A few pearls of wisdom from a mom watching her son move out and far away…
Take care of your body. Eat vegetables. Use sunscreen. Drive defensively. Drink moderately. In other words, please take good care of this person that I have protected for the past 20 years!
Take care of your brain. Eat vegetables. Read books. Keep learning. Drink moderately. In other words, please take good care of this person you have created for the past 20 years!
Don’t let anyone change who you are.
Life is long. You don’t have to get everything done right away, or accomplish everything quickly. What goes around comes around -eventually, the good guys win and the bad guys learn – it just takes time and patience.
Life is short. Don’t waste your time on people or things that drag you down, that hurt you, that stop you from being happy.
Don’t let anyone make up your mind. You don’t have to think like everyone else. The world’s greatest minds have often been independant thinkers with their own ideas, who didn’t allow themselves to be drawn in to a way of thinking just because it was popular. Be careful of small minded people.
The world is huge. Many people have not had the chance to see the world like you, to experience 4 cultures, live on 2 continents, to be immersed in 4 languages, and to travel extensively. It is possible you will encounter people who live in their small corner of the world and think they know everything. They don’t. You don’t.
The world is small. The theory states all people in the world are linked by 6 degrees of separation only. No matter how far you travel, you will never really be away from home, because you are always home.
Avoid intolerant people. It is always easier to judge an entire group than to try to understand. Very few arguments can be won against someone who has made up their mind to be racist, sexist, homophobic or generally prejudiced. You cannot convince someone with words. But you can win by keeping your own heart and mind open and not letting generalizations influence how you see others.
Choose love. This sounds silly but it’s the truth. If you can’t decide betwen two options, choose whatever is kinder, more tolerant, nicer, more fun, or will lead to more happiness.
Years ago, I started writing about moving to Switzerland. My articles were surprisingly wildly popular, not just with the local expat community but with people back home who were interested in experiencing such a dramatic change in life vicariously from the comfort of their cozy homes.
Twelve years went by in the blink of an eye, (ok there was a long moment there in the middle while I dealt with getting maried, having a baby, moving twice and dealing with other major life-shaking events), but in any case, there I was, still in Switzerland.
Twelve years is the “magic number” here. It is at this point that the Powers That Be have determined I might be able to actually qualify for Swiss citizenship.
Oh don’t go jumping to conclusions and buying me a decorative cow bell or fondue pot yet! The 12 year residency rule is just the beginning of the many hoops I have to jump through in my quest to… become Swiss!
On a bright Tuesday morning in October 2013 I set out for the “Administration communale” – the local city hall for my small town. It was exactly 12 years and one day since I had stumbled off the plane in Geneva with my two kids, one black cat and small mountain of suitcases. I entered the room marked “office de la population” and waited.
A woman came over and I correctly said “Bonjour” before explaining my reasons for being there. I felt I was clearly qualified to be Swiss, having mastered the subtle bonjour/bon après midi/bonsoir rules of social etiquette as well as having the correct number of years of residence (plus a day).
She checked my C permit and then searched in the nearby file cabinet for the right paperwork, then happily handed me some sheets. I left the building a short while later clutching the forms which would pave the way for me to Become Swiss.
And then, it almost seemed too easy. I quickly filled in the various forms and mailed them in with a copy of my passport and work permit. And then I waited.
Perhaps, I considered, the true test of Swissness is patience. I would show them I was up to the task.
Six months went by. And then, lo and behold! A letter in the mail! An explanation that my request to request Swiss citizenship had been approved. Yes, you read that right, my request to request it. I now had a letter stating that I was qualified to make the request. And a long form to fill out…
This one was not so easy. The Swiss really want to know everything I’ve done since I was born. Everything. Every address I ever had, every school I ever went to, every job I ever held. E-ver-y-thing…
It took me a while to fill it in. For one thing, I have lived in 20 homes, went to 11 schools and have held 10 jobs if you count the time I was an elf. (I actually worried about that one as it might be seen as weird. Should I specify that it was only during the christmas holidays, so that they wouldn’t think I had a closet full of weird green clothes and long felt shoes with curled toes and a hat with bells? Speaking of which, what if they come to inspect my home? How will I ever get it clean enough?)
In any case, I also had to provide a variety of documents certifying I really was who I claimed to be and then also certifying that this person I claimed to be had no criminal records or bad credit ratings (both very, very bad things if you want to be Swiss).
It took me almost six months to get all the documents together and I mailed the whole package in victoriously.
About a year went by, and then one day the police called me. Now, if you’re like me, as soon as the phone rings and the person says they are the police, you immediately: 1- hope your kids are alive, and 2 – hope your kids have not done anything that makes you want to kill them. Not always in that order.
But in this case, it was ME they were after! I was being summoned for an interview to discuss my Swissness request . (By the way, they don’t actually use the word Swissness here, that’s my invention. I hope it doesn’t cause me problems. I’m already probably on thin ice with the elf thing.)
