Crete

June 5, 2017

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

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

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

Al at lunch – happiness!

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

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

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

A thought on Greece

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

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

Grumpy old goats

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

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

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

Happy moments with my favourite people in the whole wide world

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Expats, French and getting a bit tangled up

May 2, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


Travelling

April 5, 2016

We’ve just come back from a three night holiday in Colmar, France. Well, it wasn’t exactly a break.  It was more of a change of scenery.  Travelling with toddlers is never relaxing.  It is like going on a trip with two orangutans.  I braced myself and had low sightseeing expectations but it was in fact a fabulous time.  We spent a day in Europa Park in Germany which was one giant magical, happy moment.

Keeping my beloved orang-utans amused in a restaurant

Keeping my orangutans amused in a restaurant

I would love to love France but I find it to be a dive in comparison to Switzerland.  France is like Switzerland’s lazy nephew who drinks too much, borrows money and is unable to hold down a decent job.  Nephew France is worse for wear with his permanent five o’clock shadow, yellowing teeth and wiff of halitosis.  I enjoy spending short periods of time in the company of France but I’m also relieved to say goodbye and head back home over the border into clean, square and rules-based Switzerland.

The parts of France I adore are in the countryside – the Alps, Provence, rural villages and the winelands.  Except for the historical, touristy Old Town sections of French cities, built up areas look tired and shabby.  Many of the buildings are cubes with windows and appear to be inspired by the design of a cereal box.

Al and I are extra observant and alert when we travel.  We notice things that would perhaps pass us by normally.  We become more judgemental and snobby than usual.  ‘Why are there so many pharmacies in France?’ we wonder.  ‘Check out that butt ugly building’, we may say or ‘If I had to live in that grotty block of flats, I would kill myself’ or ‘Have the French ever heard of bins?’ or ‘This area feels more like Abu Dhabi than France’ or ‘Is there anywhere in France where the customer service doesn’t stink?’

On the way to Europa Park, we took a back route and didn’t cross through a big formal border post.  We knew immediately when we were in Germany.  The difference between the two countries was like night and day.  I love the order, discipline, cleanliness and pride of Germanic countries.  It is no wonder that Germany is the most successful country in Europe and the preferred destination for refugees.

Switzerland is a calm and civilized place.  My neck of the woods is not for right for someone who thrives on city action and vibe.  I love the quietness but sometimes it can seem so still, like almost dead.  I often wonder how businesses make money here but they aren’t bothered and even shut up shop for a few weeks over the holidays.

So many small businesses here seem empty and I sometimes, such as in the case of the new juice shop, feel obliged to personally keep them afloat.  Niche shops, like newsagents or some cafes, never appear to have any customers.  When I go to my highly reputable GP, there’s never anyone else in the waiting room.  Megan attends a fantastic art class on Thursday afternoons all by herself.  We went to a travelling playground one Friday afternoon.  There were about ten massive jumping castles and no one to bounce on them.  Megan and Jessica had the place to themselves for about an hour before a few other children pitched up.

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Surreal and a bit eerie. 10 huge bouncing castles all to ourselves

There are around 20 hairdressers in the nearest town and they always seem deserted.  My hairdresser begins with some chitchat but tends to chop in silence.  I’m generally the only customer.  It is quiet and reverent in the salon, as if I’m in a cathedral.  I remember getting a haircut last year in Durban in the crowded, chaotic salon of the local butch lesbian hairdresser.  It was a loud and animated, truly African affair.

One thing that blows my mind in Europe is the tolerance of dogs in public places.  Most hotels charge a small fee and your dog stays too.  I like dogs but I reckon it’s unhygienic to have them in restaurants or on hotel beds.  It’s completely acceptable to bring a big hairy dog into a restaurant but some waiters sigh and roll their eyes when I point to my children.  Maybe it’s because dogs are likely to be better behaved.

It amazed us to see dogs in Europa Park, so much so that I took some photos.  The park even supplied water bowls.  Do dogs seriously enjoy crowded amusement parks?

Europe Park

Some dogs at Europa Park. The bulldog looks fed up. I bet he would have preferred to stay at home.

The problem I find with dogs is that they pee against vertical surfaces (and Al, being the unobservant male that he is, tends to steer the pram straight through it).  Fortunately dog urine doesn’t have that potent pinecone-like hone of cat wee, but it just looks awful, especially when it is inside an upmarket shopping mall and on the security pillar at the entrance to a department store.  I took a photo of more urine mess next to a water feature inside the same mall (see below).  Next time you are walking through a European city centre, notice the urine against walls and pillars.  It’s everywhere.  Gross.

