Friday, March 20, 2015

Classical Dim Sum

"The real world is cooperative, not competitive." says Lily.  Lily offers cooking, sewing, and piano lessons. Her musings on how the world works are for free.

Meet Lily.  A pint sized, energetic, über talented Chinese woman who taught me how to make dim sum today.  She advertised cooking lessons on a local expat website.  I convinced a friend to come along and reserved two spots.

We were late.  Two other woman had beat us there.  That made five of us; an American, a Scot, a Spaniard, an English woman, and Lily.  Lily had all the ingredients out and was trying her best to break down a recipe she learned how to make as a child into something the rest of us could follow. Know this, dim sum takes a long time. 

Dim sum is what the southern Chinese say.  It literally translates to 'snack'.  It's a complicated snack. Lily says it's the Chinese equivalent of the Sunday roast.  Buckle up.

Her mother taught her.  She can remember the whack of her neighbors' knives on Sundays as they chopped pork for dim sum- food processors aren't (or weren't at that point) common in China. Whack went the knives.

Lily's knife of choice is a meat cleaver which brings her to another story of growing up in China. She always wanted long hair.  Her mother didn't think that was a good idea and would occasionally brandish a meat cleaver in an attempt to illustrate just how much Lily needed the occasional hated haircut.  Lily's husband thinks it is just plain prudent to hide the meat cleavers when his mother-in-law visits.

Back to the dumplings. Pork makes the traditional filling as chicken would be saved for something else.  Another Lily'ism...old hens make good soup, old roosters make a fine stir fry, and young hens lay small eggs.  She fed assorted vegetables through the food processor as she explained why some were suited to a food processor and some were not.

Garlic chives are not. Hand chop garlic chives.  

Garlic chives

Why? Because they are quite juicy and will be mushed in a food processor.  Mush is bad. Creamy dim sum is bad.

Bärlauch  can go in a food processor.  


Bärlauch translates to 'bear leek'.  Why is it called bärlauch? Because when bears come out of hibernation, they eat this and it makes them happy. I'm going to believe this, mostly because I don't know a single bear to ask. And she did such a great impression of a  bear delighted to find bärlauch, who am I to argue?

Bärlauch is also a good choice environmentally. It grows wild and it's free.  Garlic chives,  are not but they taste amazing.  These were imported from Thailand unlike the parsley which was bought from the local farmer. Winter parsley is tough with woody stems.  Into the food processor went the carrots, zucchini,  Chinese cabbage, and bärlauch.

Lily was simultaneously making a chicken filling just because.  That filling had the addition of shiitake mushrooms.  You must first soak the mushrooms over night. That enhances the umami flavor. Don't throw out the liquid the mushrooms were soaking in. That will be added later.

Did you know there are five basic tastes? Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami.  Umami is the taste of Parmesan cheese, the tomato sauce on pizza, seafood, and soy sauce.  Umami is also the taste of breast milk.  Moving along...

In went the two kinds of soy sauce, oil, and spices including Szechuan pepper. Szechuan pepper is not spicy like you might think it is.  Instead it makes you numb, not whole body numb like a good vodka and grapefruit can, just your lips and tongue.  Seems like an odd spice to add but when paired with something spicy it is supposed to be a marriage made in heaven.  

I don't know about that but I did eat one and yes, my tongue felt...odd.  It got stuck in the way back of my throat and I had to go hang out in the bathroom and try to find it.  I did.  Then I had to go find something to eat to make my tongue happy again.  Apparently, I wasn't supposed to chew it.

Way before all of the Szechuan pepper nonsense, Lily had made a ball of dough and left it to rest while the fillings were prepared.  It doesn't need to rise, just rest. Like my tongue.

While my tongue was resting, I checked out her apartment.  A beautiful Steinway grand piano took up a third of the living room.  'Do you play?'  Since she was four was the answer.  I asked if she would play.  She would definitely play.  She would happily play.  

The piano was a hundred years old and had recently spent a year being refurbished at Steinway in Hamburg, Germany.  Only two original parts remained; the gorgeous wooden shell and something metal I've already forgotten. She said the mix of old and new gave it a unique sound.  I started jumping up and down on the inside thinking I would get to hear it.  Underneath the piano were about nine million Legos.

Her two year old must like to play there.  Seems like a good spot to me.

She once played at a party and showed up without a coat. She thought she was playing inside. Instead, she was playing outside.  The host told her to pick out a coat. She picked out a mink. Evidently, if you play piano like she does, people give you mink coats.  

She does give piano lessons but not to children.  When she teaches a child piano (she will teach them to cook or sew- yes, she's good at that too.  Did I mention she was a mechanical engineer?), she goes to bed unhappy.  Kids can make some pretty harsh sounds on the piano. My son took piano lessons for four years.  She speaks the truth.

The fillings were done. We moved on to rolling out small, thin circles of dough.  Not too big, not too thin, not too thick. Don't get filling anywhere near the edges.  Seal the top closed first,  then the sides. Side pleats are ideal because then they will sit up in the pot for cooking.  

She showed us how her mother sealed the dim sum. I filed it away in the 'Advanced Cooking Skills' section in my brain.  Typically, that's a one way journey.

Talk turned to schooling in Switzerland, China, and in the US.  In a nutshell, China is hypercompetitive, Switzerland has a more laid back, play centered approach in the first few years, and the US has a lot of tests and not enough outside time. 

That sorted,  Lily talked about the pressure and the intense competition to always be in the top ten percent and how the indignity of failure (or perceived failure- less than top ten percent) is public. She did well.  In college she wanted to major in environmental science but there weren't enough university spots for applicants.  Instead, she was offered a spot in a military school as a civilian but with a major in mechanical engineering.  She cried when she opened the letter.  But she went. Her father was happy, she was decidedly not. They made her cut her hair. She began her planning in earnest to leave China.

There's an art to rolling the dough. Roll towards the center. Never let go of the dough. Turn it, pressure on the roll towards center, release it back to the edge. Repeat. Lots of sprinkled flour helps. Her mom taught her and she taught us.  

Lily said it was perfect!

It is a cooperative world.  I think she's absolutely right. Thank goodness for the Lilys of the world.