A couple weeks later I arrived for my appointment at the precinct. I made sure to park in a blue zone spot and put my timer-turny-thingy in the window (there may actually be a name for the thing, but anyone in Switzerland knows what I’m talking about. It basically marks how long you have been parked in a limited time zone.) Then I worried that I would run out of time and have to interrupt the meeting to come out and move my car. That would be rude, wouldn’t it? Oh but maybe that’s the test! To see if I abide by the laws enough to be willing to put my Swissness request in jeopardy by running outside during an important meeting?
In any case, the police escorted me into a small room where I sat under a hot bright light and they drilled questions at me, hoping I would crack .
Ok it wasn’t really like that. We sat around a table on mostly comfortable chairs and they did ask me lots of questions, but nothing too intense. Mostly, they seemed to be trying to determine whether or not I adhered to the Swiss way of life and Swiss values. They asked several questions which I answered as best as I could, and then they actually just came right out and asked it, the one key question, the most important element:
“What is your opinion about democracy?”
They stared directly into my eyes in an unbroken gaze, the two of them, which made it hard for me to gaze back because I wasn’t sure who I should stare back at to prove my unflinching dedication.
Believe it or not, that’s actually a hard question to answer descriptively. What do I think about democracy? Well, I’ve never known anything else, so it’s something I’ve always just taken for granted. I scrambled for an appropriate answer, something that would convey my decidedly certain absolute positivety about being resolutely in favour of the democratic way. What I actually said was probably something resembling, “Uh… I’m for it?”
I thought quickly, stumbling over unsatisfying words to add to this answer in order to assure them that I was not here to overthrow the peaceful and fair system of government in order to rule the land and change it’s name to Nicoledom. (To be fair, who wouldn’t want to live in Nicoledom? Free ice cream guys.)
I basically did manage to convice them that my political views were acceptable in a typically Canadian way, that is, I didn’t have any extreme views about politics as long as there were no crazies in charge.
55 minutes later (just in time for the parking spot! Coincidence? I think not!) I was released into the general population. Apparently, I had passed.
Step one: live here 12 years
Step two: request to request citizenship approved
Step three: citizenship request submitted
Step four: police interview passed
I was well on my way to true certifiable Swissness! I almost felt like breaking out the chocolate to celebrate.
Little did I know, more tests, challenges and chocolate were to come…
We are sitting in the breakfast room of our hotel in Copenhagen on the morning of December 23rd. We leave later today for Næstved to spend Christmas with Martin’s family and head home and back to work next Monday. No plans for New Year’s eve since Martin works in the evening till 11:20pm on the 31st and I work at 5:50am on the 1st.
Which makes me start to think about new year’s resolutions. Since I am a list-maker, the resolution idea is an list-making opportunity that can’t be skipped.
“Hey!” I say suddenly, waking all of us up from our dazed slow motion breakfast, “Do you have a new year’s resolution?”
Martin looks appropriately dismayed. He probably had harboured the secret hope that I would somehow forget about the concept and we could quietly pass from one year to the next without anyone proposing he reform anything about his already perfect-in-his-mind life.
Hoping to change the subject by using nonsense talk (a technique he uses frequently), he replies: “Yep. Eat less fish.”
I stare at him. He stares back. Elliot watches us and opens his mouth to comment (most likely something about the fact that his dad hardly ever eats fish). Before he can, I say: “Ok, that sounds good.”
“You think?” Martin looks slightly surprised and vaguely worried.
“Sure. Eat less, and fish.”
“There was a comma in that sentence, I’m sure. So you’ve decided to eat less, and to take up fishing. I think that’s a great idea. We can go fishing with my dad next summer. I love fishing. In fact, that’s brilliant.”
Martin is staring at me with an unchanging expression, nothing in his demeanor betraying the rapidly evolving thoughts racing through his mind as he stares unblinking at me, but inside I am sure he is thinking: oh crap is she actually serious or just joking there is no way I’m going fishing even though I have never actually tried it I already know that I’m not going to like it and I’m not going to eat less nobody is going to tell me how to live my life although she’s probably right I need to eat healthier so ok I’ll give it a try but the fishing thing is out I’m putting my foot down on that one well except if there’s beer involved I could sit out in the sun holding a fishing rod if I have a cold beer at hand so ok I’m into the eat less and fish idea dammit why is she always right.
He decides to change the subject because he is not someone who can admit defeat but I know innately that I have won this battle.
One of the things about being an expat is that you leave friends behind in your old homes. No, I don’t mean I left someone sleeping on my couch in my house in Canada, closed the door and they are still there ordering pizza for delivery on my old credit card. I mean back “home”, as in, the “home” I left behind to move here to my new “home”, which in many ways is more of a home that the old home since, well, I actually live here. It makes me wonder about the whole “home” expression, because expats here often ask each other, “Are you going home soon?” or, “Do you get home often?” which makes me feel like I’m just kind of floating through life on a boat with no real home. Like a pirate. Actually, now that I think of it, I kind of like that idea.
