This post is apropos of nothing more than my spotting something this morning that I think is too cool not to share. In my local town, Winterthur, this cunning window display. A French boucherie? Mais non, regard-toi de plus prés... it's a wool shop on Metzgasse or 'Butcher Street'. Such a funky nod to this shop's historic roots. J'adore... even if I am veggie!Read More
Is it bad that in my third week of a Masters degree in Professional Writing I’m fantasizing about becoming a dental hygienist? I went to visit a dental hygienist today, which may have something to do with it.
I took both kids along, but that’s a whole other blog entry. Needless to say, you can’t show toddlers a small plastic cup of pink drink and not expect them to shin their way up the equipment to reach it. Or grab an over-sized model of a human mouth and run up to the receptionist screaming “I’m a teeth, I’m a teeth”.
But as I lay there, jaws and eyes wide, I thought how I could enjoy life as a dental hygienist. Scraping away plaque must be deeply satisfying. All those little tools and nozzles and attachments look so neat and shiny in their special little drawer. Not to mention the pink drink. And, of course, it’s important - people need hygienic teeth.
Or am I just attracted to the clearly navigable career path? Step One: take dental hygiene course, Step Two: get job as dental hygienist, Step Three: go to work for a defined number of hours, on contractually-specified days, for a pre-determined amount of money. Job done.
As this guy, Phillip Lopate, says "You can't just get a certificate saying you're a writer now". Or as Stephen King says in his book On Writing, "what do you want, a name tag with Writer on it?". Well, Stevie, if I could just borrow yours for a bit...
Still, I hear that watch-makers are also in high demand. Now, taking a clock apart with tiny tools and putting the pieces all back together - that sounds deeply satisfying. And people always need time...
For a lesser Gluckspilz than myself, my latest holiday "experience" might be proof that I am a travel companion to be avoided on account of my dismal luck in foreign climes.
I've previously detailed my airport ordeal, while departing from Chad, where I got stuck for four days and then covered in insects. My latest travel saga was less exotic, less prolonged and less buggy. However, there were two toddlers involved, which effectively takes it to a whole new level of suffering:
It all happened on the way back from Spain. We have a strange relationship with Spain - it features prominently in our lives as my parents live there and are prone to sending evangelical emails about its delights. Sun! Sea! Shoes! Sun! Spain has it all!
Except when we go, when the rain in Spain falls mostly on our pain-ed faces, which are pressed up against hail-lashed windows as we shiver in the lowest temperatures since records began (presumably they only began after our last visit, cos it was just as bleeding cold then) and listen to gnarled old Spanish men announce that they can now die happy after seeing snow for the first time in their long, olive-oil soaked, sun-drenched lives.
But this Christmas was delightful. We went to the beach. Had lovely walks wearing a light sweater. Rolled up our trouser legs and dabbled our toes in the mineral-rich waters of the Mar Menor and then ordered patatas bravas at a pavement cafe while the kids dropped ice creams down themselves and ended up rabbit-punching each other in a fight over some shells that were discarded and forgotten three minutes later. Ah, happy memories.
And then we tried to go home: one flight delay, two toddlers and an eleven-hour wait at the airport. Eleven hours with no pram, no playground and no (legal) tranquilizers. It is truly amazing what parents can do with an iPhone, a set of moving walk-ways and a mostly-deserted Duty Free concession (come on kids, let's play hide 'n seek in the changing rooms in Desigual again - yaaaaaaaay!).
Of course, we also passed some time by losing our iPad at the security check and traipsing off to get a police report and have them check the CCTV video, only for the iPad to mysteriously emerge from inside the security scanner after spending some time drawing attention to itself by hiding. It got a spanked bottom and sent off to bed without its dinner, I can tell you.
Too much time with toddlers?
Anyway, after arriving at Alicante Airport at 11am, we took to the skies just before 10pm, landed back in Switzerland at midnight and finally rolled home after 2am. We could have driven home in that time, and then I would have had space to buy more shoes.
So did the experience "ruin a perfect holiday"? Not at all. It was a total pain in the scrotum, I give you that, but not all negative. Don't worry, I'm not coming over all sappy, optimistic, glass half full (hey, at least we didn't take off in a faulty plane and DIE!), "let's recognise the learning experience in every ordeal" on you. No, it just didn't seem that bad because this shit happens to us ALL THE BLESSED TIME.
