“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Perfecting Cheese Fondue

Cheese. Where do I even begin to explain my love for cheese!? At this point in my life, I think I would give up almost all other foods if I could live on cheese and not look like big old Brie! So, it should come as no surprise that life in Paris was pretty chock-full of cheese samples. I discovered new and amazing ones that I had never heard of before like Vacherin Mont d’Or. I also discovered some that even I couldn’t wrap my cheese-loving taste buds around (sorry to my beloved Kiwi and the ‘farm cheese’ she introduced me to). Then we relocated to Switzerland and the cheese boat I was cruising along got a welcome shake up. New names, new textures and new tastes…oh my!

So here we are. Knee deep into our new life in Switzerland where the nights are getting colder, the fireplace has been on a few times already and in this part of the world, the cheese sections at the markets and grocery stores have quadrupled in size.  I kid you not, on the first of October every store turned into an enabler for cheese-addicts everywhere. Fondue pots. Raclette machines. Recipes.  Samples. Pre-mixed cheese blends. Offers to discover for free ‘your perfect fondue blend’ screaming at me. MY PERFECT BLEND??? I couldn’t live another day without knowing what that meant! I NEEDED to know what my perfect blend was! Thus, I didn’t just dabble into this new Swiss world of fondue, I leapt. Head first. With a crusty baguette and fork in hand!

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Fondue pots on sale at the local post office!

I can now say after much consideration that I am a classic “moitié-moitié” person – half Gruyère AOP and half Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP. BLISS!

Such the fan that I have become, I have been perfecting making fondue moitié-moitié at home. The juniors and Mr H have not complained once 😉 Quelle surprise!  Thus I give you my person, and my perfect version, of moitié-moitié.

Setting up for a 9 person fondue party chez nous!
Setting up for a 9 person fondue party chez nous!

Cheese Fondue moitié-moitié

Serves 4

  • 400 grams of Gruyère AOP, grated
  • 400 grams of Vacherin Fribourgeois AOP, grated
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 300- 400 ml dry white wine (or you can use vegetable stock, alcohol-free wine, water or a mix of wine and other depending on your preferences)
  • 15g/1tbsp fécule (potato flour)
  • nutmeg
  • pepper
  • kirsch, optional (I prefer cherry)
  • day old baguette

Rub your fondue pot all over with the garlic clove. This seasons the pot lightly and is a step heaped in tradition which is considered crucial here in Switzerland. What you do with the clove after is up to you. You can either finely mince it up with a knife or a garlic press and use it in your fondue or leave it out. I use it. Life without garlic makes zero sense to me.

Next, mix your cheese and potato flour together in the pot. Add 300ml of the wine/stock and garlic, if using, and heat over a medium temperature (save the extra liquid to thin out your mixture if it is too thick). STIR CONSTANTLY. This doesn’t mean leave it for 10 mins and stir it. It means constantly. It doesn’t take long to melt down so don’t worry about hours spent slaving over the hob. Once the cheese has started to melt, I add pepper and nutmeg to taste. When all the ingredients have come together to form an amazing pot of melted bliss, add the shot of kirsch, stir and serve.

Now, fondue isn’t just dip bread and eat. You must know that you will have to stir constantly with a spatula throughout your meal. There are some social taboos on this, the one we have seen most consistently is to stir in a figure 8 pattern. NEVER stir when someone has their bread dipped, this is considered rude. One person dips at a time and doesn’t eat off of the long for but rather, slides their gooey cheesy bread onto their plate and eats with their own fork. Don’t double-dip. Ever.

Can you taste it?
Can you taste it?