Lily playing piano...she is amazing. My video skills, not so much.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Longest Four Years of Your Life

I came to an important conclusion today...raising teenagers is hard.  Hard, I said.  I spent hours this morning working for my two teens (who will never say thank you-teenagers are the worst bosses ever).  Demanding and never satisfied is the definition of 'teen'. I organized school records, emailed next year's teachers, emailed this year's teachers, emailed old guidance counselors, and emailed new guidance counselors.  All to get them ready to re-enter their US schools in September.

In my old life, I was a guidance counselor (someday I hope to be a guidance counselor again).  I was a guidance counselor for fifteen years before I had teenagers and I have spent the last year or two reconsidering everything I, the mother of no teens, might have said to those parents.  In my head, I have been thinking about what I would say to them now- those parents handing over their kids to the high school...I think this might be it.

I'm sorry.  I had no idea. 

But I do now and yes, I'm sure you have tried.  Teenagers can sleep through alarms. No, they don't go to bed when you tell them.  Yes, they will lie to you.  Sneaky little lies. Big bold faced lies. It's not unheard of for them to request chicken on Wednesday, announce they are a vegetarian on Thursday, and want their favorite pork fried rice on Friday.  Yes, they do some incredibly dumb things.  Things that make you want to pack a bag and find a studio apartment for one. They do scary things.  They do obnoxious things.  They will send 11,000 texts in the same month but won't answer yours.  I know, I know, they are addicted to their electronics. The car and the refrigerator  will always be on 'Empty'.  You will occasionally find strange kids in your house.  Some may be truly strange and some will just be unfamiliar to you.  They will leave hoses running, taps dripping, and waste more water than a village in Africa sees in a week taking one shower. They cannot remember to take out the trash, empty the compost bin, or unload the dishwasher but if you forget to buy milk, you are THE WORST MOTHER EVER.  The kid who never stops talking? Exhausting.  Deadlines are for other people.  College applications? Buckle your seat belt. It's going to be a bumpy ride. 

But then they do some amazing things.  Sleep in a box all night to raise money for the homeless? They're in.  Write a letter to the lonely older man in a nursing home? The same kid that was late for school five days in row did that.  That strange kid? He might not have had somewhere to sleep that night. The kid addicted to all those electronics might help you find that book draft /report/excel spread sheet that you were sure you lost.  That kid who never stops talking is pretty funny on the school PA system. The kid that volunteered to play basketball with the student in the wheel chair and loved it?  The homeroom full of kids that gave up lunch money to buy a present for a homeless child at Christmas?  The kids who heard about the tsunami, hurricane, flood, or drought, and decided to sell Valentines, hold a dance, organize a clothes drive, solicit book donations, or wash cars and then donate the funds?   These are our kids.  

It might not seem like it some days but what you're doing is working.  So keep saying, 'No'.  Keep reminding them to say please and thank you.  Keep nagging them! Harp on them! Don't give in and don't give up. And most especially, don't believe them when they say they don't have homework.  

Oh, and that party you will hold when they graduate? I get it now, it's really for you. Invite all your friends. It's gonna be epic.  You deserve it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ultimate Blind Date

Last summer, we had dinner at a restaurant in Zurich called ‘blindekuh' (blind cow).  We had guests and were looking for something fun to do.  Caroline had come home from school months before talking about the restaurant.  One of her teachers had told all of the kids about it and she was intrigued.  The restaurant employs about thirty people  most of whom are blind or have only partial sight.  Off we went.

There were ten of us; four adults and six kids; a nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, and a fourteen year old  (My aunt said, “They could all be yours.” Perhaps in some alternative universe where I’ve lost both my mind and my birth control that could be true but I digress).

The restaurant is in a converted church.  Up a few stairs and you are in the lobby.  The menu is projected on the wall in two languages.  Menus choices were limited to three items: beef poached in a red wine, spinach strudel, and a three course surprise.  There was also a children’s menu but that was not disclosed as it was also a surprise.  Genius on the part of management because it left the kids no time to whine about the choices or lack thereof.

The restaurant has a stack of postcards with Braille greetings on them. You fill them out and they will send them for you.  The kids got busy with that project while waiting.  Caroline sent one to the teacher that told her about the restaurant.  One clever child also signed the guest book- in Chinese.  Then our waitress came to collect us.  After a few instructions, you know important stuff- how to get out of there if you need to, we were told to form two congo lines.  She led the kids away first through a double set of heavy black curtains.  Next, she led the adults to our chairs and explained the orientation of the place setting.
I decided I would just hold onto mine the whole night; it seemed simpler. Besides, I hated to lose  my glass of wine.  The dining room was absolutely pitch black-well, almost.  Not a speck of light except for one of us who refused to lose his watch.  It glowed like ET’s finger.  After much persuasion, he very reluctantly put it away.  Then absolute pitch black- you could open your eyes or close them- it didn’t matter. One of us decided to take her glasses off as it seemed rather pointless to wear them. 

Dinner conversation when it’s pitch black is odd.  Disembodied voices asking how your day at work was.  But you get used to it and pretty soon you hear people laughing all around you.  Looking around to see what others were wearing, checking out jewelry, all pointless.  I did ask Caroline before we left as she was getting dressed, to dress up a bit.  She just stared at me, “Mom, they are blind and the restaurant is in the dark. What difference does it make what I wear?”  I know there is a good response to that but I was hard pressed to find it at that moment. But she acquiesced and threw a dress on to please me.
We ordered in the dark, drank wine in the dark, ate appetizer surprise in the dark.  The only thing we were told about the appetizer was that it was vegetarian and in the middle of the table.  Snooze, you lose. I found mine and ate it.  But all that information you get from sight?  Color, texture before it hits your mouth, size? Gone. 

I ordered a Greek salad. I was really proud of myself that I was able to both find it and eat it. And since no one could see me, I picked up my plate and licked it.  Feeling pretty pleased with myself, I put my hands in my lap- where I found the other half of my salad.  I had been scooping up the salad and throwing it in my lap apparently. And since no one could see me…I ate it anyway. The kids were initially very quiet but got more lively as they got more comfortable.  We asked Caroline how her salad was and she said, “I’d eat it if I could find it.”  She is her mother’s daughter.
The entrée was served.  I do admit to sliding my hand over to my husband’s plate to ‘feel’ his dinner not once, not twice but three times.  I could not understand what was cold and slimy on his plate.    Turns out it was avocado.  I have arrived at the conclusion that if I were in fact blind, I would not eat avocados. 

