switzerland, our neighbors all talk to us in English, and all the signs are in Hochdeutsch, I am feeling pretty hopeless that this is going to be anything other than an intellectual exercise.

The only glimmer of hope of learning this was last week, when I was speaking with a local. The conversation turned to Bärndütsch, and I said one or two of the sentences I learned from my tutorials. The local laughed and was impressed that a foreigner, much less an American, would even attempt such a feat. Well, laughter is at least a first step, isn't it?

As mentioned before, my goal is really to understand WTH people are talking about in the flying club; maybe also on the train so I won't feel so isolated. Speaking this dialect isn't important to me, but I understand that in order to understand, speaking it might make it all easier. Anybody else know any English speakers in this situation? Success stories? I feel like I'm the first American in Bern ever to do this, as the Americans I have met here so far can hardly muster ordering a beer in Hochdeutsch.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Jungfraujoch and Interlaken

Back in November, my mother and sister came to Bern to visit. They spent the time in our cramped apartment in Bern, and got to see some of the sights to be had in Switzerland. Unfortunately, it rained most of the time, but there were a few days where the sun came out.

While the relatives were in town, we realized that it probably would be a horrible loss of opportunity for them to come all the way to Switzerland, so that they can just look at my apartment walls. So we found a day to get out of the apartment and go see Switzerland.

On a quiet Saturday, I took my sister and her 6 month old(-ish) son up to the top of Gurten. The trip involved a walk from our Liebefeld apartment to the Wabern bei Bern train stop, and taking the hill-climber train, the Gurtenbahn, to see Bern from above.

Up until that point, the weather had been typical Bern for that time of year: Cloudy, foggy, drizzly, depressing. Fortunately


Starting the day before Thanksgiving, my mother, my sister, and my nephew arrived in Bern to celebrate Thanksgiving with us. This is the first time since we left the US that we have seen any family members; so their visit was incredibly welcome and well-received.

I was so excited by the visit, that I took the days off work to spend time with them. I was also maxed out on Paid Time Off, so this was perfect timing for them to show up.

Thanksgiving Dinner
Thursday was pretty much lost to recovering from jet lag for the travellers, so we elected not to have the celebration on the actual Thursday night. The dinner was scheduled for Friday night, and we invited all of the other co-workers in-exile from my office. Chris, Maria and Chris's wife, Miz K. Chris and Miz K. brought the beer, a honey-glazed ham, some sort of cranberry cherry thing, and some delicious glaze for the ham. Maria brought home-made Mac and Cheese from her mom's recipe book.

For you non-Americans reading this blog, please first get caught up on what Thanksgiving is all about, some of the foods eaten on Thanksgiving.

Usually, I don't really like the turkey, and will enjoy all of the side fixing instead of the actual Turkey. In fact, my opinion is that Thanksgiving would be perfectly acceptable if we just forgot the turkey, and ate only the side dishes. The ideal Thanksgiving dinner would contain these items, and not bother with the turkey:
So, thankfully, we had all of these items. Some smuggled into Switzerland from the US, others found here, and some made from scratch. I think the only items we really had to smuggle in were the fried onion bits for the Green Bean Casserole. Hmm. Maybe some other items; I'm not sure.

Like every Thanksgiving, I ate too much. I should have worn my "stretchy-pants" to accommodate for the increased storage capacity. After the dinner, I was overcome with the urge to sleep, a side-effect doubtless caused by the Tryptophan. I made this remark at the dinner table, and Chris responded, "That sure is a long way to say the word Heineken", as he pointed at my glass of beer.

Jake sat next to Chris, and took pleasure at annoying Chris. He poked an increasingly annoyed Chris on the shoulder, saying 'poke, poke'. I guess he was trying to get attention, or just be funny.

"Jake, leave him alone. He knows Brazilian Jiu-jutsu, and probably could pummel you. And he has my permission. " I pointed out to Jake.

Chris's wife remarked, "Yeah, he only doesn't hit people with glasses, and doesn't hit girls." Jake got up from the table to go get his glasses; likely to don them as if they were some impenetrable shield. As Jake was walking back to the bedrooms, Miz K shouted, "Don't you go putting on your sister's clothes!" Well, it was funny at the time.

Fun With Foil
Sitting after dinner, we had a sheet of aluminum foil sitting idle. Conversation and fiddling fingers eventually started making funny things with folded aluminum. I think it started with Josh wanting me to make a paper airplane for him, made of Aluminum foil. I crafted one, threw it, and it flew beautifully. Chris started making Origami, making an unflyable airplane. Somehow, it turned into personal adornments. Earrings, nose rings, glasses.

My sister Deborah made glasses for Jake. I borrowed the glasses for a minute and crafted them to mimic Deborah's first pair of glasses -- a subject of mythic family folklore. Deborah's first pair of glasses were worn in the first grade. The glasses salesman pointed out the first pair of glasses, "These are so beautiful. I think you will really like these." They were turquoise, with blue sparkles, and had the typical harlequin cats-eyes shape that was so prevalent in the late 1960s. I have never seen these glasses. But their legend has lived on within family folklore for decades. As to why Deborah chose these glasses, the first pair that was offered to her, and why she accepted them so readily and eagerly, her response was, "Well I didn't want to hurt the salesman's feelings!" I understand the glasses were later broken in a tragic schoolyard incident, but I'm not fully aware of the details.

Here is my artistic impression, with aluminum foil, of those original glasses, as worn by my sister:

And worn by Jake, along with a pig's snout of foil:

What would foil be without wearing Hip-Hop's best ornament? The Dental Grillz! Chris (right) and I show off our dental fashion, with a mean look to go with it.

We had a really great time. Everybody did. Each foil creation was met with howling laughter. Each creation met with the next, more outrageous foil creation until we got to the dental grillz, when the joke finally got kind of old.

Miz K's local friend, living in Switzerland, originally from Poland, when told of our Thanksgiving adventures had many questions. Among the questions and incredulity of the quantity and quality of the food, finally asked: "Is this the way Americans celebrate this holiday? With Aluminum foil?"

Miz K responded:"The eating part, yes. The foil part? No, it hasn't been, but we had so much fun it will be from now on."

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Stage Two Conquered

At last, I can write about my victory over "Stage Two"

Stage two? You don't know about stage two? Ok, let me take a few steps back and explain.

Stage Two
A co-worker, who re-located from South Africa shared me her relocation document, which seemed more thorough than the one I had gotten. Among many of the nuggets of very useful information, it described the four stages of ex-pats in relocating to a foreign country. Stage one can be summed up as "Oh this is great! Look at this cow-bell! It's so cute and Swiss!" The novelty of the banal excites you. The activity of relocating keeps you busy. The charm of novelty keeps you entertained.

Stage two happens after that novelty wears off. It can simply be described as the homesick phase. The psychology is a little more complex than just "homesickness." What once would inspire fascination for what the locals would find to be banal no longer appear fascinating or unique. The dialog of "Look at the bus fare machine! It has German and French on it! That's so cool! I love Switzerland" -- that dialog has gone.

You start to miss home. You realize the closest Taco Bell is in Iceland. You didn't particularly like Taco Bell in the US, and only had it maybe twice a year. You made fun of it every opportunity you had. But now you miss it. And there is no hope of satiating your desire until you go back to the US.

