Random expat thoughts

May 27th, 2010

A grocery store I frequent has a big display at the end of one of the aisles, all “Neu!” and “Jetzt!” and big attention-grabbing signs and a tower of boxes of … Fruit Loops. As soon as I saw them I said “OH! Fruit Loops!” My heart might possibly have fluttered. Here’s the weird part, though: I don’t eat Fruit Loops. I never ate Fruit Loops (we were more of a Frosted Flakes family), except for possibly a few Sunday mornings in the college dorm when I was hung over, and I have no desire for the boys to ever discover the existence of Fruit Loops. I could easily go the rest of my life without eating a single Loop of Fruit. But seeing them in my Swiss grocery store made me so excited I almost actually grabbed a box just because I could. I’ve been here for ten years, but I still get excited when I see American food in the store, even if it’s nothing I have any interest in.

*  *  *

I’ve been in Switzerland for ten years, and I’ve been toying with writing for much of that time. I never took it as seriously as I have for the past eighteen months, but I always had bursts of energy and Big Plans. And postage stamps for those pesky SASEs. (And 8 1/2 x 11 paper, too.) More and more journals now accept on-line submissions (at least for poetry; I’ve put prose on the back burner these past two years so I don’t know what the status is there), and I’ve found that many of those that say they don’t will make an exception for overseas submissions if you send a polite e-mail asking about it. But there are still those journals that only accept postal submissions, so I’ve always got some US international airmail stamps around. I’ve got 75 cent stamps. I’ve got some 80 cent stamps. I’ve got 90 cent stamps, and 4 cent add-ons, and now I’ve got 98 cent stamps. I’ve even got some regular old 32 cent stamps, and if US postal rates keep going one like this I’ll soon be able to combine them with the 75 cent stamps and get both of those denominations out of my hair. I have seventy-five cent postage stamps. I have been in Switzerland for twenty-three cents worth of rate increases. 

*  *  *

When Small Boy started talking, he preferred Swiss; he still does, I think. It felt strange, this son of mine chattering at me in Swiss. I guess I’ve gotten used to it, because I kind of think that when The Boychen (who I think is more linguistically balanced than his older brother) says, “Ja, das chöi mir, Mama” * it’s the cutest thing ever.

*  *  *

When I read the first line of this Tony Judt article, “One is not supposed to love Switzerland.”, I took umbrage. My pride was hurt, and I felt defensive and protective. Damn, I’ve been here a long time, because the truth is this: I love Switzerland. Unabashedly. 

* Yeah, we could do that, Mama.

This woman’s work

May 21st, 2010

In less than a month I leave for Boston where I’ll spend a few days recovering from jetlag and enjoying one of my favorite cities before heading on to Wellfleet for the poetry workshop. R asked me to make up a general schedule for him to help him stay organized and on top of things while I’m away – just keeping track of when I do what I do so that he doesn’t suddenly wake up one morning to find that Small Boy has no underwear and Kindergarten starts in 12 minutes. 

I’d been starting to feel some creeping guilt about this upcoming trip, the kind of guilt that I’m sure some of you moms, especially fellow stay-at-home moms, will understand and perhaps find familiar. I’ll be away for twelve days (two of which are lost to trans-Atlantic travel) and I’ve been starting to think that’s rather a long time. I’ve been starting to think it’s a bit selfish. I’ve been starting to think it’s a lot of time and money for a poetry workshop. (It doesn’t help that the work I have chosen – or the work that has chosen me – holds no financial promise. I mean, even the Pulitzer Prize for poetry only awards ten grand. From a purely financial calculation, every poetry workshop I attend is a net loss – more so if R has to take vacation days so that I can get away.)  I’ve been starting to wonder if I actually deserve this all-about-me trip away from my family. Why do we do that? As women, generally, and mothers, specifically, our wants and needs end up on the low end of the totem pole more often than not.

So I started making this list/schedule for R, and it’s two pages long – and that only covers Monday through Friday! (Though I’ve put some effort into organizing things so that I don’t have to do routine house chores on the weekend.) And I’ve left off the intermittent stuff that he won’t need to deal with(recycling, washing the car, migrating boy toys back into more orderly storage) as well as the blindingly obvious stuff like “feed the children.” We let a lot of things slide around here (ironing, for example, and washing the windows), it’s part of our agreement, but apparently I still do a lot. Laundry alone takes up half the list. Grocery shopping. Picking Small Boy up from Kindi (R does the morning run), shuttling him to play-dates. Keeping the plants watered. Vacuuming. Heavens, do I vacuum. Now that we don’t have a cleaning lady, I’ve picked up the cleaning, too, and I try to stay on what was her schedule but one week out of four that probably gets lost in the shuffle. When I write down everything I do to keep this house more or less running, it runs to two pages – and here’s the scary thing: in spite of all that I do do, we don’t exactly run the tightest ship around here plus R’s chore list would probably go on for quite a bit as well. It’s exhausting, all the stupid stuff I do every day just to keep our heads above water. But seeing it listed out like that, I have to say: I’m feeling a lot less guilty about this trip. Seeing it listed out like that makes me realize that I have a full time job, and this is my two-week vacation.