My spinach strudel was delicious but I  reverted to toddler tactics to eat it.  Using a fork and a knife seemed overwhelmingly complicated, as did good posture.  I had to keep picking my chin up off my chest.  Chin to chest, eyes closed- I was in danger of sliding completely under the table.  I did also keep checking my lap to feel for runaway strudel.  Dessert was one giant scoop of ice-cream that mysteriously disappeared. 
At that point, while I tremendously enjoyed the experience and was able to appreciate what it’s like to eat blind (complicated, a bit messy, a challenge to say the least), I was ready to leave. I called out to Rita, our waitress and I felt like Rocky calling out to Adrian (remember that scene?). We stood, formed our congo line and shuffled out. 

What a great experience.  I recommend it but can’t really tell you much about the food, the décor, or the presentation.  It was also curiously stressful.  I'm certain no one will forget it.  There are a few of these restaurants around the world but Zurich's was the first. 

It was the ultimate blind date.  However, screen your date carefully. It is dark and mine, well, he took advantage of the situation.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Blame it on the foehn

I'm pretty laid back (really). Even if I'm feeling crazy, I can generally do a pretty good job of keeping a lid on it. Not today.

Today, I lost it.  I was a lunatic.  A mad woman. Certifiable. Maybe even possessed by demons. 

It all began so nicely...

A good night's sleep.  A nice chat in the morning with my husband.  I ironed for him.  Then I made homemade pancakes for the kids...this is probably where the problems began. Switzerland, just import the Bisquick, please. I'm begging you. I am sick of making homemade everything. I can live without drive thrus but can we just compromise on a few grocery staples? Bisquick, Aunt Jemina, frozen waffles- basically anything breakfast related. 

I mix away.  Only to hear the middle one complain about not liking pancakes. My snarkometer, which measures my capacity for teenage snarkiness, has just cranked up a degree.  We are on four now (one was left over from last night, two for waking up a teenager three times, three for homemade pancakes, four for "I don't like them"- danger zone begins at eight). We are still in the safe zone, though approaching "WARNING".  A long time ago, I had a job where the boss was notorious for being volatile. The secretaries all knew this and devised a push pin code to alert staff as to his current approachability. It was simple.; red, yellow, and green.  You were warned. Maybe I need the same system. 

A skirmish breaks out regarding the breakfast menu plan.  The second doesn't care for 'Fruit Thursdays', she wants 'Bagel Thursdays'.  My snarkometer creeps up a notch- we are at a five. Starbucks may enjoy their off menu shenanigans. I resent them.  If you go off menu, make it yourself. Sounds fair enough to me. 

I get to the car.  I'm putting on my seatbelt, selecting an iPod song for the ride only to see the second one having a fit that I am not pulling out of the space fast enough. I'm at six.

Pull out and wait for the first.  Seven.  He arrives. Forgets his homework. Skip eight. Straight to nine because now he has to go back in the house and he needs my keys to accomplish this. Now all three are late, I'm at a nine, and two and three are having meltdowns. He stands in front of the car so I can't leave without him (yes, I have in fact done that).  Whoomp there it is. TEN.

I vow horrible things, I threaten horrible things, I slam a car door. I stalk to the front door to let him in.  He comes back and gets in the car.  Tirade resumes. I pull out. And that's when I get a horrible reminder.

No, not that kids are precious. No, not that I will miss this when they move away. No, not that time is slipping through my fingers with them. None of that. I forgot we live in front of a bus stop.   I have four people staring at me. Their mouths are actually hanging open. I was Walmart crazy with witnesses.

Not sure how to recover from this morning. Except to maybe blame it on the foehn. Which isn't blowing. But might start. Anytime now. Based on my behavior.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Folded and Creased

I think we have choices our whole life about how we are going to handle adversity.

It's like this...

1.  I think we are born a blank piece of paper (think I've mentioned this before).

Things are going along fine until...something isn't.  Maybe you got sick, maybe you divorced, lost your job, maybe you did something you're not proud of, maybe you moved to Switzerland, who knows. So you fold in half.  It feels like that sometimes, doesn't it?

2.  So now what do you do? You've been folded in half.  Kinda hurts.  Then you get used to being folded in half but just when you think you're getting used to begin to heal and you open up a bit but that crease? It's still there.  Kind of like a scar. Cool.

3. Then- wham!  Another unexpected hit. But this time you keep your head above water but tuck in.

4. Hey! Tuck in a little tighter. Make sure you tuck in both sides.  Keep the balance.

5. What happened? You were feeling balanced. Balanced I said! Until your feet were ripped right out from under you and you folded in half. Again.

6. But you don't like that feeling. Not this time. So kick back. Push your feet down. Ahhhh, That's better. At least you can see again and your feet aren't over your head.  Gaining perspective. 

7. But maybe if you just changed your point of view...  Hmmmm. Stretch. A good stretch always feels really good, right? Unfold a little. Keep going. There, that's right. 

8. Now look around.  Feel better?   You were creased, folded, unfolded, and tucked in. But you learned to stick your neck out again and you gained a new perspective.  Sure you have a few creases, it got kind of tight, and you were upside awhile there.

But did you look? Wasn't it worth it?

You could have done this...

You didn't it.

You did this.

It's all a matter of perspective.  Of course, your swan may look a little different than the other swans.  Mine was very Bridget Jones'ish. Popcorn stains and all.  You know, cause life is kind of messy. 
And wouldn't a blank piece of paper been really boring?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Swiss Summer Camp

I'm OVER it. They've been home for 13 days.  Thirteen. Maybe it's just the number.  In any case, I'm working on a series of summer camps. Beware teens and tweens.

The undated and revised...


1. BEDDING BASICS  This course will include visuals, handouts, and practical experience. Participants will leave with a complete understanding of how to change sheets, make a bed, and how to remove themselves from said bed prior to 1:00pm.  Bonus material to include REMOVING FOOD AND INK STAINS FROM BEDDING.

