Boxing Day

December 28, 2012

On 26 December, Alastair and I felt claustrophobic after our Christmas indoors so we headed to the ski village called Les Rousses, which is just over the border in France.  We planned on a walk followed by lunch in a local restaurant.

It was our first opportunity to test Megan’s new snowsuit. While it may be snug and warm, I realize it is a useless contraption as it does not have buttons or a zip that goes all the way down to the toes.  This means it is an almighty mission to get her in and out of it.  I stuffed Megan inside and, at one point, I wondered if I had dislocated her arm as I tried to manoeuvre it into the sleeve.  Fortunately babies are so elastic.  By the time I eventually straight-jacketed her into the suit and hooked her into the baby carrier on Alastair’s chest, she was shell-shocked and I was sweating.

We headed off down a path into woods, crunching through the snow while Megan bobbed on Alastair’s chest and sang to herself.  She seemed happy, but we weren’t.  Al and I are not used to dealing with a baby in cold, snowy weather so we spent most of our  hike second-guessing ourselves and stressing if she was warm enough.

‘My fingers are cold,’ I worried, ‘Do you think she’s cold too?’  Suddenly, I noticed her exposed nose was turning slightly red.  Code Blue!  Code Blue!  We galloped back to the car and bee-lined to our favourite restaurant with high hopes of a hearty, warm lunch to redeem our flop of a 30metre, 10-minute walk.

We were in for a surprise.

There was a sign on the door to the restaurant that said ‘Poussettes Interdite’ which means that prams are not allowed.  Fair enough, no problem with that.  Alastair took our pushchair back to the car while Megan and I went inside to organize a table.

As I walked in the door, the hostess rushed towards me, shaking her head and hands.  ‘No, we’re full.  No tables available’, she said, clipped and firm.

I looked at empty tables to my left and my right.  ‘They’re reserved.  All full.  No space.  Nothing today,’ she said.

Some tables had a ‘reserved’ sign but most didn’t.  ‘Well then’, I said. ‘I would like to reserve a table for later.’

DownloadedFile-5No, we’re full the whole day.  We’re always full.’  She swept me out the restaurant and closed the door in my face.

I stood bewildered on the pavement.  Something seemed off about that conversation.  I could feel it deep down in my bones.  That restaurant didn’t turn me away because it was full.  It turned me away because I had a baby.

Every time I have eaten in a French restaurant, I have done so in the company of at least one dog.  Why are dogs welcome but babies aren’t?  Tears pricked into my eyes and I boiled with rage and righteous indignation at the injustice of it.  How dare they treat me like that!  I realized that the hidden subtext of ‘pousettes interdite’ was ‘babies not allowed’.

To be honest, I don’t mind if a restaurant doesn’t allow kids.  I understand.  Noisy, disruptive children are indeed annoying. Be DownloadedFile-3direct, be upfront but don’t lie.  That’s the part that riled me the most.  Don’t say the restaurant is full when it is not.  This was the first time I have ever been a victim of any kind of discrimination.  I felt like Julia Roberts in the scene from Pretty Woman when the sales ladies refuse to serve her in the boutique – hurt, shocked and itchy for revenge.

I really like this restaurant.  They have cheap, good food and a cozy ambience.  I wanted to have misunderstood, to be wrong in my suspicions.  So, when Alastair returned from the car, I asked him to go in on his own and organize a table so we could see what would happen.  If they were genuinely full and if Megan was not the reason for me being shooed out, then he should come out empty-handed too.

Do you know what they said to him?  ‘Table for two?  Sure no problem, come through.’  He turned and walked straight back out the door.

images-50My rejection by the restaurant gave me a small taste of how protective I can be of my new child.  I also got an inkling of what it must have been like to be black in South Africa during apartheid when people were turned away from cinemas, beaches, shopping centres and restaurants simply because of their skin colour.  Don’t slam a door in my face.  Don’t humiliate me.  Don’t treat me as if I am stupid.

The next restaurant we found was also full but had empty tables.  ‘Listen,’ I said. ‘Is the baby a problem for you?’

