Of Couches, Clocks and Children

(A shorter version of this was first published in Le News edition 13, 6 – 12 February 2014)

‘Goodness me,’ I said the other day (or words to that effect). ‘We have to redecorate!’

It’s not that our current decor doesn’t reflect my husband and me. It’s that it reflects us all too well: like the couch, our springy bits are gone and we’re getting saggy in the middle; and like our Swiss cuckoo clock, I too have been cruelly overwound by a small child and fundamentally changed by the experience. 

But this realisation sparked something of an identity crisis. Who are we actually, design-wise? How can a couple be sure, after years of not thinking about it, that their palettes don’t clash? What if they’re not aligned? What if he heads off in a Farmhouse direction and  she goes Coastal? What if she decides she’s Mid-Century Scandi Modernist and he doesn’t even know what that means? 

‘Well,’ advised my friend Suchira From India, who dabbles in this sort of thing, ‘first of all, you each have to find your unique style.’ 

‘Mine’s in the laundry, under a pile of socks.’ 

She gave me a look. ‘How would you describe the current style of your home?’ 

‘Predominantly Ikea with strong accents of Preschooler. Mostly in crayon, on the dining room chairs.’  

Again, the look. ‘Try and visualise your ideal home. What would you like to see in front of you every day when you walk into your lounge?’ 

‘George Clooney doing the ironing.’ 

After a sharp rebuke and a few more probing questions, she said my decorating personality was French Country, mostly because when absolutely pressed to choose, I said I preferred toile to plaid. 

I did a quick Google image search and I must say, French Country is gorgeous: all distressed wood, eggshell blue and jars of hydrangeas everywhere. One website described it as ‘rustic and inviting’, which sounds perfect for me because that’s how I’ve always thought of my husband.   

But after a few giddy hours on Pinterest, I realised I would have to let that dream go. French Country doesn’t fit with the things I already have and love, such as my African fabric collection and my children. It seems that French Country children play with vintage teddies, wooden rocking horses and the occasional chalkboard. Maybe a white porcelain tea set. There’s nothing pink and plastic in their rooms. No Barbies. And certainly no big battery-operated Tyrannosaurus Rexes that roar into life in the early hours of the morning for no reason, eyes glowing red and claws scraping on floorboards. Nothing like that, in a French Country style home. 

In fact, there was nothing like that in any of the decor styles I looked up. Nor were there Guinea Pig cages in the middle of the lounge, board games all over the ottoman or piles of books on every stair. And I speak from bitter experience when I say none of those are going anywhere, no matter how much I shout.      

So it looks as if we’ll stick with what we’ve got: an acquiescent couch, an approximate cuckoo clock and, on every surface, reminders of our children. 

It may not be in any of the design books … but it’s ours. 

Supersize My Pie Chart

(First published in Le News edition 12, 30 January – 5 February 2014)

According to www.death-clock.org, I’m going to live to be 79, that being the average life expectancy for a non-smoking woman with my Body Mass Index, living in Switzerland and drinking (ahem) two units of alcohol a week.

Some people may think this kind of thing is morbid but I find it incentivising. ‘Goodness me,’ I thought (or words to that effect). ‘Only 13 000 days left to make my mark on the world. I need to get my act together because my novel isn’t going to write itself, now is it?’ (But … might it, actually? No, of course not. I knew that.)

So, to that end, I sat down last week to create a time management pie chart. I struggle to get excited about anything called a ‘chart’ but pie is very nice, so it worked well. I started by listing everything I need to do each week and the time it all takes, so I could allocate it a slice of the Time Pie. It makes for pretty disturbing reading, I can tell you. For example:

  • General housewife stuff: carting children around, cleaning the house, picking the same damn clothes up off the same damn floor. Every. Single. Day. 22 hours a week.
  • Planning for, shopping and cooking meals that are a) balanced, b) nutritious on a macro and micro level, c) tasty, d) appealing to everyone in the house, using food that is seasonal, local and affordable. Cannot contain trans fats, salt, sugar or anything identifiable as a vegetable. 12 hours.
  • Skiing lessons. 1 1/2 hours. This includes the one hour lesson and the thirty minutes spent sitting in the car afterwards, waiting until my shattered nerves are steady enough to drive home.
  • French lessons and real world practice. 7 hours. ‘Real world practice’ refers to the frequent pantomiming that I have to do in front of shop assistants because, although my French lessons are helping me with greetings and introductions, I haven’t yet learned how to say things like, ‘Do you have an ointment for head lice and is it safe for four year olds?’.
  • Organising children’s swimming lessons, skiing lessons and playdates. Overseeing their free play, which may sound free but which absolutely must include gross and fine motor co ordination activities, pushing and pulling actions, lifting, messy play, climbing and balancing. Interminable.
  • Overseeing homework. Reading with the bigger child. Doing pre-reading activities with the smaller one. Playing board games together to develop maths skills. Baking together to develop science skills. Hosing down house after science skills have been developed quite enough for one day. Time without end.

Also to be factored in:

  • Quality time spent with a) children, b) husband c) cat d) guinea pigs e) alone, locked in the bedroom, shrieking, ‘what more do you want from me?’ every time someone knocks on the door.
  • Sightseeing. We live in this beautiful place and I don’t want our only memory of it to be the A1 and the school parking lot.

Well, it took some work – I had to supersize my pie chart three times and subdivide the slices – but I finally have something I think I can work with. No activity can last longer than ten minutes and I’ve had to cut back to three hour’s sleep a night, but everything is fitted in there.

Success is just around the corner. 

Of Suitcases and Sandcastles

(First published in Le News edition 11, 23-29 January 2014)

The day we came back from our Christmas holiday in South Africa, I opened my toiletry bag and a bucket’s worth of beach sand fell out onto the bathroom floor.