2.COOKING.  It's not just for Mom's!  Participants will learn how to scramble an egg and make toast.  Advanced learners may also opt for the 'Focus on French' course including French Fries and  French Toast.   Bonus material to include LOADING THE DISHWASHER.

3. SHOWERING.  We will cover correct amounts of shampoo, conditioner, and soap to apply to one's body and will customize the length of a proper shower based on age and gender.  Bonus material to include:  REPLACING THE TOILET PAPER ROLL.

4. GETTING ALONG.  This day will be full of exercises designed to encourage respect for others and respect for the property of others.  Bonus material to include:  FIRST AID and WHEN TO APPLY ICE.

5. CLEANING.  This will introduce participants to a non-toxic, child friendly method of cleaning guaranteed to please adults. Bonus material to include:  HOW TO CHANGE THE VACUUM CLEANER BAG.

6. PETS.  Participants will be more familiar with the pet they begged for. We will be begin with re-introductions and a course on pet needs including food, water, and exercise.  Bonus material to include:  THE POOPER SCOOPER.

7.  SHOPPING.  A series of field trips will be planned to local markets.  We will visit a local farmer's market, butcher, and a bakery.  Individuals will learn how to select ripe fruit, fresh milk, and local breads.  Bonus material to include:  COUNTING CHANGE AND BRINGING IT BACK TO YOUR MOTHER.

8.  ENTERTAINMENT. An introduction to local attractions.  Focus will be on historical, athletic, and free attractions.  Bonus material to include:  YOUR OWN LIBRARY CARD!

The last two days of summer camp will be devoted to Culinary pursuits, Ironing, Proper Care of Board Games, Speed Sock Matching, and How To Efficiently Unload the Dishwasher.  Participants are limited to 3 in each course. Please register early for the best selection.

All courses to be held in Switzerland. Parents submitting early bird registrations will receive a bottle of wine and tickets to their local cinema.  Parents may not call, text, or Skype during camp.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Summertime and Stormy Weather

I knew something was awry. Something huge and I'd look around at other people and wonder what their key to happiness was.  I was specifically looking at other couples. Why were some couples happier than others? What made a good couple work?  I watched.  Kids? A house? A bigger house? A tattoo? Definitely NOT the tattoo, by the way.

But I think I was barking up the wrong tree the whole time.  This is what I think is the case...Happy couples are happy because the individuals are happy. I know, duh, right?

I know there are lots of other ingredients too- a dash of this and a smidge of that, plus some chemistry and ta da- a happy couple.  Way to oversimplify, I know.

At least that's my theory and I'm sticking to it.  It's a complicated question- what makes a happy couple and I think it's slippery, like a fish.

My happy quest was on. The pace is slower here.  The mother guilt is at an all time low. Money is never falling out of trees so, the low cost Happy Quest had begun. Bring it.

And this is what I learned...
And that, my friends, is a happiness killer.

I think somewhere along the line I forgot how to have fun.  I could blame it on a million different things; work, kids, laundry, my husband, ironing, the dog but the bottom line was it was my fault. I knew what happy was NOT. Bummer, huh? I think young mothers are especially prone to this condition.  And it IS a condition. It's right there in the DSM-5 under "Burnt Out".

Then I stumbled on happy. A little bit here, a little bit there.  Writing. That made me happy. I knew if I wrote a little and it wasn't complete garbage, I was happy. Hiking made me happy (when I wasn't dry heaving somewhere).   Scootering down a mountain screaming, "This is the best method of transportation EVER!", shot the happiness quotient way up.  A water balloon fight with the kids- that was pretty good, too.

Yesterday it was paddleboarding.  I have been dying to try this for at least four years. Peppered people with questions, fondled them in the shops, hinted at holidays. Begged at holidays.  Then I saw a posting for group lessons being offered at the lake. Cost was reasonable. Had an instructor.  I just had to show up.  And in typical fashion, I almost blew it.

Decided the house needed a tidy, couldn't find the right suit, couldn't find the car park, Caroline didn't feel well, I hadn't made them lunch- they will starve, and on and on. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to fun.

I got there and it was just two other women and myself. One who had  never done it, like myself, and the other fairly confident but content to paddle along with others for the company.

I was super worried I wouldn't be able to stand up- like water skiing. Then, what if I fell in? Could I get myself back on? Maybe. Maybe not.

I got out. Stood up and paddled away. Love.  I fell in. Got up. Paddled away again. Still love.

Started chatting with the other American who showed up. She has an unusual name. How'd she get her name? Does a name influence personality? Was she named for someone? How'd they get that name?  All fun, legitimate questions. My son Sam is named after a Sam I used to babysit for.  That Sam was named for a Sam whose name wasn't actually Sam but everyone called Sam. You follow that?

Then I said, "If  this isn't a perfect day, I don't know what is."  Then Ms. Unusual Name started to sing.  First, 'Stormy Weather'. On the lake while paddle boarding.  In a beautiful alto voice. And then, this song by Ella Fitzgerald, 'Summertime'.

Happy. So much fun...I'm catching on. A little bit of fun, goes a long way to happy.  You just gotta try. It's too easy to get bogged down in stuff that DOESN'T MATTER. Happy matters. If I stayed home to vacuum, I would have missed being sung to while paddleboarding on a lake in Switzerland.  For vacuuming?  Awww, HELL NO.

So get your fun on. Nothing to lose. You just have to show up.  

I  almost felt like cooking after that. Almost.

Play the song.  You'll like it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Invisible Strings

Two little girls were playing in a corner that backed up to a cement parking garage.  Camped out on a patch more dirt than grass.  It was the South End of Hartford in the 1970's. Poverty was the rule- not the exception.  They lived on a small, dead end street with an empty building lot at the very end, "the woods". 

Teenagers frequently disappeared into the woods.  They weren't actually hiding from anyone; it was a pretty scraggly wooded area.  These were not woods 'lovely, dark, and deep'.  Once the girls found a discarded Playboy, soaked and wrinkled with the pages  stuck together.  They'd also seen the brown paper bag evidence the glue sniffers left behind. The girls weren't afraid of the woods, they just avoided the woods. Like a city park after dark- to be avoided.

