America

July 24, 2017

Megan, Jessica and I have just got back from a three week trip to Chicago to visit my brother.

I’m reluctant to fly Air France again. One reason is because they don’t allow you to take prams as a form of hand luggage and you have to check it through to the final destination like an ordinary suitcase. Normally airlines allow families to fold the pram at the aircraft door and retrieve it at the same place on exiting the plane so you can use it while traipsing through airports. Prams are essential, non-negotiable pieces of equipment when travelling with little kids. You cannot do without one.

I kicked up a fuss at the horrifying thought of dealing with two weepy, tired children at American immigration with nowhere for them to sit or lie. Paris airport is also a hellish maze and required me to walk miles and take 8 lifts to get from one gate to another. How on earth was I to organise that with two children, some hand luggage and a big pregnant belly?

In the end, Air France made a special arrangement for me on both legs of the journey. Victory! And I negotiated it in French too, which I am chuffed about. I speak the best French when I am incensed and fed up.

On the journey from Paris to Chicago, the chief air hostess placed my pram in the cockpit, somewhere under or behind the pilot’s chair. On the return leg from Chicago back to Paris, they put it in the exclusive big cupboard reserved for first class passengers. It was surreal that my filthy, clapped up pram travelled in luxury while I squished myself into economy class with my legs wrapped around my neck. Alastair said I should have suggested that I swop with the pram and let it take my seat 25B and I could have happily sat in the first class cupboard instead.

I’ve always loved America. I like living in Switzerland but if I had to choose anywhere else to be, it would be North America. I enjoy the spirit of the place. Once you get beyond their venomous, brick-wall border control, I love the openness and warmth of the Americans. There is a sense that you can dream big because anything is possible. They don’t have that built-in greyness and cynicism of the Brits, for example. Maybe this positive spirit has something to do with the vastness of the American landscape. It once again struck me how much space there is in America. It doesn’t surprise me that many Americans act as if their country is the only one earth because the vast and endless sprawl of it genuinely makes it feel that way.

America fascinates me because it is more foreign than one would imagine. Even though it is an English speaking country, it feels different – in good and bad ways – to other Anglophone countries. I love the variety in America. Options are limited in Switzerland so when I go to the US, the choices are a novelty. Even eating something as simple as a burger is a huge thrill because you can’t get a decent one in Europe. I love the fact that you get more bang for your buck in the States and they are so generous with quantities, especially in restaurants.

The funny thing though is that what I love about America, I also hate about it.  I like the value for money yet I detest the waste and indulgence that goes with it. I am a World War Two history buff with a particular interest in the Holocaust so I find excessive waste upsetting. I noticed waste in subtle ways that maybe pass other people by. For example, I love it that ice is so liberally and generously available in restaurants and you can fill your glass yourself at home in a jiffy with those fancy ice-distributing double-door American sized fridges. In Europe, you are lucky if you get a measly three cubes in your glass at a restaurant and filling ice trays at home is a faff. Yet Americans forget that it is wasteful and unnecessary to fill your cup with ice you won’t use because ice blocks are not cold, reusable pebbles but actually it is water that is a precious and scarce commodity in most of the rest of the world.

I also find American public toilets wasteful. I don’t know why they need to use a couple of gallons of water for every flush and the quantity of water that rests in the bowl makes it more of a bidet than a loo. Megan noticed that the public toilets are different because the seats have a gap in the front. ‘What’s that for?’ she asked. I don’t know. I wonder too. Have you ever realized that although the bowl itself is so massive, the pipe down which your business must disappear is so narrow? What’s up with that?  Every time I’m in North America, I need to plunge the loo at least once. Maybe American bowel movements are smaller than elsewhere in the world. Perhaps that’s one of the few outputs of the US that is small.

This trip it struck me again how germ phobic Americans are. At the entrance to shops, there were hand sanitizers and next to cash points, there was generally a Purell bottle to disinfect your hands too.  One shop assistant told me that her colleague, who liberally uses the hand sanitizer, is always sick. Duh! Germs aren’t all bad and they help build up a healthy resistance. Americans confuse sterile/disinfected and clean. I reckon the only thing that should be sterile is a hospital.

Sanitizer at the entrance to the supermarket, at the library and next to almost every cash desk I came across. Americans must have really, REALLY clean hands.

This trip I noticed garden services spraying weed killer almost every day. I saw them spraying the verges at the library, at the shops, at the park, in residential neighbourhoods etc.   The funny thing is that I rarely saw people out romping on their pristine, golf-course lawns. Maybe weed-free lawns are more to be admired from a distance, like through the window as you get dressed for work.

Wipes, wipes, wipes all over the show. Americans hate all germs, insects and weeds.

Every day on my daily walks round the neighbourhood I always saw these warnings on people’s freshly sprayed grass. Pity my children can’t yet read so the skulls and crossbones weren’t effective in keeping them at bay.

