Right now, what do you want?

January 1st, 2011

My brother-in-law just came up the drive on his chestnut horse. Two rides in two days. He smiled and waved – even though I have my studio downstairs I do a lot of my writing at the kitchen table in front of the big window where I can look out at the woods and watch the birds, where I can see the boys when they come running across the yard from their grandparents’ house, where I catch a glimpse of my brother-in-law starting or finishing a ride.

Where I am in the middle of things.

It’s quiet right now – the boys are at the grandparents lighting sparklers and Tischbombes and who knows what all New Years’ Day fun; R had to make an emergency grocery run in the city because I didn’t plan well for the long weekend and the only grocery stores allowed to open on holidays are the ones in the train station; J is probably brushing down his horse in the stall. It is dusk, but it is not yet dark and my computer tells me it is 5:03 p.m. This is an improvement, that it is not yet dark.

Already we are tilting towards the sun again.

At the after-holiday sales I bought the six year old Small Boy a sweater sized for an eight-year old; it is only a tiny bit large. He grows when I am not looking, he grows in his sleep, he grows even when the days are short and the rest of nature has taken a break from the growing season. Yesterday he got in a pick-up hockey game (matchle, in Swiss, or chneble) with a bunch of ten- and twelve-year-olds. He got in the goal and didn’t flinch when a band of big boys bore down on him. He matchled with the big kids for two hours. He wants to go again.

He grows when I am not looking.

Right now, I want this: To be happy that J can start riding his beloved horse again. To know that the boys are lighting sparklers with the grandparents and feeling mischievous that they’re sneaking something when Mama’s not looking. To steal a quiet hour in the house. To have these boys growing up, growing into themselves in unexpected ways. To be in the middle of this.

Right now, what do you want?

Expat Thanksgiving. And Pie.

November 27th, 2010

This afternoon we had fifteen people in the house: nine adults and six children with a total of 22 passports, four mother tongues, and seven working languages between us. The kids alone account for twelve passports and four languages – five if you make a distinction between Swiss and German. None of the kids have entered the first grade, when standard German is introduced with the beginning of reading and writing, so they have very little German compared to a German kid but they might know more than their full Swiss kindergarten friends who do not hear their Ausländerin mamas speaking high German out in the world.

I love these expat Thanksgivings, filling the house with people who miss the turkey, the sweet potatoes, the cranberry sauce, the gathering of family and friends together for a celebration of gratitude. It is the holiday when I feel most foreign, most far away, for it is the quintessential American holiday and it is the one I miss the most living abroad. It might be the holiday all Americans living abroad miss the most. It’s the day we know our families back in the States are all getting together, without us. It’s a day full of family traditions that carry over generations more, it seems to me, than on other holidays so even though I wasn’t there I know my brother used our mother’s china and made his pecan pie. Unless they went to his in-laws – then he still brought the pie but they used his mother-in-law’s cut-glass goblets, one of the few things she still has from her childhood in East Prussia. I know these things. I remember that china, I have drunk from those goblets.

Traditions, carrying on without me.

* * *

You have to make your own traditions, living abroad. You have to get your own china, your own goblets. You have to hold on to the holidays that are dear to you and make the effort to celebrate them. You have to roast turkey on Saturday.

* * *

Slicing apples for the pie, for my mother’s apple pie that makes the house smell like childhood and without which no Thanksgiving is complete, I realize I am singing to myself in Mundart (dialect), singing a Swiss pop song that I often hear on the radio and which makes me happy. If that doesn’t sum up this expat life, I don’t know what does.

* * *

When I lived in DC I had a friend who always opened up his apartment to the “strays” on Thanksgiving. Those of us who couldn’t afford to fly home, who worked retail and didn’t get the time off, who were estranged from our families, whose parents had died. His apartment was no bigger than the rest of ours, but his heart was, and we gathered there for pot-luck Thanksgivings and his good Cuban coffee. It was always warm, and welcoming, and I spent a few Thanksgivings there after my mother died, in my rootless years: no parents, no spouse, no children. No past, no future, a twig that had fallen off the family tree. I always brought pie.

