Sunday, February 1, 2015

It's Not Just the Jet that Causes the Lag: January Wraps Up & February Chills On

Damn, it's cold out tonight. I walked the mutt round about 5 PM after a wonderful lunch with Darby's work colleagues. Thinking it was going to be an enjoyable romp, I decided to call it after about 20 mins as my hat wasn't warming my ears enough to stay outside. Of course, it's not stick your tongue to the flagpole cold, but cold enough to bite.  Thankfully, it's warm inside. Our apartment has heated floors throughout, an interesting and very much welcomed invention, particularly given we are so used to the drafty floors in our old, SFO Victorian.

I wasn't too sure how often I was going to post to this blog, particularly given that you can follow temporally current posts on my Twitter and Facebook feeds. Looks like I have been remiss, but really, January has been super busy with the transition to living in Basel.  

What with getting the kids up to speed at ISB, learning how to shop in the various markets, getting the VAT Tax reimbursement at the border when you cross to shop at the Carrefour in Mulhouse (good for fresh fish, fyi), turns out, I've not had as much spare time.  Getting adjusted to the timezone was easy in comparison.  The jet isn't really the biggest factor in the lag.  It's the daily minutia, that requires a substantially longer adjustment period.

One person I met the other day said, "it takes about a year to get fully adjusted to life in Basel." Thank you very much, but we are technically only supposed to be doing this gig for one year. I'd like to think we haven't done too bad. Even so, I'm still feeling a bit green in the gills or the FNG, if you like, but we are working on it. January had it's highlights.  Here are a few.

It's a small world & Facebook is amazing.  Long while back, 1992, I met a young woman along a country lane to the youth hostel in Dingle.  It was a chance meeting. We hit it off, but went our separate ways.  This was a long time ago, with zero contact.  Lo and behold, she found me on Facebook and as it turns out, she and her husband were in Lorrach with the circus for a few weeks overlapping with our move.  A German, one ring circus to be exact.

We tried to go one day, via the 2 Tram line, which terminates just at the German border before Lorrach, but we found out that the circus was located way on the other side of the town and we had zero time to get there before the show was about over. Determined, we went another day on the following weekend, and John tucked us into the ring (good thing because we neglected to take out any Euros before crossing the border in our car, and  the circus only dealt in cash) free of charge.

We didn't know what to expect. What we found was fantastic entertainment in what used to be a main vehicle for family fun before the widespread abuse of television and now the internet.  The general word from John was that this kind of circus was dying out. We were lucky to catch it.  John, for the record, is a sea lion trainer. Has been for almost 30 years as he learned the trade from his father.  The kids loved the show, and the sea lions in particular.

The acrobatics were spot on.  After the show, we waited around while John had his picture taken with various kids and folks and the sea lions stole the show by planting a kiss on the head of some kid or another (some of which screamed with fear as the big animal approached).  We followed John and his Sea Lions out the back of the tent and into the trailer area where the rest of the circus folk were residing while they were in Lorrach.  The boys got to meet the sea lions (forget their names), and see the rig that he uses to transport them.  

In all, it was a great way to spend the afternoon, and one that is very different than even the usual Basel or German citizen would have taken in.  We will not soon forget it  - not just for the entertainment, but also for the wonderful friends we gained by meeting John, getting reacquainted with Isa, his wife, and meeting their young son.  One day, we hope to take them up on their offer to visit them just on the Baltic Sea coast near Hamburg.
Our first visitor was Katharine, test driving the sleeping arrangements over a weekend before Bev arrived this past Thursday.  Because Jeremy was away on the ISB ski trip, things worked out great as she just took his place at the dinner table.  On the weekend after Jeremy returned, we took an outing to Colmar France.   I snapped a bunch of pics with my mobile, but will save posting images of Colmar as we definitely plan to return and I will bring my SLR for better quality snaps.  And, it's only about a half hour drive from Basel.

Our next road trip was to Thun and Interlaken.  We were toying with staying overnight there, but it was only an hour and a half drive from Basel. Given that we still haven't figured out dog care arrangements, we brought the mutt with us.  Rather than find a hotel that loved dogs, we figured we would just make the drive and the most of  the day. 

