Home and Away

(First published in Le News 12 June 2014)

‘We’re going to need a bigger tent,’ my husband said, with some surprise.

The last time we used his three-man tent, it had been more than big enough. We didn’t take up much space in those days, back in the first flush of romance, when we still fell asleep in each other’s arms. Also, we travelled very light. On one memorable trip to the Kalahari Desert we took two tog bags, some beer, a packet of sausages and a dozen cheese rolls. A ground squirrel stole our cheese rolls on the second day, so we drank the beer, barbecued the sausages, and had a great time.

Fast forward fourteen years – fourteen years! Where did they go? – to the most recent long weekend, when we decided to introduce our small daughters to the joys of camping.

These days it’s no longer possible for us to go anywhere with only two tog bags. Even to the gym. Compulsory luggage now includes a suitcase of clothes for hot weather, clothes for cold weather and extra clothes in case someone comes home covered in strawberry juice and reeking of goat (smaller child, France, 2012).

We also need a large medicine kit, with everything from plasters to antibiotic drops in case someone’s eyes suddenly swell shut (bigger child, South Africa, 2009).

And we can forget about living on a packet of rolls and a few sausages. Nothing ruins a trip like a hungry child, so a three-day holiday requires food for nine meals, plus snacks. Plus extra food, in case of ground squirrels.

Not too bad, we thought, as we surveyed the pile to be packed. The children will want to take a few toys, but we’ll get it all in the car comfortably.

‘Hah!’ I say now, with hindsight.

Apparently when we said, ‘Let’s go camping,’ the children heard, ‘Let’s move house’, because they shifted the entire contents of their bedrooms to the car: two sizeable soft toy collections; dozens of books; a lava lamp; rain sticks; and three empty cardboard boxes, which no one could explain clearly but which absolutely had to come.

Once the car was packed we couldn’t see the children and they couldn’t see out. I don’t think they asked, ‘How many more minutes until we get there?’ every ten seconds because they really wanted to know. I think it was an attempt to echolocate.

My husband was right about the tent being too small. That night we had to burrow through all the dinosaurs, unicorns and monkeys to get to our air mattress. But I liked it. It was actually very romantic: the lava lamp gave the the tent a nice red glow and, as the air mattress began to slowly deflate, my husband and I were rolled towards one another. With a snoring child jammed in on each side, we once again fell asleep in each other’s arms.

I lay there for a while, listening to the campsite settling down for the night – except for the group of bikers, who were alternately singing and vomiting into the bushes – and I cast my mind back to that long ago trip to the Kalahari. I’d just turned thirty and I remember looking in the unforgiving mirror of the ablution block and finding my first grey hair. I remember thinking about my newish boyfriend, who was waiting for me back in his very spacious three-man tent. And I remember wondering where in the world it was all heading.


Talking About Evolution 

(First published in Le News 5 June 2014)

These last few weeks have seen something of a regression in my family, all the way back to our days in the cave.

It started when the children watched The Croods, which is a very sweet (if completely factually inaccurate) story about the last Neanderthal family and their moment of personal evolution.

The older child in particular is very taken with the glamour of Cave Life, and has embraced it enthusiastically by renaming herself Eep and refusing to walk upright. Instead, she prefers to shuffle along on her knuckles, and jump on the furniture.

The problem is, the spirit may be Neanderthal but the musculature is definitely Cro-Magnon. As I watched her vault over the couch and crash headfirst onto the floor, I wondered, ‘How did we ever make it?’ I don’t mean, ‘How did we evolve?’ I mean … how did we even survive? Because small children seem hellbent on destroying themselves. They’re forever running into roads, throwing themselves out of windows, climbing up things, apparently with the express purpose of falling off and breaking a limb. Every second week my husband and I seem to be plucking one or other child from the jaws of death. And that’s in a relatively safe modern world. How did caveparents keep these soft little snacks away from sabre-toothed cats and cave bears? How did they stop their small explorers from toddling into tar pits? Or throwing themselves joyfully into Megalodon-infested waters?

Anyway, once I’d sorted my little Neanderthal out, wiped away her tears and complimented her on her newly-sloping forehead, I headed into the kitchen to make dinner, where my admiration for our ancestors only increased.

Completely by chance, the children’s devolution has coincided with my new eating plan which is, it seems, prehistoric. In an attempt to turn my own clock back and recapture my youthful vigour, I’d decided to lay off the processed foods for a while. I hadn’t given this diet a name. If I had, I’d have called it … I don’t know … maybe, ‘Healthier’. But a friend who knows these things immediately identified it as the Paleo diet.

‘It’s the way our ancestors ate,’ she pointed out.

‘Not my ancestors, I countered. Some of mine were notoriously fond of cream buns and vetkoek. Family legend tells of a great aunt who once held the title of Fattest Woman in South Africa.

‘Not those ancestors,’ said my friend. ‘Our Palaeolithic ancestors. They lived on fruit, vegetables, meat and nuts.’

I won’t bore you with the details of my diet. Suffice to say well done, cavepeople, for surviving without pasta, chocolate and strong coffee in the morning. I’m certainly struggling.

Actually, well done, cavepeople, for all of it:  for sloping off to hunt and gather every day, even when it was cold and rainy outside and you’d rather have stayed in bed; for keeping your cavebabies safe; for dodging all the Terror Birds and the Giant Ripper Lizards; well done for keeping our species alive and thank you very much for evolving. I’m sure we’ll do as good a job of moving humankind forward for the next 100 000 years. Of course we will.