Do you see yourself in this post? Do you feel a pang of “I don’t really deserve this” when you take time for yourself? It’s the time, I think, more than anything, we feel guilty about. I don’t have a problem buying things that I need (clothes, a new bike) or want (books), but when I carve out time for myself, when I get out of the house for the day (or twelve), there is a twinge of conscience. Is this ringing a bell with any of you? What do you do to push through the nagging voice and take what you need?

Touchy subjects, touchy poems

May 19th, 2010

I spent the morning putting together a few submission packages (finally – I’ve been slothful on that front), and one of them has me a bit more fraught than usual. It’s got some infertility/IVF poems in it, and the few times I’ve done that I’ve thought it was kind of dicey; it’s a topic people can react to pretty viscerally. The IVF poems in particular strike me as pieces that can provoke a reaction about what is being said before anybody gets around to considering how well it’s being said. They’re strong poems, I’d never send them out if I didn’t think they were strong, but they could easily accidentally rub an editor the wrong way for any number of reasons: the editor might have objections to assisted reproduction, the editor might be experiencing infertility, the editor might have just gotten back a negative beta, the editor might think “trans-vaginal ultrasound” just doesn’t scan no matter how hard you try.*

I’m probably making this more fraught than it needs to be. Really any given piece could rub any given editor the wrong way on any given day; I recently read an interview with Tony Hoagland in which he said it’s gotten to the point he’d rather read about the history of corduroy than about somebody’s brother dying of cancer, so you never know what’s going to make an editor sigh and think, Please not this topic. There are a whole host of reasons an editor might pass on a particular piece that have nothing to do with the technical merits of the work (for a refreshingly honest list of some of those reasons see this post by poet Kelli Russell Agodon who is also an editor at Crab Creek Review) and the best we can do on our end is write good work, follow the submission guidelines, and do enough market research to know we’re not sending IVF poems to a Catholic journal.

It’s not, by the way. The journal I’m submitting to. It’s a feminist journal doing a special issue on poems concerning loss and things that can’t be said. So I’ve chosen the prospective home of my poems as well as I could, but you just never know who’s going to get all worked up by those three little letters: I.V.F. In my experience it can surprise you sometimes, the way people get all worked up about how my beautiful boys came to be.

* I’m just kidding about that last one, although it is my goal in life to successfully incorporate that phrase into a poem.

Speak, memory?

May 10th, 2010

I recently realized that for years I have been misremembering something about the day my father died. It’s a detail, a secondary detail, but it was a detail about the day my father moved from being here to being not-here, and it hit me, after all these years, that it is inaccurate. It is as if for years I have associated the day my father died with the crescent moon in the sky only to consult a lunar calendar and discover that on that day the moon was in fact waxing gibbous. 

I don’t know how I came to associate this false detail with that morning, the conflating of two memories over time, probably, but now I am forced to wonder: what else have I misremembered, or forgotten altogether, about that day? And worse, this: what have I misremembered, or forgotten altogether, about my father? Twenty years, my father died twenty years ago this July, twenty years is a long time to hold on to the weather, the phases of the moon, the leaves on the tree outside my bedroom window. It’s a long time to hold on to how he dressed, what he ate for breakfast, the nicknames he gave me, the sound of his voice. I lost that one, the sound of his voice, I lost that already  years ago. Is this my fate, to slowly forget the details? Is this his fate, to fade away into photographs that never change, but don’t tell the whole story, either?

And what of that false memory? The fact is inaccurate, but that I held on to it for so long that I came to believe it was true, that happened. That’s real. It became my detail, and though it does not correspond to the world as it existed that morning, it belongs to the world as it exists now within me; it is inaccurate, yet true. What do we call the space between what happened and the way we remember it? The detail is factually inaccurate, I see now that it must be, but I still believe that some part of it is true.

And before I knew it, it was time to start cooking dinner

May 3rd, 2010

It took over an hour to walk home from Kindergarten with the Small Boy on his scooter and The Boychen in the stroller. There was an embankment to be climbed and a chance meeting with a neighborhood boy. There were three separate encounters with cats. There was looking for rocks on the edges of the fields, blowing dandelion seed pods, and rescuing an earthworm from the middle of the road. There were puddles to be jumped in and a small bug to be saved from drowning. There was the throwing of stones for distance and the throwing of stones for splash effect. Finally, there was the wide-legged walking contest. (I secretly think Boychen won because his wide-legged walk included weaving, swerving, and sound effects and because he made me laugh and say, “You are a funny little man, Boychen, and I love you so.”)

I can think of worse ways to spend an hour.

May day

May 1st, 2010

I forget, always, how April tumbles forward like a colt running downhill. What takes so long to arrive, the first greening, disappears so quickly. The tentative days, the have-we-turned-the-corner-to-spring days, are gone. Once it happened, it happened so quickly. Spring is here. The apple and plum trees are in full flower. The tulips are up and the daffodils are gone, either dead-headed or hanging like forgotten paper lanterns. The boys have already blown their first dandelion seed heads. The picnic tables and chairs are under the willow tree that grows more green by the day. My brother-in-law has sown the corn and planted the potatoes; the wheat is already rich and green and a foot high. In the garden my mother-in-law and I have sown carrots and beans, planted onions and lettuce, set the tomato and aubergine plants. 

April, that time when the world tips back and forth between spring and not-yet spring, is gone. It is May and already I cannot remember wondering if spring would ever get here.