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.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Orientation Visit - Chapter 3 - For the Love of Bicycles

I know that other cities outside of San Francisco are bicycle friendly.  I even know that there are other cities where the basic mode of transit is something other than the automobile.  I wasn't prepared for how much the bicycle has permeated Basel.

Bicycles are everywhere & everyone is riding them.  From families out for a junket to the park, to grandparents cycling to the grocery store, to the speedster off for an extended tour of the countryside.  The amount of people riding to and from work blew my mind as well.

Frankly, I felt like I was visiting bicycle heaven.  There are bike shops every where. They even have dedicated parking areas both inside and outside for bikes. The lanes are striped on just about every major roadway. 

And, get this. Perhaps the most astonishing thing was the way that people drive their automobiles in Basel: with care, courteousness, and fully aware of the cyclist and other pedestrians.  Pedestrians simply walk out into a cross walk and it's against the law for an automobile not to stop. I was a bit floored when I noticed people not even looking before they jumped into a crosswalk.  

In San Francisco, if you don't look both ways, twice, you never know if it's safe to cross, and even then, you could be surprised by some driver plowing into you from another unexpected lane.  The kind of riding I'm used to doing is very, very defensive.  I always assume that cars are NOT going to stop.  Basel will be a serious adjustment for me - in a good way.

There are plenty of electric assist bikes, which are fine if you like them. I can understand why you would like one in San Francisco because the hills can challenge even the most seasoned rider.  Basel is relatively flat, which one not from Switzerland wouldn't guess.  That makes it even more bicycle friendly. So, you can find just about every kind of bicycle ever made in this town.  Fixed gear hot rods for the hipsters.  Old school three speeds, for knocking around town.  You name it, they have it.

I think my ACB RS Special is going to be right at home here, but I'm pretty sure, I'll need to scrap together a knock around bike for short trips around town. They even have bike parking at homes where there's a cover over the location to keep the elements off their trusty steeds.

On a final note, there must not be a big problem with bike thievery in Basel either. The kinds of locks used on most hitch-ups would make even the most novice SFO bike thief laugh out loud.  You could just lift them into your truck, hack saw them off at your shop, and then do whatever you do with a stolen bike.  

Of course, this is Basel, and it it Switzerland. There are stiff penalties for many things. Even so, I'm betting the very idea of stealing a bicycle from grandma or junior is antithetical to the Swiss way of thinking; they can't imagine why any one would do such a thing let alone (sinking to the bottom of the cesspool) buy a stolen bike.  

In a city where every one rides, everyone already owns a bike, or two, or three. So, effectively, there's zero market for the bad boys inclined to rip off the unsuspecting cyclist.  Grandma and junior are not only safe on the road, they know their bikes are safe where every the leave them (even if they forget to lock 'em up).

In fact, for the above and many other reasons, cycling is one of the things I'm most looking forward to in the coming year...because I already know I'll be in great company.

Ride on, All!

- The trailing spouse.

The Orientation Visit - Chapter 2 - Tourists in our Future Adopted Home

I've been to Switzerland.  Lucerne is wonderful. Climbing about the Alps is fantastic, but what could Basel offer? Turns out, lots!

The main mission of our trek to Basel was to scout the City for apartment locations.  This was no ordinary sight seeing trek.  Lucky for us, the public transit system is probably the easiest and most efficient way to see the city and the surrounding towns.  So, we purchased a four-day, all metro pass and dove right in. 

Our first mission was to find the location of our flat for the stay - in one of the nice neighborhoods not five minutes of so from City Center.  On our way from tram central, Darby said to me, this place will be nice, so "don't get used to it. Corporate housing will be much more modest."

The home to the left was one of the nicer locations near where we were staying for the duration, and along the walk to Roche from the apartment.  Needless to say, we weren't going to be lucky enough to secure such fine accommodations, but dare to dream right?

On our first Saturday together in Basel, we hit the City Center where there is a farmers market and the trains run right through the middle of the plaza.  There is shopping aplenty, but be wary of the prices. All items are marked in Swiss Francs and the exchange rate isn't entirely favorable.

Indeed, a river does run right through it. The Rhine River flows swift enough to power a boat across it, shuttling tourists back and forth.  On sunny days, there are flocks of people along the river's banks, enjoying the out-of-doors.  Sidewalk cafes, restaurants abound.  At this time of year, there was a carnival threaded through the whole city, with rides sprinkled through out the smaller plazas about town.

As we stretched our wings along the different tram lines, we found some wonderful hiking not more than 20 minutes outside of the Basel center.  I'm told that, at the various ends of the different tram lines, one can actually walk across the border into France or Germany, within minutes.   
When hiking at the right time of day, one can hear the chimes ringing. Mixed with the gurgle of a nearby brook or the clanging of the cowbells, you find yourself thinking, "now, how the heck could we be only just 20 minutes outside of the city?"

Overall, Basel has the look and feel of a major metropolis, but retains the character of a super small town.  Very much a liveable city.

We didn't have a chance to visit any of the many museums (of which Basel has the largest number in all of Switzerland), but over our short time there, I was able to take just about every tram line.  Once one does get outside of the city proper, the country side dominates.  