People don’t realize that hand sanitizers and anti-bacterial soaps are actually low-grade pesticides. There is no way I am lathering that shit on my hands. I wish people understood that pesticides are not harmless. In the Second World War, both sides raced to produce and stockpile chemical weapons. It was a real, legitimate threat and that’s why everyone carried around gas masks.

What happened to all those chemical stockpiles after the war? They were sprinkled on crops and worked wonders as insecticides and – ta da! – that was the start of modern day, commercial, chemical farming. If pesticides can kill weeds and insects, trust me, they ain’t good for you either. When pesticides are tested on rats, they affect their endocrine and reproductive (fertility and gender identity) systems first. America uses over 550 million kilos of pesticide per year. I think it’s interesting how every Tom, Dick and Harry has thyroid issues (including me!) and did you know there are over 1.4 million transgender people in the US?  I’ve become very green so I would probably identify better with places like California which seem to be more on my wavelength.  I know I should probably go off into nature and live in a hessian tent in the middle of nowhere.

Anyway, I always enjoy trips to the US of A.  Even though America seems more divided than ever into the pro and anti Trump factions, I still think Americans are one of the warmest, most open, most positive (and naïve!) cultures on earth and often it is a tonic to be around them.  God bless America.

I took this photo of a menu at a fourth of July function. Fried Twinkies and Oreos – can you get more American than that!?!?!

 


Crete

June 5, 2017

In May we went to Crete for a week. Al and I have different ideas about what constitutes the ideal holiday. I enjoy self-catering cottages that involve driving around, exploring and then stopping off at interesting places for picnic lunches or dinners at quaint restaurants. I like long drives because that’s when Al and I have our best heart-to-hearts and bonding chats. These sorts of trips don’t work well with kids and, when we do holidays involving lots of driving, it is always Al who does it so it is not as fun or relaxing for him. Al is an all-inclusive kind of guy. He dreams of island/beach holidays at a hotel where breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided and you can spend the day in the pool resting on a lilo while sipping a pina colada with a mini cocktail umbrella in it.

We forgot how much children love the beach – running from waves and building sandcastles … the simple things.

I agree that these types of holidays, especially with children, are great (although you can no longer bob about on a lilo). It is just that after a while I find the waste and gluttony of all-inclusive hotels to be excessive. I chose the last mini-break which was to a camping site. We stayed in a prefab hut that was the size of a shoebox and we all had to sit on the bed while the other person manoeuvred about the tiny cabin. It rained and eventually I admitted, ‘Ok, this sucks’ and we left a night early. This time I am glad we chose an all-inclusive option in a hotel. We saved up for the treat and, after Al’s intense busy period at work, he needed to be sheep-dipped in instant relaxation and happiness.

Al at lunch – happiness!

One of the reasons Al adores all-inclusives is because I think he has four stomachs, like a cow. He takes advantage and gets value for money by eating every meal as if it is his last on earth. I know we should embrace life and live in the moment but sometimes, when I look at Al’s plates at the buffet, I suggest that maybe he shouldn’t embrace it quite so much.

What gets to me about all-inclusives is the sheer quantity of food involved. I also generally overeat at a buffet. It’s difficult not to. I have yet to meet anyone who doesn’t indulge at an all-you-can-eat set up. I adore Greek food – tzatziki, the yoghurt, the olives, the feta, the phyllo pies, the pitas, moussaka, souvlaki. Eating at a Greek buffet is a bit like cramming a month’s worth of clothing into a child-sized suitcase. I enjoyed the meals but then after each one I felt so bloated and roly-poly and it was as if I was constantly incubating an immense, round food-baby.

Our strategy to keep the children still and quiet so we could tuck into the buffet

A thought on Greece

This is the second time I’ve been to Greece and every time I go there, I wonder, ‘What the heck happened to the Greeks?’ They were once one of the most sophisticated civilizations on earth and it is as if they sat back and thought, ‘We’re done now!’ and let themselves go. Everything about Greece feels clapped up and incomplete. Many of the flat roofed buildings have metal spikes poking out the tops, as if they intended to erect another level but never got round to it. I’m blown away that Greece is allowed to be part of the EU. It makes a mockery of the whole set up. They’re like the EU’s shady second cousin who keeps borrowing money and can’t hold down a job. They don’t even recycle! Shocking!

Classic Greece – half finished or abandoned buildings with metal spikes poking out the top

Grumpy old goats

Most of the people at the hotel were couples in their 50s or 60s. It amazes me how people forget what it is like to have little children and they are quick to judge those that do. I think they forget the pain, like one does with childbirth. When the girls were overtired and weepy or happy and exuberant, I sometimes got the feeling that the people around me didn’t approve of the noise level. There is very little grace from adults who no longer have regular contact with toddlers. They think they did better or could do better. You could see it on their faces.

