2018, winter and other news

January 27, 2018

2018, here you are. This year my primary resolution is to manage the time I spend on electronic devices. I find that people are half present these days because they always have at least one foot in cyberspace.

I worry I’m too preoccupied with my iPhone. The problem is that it has become my one stop shop for so many things – photos, to-lists, maps, encyclopaedia, conversations with friends etc.  In my defence, at least I don’t yak on the phone for hours the way my parents’ generation did so maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty.

I need my phone and other devices because they are my pipes to the outside world but I’ve decided that, in 2018, if I’m going to be on my phone or computer, it has to be worthwhile. I’m going to spend less time twirling around the internet and reading toxic, fear-mongering articles and news reports that give me a nervous twitch.  This year, I’m going to spend more time with my new friends Judy, Gordon, Aaron and James.   I bought myself a subscription to masterclass.com for Christmas and it is fantastic. I’m taking virtual cooking courses with Gordon Ramsay and Wolfgang Puck, writing classes with Judy Blume and James Patterson and I’m learning screenwriting with Aaron Sorkin, just for fun. Annie Leibovitz is also going to teach me how to take decent photos. The masterclasses are filmed as if these fabulous people are talking directly to me, as if I am their pal and we are having a chat at a coffee shop. Wonderful!

Winter, urgh

I always divide winter into two parts – there’s the bit before Christmas and the bit after Christmas. November and December are fun because there’s the festive build up to Christmas and the excitement of the first snowfall. January and February are intense. You just have to hunker down and focus ahead to spring. The problem is that I have weather dependent moods so if it is grey outside, I feel grey inside. The low lying cloud over the lake has reappeared and I hate the Wuthering Heights, mist-in-the-moors vibe.  I find that the longest, most exhausting days are the ones when we stay at home and unfortunately we do this more often in winter.  We also walk to and from school so we are at the mercy of all weather conditions.  Try walking in horizontal rain with three kids.  Fun.

Skeletal trees and day in day out greyness

One thing I struggle with in winter, particularly with little kids, is the heat. Yes, you heard me right. I said the heat. The Swiss heat their buildings to roughly the temperatures of the inside of a pottery kiln. Swiss buildings are hotter inside in winter than they are in summer.

Overheated buildings are challenging because as soon as the kids feel the slightest bit warm or uncomfortable, they strip.   They are quick to fling their clothes off but slow to put them on. Often when we leave the house, Kate is bundled in my wrap and becoming hot and agitated while the others are still half naked and faffing about. Jessica thinks it’s fine to leave the house in ballet pumps and a leotard when it is zero degrees outside.

Sometimes I wish Megan and Jessica helped me a little more. They are only 5 and 3 years old, I know, but I’m not asking for them to make their own dinner or operate the washing machine. I would just like them to help me by putting on their shoes and a jacket when I ask. Maybe I expect too much.

I’ve concluded that children are exactly like these collapsible push puppets. Whenever you push them and need them to do something – put on their shoes, eat dinner, get in the car, tidy up their toys etc – they collapse and become floppy and uncooperative.

Other news

This is Al’s busy period so he is working long hours. He’s warned me well in advance so when he phones and says, ‘I’m going to be late tonight’, then I can’t be passive aggressive and disappointed like I usually am when he is 15 minutes late (15 minutes feels like 150 minutes at dinner/bed/bath time).

A picture of Daddy drawn by Jessica (age 3).

Kate is chunkier and losing that newborn fragility. She still has no interest in her baby toys, possibly because she has enough stimulation from her two older sisters who are like two human, life-size rattles.

Boisterous sister love

Kate usually sleeps non-stop from about 8pm to 4am, which I consider sleeping through the night. Whoo hoo! It baffles me why babies insist we stand while soothing them. Whenever I sit down and rock Kate in my arms, she objects until I stand up and do it. That’s why parents are so zonked – we can never sit down. It was the same with Megan and Jessica. Why do babies do that? It’s a mystery.

I find I sometimes struggle to go back to sleep from 4am onwards but any sleep deprivation is my fault, not Kate’s. I sit quietly breastfeeding in the dead of night and my body sees this as a moment for deep thinking – dissecting the past, planning for the future and analysing the present. My brain careers around like a runaway horse. I remember one of my favourite writers saying, ‘My mind is a scary neighbourhood to wander alone in at night.’

