June 30, 2013

Thrift T(r)ip

My toes had barely touched Swiss soil and I was in shock.

In fact, what I really would have liked to do is turn right around and shove everything back onto the train, four kids, suitcases, and all, and continue on to the next border.

Instead, while I was looking around to see where the bus taking us to our final destination might depart from, amidst the maze of construction fencing, my kids spotted the ice cream stand right in front of us. You might argue that ice cream cones for everyone, having stepped off the train, were possibly the very last thing we needed, and I admit that I secretly pursued precisely that line of reasoning. But sometimes the energy required to deflect a barrage of pleas (and worse) from four fronts, right after a lengthy train ride dominated by fights over who gets to sit by the window, who should have gone to the bathroom later or earlier, whose backpack was in the way of whose feet, and whose water bottle fell onto whose head when the backpack was heaved onto the hat rack – well, that energy just isn't there.

But perhaps I should have mustered the energy. Each tiny scoop was three Swiss Francs fifty. Which I didn’t even have, but in a rapid exchange of Swiss German I barely understood, it was established that I could also pay in Euros. For what was probably a terrible exchange rate. I suspect this because when it came to testing the flavors, something I admit my kids typically engage in with exquisite abandon, we were cut short after only one taste. Something blue and ungodly looking was okay to test, was the sales woman’s argument, but we weren't allowed to test the “butter cookie” flavor, because anyone can imagine what butter and cookie might taste like and it therefore didn't warrant a taste test.

didn't know there were people out there with a reputation of being even more thrifty than Germans of “Swabian” ethnicity – my own – but the Swiss might very well fit that bill.

About that thrift: From that first encounter with the cost of living in Switzerland, I set out to find the best bargain possible in whatever we did. Out of necessity, really, because I had a credit card with a certain amount of money on it, and it had to last us through another five days in Paris and three in Amsterdam after this.

Everything in Switzerland seemed outrageously expensive. A fifteen minute bus ride for the five of us: SF 17. Food at a museum cafeteria (after I had already vetoed the SF 12 chicken nuggets and the SF 14 pizza and had banned any drinks but tap water): SF 51. I spotted a bagel with cream cheese for SF 13 at a fast food place. A bottle of water: Not to be had for under SF 3.50 (note: one SF is $1.06, so it's almost at parity with the US$).

It was a good thing the kids really liked the science museum we visited, the Technorama Swiss Science Center, because for that kind of entrance fee I was going to keep them there forever, or at least overnight if possible.

Although it must be said that the Technorama in Winterthur is worth every penny. I would just recommend getting there as soon as it opens in the morning. We were there from noon to closing at 5 pm and barely scratched the surface, there were so many cool things to see and do. Standing in a wind tunnel and leaning against gale-force winds. Observing the Coriolis Effect. Seeing (and hearing) lightning recreated. Everything from mechanics, magnetism, light, water, electricity to chemistry, biology, and optical illusions. The thing where you could scream into a microphone inside a booth to measure the amount of decibels created while the people outside of the booth could watch your distorted face on a screen proved particularly popular in our family (side note: it is ME who can create the most decibels in our family). A close second was where you could pump pure oxygen into a beaker and then put the glowing end of a matchstick into it for a bright flame to erupt. I’m glad none of the kids figured out a way to hold the lighter directly to the nozzle of the oxygen pump. We normally cannot finish a meal in any restaurant without someone setting fire to the table cloth at least once.

Leaning against the wind

Playing with fire was right up there with sampling free
chocolate at the chocolate factory

This ring, once in motion, spun forever, even when it was
totally keeling over. Of course I have no recollection of the
underlying physics principle.

The day before the Technorama we had visited the Maestrani chocolate factory in Flawil. That’s another excursion I can recommend should you find yourself in the greater Zurich area with kids and time to spare. Because who doesn't like chocolate?

That’s where I also learned my first thrift tip. Everyone was dying for water after ingesting an ungodly amount of chocolate samples (in very un-Swiss generosity, I might add, but Maestrani has Italian origins after all), and we hadn't brought any. But I was going to be darned if I was going to buy five bottles at SF 3.50 each from the vending machine. So I sprang for one – already painful – and proceeded to send one of the kids to the bathroom for free refills henceforth. Winterthur has some of the most delicious tap water in the world. Better, in fact, than most bottled water.

When you travel in Switzerland, you will quickly learn to never ever throw away an empty plastic bottle. And you will visit a lot of bathrooms.

My second thrift tip: Avoid buying food where there is any kind of service involved. The only way the Swiss can afford paying such high prices is by earning high salaries, and that includes your waiters and such. The most basic meal to be gotten at any kind of establishment, it seemed, was going to cost at least SF 50, without any drinks. What we did instead was find a supermarket each day and buy some rustic bread, salami, and cheese – oooooh, the cheese – and break off bits and pieces to assemble on-the-spot sandwiches for a scrumptious (and  healthy) picnic, at a fraction of the cost.