Maybe it's because expat life means that you tend to travel quite a lot, so statistically we have more opportunities for journeys to go boobies-up. But even so, there have been some howlers:
- a double date-style couples' holiday in Kos, when one quarter of the foursome decided to come out on the first day of a two-week stay to his unsuspecting and, erm, straight girlfriend. So that was awkward.
- being stranded during a diving trip by a violent storm on an uninhabited island while five months pregnant and having to be rescued in an elderly helicopter by the Omani Royal Air Force.
- getting stuck in Barbados for an extra day because of a volcano on a neighbouring island. OK, that's a bad example - there are worse places to be stuck. Chad, for example, where there are loads of insects (did I mention the insects?).
And there are others I won't regale you with: I know a certain hospital in St Moritz rather too well; got arrested en route to Sao Tome; suffered permanent scarring from sunburn on my left butt-cheek in Bali (the right one remained, mysteriously, unscathed).
So why do I keep travelling? Wouldn't it be better to admit defeat and embrace the staycation that's so fashionable these days?
Well, yes, every one of our sagas results in a "never again" conversation with The Husband. But, rather like my regular pledges to backup my photos, muck out the fridge and never start drinking until I've finished cooking, good intentions are easier said than done.
We're off to Florida in a few weeks. You might want to avoid the state. Or States.
So my fresh hell is the cat, who has taken to climbing up the house and crying outside my bedroom window in the early hours of the morning to come in.
My nightlife is a wheel of fire, my rest consumed by the flames. It started with firstborn Curly Girlie, actually a pretty good sleeper all things considered, but as much a sleep thief as any baby. Then came no. 2 - Alpha Blondie - tiny, hungry, male. What a combination. Every morning rose earlier and earlier until I was getting up before I went to bed, in a stumbling cycle of pain and surrealism that owes more to over-tiredness than Monty Python.
Then I discovered the Rabbit Clock – little boys are only allowed to wake their Mummies once the rabbit is awake and, oddly enough, little boys embrace this rule with alacrity – and, finally, I slept.
Then the dog started. Afflicted with leishmaniasis, he needs to drink an absurd amount of water, very loudly and for a prolonged period, day and night. Then he needs to lick himself thoroughly. Then he needs to walk round and round and round and round and round and round on his cushion in order to, presumably, dislodge the pea that discomforts his pampered, noble, stinky-dog posterior. Then he needs to scratch his claws down the wall to improve his position enough that he can fall into a deep slumber and have an energetic dream about god only knows what but it involves running, growling, whimpering and, apparently, laughing. Then he farts a bit, by which time it is morning and the blasted rabbit goes off.
The dog’s bed was removed to the utility room and his nightly travails take place in the privacy of his own dog fug.
Then The Husband took up snoring. He’s never been a snorer: it was a significant factor in my decision to marry him. Some people might have shared hobbies or lifestyles or sexual depravities, we have our mutual lack of snoring. Happily, the snoring coincided with a lot of business travel to China, so that resolved the issue without my having to raise the issue of gum shields, separate bedrooms or wee-small-hours strangulation with a bathrobe belt.
And now, Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you, the cat. The scratchy, needy, nocturnal cat, who thinks my role in life is to lie motionless and unsnoring in bed, waiting to let her in to the house through the window when there’s a perfectly functional cat-flap downstairs, not five yards from all her bowls, bed and other business.
It’s possible that I consume too much popular culture, but sometimes I get ideas. Ideas purloined from sci-fi and drama and mini-series about what it means to be here, living this life, on this place we call Earth. What IS it all for? Is it actually a test? If so, what is my special test and how do I pass it?
God (if, indeed, He is in any way responsible) only knows, it feels like a bloody test sometimes. Here I am, on my wheel of fire, fire-fighting. Splosh! A bucket of water deals with sleep-thief number one. Fer-lump! A load of sand douses the second. Whoosh! I turn the hose on the night-owl dog! Thwack, thwack – a fire blanket puts out The Husband...
But now the cat has joined the fray. The latest in a long line of rest-robbers, slumber-stealers, catnap-kidnappers. And I’m all out of solutions.
So, if I just give in and reset my body clock to get up earlier than I feel is humanly decent, will I pass the test? Then will the Great Cosmic Sleep Fascist call off his dogs of war and let me lie in? Is this the reason for my current Karmic turn on Earth – the lesson I have to learn before I can move on to the next stage of enlightenment – that the morning really IS the best part of the day? Is that IT?
Universe – is that all you’ve got to say?
Well, OK, Universe, God, Giant Cosmic Rabbit, Dr Who-ever the frick is in charge. You win. I’ll change the habit of a lifetime and get up early enough to eat a proper breakfast and read the bloody paper. Just let the kitten live.
