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!?!?!

 


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.

 


Books read in 2016

January 10, 2017

I’ve always loved reading and for as long as I can remember, I’ve read at least a book a week. When I say I enjoy reading, most people say, ‘I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy.’ People assume that because I read a lot, then I must have loads of time on my hands. I don’t and I never read for more than 5 minutes at a go during the day. I just make the time, that’s all. It’s a question of priorities. Every spare moment, I read. While I wait for the kettle to boil, always in the loo, sometimes while cooking. If you can’t make space in your life for things you enjoy then what the hell is the point of living.

glowing-bookFor me, there is nothing more beautiful and instructive and magical as a novel. Books are revelations, private lessons, wells of beauty and pleasure. When I read, I feel like Alice in Wonderland tumbling down the rabbit hole. There is a special kind of sadness when you finish a great book. I always read about five books at the same time. I juggle and switch between them like a DJ spinning discs.

I love words. No other art form moves me as much as words. Words are my music. Read this excerpt from Gary Provost book and see what I mean:

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

So write with a combination of short, medium, and long sentences. Create a sound that pleases the reader’s ear. Don’t just write words. Write music.

Cool hey?

I’ve always devoured World War 2 books. I’m fascinated by how supposedly civilized Europe descended into such a dark and demonic period not even a hundred years ago. Both my grandfathers apparently had distressing experiences during the war and I have no clue what happened to either of them as they clammed up and never spoke to anyone in any detail about it. Over the past 10 years, there has been a wave of memoirs published as eyewitnesses are getting older and dying off and suddenly realising, ‘Oh shit. We should have told someone. This is important.’ This year I’ve been catching up on these books.

I find Holocaust stories strangely uplifting and inspiring. You can’t help but feel sane and blessed when you read true stories of extreme loss, starvation, terror, courage and endurance. World War 2 memoirs are some of the most extraordinary stories of courage, resistance and hope. I’ve learned from this topic that when everything else is destroyed, what you are and who you are and what you know are the things that count and they cannot be taken from you.

I still can’t fathom how ordinary people tolerated the Nazis and not only allowed them to do what they did, but actively participated in it. It was the Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who said that ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either but right through every human heart.’ I believe we all have the same seeds in us, the same potential for evil in certain conditions and in certain circumstances.

The scary thing is that people are under the false impression that the Nazis were to blame for everything. They fail to realise that Hitler’s original plan was not to annihilate the Jews. He just wanted them out of Germany to make the place Jew-free. The Holocaust happened because no one else wanted the Jews. It was then that Hitler realised the world didn’t care. It was this failure to find a place for the Jews that prompted the Final Solution that killed 6 million of them. The Nazis played on anti-Semitic feelings that already existed throughout Europe, particularly in Poland which was virulently anti-Semitic. Did you know that the Jews are the most hated and persecuted people in history? I think Europe is still anti-Semitic but it is now more undercover and cloaked in that socially acceptable, politically correct form which is ‘Anti-Israel’. I have a soft spot for Jews, as you can tell.

Favourite books of 2016

My two favourite books for 2016 were … drumroll … ‘Escape from Sobibor’ by Richard Rashke and Trevor Noah’s memoir called ‘Born a Crime’. Escape from Sobibor is a riveting true story. It is absolutely mind blowing. The world would be a nicer place if everyone read that book. I will never forget it. I feel I am a better person for having read it.

Trevor Noah’s book was light and well-written and it brilliantly articulated racial issues in South Africa. I could relate to so much of what he said, albeit as an observer from the other, more privileged side of the racial fence.

Notable mentions

I’ve put the books I most enjoyed in red in the list below. Maggie O’Farrell is my favourite writer and her book ‘This must be the place’ was as absorbing as ever. I enjoyed Kuki Gallmann’s ‘I dreamed of Africa’ and I read some good psychological thrillers by BA Paris and Tammy Cohen. Paula Daly’s ‘Keep your friends close’ was excellent escapism.  Jane Fallon’s ‘Strictly between us’ was light and fun and Sarah Morgan’s romantic contemporary fiction provided some fluffy, mindless relief after the heavier World War 2 fare.