* * *

The first year I hosted Thanksgiving in Switzerland, I decided on Wednesday night to do it. We held it on actual Thanksgiving Day – I don’t remember how R and California Husband got the time off on such short notice, but this is Switzerland and they did. We were five, and there was chicken instead of turkey because I had decided at 8pm the night before to invite people over. There was my mother’s pie; one was enough.

Today there were fifteen people in the house, and two pies, and a chocolate cake from the bakery and no left-overs. And much gratitude.

* * *

Australian Friend likes to say, “Bloom where you’re planted.” It’s good advice for anybody, but I think it applies double to expats. Even after ten years, I will have a day when I can’t find what I am looking for in the gardening supply store and I will go home empty-handed rather than ask, in German, where it might be located. And my German is good. Quite good. I read novels in German. But some days I don’t want to deal with it, some days I don’t want to live my life in a foreign language no matter how well I might speak that language. Some days, I don’t want to be the foreign lady. I just want it all to be easy.

But we are here. We are making lives here and so we have to – if we want to be happy, if we want to live genuine lives, lives with opportunities approximating those we might have in the countries of our birth – bloom where we are planted. Live here, live our lives here, embrace our lives here. We integrate and learn the language and go to the local festivals. But we also hold on to who we are and to the things that made us. We sing happy birthday to our kids in English, or Dutch, or Italian. We put out the flag on Australia Day. We wear orange when Netherlands reaches the final of the football world championships. We host Thanksgiving. We make pie.

* * *

We ended up sitting in clusters, the girlfriends all together at one end and the men – who are all Swiss and who are thrown together in these crazy Thanksgiving dinners because their wives are girlfriends – at the other. This led to a language division with the women (who are not all American but are all native English speakers) speaking English and the men speaking Swiss (even though one of them is Swiss-Italian and might have preferred English).

* * *

We moved the kitchen table into the living room, pulled in the table from the balcony. Dusted the snow off it. We set up two tables for the kids. We ate turkey with stuffing – made by Australian Friend and may I say, you’d  think she’d grown up eating Thanksgiving stuffing her whole life – and mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes and scalloped potatoes and green beans and salad and cranberry sauce. We went back for seconds. We drank sparkling wine, and white wine, and red wine and finished off with apple pie and pumpkin pie and chocolate cake and coffee and port and grappa. The kids stayed up way past bedtime, and ate too much dessert, and got over-excited. I snuck some extra apple pie. Outside, the snow fell all evening.

Thanksgiving, in other words. Even in Switzerland, Thanksgiving. Grateful for the lives we have made here, the friends we have found, the new country we have come to love even as we miss our old ones. Stuffed with food and drink and fellowship. Fifteen people, twenty-two passports, seven languages. One turkey. Pie. Thanksgiving.

* * *

The secret to a good pie crust is this: the water you add to your flour mixture should be iced. And you have to add it gradually. A tablespoon at a time. Add, mix, check. Add again. Mix. Patience. The real secret is patience.

Just Thursday

November 25th, 2010

It’s Thanksgiving in the US, but in Switzerland it is simply Thursday. For the Small Boy there was kindergarten to get to and tonight there will be a hockey practice. For the Boychen and I there was yard work: raking piles of dead wet leaves and hauling yet more wood to the wood pile. We potted some heather. Boychen helped Grossvati muck out the stalls (my brother-in-law has been sick and both R and my father-in-law have been helping with the horses) with his little plastic wheelbarrow and his little shovel; my father-in-law loves the worker bee side of the Boychen and doing this chore with him made his day. There was a bath, because if you help muck out the stalls you end up smelling like manure and not even a three year old can make that cute; then a bath for the car, because if you have a dirt driveway in this part of Switzerland in November, your car is going to look like you live on a farm. This afternoon I’ll do a shopping run to pick up a few things for Expat Thanksgiving, which we’re hosting on Saturday. Because this is just Thursday in Switzerland, and people had to go to work, and kindergarten, and daycare. But on Saturday, it’ll be Thanksgiving around here.

Happy Thanksgiving to everybody celebrating it today.

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.