My Personal "stage two"...
Well it might be incredibly clear to you! It was right around that time that I didn't write any blogs. Right after the Geneva trip, and it abated about a week or so before the Japan trip, not finally being passed until I was in Japan. The nadir of my "stage-two-ness" was on October 6th, some bad news about the financing of my house back in Virginia came up. I missed Taco Bell terribly; finding that there were no Taco Bells anywhere in Europe. (How is this for depressing? Type Taco Bell Bern into Google and this blog comes up in the first page of hits).

To top off my disenfranchisement with Switzerland: I was very frustrated with the SGBern flying club. Not the lack of equipment, or inability to fly, but the fact that I felt absolutely isolated and alone with the club. This is not the fault of anybody in the club. I like them all. I think it's a great club. But it's not the club I left in Virginia. I had deep personal relationships with so many people in Skyline Soaring. I left them all behind. I was nearly regarded as the celebrity that I deserve in SGBern. Back home, I could fly up and down the valley with comfort and ease. I could join in on any conversation, and my opinion was valued. I left all that behind by coming to Switzerland. This was when the gravity of all these insights set in.

October 6th was the SGBern "Bautag" The fall clean-up that is done to prepare all the gliders for the winter season. Flying season pretty much ends in October, and the weather in Bern doesn't really allow for any flying. I felt rather isolated on that day, when I rediscover the realization that I don't understand a freaking word that these people are saying.

We were at the lunch table after doing the day's worth of work. I sat with the younger crowd. To my right, sat Ronnie, who lives in Schmitten. To my left, Christoph, who lives in Bern, and works as an architect. I occasionally talked to Ronnie, or to Christoph. In Hoch Deutsch with Ronnie, or English with Christoph. In one of those pauses with my chatting to Ronnie or Christoph, the tide quickly turned. The conversation suddenly and immediately turned political. In a moment, the conversation immediately occupied the entire table into a heated political debate -- in BärnDütsch.

Dammit! My comprehension of what was going on immediately went from 95% to 3%. They didn't mean to do it. They did not mean to exclude me. They did not want me to feel unwelcome. But it happened, they did and I was. That stupid language barrier has cast me out AGAIN. As I sat there at the table, a heated argument about SVP and Blocher, to me, it felt like I was in the corner, alone. The heated debate lasted 30 minutes, but it felt like hours. As I sat alone in my thoughts, I reviewed my decision to come here. I can't believe I left all my great friends in Virginia for this.

I can't believe I put myself in a place where people don't find me amusing, funny, smart, or knowledgeable. What the hell was I thinking? Why did I move from a nice big single family house in Virginia, to an over-crowded apartment around neighbors who don't like me and can't communicate with me? Why did I leave my beautiful glider, wonderful friends, easy food for this? Dammit! I am suffering the punishment of solitary confinement while in a crowd.

This was it. This was my moment of "Ex-Pat stage two nadir."

I am literally fighting back the tears as I write this. This period here in Switzerland really, really sucked. I didn't express my depression to anybody. (It's a typical guy thing). As I sat isolated at the table in a sea of unfamiliar phonemes, I planned my correction strategy. Just how exactly can I fix this?
  1. Learn the Swiss German dialect of Bern (BärnDütsch).
  2. Find some other distractions to occupy myself during the winter months. (R/C helicopter) (I'll get into the "Ghetto Copter" later).
  3. Do more touristy-things.
  4. Try not to work too much, as that will certainly depress me even more.
Nah. None of these things worked. The forces of work conspired to make me work many long days at the office. During this period, I couldn't spend much time with the family. time -- pretty much all of October -- I just sulked around. I don't even particularly remember that month very well. "I effin' hate this place." "WTH was I thinking?"

The opportunity to have a business trip to Japan came along. I took it. I love Tokyo. This will help, I'm sure. The rest of the family was deep in stage two, as well. (Joey excluded). I need this trip to Japan for ME.

American Humor in Tokyo
As I mentioned in the previous issue, the time in Japan was painfully busy. We worked 11 or 12 hour days every day. It was thankless, hard, tiring work. We often retired to our hotel rooms to immediately sleep.

To break the monotony of the working with computers, we had a few songs and subjects of humor which kept re-surfacing.

An oft-repeated subject was the constant re-playing of the theme song from movie "Team America: World Police" The song is poking fun at American patriotism. Sorry if the dialog from the song is not safe for work: "America! Fuck Yeah!" At the end of the song, they shout out things that you, as an American, should be proud of. The main singer shouts out the word of the patriotic subject, the responding singer responds with "Fuck Yeah!" Here are the subjects you should be proud of as an American, (as the song goes) (Original Lyrics)
  • McDonalds
  • Wal-Mart
  • The Gap
  • Baseball
  • NFL
  • Rock and roll
  • The Internet,
  • Slavery (What the hell?)
They take a breath, and go on to the next list, the range of subjects getting ever more questionable: But it's part of the humor.
  • Starbucks
  • Disney world
  • Porno
  • Valium
  • Reeboks
  • Fake Tits
  • Sushi
  • Taco Bell
  • Rodeos
  • Bed bath and beyond (in this case, the responder is rather confused and gives the response in a whisper)
Part three, ever more confusing as to why an American would be proud of these things. But they are American, especially the last two:
  • Liberty
  • White Slips
  • The Alamo
  • Band-aids
  • Las Vegas
  • Christmas
  • Immigrants
  • Popeye
  • Democrats
  • Republicans (confused response, they have a hard time mustering the response lyric)
  • Sportsmanship
  • Books
You may now be wondering why I transformed my PG-rated Blog into a tarpit of "Not Safe For Work" (NSFW) dialog. It is a rather strange, circuitous path toward delivering me from the jaws of "stage-two-ness." I think the song really did a great job of shouting the things I miss about the US in the first stanza, and then poked fun at some American things that we shouldn't be proud of (slavery, fake tits, etc), to the things I really don't miss from the US (Republicans, Bed Bath and Beyond).

Laughing seems to be a great way to get out of a funk. Laughing at yourself seems an equally valid path. I am pretty sure that nobody else will find this same path of deliverance from stage two to stage three. But this one was mine. Thank you, Trey Parker.

I think this song was more a catalyst than the actual concept which moved me on. The good laugh just gave me the kick I needed. In no time, after about ten days in Japan, I started to get homesick for Switzerland and not homesick for America.

Instead of missing Taco Bell, I started to miss the cute college girls on the train ride every morning (there seem to be a lot of those), the excellent lunch at the cafeteria next to the office, the excellent trains, the liberty of the "GA", seeing sheep, cows, reindeer on the train ride to work, and maybe the cute way the Swiss girls say "genau," oftentimes the only word I can understand when I eavesdrop.

Jake's Stage Two
"I hate it here in Switzerland." That is Jake's sluggish muttering expression, sighed with depressed resignation. This is mumbled precisely at the same time every morning and every evening. He chants as if it were a prayer, or a daily affirmation, or a mantra. "You asked me if I wanted to come here, I said 'no', and you still brought me here anyway."

Maybe there's something we can do?