My newest challenge is the TV. That’s another reason why I hate winter – because we are indoors more and the TV or ipad are such temptations. It’s crack for kids. It is a mood-altering, trance-inducing sedative that turns Megan and Jessica weepy, sluggish and irritable after the initial high. It may give parents respite but the aftermath is annoying. Today I had enough of the tears and rage when I turned off the TV so I’ve banned it indefinitely … or until tomorrow.

Megan and Jessica adore their schools. I’m so happy they’re happy.  They rarely recount what happened during their days but Megan jabbers in French and she plays by re-enacting her experiences in the classroom with Jessica as her pupil so I see what goes on indirectly.

Beef

To end off, I want to share a profound thought from Aaron Sorkin’s Masterclass course.  He said that in life you will never be able to please everybody so you shouldn’t even try. He said, ‘Think of beef.  There are so many ways to prepare beef.  You can make boeuf bourguignon, filet mignon, beef wellington, you name it. But, if you want to cook beef in the way that the least number of people find objectionable, then you would make a McDonald’s hamburger.  McDonald’s hamburgers are nice, but they’re just ok, nothing special, nothing memorable.  If you were a chef, you wouldn’t aspire to make them.’  This a lovely lesson, especially for chronic people pleasers like me.  Do I want to be the human equivalent of a Big Mac? Ew, no way.  I love this image so much that I’ve now absorbed it into the daily Surycz family lingo.   Be steak, be stew, be a roast.  Be interesting, be different, be you.

 

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Books read in 2017

January 1, 2018

In 2016, for the first time ever, I started keeping a list of the books I read during the year. It was fun, so I did the same in 2017. I read less this year. I didn’t read a single thing the whole of October as my mind was fluffy and distracted after the birth of Kate and my horrendous flu. Then, in November, I read the French translation of Jojo Moyes’s book ‘Me Before You’ and that was a slow chug. When I read anything French, I stay in first gear all the way.

I love reading. These days everyone reads a lot all the time. You can’t help it because we are constantly force fed words from every angle on our phones and computers. The non-stop bombardment of words from the news, whatsapps, Facebook, emails etc feels as if I am living beside a 100 piece marching band.

Reading an actual book is different. A book is not something that adds to the noise; it quietens my world down. I don’t have time to read in long leisurely stretches but I grab every spare moment I can. I step inside a book, I enter it and the world around me fades away for five minutes or so at a time. There’s nothing more magical than getting lost inside a fabulous book. This year, thanks to my reading, I’ve stayed at home while I travelled to Rwanda, North Korea, Cambodia, China, India, Somalia, South Africa, the UK, the US, Japan and Germany.  I’ve also gone back in history multiple times.  Pretty cool hey?

I’m not sporty. I can’t draw. I can’t paint. I can’t sing (completely tone deaf). I can’t play a musical instrument. I can’t sew. I can sort of cook. My art is words. I LOVE words. Nothing moves me like beautifully crafted sentences strung together in beautifully crafted paragraphs. Libraries are my art galleries, my museums. A big, quiet, old, dusty library is a sacred and magical place.

I believe it is my parenting duty to carve out a little time to read every day. I want my children to read so I should too. Someone once said to me that children tend not to do as you want them to but they often imitate you. For a while Megan starting saying ‘oh heck’.  This bothered me. I said to Al, ‘Who the heck taught her to say that?’ Oops. I reckon the best way to teach certain behaviour is to model it. I want Megan, Jessica and Kate to have interests and passions so I must show them that I have mine.  It’s a paradox that the things you don’t need to live – books, art, music, dance, theatre, connecting with nature and so on – are the things you need to live.

I read many great books this year. In fact, I never finish a book that isn’t good. Some are better than others and the notable mentions are written in red on my list below.

FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2017

I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell – Maggie O’Farrell is one of my favourite authors so I inhale anything she writes. I read on my Kindle but I always buy Maggie’s books in hard copy so I can hold them and touch them and stroke them. Any book she writes is a totem, a precious object to be treasured forever. When she releases a new book, I buy it on the day it comes out and then I ration it and allocate myself a small portion to read every day so I draw out the heavenly experience and make it last as long as possible.

