Monthly Archives: March 2014

Changing Country

All Good Things Sarah Turnbull- a review

 I’ve almost finished reading All Good Things at the moment, by Sarah Turnbull. She’s also the author of Almost French, which I read at uni (almost 20 years ago) where, as a late twenty-something Australian woman, she moves to Paris and describes her experience of trying to adapt and live alongside “les Parisiens”. When I discovered she had a new book, I resolved to re-read Almost French and remind myself of her experiences and her writing style, but I was caught by surprise when All Good Things popped up in the Sony reader store on special, and I was too impatient to go and source a copy of her earlier work first.

All Good Things has taken me a long time to read. As with everything nowadays, some of that can be blamed on situational factors (too tired, too busy, the kids, conflicting electronic demands (ie too much time on the internet) but I can’t help but feel that for a really compelling read I’d put these things aside. I didn’t really know what to expect of the book, I knew that Sarah and her French husband leave Paris to move to Tahiti and that was it. If I’d thought about it, I suppose I’d have realised that a personal memoir of life on Mo’orea was probably not going to be particularly fast-paced.

 But overall I’ve enjoyed reading it. There are several aspects of her story that I was able to identify with- her experience of Polynesia, her journey to becoming a mother, even her scuba-diving adventures are all things I can relate to although perhaps in rather different ways to her.

 However there are two things that really appeal to me. The first is her writing style. Much of what I’ve read over the last few years has been, quite frankly, trash. Predictable, formulaic, albeit page-turning chick-lit. In some ways I’m a bit of a literary wannabe. I like to appreciate good writing, I enjoy thinking about themes and imagery and all that stuff, but I don’t want to have to think too hard about it. I want it to be there for me to appreciate without having to expend too much mental energy. And All Good Things allows me just that. Sarah Turnbull writes beautifully. Admittedly her subject matter (mostly the history and natural environment of Tahiti) lends itself to vibrant prose and imagery but her descriptive passages are so… vivid (fortunately she has a far broader vocabulary than mine) and her command of adjectives (although the excerpt below isn’t actually great example of adjectives per se) is astounding.

“Waves pounded the reef, sending white caps scudding across the lagoon and vibrations travelling through the air. Ferns shimmied and shook, coconut palms tossed their heads like impatient ponies, the rubbery papaya tree arched acrobatically. When the rain fell the power of it was thrilling. Water rolled down our iron roof, falling over the eaves in fat glass ropes that glittered under the bright garden lights. The percussive din was so load we had to shout to be heard.”

My English teacher, Mrs Wade, would have been in heaven with all this imagery, albeit a rather frustrated one due my inability to understand the difference between a simile and a metaphor.

While reading passages such as this and in particular her descriptions of her lagoon and ocean forays (swimming and scuba diving), I often wondered how Sarah translated her observations to paper. Did she take notes as she was pottering around the island (surely she must have)? Sitting on a beach with a notebook I can easily imagine, but scribbling notes straight after a scuba dive, all sandy and salty and dripping water on the paper? Did she ponder for hours searching for the perfect adjective or did they all just pop into her head? (Actually an early passage describing some of the writing drills she attempted to overcome her writer’s block would suggest there wasn’t a lot of popping. Nevertheless, I was impressed!)

The other angle that seems particularly pertinent to my own experience is her perspective on moving countries. She describes perfectly (I cannot find the passage at this point- annoying e-reader) how she felt on a brief visit to Australia after some time living in France, how she somehow expected everything to be the same and felt quite indignant that, in her absence, people had dared to move on. I clearly remember having the same feelings during my first trip back to England after we had emigrated to Australia. It was 4 years before we returned which, in anyone’s book, is quite a long time, but in the crucial years of adolescence, may as well be a lifetime. I remember naïvely expecting the comfortable niche I’d left as a 12 year old to be there when I returned at 16 and all my friends just sitting around missing me, as I had missed them since I’d left. Realising they hadn’t been doing that at all and that my niche had been solidly filled in for some time generated such feelings of sadness and loss that I found my visit really difficult in some ways. (Actually it was also exactly what I needed to realise where home really was now and get on with life instead of wallowing in sentimental thoughts of where I’d be now if we hadn’t moved).

Of course, with our imminent move to NZ, this theme becomes relevant again. At the end of the book, Sarah moves back to Australia with her husband and son, and in the final few chapters she describes the physical steps that contribute to such a life-change:

“Changing country requires commitment and energy. Finding or starting work, making friends, developing new rituals, locating favourite restaurants and pastimes- the process of settling in, or “blending in”, as my mother used to say, takes time and energy. Finally, if you’ve been diligent and your efforts prove fruitful, you end up with precisely what you left behind: routines and a regular life.”

As an adult, fortunately, these steps are easier. Not just because they are conscious but because you feel more in control of them than when you are dumped in a foreign country at the age of 12. The fact that you’re the one choosing to move in the first place probably has a lot to do with it as well. So does the fact that you feel much more confident in who you are and all these new discoveries are accessories to your life rather than the definition of it.

So I’m sorry it took me so long to get through the book. Whilst I can’t help but feel a little disappointed that I wasn’t compelled to read it faster, I think the fault was largely mine rather than the author’s. I’d be keen to go back and visit Almost French again. It did spend many years sitting on my bookshelf, only to be discarded in a fit of de-cluttering. But hey, that’s what a library is for, right?