The one place I wouldn't recommend trying to save any money is public transport.

As in most European cities, Winterthur local buses and trains operate on an honor system of sorts. You buy your tickets and hold them on you, but most of the time you won’t have to show them. The local authorities rely on infrequent spot checks to make sure everyone complies, by issuing heavy fines should you be caught without a valid ticket.

Ticket control at a Winterthur bus stop

As Murphy’s Law would have it, I was almost ensnared by this system. Having decided I wasn't going to survive another hour listening to whiny kids while wandering through Winterthur searching for a bank and a post office, I decided to let the kids continue on home – our friends’ house, as it was – on the bus whereas I was going to get off downtown for a few errands. Except I didn't remember to give them their bus tickets until the bus had already stopped. I scrambled to find the tickets in the depths of my backpack and figure out which ones were which in the space of a few seconds. I finally just shoved four tickets to Zax and ran out the bus with the remaining one before it was too late, not checking to see if it was an adult or half-price fare. I proceeded with my errands, including a stop at Coop Supermarket to spend my remaining SF 20 on a bagful of groceries for tomorrow’s train ride, and hopped on another bus home, pleased with my accomplishments. Then I realized I was on the wrong bus, so I got off at the next stop promising a connection. That was the stop they had chosen to do a large-scale security check – something like twenty yellow-vested security police hopping onto the bus as well as checking everyone getting off. I died about a million deaths, certain to have grabbed the wrong ticket and now having to pay the stiff fine of SF 80 or perhaps being detained in some humorless Swiss police station. While I was in line to be checked, I was silently practicing ways to explain my story so it didn't sound entirely lame, but miracle of miracles, I did indeed have the correct ticket and was left to exhale a big sigh of relief while watching a few young guys being led off, to prison presumably.

We hadn't really come to Winterthur for sightseeing, but to visit old friends Noisette and I have known since graduate school. It was wonderful to catch up on old times, and congratulating each other on how none of us looked a day older than when we last saw each other. Except that some of our kids inexplicably seemed to have moved from baby to college student.

While we were there, however, we got to appreciate Winterthur's tourist appeal. Apart from being a pretty town, it proved a great location to explore the surroundings. From where we stayed, you could take a short walk along a little stream and find yourself surrounded by grazing cows, their tinkling bells as much an icon of Switzerland as Toblerone or Swiss army knives. We could have easily have gone to Zurich for a day - it's less than a half our train ride away - for some world class shopping. Which is of course why I didn't bring it up. And we could have gone to a cheese factory in Appenzell, but strangely when the topic of a factory tour came up, the chocolate factory won out. 

What we did do, however, and what turned out to be an unexpected gem, was to visit the Oskar Reinhart collection of Impressionist paintings. It's fairly small and therefore easily doable even with children, and contains some beautiful art, including drawings by one of my favorites, Edgar Degas.

All of us in the gardens of the Oskar Reinhart museum

Photos weren't allowed, but I started a postcard collection.
The drawing of the girl on the right is by Degas.

A drawing of Impatience, about age 5, my own attempt
at channeling Degas, back in the days when I did a self-
taught drawing course.
Winterthur. I couldn't find the post office but I found this.

Stay tuned for more Europe with kids blog posts. Also see:

June 24, 2013

English. But not from England.

"So you're raising your children English?"
"Yes, my husband is English."
I overheard above conversation some time ago while I was waiting, along with other mothers, for our children to perform in a public speaking contest Dainfern College was participating in.

My ears perked up. I was always interested in the stories of other expats, how they ended up in South Africa, and what they thought of life there. I counted a few English expats among my friends.

Except, it turned out, there was no expat involved in this instance.

Both husband and wife were 100% South African (yes, I do tend to eavesdrop on other people's conversations). But in a twist of racial identity one can only encounter in South Africa, the wife, who was Afrikaans-speaking, considered her husband "English." And perhaps he considered himself English, I don't know. Never mind that he was a born and bred South African. That his family had probably lived in South Africa for generations. That maybe he had never even set foot on English soil.

I've mentioned South Africa's racial diversity before, the many different tribes like the Xhosa, Zulu, Tswana, Sotho, Venda, Ndebele, Tsonga, Swazi - I probably didn't even name them all - and their contributions to culture and language (there are eleven official languages in South Africa). But it is South Africa's two white tribes that perhaps have the longest or at least most intense history of tension with one another. To this day, even the most superficial visitor of South Africa will immediately sense the rift between the Afrikaans-speaking part of the population and the English-speaking part. Of course all native Afrikaans-speakers speak English (though with a distinct accent), and many (though certainly not all) native English-speakers have at least rudimentary knowledge of Afrikaans (it's not a difficult language to learn), but the two cultures are historically vastly different.