Thomas Friedman’s new book was very educational and stimulating. It was interesting to learn the extent to which climate change acts as the amplifier of today’s political challenges such as economic migrants, interethnic conflicts and extremism.  I didn’t realize that climate change was one of the main factors in the Syrian civil war. Before the war began, Syria suffered the worst drought in its modern history and the government did nothing to help. This was a critical stressor that fuelled the uprising. Fascinating and also scary because Donald Trump thinks climate change isn’t a big deal. Oh boy.

Anyway, here is my list:

  1. Orphan Train by CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE
  2. Rumours by FREYA NORTH
  3. After Auschwitz: A story of heartbreak and survival by the stepsister of Anne Frank by EVA SCHLOSS
  4. Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz by THOMAS HARDING
  5. Black Rabbit Hall by EVE CHASE
  6. Sleigh Bells in the Snow by SARAH MORGAN
  7. Suddenly Last Summer by SARAH MORGAN
  8. Maybe this Christmas by SARAH MORGAN
  9. The House by the Lake: A Story of Germany by THOMAS HARDING
  10. Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor’s True Story of Auschwitz by OLGA LENGYEL
  11. Some Kind of Wonderful by SARAH MORGAN
  12. First Time in Forever by SARAH MORGAN
  13. Christmas Ever After by SARAH MORGAN
  14. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by ALFRED LANSING
  15. The Lucky Child: A Memoir of Surviving Auschwitz as a Young Boy by THOMAS BUERGENTHAL
  16. Sleepless in Manhattan by SARAH MORGAN
  17. Summer Kisses by SARAH MORGAN
  18. A Rose from the Ashes by ROSE PRICE
  19. Christ in the Passover by CEIL AND MOISHE ROSEN
  20. Playing by the Greek’s Rules by SARAH MORGAN
  21. Doukakis’s Apprentice by SARAH MORGAN
  22. The Nazi Officer’s Wife by EDITH HAHN BEER
  23. Wine by CARO FEELY
  24. On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood by IRMGARD HUNT
  25. Hitler’s Last Witness: Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard by ROCHUS MISCH
  26. Strictly Between Us by JANE FALLON
  27. Behind Closed Doors by BA PARIS
  28. He was my Chief: Memoir’s of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary by CHRISTA SCHROEDER
  29. Before She was Bad by TAMMY COHEN
  30. Getting Rid of Matthew by JANE FALLON
  31. Anne Frank Remembered by MIEP GIES
  32. The Girl in the Green Sweater by KRYSTYNA CHIGER
  33. La Trahison d’Alekos Zakorokis by SARAH MORGAN
  34. The Big Short by MICHEAL LEWIS
  35. This Must Be The Place by MAGGIE O’FARRELL
  36. Un Epoux Inattendu by ANNE MCALLISTER
  37. Night by ELIE WIESEL
  38. First One Missing by TAMMY COHEN
  39. Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory by CHIL RAJCHMAN
  40. Clara’sWar by CLARA KRAMER
  41. In the Garden of Beasts by ERIK LARSON
  42. The Pianist by WLADYSLAW SZPILMAN
  43. I Will Plant you a Lilac Tree by LAURA HILLMAN
  44. The Boy on the Wooden Box by LEON LEYSON
  45. The Stranger on the Road to Emmaus by JOHN R CROSS
  46. The News by ALAIN DE BOTTON
  47. Alicia by ALICIA APPLEMAN
  48. Un si Seduisant Milliardaire by EMMA DARCY
  49. The Joe Rubinstein Story by NANCY SPROWELL GEISE
  50. Into that Darkness by GITTA SERENY
  51. Escape from Sobibor by RICHARD RASHKE
  52. Sunset in Central Park by SARAH MORGAN
  53. Story of a Secret State by JAN KARSKI
  54. I Found You by LISA JEWELL
  55. 100 Ways to Improve your Writing by GARY PROVOST
  56. Le Plus Parfait des Amants by JOSS WOOD
  57. I See You by CLARE MACINTOSH
  58. The Hell of it All by CHARLIE BROOKER
  59. Eyewitness Auschwitz by FILIP MULLER
  60. Boy by ROALD DAHL
  61. I Dreamed of Africa by KUKI GALLMANN
  62. Going Solo by ROALD DAHL
  63. The Silver Sword by IAN SERRAILLIER
  64. Goodnight Mister Tom by MICHELLE MAGORIAN
  65. Got You Back by JANE FALLON
  66. Foursome by JANE FALLON
  67. Fascinee par un seducteur by SHARON KENDRICK
  68. Truly Madly Guilty by LIANE MORIARTY
  69. Miracle on 5th Avenue by SARAH MORGAN
  70. Freres de Sang by MIKAEL OLLIVIER
  71. Test of Courage by MICHEL THOMAS/CHRISTOPHER ROBBINS
  72. Youth in Flames by ALIZIA VITIS-SHOMRON
  73. The Bravest Battle by DAN KURZMAN
  74. A Painted Ocean by GABRIEL PACKARD
  75. Golden Fox by WILBUR SMITH
  76. Born a Crime by TREVOR NOAH
  77. Un Aigle dans La Neige by MICHAEL MORPURGO
  78. The Final Curtsey by MARGARET RHODES
  79. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to the Future By THOMAS FRIEDMAN
  80. The Mistake I Made by PAULA DALY
  81. Keep your Friends Close by PAULA DALY
  82. What Kind of Mother are You? by PAULA DALY

