Of Androids and Electric Guinea Pigs

(First published in Le News edition 18, 13-19 March 2014)

This summer I’m going to replace all the pets with robots. This fabulous idea came to me when I was reading an article about something called a ‘Robo Fish’. Apparently it was the toy to get last Christmas, with over 15 million sold. They’re brightly coloured toy fish that swim around when you put them in water and stop swimming when you take them out. My initial response was, ‘Isn’t that what real fish do?’ But no. These fish start swimming again when you put them back in water, which is very much not what real fish do.

Anyway, the reason I like them so much is that you don’t need to feed them.

The second my feet hit the floor in the morning, everything in the house starts clamouring for food. If my life has a soundtrack, it’s made up of meows, squeaks and the sound of a fat goldfish breaching like Shamu. It’s not as if I didn’t feed them all just before bedtime: fresh water and dry food for the cat; fresh water, hay and vegetables for the Guinea Pigs; flakes for the fish. I can understand them being keen for breakfast, but the performance the cat puts on is worthy of a part in Les Misérables.

And after I’ve put food into them, I have to deal with what comes out the other side. I change cat litter, sweep up pellets, wash out filters and rinse aquarium pebbles … it’s never ending.

So when the children started begging for a dog, I just started laughing hysterically. But then I remembered a friend surveying the post-dinner fallout under my dining room table and saying, ‘You should get a dog. They double as vacuum cleaners.’ And I thought, why not do it the other way round? Why not get a vacuum cleaner and let it double as a dog? Seriously. I’m going to get a Roomba, stick googly eyes on it and tell the children that it’s alive. This is not going to strain their credulity at all – they’ve convinced themselves that my car is alive and they hold long conversations with it almost every morning, so a cute, googly-eyed little vacuum-puppy will be no problem. They can feed it scraps of food and watch it suck them up; they can put a lead on it and take it for walks around the patio … it’s genius.

Then I’m going to swap the Guinea Pigs for Furbies. I know Furbies don’t do much but, quite honestly, neither do the Guinea Pigs. Unless you think that the world is suffering from a surfeit of hay and we urgently need it converted into mounds of little poo pellets. Then the Guinea Pigs are doing an ace job.

I’d also like a drone of my own, to play me music all day and occasionally fly over to the school with whatever piece of gym equipment the children have forgotten.

And the cat … well, I think I’ll have to keep her. The only robot cat I’ve seen is some bloody terrifying thing called a WildCat. I have no idea what the makers intend to use it for but I can assure you, it’s not as a pet: it has no head, it sounds like a chainsaw and it gallops along at over 25 kilometres per hour. It’ll scare the Furbies out of their wits.

And then, when I’ve filled the house with robots, all ready to do my bidding? Well. The children had better look lively. The latest incarnation of ASIMO the android can look at whoever is speaking to him and answer them politely – skills the seven-year-old is still struggling with – and is capable of carrying a drinks tray into the lounge every evening at six o’clock! 

All the World’s a Movie Set …

(First published in Le News edition 17, 6-12 March 2014)

The recent excitement about the Academy Awards has got me thinking – if our lives were movies, what genre would they be? It’d be really useful to know exactly what you’re starring in, right? Because you can make all sorts of decisions based on that. Should you investigate the strange noise in the basement (Adventure) or should you run the other way (Thriller)? Will your new neighbour come after you to win your heart (Romance) or come after you with a chainsaw (Slasher)? Should you carry on with French lessons (Mystery) or has Switzerland doffed its immigration cap at you (Weepie)?

As I sat in the lounge the other night, listening to the unearthly thumps and wails coming from upstairs – the usual sounds of my children falling asleep – I thought, maybe my genre is Supernatural Horror. Only last week the smaller child was shrieking, vomiting and levitating a metre off the floor. Of course, in her case it wasn’t a sign of demonic possession; it was a sign that she wanted to wear the pink tutu that I’d just put in the wash. And the gory little handprints that keep appearing on the walls are only jam, not blood. Although they’re so sticky that nothing short of Holy Water is ever going to get them off.

Perhaps, then, my genre is Adventure. See the Mommy Housewife stash her bullwhip in her handbag and venture into The Supermarket. Watch her carefully weighing the precious Golden Mango in one hand against the pile of Francs in the other, before braving the icy stare of the terrifying Manicured Checkout Lady …

Or maybe it’s Disaster. I like holidays and, in the movies, holidays always lead to disaster: cruise ships sink; aeroplanes are sucked into the Bermuda Triangle; people picnicking in the countryside are attacked by killer bees or giant mutant ants. But no one is ever shown coming home from two weeks away to find that they left a load of dirty plates in the dishwasher. Not disastrous enough for a big audience, I suppose, although goodness knows it nearly killed me.

Aha!’, I thought, as a small, angry face appeared at the lounge window. ‘It must be Science Fiction!’ But it wasn’t an alien. Just the cat, which someone had shut outside by mistake.