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This! Inside a mall in supposedly squeaky clean Switzerland?!?!

The thing I love most about travelling is identifying the quirks and charms of each place I go.  I enjoy analysing, criticizing and comparing countries.  I can’t wait to visit my brother in the USA in August.  America is so different and so foreign that it might as well be another planet.

When you have kids, it is sometimes easier to go to an all-inclusive hotel on the beach or just stay at home.  But how can we when, from Geneva, we can be in either France, Switzerland, Germany or Italy in 4 hours?  How cool is that!

Travelling can be time-consuming (sifting through all the reviews and options – urgh!) and expensive but it always gives me a jolt out my comfort zone and provides a pile of pictures, memories and happy moments that I can keep with me forever.

 


HOT!!!!!!!!!!!!!

July 18, 2015

SUNThis month the temperature has been in the upper 30’s. Now it is not just Megan who is wandering round the house in her underpants.

It feels dry and airless, like opening the oven door. The countryside around our house was an undulating green lung but it’s now brown and scorched. The heat creeps everywhere. I daydream about how refreshing it would be to walk from the hot, dog’s breath air into the crisp, clean, surgical chill of an air-conditioned building but these are few and far between in Switzerland (good thing for the environment actually).

My friend described how she was lying in bed and her husband said, ‘You’re so hot.’

‘Aw, that’s sweet! Thanks!’ she replied and leaned in for a cuddle.

‘Not that kind of hot’, he said. ‘You’re radiating heat. DO NOT TOUCH ME.’

Remember how I said January was too cold and I longed for warmth that seeps down to my bones? Now I’m not so sure. Winter was too cold. Summer is too hot. I feel like Goldilocks.

The worst part of the heat is the flies. We kill around 200 inside the house in a day, no exaggeration. Even Megan is an ace with the swatter. There’s fly guts everywhere and if I don’t move quickly to remove their remains, Jessica pops them in her mouth. Cooking with 30 flies darting around from every angle is driving me so demented that I want to fire a pistol into the air to kill or disperse them.

There’s no school for the next two months. ‘God help me,’ said my French friend. We’ve been on holiday for two weeks and I’m already exhausted. I adore my girls. I feel that being a mother is my vocation. It is where my talents are, where my joy is and where I come into being. Then why is it that the thought of entertaining children day in and day out for the next two months feels so overwhelming?

mother with childrenFor a start, my overactive thyroid and general sleep deprivation make me insanely tired, like I’m drugged, like a hunter has fired a dart into my bum.

Another reason why holidays are daunting could be because I lack discipline and the ability to assert my authority in an effective way.

Discipline-wise, I count to three. A friend said, ‘Julie what happens when you get to three?’ Not much. I’ve tried naughty steps and time outs but they don’t work. I’m not against smacks but I hate the way I tend to lash out like some crazy, rabid psycho. When Megan hits Jessica, it doesn’t feel right saying, ‘Megan if you hit Jessica again, I will hit you.’

Good discipline, structure and an enforced routine make parenting easier.   Megan is at that wily age where she’s doesn’t listen and she pushes the boundaries all the time. It’s like herding cats.

The terrible twos are terrible. The mood swings are formidable and the whining is intense, like a constant, low hum. It’s not just Megan – all her little buddies are the same.   They hit, bite and pull hair. They can’t share. One minute they’re best friends and then the next minute, they are growling and circling each other. Playdates with children the same age means there is no clear hierarchy in the toddler kingdom and things usually get tense. I never realized that toddlers are territorial and carnal.

This sentence on the Disco Pants Blog resonated with me – Children, let’s be honest, can be self-centred little bastards who will watch you in the death throes of exhaustion and tactile sensory overload and ask for a glass of juice. Hahaha, so true. I wonder why kids are blank sheets of paper with the tendency towards self-centredness and resistance? Why do they need so much taming? I wish God had cut us parents a bit of slack. You have to teach children everything. You even have to train them to sleep, for goodness sake.

A two year old displays the same level of hysteria if they break their arm, you tell them to wait 5 minutes or you put their juice in the wrong cup. It’s all a catastrophe.

mom okSometimes I forget that the tantrums, mood swings, tears, hysteria and flailing about are a natural, normal part of being two. I wonder if perhaps I am not giving Megan enough one-on-one time or whether maybe I’m not fun enough. When Al gets home and she gallops into his arms and greets him euphorically, I can’t help thinking ‘Gosh am I really that bad?’ I often feel like I do the grunt work during the day and Al gets the glory later. It’s ‘Daddy-this’ and ‘Daddy-that’. When Megan hurts herself or is cross, she will wail, ‘I WANT DADDYYYYYYYYY!!!’ I want to ask, ‘How can you seriously think that Daddy is better equipped to handle this situation than I am?’

