Friday, January 28, 2011

Chalet Hunt Continues

I’ve decided that I’m going to apply to Fodor’s travel guide company as the expert on Obscure Alpine Villages.  In the past few months, Mr. Big and I have explored every valley in the French-speaking Alps in our quest for the perfect chalet.  He has only acquired one new speeding ticket on these junkets, to the tune of only 45 euros, so that is a good thing.  Go ahead.  Ask me anything.  What is the population of Zinal, Switzerland?  477.  What is the altitude of Sixt Fer-a-Cheval, France?    760 meters above sea level.

Why are the old barns in the canton of Valais perched on stone columns and discs?  Well, they are known as “mazots” and that is how the villagers keep the mice out of their foodstuffs.  Mr. Big pointed out that it might be just a hair less labor intensive to invest in a few good mousetraps rather than elevate a whole building, but the Swiss are an industrious and hearty group and, if it keeps them busy, well, why not?

What are those cute little sheds out in the yards of some of the older chalets that look like kid’s play houses?  Well, those are called “carnozets” and that is where the locals eat their fondue and raclette so it doesn’t make the rest of the house smell like ass.

Why do the French pronounce the “x” on the end of words and the Swiss don’t?  No answer.  It is what it is.  The town of Bex in Switzerland is pronounced “Bay”.  If you moved it 10 miles away across the border, it would be called “Bex” rhyming with Tex-Mex.  It is enough to make you slap yourself upside the head.

Mr. Big and I are having some issues with this househunt.   I prefer the little, authentic villages where no tourists go.  He prefers bigger ski stations where he can ski his old butt directly out onto the slopes.  As he is highly allergic to public transportation, he doesn’t want to have to board any ski busses to get to the chairlifts.  Personally, I think he is just terrified to land in a village where no one speaks English.   He is more than willing to give up charm and character for infrastructure and ease-of-use and an abundance of Anglo-speaking tourists hanging around.  Last Saturday, we almost came to blows.

I had found, on the internet, a brand new listing for a chalet in a place called Mase (population 235, altitude 1620m) in Switzerland.  Y’all.  This was the cutest village, ever.  EVER.  I would post the link to this house, but this is Switzerland, so by the time I saw it on the net, drove to the village and found it, (a grand total of about 13 hours), it was sold.  It is no longer available, either on the net or in real life.  As a matter of fact, when we were walking around the village, there were FOUR other people standing out in front of it taking pictures.

I was like, MR.BIG!!  THOSE BASTARDS ARE LOOKING AT MY HOUSE!!  He said, no way, calm down, Trailing Spouse.  So, I took pictures of the house and barn and pretended to myself that all was well.  Really, the whole time, I KNEW, I just KNEW, that somebody else had already bought it.  This is where we almost came to fisticuffs.  Mr. Big said he was “not impressed”.  Dude!  Are you kidding me?  It is perfect!  What’s your problem?  Well, honey, you have to get on a BUS and travel approximately 1.5 MILES to the ski lift.  Mr. Big, you are driving me crazy.  This is the coolest house ever and if we don’t buy it in the next 8 nanoseconds, one of these other gawkers is going to snag it up.

Of course, I was right.  It had already sold earlier that day.  Ah, me.  Trying to buy/rent property in Switzerland is like California, circa 1992, when everyone was flush with money, there were bidding wars everywhere and houses sold in 36 seconds.

This is what I have learned and, also, the reason that Fodor’s should hire me:  TROTW (The Rest of The World) only knows of the “famous” ski stations like Verbier, Zermatt, St. Moritz, Chamonix, Crans-Montana, etc.  TROTW is missing out on the best places.  Consequently, there are fabulously underrated ski stations sprinkled throughout the Alps where only the Swiss and the French and a few in-the-know Austrians dare to tread.

Case in point.  Arolla, Switzerland.  Now, most of you skiers are saying “HAH.  Typo.  She means Arosa.”  No, I do not.  There is a ski village called Arolla at the very end of a valley called Val d’Herens in Switzerland with the most jaw-dropping views I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot, thank you, ma’am.  The village sits at 2000 meters.  The views are beyond breathtaking.  There is a hotel there called Hotel Kurhaus where I would like my ashes spread when I am dead.

I think we might have found a winner in the village of La Clusaz, France.  It is a large resort, which Mr. Big likes, yet it also has some charm and character, an old church and some old buildings and farms, which I like.  Now, we just have to find a house that we can agree on.  This will probably get ugly.  Mr. Big SAYS he is open to buying an old one and renovating it, but when push comes to shove, I think he is going to balk and go for something new.  We’ll see.

In the meantime, did I tell you that a huge, wild boar ran in front of our car last weekend in the mountains?  Y’all!  It was durned near as big as our Audi and it was all hairy and lumbering across the road like a rhino or something.  I’m screaming  WHAT THE HELL IS THAT, MR. BIG?  I believe that is a wild boar, Dear.  WELL, STOP THE CAR SO I CAN TAKE A PICTURE,  FURGODSSAKE!  He wouldn’t stop, the old poop, so I have no pictures of my Close Encounter of the Swine Kind.  Are there a lot of those in the woods, does anyone know?  And do they eat people?  Here I thought I only had to worry about the Yeti and now I also have to worry about giant pigs.  I bet those suckers are the real reason the barns are lifted up on rocks, not a few, measly little mice!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Ex-Pat’s Dirty Little Secret: Hoarding

Awright other ex-pats, ‘fess up, I know you do this, too!  Hoard your own, personal, can’t-do-without, hygiene accoutrements.  This phenomenon is pretty much universal, so I’m just going to put it right on out there for everyone to read.  When you are first told that you are moving to another country, you start to immediately make a mental list of things that YOU ABSOLUTELY NEED to bring from home because you are convinced that your new country will not have THE EXACT SAME ITEM.  9 times out of 10, this is a perfectly legitimate assumption.

After you arrive and, as you acclimate, you discover that your new country will have something pretty close.  It may not be exact, but it will work.  After a few YEARS, you find yourself just using the new country’s stuff and you get over it.  Except.  Except for those few things that you discover, yes, it is true, you might perish if you have to go without them.

I have learned to live without every single personal hygiene item that, two years ago, I was convinced was irreplaceable.  Except.  Except for Pantene Smooth and Straight Shampoo and Conditioner.  I am still transporting this particular hair care product over in bulk from the US.  I have really, really curly hair and this shampoo tames it into something manageable.  It does not exist in Switzerland.  All of the Pantene shampoos here add body.  I promise you, if I added body to my hair, you could house a Haitian refugee family on my head and no one would be the wiser.

C’mon, you all do this, I know.  A certain soap.  A certain tampon.  A certain shaving cream.  I know.  I understand.  Your body just does not feel right, your hair just does not look right, your teeth just do not sparkle, etc. without PRODUCT X, right?  I know.  I can relate.  But there is someone who can relate more than me.  Yes, Mr. Big.

Mr. Big has not even tried to acclimate.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve yet to see Mr. Big step one foot inside a Swiss pharmacy.  Oh, wait.  I take that back.  Two weeks ago, he was sniffling and sneezing and trying to cough up a lung.  I DRAGGED his reluctant ass into a pharmacy and told the pharmacist that my husband had a cold and could he recommend some medicine.  Mr. Big was soooo desperate for relief, he actually used the Swiss pharmaceuticals.  Lo and behold, he felt better.  Amazing, I know.

But other than that one instance,  he brings everything over in bulk from the US.  Y’ALL!!  Q-TIPS!!  I’m like, um, Mr. Big, they have Q-tips in Switzerland.  Deodorant.  Please, Mr. Big, they have deodorant in Switzerland.  (Switzerland, yes, France, no).  Just kidding, French people!  BUT IT”S NOT MY KIND, TRAILING SPOUSE!!   

Right now, I’m going to sneak upstairs and take a picture of Mr. Big’s giant stash of hygiene products.  It’s unbelievable!  I’m going to go count his hair gel products alone.  I’ll bet he has enough to last until 2018.   Be right back.  OK.   25 tubes of hair gel.  He has more tubes of hair gel than he has hairs on his head!!!

He has eleven deodorants.  ELEVEN!!  How much deodorant do you need, stinky man?  His hoarding psychoses even extend to me.  He has started amassing travel-size Pantene hair products for me.  Mind you, I do not need these.  I buy and import the ginormous size.  And I buy one.  ONE.  One at a time.

However, should I ever run out, apparently, Mr. Big has got me covered, because, in a corner of the bathroom cupboard, I spy a bag of tiny Pantene shampoo and conditioners.  SEVENTEEN bottles.  Of a product I do not need or want!!  Some women get jewelry.  I get sample-sized hair supplies.

As long as we are airing our dirty laundry, I might as well confess that I have a cupboard here in Switzerland full of . . . Newport cigarettes.  Yes, in addition to my many, many other bad habits, I am an uninhibited, out-of-the-closet, unashamed smoker.  Shoot me.  Anyway, I have been smoking the same kind of cigarettes since I was 13 and my BFF’s big sister, Janet, taught me and my little pal how to smoke.  Thanks, Janet!  You have destined me to a life of ridicule and standing outside on frozen balconies indulging in my disgusting habit!  As soon as I am finished here, I am looking you up on Facebook and see if you have as many smoking-induced wrinkles on your dried-out-little-prune-of-a-face as I do.

Sorry, lost my head there for a moment.  So, to indulge my habit I have to have everyone who comes to visit me from America bring me two cartons of Newports.  In a box, not a soft-pack.  Not the long ones, the short ones.  Not only am I an evil smoker, I am a picky, evil smoker!  My friends and family know that it is the price they have to pay to have a Swiss vacation.  Two cartons of Newports.  Each.  No exceptions.  I live in fear for the day when I run out and have to start smoking the only menthol cigarette available in Europe, the dreaded Marlboro Greens.  That will be the day I quit.  It will also be the day I start to gain 50 pounds and become 3,000 times more nasty than I already am.  This is not a day Mr. Big looks forward to, so he enables me.  He sends money to the children before they come to visit to go and buy my cigs and schlep them over here.  The thought has also crossed my mind that he may be enabling my bad habit  with the secret hope that I kick the bucket early and he can trade me in for Elin Nordgren, who is available and at large over here in our neck of the woods, (no pun intended).

So, we are closet hoarders.  I feel much better now that I have exposed this neurotic tendency.  The rest of you can now feel free to chime in with a story of your own personal stash.  And, if any of you has a closet full of regular bleach that you are hoarding, I will pay good money for that shit.

Friday, January 7, 2011

New Year’s Eve with a Baguette and a Lamp

So, this year we rented a ski chalet in a town called Chatel, just over the Swiss border, in France.  I confess.  I had an ulterior motive.  This is one of the places that Mr. Big and I are considering for The Great Chalet Purchase.  Why, you ask?

1.        It’s about ¼ of the price of a chalet in Switzerland.
2.       It’s a family-friendly ski resort and, as you know, I have a growing family.
3.       The food in the Haute Savoie (pronounced Oat Sahv-wah, not Sav-oye) is incredibly fattening and delicious.  It consists entirely of pork, cream, potatoes and cheese prepared in a million ways.  Occasionally, they throw in a duck liver for fun and so you will have something to spread on your cracker.
4.       It is part of the ginormous ski area called the Portes du Soleil which includes Avoriaz and Morzine, but not so crowded as those two villages.

Actually, when I first booked the vacation spot, I didn’t even know it was considered a “family-friendly” village.  I did notice a bunch of rug rats on the baby slopes, but that is normal.  It wasn’t until we inquired at the tourist information office about the scheduled New Year’s festivities that I learned just how much Chatel catered to families.

The fireworks began at 7 p.m.  On New Year’s.  Really, I think that’s cheating.  7 p.m. is barely New Year’s Dusk, let alone New Year’s Eve.  I hadn’t even planned on waking up from my pre-New Year’s nap by 7 p.m., never mind being out and about at that hour.

Here is a play-by-play to New Year’s Eve in Chatel, France:

5:00 p.m.  The DJ in the main place begins playing the ALWAYS WEIRD song selections that Europeans love.  No one is there to hear him except families with small children.  The FREE vin chaud and hot chocolate kiosk is running about 85% hot chocolate to 15% vin chaud.

6:30 p.m.  The ski school instructors ski down the mountain directly behind the village with torches, single file.  Really cool.  By now, other people have shown up and the ratio of  vin chaud to hot chocolate is improving.  This is when we arrive.  We are prepared.  We have festive, sparkly hats and multiple bottles of champagne in our bookbags.

7:00 p.m.  The DJ announces the beginning of the Feu D’artifices or Artificial Fire, aka fireworks.  By now, in this family-friendly village, my children in their sparkly hats with their plastic champagne flutes are attracting attention.  This village was not Chamonix, folks.  There were no costumes, wigs, men in kilts, people slugging magnums in the street, etc.   My kids really wowed the crowd when they whipped out their sparklers at this point.  Not one child was looking at the fireworks.  They were all coveting my kids’ sparklers.  Too bad, little five year old!  Get your own sparkler!  Come prepared next time, little dude!

7:05 p.m.  I notice a random Dad dancing in the crowd, holding a baguette.  Of course, I snap his photo.  Only in France do people stop on the way home from the bakery to catch a quick dance to “Ba-Ba-Ba-Ba-La-Bamba”.

7:08 p.m.  We all notice a middle-aged woman carrying a bedside table lamp.  And it is lit.  I do not understand how or why.  Is it battery operated?  Why does she have it in the first place?  Then, she spies our party with our champagne and our sparkly hats and she makes her way over to us AND ASKS US FOR SOME CHAMPAGNE! 

I’m like, lady, if you will let me take your picture with that crazy lamp, I will give you a glass of champagne.  And so she did and so I did.  You cannot pay for this kind of entertainment.

7:10 p.m.  All of the families depart for dinner, either at their own homes or for the early seating at the restaurants.  The rest of us depart back to our chalets to take showers and get ready for the “real” New Year.

9:00 p.m.  We arrive at the restaurant for the second seating at dinner.  The restaurant is mayhem.  The first seating people have not yet left and the management is tearing their hair out by the roots.  We don’t care.  We are already tipsy.

9:30  We begin our lovely 5-course meal which Mr. Big and I especially enjoy because it is only costing us a fraction of the price that we would be paying in Switzerland.  We’re like, “have whatever you want, kids!  Caviar, no problem!  Escargot with shaved black truffles?  Dig in!”  We feel like we are eating in the Dollar Store, compared to La Suisse.

11:53  The hostess passes out goodie bags to all the restaurant patrons.  OK.  We look inside.  Streamers.  Noisemakers.  And something that looks suspiciously like a pea shooter.  Upon closer inspection, it appears to be a tube through which one blows small, Styrofoam balls.  Ummm, OK.

11:56  The man at the table behind us casually drapes his linen napkin over the back of his head.  Why?  I have no idea.

12:00  The French people go berserk.  Quickly, the foreigners follow their lead.  Forget the streamers and the noisemakers.  Those are for amateurs.  It is a freakin’ war between the tables with the blow guns.  C’est incroyable!!!!  Everyone is shooting little balls at everyone else and ducking under the tables and standing up for a better position, etc.  Little kids FROM ANOTHER DINING ROOM ALTOGETHER were running into our room to massacre us.  So, so, so, so much unexpected fun.  Really.  In Europe.  Imagine.

12:05 a.m.  The men and the young people are scooping up discarded balls to restock their ammunition.  The moms are taking photos.

12:10  a.m. Small Son remembers that he was never served his cheese course.  Forget it, Small Son.  You are never going to see that cheese course.  The waiters, waitresses, chefs and owners are all having too much fun.  Look, there is one now under our table.  Well, hello, server!  Can I offer you a Styrofoam ball refill?

12:30 a.m.  We pay the hostess and thank her for a wonderful time.  We send Small Son, Ms. Yankee and Charming Daughter out into the no-longer-family-friendly village and its’ bars and wish them well.  My last words were “No French Police, do you understand me?”  Another twentysomething girl overheard me and started cracking up.   Apparently, parent-speak is universal.

4:30 a.m.  The children come home.  Mr. Big and I stir but do not rise.

12:00 noon on the 1st:  We wake up the children with much gusto just because we are evil that way.  “HEY, DO YOU WANT TO GO SKIING?  C’MON, C’MON, LET’S GO SKIING!!!”  No takers.   When they did finally awaken from their comas, they told us that everyone, to a man, tried to steal their sparkly hats all night long.

I am predicting that you see a lot more costumes and sparklers in Chatel ringing in 2012.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Holidays in Switzerland, Part II

So, last night, we had a random camel sighting.  Mr. Big and I were wandering the streets in downtown Lausanne doing some last minute stocking-stuffer Christmas shopping and, lo and behold, what do we see out of one of the store windows overlooking the square?  A live, theatrical reenactment of the Nativity.  Cool, I said.  Look, there’s Joseph and Mary in the manger.  Now, remember, we can’t hear any of the dialogue because we are looking at this performance from two floors up through a window.  (Like hearing it in French would help us follow along.  No.  But I live in hope.)

Me:  Dude, are they doing what I think they are doing?

Mr. Big:  Yes.  I believe that we have stumbled upon the Virgin Mary actually giving birth.

Me:  Are his hands really under her garment?

Mr.  Big:  Yes.  I believe Joseph is catching the King of Kings.  Who cuts the cord, I wonder?

Me:  Maybe that little angel girl waiting in the wings over there?

