Moving is Complicated

It’s been 5 weeks since we left Switzerland for America. First we went to Minnesota for a blissful time with Mark’s parents before Mark had to go back to the reality of DC and work and I drove down to Iowa with the kids to visit my parents and wait for our stuff to arrive from Basel.

I am still visiting.

And poor Mark, meanwhile, is on week 5 of eating off of plastic plates, drinking coffee out of a beer pint glass, having only a wok to cook with, and cutting up his cheese, meat, and veggies with a Swiss army knife.

He at least has a table to put his food on. Thank goodness we didn’t get rid of that glass-top table that I was hellbent on selling before we moved. It goes really well in the kitchen with the canvas picnic chairs we left behind in the storage unit.


On June 22nd our stuff went into this giant metal orange box and was whisked away, leaving nothing behind but tread marks in the freshly pour asphalt. It was loaded on a barge going up the Rhein River to Antwerp.

It made it to Antwerp without a problem, but “due to congestion on the docks” it did not make it onto the big huge boat going to Baltimore on July 9th. The next boat to Baltimore would be departing the next week, July 16th. Hopefully it would make it on that boat.

So, that’s another week I would be in Iowa.

We got confirmation from our moving person that our orange crate made it onto the boat as planned on the 16th. Yay! It was now moving across the Atlantic! We can start making plans for me to drive back with the kids!

Mom offered to drive back with me since Mark couldn’t fly out and make the 2-day drive back. We’ve done this before and it’s worked out great for her to accompany me and then take a one-way flight back. Now that we knew when our stuff would be in Baltimore we figured it was time we went online and bought her return ticket. August 8th is far enough out. Right?

Then we thought to inquire about this whole customs process we’d heard absolutely nothing about.

It turns out that, yes, all our stuff loaded into that big metal orange crate would have to go through customs. All of it. A whole household of stuff would have to be checked and stamped through. It would take 5 to 7 business days to go through customs. And that’s if they decide not to x-ray anything.

Aaaaand tack on another week the kids and I are in Iowa.

The kittens are softening the blow of missing Daddy.

And then, we still need to schedule delivery with the moving company. That could take around 4 days to get it loaded into their truck and scheduled for delivery. Then they need to deliver it.

So that’s a few more days hanging out with the ‘rents in Iowa.

Now we have to call Delta and get Mom’s ticket rescheduled because we aren’t planning on leaving Iowa until August 14th. Maybe.

Supposedly, our stuff is reaching Baltimore today or tomorrow. I wonder if they’ll tell us.

We are currently taking bets on when the kids and I get back to DC. Will it be: August 15th? August 18?  Never?  We have this house rented and I’m thinking that by the time I get there I will only have to live there for 9 months.

In the meantime, we are selling our old house in Silver Spring and I am spending my time yet again house hunting remotely and driving Mark crazy with listings to look at.  Yay!

The Swiss Family Carlson Hurl Themselves Down a Mountain – Part 2

Last time we threw ourselves down a mountain on sleds. The next day we strapped two sticks to our feet and threw ourselves down a different part of the mountain.

We did so well at not dying during the sledding that I felt like perhaps I could also not die while downhill skiing.

Our oldest, E, absolutely loves downhill skiing. He learned through week-long ski trips with his school to Nendaz. In fact, he just got back from one and was excited to show us his mad skillz.

Mark and I are not what I would call “avid skiers.”  We grew up in the flat lands of North America and didn’t have many opportunities to learn downhill skiing.  I have been skiing twice and Mark only once. The last time I went skiing I was 15 years old on a church group trip. It didn’t go well. I was cutoff by some 5 year old zipping around the slopes and ended up wiping out. Not just wiping out. More like spinning out of control, cartwheeling head over heels, losing both poles, both skis, my hat, and a glove.  Two other 5 year olds brought me my stuff saying, “Here ya go, lady,” and skied off.

I spent the rest of the day in the chalet spending money on hot chocolate and pinball.

I could barely sleep the night before; terribly worried I was going to injure myself.

Kandersteg is famous for having beginner- and family-friendly slopes. There are several ski schools and individuals who will teach skiing. We signed the kids up for lessons.  We signed E up even though he is a good skier because we needed someone who could show him the way down the slopes and give him a general idea of the topography of the mountain. That was certainly waaaaay beyond my skill level.  H was getting lessons because this is his very first time on skis and Mark and I have no idea what we are doing. It’s probably safer for everyone.

Plus we have childcare while Mark and I fumble around trying to figure out what in the world we are doing.

And while we are falling.

At least the scenery is nice.



And there is a church we walk by the on the way to the gondola. I can go and pray for help from the god of skiers.