Thun was spectacular. It's a smaller town than Interlaken, and easy to pass over on your way to "the adventure gateway to Switzerland."  We really liked Thun, and may even take Bev back there one day while she's here for the month of February.  Farmers market. Covered bridges. Cobblestone streets. Castles. Lake, stream and mountains. Check, check and check, check, check.  

Perhaps the most interesting find was tasty bagels with great coffee, to wash them down.  They don't offer up a typical NYC bagel, but when in Switzerland, I commend Thun to you. 

Interlake was alive and celebrating with a parade, kind of like a mini-Faschnaght.  There was an enormous ice skating rink.  Paragliders were raining from the sky like this was the one thing you should do if you come to Interlaken.  

We watched the parade a bit, then walked about the town.  It's another one of those places we will likely return to spend more time. But you never know.  Switzerland is littered with wonderful little towns that have one or more exceptional qualities about them.  Our list of places of visit has grown; perhaps beyond our capacity to get to them all.

Speaking of quirky, interesting celebrations.  Before heading to yet another orientation session hosted by Roche over the lunch time, I managed to find my way to the location of the beginnings of the annual Vogel Gryff.  I'm not clear as to why this celebration continues in this fashion other than that it was just great fun.  It's been going on for hundreds of year.  

One thing is clear, be sure to stay at least an arms length from the business end of the guy carrying the tree.  I learned this the hard way. As I was trying to angle in to get really close to the action, I got swapped in the face by the green end of the pine tree he was carrying. Didn't hurt. I'm not so sure about the kid who got hit by the root end of the tree (enlarge the picture for a better perspective).  
I'm sure the jesters were there to keep such things from happening along with collecting money to support this and other events.   The event starts about 9 AM every year, in the cold; as the drinking starts.  Mainly, this was an event for children during the day, and adults in the evening.  If you find yourself in Basel during any given January and the Vogel Gryff is on, don't just roll over and catch a few more hours of sleep. Pop out of bed and catch the event. Just be sure to dress warmly, and watch out for the business end of the tree.

Bev arrived this past Thursday, and seems to have acclimatized quite quickly. Just yesterday we took a day trip to Frieburg Germany. It's much bigger than Colmar France, and has a lot to offer.   We will most certainly be heading back there, but not sure in what order we will do things.  I'm very sure that we didn't hit all the sights there.  

Darby and Bev are already locked and loaded for a trek to Munich. The boys and I will be solo for the first time since we landed here, but we should be fine.  

Bev and I took in the Kunstmuseum just the other day.  I'm planning to get her over to Foundaton Beyeler, among many of the other wonderful museums that are with in the Basel Stadt confines.  

I'll leave you with two videos that I captured over the month.  My hope is to write more often than once a month because trying to record things closer to when they happen is easier, and I'm sure reading long posts such as this one can be time consuming.

The first video is of the professional alpenhorn players who were testing the acoustics while Bev and I were there on Friday, as they prepped for the closing of the museum. The Kunstmuseum is closing today for a full year so they can renovate the and connect the new building with the old. We were lucky in our timing to hear them twice, and fortunate to have seen the collection before they are disbursed to the four winds for display as loaners to other museums.

The last bit is to let you know that, indeed, Babs is adjusting quite nicely...never mind the ongoing conundrum of trying to find adequate coverage for the mutt while we galavant around Europe.

Yours from Basel,

The trailing spouse.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Basel NYE

Minutes before midnight on 31 Dec 2014, we found ourselves rushing down the street to make it in time to celebrate New Year's on the Rhine.  We were told to expect a massive firework display visible from the banks starting at 12:230 AM.  

Sure, it was cold. Yes, we were still jet lagged.  Yet, unabated, being on SFO time worked to our advantage. We fulfilled the quest to stay up and experience the full, explosive start to 2015.  

As we reached the north bank of the Rhine, we cheered as the bells rang in the new year. Carillon all about Basel peeled for many minutes once the clocks struck midnight. 

Because of the temperature inversion between the air and the river, there was an eery mist soaking the air.  Oddly reminiscent of almost every firework display we've tried to see in San Francisco, our breath mixed in the mist; a Dickensian atmosphere minus the soot.  