Sometimes, the stars align and I am able to go for a run. Today was one of those blessed days: husband available to umpire the children (check); no-one beset by illness (check); calendar empty of birthdays / weddings / christenings / bar mitzvahs (check); Mummy awake, willing and adequately fed (check).
So off I set, down to the riverside at Kollbrunn for an easy few kilometres to Kyburg, a quick glimpse of the castle on the hill, and back through the woods. Lovely.
I leave the car by the cemetery and set up my iPhone as I do my walking warm-up: Run Keeper on, select playlist and shuffle, wait for the GPS to engage... and Start Activity...
*nothing* Hm. Hm? So where is the music? And the Run Keeper lady? Come on transatlantic fitness woman, speak to me... *nothing* OK, the ringer must be switched off. *fiddle* No, ringer is on. OK, the volume must be turned down. *fiddle* No, volume is on full. So, the headphone jack? *fiddle fiddle* Plugged in. So what? Why won’t it play..? Oh - Iggy Pop! I really like this one too. Argh! Stupid old iPhone. It’s done this before, something to do with the headphone socket getting disengaged or something, and you have to take the headphone jack in and out to get it going. Right – in, out, in, out, in, out. *Nothing* In, out, in, out, in, out, in, out! *Nothing* Bloody thing! It plays through the speaker but not through the headphones. I know the headphones are working – I used them yesterday. Bloody hell! Adele. Only decent song on the whole crappy album and I’m missing it. God! Bloody stupid old iPhone - it’ll be rolling in the deep part of this frickin’ river in a minute. Why haven’t I ordered the new 4S yet? I bet that one’s frickin’ headphone socket doesn’t disengage. Right, I’m going to phone them first thing Monday morning and order it. Maybe they’re open on Sunday? I might phone them right now. Tell them my iPhone is a piece of crappy batshit and I want a new one. Piss! First run I’ve managed to get in ages and I don’t have any music. I HATE running without music. It’s half the fun. And when I’ve got no music, I just think about how much my thighs hurt all the time. I’m not running without music, it’s just annoying. I’m going bloody home. AH! EMF – tune! Why won’t it bloody PLAY! What is WRONG with it?! GOD! Have the kids had it this morning? Little ratfinks... all the toys in the world and all they want is my phone to make endless cup cakes, no interest in playing with the kitchen we bought them at great expense, of course, but give them my iPhone and it’s cup cakes all flippin’ morning, never get tired of it. I’ll sell their bloody toys and get the new pissing 4S only that’ll probably go wrong too...
Why do I always have this shit with technology? I only want some bloody music, not the moon on a stick – pissyshittingbollockybastardbloodyarsekickingcrappycrappycrappyfrickingcatbollocks.
Just WORK you pieceofshitetotallyannoyingletmedownallthetimewasteoffrickingleccyoverhypedarsingApple-Crapplebollockypileofbollockedbollocks! GAH!
*deep breaths* Now why can I hear a tiny tinny Marc Bolan? What is THAT about?! *listens* Ah. Oh yes, that makes sense. Right. *looking over shoulder to make sure no-one’s watching* I haven’t actually put the headphones in my ears. *fits headphones, flees the scene*
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.
“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.
It was a kind and intelligent French friend who once informed me, so I have no reason to doubt her sincerity, that there is no word in the French language for “bully”. I think I was so stunned by this revelation that I failed to absorb the rest of our conversation: presumably, I asked if that means bullying doesn’t occur in France (it’s exactly the kind of thing I would normally ask, were I not stunned), but I’ve forgotten her explanation. Do French enfants never call each other names, flush weaklings’ heads down the toilette or give each other “le wedgie”? J’y crois pas...
...mais, attend - imagine my chagrin, when my German teacher informed me very recently that there is also no Deutsche word for bully? Total falsch, ja? Sadly, nein. According to my dictionary, a bully in German is a “tyrannischer Kerl”, which hardly trips off the tongue: “pick on someone your own size, you tyrannischer Kerl!”
So, what? Does bullying really only happen in English-speaking lands? Whatever Wittgenstein may have said about words being the limit of our world, I’m not entirely sure you can logically conclude that having no concise word for a concept means that the behaviour doesn’t exist. Look at our joy at adopting the German word “schadenfreude”, which describes the pleasure we take in someone else’s misfortune. Not least, the British take pleasure in the Germans’ misfortune at having coined such a revealing expression.
