Living Abroad: The Evolution of Holiday Menu Planning

Growing up in Canada, our Christmas dining festivities would start with a Christmas Eve tourtière (meat pie). For the actual day of Christmas, I’ve always thought of our dinner as fairly classic. We had the turkey, dressing/stuffing, potatoes, Brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes etc followed by an array of desserts. For us, it was normally Nanaimo bars  and a version of trifle my mum made based on the ones she had growing up in the U.K.  When my aunt married into a Ukrainian family, we HAPPILY added his mother’s amazing cabbage rolls to the menu. Did it traditionally fit with turkey and the trimmings? Not really. Did we care? Not at all.  They were delicious and a culturally important addition to the family.

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My own version of tourtière made at high altitude one Christmas in the French Alps

Since then, I have moved around the world and experienced first hand the role food memories play in people’s lives. If I taste a Nanaimo bar, I think of Canada. Fish and chips takes me mentally to England. Paris Brest sees me walking down memory lane in France. Food is important to our memories and most importantly, it helps us feel connected to the past.

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Paris Brest, I love you!! 

Our very first Christmas in Paris saw me panic a bit at the thought of the large shellfish dinner that is traditionally held on Christmas eve. I’m allergic to shellfish so this new tradition posed a problem for me. Instead, we embraced the addition of caviar, smoked salmon, plenty of champagne and the Bûche de Noël (aka Yule Log cake).

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Fish and Chips make me long for the U.K….

When we are lucky enough to return to my husband’s native England for Christmas, a personal highlight is celebrating Danish Christmas with his brother and family! I wouldn’t dare attempt to replicate my Danish sister-in-law’s cooking but I can assure you, that Risalamande (the best rice pudding I’ve EVER had with warm cherry sauce that is actually eaten as part of a game) and the browned sugared potatoes are both part of my Christmas flavour memories now.

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Risalamande – and I won the prize. Again. Sorry!

If you’ve stuck with me this long you will start to see my Christmas flavours and ideal menu have not stopped growing!  Each taste represents happy memories in my life and makes me think of the people I’ve been lucky enough to call family and/or friends over the years. In 2015, we relocated to Switzerland and saw the heavy introduction of cheese in both raclette and fondue format at Christmas time!  In addition to cheese, we’ve embraced panettone in our household as staple during the holidays!

 

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Bûche de Noël – Yule Log

So, what is an internationally-confused menu planner supposed to do?! In a world without calories my perfect Christmas would include tourtière, panettone, turkey and all the trimmings, brown Danish sugared potatoes, fondue, Cabbage rolls, smoked salmon and caviar, Nanaimo bars, trifle, risalamande and a bûche de Noël…all washed down with a few glasses of champagne! Phew! I’m not sure I could manage that! (Don’t even get me started on the challenges presented by living internationally with trying to locate and buy 90% of the items on my Christmas menu wish list!!!) 

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that we have decided when we spend Christmases here in Switzerland, we will continue with the fondue-inspired meal. It’s how we celebrate Swissmas. This doesn’t mean we don’t miss all those wonderful flavours, we just keep them as happy memories, locked in our hearts, until the years when we are able to travel for the holidays.

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Swissmas Fondue dinner – 2016

 

This year, no matter where you are in the world, if you sit down for a holiday meal of some sort, think about how your family’s menu evolved. How have you chosen certain items over others? Who do the dishes remind you of? These same thoughts can be applied to many different cultures, but I can’t speak for others…only for myself. As long as my mouth isn’t too full 😉

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart – StockphotoVideo – Kalim – cynoclub 

 

Looking for Early Skiing in Europe – Try Glacier 3000 in Switzerland

On your marks, get set, SKI!

It’s that exciting time of year when skiers and snowboarders begin the process of ‘hurry up and wait’ for the winter season to commence. If you are desperate for some early ski season action, look no further than Glacier 3000 in Switzerland. Located at 3000m/10,000ft, the glacier has one of the longest ski season in Europe and will be opening THIS weekend: 28th October, to be exact!

