Who doesn’t love a parade?

4 Sep

4 September 2021.

Saturday morning and we were slow to start. Although I was up at 5:00 AM, the planned 08:40 departure came too fast. Lucky for us. Perhaps the universe was smiling on us.

We hit the trail from Grütschalp to Mürren, one of our favorite hikes. It’s easy and scenic. As we are in Switzerland earlier than we have ever been prior, we had hopes of seeing more cows in the high meadows, and maybe some cheese-making in progress. Also, since it is still summery, the wildflowers are still showing off and the grass is thick and abundant.

About the halfway point in our walk, I looked up to see this old girl emerging from her barn. Five minutes earlier we’d have missed it.

A man nearby asked his wife, “Do they do that every day for the walkers or is this something special?”

It is, indeed, special: The transhumance, or more whimsically, a Cow Parade. Each farm, or alp has to bring its animals from alpine meadows to valley quarters for the winter. It seems very early to start this (we saw parades in late September two years ago), but we were treated to the spectical today.

The cows surely know what is happening. Some are bedecked with flowery headgear, most wear the giant bells associated with the ascent in summer and descent in autumn. Giant, heavy, clanging bells. No cows shall be lost.

There was a lot of swirling, some recalcitrance, several of the girls loading up from the water trough before the forced march descending about 2500 feet. It seemed to me that several were reluctant to leave the alpine landscape. Perhaps they were dreading winter in the barn.

Glaciers and butterflies

31 Aug

1 September 2021.

So many tiny jewels in the high alpine area! Iridescent purple, bright orange, shiny black, brilliant white, delicate yellow, too small to capture with a point-and-shoot camera. Wildflowers persist even in late August above 6000 feet and the butterflies are playing amongst them doing their pollination magic. Even where there is little more than lichen clinging to rocks, minuscule blossoms persist at temps that makes us think October has arrived. 

The view from Spielboden, above Saas-Fee, altitude 8031 feet above sea level.

We took a hike we would not have taken had we known the reality. The online info said “Good for families! Tame marmots! Easy!” We queried the woman at the TI. “No, it’s not hard.” Maybe not for her but for a couple of flatlanders of a certain age group it was way beyond the usual easy-hiker style. In our book we rate hikes 1 to 3 and a “3” is not terribly difficult, just a little rocky, perhaps, longer with some extended uphill segments. Given our usual rating system, the hike we took to Spielboden was a 6!

We would have turned around part way up — where we had a delightful stop for coffee at a mountain restaurant — but we dreaded the impact a descent would have on our knees and hips so we persevered to reach the comfort of a ride down in a gondola. 

Below, scenes from our rest stop at Gletschergrotte.

We climbed 2200 feet according to Ric’s altimeter, encountered uncountable switchbacks, rocky footing, steep drop offs from narrow paths, and the supposed two-hour hike took us three. Boy were we proud of ourselves! And the marmots? They are in the last five minutes at the top of the trail. 

Fat marmot by the side of the trail. We didn’t bring any carrots or nuts.

Luckily, in typical European tradition, there was a restaurant at the top with great food and a perfect view to glaciers and many of the 4000 meter peaks that surround the Saas Valley. The butterflies, glaciers, and a fat marmot made up for the strenuous climb. 

Eye-level with the glacier.

We had hoped to find some easy hiker options in the Saas Valley, perhaps expand our Berner Oberland hiking book, but we only found one option in the past few days. It’s a lovely valley but it doesn’t offer the myriad options of the greater Jungfrau Region in the Berner Oberland. But the research  is fun!

A few more photos from our time in the Saas Valley.

Pizza Italia!
Sunday lunch starts with a beer.
Swiss restaurants have a check-in system to facilitate contact tracing.
Flower bedecked entrance, Saas-Almagell.
Swiss fixer-upper.

Hey Europe! We’re Back!

25 Aug

25 August 2021.

Pre-trip excitement was laced with anxiety as our departure approached. Ever-changing flights, rising COVID-19 cases, and shifting entry restrictions made the last few weeks agonizing. Would our flight leave? Would it change again? Would the countries allow us in without quarantining? Did I fill out all the right forms? 

What used to be a simple trip — showing up for the flight and flashing a passport at immigration control — has transformed into a game of “Who’s on First?” Flying into London without quarantine would require a pre-trip negative test, but Italy would require quarantine if we so much as passed airside at Heathrow, unless we had 14 days in a “safer” country before entering. Switzerland was fine with our stopping at Heathrow, but it would require three flights over 24 hours to get from PDX to Geneva. Three hops is, from prior experience, exhausting. Not interested. 

We settled on flying from Seattle to Frankfurt and spending a night before taking a train to Switzerland. Easy. Ha! One week before we were to fly, Germany declared the US a high risk country. Luckily, for the duly vaccinated, all we had to do was register our US vaccination status in a German government website which then spewed out a QR code and no quarantine was required. 

