I am Indiana Jo – welcome to my Temple of Doom

Once upon a time, I went to Chad on a press trip. Fascinating country and quite a place of contrasts: one day I hitched a lift on the Finance Minister’s private jet; the next I had to push my own taxi to the petrol station when it broke down.

chad taxi
chad taxi

And then there’s Cameroon Airlines, who were supposed to fly me home to Douala. When it comes to Cameroon Airlines, here’s a word of advice: don’t.

My flight out of Chad was delayed for four days. On the fourth day I was out of cash and there isn’t an ATM in Chad, so I decided to go to the airport and adopt an African approach to waiting, which can be summarised as: sit, wait.

This is much more effective than the Anglo Saxon approach to waiting, which can be summarised as: sit, fidget, check watch, tut, stride about, check watch, question an official, sit, huff, check watch, try to read, get distracted, fidget, sigh, check watch, stride about, get sweaty, buy drink, spill drink on self, swear, sit, develop ulcer, die of frustration.

So I took a seat, parked my suitcase in front of me and noted, with some degree of prescience, that the windows had no glass in them. It was daytime and still light. I drank a cool coke. There were almost certainly insects, but I hadn’t noticed them yet.

A while later it was dusk. The bar was out of cold soft drinks, so I had a tepid coke.  When a bug landed on my bare arm, I shook it off.

Then it was night. The bar was out of all soft drinks, so I had a hot beer. There were so many insects, I only flicked away the ones that landed on exposed skin: the ones on my clothes could stay put.

Later, the bar was out of all drinks and it was African dark outside, but the departures lounge was lit up like a giant accessible moon, and all the insects in all the world streamed in through the open windows. N’djamena airport was like the Temple of Doom – and I was Indiana Jo.

When a door finally opened and the flight was called, I had to scrape an inch-deep layer of insects off the top of my suitcase just to get hold of the handle. Then I boarded the plane and spent the hour-long flight picking grasshoppers out of my hair.

Shame I don’t have a picture – but taking photos in African airports tends to get you arrested and, well, that’s a whole other anecdote. Once upon a time, this kind of thing happened to me - and I loved it. But now? Well... times change.

 view from the backseat in a chad taxi

view from the backseat in a chad taxi

I just got back from a holiday in Corsica. Have you been? It’s lovely.

So why couldn’t I relax?

Is it because taking kids to a new place means baby-proofing all over again? The first thing I used to do on arrival in a boutique hotel was trampoline on the bed while simultaneously sniffing the free shampoo. Nowadays, I shoulder open the adjoining doors of our family suite and roll across the floor – SAS style – to recce the place for baby-traps. “OK troops! There’s unsecured stairs at 12 o’clock! Glassware, repeat, GLASSWARE at 6 o’clock! And... my god, there’s a FLOOR-LEVEL MINIBAR! Call for BACKUUUUUP!”

Or is it because I’ve changed? I’ve happily swopped a dugout canoe for a pedaloe: the Finance Minister’s jet for Easyjet: and being covered in insects for... er... not being covered in insects. All of the above are MUCH easier with kids.

I’m sure that my travel-MOJO will return in time. When my daughter has grown out of ‘exploring her boundaries’ by running away as fast as she can towards heavy traffic, and when my son has had enough of ‘investigating the texture of things’ by putting them into his orifices, then we will be adventurous again. Until then, Indiana Jo is hanging up her bullwhip... although, on second thoughts, it could come in useful next time that girl legs it...

Don’t get me wrong (if you say hello and I take a ride)

In the years since I’ve been an expat, I’ve grown used to being a conspicuous outsider, a source of amusement, a bit of a novelty. My first posting was Cameroon, West Africa, where I went everywhere to a chorus of “Eh! La Blanche!”, which translates as “hey, White Woman!”. Political correctness never caught on in Cameroon.

Then I was in Singapore, where I also stood out from the crowd, mostly by being a head taller than a lot of other women. And now here I am in Switzerland, Winterthur to be exact, where I blend in nicely. No-one gives me a second glance - I’m like a spy in their midst.

Until I open my mouth.

In my personal experience, the Swiss (especially my neighbours) are extremely welcoming, but naturally enough people always prick up their ears when they hear a foreign language being spoken in the vegetable section of Migros. My skin doesn’t single me out any more, but my mother tongue certainly does. In the past, I’ve been able to hide behind tight lips – just a smile of greeting and remembering to say ‘merci vielmals’ instead of ‘danke schön’. But then I had kids and was forced to break my silence.

pumpkin
pumpkin

Which brings me to today, Migros and a toddler having a tantrum over a pumpkin. There was a meltdown next to the papayas and a lot of negotiation, an ultimatum and, finally, a good telling off. So just the usual, really: kid screaming in public; frazzled mum taking deep ragged breaths; and members of said public looking irritated by all the noise.

