Friday, December 7, 2012

Make Me a Bird. So I Could Fly Far, Far Away

Note: The title of this post is adapted from a quote from Forrest Gump.

Usually I, as Lady MacBeff-the-blogger, wear my expat mama hat; sometimes the one with the single-mom brim. But today's post comes from the caregiver corner of my hat collection.

The person I give care to is my ex-, my daughter's father, who made a bad call with a daredevil sport in the Swiss Alps seven years ago and became severely disabled. He's now more like my brother. Actually, more like a son; like a kid sometimes, he gets stubbornly fixated on things. And like some with traumatic brain injury (TBI), he can lack awareness of, or interest in, reality - a condition that we caregivers don't have the option to ignore. It can be frustrating because it's like bearing 200% responsibility for everything. But then, one does not want to begrudge someone who now clearly is getting a very raw deal for the rest of his life.

Case in point, O. decided that he WILL take a round-the-world trip for his 50th birthday. O. used to travel without a care. His sibling and parents have travelled the globe. Li'l G and I cross the planet routinely to visit our U.S. family. O. does not see why he shouldn't do this, too. Well - there are, in fact, many good reasons why not; but truth is, none of the reasons is truly insurmountable.

Only, to surmount them requires a heck of a lot more than just calling a travel agent. And this trip... it's so risky. Imagining all the what-ifs makes me want to just crumble to dust. It's unbearable to think of his tragic vulnerability if, say, his wheelchair broke down in Dubai or there were a toileting emergency on a 20-hour flight over Asia, or a real medical emergency or if his passport were stolen. His bearing zero responsibility for dealing with these problems - and not even being able to imagine them or see why he should bother to try - can almost be seen as one of few upshots to his particular brain damage, in my eyes.

Wheelchair Stranded at Zurich Airport
This was the stunning (depressing, apt, ironic, rude?) tag attached at Zurich Airport when one of the few flights attempted since O's accident was cancelled.

So, I'm trying to make this trip come true. Main destinations: Dubai, Singapore, Australia and Hawaii. Because few of us have two whole months free for such travel, let alone the nerves for it, my first task - the one the whole thing hinges on - is to find a person to travel with O.

This must be a person who is pleasant, unshakable and incredibly trustworthy. To say nothing of O's gullibility (like when he recently thought a store gave him a raincoat for free as a present; while I received a $300 invoice a few weeks later), O's very life will depend on this person. I placed an ad in the local university's online bulletin board. I really wasn't sure what to expect in response.

The responses have been overwhelming - both in quantity and substance.

A few are just ridiculous. The ad does mention that a fully paid, business-class trip around the world is part of the compensation package. It's no surprise that this elicits some responses that amount to, 'Sounds awesome. Dude, take me.' Remember, we have to place O's life in this person's hands, so we're not hiring anyone who sounds too light-hearted and -headed. The superficial, greedy-sounding responses make me feel like Little Orphan Annie when Daddy Warbucks offers a cash reward to find Annie's parents, and scores of desperate scam artists line up claiming to be her mom and dad.

Most responses, on the other hand, are sweet and seem sincere. Some are witty and convincing. Some are heartbreakingly moving. Some people just felt compelled to say how touched they were and how they wish O. the best of luck in fulfilling his dream.

If you're interested, here is the ad - mostly in German, with some English thrown in to ensure applicants can really manage an international journey. If you really want to know what it says, ask me or Uncle Google:

Job: Temporär
Begleitung für behinderten Mann auf Weltreise

Wir suchen eine Begleitperson für einen sehr netten Mann im Rollstuhl (als Folge eines Unfalls mit dem Deltasegler). Sein Wünsch für seinen 50. Geburtstag? Eine Reise nach Australien und Hawaii, mit Zwischenstopps in Dubai und Singapur! Wir wollen nicht, dass seine Behinderung ihn verhindert, seinen Traum in Erfüllung gehen zu lassen.

Deswegen suchen wir eine angenehme Person (m oder w), die SEHR vertrauenswürdig ist, und die sich auch 6-8 Wochen Zeit nehmen kann. You should be abe to speak English pretty well, especially so you can support the traveller at various international airports, hotels, with nurses, etc.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy... Nothing Day!

I am almost tempted to blame it on the body snatchers. But I think it's expat-ism that is really to blame for the Thanksgiving that Wasn't.

It is the fourth Thursday in November - it is Thanksgiving, to my mind the most important U.S. holiday! And for the first time (to quote A Chorus Line), I'm feeling nothing.