At the third restaurant, I arranged a table while Alastair and Megan waited outside.  I didn’t mention the baby.  When I fixed myself at a table and then gave the signal, they charged through the door.  Megan was a star and spent the entire meal sucking her toys.  Al tried to kick start the conversation but I was too furious and spent the entire time plotting my revenge.  I daydreamed about borrowing a friend’s dog, going to that restaurant and encouraging it to shit on the floor.  Next time, I imagined I would get Alastair to arrange a table and then Megan and I could burst in.  I could breastfeed her without a polite covering and then flash at the other patrons.  That would be fun.

I probably won’t do any of those things but, when I got home, I wrote a fast and furious review on TripAdvisor.  I poured out my humiliation and irritation through my fingers and gave them a one star review titled ‘rude bunch of liars’.  Now I can move on.

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Three things I like about Switzerland

December 21, 2012

Switzerland is the home of Birchermuseli

I discovered Birchermuseli when I was in hospital in August.  Meals were a la carte and a nurse persuaded me to order Birchermuseli when she kissed her fingertips and said it was ‘magnifique’.

When my food arrived, I lifted the domed, silver lid covering the bowl.  I wasn’t impressed.  It looked like slop, like a big bowl of gluey goop.  I later learned that museli is a Swiss German invention and means ‘puree’ or ‘mash up’ so I suppose it looked as intended.  I nibbled on a teaspoonful and it was truly ‘magnifique’.  My body felt healthier with every mouthful. Many cereal-based health foods are as appetising as eating a Styrofoam cup but Birchermuseli is delicious.

IMG00221-20121218-1925Birchermuseli is museli with a twist.  I think that when I go through my museli-for-breakfast phases, I make some approximation of it although Birchermuseli is very soft and less crunchy.  There are many variations but the base recipe is a mix of rolled oats, natural yoghurt, fruit, honey and lemon juice.

I was so taken with this tasty mush that I researched its background.  A Swiss physician invented Birchermuseli in the early 1900’s.  He believed that ‘food of the sunlight’ or cereals, fruits and vegetables were an essential part of patient therapy.  At the time, this was revolutionary because meat was rated high above biological, natural ingredients.  People considered cereals, fruit and vegetables as food for the poor and thought meat was classier.

images-5I discovered that, here in Switzerland, you can buy ready-made Birchermuseli in a tub.  You can also make it yourself but I still can’t get it right.  I have become a Birchermuseli connoisseur as I am on a quest to find the tastiest version.  So far, Manor’s recipe is tops.  (Manor is the Swiss equivalent of Woolworths or Marks&Spencer)

Insurance pays for French conversation and la rééducation du périnée 

One day I invited my hospital roommate for tea.  She was late because she was delayed at the physio.

‘Shame, why do you need physio?’ I asked.

‘It’s nothing serious – it’s for my perineum. It’s being re-educated, la rééducation du périnée.  My gynae prescribed it and insurance will pay.’

‘What? Why I didn’t know about that? How come your perineum is getting re-educated and mine isn’t?’ I whined.  ‘I want to re-educate my perineum too!’

images-28The perineum is the hammock-like muscle that forms the pelvic floor.  It sinks and weakens during pregnancy and childbirth so women tend to pee in their pants when they cough or sneeze.  Not a lot, I found it was a mere quarter of a teaspoon but it was still unexpected and disconcerting.  To get my micropiddles under control, I assumed I should do pelvic crunches or ‘Kegel exercises’ on my own, like my friends in the UK or South Africa.

I had never heard of anyone going to a physio after having a baby.  But France and Switzerland take getting back into shape seriously. In France, national insurance covers the re-education of the perineum and in Switzerland, private insurance pays for the physio appointments.

So far I have had 5 half-hour sessions (the gynae prescribed 6).  The French physio, Camille, uses a combination of techniques.  It is clinical and business-like, yet very intimate.  Camille puts on surgical gloves and leads me in pelvic contractions and little situps.  She then zaps me with a wand-like stick that stimulates the muscles with an electric current.  Sensors on my legs determine whether I am contracting enough to stay above a line on a hand-held electronic device.

