Life! Oh, life!

If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.

Woody Allen

Positive!

“M has a new job,” I said.

“I’m moving to Pakistan,” I said.

And the gods heard me, and they chortled.  “You think?”

And then I peed on a stick and I understood the reasons for their mirth.

“I’ll go anyway!” I said. “People have babies in Pakistan!”

And then the doctor did a scan. We listened to the baby’s heartbeat and I cried. And then he said, “Oh, but there are two!” We listened to the second baby’s heartbeat and I laughed for about ten minutes straight.

And the doctor said, “You’re going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins. You are NOT moving to Pakistan.”

I’m going to be a 44-year-old woman giving birth to twins! And the babies’ father is going to be living in Pakistan while I stay here in Geneva to have them! Who says the gods lack a sense of humour!

In the last of the four posts that I published in 2013 on the subject of infertility, I wrote:

“I’d thought that I was going to be a mother and I’ve done everything I possibly could to make that happen. But it didn’t, and now, barring some miraculous future event, it probably never will.”

Well, there seems to have been a miraculous future event. The miracle came in the form of modern medicine and a medical team with vast knowledge and immense skill, as well as a wealth of patience and understanding. It was fuelled by love and generosity and acceptance. It was paid for by those with the funds and prayed for by those with the faith. And if the funds and the faith and the tremendous good fortune continue to be supplied with such abundance, it will manifest itself next year in the form of two of the most hoped for, anticipated, loved (and presumably photographed) babies in the short history of homo sapiens.

The experience of sharing this news with our families has been like having a direct line into the source of all happiness. I’ve never felt so loved and supported, which is huge, given that I’ve always felt loved and supported. This is a screen grab that I took when Dad Skyped me back about ten minutes after the initial conversation in which I told him I was pregnant:

What a great day!

My sister Luli, who was sitting in a café when I called her with the news, went straight from the café to a hobby shop to buy wool, and has since started to knit a baby blanket for us, consciously casting a spell of love for the babies with each new stitch that she casts on.

My beautiful brother and I don’t speak on the phone very often but he called me as soon as Dad had shared the news with him. He said that in all the years that M and I and have been hoping for a baby and he has been trying to console us with the words, “You don’t need to have kids to be happy,” he knew he wasn’t speaking his complete truth, as he can’t imagine his life without the millions of joys that his two boys have brought him.

My sister Kalinka sobbed when I told her. She texted every day for days and days afterwards to see how me and the babies were doing. And she’s setting aside a little dress that was passed down to her daughter by my little sister’s little girl so that if I have a daughter, she can wear her cousins’ dress too.

My sister Pinky, hilariously recognising the enormity of the news for us and the fact that my quiet life of books and travel is over, kept repeating the words, “Fuckedy-fuckedy-fuck!” And that was before she knew we were having twins!

My little sister Coco started making immediate mental preparations for me and the babies to come and occupy the spare bedroom in the lovely new home that she and her family have just moved into. The cot that Dad made for his six babies to sleep in in the sixties and seventies and that has accommodated all of his eleven grandchildren since will take pride of place in the room.

When I was in The Vagina Monologues earlier this year and I delivered the piece about childbirth, one of the most poignant lines for me was the last one, “I was there in the room. I remember.”

It has even greater poignancy for me now. Because in April next year, if all goes according to the new plan…

I’ll be there. In the room.

And our lives will change, miraculously and forever.

Pâques (and pictures)

There are as many worlds as there are kinds of days, and as an opal changes its colors and its fire to match the nature of a day, so do I.

John Steinbeck

 

Easter breakfast
Easter breakfast

My mum was good at Easter. I remember it as being almost as exciting as Christmas. Mum always got up before the rest of us and we’d wake to the smell of tea and hot cross buns. My little sister and I – we shared a room – would sneak into the dining room to see the table magically laid out with tea cups and side plates and coloured eggs galore. We’d have chocolate for breakfast, altogether as a family of eight. It was the most exciting thing ever. After breakfast we’d go outside to search for the Easter eggs Mum had hidden in the garden. The six of us would compete to find them, the older ones surreptitiously helping the younger ones, then we’d pile all the eggs up together, count them and divide them equally between us. I thought I’d carry these traditions on with my own children.