I had a meeting with his home-room teacher at school, who had some suggestions on how to get him more acclimated. Get him involved. Get him some friends. Schedule other kids to come over. We live on the wrong side of Bern; it seems to us that all of the ex-pats live in the eastern side of town, closer to Muri, and closer to school in Gümligen. We got Jake involved in the basketball activity after school, and he is certainly starting to enjoy it, and best of all: He's becoming a better player!

There are a few girls at school he's got an interest in, and there are reportedly a few girls interested in him, too! When my visiting mother was waiting for Jake to get out of class one day, she patiently waited in the hallway with young Joey. Two girls came by and said, "Oh look at that kid, he's so CUTE!"

"Yeah", the other remarked. "That's Joey. He's Jake's little brother. He IS cute. Just like his older brother!" No word on who actually said this.

None of this matters. Jake seems to continually express his misery with the aforementioned mantra. He could have had a really wonderful time doing something incredibly cool and neat. To wrap up the day, he reverts to the "I hate Switzerland" mantra. We've been here 5 months now. He should be over this. I was done with stage two right a week or so before the Japan trip.

We recently bought all the kids a pair of skates, (and dusted off my old hokey skates from the closet) and took them to Ka-We-De in Bern. Jake really enjoyed skating, and may have even smiled once or twice. Cecilia has taken to skating like a natural. Joshie manages to stay upright long enough, but doesn't actually skate as much as walk on ice with skates on. Joey cries each time he gets on the ice. It is a good thing we didn't actually buy skates for him. The first night back on the ice, and I realized the next morning that it had been more than 10 years since on skates. I ached in places that I forgot I had muscles. Or maybe I didn't have muscles there, which is why it ached there. (Mostly in the hip abductor muscles)

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Favorite Songs

My new favorite song, which is being played in this office over and over again:

Andrew Thompson (the singer) doesn't trust robots. You shouldn't either. Listen to this at least twice, and it will be stuck in your head. I laugh every time I watch this. Maybe this will brighten your day, too.

This next guy, DJ Bobo, is Swiss, and made this song in 2002; which turned out to be too popular in South America. Unfortunately (or thankfully, depending on your point of view), this never made it to the United States. I saw an interview with this DJ yesterday in one of the gratis Swiss newspapers I find on the train, ".ch" (That's pronounced as punkt tsee hah). I enjoy following this guys career in the 'cultural train wreck' sort of way. The kids are starting to sing it at home.
DJ Bobo's Chihuahua

His latest track, "Vampires Alive"... all I can muster to say is, "Ugh."

(Check out the wikipedia article about him. The Cantonese version of Chihuahua is quite amusing, too!)

Japan Trip

I recently came back from Japan. What was supposed to start off as a 12 day trip turned into a 17 day trip, as some expected equipment did not arrive in time.

Here's my photo album:

...And a map of where I worked and stayed:

View Larger Map

Highlights of the Trip:

Unfortunately, I worked nearly the whole time. 16 of the 17 days were spent in that data center, and there was very little time to goof off. Which is a shame that I spent so much time flying over to that country from Switzerland, only to spend the whole time in the data center.

But here are some cool things that I managed to squeak out, despite the 70 hour work weeks:

Roppongi is the place where all the US Navy sailors and marines go, when on shore leave. This means that the businesses of the area cater to the foreign interests especially. There are many english speaking establishments there. There are also some street corners that are very shady. The four of us went to go find a place to get a drink, and we ran the gauntlet.

There is one street in Roppongi that could best be described as "running the gauntlet." Many of the establishments, in order to get you into their bar, will have men on the street corner, asking you to come to the club. They are very pushy, and usually don't take no for an answer. They are usually inviting you to "Gentlemen's clubs" or strip clubs, but occasionally, they invite you to just regular bars.

After walking 5 meters and telling 7 or 8 of these guys to buzz off, I pulled the "Quebeqois Act," only I don't know French, so I had to substitue with German, instead. What I call the "Quebeqois Act" is when you act like you don't speak English, but you actually do. I walked the street, in German, "No, I don't speak English. Only German. Go away" I thought I had figured out how to get rid of them. Suddenly, this Nigerian with PERFECT German called me on my bluff, inviting me to his club. You can't win here.

Toy Park
I did manage to visit the Toy Park in Ginza. It took me a few tries to find it again, and I did do a lot of extra walking in Ginza. I don't mind getting lost. Toy Park is a store that has lots of cool Japanese toys -- four floors of neat Japanese toys you can't find in the US or Switzerland. I bought ¥20,000 worth of toys, including some 3-D puzzles for Jake, two train sets for Joey, a transformer of some sort for Joshie, and a Kimono for Cecilia.

エアロフライテックシリーズ の Qスカイ
(AeroTech Series Q-Sky)

Toys for me? Oh heck ya. I've recently gotten into small remote controlled aircraft. (I will write about the "Ghetto-Copter" in another issue) While at the Toy Park, I bought a nice little remote controlled airplane that can be flown indoors. The plane is made of Styrofoam and weighs not much more than a few pieces of paper. Aerotech's Q-sky. Here's a commercial on YouTube.

Of course, the instructions are written for Japanese, by Japanese. And they are hilarious. Here is the instruction page. These are the actual instructions that came in the box -- really, I'm not making this up. Click on it so you can see the images up close. Since you don't know Japanese, I will translate the captions for you below.

Let's go through the instructions: starting with block one:
  1. Don't wear the airplane as a necklace

  2. Don't put the controller between your legs, you never know when it's going to blow up and damage your dangling bits.
  3. Don't use it as a karate chopping block. Nobody will be impressed.
  4. Dogs are not allowed to fly remote control airplanes.
  5. If you score a touchdown, don't spike the plane.
  6. Magicians are not allowed to use their special powers to influence the flight.
  7. Do not pick your nose while flying the plane with one hand. We are not impressed by your ability to multitask.
  8. Don't shout out your window telling your neighbors about your plane. They probably won't be as impressed as you think they will be.

Return Trip
On the way back, I was blessed with mostly clear weather over Siberia. Yes, Russia is big. The trip from Tokyo to Zurich is a 12 hour plane ride. The flight begins with a direct north route, about 45 minutes going over the Japan Sea, and reaching the Russian coastline. The next 9 hours are flying over Russian territory. The most amazing thing is that I saw absolutely no signs of civilization until Vazhki (sp?).

For a long time, the world record for a glider flight was a ridge flight, starting from Pennsylvania, down to Tennessee, and back up. Relatively recently, this long distance glider flight record was broken in Argentina, in 2003. I have wondered if the Ural mountains would serve as a good opportunity to break that record in Argentina. With the length of the Urals, and the long daylight of the summer months, it might actually be possible:

This flight over Russia gave me the opportunity to see the Urals from altitude to let my imagination wander. It appears that the urals are very rocky to the north, and more smoothed out to the south. There appears to be a significant gap between this rocky northern part, and the smoothed out shorter southern part. Also, I noticed that there is no prepared terrain anywhere nearby. If you land out, you are landing out in the trees, maybe 1000 km from the nearest rescue team. Hmm. Maybe somebody else can attempt that record.