Given that we are only going to be there for a short time, I got the sense that we should probably live inside the City limits.  Within walking or cycling distance to most of what Basel has to offer, we would be in close proximity to the heart of it all.  I expect that being able to take advantage of what the city has to offer will be way better than living in the outskirts that are 20 plus minutes outside of town near our new school.

On the whole, Basel is a fantastic city.  Very walkable. Very much a bicycle friendly town, living in the thick of it will be the right way to roll.

We hope many of our friends and family come for a visit.

At the link, you can see all the images I took and processed post visit, if you are curious to see the whole set.


- The Trailing Spouse.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Orientation Visit - Chapter 1 - Arriving in Basel

Before flying to Basel this past week (staying 6 days), I was a bit apprehensive because, while I have been to Switzerland twice, I had never been to Basel city - ever. When I advise prospective college students about which campus to apply to, I always suggest a campus visit. You want to get a feel for the school you are going to hang your hat for any stretch so that you a) feel like you fit, and b) there is enough there, there to give you some options if you are looking for something to do besides attend class.

Fortunately, Roche does a great job to make sure that the trailing spouse is included in the move effort from a great number of angles.  Flying into Zurich, I wasn't feeling it.  But with the seamless transition from the flight to the train - the station being located right below the airport - I began to open up to the idea that this move won't be just one big headache.  When we got off the train at Basel SBB Station, I immediately felt; well, for lack of a better phrase "at home."

Because we got off the train at what would be considered rush hour on a Friday evening, the train emptied in a frenzy; people rushing this way and that.  What with grocery stores and a package store located inside the station, people were pushing to pick up groceries on their way to rush to meet the various trams outside the station.  One gets the feeling that the Swiss have city living dialed.  The connections from airport to train to tram then to home all lined with gift shops, grocery stores in the station, and the proximity make getting around with out a car the most optimal way to get around. 

We are indeed lucky because Darby's boss loaned us her apartment for the time we were there, which is in a great neighborhood, just off the 8 Tram line.  Wheeling our bags out of the station, after purchasing four day unlimited tram passes from the "Kiosk" store, we hopped on to an 8 train heading in the proper direction that just happened to roll up as we were walking out of the SBB station.  Getting to our temporary digs, Darby said, "Don't get used to it.  The corporate housing options for a one year gig are very different."  More on that in a forthcoming chapter.

Next chapter - 2 - Being tourists in our soon to be adopted City.


- The trailing spouse

The Trailing Spouse

Since the start of 2014, it felt a bit like we were on a seesaw over the possibility of moving to Switzerland for a variety of reasons.  There were a large number of dependent variables swinging us up or down to thinking one day the possibility of making the jump to Basel was 80% probable, back down to 20%, then to almost zero bouncing back up to 50%, and so on.  It wasn't until Darby was made permanent at Roche/Genentech in October (after close to four years as both a contractor and temp employee) that discussions accelerated.

Things move quickly in business. I come at it from an education background, having spent, effectively, my whole career working for one college or university or another. I'm not used to plans moving so swiftly.  As we moved into the middle of October, the probability of our move quickly became a certainty, being put into motion after the documents were inked.  The downside here is that there a large number of logistics involved with getting your life in order for a move to the European continent.  The upside is that Roche has been extremely supportive and helpful in just about all aspects related, after all, they have done this before.  We have not.

The purpose of this blog is to document our experience in real time, creating a living and growing record of our time abroad.  Frankly, when some friends suggested I create this blog, I wasn't keen on the idea.  "Isn't that what Facebook and Twitter are for?"  Rightly so, a number of folks said not every one is on those platforms.

So, with no real guide or intention for how this blog will progress, I hope to be periodically posting (words, pics, and perhaps video), as things happen.  The aim is to document our experience so that when our memories fade, we still have a record of what happened to refresh it because
the faintest ink is better than the strongest memory - Chinese Proverb

The title for this blog - The Apéro - goes to the aim I have for our whole experience.  In Switzerland, there are is a long list of rules governing all things from how the trains run (on time!), what kind of bag you put your trash in, where you can and cannot walk your dog, and how you behave in all manner of situation.  The Apéro is an informal meeting of friends, usually involving some adult libation for the older folks in the room, and some heavy hors d'oeuvres.  It's a time for the Swiss to let their hair down and truly enjoy themselves, but it's not entirely with out it's own customs.
As the church bells chime six on any given evening, you can be sure that somewhere in Switzerland people are standing around holding a glass, eating a small something and introducing themselves to complete strangers. That last bit may sound odd for a nation renowned for its reserve, but it’s the second reason why drinks parties are great for meeting the Swiss. As a guest at a gathering of any size, your duty is not to lurk in a corner until you spot someone you know, but to say hello and shake hands with everyone, no matter how long that takes. As a host, your main responsibility is not to make introductions but to provide food that can be eaten easily and quickly; after all, guests need one hand for a glass and the other free for shaking. If your guests have both full, there’ll be no handshakes and Swiss society would collapse.
As ex pats from the USA, over the course of our time in Basel will, in effect, be a year long Apéro.  Our mission will be to "not lurk in a corner," but to reach out and meet & greet all the Swiss we can (and come to know them as deeply as we can).  Moreover, we hope to do a fair amount of exploring about nearby locations, as we want to maximize the proximity to spectacular destinations and find nooks and crannies we ordinarily would not sally forth to otherwise.

This blog will be our official family record. 

- yours!

AKA - The trailing spouse