Take the aeroplane as an example. During the three hour flight to Heraklion, Jessica fell asleep and I had to wake her for landing. She was enraged so people turned around and many gave me The Stare. It’s that deathly look where they hope to direct the situation by the depth of disapproval on their faces. People do not have a right to sleep quietly on an aeroplane just as I do not have the right to make a noise and be disruptive. Sunbathing old fogies do not have the right to dead silence round the pool so they can read a book, just as my children don’t have the right to be too boisterous, wild or over-the-top.

Sometimes little old ladies stop to ogle or tutt-tutt at a tantrum in the supermarket but they don’t appreciate that my child is hungry and exhausted or maybe I’m in the process of teaching Megan or Jessica that they can’t have everything they want when they want it and I would love some grace and sympathy from the greater community. You can’t assume someone is a bad mother or that a child disobedient just because they are having a wail and a bellow. It’s hard for a two year old to be woken from a deep sleep when they don’t understand why. I dreamed of saying to the lady in front of me in the aeroplane, who turned around and huffed, ‘Hey lady, I see your scowl and I raise you my middle finger.’

Happy moments with my favourite people in the whole wide world


Being five and other news

May 15, 2017

Megan starts formal schooling (like kindergarten) in September and I recently discovered that at the end of the year, in May 2018, her class will go on a 2 night camp. So she will be away from home for TWO WHOLE NIGHTS at the teeny tiny, insy winsy, little age of FIVE YEARS OLD. Oh my hat. I’m not comfortable with that. This French/Swiss crowd is so different to what I am used to. I went on my first school camp at the age of 11 and I was wrecked with homesickness the entire time. Maybe, for all I know, Megan will love it and be gung-ho and on board with the idea. She is a lot more chilled out than I ever was as her age but five still feels too young for a trip like that. I sense that I may butt heads with the Swiss system.

I spoke to two moms who said they will need to have more sleepovers to practice and get their children used to the idea. This bothers me too. I know my friends well but not their older children, extended family, neighbours or husbands and you never know what could go on in the dark of night in someone else’s house. Until Megan understands boundaries and what constitutes appropriate behaviour and has the vocabulary to communicate anything disturbing to me afterwards, then she ain’t going on no sleepover.

Handling rejection early on

Talking about Megan, I recently discovered that one of her classmates had a party and she wasn’t invited. I’m not sure of the circumstances around it and maybe the birthday girl only selected one or two close friends. I wish people wouldn’t hand out invitations at school. Either invite everyone or the parents should liaise quietly and discreetly about it off school premises.

Why are people so insensitive? But that’s life and I guess Megan has to get used to it sooner rather than later. The incident hurt me more than it did Megan. Sometimes I am surprised by the force and power of the love I have for my children. It is the kind of love that brings out the lioness deep inside me, that part of me that could easily kill, maim or destroy any person who harms my beloved cubs. This love has ferocity so unquestioning, so vast, that if anything happened to my babies, I know I would feel unhinged and empty as if I myself had ceased to exist.

Another reason why this incident bothered me was because, above all else, I want my children to have confidence. I want them to have a deep, unwavering sense of self-worth. The party rejection is a potentially classic confidence-damaging incident. My life experience so far has taught me that confidence trumps intelligence. It is great to have both qualities but I reckon that confidence is a greater guarantee of happiness and success than intelligence alone. If I could give my children just one gift ever for the rest of their lives it would be this: Confidence.

Living hard core

Moving on … I present to you a picture of Megan’s shoes. I initially thought that shoes could be passed from one child to the other to save cash, like clothes. But shoes, particularly takkies, must be replaced regularly. To Megan, shoes are not just coverings for the feet. They make great brakes as she slides her feet along the ground for more resistance. After a few weeks, she wears the front out and her toes peek out.

The sandals on the right were brand spanking new a week ago and have been worn only three times!

I think this picture sums up children. From the time they wake up to the time they nod off at night, it’s full on and go go go. Children have two modes – ON or OFF, like a blender. I know that some children wear their parents out in such a way that they feel a bit like those shoes look.

I told Al that I reckon Megan’s shoes are a model for life. Obviously we shouldn’t destroy our lives in the way Megan does her shoes but I love the way she uses them to the full and stretches them to the limits. I think we are supposed to live passionately and fully and well, and that’s what toddlers tend to do.

Jessica’s winning streak

This month I broke my winning streak when Jessica got an ear infection and had to go to the doctor for the first time. She is almost three and never been to the doctor in her entire life, other than for routine vaccinations and growth check ups. I’ve been so proud of her healthy record. I thought it was an interesting coincidence that a week after my breastmilk dried up, she needed a doctor’s intervention for the first time. I calculated that by having three children, I will have breastfed for about 9 years non-stop. I am so chuffed about that because I think breastfeeding is like a dirt-cheap natural, fortifying, magic elixir (for both the mom and child, funnily enough).

