Despite blue skies and sunshine everywhere else, Zurich’s local mountain remained stubbornly covered by a cloud, which preserved the winter wonderland of the previous week - This is on the Uetliberg, which although barely 20 minutes out of Zurich by a small local train, is at 871 m above sea level and like a different world. You can hike, run, sledge or bike on paths all over this little mountain. But we arrived to this and this I was lucky enough to be taken to spend the weekend here for my birthday last weekend! The cloud over the Uetliberg was blown away after dinner and the view of the whole of Zurich and its lights was fantastic – the following morning, the cloud was back and only cleared in time for lunchtime guests taking a brisk Sunday walk uphill, either to keep the children quiet or to enjoy a glass of Glühwein…
This is for my mother, my granny and my friend Eleanor!!
Neither simple nor minimalist and certainly not cheap – but handmade and really quite exquisite! This little chocolate factory sells and exhibits the most beautifully wrapped and presented chocs, runs a café and supplies some of the big name chocolate companies, too. People come to this small village by the coachload when an exhibition is on during Advent and before Easter, but otherwise it’s a small, quiet café with quite deliciously intense hot chocolate…!
Back to austerity, then!!
Following on from yesterday’s blog post, it was interesting to browse this week’s Migros supermarket newspaper. One of the articles is about avoiding stress when you have children and a lot of what is discussed is very true – some tips I have implemented in the past and some I should have implemented, perhaps!
Above all, keep the peace – it does no good to get stressed yourself and expect kids not to pick up on that (possibly easier said than done, but worth mentioning!). The author of this article, Tamar Venditti, a mother of 5, recommends avoiding activities that don’t have anything to do with the season as far as possible – dentist’s appointments or painting and decorating, for example: Advent is often busy enough! Remembering to enjoy the season in a childlike manner and through childrens’ eyes is another good tip – and above all, leave your perfectionism for another time! Children do love to contribute and in many ways, it’s all about catering to their appreciation of the season and by having time for stories and discussion, crafts and baking, and traditions are created without gift-giving and especially, “designer” decorations being central to everything. These activities also mark other values of the season such as being more thoughtful and taking care of others and yourself. Obviously religious families will each have their own messages to explore. Embrace the imperfect!
Ms Venditti also recommends not allowing catalogues in the house, so as not to awake a fit of the “wants”, not baking more than is needed (those biscuits I mentioned…!!), reducing the amount of decoration, general stuff and level of activity and learning to say “no”. Interestingly, she claims that children these days often ask for experiences as presents because they have everything else already… Hmm.
While the Americans are recovering from Thanksgiving and Hannukah (hope it was lovely!) and/or indulging in intense consumerism on Black Friday, here in Switzerland, we are heading into Advent, which begins on December 1st – today – this year.
It’s meant as a time of preparation for the actual Christmas celebrations and whether you’re religious or not, I think that’s a good concept for a quiet run-up. Of course Switzerland is right up there in 2013 with the best of them, pushing the spend, spend, spend message and suggesting that we need all kinds of things that we really don’t…
So I’m glad that my experience of the season here over the last 30 years has not really been anything like we see in adverts, even here. None of the people I know or who I see interviewed in local papers or hear about through my children actually seem to even be trying to achieve what the glossies think we are (or try to get us to think we are!). On the contrary, it all seems pretty low key, fairly quiet and introspective and the worst thing I have come across is intense competition on the Christmas biscuit baking scene, where perfectionist housewives try to outdo each other with the number of different and exquisite creations they’ll be putting on the coffee table. It’s a deadly serious thing!
But they will be putting them out along with traditional peanuts (in their shells), mandarine oranges and simple foil-wrapped chocolates, offering a spicy herbal fruit tea or a particularly high quality cup of coffee with it, and the decorations will probably just be simple greenery and pinecones. And really, a lot of women will just buy the beautifully presented biscuits from the supermarket! Mandarines will be handed out to adults and children alike when December 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day, comes round, and the children will get a bag of the afore-mentioned goodies – if they can recite a little poem to one of the many St. Nicks who will be patrolling the streets, along with their dirty assistant “Schmutzli” and his donkey. And the really naughty children might get a switch of twigs – though these days that will be decorated with chocs, so a win-win situation!
For children, the most excitement is the Advent calendar which, depending on the parents, could just be windows to open, candles to burn each evening with a bedtime story, a chocolate each day or even a small gift each day… some like to do the same thing every year and others do something different every year, but I think it’s the absolute highlight and the tradition is carried on in schools, too, where each child brings in a couple of tiny gifts (a glittery tealight or mini-soap, for instance) for other children so that nobody is forgotten and the countdown is taken very seriously indeed!