Every year I meet up with some friends from “home” somewhere in Europe. This now infamous yearly trip, cleverly called The Girl’s Trip, has occurred several years in a row now. In May of last year, we met in Paris. My friends flew over from different parts of Canada: Sylvie (she of the saddle bar stool fable) and Lisa (she of the beer-cheese horror story, and both these stories shall remain untold until another day.)
I was to meet them in Paris, so in true European style I took the train from my small town in Switzerland to Paris, switching trains to the TGV in Lausanne. TGV stands for “train à grande vitesse”, meaning literally, train that “has big speed.” My train sped off through fields and towns at ridiculously high speed which allows little possibility for taking photos of the scenery properly, but still I tried, making it clear to the others on the train around me that I was obviously a tourist. When I got tired of that I took a photo of the very sophisticated breakfast meal they served me (I was given a choice between the sweet or the salty breakfast, and this is what I got. Can you guess what I chose?)
Arriving in Paris at the Gare de Lyon, I took a taxi to our hotel. Taking a taxi in Paris is one of my favourite things to do. It should really be in the guidebook for tourists. You zoom through the streets at breakneck speed, the driver mumbling things to the other drivers, sometimes actually slowing down and rolling his window open to yell at them a little or just chat to the guy on the motorcycle next to us if we’re at a red light, both drivers zooming off quickly as soon as the light turns green in a desperate race for first place at the next red light.
If you take a taxi in Paris you will learn that roads don’t actually have lanes and that turning left at an intersection is a life-altering event. You may have the opportunity to listen to a French radio station while you drive, which is quite relaxing if you need to close your eyes to avoid worrying about the numerous motorcycles that whizz by on both sides of the car randomly, sometimes practically colliding with each other when they join up in front of you.
We rented an apartment in Paris, which was owned by an artist. Enough said.
Sylvie always gets there first because she’s Sylvie. I am always second but later than the time I said because I’m Nicole. And Lisa is always last and has had some kind of harrowing travel experience which meant we had absolutely no idea if or when she might show up . Because she’s Lisa.
In Paris it was because right after she landed at Charles de Gaule a person threw themselves under a train which meant the line from the airport into the city was closed. She tried to find a taxi but of course all of them had been taken so then walked for 45 minutes to the next train station, dragging her impractically large suitcase behind her, to finally find a bus. She made it into town about three hours late. Which is roughly when we were expecting her anyway because we’ve grown accustomed to this. We had gone out for some coffee and local exploration and when Lisa showed up at the apartment we were on our way back. She was not in the least bit worried about our absence. We walked around the corner and spotted her sitting there on her huge suitcase, on the narrow cobblestone street in front of the locked gate leading to our apartment, casually drinking a coffee.
Some day I’ll tell you about the time she broke her thumb minutes before boarding her flight to Munich. Or the time she missed the connection in Toronto for her flight to Budapest and ended up on an airline she referred to as Tyrannosaurus air.
In any case, she got there, and we settled into our highly artistic Parisian pied-à-terre.
The next day was dedicated to furthering our education by visiting educational historical cultural heritage sites.
Oh who am I kidding, we went shopping.
In fact, we are becoming quite the experts in shopping, eating and drinking in some of the greatest cities in the world.
After a very French breakfast (the French really do make the best croissants), we hit the streets.
First thing we did was shop. After that, we did a little shopping, followed by some shopping and then of course we shopped.
Sylvie and I tend to have awkward shoe store incidents – something that is foreign to Lisa.
It goes something like this. We walk slowly by a store, and gaze curiously into the “vitrine”, when something catches our eye. Unanimously and without having to speak, we decide by silent accord to enter the store.
Walking in, the warmth hits us (no it’s not a hot flash, it really is warm in these shops). We circle the shoe racks slowly, like vultures carefully eying their prey before zeroing in. Then we dive, catch the victim in our hands, and turn to the innocent looking clerk:
“Do you have this in size 35?” Sylvie asks, her lazer-eyes defiant.
“Do you have this in size 42?” I ask simultaneously, hope floating around my question like a life-raft bobbing in a stormy sea.
The light in the clerk’s eyes extinguishes like a match that flickers off in a sudden wind.
“Non.” He says dismissively, glancing surreptitiously at Sylvie’s ridiculously small and my insanely huge feet, wondering, probably, how we manage to stay standing. “All our sizes go from 36 to 41.”
Lisa perks up hearing that and, with a small but very obvious halo appearing above her head, asks in a voice that drips with honey, “Oh I’m a 37, can I try them on?”
We repeat this act in every shoe store. The only benefit is that Lisa inevitably spends way more money than we do, which we compensate for on other clothing.
For example, the infamous butt-bra pants.
We were in the Marais district. Very fashionable, small boutiques crammed together in little streets that wind around each other like delicate spider webs.
A tiny shop, one shopkeeper chatting with a young man sitting on a stool apparently just there to socialize. We see some nice jeans, piled high on a display table, and start rooting through them.