The girls were busy. Heads down. Busy as only six year olds can be.  And out of the garage appeared a couple of older teenage boys. Scraggly, like the woods- where they almost certainly emerged from.  The garage offered a short cut to Franklin Avenue.  They stopped and looked at the two of them. The girls looked back.  Conversation stopped.  And then one of them said, "You will be something special one day." And they were gone.

Not too many years after that, one little girl moved away.  The other stayed close by.  Still tied together by invisible strings as all friends are. Flitting in and one of one another's lives. Funerals, wedding announcements, baby pictures. Family tragedies. Catching up-decades in an hour. Losing touch. Catching up again.

The woods and the teenagers are long gone now. Two multi-family homes are built there. But those two girls?  I'm sitting in Switzerland writing this blog.  The other? She just welcomed her only child home from her first year of college.  She worked two and three jobs to raise her on her own not far from that cement parking garage.  

Some people have religion. Or maybe it's karma you believe in. Or fortune tellers.  Whatever.  But for years, I believed in that scraggly teenager. I also believed in Dracula but that's a story for another day.  Some people have 'go to dinners' or the 'never fail outfit' or lucky socks.  He was my 'go to pep talk'.  Something to chew on in the middle of the night. 

I think the words worked their magic a little bit a time over the next four decades for those two little girls.  Special wasn't glitter and star dust. Special was finishing high school and going to college. Paying off student loans and working two jobs.  Special was finding careers we loved that fit us. Special was raising our own families and whispering into little ears, "You'll be something special someday."

With A Cherry On Top.

Caroline isn't ten yet but will be soon.  I figured she deserved a party. We tried to plan a party last year but it was a no go as too many kids were gone.  Kids all disappear during the summer to places like Germany, England, and Turkey- far from our little neighborhood. Everyone leaves.  Shop keepers shut down, leaving signs in the window announcing they are on vacation.  They bigger ones stay open but many of the independents still take at least a few weeks off. Zug isn't much of a tourist destination (and I am thankful for that) even though it's charming and friendly, it's the bigger cities like Luzern and Bern that tourists flock to leaving Zug to nap the summer away.

We thought we'd try again this year but we got smarter and decided to hold her party before school let out for the summer- the last big bash (turns out it won't be but that event is still in secret planning stages but know this, I am creating a play list of battle music).

We invited all the girls in her class. All five.  Her whole class has nine kids. Then we threw in a few others we especially like and we had a party.  An Oscar party.  She's never seen the award show but she was in as soon as she figured out it would be fancy- make that Fancy with a capital 'F'.

We planned for months. Schemed with visitors to import clothing and decorations from the US.

I went to the local DYI store looking for a base for the Oscar statues.  I don't speak German- she wasn't confident in her English.  So I whipped out my iPhone for a little visual help.  It slipped right out of my hands.  Then the world stopped spinning as we both watched in horror as it fell in slow motion to the tiled floor landing with a horrifying smack. We stared at each other while I held on to her arm.  I bent down to pick it up and flipped it over- sure the face would be shattered in 10,000 pieces.  Not a scratch.  We both sighed. We do speak the same language. I eventually found the supplies I needed and only super glued my dress together once as I prepped the Oscars.
I forgot to buy her shoes, so it became fancy and barefoot.  I started watching the weather. I don't usually care what the weather is going to I cared.  The weather forecast here is NEVER right.  It was calling for thunderstorms.  I worried today would be the day the meteorologists would get their act together.

I bought meters and meters of tulle and then went back for more.  By the way, the art of sewing is alive and well in Switzerland.  There have to be at least four shops in a five minute radius.

Gold stars and pink tablecloths.

Boxes of chocolates wrapped in ribbon. 

I have to admit, I did have the best party planner around whispering stuff like ..."how about a HOLLYWOOD sign?" in my ear and offering to lend additional decorations.

Kids were nominated for Oscars and advised to come ready with an acceptance speech.


Some got very shy and needed to hold Mom's hand while accepting the coveted  award.

One didn't have a speech ready and I offered to help her prepare one.  She said, "I can only speak English (and Romanian and German) but can't I read English."    She deserved an Oscar for that feat alone.

Girls came in their mother's sparkly strappy sandals. One mother came in sparkly sneakers. We had cupcakes and ice cream and sang 'Happy Birthday' in two languages. German goes like this...
"Zum Geburtstag viel Glück!
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück!
Zum Geburtstag liebe Caroline,
Zum Geburtstag viel Glück!"

We took mother and daughter portraits as they waved their goodbyes.

I wanted Caroline to have a party she would enjoy.  You're only 10 once.  Next year she may join her brother and sister and find me very uncool. But as long as she blows me a kiss goodbye every morning, I will throw her any kind of party she wants. With a cherry on top.

Thursday, June 5, 2014


I was that mom. 

I used to be dressed by 6:45am.  Actually, dressed and out the door with three mostly dressed kids in the back seat. Drop them at daycare. Go to work. Work until whenever. Get them. Come home. Feed them. Drive ALL over to the next obligation; piano, supplemental piano, fencing, gymnastics, play dates, Lego club (really there is such a thing), ballet, t-ball, soccer, swimming, trumpet lessons, softball, drama club, Friday Club, and on and on. There were entire dinners eaten in the car.  The back seat was a dressing room for kids with no time between school and the next 'thing'.  I had collapsible furniture in the trunk ready to sit and wait- wherever that was. 

Then we moved.  And not just a little move. A big, gigantic, what I have done, move. And the crazy slowly came to a stop.    

And this is what happened... I gave my kids their childhood back.  I handed the whole thing over.  Hours to do with as they please. The ability to structure their time as they see fit. Play dates weren't expected and didn't happen with the same frequency as they did in the US. Sisters became friends.   Want to play Barbies on the patio for four hours in the rain? Sure.  Want to take your scooter to go get an ice cream? Sure.  Want to go shoe shopping with the teenage equivalent of the UN?  Sure.  Want to scooter down a mountain with a friend that makes you giggle with joy?  Sure. She was still giggling even as she was telling me how it was two of them on one scooter and she had to brake so long and so hard she wore the sole of her boot out. 