How else could you explain that a South African is called "English" by a fellow South African?

Yet that is precisely what lies at the heart of the cultural chasm. I know I'll probably step on some toes here, but I'll try to explain it anyway (one of my readers did a great job of pointing out some things I'd missed or misstated in an earlier attempt of mine to broach this subject, you can read it in this post on the Voortrekkers by scrolling to the comments at the bottom ).

The best way to get a comprehensive understanding of South African history from a Dutch vs English perspective is by reading Michener's Covenant, but considering that it'll probably take you five months if you read at my speed, I better try my own abbreviated explanation (you can find my summary of The Covenant here).

The Dutch arrived in South Africa as the first of the white settlers. It is this Dutch blood that a true Afrikaner takes the most pride in, even if realistically it has been diluted with a heavy dose of Huguenot, German, African, and perhaps some Malay influence. The English arrived later, and, as the English have been wont to do throughout history, claimed the Cape Colony for themselves, driving many freedom-minded Dutch settlers into the interior on their great Boer treks. This contributed to a divide of sorts (I realize that nowadays this is very generalized but I think it serves my point): On the one hand the Boer farmers with a strong Calvinist-inspired faith in God and country, often illiterate, and strongly tied to the soil they worked, and on the other the more educated urban dwellers in the Cape and later in Natal, who never quite severed their ties to England and continued to send their children there to be educated. Throughout South Africa's history these two white factions have antagonized each other, culminating in two bloody wars and continuing throughout the era of apartheid when the Afrikaner minority finally held power after centuries of oppression (the irony that they then became the oppressors to another faction seeking freedom was lost on them for many years, of course, but you can find that everywhere in the world, and, of course, in modern-day South Africa itself).

Images from the Boer War 1899-1902. Picture source: A
History of South Africa

Today, these lines are naturally blurred, and you will find many Afrikaans-English marriages, exemplified by the one above. But just a generation ago, bringing an English boyfriend into an Afrikaner family would not have gone over well, just like my Protestant grandfather in Germany was almost disowned by his father for marrying a Catholic. Some of the animosity is based on the horrible fate of disease and starvation suffered by Boer women and children during the Anglo-Boer war, when they were herded into what were the world's first concentration camps instituted by the English. Although it must be said that the war was prolonged by quasi suicidal Boer commandos employing guerrilla tactics to fight the English. But some of it goes back much farther. The English used to accuse the Boers of being stubborn and hypocritical, and the Boers would accuse the English of being wimps who'd flee to England at the first sign of trouble. I think there is a little bit of truth in both.

The latter might explain how it is possible for there to be English husbands who are not from England.

June 18, 2013


I don’t know what it is.

Is it the backpack that arouses suspicion? But I don’t always wear it.

It can’t be the camera either. Because I’ve been leaving that at the apartment after I realized I can take good-enough pictures with my iPhone at a fraction of the weight. Also, it’s so much easier to take a forbidden picture in a museum with your phone than your humongous camera. Especially when you were forced to put the camera into a locker upon entering the premises.

It could be the sheer number of children accompanying me. Most of my French counterparts seem to have stopped after one, perhaps two bébés. A group of four kids trailing their mother must look very exotic indeed. Though Zax is doing a good job keeping his distance so as not to really be seen with us.

Or it might be the teeth. I’ve always suspected that Americans can instantly be identified by their superb dental work when they travel to foreign lands. No one in the world can quite match the perfect pearly-white order radiating from an American’s mouth. Except I’ve had all my orthodontic work done in Germany where I grew up. and I also like to think that I don’t walk around Paris baring my teeth like a maniac.

God knows we've put enough money into those mouths so
that our smiles can look American

Perhaps it’s the way we dress. A bit sloppy and not like the French who would never leave the house in sweat pants. Then again, I suspect they all leave behind their houses in a very sloppy state, if the apartment we’re renting is anything to go by.

In any case, no matter where I go, before I even open my mouth to utter the perfect French sentence I’ve practiced in my head for the last five minutes, I am greeted in English.

It is SO frustrating. This didn’t happen when I was twelve years old and on a first of several exchanges in Rouen, France. Back then I fit in perfectly fine, chattering away in perfect French with the teachers and students I met at school, donning a white coat for chemistry class like everyone else, uttering curses when being beaten by my host father in ping-pong once again, and belting out French songs around a bonfire with my fellow girl scouts. The highlight of my entire trip was when an older boy on the train back to Germany told me I was pretty. In French.

