Archive | July, 2014

Hiking in Switzerland

hiking in switzerland - dirty boots

I went on my first Swiss hike Saturday morning.  And I liked it.

Hiking in Switzerland is something of an obsession. Young people do it. Older people do it. Seeing someone 20 years older than I am moving up a steep grade at a high altitude is, I must say, quite impressive. And they do it in all kinds of weather.

The Swiss football team finished third in the World Cup this year, and Swiss hockey players are beginning to be noticed in the NHL, but hiking enjoys a place in Swiss life that nothing else can match.

I thought it was time for me to give it a go.

I think I liked my first hike because hiking takes advantage of my strengths – endurance, persistence, and a willingness to keep putting one foot in front of the other, no matter what. Hiking – like running, which is another activity I enjoyed for more than 30 years – requires no particular athletic gifts. If you can walk, you can hike.

My first hike was not particularly challenging. I took a train to Zurich very early on Saturday morning, and then a tram ride to the top of a nearby mountain. For the next two and a half hours I walked at what for me is quite a fast pace along a high ridge that lies along Lake Zurich. I took a couple of water breaks along the way but, as with all of the marathons I have run, I kept going while I drank. I occasionally saw benches, but didn’t see the point. I was there to walk, after all, not sit.

The path was well marked and even, I would say, well manicured. Clearly there are people who work hard to maintain the hiking trails around here. I have been told that that’s true throughout Switzerland.

By mid-morning I reached my village, and I was tired, a good and familiar feeling.

A couple of years ago I heard a lecture by a young woman who has hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail several times. She is what is known as a “through walker,” meaning that she covers the entire 2,179.1 miles (3,506.9 kilometers) in a single effort, while most tackle the trail in short distances.

Even though she has written a book about her experience, I was surprised by the lack of spiritual reflection. Her talk covered mostly the cost and logistics and inevitable blisters. I expected more.

As I walked, I thought a lot and noticed things. As with my racing, I monitored my heart rate and kept track of joint and muscle fatigue. But I had time to reflect on the day and the startlingly good gift I have been given to be able to do such a thing.

I prayed too. Mostly my prayer was a thanksgiving for just about everything in my life. But my prayer was also full of Gaza, Syria, Ukraine, and more. I listened for what God might say to me, and I think I may have heard a whisper.

I will have to go again and listen more carefully.

hiking in switzerland3

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Yesterday was tomorrow today

Gestern war Heute Morgen

Please forgive me for this one.

I shouldn’t learn my German from advertising, but advertising is all around, even in Switzerland. And so, it seems, is this sign: Gestern war Morgen Heute (yesterday was tomorrow today).

I think I’ve seen a variation too: Morgen ist Heute Gestern (tomorrow is today yesterday). And maybe there is still another: Heute ist Gestern Morgen.

No, that last one can’t be right. Or can it? I don’t know anymore.

The words have become like an old song that I can’t seem to get out of my head.

I think it’s time to set aside language learning for a few days. Or weeks.

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From a broken home…

brocki haus1

Over the last few months I’ve done my best to introduce you to my new village with stops at city hall (where, for tax reasons, I proudly declared my Protestant faith), the garage (with the impressive wine chiller in the waiting area), and most recently the recycling center (which, I now know, should not be visited on Saturday morning, if at all possible).

Today’s destination is the Brockenhaus!

To my English-speaking friends, this might sound like a sad and depressing pastoral visit, but the broken home in Switzerland – known by most people simply as “the Brocki” – is actually a second-hand or re-sale shop.  When people move and, yes, break up their households, many of these people give their unwanted household items to the Brocki for resale. Every village seems to have one.

And since the Swiss themselves – cultural stereotype alert – prefer to buy items that are new and expensive, the Brocki is frequented mostly by expats like me, looking to buy a chair for the balcony, or a set of wine glasses, or just about anything else imaginable.

I am not a shopper, so visits to the Brocki have been painful, but even I can grudgingly admit that we have found some great deals there. And maybe the best part is that we have contributed to the work of non-profits in our area.

In 1904, on the initiative of local merchant Dr. h.c. Arnold Scherrer, the first Brocki in Zurich was established, with a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi on its board of directors. The actual history of the Brocki is somewhat murky to me, but at some point the Salvation Army also became involved, and so some Brockis today are non-profit and charitably run, while others aren’t.

As a preacher I can find spiritual significance just about anywhere, including the Brocki.

By nature I am not a saver. When something is old or broken or has otherwise outlived its usefulness, my first inclination is to throw it away. I tend not to be sentimental about stuff. Please don’t judge.

Fortunately, I believe in a God who by nature is very much a saver, who is strangely attracted to the old and broken and useless, and who can find a new and dazzling use for just about anything. In fact, I like to think of the church, at its best, as a Brocki, not because anyone is for sale, but because the people there are no longer new and in pristine condition, but nevertheless have worth and value and purpose.

I look forward to going to the Brocki on Sunday – not the one I can see from my window, which will be closed, but the one in Zurich with the pulpit in front and the organ in back. We’ll be remembering the worthiness in us that only God can see.