 

 


Fog, walks, DVD boxsets, sisters and Amahit

December 28, 2016

When I was a child, I sometimes looked up to the sky and wondered how it would feel to touch a cloud or be inside one.   I was sure I could cosy up in the soft white fluff or bounce on the cotton wool.

It’s nothing like I imagined. Clouds are cold and wet and leave little icy beads on everything they touch. They are very disappointing. I know this because, for the past few weeks, I’ve literally been inside one.

brouillard

Every year around this time, there is some sort of temperature difference between the air and the lake and it produces a blanket of cloud over the water. It settles over the Lake Geneva basin like a heavy, grey lid. The bleakness depresses even the most upbeat of people.

We live further from the lake and higher up the hill so sometimes we bask in the blue skies and sunshine and look out at the tablecloth of cloud below us. It’s so pretty when viewed from above, not from below. However, recently this cloud cloth has crawled up towards us and shrouded our village. Most mornings I open the curtains and the cloud is so low and so near that I can almost reach out and touch it with my fingertips. It’s very misty moors, like a scene out of Wuthering Heights.

Walks

Even though it’s like a fridge in the cloud, I still try to walk the girls every day. Children are like puppies so they need their daily dose of fresh air and exercise.   What is it with kids and walking? They can be inside bursting with energy, tearing round the house and bouncing off the walls but as soon as you say, ‘Shoes on! We’re going for a walk!’ there’s cries of resistance and they can’t seem to muster enough energy to put one foot in front of the other. We take about 20 minutes to put on their winter layers and then they sit like lumps in the double pram while I heave it round the block as if it’s their wheelchair.

Sometimes walks start off well and they take their scooters or maybe a doll and mini pram. Half way through the walk, they lose interest and then I have to somehow lug this paraphernalia home. The idea behind a walk is to tire them out but it tends to tire me out. My friends have the same issue and one even said, ‘It’s a conspiracy against parents.’

walking-with-child

One of the keys to successful walks in winter is to make sure the children are dressed appropriately and that all body parts are covered and warm. Children will moan for the smallest exposed area so if the baby toe is chilly or a sock gets damp, then the excursion is a disaster and you have to head back home. With children, there’s a fine line between contentment and sheer misery and they can swing from one mood to the other in a flash.

o3gug7hIn winter it takes a long time to dress for going out but it takes Megan and Jessica split seconds to remove the clothing on our return. They detest being either too hot or too cold. It reminds me of the scene in the movie Bruce Almighty where Jim Carrey uses his powers as God to remove his clothes instantly. Al and I now call it ‘doing the Bruce Almighty’ so we may arrive at the shops and Megan and Jessica wave their bare toes at us from their car seats and then we say, ‘Oh dear, they’ve done the Bruce Almighty on their feet.’