Here's a rough estimate of my flight back over Russia. I should have taken some pictures, because I will not likely ever be able to see this view again. Here's a map of what I'm talking about. The orange line is the proposed record-breaking flight, and the blue was the flight path my jet liner took. The blue marker shows where the Ural mountains break, and the pink-ish marker shows the first signs of civilization that I saw along the trip.

View Larger Map

Monday, October 15, 2007

Swiss Toy Expo

7 October, 2007
Bored with ourselves, we set out on a Journey to the Swiss Toy Expo at the BEA Expo Center in Wankdorf, Bern. This was a toy Expo which had all the major toy vendors in the area, and gave us a good opportunity to do some toy shopping for Joshie's upcoming birthday (15 November). Jake was left behind at home with a sore throat. He had spent the previous week at "Village Camp", a week long trip with the school at some remote camping village. Somewhere along the way he had picked up a cold, and was not in the mood to go out of the house.

We paid the entrance fee, and immediately headed to the video game portion of the expo. It was a warehouse-sized building with all the major video game vendors: Sony (Play Station), Nintendo (Wii and GameCube), Microsoft (X-Box), and other software vendors. Also present were the trading and game card nerds, who played World of Warcraft in trading cards. There were also Pokemon card games going on.

We exited, and found the outdoor park, where there was a mini-roller-coaster, that I managed to coax Joshie and Cecilia into riding. I was expecting the kids to have their mother's "I would rather stay and watch, thank you" mentality. The first trip was with Joshie, I went with him on the first ride. His comment was "They don't have to go so fast, I think."

This was a pretty puny roller coaster by any measure. The Texas Cyclone this ain't. But I suppose it's important to get the kids to work their way up the ladder of roller coaster appreciation, so this seems a pretty good place to start. Even Cecilia enjoyed the roller coaster, and asked to repeatedly ride it. At 3 Francs a ride, it started to add up. I had to move the kids on to the next diversion.

We found the outdoor toy section. This was a vendor that showcased many strange devices for locomotion, starting from the mundane bicycles to pogo sticks, to unicycles to the very weird toys you've never dreamed of.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

American Market, Geneva

"You always want most what you can't have."

It's not that I especially like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. I don't even like birthday cakes made from cake mix. I only steal a few of the Pepperridge Farm Goldfish when the kids are already eating them. I only occasionally like Taco Bell. It is a rare event for me to go to KFC.

But now that this country doesn't offer these things, I sure do crave them. The children have been begging for Cheerios nearly every morning. Cecilia's favorite meal if "Macaroni Soup", which is simply Kraft Macaroni and Cheese with too much milk. Young Joseph asks for goldfish, and is not satisfied with the goldfish shaped pretzels that we get from the local Migros.

When complaining about these things that we missed, a co-worker asked why we don't just go to "the American Market" to satisfy these cravings.

"American Market?" I ask excitedly. I am familiar with the British markets; there is one not very far from my old house in South Riding, just west on Route 50. They are these stores where homesick British can get their "crackers" or other weird things that they can't find in the US. So it would seem that there is enough of a market in Switzerland to support two stores dedicated to these niche foods.

Stacy packed an overnight luggage bag with enough clothes for an overnight stay. We found a hotel in Geneva right next to the train station, with some incredible views of the very beautiful city. A short 2 hour ride on the train, and we were in Geneva. Also brought along for the trip were two empty rolling luggage bags. This is where we would collect the spoils.

First things first. It's Saturday, and we need to get to this store before it closes. Touring and doing touristey things will all be done later. This has to be done NOW. We made the short walk to the American Market about 2 blocks from our hotel. It is not your average grocery store, but a small shop, two levels, jam-packed with American goodness. There were many things that we were craving, that we were happy to find. Many things that we did not expect to find, and many things that we never would have thought of, that Americans might also want.

You might find it strange to know that Switzerland seems to lack these basic necessities of life. How they manage to get along without Stove-Top Stuffing, I don't know. How they get along without cake mixes must mean that they bake their cakes from scratch, or go to the store to buy birthday cakes, or do not celebrate birthdays at all in a fashion that we're used to. How they enjoy their hot dogs without sweet relish boggles my mind. And to think that the only breakfast cereals that they can serve kids are from Kellogg's (and off-brands too), also escapes me. Where's the General Mills Cereals in this country? Oreo double-stuff? How can watching TV be fully enjoyed without these things?

This store was too small for your typical shopping cart to be wheeled around. Instead, there were hand-baskets. We filled five of them. When it came time to time to pay, it averaged 100 Francs per basket. Ouch. Importing these things ourselves has proven to be almost as expensive, once it got through customs. So I can understand the price.

So you might be wondering about some of the things that don't exist in Switzerland, outside of the American Market, aren't you? Instead of making a boring list, I'll just give you a picture of the shelves, so you can get a quick idea of our wonderful American Junky food that the Swiss manage to live without:

About 500 CHF later, and two full-sized luggage bags packed to the brim with goodies, strange looks from the locals, one happy store owner -- we rolled out of the store, having fulfilled our trip's main goal. The secondary goal, of course, was to get some sightseeing done in Geneva.

We essentially re-traced my steps from my unplanned day in Geneva from two weeks prior. Here's a gallery of the pictures we took in Geneva and Lac Leman (Lake Geneva)
[ Gallery of photos ]

Food and Language Barriers
We had a very expensive dinner that evening. In case you are not aware, these children are incredibly hard to feed. Somehow, we really messed up in the kids' upbringing, and they have an extremely irritating tendency to eat only 5 or 6 things. Joshie used to be quite good at eating new foods until he saw Cecilia's pickiness, and imitated that. Joey used to be quite good at eating strange foods, too; but soon copied his older siblings. Jake is starting to come around and eat new foods, thankfully. I had so many food allergies as a kid, that being picky meant not eating. Being picky for no reason escapes my imagination.

So to get back to the expensive dinner, we finally found a restaurant on the Lake that we thought the kids MIGHT be able to eat something. Of course, none of us speak French, so there's a language barrier. Reading French is much easier than speaking it. Often the French words look enough like the English words that we would never use, but still understandable. The waiter looked on patiently, as we tried to communicate.
"Do you speak English?"
"¿Hablas español?"
"Sprechen Sie Deutsch?"
"日本語を話すか。" Yes, I actually said that. That's Japanese, by the way.
"No." A response of simultaneous confusion and surprise.

This is one of the most international cities in the world. A full quarter of the population did not come from France or Switzerland. I can't believe this. OK, French it is.
What comes next is my usual fare in French. When I don't know the French word, which is always, I resort to my personal approach to communicating with non-Anglophones. Most Americans use the method of, "If they don't understand you, speak English slower and louder." My technique is much more advanced. I point and grunt. Thankfully we had a menu for me to point at, and I came up with the grunting noises which were probably intelligible, so long as they were French-sounding grunts.

After finishing the three pizza dinner (which was quite good), we decided it was time to head back to the Hotel. We asked the waiter at the door for directions to the bus. It was a suitable walk home on foot, but the kids were tired, and a bus might do us better. I asked the waiter, one word, in English. He didn't know English, but I suspected the one word question would work.