When we got to the top I took time to study the map.  Or, you know, stall for time.

img_4117-1There is a spot right off the gondola where newbies learn to ski. H’s instructor took him over there and I decided that would be where my family could find me. H’s instructor was lovely. He was playful and encouraging and got H over his own nervousness and into the joy of skiing.

Henrik ski lessons 2016 KanderstegE’s instructor immediately took him through some of the blue routes and gave him tips on how to ski safely through those paths. Money very, very well spent.  In fact, we should have paid for 2 hours.


The boys got done with their lessons and came back to the bunny slope where Mark and I were languishing.  I had already wiped out once. Mark was still on his feet, though. Darn his natural athletic prowess.

Bunny Slope 1.0

E wanted to go right back out onto the blue runs with me. There was absolutely no way I was going. You know that phrase “Know Thyself”? Well I know myself and in that way lay certain doom. So I did what any mom would do.  I told him his dad would take him.

Yes, I completely sold Mark out. I threw him under the snow-bus, so to speak. But I give that man tons of credit because he did it. He didn’t hem or haw or hedge at all. He asked for 15 more minutes to go down the steeper bunny slope – Bunny Slope 2.0 – and then he’d take E out.

Mark practiced his snow plow and balance with extreme concentration.  E was bored with Bunny Slope 2.0 so he decided to add the challenge by skiing backwards. Which he did perfectly.  (Grrr… )

Mark came down to watch H really quick before he and E left for steeper mountains so I could down Bunny Slope 2.0 again.

This trip did not go well.

First you have to go up the slope. You grab a metal cable attached to a massive pulley system to winch yourself up to the top. It has quite a jerk to it and I almost flew out of my skis.  Then when you reach the top you quickly turn your skis to point across the mountain so you don’t accidentally ski backwards all the way down.

Then, when you are ready, you point your skis down the hill and let gravity take over.

See, the problem with skiing is that it relies on gravity and inertia. Gravity and I have never really gotten along that well. Gravity loves me too much and tends to be all clingy and I would like a little more freedom in our relationship.  Inertia and I are like frenemies. We are all hunky dory for awhile and then inertia just totally takes over the conversation and the only thing to stop us a major road block and crash.

So Gravity is helping me out and Inertia is behind me egging me on and then WHAM! I lose my balance and somehow end up with the point of one ski in my ear and the other ski tucked up underneath me, pinning my leg down.  And heaven knows where my poles are.

I laid there for a couple of minutes and then a snowboarder shushes up in front of me, looks me up and down, and says – IN ENGLISH, because I am obviously American, “You know you wouldn’t have this problem if you were snowboarding.” To which I wittily snap, “Just get my ski off so I can roll over.”

He laughs and in about 5 minutes I’m walking the rest of the way down the hill with my skis under one arm and my poles, returned by another snowboarder, clutched in my fist.

E says, “I got him to help you. I told him you were my mom and you probably couldn’t get up.”

I didn’t say anything so E added, “You can say ‘thank you’ now.”

Thanks, Sweetie.

After that Mark took off with E and I stayed with H. I did strap my skis on again and go down the Bunny Slope 1.0 a few times with him and that was a lot of fun. I let him boss me around – er… I mean instruct me – and pretty soon it was time for lunch.

The boys hoovered down their hot dogs and fries like they hadn’t seen food in a year and Mark and I recharged with hot soup. Then we boldly went right back out to the slopes. H and I tackled the Bunny Slope 1.0 again and Mark went back out with E.

Everything was going great until H got slightly off course and ended up going head first into a snow bank. I tried to get to him, but I missed him my first ski-by so I had to grab the rope and come back around for another pass while he floundered around like a turtle on its back trying to get these gigantic sticks strapped to his feet to cooperate with him.  By the time I got to him he was shouting “I’M DONE!”


He was covered in snow. He had snow in his gloves, down his coat, in his boots, over his head. He had more snow covering him than a snowman. “You want to try one more time?” I stupidly asked.


Mark was just getting down the bottom of the hill as I was hauling my skis and poles and H’s skis and poles towards the gondola. “He fell in a snow bank,” I explained. “He’s finished for today.”

“Yeah I know. I heard him at the top of the mountain. I think everyone in the entire Canton knows that H is D.O.N.E. with skiing.”

“What are you stopping for???” demanded H. “I’m going home!” And he stomped towards the gondola.

The keeper of the gondola had also obviously heard how done H was with skiing for today and met us at the gate. He grabbed H’s skis from me and helped us use our passes to get through the gate and into a wagon.

Mark and E came back much later on. They were having a blast skiing. At dinner that night we discovered that even with the crashes we had all had a wonderful time and we were actually looking forward to trying it again the next day. Even H.

