Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Je ne me souviens plus

Here is one of my favourite 'Kirk' stories taken from a letter I wrote a few months after our arrival in Switzerland.

A few weeks ago Kirk headed out to have his bike inspected and to return a movie. The bike shop took a little longer than planned, so it was late afternoon by the time he reached the video store. He parked his bike on the sidewalk in front of a shop window and headed in to do his errand.

A few minutes later he returned to find an elderly man draped over his bike. The man was sunny-side-up, his bottom on the seat with his face wedged between the store window and the bike. To complete this unlikely scenario, the man's pants were soaked in pee.

How extraordinary—and not at all Swiss!

Kirk carefully dislodged the man from his predicament, bike unscathed but decidedly damp. When asked how this had happened, the man responded, "Je ne me souviens plus,"—I don't remember. Kirk had his suspicions. The man's "plus" was at least 100 proof.

Kirk helped the man sit down against the side of the building to wait for the ambulance that snickering bystanders had called. With the man settled, Kirk headed for home. While he wasn’t the only person who came away with a story that afternoon, he was the only one who needed a shower and a change of clothes.

Simple Pleasures

Tonight nobody asked for ketchup.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Potato Week in Barcelona

The tradition of Potato Week or Vacances d'Automne dates back to when children required a week's holiday from school to help out with the harvest. While the demand for child labour has gone the way of the dodo, the week's holiday hasn't. Normally we pass the time in Geneva as the week habitually does not coordinate well with Kirk's work schedule. But this year, with my parents planning a trip to Spain, we decided to 'profitter' and join them.

I had never set foot on Continental Europe prior to moving to Switzerland. Arriving here with two toddlers did little to ignite my desire to travel. Maneuvering strollers over centuries-old cobblestone and tread-worn steps was exhausting. Add to that the innumerable unfenced-yet-oh-so-inviting deathly hazards endemic to European tourist attractions, I was agreeable to day trips, at most. But now that the girls are older I have little excuse. (Apparently being a self-professed homebody doesn't hold water.) So Friday last, Honey was off to the kennel and the following morning we were headed for Spain.

Barcelona is a fabulous city for families having enough to interest both adults and children, often simultaneously. It is the capital of Catalonia, a region of Spain that boasts its own language and culture, much like Canada's Quebec. More than a few times I wished I had a Catalan-English dictionary instead of my inadequate Spanish phrase book. People were friendly and helpful, though, regardless of what language I was butchering.

We visited almost every place on my list of must-see attractions which included the zoo, the aquarium, Parc de Monjuic, La Rambla, Mercat de La Boqueria, and Gaudi's awe-inspiring La Pedrera and Sagrada Familia. We traveled mainly on foot, taking the public metro or the Barcelona Bus Turistic when we wanted to cover a lot of ground quickly. Unfortunately we missed the Palau de la Musica Catalana. Better planning on my part might have had us in the balcony for Mozart's Requiem performed on Tuesday night. Live and learn. But all these attractions aside, Barcelona was about the food.

While there are a few restaurants whose kitchens run non-stop, as a rule dinner is served from 8:30pm onwards. Our girls are normally fast asleep by then, so this required some adjustment on all our parts. The first night Mighty Mouse fell asleep with her head on the table before eating a bite, then almost fell off her chair. The next night she made it until dessert. By Friday we were all accustomed to her after-supper siestas from which she would awake refreshed and ready for the walk home.

As restaurants went, Sinatra,(C/ Heures, 4-10 , Tel. 93 412 52 79) was by far our best find. Tucked down an ignorable little side-street in the Barri Gotic,we would never have found this small Spanish treasure if not for the man handing out flyers at a nearby corner. After a somewhat damp ride atop a double decker bus, we went to Granja M Viader (4 Carrer Xuclà, El Raval. Tel. 93 318 3486) for the most amazing, spoon-coating hot chocolate I've ever had. A few nights later we went to Senyor Parellada (37 Argeneria. Tel. 93 310 50 94) where I savoured L'Arroz Senyor Parellada, their divine version of paella. And as for the sangria, fresh squeezed orange juice and tapas--don't get me started.