This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay – This book is the diary from when Dr Adam Kay was a doctor with the National Health Service in the UK. Given the broad spectrum of people who use the NHS, you can imagine how hilarious this book is. I couldn’t put it down. It’s light and fun with serious undertones. It opened my eyes and made me grateful for people who work in the medical profession, so much so that when I was in hospital for three days when Kate was born, I gushed thank-yous, you’re amazings and I’m so gratefuls to every nurse and doctor that came into my room.

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart – This book is about an autistic boy told from the perspective of his dad. It has a warm and happy ending and was beautifully written. It’s the kind of book where I wanted to cry at the end, not because the story was particularly sad but because the book was finished. A good book should leave you feeling bereft at the last page and this one did exactly that.

I also recommend the classic war book ‘With the Old Breed’ by EB Sledge and the memoir called ‘Rena’s Promise’ by Rena Kornreich Gelissen. Both of these were educational and humbling and I think they should be compulsory reading in schools. The world would be a kinder, gentler place if everyone read them. 

  1. Band of Brothers by STEPHEN E AMBROSE
  2. With the Old Breed by EB SLEDGE
  3. Son of Hamas by MOSAB HASSAN YOUSEF
  4. The Taming Queen by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  5. Beyond Band of Brothers by MAJOR DICK WINTERS
  6. Sweet Revenge by JANE FALLON
  7. An African Love Story by DAME DAPHNE SHELDRICK
  8. The Little House by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  9. Trophy Child by PAULA DALY
  10. The Key to Rebecca by KEN FOLLETT
  11. Helmet for my Pillow by ROBERT LECKIE
  12. Europa, Europa by SOLOMON PEREL
  13. In My Hands by IRENE GUT OPDYKE
  14. Rena’s Promise by RENA KORNREICH GELISSEN
  15. A Train in Winter by CAROLINE MOOREHEAD
  16. As the Lilacs Bloomed by ANNA MOLNAR HEGEDUS
  17. First They Killed My Father by LOUNG UNG
  18. China Marine by EB SLEDGE
  19. Le Garcon en Pyjama Raye by JOHN BOYNE
  20. The Break Down by BA PARIS
  21. Big Little Lies by LIANE MORIARTY
  22. Lying in Wait by LIZ NUGENT
  23. Village of Secrets by CAROLINE MOOREHEAD
  24. Lion by SAROO BRIERLEY
  25. Marry Me Tomorrow by CARLA BURGER
  26. A Boy Made of Blocks by KEITH STUART
  27. Unravelling Oliver by LIZ NUGENT
  28. Into the Water by PAULA HAWKINS
  29. Glass Half Full by CARO FEELY
  30. Harvest for Hope by JANE GOODALL
  31. A Respectable Trade by PHILLIPA GREGORY
  32. Maybe in Another Life By TAYLOR JENKINS REID
  33. They all have their Exits By AIREY NEAVE
  34. Emmanuel Macron by ANNE FULDA
  35. Holiday in the Hamptons by SARAH MORGAN
  36. The Gustav Sonata by ROSE TREMAIN
  37. The Mayor of Mogadishu by ANDREW HARDING
  38. The Alice Network by KATE QUINN
  39. The Identicals by ELIN HILDERBRAND
  40. They All Fall Down by TAMMY COHEN
  41. Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign by JONATHAN ALLEN AND AMIE PARNES
  42. Then She Was Gone by LISA JEWELL
  43. The Map that Leads to You by JP MONNINGER
  44. Left to Tell by Immaculee Ilibagiza
  45. I Am, I Am, I Am by MAGGIE O’FARRELL
  46. The Last Anniversary by LIANE MORIARTY
  47. Cry Freedom by JOHN BRILEY
  48. In Order to Live by YEONMI PARK
  49. God and the Transgender Debate by ANDREW WALKER
  50. The Choice by EDITH EGER
  51. The Girl in Cabin 10 by RUTH WARE
  52. This is Going to Hurt by ADAM KAY
  53. The Girl with Seven Names by HYEONSEO LEE
  54. Our Souls at Night by KENT HARUF
  55. WTF by ROBERT PESTON
  56. The Bonfire of Berlin by HELGA SCHNEIDER
  57. Paris for One and Other Stories by JOJO MOYES
  58. Very British Problems by ROB TEMPLE
  59. How to Stop Time by MATT HAIG
  60. Reasons to Stay Alive by MATT HAIG
  61. The Humans by MATT HAIG
  62. Avant Toi by JOJO MOYES

 

 


Drowning, twirling and other news

September 17, 2017

This past month, I nearly drowned. For about two nights after the incident, I couldn’t sleep as I tossed and turned and contemplated the what-ifs and beat myself up for being such an idiot for putting myself in such a precarious situation in the first place.