But this time around, everyone seems to spot me as l’Américaine from a mile away. And I so don’t want to be spotted as an American. Because they are so easy to spot. I can usually tell from a mile away as well. But I don’t want to be like them. Plus, I speak French. If only somebody would let me open my mouth before telling me in English “That will be two Euro fifty.”

My German sister-in-law told me it might be the tennis shoes. No German would wear running shoes unless actually going jogging in them, she informed me. Which prompted me to look down and realize that if we were measured on that scale, we indeed stood out like sore thumbs.

All the Americans in the Metro

Busted! If we wanted to be spies, we'd first have to settle
for less comfortable footwear.

The only other pair of shoes I brought, being such an economical packer – please insert a derisive laugh by my husband here – is a pair of flip-flops. I tried wearing them one evening and almost killed myself on a series of slippery cobblestones followed by several steep flights of stairs.

And I’m pretty sure flip-flops are not the fashion of the day here in Paris either.

I’ve since become obsessed with looking at people’s feet and listening in on their conversations, to determine what kinds of shoes the French wear. If I’ve missed out on the actual sights looming above, please forgive me. Or maybe those sights are what's to blame here. The French probably don’t flock to the Eiffel Tower on a Saturday. And if they go to the Musee d’Orsay, they probably have the good sense to do it on the first Sunday of the month, when most Parisian museums are free.

So perhaps I should go to the Galleries Lafayettes and buy some fashionable high heels along with a harmonica, and do the cancan at the next street corner while singing Edith Piaf songs.

I’m sure many American tourists would stop and watch. They’d all be wearing sneakers and smile at me with perfect teeth.

Then I could tell them “Zat ville bee two Euro fiftiie.”

June 15, 2013

Watching Memories

The good news about relocating, if there is any, lies in the way some long-lost possessions of yours have a habit of resurfacing. Not exactly long-lost, that is, because truly lost they never were, but lost-from-the-radar.

So it was with an unlabeled DVD that emerged from our container a few months ago, without a case or any markings. We slid it into the DVD player to see what it was and immediately we were transfixed, our entire family, plopping down wherever we stood to look at this version of us circa ten years ago.

Apart from us all looking much younger, it seemed like such an alien life.

Eating in high chairs.
Singing “I’m a Little Teapot” before bedtime.
Easter egg hunts
The frenzy of four kids tearing open Christmas presents.
And bath scenes.

Lots and lots of bath scenes. 

One might think I was fascinated with naked and splashing kids, but the truth is that it was probably the only time they were all confined in one space and not fighting, giving me a rare opportunity to make use of the camera. I'm not kidding, I have hours and hours of bath tub footage spanning about four years, as we discovered once the remaining twelve or so "Memory DVDs" were located.

Over the course of the next three days the kids embarked on a marathon of "watching memories." Noisette, a few years ago, had decided to get our old VHS tapes copied onto DVDs, and it was a good thing. Because does anyone still own a VHS player? It would have helped, mind you, if someone had had the sense of labeling the resulting DVDs, and I now vaguely remember that this might have been my job. As it was, we randomly inserted these disks one after the other, and each time one of the kids would yelp with glee when it featured them and not their brother or sister.

I myself couldn't help but watch as well, drawn to these old memories like a fly to honey, and also out of a sense of "now or never" in terms of getting that pesky labeling project out of the way. Can I just remind you that this was about two days after our container had arrived, and the house was a complete disaster. The last thing I had time for was sitting on the sofa. There was so much sorting still to be done, and yet I found I couldn't tear myself away from the TV, try as hard as I might.

Undecided: Clean up this or watch Family Memories on DVD?

Did our kids really use to be so little and so cute? Did they really have such tiny high voices? We were all mesmerized by this trip down memory lane. And it proved to be a great resource to clear up topics of debate and general uncertainties.

Like, who did that bobby car we had forever belong to? Answer: Impatience. She had gotten it for her 1st birthday in 2001, it was all right there in the video. She was delighted in hindsight that it was actually hers, and she can be forgiven for believing it was someone else's because, as was evident in the video, her brothers immediately appropriated it, not even letting her put the doll she also got that day into the back of it, yelling "no" at her in no uncertain terms and dumping the doll onto the floor. Amazingly, she took it all in stride and didn't complain once. Oh, to have those days come back!

It also brought some unpleasant truths to light. Like whatever happened to those really cool toys we used to have? The ones you can see right here in the video and now we don't have them anymore? Answer: Mom donated all of them. I was always able to deflect these questions in the past, by either feigning ignorance ("I have no idea which toy you're talking about"), or shifting blame ("you must have lost it, you always lost so many things"), or using that timeless tool of the expat mom ("it must have gotten lost in the move"), but somehow having the visual proof of their existence in front of our eyes, so to speak, made me 'fess up.