The shopkeeper urgently comes to us. “You like these?” she says in a heavily accented voice. “Very nice, they have lining in the butt you see”, she takes the pants out of Lisa’s hands and turns them inside out, displaying a very interesting extra lining inside . We stare at the lining, none of us daring to comment. The woman stares at us. “To lift your bottom up” she explains, moving her hands in a circular and upwards motion, which I assume is to demonstrate the possibility of having a higher flying bum.
Lisa decides to try them on (she is the most adventurous one, after all). She bravely steps over to the pile of jeans and asks what sizes they have. The saleswoman, without batting an eye, replies, “Turn around and let me see your butt.” We are frozen in time for a fraction of a second, then Lisa obeys. The woman frowns in a serious contemplation of Lisa’s bum, then digs through the pile to hand her a pair.
Sylvie and I are both feeling skeptical (this is not something we actually have to say to each other, we know it instinctively after years of friendship.) But when Lisa steps out of the changing room, she does look great. We make a beeline for the pile of jeans, but are immediately stopped by the saleslady.
-Turn around, let me see your butt.
Not a moment’s hesitation this time.
Bizarrely, Sylvie and I are given the same size jeans. This is bizarre because our dissimilarities extend higher than just our feet. But the miracle of the butt-bra jeans is that they do not follow any normal clothing size rules. We step out of our changing rooms and we know we have just struck gold. Butt gold.
Here is where the funny twist to the story comes in (I know you thought the funny twist was the sales lady, didn’t you?) Lisa actually decides NOT to buy the butt-bra jeans. See what happens when you buy too many shoes? You start to consider your budget. You remember how much money you spent. Whereas Sylvie and I could buy our jeans guilt-free and even with the additional knowledge that we deserved compensation from the City of Paris for all the shoe-size prejudice.
Lisa left the store without any jeans – even though all four of us (Sylvie and I, the saleslady and the guy sitting there uselessly) swore she would regret it.
And guess what. She does. Sylvie and I wear our jeans regularly but Lisa – no, she must remain in saggy-butt-land by herself.
The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful except for the Last Meal, which we decided to eat at a restaurant next to our apartment. What we had not noticed was that this restaurant was called The Carnivore – the type of place you go to if you want to eat huge pieces of meat. Sylvie felt quite guilty ordering foie gras without her husband, who adores it, (you can see it in her sad eyes in the photo below) and so we overcompensated by having champagne to drown our sorrows and there was an incident with horn-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
I won’t go into detail about the fact that the restaurant owner dared us to eat only one single solitary strawberry for dessert (we lost), or the fact that he went and got his son to introduce to us (he had just visited Canada, so it was obvious that his dad needed to show him the Canadians he had found in his restaurant right here in Paris.)
The infamous salt and
pepper shaker incident
We finally dragged ourselves out of the restaurant and waddled back to our art studio/apartment and quickly changed into our “lounging clothes” (Lisa’s expression).
Another Girl’s Trip over, with much success. Paris in the Spring, beautiful!
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” — Mister Rogers
The feeling of anxious dread mixed with a horrible need to know.
It starts with a message from someone telling you something has happened, and a link the news story. This time it was my son who sent me a message at 1am, which I only saw when I noticed my phone blinking at 3am.
Paris under attack.
Heart sinking. Not again.
By the next morning it’s the only topic in the news and on social media. People are changing their profile pictures in support, or in anger, or conversely criticising those who do. Some write out in detail their opinion on why this happened, who is to blame, what needs to change.
Virtual arguments flare up in comment-form under people’s posts. I feel the anger wafting out from facebook like the computer is on fire.
Stop. Some people are in mourning today. Some people didn’t make it home last night.
As a mom, my first thought in moments like this is for the moms who were given the bad news that their child is dead. And the moms who are panicking, sending out endless messages searching for their child who hasn’t come home yet…
Our social media, the very one we cling to when we look for information, is partly to blame for our overwhelming feelings of personal tragedy – we live vicariously through the people actually present on the scene.
And yet, overwhelmingly, in the face of terrorism, people are not terrorized. Shocked, saddened, horrified, outraged, yes.
Because, ultimately, there will always be more good guys than bad guys.
Remember Boston? The horrific scenes of the marathon, the chilling tales of people recounting their experiences that day?
On some of those photos, you can see people running TO the scene.
I was in London in 2005, one day after 7/7, when 56 people died and over 700 were injured by bombs on the underground and a bus. The mood of the city was electric and tense, the sun kept trying to break through the heavy steel clouds, but gloom pushed down on us. People were in shock, people were scared. But also… People were kind. Everyone seemed to be going out of their way to show kindness and patience to others. People held doors, waited patiently instead of grumping, said thank you, let others cut ahead in line, smiled at each other, made eye contact. There seemed to be a subconscious current of niceness having struck the city. Engaging in small acts of care towards other strangers was therapeutic.
Friday night in Paris one of the hashtags that quickly went viral was #porteouverte. Because of the sudden police-imposed curfew, many found themselves in the city, far from their home or hotel, and unable to get back.