Finding food that we thought the girls would like was a bit more challenging. Of course, they were more than willing to live on doughnuts, ice cream and olives had we let them. Unlike Tuscany, menus in Barcelona did not offer kid-friendly pizza or pasta dishes, so we had to experiment, often with success. That said, their favourite restaurant was Trobador where they dined on mounds of pasta bolagnaise. Let's just say their week was a bit lacking in the vegetable department but no one went hungry.

All feasting and frolicking aside, when Saturday morning came I was ready to go home. I missed my book that I'd conveniently forgotten on my bedside table, my well-equipped kitchen and, of course, my dog. It was an incredible week that my taste buds won't soon forget.

Adios amigos!

Friday, October 19, 2007

In the beginning...

The bise arrived today stripping the trees of their leaves and sending chestnuts catapulting from the treetops, more than a few onto Honey's poor head. In its glacial breath there is no denying winter's impending sting. But in the field, the wheat is none the wiser, defiantly sprouting tender green slips in the face of the sun's ever-lengthening shadows. Here, there is an kindness: a beginning in the midst of all that must come to an end.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Bon Apple-tite!

This is the recipe for our autumn family favourite: apple crisp. I like using a mix of different apples like Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, and Gala. In summer I use a mix of nectarines, peaches, and fresh berries.

Preheat oven to 375F/200C. Grease a 8x11.5 inch / 2 quart baking dish with butter and set aside.

To make the fruit base, you will need:
7 cups peeled, cored and sliced apples
1/2 cup fresh or dried cranberries (blackberries work well, too)
2 tbsp lemon juice
1/3 cup white sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp cinnamon

For the crisp topping you will need:
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup rolled oats
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
1/3 cup butter, softened

  • Toss sliced apples and cranberries with lemon juice. In a separate bowl, mix together sugar, flour, nutmeg and cinnamon. Add to fruit mixture.
  • Combine sugar, flour, oats and spices in a small bowl. With fingers, work in butter to form a coarse meal.
  • Arrange fruit mixture in prepared dish and sprinkle crumble topping evenly over top
  • Bake for 35 minutes or until top is golden and the fruit is soft and bubbling

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Sex Education at 30,000 ft.

By popular demand, the following is my 4-year-old's version of in-flight entertainment performed live on a British Airways trans-Atlantic flight this past summer.
It is July 2007 and
MIGHTY MOUSE has befriended the obviously pregnant German WOMAN across the aisle.

MIGHTY MOUSE: Do you have a baby in your tummy?

WOMAN: Yes, I do.

MOUSE: Is it a boy or is it a girl?

WOMAN: We don't know yet.

MOUSE: My friend Daphnée, her mommy has a baby in her tummy. It's a boy. They saw his penis.


(WOMAN bites her bottom lip, attempting to contain her amusement.)

MOUSE: Girls have labia.

WOMAN: Yes, they do.

(WOMAN cannot hold back and begins to giggle. HUSBAND--hers not mine, who is conveniently absent--begins to blush.)

MOUSE: Me and my mommy and my sister, we have labia. You, too.

(My turn to blush. WOMAN is laughing so hard she can't speak.)

MOUSE: My daddy, he has a penis.

(At this, every row within earshot bursts out laughing. MOUSE is none the wiser. She thinks the word penis is pretty funny, too.)

Monday, October 8, 2007

La Fête de la Courge

By all rites, it should have been raining. It normally does the second weekend in October when Corsier hosts their annual Fête de la Courge. But this year the sun gained the upper hand, bringing the whole village out to eat great cauldrons of squash soup served with a liberal sprinkling of Gruyère and chunks of crusty bread.