The memory DVD also revealed that Impatience's bear was
once fluffy as well as white, neither of which he is now.

What we also saw during our memory binge was a succession of cats. There was Moritz with the kink in the tail who had shown up at our gate in Singapore one day, stinking of fish and crying to the high heavens. He was a great pet and lasted about two years until he inexplicably disappeared. Our maid Ampy maintained he was kidnapped because he had such a nice tail (even a kink is better than no tail at all, which is the fate of many Singaporean cats), but I have my doubts. I still find it suspicious that he should disappear when Noisette was solely in charge of feeding him during the kids’ and my home leave. There was Angus, who we adopted from some lady who rescued cats at an abandoned race track, and who drew the fate of having to make an international move with us (Angus, not the lady). Or, actually, with Noisette, who was rightly saddled with the embarrassment of hauling a screaming cat through three airports to atone for the disappearance of Moritz. Then there was Kika, a cute little black kitten who was deathly afraid of everything and had a habit of climbing up really tall trees, coaxing and cajoling her down of which occupied the better part of two years, and who inexplicably disappeared into the woods behind our house one day. Which, it must be said, were the same woods Angus disappeared into a few years before her. There was a brief cat hiatus after that, because we weren't sure what lurked in those woods, but a few moves later we acquired Oreo, who was actually not a cat but a bunny. Who had a preference of spraying pee on those of us he liked best, somehow managing to squirt it horizontally out of his cage. And finally, there was Maus, who stayed behind in South Africa and who none of us needed reminding of as the kids were still crying bitter tears over her. But we didn't want to introduce anything lurking in woods into her life, so we chose to leave her in the safety of Johannesburg.

Another thing that resurfaced or rather emerged from one of our suitcases: An unlabeled bag of dried leaves. Zax took one look at it, said "really?" and eyed us with what I can only describe as new-found respect. I hated to burst his bubble but had to admit it was merely a bag of mint leaves I had haggled over in the bazaar in Dubai, together with some vanilla beans. "Poof" went the respect when Zax realized it wasn't, after all, some pot that his cool mother had smuggled through customs. I refrained from asking him how, exactly, he knew what the leaves of the cannabis plant might look like.

I hope it doesn’t have to do with any memories of his.

June 10, 2013

The Covenant

Recently, I told you to watch White Wedding if you'd like to get a feel for South Africa and its culture.

But perhaps you'd like to dig a bit deeper and learn something about its history as well?

Many many years ago, when I still had the stamina to read books of a thousand and more pages, and way before I'd ever shed any thought to living in South Africa one day, I read The Covenant by James A. Michener. I'd read many of his other books, but even then his story of South Africa had stood out as particularly gripping.

A veritable treasure trove of coveted Covenants. 

As you know, I've been on a bit of a mission to read books with an African theme and share them with you here, so I resolved that I should probably read The Covenant again. Because it's all become a bit fuzzy in my mind.

But easier said than done. It was virtually impossible to get a hold of a copy.

None of Michener's books are available on Kindle. Even the book version wasn't available on Amazon for some time, nor could I find it in any of the South African bookstores I frequented. Which is not surprising, given the narrow selection you'll typically find in them. And I wasn't even going to try to order a book through them after hearing harrowing tales from a friend of mine who did just that and probably is still waiting for her books to this day.

When my brother visited from Germany, he came to the rescue with a German edition he had unearthed from my parents' book collection. But alas, Noisette got his hands on it first, and if Noisette ever starts reading a book, especially such a thick one, it goes into the equivalent of a dark hole in our house, never to be seen again. Noisette is not the fastest reader. I can get my desk cleaned up faster than Noisette can finish a book, and that is saying something. If you don't believe me, you should see my desk.

I also don't particularly enjoy reading books that have been translated from the English. They are so much better in their original form. Additional confusion ensued when I checked the title of the original American edition inside the front jacket of the German one, and found, to my surprise, that it was called "The Emigrant Train." I had never once heard of that title in my life, and subsequent searches for it yielded no hits whatsoever. Weird.

What to do?

I hope that you'll forgive me, but in order to bring you, my readers, the abbreviated summary of The Covenant before the next decade, I had to resort to thievery.

Yes, thievery.

We were staying at the Champagne Sports Resort in the Drakensberg for our last South African getaway weekend with a group of friends, and I had just run for shelter from the daily afternoon downpour and plopped myself down on a cushy sofa in the hotel library, when I spotted it on a shelf: A well-thumbed paperback copy of The Covenant.

I didn't even have to think. I swapped it for the John Grisham I had brought with me, even though I'm aware that it wasn't a fair trade, eager to take a piece of South Africa back home with me, so to speak.

