A snow stop to our plans?

A week ago, I was feeling pretty calm about the impending long journey home. Now I’m wondering if we’ll even make it to the start line. Since arriving back in Alsace from our Belgian trip, the count-down to our departure home has begun. It’s been a bit emotional, but until yesterday I was still feeling pretty confident that I could pull off this return journey.

I’ve scheduled on the calendar all the tasks to be done to get us out the door, packed tight into the Peugeot and on our way to the airport to return the car and catch the flight. Tyre exchange booked-in to swap the snow tyres for the originals: check. Children registered for after-school care on departure day: check. Unwanted clothes and toys dropped off at second-hand store and “new” toys purchased there for the aeroplane journey: done. “Merci” cards acquired for writing messages of thanks: in train. I was working my way through the list and thought I had pretty much everything covered.

But what I haven’t counted on is snow. Lots of it.

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It started off as rain on Sunday night, but by yesterday morning a thick blanket of white lay over Geishouse. It was still snowing heavily as I worked my way around the car with the broom. I had the engine running in an attempt to de-ice the front and back windscreens, and the headlights were giving me some illumination in the pre-dawn light. I felt pressure to get down the hill because it was my turn to do the car pooling and I knew there would be two children waiting for me in the car park in Thann in just over half an hour.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

So I welcomed the arrival on the scene of our neighbour, wielding his big snow shovel, come to dig me a path out of the parking spot. The snowplough had just been past and left a mini-wall on each side in its wake that needed to be removed for me to reverse out. I was hopeful the snowplough’s recent passage would clear our way along the mountain road, but with the snowfall so rapid, a fresh cover of white already lay over the street ahead.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

I went through my plan in my mind. I’d done the maths on revs and gears with my engineer dad. “Get into second gear,” I said to myself “and ensure at least a 18km/hour speed up the hill to get up the incline.” Our chalet is connected to the main route down into the valley by a narrow road that winds itself around the internal cleft in the mountain in which Geishouse is nestled. This road begins with an uphill rise that I’d never really noticed before the first significant snowfalls. I’d had trouble at this spot the previous time it had snowed like this, loosing speed, accelerating at the wrong moment, careening into the banked up snow on the side of the road. I’d managed to free myself but it had been disturbing. So yesterday morning I approached the incline with resolution.

“No! Not again!”

Despite my technically perfect plan, the execution failed. Again I lost speed and the power drained from the engine in that deadening diesel way. I stalled. And try as I might, I could not regain traction on the snowy road. We were stuck. With Delphine whimpering in the backseat, I had to react fast. “OK, Silas,” I said calmly, “You need to run back and get Monsieur. Explain that mama est coincée dans la rue.” I waited. The window wipers rhythmically batting away the snow. The engine revving as I kept on trying to gather forward momentum.

A friendly face appeared at the window:

“Merci Monsieur!” I exclaimed in relief “I don’t know how this happened, again. I stayed in second like everyone said. Would you be able to drive us out?”

“I’m happy to try Madame, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to succeed either.”

I moved to the passenger seat and let this veteran of decades of mountain living take over behind the wheel.

Putting the car into first, he applied his foot to the accelerator with a fortitude I’d never have dared. We shot forward through the dark. Engine growling. Up, up and up to the flat.

“You just have to give it a bit of juice” he said as he stepped out of the car to let me take over.

We made it down to school to drop off Silas but the journey home with a sick Delphine in the backseat was sobering. Even more snow had fallen and, for the first time, I slid on the main route. The snowplough couldn’t keep up. Even the main route at the top was becoming snow-logged.

I knew I’d exhausted my driving ability. I’d need help to go and get Silas. In the end, in my neighbour’s absence, another Geishouse local came to our aid and drove me in our car down the hill. It was enlightening when he too almost stalled on the same part of the road that had been my undoing in the morning. “When it snows like this,” he explained, “everyone finds driving difficult.”