But I had reason to think about tyrannischer Kerls today, when I went to the park and got roundly picked on by a gang of five-year-olds. In fact, my experience not only provides empirical evidence that German-speakers can indulge in a spot of bullying, even if they are at a loss to talk about it afterwards, but also suggests that all the above-mentioned European languages require at least two new words: one to describe a child who is so self-assured that s/he is not in the least intimidated by or respectful of adults; and a second to express the discomfort of a mother who realises that she has no clue how to handle such a child when one is giving her a hard time in a playground.
This is the third time – the third time! – that I have felt this undefined sensation just recently. First, it was my neighbour’s six-year-old who refused to budge up to let another kid sit at the table:
Her: There’s no room.
Me: Come on, move up – make some room...
Her: *turning round to stare me right in the eye* THERE IS NO ROOM.
Me: *goldfish noises*.
Second, it was a pair of tweenies sitting at the top of the slide in the playground so my son couldn’t use it:
Them: blah, blah, boys, shoes, homework, boys, blah, my stupid parents, blah, blah, boys.
Me: Hey, ladies! Can you come down so my boy can use the slide?
Them: blah, blah, boys, shoes, snogging, boys, blah, blah, nail varnish.
Me: Hello? Could you move?
Them: blah, blah, *sigh expressing infinite disdain*, blah, boys, Twilight, hair, blah.
And today, it was three five-year-olds who let my little toddling Alpha Blondie climb right up the most treacherous ladder in the playground, inside a giant grasshopper no less, before blocking the top and jeering at him as he cried. And then, when Tiger Mother scaled the heights of the grasshopper to rescue her cub, stood jeering at her too...:
Them: Nigh! Nigh! NIGH! (for they are Swiss German children)
Me: Let him come up.
Them: Nigh! NIGH! NIGH! No babies! No grown-ups! NIGH!
Me: He’s only little. It’s dangerous - let him get up.
Them: *whooping and hopping from leg to leg like extras in Lord of the Flies* NIGH! NIGH! NIGH! No grown-ups! Go down! NIIIIIIGH!
Me: *low growl*
Yes, I actually growled. It may have been a throwback to a time when I learnt to do that as part of puppy training, but I think it was actually something more instinctive, something innate. Call me old-fashioned, but I thought kids were supposed to respect adults, which of course is a polite and modern way of saying “I thought kids were supposed to be shit-scared of adults”?
I know I was when I was a kid, and now I’m an adult, I want kids to be shit-scared of me. Not my own kids or my friends’ kids, of course, but strange kids who won’t let me onto the slide – I want them to be scared of me.
Why? Well, first, because I’m grown up enough to realise what children do not: there was enough space at the table, a slide is not a bench and the grasshopper ladder is no place for a toddler to be stranded while a trio of little bullies-in-the-making explore the nastier side of their nature.
And secondly, because this is the Order of Things: once, I was small and scared and I jumped when an adult told me to, but now I’m big and scary and I want kids to jump when I tell them to.
Goodness, don’t I sound like a tyrannische Kerl?
Gaht’s nöd, for those unaccustomed to Swiss German (Schwiizertüüütsch), means roughly „we both of us know, this thing just ain‘t working out”. For all I know, it’s what Swiss teenagers say to each other, by SMS of course, when they want to end a romantic tryst: “Gaht’s nöd, Loser”.
Anyway, I had to admit today that Muki Singen just gaht nöd. Oh, more translation – Muki Singen is MUtter (Mummy) + KInd (Kid) singing. Just under an hour of sitting in a big circle, shaking our maracas along to such classics as “Wer rüttled und schüttled?”, “Kasimir the sleepy hedgehog” and “Miin Drache” (which confused me no end because I thought a ‘drache’ was a dragon, but turns out it’s a kite – all the stuff about it flying in the sky and having a long tail made perfect sense, it was only when it got stuck in a tree that I started to have my doubts). Anyway, try explaining “Ring-a-ring-a-roses” to someone non-English-speaking and you quickly see that we fill our children’s heads with utter nonsense the world over.
Back to the plot. The Muki Singen class is a bit slow. There’s a lot of stopping to exchange maracas for a tub of hazelnuts and then scarves and then tiny sticker faces and then tambourines and then maracas again. There’s a lot of listening to the teacher make “neep-neep-neep” noises while she waggles a mouse on the end of her finger. There’s only a little bit of dancing about pretending to be the wind or banging drums or doing the conga.
To be honest, I had expected Muki Singen to be a little more high energy. I think I had in mind something a bit like Zumba, but with less booty and more biscuits.