What's really funny is that once we were back and starting to get settled in the U.S., I was unpacking boxes in the basement one day and came across yet another copy of The Covenant among a batch of books we had kept in storage, this one just as dog-eared as the Drakensberg copy. I had gone from owning none at all to a total of three Covenants. All the more reason to start reading already.

I'm proud to say that I've just completed the epic, five months later. The culprit for the slow progress, by the way, is not my slow reading, but the Brentwood Public Library. I've been so enthralled with the newly discovered concept of a functioning modern library (your American tax dollars put to good work, folks!) to drag myself and the kids to that I've gotten sidetracked by at least four other volumes I read on the side.

I won't lie to you. The Covenant is a looooooong book.

But totally worth it, especially if you're living in South Africa or interested in history in general. I found myself reading it with much more attention to detail and names than last time around, just because I had been to the actual places and seen the actual monuments. I mean, how cool is it to stand in front of the train car Paul Kruger traveled in on his way into exile, back at the onset of the Anglo-Boer war in 1899, never to return to his beloved South Africa? To stand on the very soil the Huguenots first cultivated for wine over 300 years ago? To celebrate a holiday every year commemorating the Battle of Blood River in 1838?

I have yet to read another book on my nightstand, A History of South Africa, before I can endorse the historical accuracy of The Covenant. Some events seem to get short shrift (like the life of Cecil John Rhodes - I've mentioned Rhodes as the founder of the Rand Club in a rather obscure blog post of mine that nevertheless stirred quite the controversy) whereas others events, like the Second Boer War, are described in abundant detail one commando raid at a time. In fact, it seems like Michener's central theme is the conflict between the English and the Boer, also called Afrikaner, almost more so than the conflict between black and white. Or, I should say, the central protagonists are the Boers, which I guess makes sense as the book is all about their pact or covenant with God who entrusted them with this special land.

Nevertheless, it's a brilliant account of (almost) all of South Africa's history. In true Michener style, historical events are interwoven with the fates of three fictitious families and their rise and fall through the generations - the Van Doorns as standard bearers for the Dutch/Boer/Afrikaner faction, the Saltwoods as stand-ins for the people of English descent, and the Nxumalos of the Xhosa tribe representing the many groups of black Africans.

It starts with the ruins of Zimbabwe, reminding us that an ancient civilization predated all European discovery, and the San bushmen and their way of life, then continues on to the first Dutch settlers at the Cape, the Huguenots arriving on their heels, the first trekboers setting out in search of new land to the East, the missionaries arriving from England, the reigns of the Zulu King Shaka and the Matabele Mzilikazi and the destruction resulting from their brutal campaigns of expansion, the Voortrekkers setting out in their wagons to Natal and the Transvaal and their eventual clash with English rule during the first and second Boer Wars, and then finishes off with the rise of Afrikaner power and the establishment of apartheid.

It's a pity the book ends in 1980, the year it was first published. Because so much of South Africa's history has still been made in the years since then.

There are two curious aspects to The Covenant: 1) Nelson Mandela never gets mentioned even once. I find this strange, since plenty of other historical figures are mentioned and even described in detail, like Shaka or Jan Smuts. But perhaps this goes to show how Mandela's fame really only started once he was freed from prison. In the 1970s, when this book was written, he was tucked away in prison as a terrorist and most of the world viewed him as such. How our views can change! 2) The country of Vwarda that gets mentioned several times at the end is entirely fictional. I also find this weird, as most everything else is based on fact (except, of course, the main characters). Incidentally, this is the same Vwarda Michener uses in The Drifters. Perhaps he just liked it so much that he wanted to re-use it. It's a stand-in of sorts for Zimbabwe, but a more hopeful case of Zimbabwe that realizes its errors just in time and brings back professionals that fled it to start rebuilding the country. In my mind, it would have served the story better to use a real country with a success story, like Botswana.

Other than these minor flaws, if  you will, I'll give The Covenant a thumbs up overall. Definitely a must-read, but perhaps save it for that lazy beach vacation when you'll have enough time on your hands. I'm sure your library will have a copy. It's so much more entertaining than a non-fiction history book. And, I'll venture to say, almost as accurate, and perhaps even more real. Because Michener gets it. I have no idea how he did this, without actually having lived in South Africa for years, but he gets the different personalities down to a T, without making them seem purely stereotypical. I'll be talking more about examples of this in future posts.

One tip: If your edition doesn't contain a map, make sure you print one out before you start and keep it as a bookmark, or you'll be forever wondering where the Orange, Vaal, and Fish rivers are and in which direction all those treks were moving.

Happy reading!