But last Easter M and I were in the south of France mourning the end of an adventure that never began. We spent four days staring out to sea and contemplating both the future that wasn’t to be and the one that was within our power to create. Like much of life, it was hard but it was beautiful. We cried but we got closer.

This Easter we’re in Interlaken making the most of the life that seems set to be ours. We won’t have any little people with us tomorrow morning getting excited about Interlaken’s Easter egg hunt, but we will have each other. And we’ll have beautiful countryside to explore and gorgeous Swiss chocolate to eat and lakes to look over and mountains to climb.

The first Easter that M and had together we spent diving in Dahab. The next year we had Easter in Egypt. Then last year there was sadness in the south of France.

This year we have satisfaction in Switzerland. Life could be a whole lot worse.

Joyeuses Pâques, everybody.

Happy Easter.

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Confessions of an expat hostess

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Bubble guy

I’ve always loved having people come to stay. Because I’ve spent my entire adult life living “away from home”, having visitors has always meant two things:

1)    A chance to spend some proper time with people that I love but get to see far too infrequently.

2)    An opportunity to show people around a place that they may not have visited before.

The older I get, the more I love playing hostess and tour guide. I decorate rooms. I draw up itineraries. I plan menus. I seem to have completely outgrown my old “let’s just book a flight and see what happens” holiday ways, as it seems to me now that if you just wait to see what happens, more often than not, nothing happens at all. I used to think that planning was the enemy of serendipity, but now I find that spontaneity arises more easily out of a loosely structured plan than out of a fog of optimistic indecision.

There are times when my planning works out well for me, and, I can only hope, for my guests. When M and I were living in Israel it was incredibly easy to show people a good time. After a trip to Masada, a dip in the Dead Sea, a day or two of discovering the historic sights and souks of the Old City of Jerusalem, and a walk along the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv, we’d suddenly find that a long weekend had passed with eventful (and sometimes even educational) ease.

There are other times when circumstances conspire to make me a less than relaxed hostess. Take the last year, for example. I would have thought, before moving into probably the biggest and most beautiful house that I’ll ever have the good fortune to inhabit, that welcoming guests into such an abode would be a doddle. And I’d have expected that living in the midst of the extraordinary beauty of Savoie would make it easy to decide where to take people. And that having easy access to some of the world’s finest food and wine would make catering for guests the biggest pleasure in the world.

Unfortunately it didn’t really work out that way and I can only apologise to the people who have come to stay with us in the Chateau de Collonges. Do you remember that scene in Groundhog Day where Phil and Rita built a snowman? In his frenzied desire to show what a fun-loving, likeable chap he is, Phil comes across as something of a weirdo. Let’s have some fun! he giggles. Come on! Ha, ha, ha, ha! Hey, here’s a humdinger over here! Hey! Wasn’t that great?!

I’ve been a bit like that.

Isn’t it beautiful?! Let’s go and see this amazing place! I know you’ve just flown from the other side of the world but forget about your jet lag! Stand right there to pose for a photo! No, not there! There! You love this fine French food I’ve found for you, don’t you? You don’t? But how could you not! It’s great! Yum! I love everything here! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Ha, ha, ha! Aren’t we having fun?!

I blame the hormones. And the lack of alcohol. And I thank those of you who have visited from the bottom of my heart for saying that you’ve had a good time in spite of my frenzied regime of enforced fun.

Thankfully, there are also times when everything works like a charm in spite of my obsessive planning and feverish quest for amusement. Last weekend, when seven members of my family flew in from Inverness and Amsterdam to help M and I celebrate my birthday, was one of those times. Everything was so simple and so beautiful. My nephews, who are at ages where society might expect them to be sullen and withdrawn, were curious, interested, charming, intelligent and gracious. My niece, who at nearly-three could be forgiven the occasional temper tantrum, was cute beyond any reasonable expectations of cuteness. M and my brother-in-law coped valiantly with the inevitable emotional intensity of any gathering of my family that involves more than one person. And my siblings… Ah, they were my siblings. Having two of them around made me miss the other three even more intensely than I usually do, but apart from that, having them here, walking my Daily Walk and talking our incredible talks was the most fantastic of birthday gifts.