Nevertheless, all the other kids seem to like it. It’s only Alpha Blondie who patently hates every darn minute. When the other kids are sitting on their Mums’ laps in a circle, Alpha Blondie is off hitting a snare drum with his forehead; when the other kids are dancing about with scarves, he is sweeping the floor with a dustpan and brush; when the other kids are curled up on a blanket being sleeping hedgehogs, he is shouting “Me NOT”, opening the door and buggering off down the corridor.
I don’t know why I’m surprised - his older sister, Curly Girlie, was exactly the same at his age. Playgroups, dance classes, pony riding, swimming lessons - she does NOT care that all the other kids are doing it, she does NOT care that Mummy paid good money for this, she does NOT care to perform in exchange for a crummy sticker.
So what does this say about my kids? Attention deficit or free spirited? Disobedient or self-possessed? Disruptive or non-conformist?
Well, my choice of language there belies what I think. Do I want my kids to sit nicely with their knees pressed together, singing sweet ditties while sewing a crochet doily to give to Mater? No, I want them to run, jump, climb, explore, sing loudly, paint messily, draw all over their faces with my best lipstick, blow raspberries, laugh at farts, sting their knees on nettles, rip and stain their clothes scrumping blackberries, tip cows, play with dogs, read illicitly after lights-out and remember just enough about kids TV shows to reminisce about them in pubs later. This is what childhood is FOR. Like most mothers, I’d love them to be perfect in public, (no shrieking, no biting, no snatching), but only to make my life easier and I’m well aware that it’s not possible to be perfect – it would only ruin them to even try.
So I end up asking myself – why am I trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? After all, if I don’t like Muki Singen all that much, why should Alpha Blondie? My kids are born of parents who do not go to the ballet, watch films with sub-titles or listen to music that doesn’t have lyrics. Personally, dancing around with a scarf makes me feel terribly self-conscious - I don’t want to see other people dance around with scarves and I don’t really want to do it myself. In fact, unless you’re doing a Kate Bush turn at your local karaoke, (and if this is the case, then the more chiffon the merrier), I don’t see any excuse for dancing around with scarves. Does that make me an attention-deficit, undisciplined radical? No, gaht’s nöd.
Today the Curly Girlie went off for the first time to waldspielgruppe. Rather like England has the Brownies, America has Camp and (I’m struggling now) the Antipodes has some kind of light-hearted instruction on dealing with venomous creatures, Switzerland has “waldspielgruppe” or the forest playgroup.
It’s a classic rite of passage for Swiss kids and one that I’ve been anticipating with relish even though, to my softie British sensibilities, it’s quite hardcore. After all, the Swiss are a hardy bunch – you don’t hack a mountain pass out of the rock using a Swiss Army Knife and wearing tennis rackets on your feet without being pretty tough – and it starts in waldspielgruppe.
At age three, the kids are wrapped up in All The Gear (more on that later) and dispatched with a lunchbox and a spare pair of socks into the forest to sing songs, pick up pinecones and learn which of the mushrooms are the really interesting ones. But here’s the thing – they go once a week, from now until the Spring, whatever the weather.
And this morning, we had weather.
But first, let’s go back a week. This time last week, thinking I still had plenty of time, I printed out my list of instructions. The Curly Girlie should be wearing long-sleeved trousers and top, waterproof boots and rain / snow / sunbathing* gear (*delete where applicable). She should be pre-coated in anti-tick spray, with special attention to certain vulnerable areas, which were highlighted. She should carry spare knickers, socks and another set of long-sleeved trouser and top, all of which must be in a water-tight plastic bag. She must have a lunchbox containing z’nüni (rather like ‘elevensies’ only the Swiss start everything earlier in the day, so they have ‘ninesies’), which must not contain biscuits, chocolate or sweets. She must have a drink in a non-breakable, re-sealable bottle. She must have at least two pairs of gloves, one of which should be thin ones that she can wear while eating z’nüni, the other pair should withstand the weather. She should also have an appropriate hat, a picture of her entire family (I kid you not) and a jolly good time.
Right. Mild panic. All The Gear was purchased, labelled, found to be inadequate, either returned or sewed and otherwise altered, and eventually packed. Panic subsided.
Then, bright and early, the Curly Girlie was fed, hosed-down, de-flea-ed, tick-sprayed and dressed in the first layer of weather-resistant clothing. Again thinking I had plenty of time (this could be my personal motto), I embarked on applying the outer rain clothes. It was like trying to get a salmon into a pair of stockings. What seemed like hours later, I was still sweating and swearing, she was moaning and thrashing and so, of course, Alpha Blondie baby brother chose that moment to tip an entire box of beads onto the floor. So Mummy had a tantrum.