Luckily, there were large numbers of privateers willing to shell out the francs to shoot fireworks along our path. Being careful to not cross the errant trajectory of some wayward firework and steering clear of kids risking losing a finger tossing M80s into the river, firecrackers popped all around. We saw many fine displays as we angled past the bridges to view the city sponsored works. Flocks of people moved closer to the Cathedral to see what they could see.  

Turns out, what certainly would have been a spectacular display became brightly colored fog shifting to whatever hue happened to be shot up at the moment. It would have been better if the air were clear, for sure. 

Perhaps this was another way Basel wished to welcome us; by making us feel at home with a typical SFO-style, fog-laden firework display. The view across the Rhine was positively medieval. It's not difficult to imagine what visitors a thousand years ago would have seen on a similar evening.  The skyline glowed.   

Tucked in behind a pillar of one of the many bridges that cross the Rhine, we were protected from the small breeze.  It's always warm when you stick together. 

Round about 1 AM, we decided to abandon our attempt to "see" any of the big fireworks. Boarding the 6 Tram for the short ride home, the tram refused to move.  Perhaps it was waiting the end of the fireworks. It didn't take us long to decide to just hoof it home.

Along the way, we saw many merry makers spilling out of various bars and establishments, enjoying the evening.  We even heard the grand finale (which is about all anyone could do), and witnessed the even brighter clouds amidst the cacophony.

Of course, the boys were tired & so were we; weariness is evidence we made the best of our first full day in Basel-Stadt.    We were happy to arrive at our very modern, warm apartment complex, greeted by another private display.

Wishing you all a Happy 2015!

 Merry New Year,

-  The Trailing Spouse.


Touching down in Zurich in the last days of 2014, it was fitting to discover that our first steps on Swiss soil as a family were ushered to the terminal by a 33-year veteran Swiss Air pilot making his last landing before retiring.  It may be that he was trying to impress us (and everyone on the plane), or that there was a massive coating of snow on the tarmac, but it had to be the smoothest landing I've ever experienced as a flyer.  We didn't know the fact that this was his last flight as a pilot until the lead flight attendant made the announcement, after which there was a great round of applause from the whole cabin.  

The ride from the airport to our new flat (Erlenmattstrassa #12) was pretty uneventful as we were lucky to have a professional driver and a very large van to shuttle the 9 bags we had traveling with us.  Although we thought we were bringing everything and the kitchen sink, it turns out that there are certain items left behind that might have been useful to ship over. Moreover, some items shipped over are utterly useless with out the right connectivity - e.g. the Wii.  Clayton and I found out the hard way that you can't simply slap on an adapter and plug any old device in and expect it to a) work, and b) not pop the fuse.  So, inadvertently, we learned where the fuse box is, thanks to John Burke (our new Sea Lion Trainer Friend - see forthcoming German Circus post) who pointed us to the right location.

That first night, we were pretty wiped out from the flight; jet lagged for sure. Even though the relo folks had stocked the flat with a bare minimum of food - pasta, sauce, etc... - none of us felt like cooking.  Luckily, kitty-corner from our complex, just across the street from the Swiss International School (yes, we can throw a snowball from our sidewalk and hit the side of their building, but we are NOT attending that school for a number of reasons explained in the prior post) was a restaurant/bar/pizza joint that was open. 

The proprietor was surprised to see us, as was everyone else mainly congregated in the smoking area sipping a variety of beverages. Kind of like you walking into Cheers having never been there, every one turns around thinking "who are these blokes who just stumbled into our joint."  His German greeting got nothing but blank stares from us. I'm sure, doe-eyed, hungry, and tired; we must have been quite the site.  Luckily, there was a non-smoking section, which we had to ourselves. 

In broken English, and with assistance from his server, we were able to communicate and landed a delicious "family" pizza and some libations, enough to satiate the boys making our first night in Basel complete.  Given that we were the only "foreigners" in the joint, the owner (as we came to learn from Turkey) quizzed us on where were from and the like. It felt like we instantly became part of the family.  While we haven't been back, we fully intend to go there periodically to patronize the joint and give our business to people that made our first evening in Basel feel a lot like we had just come home.