Some household rules we have adopted include:

  • giving a kiss to someone at the table if you drop your bread into the pot
  • le coup du milieu which is basically a shot of kirsch taken at the midpoint (yes, a shot) to help aid the digestion of the cheese
  • the egg – before the fondue has melted all the way down to the bottom of the pot, crack in an egg and stir. It thins out the mixture, extends the life a bit and gives a new flavour boost to the mixture
  • la religieuse – I feel like my life wasn’t complete until I discovered la religieuse (translated into nun in English but let’s ignore that). At the end of the meal, 99% of the time when you have finished all the amazing fondue you are left with a golden brown crust. DO NOT THROW THIS OUT or pour water all over to soak it off. Instead, carefully, using just a normal butter knife or something similar, try to pry this off the bottom of the pan. You are left with a salty, crispy treat that ends the meal in a perfect way! YUM!
  • I serve with pickles/gherkins (not the sweet kind), a VERY large salad with vinaigrette and my family likes a plate of charcuterie such as salami, cured hams, etc. I don’t partake in that but to each their own!

So, that’s it. It isn’t complicated but it IS delicious!! Feel free to adapt and play with the recipe. That’s part of the fun here! Remember, though, this is a very heavy meal. It is rarely finished with dessert other than some fresh fruit or something else very light. Please, no chocolate fondue to finish the night off. Swiss heads would roll!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Céleri Rémoulade

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.

– Julia Child

When I first arrived in France, I had a pretty solid background in cooking. I was a fan of a wide array of foods and wasn’t what one would consider ‘fussy’ when it came to eating. Thank you, Paris, for ruining that! OK, OK that isn’t 100% accurate but it is based in a lot of truth. So many things taste inherently better here and for that I bring your attention back to the Julia Child quote above.  Like Ms. Child, I strongly believe that meals made with real, quality, fresh ingredients taste much better than those made from what I like to call Frankenfoods – foods dreamt up by chemists, not Mother Nature.

After my son was born, I quickly enrolled in a programme that brings you a different mixed organic panier (basket) of fresh fruits and vegetables every week. I registered our family for the 7kg box and delighted each week in picking up the panier and discovering what was inside. No two baskets were ever the same as the contents were all farm-fresh and based on seasonal availabilities. It is here where I received my first céleri-rave (celeriac) and boy did that throw me for a curve! I was quite honestly stumped by this knobby, white-ish, brown-ish, lumpy ball in my basket. I had to resort to Google to figure out what it was as the paniers never came with a list, just a box full of surprises that Forrest Gump’s mama would have been proud of. Somehow the search results didn’t help me understand this crazy little root vegetable any better.

So there I was, a celeriac in hand and no idea what to do with it. Many recipes online suggested to try making it into something that resembled mashed potatoes. That is what I did and having tried it,  I do not recommend it. First, little miss celeriac-novice here must have totally screwed up because I basically made mush, not mash. Second, I have discovered celeriac is SO MUCH BETTER and is worthy of dignified recipes that reach far beyond the depths of mash.

On one particular night out, Mr H and I went to this amazing little historic brasserie called Le Stella. Listed on the entrées menu (appetisers) was this curious-sounding dish called Céleri Rémoulade. It was described as an egg, celeriac and dijon mustard salad. Intrigued by the celeriac I had so clearly failed with before, I gave it a chance. That was about 6 years ago and I’ve been giving it a chance ever since! To say I fell in love with céleri rémoulade is an understatement. It is very basic but works so well on so many levels. Serve it as a side dish, a salad, an appetiser, etc. This isn’t complicated cooking but it IS well-worth it! I have tried several recipes/versions over the years and this is my particular blend and obviously my favourite!

Céleri Rémoulade

Serving sizes are hard to determine based on what you will be using this for but the good news is this makes a lot and lasts for several days in the fridge!

  • One celeriac
  • 2 egg yolks** (3 if your celeriac is large)
  • 250ml/1 cup quality extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons/15-30ml of quality dijon mustard (more or less if you prefer – also use more if your celeriac is large)
  • vinegar
  • lemon
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Directions:

Start with the best ingredients your budget allows for. A quality mustard and oil will taste so much better and really enhance the flavour of this dish.  You will need to peel your celeriac. For this I like to cut it in half to create flat surfaces then slowly cut the outer peel off with a sharp knife. Take your time doing this if you are a kitchen newbie.