In an amazing show of solidarity, the people of Paris opened their doors to anyone needing shelter. Hundreds of connections were made online between people needing shelter and those opening their doors to them. Taxis also turned off their meters to help out when the public transit was shut down.
I know you are probably ok because this is not the first time you do this. In fact, since you finished school a few months ago and make the decision not to go to university, you took a big step toward claiming your independence.
I support this, because I remember.
Yes, I know it’s hard to imagine, but I was once 20 years old. And believe it or not, it’s not that long ago. Photos were not in black and white, we were not using a well to get drinking water, and yes, women did have the right to vote. Life “back then” was not much different than it is now.
So I know what it’s like when you are finally “free”. Free of the daily ritual of waking up early, dragging yourself to school, studying, doing homework, doing chores to keep your parents’ home clean and eating the boring healthy meals your parents make, at the ungodly hours they choose to serve them.
I actually remember that I had less stress in those first months of freedom than I had felt during my adolescence.
So I know you are almost certainly not lying bleeding in a gutter downtown, or locked up in a jail cell after getting innocently caught up in a drug deal gone wrong, or asleep on the train halfway through Italy because you forgot to wake up before your stop.
But I want you to consider something.
Consider the lego game you built, piece by piece, when you were 8 years old. How many hours you spent creating it, fixing it, correcting it, getting it just right. Consider the project you completed in high school that took you months of preparation, research, writing and revising. Consider that time you saved your money for weeks and walked to the store to buy those mini cupcakes for the girl you liked.
Then consider someone takes these things and casually tosses them aside, unthinking, telling you it’s none of your business what happens.
I know you are not lego. But in a way, I have built you. Piece by piece. I held you for hours and paced back and forth and back and forth with you asleep on my chest in the baby carrier, in my small dorm room while I studied for my exams. One false move or sudden noise and you would wake up and the study plan was finished.
I changed my plans for you. I didn’t go out with the girls that night when the babysitter cancelled, I called in sick for work when you threw up on me in the morning before school, I put my book down when you asked me for help with your homework, I turned the tv off and brought you a glass of water in bed when you called out that you were thirsty and wanted to talk.
I could have lived on sandwiches and fast food, I was pretty young then too. But instead I went to the grocery store and bought vegetables that I knew you would hate and found recipes that you could tolerate and made balanced meals and convinced you to eat them, when I would much rather have just had kraft dinner and ice cream. I said no to cartoons when I was dying of fatigue after working the night shift and would have loved to lie down and ignore the world, and I took you outside to play on your new bike instead. We went shopping and we walked by the store with the women’s fashions that I craved, and walked into the hobby shop so I could buy you pokemon cards. I took you to London and instead of going to the Mamma Mia show I got tickets to the Lion King.
I thought about your brain a lot: I read books to you, and evaluated tv shows and movies before you watched them. I took you on trips so you would see the world and we ate a lot of pizza in Italy.
Basically, I feel I have put all my heart and soul into “building” you – even though I know I didn’t create the building blocks, I put them together, I protected them, I nurtured them, I allowed them to grow in a safe and happy environment. And all this at great sacrifice to myself.
And I know it was the right thing to do, so I don’t regret any of it.
But I do feel resentful. Because now some guy has shown up and stolen all this away from me. Everything I have known for the past 20 years has been swept away, out of my control. And the problem is, you are that guy. You are the guy who has taken my son away from me. So I resent you. And apparently you resent me for trying to hold on to you. So we’re both in a tug of war to control you, and of course I know that you have more rights over you than I have, but I still don’t trust you because you haven’t had the years of experience taking care of you that I have. In fact sometimes you even have not been very nice to you. Your track record is sketchy, admit it. Remember when you said you didn’t want to wear a raincoat or boots even though it was pouring out? Or gloves in the -20 degree winter? Remember when you secretly ate almost all your halloween candy and had a really sore stomach? Remember that time you didn’t do your homework? You really want to put your life in that guy’s hands?
So, basically, I am trying to make sense of it, and I want you to be independent, but I’m struggling with trying to figure out how to act. It feels like walking on glass sometimes, because I know at any moment I might accidentally slip into mom-mode and do or say the wrong thing. Like, I might ask how the job hunt is going. Or what you did last night. Or what you ate. I’m generally very interested in knowing what you ate. I sometimes surreptitiously glance at your waist and try to see if you have lost weight.
I know, on a deep, instinctive level, that you want me to let go completely and allow you to figure it all out. But here is what I am worried will happen if I do:
-you will get very hungry
-you will be outside in the freezing cold without warm clothes
-you will be hurt by dangerous people
-you will fall prey to a cult
-you will take drugs or drink too much to numb the fact that you are cold, hungry etc, or just because you think it will be fun
-you will go swimming in the lake and drown
-you will be kidnapped
-you will catch a cold which will turn into bronchitis then pneumonia and you will die
-you will have symptoms of a serious illness that you will ignore and you will die
-you will play video games for hours and forget to eat like that guy in China and then you will die
– you will spend the next year or two aimlessly working odd jobs or wandering around penniless and when you finally decide to go to university it will be too late because you will have a girlfriend or wife and maybe a couple kids by then so you will be stuck in a dead end job.