It was Saturday and a sunny day so we picnicked by the lake. I watched from the shore as Alastair, Megan and Jessica pedalled on a hired boat out on the water. ‘That’s not too far’, I thought. ‘I’ll swim and join them’.

I walked out as far as I could and when the ground disappeared under my feet and the water was deep, I swam. I breast-stroked towards the boat, feeling light and buoyant and overflowing with the joys of life (remember I told you I’m always so zenned and energised in the last phase of pregnancy?)

I kept going until I reached the buoys demarcating the end of the swimming area. Alastair and the girls looked too far away – further than I had originally anticipated – and I was tired so I decided to toss my plan and head back to shore. No sweat. I turned around and then, OH MY GOODNESS, I didn’t realize I had swum out so far! ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic’ I whispered as I panicked and my thoughts rushed around my head like frightened rats in a burning building.

It’s funny how, in just an instant, things can go from OK to not OK. The lake, which had been so inviting and refreshing, all of a sudden turned ominous and menacing, as if it would devour me and suck me down into its depths. My muscles burned and I felt so tired, so very very tired. My big tummy became a lead weight and I felt it pulling me downwards. I swam a little further on my front, then on my back and realized that my hands were not giving me enough pull and momentum, like the flippers they had been in the beginning. I lost all notion of strokes and flailed about as the water slid pointlessly through my open fingers.

I quickly realized I couldn’t cope and I needed to call for help, but how? Everyone seemed to be in the distance, small and oblivious, completely and utterly absorbed in their own fun – laughing and chatting and splashing and boating and building sandcastles and eating their picnics. No one noticed my plight. I was invisible. I wasn’t sure I even had the energy to muster a big splash or yell. I imagined myself sinking quietly to the depths of the lake with no one realizing a thing. I pictured my family returning to the abandoned picnic blanket and wondering how and to where I had vanished. ‘Oh God, I’ve done something so silly. I’ve made a terrible mistake. Please help me,’ I begged.

Out the corner of my eye I saw a guy on his paddle board about 20m away. I coughed and spluttered and waved for him to row to me. I clung to his board while he towed me to shore. My saviour, my heroic little tugboat. Long story short – a lesson learned. This incident gave me a massive jolt and left a deep impression on my already fear-inclined psyche. I will never ever again swim out in such deep areas on my own.

School

Megan started school and seems to love it. I always greet her after school as if I’m a Labrador. She’s not into recounting her day in the intricate detail I pant for – she mostly just gives me scraps. Sometimes she is a fountain of feedback at 21h30 at night when she’s supposed to be asleep, but other than that she’s not very responsive when I pepper her with questions. How was your day? What did you do? Are you happy? Who did you sit with? Who did you play with? Did you sing/paint/draw/colour? Did you enjoy the snack I made you? What did you like about it? She’s always gung-ho to go to school, so she must enjoy it. I wish I had a Harry Potter Invisibility Cloak so I could observe what goes on when I’m not around.

Most kids must be similar because my friend’s son started school in the UK and he loves it but she reckons it’s like a secret society because, when he gets home, he can’t seem to remember or relate what he did there.

I’ve noticed Megan and Jessica are starting to absorb and display interesting nuances of French culture. These are Frenchy quirks that I haven’t learned about from my books and studies. An example is they tend to exclaim, ‘oopla!’ when they, say, drop something or make a little mistake. I think ‘oopla’ is the French version of ‘oops’. They’re also mixing French words with English ones so Megan may say, ‘Mom can I grimp (climb) that tree?’ When she’s asked her name in French, she responds in a French accent with the French pronunciation which is ‘Mare-Gun’ and if she’s asked in English, she just says ‘Megan.’ It’s so cute.