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Gather all your ingredients together before you start, makes it less stressful and you won’t have a shock 3/4 of the way through that you are out of something!
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Carefully cut the celeriac in half to create flat surfaces for peeling.

Next peel your celeriac and then, if you are using a hand grater, begin to grate. If you have  food processor,  into smaller chunks that will easily grate.

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Cutting into smaller, more manageable pieces makes it easier for your food processor to handle.
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Weeeee!!!!!

Set aside your grated celeriac for a couple minutes. You can, if you want, toss in some lemon juice to stop from browning but if you work fast enough, that isn’t necessary.

You might notice at this point the sauce you are making is like a dijon-heavy, lemon-y mayonnaise. You would be correct. If the idea of using raw eggs scares you or you are too afraid to make your mayonnaise, you CAN use a store-bought version. Please make sure it is real, quality mayo and not something with the word “Whip” in the name! Substitute the mayo (about 250ml/1 cup) for the egg and oil, add the rest of the ingredients.

Begin by separating your eggs and adding the yolks to a bowl big enough to whisk in (don’t toss the egg whites out, you can store them in the fridge and add to an omelette, etc.). Add the dijon mustard, salt and pepper and start to whisk. Now, slowly, and I do mean slowly,begin to add the olive oil by drizzling in while you continue to whisk. Keep going until all the oil has been added. At this point, I squeeze in a lemon wedge or two to add some liquid and thin it out a bit. If I am I craving an acidic taste, I will also add about a teaspoon (5ml) of white vinegar. If necessary, add more salt and pepper to taste. You want a creamy, mayonnaise-like texture. Fluffy and creamy. Those are your keywords.

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Egg yolks and dijon
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Slowly add the olive oil by drizzling in while you whisk.
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Adding a touch of vinegar gives the sauce/mayonnaise a slightly more acidic taste that I happen to love!

All that is left to do at this point is mix the celeriac and sauce, then place in the refrigerator for a couple of hours to marinade. Serve with salad greens, tomatoes, parsley, you name it. This is a versatile and yummy side dish or appetiser that will please you way more than celeriac mush. I promise!!

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Mix, mix, mix!! I add small amounts of celeriac at a time. This way I don’t run out of sauce vs. how much celeriac I grated. You can always add more, you can’t take away!!!
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Mixed and ready to chill!
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Enjoy!!

**PLEASE NOTE: I am compelled to remind you that choosing to eat raw egg yolks is just that, YOUR choice. As a blogger, I am not responsible for your choice and assume no subsequent liability.

Photos: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

The problem with the Eiffel Tower has nothing to do WITH the tower

“Paris is always a good idea.”

                -Audrey Hepburn

Oh Paris, you big, beautiful, dog poo-filled, angry, luxurious beast, you sure know how to steal a girl’s heart! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I never really wanted to move here. I didn’t have that ‘Paris thing’ that so many women around the world seem to have. If Pinterest was available years ago before I moved here, I would not have had a board dedicated to a future trip to Paris or memes with the above quote by the amazing Audrey Hepburn. It was pretty, it was French but it wasn’t me and it definitely didn’t seem like a good idea.

Then I moved here and I’ll admit it, there is this certain tower here that still makes me smile even after 10 years.  Especially when it twinkles at night and I drive past on my scooter. Amazing!

