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:


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.


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.



La Soupe

November 27, 2012

Lately I’ve thought there’s something wrong with Google.  Every day I check their weather site and it says the sun is shining over Geneva.  I look outside and the sky is the colour of an old bruise.  It is grey and cloudy and sunshine is nowhere in sight.  ‘Google, you piece of useless rubbish.’ I’ve thought.  ‘What’s with the constant weather prediction duff ups?’

This cheerless, iron-dull sky has been sitting like a lid, a manhole cover over me for about three weeks.  It turns out that Google is correct and there is actually sun and blue sky everywhere, except over my head.  Well, except over my head and the Lake Geneva basin.  Apparently, around November, a blanket of clouds drifts in and plonks itself over the lake and part of its coast.  It hovers over the area and won’t budge until it rains, or the wind blows or the temperature changes drastically.  This thick, distinct layer of murky grey is known as ‘La Soupe’ (the soup).  The clouds invert the temperature so it feels cooler below them than above them.  You must go about 600m up the mountain, through the clouds and beyond them, for the warmer weather and clear skies.

Here’s a picture of what I have seen from my bedroom window for the past three weeks.  It reminds me of England.  Depressing, innit?

Every morning, when I open the blinds in the bedroom, I see fog and gloom and I start the day feeling foggy and gloomy.  I wish my moods weren’t so weather dependent.  If it is a bright, sunny day, then I feel chipper and there’s a spring in my step.  If it is constantly cloudy and miserable, then I am a bit flat.  This is why The Black Dog followed me around in London and I felt permanently grey and damp, just like the weather.

The problem with weather dependent moods is that it is not immediately obvious why you are merry or down in the dumps.  It is like that classic frog in hot water story that explains the best way to kill a frog is to place it in a pot and slowly raise the temperature.  If you chuck the frog in boiling water from the start, it will notice the heat and leap out the pot to save itself.  However, if you raise the heat gradually, the frog won’t jump out because the temperature difference is less distinct and it slowly cooks itself to death.  The thing about weather-related ‘flatness’ is that it creeps up on you and it takes some navel-gazing to pinpoint the cause of the bleakness, especially when things are going hunky dory and there’s absolutely no obvious, logical reason to feel depressed.

I shouldn’t allow weather to affect me so much but I can’t help it.  It is comforting for me to know that I am not the only person suffering in La Soupe.  Last Sunday, I saw a friend at church who responded, ‘depressed’, when I asked her how she was and she then explained that the fog and greyness were ‘slowing killing her’.

Many people do special trips in search of brightness and blue skies.  One of my friends said she took her kids up the mountain after school one day as they all needed to lighten their moods.  She said they were above the cloud for 45 minutes and that short time did wonders for their state of minds.  She said, ‘It will keep us going until the weekend.’  At my mother’s group on Tuesday, I asked one of the ladies how she manages in the fog and she said she is, ‘Totally depressed.  Why do you think I am here?’  So you see, it is not just me.

Last week, I could no longer take the gloom.  ‘Enough is enough’, I thought.

I was on a mission – I needed the sun. Megan and I drove up the mountain through fog that reminded me of misty, spongy English moors.  All of a sudden, I broke through the cloud curtain into blue sky and sun.  Hooray!  Instantly, I felt happier.  Megan and I had a great walk through St-Cergue, which is a little Swiss mountain village close to the French border.  The fresh air, exercise, blue skies and brightness did wonders for my mood.  At one point, I even skipped. As I drove down the hill, back into the fog, I felt as if I was holding my breath to go under water.  Hopefully my dose of sunshine will keep me going for a while longer.

This is a picture of the sunshine in St-Cergue on the same day that I took the photo of the fog outside my bedroom window:

This is ‘La Soupe’ which is the low cloud cover over the Lake Geneva basin.  I appreciate the beauty from above and not from below.  I feel better when I am on top of it and not when it is on top of me:

One of my friends suggested I may cope better with La Soupe if I imagined it as an analogy for life.  We humans sit here in the ‘fog’ on earth and assume that this is all there is.  We plod along without realizing that there is something better – blue sky and sunshine – above and beyond the greyness in which we live.

Some people say La Soupe is heaviest in November and others say it can last all winter.  What a thought!  If so, Megs and I will have to make regular trips up the mountain and through the cloud curtain in search of mood-enhancing sunshine.