A Swiss, French, and German Christmas

No, this isn’t the beginning of a cheesy dad joke. It’s where we spent our first Christmas living abroad! It was also our first trip since moving to Luxembourg longer than a weekend.

Our holiday started in the Berner Oberland region in Switzerland- a magical, mountainous place with picture perfect views everywhere you look. Shelby, Luna, and I drove from Luxembourg to the town of Grindelwald, about 30 minutes past Interlaken as you head up into the mountains. It was night when we drove into Switzerland, and while we had a strong feeling we were driving past some stunning sights, we couldn’t tell with certainty given how dark it was. It wasn’t until we woke up the next morning, excited as kids at Christmas to see the mountains, that we realized just how in the mountains we were. I could wake up to this view every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it.

On our first day we explored the charming towns of Grindelwald and Interlaken, soaking in the mountain views and fresh air, and searching for the restaurant at which Shelby was first introduced to the idea of eating applesauce with mac and cheese, called Älpler Makkaroni. We found it, and enjoyed a dinner of it with some locally brewed beer and lambic.

We spent the next two days in Switzerland hiking, exploring, and enjoying the snow. First, we took the cable car from Gindelwald up to do the First Cliff Walk. On any other day, this would have offered breathtaking views of the Alps, but it was a blizzard at the summit and the walk was closed, so instead we spent the day hiking down the mountain, stopping for hot chocolate and fries along the way.

Our last day in Switzerland was the most magical. We drove to Lauterbrunnen and rode the cable car to Gimmelwald, a traffic-free village hugging a steep cliff that drops off into the Lauterbrunnen valley with a population of just over 100. It felt like stepping into a winter fairy tale. The ground was covered in snow, it was snowing heavily, there were very few people in sight, and we were able to wander through the village with its charming buildings, stopping to take a picture every few feet. People would occasionally ski past us, zig-zagging between the homes down to the cable car to ride it back up to the top of the mountain, as we meandered through the snowy village. We were surrounded by mountains so tall that you had to crane your neck just to see the top of them. We hiked from Gimmelwald to Mürren, another small village at the foot of the Shilthorn peak. Mürren was a bit bigger and more touristy than Gimmelwald, but had all the charm of a quaint Swiss mountain village. After stopping for a snack, we hiked on to Grütschalp where we caught the cable car back down into the valley.

As our time in Switzerland came to a close, we packed up our stuff and headed north to the Alsace region in France. There were a few things immediately apparent about this region: there’s a strong German influence that can be seen in the names of places and in the architecture of homes and buildings, and they LOVE Christmas. Alternating between German and French control over the past few centuries has resulted in a region that, as our AirBnb hosts put it, has the best of both worlds– ranging from cuisine to traffic laws. We stayed in a sleepy little town called Schwindratzheim, which put us in close proximity to a healthy combination of outdoor and city activities. We celebrated Christmas Eve with the Rusk family tradition of making Mexican food (which we miss SO much from the US), and Christmas day with a traditional meal of ham, potatoes, vegetables, and homemade gluwein. This was the first Christmas away from family and with just the three of us. We reflected on our time in Europe thus far, the adventures we’ve been having, and on the new traditions we’re starting as a family. We also thought forward about what we want to accomplish with this incredible opportunity we have to be living here, which won’t last forever.

The rest of the trip was a combination of hiking, sightseeing, and city-exploring. We walked through Strasbourg with its endless Christmas lights and dominating Gothic-style cathedral, wandered the streets of Colmar with its architecture that feels plucked straight from medieval times, hiked the dense Petite Pierre Forest, and drove through the Black Forest in Germany from Baden-Baden to Triburg, stopping at Lake Mummelsee and Allerheiligen Wasserfälle. In Triburg we had dinner family-style at a big table with six people we’d never met. Five of them spoke zero English, while one spoke some English and engaged with us all dinner. Our dinners took the longest to arrive, so one of them shared their pizza with us because we looked like we had “good appetites.” It was an endearing peak in a cultural norm that we are not used to: sharing dinner and conversation with complete strangers. The Black Forest and warmth of its people reminded us of home, and left us making plans to come back in future years.

While the holidays this year were different without family, friends, and what we’re used to from back home, they were magical and full of good memories.

-Neal

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