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

I felt both better and worse. It wasn’t just me! But equally, what will happen if it snows like this the day of our departure in just two days time? How will I get us all safely to the bottom of the mountain if I encounter just the same scenario as the frightful morning I’d just experienced.

It snowed for the rest of the day and the night. After his impressive performance saving us that morning, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my neighbour pull in at around 8pm. He’d done in the dark and in more snow the drive I hadn’t been willing to attempt in the daylight.

“Bonsoir Madame” he greeted me when I popped my head out the door to give my thanks again for his help that morning. “I wouldn’t try going down the mountain tomorrow. Best to stay at home.”

When I expressed my concerns about my impending departure and fears for getting down the mountain, he responded with his usual “bah,” “I will help you. Please don’t concern yourself, Madame.”

This morning, the day dawned clear. A celestial sky presided over a magical white fairyland. Presented with such uplifting beauty, I feel almost able to share his confidence that my concerns are unnecessary and that all will be well. But I’m keeping a close eye on the weather report, just in case.

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Taking my two brussel sprouts to Belgium

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I’m writing this blog with a mug of Australian roasted coffee and a Mary’s Belgian chocolate by my side. We’ve just arrived back “home” in Geishouse and I’ve been trying to make sense of the last few days. Oddly enough, this pick-me-up combination seems to have hit the spot – in both ways.

Through school connections, we’ve made friends with two Belgian-based families: one we’d met at the French school in Canberra where Silas first went and the second through the Steiner school where he now goes. As luck would have it, both families just happened to be in Brussels at the same moment in time. The French-school family had just returned from their Canberra posting and were re-installing themselves in Brussels and the Steiner school family were on a brief visit home to check-in with grand-parents. We caught the Steiner school family just the day before they left. What were the odds?

The journey into Belgium had been illuminating. As we crossed what I supposed to be the border – hard to tell these days when there are no customs crossings – we were greeted by tall metal sentinels.

“Look!” said Delphine “Wind blowers!”

Although it’s kind of the reverse, I got her meaning – wind turbines. Huge, up close and serious.

What was also serious was the speed that drivers were now going at. They whizzed passed me in the fast lane at well above the speed limit. When I momentarily dared to venture, through necessity, into the inside lane to allow a car to merge, I was immediately flashed at by angry headlights. “Well, I’m not in Alsace anymore,” I thought with chagrin.

But our Belgian dad and daughter met us warmly at the large museum complex known as the Musée de cinquantenaire. I never succeeded in correctly pronouncing this but I did succeed in eventually tracking them down at the right museum in this grand building that houses several.

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As we sat eating our lunch in the café, I was bemused to notice the difference context makes. Whereas in Australia our children spoke with each other in English, here, at the dining table it was a purely French experience. I smiled to see Silas launching into the conversation in French, not at all intimidated to be talking to someone’s father in another language, just keen to be part of the interaction. It was also a pleasure to see this family in their own home environment – subtly more assured and at ease as they relaxed a little more deeply into their chairs.

We parted with les bises and a “à la semaine prochaine!” Odd to think that when we do indeed see each other next week, it will be in the dry heat of a Canberra school playground.

But it was snow on the ground that met us at the home of our second family. They’re in the process of settling back into their Belgian lives after a four year posting in Canberra. Exchanging the big blue sky of Australia for the clouds and rain of a Belgian winter had been tough. But Belgium has other benefits for families: a strong health service and one of the best education systems in Europe. We had a brief glimpse of this as we tagged along for the school pick-up and heard about the children’s school-day: the hot lunch had been pretty good, it was fun to start learning Dutch (one of the three official languages of Belgium alongside French and German) but the paved-over playground was a bit of a disappointment after the wide ovals of Aussie schools.