I’m not sure how to rate my movie, either. It’s mostly Family Viewing but does contain some Mature Themes (‘That bit where the mother tries to do yoga again after sitting at a computer for 10 years … ouch!’) and has Scenes that Some Viewers May Find Distressing (‘Did you see the part where the father collapses into bed and impales himself on a toy triceratops?’). There is also quite a lot of Strong Language and some Violence (when there aren’t enough cherry tomatoes to go around, the Guinea Pigs can get quite huffy with one another).

So I really don’t know what genre my life falls into. However often it makes me want to scream and run away, it isn’t Horror. It’s too small-scale to qualify for Adventure or Disaster. It’s definitely not Drama because nothing ever happens. Nor is it a RomCom because there’s precious little Rom and the Com isn’t that funny. And, despite the fact that a lot of it is boring and incomprehensible, it’s not well-composed enough to be Art.

I suppose, for now, I’ll just have to call it Reality.




Life is Nothing Like a Lifestyle Blog

(First published in Le News edition 16, 27 February – 5 March 2014)

I love lifestyle blogs. I’ve spent hours poring over the lives of strangers: looking at photos of their furniture, pictures they’ve taken of interesting trees, close-ups of their dinner, served in charmingly mismatched tableware.

In fact, I love these blogs so much that I thought my family should start one. We live in a beautiful place. We love to cook. Our trees are also interesting. Our tableware is mismatched.

So one day, when the freezing rain was blowing in sideways and we were bored, we embarked on our first project: making apple turnovers and hot, spiced cider, and photographing the process.

It was a horrible experience and it went something like this: 

Photo 1: Spiced Cider. Lay out a pot, a jug of apple juice, cinnamon sticks, a clove-studded orange and several little bowls of spices. Take photo. Put everything into the pot and simmer.

Photo 2: Ingredients for Apple Turnovers. On a wooden chopping board, assemble a ball of pastry dough, two apples, a pile of raisins and a little bowl of honey.

Photo 3: Adorable, Pudgy Little Child-Hands Chopping Apples. Give children safety knives and instruct them to chop away. Take one photo then send them to wash their hands again (‘This time get all the paint off’) and trim their nails.

Photo 4: Rolling out Pastry. Give some pastry to each child. A noisy fight breaks out over who gets to use the rolling pin first, and one child hits the other on the head with a wooden spoon. Send them to Timeout for five minutes.

Check on the cider. Pour a small taster mug, with a tiny bit of rum.

Bring the children back. Catch the smaller child in the act of eating a fistful of raw pastry. Admonish and threaten.

Photo 5: Spooning Chopped Apple and Raisins onto Pastry Sheets. Go into the kitchen to check on the cider. Come back to find half the apple-raisin mix gone. Interrogate the children, who deny everything through chipmunk-cheeks.

Send both to Timeout for ten minutes. Top up the mug of cider. Add a tot of rum.

Photo 6: Spooning Honey onto Apple-Raisin Mix. Give children two little glass bowls of honey and two teaspoons.

Send everybody to Timeout for fifteen minutes. Wipe down honey-covered table and chairs. Wash honey out of bigger child’s hair. Catch and wash cat.

Photo 7: Folded Apple Turnover, Ready for the Oven. The pastry rips as we fold it over and the mix leaks out.

Pat everything back into shape and patch the rips with extra pastry. The turnovers bear no resemblance to any known bakery product but we’ve come too far to give up now.

Pour another mug of spiced cider, with two tots of rum. Put the damn turnovers in the damn oven.

Photo 8: The End Result. The turnovers come out of the oven. One has exploded.

Arrange mangled pastries on plates and children at the table. Go into the kitchen to pour two mugs of cider. Come back to find small finger holes poked deeply into both pastries.

Take the last photo. The turnovers look horrible, no one is smiling and it’s getting dark. In fact, the end result looks like a depressed version of The Potato Eaters.

Well, that was it. That night, as I drank the last of the rum, I deleted the photos from my camera. Perhaps there are some lifestyles that just should not be blogged about.

The Battleship and the Speedboat


(First published in Le News edition 15, 20-26 February 2014)

The Good Witch of the North once said, “Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”

As much as I like the sound of that, I’m not convinced. Physically I’m in great shape, having played competitive netball in primary school. But I must admit, I’m already starting to miss my once-firm young mind. Because my mental elastic is gone; my brain is baggy. And nowhere is this more evident than in my relations with my seven-year-old.

My mind, like a battleship, needs a lot of time and effort to change direction. I like to focus on one thing, and just keep going. My daughter, on the other hand, has a speedboat mind: it’s fast, it’s agile and it makes a lot of noise.

A few weeks ago I stood in the dairy aisle of the supermarket, my battleship brain pondering the mysteries of organic butter and whether it really is CHF 7 a kilo better than normal butter, when my daughter’s sharp little voice broke into my thought.

Mom, how many teeth does a turtle have?”