I need new glasses so I called the optician who said that eyes change during pregnancy so I should only book an appointment when ‘the pregnancy related stuff is over’. ‘When exactly is that?’ I asked. She said come in when I have finished breastfeeding. Bwhahahahahahaha. ‘So you mean I must wait another four years until my new child is weaned before I can get new glasses?’

Here’s one of the ironies about Europe. No one breast feeds for long (3 months max) yet they are totally fine with women breastfeeding in public. I’ve done it discreetly anywhere and everywhere and I’ve only ever been regarded with respect and admiration. You can also go to the pool without a bikini wax and no one is fussed.  My Texan friend said that where she comes from in America, breastfeeding for longer is more common but it is frowned upon to do it in public. You have to hide yourself under a kind of breastfeeding burkha or huddle in specially allocated breastfeeding areas.

Remember I said how I was fascinated by the creative ways children play and what goes on up in their little heads?  I will end off with two photos of Jessica’s play this week:

Dollies put to bed beneath drink coasters

When Jessica plays with play dough, she gathers the Barbies and rips off all their clothes. Then she covers them with the play dough, starting first with the boobs and genital area. Fascinating!


Expats, French and getting a bit tangled up

May 2, 2017

The other day we were walking round the neighbourhood when a lady stopped her SUV, wound down her window and explained that her son was standing on the pavement up the road with a lost dog and she didn’t know what to do next. She launched into a convoluted explanation of how she discovered this dazed dog and how concerned she was that it may get run over.

She explained this to me in stilted French and I quickly realized she was actually English. She squeezed the words out with great effort and fluster and ended off with ‘I’m so sorry for my French.’

Halfway into her spiel, I should have said, ‘hey speak English if you want’ but instead I nodded and listened because, strangely enough, I enjoyed watching her struggle. It was comforting and encouraging for me to see that other English people also battle to express themselves and get red-faced and breathless in the process. It reminded me that there’s no need to be perfect or articulate, as long as you try. Trying is so endearing to the listener, even if you duff up and experience that exasperating feeling of verbal constipation. Sometimes I forget that it’s not just me! Hooray!

To relieve her of her agony, I eventually replied in English and we gabbled away and the conversation became smooth and easy like a fast-flowing river.

It blows my mind how many expats don’t try harder to learn French. Most of my foreign friends stick together and exist separate from the local culture in a kind of expat bubble. Some of my friends have been here years and years and still can’t speak a lick of French. I find that disgraceful. It almost makes me want to defriend them. I was at a coffee shop with some buds recently and when the drinks arrived, they said, ‘Thanks’ and I thought, ‘Good grief people. Can you not even manage a simple merci?’

An English speaking boy at Megan’s school invited the whole class (very kind that!) to his birthday party. The invitations were in English which I find a bit bullish and disrespectful to the French locals. As expats, it is our responsibility to make ourselves understood, not the responsibility of the listener to understand us. We have to make some effort, even the slightest effort, to integrate and it is no wonder there is this latent xenophobia in the region.

When I meet someone who is having a miserable time in Switzerland and wants to leave, the first question I ask is, ‘Can you speak French?’ or ‘Are you learning French?’ Guaranteed, without a doubt, they always say no. Being able to speak passable French has revolutionized and enriched my experience of living here. If you don’t try to communicate in the local tongue, you are always on the outside, on the back foot and at a constant disadvantage.

I mess up often. I struggle most with the conditional tense so ‘if I could have I would have or should have’. I can get into a right royal tangle, like a cat that gets wound up in a granny’s ball of wool.

This week I had a pregnancy check up at the gynae. I understood her to say, ‘Take off your clothes’ and then she left the room. When she walked back in a minute later, I had flung off everything, my bra, my undies – the works – and stripped right down so I was completely starkers. It turns out she said ‘DON’T take off your clothes.’ Dammit. It was so embarrassing standing before her in her cold, sterile office in all my naked glory. No clothes on makes one feel extra vulnerable and stupid. Usually when I make these sorts of grand and horrifying cock ups, I want to pull out my brain and spank it over my knee but this situation fortunately occurred at my gynaecologist who has already seen the most intimate parts of me so it was sort of ok.

One of the quirks about French is that some words are so similar and the slightest difference in pronunciation changes the meaning of the word entirely. So, jeune is young and jaune is yellow. Megan is still too yellow for ballet lessons. Then there’s cheveux which is hair and chevaux which are horses. I would like to book an appointment for you to cut my horses please. And what about champion (champion) and champignon (mushroom)? Run Megs run, go you mushroom go! I’ve said all those things, and the problem is that people rarely correct me so when my errors dawn on me later, I feel as if I’ve had spinach in my teeth or a snolly sticking out my nose and no one told me. I like being corrected because then the concepts truly sink in and I will never forget.