-you will not have a girlfriend or wife or couple of kids because you will just keep wandering around penniless
-you will turn 50 someday and resent the fact that your mom didn’t force you to eat properly and go to university when you were 20.
So, when you wake up this morning, or afternoon more likely, and you remember how much fun you had last night and consider your options for today, please take a moment to send me a brief message so I know you are at least alive. It tends to put a damper on my day when I have doubts about that.
Your mom who woke up at 4:30 and checked your empty room, the front door, her phone and stood looking out the window for 15 minutes.
Elliot, age 8, on my left. Daniel, age 19, on my right. Martin, AKA Hubby, across from me.
Supper tonight was a family favorite: steaks smothered in tomato and olive sauce served with pasta.
After supper, we stay sitting around the table and chat for a while. Which is nice, right? Nice, normal family, chatting about nice, normal things.
Elliot is eating a clementine. He picks up each piece and picks away at it until it comes apart, using his teeth to open it up and eat only the inside then discards the leftover skin on his napkin.
Martin says to Elliot, “Stop doing that.”
Elliot picks up the next piece and does the exact same thing.
Martin, “Stop doing that to your clementine.”
Elliot replies, “What?”
I say to Daniel, “So, have you given any thought to what you are going to do after you finish school in a few months?”
Daniel replies, “What?”
Martin, “Eat normally.”
Me, “Like, do you think you should already be looking for a job?”
Elliot, “I am eating normally.”
Me, “Yes, now.”
Martin, “Stop tearing your clementine apart before eating it.”
Elliot, “But I have to.”
Daniel, “But I can’t.”
Me, “Why not? Either that, or apply for some training positions that start after summer.”
Martin, “No you don’t have to, just put the piece right into your mouth and chew.”
Daniel, “I don’t have any time.”
Elliot, “I can’t eat the white part.”
Martin, “Why not?”
Me, “Why not?”
Daniel, “I don’t have any spare time these days.”
Elliot, “It tastes bad.”
Martin, “No it doesn’t.”
Me, “Yes you do.”
Elliot, “Yes it does!”
Daniel, “No I don’t!”
Martin turns his head to the left and says to Daniel, “You sleep in till noon every day on the weekend. You stay out late on Friday and Saturday night. You do have free time during which you could work.”
Me, to Elliot, “Why don’t you just try a piece without tearing it apart?”
Daniel, defensively, “I need some time to relax! I have such a full schedule already I hardly have enough time to do everything!”
Elliot, defensively, “I did try it and I know I won’t like it! If I try it again I’ll probably puke!”
Martin and I stare at each other.
Martin says to me, “So how was your day?”
Me, “Good! I had a really nice…”
Interrupted by Elliot who loudly spits out a clementine seed which bounces off the table and onto the floor.
Elliot, with an innocent but slightly worried smile, “Oops…”
Daniel is laughing.
Elliot starts laughing because Daniel is laughing.
Martin is sighing again and rubbing his forehead with his hand in that defeated way, and I’m just grateful the seed missed the pot of leftovers that I’m planning on saving.
Tell me your family dinner conversations are similar?
Ok so here is my message in a bottle question, I am writing it down on this little scrap of laptop and tossing out into the ocean of internet.
What’s a mom to do?
My teenage son did not want to come on vacation with us. Should I have insisted? The photo above is from a vacation a few years ago, where he is clearly having a ball and we are strengthening our mother-son bond.
I know, right, why in the WORLD would he not want to be with us, his parents, who have loved and taken care of him for years? It makes no sense. We are so incredibly cool and fun to be with, it is practically incomprehensible to me that he would not want to hang around with us. His friends cannot possibly be as interesting as me. Why just the other day I offered to help him study for his next history test! And I admit I was going a little overboard with the repeatedly asking if he has any clue whatsoever about a career path, so I have toned that WAY down, like, less than once per day.
When kids are little, they just want to be with you all the time. You put them in their bed and hug them for over an hour (or so it seems) and then slowly try to disentangle yourself from them and they cling to your hand like their very existence depends on it. When you finally manage to pry yourself loose they call out after you for one more hug, one more kiss, one more song, one more thing I have to tell you, one more anything and one more everything.
And let’s be honest, it’s a bit annoying. We are just about to start the next chapter on our book-that-has-taken-us-four-months-to-finally-start-reading and we already feel the days’ exhaustion nibbling at the edge of our minds, so we want to get into the book before it’s too late. We just want to sit down. We don’t want to talk anymore. We want silence. We don’t want to smile anymore. We want to be left alone.
Well guess what. Before you are done that book, suddenly the child grows three feet taller and his voice changes and he does not want you anywhere NEAR his bed, much less even consider crossing the threshold of the bedroom door.