It's strange, really. Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday; at least, since I grew up and stopped fixating on the big gift and/or candy holidays. Thanksgiving is beautiful, inspiring people to feel gratitude and share love with with their families and friends. The classic T-day feast features the best of American food (except for bagels and peanut butter/chocolate, maybe). And there's hardly any commercial aspect to Thanksgiving (if you can drown out the Black Friday adverts).*

While living abroad - fourteen years total between my earlier stint in Germany and the current one in Switzerland - my heart had always been achey-breaky over missing Thanksgiving, the time with my family and the traditions. A few times, I did up a makeshift Thanksgiving for our tiny family unit in our itty-bitty kitchen with the teeny-weeny oven and refrigerator, And I'm lucky also to have shared many wonderful Thanksgiving events with dear expat friends. Every year, I made my proprietary walnut bread, the one recipe only I was ever mandated to make, since I was 11 years old.

But this year, while happily observing the gratitude emanating online from my American friends and family, I'm feeling that today is a plain, old Thursday like any other. Though I promised my daughter we could watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving** tonight, she decided to play at a friend's house, and that's fine. We had work, we had school and we'll probably have müesli and yogurt for dinner.

Of course, we could make this and have
This letting-go of Thanksgiving Thursday might be the single biggest change I see in myself since living abroad. (Besides, of course, that I now find lukewarm Diet Coke nearly acceptable and don't blink when I see cold fish and cucumbers on a breakfast buffet.)

But I am not sad. I am happy to think of the Americans I love enjoying this special day. I am happy I have to deal neither with Black Friday nor with boring sports on TV. And I'm stuffed with gratitude for many reasons. One of these is a wonderful American-German friend's invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving belatedly on Sunday. We will be a multinational, multilingual melange of 10 adults and 8 kids. The kids collectively are of American, Swiss, German, Canadian and Scottish blood, and there may be more nationalities.

I wonder what Thanksgiving memories those kids will have! Thanksgiving will surely have a much different meaning for them as they grow up, but I hope it will be, to them, just as special.

*Adverts? Did I just write 'adverts?' Good grief, I have been in Europe a long time!

**In 2011, I attempted to latch my daughter and I onto the U.S. holiday spirit by showing Li'l G It's A Wonderful Life for the first time, but it ruined her. She howled with inconsolable sadness for two hours when George jumped off the bridge. So Snoopy it is in 2012.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Missing Person Report

It's been a long time, a really long time, since I've posted. Somehow when I think of writing, I just feel like writing about LK. My randomly assigned college roommate, she became my best friend. The one who drove all night from Maine to Hoboken when my first and only daughter was born. We were maid-of-honor in each other's weddings. Though from the outset we felt like an unlikely match, we discovered that we could just feel comfortable with each other even if doing nothing, that we somehow "got" each other despite many differences. Maybe that makes her a kind of soulmate?

I don't want to be maudlin and depress people who might read this, and I don't want to overshare on very personal matters, but... (read: That's exactly what I'm going to do here.).

A year ago yesterday, my friend died at age 36, after saying good-bye over the previous weeks in her hospital bed to her husband, her two little girls, her parents and siblings and friends.

She's still the one I have an urge to e-mail or call when something happens. I think of her all the time; for example:

- When the seasons change.
When spring and then summer rolled in this year, and I hauled my daughter's warm-weather clothes up from the basement, I missed her. Many cute items were presents from LK, a children's-clothes connoisseur with a nose for sales, or they were hand-me-downs from her older daughter. This is the last year that will be the case, I guess. LK loved the seasonal changes of wardrobe, especially to cheerful spring colors and then to cute or flowy or strappy or rainbow-colored summer dresses.

- When the air gets crisper in autumn.
When the air was chilly, but the sun would heat the top of your head while outside or your forearms while driving, LK loved to pack up her pro-camera and go apple picking with the gang, or browse pumpkins at a farm store outside of Boston. She showed me how to cook applesauce with delicousness that one doesn't normally associate with applesauce. (Apple cider and honey are the secret ingredients that stuck with me.)

- When bright uniforms and flags of red, white and blue stream down Main Streets all over America.
The founding fathers didn't mean for the 4th of July to have a preppy flair, but LK appreciated that aspect of it. A child of New England, she always felt cheered by the holiday's patriotic Americana.

- When I do the laundry, especially if I toss in a Color Catcher.
An intellectual who also had an insatiable appetite for a certain vein of pop culture, she was an avid reader of Consumer Reports. She had devoured all available research on the optimal way to do laundry, down to water temperature and top-rated products. Also, she was addicted to ironing. (I told you we were different in a lot of ways, didn't I?!) Many a time when we hung out, chatting in person or on the phone, she would be ironing.

