Tweets from the Sled

We recently took a four-day dogsledding trip in Northern Sweden as part of our quest to see the Northern Lights. Our number one instruction was “Always have one hand on the sled”, and since I don’t have the talent to tweet with one hand, much less with one hand in winter gloves while cruising along at 10-15 kilometers per hour, I stored all my Tweet-like thoughts in my head and have compiled them here. Overall, they provide some insight as to what the experience was like!


So here, in no particular order, are some random thoughts from the sled.

  • I love the smell of dog poop in the morning #dogsledding (with apologies to Robin Williams)
  • We followed a reindeer for ages – he didn’t cede the trail, we couldn’t pass
  • Reindeer have an incredibly awkward gait
  • Gorgeous blue color revealed when snow sections separate and sink
  • Knives are incredibly useful tools: poker, potholder, opener
  • Prettiest outhouse I’ve ever seen – or used
  • Love that lingonberry juice, especially warmed at lunch
  • Swedish children begin learning English in First Grade
  • Almond potatoes are a new find – they make great potato chips!
  • Candlelit walkway to the outhouse was a nice touch
  • I’ve never seen Styrofoam seats in an outhouse but they make perfect sense!
  • I can’t believe they let just anybody drive a dogsled
  • Saw the Northern Lights!
  • Sunlight makes the snow sparkle
  • Saw a moose!
  • These dogs are STRONG and they are happy to be home



What’s an Architecture Fan to Do in Chicago?

Entry at Wilson Station, Chicago's Red Liine. Photo Courtesy Chicago Detours

Entry at Wilson Station, Chicago’s Red Line. Photo Courtesy Chicago Detours

It took me a long time to get to Chicago, a city I’d heard and read so much about in architectural history classes. When I finally made it, years ago, the first thing I did was head to the Chicago Architectural Foundation and sign up for one of their boat tours. We all – child, grandma, husband and self – loved it.

Today I just discovered Chicago Detours, a company offering bus and walking tours of Chicago’s history and architecture. This is is kind of stuff I just love, and so apparently do lots of other people looking to get more out of their travel experience. Next time I get to visit the Windy City, I won’t need to go to an office and sign up…I can do so from their website.

Nice to know that while technology has changed, Chicago’s committment to showcasing its fabulous architecture hasn’t!

The Sound of Music

The heart of Basel’s cultural identity is not its architecture, or its location on the Rhine, or its home offices of pharmaceutical giants. It’s Fasnacht. Fasnacht is often simply explained as Basel’s Carnival, a la Venice, Rio or New Orleans. But in truth, there’s much more to it than that. Billed as the “three most beautiful days of the year”, it’s a complex set of traditions deeply ingrained in the people who grow up with it and so much more than three days of colorful parades and partying.
Fasnacht drummer
You can always tell when Fasnacht is approaching. Music is a key part of Fasnacht, and not long after New Year’s clique members pull out their drums and picolos and start to practice their Guggenmusik. I am not musical in the least, so while I know it is supposed to be off beat or out of key or something, to me it’s very light-hearted—and very catchy. I do know the drumming in particular is very complicated and I have had several people tell me that if you don’t begin learning how to play Guggenmusik by the time you’re about 12, you will never master it. Hence, it really is something people grow up with.

As it gets closer, the Kinderfasnachts begin. Young children in costume parade in the neighborhood around their school, accompanied by just one or two drummers and piccolo players. The teachers are fonts of creativity, coming up with clever themes, and costumes to match, year after year. Then, on weekends, you begin to catch glimpses of groups marching in school gymnasiums. At the school near me, through the tall windows, I can just see the tops of tubas and sousaphones turning in unison as they march, and march, and practice and practice.

Children in Fasnacht costumes

Come Fasnacht itself, the music is inescapable in the city center, as the cliques follow parade routes on certain days, and roam randomly at other times. As the cortege goes by, characters toss confetti, candy, flowers, and oranges into the crowd. They’ll target certain bystanders with a special present: it could be a large bouquet, or it could be a bag of confetti dumped on your head!

The music continues long after the confetti is cleaned up. On the three Sundays following Fasnacht, cliques large and small parade randomly through the city playing. It’s a delight to catch the strains floating through the city, making me feel part of this tradition too.