Glacier 3000 is situated 7 minutes away from the Swiss town of Les Diablerets (a firm favourite on this blog), 90 minutes from Geneva international airport and is accessible by train, car and bus. What are you waiting for? Let the pictures speak for themselves…I see that 50cm/20inches of fresh powder fell this week!

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Enough snow for you? Photo credit: Glacier 3000
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Snow, snow everywhere…  Photo credit: Glacier 3000

 

So, who’s ready to hit the slopes this weekend? I know I am…!

 

Photos: banner – Jennifer Hart, Glacier 3000 original source click here

Why Hygge Should Be More Than A Trend

Though there are many ways to describe hygge, we see it simply as the Danish ritual of enjoying life’s simple pleasures. Friends. Family. Graciousness. Contentment. Good feelings. A warm glow. Certainly, hygge is intrinsic to the Danish lifestyle, but this feeling of well-being, so deeply satisfying and cozy, is something we all experience, each in our own way. 

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I feel blessed in so many ways that I often find myself thinking “what would my life be like without all of different these people in it?” Growing up in a small town in Canada, my mother and three of my grandparents were all foreigners. I think this influenced me to both crave exploring the world myself and cultivate relationships from people of varied backgrounds.

My sister-in-law is Danish and I accept this does NOT make me an expert on the cultural word of the moment, hygge (pronounced “HUE-gah”) , it DOES mean I have watched, learned and embraced what she has shown me over the last 12 years. She presented me last year with a book on hygge and I’d like to take a few moments to discuss why this Danish custom, in so many ways, should be how we embrace life and not just a passing trend.

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Swiss-infused hygge with a slice of Bündner Nusstorte, a roaring fire and a cup of tea in my husband’s London 2012 mug! (for the Bündner Nusstorte recipe link click here)

Hygge began to noticeably gain non-Danish popularity a few winters ago. A quick search on Pinterest will garner thousands of results, normally photos of a warm winter scene with hot drinks, animals, soft lighting and books. With its focus on a cosy and present lifestyle, I can see why people have begun to gravitate towards it. Well-being is something we often overlook to a fault in our modern, busy lives. We are always plugged in, switched on and overly stimulated.  We take our coffees to go, eat in our cars and read books on screens (OK, full disclosure, I do this too even when I’m in hygge-mode).  All this rushing but for what purpose? Is it making us happier? When do we make time for ourselves? To nourish our souls and bodies as they should be?

Hygge is not so much a word as it is actions and feelings: switch off your phone, put comfortable and cozy clothing on, light some candles, light a fire, grab a blanket and book and relax.  We need to take time for ourselves to reconnect with our deep emotions and push out the intrusions of daily life. Take a moment to sit and truly enjoy a hot drink with a piece of cake or pastry without guilt.

If you still struggle with what hygge would mean for you, think of it as taking time to not only ignore push notifications, but to not receive any in the first place.  Why do we feel guilty when we switch off our phones?  Why must we make dramatic announcements about how we are leaving social media to be happier? We should be able to do these things without explanation. That is hygge to me.

We should all thank the Danish for putting into writing the very thing we all need to be doing!

Now go turn your phone off and put the kettle on!

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit:  Fotolia – Alena Ozerova, Jennifer Hart

Living Abroad: The Problem With “Best and Worst Expat Locations” Lists

“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson

I read a post recently that was making the rounds on Facebook about how awful life is in Switzerland for foreigners. This wasn’t, sadly, a shocking post for me to read as I have come across too many of these to count over the last 5 years relating to Switzerland and internationals living/working here. Depending on your life, you may or may not be aware that international/expat-focused websites, as well as reputable news agencies, love to publish annual lists entitled something akin to ‘Best and Worst Places for Expats To Live’. These lists often accompany anecdotal ‘evidence’ positioned as truthful information to support whatever their survey monkey results found. There are some disturbingly common themes in these types of articles and I’d like to confront them head on.  I am a FIRM believer that your experiences living abroad are highly influenced by your own actions and when I come across something along these lines that continues to perpetuate the idea that one person’s take on a short-term assignment abroad will speak true for 100% of the people that move there, I get frustrated, sad and angry.