Boxsets

Every year around Christmas time Al and I work our way through a DVD boxset. Last year it was Suits. Recently I stumbled upon the American series called Parks and Recreation. It’s about a group of people who work in the civil service in a one-horse town in America. It’s a hoot.  I think the reason why I love this series so much is because it reminds me of the public sector work I did in Johannesburg.

parks-and-recWhen I first started working after university, I was a missile of enthusiasm but after some public sector jobs my optimism, motivation and faith in the efficiency of government sank like a lead balloon. Everyone works in slow motion and I found no one worked under any pressure whatsoever. The day revolved around food and breaks – coffee breaks, snack breaks and lunch. The highlight of the day for people in the civil service is home time at 16h00 on the dot and no later. Try calling someone at 16h03, impossible. They exit the building as if there’s been a bomb scare and they have to vacate the premises at high speed. It was like a parallel universe but great if I needed a low-key, loaf off of a day after the more demanding, high achieving corporate clients.

I was involved in accounting software so I sometimes had to train people at their computers. I often wished I could use surgical gloves because people in government always had greasy, glistening keyboards. It was as if everyone munched cheeseburgers at their desks.

Government offices were either located in the dodgiest parts of downtown or in repossessed buildings. The Department of Agriculture was in an old hospital and had a maze of corridors.  The Department of Correctional Services used an old jail so every office had a heavy duty iron gate. It was surreal.

Because it’s so difficult to get things done in the public service, they celebrated even the smallest milestones as a major breakthrough. When I added the slightest bit of value, it called for the can-can and they thought I was God’s gift, like some sort of savant. It was fantastic for my ego.

True Love

Moving on. This is a photo of one of my happiest moments this month. I was driving and realized that Megan and Jessica had been holding hands for the entire journey. I quickly took this photo at a traffic light so that I can remember how much they love each other even when they are quarrelling and at each other’s throats.

holding-hands

Amahit

To end off, I present you with a princess drawn by Megan aka ‘Amahit’.  She can write ‘Megan’ but she always deliberately and slowly signs her name as ‘Amahit’.  It’s her thing.  I can’t figure out why.  Our house is adorned with the art and crafts of the eccentric and imaginative Amahit.  She’s one of my favourite artists.

amahit


Progress report on the 2016 Happiness Jar

December 1, 2016

In 2016 we continued filling up our Happiness Jar. Every night we think of a moment in the day that made us happy and then we create a visual reminder of it by writing it down on a scrap of paper and placing it in our big glass jar.

jar

These are not things we are grateful for. Gratitude and happiness are different. Gratitude is not necessarily a guarantee of joy, peace or contentment. The Happiness Jar is a targeted, specific exercise to identify an actual instant in the day when you felt most joy or, if life is crap, the moment in the day when you felt the least miserable.

One of my favourite French words is profiter. It literally means ‘to profit’ and the French use it like this, ‘Did you profit from the sunny weather?’ or ‘Let’s profit from the snow and go skiiing’ or ‘My brother now lives in Chicago so we profited from it and visited him.’ It makes me think of taking advantage of situations in such a way that you become richer, like you collect gold coins in your pocket.

10689529_10204231760046429_2292307505744023189_nThese happy, gold-in-the-pocket moments are rarely anything major – cuddles, lying in bed watching DVD boxsets, a real and authentic conversation, moments of fun or connection together, scenery, good weather, a laugh, a coherent French conversation, a delicious meal, cute things Megan and Jessica said or did. The little things stand out and we’ve realized, in doing this exercise for two years now, that the little things are in actual fact the big things.

