Being Kind

September 15, 2016

One of my neighbours is something to behold. I didn’t catch her name the first time I heard it so we just refer to her as Cruella. In the 3 years we’ve been in our house, we haven’t had much interaction because our entrances are on different roads and our properties are separated by a wooden fence and a thick hedge. The original owners of our house warned us she was a difficult battleaxe.

cruellaHer hair is bleached blond and she bakes herself dark brown by spending hours lying topless in the sun. All summer I have had a good view of her tits from my upstairs bedroom window. She looks tough, cold and nasty. She’s the sort of woman who would leave you to the crocodiles. She might even push you in. Her family appears somewhat low class. I don’t mean to be a snob, but a fact’s a fact. In South Africa, you would call them skollie and the English would say they are chavs.

This lady, Cruella, planted bamboo against the border fence between our house and hers. Bamboo grows fast and in all directions, like weeds, and you need a flame thrower to keep it at bay. It’s out of control and we’re tired of the tangled mess. We want our neighbours to cut it back, so to prune it and take control of the growth and make the area pretty again.

I consulted the village commune for some advice on my rights and they said that sort of plant on a property’s border must be kept to 2m max. When I told them who my neighbour was, they hinted I should get the Judge of the Peace involved from the beginning. I got the impression my neighbour has a reputation in village circles. I love it that Swiss villages have an independent judge of the peace who arbitrates any disputes. I felt it wasn’t right to use him from the outset and should at least speak to the lady first.

I wrote a jaunty letter that was fine-tuned by my French teacher. If I received a sweet note like that, I would be out in the garden on receipt of it, pruning with my nail scissors if I had to. Nothing happened. When we returned from America, the bamboo had grown a further few feet and waved at us in the wind, like a giant eff-you to our polite request.

photo-2I felt ill at the implications of this. I would need to speak to the lady face-to-face. I put it off for days. It became about more than the bamboo. It grew into a personal mission for me to overcome my fear and face a potentially confrontational woman on the back foot ie in French. I’ve never coped well with difficult people, even in English. That’s why I am a useless leader. I can’t think on my feet. I freeze and then afterwards I replay conversations in intricate detail and despise myself when I imagine all the clever, articulate responses I could have made but didn’t.

One afternoon, the girls and I set off. I was quivering with dread.

Now you are probably thinking I made a big deal out of nothing. I didn’t. It was as I expected. I have never in my life been spoken to with such venom over a topic as stupid as pruning some bamboo. This woman greeted me with an inflamed and savage face and launched into a monologue about why she absolutely will not, under any circumstances, cut her bamboo. She was terrifying. Even my usually rambunctious girls cowered around my legs and listened goggle-eyed. Megan was mesmerized and disturbed by her long white false fingernails, which were actually more like talons.

To cut a long story short, over the course of our 30 minute discussion, it was as if I was diffusing a bomb with kindness, gentleness and grace. This was not my choice.   I wanted to dominate her and put her straight because I know I am right and in terms of the rules of the village – and Switzerland is all about rules – she is legally obliged to cut her bamboo. Sadly I was incapacitated by my shock and had no alternative but to be somewhat mute and defenceless. I listened and nodded at her rant which then led to a walk through her garden where she preached at me next to the wretched bamboo. I forgot my French and repeated breathlessly and incoherently, ‘I want to have good relations. Let’s be nice. Can you cut the bamboo like we cut our hair? I want you to give it a little haircut.’

It would be a truly disgusting human being who couldn’t melt at the sight of a nervous, flushed young mum who bumbles about in a foreign language and squeaks for you to cut your bamboo’s hair. Eventually Cruella realized I was harmless and she apologized for being so cold and distant at first. She said, ‘I’m like that with everybody.’ It is no wonder she has such a bad reputation.

She agreed, ok fine, she will trim the bamboo in the autumn. I will believe that when I see it.  She even offered Megan an ice-cream. We shook hands and I waved and wished her a great afternoon. What a turnaround. ‘What the heck just happened there?’ I wondered as we walked home.

nice-guyLook at this picture on the left. This is one of the kindest people I have met lately. I took a photo of him as a souvenir so I won’t lose faith in the goodness in the human race.