I've spent years literally dragging children from one activity to the next.  Complaining when they complained: 'you are ungrateful', 'hurry up', 'other kids would love to do this',  'do you know how much this cost?'.  Believing all the while it was my mom duty, my job, to structure their time hoping they'd find their passion. At six. 

Here's the thing- I would have kept doing it. Because I thought that was what moms did.  A lot of moms do. But it was wearing me and them out. And then something interesting happened.  When left to their own devices, they found their own talents.

Lauren has a knack for languages.  Who knew?  She elected to go to Swiss gymnasium where she takes 5 out of 8 classes in German.  And French as her 'foreign' language. Her French textbook is in German.  She asked for extra German lessons on Sundays. Asked. And never complains about going.  She doesn't sulk in the car on the way home or complain about the coach.

Sam has loved computers since he was small. This year he built two functioning computers.  He joined the tennis team. I didn't even know they had a tennis team.

Caroline can scooter anywhere. She can also change buses by herself.  And she sings. In the shower. In the car. With her friends.  By herself.  On stage. Off stage. She doesn't care. She chooses her after school activities. She recently dropped the Wednesday Club (who knows what they did) and joined the Science Club. I think she's hoping for a few explosions. 

Maybe because all the crazy stopped, I was a better listener and heard what it was they wanted to do. Or maybe I was too tired to fight it anymore. But mostly, I think it was because we moved to Switzerland where people do things differently.  I don't think too many people are eating dinner in the car.  I only know of one drive thru locally.  One.  No coffee drive thru's, no ATM's, no Burger King, no Taco Bell (though, there is the drive-thru in Zurich where you order a prostitute instead of a hamburger).  People don't work 70 hour work weeks. Sundays are family days.  My car mostly stays parked in the garage.  I shop locally.  I buy what we need.  A thirty minute car ride seems really, really far now.  Kids get much shorter summers but in return many more breaks during the school year. 

Kids are expected to be far more independent.  Creative play, outdoor time, and problem solving are built into every day.  One of the local primary schools behind me, has joined forces with two other primaries.  They are all attending the same school for the week and putting on a circus for the local neighborhood- complete with a circus tent.  I have a little friend who is going to be a lion jumping through a hoop of fire and another little friend who will walk on barrels. Kindergarten is a two year affair.   First grade is still only four hours a day three days a week with two longer 'normal' days. Second grade follows the same pattern.

These years have been a gift. I know that.  I know we are lucky and not everyone has the luxury to make such a drastic life change. I am also cognizant every day, that it's got an expiration date.  I do wonder how I will take what I love here and blend it with what I love in the US.  Or whether I will slip right back into being THAT mom.  I would really rather just be Mom.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Divergent Hike

Hiking with me is not for the faint of heart.  I require some special handling.  I frequently stop to take pictures, peel off layers of clothing I never should have worn in the first place, and start in the front and end up in the back because I stopped in the middle to dry heave.  I've never actually vomited in case you're curious.

Today was no exception.  I knew it was going to be hard.  I was warned. I hydrated. Took a vitamin B, avoided coffee and yogurt (proven enemies of hiking), and poached a KIND bar from the guests (thank you).  None of it actually helped.

The first twenty minutes were fine. A lazy uphill climb. Sure.  Then we came to the steps. When the Swiss put in hillside steps it's because it's very, very steep.  I climbed and climbed. No end in sight.   I decided it was noble to bring up the rear.  I climbed on.  No step class on earth could equal this.  I stretched my bitty legs to hurdle my body up. Step by miserable step.  I get to the top. Where I spend 10 minutes covertly dry heaving wishing for a flash flood of biblical proportions that would justify climbing this hellish set of steps.  No flash flood and the group who waited patiently for the last of us, now moves on.

 The treat at the top of all those steps-it's always worth it.

I walk.  It's bearable. I get my groove back. I make small talk with two women from other places; fellow expats in various stages of grief as it relates to an international move.  One is stuck somewhere between bargaining and acceptance. The other is at acceptance.  Me? I think I moved from depression to acceptance sometime in October.

I started reading Divergent last night. The book is all about a dystopian society divided in five factions according to your inherent virtues.  Lots of hoopla around the book.  Initially, I was a bit disappointed in the writing. I don't think it's as well written as the Hunger Games but it's a decent read (however, neither are nearly as good as Life As We Knew It , in my opinion, if you are interested in books about dystopian societies and want to be scared silly with 'what ifs').  And as I was chatting with the women about international moves and what the ramifications were for families, I thought about which factions the Swiss and the US might belong.  I think the US would go straight for Dauntless but the Swiss are harder to peg...maybe like Beatrice they are also Divergent (somewhere between the Amity and Candor factions). My end thought is, an one woman put it, once you rip up that tap root and relocate, you may never quite fit anywhere again. You are now Divergent or worse, Factionless. 

The hike started it's downward slope. A long winding trail through the woods and adjacent to farmers fields. 


Two women and I stop as we reconsider taking a fairly steep slope down.  We decide to follow a different path giving our knees a break. We wind up at the car park fairly quickly.

I brought a friend so I settled to wait as she finished the proper route. As I sat on a rock sunning myself, I sent her a text telling her where I was and that I would wait.  Here is the exchange.  I think it made my whole day.

Who said hiking was boring?

Friday, May 16, 2014

Cake (South African) Men Like

A few weeks ago a couple of friends and I were having coffee.  In strolls the husband of one of the women accompanied by his best friend.  The three had recently returned from a trip home to South Africa. We were chatting about luggage restrictions and what you can bring in to South Africa (not bars of Dove soap- it will be confiscated) and what you can bring out -not any wood products for fear of woodlands in the receiving country becoming infected with non-native bad things- like fungus I suppose. I have no idea. I'm a guidance counselor and a blogger, not an immigration/customs officer. Nor do I care.  I was in it for the accent. 

And the subject of food came up. This trios favorite dessert? Malva pudding.  Apparently, you can buy great tins of it in Woolworth's. Get a spoon and dive in.  They spoke so longingly, lovingly, and wistfully of Malva Pudding, I had to know what it was.  What dessert could bring a grown man to his knees?