It pleases me that Megan and Jessica are integrating into the Swiss/French society because I want them to have a cultural identity to which they can belong and identify. They aren’t South Africans (in spite of Al and me) and they aren’t British (in spite of their passports).

People say that in this day and age where we are so connected and mobile and spread apart, the world is our home rather than one particular country. I don’t like that idea. I want Megan and Jessica to feel rooted somewhere – here ideally.

Megan’s prayers

Every night Megan prays this prayer or a version similar to it:

Megan’s favourite drawing subject – princesses!  This is a princess mermaid.

Thank you Jesus for pink.

Thank you Jesus for unicorns.

Thank you Jesus for princesses and French toast.

Thank you Jesus for ice cream tomorrow.

Thank you Jesus for Mommy and Daddy and Jessie.

Thank you Jesus I love you.

AMEN

It’s getting colder and the girls can no longer wear dresses and skirts. Today, Alastair insisted Jessica wore trousers and not a skirt. She was fed up and said to him, ‘How am I supposed to do twirls? I can’t twirl in trousers!’ I adore the purity and simplicity of a happy child’s life. Life is grey and dull when we lose our appreciation for things such as twirls and pink and unicorns and princesses.  I reckon the world would be a happier place if we all twirled more.


Rollercoasters, doughnuts and other news

August 25, 2017

Our lovely, unobtrusive Swiss neighbours have moved to the US and are renting out their house. I’ve been hoping for friendly tenants with young, housetrained kids, no vicious dogs and no cats. Our horror of a neighbour on the other side (with the out-of-control bamboo) has about 6 cats and that adds a lot to the already large neighbourhood contingent of roaming felines. I detest these cats especially since one of them peed on my pram and it took me forever to remove the embedded pine-coney hone.

We’ve noticed some activity in the house and I saw two cars parked outside but I’ve not yet met the people. I observed to Al that, judging by their cars, these new neighbours appear a bit low class and scruffy. He then pointed out that, ‘Julie, judging by our cars, we also appear low class and scruffy.’ Oh yes, true.

Rollercoasters

I’ve said this before and I will say it again and again. The thing that most stuns me about parenting is how it can be both absolutely exhilarating and absolutely petrifying at exactly the same time. It’s a lot like the thrill and adrenalin rush of a rollercoaster.

Last week Megan, Jessica and I went for a walk with the scooters along some farm roads nearby. Jessica doesn’t yet know how to brake. With a burst of bravado and self-confidence, she broke away from my grip on her just as we approached an incline. She then lost control and careened down the hill, screaming in terror. The incident lasted about 10 seconds but in that time I used up my entire body’s supply of adrenalin as I sprinted after her in spite of my 9 month pregnant belly and my bust-up coccyx.

You know how you have those dreams where you need to get somewhere desperately and urgently but you are stuck and can’t move? It felt like that. I pushed my body to the absolute limits in those 10 seconds. I literally galloped, just like a horse.  Talk about a mother’s love. I still couldn’t catch up to her. Do you know how much speed a scooter can gather in 10 seconds? Jessica eventually veered into the verge, tumbled a few times and stood up weeping but remarkably unscathed. I feel like cats get nine lives but children are allocated a lot more. One of my great challenges with parenting is to keep the kids alive and intact without being neurotic and overprotective. It is such an enormous responsibility. I’m surprised I haven’t yet developed a nervous twitch.

Jessica and the potty

Talking about Jessica, she’s now almost fully potty trained. Whoop, whoop – big milestone! My theory is that she was ready ages ago but she was too lazy to give it a go. She preferred to stand still on the spot and continue colouring or watching TV while she did a whizz in her nappy. Now that it is the peak of summer, it is hot and stifling in a thick nappy so she’s been more game to try panties and run to the potty. We leave it in the lounge, so at least there is easy access.

Playing Lego, watching TV, doing puzzles, playing with the kitchen and doll house … while on the potty.

The other day Al said he noticed flecks of poo on the wall in the downstairs loo. This is because Jessica won’t leave her business in the potty and let me empty it. She likes to follow through the process to the very end and do it herself – ‘I do it! I do it!’ – so I must drop what I am doing, spring up from wherever I am and race to prevent her from sloshing the contents across the house as she heads to the bathroom.