As Jessica and Megan are growing up, they are getting the idea too. Jessica has the same happy moment every day – it’s drinking breastmilk. We call it ‘milkies’. Megan and Jessica both adored milkies although it is now only Jessica who has it. It’s her crack. She is completely and utterly addicted to a regular fix of milkies from me, as you can tell from her happy moment in the video below:

Based on my life experience so far, I’ve realised that happiness is not something that you wait to fall on you like magic fairy dust. You have to be proactive and do your bit by angling your life in the way you want it to go. I’ve learned that life does not make you happy. You make yourself happy. You choose to be happy or not. You decide.  One of the famous quotes of Russian writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is ‘A man is happy so long as he chooses to be happy.’

swissI read somewhere that children need security, self-worth and significance above all else. I always felt loved in my life but never secure. Over the past four years, for the first time ever, I feel settled and in control, as if I’ve finally come in to port and dropped anchor. It was exhausting living so much of my life out on a dinghy in the open ocean. Now I feel a lot less buffeted about and it’s such a nice feeling. That in itself is a happy moment.

Life is a series of battles and blessings. As I’ve just said, the last four years have been a period of blessing for me. Do you think I can sit back and properly appreciate it? No. Because at the back of my mind I freak out that I am due for a battle and I fret what that will be. I’ve mentioned the paradoxes of parenting so many times on this blog. It’s bizarre that being a mother can make one so happy but also so fearful at exactly the same time. I’m particularly terrified of my mortality and that of my family too. I get stuck in these morbid mental cul de sacs because I desperately don’t want anything to eff up the status quo.

While all my life I’ve sought out the actual, physical place that will make me happy, this year I’ve realised that the only place where I can feel truly content is inside my own head. My mind is very powerful. It can be a chaotic and cavernous place. Until I tame and discipline it and make it a place of peace and refuge, then I will never feel 100% anchored.

mind2In 2016, I’ve taken deliberate, bold steps to get my mind under control in order to live joyfully. I like the concept of mindfulness. It’s the buzzword in self-help circles these days and it makes so much sense to me. What’s the best way to sail a boat? First, make sure the boat is in the water and, second, make sure there is no water in the boat. I see mindfulness as keeping water out of my boat.

First of all, mindfulness is about purging out toxic influences. You wouldn’t pollute a river with industrial sludge so don’t do that to your life, to the environment, to your body or soul. I hold toxic people at arm’s length. I keep toxic substances out of my body and home. I’m conscious about what we eat – minimal pesticide-doused food, no processed junk, no e-numbers, no artificial ingredients, no weird preservatives and reduced sugar. My friend’s mom has cancer and her oncologist said, ‘If you want to beat this disease, don’t eat sugar. Cancer thrives on sugar.’

mind3Modern day technology means that we are constantly overwhelmed by the roar of humanity. It’s difficult to escape from it. The news is full of raw ingredients and I struggle to process and filter them properly. It’s like taking a sip of water from a fire hydrant.  It requires almost monastic discipline for me to turn away from the buzz of connectivity and have a focussed, distraction-free conversation or sit still with my hands on my lap and listen to nothing but my own thoughts.

I’m also controlling toxic sentiments that come from Facebook. I defollow friends who regularly share depressing or fear-mongering information on social media. There are certain subjects, particularly accidents, tragedies and illness, that I don’t want to be force-fed through my newsfeed. I see great value in numbing myself. It is not that I don’t care about the suffering of the world – it is more that I can’t cope with it.

saneI’m trying to be more awake and aware of every moment. That’s the point of the Happiness Jar. I don’t want to pass my days in a stupor and robotically go through the motions like I used to. I’ve noticed wrinkles on my forehead that initially distressed me but then I realized, ‘Hey! Growing old is a gift!’ There are many people who don’t have the privilege of growing older and I want to soak up and appreciate every moment of this powerful, humbling, extraordinary gift.