Switzerland is the fifth country I have lived in. It is not perfect but it has been my favourite place to call home.  It trumps Canada, where I was born, England where, you know, fish and chips are available ALL THE TIME, France where the Eiffel Tower makes every picture look better and the USA where I learned about deep fried cheese curds. It is better than all of that (to me) but it wasn’t Switzerland that made that so, I also had a hand in making this the best place for me.

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This is not the worst country in the world to live…

So, if everything is so great for me in Switzerland, why does it pale in comparison to somewhere like Singapore that often tops the Best lists, or at least rounds out the top 3? Well, it’s easy. Comparing a country like Switzerland where someone will relocate and live in a local community, immersed in a culture and language they don’t know, is unfair vis-a-vis countries like Singapore where people are relocated to a prefabricated community compound. You cannot, and should not, compare the two. Relocating to a compound gives you ready-made friends, already international in nature and most likely aware your arrival is imminent. These pre-fab friends come with insider knowledge that helps you to avoid the pitfalls of international relocation that befall many of us. I have seen Facebook status updates from friends that received welcome gifts from their new Irish neighbours in Malaysia and a welcome basket waiting at the home for friends relocating to Dubai. Whilst we didn’t experience any of that, we did get an offer to use pots and pans from our Swiss German neighbour in case we hadn’t unpacked them yet…same-same but different?!

Now, I’m not about to fall into the trap of saying one is harder than the other and that ALL people that relocate to Asia move to prefabs and that ALL people that relocate to Europe do it solo because it just isn’t true. Local-base relocations are not harder, they are just different and that difference is never accounted for in the Best and Worst lists. Local moves do require more effort to break into a community because you are unlikely to spend your time living on the outside of local life. At some point you must integrate and there in lies the problem with comparisons. When you move somewhere where you know you will never blend in, you give up the hopes of that and settle fully into international/expat life. Expat parties. Expat friends. Expat schools. Expat life. When you move somewhere and WANT to fit in, you are swiftly and painfully confronted with the realisation of how hard it is to make friends as an adult. I have discussed my own failings on this topic here.

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I was definitely lonely at times in Paris…having a dog helped that 🙂

So before you move abroad and before you trash another country online, take a moment to get to know yourself because you will make or break your stay in many many ways. Yes, the culture may not be ‘you’ in the end but there are always silver linings and ways to make things work. Knowing what you are willing do beforehand will help you out. I repeat: You MUST know yourself before you accept a local life assignment abroad. Are you a go-getter? Are you willing to put in hours of effort to make a social life? Are you willing to do EVERYTHING to make your new life work? Or, will you arrive and complain then send an angry article off to be published about how crappy life is abroad? Will you blame the locals for not falling at your feet to become friends with you? Will you expect them to wake up one day and think ‘omg  is that a new American neighbour I see?! We must become best friends!’ (this won’t happen). If you aren’t a go-getter, perhaps think twice before accepting a local-based assignment. Try somewhere that will put you on a compound or near one so your lifestyle won’t change much, just the scenery.

International/expat life is not easy, even though it looks quite glamorous. It has changed me in every single way and I’m forever grateful. However, that change comes from the hard times that challenge you. Expat lists mean nothing about how you will respond to a place, trust me.

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‘Hello, WISCONSIN!’ My old home where almost 20 years later, I still am in touch with most of the amazing friends I made there.

Alas, I leave you with some Forrest Gump mama-style wisdom. Life is like a box of chocolates, it is true. But are you going to be the kind of person that throws the whole box out just because the strawberry creams are hiding in there somewhere or are you going to give it another chance in the hopes that you come across a little slice of heaven? I know what I would do…

 

 

Photo credit: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

 

 

 

 

Living Abroad: Grief, loss and living far away from ‘home’

Ask anyone living away from their family and/or homeland what weighs heavily on their minds and you will often hear such things as:

-missing out on family events
-not being there for weddings, births, graduations, first steps, etc
-not feeling connected enough to friends and family ‘back home’

Yet, there is one, often unspoken topic that comes to mind too quickly for those of us that have moved thousands of miles from home. We don’t talk about it much but it is there, hovering like a dark cloud, and it remains present from the moment we are first offered or choose to move far away: What if something bad happens?