In August we went to an indoor play area in Toronto. I forgot the nappy bag at home and, Murphy’s Law, Jessica had a major blow out and I needed to clean her up and change her asap. I asked the staff where I could buy some nappies and was given directions to the nearest shop, which didn’t sound so near. Drive past three traffic lights, turn left, turn right … I must have looked baffled. The manager said, ‘Forget it. I will go for you.’

This fellow took his own car and went past three traffic lights, turned left, turned right, parked, selected my nappies and used his initiative to buy wipes as well. He stood in a queue, paid for the items with his own money (I later reimbursed him) and then drove back. He did all that just for me. He said he has a 2 year old too and he understood. I was completely and utterly blown away by his unexpected kindness to me.

Moral of the story: Some people are lovely and some people are not. Either way, a little kindness goes a long way.

roald-dahl

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Counting rings in North America

September 7, 2016

We spent most of August in North America – two weeks in Chicago and a week in Toronto. I love North America. Sometimes I wish that, like Bruce Springsteen, I was born in the USA. If I didn’t live in Switzerland, I would dash to North America. I’ve now invested too much in French to move anywhere else. I enjoy my calm, small village life but it is refreshing to have a break from the rigidity and standoffishness of the Swiss and dip into the warmth and hospitality of America.

The time in Chicago was surreal because the experience was so unexpected. Two years ago, I would never have dreamed I would be visiting my brother, Gavin, and his family in Chicago.

If he had never moved to the US, I probably would never have spent two weeks of quality time with him in his home. In Durban, I always stay with my mom. It’s difficult to chat properly on Skype because of the time difference and kids bouncing around. This trip was the perfect opportunity to spend a chunk of proper, get-to-know-you-again face time together.

Bonding at the dinner table. My favourite part of the trip.

I once read a poem that went something like, ‘I want to cut you open and count your rings.’ That’s what I like doing to people. Not in an intense or morbid way, but I enjoying discovering what makes people tick, what are the things that mark or drive them, what is their central ring. Families are supposed to see and understand and challenge and love each other’s rings. I loved getting into our rings in Chicago.  That was the highlight of the trip.

When I got home, everything seemed so small in comparison to America. It was as if my Swiss life was in Mini-land. My mini dishwasher, mini washing machine, mini fridge, mini car, mini stove, mini playgrounds, mini restaurant portions, teeny tiny everything. An adult (or two) could climb inside the average American-sized washing machine. Everything about America is BIG.

BIG trolleys - space for 2 kids

BIG trolleys – space for 2 kids

BIG popcorn - check how my arm muscles are straining!

BIG popcorn – notice how my arm muscles are straining!

BIG burrito at the Cheesecake Factory. It was the size of my arm and my stomach got a fright and I only had 3 bites and took the rest as takeaway.

BIG burrito at the Cheesecake Factory. It was the size of my arm and my stomach got a fright and I only had 3 bites and took the rest as takeaway.

Americans are so naive. Sometimes it’s cute, such as when the shop assistant asked if we use US dollars in Switzerland but sometimes it is not, such as when that nutter Trump gets so far in an election. At Gavin’s church, a guy told us that he mixes up the Australian and South African accents, possibly because the two countries are located so close together. Errr, not quite.   That reminds me! Once, when I was working at PwC, an American colleague and qualified chartered accountant said, in dead seriousness, that she dreamed of visiting a mine in Africa so that she could chip away at the rock and collect herself some diamonds.

America feels more foreign to me than many other countries I’ve visited. Everything seems different, as if they have created their own planet. Sometimes they change things to suit themselves. Entrée is the French word for entrance so, in restaurants, it’s the starters on a menu. The Americans changed it. For them, it is the main course and they call starters something else (appetizers!)

Even the food is so different. I love roaming around American grocery stores. It’s a whole new world, with new horizons to explore. Americans love cinnamon or peanut butter flavoured anything, which is odd since every Tom, Dick and Harry has a nut allergy. Choosing cheese was time-consuming. What was Colby jack, Monterey jack, Wisconsin sharp or Pepper jack? I couldn’t find plain, simple cheddar so I picked Swiss cheese but there was nothing Swiss about it – it was just cheese with holes in it.