‘Oh, said the smaller child, eyeing it sadly. ‘It was a sandcastle when I put it in there.’

She wasn’t the only one who had issues with her luggage.

‘Why do we need seven packets of powdered jelly and three litres of Dettol?’ my husband had asked, surveying our suitcases the night before we flew back to Europe.

‘I can’t get them in Switzerland,’ I answered.

‘And the nine notebooks? Can’t you find paper in Switzerland?’

‘These feel nicer to write in than other books.’

‘And all those giant balls of red wool? Can you explain those?’

‘I could. But as you can see, I’m busy trying to fit a plaster mould of an impala’s hoof print into this suitcase,’ I replied patiently.

He looked forlornly at the pile of bags that he was going to have to drag through three airports and two train stations.

‘Why can’t we just smuggle in wine and biltong like any other South African?’

Frankly, given his heritage, I expected more from him. His father: now there’s a man who isn’t afraid of baggage. He has distributed to the corners of the earth, among other things, a beaded wire sheep (large), a decorative baobab tree (small but inconveniently shaped) and a bolt of shweshwe fabric (starched and completely unyielding). And my mother-in-law is no suitcase slouch either; the last Christmas cake she brought over was so enormous that we enjoyed a slice with tea every day for months.

Anyway, I pointed out to my shirking husband, I wasn’t the only one to blame for those bulging suitcases. With a joyful disregard for Lufthansa’s weight limitations, our South African friends and family showered us with gifts, including 18 books, two bath towels, a full set of table linen and a music box. And a violin.

All of this was in addition to a ridiculously large toy monkey that the bigger child never leaves home without, and all the heavy jackets and snow boots we’d need back in Switzerland.

My husband did lug it all home, albeit with very bad grace. And I’m pleased to report that last week he was proven wrong by my dear friends, the ladies of the High Mileage Nordic Walking Club: it turns out that I was, in fact, not the only person bringing home what he so unkindly termed ‘random crap’.

Laura From England flew back with thirty plastic Disney plates, and the entire M&S lingerie department. Sandy The Other South African imported several boxes of beeswax lip balm.

‘It’s the only one that isn’t addictive,’ she told us. ‘I can’t live without it!’

But it was Elsa from Germany who surprised us the most. She brought a month’s supply of Lindt chocolates. Back to Switzerland.

‘You do realise …’ I began.

‘Yes, yes, I know. I can get it here. But … it’s not the same.’

And that’s the truth of it. No matter how it may look to the customs officials, it’s not really the jelly / baobab tree / five kilogrammes of mosaic tiles that matters so much. It’s what it represents: home; something familiar; something we loved and didn’t want to leave behind. Just like my daughter, sitting with her friends under a hot South African sky and stuffing sandcastles into my suitcase.


Fantasy Families

(First published in Le News edition 10, 16-22 January 2014)

Since becoming a parent, there are a few things I’ve had to wave goodbye to: my size 8 jeans and late night tequila parties come immediately to mind (motherhood has made the hips more robust but weakened the constitution dramatically). Also, I’ve had to give up my fantasy of perfect family life. No matter that the fantasy was based primarily on a montage of mother-child photos from margarine ads. It was deeply held and painful to part with. But real children are nothing like the margarine children, and I am clearly no model mother. For example:

Fantasy 1: The smaller child must dress up as an alien for school. Her costume, hand made by me, is adorable and convincingly alien. She earns recognition from her peers, her self esteem is boosted and she knows she is loved and prioritised in our house.

Reality: I forget all about the costume until the day before dress-up. We’re busy that afternoon, so by the time I think about it again it’s 10 p.m. and I’m too exhausted to hand-make anything except a glass of wine.

The next morning the child runs into school, late, with a badly cut out alien mask. There’s black felt pen smudged everywhere and, in an attempt at antennae, I’ve tied some little water balloons over the ears. The result looks more like Kali the Goddess of Destruction than an alien. This is entirely in keeping with the smaller child’s character, but it’s not what the school asked for.

Fantasy 2: On winter afternoons we come home from school to a pot of vegetable soup, before going back outside for a forest walk. We collect dead leaves and twigs to make a collage because we’re creative, in touch with the world around us and we walk 10 000 steps a day.

Reality: The smaller child refuses to eat my vegetable soup because it has vegetables in it. The bigger child starts motivating strongly to watch a DVD.

‘No,’ I insist. ‘We’re going for a walk.’

After some shouting the bigger one gives in but the smaller one does not. I have to catch her and force her into her boots, gloves and scarf. She threatens to tell the police that I’m making her go outside ‘in the freeze’.

I finally get them both outside and march them up to the forest, where we collect handfuls of dead foliage. Back home they fling off their jackets and glue some sticks to a piece of paper. It takes about three minutes and they’re clearly just doing it to humour me.

They watch Tangled while I wipe up puddles of glue, and pick bits of crushed leaf out of their gloves.

Fantasy 3: I’m a caring and thoughtful home chef, who always dishes up something healthy but appealing to the youthful palate. I gently shape their table manners as we make conversation and bond deeply over good food.

Reality: I’m a short order cook who stands at the stove while the children shout instructions from the dining room: ‘More cheese!’; ‘I’m taking out everything that’s a vegetable’; ‘I’m really thirsty’. Then they pour a cupful of tomato sauce on everything, without tasting it first. The entire dinner conversation consists of my husband endlessly repeating his mealtime mantras: ‘Don’t talk with your mouth full’, ‘You’re going to knock that over’ and ‘Eat nicely’’.

After dinner I clean up a sea of tomato sauce and juice. I make a quiche out of the pile of rejected vegetables and feed it to my husband the next day.

He thinks it’s delicious.

It may not be the dream … but it’ll do.