Friday, March 31, 2006

His Swissness

In case Small Boy's Swissness ever comes into question, in case the national ID card and Swiss passport aren't enough, I can always just point to his diet. I swear, if it used to oink or moo, that kid will eat it.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

I'm back

I've had friends in from DC - two friends I've known for 15 years, almost, and who, until this past week, had never met my son. A wrongness that has finally been remedied, but it will still never feel right that these friends, to whom I was once attached at the hip*, will see my son, their "nephew," only sporadically. The greatest downside to expat life is how hard it is to keep the silken threads of relationship growing across distance and time. I haven't always managed it well...I have seen friendships wither these past five years. But these two - it's still good, still real. But it is different. We miss entire episodes in each other's lives. Things I used to live through with them - relationships beginning and ending, apartments found and lost, the first grey hair, the worst movie we ever wasted eight dollars on - are now stories told across space. It's different. It's not less real, but it is less immediate, less tangible. Less intense. We feel the distance, and we feel the years between visits. The last time I saw RandB was December 2003 - right after the infertility diagnosis when R and I fled to the States. We miss a lot in each other's lives, it's inevitable even with people who do a better job of staying in touch than I do. But we're holding on still. Sometimes the thread is stretched mighty thin, but the advantage of silk is its surprising strength.

* I once said to R "Date me, date my friends." Good thing he liked them, and they, him.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Sweeping Generalizations from the play group

Christina wondered aloud in comments about my words post:

On a different note, I entirely related to your post about words--I too am talkative, and I notice Bean is in reply. He babbles a lot, always has. I know exactly what you meant by having entire conversations with your son. I do that too. I wonder if its a cultural thing or a personality thing to NOT talk with your small child? What do you think?

I think about this a lot. I'm sure there is sociological/anthropological literature that actually addresses this in a systematic way, but I'm not in the position, or in possession of the time, to go looking for it. If anybody has any insights on this (Mausi?) I'd love to hear them. What I've got are lots of scatter-shot observations based on a really small n. The social scientist in me knows how completely meaningless these observations are in terms of how much I can actually rely on my conclusions, but the expat in me says hey, this is what people do. We live our lives making small-n observations about ourselves and our host countries. That's what's fun about being an expat, that's what's interesting, that's what's irritating and frustrating.

So here are some sweeping generalizations from the play group, based on my very small n.

  • I am the most talkative parent - in terms of chattering with my child - I have ever seen, fellow English speakers included. I actually go to play group primarily to play with my son and only secondarily to meet new people. (But don't get me wrong, this is very much on my agenda.)

  • Swiss mothers tend to be less talkative with their children than US moms and a lot less silly. They might talk to their children while putting their shoes on, but they tend to keep it to a straightforward "okay, time to put on your boots." I do things like chant:
    Put your booties on your footies!
    Put your hat on your head!
    The booties they are navy blue!
    The hat it is red!

    (I'm aware that this probably says more about me - and what, I don't want to know - than the Swiss moms.)

  • Russian-speaking mothers tend to be quiet with their children. This observation is complicated, however, by the language situation in which the Russian speakers find themselves. Whereas I've found a lot of the other mothers, from whichever country, know at least some English, none of them knows any Russian. When another Russian-speaking mother shows up S., a mother who I though was quiet/shy, turns into a chatterbox. Of course! She's shy in German, just like I am, and has a whole other personality in her mother tongue.

  • There is a cluster of Japanese families, but most of their children are in a different class than Small Boy; I see them only in passing or in the common area where food and drink are allowed. I have noticed that they seem to switch back and forth between Japanese and German with their children more than other parents switch between languages. This tends to happen in a discipline situation and I think they do it for the benefit of the other parent involved so that the second parent understands, yes I did notice my daughter try to take your daughter's doll and see how I told her not to?

  • In non-play group situations - taking a walk, lunch with Small Boy and my friends, in a coffee shop - I am without a doubt more interactive with Small Boy than Swiss parents. (R. excepted, but R. is, from a social science standpoint, bad data because he has been totally contaminated by extended contact with me.)

  • What I can't really say is what any of this - this being my totally unreliable Sweeping Generalizations - means or if any of this really matters. Obviously all these children go on to acquire their native language perfectly well. And consider this: the average Swiss mom may chatter with her child less than the average US mom*, but the average Swiss-German child will grow up to speak Dialket, German, English and some (though often worse than they like to let on) French, and the average US child will grow up to speak English,,, yeah. English.