It was a delight to watch our combined five children playing together in the rare snowfall in the garden. It gave time for the parents to discuss world affairs. We’d both just traversed from one side of it to the other, and there were so many contrasts to make. Immigration: Australians are very concerned, but in a borderless Europe the numbers here are of an order of magnitude greater. Environment: Europe is trying to come up with ways to measure the emissions of all the products we consume, in Australia we’ve signed up to the lowest possible emissions target. Politics: all leaders are struggling with the challenge of staying in touch with everyday people’s concerns while they put in place measures to address complicated problems that are difficult to explain.

After dinner that night, as we sat sipping the last of the excellent French Burgundy, deep in conversation, it was hard to know just where I was. I could hear our happy troop of multi-nationality children playing upstairs. Yesterday I’d been in France, today I’d travelled through Luxembourg to arrive into Belgium. Tonight I was dining with good friends in the centre of Brussels, chatting about her day at work in the European Union.

As my dad says, these days our bodies can travel faster than our brains can catch up. I could definitely feel the lag. But I was also so glad I’d made the 5.5 hour driving effort to see these friends on their home turf. I’ve experienced them in a subtly different way. All of them, more masters of their own domain. Or perhaps it was me. This time, meeting them, I was the one dislocated from my normal surroundings. But either way, our friendship now seems more balanced. And when we video-call them to keep in touch from the other end of the earth, I’ll be able to see them in their more rounded reality despite the flat-screen.

My run-in with the Swiss Gendarme

Last weekend we went on a road trip to visit my cousin and her family who live near Geneva. It’s a little over a 3 hour drive from here “Just the same as from Canberra to Sydney,” I reassured myself.

But the journey did not begin well. After picking up Silas from school, I went to tap the address into the GPS: “aucune adresse trouvée” replied Henriette. Hmmm, I tried several different approaches. Nothing. She refused to recognise the street name. The best we could do was the suburb. So, conscious of the passing time and the plan to arrive for dinner, I decided to get going in the hope that the closer we came to our destination, the more accurate Henriette would become.

Delphine slept at the beginning but at about 1 hour in, the screaming began. I don’t need to go into the causes. Suffice to say it was with frayed nerves that we rolled into the rest station for a toilet stop and another go at finding my cousin’s address in the GPS. Again, nothing. So I tried to call my cousin. The phone system didn’t recognise the number. I tried to text. My darn phone would only send as an iMessage and I didn’t have wi-fi. We trooped into the rest station in the hunt for a public phone. Nothing. The wi-fi promised by the rest stop came up on my phone as “internet not available.” At least the toilets were open.

With rising desperation, I approached the kind-looking lady behind the boulangerie counter. “Is there a public phone around here?” I asked in French “No. Not any more,” she replied. I explained my dilemma. She looked at my two little children and the worn expression on my face. “You can use ours,” she offered. I accepted with deep gratitude, the call went through and I wrote down a bunch of hand-written directions.

Feeling on slightly firmer ground, we marched back to the car and were just buckling on our belts when they appeared. Two blue-uniformed Swiss gendarmes.

“Bonjour. Where are you from?”

Somewhat surprised and a little nervous I explained my complicated origins: from Australia but living in France for a couple of months and now in Switzerland for the weekend to visit my cousin in Geneva.

“Do you realise you have been using the Swiss autoroutes?”

Flash of memory: two and a half years ago, transiting through Switzerland to France, we had had to buy a yearly pass to be able to travel the Swiss autoroutes.

I felt a tide of emotion rise up and over me. I didn’t even try to stop the tear that welled in my eye and started to run down my face.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I stammered “I like to be a law-abiding person, and I’ve just realised what I’ve done.”

I had completely forgotten that in Switzerland you have to buy an annual autoroute pass before travelling on the country’s freeways. Even if just for a couple of days.

“In France you pay as you go.” I explained. “But of course I know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

“And now, I’m sorry for being so emotional” I was starting to lose it a bit by now “But this has been such a tough trip: my daughter’s been screaming for half an hour, we can’t find my cousin’s address in this stupid GPS and my mobile just won’t work here.”

His facial expression started to soften as he watched this woman – probably almost twice his age – fall apart in front of him.