What I like most about these sessions (other than that insurance pays for them) is that I get to practice French for 30 minutes. I do all the work while Camille cheers me on so it is the perfect opportunity to talk about the weather, where I live, where she lives, where I come from, where she comes from etc.  It is only now, as I write this, that I realize it’s a little odd to chitchat to a stranger while I contract and relax and she has her gloved hand up my crotch.

The Swiss take trust and responsibility to a different level

I’ve noticed it is rare to pay cash upfront or COD.  The Swiss prefer to send you a bill later and they trust you will pay it.

One time, after I finished at the dental hygienist, I pulled out my wallet to settle the bill.  ‘Naaah.’  She yawned. ‘I’ll send you an invoice.  I’m going for lunch.  Pay later.’

I stood with my credit card in my hand and looked at her, like a stunned animal.  No business has ever refused my money before.  I wanted to pay and she turned me down.  She runs her own practice – surely she needs her cash asap?

images-41This happens all the time.  The Swiss are not bothered about cash flow.  I once bought some wine after a tasting at a local farm.  The owner told me to take the bottles and then he would send me a bill later.

Since Megan’s birth, I’ve become a regular at the pharmacy.  I never take out my wallet regardless of what I buy.  They send everything directly to insurance.

Once I bought a box of tissues and I wanted to pay for them then and there as insurance obviously wouldn’t cover it.  ‘No, nothing to pay,’ they said as they waved me away. The pharmacy claimed the tissues from insurance.  Insurance paid the pharmacy and then invoiced me.  The pharmacy, and then insurance effectively gave me a loan for the tissues because I only paid for them through internet-banking about two months later.

Even though the Swiss create all this unnecessary extra paperwork for themselves, they are still remarkably efficient.  I like that they assume people are responsible and honourable which is why I was so embarrassed when I received a warning for an unpaid CHF 30 invoice.  I felt I let them down and I don’t want to break the cycle and pop this bizarre utopian bubble.


What I have learned so far … PART TWO

December 13, 2012

Megan loved sleeping on her stomach

It is taboo for a baby to sleep on its stomach because there is a small chance it causes cot death.  I put Megan on her tummy during her daytime naps, when I could tip toe into her room every five minutes to check she was still breathing.  This position eased her wind and she slept like a baby, as they say.

images-11No one shouts from the rooftops that their child sleeps on its tummy but, after some investigation, I discovered that many parents allow it off the record, on the QT and very hush hush.

I asked my midwife if it was fine.  She said, ‘Julie, I will get into trouble if I say you can do it.  A child is most likely to die of cot death if it is overdressed and sleeps on its stomach in an overheated, unventilated room.  A baby is often happier on its tummy but this position is not in vogue at the moment.  Trust your instinct.’

I asked my pediatrician and she said, ‘Julie, as a medical professional I am not allowed to tell you it is fine.  I don’t recommend it.  By the way, I am also a mother and my 4-month old baby sleeps on his tummy.’

After all that winking and beating around the bush, I took it as tacit approval that I wouldn’t be arrested for letting my baby sleep on its tummy.  Anyway, my research is academic now as Megan wears a brace for her hips and it forces her to sleep on her back.  What a pity.  This is why she sleeps less peacefully than she did before.

The Swiss medical system may drive me insane

The Swiss medical system seems too democratic and collaborative.  Today I took Megan to the pediatrician because her tongue is whiter than usual.  The doctor suspects she has light Les Champignons (Mushrooms) and apparently many babies get it.  This is the Swiss/French term for thrush and it usually requires mild medication.  The doctor said, ‘I can prescribe something and this will solve the problem or we can just leave it.  What would you like to do?  Medication or wait?’

DownloadedFile-2A month ago when Megan was due for vaccines, the doctor asked if I would like to go ahead with them or not.  The orthopedic pediatrician who is dealing with Megan’s weak hips asked if we wanted her to wear a brace or just wait a while.

Each time I have replied, ‘If Megan was your child, what would you do?  Recommend something.  We will do whatever you think is best.’

It annoys me that I even have to say that.  Don’t ask me what I think – do what you think!  I don’t know anything about hips or vaccines or Mushrooms. I am not a doctor.  The point of seeing a medical professional is to get an assertive, expert recommendation.  If I wanted to make important medical decisions myself, I wouldn’t pay an arm and a leg for a doctor – I would just research things on Google.  I hate decisions.  I can’t even decide simple things such as what to make for dinner.