After googling "Melba" pudding (South African accents can be tricky) without any success, I gave up.  A week or two later, my friend from South Africa posted a recipe- MALVA Pudding. Getting closer.  A Friday afternoon with not much to do, became reinvented as a South Africa/American bake off.  Two deep dish apple pies and two Malva puddings.

Pies seem to be okay. They are baking. Nothing too exciting. But the pudding was a concoction of sugar, eggs, vinegar, apricot jam, and a bunch of other ingredients. Popped it in the oven. Out came a dry cake. What?! This COULD NOT POSSIBLY be what they were excited about.  Impossible. So, we dumped Amaretto over it. Nah. Still problematic. Amaretto can fix a lot but not this cake. 

Back to the recipe.  A closer inspection revealed we missed a step.  A big step. A step that turns dry cake into cake men like.  A loose custard sauce was to be made and the cake soaked in it. Whip up the sauce, drench the cake in it.  Let it sit. 

Now the dry cake has been transformed into a pudding that is lovely and rich. For an extra boost in calories (in case you can still see your toes and would prefer you couldn't), serve it with a thicker version of the custard sauce.

Completely decadent.


Here is the recipe we made...from The Pretty Blog.

You will see two recipes for the pudding. We liked the second best as it was lighter and absorbed the custard sauce really well.

So, there you have it.  Dessert to make a man from South Africa swoon. Could come in handy. You just never know.

The pie was to make my husband swoon. I will keep you posted.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Six Minute Car Lecture Series

Today I ate my first kebab.  I thought about it awhile first (the last two years). Passed 500 shops selling kebabs and finally it happened.

It was lunch time- past lunch time actually. I was hungry and tired from a long walk around town running errands; picking up things for guests arriving soon, new rain boots for a girl in the middle of a growth spurt, dropping off dry cleaning, and lastly,buying 50 pounds of shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and body wash. Teenagers use a lot of that stuff.  And always, always leave the empty bottles in the shower. 

The Thursday morning drive to school lecture was all about 'Disposing of Empties'.  Car rides are excellent opportunities to lecture.  The topic of the lecture, 'Disposing of Empties' is applicable to so very many things in life. Future room-mates, spouses, co-workers, cell mates will all have me to thank for the very courteous individual with whom they share space.

I wound up my errands to find I was too late to get the good train deals to Milan this summer.  Dejected, I headed for the bus.  But what was that smell? Spicy.  Nope-not the pretzel stand.  One shop over. The kebab shop.

I wandered in.  Kebab meat was being shaved off this giant, rotating kebab spit thing.  Men were lined up 10 deep to order.  I watched. Men with the experience of wrapping 50,000 kebabs could deliver one in 15 seconds flat.  Order. Pay. Choose a topping.  I've got this. It was wrapped with a flourish of aluminum foil reminding me of fancy leftovers wrapped in foil shaped like swans.  Mine wasn't a swan, more like a giant aluminum foil encased tootsie roll.  Cool.

I put it in my bag and headed for the bus. No eating or drinking on the bus. If I were on the train, I could eat a whole picnic- wine included.  I've done it. It's fun.

Dropped my coat on the floor at home. Threw my keys on the table and started in.  I was so delighted, I hardly noticed I was also eating the paper wrapping. 

Texted two friends to extol the delights of 'the kebab'.  Both texted back, "That's drunken food in the UK."  Undeterred, I finished the whole thing.  My only regret is that I'm not 14 and I cannot eat this every day.

Already working on tomorrow's six minute 281st car lecture, "Trying New Foods."

Friday, May 9, 2014

Expat Holes and Imaginary Quilting

A friend posted a picture on Facebook of one of these sculptures this week.


And I just thought, 'wow, this is exactly how it feels to be an expat'.  Have you left a little of you behind or are you picking up pieces as you go?  I'm not one hundred percent sure and my answer today may be different than it was 12 or 18 months ago but today I feel like I'm picking pieces up as I go.

Yesterday, I went to an English Tea hosted by two friends; one of whom did the baking and the other the decorating as well as offering up her charming shop as tea party central.  It was such as fun blend of people.  Lately, for me, traveling is all about who you are going to meet, not necessarily the landmarks, although beautiful. I already know that someday when I think back to my time in Switzerland, it is not going to be memories of the Alps or the lakes that will come first, it will be the friends I've met along the way.  This diverse group of people that I keep adding to every day.  And when I leave, I will leave a piece of me behind.

Photo credit: Caroline Caruso Photography

Maybe when you're born, you are just a plain, stretched canvas waiting for a few paint strokes. And each experience, each emotion, brings a new color.  Some people might prefer an approach like Paul Klee, a Swiss painter who fled Nazi Germany, who preferred a definite symmetry and semblance to how the canvas fills, other might take a more Jackson Pollock approach and just thrown caution (and paint to the wind); come what may. Incidentally, Caroline is a big fan of Pollock. It's my canvas and I'm filling up.  Sometimes I think of experiences in terms of colors and wonder if I quilted what it might look like...greys for grief, greens and blues when things were calm and happy.  Bursts of orange when the extraordinary happened, like a baby or three.

So yesterday, as I found myself between two tri-athletes chatting about birthday party venues, I wondered not only about this unlikely juxtaposition but was also silently marveling at this experience as a whole. By the way, what did two tri-athletes and I find to talk about?  Well, all three of us are moms and we chatted birthday party ideas; the good ( Zurich airport offers birthday parties worth checking out, the bad- taking a bunch of 8 year olds to a movie, and the ugly- an outdoor party scheduled and it rains).

But if I were cutting out squares for my imaginary quilt, yesterday would have called for a squares of pink and yellows. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Just to clarify, the other women did their homework.  They were lovely. Had thoughtful things to cultural differences may be at play when observing older, long married couples, how communism may have shaped how couples relate to one another in public, how Queenie's tumor was a metaphor for something (it was deep, I know it, but my capacity for deep is not that deep). I was waiting for Starbucks to go all dreamy and white and Frankie Avalon to start descending a white staircase, telling me to "to go back to high don't sweat're not cut out to hold a job..."