Doughnuts

I’ve been wondering. The other day, when we were at the self-service bakery section of the supermarket, I caught Megan and Jessica licking their fingers and then gently wiping them on about 6 luminous pink iced doughnuts. Do you think it would have been socially respectful and responsible for me to have then bought all 6 doughnuts? Maybe it depends on who saw them do it. As that saying goes, ‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ If a child fiddles with a doughnut and no one is around to see it, does it matter?

I asked a friend for her opinion and she said that her son recently popped up next to her at the checkout at the supermarket with sticky brown paws and a miniature toy car. She realized he had just squeezed open a Kinder egg so she reprimanded him and then beetled out the shop at high speed. She felt she spends enough money at this store and why the heck do they put these sweets at adult thigh height and within easy reach of a three year old?   .

Another thing that surprises me about parenting is how completely and utterly dependent children are on us for protection, guidance and moral instruction. They exit the womb as a blank sheet of paper and tend towards the feral. It is our responsibility as parents to mould them and tame them and turn them into well-adjusted, respectful citizens. When I saw Megan and Jessica giggling and pawing the doughnuts, I wanted to grab them by the feet and lasso them across the shop but I also have to pick my battles and I didn’t feel that was one of them. I already have my hands full teaching them how to brake on a scooter and not pee in their trousers, so it frustrates me that shops make our already challenging jobs so difficult by deliberately putting pink doughnuts and Kinder eggs within easy reach of hungry, inquisitive toddlers.

The next phase

One more month and then the baby arrives. I am always so zenned and content in the last phase of pregnancy. It’s not like the beginning bit when I vomited every day for three months. I’m bracing myself for that period after the birth when my hormones ricochet around my body and, for about 3 weeks, I feel like I’ve free fallen off an emotional cliff and I cry for no reason at all.

I will miss my belly. I love feeling the baby inside me, alive and well and kicking about but still safe and protected. It amazes me how I can love someone so much already, before I’ve even met them. As with the birth of all my children, it is strange to finally meet someone for the first time and for which I already have a vast, solid, unshakeable kind of love. The pain is worth it, just so I can meet them once it’s over. It’s an exquisite kind of physical pain. In all the negativity and brokenness of the world, it is special to have and to remember the privilege of having experienced three such moments of peace, beauty and joy.

Our big girl growing up. First day of school and what excitement! Her happy moments recently have been ‘Going to School’.

Megan’s 5th birthday party which we did at home with games and the works. We pulled out all the stops. Kids’ parties are hard core. Al and I were so exhausted and that night we toppled into bed like felled oaks.

Megan and Jessica’s play quirks continue to amuse and baffle me. The other day Megan carried 5 undies on her doll carrier at the back of her bike. I also came across undies stuffed in my Tupperware containers.

 


August already?!?!

August 7, 2017

I can’t believe we are in August already. I remember this time last year and this time the year before and the one before that like it’s just the other day. This summer has disappeared in a busy blur. In fact, this whole year is flying by. It is as if time is this whirlpool and I am a leaf spinning around the top of it.

I remember before we moved to Switzerland and had kids, I was stuck in a series of grey, stultifying, dead-end jobs and the days were a yawning void of slowly ticking minutes. Now that my world feels more benevolent and my life is happier and fuller and much more technicolor, it has me by the hand and is pulling me along so quickly that my feet don’t seem to touch the ground and I feel like I’m flying.

Jessica’s hand

Megan and Jessica’s school created a mural for the entrance and used the children’s hand prints to create the sun. The picture translates to ‘All these little hands are our sun of every morning’. Here is a photo of it. You can see the hands are arranged in a circle for the sun but there is a random one out of place in the middle of nowhere in the top right hand corner. No surprises there. That’s Jessica’s hand. I’m keeping this photo forever because it’s a perfect memento of Jessica now, at almost three. Al and I reckon nothing sums up her personality at the moment better than this picture – strong-willed, feisty and on her own mission.  Lately she’s taken to calling me ‘Julie’. Megan did that for a while too. Cuddle me, Julie! Juice please, Julie! Carry me, Julie! I feel a bit like I’m her au pair, or nanny or personal slave.

The expat life

One of my closest friends in the area will move away at the end of August. This is the second dear friend who has left Switzerland and it takes a while to adjust and reorganise my life without them in it. It feels like a sort of grief, like a vacuum as I adjust to having them around and then, as if in a puff of smoke, they are gone.