Daytime sleep problems are often solved by a trip in the car

I wish Megan slept more during the day.  Often she is tired but she fights it and fights me as I push her towards sleep.  She punches the air with angry fists, yawns, crumples her face and cries.  She arches her back and then straightens and stiffens her limbs as if she has rigour mortis, which makes it difficult for me to handle her.

A friend said that some days, when she is at the end of her tether, she loads her kids into the car and drives them round the block.  Once they fall asleep, she heads to the McDonald’s drivethrough for a coffee and then she chills out with her cappuccino and Kindle in the parking lot.

images-28When I heard that story, I thought, ‘Ridiculous!  I am not pandering to kids like that.  I am in charge, not them.  Megan is a normal child, not royalty.’

Time has passed since I heard that story.  Once the car starts moving, HRH Princess Megan is guaranteed to fall sound asleep too.  Our driveway is sloped so, at the bottom of it, I pump two or three loud revs and then I accelerate and launch up the hill.  This momentum generally knocks Megan out and she is sleeping before I even leave the driveway.  It’s my new trick.

The Paradox

I’ve noticed an interesting paradox about being a mom with a 15 week-old baby.  I have never been so physically knackered in all my life.  If I didn’t have a child and was this pooped, I would want to stay at home and chill out.  Yet, every day, I absolutely must do something.  I have to get out the house because days inside are more tiring than going out.

images-18I was hoping that at this young age Megan would coo quietly on her bouncy chair and watch me do paperwork, write blogs, surf the internet and learn French.  Instead, she needs my full attention most of the time.

I never expected to need to skip around my house with such flamboyancy and flourish but this keeps Megan quiet and entertained.  It is hard to get things done with a baby but I have noticed I can do some housework if it’s at high speed or if I involve her in the job and give her an expressive commentary.  It is exhausting being so enthusiastic about everything.

images-5Megan’s short attention span and need for my constant company means I often have to get out the house.  I say ‘yes’ to all tea invitations and I’ve joined every club under the sun – bible study, book club, baby massage, expat club, mom’s café, gymball, French playgroup, stroller circuit etc.

Going out in this icy winter weather is a mission as the process of strapping Megan into the car seat and putting on her beanie involves much weeping, wailing and gnashing of gums.  She can’t stand it when I tie her up or put something on her head.  Even though outings are an extra faff in winter, it is still worth the effort.

The coordinator of my weekly expat moms’ group said people say things such as, ‘This group saved my life.’  I understand the sentiment, especially in winter.


What I have learned so far … PART ONE

December 5, 2012

It is 3 months since Megan Heidi Surycz joined our family.  Wow, time flies!  What a ride!  Alastair and I have been a steep learning curve.  Here’s an update:

I understand Megan better. 

I think having a baby is like buying a brand new car.  Megan was state of the art and top of the range.  She was the best of the best, kind of like the Lamborghini of babies.

images-54In the hospital, she didn’t do much beside sleep.  I spent hours with her in my arms.  I sniffed that ‘new car’ smell.  I adjusted the mirrors, activated the windscreen wipers, tested each flicker, wiggled the gears and tuned the radio.  ‘Hooray for my new car!’ I thought.  ‘This is easy and fun.  I can drive this thing, no problem.’

There was great hoo-ha and excitement as I drove my new car off the show room floor and headed home.

But you can’t just hop in and off you go.  A new, fresh-from-the-factory car takes some getting used to.  It needs wearing in.  It is more complicated than it looks.

At first I over-revved the engine and crunched the gears.  I reversed when I meant to go forwards.  Some days, I started the car in third gear instead of first.  I activated the windscreen wipers when I intended to turn on the flicker.  I totally underestimated my car’s power to weight ratio – my teeny tiny car had overwhelming power compared to its size. Often I felt it was driving me when I was supposed to be driving it.  The brakes were stiff and sometimes I felt the car was difficult to stop and one day we just kept on going and going until we ran out of petrol. And the noise, wow, I didn’t realize Lamborghinis could make such a racket!