An Anniversary of Sorts

It’s been eighteen years, almost to the day in fact, since we sold the house, sold the car, packed up our things, and arrived in Zagreb, Croatia, to take a one-year contract. Little did we know what life and this wonderful world had in store for us. Of course, we never know, but at this point I can say it’s been a heck of a ride – and I’d do it all again.

world traveller

South Africa, age 3

One year in Zagreb turned into just over 2, which segued into 3 years in Bangkok, where our daughter was born. Then it was off to Basel, Switzerland, for 4 years (a nice mathematical progression) and then on to Hong Kong, not for 5 years but for 6. We have now been back in Basel for 2 1/2 years and are planning to be here until our daughter graduates from high school.

What comes after that is anyone’s guess. We have had the incredible fortune to live in some great places and to travel to many more. Our traveling days will certainly not end, regardless of what comes next.

Feeling Fabulous at Frey

From the title, one might think Frey is the hot new spa in town, but in fact it is a chocolate company, and that in and of itself is, of course, fabulous. Like a spa, there was a dress code, but rather than undressing it was covering up, donning hairnets, shoe covers and coats. Not the most fabulous or flattering look but for the chance to see inside the factory, well worth it. It must be noted, however, that our guide, Petra, who was ever so wonderful, somehow did manage to look fabulous in her hairnet. Most definitely unfair, but we were there for the chocolate, not the fashion.


We couldn’t take photos in the factory, but here’s what I took out of the factory store!

The Frey factory is located in Buchs, Switzerland, about an hour from Basel. The company was founded in 1887 by the Frey brothers Robert and Max, and purchased by Swiss supermarket giant Migros in 1950. This is why all the chocolate you buy in Migros comes from Frey but make no mistake, this is no ordinary supermarket chocolate. It’s wonderful and it is my chocolate of choice these days.

We were greeted with a waft of deep chocolate aroma as we approached the building, and could catch additional bits of it as we wound our way through the labrythn of corridors that gave us a bird’s eye view of the factory floor. At times, the air was almost sickenly sweet, but then we would enter another patch of pure chocolate, and delight in its purity.

We learned all kinds of things, such as that Swiss people eat between 11 and 12 kilograms of chocolate per year; that Easter is the busiest time; and that if you buy posh “Swiss Chocolate” outside Switzerland, say at your local Marks and Spencer, it was likely made at the Frey factory.

The industrial process was fascinating. As in any factory, there are a number of specialized machines. We saw one that wrapped chocolates in gold mouse foil wrappers, inserted a gold thread tail, and passed them into a box. A new machine filled six slots in a praline tray, which then went to the next station to have a few more slots filled. The final stages, however, were done by hand, since machines cannot handle cocoa-dusted truffles. There was also a visual check that all the slots were filled correctly and any errors corrected. This station was the closest we saw to the setup in the classic I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode.

While many competing chocolate companies would have you think that the reason Switzerland is so famous for chocolate is because of the milk that goes into “dairy milk” chocolate, Petra told us it is actually because of Switzerland’s expertise with machinery. To give chocolate its ultimate rich, smooth texutre, the cocoa power mixture undergoes a 24 hour “conching” process (developed by Rodolphe Lindt), which converts the cocoa powder to smooth chocolate. Machines are therefore the magic behind the chocolate. As we like to say, “Swiss engineering at its finest”!

Due to the demand for their products, the Christmas season production was completed in August. The day we were there, mid-November, the chocolate Easter bunny lines were in full swing. It was fascinating to learn how they are made. I had always thought the two halves were poured separately and pressed together, but no. Chocolate is poured into one side of the mold and as the mold halves move two by two through the machine, the tops are put in place and the complete molds are flipped so that centrifical force creates the full, hollow bunny. Each one is inspected by hand as they are automatically unmolded and moved along a the conveyer belt to be packaged.

During our tour, there were several sample tables. The first one displayed a selection of Suprême bars and our group selected three to try: Macadamia Nut, Hot Chile, and a nice 69% plain dark. Subsequent tables offered bowls of treats and trays of pralines and we were welcome to taste as much as we wanted. I must say, it was the first time in my life I’d ever felt I’d eaten just too much chocolate.