Maybe Megan needs more of my attention. Sometimes I wonder if she’s jealous that I am always holding Jessica or fending for her. It’s just that, at 10 months, Jessica is at that awkward age where she is crawling everywhere and exploring her surroundings but can’t be left alone for too long before she nibbles flip flops, eats playdough, chews wax crayons and sucks dead flies. I must also protect her from Megan’s love. When Megan gives her a hug, she puts Jessica in a head lock.

I wonder if Megan gets bored and whiney because there is little structure and order to the way two year olds play. I asked Al if there’s something wrong with our toys and should we buy more. We bought her a big plastic house for her bedroom and imagined it would provide hours of enjoyment. She doesn’t play in it. Instead she rings the doorbell and then chucks random clothing, toys and some of my kitchen utensils through the windows. The other day, while playing inside it with her (with my knees touching my ears), I noticed she was storing a full, unopened box of All Bran Flakes.

Homeless PrincessI call Megan my Bag Lady because she dresses herself in a random, mismatched fashion and loves bags of any kind – paper bags, hand bags, plastic bags and backpacks. She loads her bag with random junk and then  carries it round the house. I took a photo of her recent paper bag which contained some DVDs, her underpants, bibs, paintbrushes, playing cards and my oven mitts. She also creates piles of odds and ends in strange places. This week I discovered her arm bands and my egg beater in the fire place.

This habit means that we regularly lose puzzle pieces and have incomplete sets of everything.  Each night Al and I reorder the toys so that Megan and Jessica can play and destroy with a clean slate.  That’s why my favourite holiday activity is a playdate at someone else’s house so we can appreciate different toys and trash their place, not ours.

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This joke made me laugh:

One afternoon a man came home from work to find total mayhem in his house.

He ran up the stairs, stepping over toys and more piles of clothes, looking for his wife. He was worried she might be ill, or that something serious had happened. He found her curled up on the bed, reading a novel.

He asked, “What the hell happened here today?”

“You know every day when you come home from work and ask me what I did today? Well, today I didn’t do it.”


Bunless burgers and French challenges

July 1, 2015

Last weekend we went to Wengen for a night.  I was hoping for a deep, peaceful, wallowing sleep and a leisurely dinner. It’s always a struggle to keep this overactive imagination of mine in check. Megan was drawn to the candles, salt dispenser and floral centrepiece and Jessica frisbeed her plate across the room so we ate our 4 course dinner at the hotel in about 20 minutes. Getting the girls to fall asleep and then stay asleep in the unfamiliar environment was another test of endurance (mine against theirs).

Travelling with little kids is a lot like childbirth – you forget the pain. One night in a hotel is all I can manage. We once did a week away at a self-catering place and that was easier in some ways but it wasn’t a proper feet-up kind of break. I continued most of my usual maternal and domestic responsibilities but in beautiful scenery and without useful utensils such as a cheese grater or a decent sharp knife.

Anyway, back to Wengen.

Wengen is in the Swiss-German part of Switzerland and, language-wise, it’s like a different country. I don’t even have a vague understanding of German and the disorientation is as if someone has blindfolded me and spun me round a few times. Al and I can’t fully comprehend a menu and, for us, this is a major setback. Is ‘suppe’ soup or supper? Is ‘fleisch’ beef or meat in general? What the heck is a ‘wurst’? Sometimes touristy restaurants have English translations but these are unreliable. The hamburger was a patty of meat but with no bun.

untitledIt is trips like these that boost my self-confidence and remind me how much I have progressed with my French. I tend to focus on the gaps, like what there is still to do, and I forget what I have already accomplished.

These days I handle most French situations, and can read all menus, but I still make odd duff ups here and there. Often these faux-pas are small but have big implications. Lately I keep mixing up ‘she’ and ‘he’. I often refer to Alastair as ‘she’ so my French teacher says that people probably think I’m a lesbian and that Alastair is a unisex English name like Terry or Tony.