I don’t know,” I said, dragging my mind out of the butter. “I need to think about that.”

Teeth on a turtle. I tried to picture Crush, the turtle in Finding Nemo. Hadn’t he smiled a few times? Had there been teeth?

When we got to the vegetable section of the supermarket, she asked, “Mom, what exactly happened at Pompei? And who wrote Mary Poppins?”

In the bread aisle, “What’s the name of the Egyptian king who isn’t Tutankhamun? Can I ride my scooter on the highway? What’s the most endangered animal on earth?”

In the checkout queue, “How do you say ‘my little sister stole my boots’ in French?”

Well,” I said, as I loaded the groceries into the car. “I’m not sure they have any. I think they have a sort of beak.”


Turtles. I don’t think they have any teeth.”

I’m not talking about that any more!” she shouted, almost hysterical with impatience. “I’ve just asked you if I can invite everyone I know for a sleepover this weekend.”

I can’t keep up, honestly. If I followed every single thing she said, my brain would overload and I’d go mad.

I tried just vaguely muttering, “Yes, darling” for a while because that works very well on my husband, but the child soon caught onto that and tried to compromise me.

You said I could!” she wailed one night, as we wrestled over the goldfish tank.

I did not!”

Yes you did! We were driving home and I said, ‘Can I put the goldfish in the bath with me?’ and you said, ‘Yes, darling’.”

I haven’t solved the problem of my speedboat child but at least I know how to rebuild my damaged self-esteem: the four-year-old still thinks I’m wonderful. Her mind is like an inflatable dinghy, bobbing awestruck in my wake.

Mommy,” she breathed in wonder the other day, “how did you know I wanted to read a book about dinosaurs?”

I did not point out that dinosaurs are all she ever wants to read about. I just shrugged nonchalantly and said, “It must be because I’m so clever.”

Her eyes filled with admiration. “Will I be as clever as you when I grow up?”

I thought of her speedboat sister, and how she was also once a dinghy. And how I was once a speedboat. It’s the Regatta of Life.

No,” I said. “You’ll be much cleverer.”


Of Snow, Skiing and Seven-Year-Olds

(First published in Le News edition 14, 13-19 February 2014)

I think I ski better than you,’ my daughter told me the other day.

‘What makes you say that?’ I asked, attempting to discreetly remove the icicle that had jammed up my left nostril a few moments earlier, when I ploughed into a snow drift.

‘You fall down more than I do.’

It’s true. I attribute it to spending the first forty years of my life somewhere very hot and very flat. But I’m trying hard to overcome that early hurdle and, when we arrived in Switzerland, I went all out to set an enthusiastic example for the children.

‘How much fun is this?’ I whooped through gritted teeth, as we snowploughed down mountainsides.

‘Was that great or what?’ I trilled at the bottom, hoping my rictus of fear would pass for an endorphin-drenched smile.

And it worked – on the seven-year-old, at any rate. She loves skiing and she’s good at it. But unfortunately I never fell for my own propaganda, and skiing still gives me the horrors. So why on earth I agreed to go down a blue slope with the child last weekend, I have no idea.

‘You have been on a chair lift before, right?’ I asked, as we stood waiting in line for one of those wretched chariots of death.

She looked bored. ‘Lots of times.’

‘Just make sure you don’t lean forward on the bar,’ I warned, keeping an anxious eye on the progress of the chair. ‘And lift your skis when you get to the top. And tuck your scarf into your jacket so it doesn’t catch on anything. And definitely don’t fall over when you get off because I can’t help you.’

‘I’m not going to fall over. And I don’t need help.’

‘Also, don’t get in front of me. I can’t steer that well and my braking is unreliable,’ I went on, positioning my skis properly and bracing myself for the speed-waddle to the chair’s runway.

She wasn’t even listening. She was facing the wrong way, helmet unbuckled, poking icicles off a railing with her ski pole.

‘What’re you doing?’ I panicked. ‘Why aren’t you getting into position for the chair?’

‘Mom,’ she sighed. ‘We’re not even at the front of the queue yet.’

Well, we made it to the top with no mishaps, and the child hopped off the chair and pointed herself straight at what looked like a precipice.

‘I’ll be fine,’ I called after her. ‘See you at the bottom.’

And as I lay there in front of the lift, trying to disentangle my skis from my poles, I thought, this is what parenting is, isn’t it? Giving them wings so they can fly away; putting an enormous amount of time, money and emotional effort into growing them up so that one day they’ll leave you behind, in a crumpled heap, with everyone pointing at you. 

‘I do ski better than you,’ she said again, when I met her at the bottom, but this time the look on her little face told me that she felt the same way about this fact as I did: proud and anxious, in equal measure.

‘That may be true,’ I said. ‘But you’re still my baby. When we get to the car would you like me to take your boots off and make you some hot chocolate?’

‘Yes, Mama.’

And after she helped me back onto my feet, that’s exactly what I did.