Brocki haus

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School’s out for summer – finally


The school year is different here, as is most everything about life in Switzerland.

By my crude calculations, Swiss students have as many days of school each year as students in the U.S., but vacations are distributed very differently.

Take summer, for example. There is an extended break here, but only if by “extended” you mean a month. And that month officially started this week.

A few of the international schools around Zurich try to adhere to the U.S. school schedule, but most students toil away at their studies until the middle of July. And by the middle of August they will all be back at it.

I learned all of this the hard way last night. I hurried over from the train station and found that the door to my language school was locked. I even sat on the steps for a while, thinking that the door might still open. (I must still be new here because the idea that a Swiss school might open a few minutes late is laughably funny.)

Had I been 10 years old, I can imagine that not having a class last night would have been indescribably good news. I would have let out a shout that could have been heard for, uh, several kilometers all around.

Last night, though, sitting there on the steps with my book bag, I actually felt sad.

Don’t get me wrong. I am glad to be finished with exams, term papers, thesis projects, and the like. I hope I have taken my last standardized test. But I think of myself as a lifelong learner. I read, for example, I am learning a new language, and I am getting ready to teach an adult class in the fall on the relationship between faith and science, which involves a surprising amount of study.

So, I am still very much a student. And I find, as I get older, that the desire to know more, learn more, understand more, doesn’t diminish. It grows. In fact, I feel an urgency about it today that I never felt when I was that 10 year old who was so happy for summer vacation to begin.

These days I am acutely aware that time is running out, that the list of books I want to read is getting longer not shorter, that there is still so much I want to know. I never realized before what a gift it is to be able to learn.

I will definitely use my summer break to work on my German grammar.

(Photo: That’s the Kantonsschule Stadelhofen, one of Zurich’s many schools, which I walk by every morning on my way to the church office.)

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Saturday fun at the Gemeindesammelstelle


“Doug, tell us about the recycling situation over there in … uh, where do you live?”*

I live in Switzerland, a country that is sometimes confused with Sweden (which is well north of here) and even Swaziland (which is well south). Mail intended for me from senders in the U.S. has gone to both places, a story I’ll tell in another blog post.

But back to recycling.

As it turns out, the community recycling center (known here as the “Gemeindesammelstelle,” a good example of why German-speaking people will never win at Scrabble) is a busy place on Saturday morning.

I went today with a large carpet remnant that – how should I put it? – no longer fits our design needs. I loaded it into the back of our Volvo station wagon and drove over.

Surprisingly, I had to wait in a long line, with the car engine switched off, but was eventually allowed in. I parked and carried the remnant over to a scale and learned that leaving the remnant in the capable hands of the Gemeindesamm…I mean, community recycling center, would cost me eleven Swiss francs and some change.

Just to fill in the blanks about recycling, I take our glass and cans each week to a long row of containers next to the train station, and there I sort the glass – green, brown, clear, etc. Happily, this doesn’t cost me anything and has become a satisfying weekly ritual. What can’t be recycled goes into special bags we buy at the grocery store, and then a tag is affixed to the bag before it’s tossed into the waste container.

To sum up, then, recycling is a priority here. And the Swiss appear happy to do it. The results, after all, can be seen everywhere. It’s a clean, attractive country. The air, water, and land are testimonies to what can happen when a high value is placed on – well, clean air, water, and land.

I was asked recently by some youth at the church if it was true, as they have heard, that when Americans throw something away they simply roll down their car windows and toss it out.

To answer I used a response that I’ve had to cultivate because of similar questions about guns, politicians who are actually proud of never taking a science class, etc. I say, “Well, it’s complicated.”

*A question I have never been asked.


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Should there be a “mercy rule” in football?

the two popes (I posted this first to my Facebook page and started such a good conversation that I decided to post it here as well. The photo shows the two popes deep in prayer about, I’m sure, the upcoming match on Sunday night, and Francis looks a lot more confident than Benedict.)

I watched it, and I enjoyed it. I admit it.

I hurried home last night from – ironically – a meeting at church and turned on the television just in time to see Germany score its second goal in the World Cup semi-final match with Brazil.

I didn’t intend to watch more, because it was late and I had to get up early, but then I saw the Germans score another goal. And then another. And another. And soon the match was out of reach.

But still I couldn’t look away.

Was that a grown man weeping on the sidelines? Yes! Obviously I would have to stay up and watch the entire second half too. I wanted to see more weeping Brazilians.

Which raises the question: Should there be a ‘mercy rule’ in football?

When my daughters played the sport years ago, I seem to remember something called a ‘mercy rule.’ If the other team had a 10-goal lead, or whatever, the game was over. Or maybe they just stopped keeping score. In any case, there was this rule, which grew out of a sense of decency and fair play and sportsmanship.

I once broke my arm in a high school football game (the other kind of football) and ran off the field, thinking I was done for the day and possibly for the season. But my coach, apparently not seeing the odd way my wrist was dangling off the end of my arm, sent me back on the field. When I failed to make a tackle on the very next play, he took me out – not because of my badly broken arm, but because of my ineffectiveness on the previous play.