I’ve noticed something strange though. Now that I speak intermediate French, there are some situations that I understand even less than I did when I couldn’t speak a word of the language and therefore admitted my cluelessness from the outset. If I talk to someone and don’t fully understand, I may say ‘pardon’ or ‘please repeat’ but after that I never admit that I still don’t get it. It’s a pride thing. I either infer my own meaning or simply ignore the statement or question. When a man came to refill our tanks with heating oil, he talked about valves, levers, sediment and condensation and as he was speaking I could feel my brain gently disconnect my body and drift off like a helium balloon. I didn’t understand what was he was on about but he seemed in control of the situation and I figured that was all that mattered. I suppose that is progress too – that I can glean from context and odd words whether an issue is serious or not.

Social situations are my Achilles’ heel. I struggle with general French chitchat. Often I randomly change the subject or my answer does not match the question. It is usually afterwards, when I do a post-mortem of the conversation, that I realize my mistakes.

accentBecause I am anal-retentive and a perfectionist, I don’t want to just speak French well, I also want to sound like a real dinkum Francophone. Some Anglophones (mainly Americans) don’t even try to adjust their accent to make it a little Frenchy. When it’s very hot, they’ll say something like ‘tray show’ for très chaud. French is so delicate and soft and it hurts me when it’s butchered.

People say to me, ‘Julie who cares if you mess up? People won’t laugh if you try. Who would do that?’ I would, that’s who. I chuckle all the time at the funny errors people make in English. Take my neighbour as an example. He seems to think that ‘bloody’ is the translation for très (very). So he will wave at me and say, ‘bloody hot today!’ or ‘I’m bloody tired, glad it’s the weekend’ or ‘heating oil is bloody expensive’.

Broken EnglishDid I ever tell you about the recruiter who helped me find my first job here? I asked him if I should be concerned it was taking so long to land a role. He shook his head and said, ‘No, but if you haven’t found anything by December, you will be … you will be … I can’t sink of zee word in English’. I offered some suggestions. He shook his head. ‘No no, zat eaze not zee word zat I want’.  He slapped his leg with frustration.  ‘What eaze zee word?’

‘Ah yes! Got it!’ he said. ‘If you don’t have a job by December, you will be fucked.’

You would think that because I am so desperate to fit in and speak like a native, I would focus on improving my grammar and vocab and spend less of my precious free time twirling round the internet.

While I’m constantly making vows to spend time on French every day, I actually don’t. Yesterday I decided to read a chapter of my new book each day. I won’t. This is my equivalent of when other people tell themselves they’ll stop smoking. I can’t seem to discipline myself to the practice.

It’s been a struggle to find material that challenges me, which I understand and that entertains me too. For a few months I read French news sites but that got slit-my-wrists depressing. Then I bought a couple of novels but reading those is like trudging through thick, sticky sludge because most literature uses the form of past tense – the passé simple – that is only for formal writing and speech.

I have two new strategies that I’m putting into play. I bought a book about how to train children to sleep better. The next one I buy will be on discipline. This will kill two birds with one stone because I can practice French and brush up on parenting at the same time.

I will also answer calls from call centres. We get at least two of them a day. I’m going to keep them on the phone as long as possible and practice my chit-chat. When they ask if I’ve ever considered the benefits of timeshare, I will say, ‘Never. Tell me more and start from the beginning.’


Summer and other news

June 10, 2015

I love this time of year. I particularly enjoy the bit before the solstice on 22 June because the days are getting longer. It is as if the best is yet to come. Every night, without fail, I marvel at how the sun goes down later and later. 21h15, then 21h30, then 21h35 and still light. Awesome!

olafI’m like Olaf from Frozen – I love light and warmth. I have weather dependent moods so when it is sunny and bright outside, I am sunny and bright inside. In summer I have more energy and am more productive because I don’t feel the need to go to bed at 19h30 or shortly after the sun goes down.

The problem is that Megan and Jessica feel the same way. For the past month, they’ve gone to bed around 9pm. On Sunday morning Megan woke up at 5am raring to get the day started. We had breakfast at 6am, lunch at 10am, dinner at 2pm and Al and I were catatonic with exhaustion and ready for bed by 4pm.

Summer opens up more options for entertaining the kids. We play in the garden, go to parks and explore the lakeshore.   My life flows better in warmer weather. It is quicker to rally the troops and leave the house because we don’t faff with gloves, boots, jackets and all that bulky, time-consuming winter paraphernalia. This morning Megan wanted to go to school in her underpants, a hat and her sandals (her “candles”, she says). In theory that is possible in this weather.

hayfeverSummer also has its inconveniences. Poor Al has severe hay fever and hasn’t breathed through his nostrils in weeks. Last night he was downstairs inhaling menthol at 3am. He’s constantly coughing, snorting and wheezing. I said it’s a good thing I love him so much and we are well entrenched in our marriage because all that throat-clearing and phlegm-spitting is a bit of a turn off.