Al is trying hard with his French. He is motivated and determined but his progress is slow. Sometimes I feel it is as if he is climbing Everest in his flip flops. I wonder if he will ever get there in the end. The funny thing is that what he lacks in skill, he makes up for in confidence. My French is better than his but his confidence is more than mine. We were invited to locals for dinner and, while I shy away from these intense French social interactions, he dives in. Yeah! Let’s go! Whoo hooo! He is gung-ho even though his contribution to the conversation is slow and clunky and never gets beyond first gear. At least he tries, which is more than can be said for other expats in the area.

This picture is so quintessentially French. Why do the French never put baguettes in bags that cover the entire thing? Here, the boulangerie put paper round it to create a handle and the rest of it is exposed to the elements. It’s not very hygienic. When we buy a baguette from the local bakery, Megan likes to carry it home and wave it about like it’s her wand. This always amuses me because the word for ‘wand’ is ‘baguette magique’ which means ‘magic baguette’. I love it!!!

 


Triangles

April 2, 2017

I haven’t been feeling great lately because … I’m pregnant! I’ve had that crazy first trimester fatigue where you feel leaden, as if you’ve been sedated or are severely jet lagged. I’ve also been so nauseous. One day I was hunched over the loo and explained to Megan not to worry as it was the baby in my tummy that was making me feel so sick. ‘Why don’t you just take it out then?’ she asked.

Retching and vomiting are ho-hum and commonplace in our house these days. Every time Jessica coughs, she says she’s vomiting. I once realised Jessica was upstairs in the bathroom on her own. ‘What are you doing up there?’ I shouted up to her. ‘I’M VOMITING!!!!!’ she bellowed back. Actually she wasn’t. She thinks it’s the standard response when you spend a lot of time in the bathroom. She was simply fiddling in the cupboard and unravelling the toilet paper.

When I finished school, the future unfurled before me and my friends like a long, welcoming magic carpet. The possibilities were endless. We had grand plans for our lives, most of which went something like this: Go to university, travel, get a high-flying job, make lots of money, get married, buy a house, have kids, settle down and live happily ever after.

We thought we could pick off what we wanted out of life in the same way you pick items off the shelf when you are shopping – I want this, I want that. I’ll take this, I’ll take that. It turns out that life is not always like that. It is full of surprises, false starts, twists and turns. Some things have worked out as I expected, others better than I expected and others not at all as I expected.

One of the areas that has come relatively easily and where I have been able to pick my desires off the shelf is around falling pregnant. I calculated that most of my close friends have struggled with fertility issues or have not been able to conceive at all. I have watched them on these long, painful fertility journeys over stormy oceans and across endless deserts and some still haven’t found their oasis. I am profoundly humbled that I haven’t needed to personally endure this angst and longing. Why me and not others? I don’t know. Life can be so strange and unfair. It is one of life’s great ironies that some of the most morally bankrupt, neglectful, dregs of society have supersonic reproductive systems and breed like bunnies whereas the most deserving, potentially awesome parents struggle so much. I will never understand this. So, my ability to have my own children is a luxury for which I am on-my-knees grateful. Not a day goes by where I don’t feel deeply thankful for this privilege.

Many people have asked why I want three children. No one questions a person’s decision to have one or two kids but it appears that a bigger family requires an explanation. I kind of understand the sentiment. I once met someone with seven kids and my first thought was, ‘In this day and age, why the *&£%$ do you need seven children?’

The decision to expand our family has been a big debate between me and Al and between me and my inner voices for years. Last week I walked through the vineyards with some friends. Megan, Jessica and their buddies played near a trickling stream that I only realised later, flowed into a large open storm water drain that disappeared into the bowels of the earth.  Good grief.  When I saw it, I had that vertigo you get when you look down from a really high building. What if they had fallen in? I couldn’t sleep that night as I tossed and turned and contemplated the what ifs.   Parenting is an enormous responsibility. When people ask me why I want to bring an additional person into the world, I suppose then that it is a legitimate question.

The world is a mess isn’t it? There’s a lot to be concerned about. We seem hellbent on vandalizing the future. Look at Trump. The most baffling, horrifying part of that situation is that he was elected to power in a democratic process. People – very stupid, hypocritical, selfish people with myopic thinking – chose this morally challenged, idiotic oaf.   Look at the environment. We humans are a unique kind of parasite that is systematically destroying our host, the planet. I have visions of my grandchildren living waste deep in skeletons as they scrounge for food in an arid, post nuclear wasteland. People! That’s the problem with the world. Closer to home, someone recently defaced the wall outside Megan’s school. We regularly pick up litter (mainly Red Bull cans) on our walks round the village. People rarely say ‘thanks’ when I give way to them when driving. My experience of humans is that our reflex is to be selfish and unkind.   Someone famous once said that the heart of the human problem is the problem with the human heart.