Except that, for an English speaker in a Swiss German-speaking supermarket, it’s much worse because no-one has a clue what the angry, shrill woman is saying to the weeping, gulping child. Pretty soon, I had drawn a crowd of onlookers, mostly drawn from the white-haired demographic, who gathered around in a slightly menacing way, saying nothing but clearly signalling that they had Social Services on speed-dial on their giant-buttoned mobiles.

When I said in my special low-toned, calming voice, “now, Curly Girlie, you’ve already been allowed to keep the three kumquats that you picked and weighed all by yourself, so can you please put the pumpkin back and maybe we’ll try that another day?”, they translated it as, “listen here, child of mine, you’re nearly three now so it’s time you learnt that Father Christmas and the Tooth Fairy are cynical inventions of the greeting card industry, now buck up and carry this pumpkin – no, not that little one, the big one over there”.

When I bent down to her level and adopted my no-nonsense tone to say, “I’m going to count to three and I want you to put the pumpkin back, 1, 2, 3...”, what they heard was, “and while I’m at it, the photo of the man I told you was Daddy is actually Face from the A-Team, now I want to hear no more about it. On three, grab this pumpkin, 1, 2, 3...”.

And when I stood back up and started gabbling, loudly and rapidly while waving my hands around a lot, they didn’t realise I was pleading, “this is the third meltdown of the morning, you ran away into the path of a car nearly killing yourself, then you turned over the table in the restaurant with all our food on it and now you’re having a tantrum over a pumpkin and you don’t even like pumpkin! Now let’s take some deep breaths together to calm down and get on with our shopping”, they imagined I was threatening, “look here, useless girl-child with a lower-than-optimal potential earning capacity, just stop making a fuss over this pumpkin-carrying. You already messed up the job I got you in a textile factory, you keep falling out of chimneys and you’re not cute enough to model, so you’ve got to earn your keep somehow. Now quit whining about the heavy pumpkin – I’m putting a crate of beer in your backpack in the next aisle...”

And they say toddlers get frustrated when they can’t express themselves...

Zen and the Art of Toddler Maintenance

I’m currently reading a book about Buddhism and children, and it seems that kids are just really Zen without even trying. They live in the moment – in fact, mine are so young, they’re barely even capable of mulling over the past or fretting about the future. They live in the ‘here’ – so much so that dragging them away from ‘here’ (wherever that may be at any given moment, from staring down a drain outside my house to the best toy shop ever) is nigh on impossible. And they always have a ‘Beginner’s Mind’ – they see the world afresh, because they are fresh. Unlike this stale, crusty old mother who always seems to be saying ‘come on, come on, we can’t stay here, we have to go there’ unless I’m trying to get their shoes on to leave the house, in which case I’ll be saying ‘come away from there, just come over here’. I always have to be somewhere I’m not.

I realised the Zen-ness of the Curly Girlie on Friday at the wonderful farmer’s market in Winterthur. As usual, I had a list and I had a deadline and I had Things To Do. The Curly Girlie had other ideas. Finishing up at a vegetable stall, I turned to see her peering into a grubby, stainless steel box on the pavement.

‘Come away from the bin! It’s all dirty!’

Sensing that she would soon be robbed of her opportunity, she stretched up on tip-toes, the better to see inside, because ‘the bin’ was a good six inches taller than her.

‘Curly Girlie! You’re getting all wet and dirty! We have to go, come on...’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘It’s just a bin, darling!’

‘Mummy, what is it?’

‘Oh, for goodness sake, it’s a bin...’ I grabbed her hand.

‘No, Mummy! What is it?’

And I noticed the light inside the bin. An illuminated bin? Surely not – not even in Switzerland, where they polish the rubbish cans. And then I noticed that the top of the ‘bin’ was covered with a piece of glass – filthy and hard to see through, but glass nonetheless. And then I noticed the engraving around the top of the stainless steel – ‘Sodbrunnen erbaut 1500’.

The Curly Girlie was peering down a long well, which had been built by Winti residents in 1500, rediscovered in 1764 and turned into a modest little archaeological display in 2001. It is grubby and – seemingly – forgotten but it even has a light, which the Curly Girlie was working by pressing a tiny white button on the outside of the unit. Needless to say, I hadn’t noticed the button until she showed me.

500 years that well has been there. That didn’t mean much to the present-minded Zen toddler. I must have walked past it 500 times – it’s right on Steinberggasse, for those who know Winti – and never seen it. I’ve probably even thrown a couple of crisp packets and bus tickets in it.