Of Bugs, Bacteria and Human Behaviour  

(First published in Le News 28 May 2014)

Funny things, bugs. I was pondering this the other day, as I sat watching my children performing in a school play. They were on opposite sides of the stage and I spent an hour trying to make eye contact with them both at the same time, so no one could accuse me of loving the other one more.

Anyway, in the wave of dizziness that followed this eye-swivelling, I had something of a profound scientific thought, and it was this: my children owe their personalities mostly to bacteria.

The school play was, fittingly, about mini-beasts. On the left of the stage was the seven-year-old, dressed as a butterfly, and taking her role very seriously: she stood up straight, focused herself, remembered all her lines and didn’t miss a beat in the Butterfly Dance.

And over on the left … the nearly-five-year-old, playing a spider and not taking it seriously at all. As I watched her gurning at me and trying to fit her head into a tambourine, I muttered through gritted teeth, ‘Please behave. Please keep your clothes on. Please don’t turn around and moon the audience (as she once did to her surprised grandparents, on Skype).’

The children are absolutely nothing like each other. Nor are they anything like their parents.

My husband, for example, has two moods – Absolutely Fine and A Bit Grumpy – but he has somehow sired a small diva.

‘Where does she come from?’ we’ve asked one another more than once, while our elder offspring lay on the floor, clutching her brow and sobbing because we’d denied her a sweet / a later bedtime / her own pony / a new house with stabling in her bedroom for her own pony.

Nor does all this drama come from me. I may not be as even-keeled as my husband, but I’ve certainly never run down the road screaming to be adopted because I wasn’t allowed two helpings of dessert.

And the younger child. There’s no explaining her. No one, in her immediate or extended family, has ever stripped off and raced naked through the local garden centre, cackling madly. None of us would mortify our mothers like that.

So if it’s not genetics and it’s not socialiation (and please trust me, it’s not socialisation), what is it? The answer came to me as I watched my mini-beasts on stage … it’s bugs.

Not long ago I read that up to 90% of the cells that make up our bodies are actually bacterial. On a cellular level, we’re more bacteria than human.

Well, that’s good to know. It takes some of the pressure off having to wear make up all the time, for a start (why bother? I’m bacteria). But it helps me understand my children. Obviously the elder child is made up of a few well-behaved probiotics, and a large amount of Escherichia coli, which is nothing if not dramatic. 

And the little one … well, my bet is with Borrelia burgdorferi. According to my research, it’s small and fast-moving, and it can cause terrible damage to your nerves. After my garden centre experience, I’d say that’s about right.


This Fusion Life 

(First published in Le News, 22 May 2014)

One of the most amazing revelations I’ve had in Switzerland thus far (apart from the fact that eau de parfum is not pronounced ‘err de parfyoom’) is that not everyone likes biltong. I shared my treasured store with some British and Swiss friends once, and it was an eye-opener. Half of them paled at the mere thought of eating raw, dried meat, and those who gave it a try, got a funny look on their faces after a few chews and didn’t ask for any more.

I know how they feel. I once ate two helpings of kimchi because it had been made for me by a Korean friend, even though the spices went straight through the roof of my mouth and into my eyeballs, blinding me for the rest of the meal.

Anyway, after the biltong experience, I set about observing cultural exchanges more closely. I didn’t have to look far, either. Almost the next day there was a cultural exchange in my own car. The bigger child, who spent her formative years in South Africa, wanted a Lego traffic light from the smaller child, who has grown up here.

‘Please pass me that robot,’ the big one asked.

The small one looked around in confusion, expecting to see R2-D2 or a Transformer.

‘There’s no robot here,’ she said.

‘There!’ the big one shouted in frustration. ‘The robot! In your hand!’

‘That’s not a robot,’ the small one shouted back. ‘That’s a traffic light!’

Of course they were both right. We call traffic lights robots because … we just do. We’ve had similar confusions about crisps / chips / fries and one particularly scarring experience in a French market, where I realised that hardly anyone else calls an aubergine a ‘brinjal’.

Thankfully I’m not the only one around here occasionally baffled by these Third Culture experiences. An American mother of my acquaintance looked at her small son in surprise when he asked his ‘Mummy’ for a ‘cuddle’.

‘Who is this person?’ Mommy mused, before they had a good old American snuggle.

Actually, I think my children have been the biggest beneficiaries of this fusion life we’re living: they’ve learned to make American S’mores with Swiss chocolate biscuits; they’ve had braais, barbecues and cookouts (often all at the same time, and frequently in the snow); they pepper their conversation with ‘merci’, ’s’il vous plaît’ and ‘voilà’ (and, less endearingly, ‘Vite, Maman, vite!’) and they’ve had their expectations of fireworks raised to a level that not every country can meet.

But I do believe the award for most intense fusion experience belongs to me, for one sunny summer afternoon during the Paléo music festival, when I was pet-sitting for a friend in the village. The pets weren’t that keen to go to bed, and while I gently encouraged them, I had a crazy vision of my situation: a South African running around a Swiss field, chasing French chickens belonging to a Danish-New Zealand family, while The Cure was playing ‘The Lovecats’ only a few fields away … that, surely, takes the gâteau. Or the nusstorte, if you prefer. Or the melktert. Take your pick. They’re all delicious.