- When her tween daughter sends me a message in totally teeny text-speak.
I picture her trotting through middle school, which she started while her mom was in the hospital for the last time. I imagine her helping her little sister get a snack after school, maybe. My friend's daughters, two little blondies, are both chock full of personality - a bit like their mom. I wonder (a little anxiously even - for my friend's sake, because I never was a clothes horse) what her girls are wearing for school pictures.

- When I see professional photographs of families or children.
LK learned photography with her typical zeal after her first daughter was born. Her sharp eye honed right in to critique other work or learn from it. Catchlights visible? Family members wearing clashing clothes?

LK shot so many gorgeous portraits of my daughter as a little one, and my young daughter's big smiles at our dear friend behind the camera were genuine.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Be All That You Can Be, or, Fighting Your Own Personal Mommy War

We just celebrated my daughter's birthday. I've been engulfed in kid-birthday planning for weeks; and engulfed in unfathomably immense love and gratitude for my girl. And also aswim in thoughts that I had better not drown in all that love.

With the wisdom that comes with 80% of a decade of mothering, I say: Mamas, don't give up on your own lives. No matter how much you love your child, no matter how much you subconsciously want to be a four-star general on the winning side of the so-called "mommy wars" (blech), no matter how badly you want to give your child everything you have - don't. Not everything.

Do right by me, Mommy... or you'll walk the plank!
Did your child ever unexpectedly have a playdate, and you found - as excited as you may have been to have free time - that you didn't quite know what to do with yourself when not focusing on the kid? I remember when my almost-two-year-old started at a nursery school (Spielgruppe) two afternoons a week. A dear friend actually helped me list things to do with my free time (besides housework and injured-husband duties). It's pathetic, but me-without-child felt foreign.

With a longer view, it's scary to think of a time when the child is a teenager and goes out with friends all the time; is a young adult and moves out; or maybe even - God forbid - moves abroad. If the mama hasn't figured out something - besides her child - that makes her life worth living by then, the future would look long and pointless.

My view may be extreme, since at one point I suddenly had neither an adult partner nor obvious local career prospects nor family anywhere in physical reach. My expectations for the near and distant future were annihilated. Life seemed like nothing but baby and me for eternity - frustrating at times, thrilling and fulfilling at others. But I could see it must be temporary. When baby moved on, what would become of me? The question sounds selfish, but it's no less selfish to be a big ol' blob of desperate older mother, needy of your child when she embarks on her own independent life.

Thankfully, women have many options now, of course, to nurture their souls - skills, intellect and all - even while being good parents. Women can network and blog from home, can work in an office, or can craft with pride and passion, and not just because Good Housekeeping suggests they should. For me, hard as the logistics can be, I'm glad I had to go back to work outside the home when my daughter turned five.

I still have to make hard choices, and I hate that it seems like a sacrifice on someone's part is inevitable. (Should I work more while I have opportunities? Pass up opportunities because my child needs me and we should be home together after school?) It's the unwritten parental contract that we must make decisions based on what's best for the next generation, not what's best for us. But - especially as a single parent - I don't think I would really do my child any favors in the long run by depending solely on her to feel purpose in my life.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Positive Reinforcement

It seems (for me) that it's easier, or more natural, to "think negative" than to "think positive." It's almost a superstition or a kind of subconscious bargaining, or a way to try to prevent the downfalls that tend to punish hubris (in literature, anyway). I usually don't dare to think much of what I might do well, but dwell on what I should do better. (Maybe that's also a classic girl/self-esteem thing, but I'm not getting into that now.)

It also just feels like positive things don't need me to think about them. If good things happen, it's great! It's lucky, and I appreciate the heck out of it. But good luck doesn't require corrective or preventive action. I don't have to "be prepared" for awesome things to happen. So it's not the jolly what-ifs, but the troubling what-ifs that tend to capture my imagination. One such what-if is my daughter turning out all screwed up because of her odd childhood with a neurotic single mother; or because of any of the other myriad parenting mistakes or genetic flaws I'm shaping her with. I do hope for the best at all times, of course; but if it actually happens, I tend to feel taken by surprise.

And so it was as I started to talk to my little girl about Little Women. It's my favorite book ever and we were watching the movie. My almost-8-year-old's normal level of inquisitiveness heightens intensely the second we start a movie. (Who's that? Why did she do that? What is he saying? Is that real? Does that cost nine thousand hundred dollars? What does that mean? Is anything scary going to happen? Did you ever do that? etc. Nonstop.)