However, this wouldn’t be a blog about ACTUAL life in Paris if it didn’t include a controversial conversation around the Eiffel Tower.  You see, there is this idea out there (and thank you, Sex and the City for perpetuating this) that Parisians merely roll their eyes at the ‘intolerable’ structure. That they barely cope with that monstrosity imposing itself on the city and despite it being the most photographed landmark in the world, they would tear it down in a heartbeat. To this, I say, yeah right…and derive much pleasure from. It is understood that to be French somehow also means to control your emotions, never discuss things in the positive and to basically act blasé about life. It’s apparently tough to be French and even harder to be Parisian, and boy oh boy do they show that in their daily life! In 2013 even the commerce minister urged Parisians to be nicer to tourists, much to the smug chagrin of many expats I know. Obviously there are lovely exceptions to this rule, but it is indeed ‘a thing’ I’ve been learning to navigate for the last decade and nothing, absolutely NOTHING, demonstrates the negative, blasé attitude to me better than the Eiffel Tower. In fact, this attitude has even trickled down into the behaviours of a particular group of people that drive me nuts in Paris: the Parisian-wannabe tour guides. To be clear, I am not a tourist-hating resident of Paris but I do have a particular disdain for pretentious and contrived tour guides.  Notably ones not Paris (or even France)-born.

Case and point: the other day I was out for a run with a wonderful friend at the Champ-de-Mars, the big park that encircles the Eiffel Tower, and I came face to face with a perfect example of such a tour guide.  As we passed an English-speaking tour guide discussing the tower he said, to a group who looked drunk on happiness staring up in awe, “It really is quite ugly and to be Parisian means you must hate it!” Everyone laughed, albeit awkwardly, but I cringed. What? Who was he to tell tourists that have probably dreamed of this moment for years and saved their money that they can either remain ‘not Parisian’ and continue taking selfies or become Parisian and hate it. These people paid to be told to  wipe that “omigosh I can’t believe I’m here by the EIFFEL TOWER” smile off their faces otherwise someone might think they are a tourist! Apparently the world now has two types of travellers: Type 1) tourists and Type 2) people who are not from a place, do not speak the language, do not know the culture and yet by adopting a crappy attitude are clearly not tourists and somehow miraculously better.

To that type of tour guide, perpetuating the snobbery and negativity, I say “stop!”.  The tower is beautiful and it in and of itself is NOT the problem. What is represents (love, Paris, magic, romance, etc) isn’t even the problem. The problem is HOW it is represented. To be fair, it is just a structure made of nuts, bolts, electricity and iron like many other structures in the world. Yet this particular structure has been relentlessly promoted via media, television, film, music videos and has been used to sell paraphernalia around the world for years. Yet, just as foreigners that have yet to see it in person continue to fall in love with it, Parisians are simultaneously taught to hate, loathe and resent it. How are these two ideas ever supposed to live in harmony as tourists flock to it and Parisians allegedly run from it? I think we need a start-over.

To tourists, types one and two, I say travel is built from a dream so continue to hold onto the Eiffel Tower. It’s worth it. To the locals, try to embrace it a bit more. That tower is a cash-cow for France and who are we to crush someone’s dreams? Without dreams, what do we have? Also, as a point of practicality, it is quite difficult to avoid the Eiffel Tower if you live in the île-de-France region so save your stress and at the very least, adopt a neutral outlook. To the tour guides who fake snobbery to be cool, get over it and yourself. I bet you have selfies stashed on your phone of the tower somewhere before you decided to emulate Parisian blasé.

Have I met Parisians who proclaim to hate the Tower? Oh heck to the yes!! (But did I believe them?? Not for a second!)

I leave you with a collection of photos from my life here in Paris and that big, old structure:

Pre-La Parisienne running race 2013
Cheers! Dîner en Blanc 2014
Cheers! Dîner en Blanc 2014
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Walking along the Champ-de-Mars
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Soccer chicks LOVE the Tower!
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A personal favourite, yours truly exhausted after 25KM marathon training run!
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Even my dog smiles for the Eiffel Tower!

Photos: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

“A Table!” Lessons in Expat Cooking – Soupe à l’oignon gratinée

I’m just someone who likes cooking and for whom sharing food is a form of expression.

