Imperfect Tense

I’m not perfect. There, I’ve said it. The thing is, even as I write that, a tiny voice in the back of my brain mutters “well, you should work harder at it then”. Oh, the voices, the voices.


If I’m honest, I do feel, deep down in the boots of my psyche, in the bit I try to keep locked and sealed but which manages to break out in the pesty minutes before I fall asleep, that not being entirely perfect is some kind of affliction. It may even be catching. I feel pity for those troubled by Not-Entirely-Perfectism. If I were rich, I would start a fund to research cures or treatment or at least palliative care for the condition. Like Dr House walking through a waiting room, I diagnose its flawed symptoms all around me – this darn malady is everywhere, it’s like a plague.

Of course, the sane(ish) part of my mind can acknowledge that I am also a Not Entirely Perfect Person. I am a NEPP. There, I’ve said it again.

I’m not going to start to list the ways in which girls, then women, then mothers in our society are made to feel that being a NEPP is an unforgiveable character flaw, because it’s been done before and better. In fact, I will link to another blogger in a moment who admitted her own NEPPness (NEPPtitude?) last week and inspired my outpouring here. But first to my epiphany...

This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about two things. First, that I’m not perfect (that bit isn’t an epiphany) BUT I can accept it (that bit is). Second, other people – close friends, complete strangers and everyone in between - who appear to judge me can all bugger off. En masse: a mass buggering off of unhelpful, judgemental, supercilious, schadenfreude-motivated people who make me feel all discombobulated in public.

My latest blog-crush, MammyWoo, put it perfectly when she said (talking specifically about body issues, but also perfectionism more generally):

“I would prefer the body of (not Jessica rabbit) Jennifer Anniston but hey, she doesn’t have kids, a poodle with the runs or a hectic schedule that involves more poop than scoop does she? (Scoop being cocktails and botox.) So why do I compare myself to these people who mostly are airbrushed?”

And that was my epiphany: people who appear to be perfect have just airbrushed their life.

Reading MammyWoo’s hilarious, harrowing and award-winning (oh yes) blog, led me, via The Mads Awards, to another inspirational site - Imagination Tree.

“Zillions of ideas for creative preschool play” it promises, and delivers so brilliantly that I was initially thrilled by all the new games and projects that we can enjoy... and then, only a couple of beats later, thrown into a state of dejection. How so?

Because I immediately started to worry about why it is that I don’t fill my kids’ days with resourceful, educational, stimulating games that engage their interest, develop new skills and cost nothing because I’ve found ingenious uses for a load of old junk that I’d otherwise throw away? Bah!

But then I read this, written by the Imagination Tree’s author Anna Ranson, who shall henceforth be known as “the blessed Anna”, (on my blog at least):

“We don't rise at dawn to play and craft and bake and sing. In fact we are pretty lazy in the morning altogether. We don't even do activities and crafts for a large percentage of the day, maybe an hour or so squeezed in between play groups, mums meet ups, outings to the park, watching Peppa Pig on repeat and of course the obligatory Sainsbury's shop. We have our fair sure of drawing on the walls, tantrums and pyjama days.”

Forgive me for gushing, but I read this and had a bit of a wobble. A lip wobble, in fact. “Peppa Pig on repeat”? I do that. “Pyjama days”? Check. “Drawing on the walls”? Check. “Tantrums”? If she means by the mum, then – check.

I read the blessed Anna’s incredibly perceptive passage about her non-perfect life with the kids (or is it actually perfect in its own unique way? Discuss...) and felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I actually feel lighter, less encumbered by the weight of my own expectation.

The straw that finally broke the camel’s back came from my neighbour, a child development expert, who was having a coffee and watching my three-year-old Curly Girlie drawing.

Curly Girlie: *whining, huffing, flinging self forward all over table* It’s wrong! I need another paper! Ooooooooo-eeeeeeerrrrrrrrr-HUH!

Neighbour: Wow! She’s giving herself a hard time - she’s really a perfectionist, huh?

And there you go. I thought I was going mad, but turns out it’s genetic. *

* The author would like to point out that this statement in no way implicates any blood relative as a NEPP. Also, no animals were harmed during the production of this blog.

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.


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.

A verse to Christmas?

‘Twas a few nights before Christmasand all through the house, Creatures were stirring – was it a mouse?

The clock showed 04.30 as I woke up, yawning, dragged from my slumber by a furious gnawing.

The stockings were slung half prepared on the floor, awaiting their filling with nuts, toys and more,

but a tiny gourmand had a fine dinnertime, feasting on peanuts, gold coins and clementine.

While I sat in bed finding mice all too scarey, the man of the house got up nude and hairy.

He dashed ‘cross the room and snatched up that sock and with mouse trapped inside turned to take stock:

“I have it, I have it!” he cried out of breath, “What should I do? Should I beat it to death?”

“Oh no!” I called out “That’s much too agrarian. You’ll wake up the kids, and besides I’m vegetarian!”

So we opened a window to the dark, snowy air and I thought with a pang “No food for mice out there!

“Show some compassion, Don’t be such a miser”. And I threw down some treats: a mouse appetiser.

So if you’re inclined to slay mice for their daring, please do remember: t’is the season for sharing.

When that mouse called out it made up for the fuss: “Good Night to All and to All, Merry Christmas!”

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.