The problem with being upbeat is that the world tends towards the negative. This year I experienced many WHAT-THE-HELL-IS-GOING-ON moments, what with Brexit, Trump and, closer to home, a sudden change of leadership at our church. I sometimes think it would be nice to pack away my family and isolate ourselves on a deserted island, away from the frustrations and nastiness of humanity.

The wall in the bus stop near our house. It's hard t

This is wall in the bus stop near our house. It’s difficult to feel zenned while standing there. That’s Jessica’s head at the bottom of the picture.  I’m glad she can’t yet read.

The other day a friend invited me over. Her 94 year old grandmother was visiting from England and we had a sweet little chat (a happy moment, actually). I said, ‘Wow you’re 94 years old. You’ve lived through a lot. Tell me, is the world a better place now compared to how it used to be?’ I was thinking particularly of the horrors of World War 2 and how we’ve progressed so much since then. Do you know what she said? No. The world is not a better place. People used to be kinder. She said, ‘These days, everyone is so self-absorbed. People care only about themselves. In England, even during the war, people looked out for each other more.’ Wow, I didn’t realise that.

So, our family project for 2017 is to continue the Happiness Jar but expand the focus. I want us to not just seek out happy moments for ourselves, but to create more for others too. Let’s see how it goes.

DAYS by Philip Larkin

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?


November in a parallel universe

November 12, 2016

Good grief. Trump is president. Comedian Samantha Bee said, ‘Our democracy just hoiked up a marmalade hairball with the whole world watching’.  I must have slipped into a parallel universe. I’m so exhausted by the vitriol and hysteria of this election and I don’t even live in America!

In a country of endless choices and variety where there are over a hundred options on the menu at the Cheesecake Factory (my favourite restaurant in America!), there are only two in politics where it matters most. The US system is so binary.

I can’t identify with the values of either Republicans or Democrats. I think both parties are extreme, immoral, two faced, self-interested, inconsistent and downright bloody awful.

statue-of-libertyPerhaps Hillary was the wrong candidate. She was an insider when people wanted an outsider. She was a bureaucrat who offered to fine-tune and tweak the system when the country (both working class Democrats and Republicans, I think) wanted to take a sledgehammer to it. Bernie Sanders would have probably been better as the Democrat nominee. Things are always clearer with hindsight hey?

I like what a Los Angeles Times journalist called Vincent Bevins wrote. He said that ‘Brexit and Trumpism are the wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to consider for 30 years. Questions such as – Who are the losers of globalization, and how can we spread the benefits to them and ease the transition? Is it fair that the rich can capture almost all the gains of open borders and trade, or should the process be more equitable? Do we actually have democracy, or do banks just decide? Immigration is good for the vast majority, but for the very small minority who see pressure on their wages, should we help them, or do they just get ignored?’

He wrote this: ‘Since the 1980s the elites in rich countries have overplayed their hand, taking all the gains for themselves and just covering their ears when anyone else talks, and now they are watching in horror as voters revolt. It seems in both cases (Trumpism and Brexit), many voters are motivated not so much by whether they think the projects will actually work, but more by their desire to say F*** YOU to people like me (and probably you). These people have some legitimate concerns, and the only outlet to vent they were offered was a terrible one.’ SPOT ON.

Ok, changing the subject …

Cruella

Now that it’s winter, Cruella my whackjob neighbour is using her veranda as a giant fridge. It’s 4 degrees outside and she’s piling drinks and other random groceries on her deckchairs. Oh so trailer trash.

Now that the nights are longer, she’s put her electric tree out in the garden. It’s got a metal trunk and white glass leaves that light up and flash. It’s so bright; it’s like the Star of Bethlehem. Actually, it doesn’t bother me. Every time I look out the window and see her tree blazing forth, I think, ‘Hey let’s disco!’

Living like a well-off peasant

There’s something strange and contradictory about Switzerland. I’ve been ruminating over this for a while. It’s such a rich country yet some aspects of it are backward and rundown, with a sort of impoverished feel about them.