“OK. I can see it was an honest mistake. So I won’t charge you the 200 Swiss franc fine. But you do need to buy a pass just inside the rest stop here. We’ll go help you do that and then we’ll see what we can do about that GPS.”

Back in we went: me, my two children and our Swiss gendarme guard. Under their watchful, but kindly eye, I duly bought my autoroute pass. We returned to the car, where he affixed it in the centre of the windscreen and then sat down in the passenger seat to poke around at the GPS with me. His partner started trying to find the address on her phone. No luck there either. It’s when I spied the street name finally pop up on his phone that I saw the problem. There was a preposition “du” in the version we had but not in the google map street name. Once I tapped in the name without this errant “du,” Henriette became compliant.

It had taken one Australian and two Swiss Gendarmes to solve the problem. They sent us off with a friendly wave and good wishes for a pleasant stay in Switzerland.

From an encounter that had begun with official displeasure at presumed free-riding, we had ended as a convivial band of problem solvers with the joint mission of getting this waylaid family of Australians back on route.

Contrition on my part: comprehension and compassion on theirs. If only all tangles could be resolved so satisfyingly.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

The fullness of four

Robert arrived on Christmas eve into an airport bubbling with the joy of families and lovers reuniting. The emotion was too much for Delphine who, at the sight of her much-awaited dada, collapsed prostrate on the floor. With the writhing weight of a three-year old between us and a seven-year old skipping excitedly at his side, there wasn’t much room for husband and wife to tenderly reunite. I envied the lovers; eyes just for each other as they moved together for a welcoming embrace.

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But who could feel melancholy for long in the company of two such jubilant children, and a father thrilled to be in their midst. I herded the joyous trio to the car, installed Robert in the front passenger seat with a welcome bretzel to nibble and navigated our way out through the milling holiday traffic of the airport carpark and onto the highway.

Finally cruising freely, I could begin to notice the changes around me. Our Peugeot, always compact, had never seemed small before. But now it felt filled to its four corners with human life. Then, as we entered our little Alsacian chalet home, I felts its dimensions shifting around me to accommodate this much-awaited visitor. The ceiling in the living-dining seemed a little lower, the seldom-used coffee table and couches was now a playspace for dad and kids, my bedroom – formerly a solitary and minimally furnished space – became a room for two: a spread of other clothes on the bed, and a book and glass of water on the far bedside table.

Later that evening, sitting in church for the Christmas eve carol service, we were specially welcomed by the Pasteur as “la famille Waites” – her warm words then repeated to the congregation in English by an American parishioner who welcomed “the Waites’ from Australia.” I felt like the Royal Family. Another difference. In all the previous Sundays, I had been the Australian woman sitting at the back keeping her eye on her two young children playing in the corner. Now we were a family of four filling a pew.

At dinner on Christmas night, we lit the four candles in our Advent couronne for the last time. This year the fourth candle had had a double significance: the usual one of marking the last Sunday in Advent meaning that Christmas is imminent, and also, this year, the fourth Sunday candle-lighting moment had meant “dada arrives tomorrow!” So on this Christmas night, here was another difference: as I looked up from my plate of bûche de Noël Christmas cake, I no longer saw a vacant fourth chair opposite, but my husband’s face.

Just one person more, but we’ve gone from the lightness of three to the fullness of four. We no longer feel like a parent and two young children cast adrift from accustomed shores and on a sometimes precarious adventure. Instead, I feel the familiar moorings that hold our family in safe harbours.

So this is a time of restoration, a chance to replenish energy, before we say farewell to our fellow traveller in just a few days time. I will make the most of this chance to share the load of parenting. I will savour the moments where I can step back and watch my children from the middle distance, knowing that their dad has got them covered at close proximity. I will perhaps even appear in a photo. But more than all this, I will relish the rare opportunity to ponder, with an immediacy previously denied, the wonder of our experiences here with my fellow traveller for life.