    And here's an easier messier point. It's the interesting point, because all the interesting things are messy and most of the messy things are interesting. Christina asked I wonder if its a cultural thing or a personality thing to NOT talk with your small child? To the degree that our culture shapes our personality, isn't this often the same thing? Doesn't our culture let us know every day what is acceptable behavior and what is not? Russian men kiss one another in greeting. US men do not. But raise a US boy in Russian culture, and he'll probably be a kisser. Doesn't the culture around us give us a dirty look when we're too loud on the subway, when we hold hands with a girlfriend while shopping, yell at our child in a grocery store or don't yell when they misbehave? Sure our own true selves tinker with personality traits at the margins - I am more verbal than many of my US friends, but not by much - but don't we pick up a lot of this stuff from our culture at large? I babble with my child, in part, because that's what I've been taught to do. That's what upper middle-class US parents do.

    In my personal case, however, there is something else going on. I am very aware of the fact that I am my son's English language world. He is growing up in Switzerland and will, I assume, go through the Swiss school system. His social life will be conducted in Swiss, his schooling in German (if we're lucky; if we're unlucky his teachers will lapse constantly into Swiss-German, which they are not supposed to do but which of course happens all the time). Small Boy will be a native English speaker because I speak it to him, because I read him English language books, because I will give him that world. I'm not unmindful of that. Parents raising bi-lingual children do think about these things, especially the parent speaking the minority language. (In my case English in the minority language and Swiss-German, the language of the culture around us, is the majority language. Go read this post of Mausi's for more on raising bilingual children.) I know a couple, she's from the States, he's French, they live in the States. He is not a verbal person, not by any stretch of the imagination, and he's worried already about how he will pass French on to their child. They're considering French-language schools and planning how often to visit the family in France. Those of us trying to pass on the minority language are very aware of the fact that we're it for our children. School and friends and social world and television and background conversations on the train happen in Swiss. I happen in English. And so, for Small Boy's sake, I have to happen a lot.

    And I do. Oh, I do.

    * I resist calling myself "American" because once you have introduced yourself in a German class as "J from America" and there is a Venezuelan woman in that class, you will never, ever do that again. Once bitten, twice shy. I'm from the US, or the States, and I'm a US-American.


    Thursday, March 16, 2006

    I'm in Wikipedia?!

    Hand to god I did not write this myself. How did I get in Wikipedia? This is just odd. Cool, but odd. (And yes, Dispatches from France is a great expat blog. Beautiful layout, too.)

    So if you're here because you followed that Wikipedia link, welcome! Look around, stay a while. And if you're interested in expat blogs check out everybody in The Expats section of my links, and check out the people in their links.

    Expat blogs...they're not just for expats anymore.


    Tuesday, March 14, 2006

    Magazines as objects of lust and windows to the soul

    In some sort of perverse reverse synchronicity, my two favorite magazines arrived in my mailbox the week I was supposed to be abstaining from reading - an endevour which, by the way, did not go particularly well because, to be honest, I did not put a lot of energy into resisting my need to read. Since Small Boy was born, my reading has been pared down to the bones anyway: the newspaper and blogs in the morning and about half an hour in bed before falling asleep. During the long hours in between there simply isn't time. On weekends I indulge more. But when my magazines arrive, all I can think about all day is when I'm finallly going to be able to read them, like anxiously waiting to meet a secret lover.

    I miss magazines. I miss the look of them, the way they line up like debutants competing to be chosen. I miss the way they feel, the color photography, the whispering voices between turned pages. I miss the continuity of flipping through a magazine the way a good layout editor intended it to be seen. First this, then that. I miss the variety of voices that change from page to page. Oh yes, of all the things that I miss living in Switzerland perhaps I miss magazines the most. Of course I miss the biggies, the grande dames, but what I really miss is going into Border's or Barnes and Noble and browsing through rack after rack of varied and obsure magazines. I miss picking up a random copy of this, an impulse copy of that. I miss stumbling across some little gem. I love being able to flip through a magazine and decide if I'll buy it. I never subscribed to it, but I picked up this once or twice a year, when the longing got too great, and this. Just looking at that cover breaks my heart with homesick desire. I miss this, and this, and this. I could break this family's budget in the magazine section of a big US chain book store.

    I pay shocking surcharges for international delivery of two magazines I've decided I can't live without. The Sun, and The New York Review of Books. (And yes, yes I am an East Coast living, white wine swilling, latte drinking, sushi eating liberal elite, thanks for asking.) They are completely contradictory - the NYRB appeals to the over-educated ABD in me still trying to impress somebody with how erudite I am; the Sun appeals to the writer in me, the me that is trying to shed my grad-school skin and speak my own truth. One day, I imgaine, I will let one of these subscriptions lapse, and in that action I will know which side of me has won the war for my future.