June 6, 2013

Europe by Rail with Kids: Moments of Bickering and Panic

So we hadn't even made it to the check-in counter in Nashville, as far from Europe as you can be, and the kids were already fighting about who would lift which suitcase onto what train in Europe. "Because you never were much help last time" was one's admonishment. Never mind that last time was, oh, seven years ago and the kid in question probably weighed less than 30 pounds, much less than her suitcase.

We will be hoisting a whole lot of suitcases onto a whole lot of trains the next three weeks.
To be precise, a total of 22 trains, times 4 bags and 5 backpacks. Assuming we catch all the
right trains the first time, the likelihood of which is rather low I think.

Just a few moments later, that same kid asks me, predictably: "do we have to go through security?"  She asks this Every. Single. Time. "Honey, where have you been the last 13 years" is what I want to ask, but I bite my tongue, lest there be further eruptions of temper. Instead, the conversation turns to scissors, also very predictably. "Uh-oh, I think we have scissors in our pencil case," remembers daughter number two. You should know that we have never once made it through security without having to relinquish a pair of scissors. Or, the one time, some strange light-up bouncy ball that was whisked to an explosives-detection device by people in white suits.

The loss of a perfectly fine pair of scissors is then typically followed by plenty more bickering over who gets to sit next to whom. Which, with me not being much of a planner (and frankly having used up all my planning prowess the last week battling with train booking systems), might have been an entirely moot point this time around, because we had five different seats all over the plane, none of them next to each other. I didn't take note of this until we were pulled aside during boarding and informed that they had been hard at work trying to match us up better. Which is always my point to Noisette who is driven crazy by my lack of planning - those of us who totally fail to plan anything are typically rescued by some kind soul. Which is not a bad way to avoid a lot of unnecessary work in life, if you ask me. 

So we did get a group of three seats and a group of two out of the bargain, which immediately led to renewed bickering over who got to sit with the threesome, assuming Mom would be part of that group. I silently cursed the attendants' zeal in this and wished for a separate seat on my own. Some of my kids are prone to air sickness and it is so much nicer to sit somewhere at the other end of the plane, completely oblivious of what might or might not be going on and whether there are enough barf bags nearby. Because I also hadn't stocked up on Dramamine either. Which I had almost gotten away with, until Noisette asked me, as we pulled up to the terminal, whether I had any. "Yes," I said, faking a confident air. It was a total lie. I figured it wasn't such a bad lie considering that I was only a few hundred feet away from the first Hudson bookseller who I knew stocked Dramamine. They all do. You just may not get the CVS special price.

The night was uneventful. To my knowledge no one threw up. But the sound of it would have been drowned out anyway by the baby in the next row crying the entire flight.

My first moment of panic arrived at the baggage claim in Frankfurt. Three out of four bags had shown up, but the fourth one was missing. And there weren't many people left waiting besides us.

Not that that's unusual. We've had missing bags before. The last time also in Frankfurt, come to think of it. It took three days for it to be delivered. Which would be a bit of a problem this time with our itinerary, given that we'll only be in any one place two days at a time. I could already see the comedy of our bag being shipped after us around Europe, arriving a day late every time.

But then a second panic attack welled up and drove out any thoughts of comedy. Did I even check the damn bag in? Usually, when we travel as a family, Noisette does all the checking in for us. While I try to break up fights between the kids, which invariably hit their apex whenever we get to a check-in line. So it was this time, as is witnessed above, and I honestly couldn't recall whether I had actually checked in the bag in question or not amidst the much more pressing debate over the handling of future bags.

I remembered pocketing the little stickers for the bags. But were there three or four? I imagined the bag still standing in Nashville, unclaimed. Or, more likely, inside a giant press being smashed into a pulp, or whatever it is they do to suspicious bags. Of course it had to be the brand new suitcase I had just gotten from Amazon. On its virgin voyage. The one with the four wheels that rolls oh so nicely in whichever direction you are merely thinking of.

A frantic search in my backpack provided eventual relief. There were four stickers. Whew! And you know what? My biggest fear hadn't been the loss of anything in my suitcase. I was wearing my good jeans and tennis shoes, after all. I live in those jeans and tennis shoes. No - my biggest fear by far was the inevitable confirmation of Noisette's belief that I can't travel by myself. Because I sit there immersed in my Kindle oblivious to the world around, prone to missing flights left and right. Never mind that I've never actually missed any flights in 20 years of marriage and what must amount to multiple circumnavigations of the world with four kids in tow. Noisette won't let a little detail like that shake his fundamental belief in my ineptitude, so just imagine what leaving an entire bag behind would do to my reputation. I shudder to even contemplate it.