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There were many perfect moments over the three days that they were here but two, I think, will stay in my memory forever. The first was when we happened upon a guy on the shores of Lake Annecy who makes a living out of blowing giant bubbles. Using two sticks, a bit of old rope and his own secret-recipe solution, he creates what my sister Luli gorgeously described as magical trees in kaleidoscopic bubbles. He’s made sticks to suit people of all sizes so everyone got to have a go, as M and I stood back and watched the smiles of our family and of every single casual passer-by. I’ve had over a week to think about it now and still I can’t think of a better way to earn a living than by making big bubbles and beautiful smiles. Thank you, bubble guy.

The other moment was during our lunch in Annecy. I’d planned to make confit de canard for dinner that night, so rather than having anything heavy for lunch, we just bought sandwiches from one of Annecy’s fantastic sandwich stands. We had planned to eat and walk, but somehow, without discussing it, all nine of us ended up stopping at various points along a bridge across one of the canals that give Annecy the nickname of Venice of the Alps.

It was cold, and all of us, apart from my unbelievably hardy Scottish nephews, were wrapped in coats, scarves and gloves against the chilly wind. I looked across from my vantage point on the bridge and saw eight people that I love, quietly eating their sandwiches and taking in the gorgeous sights of this historic town. My twelve-year-old nephew was feeding crumbs to the seagulls, which swooped over our heads, their wings like sails taking them across the water and on towards tourists with tastier treats. Occasionally a couple of us spoke. My sister Luli, also recognising the gorgeousness of the moment, at one point took a little video of the scene. But mostly we all just stood there. Quietly. Just being in this beautiful place. Eating our simple delicious sandwiches and watching some of the people we love being together and apart and cold and warm and quiet and contented.

I was very spoilt for my birthday and was given many gorgeous gifts. And of all them, that moment was the one that I’ll keep inside and enjoy forever.

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All that bumbles isn’t a bee

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

Socrates

IMG_0525

Chewing the cud.

My father is a very hardworking man. Even now, a few months before his 75th birthday, he struggles to say no when work is thrown his way. When my siblings and I were kids, Dad was determined to instil this work ethic in us as well, and he found it infuriating if ever he came home during a mid-morning break from work and found us still lounging around in our pyjamas. His determination on this issue bore fruit, too; none of his six kids could ever be accused of being workshy. My problem now, though, is where to channel that work ethic when I’m not working. Where is the line between enjoying an unexpected period of affordable unemployment, and becoming, to use my dad’s vernacular, a lazy good for nothing so and so?

On the last couple of days, when I’ve gone on my One-Hour Daily Walk, I’ve had the irritating feeling that I should be using my walking time constructively. Yesterday and the day before, I stuck my headphones on and listened to French podcasts as I walked. This morning, when I didn’t feel like walking, I realised it was because I wasn’t in the mood for studying French. OK, I thought to myself, I’ll use the time to think about a tricky plot point I’ve reached in a story I’m writing instead. So I headed out the door, my usual sunhat replaced by a serious frown and an ill-fitting thinking cap, and realised about half an hour into the walk that I still wasn’t enjoying it as much as I usually do.

Then the thought occurred to me. It’s OK just to be at peace.

Much of the average life, it seems to me from this lofty position of unemployment, is consumed by the sense that if we’re not crazy busy, running around and seeing people and getting stuff done, then we’re not achieving anything. But how much of the stuff that we fill our time with is actually necessary or worthwhile? Should we really be complaining that ironing the tea towels is stealing away our leisure time, or should we just not bother to iron the tea towels? Do we have to be doing something specific with our brain during a daily walk, or is a daily walk constructive enough in itself?

When I was teaching English in Japan, an easy way of starting conversation classes was by asking people what they’d done on the weekend. One woman, whose children were growing up and becoming slightly more independent, often detailed all the housework chores she’d managed to tick off the list. On one particularly busy weekend, she’d managed not just to wash all the inside walls, but also to clean every individual picket on the white picket fence surrounding her house. Really? People do that? Another woman almost invariably said that she’d spent Saturday morning shopping for clothes. When I commented that she must have a lot of clothes, given the amount of time she spent shopping, she said that most weeks she ended up taking back the stuff that she’d bought the week before! We truly are all busy fools!

My Dad’s getting much better at chilling out these days. Next week he and I are meeting up in Amsterdam and we’re going to spend a week wandering around the streets of his home town, drinking Dutch gin and waving to the locals from our house boat. And I’m confident that not once will it cross my mind that I should be doing something more constructive.