Reflections On Our Swiss Family Sabbatical

So, once upon a time a Colorado family took a break from their careers and moved to Switzerland for a year and hijinks ensued.  Our year in Basel ended June 18th when we flew out of Zurich back to the states, complete with 14 pieces of luggage, 2 car seats, and 54 weeks of memories.  The van we hired to shuttle us and all that gear to the airport arrived early in the morning.  As we loaded it up, neighbors came out to the street to say goodbye.  We wished we had gotten to know them better earlier on in our stay, with some relationships not fully forming until a couple months before we left.  It felt as if we were leaving too soon, that we still had unfinished business there.  But, looking back now it is clear that we had a very full year with new friendships and memories we treasure. Here are some of my (Barry’s) favorite things about our year:

The Basel community:  I think of the teacher C had at the public elementary school she attended and the seemingly impossible task she had of taking in all the kids in the nearby vicinity who were new to Basel and did not speak German.  About a dozen or so kids from around the globe (Russia, Africa, Spain, Dominican Republic) ranging in age from 6 to 13 were treated like her family and, somehow (I’m still not sure how she did it) she had them fluent in German within 9 months.  Her previous career was in the theater, and she used puppets, props, humor and singing (lots of singing) to get them up to speed before they were ready to be sent off to their regular grades, only to be replaced by a new kid. C came back to her home country fluent in German, and that was worth the trip all by itself.

Walking Everywhere:  My phone keeps track of my steps – something I never looked at before we ditched our cars for a year and went everywhere on foot or on public transportation.  Walking the kids to and from school (sometimes four times a day as kids come home for lunch), going grocery shopping and lugging heavy cloth bags full of food 5 blocks home, pulling suitcases through towns and villages from the train station to our AirBNB (Zermatt was especially tough with the hill our place was on) all led to a 700% increase in my average daily steps.  OK, that’s not saying much when before Switzerland I sat in my car or behind a desk all day and averaged maybe 1,500 steps – well below the threshold for a sedentary lifestyle.  I didn’t miss getting in my car to go everywhere.  In fact, I treasured the early morning walks taking the girls to school which were roughly a mile and a half, round trip.  Sure beats the freeway commute I used to have!

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My Milk Chocolate Addiction:  You would think all that walking would have led to dramatic weight loss – and it did, at first.  Then, I discovered a previously dormant addiction I have for milk chocolate.  Before, I wasn’t crazy about chocolate – like Jana is – it was just OK.  Switzerland is not a great place to be if you are a milk chocolate addict (they invented it!) and the Swiss are sneaky in how they force you into chocolate consumption ($12 Ben and Jerry’s pint vs $3 pound of milk chocolate).  The Swiss consume more chocolate per capita than any other country (20 pounds per year).  In early 2018, I opened Excel and calculated that I was on pace to consume nearly 100 pounds of milk chocolate during our stay.  But, they say you have to hit rock bottom before you finally face your demons and, for me, rock bottom was polishing off a 400 gram (nearly one pound) store-brand (one cannot afford to support their addiction on Callier or Läderach varieties) chocolate bar an inch thick and the size of my forearm in less than an hour while binge-watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine one night in February.  I am happy to report that I finally got control of my milk chocolate cravings in the Springtime and probably ended our year there with a respectable 60 pounds of chocolate consumption.  Leave it to an American to show the Swiss what real chocolate gluttony is!

This Blog!  Keeping a written record of our year by blogging about it was one of the best ideas we had.  I have already found myself re-reading blog posts from a year ago, enjoying those moments in time that have been preserved here.  And, thank you to all 273 of our faithful followers who read and commented on our adventures.  We had a total of 46 posts (to-date) with 3,278 visitors who viewed our posts 7,978 times.  WordPress lets you see what countries your views are coming from and it was fascinating and exciting to track who was reading along.  We had views from 74 countries with the U.S. having the vast majority of them, followed by Switzerland, U.K., Germany, Australia, Canada, India and the Phillipines.  The most viewed post?  That goes to Our Finicky Four Year-Old Traveler  – it nearly went viral in Latvia (31 views) for some unknown reason – ha!  The most commented on post was Lost In Translation, and I see a pattern of humor being a key driver of views/engagement!  The post that has aged the best is Only Have A Couple Days in Switzerland? Go Here which was our experiment with using titles to drive more traffic and it still gets a few views a week from Google referrals.  We hope that people continue to use this blog as a resource for planning travel in Switzerland and around Europe with kids in tow.

Paragliding in Mürren:  I consider myself a fairly risk-averse person whose idea of living on the edge is incorporating more emerging market debt exposure into my retirement portfolio.  As such, I had never seriously considered strapping on a parachute and running off the side of a cliff… until we visited Mürren.  We (Jana and I) finally got the courage to sign up and do it during our last trip to my favorite alpine village in early June, and my brother-in-law joined us.