In October my mom visited and she pointed out some of the old, battered buildings and homes in my area and said that if they were transplanted to South Africa, it would be considered a poor and dodgy neighbourhood. But in a little Swiss village, the ramshackle old buildings add to the sweetness and charm.

photo-1

Run down but somehow charming village vibe

Run down but somehow charming village vibe

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As you know I love libraries. When I was in America in August, I was blown away by the one in my brother’s area. It had a huge children’s section with comfortable little reading coves. There was a table of Lego, a table of puzzles and another with a few iPads loaded with educational apps. It was magical. There were so many books that children could take out 50 each go. My local library here in Switzerland is the size of a big cupboard. The Swiss don’t seem to like books. It saddens me that they aren’t bothered about fostering a love of reading and of learning, especially in kids.

Most of the playgrounds could do with a revamp and some TLC and I wonder, where does Switzerland’s money go? They don’t invest much of it in public services for children.

Megan’s little nursery school in the village is in one big room. All the age groups from 2 to 4 years old mingle together. The toys seem worn and clapped out, like they were donated many years ago. The teachers are delightful and ever so loving but the facilities don’t correspond to that of a first world, ubher rich nation. Someone said it’s good, that children should be creative and use their imaginations to do a lot with a little. The jungle gym is worn and sad. I wondered if I should donate some toys but then I thought, ‘Hang on. I pay an arm and a leg for this place’. The atmosphere is very much paysan, which is French for country, peasantish. I love the small town, family values of my area but, for what we pay in fees, I’m surprised the facilities aren’t more upscale and modern.

Even the people here look run down. They are a lot less refined and attractive than in South Africa. South Africans get far more dollied up to leave the house than Europeans do. My mom raised her eyebrows and wondered why I don’t spend more time on my appearance before I go out in public. In South Africa I wouldn’t be caught dead out at the shops looking like I do here in Switzerland.

I asked my mom to observe people around us and point out anyone who made more than a 5 minute effort on their physical appearance. It’s not only me. Most women look like the back of a bus, especially moms. I have no desire to coiffe myself before exiting the house. The only thing I have time to brush is my teeth. I spend 10 seconds getting myself ready because it takes a good 30 minutes to rally the little troops and steer them out the door. Now that it’s winter, it takes even longer to gather the gloves, beanies, jackets, socks and other paraphernalia. I don’t have time to look attractive.

Jessica's idea of being ready to leave the house on a cold winter's day

Jessica’s idea of being ready to leave the house on a cold winter’s day

Summing things up in one image

I found this picture the other day, hahaha I can so relate:

toddler-image

I have story that sums up my own life with toddlers. We went to a crowded pizzeria and found a table that people had just vacated.  It was still covered with dirty plates and scrunched up serviettes. We sat down and suddenly noticed Jessica glugging down the contents of some random stranger’s glass. Al and I both launched towards her as if she had grabbed a grenade. Gross! Noooooo …


A mishmash blog about bamboo, French, Superman and conversations

October 18, 2016

The bamboo

In my last blog I said I would update you on my quest to get the bamboo cut. I can’t be bothered with the drama and pettiness of it anymore so I won’t go into detail. Whenever I read the news, it is terrifying the way America is on the verge of imploding in its political parallel universe and then people are being blown to smithereens in places like Aleppo. There are bigger things to fret about than out-of-control bamboo at our fence.

In the end, a gardening contractor from the village trimmed the bamboo. When I ran into him in the boulangerie, I said I was fed up he cut so little. I told him I have nothing to show for my ordeal with Cruella. He said I should chill and be happy because he ‘murdered’ most of the bamboo and I will see the results of that later, once it has died a slow death. Apparently when you cut a bamboo stalk, it never grows back. Over time it withers away into nothing. We will see.