"Bus?" (Pronounced with an American Accent) IPA: /ˈbɐs/
"Eh?" A shrug of confusion.
OK, let's try German. "Bus?" (Pronounced with a German accent, the "u" sounds like oo in 'fool' IPA: [bys]
"Eh?" Another shrug of confusion.
Hmm. Think of Inspector Clouseau, with a suitably outrageous French accent. How would he say "Bus?"
"Bus?" (This time with the outrageous Inspector Clouseau French accent, /bys/ , Kind of like there's one long vowel in "Boeus", hard to spell in English, because that vowel does not exist in English.)
"Oh! Le Bus!" He got it. You've got to be kidding me.

I will never figure out this language.

He gave us directions, in French. Slowly and loudly with many hand gestures. He suggested that it is much easier to walk, 5 minutes on foot.

Exploring Geneva
The next day, we bypassed the 40 CHF per person breakfast in the hotel (with six people, that would be awfully expensive for croissant and toast), and stocked up on the cheap croissants at the train station. We sat at the boat dock, looking at the water birds, the boats, and the scenery. Life's not that bad.

The kids enjoyed chasing the pigeons, Joey would run full speed at the pigeons and shriek with joy, the annoyed pigeons would just fly away. We walked to the Geneva Sundial, but it was too cloudy to see any shadows fall on it. We grabbed an electric train trolley up and down the lake's banks, with a guided tour of the sights of Geneva. We found a water fountain; Jake looked at it suspiciously.

"You're actually drinking that?" he asked me, as I filled a water bottle with the water from the fountain.
"Yes, it's drinkable water"
Suspiciously, Jake asked, "How do you know that's OK to drink?"
"It says right here on the sign" I pointed to a sign that said 'Eau Potable'
"That's French, how do you know that says it's OK to drink? "
Frustrated, "Eau means water. Potable means drinkable."
"But how do you know 'pot-able' means you can drink it? You don't know French"
"Dude! Potable means 'You can Drink it' in ENGLISH"
"Oh". Still suspicious. A Canadian looked on with amusement, and confirmed my translations to Jake.

Coolest Park Ever
We came across the Cheetah Beach in Geneva, which would never exist in the sue-happy United States. Dear lawyers who read this page: "You Make America Suck." Decades of ambulance chasing, get a papercut, I-have-to-sue mentality has made cool places for kids to play an impossibility. Don't know why I'm ranting? Because you haven't seen this park:

This is a park called "Cheetah-Babyplage", a very wonderful park including many swings, and a beach on Lake Geneva. The swings are all that has many recycled bicycle tires. The kids spent at least two hours swinging around. It was truly wonderful.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Weird Signs

I finally found out what these little signs are:

A friend in the flying club asked his other German friends to discover what these signs are. It seems nobody knows, because it's only something that the utility people use to find out specifics about the sewage, water, or gas lines. In German, they're called
Hinweisschilder zu Straßeneinbauten, literally translated to "Signs to road installations" The Wikipedia page only has the description in German.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

So Much To Say

Again, apologies. It is disappointing that I must always start my blog entries with an apology. This duration even exceeded the previous one, which was also quite embarrassing. I will make no further promises of schedules of the next edition. And apologies will no longer be necessary, as you will have no expectations of periodicity for me to uphold.

Permit Acquisition
I didn't really advertise this on the blog, but our situation with the residency permit was certainly not the ideal. Remember, our goal was to get to Switzerland early enough so that the children could be settled in to the life in Switzerland, get to know the area, find some comfort, before we sent them off to school. To meet that goal, our scheduled arrival date in Switzerland, along with the apartment rental, the shipping, all the everything else involved for this relocation had a date of August first, 2007.

Unfortunately, nobody informed the Swiss Visa and Fribourg Canton authorities of our tight schedule.

There were many forces conspiring to delay our trip to Switzerland, but one force -- Stacy -- (yes, she can be described as a force) that continued on course to meet that date. All the other stuff involved in the US was closing out. We had the furniture get shipped out. We had people come in and rent our home in Virginia. We had everything packed. The United States Department of State, which was responsible for issuing passports, took their sweet time in issuing the passports for the family. Also, my passport had to be renewed, as it was due to expire in less than two year's time. My passport didn't take any time at all: it was returned within a week's time.

As I was saying, the Fribourg authorities were not apprised of our plans, and also took their sweet time in preparing the work permit. Stacy and I were at a point where our departure to Switzerland could not be delayed, and we were forced to embark on our journey, work permits, entry permits or not. We found a loop-hole in the system: to enter the country as Tourists. Stay for a week or two while the permits were getting prepared. Exit the country, acquire entry visa. Enter the country. Register with the local authorities. Live peacefully as legal aliens.

The catch for the resident tourist strategy is that only 90 days was permitted here, and no working! Once the 90 days was up, if no permit, I was required to leave the country and not come back for another 30 days. (Yowza!)

It did not take the predicted 1 or 2 weeks overlap, in this country as tourists. It took 4 and a half weeks overlap. As each day went by without a permit, we grew increasingly nervous of the following scenario:
We do not like Americans named Piet in our country. We have had problems with them in the past. Therefore, permit registration denied!
If this event was to transpire, I had a special place on Monbijoustrasse bridge over the Aare prepared in just such an occasion.

That long-awaited day finally came. That lovely e-mail announcing the arrival of the work permit, and the appointment with the Swiss embassy in Washington DC to acquire the entry permit. Remember the original plan. Since we were here as tourists, we had to leave. And when we left, we had to re-enter. Also, the entry permit was a special document affixed to the passport, and required a Swiss consulate to handle the passport for a short time.

We had the possibility of mailing our passports back to the Washington, DC office; having them mailed back through FedEx. We also considered the possibility of going to Lyon, France for the day, and visiting the Swiss consulate there for the same activity. It was decided: Lyon is a short (3 or 4 hour) train ride away, and we could spend the night at a hotel there. Since we had to leave the country anyway, this was the perfect opportunity to finally get some travel done in Europe.

Also, during this period of living as tourists in Bern, we were growing desperately poor. This was due to fact that some of the funding from the company was dependent on the successful acquisition of the work visa. Our financial desperation was bordering on destitute. We were one or two meals away from brushing the bread crumbs from the cupboards into bowls of water, to call them soup. The acquisition of the permits could not have been any later.

To Lyon via Bern, Lausanne, Bern, Geneva
Sunday, 9th of September, we all awoke early, got on the train to Bern Bahnhof, Stacy purchased the tickets to Geneva, and purchased an open ticket and return to Lyon, France. Since by that time, I had my "General Abonnement" card (allowing me unlimited access to any bus, train, ship, and go-kart in Switzerland), there was no need for a ticket for me, except for the ticket from Geneva to Lyon.

We boarded the train before 10 AM, and headed westbound. It was quite crowded, and I sat with some of the large bulky luggage in my lap. Past Fribourg, and the kids started getting hungry. I set out with Joey and Cecilia to find the Restaurant car on the train. We go four cars forward, until I see the train conductor. He is collecting tickets, checking that the passengers all have their GA tickets. Infractions cost 80 CHF in cash-money. If you do not have the cash, then they send a bill for 100 CHF.

