Autumn is my favorite season in Switzerland. Deep earthy green, orange, brown and yellow, color the hills and farmlands that surround the city. Rich smells fill the home: fresh burning wood, incense of cinnamon and clove, musky blankets brought down from the closet shelf.
For three full weeks in October, the city of Basel is transformed into an old fashioned amusement park. In six different locations across town, rides, food booths, and specialty storefronts are erected to create mini villages, each with their own spirit and traditions. The weather has started to change and on a perfect day, the one that invites you to have your first cup of Gluewëin (a spiced and heated wine), the skies are bright blue and the air is clean and crisp. You can just start to feel the deep chill of winter awakening.
One of my favorite weekend events is Kerbisfest or Pumpkin Festival. It was held in a barn a short 20-minute walk from our flat. Along the back of the barn were rows of picnic tables where parents and kids congregated to enjoy homemade pumpkin soup, grilled sausages and traditional German dark bread.
Next to the tables, loosely roped off, were three crate-climbing stations. The intent of the challenge was to layer and climb as many crates as needed to reach the hanging cowbell. When a kid rang the bell, the onlookers cheered.
The barn was also outfitted with rope ladders that stretched diagonally across the roofline—a more challenging route to reach the infamous cowbell. At all six stations, teenagers hooked kids to harnesses and spotted them from the ground.
My eight-year-old son Braeden attempted the crates, making his way up a good way but not quite reaching the bell. Then I noticed him studying the kids’ attempts with the dangling ladder. They went slowly, alternated hands and feet thoughtfully, and didn’t look too far ahead. When they fell and found themselves hanging upside down from the rope ladder, they looked around for a minute or two, most of them let go, giving into gravity. They dangled there until the teenager released the rope and guided them down.
As I watched Braeden begin his climb, a small knot formed in my stomach. I wanted this for him. I was nervous he would fail in his attempt and be disappointed in himself. The noises around me washed away as I sat watching. He looked so wrapped in concentration that I imagined the noises had vanished for him too.
One alternating hand and footstep after the other, he made his way towards the hanging cowbell. Approaching the halfway mark, in the blink of a moment, his body swung underneath the ladder. I gasped. He hung there for what seemed like minutes. I could see the tightness of his grip in his white knuckles, as he sought to secure one of his legs through a slat on the ladder where he could fold his knee around it for support. Then he paused and considered his options:
Let go, get back in line and try again.
Let go, and be happy with how far he got for today.
Or use his mental strength and trust his body to keep going.
His face grimaced, the hanging ladder asking more from him than his thin arms and core had to offer. He wrapped his feet around the bottom ring, rested for a minute and started again. At that moment, I noticed the rest of the crowd watching too.
Tears began to well in my eyes knowing that at this point, it would be his will not his body that would carry him to the cowbell.
And then it rang!
People cheered. Tears slid down my cheeks. Although he was red-faced from exertion, a smile spread across his sweet freckled face.
As he made his way towards me I reached out my arms with love and pride. He looked at me with a smile and promptly asked “where’s my pumpkin soup?”.