The Window Of Opportunity for parent-child bonding has snapped shut like steel bars on a jail gate.
I may be over dramatizing a little bit.
So what do you do? You keep hoping. You see all these other families where the kids spend time with their parents and share feelings and have long talks and wonder, why can’t we be like those people on TV?
So you plan family vacations and rent a nice beautiful house the south of France thinking it’s going to be so FUN! We’ll do ACTIVITIES! Like walking in the French countryside and eating in little cafés and exploring the town markets!
And then the rotten child doesn’t want to come.
I mean, it’s not like I was going to make him play road trip games during the drive.
Well, not if he really didn’t want to.
Apparently he would rather stay home in our boring apartment with a big screen tv and wifi, all alone with no parents around to remind him when to go to bed and what to eat and when to get up in the morning.
He is sitting at the kitchen table hunched over his laptop computer, in a position that makes me want to tell him to sit up straight.
I am on the couch, sitting cross-legged, laptop on my lap, possibly in a similarly posture-wrecking position. I’ve been writing on and off for the last while, browsing the internet, facebook, my emails, and texting with my friends. I’m supposed to be actually writing but have yet to be inspired. Martin has been working on creating a computer program all morning.
Finally, I have an inspiration! I start to write about a recent girl’s trip to Paris. It’s good, it’s funny, and I’m into it.
Martin suddenly sits up straight and says, “Arrrrgggggg!!!! This is SO frustrating!”
I stop suddenly, mid-sentence, “What is?”
“This stupid program isn’t working! I’ve been working on it all morning and I can’t get past this next step!”
Me, innocently enough, “Oh why not?”
And this is where the lines of communication get blurred.
His response or at least, the way my non-computer lingo savvy brain hears it, minus the missing parts that my brain cannot register, “I have to use a program that allows me to blank blank blank in order to blank blank blank but every time I try to blank it blank blanks!”
Me, supportive, “Oh that’s frustrating! Have you looked it up online to see if anyone else has had this problem?”
“Yes!” he is exasperated but not at me (I think), “but all I find is that blank blank when you blank blank and then blank and blank and also blank blankitty blank. And I don’t want to blank! I just want blank! Why is that not possible? I mean, it’s not like this is blank!!!”
I am making sure I continue to keep eye contact with him during this, which is extremely difficult, because I achingly want to finish the sentence I was writing before I forget it. My head is turned sideways away from my laptop and I can feel the heat from the screen on the right side of my face, calling me like the mermaids of the Odyssey.
“Hmmm,” I say, “that’s really annoying. But what else could it be?”
“I don’t know!!! I think it’s blank but I tried to blank and it just blanks!”
The right side of my face is actually burning. But he’s really upset about this, and it’s moments like these when you need to support your husband and show him you care. Also, I am hoping he’ll offer to put gas in my car for me so… Must stay in the good books.
“Ahhh, ” I say. I’m really searching for appropriate responses. Starting to feel a bit panicky actually. “Well that sucks.” It’s the only thing I can come up with, but I seem to have hit the nail on the head.
“I know!!! Well I think I’ll just blank and if that doesn’t work I’ll have to blank. But I really would rather not.”
Him, “Sigh…” (quite loudly and despondently).
A moment of silence while the right side of my face begins to sweat.
“So what are you working on?”
“Oh!” I reply, excitedly, “I’m writing about the trip to Paris I took with Sylvie and Lisa! Remember I told you about the little boutique we went into and that sales clerk and how she had this very unusual way of figuring out what size we wore, by looking at our butts?”
“Oh yeah, that’s interesting.”
“It was hilarious! We were laughing our heads off!”
“Haha.” (His mouth twitches and his eyes dart back to his computer).
“But we all bought jeans anyway!”
“Oh good. So it was all good.”
He’s looking a bit hot.
“Well, I guess so.”
We stare at each other for a while.
Finally he clears his throat and says, “Well I guess I’ll keep working on it.”
There’s no snow this year. In fact, it’s expected to be 10 degrees and sunny this afternoon. The great thing about Switzerland though, is that looking out my window I see the Alps across the lake and their peaks are snow-covered – it’s magical and very Christmassy despite the warm weather down here.
I have, as usual, woken up earlier than everyone else, and am sitting at my kitchen table with only one small light on, the sky is still dark outside. I love the morning silence. Jesse is out with friends, he didn’t come home last night. I just sent him a message asking where he is, but the odds are low that he’ll reply this early in the morning. I sent my message anyway – it’s a bit like fishing, I’ve got my line out there and he’ll bite at some point. The key is patience.
Daniel is at his dad’s, in Canada. They have snow there, and will have a turkey or two over the next few days as they visit all the family members. I won’t make a turkey here, I am becoming more “Swissified” all the time, and we opted for a meat fondue cooked in wine as our traditional Christmas meal. I did make turkey for thanksgiving, and let me tell you something – the Swiss have something going here with the meat fondue idea. It is SO easy. Practically no preparation – you can buy the meat already cut up, the dipping sauces premade. Just heat up the broth and place the whole thing on the table for everyone to cook their own meat in the simmering fondue pot. Cleaning up involves one pot, which just had liquid – now is that easy or what? And to top it off, it’s delicious.