I discovered kale popcorn, pumpkin cheesecake biscuits, liquid eggs and buttermilk bread. The cashier let me open the kale popcorn bag and sample them before I bought them. Is that customer service or what?

food

The ‘cracked and ready’ liquid eggs intrigued me. A useful product, since cracking an egg takes so much time and all *wink wink*

This trip I noticed that the Americans are becoming more aware of the contents of their food. It seems that people want reassurance that the food is natural, free of GMOs, additives, colourants, preservatives and other dodgy chemicals. That’s progress from when I was there in 2003 and a gallon of milk and loaf of bread lasted me over a month. I always wondered what was inside them.

I could spend hours wondering around the supermarket or drop me off at the library and I’m in my element. I wish we had US-style libraries in Switzerland. I’d be there all the time. My local one is the size of their family toilet cubicle. That’s another thing I loved about the US. There are family toilets that are big enough to contain the entire brood, a trolley and a pram. You can all do your business with an audience, just like at home.

BIG family toilet at the mall - with TV, couches, the works!

BIG family toilet at the mall – with TV, couches, the works!

Another thing that’s different about America is the aircon. Aircon is everywhere. I’m not an aircon kinda gal. Aircon in homes makes me feel as if I’m separated from the world in some icy capsule. I like fresh air, even if it is warm. When it’s hot in Switzerland and my American friends complain about the lack of aircon, I don’t get it. I agree it is sometimes nice to step from the hot, steamy, dog’s breath air outside into the crisp, almost surgical chill of an air-conditioned establishment. I just don’t think it is environmentally friendly to cool places to the extent that you need to take along a jacket when it is baking hot outside. I remember when I was at a restaurant in Miami in 2011 and a guy at a table across from ours wrapped himself in the tablecloth to keep warm.

I used to love Starbucks. When I moved to the UK from South Africa, Starbucks was super cool. After European coffee, Starbucks is like dishwater. European coffee is smooth and velvety. You can drink it down in about 5 sips. It’s more about the quality than the quantity and I would rather have European coffee in a thimble than the American version in their bucket-sized cups.

I took this picture of a European café (not an expresso) that I finished in 4 glorious sips. It's proper coffee.

I took this picture of un café (not an expresso) that I finished in 4 big glorious sips. It’s proper coffee.

Talking about Starbucks. I was in one in Toronto and placed my order. The barista picked up a cup and then I changed my mind about the size so he chucked it in the bin. Al reckoned he was legally obliged to do that because he got his germy fingerprints on it. The waste irritated me and after much mumbling and steaming and frothing at the mouth, Al told me to ‘calm down. It’s just a cup.’ But it is not just a cup. It’s the North American mentality of abundance, excess and waste.

Here’s another example. I bought a handful of groceries and the packer used multiple bags. She put my magazine in its own bag, the dairy products in another, the eggs in another, the bread in another and my shampoo all on its lonesome in yet another one. ‘Why so many bags?’ I asked. ‘We don’t like to cross-contaminate the groceries,’ she replied. Blimey. I’m not sure what the shampoo could have passed to the magazine.

I almost forgot to tell you! We were squashed in the lift going down the Hancock tower in downtown Chicago and two men were speaking a Slavic language. I wondered out loud which one it was and some guy turned around and said, ‘I think it’s French.’

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘I speak French and that’s definitely not it.’ He looked impressed.  That was my happy moment for the day – being able to say I speak French! I was so chuffed, I even exited the lift with a little skip and a clap. The problem is that whenever I feel remotely confident and my head swells slightly, then French reminds me how far I still have to go. It’s been difficult getting back into the groove now that I have returned. French went deep into hibernation in my head, like a fat and lazy bear. I had to kick and slap and shake back into life again and I’m still struggling.  Oh, who cares!  It is worth it for a trip that was so happy and fun.

With family in Chicago

With family in Chicago

With family in Toronto

With family in Toronto