Summer also brings flies. Oh my goodness, the flies! I can easily kill 30 in an evening. Last year I even baked one into my lasagne.

I love it that at this time of year fields, trees and flowers that appeared dead and brittle in winter bounce back to life. Some things burst forth a little too often and a little too much, like our garden. In the warm weather weeds come creeping in and we must continuously hack them back with sabres and machetes. Before we bought our house in 2013, I had never maintained a garden before and I had visions of veggie patches, flower beds and lush green lawn. Instead we spend a lot of time on unsexy work such as weeding. Now I accept that the grass looks like more of a meadow than a golf course.

imagesIMVWQKCAI didn’t appreciate the start of spring as much as I would have liked as Megan had chicken pox and then Jessica got it. The worst part about chicken pox is not the fevers or the itchy spots – it’s being housebound. It makes me feel isolated and trapped, like a pinned butterfly. It is a good thing I have a nice house because I spend a lot of time inside it.

When I noticed the spots and before they became blatantly obvious and prolific enough to disperse crowds, I experienced the same crisis of conscience as I did during the lice episode. It was easier with Jessica because I strapped her into the pram and covered it with a light sheet to create a sort of baby burkha. It is hard to know whether it’s appropriate to go out in public or not. I decided it was not fair to be around people who know me. So I avoided my moms’ groups and went to the shopping centre and park and mingled around people who don’t know me.

Big news! Megan has gone almost a month without a dummy. Quitting dummies is gruelling and unfortunately we ended up doing it the same week that Jessica had the pox. It was hard core drug withdrawal. Not fun but it was worth it in the end. Alastair was the one who finally decided to take it away. He laid down the law and said, ‘Julie, no dummy. No matter how much she protests, we can’t give in.’ Then he said, ‘Good-bye!’ and disappeared, like in a puff of smoke, and headed to work for the day.

I hid all the dummies but Megan found a dusty, old one at the back of a drawer. She was quiet for a few minutes, which is suspicious, and I caught her hiding behind a door while sucking frantically, as if she was having a quick and illicit fag behind a bush. Initially there was a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and flailing about on the floor. One day she screamed for over an hour without a break. I eventually shouted, ‘MEGAN SHUT UP!!!!!!!!’ which is not very loving or motherly but she was in too much of a tizz to notice. After about a week, the rage and despair gave way to a weary acceptance. At that point I found her sucking the teat of Jessica’s bottle:

Megs dummy May 2015

Jessica started crawling last week and it is as if we have a new puppy in the house. While I wrote part of this blog, she was under the table between my feet yanking on my computer cable. She chews everything. She turns puzzle pieces into soggy mush, knaws corners of cardboard books, crashes into lego towers, rips up miniature train tracks and sticks her hand in potties.

This crawling business is a lot more exhausting this time round because many of Megan’s toys are choking hazards and Jessica is attracted to these items like a moth to a flame. I’ve caught her nibbling on a playdough sausage, munching crayons, clutching plastic coins and sucking Barbie’s little shoes.

Other news is that my overactive thyroid is back. I’ve lost weight even though I am eating like a man, like a horse. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to rally sympathy and many of my friends have asked how they can get overactive thyroids too. The most challenging part is the fierce and overpowering exhaustion but I maintain some buoyancy knowing that it is just postpartum thyroiditis and hopefully won’t last forever.

That’s all folks. I’m off to bed now. It’s 21h42 and still light. Love it!


Getting a grip

March 17, 2015

Recently I haven’t had time to write blogs because every spare moment has been taken up reading the edible book Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty. I couldn’t put it down. It’s so well written, it’s delicious. I’d never heard of Louise Doughty before so now I’m seeking out her entire repertoire and inhaling her every word.

Truly SAI head to South Africa soon. I haven’t been back in three years and I miss it. I’ve noticed that I can survive for max two years without going home and after that I crave a good dose of the tonic that is Africa.

The other day I called the embassy and it reminded me how much I am looking forward to being in my tribe, with my peeps, in the hood again. Just for a break, I want to be around people who think and act and talk like me.