    Can I tell you a secret?

    I'm rooting for The Sun.


    Sunday, March 12, 2006


    Apropos of nothing - or, perhaps, everything - I'm lucky. Stupid lucky. Crazy lucky. Looking around wondering what strange heaven this is lucky. I'm as unscarred as a post-infertility parent has a right to be. Probably less scarred than perhaps I should be. Unknown people inside the computer probably hate me. I can live with this (as if I had a choice), though there are days I bow my head in some unearned guilt.

    Guilt over my beautiful son, and the relative ease with which he came into my life. Relative meaning drugs and needles instead of sunsets and sparkling wine, but yes, relative ease.

    My baby who is rapidly, frighteningly rapidly, leaving his babyhood behind him.

    He is my every blessing. My unearned blessing. My son's generous love of me overwhelms.

    His very existence overwhelms.

    I'm lucky every day. Some days I just feel it more. My luck calls out to me like a wolf howl on the wind, carrying messages of mystery and beauty.

    Apropos of nothing I'm feeling lucky tonight. Grateful beyond words. Blessed. Loved. Humbled.

    Thank you. To whom can I send out my thanks? Do I thank fate? God? Dr. L? Small Boy? Chance? The universe? I don't know. But I send out my thanks, like a wolf howl on the wind, and my thanks will carry and sharp ears will hear me.

    And blessings will come howling back.


    Saturday, March 11, 2006

    I guess that's why they pay him the big bucks

    Don't you love it when Wired Magazine gets structural poverty better than David Brooks?

    This week Brooks is wondering why middle-class kids (and, presumably, upper-class kids, but we don't use those words in the US where everybody is middle-class and only Bill Gates is upper-class) grow up to perform better than working-class kids (and, presumably, flat out poor kids, but we don't use those words, either). And it turns out, according to Brooks*, that it's all about the way we as parents play games with our children, the way we use words, the way we either negotiate with them or demand of them. Why, it turns out it has nothing to do with limited opportunities, differences in the school systems, the stresses of living in or on the edge of poverty, the environmental - and physical - hazards of many poor communities. Certainly it can't be due to the fact that, as even Wired Magazine ** has managed to find out, being born into poverty reduces your IQ by an average of 14 points. Or that lead poisoning, not exactly epidemic among the vast middle-class, will lop off another 9. No, no, heavens no. There's not a structural element; it's the games people play. If there were a structural element, then it would sort of be incumbent upon a just society to address it, wouldn't it? And that would be hard, and would probably require higher tax rates and yes an estate tax and universal health care and early childhood enrichment programs and all sorts of things that sound expensive and vaguely French.

    Thank heavens it's just about the games people play. If it's just about the games people play that makes it your problem, Parent, not ours. Society is off the hook. Just take a few parenting classes, and play with your children more - and differently. You're doing it wrong! Don't worry about the lead-based paint. Don't worry that you're living below the poverty line. (Think that doesn't matter? Go read this Body and Soul*** piece to see how not being able to afford a pair of glasses can affect school performance.) Don't worry that your kid's high school doesn't have summer school programs (apparantly there go 6 IQ points right there). Go out and get yourself some Pictionary.

    But don't come complaining. Nobody means you any harm. Today's rich don't exploit the poor, they just outperform them.****

    Well. That's a relief.

    *trapped behind the TimesSelect wall but 11D has kindly duplicated it here (scroll down to March 9, Rich parents, poor parents)

    ** the item I'm referring to is not in the on-line edition; it's Let's Play Dumb on page 50

    *** If you're not already reading Body and Soul you're missing some of the most thoughtful things the web has to offer.

    **** In the interest of full disclosure, I'm one of the upper-class. A politician would try to include me in the vast middle-class, but really. No. I grew up blue-collar/middle-class, but I'd have to come over here and kick my own ass if I tried to pretend I'm not living a pretty upper-class life these days.

    Wednesday, March 08, 2006

    How to pass a tank

    R and I didn't look for a new dentist after we moved to the City. We still go to the dentist we visited when we lived in Small Village; it's only about 20 minutes by car and has the added convenience of being 5 minutes away from R's parents. When one of us has a dentist appointment we swing by the farm and drop off Small Boy, who then procedes to have a wonderful time being thoroughly spoiled (in the best sense of the word) by his grandparents*. The grandparents love having him to themselves with no parental supervision, and I don't have to find a baby-sitter. An even bigger upside is when R goes to the dentist he brings Small Boy to the farm, all of the above good things happen, and I stay behind in the city running amok and child free. Everybody wins.