Since Stacy is such a type-A personality, and needed to gather all documents involved for this journey, she gathered all the passports into her folder with all the other immigration documentation. Earlier in the week, I begrudgingly gave up my passport, and didn't think much about it since then.

Upon the site of the conductor, I realized that I had my wallet, which contained my GA. I then realized that I did not have the appropriate documentation (Junior Karte) for the two children who were in search of the restaurant car with me. So I turned around. The Junior Karte is a document which allows children, while accompanied with a parent, to travel anywhere in the country for free. So if I have a GA, and the Junior Karte, I can go anywhere in the country, and only Stacy has to buy a 1/2 fare ticket. The Junior Karte resides in my leather envelope along with my passport.

Cecilia and Joey and I set back to where Stacy was sitting. "I need my passport pouch", I announce to Stacy.

"You're kidding!" she shouts. Swiss trains are generally very quiet, and the volume of this was well obvious, and noted by the startled, mild-mannered passengers. "You don't have your passport." A statement of incredulous interrogation.

"No, I don' thave my passport."

"I gave it to you yesterday."

Ach. Now I know what happened.
Let's rewind a bit. I spent Saturday, September 8th at the glider port, getting some familiarization flights at the new field with the new flight procedures, etc. I will get to that in more detail later in this chapter. Before I left for the day to go to the gliderport, I acquired my passport from my wife's pouch of important documents. Stacy had collected all of these documents so we would have everything when re-entering the country. I feared that I might need my passport, because somebody might take me to the Airport authorities and get me checked in, an airport badge, and a key for the fence onto the airport grounds.

"I know exactly where my passport is. It's on my desk." I had walked by that desk two or three times, but never sat at my desk, to see my passport staring me in the face, asking to be taken along. The reason I never got to sit at my desk, is Jake was hogging my computer for some sort of game that doesn't play on his computer.

By this time, we were halfway between Fribourg and Lausanne. The conductor came to us and asked for our tickets. Stacy thankfully had her Junior Cards, and the kids were safe from being fined 80 CHF. I asked the conductor (in German) for the connection information back to Bern. Now the title of this section may make sense. To get to Lyon, my journey now included the following connections: Bern, Lausanne, Bern, Geneva, Lyon.

Thankfully, Stacy called our local American friend, who had been tasked with feeding our rabbit creatures inhabiting the balcony. (This friend happens to live in a castle.) (Yes, really). (Yes, we would like them even if they didn't live in a castle). The friend wasn't put out by doing this favor for us, and found her way to our apartment, grabbed the missing passport, and met me at the Bern train station. Peggy, our friend replied, "I can see myself doing this exact same thing for my husband."

Stacy rode on with the kids. I took one piece of luggage, with the sleeping bags. Stacy's connection in Geneva to Lyon was a short one. She had 8 minutes to get off the Geneva train, get on to the train to Lyon. There was no time to stop for food. Did I mention I never made it to the restaurant car on the train? Did I also mention that there was no restaurant car on the French train to Lyon? Stacy had a miserable trip with whiny, hungry children. Of course, this is my fault for forgetting my passport.

The good thing about trains in Switzerland, Bern in specific, is that the trains leave regularly. I connected with a very short turn around time in Lausanne, less than 3 minutes, and waited 34 minutes in the train station in Bern. Actually, there was a train leaving right back to Geneva, after I got in Bern, but I wanted to make sure I got some lunch at the train station, and Peggy wasn't waiting at the station to hand over the passport anyway. I bought a book, in German, that I had read about in Scientific American.

By the time I got to Geneva, it was about 13:30. My next connection was 14:21, nearly an hour away. By this time, Stacy was almost all the way to Lyon, hungry starving children, and wife with a growing migraine. I spent that hour walking around the train station. I made it down to the lake, took a few quick pictures, and turned around to get back to the train station in time to get to my train.

Trains: Follow Your First Instinct
(or learn French)

The procedure for customs between Geneva and France are a lot less elaborate than... say entering the United States off of a plane from Amsterdam. It is simply a door where they check your passport, your ticket, and let you through with a pleasant "Bonjour, Merci!" I walk up the ramp to my train. The sign is big and bold and obvious. Lyon -- Part Dieu. I stow my luggage, and settle in for the two hour ride ahead of me.

There are a lot of people sitting outside the train. They look like they're waiting for another train. Hmm. That sign in the train. It doesn't say Lyon. It says "Grenoble".

Hmm. I wonder what Grenoble is. Is it the brand name of the train? Why does it say Grenoble? I wonder if it's a city. I wonder if all those other people are waiting for my train to Lyon, and this is the train to Grenoble. Where the hell is Grenoble? I pull out the Blackberry 8800 with a GPS unit, and a connection to Google Maps. I type in Grenoble. I find it's significantly further south than Lyon.

Holy crap! I'm on the wrong train! Nobody on this train speaks (or pretends to speak) English. I exit immediately, but I'm not quite sure. After exiting, I start looking for a conductor. Nowhere to be found. I ask two strangers, neither understood me well enough, or pretended to, at least. Here's your situation, see how you fare:

The train says the name of a city that is not obviously in line for where you are going. Nobody can help you. The sign outside the train, on the track where the train sits, tells you the correct city location. There is nobody to help you. Do you:

  1. Get on the wrong train and risk having the wrong ticket and getting fined very heavily.
  2. Wait around a bit and see if this train looks like it's going to depart at exactly 16:21 (the time of departure shown on the sign)
  3. Wish you went to the consulate in Austria instead, where they speak a language you can understand and are quite comfortable in.
I chose number 2.

The train pulled out of the station at precisely 16:21. For a few seconds, the sign was blank, then changed to "Paris"

Crap. Wrong choice. Apparently this train does go to Lyon first, but ends up in Grenoble eventually.

Oh well, shouldn't be a terrible delay. Lesson learned. No problem. I'll just look at the schedule and find the next train to Lyon. It's now 16:22 and


The next train doesn't leave until 20:37. I check the schedule at least 3 times in disbelief. Nothing named Lyon between the departed 16:21, and the 20:37. Retard.

Unanticipated Day in Geneva

Well, there are worse cities in the world to be stuck in for a day. (Champagne Illinois comes to mind). I find a place to store my luggage for the afternoon, in a locker for 7 CHF, and start walking around this beautiful city. For you geographically challenged Americans reading this blog, Geneva is right next to a big lake, named... C'mon guess: Lake Geneva. Along this lake in Geneva are a zillion boats, little restaurants, lots of tourist attractions.

View Larger Map

I spent the 3 hours walking up the lake and taking pictures. I found a very neat sundial, a park with zillions of old bicycle tires which have been converted into swings. I walked along a rocky shoreline, with boulders to protect the shore. I also enjoyed the views of the lake. It was too windy and cold to go swimming, but there was a beach for the children to play in the sand.