Presently, we were all in the car and on our way. That’s when the weather started. Not the sort of rain that makes you think, “Oh, I’ll get my umbrella”. Not the sort of rain that The Husband’s farming family refer to, admiringly, as “wetting rain”. But the sort of rain that makes you say, “Bugger this for a game of soldiers, I’m going in the warm for a cup of tea and bit of Homes Under the Hammer”.
But no, Hi-Ho Hi-Ho off into the forest we did go, with the Curly Girlie blundering out of one puddle and into the next because the rain was streaming off her rain hood right into her eyes, with Alpha Blondie screaming for reasons unknown (I think he also wanted to get soaking wet and filthy, but he may just have sensed that the attention had shifted away from his majestic self for a fraction of a while and was making his feelings known on the matter), and with me trying to ignore the rivulet of water going down my bum-crack because I’d forgotten (of course) to bring any kind of coat for myself.
We met the gruppe. Introductions were made, last-minute adjustments to backpacks were completed and shoes were admired (it is a Universal Truth that all children are inordinately proud of their shoes). Then, the Curly Girlie wandered off, bewildered but willing, after the rest of them.
We set off back to the car, head down against the rain, pram wheels cloying with mud and leaves, Alpha Blondie crying “Diddy? Diddy?”, his name for his big sister. “Yes”, I reassured him, “we have just left her in the middle of the forest, in the driving rain, with a total stranger”. Pause. “Diddy?!”
Everyone I speak to, every book I read and every ounce of common sense that I own, tell me that you have to leave them sometime. I mean, I don’t want the Curly Girlie to reach 18 and I still have to carry her into a room and walk around with her on my hip for the first five minutes because she’s feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the Big People.
But it was hard: her wet face peeping out of the rain hood; her soggy little backpack with its spare knickers and z’nüni; her trusting eyes turning from me to the waldspielgruppe leader; her skinny legs splashing off into the deep, dark wood, even though she’s absolutely certain it’s full of Gruffalo.
Good job it was raining.
I went home and consumed at least four (and possibly as many as six) espressos in quick succession. Then, with a buzz that could rival any of Curly Girlie’s wald mushrooms, I hurried back to collect her. Would she be wet through and freezing? Would she be resentful at the abandonment? Would she be shacked up with the big, bad wolf?
Curly Girlie and her new best friend, whose name I later learnt was “boy”, were barrelling down a wet slide at the sort of speed NASA scientists dream of reaching. “Isch gwet gsi!” cried the leader, ‘it went well!’. Curly Girlie echoed “Isch gwet gsi!”. Darn her if she hasn’t been alive for less time than I’ve been learning German and she’s already better than me.
“Yeah?” I prodded for reassurance, “what did you think of waldspielgruppe?”
Then Alpha Blondie fell arse-first into a water trough, so we all came home.
My fellow Swiss blogger at Time For Tea, has raised one of the topics I love to hate the most: guilt. People of various religious denominations seem to vie for the guilty crown (of thorns) but I would hesitantly raise my hand and stake a claim on the title: what about ‘only child?’ or ‘being unemployed?’ or, goodness knows, ‘motherhood?’. There - have a handful of personal issues to stir into your culpability cauldron.
What do I have to feel guilty about anyway? I’m decent - mostly. Well, it can be summed up in two words: money and kids.
Back in the day, before I turned all ‘expat’, I had an actual job. Now, don’t get excited, I was hardly running a bank, but I did receive a modest monthly stipend, courtesy of the BBC, who sweeten their measly salaries with a subsidised bar, outings in the Countryfile Land Rover and free tickets to the Eurovision Song Contest. I was well chuffed with the deal.
Then, in the space of one week, I left my job, got married and moved to Cameroon. After a quick calculation, I worked out that financial dependence = guilt.
I’ve never been good at managing money and once believed that a perfectly acceptable approach to ‘sticking to a budget’ was to keep taking money out of the cash machine until it refused to give me any more. Then, to my credit, I would stop. But as soon as I wasn’t earning any money, I developed an obsessive aversion to spending it. Even now, almost ten years on, I’m plagued by guilt-induced spasms over it. Just the other day, while cutting up a lemon, I was hit by the realisation that, under my own steam, I couldn’t afford the lemon. I don’t deserve this lemon, I thought, guiltily. I haven’t earned this lemon!