The Swiss also have a well-defined system for getting a so-called COVID Pass (also called a Green Pass or Pass Sanitaire or COVID Passport depending on the country) in the form of a QR code on our phones. We were able to apply to the Cantonal authority in Valais prior to travel, uploading our vaccination proof. In 48 hours we had our QR codes that are necessary for entering some stores and restaurants throughout the country. It is my understanding that the Swiss-issued QR code is valid throughout the European Union so may be usable in Italy and France as well. We shall see about that in the weeks to come.

Even immigration officers are confused. We flew into Frankfurt non-stop from Seattle and immigration scoffed at the Einreiseanmeldung forms we flashed with our passports. “You don’t need those. The US is not a risk country,” he said. Not to be argumentative with an immigration official, I joked that indeed the US was very dangerous and Germany has required these since August 15. One of his colleagues backed me up. After our passports were scanned and the officer was contemplating giving me the stamp while her cohort scanned Ric’s, I tried out my ancient and rusty university German, querying “All ist gut?” The immigration official who had scoffed at our forms replied, “All ist gut. You are not the criminals we are looking for.” Who knew German immigration had a sense of humor?

The flight from Seattle on Condor was only 20% full, much to our surprise. I have been tracking this flight for weeks to see if it was ever cancelled and it was not. There must be a lot of cargo business to allow a 767 to fly that route daily with so few passengers. Likewise, our train from Frankfurt to Bern was not full. The Hauptbahnhof was not as busy as we would expect on a business day at 0800, although I have read that Germany is thriving and people are working. Like in the US, WFH must be keeping the office workers cooped up. 

And so it begins. We will spend all of September in Switzerland, primarily in our home-away-from-home in Lauterbrunnen. We rent the same apartment every trip from a lovely British family (thanks James & Michelle!). We are so at home there we even store a Nespresso machine in their lockup. With a base camp established, we’ll take some overnight side trips to Kandersteg and Bettmeralp, and we will update our book, “Walking in Switzerland’s Berner Oberland” which was published just as COVID-19 started spreading in early 2020.

From Lauterbrunnen we can enter Italy without quarantine, unless something changes. The end of September we will go to our beloved Ortisei and the Alpe di Siusi. Inshallah we will also visit Paris and wrap up our trip with two weeks in England. Coming home just in time for Halloween.

We start, however, in the Saas Valley of Switzerland, a new-to-us and lesser-known area one valley over from Zermatt and the Matterhorn. Below, a few pictures from our first evening in Saas-Grund. We have never been in Switzerland this early in the summer. We usually arrive in mid-September. Thus the late summer gardens are flourishing (no drought here) and the evenings are milder. Outdoor dining is pleasant.

Stay tuned for updates!

Creative use for old hikers.
Whimsy in the garden. The Swiss are avid gardeners and each property is tidy and colorful.
The old buildings are preserved and used, creating texture and a sense of history.


Moving in the Time of COVID-19

12 Dec

One of these things is not like the other.

Chatsworth Circle

Francis Circle

Fir Ridge Road

Da Vinci Street

Kennedy Court

Via di Villa Emiliani

Via Ruggero Farro

Cascara Court

35th Avenue

Did you guess? 35th Avenue is our new, and rather boring-sounding, address. We have always lived on named streets, some rather colorful. How can you beat “Via di Villa Emiliani?” Yet here we are. You can choose a house but not your street name.

Despite the urban-esque sound, we reach our new digs by traveling through placid farms with the Coast Range looming in the near distance. Vast fields lay only a few meters from our house, no doubt to be filled with housing before another decade passes. We are at the western edge of the Portland Metroplex, up against wine country, barely an hour from the ocean and only 25 minutes from Derek. Yet our street is typical of an American suburb, perhaps one of the most classic suburban street scenes in which we have dwelled since we left Omaha in 1987.

I do love this tree in a park near our home.

Three of the old addresses were in condo-land and two were apartments – ruled by condo boards – in Italy. Now we are embracing a sweet Craftsman-style house on a small lot with a very private back garden that I intend to transform come springtime.

The workmanship is incredible. Reminiscent of a 1940s bungalow but with an open plan and the features desired in 21st Century living. Here is the jaw-dropping coda to this tale: it was built by high school students! Forest Grove H.S. has run the Viking Homes Program since 1975. (Ours is the 2010 home.)

Buying and selling in 2020 are like walking a highwire with people shooting at you. Houses in the Portland area practically sell before they are listed. (See Cambiamo Case. )

COVID-19 only adds another 1000 degrees of complexity. Spending on home-improvements makes the proverbial drunken-sailor (as in “spend like a”) look like Scrooge. Refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, ranges, and ovens are back-ordered for months. We used to waltz into Sears (R.I.P.) or Home Depot, order an appliance, and have it appear in a matter of 72 hours. We are back-ordered until January 13 for a washer/dryer. Six weeks of laundromat stretch before me like an endless wasteland.