With the family camera in hand, I wandered into the crowd, planning to take some candid blog-worthy pictures. At the fresh produce stand I met the family who kept the girls for lunch on the days I was in Toronto last month. At the paella stand I confirmed Evelyn's planned attendance at the cook's son's birthday party this coming Tuesday. In fact, every time I looked through the view finder there was yet another person to say hello to. It was a beautiful day...in more ways than one.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Joy of Feasts

Living so far from the country I will always call home, I have come to love a feast: how the refrigerator must be reorganized to accommodate half-meter long celery and outrageously large cuts of meat; how the girls decorate the house, tying Christmas ribbon to banisters and arranging balloons like cushions on the couch; how my husband develops a compulsive need to vacuum and how the dog hovers as I begin to cook, hoping for scraps.

And when friends arrive in oven mitts clutching casseroles still warm from the oven and the house begins to smell like roast beast, my cheeks start to ache from smiling. And in the last minute havoc—as the gravy thickens when almost all hope is lost and the cork finally gives without breaking—I am grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Embracing l’Homme Vert

This is something I wrote shortly after our family moved to Geneva. While I love this place and get a suspicious facial tic at the thought of leaving, I didn't always feel this way...

“Mommy, I want to go now!”

Emma the Brave’s voice returns me to the corner of rue de la Terrassière and rue de Villereuse. I must have guided the monstrous tandem double stroller down the length of rue de Villereuse blind, deaf and numb to my surroundings. I cannot recall the journey any more than its pause among this throng of pedestrians waiting to cross the road and its busy tram tracks.

“Remember, we have to wait for l’homme vert. See?” I crouch down beside the stroller’s prized back seat to show Emma, age 3, the crosswalk sign for what feels like the hundredth time. I try to show it to Mighty Mouse, age 1, as well. Uninterested, she leans forward, blowing kisses to a passing poodle. Learning to speak French will be of no consequence to her. I am envious.

“L’homme vert,” I chime with strained enthusiasm as the crosswalk fills with pedestrians. I lean into the stroller and we enter the fray. I am so tired, so overwhelmed.

“I don’t like the grocery store, Mommy.”

I feel my jaw clench with Emma’s recurrent complaint. “I know, Sweetie, but we need food for supper.”

I have come to not like the grocery store either. We come every day, often twice, returning to the apartment with as much as I can carry over my arms and in the stroller’s small basket. For such a large stroller, its basket carries very little, a feature I had not considered seriously enough when we bought it one year ago. Of course, I could not have imagined this place even 2 months ago, let alone twelve.

A short list tacked under my thumb, we lumber into the grocery store. I pick up a small gray basket from the stacks in the entrance. Empty, its squared off handle hangs at an awkward angle over my forearm.

“Mommy, I want to walk.”

Emma is straining against the seat belt, one foot swung out of the stroller already.

“Mommy needs you to sit so we can go quick-quick.”

“But I want to walk,” she whines.

I say nothing and head for the dairy section. Emma collapses back into her seat.

Four litres of milk and the basket under the stroller is full. With a blend of curiosity and suspicion, I eye the stacks of milk labeled UHT sitting warm on the floor beside the dairy case. Sold in larger quantity, they might be my ticket to fewer grocery trips. Today I pass them by, afraid to add any more items to the list of foods that Evelyn refuses to eat. Maybe tomorrow, I think, and move on.

Yogurt, cheddar cheese, cream cheese, cottage cheese, Bircher muesli, chicken breasts, and bread, each I grab in rapid succession. Soup, jam, juice, tea. I do my best to keep the stroller moving and at a safe distance from the shelves.

“Do we need to go upstairs today, Mommy?” The girls love to ride the moving sidewalk that takes us to the second level of the grocery store.

“Yep, we need toilet paper.”

“Yeah! Let’s go see the toys!”

“Yeah!” echoes Mouse. I had forgotten about the toy section.