I am going to blame my pants.  Yup, that's right.  Henceforth, I shall never again wear orange pants to a book club meeting.  I'm shuddering just recalling it.  And with so much on the line, it was not the day to say to the barista, "What can you make me that's skinny?"  What I was really thinking was.. 'Please, God, I want to be skinny' but I will settle for a vanilla macchiato latte double shot espresso grande. Make it a skinny.  But then all I thought about after I got the skinny, frothy cup was it didn't taste very good.  Very distracting. 

And my glasses. Surely, they would have helped.  They have a few rhinestones- nothing too detracting. I would have looked smarter anyway. Maybe.

But next time, I will definitely finish reading the book. Definitely. Maybe.

Though just to be sure, I picked something I already read for next month's book, Let's Pretend This Never Happened.  Jenny Lawson, how I love you. 

There is a small possibility I may end up kicked out of book club but it's for a good cause. And I will not hold it against them.  My eleventh grade English teacher had a hard time with me as well. But I hated Huck Finn then and I hate it still.  Come to think of it my sixth grade English teacher was none too pleased with me either.  Here's Frankie again..."Well, they couldn't teach you anything..."

Maybe they could all start a club.  I could drop in occasionally to remind them all why the club exists.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

A girl named Rog

Her name is pronounced 'Rouge' but spelled 'Rog'.  Caroline says she's from Iraq.  And Iraq invented irrigation and we wouldn't be here without Iraq (formerly Mesopotamia- Caroline loves history).  Rog who looked about 25 and had been to dinner twice with Jim, announced my ability to get seven other people to cooperate, including four kids, to attend the dinner "an Easter miracle".  She had no idea how right she was.

Sometimes the random parts of your life all come together in one delightful mess. In three hours, bits and pieces of my life  (being raised by well read hippies who also happen to attend NYU, being driven around in a succession of VW bugs as a kid, living in unusual places-like Guam, life as a high school guidance counselor, a Czech grandmother, and my love of traveling, to name a few) happily collided in a Paris garden and the studio belonging to Jim Haynes.

Jim is the Paris supper club guy.  Originally from New Orleans, he eventually found himself in Paris opening his home, and then his studio every Sunday night to the first 30-60 people that contact him. He doesn't care who you are or where you from. A donation is suggested. That's it. He gives you the very specific address (39 steps was one directive) and his gate code and you're in. The kids took one look at him and decided he reminded them of their grandfather.

Jim may well be the original hippie but one who studied Russian, attended a military high school, and later enlisted in the Air Force. It didn't surprise me at all that he drove a Volkswagen back in the day. His Sunday night suppers may have started by accident- something about a ballerina who needed a place to live and wound up living at Jim's.  In exchange, she cooked dinner a couple of nights a week for whomever strolled in.  Eventually, she left and Sunday came.  Dinner time.  He made dinner anyway and the supper club was born. He has hosted well over 100,000 people for dinners over the last 30 years.

An artist, an author, teacher, a non-conformist; he has left a long and distinguished artistic trail behind him...the first paperback book store in Edinburgh, theater companies, Arts Labs, Writer's Conferences, etc., etc. He has met, mingled, and befriended all sorts of people; John and Yoko Ono, Henry Miller, Chloe Sevigny, and us. 

So, in an old house in Paris behind a big green gate...people spill out into the garden drinking boxed wine and balancing plates on their knees. Fairy lights in the trees and tea lights on steps were the only lights in the garden. The menu is a surprise each week. A rotating bunch of chef volunteers cook whatever they want but that night was pulled pork, black beans, spinach, and rice. Orange and red onion salad was served in those wooden bowls from the seventies, then washed and used for a strawberries and cream dessert with a gingerbread cookie. But it's not about the food. I think the food is incidental and not why people come.

They come because they can.  Some like to come for dinner fairly often. Some once every couple of years and some only once.  He has one rule: You are not allowed to talk to the people you came with.  He looked right at Caroline as he explained that.  She was okay with that and off she went- the youngest in the group.

In the dinner mix, I talked to an architect from San Diego who was visiting France with her husband and artist sister.  The architect and I had a long talk about the pressures of being a working mom and it turns out her best friend is also a high school guidance counselor.  Then I had my salad while sitting next to a woman who owns a film studio in Prague.  Her advice on raising kids? Let them have their secret lives. Parents shouldn't know everything. That was how her father raised her (after he was raised with grandparents living in the same house when he was a teenager who knew far too much as far as he was concerned). 

Then an older gentleman made small talk with me about my daughter Lauren and  how delightful she was.  He really liked her. I wandered away and found Lauren and Sam in a group of teens.  Facebook details being exchanged with sisters from Germany. Back in the studio, I waited in line for my dinner behind a man who started a chamber orchestra in Paris because he was fed up with the philosophy behind how music was taught and performed in the States.  He prefers the French approach but it's sucking up all his time. He is still single and needs to 'do something about that'.

Then a sweet man sat next to me. He was probably 85; born in Bordeaux and raised outside the city there but Paris has been his home for many, many years. We chatted about his kids who are both artists and his travels all over the world.  He comes fairly often.  He left shortly after dinner but not before proposing to my friend, Lisa.  She declined.  Her husband should be proud. But she can check, 'marriage proposal in Paris' off her bucket list. Rog overhearing the marriage proposal wandered over.


I went into the garden and sat on the steps next to a man from England and a woman from Glasgow.  I had plopped myself in the middle of the cast and crew from Casablanca who were there for dinner.  The lighting guy and I talked about the bonding the cast and crew go through as they get ready for a production.  Reminded me of being an expat and I thought of my buddies in Zug.  I wished we had time to go see the show.

I did break my promise not to talk to the ones I came with when I briefly misplaced Caroline. "Have you seen her?" I asked Doug. He looked alarmed and we both began to hunt.  She was tired and had pulled Doug's leather jacket and her own off a hook, found a quiet bench in a garden a  few doors down, and gone to sleep. 

Doug picked her up and threw her over his shoulder. I said my goodbyes. Gave Jim an apron and bought a few of his books; one a book on throwing parties and the other a yearly account of his life.

His father's advice to him in 1944?

"When you do something nice for someone, forget it immediately.  When someone does something nice for you, never forget it."  Sounds good to me. I won't forget.