White Christmas Four thousand miles from home

By on December 26, 2012

If I had a Swiss franc for every time somebody asked me if I had seen snow before, I would have to stash it all away in a Swiss vault and access it only by a voice-activation code and a thumbprint scan.

Of course, all these queries were brought about by the onslaught of snow that arrived at the beginning of December. I’ve learned that when it snows in Switzerland, it snows a lot. It had snowed everyday for at least a week straight, layering the ground at one point with over a foot.

It may sound strange, but I have actually met people here who don’t like snow, skiing, chocolate, or even Swiss cheese, all things typical of Switzerland. Sure, I’m not that fond of the cheese either, but I absolutely love the snow, which makes this country one of the best places I could have chosen.

Although many people brave the freezing temperatures and the ice-covered streets to bike to where they need to go, I have opted for the safer and warmer option of riding the bus. With the beginning of winter, the schedule changed so that a bus comes every quarter hour in the mornings and evenings, something that I couldn’t even fathom happening in the U.S. It is very practical here.

With winter comes Christmas, and with Christmas comes many cultural differences.

I had assumed that, since the Swiss tend to listen to lots of American music, they would also know all of our traditional Christmas carols, but I was proved wrong when I found out that they only know a handful, like "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph." There are also Christmas songs that have simply been translated like "Silent Night" and "Joy to the World," but I honestly don’t hear as much Christmas music here as I did at home. They also have lots of German and Swiss-German songs that I’ve never heard before.

One of the strangest differences was that the Swiss celebrate the Advent, so one sees Advent calendars everywhere, and every Sunday in December my host family lit another candle to show that we were one week closer to Christmas.

As for Christmas trees, while I heard from my family at home that they had gotten their Christmas tree about a month ago, my host family waited until mere days before Christmas before buying one. I am used to big, bushy trees with really long needles, but ours is a lot thinner so that one could easily grab the trunk without even being pricked. I was astonished, however, when my family began to decorate it with real candles, but despite the dangers, it looks very beautiful.

My host mom, Mutti, as I now call her, spent many days baking Christmas cookies. They are all yummy, but they are different from what I am used to. I have grown up with really soft cookies with icing and tons of sugar, but these here are less sweet and they tend to be a little drier, some of them even tough or crunchy.

A typical way to celebrate Christmas here is to go to a Weihnachtsmarkt, a Christmas market. Every city in Switzerland has a little part set aside for pedestrians only and looks really old, and this is what they call the Altstadt (literally, old city). These cobblestone streets are sometimes enclosed by a castle-looking wall, and in December are lined with various stalls, all displaying different goods. It is best to go in the evening when all the Christmas lights are on, and if anyone gets really cold, they can buy a Bratwurst, which is comparable to the American hot dog, but it is a legitimate sausage that tastes a million times better.

I went to a couple of these markets and couldn’t believe how many people came to them. I loved the festive feel about them and how there wasn’t even a car in sight.

My school has let out for Christmas vacation, a wonderful, solid two weeks. My family doesn’t have any major traveling plans, but we will be doing the usual family reunions that come with the holidays. I admit that it will feel very odd to meet all the aunts, uncles and cousins who are not even related to me.

After asking me if I had seen snow before, people will often ask me if I miss my family at home. The truth is, yes. It is my very first Christmas away from home, and it’s always the little things like decorating the Christmas tree that give me a homesick pang.

That is all normal for an exchange student to feel, but that doesn’t stop me from thoroughly enjoying my time here. Every moment is special, and I can’t wait to tackle the next six months of my stay. More SWISS CHRISTMAS, page A3