French friendships

This month I made a new French friend. One on hand, I love pushing myself to practice my social French and on the other hand, I can’t be bothered with the effort and self-consciousness it involves. After my first playdate with my new friend, I was so mentally and almost physically wiped out that I would have liked to be carried home on a stretcher.

imagesWhen I’m with French-speaking friends, I worry I’m one-dimensional and hard work to be around. I can’t express myself as fluidly as I wish and I tend to choose the most hurdy gurdy way to say things. It would be easier for everyone if I adopted more of a so-what, stuff-it attitude and just bulldozed forth. Pity I’m not wired that way.

One of my English friends married a Swiss guy a few years ago. She said her in-laws are always exclaiming, ‘Really? How interesting! Wow, we didn’t know that about you!’ because they are learning things about her now that she was unable to express when she first met them all those years ago. She’s like the gift that keeps on giving. Maybe I should think of friendships with French people as a pass-the-parcel game at a child’s birthday. We need to unwrap the layers one at a time. I should appreciate the suspense and anticipation of slowly uncovering our personalities. In an English speaking friendship, communication is straightforward so there is less to peel away and discover over time. It’s easier to be ‘Tada! This is me! This is who I am!’ from the very beginning.

Feeling like Superman

Every day I look forward to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. I love Stephen Colbert. He’s one of the most hilarious, intelligent comedians I’ve ever come across. Before his show one day, someone in the audience asked him how he knew his wife was The One. He’s been married for 23 years. I can’t think of many people I know who have been married for that time and whose marriages I particularly want to emulate so I enjoyed Stephen Colbert’s response to this question. I hope Al and I can speak of each other with the same enthusiasm after 23 years.

superman2He said that before he met his wife, he was considering marrying another girl. He wasn’t sure so he took a week off and went back to Charleston where he grew up because that was the best place for him to clear his head and think. He said that was the place where he felt grounded and strong, like ‘Superman under the yellow sun’. I love that! I think everyone needs a special place where they can go to feel like Superman under the yellow sun. For me, it used to be home in Africa but now I’m most clear-headed in the mountains. That’s why we often go on day trips because, for both Al and me, it is sweet bliss to be away from it all in the majesty and beauty of mountains.

cn5u1d6w8aa0qz_Funnily enough, every time I go to the US I also feel like Superman under the yellow sun. In the US, I feel I can conquer the world, like anything is possible. When I was there in August, I thought ‘maybe I should try to write a book’ then soon after I got home, I thought ‘maybe I shouldn’t’.

I find Americans are much more open, warm and upbeat than Europeans. It’s easy to feel like Superman in the US.  This is why my friends who are entrepreneurs here in Switzerland struggle so much. It is a constant uphill battle to try anything new and different in this part of the world. Maybe it’s because Europeans are mostly stiff, private and glass-half-empty. I remember I facilitated a training course in Vienna in 2011. It was horrendous. People were so dour and negative and it brought me down so much that I had to take the following day off to recover. My boss said, ‘Come on Julie, what did you expect? They’re Germans!’

Love and a conversation

Anyway, I’m waffling. Back to my story. Stephen Colbert met his future wife at a party and they chatted for over two hours and he knew, he just knew that he would marry her one day. Oooooo, that gives me goosebumps. So romantic!

Actually, Alastair and I met in a similar way. It was after the same kind of amazing conversation that I felt it in my bones that he was The One.

One day when my girls ask me how to tell if someone is their true love, I will ask them if their relationship started with a great conversation, ‘The Conversation’ I call it. The Conversation is a long, mesmerizing and almost magical chat where you lose track of time and everyone around you fades away. You can remember the date and time and place of it. It burns itself into your memory. Maybe you can’t recall exactly what you spoke about but you remember how you connected so well and how the conversation was easy as can be because it just flowed and flowed and flowed and flowed and as it did you thought, oh my goodness, maybe this is it.

I hope Megan and Jessica experience that one day. I suppose The Conversation is the sign of that beautiful and often elusive click or connection. It’s either there or it isn’t – you can’t create it yourself, although many people desperately try. Maybe it’s just me but I think there is nothing more attractive than a connecting of minds. My theory is that true love always starts with The Conversation.

See below for the video if you’re interested: