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.




















Sunday, August 24, 2014

Mid-Flight

We were boarding the plane and I was thinking about a conversation I had with someone about whether pilots had their own bathroom in the cockpit and whether dinners were served to them prison style- through a slot in the door, when the captain said, "Guten Abend" to me.

Caught off guard, but pleased none the less I understood the greeting, I responded in kind. I must have convinced them I spoke German because then he asked me a question in German. And I just stared at him. The flight attendant perhaps questioning my ability to hear, repeated the question only louder.

I got the gist of what they were asking (it also helped when they switched to English) but at that point I was too flustered to respond like a normal person. Instead I asked my son, who was three quarters of a mile ahead of me, where we were seated.

Once, I cleared that up and continued on my way ( I mean really, did I need directions anyway? There are only so many options)I was mentally catapulted right back into my life as 'Jen, the expat'.

But as 'Jen, the Connectikittian- as Lauren refers us- I was competent. When I was in CVS, I could recite my phone number flawlessly. Without hesitation, I could recite a string of ten digits.

The fact those ten digits belonged to some guy named Jeff now was beside the point. I had that phone number first. Comcast may have reassigned it after we disconnected it but I still felt territorial. Especially because it was linked to my CVS loyalty card.

I only know of Jeff because I get emails telling me how many rewards points he's racked up. So, I've decided the relationship is actually mutually beneficial even if he's completely oblivious to it. I get the discounts on items purchased once a year, he keeps the rewards bucks that accumulate, and I never spend what he's earned in extra value dollars. That would be unconscionable. But we share the phone number.

I closed my eyes as the plane began its ascent and thought about 'Jen- the expat'. About how far I've come. When I fly, I no longer wish I could recite a Hail Mary or feel the need to grip the seat sides until my knuckles turn white, though I do confess that I was very interested in buying a pack of Marboros in the duty free shop once I'd arrived at Logan airport. After flying solo for nine days with three kids and a rental car with only 300 miles on it (the stress! I had to park miles away from any other car in parking lots as I feared the inevitable ding), I was tired. And somewhat elated this transcontinental solo parenting gig was nearly over.

I applauded myself that I'd managed to keep the stress under control aided only by one bag of peanut M&M's- round trip and decided to dig out by new book.

As I reached under the seat I front of me for my pocketbook that I could fit a hundred pound Labrador in, I was grateful and pleased we'd had a good week.

But then, the man across the aisle stood up and my head became firmly wedged under his bottom. Surely, he will move I thought. I certainly had nowhere to go. I checked out his pants. I looked at his feet. I shouldn't have. They were pajama bottoms and he was shoeless. This was far too intimate for me. How could you not notice someone's head under your ass?

My distress was further heightened because I had been reading an essay by David Sedaris in which an retired flight attendant friend of his is explaining one method in which flight attendants exact their revenge on helpless passengers.

Suffice it to say, the next time a flight attendant walks up and down the aisle, I shall hold my breath. But what if this guy had the same idea?!

When he finally moved, I breathed a (shallow) sigh of relief and thought no one looks good in pajamas on a plane unless you're less than six months old.

At this point, I decided to throw on my superhero eye mask and call it a day.

Except, the pajama bottom clad man began to sneeze. Over and over again.

I must have packed my empathy in the bag I checked. I didn't care what was wrong with him. I only cared that he stop. Immediately. He didn't.

The dress I had on offered no respiratory protection. No high neck I could bury my nose in, no long sleeve to cover my face (dresses are a poor flight travel choice I might add- but for once I wanted to look slightly less disheveled than I normally do when I stepped off the plane- which didn't happen regardless. I looked exactly the same amount of disheveled as usual).

After wearing his ass like a hat, I resented this further intrusion.

Then it felt like they turned the air conditioning on high and I had to move my superhero eye mask to cover my forehead as I was freezing ( did I mention my poor choice of flight attire?). I borrowed my daughter's sweatshirt and wore it like a scarf- she's little.

I asked for a glass of wine. I've only recently realized it's complimentary on this airline and I now get one just because. I had a few sips then parked it in the cup holder in front of me.

However, every time the giant man in the seat in front of me moved, red wine sloshed in my lap. I finally just shifted the airplane blanket that covered my lap and made peace with the inevitable slosh. I'm never going to look like Cameron Diaz when I'm getting off a plane.

So maybe THAT is what I've learned as an expat this year. Acceptance of the inevitable slosh, making do with ingredients at hand, and putting up with the occasional ass hat.

I guess that's good enough. Still could do without the sneezing all over me though.






























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 it...you 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...

SWISS FINISHING SCHOOL

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...
 
I HAD ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA HOW TO HAVE FUN.
 
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'.







http://youtu.be/u2bigf337aU








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 be...today 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

THAT Mom.