You can’t learn to be a mother from books, just as you can’t learn to drive a car from a manual alone.  You must be gentle on yourself as you learn how to ‘drive’ this strange new creature.  It was around the 13-week mark, when we were cruising along, that I thought, ‘By Jove, I think I’ve got it!’

images-56I am building some structure and routine into Megan’s life.  We are getting in sync.  At first I found it hard to understand Megan’s needs but now I have a vague idea what she wants.  It helps to listen to the tone of her cries.  For example, when she is tired, she punches the air with her fists and her cry is hoarse and raspy, as if she’s just chain-smoked a pack of cigarettes.  I am especially in tune and responsive to her worn-out cry for, if I act fast, I can put my feet up for 30 minutes while she sleeps.

No-name brands are a no no

DownloadedFile-3Before Megan was born, I stocked up on Pampers and some no-name brand nappies as part of my constant quest to buy in bulk, economize and save cash.

Anything other than Pampers is a waste of time.  Other brands don’t fit snugly, they don’t absorb properly, they leak etc.  I am not usually brand conscious but nothing is as good as Pampers.  It is not worth skimping and fussing about price when it comes to nappies.

I love Telament

images-55During my pregnancy, my cousin gave me some Telament Pediatric Drops and said, ‘Trust me. You will need this.’  Telament is used for colic and wind and it is only available in South Africa.

During the first couple of weeks, Megan could not settle in the evenings.  She battled to burp and her stomach was sore.  She screamed on and off until she faded and withered off to sleep.

One particularly rough week, Al wasn’t around and I couldn’t cope with her pain and rage.  I opened the Telament and put 3 or 4 drops on Megan’s dummy.  It was as if I stuffed a sock in her mouth.  It calmed her instantly and helped release giant burps that cracked like a whip.

Alastair returned and was not charmed with the new state of affairs.  He pulled me aside.  ‘Julie,’ he said.  He looked me in the eyes, concerned and serious.   ‘I am not happy about you using these drops.  We must burp Megan and put her to sleep without using this colic, wind stuff.  I don’t want us to become dependent on it.’

Let me cut a long story short.

Recently Alastair pulled me aside.  ‘Julie,’ he said.  He looked me in the eyes, concerned and serious.  ‘The Telament is nearly finished.  Whatever happens, you must make sure we are never without this stuff.’ 

After six thirty

Generally Alastair gets home from work at 18h30.  The other day, he was late.  He walked through the front door and I yapped, ‘Where the hell have you been?’  It was 18h36.

‘Julie, I am 6 minutes late.’

‘6 minutes or 60 minutes!  At this stage of the day, I can’t tell the difference.  I need you.’

images-4I once saw a poster that said, ‘Where do children get their energy?  They take it out of their parents.’  I adore spending the day with Megs and it’s the best job ever.  But by 18h30 my tank is dry.  I become dazed and irritable and my eyes feel heavy and strained, as if they’ve been wearing tight shoes.  I need Al to relieve me so I can restore my energy supplies with a bit of Me Time.

Sometimes Al bursts through the door with a ‘Yo yo! Wassup!’ kind of buoyancy and I bark back, especially if Megan has just passed out and I am reeling from one of her overtired evening meltdowns.  He’s learned to not take this personally.  I don’t mean it.  I’m just tired, that’s all.

Where can I change a nappy?

I never noticed this before but few places cater for changing a nappy.  If they do, the changing table is generally filthy with dried pee stains on it.  It’s gross.

images-58Once when I was on a flight from London to Toronto, a lady near me changed her baby’s poopey nappy at her seat.  I was mute with shock.  Sis!  Yuk!  Ew!  How selfish to force a full plane to smell and view the contents of your baby’s bum!

A few Saturdays ago, we went on a day trip to Annecy in France.  Megan’s nappy was swelling like a balloon but I couldn’t find a single place with a changing area. We had lunch in a restaurant and I contemplated changing the nappy on our table.  Now I feel slightly more forgiving and sympathetic towards that lady on the aeroplane.  When you are desperate, you can do crazy things.

Part 2, part 3 and possibly a part 4 follows with more things I have learned.  As I said, the curve is steep!