    (What does this have to do with a tank? Wait, wait, I'm getting there.)

    Today Small Boy had to see the dentist. After Sunday's crash and subsequent blood-letting, I visited the Kinderarzt, who thinks, as far as anybody can tell, that everything should be fine with Small Boy's permanent teeth. Since the permanent teeth are still inside his gums, of course, nobody can really tell me anything with any certainty. But he said that we should see a dentist and have the dentist file an Unfall report - to go on record that this accident happened and that we saw a dentist at the time. That way if, five years from now, Small Boy's permanent teeth do turn out to be damaged our insurance will cover any repair work that might need to be done. Since there was no need to see a pediatric dentist I took him out to our dentist by the farm. Small Boy and I went early, had lunch with R's parents - they love watching that boy eat - and then swung by the dentist who asked a few questions, looked in Boy's mouth, also said that although it's impossible to tell what's going on beneath the gums he doesn't think anything could really have happened since nothing happened to the baby teeth, filled out the Unfall report, and sent us on our way.

    (Um, the tank?)

    So, after lunch at the in-laws and the trip to the dentist I strap Boy into the car seat and pull out of the parking lot. And of course it's his nap-time. And it's only a 20 minute drive home. And transfering Boy from the car to the crib and expecting the nap to continue is a fool's errand. I laugh just thinking about it. So I took the scenic route home. Very scenic. I drove towards Small Village where we used to live, took a long detour towards Other Small Village where R's mom grew up, and turned in the direction of Respectable Sized Town. I drove past farm land covered with snow, through tiny villages, over hill and dale. I waited for a train at a crossing. Here, by the way, is a random fact about Switzerland. Did you know that every level railroad crossing in Switzerland, even in the smallest rural village, has crossing gates that block both sides of the street on both sides of the tracks? It is not possible to do that stupid thing that people do when they try to drive around the gates; every inch of the street is blocked by a gate. Smart, no? The train passed (it was a freight train, not a passenger train), I crossed the tracks, turned left, and got stuck behind two tanks. Really. Tanks. Two of them. On the road. Just driving along.

    I've seen tanks before. I've even seen tanks up-close. It's not all that uncommon in Switzerland - the military is always on the move and they do a lot of their practice maneuvers out among the towns and villages. Once, back in Small Village, two tanks parked in our driveway and a security detail positioned itself in our garden. We brought them hot coffee, which apparantly is what one does in Switzerland when the army takes up positions in your front yard. I've felt the house shake when six tanks rumbled through Small Village one after another. I've watched tanks drive across a pontoon bridge built by R's brigade. But I've never driven behind a tank. You can't really see around them and you can't really see over them. And are there rules about how much distance you should keep between yourself and the tank in front of you? What's an acceptable safety cushion when you're dealing with a 55-ton vehicle? Twenty-five meters suddenly doesn't seem like enough, you know? (Though frankly it's the tank behind me I'm more concerned about.) And here's a thought - are you even allowed to pass a tank?

    Fortunately there was one car behind me and we were passing a restaurant. I quickly pulled off the road, let the car behind me take up the front position, and pulled back out, resolving to do exactly what that guy did. (Working on the assumption that that guy was Swiss and had driven behind a tank at some point in his life and not a fellow foreigner with no tank-passing experience. This was not on my DC driving test.) There was a soldier in the tank holding up a red flashlight (R informs me this was probably the tank commander) which clearly meant DO. NOT. PASS. We trundled along through a few villages until we hit an open stretch of road flanked by fields. The tank commander waved us to pass. The car in front of me passed. I passed. One tank. So there I was driving along with a 55-ton vehicle in front of me and a 55-ton vehicle behind me. I couldn't help but think of my little Honda as the filling in a tank sandwich. The tank commander in the front tank did not have a red light but instead held his arm straight out to the side in a gesture that clearly meant DO. NOT. PASS. I drove on like this for a few minutes until the tank commander started waving wildly. GO. GO. GO. The car in front of me pulled out to pass. I pulled out to pass. And here is my second random fact about Switzerland for the day. The average tank is wider than one-half of the average Swiss road, which is none too wide to begin with and even less so when it has recently been cleared of snow. I cleared the tank, pulled back into my lane (signalling, of course, my intent), and continued on towards the Main Road that leads back to City.

    Small Boy slept through the whole thing.

    So that is how you pass a tank. Very. Very. Carefully.

    * Okay, the very first time we tried this there were some tears. But now the three of them together have a grand old time.