But now we both stood, in the middle of a busy market, apparently peering into a ‘bin’. A couple of other kids came over, and their mums shouted at them, and then another one, and her mother called her back too. What is it? It’s a well, I told them, and the Curly Girlie showed off her Great Discovery – the light switch. Eventually, with a level of exasperation that only a mother of toddlers can reach, the other mums came over and noticed the light, the glass, the well.

The Curly Girlie accepted her place in the natural hierarchy of children and stepped back to let the bigger kids see. Then she spotted a cheese stall and raced off.

Mi casa, su casa (or as the Swiss might say) mini Huus, dini Huus

So there I am, at home, watching the Blonde Baby Bombshell ‘explore the texture of food’, when the front door bell rings. I ignore it, which might seem like an odd choice to less reclusive readers, but here are my excuses: the child is covered in food and if I pick him up to get to the door quickly then I too will be covered in food; and 99% of unexpected callers to my door are selling mops. I don’t need a mop. So I ignore the door. The bell rings again. Now I really don’t answer the door because suddenly they are hassling me and I am stubborn. So I stay put. And then something very alarming happens. I hear a sound exactly like the front door being opened and a person walking in. Hmm, what to do, I think to myself.

Of course, I didn’t think that at all - I actually thought seven kinds of swear words and got a massive fight-or-flight burst of adrenaline. I decided that, on my own with two kids in a rather remote house, fight was the best option. So I dashed down the stairs to confront the intruder, assuming (hoping?) that the opportunist would be shocked that someone could be so anti-social as to ignore a caller who rings twice.

Down the stairs I thunder, and if sheer outrage is any kind of deterrent to a burglar / rapist / kidnapper, then mine would be truly cowed - for I am cross. The front door swings open... and a bunch of roses appears. The intruder is a lady from Interflora who has decided to break-and-enter rather than surrender a spray of seasonal blooms to the winter weather.

What kind of country is this, where delivery people will just let themselves into someone’s home? I know Switzerland is supposed to be safe, but this is ridiculous. For a start, it suggests that a significant proportion of people leave their front doors unlocked when they go out.

Then there’s the whole dog thing - I have a 30kg slavering boxer dog who was making his presence known behind the door. Now we all know that the dog is getting on a bit, very arthritic, and prone to random acts of cowardice, but to a total stranger who is ringing the doorbell and clutching flowers, he looks and sounds exactly like a 30kg slavering boxer dog. At best, there is the clear and present danger of slipping over on that much drool. Do Swiss delivery people truly have no angst?

And there are other reasons to be fearful. I thought the Swiss were supposed to have a gun under every bed? Isn’t it feasible that some short-sighted, paranoid old crone could be hunkered on the stairs with a shotgun – or do they assume that people like that are unlikely to be on the receiving end of Interflora?

The whole incident strikes me as distinctly Swiss. In the UK, we’d be too scared of causing a scene. In the US, we’d be too scared of being shot. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that crime is so low the supermarket delivery service just leave my shopping outside the door if I’m out – but I’m dreading the day I come home to find they’ve put it away in the fridge, done the washing up and left me a cup of tea on the draining board.

Landfillmarkt

Many thanks to the city of Winterthur for playing host to the annual Martini Markt, but to be honest we were disappointed – there was no Martini to be had: no bianco, no rosso, not even any vermouth. Just the usual Glühwein and Süssmöst for the kids. Turns out, Martini refers to a Saint Martin and it’s all just an excuse for children to stay up late and for adults to eat raclette standing next to a bin. It’s the same story with the city’s Albani Fest – I expected some tasty Albanian baklava and perhaps a bit of ethnic dancing. But what did we get? Saint Alban, the patron saint of drunken teenagers on fairground rides.

So anyway, despite the lack of olive-garnished cocktails, the Martini Markt was pleasant enough. It was fun watching the Curly Girlie try to consume a day-glo lollipop while clinging on to a carousel horse. And of course, this being Switzerland, there were plenty of sausage-eating opportunities.

The problem, though, is that they don’t stop at catering and fairground rides – they have to insist on the market element. And that’s when my enjoyment stops and a sort of horrified car-wreck fascination sets in – I can’t stop obsessing about the tat that’s on sale at the junk-peddling market stalls. More particularly, whose fevered mind designs the stuff, why do people think they can make a good living selling it and, most of all, who buys this... landfill?

Hollowed out lumps of pink crystal with tea lights in. Vomit-coloured socks knitted from hairy wool that looks itchy. And, my personal nemesis, dream catchers. They don’t catch bad dreams – at best, they catch fire on one of the tea lights and burn down all the rest of the tat.