So I explained the premise, telling her that these four girls and their mom love one another and have fun together, and try to learn and do better and appreciate what they have (each other). I said that the Marches (the family in the story) are a little sad and their lives are hard because they are on their own and their father isn't with them. "They're kind of like us," I told my daughter (who has no memory of having a father who was not severely disabled, due to his accident when she was one. My daughter and I have been an official dynamic duo since 2010.).

"But that's not like us. Our life isn't hard and we're not sad," she told me, slightly puzzled and cheerfully.

And at that moment, even I couldn't avoid seeing us as a success.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Sock It to Me, Angel: A Quiz

This is an interactive post: a brief, multiple-choice quiz. Ready?
You tell your 7.5-year-old that she may not walk around outside in only socks. She acts as if she doesn't even hear you. (For added challenge, picture her friend and some neighbors watching and listening to you both.)

Choose an answer. You:

Yes, she has shoes on. But just look how sinister this sock shot is! 

A. Are a terrible, failure of a parent. Your child has zero respect for you. Maybe it's because of the dysfunctional family and your single parenting. She is learning that it's okay to display practically sociopathic tendencies. Is this normal for a second grader? She will be dressing like Rihanna by third grade, moving out and smoking crack by middle school.

B. Realize she is just testing her boundaries. As a 1-year-old she willfully tossed her peas off the high chair, as a 7-year-old she's wearing socks in the gravel. It's frustrating but normal and practically inevitable.

C. Need to chill out. It's just socks.

D. Must learn to accept that she is simply a bad seed.

I'm eager to hear your take, lovely readers! Here's to an A+!
Lady MacBeff

Friday, March 16, 2012

Parental DVD Instructions: Strawberry Shortcake Meets Fight Club

I don't usually read instruction manuals, but I skimmed through the instructions for our new DVD player (which, by the way, was inexpensive but Code Free, which will mean something to you expats!). I am glad I read the manual this once, because I found this gem of a tip about a Parental Lock feature: "If the disc allowed, you could edit out violent scenes unsuitable for children and replace them with more suitable scenes."

Now, I can picture editing a movie to cut scary or inappropriate parts. I "edit" some fairy tales as I read, skipping nightmare-inducing parts or glossing over bits I'm too tired to explain to Little Miss Curious. In another version of ad hoc censorship, a certain companion of mine noisily sneezes or coughs during parts of songs or books that don't pass my approval for 7-year-old ears. But the idea of replacing part of a film with something "more suitable?" I see the potential to majorly warp a kids' mind.

The idea of splicing film, trying to rewrite history or manipulate minds with media isn't new. But the suggestion of switching scenes around (rather than avoiding violent films or even just skipping parts)? I can't help imagining what an insane perception of the world this could give a kid. Alex in a Clockwork Orange suddenly replaced with Swiper the Fox? It conjures up images of planting a warped Memento-meets-Strawberry Shortcake-meets-Fight-Club childhood in my daughter's future memories.

Be thankful I did not add the freakiest of these retouched shots. 
And here, the kid is already so warped by media. Well, it's the Photo Booth feature on the iPad. But you can see the dangerous influence setting in.

After this surprising tip, I'm almost tempted to read the rest of the DVD-player manual.

Friday, February 3, 2012

See Me, Tweet Me, Touch Me, Heal Me

(Blog Title from The Who's Tommy, 2012?)

Twitter, for me, is probably a bad idea for so many reasons (apparently it can be addictive, promotes narcissism, wastes precious time and may confirm some of my inner thoughts as pointless). But I just had a hankering to try it again. I Twittered and Tweeted briefly once, a long time ago, and it didn't take. It all seemed kind of inane.

But I have a couple of very big, daunting tasks ahead of me. Logically, I am thus grasping at even more procrastination tools. And, well, connecting with people (such as you, Readers!) can be really nice. Besides that, I "followed" a bunch of comedians, and I think a little incoming stream of funny, smart remarks could do me good.

So, if you're so inclined, find me on Twitter @ladymacbeff. And tell me who you are so I can hear what you have to say, too!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

There Can Be Too Much Swiss Chocolate!?

My annual trip home to the U.S. always means stuffing a suitcase with souvenirs from Europe for my family and friends. But after 12+ years of living in Germany and Switzerland, I have to admit my ideas are becoming stale. I’ve already exported the gamut of Swiss chocolate, including chocolate fondue (which I’m not sure is truly Swiss: or is it just catering to tourists’ fantasies about Switzerland?). I’ve also brought cheese, including fondue; t-shirts and baseball caps adorned with cows; cowbells; and even cuckoo clock kitch (also not actually Swiss, but pandering to the Swiss fantasies of tourists).

Say what you will, but I'll bet this is not a souvenir you've already received a dozen times over. In fact, I purchased a dozen of them just because I was so excited to have found something different. Really different.