And if spending money on oneself is bad, then try spending time on oneself.
After Cameroon, we went to live in Singapore, where we put up for a short while just off Orchard Road in a nice little flat with a lovely pool. Day One and the Husband rides off to work on the MRT, while I consult my To Do List, which only has two items: 1. find supermarket, 2. relaunch career.
We stayed at the flat with the lovely pool for six weeks, during which time I was so riddled with guilt about To Do List item No. 2 - I got No. 1 sorted, I’m guilt-prone, not stoopid - that I never once set foot in the pool. I was simply too shamefaced to swim in or sit by that pool while The Husband spent all day in the office. The lovely little pool became the very symbol of my reluctant idleness and unmerited life of luxury.
Then I got an office job and felt like a right numpty for wasting the pool but, hey, you live and learn.
And then there’s now. Motherhood. All that other stuff was just baby guilt, playground guilt, Guilt for Dummies – motherhood is a crash-course PhD that turns you into Dr Guilt. In fact, there are so many things about motherhood that make me feel guilty, I’m going to have to use bullet points, for fear of stretching your patience...
- Finding out you’re pregnant when you got a bit drunk a few nights before.
- Being pregnant and eating half a plate of something that seems innocuous before someone informs you of a study that found that the comestible is somehow lethal to foetuses.
- Books / websites / people telling you that the way you carry / feed / cuddle your newborn will damage its hips / mental health / life expectancy.
- Not being able to lift Child One onto the slide at the playground because one is pregnant with Child Two.
- Not being able to devote oneself entirely to Child Two because of the presence of Child One.
- Saying that about Child One.
- Spending any time at all away from your children – whether it’s a hospital stay or a day at a spa, it’s all the same, guilt-wise.
- Leaving child in care in order to go to work.
- Failing to be a good role model by not going to work.
- Giving them beans on toast for their tea instead of a nutritionally-balanced meal that includes all the food groups.
- Hearing the Curly Girlie say “the other children don’t want to play with me” because she insists on speaking English at the German-language crèche.
- Letting them watch too much TV.
- Not letting them do exactly what they want (watch TV).
- Shouting at them.
- Putting their shoes on the wrong feet and not noticing for ages.
- Nappy rash (what is that mother feeding them?!).
- Nightmares (why doesn’t she sleep right alongside them?!).
- Falls in the playground (why doesn’t she lock them up until it’s safe to go out?!)
I could go on. Honestly, I could. Motherhood is impossible to get right. And that makes me feel, really... you know.
Today started at 5.50am when Curly Girlie decided she wanted to crawl into bed with Mummy and Daddy and go back to sleep. Unfortunately, her definition of ‘sleep’ is not ‘lie down, close eyes and drift off into silent unconsciousness’. Rather, it is ‘thrash around, hit Mummy on head, make pretend snoring noises until younger brother wakes up and joins in’.
The worse thing about starting the day at 5.50am is not that kids’ TV doesn’t start until 7am (Central Nussberg Time), or that I am as cross as a wet cat when tired, but that the kids themselves are shattered. Over-tired kids are accident-prone, irrational and inclined to random acts of violence. Spending the morning with them is very much like being the designated driver at a drunken party: you have to segue between illogical conversations, hysterical laughter, bouts of weeping, fisticuffs and declarations of love, all the while stopping them slipping off the side of the chair onto the floor.
But worst of all, being up so early, before the ‘electronic babysitter’ is on duty, made me regret my decision of last week to let the house go to hell. I did tidy up a bit over the weekend – and of course The Husband helped out by hiding some things in an inexplicable location so that we can rediscover them one day when we move out – but not enough.
The general chaos simply cranked up the tension: there were tears over colouring pens that had dried up after the tops were left off; there was swearing after standing on a razor-edged building block; and there was a decision on the part of Alpha Blondie that most of his toys had vanished into the ether, and that he’d better carry around every single one of them at all times for fear of losing them too, hence his pathetic wails of “Roggyyyyyyyy!” (his frog), “Wee-wooooo!” (his wolf), “Owwwwww!” (his cat) and another sound that cannot be reproduced phonetically that appears to correspond to his Bull.
I decided enough was enough. The house is still far from the ‘housewife clean’ standard expected of Swiss wives (I’m not being ironic – ‘housewife clean’ is a perfectly acceptable standard of hygiene in Switzerland and is afforded the utmost respect by estate agents) but at least it doesn’t unsettle the kids any more. But I apologise to all those who left messages of support for my slovenly hiatus – sorry for tidying up and letting the side down.