Evan skiing Kandersteg 2016We picked up our ski gear from the rental shop nestled underneath the gondola house at the bottom of the hill and got ourselves up the mountain in record time.

Mark, H, and I got ourselves warmed up on the Bunny Slope 1.0 again, while E went right for Bunny Slope 2.0 – forwards and backwards. Then Mark and E were OFF. Right to the blue slopes.

I tried to ski with H. He was feeling bold enough to want to try some steeper slopes so I tried to oblige. On the other side of the snow fence on Bunny Slope 1.o was a short, but steep hill.  I took H up the hill, clicked on his skis, clicked on my skis, and then we went down.

H in his "racing tuck" position.
H in his “racing tuck” position.

That was the easy part.

“Okay!” he said, “Let’s do it again!”

We had to get back up the hill wearing devices specifically designed to help us slide back down the hill and we have no pull rope.

When you climb a hill wearing skis you have to turn side ways and keep your skis perpendicular to the slope of the hill.  This is not so easy for a 6yo to get.

On our first attempt we got about 2 feet up the hill when his skis slowly started angling themselves down the slope and then *poof* he was sliding backwards down the hill and ran into a snowboard instructor.  The second time we made it 1 foot up the slope before he slid back into that snowboard instructor. The very, very nice snowboard instructor then helped boost him up to the top of the hill with me. We rejoiced for all of 2 seconds before he skied back down.

And then we got to do this again.

About the 3rd time up I realized sometimes your skiing becomes about his skiing. So I clicked off my skis and hung them up.

I kept a pole and used it as a leash to pull him behind me up the hill. He was in heaven. He didn’t have the frustrations of trying to get up the hill only to fall and I could actually be more useful. He got bolder to the point where he wanted to try Bunny Slope 2.0.

But not all the way up to the top.  So I hauled him halfway up the hill behind me while he was clinging to the pole and then helped him turn around and get set to ski.  It was glorious.

Henrik skiing Kandersteg 2 2016

We skied for hours. I probably walked 6 miles up the same hill over and over, but H was so delighted I didn’t mind at all. And I totally earned my gigantic ice cream sundae that night!

Over night the temperatures went up considerably. The snow that had fallen the two days before was suddenly gone in the morning leaving the mountain a little bare looking on the lower sides.  We were on our way home anyway, so we felt lucky that we had had such great snow on Friday and Saturday.

Instead of skiing we went over to where there happened to be some dog sled races!

We got to pet the dogs and I got to drool over the other pet dogs that people had brought along, particularly the Bernese Mountain Dogs.  Sled dogs are really incredible and the people that train those dogs to pull those sleds are amazing.

We could only spend about an hour there before we had to get to our train. But as we were watching dog sleds waiting at the starting line we witnessed a small avalanche. I videoed it and am sharing it below.

Here is a picture. It went on and on and on. So much longer than the movies would have you believe. And this wasn’t the only avalanche was saw. We saw at least 4 more small avalanches as we waiting for the train.
And with snow avalanching at our heels, we left Kandersteg.

We all had stupid happy smiles on our faces and Mark and I fantasized again about never leaving Switzerland. Then we made plans about how we could keep the boys skiing once we returned to the States. I even went to so far as to propose lessons for Mark and I.

Clearly we have become smitten with skiing.

And, yes, I have lost my mind.

6 Months Left

It’s official. We only have 6 months left in Basel.

Sad. That doesn’t quite cover it. Bereft is a better word.

I didn’t think I would love it so much here or that Switzerland would seem more like a “home” than a “2-year vacation/experiment.”

The roof lines are amazing here.
Basel, Switzerland

But I do love it here. I love the ease of the work-life balance that seems to incredibly hard to achieve in the US. I love the quest for Quality over Quantity and that things and houses are Built For A Lifetime.

I love that my children have the freedom to become independent. That we are raising children to be small adults when they are teenagers with a sense of purpose, a belief in their own competence, an expectation of forethought and moral behavior, and some conflict resolution skills that will carry them into a society that is becoming ever more conflict-filled.

I love that our meals here are simpler. A cheese platter with raw fruit and veggie sticks have become a favorite meal in the house. The children actually cheered when I put together a cheese platter after a week in Scotland. Our meals don’t get much more complex than a roasted chicken served with lettuce salad and dinner rolls. Even a beef stew isn’t that complex.

The Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland

And I love that in Switzerland spending time doing something with your family, or even doing something alone, is a top priority. To go outside and hike up a mountain or bike along one of the hundreds of bike paths in the country is seen as a worthy and even necessary part of life.