– Maya Angelou

What fun is life as an expat if you don’t indulge in the local cuisine? Before I jump into any recipes, I want to share with you my history with cooking and where my love of trying new ideas comes from. In thinking back to the start of my culinary ride, I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t cook. Sure I have had cooking fails over the years but I truly feel like my hands have been in the kitchen my entire life. I learned to make pretty complicated things at a young age (yes Dad, I’m referring to ‘could you whip up a lasagna for tonight?’ at 10 years old).  I learned kids basics, too: soup, Kraft Dinner (mac ‘n cheese for my American friends), pancakes, pizza dough, etc. I was always interested in what was going on in our kitchen. I tried some pretty fancy things, too, including learning how to make chocolate éclairs with my amazing Aunt H when I was still a kid. All of these early kitchen moments still stay with me and are quite noticeably tied to my life as a mother of two youngsters who both love to cook, as well.

In 1996 I registered to become a Chef Apprentice under the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities. This programme has changed since then but it still operates in a fairly similar fashion. As an apprentice, you must complete around 3000 hours of on-the-job training, working with various chefs, then complete the programme at a designated college or university. I can honestly say that what I learned in that time has stayed with me far longer than a lot of other things I learned in school (Pythagorean’s Theorem, anyone?). I worked professionally for several years before putting my culinary life behind me. I started to dislike cooking. I found myself frustrated by intricate dishes and wanted comfort foods. I lost my cooking mojo and it stayed lost for many years.

In time, I began a new journey. A journey that has landed me here, in what many consider, the culinary capital of the world. Paris has been an interesting place to live as far as dining, cooking and food exploration is concerned. I have learned to give green beans a chance. I have learned about the different butters that exists and how to use them in pretty much everything. I have learned to make things like Coq au vin, Charlotte aux Fraises and ratatouille (recipes coming in time). Yet, I came here with some classics already in my pocket and have learned that sometimes, I like MY version better! Take for instance the timeless soupe à l’oignon gratinée aka French Onion Soup. One of my absolute favourite dishes especially when I am on a ski holiday in the Alps. Nothing is better at warming you up on a cold winter day, except maybe fondue!! However, I have been routinely disappointed in actual restaurants here with their soup. I even complained in a famous Parisian restaurant once about it being too watery to which my polite French waitress replied, “but madame, there is water in soup!”

So, it seemed fitting to me when I decided I would incorporate local dishes in this blog (hungry adventurers have to eat!) that I would start with one of my favourites: soupe à l’oignon gratinée. This recipe is my own take on this soup and you don’t have to agree with how I make it. It’s OK. All I can say is that boy oh boy does this version ever do the trick for me!

**Please do not attempt this soup at 6pm hoping to eat it for 6:30pm. She needs time to really develop her flavours and to rush it would be a sin.  I generally make mine in the afternoon then turn off the heat, cover and let it sit for the rest of the day. I reheat just in time for dinner then add the cheese and bread. At this point, this dish is complete perfection.

Soupe à l’oignon gratinée:

Makes 4 – 6 servings depending on your bowl and appetite size

  • 700g thinly sliced onions (I use a mix of yellow and red to enhance the flavour)
  • 2 cloves of garlic finely diced
  • 30g flour (optional – just makes it slightly less watery)
  • 1-1,5L beef, chicken or vegetable stock (for a veggie-friendly version)
  • 100ml red wine
  • 5ml or 1tsp thyme
  • 30ml or 2tbs Worcestershire sauce (there are vegan versions if you prefer)
  • 1 bay leaf
  • unsalted butter
  • salt and pepper
  • stale bread (day old baguette is perfect)
  • Grated cheese (I use a mixture of Emmental, Gruyère and Comté)

Directions:

Melt butter in a pot over medium heat. Add onions and begin to simmer, stirring frequently for about 10 minutes. You want them soft, translucent and slightly caramelised. Add the garlic, stir, then add flour and quickly stir again to coat the onions, not allowing it to stick to the bottom of the pot. Once all the onions are coated, add your wine and thyme (oooh a rhyme!). Stir again for a minute or so. At this point, at the remaining ingredients (stock, Worcestershire sauce, bay leaf and pepper, leaving the salt out for now). Leave simmering for at least 30 minutes. Watch your liquid level doesn’t boil off too much, if needed you can add some more stock or water. When you are done you can either leave it to settle for a while like I do or move onto the next step: CHEESE AND BREAD!