The other side of the coin is that we want our family to be part of the solution, not the problem. I want us to be the change we want to see in the world. Al and I hope our children will be roses in among the thorns. We plan to bring them up in such a way that they give back to the world more than they take from it. This is possibly a cheek since, at the moment, I may not be a net contributor myself. I’m trying hard though and I have some social and environmental causes that I am becoming more and more passionate about.

In the past, I struggled to understand what living life to the full meant for me. I think each of us has unique ideas and experiences of what a full life entails. In my early years, I went on life’s rollercoaster and through the merry-go-round in search of this elusive fullness. Recently I’ve realized that, for me, this fullness, this peace, this stillness, this fulfilment has come from my Christian faith together with being a mother and a wife.  It mostly comes from building a secure and happy family.

Many of my mom friends want an identity independent of being a mother and that’s understandable and absolutely ok. Many of them think they have lost their true identity in the chaos of motherhood but I feel I have found mine. I’m happy to just be a mom and I derive much of my personal meaning and fullness from that. I didn’t realize I would enjoy being a mother so much. I never realized I was so domesticated.   I love fussying and clucking over my precious babies, my sweet little chickens. I am by no means a perfect mother and I have many moments of spinning and feeling frazzled. It’s just that at the end of the day I don’t mind feeling wiped out with exhaustion because, for the first time in my life, I feel as if I am pouring my energy into a chalice rather than down a drain.

I don’t think that motherhood needs to be as stressful, demanding and exhausting as many people paint it out to be. At my mom’s group, we sometimes have presentations by people who say, ‘You moms are amazing. You are doing the hardest job in the world. You are down there in the trenches.’ And then we are supposed to feel good about ourselves and give ourselves a clap and pat on the back. When they say that, I roll my eyes and I wonder ‘Is being a mom really the hardest job in the world?’ I think being, for example, an air traffic controller at Heathrow or a trauma surgeon in ER is pretty hectic. I’m a world war history buff and we wouldn’t glibly compare motherhood to the frontlines or the trenches if we knew what fighting like that truly involved.

Logic told me that two kids are adequate in this day and age but something inside me didn’t feel our family was complete. One of my friends is one of three siblings and she said, ‘we are like the three corners of a triangle.’ It is hard to explain but deep down I’ve felt that my children are missing another corner.

I would have loved another sibling, like to have one to hold in each hand. When I was growing up, I felt loved but never secure and the ground was always wobbly under my feet. My brother was and is the only person who can relate to my childhood because we had exactly the same experiences and circumstances and walked exactly the same road side by side (albeit with different personalities!). We both would have enjoyed an additional person on our team. Blood is thicker than water and although I have good friends and a large extended family, no one is there for me like my brother is. He has my back more than anyone else and vice versa. I thought that, since Al and I are able and our life circumstances lend themselves to it, I would like to give Megan and Jessica this extra gift, this precious luxury, this deeply valued privilege and complete their team triangle.

A picture to end off and show the comfort and affection between sisters. I walked into the room and Megan said she was cutting Jessica’s toenails … with her teeth.  Of course the moment of love didn’t last long and Jessica ended up wailing when Megan nearly bit off her baby toe.


Spring?

March 16, 2017

This seemingly interminable winter is finally coming to an end. For many reasons, this winter has been my most gruelling in years. We spent the start of it enveloped and then embedded in that grey wet fog-cloud. That didn’t bode well for someone like me with weather dependent moods. Then we had minus slap-in-the-face cold temperatures for a few weeks, then snow, then snowdrifts, then constant grey and now I’ve had enough. I’m fed up of walking outside and feeling as if someone has thrown a bucket of ice water over me.

Earlier this week I sensed something different in the air. It started off very slight, almost imperceptible. I was sure there was a hint of spring in the air. I’m like a bird that is so in tune with nature that I can pick up these small shifts in temperature, air and light. Now it’s becoming more obvious and I’m almost certain spring has arrived. All of a sudden, I feel so much more buoyant and I have this urge to clean up the house. That’s probably where the word ‘spring clean’ comes from. I’ve noticed dust and grime and things that need to be cleaned or repaired. I want to declutter and sort and chuck out junk I don’t need.

Spring cleaning in Switzerland

The problem is that getting rid of stuff is not so easy in a place like Switzerland. That is why I’m so militant about not accumulating possessions other than what I absolutely need. If we want to dump items, our village charges us per kilo to dispose of it. I don’t want my old junk going into landfill because I detest this kind of waste.  I prefer to find a decent new home for my old belongings but this is often difficult to do. Some things that I would like to get rid of are not worthy enough to be sold so I would like to give them away. It’s not that simple.  ‘Give it to the poor’, my mom said. What poor? Where? In a place like Switzerland, there are needy people around but finding them takes some time and effort.