On our way out, we of course stopped at the chocolate shop. I loaded up on chocolates for the holidays – and when I got home I stashed them safely away. We’ll see how many are left when it comes time to wrap them up.

If you go:
Frey is changing the format of its tours. Tours like the one we went on are being phased out, and being replaced with a new “visitor experience” and visitor center on site. The new center is due to open in spring 2014.

Watching History Rise in Barcelona

We traveled to Barcelona just about a year ago and I recently got to wondering how much progress has been made on Gaudi’s tour de force, La Sagrada Familia, in that time. Only 65% complete, the building is known as much for being under construction as it is for its splendid use of space, light and color.

interior of La Sagrada Familia

Though I had heard of the building, I did not really know much about it – or the rest of Gaudi’s work – before we went to Barcelona. When I first saw some of his buildings, with their bright colors, and, shall we say,  interesting, forms and use of elements from the natural world, my first instinct was to say, this guy was a little bit out there. But after taking the tour of the cathedral and in particular spending some time in the exhibit about Gaudi the person and the influences on his life, it all began to make sense.

To this day, my lasting impression from our visit, more so than understanding Gaudi the architect or Gaudi the person, is that I was witness to a bit of history. I saw one of the great buildings of the world being built.

Construction of La Sagrada Familia began in 1882. More than one hundred years later, the workers have access to cranes, elevators, hydraulic equipment and modern building materials. Despite these advantages, completion is not expected until 2026, or 2028 (what’s a couple years in a hundred-year timeline…).

Imagine, then, what it must have been like to be living in France, Spain or England during the Middle Ages and seeing one of the great cathedrals built, bit by laborous bit.

The great churches of the world were not built quickly: Notre Dame took almost 100 years (1163-1272) years, Salsbury 100 years exactly (1220-1320). Even a more contemporary example, the Almudena Cathedral in Madrid too more than 100 years to complete, begun in 1883 and completed at long last in 1999. The 144 years estimated for La Sagrada Familia is well within the norm.  A visit to La Sagrada, therefore, is a chance to witness history, to experience something similar to those who lived during the time of these monumental construction projects, knowing they are seeing something magnificent rise, knowing they would not live to see it completed, yet celebrating it.

With this in mind, I’ve moved Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth a bit higher on my reading list. At 806 pages, reading it is a monumental undertaking too, but at least it’s one that I will live to see through to the end.

If you go:
Book your tour of La Sagrada Familia online in advance and avoid wating in line. Full details at

Switzerland’s Strada Alta

You take the high road, I’ll take the low road… We were in Switzerland rather than Scotland, but we couldn’t help but repeat this refrain on our recent adventure in Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.

We had friends coming for a visit and knowing how dismal it can be in October in Basel, we decided to play it safe and head to the sunny side of Switzerland, as their very fun ad campaign calls it. The sun is very much a part of the culture of Ticino. It directed the way life developed there. There are vineyards and terraces, beautiful gardens. In fact, if not for the Swiss stores and the prices listed in francs, you would think you were in Italy proper.

We made a good decision: it was grey and rainy in Basel as we departed but when we came out of the tunnel into Ticino, the sky was blue and bright. Hooray!

along the Strada Alta

The Strada Alta (high route) is a trail in the Leventina Valley. To access it, we took a train from Bellinzona to Airolo, and then headed to the hills. The train did most of the uphill for us, so our 17 kilometer trek took us on an undulating path through a few villages. As usual in Switzerland, there are places to stop along the way for snacks and meals, making multi-day hikes a breeze to plan and easy to do, even with kids along.

The woman at the Leventina tourism office was very friendly and helpful. We were clearly not the first people to take this hike, but despite its popularity, we pretty much had the trail to ourselves, seeing just one couple during our hike. And lots of cows.

We spent the night in Osco in a dormitorio, then hiked out the following day. The poor weather caught up with us, but the forecast promised snow at higher elevations, which was extremely exciting for our friends from warmer climes. Of course the thought of it was better than having to deal with is and fortunately we were below the snow.

Back in Basel later that day, we went to the corn maze up in the Bruderholz, and from the platform in the center, we could see the fields of freshly fallen snow in the nearby hills. Winter is on its way!

If you go:

Book accommodation ahead if you’re going in the busy season as options are limited. You can find travel details at the Leventina Tourismo site.