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.

http://www.theprettyblog.com/food-and-wine/2-marvellous-malva-puddings/?utm_source=RSS+Feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+ThePrettyBlog+(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 http://www.zurich-airport.com/passengers-and-visitors/shopping-and-attractions/excursions-at-the-airport/children-s-parties), 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 say...how 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 school...baby don't sweat it...you'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.















Location:Paris

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Who wants to go to IKEA?

I am so tired but feel I must journal my trip to IKEA for my descendants.  Laura Ingalls Wilder may have crossed the frozen Missouri river in a covered wagon, while the ice groaned and cracked in protest, only a wagon wheel away from a frozen watery grave, but I shopped at IKEA.

I know there are those out there that love to feel the fluorescent lighting on their cheeks and frolic through two football fields of, I don't know, stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.  Plastic stuff, wooden stuff, metal stuff, woven stuff, fluffy stuff, flat stuff but I sadly, am not one of the frolickers. I know this with the same certainty that I knew after watching a Patriots football game, that I would never cross the divide that separates football fans from those that well, aren't.

The trip should take 30-40 minutes. It took over an hour. Google maps. A 12 year old navigator. Take your pick.  The twelve year old tried.  The car's GPS died. It's been begging for a battery replacement but I've chosen to ignore it.

We arrive. I've only freaked out about four times and threatened to turn around twice. The only reason I didn't turn around was because I had no idea which direction that might be. And I needed towels and pillows for guests arriving in seven days.  Towels here are very expensive. I just can't figure out why. I mean I haven't passed any cotton fields, so guessing it's all imported, but the milk is all local and that is expensive as well.

We enter.  We get a 55 gallon plastic IKEA bag and a metal stand with wheels. I let Lauren wheel that around.  My satchel is digging a trench in my shoulder that I may never recover from. I am already withered.  I have grossly underestimated my energy level. I haven't had enough protein in the last three days combined to survive this trip. My pupils contract.  Being in IKEA reminds me of being in a casino.  You lose sense of night and day. Frequent guests get free beverages.  There are buffets and small children crying.

We pass rooms that you could move right into reminding me of that novel about the pregnant girl who lived in Walmart unnoticed.  I could live in IKEA.  I might  never have to leave. Meatballs, bandaids, beverages, soft pillows, duvets. During the day, I will pretend I work there.  I will work there- I won't just pretend. My book club could meet me in any one of the lovely kitchens but I like the white and green glass one the best. The kids might as well move in too.  Cheerful bedrooms.  And so many bathrooms.  They could each have five, maybe ten, of their own. We could get a cat. Who would ever notice a cat? And personally, I think for those of us that find IKEA overwhelming, a room with therapy dogs and lazy cats you can pet, might calm you enough to actually complete your purchase and not abandon your cart (as I've done in Trader Joe's and that crazy singing cow store in Connecticut, Stew Leonard's).

But after 20 minutes, the intercom starts speaking German. I feel like Charlie Brown while he listens to the teachers talk..."whaaa, whaaa, whaaa, sieben...whaaa, whaaa, auf Wiedersehen". It's Lauren who translates, "MOM, THEY ARE CLOSING IN SEVEN MINUTES."

I forget all about the coffee table and the sea glass colored lanterns.  I don't even know where the exit is but I am absolutely certain I will need a shuttle to get there.  We move with a single minded clarity. Through dishes (oh, how I want new dishes), though the textiles, past the cute baskets. It's towels we need. We find them. We throw them in (green ones- that is all I ever buy-why is that?) Pillows. We find them and throw them in.

We are the only ones looking panicked.  So we slow...to a light jog through the posters. We are making decisions in seconds that would normally take hours.  I forget the hand towels. Send Lauren back. Then afraid we may never reunite, I tail her. All four wheels of the cart move independently. It's difficult to steer. Like driving a tractor trailer on that show 'Ice Truckers'.  I regret quitting Pilates. I'm dehydrating. I'm losing my power to say no...

 "Can I have a laptop cover?" Yes.
 "Can we get six bags of cinnamon rolls?" Yes.
 "Can I have this poster of a bird?" Yes.

And on and on. IKEA is tween crack.

The check out lady deserves employee of the month. She is the fastest thing I have ever seen. Walmart should train their employees here.  I doubt there is an employee on earth that wants to go home worse than an IKEA cashier on a Saturday afternoon. But I, I want to go home worse than the cashier even. I offer my credit card before she asks. I don't bother bagging and instead use my arm to sweep it all off the conveyer belt and into the cart.  We board the freight elevator to the car park.

We unload. I look for the car park ticket. I might really have to live there. Lauren is searching my bag. She finds three giants bars of chocolate, two water bottles, a camera, seventeen expired train tickets, and an EpiPen.

I consider using it.  I love would a giant tranquilizer right now.  But I settle for a square of chocolate and the water.  I promise myself that I will never, ever go there again unless I have hired a guide.

Or...the book club wants to meet there.














Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Expat Sweet Spot

You found a hairdresser you like and can afford. You decide you enjoy food shopping every day. You love the fact you can catch the bus outside your house, and literally three minutes later, find yourself standing in a grocery store weighing bananas. I've timed it.

You traded in the emergency 'almost' English speaking doctor for one who actually speaks English and it's not an emergency.

The fact she called a prescription a 'recipe' and your heart nearly stopped because all you can picture is the three witches from 'Charmed' making a potion to rid the world of yet another demon, is fleeting because then you offered her the word 'prescription' and she eagerly accepts it, and this becomes just another funny story to you. But you feared this rightly so, because you have had to mix your own antibiotics, so being offered 'the recipe' didn't seem completely out of the realm of possibility. But instead of being so freaked out by the verbal exchange that you had to devote an entire blog to it, it's now worthy of only a paragraph. Or two.

You make peace with the fact things move on at 'home' without you. But you know where there will be a daiquiri or a glass of wine waiting for you or even a bed, should you pop up.

You have favorite restaurants. You know where parking is cheap (er). You have traditions with girlfriends. You join the locals in favorite pastimes. You hike. You start repeating hikes.

You start having strange thoughts. What if we could stay longer? You think about how very nice it is to raise kids here. Like free range chickens.  No cages. Good food.  Lots of time outside. A stronger family unit in which siblings are friends- most days.

What you are experiencing is "The Expat Sweet Spot". It's a thing. And you're in the middle of it.

How long it will last remains to be seen. It's human nature to try to peer around the bend. What's next?

I don't know. But today is pretty nice.








Friday, March 7, 2014

Fasnacht in Zug for the Clueless

You know what it feels like to be an expat? Nope. Not like you're on vacation. Though, that would be spectacular.  Mostly, you feel like the village idiot.  This week's episode of "Expat Mishaps" brought to you by 'Clueless in Zug'- me (By the way, it's not pronounced Zug rhyming with Ugg. It's Zoog. Heavy on the zoo). Forgot what it means, something about fishing. But if you are going to be the village idiot, Fasnacht is your time. You blend. Well, you almost blend. If I had a pin-on-pig, I would have blended.  Maybe.

Fasnacht is either the chasing away of winter or the last hurrah before Lent, just depends on what you've read.  Maybe it's both. Celebrations last about a week.  The towns decorate. Everyone has a parade or two.  Luzern might have four. I don't know...they have a lot. Parades for children. Parades for adults. Kids have a holiday from school. The first day of Fasnacht begins very early in the morning, 5 a.m. or so, with a loud boom. Not sure what else takes place, I've never gotten up that early. When we first got here, the first holiday to arrive was Halloween. Couldn't find costumes. Swiss aren't especially interested. And this is why. Fasnacht.  Hate to say it but I think it's better than Halloween.  Costumes are better, last longer, very family oriented- at least in the small towns.

I went to a couple of parades this past week. Had a ball. Really enjoyed experiencing something so Swiss.  I had confetti dumped all over me and I do mean all over me. I left a trail of confetti in the bathroom.  I'm guessing that was courtesy of the float with an excavator on it. It scooped up confetti and dumped it on your head.  I was happy.

And then I read an article this morning about Fasnacht parade etiquette. I'm thinking it's a parade. How hard could this be?
  • Don't scoop confetti off the ground and throw it back. It's bad form.  And they will know...how will they know? Because on the ground it's a mish mash of colors; pink, yellow, green. 
  • Only throw fresh confetti. Fresh confetti is single colored. 
  • Wear a badge. (A badge? Why a badge? For what?)
  • Don't dress up.
  • Do dress up.
  • Do take pictures. 
  • Don't take pictures with a flash. 
  • These kids got the dress up memo
And, as it turns out, I was doing it WRONG. I watched a parade the WRONG way. A parade faux pas. I threw confetti with abandon. I let Caroline scoop it off the ground. I do confess to wondering what the pin-on-pigs were. Parade badges. I didn't dress up. I should have dressed up.

Now, I know. And I will comply next year. Because the Swiss throw a most excellent parade. Floats throw all kinds of things; oranges, candy, the aforementioned confetti, mulch (seemed odd), and Jagermeister. 

Yes, I did in fact ,receive a bottle of Jagermeister. 

And a small child came up to me and gave me a clear liquid drink in a shot glass.  I have no idea what it was but seemed rude not to at least drink some.  So, I did. Seeing as I did not shrink or grow taller, like Alice in Wonderland, it was fine. There were floats with fire and floats with people bathing.  Scary people poking children with pine trees.  Them, we liked.

One very intense, small girl came up very close to Caroline, looked her in the eye, gave her a long lecture about what we don't know and transferred, very carefully, about a kilo of confetti to her. Then she scampered away. 

Next year, I might be ready for the Luzern Fasnacht parade. Maybe.

In case you're Swiss and going to the US and happen to stumble on a parade, here's what you have to do...nothing. Just enjoy it. Unless you're in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Then you might be in for a surprise.