I got back to the train station with about 45 minutes to spare. If I missed this train, there was no way to get to Lyon that day. I sat in the train station, and saw this sign:

So, faced with this situation, do you:
  1. Realize that you could have gotten on this train, it goes to Paris, and stops in Lyon on the way.
  2. Better to play it safe. Don't get on that train.
  3. This sign says something like "reservations obligatory" on the bottom, and I don't think my ticket would qualify.
Pretty much I chose numbers two and three simultaneously. For entertainments sake, I typed in "Gare de Lyon" into my Google Maps browser on my cell phone that had gotten me into trouble previously. It's a good thing I didn't get on that train. Gare de Lyon is a train stop in Paris. Yikes that would have been a fun phone call to Stacy. "Yeah, I got on the wrong train, and now I'm headed to Paris. The conductor is about to fine me a hundred Euros probably, cause I'm on the wrong train. "

I eventually got on the right train. Passport in hand. Luggage retrieved from the locker. Sitting in my seat. My neighbors look confused. They keep looking at their tickets, then look at the numbers on the seats. They look like they're looking for an assigned seat on the train. I check mine. No where on that ticket does it look like an assigned seat location. All the fields that look like they should be an assigned seat have a "*" symbol, which to me, the programmer, sees that as a wildcard. "I can sit where I want!" I sure hope I don't get a yellin' at in French from the conductor.

The conductor eventually found me, and punched the ticket with no comments. He did comment to the two people trying to find their assigned seat number that looked like they were in the wrong assigned seats or something. I don't know. It was French. Or Italian. Or something I didn't understand.

I arrive at the Lyon -- Part Dieu train station at 11:00 ish. With luggage in hand, and Blackberry 8800 with GPS and Google Maps, I head out. The blackberry is my tri-corder. I have the address for the hotel plugged in, and I start following the streets that looks like it will eventually get me there. Only 4 kilometers! I'm too scared to get a taxi, and if I get mugged, they can have this luggage with two sleeping bags in it. It will lighten my load. It's also not as if I have any cash either.

I eventually get to the hotel, and check in. I find my bed. It is near midnight. What a day.

It's a Zoo with Imaginary Animals!
The next morning, the family had breakfast at the Hilton breakfast bar downstairs. The food was excellent, the service was even better, and everybody was so nice and friendly. We enjoyed our stay at that hotel very much. The cool thing about that hotel, is that it is a part of a long string of interesting buildings adjoined with an art museum, a casino, and right next to the biggest garden with zoo that you have ever seen.

View Larger Map

Stacy makes her way via taxi to the Swiss consulate to get our passports prepared with the correct entry visas. My mission was to take the kids to the zoo. The kids had spent lots of time in the gardens on the previous day (while I was discovering Geneva), and were terribly disappointed that they did not find the zoo.

We made our way to the zoo around 10:00 am, and started to look for these animals. Lots of cages. No animals. We went to the first exhibit, an empty area. Maybe birds are supposed to be here. We go to the second. There are supposed to be monkeys here. Third. Bears. Nowhere to be found. "What kind of zoo is this!" Jake asked.

"It's a zoo with imaginary animals, Jake! You have to imagine you're seeing a bear!" Jake found that funny, and for the first few minutes in this zoo, this is really how it felt. Maybe the animals were all sleeping in. I don't know. Eventually, we found the crocodiles, which were out sunning, warming up for another exciting day at the zoo. That's when we started to see all the animals that were probably getting fed or maybe just not yet woken up.

We saw the elephants (Indian, not African), zebras, bears. After the kids started complaining about needing to go to the bathroom, they repeated what they were told by their mother yesterday. "They don't have bathrooms here, just showers."

This I don't believe. The kids take me to these "showers"

They are not showers, they are squatters. How primitive! And the kids, especially Cecilia, really have to go. Jake has to go too, and it has to be in the squatter, too.

"How do we use it?" the kids ask. I demonstrate (clothed).

This sure was entertaining listening to the kids complain. After the experience was scarred on their psyche forever, we exited. I saw the handicapped bathroom. I couldn't help but wonder how the squatters were adapted for the people in wheel chairs.

"Oh look at that Jake, a regular toilet!"

Boy was he angry.

Parlay-vous Number Deux on le Sides?
Stacy found us, and we had lunch. We headed for the train station for a 14:00 departure. Unfortunately, when we arrived, that train was a "Reservee Obligatorie" or something like that, reservations only-train ride. The 15:45 train was a bus to Geneva. Our next train didn't come until 16:45. Ugh. It's like Geneva all over again. We tried sitting in the train station for a little while, until we realized that we were going to kill the children for whining too much before the train ever came. So we set out on a new journey.

I love doing this in cities: pick a direction and go. You'll find something interesting in most cities (Except maybe Champagne, Illinois). I found the Tokyo dome in Japan, and watched a baseball game. I found a Coast Guard Station in San Diego, I found the Pornography museum in New York City. (oh, that's another story).

Here in Lyon, we picked a direction and just "went." Stacy and I have been giving that look to each other for the past few days. You know, the look of "Gee, Jake is starting to look like a Hippy." So we found the first Coiffeur that we could spot, and walked in. No English. It's like living in Miami, almost.

We managed to convey our interest in having the boy's hair cut (See section title). Mostly with the typical American who doesn't speak French's favorite method of communication. Hand gestures, grunts, slow talking. Jake was miserable that we were forcing him to get a hair cut against his will. The hair stylist did a great job for a fee that was far less than we would have ever paid in Switzerland.

Cecilia got her hair cut too, with a very short haircut that she loves.

We eventually got onto a very crowded train with a boring pizza that took forever to cook and almost made us miss our train. There was no place to store our luggage except for our legroom. We had a stranger sit on the same bench as us. Nobody spoke English, of course. (or at least everybody pulled a Quebequois and pretended not to be able to speak English).

The entry into Switzerland with our visas was pretty uneventful. We had to ask that our passports get stamped, and that is not a normal occurrence at this customs station. So much effort for so little ink. But we're now legal, no longer tourists.

These poor kids. Wherever we go on a train, it is so boring for them. Be quiet. Sit. Don't scream. Don't poke your brother. Stop pulling his hair. Stop yelling. They have so much energy built up on these restless train rides that they go crazy. The ride from Lyon to Geneva was a constant struggle of independence versus the Parent-Police-State laying down the law.

It was on our train ride from Geneva to Bern that we were blessed with the dream of all parents: The Kinderwagen! This is a car on the train where the kids are allowed to be kids. It is a train that has a little playground in it. Not a big one, but certainly big enough to entertain the kids for the few hours on the train ride home from Geneva. Stacy and I sat quietly, while the younger three kids, sans shoes, climbed over the slides and ladders on this wonderful wonderful train car.

There was some guy with a laptop, who looked like he was trying to work. Too bad for him. I never told the kids to be quiet once. If this guy needs silence to work, he picked the wrong car. He eventually disappeared to seek productivity elsewhere. We eventually got back to Bern around 10:30, and the kids went straight to bed.

Fitting in with the Glider Club
Prior to the adventure in Lyon, I finally made my way to the glider club to get some flying done. Prior to this, I had not yet even flown with the club, and was starting to get very irritated with my decision to come to this country. My flying has been unacceptably low this year, and this trip to Switzerland is only going to harm my currency even worse.

I arranged some instruction with the same guy who gave me the first ride in Belp back in June; Kurt. The plan for the day was to put me in the Duo Discus, and do the four flights necessary to get me ready to fly any of the club's planes. I am not permitted to fly to the alps yet, until I get a few check flights. But in principle, after these four familiarization flights, I'm set.