When we redid our kitchen, our renovator dismantled our old kitchen and tossed it in the rubbish dump. He chucked an oven that was old-fashioned but in perfectly good working order. ‘WHAT!?!?!!’ I shrieked when he told me. ‘I THOUGHT IT WAS GOING TO THE NEEDY!!!!’ He shrugged and explained he didn’t have time to locate the needy nor did he have the money to ship my old kitchen to Eastern Europe where it would definitely be appreciated. I was mortified and ashamed at the excess and waste. That’s a big problem with the world. If only there was a cheaper, easier way to connect those who are so willing to give with those people and places that are in need. It sickens me when I see the food and possessions that end up in landfill in rich, first world countries.

It is not like South Africa where the impoverished are so visible. My mother said that every Thursday afternoon when her complex puts out the bins for collection, women gather round to rummage inside them. At least when you dispose of things in South Africa, you can be guaranteed your second hand stuff is appreciated and put to good use and you feel as if you are helping someone.

My neighbour kept giving me her children’s old toys. At first, I thought she was so kind and generous but then I realised she was palming old crap on me as she didn’t know how else to get rid of it. Stuffed toys, for example, are near to impossible to dispose of and even charities refuse them for hygiene reasons. My cleaner gave me her daughter’s old bike. When she handed it over, I was so touched that she wanted to give me such a big gift for free. I was prostrate with gratitude until I realized the damn thing has no brakes and it will cost more to repair them than replace the entire bike. She passed it on to me – ‘last touch!’ – and now I must dispose of it at my hassle and expense.

Al

Moving on to other news. Al has had an intense and gruelling time at work. He described January and February as his worst year end ever. For the last while Al’s work has sunk its greedy fangs into the soft flesh of his neck and sucked and sucked and sucked the very life out of him and left him a dried up old husk of his former self. Now that the whirlwind busy period is supposedly winding down, his mission is to rediscover his mojo and joie de vivre.

Granny

Recently Granny was here for three weeks. No one gets down on their knees and relates to my children at their level with such love, interest and patience in the way my mother does. Megan and Jessica adore her so much so that, when she is not here and they are in a tight spot with me or Al, they always wail ‘Granny! Granny!’ as if they hope she will appear in a puff of smoke from South Africa and rescue them, like a genie out a magic lamp.

The girls

The girls are delightful as usual. I just wish they listened more. The most challenging part of motherhood for me is asserting my authority and maintaining discipline. Parenting would be a breeze if the kids followed instructions and obeyed when I spoke. Supper’s ready, come and eat. Get in the bath. Get out the bath. Put on your clothes. Wash your hands. Stop that now. No, you can’t eat that. Turn off the TV. Come here. Tidy up. Brush your teeth. Turn out the light. Bed time. Go to sleep. Etc etc etc. Megan and Jessica rarely listen first time round and they generally always opt for the path of most resistance. I once thought they had auditory issues and could do with a visit to the ENT to unblock the canals or syringe the ears but then I noticed that if unwrap a sweet in the kitchen or whisper, ‘chocolate?’ then they scuttle to me and fall at my feet in submission.

Children so clearly reveal the inherent rebelliousness in human nature but the other, more precious side of the coin is that they also highlight the beauty and creativity within all of us. These are the moments I treasure. They make parenting so rich and rewarding and worthwhile.

I love watching Megan play. It’s so interesting up there in her head. I’m not sure whether all kids are like this but Megan has a highly creative, borderline whacky way of playing. She tends to create small piles of random toys around the house, little toy turds. Her playing generally involves reorganising, redistributing and rearranging rather than organised, structured entertainment. Lately her playing always includes her underpants. She has Sophia the First and Disney Princess pants that she prefers to play with rather than wear. I once walked in on her neatly arranging them on the lounge carpet. She explained this was her garden and in it she was growing undies.

In the picture below, you can see she has created a mountain out of sheets and blankets and then tossed books and a sprinkle of undies on top. The other photo is an arrangement of animals, finished off with undies poking out the chest of drawers.

Megan continues to write her name as ‘Amahit’ even though she can write her proper name. If I look for a picture of hers on the wall at her school, I can’t look for ‘Megan’. It will be ‘Amahit’.

I love letting Megan and Jessica’s creativity loose. Their free expression is so pure and beautiful. I see it in the grungy, bohemian, off-the-wall way they dress themselves. Their teacher once asked if they ever wear matching socks. I don’t think they realize socks are designed in pairs. Who cares! Anyway, who says socks need to match?

Ok, that’s all for now folks.  I feel I haven’t written in a while and I have more to say but, since this has become long enough already, I’ll save it for other posts.