Scheduling movers, handymen, or anything else has to be juggled against an out-of-control mortgage and title market. Title companies are overwhelmed as mortgage lenders feed them 4 times the cases they are expected to handle. (One agent told us an escrow officer usually gets 10 cases a day and now they each get 40!) Assessors in Lincoln County are so backed-up that lenders have to hire them from Portland to make the four-hour round-trip. Without going into an agonizing litany of all the delays, I’ll simply say it was a stressful period getting from the fast-sale in Lincoln City to occupancy of the new house in Forest Grove.

It was very unsettling having strangers in our home for packing. One mask-hole from the moving company required constant reminders to stay masked and was reported to the company as not welcome to handle the move-in end of the project. Ric and I had good KN-95 masks to help protect us. Doors and windows were wide open letting the house temp plummet into the mid-50s so fresh air circulated. We moved into a hotel to make the whole experience less stressful and provide us a place of refuge. Since we are now almost 3 weeks past packing day, we are breathing a sigh of relief as all other workers have only been in the house briefly.

The furniture arrived on December 4, preceded by two days of painting (not by us, by professionals) and having some handyman services performed. By the following Monday, we were largely settled and had a tower of recycling ready for the local waste management company. They’ll get another tower in two days as we have finished unpacking (mostly). As of our one-week-in-the-house benchmark, there is art on the walls and I know where almost everything has been stowed. We can find our way to the major services in Forest Grove without the satnav.

Moving is not for wimps. Moving in the Time of COVID is insane.

We are not quite done, but here is a first look.

Several readers have asked how the cats are doing. I am sad to tell you that Frankie & Esther had to go back to the shelter. When we evacuated for the fire, we could not lay our hands on the cats to secure them for evacuation, forcing us to leave them in the house alone for the time we were gone. That was frightening. If we could not evacuate them for their safety, how would we deal with taking them to the veterinarian? They were a year overdue on vaccinations as it was. We consulted with our vet, who advised these were not likely to become socialized cats. She encouraged us to return to sender, which required a tranquilizer, a difficult capture involving a pillowcase, and a 3-hour round trip to Florence. We will adopt again when the right cats are ready for us.

Cambiamo Case (Changing Houses)

20 Oct

20 October 2020.

Perhaps we are nomads after all. Our ten-year plan set in 2016 has been shortened by six years: we are leaving Lincoln City and returning to the greater Portland Metropolitan Area. Specifically, we just bought a house in Forest Grove, previously a small town on the edge of wine country and now the Western edge of the SMA.

Why?” you might ask. We do love the clean air, mild summer temps, and the low traffic of the coast (except for when the tourists flock in July and August and holiday weekends), but the pandemic and forest fire season gave us cause to reconsider where we live, the type of home we have, and what we do with our time. The evacuation during the Echo Mountain Fire was a bit unnerving.

Cascara Court (our current home) this spring. This is the front yard/garden. I’ve done what I can with it and it is quite nice.

Living two hours from our son and friends we have known for decades weighed heavily in the decision. We missed a summer of responsible socializing with Derek and said friends. There is little outdoor dining on the coast as it just is not warm enough for evening outdoor socializing. We had ONE NIGHT this summer where you could be outside without a jacket past 7:00 PM. ONE NIGHT and that was in September. 70 degree highs are great for hiking and gardening but do not lead to soft summer nights of barbecuing and lounging on the patio. We saw our son exactly once from mid-March to early September. Living closer gives us more opportunity to enjoy each other’s company.

Our time in Lincoln City caused me to rediscover my love of gardening. Not vegetables, mind you, but ornamentals, especially perennials. We reworked much of the landscaping on Cascara Court but as we are in a townhome with a small lot and a half-dozen 100-foot conifers providing dry shade, there was only so much to be done. I wanted a new space for my puttering.

Having sold Cascara Court in 13 days, we came to Portland to start house hunting yesterday. The market is moving so fast in the Metro area the houses are barely listed before they are gone. Last week I had 34 homes “favorited” on Redfin. By the time we met our realtor on Monday morning, many had already sold or had to be eliminated for a major flaw (no A/C, near a major highway, overlooking the MAX line) there were FIVE houses left to be toured. FIVE out of 34!

Long story short, we toured four houses, loved two, and made offers on those two. By 12:30 today, one offer had been accepted. Positive thoughts to the Universe, we will move in shortly after Thanksgiving. We are inheriting a lovely back garden with a fountain and space to entertain outdoors. The house is a Craftsman bungalow with impeccable attention to detail. When I have it all dolled up, you’ll see pictures. Below, two glimpses of where we are headed.

No grass grows under Barton feet.

Freestanding fireplace
Back garden with fountain
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