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Paragliding near a waterfall above the Lauterbrunnen Valley

It was a literal leap of faith, followed by a beautiful gliding tour of the cliffs and waterfalls above the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  I can’t imagine a more gorgeous place to paraglide and I would highly recommend it to anyone visiting that area (yes, I’m a Mürren Snob).  In a way, the jump metaphorically summed up the past year of our lives as we gathered up the courage to leave all that was familiar behind and immerse ourselves in a new, completely foreign world.

Basel’s Carnival (Fasnacht):  We knew that getting the kids up at 3:30 in the morning to go for a walk into the old town center on a frigid February morning would have its challenges.  But, I’m glad we did it.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in near silence near Marktplatz waiting for the cathedral clock to strike 4 a.m. was an experience you can only get in Basel.  At precisely 4 a.m., the lights went out and scores of marching drummers and piccolo players (called ‘cliques’) came to life, their path lit by candle lantern murals.  There was a sense of magic in the air along with more-than-just-passing thoughts that this was something I would remember for the rest of my life.

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Jana taking a clique’s picture during a break from marching

So, what did I learn from this whole experience?  Humility:  When you are dropped into a new world where you don’t know any of the customs and can’t understand what people around you are saying, it humbles you – fast.  The power of a smile:  I smiled my way through awkward public situations all year long:  Standing in everyone’s way outside the train station while you try to pull up Google Maps?  Smile at them.  Didn’t know during your first grocery store visit checkout that you have to weigh and price your own produce?  Big smile followed by Entschuldigen!  Even the most cranky stranger usually returned a sincere smile.  People are the same everywhere (I’m pretty sure this is a title of an old Twilight Zone episode):  we had read and heard about the Swiss people being difficult to get to know – that we would probably be outsiders, with maybe a few other expat acquaintances.  What we found were new friends and neighbors who were kind, hospitable and funny.  They had the same interests as us, whether it was spending quality time with their kids, hiking, traveling or Hollywood cinema.  Time is our most precious resource:  We noticed how folks in Europe spend money on experiences as opposed to objects.  My experience of taking a year off and being a stay-at-home dad/husband was priceless.  Somehow, we survived without Amazon Prime, Costco or Whole Foods and realized that spending time together building memories was the greatest investment we could make.  Thank you for following along!

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The last picture outside our building

 

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18 thoughts on “Reflections On Our Swiss Family Sabbatical

  1. Sorry we never managed to meet – I should have pushed for it. Didn’t make it into Basel until July (but we will be back in our second year). I can relate to so much of what you have posted.

    The girls will have great memories of this year (as will you parents). After two months home you are probably still a little culture shocked and questioning some American habits you used to take for granted.

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  2. I will miss your humorous musings. It was great to see you all in Zurich, and hear the old building wisdom from H. So wise for one so young. Apart from your two brand new human beings, it was like it had only been a few weeks since we last saw each other. Travel is never wasted on children… Yay for you!

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  3. I loved following along after I left you in Basel! You did make some wonderful memories – but I’m glad you’re home now. ❤️😊

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  4. Have you considered turning your blog into a book? There are a number of website that can connect to WordPress and create a book for you at very little cost. I’ve done this in various countries I’ve lived in and it’s a true treasure to see the experience in print 🙂

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  5. I think having a year off to experience life in another Country is being brave and wonderful at the same time but of course you choose Switzerland which brings more excitement to the experienced. Hoping to read new post from you about where you are right now and it could still be exciting!

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  6. Finally made it to Mürren today and thought of you guys. (I haven’t been on WordPress so much over summer since I’ve been working). You’re back in the states! Hope the re-entry is going smoothly. 🙂 Mürren was totally as good as you said. WowWowWow!! X Claire

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  7. Was it difficult for you to acclimate back to your lives before your sabbatical? I find it gets harder and harder to adjust to life in a car/big chain stores etc. every time we go back to the States.

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    • Yes, there was an adjustment period that lasted probably 4 months. Even now there is a sense that something is missing. Being able to so easily travel around each weekend in CH, makes the weekly routines here seem mundane sometimes.

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  8. I just wanted you guys to know that I follow around a thousand blogs and yours was always one of my favorites. If you decide to start blogging again and use another domain name, please come back here and let your readers know so we can follow you there. Hope you are enjoying a wonderful summer!

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    • Thank you so much, Alison. This made our day. We have been away from the blogosphere for a while, but always looked forward to your posts. Jana and the girls are actually back in Switzerland right now visiting friends we made last year and brushing up on their German skills. We miss it!

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