Ah yes. There has been something of a learning curve in this area and I haven’t reached the top yet. In South Africa, domestic labour is plentiful, affordable and excellent. In Switzerland, it’s none of those things. So I’ve had to do it myself and I am not not good at it. Even back in South Africa, where I had a full-time, live-in domestic worker (oh those joyous days!), I wasn’t much of a housekeeper and the house always looked half-trashed.
Here, it’s killing me. Every morning I pick up my Ikea broom and mop set and I attack the house.
“Back,” I shout as I throw hot, soapy water in its eyes. I hurl things into the rubbish bin, I wrestle heaps of dirty laundry down the stairs and other heaps of clean laundry up again, where I fling it into piles on the spare bed. “Stay there, Goddamn you,” I tell it.
I load and unload the dishwasher about fifty times a day. I pick up toys every ten minutes. I sort piles of papers.
But it’s a thankless fucking task, I can tell you. Because it takes about an hour for it all to go to hell again. Cups and bowls tip themselves over onto the floor I’ve just mopped; the piles of laundry fall over and mingle with one another; the socks run off in different directions. And paper! Paper is a Hydra. Paper is a clutch of kittens that loves me and wants to be with me. Paper is a clutch of Hydra kittens.
We reached a housekeeping low a while back. For various reasons (I was writing a novel), I let my housekeeping slide, culminating one morning in my long suffering husband having to sit at the kitchen table wrapped only in a damp towel, while his underwear, socks and shirt were in the tumble dryer. We’d run out of muesli and milk, and I’d given the children the last of the yoghurt, so I think he was eating tinned ravioli for breakfast. And trying to read a magazine which the children had floated in the sink overnight.
Laundry is probably my greatest challenge. The day the children go to school with matching socks will be a happy one for us all.
“You have a choice,” I told the five year old the other day. “You can either wear a pair of your sister’s socks, which will be too small but they match. Or you can wear socks that fit you but are in two different patterns.”
Unfortunately we’ve raised her to expect more from life. “Why can’t I wear socks that match and that fit me?”
“Well”, I answered, “that’s very selfish of you. Look around at your family. Are any of us wearing clothes that match? No. We’re all wearing whatever is clean and reasonably dry, and we’re okay. Except your poor father who’s in a hell of a state. We all need to do our bit, child. So put on the damn socks and stop behaving like Paris Hilton.”
Back in South Africa I would’ve found all this exasperating but quite amusing. But here, it means failure. Because suddenly the playing fields have changed. Now that I’m a Trailing Spouse, I don’t contribute to the family financially in any way (Yet! Yet! I always say). My husband earns all the money, I do all the cleaning (sort of, see previous), all the shopping, all the cooking.
He’s doing his job well. I’m not.
And gallingly, we couldn’t swap places. There is almost nothing I could do that would support us here, in this expensive place. (I say ‘almost’ because, despite my performance to date, I still believe I might actually be able to finish the novel and sell it for a reasonable amount of money one day).
How this all sits with my feminism, I still don’t know. I like being home for my daughters; it worries me that they think the norm is for the daddy to earn money and the mommy to stay at home cleaning the house.
So maybe it’s okay that they also think it’s quite normal for the daddy to occasionally have to sit around in a towel waiting for his underwear to dry because the mommy was too busy writing her novel to remember to do the laundry.

Of skirts, shweshwe and Swiss style

Crikey, how time flies when you have to do your own laundry. We’ve been here over a year already and among the many things (the tumble drier, my nerves, the bottle opener) that have started showing signs of wear and tear, are my clothes. They weren’t new when we moved here and life with two small children has done them no favours.
So, you say, bag them, donate them and go shopping.
Except … except … these are my South African clothes. Along with tomato sauce and red wine, these clothes are impregnated with meaning.
There’s my black V-necked jersey, worn like a uniform, washed every night and put back on every day while I was so busy raising two small children that I didn’t look in a mirror for months at a time.
And my running shoes, which have been with me for so many kilometres. They’ve been falling apart for a while but now that I’m running on actual forest roads instead of the treadmill, I find the holes in the toes let in too much mud.
And my pale pink tweed coat, which a stranger at a party said made me look like Nicole Kidman. I was carrying about ten kilos of new-baby fat at the time, and I hadn’t slept for two months. Not only can I not toss this wonderful coat out … I actually feel I owe it something.
But the things I’m struggling the most to get rid of are three A-line, floor length skirts. The heavy blue one I bought twelve years ago when I turned 30 and my then-boyfriend-now-husband pointed out that I was a grown up and had to stop wearing jeans to weddings. The light khaki green one has an abstract fabric outline of an impala’s head on the front, and it makes me think of the Kruger Park in winter. The third skirt is made of a satiny magenta patchwork-style fabric, which I thought was very classy until I saw a huge pile of cushions covered in exactly the same fabric at the China Mall in Main Reef Road. No matter. I can’t imagine many people around here would have been at the China Mall recently.
Anyway, the point is, I can’t get rid of these skirts because throwing them away is like throwing away a bit of my South African self. And I haven’t found anything Swiss yet to replace that.
I certainly haven’t seen any clothes as joyful here. The style in this part of Swissland is very understated: well made pieces in neutral colours; nothing either very short or very long; nothing with animal heads painted on the front*. If I want anything unusual I’m going to have to mobilise my import distribution channel (i.e. ask my mother) to send me some shweshwe fabric from the Plaza and then pay someone here to make it up for me. That solution has a nice fusion feel to it. It’s still my South African style but at Swiss prices. Winner!
And my old skirts? Maybe the solution is to turn them into museum pieces. A few years ago my mother gave me two of her evening dresses from the 70s. One is hot purple, skin tight, slit to the thigh and heavy with fake gold embellishments. The other is even tighter with black and white stripes.
I’m never going to wear either of these dresses but I keep them because they remind me that my mother had a life apart from me once, a self I had no idea about. Who on earth was this mother-creature who went out at night and showed off her legs in tight purple dresses? The mother I know thinks wearing open-toed sandals is daring.
And where did she go to, once she was all dressed up? Did she dance? Did she have a drink or two, laugh too loudly, embarrass my father? I’d like to think so.
So maybe I’ll hold onto my skirts and give them to my daughters one day. They can hang them in their wardrobes and wonder what my life was like all those years ago, back before I was ‘Mom’. Back when I was still young and living dangerously** in beautiful, insanely complicated South Africa. Back when I really thought I knew who I was, and who I was going to become.


* Of course I’m talking about chain stores. You can get anything you want at the boutiques in Geneva but I’d feel bad blowing our annual food budget on a skirt.


** I lived in the suburbs of Joburg. Ergo