Clinging to life

April 10th, 2010

A few of the apple branches on the wood pile are starting to blossom. They do not yet know that they are dead.

More notes from spring, illustrated

March 23rd, 2010

Kristen asked for some pictures from The Farm, and I’m happy to oblige.

Boychen and I spent the morning moving more rocks, bringing some dead plants to the Mist (I don’t know the English word for this: it’s where my brother-in-law dumps the old straw after he mucks out the horses’ stalls), and wandering around the farm. We blew soap bubbles and ate our morning snack outside in the sun, sitting on the rock wall my husband sat on when he was a boy.


To bring the rocks around to the rock pile, we’ve traded in the wheelbarrow for something with a little more horsepower:


Now if we could use this, we’d be done in no time:


* * *

About a week ago, I noticed that the moths had returned, beating against my kitchen window as I stood at the sink rinsing off the last of the dishes. Today I noticed that the butterflies, too, have returned.


* * *

While Boychen took his afternoon nap, the Small Boy (who is no longer so small and who will need a new pseudonym soon) and I played hockey in the driveway.


Between periods, he planted sunflowers.


* * *

And there was this:


and this (can you believe that sky?):


and this:


* * *

A farm country almanac

March 18th, 2010

I think it is real this time, this turn towards spring. People who know better than I – the farmers who live in and around this village – are becoming active. On the twenty-minute walk to the school to pick up the Small Boy from Kindergarten, Boychen and I saw four tractors driving down the main road and two more on the way home. Then there is the one my brother-in-law cleaned today behind the barn, hosing everything down, tuning up the engine. In the afternoon he paced off the fields for plowing. The pace of life has very suddenly quickened in this farming community.

* * *

I am digging up more rocks, making another flower bed, this one on the other side of the kitchen door. Boychen brings the smaller ones to the rock pile next to the barn in his wheel-barrow, three soft-ball sized rocks at a time. It is slow, but heart-wrenchingly adorable.

* * *

The boys save their chicken bones for the fox that lives in the woods next to our house. Its den is right next to the foot path we take to the duck pond, and the boys and my mother-in-law have protected it from the many dogs that get walked in these woods by criss-crossing downed branches over the entrance. This is the fox that made quick work of five of eight ducklings last summer, something Small Boy knows very well, but he loves it anyway.

* * *

Yesterday I strapped The Boychen into his bike-on-a-stick and ran him up and down the hills on the mountain bike course in the woods. He now thinks I am the coolest. mama. ever! 

* * *

It was a long winter. Much, much too long. The farmers are out; half the gardens in the neighborhood are showing freshly turned dirt. The bees have found my crocuses. It was a long winter, but I think we’re turning the corner.

We now return to our regularly scheduled programming

March 7th, 2010

I spoke too soon. I always do. The first warm day always does this, the first buds, the first bees. We saw bees on Monday, bees greedily visiting our pocket of crocuses by the rose bushes, and my mind turned to spring, turned sharp and sudden. It couldn’t last, of course, this is March in Switzerland; we can get – have gotten – snow on Easter, after all. I know that, after all these years I know that a warm day can be followed by snow. But that first day, that first post card from spring, always sets my head spinning.

Remembering spring

March 1st, 2010

I came back from the mountains to find the first hints of spring, spring at last after this long grey winter. Every year I forget: forget how grey the winter will be, forget the dense fog that blankets the sky, forget the dismal way the fields look when they are only half-covered with snow. This year there have been new things to learn about winter. How the gravel road leading to our house becomes pock-marked with holes. How our driveway becomes a river of mud. How our car gets covered with splatter and spray. How the boys track little grains of salt into the house however many doormats I lay down.

But this morning there are signs of spring. The snow has melted away to show the green grass. The snowbells are up under the willow tree. The bulbs I planted last fall are beginning to sprout. My thoughts have turned to the garden and the plans I must make with my mother-in-law. Today, at least, the sky is blue and the sun is shining into my kitchen and there is a bird singing out my window. Today, at least, I remember what I had forgotten, what it seems impossible to forget and what I forget every year: it ends. The fog burns off, sooner or later, and spring returns.