Switzerland is beautiful. Europe is lovely. Since we’ve been here we have traveled to 9 countries. We’ve seen things we’ve only read about in books.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Pisa, Italy


Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian’s Wall, Northern England
Plaza de Espana, Seville, Spain
Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen, Denmark
Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen, Denmark
















In the next 6 months I will be trying to live “in the moment.” To enjoy and wallow in where I am right now. That is a challenge for me, a natural-born planner.

So to satisfy that need to plan I will be thinking of specific things and behaviors that I want to bring back from Switzerland. Like prioritizing family time, hiking regularly, and eating simply.

I will also be experimenting with recipes for Swiss dishes that I’ve come to love like rösti, schoggiweggli, and Bircher Museli.

We also have several more trips planned! Mark’s quest to visit every canton in Switzerland is almost complete. Just 4 more to go!  We are also contemplating trips to Paris, Athens, London, and Iceland.

It’s a lot to pack into only 6 months, but let’s see what happens, shall we?

SFC Go to The Freitag Factory

The boys’ school has a really strong and active parent community. The Welcome Committee is constantly organizing trips for wine tasting, hiking, and area tours. This time Mark and I went on a tour of the Freitag bag factory in Zurich.

I’ve seen these Freitag bags on the trams in Basel. Often I see about 10 or so in my tram car. They are distinctive and have a certain edgy sportiness about them.

Freitag bags are 100% Swiss. Back in 1993, these two brothers, Markus and Daniel Freitag, were looking for a striking bag they could use to keep their graphic design work safe and dry as they biked to work.  They wanted to use recycled materials, too.  After a lot of trial and error they settled on a combination of truck tarps, bike tire inner tubes, and seat belt straps.

So, Mark and I were excited to visit the factory with other parents from school and “maybe” pick up a bag for myself.

We had a lovely tour guide who showed us around. Our first stop was to visit the acquisitions space.IMG_3191

The people that work here are constantly on the phone or computer calling trucking companies and trying to buy their old tarps. They have a design color board that lists the preferred and priority colors the company and designers want them to find.

IMG_3190 I took a looooong look at this board and was picking the color of bag I was hoping to find. I was especially looking at the greens and blues.  At this point I don’t think Mark suspected my long-term plan.

The people who worked in acquisitions were very successful.

IMG_3192This is just one shelf of about 10 or so. They are all heaped with truck tarps of different colors. Some have been “processed” and some are still waiting to be seen.

Two guys go through and process every single tarp in the entire warehouse.  They do a few pallets a day, all day long.

First they spread them out on this cutting table. They look for holes or worn spots.


Then they pull off those straps that secure the tarps onto the trucks. IMG_3200Then these dirty and smelly tarps are folded up and stacked on pallets. When a pallet is full a forklift will come on by and take it downstairs to the largest washing machines ever created. It could do a week’s worth of laundry for a family of 8 in one load.

Thankfully they have electric lift and carry system. These wet tarps weight about 35 pounds each!

IMG_3202The colors get cataloged and then the tarps are rolled up to look like real and usable fabric!

IMG_3201Gigantic racks of these bolts go up to the cutting room floor. The bags are actually designed in the cutting room. The different designs on the tarps gives them the opportunity to make each bag look unique. They really pride themselves on the fact that none of their bags look the same.

They have a fabric cutting table so large and fabulous I wanted to cry and plastic, non-cut-up-able pattern templates for a few of their really popular bags. I am totally going to do that for at least 2 of my bag templates.

IMG_3204 And right as I was all impressed and planning out my work space they showed me their big toy.

Laser-sighted. Programmable. Cutter.

IMG_3206 If I had an extra $50K laying around I might be able to get a small one. But, holy cats, it might be worth is just so I don’t have to actually cut anything ever again. I could probably get 20 bags cut out in the time it takes me to cut out one!

Then all those lovely bag parts are neatly stacked and labeled and packed up to go the sewing facility in another town.

IMG_3208I can’t deny that I was disappointed that the bags weren’t sewn in the Zurich facility. I really, really, really wanted to see those sewing machines (or have Mark see and then buy me one).

However, they do fix the bags here. One of the awesome things about Freitag is that if your bag rips or has a construction issue of any kind they will fix it for you. You mail it to the factory, they patch it or whatever, and then its mailed back to you.

Using my best Spy vs. Spy maneuvers I snuck over to their fix-it department and took some pictures.  Christmas is coming, Mark…

IMG_3211 IMG_3212The sewn bags are then shipped back to the factory where they are photographed in pain-staking detail for the website and hung up in a way that would make anyone with OCD feel at home.

IMG_3209I got a close up (again being where I am not supposed to be) of some bags that were getting ready to be photographed. They all look so colorful!

IMG_3193They ship their bags all over the world!  Freitag stores or other boutiques place orders for different bag types and sizes and then the good people in Zurich go through the racks of bags and select a range of colors the customers will hopefully like.They also fulfill all their online orders from here. Check out their website!

I had to buy one. I found myself very, very fond of the green colors they had. Very fresh and joyful.  The shop had over 100 bags to chose from. There was a sense of urgency from my fellow tourists as we looked through the shelves of bags. It was like a very polite Black Friday.  No pushing or shoving, but a lot of hording of potential purchases.

IMG_3698This bag has now been to Seville, all over Basel, and to Stein-am-Rhein! (Story coming next week.) It’s light, durable, and comfortable.

Not bad for a couple of guys looking to keep their stuff dry while biking to work.

The Swiss Family Carlson Find Zug

Zug, Switzerland. It’s almost a name almost worthy of Dr. Seuss.  In fact, this Seussian fountain was the first thing we saw as we left the train station.

IMG_3090Zug was actually named for some Middle Ages vernacular that has to do with fishing rights in the lake that it sits on.


Zug is considerably older than the Middle Ages. They have actually found signs of Paleolithic settlements (that’s about 15,000 years ago) and they found over 40 Neolithic pile/stilt houses along the shore.  Zug has continuously had humans living there and has also had some important archaeological dig sites near it.

Most of the “modern” buildings in the city come from the Middle Ages and go up through the Renaissance with a spattering of houses from the 1880s inspired by Paris. It’s like having King Arthur living right next to The Aristocats.


IMG_3146 IMG_3112

Zug is a very wealthy town. It has an incredibly low tax rate for corporations and, consequently, a lot of international corporations have a “headquarters” or at least an office in Zug.  The people of Zug spend part of this money, it seems, on public art and preservation.


IMG_3125 IMG_3140 IMG_3154When traveling in Switzerland on a Saturday it is mandatory you find the local farmers market. You can buy the seasonal produce you expect to find, but also honey, seasoned olives, cheese, sausages, flowers, breads, and desserts.

IMG_3108The main market square is the center of action in the town on a Saturday. The people of Zug plan for this. Musicians are playing to people sitting in the outdoor cafes and in Zug they even have a couple of aviaries.

Beside the old town inside wall of the clock tower is a lovely map outlining the original old town and the secondary upper town.


Zug’s market square, the yellow section on the map, also happens to be right on the shore line and right at the heart of the old town.

IMG_3097The market square is lined with shops, like this butcher below, and restaurants.

IMG_3117 IMG_3110We went into one of these restaurants for lunch. It was an Italian restaurant with featuring house-made pasta and wood-oven pizza.  I got the special – figs, caramelized chestnuts, prosciutto, with mascarpone cheese.

IMG_3111You can tell the oven was wood-fired because I got a 2-inch sliver of wood jammed in my mouth. The staff were very apologetic, assuring me this has never, ever happened before. The second pizza came quickly and they offered me a free coffee at the end of the meal. It was delicious, despite the trauma of the wood splinter, and I can’t wait to try to make it at home. The children and Mark loved their pizzas and theirs came sans wood.

We continued our tour around Zug after lunch and looked for more of the old town. Like all ancient cities in Switzerland, the city sprang up around a walled tower castle. Well, it was more like a house up on a tower that they decided to put a small wall around and then expand it years later.

IMG_3162 IMG_3166 IMG_3164 IMG_3161 IMG_3153Houses and neighborhoods wind down the hill from the tower complex. Many of the houses are painted in the classic Swiss style. It’s a style that I would copy when we return to DC, if I wasn’t sure I’d have to paint it myself. I have a hutch that I’ve been meaning to paint and mural for about 5 years, so the likelihood that I will actually stand on a ladder and decorate the outside of my house seems dubious.

IMG_3123IMG_3119 IMG_3122The Swiss can be lovely people. Right along this street is a violin shop. We all play the violin so I went inside to show the instruments to our youngest and to see if perhaps they had a metal bridge mute. They are hard to find and my brother-in-law Erik has been looking for one for a few years. I had a great conversation with the proprietor and it turns out he is friends with the gentleman who made H’s violin. I asked him about metal mutes and it after a long look it turns out that his friend in the back had one. AND THEY GAVE IT TO ME FOR FREE!!  It was delightful and I gave them each a kiss and a hug which really set them on their heels, but I was so pleased I couldn’t help myself. Just about the time I was clasping the tall, dark, and handsome one in my arms Mark came in, so that was awesome.

But I did get a metal mute like I had when I was first learning how to play, which is now apparently an antique.  I am old.

We wandered down the road with me explaining and exclaiming over my mute and found an old church. It must be a habit now to duck on in and see the architecture because the boys automatically looked for a door.

Not an architectural gem, but still a church.

The chapel dates back to at least 1266 if not later. It is very small, seating about 50 people, and what decoration is in there seems ornate. At one point the walls were completely covered in frescoes and murals, but this seems to be all that remains.

Zug remained Catholic during the Reformation, so the churches here are intact and don’t show any signs of the turmoil that rocked the rest of the region.


It does have stained glass windows, however, these featured the crests of the important families and the coats of arms of the guilds and professions that were integral to the success of the town. The glass windows were restored in the 1920s and I took a picture just for my Dad’s friend Roger Huber.

IMG_3132Lest you forget that Zug is on the water, the chapel backs up right along the edge of the lake. (They are clear this is only a chapel – the church is located much closer to the castle.)


The only way to see the fish.
The only way to see the fish. I kept saying, “Don’t fall in. You’ll get pneumonia.” I am such a mom.
Very peaceful.
Very peaceful.

We met another local. He was also very friendly.

IMG_3158The sun goes down quickly in the fall and winter and before we knew it sunset had arrived. It made for beautiful pictures of the lake and made Mt. Pilatus, hovering in the background, even more beautiful.

Next week we escape the cool autumn and jet off to Seville, Spain!

The Swiss Family Carlson has a mission in Porrentruy

So, fresh off our trip to Copenhagen, Mark (who never seems too tired to travel) found us a really interesting Swiss day trip. The city was Porrentruy in the Jara canton.

IMG_3026It’s on the French side of the country and actually almost touches France. Everyone speaks French there and so my German was absolutely no good. Mark speaks an incredibly rusty French so we decided we were pretty much going to have to approach this visit with the classic “Hi! We’re Americans!” tactic.

Porrentruy is an ancient city and used to be under the protection/control of the princes of Basel (or Bâle). We found some Basilisk fountains and some Basel crests hidden around the city.  And those weren’t the only things hidden in Porrentruy.

IMG_3025In his research about the Jura area Mark found a train route where you can be “robbed” by “bandits.”  The reservations were full for our weekend and so he found a self-guided walking tour called The Secret Circuit in Porrentruy instead.

You need to stop by the Tourist Office in town and pick up a map and put down 20 francs for a special key. It’s an electric key card attached to a very heavy and worn cast iron key. When you follow The Secret Circuit you are hunting for doors that have this sign next to it.  Your key can open those doors.

It’s the best kind of treasure hunt!

The map takes you all through the town. Porrentruy is a beautiful town with houses that I would love to more right into.

IMG_2993 IMG_2992

IMG_3007Like other towns that have signs of settlements stretching back to the Iron and Neolithic ages, Porrentruy was built around rivers and streams.  Porrentruy has a stream that runs right through the middle of the town and the main street is just to the north of the creek.

IMG_3001 IMG_3002 IMG_2994We got off the train and the kids wanted to get right to our spy-scavenger-locked-door hunt! We wandered by this fortress or castle-looking place and I was really hoping our map would take us up to it.

There is a red shepherd’s crook on tower to the right. That shepherd’s crook is actually the crest of Basel. It was fun clue as to the history of the area.

So! We put down our 20 franc payment, got our key from one of the women in the tourist office right on the picturesque main street, and headed into adventure!


The first place we had to find was this door that was seemingly in the middle of a park. Hmmm….

IMG_3010If the doors were round I’d be knocking and asking for Frodo.  But this was actually our first stop. We looked around to see if this was a trick of some kind, but, nope. This was it.

We waved the key in front of the lock and then we were able to go inside. Where we found another door. But this door took us downstairs into here.

IMG_3008Then the magic happened.

Porrentruy 2A movie started. We pieced together Mark’s rusty French and my partial German and read that this room was part of an underground aqueduct or cistern where people dumped things like bikes, tubas, shoes, and murder weapons. Before that it was a chapel. The movie reproduced what they think this chapel with stain glass windows looked like, complete with monks and nuns.

This was a fun and very positive start. Our next stop seemed like it was to take us up the hill toward the castle.


It doesn’t seem very castle-y from here, except for the tower. (Which, I admit, does sort of look like a hay silo.) But this view from the giant closed and locked front doors seems much more castle-like.

IMG_3012There are three secret doors somewhere in there.  We need to find them!!

The first, to my delight, led up the curved stairs on the hay silo to the door hidden by the tree. Yay!

IMG_3013The boys scampered up the stairs and were delighted to use the key to get into this secret door and see this awesome movie that went into the prehistoric findings in Porrentruy. Dinosaurs! Pteranodons!