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    Monday, March 06, 2006

    First blood

    It was bound to happen and I'm surprised it took this long. Small Boy has shed his first blood. We were playing with a ball last night, rolling it back and forth between us, and sometimes it got away from him and he would go crawling after it the way he does almost all things, which is at full tilt. I don't even know what happened but one of his hands slipped out from under him and bam! face first on the hardwood floor. I scooped him up even before he started to scream, while he was still making that red-faced chin quivering I'm working myself up into a good wail face that he makes; when he opened his mouth to let loose I saw that he was bleeding.

    Mouth blood makes me nervous. Very very nervous. Both R and I had horrific accidents as young children. As a three year old I tripped while running up the walk to meet my grandfather and bit clean though my tongue. Clean through as in a loose piece of tongue dangling off the side. My mother took me to the emergency room and the doctor said it would heal up and close itself; I was just learning how to talk and my mother said no way am I risking that she develop a speech impediment because of a flapping tongue and made them stitch it up. (My mother, for all the faults I found with her along the way, was often an amazing advocate for her children. A true mother bear.) I have a little scar on my tongue to this day. I remember getting a lollipop. R knocked both his front teeth out as a four year old on the very table that we, out of some perverse attraction to danger, have in our apartment. He didn't just knock them out as in they fell on the floor. He knocked them out as in he smashed them backwards up into his gums so hard they damaged the permanent teeth waiting in the wings. So yeah, mouth blood makes me very. Very. Nervous.

    We got Small Boy cleaned up and tried to check out his mouth, which you can imagine went down very well with him and took a long time and was accompanied by renewed wailing and much mama-clasping. He's got a fat lip on the top, a little cut on the bottom lip, and a strange bruising appearance on the bottom gum under his two middle teeth that we're checking out with the doctor. That makes me nervous. He's got such lovely teeth. He is eating and drinking well, though, so he must not be in too much pain, though he is on the cranky side. Which is fair.

    Last night after he fell I was holding him and comforting him; he bled on my shirt. After we got him settled down I went to change and to soak my tee-shirt so the blood didn't set. In one of my more perverse Angelina Jolie-Billy Bob Thorton sentimental moments I almost didn't wash it out. Small Boy's first blood, you know. Then I got a hold of myself and ran cold water over my shirt and scrubbed some soap over the stains and watched the water swirl down the drain.

    Being a parent may mean wearing my heart on my sleeve, but it doesn't have to mean wearing my Heart's blood.


    Friday, March 03, 2006

    Repetitive motion

    I've started swimming again. There's an indoor pool 10 minutes from our apartment, and after many weeks of just talking about it I finally bought a proper swim suit and goggles and have started swimming laps. I used to swim laps in DC, but I haven't swum since I moved to Switzerland, which means I haven't been swimming - in the workout sense of the word - since early 2000. I'm a bit of a sea turtle among the porpoises but it feels wonderful to be in the water again. After a five year break I'm surprised and pleased that I can swim laps for 30 minutes with a minimum of wall-hanging.

    What I remember most about swimming, aside from the fact that it took an inch off of my hips, is how much it jump-started my brain. Something about the sheer repetitive boredom of swimming - back and forth and breathe and exhale and turn and again - sent my mind digging in little corners like a child going through the drawers when nobody is looking. There is very little to do while swimming; since I was marking myself by time rather than distance I didn't even have to count the laps, I just glanced at the wall clock every now and then. My mind could shut down entirely or skitter around like a colt as it chose. I was in graduate school at the time and slogging through a dissertation proposal that was all over the place. I had a fine general topic, but in political science, especially American politics, you need nice, neat, testable hypotheses. I couldn't define my questions, not in the way a political scientist is supposed to define them. I kept handing fuzzy draft after fuzzy draft to my ever patient chair. Then one day I handed him a short two page synopsis which he read overnight; it was essentially a list of 13 testable hypotheses.

    Thirteen. That's a dissertation and a half. Maybe two.

    The next day he handed it back and said "This is what I've been waiting for. What happened?" Without thinking about how silly it might sound, or considering if it was the sort of thing one should say to one's chair, I replied "I started swimming." "Well good," he said without missing a beat, "keep doing laps." Being a swimmer himself he understood what I was saying, how something about the repetitive motion of laps frees your brain, lets it jump off its regular tracks and stumble onto something truly creative. While your body is engaged doing one thing, your mind sneaks off and does something else. Didn't Einstein once say he got his best ideas in the shower, or is that apocryphal? I don't know. All I know is that I'm swimming. And I'm writing.

    Now if Small Boy would sleep more than 14 seconds a day, we'd be on to something.