The problem with the expat community is that it is so transient. People come and go and it’s disruptive and upsetting when you meet someone you really like and then they leave. People always say, ‘We’ll keep in touch’ but you don’t. I have enough long-distance Facebook and Whatsapp contacts and it is inevitable that the closeness and day-to-day intimacy and knowledge you have of each other slowly dissolves.

I’m on a quest to widen my pool of close friends so I have more to fall back on when people up and leave. As I’ve said many times before, meeting new girl friends is similar to dating. You check them out, get their number, connect on Facebook, meet up and gauge whether you can take the relationship further. I recently identified someone who has potential. She’s open, gossipy and prone to over sharing – all qualities I enjoy in a friend. We will see what happens.

Just because you are the same nationality, have kids the same age or live close by doesn’t necessarily mean you will become best buddies.  In order to properly hit it off with someone, you must have that intangible connection, that click, and you can’t create it because it is either there or it isn’t. Chemistry between two people is a slippery, elusive thing so the process of finding a decent BFF will take me a while.

My coccyx

This week I’ve been in agony as I’ve bruised my coccyx. Now that I have back pain that is chewing at me, slow and steady like an animal, I realize how physical being a mother is. Bending, lifting, pushing, carrying … did I mention bending? Oh my goodness, motherhood demands so much bending!

Jessica is in the process of weaning herself off nappies and she did her first poo in the potty. Alastair, Megan and I clapped, cheered and had just done the can-can when I decided to sit on one of her plastic chairs and cheer her on at her eye level for the final few pushes. I pulled out the chair and didn’t realize it had tipped and I slammed my heavy 8-month pregnant backside into the tile floor.

The challenge is that my busy life must carry on as normal in spite of my bruised and aching tailbone. Megan and Jessica were vaguely sympathetic, but only at first. ‘Mommy’s hurt herself. I’m in pain’, I said but that didn’t register with them. Little kids are some of the most self-absorbed creatures on the planet. They will stare at you writhing in the death throes of agony and still demand you pick them up, wipe their bum or get them a glass of juice.

Birthdays

Megan’s birthday is at the end of August and Jessica’s is mid-September. I know my children inside out but toy wise, I have no clue what to buy them. Every time I see a toy I think they would love (or I love), they aren’t bothered. The train set – not interested. The indoor play house – never used. Balls and tennis set – forget it. Lego – couldn’t care less. The Cabbage Patch doll I searched high and low for – not phased. Kitchen set – bored of it. VTech camera for children – waste of money. The bikes and scooters – ok, but not majorly time absorbing. The doll’s house – five minutes a day max. I’ve learned that if you are at a playdate and the children are particularly drawn to a toy or game, don’t buy it for your own home. That’s why I refuse to invest in a trampoline for the garden. Once it belongs to them, they will never play with it.

I’ve told Megan and Jessica they should choose their own birthday presents and they seem to like these crappy, plastic made-in-China mini dolls that you can fiddle with and dress with various accessories (or ‘assesseries’, as Megan says). Whenever they get hold of the iPad, they watch toy reviews of these pocket sized dolls on YouTube.

Toy reviews are like infomercials, but for kids. Megan and Jessica are mesmerized by them. It’s crack for children. They watch them in a kind of trance. Toy review YouTube videos are generally not professionally filmed. Some random person will unpack a toy and video themselves describing the various elements of it. Sometimes this person puts on voices and acts out scenes involving the toy characters. You only ever see the toy and someone’s fingers as they play.

Entranced by the toy reviews.

Megan and Jessica most enjoy the reviews of Disney princess dolls. They would rather watch this type of amateur, home-made show than a proper movie. Sometimes the quality of filming reminds me of the Blair Witch Project, but they don’t care. I ration these mind-numbing (to an adult) shows and they can only ‘watch princesses’ as a special treat. When we were at the airport flying back from Chicago, I noticed a kid watching toy reviews on his mother’s iPad. There is no better way to immobilize and quieten down a toddler. A few of my friends said their children love them too. I can’t understand the appeal. Toddlers are such fascinating, surprising, bizarre little creatures.

I will end off with a picture I saw the other day.  It amused me no end because it sums up the toddler years so beautifully:

 


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.