Y’all!  They acted out an actual vaginal NOT VIRGINAL birth on stage surrounded by a whole flock of Swiss sheep!  I mean, she, MARY, had her hands on her knees and her face was all screwed up and she was pushing!  Then, as if it wasn’t funny enough, “Joseph”, a.k.a. The Baby Daddy, pulls, from underneath the skirt of the Virgin Mary, this baby doll and holds it aloft and all of the Swiss people were clapping.  I’m like, Swiss people!  Clap for Susan Boyle, clap for Manchester United, but is it really appropriate to clap for the successful birth of the Sweet Lil’ Baby Jesus?

Of course, you know me, I told Mr. Big we had to leave the store immediately and get down there to check out the action in person.  Off we swoosh, but, remember, this is an old European city.  Just to get to the Place where this was going on required one alleyway, three sidestreets and crossing a small bridge.  We made it just in time for the 3 Wise Men to show up on camels.

Real camels with two humps.  There’s a word for that kind of camel but I forget what it is.  Dromedary, maybe?  I said, Mr. Big, these folks take this shit seriously.  Those are really big, hairy camels.  I mean, these camels had to have handlers to make sure that the Wise Men did not get smooshed or fall off or whatever.  So, that was all really interesting and quite the learning experience.

The center of town was lovely last night.  There were carolers and musicians on every corner and in every Place.  It was all very festive and the lights, the decorated store windows and the rich-Swiss-people-watching was at its’ finest.  Love, love, love.  But it will be a very, very long time before I forget the scrunched up face of the Virgin Mary pushing out the Baby Jesus.  I think I am scarred for life.

OK, I promised to tell you about buying a Christmas tree here.  Last year, our first year, we stumbled upon a cut-it-yourself Christmas tree farm up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland while we were at Christmas market in Bremgarten.  AT THAT TIME, I had no idea that a Christmas Tree Stand was a difficult item to find here.  After we cut our tree last year, we stopped at a hardware store on the way home and bought a stand.  At that time, I did not know that I was experiencing a RARE OCCURRENCE .  This year, we were looking around here for trees in the nurseries and we noticed that every tree came with this weird, triangular, wooden stand on the bottom which held the tree up.

Fine.  But where do you put the water?  The man at the nursery looked at me like I had two heads.  (Ex-Pats get used to this look.  This is a completely normal, everyday thing.  We have two heads.  We are used to it.)  L’eau?  Like, who WATERS their Christmas tree?  Apparently, only Americans.  We tell the nursery man that we will take the tree, but will he kindly take off that stupid wooden frame and cut about 4 inches, oh, excuse me, 10 centimeters, off the bottom so our tree will drink?  That poor guy had no idea what we were going to do with this poor, chopped-off tree once we got home, but he took off the frame, cut off the bottom and sent us on our way, 80 franc poorer.

Here’s the deal.  The stand we found last year in a Swiss-German Mom and Pop kind of hardware store out in the middle of Jabip was, apparently, a complete anomaly.  But y’all!  It is the coolest, most highly designed Christmas tree stand Mr. Big has ever seen.  I will attach a picture of the box.  (I can’t attach a picture of the actual stand because our tree is occupying it right now!)

What is all of this leading up to, you may ask?  Nothing, really.  I’m just killing time until Charming Daughter arrives tomorrow afternoon and our REAL Christmas begins.  As we do every year, we have rented a ski chalet for the week between Christmas and New Year’s.  I know you enjoyed last year’s account of that week in Chamonix with Domestic Son and his entourage.  Unfortunately, he and his new wife and Grands 1 and 2 are not coming this year.  But Small Son is bringing New Girlfriend and we have Dear Friends coming as well, so the chalet will be full and, I’m sure, the stories will be plentiful.  Actually, I’m going to have to think of a different name for New Girlfriend because she has been around for awhile now and she is not so New anymore.  Seeing as she hails from one of the frozen, northern states, I think I will christen her Ms. Yankee.

Anyway, the shopping is complete, the fixin’s for the Christmas dinner are purchased, the gifts are wrapped and ready under the tree and Mr. Big and I are just sitting around staring at each other, twiddling our thumbs.  I do have to go out later and buy the Buches de Noel for dessert on Christmas day.  Perhaps we will stumble upon yet another odd Christmas spectacle while we are in town, but I really don’t think they are going to be able to ever top that birth thing.  Happy Holidays to all of you from all of us!  Safe travels, Domestic Son and Family, drive carefully, and don’t forget to Skype us on the 25th!