At the end of the evening, the owner offered us something to finish off the meal "on the house." I thought we had ordered a coffee for me, and some ice-cream for the boys.  We ended up with two more beers of the local beir-normal   

Full and tired. We made the short amble home to brush our teeth, floss - well, some of us flossed - and fall directly into bed, anticipating the last day of the year.

Yours from Basel

- The Trailing Spouse

Sunday, December 28, 2014

It's Challenging to NOT Sweat the Small Stuff When It's the Small Stuff That Keeps You Awake at Night

The big decisions were easy.  Should we move our entire family to Switzerland if we have the good fortune of obtaining a Basel assignment? Of course.

Should we take the dog? You betchya (not taking Babs would be a deal breaker for the kids).

What about Winter? Found her a great temporary home because she's a bit too old to handle the transit.  Special thanks to my colleague and friend from SF State who is fostering her and her sparkling personality for the year.

What about school or the boys? No brainer!  Let's go to ISB because we are only there for a short stint and burying them in a Standard German only immersion would be overly challenging, particularly given that we are straddling two academic years.

Sublease the house? Absolutely, and thankfully we are working with our old child care provider turned rental/real estate agent to manage the property. If we could/can trust her with our kids, we can certainly trust her with our home.

Selling the cars? Done. 

As we are packing today to head out tomorrow; the big adventure about to begin, it's the small details that weigh heavy.  Did we cross all the "t's and dot all the "i"s?  We sure think so, but the minutia can keep a person awake in the small hours of the night.

Visas to secure from the Swiss consulate here in SFO, only to have the computer system there choke up needing a return trip to collect them.  Rabies shot secured for Babs,  but verification paperwork was sent with the movers to Basel, so a return trek to the Vet was required to get the validation to ship with the dog.

Did we ship all the things we needed? Not sure.  Are we taking too much on the plane? Probably.  Will our new home suit our needs?  Most likely, but it will be small & we had zero control over the location.  I know the company won't put us in some lousy part of Basel, and frankly, there aren't many lousy parts of Basel.  Even so, moving sight unseen into a new apartment is pretty stressful (and may not even remotely qualify as "small stuff").  

Having never moved abroad, the details are stunning.  There is paperwork for everything. And it will continue once we arrive in country. We will need special processing as we emerge through customs. We will have to register for living in Basel City, including getting our "biometrics" recorded with the proper offices.

And, if you can believe it, we are going to need a Swiss Bank account. Yes, I will finally know some one with a Swiss bank account, and it's us!

All in all, we are more than ready for the move.  Darby really has been on top of her game, pruning our home items to get the house ready for our sub-letters.   In the midst of this, Uncle Mike and his new Husband Erdi swung on through for their Green Card interview. We have been on, what it seems like, an endless set of good-bye gatherings, not the least of which was a 10+ hour open house that Darby tossed together on the last day of school.

We seriously hope the outpouring of well wishers and friends converts to visitors through out the year.  Once we get our feet on the ground and adjusted to the time zone, I predict it won't take long for us to feel like Basel is our home.  We are very much looking forward to showing off our adopted Swiss home to friends and family.

I jokingly said to all the good folks at SF State College of Business (and other SF State friends) that I would be highly offended if I found out they were near or in Switzerland and didn't make an attempt to connect. This goes for you too! Please do come.

Did we forget something? Probably.  Will we be fine with out it? Definitely.  After all, we aren't moving to some war-torn, strife-ridden location. We are moving into, perhaps, what should be considered a first tier country in the first world.  Until we meet again; Auf Wiedersehen!

Next post will certainly be written from our new Basel Location.


- the trailing spouse

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Orientation Visit - Chapter 5 - Company Living

One of the levered advantages of moving to Basel with Roche is that they help us out tremendously.  Not only do they provide the housing, but it feels like you have a team of people at your disposal to assist with all things move related.

Along with finding a great school for our boys, another priority was finding a great place to live.  On the Tuesday of our visit, we were met by two people from the relocation specialists company, and they shuttled us around the area.  Corporate housing is, how should we say this, sparse, but adequate, with just about everything you would need for a family of four and a dog.

After visiting ISB, we stopped by a typical corporate apartment, that we would qualify for in December.  The guides stressed that the one they were showing us was not the one we would necessarily get, but much like all the apartments in the quiver of places available.  