Hello Black Dog

February 1, 2017

black-dogThe other day, for the first time in ages (or maybe since this time last winter), I woke up and felt something heavy sitting on my chest. It turns out it was my old foe and constant London companion, the Black Dog. Can you believe it, he’s back. He’s reared his head again, following me around and breathing his hot, stinky breath in my face.

I’ve developed SAD or Seasonal Adjustment Disorder brought on by winter. This is the grey flatness that comes from insufficient ways to entertain the kids, a lack of social interaction, seasonal sickness and spending too much time indoors.

I always find January to be heavy going and intense. January is the toughest time of year for Al work-wise as it is his year end. He has worked every weekend. He is head-down, focussed and functioning at his absolute limit, like stretched and taut elastic. Every January reminds me how Switzerland lacks adequate indoor entertainment for little kids so I struggle to keep Megan and Jessica active and amused. We watch far too much TV. Our family tends to get sick with one of the seasonal bugs doing the rounds and the weather usually keeps me housebound and trapped like a pinned butterfly. Every day reminds me of Groundhog Day.

I follow a group called ‘Very British Problems’ on Facebook and they post typical British quirks.  It’s hilarious.  I saw this one the other day and realize I’m not the only person in the northern hemisphere that finds January long and intense:

very-british-problems

I’ve found this winter to be particularly gruelling. Apparently it is the coldest winter in Switzerland in 30 years.  I’ve been trapped at home with snow, snowdrifts and ice on the road that made conditions risky and dangerous. Our house is still surrounded by that insidious fog that hangs in the air and saps the spirit. It’s difficult to start my car in the sub-zero temperatures. I’ve slid on the road and wheel spun while trying to drive up a hill. I’m over winter now.

winterbluesAn indoor play area has opened up fairly close by which is an absolute miracle. Of course it’s not open all the time, just in the late afternoon. My friends and I are so grateful to have a place where the children can burn off steam. It’s a superb alternative to inviting people over for playdates. We can meet there instead. We all crave the company of others but are reluctant to invite people over and get our houses trashed.

This new play spot is expensive but what can you do? When you are isolated and lonely in winter, there is no alternative but to cough up the cash. One of my friends said she may have to take out a second mortgage on her house, but so be it.

I try to embrace the cold and get outdoors for some vitamin D and fresh air. I find the cold refreshing but Megan and Jessica don’t. I have encouraged them again and again to romp in the snow but, after 10 minutes max, they are not interested. They prefer to sit on the sled and weep while I drag them around as if I’m their personal husky.

weeping-in-snow

All wrapped up for the outdoors but Jessica is not happy …

There’s been a gastro bug that’s done the rounds at Megan and Jessica’s nursery school. People have been falling like skittles. It’s a bug that only lasts about 24 hours but creeps up on you and you only realise you have it the moment a jet of vomit flies from your face.

Megan and Jessica caught it first. Between them, they vomited 11 times in one night and I used up all my linen. Our house had that fetid stench of a becalmed submarine. Two days later, I caught the bug and was man down for 24 hours too. It was horrid to be stuck in the bathroom most of the night, blasting hot fluid from both ends and spinning around like a Catherine Wheel.

I am endlessly grateful for my life and I enjoy living in Switzerland. I know I have nothing to complain about. I think there are more pros than cons to being here but, when you are sick, it is clear that the most difficult part of being an expat is that there is no family around to help. You are alone. That’s the biggest downside of living far away.

Yes, I have a network of kind friends but it is not the same thing. I’m not good at accepting help from people who are not related to me. I feel the need to prostrate myself before them in gratitude and it’s exhausting and not worth it. Most of my friends have children too and they are not too eager if you call up and say, ‘We have highly contagious gastro. Can you help?’ I feel the same way. You may as well have the plague. So we hunker down and quarantine ourselves in the house until it passes and my friends send encouragement and concern via Whatsapp.

40c4d17df716d593ed9601cb541b9171_sick-face-clip-art-169051png-sick-smiley-clipart_708-708Unless you are very lucky, it’s only family who will hold your hair and rub your back while you puke into the loo. It’s family who will load sick stained sheets into the washing machine or clean up a pool of vomit on the floor. I will never forget how my Dad helped me when I had food poisoning when I was living in Johannesburg. I was so sick from some dodgy sushi and the agony was similar to childbirth. I rang him with a desperate SOS in the middle of the night and he came round to my apartment. I recall lying curled up in the foetal position on the bed while he cleaned up the mess in the bathroom. ‘This is love’, I thought. ‘No one else would do this but family.’ Blood is thicker than water. I’ve missed my family and felt very homesick this month.

Good news though. My mom arrives soon for a three week stay. Yay! I know it doesn’t sound like it from this blog post, but I manage fine. I run a tight ship and, in normal conditions, I don’t actually need help. The thing I most enjoy about my mom’s visits every February is that she provides face-to-face friendship and social interaction to get me through the rest of winter. That’s all I need. Company! A pal on tap! February is looking good.