I know this question is not unique to expats/internationals, but when you have thousands and thousands of miles placed between you and the ones you love, this question can seem unbearable.  In fact, many people have reported to me over the years that they didn’t take an international assignment because of this one very thought. What if something bad happens? 

I can’t say I’ve reconciled this question for myself other than to say I try not to focus on it.  That doesn’t always work and this past August we were smacked in the face with grief as my father-in-law ended his year long battle with pancreatic cancer. We traveled unexpectedly to my husband’s passport country which thankfully, isn’t as far as mine.  The pain of the last 15 years of my husband being abroad surged through his heart…should he have moved overseas? Would he have had more time with his father? Did he miss out on too much? Guilt. Anger. Pain. Upset. Real life.  These are not easy moments in our lives and the impact of realising your what if has become a reality brings a lot of the early emotions of moving abroad to the surface again.

Despite the emotional doubts, my husband can take solace in the fact that his father was beyond proud of his achievements and the life he made for himself abroad.  We met many wonderful people that told us how he often boasted about his children and they knew we lived in Switzerland, loved to ski, etc. To us, that meant that even if we weren’t physically present all the time, we had presence in my father-in-law’s life. It is important to remain attached and communicative with those left behind when we move.  A simple text, phone call, email of photos, social media tag, etc. These are the things that help us pick up where we left off on our next visit. When you only see friends and family once year or more, you have to fill the void with information and tales of your real life. If that gap grows too big, you can feel a painful distance begin to grow, one which is hard to close.

When someone’s life comes to an end, no matter if you lived next door or ten thousand miles away, you will realise there was simply never enough time. Grief does not have a fixed address.

 

 

Photo: Fotolia

 

 

 

The Dog Days of Summer at Dog Beach in San Vincenzo, Italy

As many of you know, I am a big ‘dog person‘ and my beloved Labrador, Leni, is one of the most spoiled dogs around. He has a passport, has travelled overseas and, quite possibly, has been to more countries than many adults. I am always conscious of choosing a vacation that will meet his needs and not see him left for hours at a time while we head off for fun.  So, with this in mind, imagine my absolute delight when I was organising our first trip to San Vincenzo, Italy and I came across the Dog Beach website. Could it be true? Could we really take our water-loving Lab to the beach with us in Italy? It seemed like a clear win-win for our entire family…and off we went!

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Found it!!

Dog Beach is located on the Mediterranean coastline of the western Tuscan region of Italy. Just south of the major port city of Livorno, Dog Beach lies on the pristine sandy outskirts of the town of San Vincenzo where the summer days are sunny, hot and long! A trip to the beach for you and your furry friend are practically what the doctor would order as a cure.

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Dog days of summer?!

Dog Beach is accessible off the main road, with limited free and abundant paid parking nearby. There is a small entrance fee for your dog, which helps pay for the facilities and a vet available in case of emergency. Dogs run around primarily off the leash but if your Fido isn’t very friendly, you might want to consider keeping him/her on a leash.  Sun beds, chairs and umbrellas are all available for rent.

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As if all of this wasn’t enough, we were delighted when a guy came by on a 4 wheeler selling gelato (ice cream).  It was only once I approached and asked him what flavours he had did he surprise me with “is it for you or for your dog?”  Yes, they sold all the wonderful flavours one would expect from Italian gelato, and similar dog-safe versions. Our dog consumed his pineapple and ginseng one too fast for me to get a decent photo but as you can imagine, he was thrilled.

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Dog-friendly gelato, devoured in about 30 seconds…!

If you find yourself wondering where to go this summer and don’t want to leave your four-legged friend at home, I highly recommend the San Vincenzo region, with daily trips to the Dog Beach.

Good to know:

-Shower/wash stations are available for spraying down your dog at the end of the day. On our last trip, these cost 1€
-A small snack shop is located nearby with sandwiches and cold drinks for sale. Cash only
-there is a dog gift shop where you can buy toys for the beach for your dog, kids and different souvenirs
-if your dog has never been in salt water, watch his/her consumption. It can give some dogs an upset stomach, just be aware
-there is a free fresh water station for filling up your dog’s water bowl
-Bring cash with you as you will need it for everything and hard as I tried, I failed to locate a bank machine/ATM nearby

Most importantly, have fun!! Bring an extra towel or two…!!