We’re also going to make a traditional Danish meal. Duck, hasselback potatoes and a salad of sliced oranges, almonds and cinnamon.
Since we worked every day for the last week, do you think we had time to do any grocery shopping? Uh, no. So today, in a few moments, I will have to head out into the madness to buy all the things we need for these meals. And maybe pick up a few last minute stocking stuffers too.
I love the combination of traditions, and there is no time when the differences are more evident than at Christmas. For our family, it’s a matter of blending three cultures into one event. In Danish tradition, Santa Claus (Julemand) shows up at the door at some point during the evening of the 24th. The kids all run around like crazy, the smaller ones terrified of course, the older ones muttering, “Hey wait a minute that looks like uncle…” while the parents hush them and take them aside for a “talk”. Julemand lives at the North Pole, which of course is in Denmark (Greenland, to be precise). He has a bag with a few small gifts, one for each child. The parents invite him in for a drink of Christmas beer and sometimes he actually does come in, because he apparently has lots of time.
In Switzerland, Santa Claus comes on December 6th. Yes, you read me right. Saint Nicholas day is the traditional day when the Père Noël, in French, or Samichlaus, in Swiss German, shows up. He lives at the North Pole, which of course is in Finland. Often there is a village festival on December 6th, and at some point Samichlaus will come to your door and leave small gifts, oranges and chocolate in your shoe. It’s important to have big shoes in Switzerland. By the way, there’s a bad guy who hangs around with Santa called le Père Fouettard, or Schmutzli in Swiss German, who has a dirt smudged face and brown robes, and also carries a bag. He’s there to either whip or just simply kidnap the bad kids. Bizarrely, the police seem ok with all this. Often, Schmutzli has a donkey that carries the bag. I guess those big footed kids get heavy.
In Europe, or Western Europe at least, if you ask someone when Christmas is, they will say the 24th of December. In North America it’s the 25th. It’s all very confusing. I have to admit, while we north Americans are being forced out of our bed in the wee morning hours of the 25th by kids who want to open their presents, the Swiss are sleeping soundly- their kids all opened their presents the night before, and were allowed to stay up as late as they wanted. This is Swiss cleverness at its best. Seriously, what are we thinking in America? We desperately try to get the kids to fall asleep on the 24th even though they are way too full of excitement and candy, then we typically stay up late having some drinks until we are ready for bed, which is roughly when we realize we haven’t wrapped all the gifts from Santa yet, then we spend the next hour exhaustingly wrapping things, sometimes running out of scotch tape (bandaids work in a pinch by the way). We crawl exhausted into bed at 1am and open our eyes at 6am (if we’re lucky) to see a small face and big eyes staring right up close to our face, and a small voice whispers “she’s awake!”
We roll out of bed, grab the camera, and growl grumpily, “No one do anything till I get a coffee!” The kids hop around excitedly grabbing and shaking packages and once we are settled on the couch the mad tearing open of wrapping paper can begin. To be fair, there is something magical about that moment. The combination of fatigue and coffee induced edginess heightens your senses and everything seems more exciting.
Then there’s the inevitable post-gift madness trauma. You know, that point where you realize you don’t have batteries, you don’t have the tiny screw driver required to open the battery compartment, you don’t have the special pen that is not included in the magic toy, or your 5 year old excitedly holds up the huge box of playmobil and asks you to “help” put it together.
All of this happens before 8am generally.
The Swiss are still sleeping.
You are on your 7th coffee.
You decide it’s time for breakfast and head to the kitchen to whip up the easy morning breakfast casserole you found in a magazine. This takes you two hours instead of twenty minutes, for reasons that are still being studied by the scientific community. Perhaps you are just moving slowly, like a movie being played in slow motion.
By the time breakfast is ready your children have eaten twenty four pieces of chocolate, seventeen candy canes and five cookies. You serve your wonderful casserole which is slightly burnt but bizarrely undercooked in the center, and the kids have one bite each then say they are full. Your husband dutifully eats his entire portion with a big smile plastered in his face, and you realize it’s moments like these, when he’s willing to pretend your food is amazing, that you know why you love him.
By 11 am the Swiss are getting up and quickly making an espresso in their tiny tiny cups, which they drink in under two seconds. Their kids may have been up for a while, but, and here’s the cleverest part, they kept themselves busy playing with the new toys they got last night.
Ah but all of that is still ahead of me, as I write this on the morning of the 24th. We’re going to try a combination of traditions this time: the kids will open most presents tonight, and Santa Claus will leave a few smaller gifts which can be opened tomorrow morning. I am not, I repeat, not, making a breakfast casserole. I will not be swayed by anything I read in a magazine today.