The four Sundays in Advent are popular with everyone for getting together either for a brunch or for coffee and cake – or rather tea and those biscuits! A Sunday afternoon walk is still a mainstay for a lot of families and you’ll often see three generations out for a healthy stroll, come rain or shine. Hardly any home would not have some kind of Advent decoration, wreath or otherwise, with a candle for each of the four Sundays and just by the existence of such a thing, a pause is automatically marked. Sunday shopping was only introduced quite recently and only on specifically advertised Sundays in Advent for a couple of hours (with special permission – and usually only one or two of those Sundays, too!). Unless there is really no time in your working week to shop or browse, it’s not really the “done” thing… though a browse through the Christkindl market followed by a Glühwein or a fancy cup of coffee at a pretty café can’t really be beaten for cheap entertainment :).
Christmas itself is a far quieter affair than what I know of English-speaking countries. For one thing, we celebrate on Christmas Eve. The shops are open until mid-afternoon for last-minute gift-buyers – often the men! But then everything shuts down, the roads empty quickly and families are busy putting up their Christmas tree as it begins to get dark. I’ve noticed the Swiss don’t go so much for the very full trees, but often prefer a sparse, airy tree upon which they’ll hang a few colour-coordinated baubles and clip real little candles, really quite minimalist. Families more orientated towards Germany might hang some “lametta”, silver stranded tinsel, over their tree, but more often than not, a few baubles or specially-designed hanging chocolates is all the tree gets. And it’s topped with a star, not a fairy! Lights as decorations (inside and out) are definitely on the increase but hardly ever blink and coloured lights are considered tacky – there didn’t used to be much in the way of lights, apart from candles, at all… and candles are certainly very popular indeed in all variations, even in wooden houses.
At the same time as the tree is going up on the 24th, a special meal will be prepared – most Swiss will look consternated if you ask what they typically eat for Christmas! Some have a cheese or meat fondue, others prefer fish or a ham, but often it’s simply a meal that involves a more expensive cut of meat (veal or filet, perhaps) and more courses, attractively presented, than the quite simple everyday meals common here.
If there are children, there will be recorder-playing and singing, though not so much ‘carols’ as simply traditional children’s Christmas folk songs. Then the children will be allowed to open their presents, again usually a pretty reserved occasion of careful unwrapping of a very few, if not always cheap, gifts. Adults often don’t bother with presents at all, bar a bottle of good wine or a foodie treat, and there aren’t a host of stocking-fillers or gimmicks, as a rule. It’s all about family, and usually exclusively so on Christmas Eve, though extended family might get together, and Midnight Mass is quite popular, too, often beginning around 10 pm – if you’re lucky, with some gently falling snow!
As rapidly as Christmas worked up to its peak, and although Christmas Day and Boxing Day are official holidays (known as the 1st and 2nd Days of Christmas), those appear to be days of rest. If you didn’t get together with family on Christmas Eve or want to get together with friends you’ll do so between Christmas Day and New Years’ Day and many homes lose the Christmas tree almost as soon as Christmas is over, rather than waiting for Epiphany on 6th January, the traditional time to take decorations down. That’s when special “Three Kings’ Bread” is bought or made, with a little plastic king hidden in it, to establish who will be King for the day and wear the gold paper crown…
(It’s New Year’s Eve that is party time – it’s the time for fancy food, glittery clothing, fireworks and champagne. Or an early night! In most places, the 1st and 2nd January are holidays, so time to recover, take a bracing winter walk and make all those New Year’s resolution…)
…my kingdom for a horse…
Attributed to Richard III on the battlefield at Bosworth in 1485 (though now they say his last words were “Treason, treason, treason”, which I think is a little unfair – most horses are really faithful souls!)…
Anyway. The classic British “horsy” look of interiors is attractive enough – especially if you happen to own a stately home or the perfect cottage with a double loose box, when tweeds, Stubbs’ reproductions of famous sires and hunting scenes and a lot of old leather are going to dominate, along with a grubby blanket or two attractively arranged for the lurchers and Jack Russell dogs to squabble over on the decrepit sofa.
Not so in my home. And yet there are a few clues to my horse-loving nature for those paying attention…
Firstly, my bookcases, which cover every phase from girlish pony stories and pretty pictures to serious tomes on veterinary conundrums and alternative training methods with brain-ticklingly complicated geometric diagrams and assumptions that you have the “eye” for collection and practically each individual muscle. I think these are a pretty big giveaway, actually!
Since we don’t have fireplaces in Switzerland, I don’t have a mantelpiece – but pride of place on the shelf in my living room does go to an antique creamware sculpture of two horses playing. I inherited this from my husband’s family – I don’t think it’s particularly valuable, but it’s been in the family for a long time, probably 100 years-ish, and since I’m the horsey one, it came to me! I do know that my husband’s great-grandfather was in the German cavalry around Berlin, so perhaps that’s the connection. Still, an heirloom.