 

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Dog Beach San Vincenzo

 

 

 

Dîner en Blanc Paris – 2017

I’m lucky and I know it.

I have to start there because I am fully aware that this particular night, in this particular city, draws a lot of ‘but how did you get invited?’ questions and comments. It seems part and parcel with the whole affair and trust me, I’d LOVE to bring everyone I know with me, but it just doesn’t work like that.

What am I referring to? Dîner en Blanc (White Dinner) in Paris.

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Cheers from Passerelle Debilly. Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2014.

I think it is important to tell my story on how I came to be invited to Dîner en Blanc in the first place.

Back in 2006, when I was still new to life in Paris, my new husband and I were out for an after dinner stroll through the streets of our arrondissement/neighbourhood. It was on this night that we stumbled across a large gathering of people dress immaculately, in all white, dining on prime rib, pastas, beautiful French confections, all the while sipping champagne from china flutes.

“What on earth was that?” I asked of my husband and he replied, “ah, that is the secret pop-up dinner called Dîner en Blanc. You have to be part of the who’s who of Paris to be invited.”

That crushed me. Couldn’t they just TELL I would bring the fun by merely inviting me? I spent the next few years in search of an invite or a connection to someone invited.

No. Such. Luck.

Fast forward to 2011, I had a client who was invited. I was excited for her but she flippantly said to me “I have to do this white thing tonight…how ghastly!” I wanted to scream I WILL GO IN YOUR PLACE but I held my cool. How was it she ended up being invited in her first year living in Paris when I had been trying for YEARS?!

So, I gave up. I really did. It wasn’t going to happen and I was just going to be jealous once a year of everyone having this magical night in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It hurt to give up but I surrendered to acknowledging I wasn’t one of the ‘who’s who’ of Paris.

Then, almost as soon as I gave up, I received a random email from someone I had worked with as a marathon training coach. We had a long history of random encounters, from running Santa Claus races in costume together to laughing about mutual friends at a pub night for something entirely different, so random was not new to our relationship. He asked me in a very convoluted manner if I was “in or out” for something happening in June 2013.

WHAT?

Yes of course I was in (I always dive head first).

I asked what it was and he laughed, “I will explain later but you are on the list!”

OMG I’m on a LIST! I did not care what list it was, it was all so secretive and exciting! My husband was more practical asking “what if you signed up to run a marathon you don’t know about??” I wouldn’t listen to him (or pretended not to panic would be more accurate).

Then the invite came. We were cordially invited to Dîner en Blanc 2013 – location and time TBA.

Oh. My. Goodness.

Since that fateful email, we have attend 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and now 2017. The evening never disappoints, no matter how much work it is to bring your dinner, table and chairs with you through Paris.

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Place Vendôme, Dîner en Blanc Paris, 2016

I believe part of the magic is still in the details, or lack therefore of. People have all kinds questions about it and I refuse to answer many but I will tell you this:

  1. It is true that the date and location are kept COMPLETELY SECRET to diners. We find out the date a few weeks before and the location only once our designated team leaders have taken us there. We meet first at another location and come together at the last minute to set up, sit down and pop some champagne
  2. In regards to how we coordinate everything if it is all so secretive, we receive a list entailing the exact size and shape of chairs/tables and what is expected of us as diners
  3. We are in charge of our space: that means we must bring our own garbage bags and help clean up after. We leave the location as we found it.
  4. The date changes yearly
  5. The Paris event is ‘almost’ free of charge (change in your wallet could cover your fees) but I have heard that other cities charge quite a hefty fee (could just be rumours…)
  6. It is absolutely as much fun as it looks
  7. We do not automatically receive invite benefits to pass along to other friends, family members, etc (I’m sorry!!!)

So, with that in mind, I leave you with some photos from this year’s event. If you ever find yourself receiving a strange email asking “are you in or out”, I implore you to find your wild side and see what might entail.

For me, this is always a highlight event of the year and I will never take that for granted!

See you in 2018 (date and location to be determined, of course!)

Photo Credit: Jennifer Hart