One note: these movies have some music and sounds, but no words. The images tell the story, just like a silent movie. No knowledge of any language is necessary. Plus the movies automatically start when you swipe the key and repeat over and over for a set amount of time. We watched many of them twice.

We got down from the tower and then the boys ran off to find the next set of doors. Mark and I got to admire the view.

IMG_3016 But before we knew it the E came bounding back telling us they had found a prison. He took us to a very serious looking door and we realized the city still uses this complex as part of its city administration buildings. However, we could see our Secret Circuit sign and so we waved our key around and got into the old dungeons.

There were these clever movies running in there, too. The cells were small, but had high ceilings so you could actually stand up straight. (Unlike so many other prisons we had toured.) The movie in one cell had a distinctly Autumn/Halloween theme to it.

IMG_3021The other movie featured the story of one Pierre Péquignat, a clerk for the Prince Bishops of Basel who lead a rebellion and was subsequently beheaded for his efforts.  To make this little ghost story even more awesome, he was executed on October 31, 1740.  So, of course, this place is haunted. They don’t mention that part, but how can it not be?

Here they are drumming M. Pequignat to his death.
Here they are drumming M. Pequignat to his death.

We got to the picture below and thought, “They can’t really show the axe…” and shhh-whomp, they showed it. (To the credit of my high school drama coach, Linda Brant, this prompted me to recite all the lines from the final scene in A Man For All Seasons.)

IMG_3023And not only that, to my horror the head bounced in great leaps down the hill and through the trees only to be impaled on a spike in the front of town. All historically accurate and now burned into my 6yo’s brain.

So, we hurried out of there and found the third location at the castle. This room didn’t have a movie, but we got to go down a circular staircase, which was a missed opportunity for a slide if ever I saw one. This room had a small scale model of the town as it was in the 1400s and lots of information in French and German. We nodded appreciatively, got the jist of things, and then headed out to find our next location.

IMG_3027IMG_3029On our way to find the next location we went past the main city hall (The Hotel de Ville) and found this guy.

Porrentruy 4Porrentruy’s coat of arms is the majestic wild boar.  You can find them all over the city.

Our next stop of note was a weirdly gated off alley way behind the main street and sort of across from the pigs. I mean, wild boars.


It’s a cute silent movie about the seasons. We had to watch it 3 times because H liked the cat, especially during the summer when she was wearing glasses.

Then our map took us through another secret alley passageway and we found the Hotel-Dieu. The Hotel-Dieu was a hospital originally and now it’s a museum for the history and heritage of the Jura canton.


IMG_3047We unlocked the brown door under the stairs and went through a long hallway that smelled strongly of lemon Lysol disinfectant cleaner until we found another door to unlock. And we were in the back yard! Then we saw another door with the Secret Circuit key symbol above it and we found ourselves in a cistern. A magical cistern.

The movie alluded to the ancient history of Porrentruy. There were the burnt remains of buildings from the 10th and 11th centuries found around the cistern.

IMG_3049 IMG_3053 IMG_3051I’m not sure about the presence of dragons or swimming mermaid-like girls in the cistern or even anywhere around Porrentruy, but they were the highlight of the movie.

And then we were done! It was a nice 12km walk around a lovely city of French sensibilities and Swiss precision.

This was a really fun family adventure. The kids never complained and we never got asked the dreaded question, “When are we going home.”  We finished the entire tour in 2 hours, had some exceptional burgers and fries at a cafe off the main street, and returned home in time to watch a film and eat some pizza.  It was a great thing to do when you just don’t quite know what you want to do, but you know you’ve got to get those children out of the house or they will destroy it and everything inside.

Lucy and Ethel take over the Chocolate Factory

As I mentioned last time, Mom had said that one thing she wanted to do was to go to a chocolate factory. Well, she had come to the right country! Switzerland does have the very best chocolate in the entire world. I am partial to Laderach chocolate and buy it for my whole family all the time, but the go-to place for chocolate factory tours is the Callier factory in Broc, Switzerland.

Callier is technically owned by Nestlé, however, they were once partners.  In 1857, Daniel Peter Callier, the son of founder François-Louis Callier, had the idea of combining his chocolate with Henri Nestlé’s condensed and powdered milk to make milk chocolate.  In 1879, Nestlé and Callier combined their efforts to form the Nestlé Company. Eventually, in 1929, Nestlé ended up buying Callier and consolidating their chocolate holdings.

As I said above, the factory is in the very small town of Broc, Switzerland.  Broc is a tiny village and has a population of only 2500 people.


It seems like a large portion of the population works at the factory. There are not only the factory workers, but there is the tourist end of the factory as well. PLUS you can take chocolate making classes in a large cooking classroom right in the center of the tour waiting area.