After a record-breaking tour of the second floor, we make our descent toy-less, an eight-pack of bright turquoise toilet paper on Evelyn’s lap. Emma chose the colour, a novelty as they don’t sell coloured toilet paper back in Canada. The stroller is so laden that I cannot stop its descent. I lean backwards, praying I don’t slip as I ease it back toward the main floor. Thank God no one is in front of us.

“I want to go home now!” says Emma.

“We need some bananas and vegetables, then we can go pay.”

“But I want to go pay NOW!” She arches her back and stomps her feet in frustration, then settles down into a mercifully silent pout. Mighty Mouse, however, begins to cry.

“Come on, sweet pea, we’re almost done,” I want to sound cheery and not exasperated, but can’t.

I stuff bananas, broccoli and sweet red peppers into their respective plastic sheaths and head for the cash.

“We did it! Let’s pay!” Now there is no need for feigned enthusiasm. We’re done, at least until tomorrow. Mighty Mouse, however, will not be cajoled and cries louder.

The stiff black handle of my basket is now bowed over my forearm. I wend my way around large Easter displays that crowd the aisles with chocolate eggs and farm animals. I struggle to remember the date and can’t.

I pull into the cash with the shortest line, and unload my purchases onto the conveyor belt. Emma follows suit with her toilet paper.

“Madame, on doit les peser,” I look up to see the cashier holding up the bags of bananas and vegetables. I’ve forgotten to weigh my produce again.

At that moment, Mouse’s crying begins to upset Emma.

“That hurts my ears!” Emma, hands over the affronted organs, has yelled this louder than Mighty Mouse is crying which only incites her further. I think I might join them when the cashier stands up from her seat and deftly slips out of sight in the direction of the scales. I want to follow her but don't. Instead, I smile meekly at the line of customers forming behind me.

When she returns I apologize and thank her as profusely as my rudimentary, Quebecois French will allow.

“Cinquante sept franc quarante, s’il vous plait.”

I hand her a one hundred franc note, disregarding the ample change that is beginning to grossly misshape my wallet. I cannot distinguish the Swiss coins fast enough. I bag my groceries as quickly as possible and head back outside through the sliding glass doors.

With the first breath of fresh air, the girls’ crying stops.

“Can we go to the park now, Mommy?” Emma asks.

“No, sweetie, we need to get the groceries home and so Mommy can make dinner.”

“But I want to go to the park.”

Dear God, make the whining stop!

“You can walk now if you like.”

Her face brightens as I undo her seatbelt. She hops out and runs toward the round low fountain that sits outside the store entrance. A bird who had been bathing takes flight, startled. As I place the bags I had slung over my arms into her vacant seat, I feel a few drops of rain.

“Lets go,” I call. She runs back to the stroller and holds on to the side as we cross rue de la Terrassière. We turn to face the uphill portion of our journey home and Emma decides she doesn’t want to walk anymore.

“I’m too tired, Mommy.”

We’re all too tired. None of us have yet recovered from the trip from Toronto to Geneva. Mighty Mouse developed a terrible rash en route. Despite the efforts of two pediatricians and a pediatric dermatologist, she is undeniably miserable. She has not slept through the night since leaving Canada and, when awake, she will not be put down. The last half hour is the best she's behaved all day. Emma is surviving on milk and bananas, the only Swiss foods she claims to like. At least the Captain likes his new job.

I want to feel grateful for the furnished two-bedroom apartment which will be our temporary residence another 8 weeks. We could be in a hotel room. I could be doing our laundry in a laundromat instead of the basement buanderie. At least the stroller fits in the elevator. At least there is an elevator. Counting my blessings in the light of ‘it could be worse’ is not helping. I want to feel excited about the challenge that I’ve invited upon myself, but don’t. All I feel is naïve to have not seen this coming, ashamed that I want to run back home, and tired —bone tired.

I stop to let Emma climb back into the stroller, unloading the bags of groceries from her seat to sling them over my forearms again. As I release the brakes, the stroller rolls back toward me. I must take a step back before I can lean my weight forward to continue uphill.

Now I am grateful: l'homme vert is waiting.