The flying part is easy. The Duo is a dream to fly. This one is brand new. It is less than a month with this club. This makes their third Duo-Discus. This one is actually the "Duo-Discus 'X'" with extra capable spoilers, my only complaint about the Discus, is the less than stellar spoiler capabilities.

Like I said, all the flying part is easy. I find myself enjoying this glider very much. The part I have the most trouble with was the communication with the radio tower. See, it's not like the communications with the tower is in German. Or Swiss German. Or French. It's English. I should be able to muddle my way through radio communications in English. This is a new procedure for the airport. The club has suffered a large drop in membership, as many of the members decided they did not want to have to learn English to communicate with the tower, and have gone on to other gliding clubs. No sweat! I should be able to handle this English thing!

Radio communications is hard. You have to fly the plane, and talk to somebody who is sitting at a desk and critiquing your radio manners. As a native English speaker, you can not draw from the power of improvisation, you can only recite the appropriate lines from this play: like a pull-down menu of only the correct words to say back to the tower. Also, whenever you're given a clearance, you have to hear it well enough, and say what they told you back to them, in the correct syntax. I'm not liking this very much. I was never comfortable with the tower communications in the three flights, and it might be a few more months until I'm fully comfortable.

Reporting to Work
Of course, the first thing I want to do once I got my work visa is actually go to work. That is why I came here, in the first place. Stacy, however, had different ideas. "Now that we have our residency permit, we can actually go get a car!"

"Now that I have a work permit, I can actually go to work!" was my response. I won on the first day. I reported to work on the Wednesday after our day at the Police station, registering. That was pretty much all the work I was able to do that week. My day at work was spent mostly getting my workstation operating, getting caught up on the 3000 e-mails that I didn't really have time to read, and meeting all the people in my office.

Car Purchase Adventures
One of the luxuries of this country is not needing a car. Back in Virginia, caught in Suburbia hell, riding my bike to work is an impossibility. Most Europeans do not easily grasp the concept that nobody walks, nobody bikes, and nobody uses public transport to work; unless you live in the close-in suburbs, or in deep urban areas ... on the east coast only (with a few west-coast exceptions like San Francisco). I really have been enjoying using the train and buses so that I don't have to drive. My conscience is lighter knowing I'm not supporting evil Mid-east regiemes with my commuting habits.

But Stacy will have no more of this "spend the whole day on trains" bit. As you may have read in previous posts, she takes the kids to school, takes a tram to drop off Joey at his babysitter, takes a tram back, then repeats the whole process in reverse, sometimes not getting back home until 4:30, having spent the whole day on trains.

During this time of no permitness, Stacy has been stalking used car dealers. She found a used car in the small village of Worb, on the southeastern outskirts of Bern. The car she found was an Opel Saffira, a year old, and with only 9,000 km on it. We got a reasonable lease deal, and it was certainly much cheaper than purchasing a car in the US.

Getting insurance was rather difficult, our American insurance company, USAA refused to insure the vehicle as the Opel "did not meet United States crash safety criteria" Which really means that I'm driving a vehicle that hasn't gotten into any crashes in the US; not that it's a rolling deathbox.

The conversation to purchase the auto was entirely in German, and I of course, had to be there, as Stacy couldn't sign the papers herself, or couldn't understand what they meant anyway. The financing was with GMAC, and was a pretty good deal. Hopefully, we won't drive too many miles.. kilometers on the car, and be able to return it to the dealership with a little bit of money coming back to us at the end.

The day before we drove home with the car, Stacy made a special trip to find a car navigation system. We got a Magellan NUVE 660, which has lots of neat features. The experience of driving to the school to pick up the kids, and the experience of having the computer tell us exactly where to go was much more simple than my journey in the Monster-Van last month. That would be the journey where I pissed off at least 2 dozen people, had 3 near accidents, and probably went down the wrong way on one way streets at least 3 times.

"I never knew that the school was so close to the house!" Stacy remarked. The train trip is 30 minutes or so, by car it's a mere ten minutes. I thought that the school was on the outer skirts of civilization, not just on the other side of the river. I guess the perception of distance really is reduced when driving around.

Cinderella on the Train
A week later, the company had a grand opening ceremony for the Fribourg office. The whole affair was rather quite a big deal. It even made the local newspapers. There were press conferences, trading of business cards, tours, newspaper reporters. The party with all the schmoozing was for the VeriSign officials only. Directors, VPs, etc. Not me. Not pee-on me.

But that was made up for with a company party the night after: Thursday. The company put on this party, starting at 6:30, where we had a bus pick us all up, and take us to a restaurant with a beer brewery, on the southwest edge of town. The party included an open bar (yay), and a variety of three locally-brewed beers for our tasting. After the beer tasting, we went upstairs for a wonderful meal. There were two choices, the pasta or the chicken. The chicken didn't turn out to be chicken. I was given the option of pasta and the strange French-named bird I never heard of (and can't remember). I looked it up on wikipedia, and it was too cute of a little birdy, so I opted for the less guilty pasta. Besides, pasta doesn't have bones to pick through.

The party bus left at 11:30, so we all staggered out to wait for the bus. We waited. And waited. The bus didn't come until about 11:45. A short bus ride home, and we found a ghost-town of Fribourg, late on a Thursday night. I got a car-ride to the train station.

I was kind of worried about finding a train back to Bern this late, so along the way to the train station, I was scoping out nice bridge abutments I could sleep behind, like a homeless person. Oh by the way, did I mention that there were no hotels available in Fribourg? Many of the people who came to visit on this Fribourg special event had to stay in Bern, or stay at two star hotels.

Upon entering the train station, I found that the blue board, which lists all of the trains coming and going, usually full with the next 30 minutes worth of trains -- was completely blank. This place is a ghost town. There was one puny measly entry left on the board. I squinted to see the one train left was the 00:34 train back to Bern (whew). I waited 15 minutes for my train, and at 00:40, I was starting to get rather nervous. Finally, in typically un-Swiss fashion, the train arrived fashionably late at 00:49. I hopped aboard the nearly empty train, and headed for Bern.

The train was stopping for the night in Bern. It's a good thing I don't live in Zurich. I exited the train to find that the Bern station was completely empty too. The S3 to Belp stopped running maybe 2 hours earlier. The S2 to Schwarzenburg also. Buses? Nope. There is something called a "moonliner" -- a bus that runs late hour routes. I didn't see any of these buses, and didn't know where to pick one up anyway. So a long walk home was ahead of me. In terribly uncomfortable dress shoes. I got home a few minutes before 2 AM. Next time I'll do the American thing and drive to the party, or drive to the office.

Taco Bell, How I Long for Thee!
"You always want what you can't have" It's not that I especially like Taco Bell. And it's not that I especially like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Or sweet pickles. Or cake mix. Or Cheerios. Or the little baked gold-fish crackers. But as far as we can tell, these things do not exist in Switzerland.

A co-worker alerted us to the "American Market", a store in Geneva that has stocked up on these very things that we miss so much. Except maybe for the Taco Bell. Once I learned of this location, I immediately informed Stacy, and we planned a weekend excursion to Geneva.

I will tell you of the tale of our trip to Geneva in the next issue.