I rang the South African embassy in Geneva to book an appointment for Al’s passport renewal and to ask why the hell I haven’t yet received Megan’s passport. I applied for it over a year ago. The last time I enquired, I was told the delay was possibly because of the distance between Switzerland and South Africa. How strange. If this is truly the case, I imagine the passport is traipsing through Africa towards Europe strapped to the back of a donkey or they dispatched it using SpacePost and it is in the process of orbiting the earth. I’ve given up because Megan already has a British passport which arrived three weeks after I applied for it in 2012. I love being South African. Most of all I love being a South African with a British passport.

Before I called the SA embassy, I rang the Swiss passport offices to ask some visa related questions for my mom. I dialled the number and got the answering machine saying in French, ‘You have reached the Swiss passport office. Press 1 for … press 2 for … ’ Within a few seconds I was transferred to an organised, officious lady who answered my questions pronto.

I struggled to get my point across initially. Whenever I call Swiss government departments I fluctuate between nervous flippancy and overly solicitous respect and feel I need to prostrate myself before them in penance for not speaking French properly and in gratitude for letting me live in their country.  I am cap-in-hand, Oliver Twist, yes-sir-no-sir-three-bags-full-sir.  It’s stressful and awkward.

After phoning the Swiss authorities, I wiped my forehead and then dialled the South African embassy expecting an answering machine and the same sort of bureaucratic formality.

Instead, someone answered in a deep and sleepy voice. ‘ello,’ they said.

I asked if I was through to the South African embassy or was this the wrong number.

‘Ja, it’s the embassy,’ he replied.

I explained my situation and then this fellow put me on hold. I think he shoved the phone under his armpit because I heard crinkling of paper and muffled voices. A woman came on the line and said, ‘You need to send us an email. We will investigate your query when you send us an email.’

‘But I have sent about three emails over the past few days and you haven’t replied!’

She said, ‘That’s because our email has been broken for three weeks.’

‘Well then how am I supposed to send you an email if you can’t get them anyway?’

familyI thought the interaction was typically South African and it was my happy moment for the day. Hilarious, what a laugh!

Calling the embassy is like ringing home. The conversation felt easy and familiar – a bit like a comfy old slipper. When I questioned the delayed passport and the send-an-email-which-we-won’t-read instruction, it was like I was speaking to family, and when I complained, it was as if I was moaning at, say, my mother.

I love the way I could speak boldly and bluntly because they understood me. I said, ‘Hey man! That’s ridiculous!’ and they didn’t take personal offence. They just shrugged. Well, I’m not sure if they shrugged as it was a phonecall but I imagine they shrugged because they said there’s nothing they can do about the delayed passport, they just work here and it’s Pretoria’s fault. Pretoria is always to blame. Pretoria sits on documents, Pretoria never communicates and Pretoria will let me know when it’s done (I think this Pretoria person sounds positively useless).

Whenever I go to the embassy, I waltz in there like I own the place. It’s not that I’m rude or bolshie. It is just that it feels as if I belong there, like it’s a home away from home. When I’m around South Africans or in South Africa itself, I feel my rights and I act with a confidence and boldness that comes from being on my home turf, on the soil where I belong, in the place that has framed my life story and the country where people I love live.

During my trip, I’m most looking forward to seeing family and dear friends. I’m excited about hot weather and heat that warms me through to my bones. I can’t wait for good customer service where, when you ask for help, people don’t look at you as if you’ve just jumped out a birthday cake. I’m looking forward to toasted chicken mayonnaise sandwiches and Woolworths and chargrilled steaks and an unlimited supply of rusks. I want to wander through Pick n Pay to check out my old favourites and buy a bottle of Mrs Ball’s chutney without forking out R100 for it.

Part of me is not looking forward to going home. Why? I’m a bit scared. News24 creates an impression that South Africa is like the Wild West. I’m concerned I may be hijacked in international arrivals.

bedI’m not just scared of the crime – I’m petrified of the roads. Apparently South Africa is high up on the list for road fatalities and I’m not surprised. I remember when I lived in Johannesburg and I listened to the traffic report one morning, they said there was a double bed lying on the N1. The last time I was in Durban, I drove behind a bakkie with a giant tractor tyre on the back and it was going full speed on the freeway with almost no support. I’m not used to that kind of backwardness anymore. That would never be allowed in Europe. Even though I find that people in Switzerland drive like bats out of hell, there are certain basic road rules that are enforced and respected.

Possibly the reason why I’m fearful is because I am taking my babies, my two little chickens, home with me for the first time. I want to protect them and keep them safe, always. I know that although I want to, I cannot gather everyone I love and stow them safely under the bed. I must take my brother’s advice. When I told him of my concerns, he said, ‘Get a grip’.