Pardon my absence from the blog world, but I have been dividing my time between swooning over Basel and surviving the school day. The latter feels less like teaching and more like juggling flaming grenades while balancing one-legged on a unicorn raft that is slowly deflating in a shark-infested riptide, but hey. It snowed last week, so there was that.
And that that is a big that. I moved to Basel for several reasons, one of them being for seasons, for crisp leaves to crunch beneath my boots, for boots to warm my toes and jazz up my footwear game, for gluhwein and snow globes and turkeys drawn slowly from the oven looking golden and glistening, like a prop turkey from a Hollywood Christmas movie. So last Tuesday, when my weather app promised me snow, I was giddy. The thing about snow is that it is somehow always unfailingly magical. So much of childhood loses its sparkle over time, but the first snow of the season always rekindles some sense of wonder, and I am not immune.
The first exciting thing was deciding not to bike to work, because precipitation could mean icy roads. The second exciting thing was getting off the tram and watching a salt truck go by. The third exciting thing was looking out a classroom window to see giant flakes tumbling down in the darkness, big as feathers and sticking to the ground. Everyone says it’s rare for snow to stick here, so I made a point to go out and wade through it until my socks were wet.
Of course, snow meant we needed clarification on our school’s snowball policy, which I imagine is written on parchment paper and stored somewhere in the building’s basement because I like to believe I work at Hogwarts. The new policy seems to be no snowball-throwing, as rocks and sticks can secretly embed themselves in the snow and cut someone’s eye.
“But I checked this snowball, and it’s only snow,” one student insisted. I explained that they must put the snowball down, while another student hefted an anvil of snow and dropped it into his friend’s hood.
The fourth exciting thing was deciding on the tram to have raclette for dinner. Raclette is Switzerland’s answer to fondue, and involves a fancy electric grill with four little paddles in which you place a perfectly-cut piece of cheese. On the grill, you can cook cherry tomatoes, bacon (if you’re into that), broccoli, cauliflower, and baby potatoes. The baby potatoes are the best for two reasons. First, one must boil the potatoes first, and if they sit out while the other veggies are grilling, they’ll get cold. Ever resourceful, the Swiss have invented a cloth sack for the potatoes to sit in, and they sell this sack at all major grocery stores. Could I have put the potatoes in cloth? Yes. Could I have kept a lid on the pot to keep them warm? Yes. Could I have saved $20 on a fancy sack? Yes. But where’s the fun in that? Plus, the sack is festive-looking and cute.
Reason Two: the potatoes are called babykartoffeln.
The cuteness factor on this is somewhere between pandas rolling down playground slides and Baby Yoda. Swiss German – maybe even regular German, but I’m not sure because my DuoLingo streak is shameful – finds joy in taking two words and combining them to make one word. Red wine is rotwein. When I recycle my glass, I differentiate between braunglass and weissglass. What makes babykartoffeln especially adorable, I think, is that they’ve maintained the German word for potato (kartoffel) but kept the word ‘baby’. Perhaps the German word for ‘baby’ is also ‘baby’, but I doubt that. Either way, it would make the potatoes no less cute.
The first time we had raclette was on Halloween. I should begin by saying that Basel nailed Halloween. (Corn maze? Pumpkin beer? A farm? Dan showed up with an empty suitcase for pumpkin-picking. I had a moment of dread, since I had no idea if there would be anything at this farm that I was picturing. Guess who wheeled a suitcase full of gourds onto a Swiss tram? That’s right.)
I walked out of my apartment and out to the fields in the hills behind my street to find myself wandering through a thick fog. It was spectacularly spooky. The giant water tower (wassertower) we cycle by when we take the back road home was invisible. I only knew I was approaching it because a strange, inky squiggle appeared in the mist, reaching out to me like an alien tentacle.
I knew this was not a squiggle, but the long tail of the life-size brontosaurus sculpture that lives on the top of the hill. If you have ever wondered if it would be creepy to encounter a brontosaurus in fog, the answer is yes. Yes it would be.
After my walk, I indulged in all of the ringarde Halloween traditions one might expect: I lit my Jack-o-Lantern, sipped a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks, and skittered leaves from their piles with the toe of my brand new Italian leather boots.
I had never tried raclette before, but Christine and Jen had been talking about it in the faculty room so I knew we had to give it a go. I spent a good hour in the local Coop comparing cheeses, searching for pickled onions and little gherkins. Christine was my raclette guru, guiding me through the store via WhatsApp. Without her, I would not have discovered herb butter (krauterbutter), the fact that pickles and onions can live in one jar together, or that garlic cheese and pepper cheese are better options than your typical creamy cheese. From Jen, I was steered toward the Fendant wine from Valais, which I’m told is made for raclette but must not be served too cold or it will harden the cheese in your stomach.