I had yet another moment of panic when I couldn't find my money moments later. Now that would be a real problem. Nothing works without money. In Germany, that even includes taking a dump. We learned that when a subway-style barrier blocked us from getting the long-awaited relief after a night of sitting in an airplane seat, announcing in big bold letters that one Euro was needed to get through. The only consolation being that, in light of us also having no money to buy any food, the need for the toilet might subside considerably over time.

The entrance to a German toilet. See how I even blurred the faces for privacy!

Luckily that concept wasn't put to the test, because the missing wallet was eventually found in the wrong backpack compartment. Where I myself had put it. Something, I'm sure, that never happens to Noisette either.

I can't wait for the real Europe trip to begin.

June 3, 2013

Europe by Rail with Four Kids

I must be insane.

At least that's what everyone tells me. But it was either flying through creation just to see the grandparents, or flying through creation to see the grandparents and a bunch of really cool cities.

Who doesn't want to see some cool European cities?

Our family, that's who.

Or I should say we're split on this. Two are actually totally gung-ho about it, especially since the word Paris was mentioned (and the word Shopping mentally added to it). One is sort of in the middle (having a preference for staying  home but appreciating the virtue of what's probably a lifetime of new blogging material - remember my motto: the crappier the experience, the better the story). And two are absolutely pissed off that they are taken away from their xBox even for one single day this summer.

The one who isn't even going is also gung-ho about it, precisely because of the xBox factor (and because it won't be him who has to shepherd 4 kids and 5 suitcases through narrow train corridors lined with hostile French travelers giving you the evil eye and worse).

I can't even imagine how exhausting it will be. The mere booking of it is already exhausting. I needed three glasses of wine just to understand the differences between Eurail and Interrail and all the exceptions and price options, and another two to console myself for the fact that these weren't even options. This is what I've learned about rail travel in Europe:

  • Americans should always travel incognito. Because the world views us as idiots who are too easily parted with our money. We might as well walk around with a sign pasted to our foreheads saying "Am American. Have dollars. Please rob me." How else do you explain that a Eurail Global Pass would cost me $3,800 for the five of us traveling 10 out of 22 days? Even if you sat on a train for 24 hours on each of those ten days and paid full fare for a first class ticket each time you wouldn't spend that much money. 
  • InterRail (the Eurail equivalent for European passport holders) sounds a lot better, at around 1,400 Euros, until you happen to read somewhere in the fine print, rather by accident, that it excludes your home country. Which of course is the country you want to do most of your traveling in. And it excludes the Eurostar to and from London, which is exorbitantly expensive.
  • Flying to and from London is much much cheaper than taking the Eurostar. You can get five people from London to Amsterdam for $150 total with EasyJet. But I kinda would have liked to take a train under an entire ocean. Or sea. Whatever.
  • In all of Europe, the German railroad (Deutsche Bahn) has by far the best booking system, with the best fares. And trust me, I tried almost all of the other ones. Even if you travel between two third countries, you should probably book your ticket via Deutsche Bahn. Except you will have to explore a bazillion options and price them all out, i.e. Bahncard 25 or Bahncard 50 or combination thereof, and this will necessitate another 2 glasses of wine and a posterboard-size paper to create the mother of all matrices. Still, with discount cards and family fares, I was able to cobble together all my nine travel days for less than 1,400 Euros, covering all countries.
  • I should write a book about these things. Then I could spout helpful advice like "remember that both first- and second-class cars travel at precisely the same speed" and "never assume the whole train is going where you are" as one of the websites I consulted was eager to point out.

Expensive, but very cool: Eurostar in London...

...and Thalys in Brussels

My head is swimming, and I am only just starting on accommodations. At the moment I am sidetracked by checking out houseboats in Amsterdam nowhere near where I really ought to stay from a practical standpoint, wondering what kind of character the guy on VRBO is who tells me that "children, pets and country music are not allowed with the exception of Johnny Cash." 

Really? Johnny Cash? Although I do agree with him on country music. But I'm not sure that will be enough common ground to want to share a bathroom and kitchen with him.

See how hard this is? I suffer from complete information overload. I kind of feel like totally winging it and hoisting a backpack and just going with the flow when we get there. That's how you're supposed to do Europe by rail, isn't it?

But then of course I'll have four people constantly peppering me with "where are we going" and "how much longer will it take" and "what if we can't find a place for tonight" and "there is no way I'll share that toilet down the hall with other people we don't know" and "why couldn't I just stay home."

I will be asking myself that same question. It'll all be wonderful a few months and even years down the road, looking back to having been in Europe. If I can just get through the being there part.

My consolation is that Amsterdam is at the tail end of my trip.

I'm told they have some interesting coffee shops there. Where I will totally relax and find everything hilariously funny that will have happened to me.

Stay tuned!