I’m enthralled by the choices people make about how to dispose of their hard-earned cash. Do we put in all those hours at the office just to hand over our precious pennies for a special Christmas doormat? Does the dream of installing a very wide exhaust pipe on a souped-up Fiat Panda make the dull afternoon shift fly by? Are people spurred on to achieve their yearly bonus so they can mount giant plastic butterflies on the side of their house?

The next stage of my pondering shifts my attention from the Landfillmarkt and other people’s inexplicable cravings, to my own seething cauldron of consumerist desire, which I try to keep dampened down to a controllable level, but will on this occasion let loose like a demented Genie brandishing a Mastercard. With five minutes thinking time on the clock, these are all the things I want, in no particular order of importance or tatishness:

- A photo printer - Jamie’s Thirty Minute Meals - A book about Swiss German - An Audi Quattro Allroad, in black - A red top to go with my camel-coloured trousers - Boots that are halfway between snow-boots and smart-heeled boots - A pair of Converse with sheepskin lining - Sheepskin gloves - Sheepskin slippers - Sheepskin throw

Mmmm, sheepskin... Oooh, and then there’s:

- An American ‘food centre’ fridge that will fit up the stairs - A heather-coloured woolly hat to match some gloves I have - A set of green hat, scarf and gloves that I saw while searching for a heather-coloured hat and then wished I hadn’t already bought the heather-coloured gloves - An omelette pan - An antique French dresser for the kitchen

Oh Goodness, now I’m out of control:

- A how-to-draw book so I can impress the Curly Girlie - New bed linen - A party dress - A new mascara - A kilt pin - An entirely remodelled bedroom / dressing room / bathroom suite.

OK, I really should stop.

So, I’m interested – do share via the comments if you dare – are you responsible for buying the tat? If so, what’s your best tat? And what’s on your materialist-list?

Thanks for the extreme wealth

What is it about the filthy rich that makes us mortals want to spit and grovel all at the same time? Money seems to bring out all seven of the deadly sins at once, and there was plenty of greed, envy, wrath and vainglory on display in the media today, as it was revealed that one in ten of the world’s billionaires lives in Switzerland. We’re stinking rich here, you know. If you live in Switzerland, then the definition of ‘filthy rich’ isn’t just a paltry ‘millionaire’, as it used to be in the good old poor days. According to a book published by a Basel University sociology professor this week, to be even considered rich in this richest of rich countries, you have to be rich to the tune of at least CHF30m – that’s more than £20m/$30m.

Personally, I have a simpler measure: lake view. If your flat has got a lake view, then you’re rich. If your house has got a lake view, then you’re seriously rich. If your house has got a lake, then you’re filthy rich. The problem for the rest of the 97% of the Swiss population that is not considered rich by the authors of How the Rich Think and Act, is that we have to live alongside these buggers, in the madly wealth-orientated society that they leave in their petal-strewn, Chanel-scented, Bally-footprinted wake.

There are many ways that Switzerland is just too damn rich: a Big Mac costs more here than anywhere else in the world; the cost of subsidising three cows is the same as sending one child to primary school for a year; and shoe shops give away free socks, just to try on the shoes. Here are five other ways that I’ve noticed that Switzerland puts the CH in rich:

- there are no DIY shops. Well, there are, but they’re rubbish and tiny. No-one here Does It Themself – they pay someone else to Do It For Them. - menial workers do not come from poor countries. When we employed muscular men to tear down parts of our house, they didn’t come from the places I would expect, like Poland or Slovakia. They came from Germany. That scared me, financially speaking. - no-one pays tips to waiters and waitresses. It’s not because the customers are all stingy, but because the staff are already well paid. So much so, that half the time they can’t be bothered to serve you, but that’s another story. - there is no crime. Now I don’t have sufficient training in the fields of sociology, criminology, economics, political science, law and what have you to insist on an ironclad link between GDP and crime, but an informal study of my various travel destinations shows me that the rich ones (Switzerland, Singapore) were safe, while the poor ones (Cameroon, Chad) were really dodgy. - winter cars. We have a special set of winter tyres for our car, and I find it oddly profligate that we own four perfectly good wheels that sit in the garage for half the year waiting to come back into fashion. But that’s nothing: a large number of people here own entire winter cars. They park up the soft-tops in specially rented underground parking spaces during the winter months, when they drive four-by-fours instead, and then they bring out the sporty numbers in the spring after the last frost has passed, in much the same way I dig out my old sandals from the back of the wardrobe.

So there it is: Switzerland, home to one in ten billionaires and a few million less minted mortals, all jostling for a glimpse of that lake view – from the train. In second class.