I give in. Rather like the lush grasslands that over thousands of years were overwhelmed by the encroaching sands of the Sahara, I am giving up my home to the inexorable expansion of the Things. Like the once-unyielding stones of Angkor or Borobodur, the voracious tentacles of the Stuff have engulfed me, weakened my foundations of cleanliness, and pulled me down under their crushing weight. I simply cannot stand to spend one more minute tidying up.
Now that I have surrendered my home to the Objects, it will slowly evolve into an archaeological site of the future. Hairy students with Bristol accents will one day chip through the sediment. On the surface, they will find the biggest Stuff: books, single shoes and empty DVD cases. In the next layer reside the medium-sized Things: Lego, magnetic letters and pieces of shredded paper. Finally, at the bottom, in some cases actually embedded in the rug, lay the tiny Bits: gold stars, multi-coloured beads and ancient grapes that occupy a new category of food stuff (for 18-month-old Alpha Blondie strongly believes they are edible) that is halfway between fresh fruit and dried raisin.
What will these archaeologists make of my home, hundreds of years from now? “Maybe this random scattering of Things had a ceremonial purpose?” they will ask. “Or were the inhabitants forced to abandon all this Stuff because of a sudden climactic event?” they may well posit. “Perhaps this mother of the Anthropocenic era just sat down in the middle of the room one day and thought ‘feck it, I can’t be arsed any more’?” one of the mature students will more accurately wonder. And who can blame that poor, ancient creature, who simply did not have the wherewithal to cope with the overpowering deluge of Crap that swept into her life along with the sudden arrival of two children?
Take this morning, for example. For reasons I have no patience to explain, I was scouring the house and garden for the following Lost Items: a packet of modelling clay, an item of clothing that may or may not exist, and a watering can rose. Nothing. The act of looking-for-things often throws up other unexpected chores, so on the way I cleared a path to make the stairs navigable again, did some recycling, unearthed a copy of Elmer and read it with Alpha Blondie, removed and washed the kids’ bed sheets, discovered an elusive corner of a Peppa Pig Jigsaw and completed the puzzle to check I had all the other pieces, and cut out about a hundred butterflies from the aforementioned wrapping paper. All very good...
... but back to the Lost Items. There was only one place left to look – under the sofa. I lay face down in the prime grape-drying area between the couch and the footstool, and dislocated my left shoulder in order to better sift through the quagmire of Things. No clay, clothes or watering can roses. But I did find: a Charlie Chaplin DVD, two Peppa Pig DVDs, a red cushion, half a wooden carrot, a book, a shoe (mine), a slipper (Alpha Blondie’s), a sock (Curly Girlie’s), a block of Post-it notes, an otoscope, a number 9, an empty tin of macademia nuts (the Husband's) and a Frisbee.
Naturally, I didn’t remove any of these items from under the sofa because then I would have had to find homes for them all. Instead, I lay there with Alpha Blondie bouncing on my back making trotting noises and made a decision: instead of removing the Things from under the sofa, why not simply store them there? Then, when the Husband asks for his nuts or Curly Girlie demands a wooden carrot or Alpha Blondie wails ‘OOOoooOOOoooOOO!’ (which roughly translates as ‘I need a shoooooe so I can go outside and fall over on the stones’) I can just say: ‘under the sofa, Darling!’ What a neat solution.
My iPhone has packed up. I know, I know – you feel my pain. Tomorrow, I lose the phone altogether for a full 24 hours while it is, hopefully, repaired to its former glory. This is beyond inconvenience, this is panic stations.
How did I get so dependent so quickly? The thing is, you can’t de-evolve. People don’t un-develop. There are always Luddites, but you don’t hear much these days about the caveman who didn’t want to jump on the whole wheel bandwagon, do you?
So I’m struck by all the magic in my house. Really, it might as well be magic, because I sure as hell can’t explain it: WiFi – I just walk about the place, accessing the Internet in the office, the kitchen, the garden, halfway down the front drive, printing things out willy-nilly as I go; the ground-source heating system – it takes heat directly out of the Earth and uses it to make the floors agreeably warm; the hob – it cooks the food, but it doesn’t get hot. The latter is clearly the devil’s work and I don’t trust it. But then, I still make the kids go out of the room when I use the microwave, so...
We may call it technology, but really it’s just magic. If the Inquisition ever comes to my house, they’ll burn me as a witch. I must get an App for that.
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...
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.
‘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!”
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.