I do like things to have a story, so this glass pony in slightly Scandinavian style fits the bill, as it was passed on to me by a dear friend who has had a difficult life one way or another and continues to do so, so that we have little contact these days. But it’s a nice souvenir of some good times we had – we both had Haflingers back in the day and her Negus was just as much of a character as my Sturuss, so we had some entertaining rides out as they imagined ghosts in the woods and similar frolics… such fun! Negus was an escape artist and only rideable in full Western outfit; although this glass horse is not a Haflinger, it still makes me smile thinking of those days.
Let’s stay with the Scandinavian theme. It’s always been an ambition of mine to visit those northern countries, and I will do one day, I’m sure. (I wouldn’t mind trying out a Norwegian Fjord pony…!) The colourful artistic folk culture really appeals to me, and I love the Dala horses which have come to represent not only the Dalarna region but the whole of Sweden. An acquaintance knew of my ambition and gave me this one as a gift; I didn’t know him all that well and was touched.
When I saw these shiny steel beauties, I squealed with delight and half a dozen have been hanging in my windows ever since – a bit of less conspicuous bling. Not only are they sleek, minimalist and modern Dala horses, but they were for sale in Lucerne, just before we began spending so much time there, plus it was my grandson’s first visit to that pretty city – so a great souvenir, especially now we’re not spending so much time there any more!
Mention Swedish and I suppose most people will immediately think of THAT store, and yes, you may well get your tea served on a colourful little tray of Dala horses! And I think there’s a scholarly-looking one somewhere about, too
And I hate to admit it, but the saddle and bridle presently sitting in my hallway are probably a pretty big give-away LOL. But they have their stories, too. I picked my saddle up secondhand when I first had Sturuss, 27 years ago, and it was not only a perfect fit but turned out to have been made by a distant relative near the small town I was born in Germany, and whose saddles I have never seen for sale otherwise in Switzerland! So it’s probably more like 50 years old and looking all the better for the 25 years of use I gave it. My bridle replaced a cheap one that was stolen from our tack room about 20 years ago, was made-to-measure and just got “seasoned” over the years – leather seems to do that, and with care, lasts almost forever. As does memory, which is why I simply can’t part with these, although I’ll probably never use them again! But where to store them?!
(I’ve just discovered a cake tin in the shape of a Dala horse in my cupboard… oh dear!)
During my professional career I encountered several situations where women, when asked about their occupation, would answer that they were „only housewives and mothers“. They were surprised to hear that I admired their organisational skills and their time management for which, running a household and family, must certainly require the highest degree of proficiency. So much so that, when we came across the term “clan manager” it stuck and has been in loving, smiling use in our family for years now.
Time-managing kids is not easy in any event. In Switzerland the federalistic school system makes this task even more difficult as much organisational authority lies at the communal level which can lead to a rather diverse picture in school timetables. Block hours and school dinners are not widely implemented so, if you have several children in different age groups, there will be a constant coming and going of young ones all day. At least this situation is eased a bit as Swiss children are expected to walk (!) their way to school and parents are discouraged from providing taxi services for their kids. So the clan manager (CM) can stay in the family command centre and make sure that their offspring leave the house in time and correctly equipped for the tasks lying ahead. Slipping-in some private time for the CM or even leaving the house for a couple of hours requires the utmost level of mastery to make ends meet. And still, somehow the CMs of this world get along just fine and take these challenges in their stride.
One should think, that managing children’s schedules was enough of a challenge and we were somewhat enjoying the fact, that our youngest one is now independent enough to be responsible for her own time. However, we had to learn that private business can be just as demanding on time management as school schedules. Having finished my long-term mandate in Lucerne, we abandoned the office flat there. This resulted in a lot of “stuff” to be sorted out, sold, given away, recycled, stored ore simply thrown away. And here the co-ordination for a decent itinerary starts: The waste incineration plant for the heavy stuff is open during office hours all week and on Saturday mornings. (Make sure to collect your stuff as you have to pay for the first 50 Kilos anyway, even if you only use a fraction of that.) So no problem so far. Off to the recycling yard which is open all afternoons and on Saturday mornings. (Glass and clothing can be dumped at any time as long as night-silence is respected.) The charity second-hand shop where you want to bring your sorted-out belongings for a good cause will happily see you all afternoons except Monday and Saturday. So will the post office (but it doesn’t open till 3 in the afternoon but closes at 11 on Saturdays). The dry cleaner had to cut down on working hours so he is now available from Monday to Saturday all mornings only, whereas the shoemaker decided to cut down on weekends and is now open from Tuesdays to Thursdays. And if you want to store some loved furniture at a warehouse because you can’t bring yourself to get rid of the thing, don’t forget to call and give them 48 hours warning. They might have varying opening hours….
Dear Mothers, Grandmothers, housewives and clan managers of either gender: I salute you!! You are mastering daily what would be a nightmare for any battle hardened business project manager. Last week-end, however, we all gained an hour’s sleep without too much effort from your side, when we changed from summer- to winter-time. For once, you did not have to worry about the time management. (Someone had to adjust all the clocks in the house though…..)