After traveling about Basel for the time we were able to do so, we got a very good sense of the surroundings, and  are heavily leaning toward wanting to live in Basel City, rather in the outskirts nearest to where ISB is located.  All things being equal, which the guides stressed numerous times that they would be very similar, we are shooting for a neighborhood that puts us in the thick of city living, as just 20 mins outside of the city you are really in the quite suburbs or woods even.

Maybe I've lived inside the heart of a city too long to convert to "country mouse," but I'm loathe to the idea of not having a coffee shop or pub that one can amble to on foot.  If we are going to be living in Europe, I don't want it to feel like I'm living in any old suburb anywhere on the planet. Perhaps not unlike Thoreau wanting to migrate to the wood, I've got to nest in a city, "to live deliberately," in order to feel like I'm really part of the vibrant tapestry that is Basel City.

After all, home is only where you hang your hat, and rest your weary eyes.  Life is lived inside and outside of the home.  And, all things being equal, we eagerly await the news as to which neighborhood an "open" apartment is available that has three bedrooms, the ability to do our own laundry whenever necessary.

...And, if our backyard is steps away from the Rhine and Old Basel City as opposed to a 20 to 30 minute tram ride, all the better!


The Trailing Spouse.

The Orientation Visit - Chapter 4 - A Possible New School for the Boys

One of the main reasons to visit Basel in November was to narrow down the options for school for the boys.  There are a fair number of choices to select from, not the least of which and fairly enticing was the normal public Swiss schools nestled into the different neighborhoods. If we were to be in Basel for longer than a one year stint, we may have seriously considered a complete immersion into the Swiss Public schools as the language of instruction is German.  However, because our duration is project to be a short year, we didn't want to sacrifice learning capacity for the sake of learning a language.

So, we had two targets during our six day orientation. The first was the International School Basel (primary language of instruction is English). The second was the Swiss International School (a bilingual German/English program).  Both schools have a solid academic reputation, but are located at entirely opposite locations - ISB being 20 mins by tram outside of the city, and SIS located in the City proper.

For me, a hallmark of a great school is the tenor of and climate for the kids.  Sour and dour kids is a leading indicator of a schools not paying attention to making learning enjoyable.  On the other hand, happy, laughing, and jovial kids mean the teachers and staff are fostering an environment conducive to supporting the building of lifelong learning skills.

At both SIS and ISB, the kids we witnessed about the different hallways all seemed happy, engaged and like they were enjoying themselves.  The teachers and staff we met, all were happy to talk and share some insight into their teaching philosophies.  We even got to lean into a few ISB classrooms as the sessions were going on.  Some of the older kids played a few bars for us while rehearsing their ensemble. 
After visiting both schools, we made the decision to apply to ISB specifically, and only, because we felt it would allow for the smoothest transition for our boys. Also, given the short duration of our stint, we felt that having English as the primary language of instruction would work best for our boys, and they would pick up German by being out and about, and through their daily instruction in the language.

While SIS (or even a Swiss public school) might have been a good option if we were there for a longer period of time, we are very much comfortable with our decision to apply to ISB and hope we get in.   The facilities are wonderful. The proximity to the tram stops is perfect.  And, as you can see from the images in this post, the spaces are top notch.

Here are a few more pictures from the ISB property.  Bear in mind, there are no children in them although the kids were on site while we were touring because the school policy is that you can take as many pictures as you like so long as you are not snapping images of other people's children.  To be respectful, I did my best not to get any images with children in them.  

One of the cool things about ISB was that they had a dedicated shop classroom, kitchen classroom, and laboratory.  Our oldest is pretty excited to have an opportunity to focus on food design (which is how they are selling home economics these days). 

There is lighted pitch for various game playing once the sun goes down.  All is very neat and clean, and very appropriate for learning. 

While we didn't get a tour of the upper level school, the split is both physical as well as age based. The younger grade levels are on on campus. The middle school children in another. And, the upper grades in still another.  While we didn't get a tour of the third school, I'm sure we will have a chance to visit once we are there.  And, the older children get a tour of their own as they consider the options for High School - or the IB (International Baccalaureate) as they say there.

In the end, our main hope is that the boys soar as they enter this new experience.

Adios for now,

The Trailing Spouse.