So, the lessons I learned playing sports didn’t have much to do with team work and the value of practice and so on. The lessons I learned had much more to do with winning – winning as impressively as possible and even winning at any cost.

There’s a shadow side to sports, and I felt it last night.

I watched not because the game was so good – it wasn’t – but because it was so awful that I couldn’t look away.

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A little cross-cultural stereotyping

Swiss cultural stereotypes

You would think that cultural stereotyping would be a problem for a multi-cultural church. And you would be wrong.

The truth is, we kind of like doing it. And we do it a lot.

I’ve been wondering why a church that is as racially and ethnically diverse as any in the world does so well at being the church, and I don’t yet have anything like a definitive answer, but I am a little intrigued by how many assumptions we make about each other and how much fun it (usually) is.

Just to give a definition to what I’m talking about, stereotyping occurs when we make generalizations about groups or classes of people: Fire fighters, for example, are courageous. Everyone knows that. Blonds, on the other hand, are less intelligent than the rest of the population. Everyone seems to know that too. Italians, meanwhile, are loud. Or great lovers, if you ask them.

Fun, right? And mostly it is, until the generalization begins to feel uncomfortable. My blog post soon after my arrival about how the Swiss are überpünktlich (over punctual) might have been a bit too soon. They are, but maybe I should have waited a while before commenting about it.

How American of me.

I’ve never been so self-conscious about being American, and mostly I’m self-conscious because I fit the stereotype of Americans so well. I’m very friendly and outgoing when I meet someone new, for example, which tends to make the Swiss feel cautious and suspicious. I know now that they see me as superficial and disingenuous, although secretly they would like to be more like me.

And then there’s my Dutch connection. My grandparents were born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the U.S. at least a hundred years ago. I have Dutch features and a Dutch name, I look like someone from a Frans Hals (or Adriaen Brouwer) painting, even though I am a thoroughly assimilated U.S. citizen.

Still, I see myself in the Dutch. I am tall and sturdy (I was taught to say “big boned”). I love tulips and that cheese with an unpronounceable name (never say “goo-dah” to the Dutch). I own a pair of wooden shoes, and like most Dutch I own an impressive bicycle (designed, I’m sure, by leading scientists and made of space-age materials) that never leaves the shed.

And I haven’t even gotten to the Chinese, Koreans, Indians, South Africans, Germans, British, Swiss, and a host of others – how others see them, and (more scary) how they see me.

We do this regularly and often, this game of stereotyping, and mostly I think it’s harmless fun. We seem to learn about each other by making jokes and teasing each other. We seem to know, at least I hope we do, that it’s all in good fun, that there are many exceptions to the “rules,” and that most generalizations are also exaggerations.

And then there are times when I think maybe we have gone too far, that we have had a laugh at the expense of another, that our humor has become hurtful. But those times seem few and far between.

Mostly – I would say miraculously – we get along.

(Photo: We might call that a cultural stereotype, but a positive one. )


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Notes about the expat life


Where are you from? I remember when that was a simple, straight-forward question.

For most of my life I could hold up my right hand and point to a place on my palm, because Michigan – well, the lower peninsula – is shaped like a mitten. Everyone from Michigan would know exactly where I was from. The southwest corner of the state, of course.

When I ask where someone is from today, there’s no telling what I might hear.

At a youth group event last Friday night, we played a game which required us to divide into four teams, and so we divided up by continents and passports. People with passports from Asian countries were on one team, people with passports from African countries were on another, etc. I played for the American team.

On my team, for example, was a young man who was born in Paraguay, lives currently in Switzerland, but has a U.S. passport.  Poor kid, except, as it turns out, that’s not such an unusual story.

Youth groups always find a way to leave someone feeling left out, and Friday night that person was the lonely, left-out teenager with an Australian passport. I forget now which team she joined, but trauma was avoided and everything turned out all right.

But there we were, with all of our cultural stereotypes on full display. The Americans and Asians fought hard to win, as though the World Cup itself was at stake, while the Africans and Europeans talked among themselves, ate the snacks, and appeared to have a good time.

Speaking of the World Cup, where are these guys from? Does anyone even care? The player who kicked the winning goal for Switzerland a few nights ago is Albanian. The coach of the U.S. team is German. Cristiano Ronaldo, one of the best players in the world today, is Portuguese but plays for Real Madrid, a Spanish team.

I want the U.S. team to do well of course, though it was clear (I thought) when we played the German team that we are not yet among the elite teams in the world. And because I’m living in Switzerland, this tiny land of only eight million people, I find myself cheering for the Swiss team too. (The whole country goes nuts when they win.) And surprisingly, I also feel a tiny bit of allegiance to the team from the Netherlands. Go orange!

So, where are you from?

I told the youth group Friday night – during the “let’s all be serious now and talk about our faith” portion of the evening – that these days we need to think more deeply than ever before about our identity. We are more than our passports tell us about ourselves.

For me, I told the youth, that means being a child of God. I have been baptized. I have an identity that transcends nationalities and languages and skin colors and even World Cup teams.

I know where I am from.

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