And while raclette is a snowy-weather dish, I also find it pairs well with Ghostbusters and good company on a spooky Halloween night.
This is the thing about Basel. All of my kitschy holiday dreams come true here. It’s like living in Hogwarts and walking past the Room of Requirement every day and finding what you’re looking for. On Halloween, I walk past and – it’s creepy fog weather! On Thanksgiving Eve, I have a turkey in my bicycle basket, wedged between three baguettes and a grocery bag of cranberries and wine, and on Thanksgiving, it’s golden and delicious and I’m eating it with three amazing people, Sam Adams, and a slew of vegan sides. In December, there is snow, a giant Ferris Wheel, Christmas lights, and gluhwein.
My friend Rebecca and I discovered a gluhwein stand on the other side of the Rhine in Kleinbasel one evening and ended up by the fire the night after. It may be below freezing when we bike to work in the morning, but hot gluhwein and toasty fires make up for it.
Last Thursday, I went downtown to buy Christmas sweaters for a theme day at work on Friday. I found a men’s sweater easily – the epitome of Christmas sweaters, with rows of Ho-Ho-ing Santas and jolly snowmen and marching snowflakes – and on sale. But no matter how many tacky stores I scoured, I could find no such version of a women’s sweater. We have options, but they are less obnoxiously-Christmas and more sultry-somnambulant. They’re thin, fitted, and feature a bashful looking bunny or a vixen of a reindeer. No thanks. I detoured for gluhwein and nearly admitted defeat, but since you can’t bring gluhwein on the tram, I walked part of the way home and found myself on a pedestrian street where – at last! A bright red turtleneck in my size, with be-tophatted snowmen all in a row.
Also, for the first time in many years, my living room is home to an actual, live Christmas tree.
“Well, it’s not alive anymore,” Christine told me when I got it. (She said the same thing about my turkey.) It is definitely still sort of kicking, since I’ve refilled its water bowl twice, and though it doesn’t quite smell like pine, it is host to some spiders and it drops pine needles on the carpet, so it’s live enough for me.
Tony and Dan picked up four of them from a lot near school, and they picked one for me. It is a sturdy little guy and is managing the three ornaments I’ve hung on it rather well.
I also learned of a Swiss Christmas tradition on Sunday, December 6, which is apparently St. Nicolas Day. On this day, it is customary to bake bread in the shape of a man and give him raisins for eyes. I did not bake this bread, called grattimaa, but I did purchase one at the bakery. It was a small bread with chocolate (schokkligrattimaa) and it was called Tom. I will admit, I was very tempted to buy a larger bread named Luca, weighing in at a hefty 1kg, but I managed to talk myself out of it.
This is the other side of Basel life: I rarely work out these days and I eat a lot of bread. In Manila, my days were divided into workouts: morning runs, afternoon yoga/spin/climbing/barre sessions. Here, my movement is limited to biking to and from work, the occasional run to the Rhine, and moving my jaw to chew croissants (called gipfeli here).
And while it may seem the perfect love story between Basel and me, it isn’t always the case. Basel has not always been kind to me.
For example, when I moved here in July, I went to the Gemeinde on my second day in Switzerland. You need to register with your local township, basically, and receive a resident’s permit. Many aspects of your life – opening a bank account, setting up health insurance, signing a lease – require a resident permit, which usually takes about two weeks to arrive.
I was told that, due to COVID, it might take a little longer. Two months later, I ran to the Gemeinde (literally, after school) to ask where my permit was. The Gemeinde had my records, but some other local authority did not. They’d lost all of the paperwork. Dan had arrived in late July and his permit was already fading with age in his wallet.
We went to get our driver’s licenses in September. Dan walked out with his papers being processed. I walked out with nothing. The Gemeinde had not changed my address in its system, so I could not receive a license.
My couch arrived from IKEA, but they brought the wrong couch cover. Instead of delivering the new one like they promised, they haven’t. At all.
My bike headlight got stolen and my taillight broke. I now cycle with a functioning taillight secured to my basket with zipties.
And teaching is another story altogether. We are still face-to-face in the middle school, but the students have been moved to bubbles. The theory is, they stay in one group all day and remain in one room, and the teachers come to them. This change started in late October, and it meant that, halfway through the semester, I got four new groupings of students to teach. It has not been easy. But I suppose it is a grass-is-greener scenario.
In the meantime, it’s 8 teaching days until break. Here’s hoping I’ll have more writing energy then.