The building cuts a majestic figure against the sky. IMG_2261
For Mom’s birthday I arranged for us to take a chocolate truffle making class at the factory.  There is really nothing better, in my opinion, than having a chocolate truffle.  Now, one could argue that giving me the knowledge to make my own chocolate truffles is incredibly dangerous,  but I do solemnly vow to use this knowledge only for good.

The men went off and had a tour through the factory itself. They learned all about the history and making of chocolate. The boys got to try an actual cocoa bean and then to make up for being tricked into eating the bitter and yucky cocoa bean they got the equivalent of a bar and a half of actual and delicious chocolate in samples given at about 12 different locations through the plant.  That was pretty much all I got out of the boys, although E did say that every child in the world should take this tour so that is something.

Mom and I went down into a large teaching kitchen and were greeted by Mary from Birmingham, Alabama, the sous chef and wife of head chef Thomas.  She directed us to two stations that were complete with a chef’s apron.

IMG_2263We were really happy.  And then we looked under the apron and found a chef’s hat.  A chef’s hat!! I have always wanted a chef’s hat!  And they were in a fetching chocolate brown color.

Thomas gave us a great opening demo on how to break up the chocolate, how to melt it down, and, in probably the most valuable lesson of the day, how many liquors you can successfully add to chocolate. (Answer: All of them.)

Then they set us loose to create our own truffles.  The room filled with the sounds of packages of chocolate being smacked against the counter surfaces.  We were making the ganache or better known as the creamy tasty center of the truffle.  I think Mom did a great job of mixing up her chocolate centers. Mine was a little loose because I added too much liquor.  I guess I should have saved more for myself.

IMG_2268We let our filling cool and Thomas showed us how to pipe out the filling so we could make it into balls.  Thomas took his time and showed us how to correctly pipe a couple and answered questions. Then he piped out the rest in about 30 seconds and each were exactly the same size and shape.  That was a bar none of us would hit, though some would try.

So Mom and I went to work.  My ganache was too runny and had to be put in the blast chiller to set up. I felt like I was every contestant who made it to the dessert round on Chopped!  “All I could do was just put it in the blast chiller and pray.”  Mom’s, however, was perfect.

IMG_2269We finally got them all piped out and we only had chocolate on 8 of our 10 fingers.  Mine went back in the blast chiller and Mom’s got to go back in the fridge with all the other well-behaved ganache.

And we were finally at the coating stage! That is the step right before the eating step.  Yay!

IMG_2270Thomas, knowing his audience, gave us all blue latex gloves because this was going to be incredibly messy.  Instead of dipping the ganache centers into the chocolate you smear your hand with the tempered chocolate and then roll the centers in your hand to coat them.  Apparently you use less chocolate that way.

You also need a partner – an Ethel to your Lucy, as it were – because while Lucy is gunking up her hands with warm liquid chocolate Ethel needs to be taking these almost-truffles and coating them in some other kinds of tasty goodness.

They had silver cocoa nibs, gold and sparkly Rice Krispie-like cereal, powdered sugar, and cocoa powder to choose from.  We chose cocoa nibs and Rice Krispies.  Powdered sugar and cocoa powder seemed to messy, but in retrospect we really couldn’t have gotten any messier.

We had about 36 truffles each to coat and we were going as fast as we could.  We were basically racing against time to get all these truffles coated and done before the chocolate hardened.  One of us was rolling it with chocolate and then tossing it into the coatings bowl. The other one was tossing it through the  nibs or Krispies – one in each hand – as quickly as we could to get them back onto the tray and into the fridge. Believe me, there was a large temptation to just shove them into our mouths and skip a step or two. However, we exhibited incredible self control and all the truffles made it from the coatings bowls back onto the tray.

Then Mary and Thomas handed out awesome chocolate gift boxes and fancy bags for our finished truffles. We packaged them up, again fighting off the temptation to just eat them instead.

IMG_2271We not only got to take the truffles home with us, we also got the keep the aprons and hats, AND we got diplomas!  Yes, indeed!  Mom and I are actual graduates of the Callier Truffle Institute and we can make truffles in our own home.  If you don’t have this diploma and you are making truffles at home you just might be breaking the law. Maybe. I think.  I might have to check on that, but consider yourself warned.

And I got the recipe.


I think I will make some next weekend.  This weekend we will be in Pisa, Italy for an economic conference. Well, Mark will be at the conference. The kids and I will be wandering around Pisa and probably Florence.  Yay!

But it was such a fun time for Mom and I.  We both love to cook and this was something neither of us had ever done before.  Now when I make my own truffles I will remember how much fun we had and how fearless Mom was in the face of melted chocolate and flying cocoa nibs.