Simmering away!
Simmering away!

You can accomplish this next step one of two ways: traditionally the soup is served into each bowl, topped with slices or chunks of stale bread, further topped with mounds of cheese then broiled to a crisp, salty, golden, cheesy perfection. However, not everyone HAS the right types of bowls for the oven so there is an alternate method. Get a cookie sheet and make little piles of bread topped with cheese for however many bowls of soup you are preparing. Make sure that they will fit into your bowl size after being in the oven otherwise you will create a big mess. Broil these bad boys then use a spatula to carefully transfer them on top of your soup! Voilà!

Parfait!
Parfait!

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Fotolia

Living Abroad: What does ‘Starting Over’ really mean?

“Sometimes the hardest part isn’t letting go but rather learning to start over.”

-Nicole Sobon, author

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“I heard you are moving to Switzerland! How great! You get to start over!”

Innocent comment, I know, but one that I have heard a lot lately. Starting over. Over from what? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to go completely psychobabble on you about a simple statement that I’ve probably uttered over the last few months myself, but what I AM going to do is point out that, to me, I am increasingly finding this to be a bit of a questionable comment.

Perhaps I’m cynical. Perhaps I’m a jerk. But, just maybe, perhaps I’m not.

When I hear ‘start over’ I can’t help but wonder what the person saying it saw in my life that needs a re-do. Sure, living in Paris is NOT what anyone who hasn’t done so assumes. It is hard. The French are not always culturally compatible to how I was raised. I still cut various cheeses in the wrong way. I resent that person who shows up inexcusably late to parties keeping everyone from enjoying snacks (love me some dried out appetisers!!) because culture dictates no eating until everyone has arrived. I still live in fear of saying goodbyes and doing the kiss-kiss at an event with lots of French people. Giving bisous to a large group of people I don’t really know will NEVER be comfortable to me. Somedays, I would rather sneak into a shop and get what I need rather than announce my presences with a bonjour to the staff. I don’t always know what day I want to eat an avocado on and don’t know how to answer my guy at the local marché. I miss having a proper-sized freezer to freeze off meals in and buy in bulk. I would like my coffee with my dessert sometimes! However, missing things and awkwardness doesn’t necessarily mean it was such a fail here I need to start again, does it? Start over? Start fresh (are we leaving stale)? Re-do the last 10 years of my life?

What moving really provides us with the opportunity to live another version of this same life but in an environment that fits us a bit better. We will be the same people. We will still be foreign. Our happinesses and problems will follow us, give or take a few. My husband will still grumble when the dog wants only him to take him out at 7am for he wouldn’t dare interrupt my sleep. My kids will have homework. There will be school drama. There will be making new friends. There will be the all-too-familiar pain of Expat life of missing old friends. I will still need to make dinner every night. The wheel keeps turning. We are not blind to this.

So, when I express my excitement to leave Paris and move to Switzerland, I’m not necessarily saying that I would change the last 10 years. Paris was my home. Paris is where I had my children. Paris is where I met some amazing people.  Paris and I learned to have some fun! But, like dating in university, Paris and I were not compatible for the long-haul. I know that but I also know I don’t need a re-do from it. Paris helped me figure out what I need in life. Paris helped me see how capable I am. Paris helped me learn to fight back and value my opinion. Paris helped me learn to be friends with all kinds of different people and learn it is OK to love someone and not necessarily have that much in common. Paris helped me. Paris also taught me that there are people I don’t need in my life like I thought I did.  I don’t need to ‘start over’ from that. What I really need is to take that with me to our new home, our new life, and apply it.  I have lived in Paris for too long for it not to have changed me and to think I can just move down the road, dust that off and be someone different is silly and unrealistic. In moving, I am taking ALL of the previous versions of myself with me…I hope Switzerland is ready!

Photo credit: Fotolia