The more global our shopping experiences become (you can get delicious Swiss and German goodies in your local Wegman's), the harder it is to surprise and delight, I might add. There's nothing like dragging around luggage heavy with Toberlone just to find that while you were gone, it's become a resident of the shelves at your nearest supermarket. Sometimes Swiss things, such as Sigg cups, even cost less in the U.S. than in the producer country Switzerland! (It's a pretty expensive place to live, all right.)  

For novelty, I’ve also schlepped home items as diverse as fizzy candy (Brausepulver), local beer and mayonnaise in an aluminum tube... even mayonnaise swirled with ketchup in an aluminum tube, resembling Aquafresh! The latter is just for a laugh, as my fellow citizens generally know mayonnaise as inhabiting jars only – never a container resembling toothpaste.

I’ve even transported bottles of Moewenpick salad dressing, as several of my U.S. visitors have deemed it exquisite. This seems odd because an average American grocery store contains a salad dressing aisle roughly the size of the Freie Strasse, the main shopping street in Basel. Yet my loved ones find Moewenpick salad dressing to be superior to any specimen from that massive selection back home. It's odd, but I indulge them.

But now, perhaps you experienced international folks have some ideas to share on something to bring back home? It might be something special, something local, something embodying Swissness? (If it's tiny and light and unbreakable while in the luggage, that would be a huge bonus.) Or anyone out there who's on the homefront, what could an expat such as myself bring you that would make you happy? I declare, I have schlepped my last bar of Toblerone.

You used to seem so special, Toblerone. Then you were bought by Kraft. And then you just jumped right in with the Hershey's and Milky Ways at the supermarket. Don't ever change your mountain-shaped bite sizes or you'll really become just a plain old candy bar.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frickin' Cultural Differences (Censored)

One of the things I like about Switzerland is the sheen of relative innocence. I see it in the way it's safe for kids to walk to school, and in the way I see shade umbrellas at cafes touting the logo for wholesome Ovomaltine (a.k.a. Ovaltine) rather than, say, sexy Campari or a boozy beer brand.

Yet, in Switzerland, I have overheard cute little kids yelling the equivalent of "sh*t" outside or at after-school care, and the locals do not look taken aback. At risk of coming off as prudish, I admit it still seems odd to me.

This has been a frequent cause of surprise for me in expat life - hearing words considered really, really rude in my native language spring forth (usually in German) from the lips of little kids, teachers, neighborhood mommies and daddies. It's not about a slip of the tongue in a harried moment. It just seems like no big deal at all. Even the wonderful children's choir is singing a song containing the word schyssdraegg, which is Swiss German for something I don't think Americans would hear in a kids' choir.

Elsewhere, in the German-language production of Grease, the character nicknamed "Rump" in the original English version (because of his hobby of mooning people) was nicknamed "Arschi" in German. This might be very(!) loosely translated as "*ss Guy." You wouldn't find characters so nicknamed in a musical in the U.S., would you? Fun for the whole family! And in the 1990s, there was a popular song on the radio called (roughly translated from German), "I Think You're Sh*tty."

It's not a Swiss thing, actually, but German. Mark Twain observed a precursor of this phenomenon when he travelled in Germany, noting that you might hear the primmest old ladies uttering phrases that would shock their American counterparts; for example, "Verdammt!" and "Mein Gott!" In the 21st century, the U.S. is a known exporter of crude, rude, violent, profane pop culture (movies, TVs, computer games, music), yet there are still certain expressions considered inappropriate in even moderately polite company, let alone a school setting.

At least it used to be that way... right? Maybe I've been away from the U.S. too long, and all the babies crawl around cussing nowadays. Or, if I had to do a quick analysis (and risk making annoying generalizations), I might chalk it up to the stereotypical traits of openness or bluntness in German and superficiality or keeping up appearances in the U.S. It would be equivalent to the habit, more often observed stateside, of acting warm and friendly towards strangers even if people don't really mean it. (Clearly this doesn't happen all the time, but it seems more common in the States than here!) Americans might be doing more of their swearing privately and putting on a show of good manners. We all know what's being said when Jon Stewart or a rap sing get bleeped, but people must still need that bleeping and somehow feel like the material is okay if it's bleeped and otherwise not okay.  

I wonder if this is a German vs. English thing, and if so, does it apply only to American English? Have you noticed the phenomenon? What do you notice in other cultures? Would people find it normal in the U.S. to hear a younger kid shouting a curse word? Are you teaching your kids that swearing is no big deal, or are you strict about it? I'd %#(*ing love to hear all your opinions, dear readers!