Past imperfect

I never did read that “Letters to my 16 year old self” book, although I did read a few snippets that were published in weekend newspapers and the like. However, I do occasionally indulge in an idle fantasy where I am asked to speak at some kind of assembly/speech day/welcome to students of my old school and I think about what I would say. This fantasy is often triggered by a school reunion, or running into someone from school, or another such reminder, not just of how far I’ve come in the last 20-odd years, but (somewhat narcissistically) how much I’d love to show off about it to all the cool people at school who never gave me a second thought. I wonder if I’d been like I am now, when I was at school, how different my high-school experience would have been.

Now that I have my own daughter I do spend quite a bit of time wondering and thinking and hoping that she becomes a slightly more functional teenager than I was myself (I’m conveniently assuming Master L will be a carbon copy of the highly-functioning teenager his father was, in marked contrast to his mother). More to the point, I hope I can at least set a decent example, if not guide Miss L, in areas where I feel I’d do things differently second time round (which, to be fair, I think is most areas!) I know it’s often said that parents want for their children what they never had themselves, or got to be, as if they want to live vicariously through their kids. I think it’s less selfish than that though, you just want to try and spare them the hassle of the hard stuff and the time-wasters and show them the best that life has to offer, which you often don’t realise yourself until after the fact.

I’ve often regretted how much time I wasted at school agonising and having attitude over things that a) didn’t matter or b) did matter but I should have bloody well just got on with it instead of bitching and moaning the entire time. I know part of growing up is figuring these things out for yourself, but I do think of all the other things I could have been doing if I’d known this all along!

So, if I am ever invited to give that speech or write a chapter for that book, here’s what I’d say:

1)    Do what you enjoy even if you think you aren’t the best at it. The main thing that comes to mind is sport. You like running (and you are quite good at it, you know that). Do more of it, work on it, find out how to get better at it. Not so you can win, but so that you get a sense of achievement from it.

2)    Be to other people how you’d like them to be to you. You want people to chat to you, be interested in you, ask you about things, invite you places. Maybe you should make the effort too instead of waiting for them to do everything. Just say hi, how are you, what did you do on the weekend? Keep an open mind, they might be a nice person. And if you find out you don’t click, move on, that’s ok, not everyone does click. But get over this obsession that no one really likes you. For a start, they’d like you better if you did (get over it)!

3)    On a similar note, you don’t have to have a “best friend”. Friends come in many different guises and pop up in all walks of life. Things that you have in common with one friend, you will not have with another. That’s what makes them interesting. Friends come and go through different phases of your life. Being comfortable with lots of different people is much more useful than trying to force one person into a “best” friend mould.

4)    Your time will come, be patient. Not everyone needs to be kissed by the time they’re 16, be going out drinking in Year 11 or have a boyfriend in Year 12. There is plenty of time for all this and it’s just making you miserable comparing yourself to girls in your year who’ve got there first. You’ve got other places they haven’t, so make the most of those places, there’s all the time in the world for boys and all the rest of it.

5)    You’re right to worry about your weight, NOT because of the way you look, but because of how you feel and your health. It’s not about being super-skinny and you can’t really change the basic body-type you’re meant to have, but carrying excess weight is bad for you, mentally and physically. Eat healthier food, and less of it, savour the delicious things in small amounts regularly, and busy-up your life so you don’t have time to sit around and obsess about eating. I don’t know how to spare you a 20 year obsession with food and chaotic, unhealthy eating behaviours, but it doesn’t need to be so hard, it really doesn’t.

6)    You know who around you has got it right. Think about what it is that they do. They have it figured out already. They’re smart, busy girls, they fit a lot in. They play sport and do well in class, yet they have no more hours in the day than you do. They talk to all sorts of people without demonstrating the hang-ups you have. These hang-ups are purely mental, but you need to physically push them out of the way sometimes- i.e. get out there and just get on with it!

7)    Make the most of opportunities that come your way. You never know where they might lead. And even if they lead nowhere, at least you aren’t left wondering what would have happened if you’d tried something new.

8)    Keep dreaming your dreams. You will become the person you want to be and you’ll learn a lot along the way. You pretty much can do anything you put your mind to (ok maybe professional ballet is out, but most other stuff!)

9)    Your parents know a lot but they don’t know everything. Don’t model your way of life on them. They could be busier, more active, more positive, more sociable, more adventurous. So could you.

10) Smile. It’ll make everything easier.

xx

Going Solo

“I hope the kids are good for you” said Mr L. 

“I’m more worried about whether I’m going to be good for them” I replied.

Today he left for Germany for a week. As in, a full proper week: 7 nights (actually 7 days, 7 nights and about 8 hours, but who’s counting?) This is the longest he’s been away since Miss L was born. He did a 12 day stint when Master L was about 6 months old and I thought that was hard (now I think- pfft! What could ever be hard about only ONE baby?!?!)

I need to remind myself from time to time that I am the adult. Master L is 2 years old (nearly two and a half). He is impulsive, impatient and self-centred. This is normal for a child his age. It’s developmentally how he should be. He is psychologically & physiologically unable to be anything else until his frontal lobe is sufficiently mature. When I am impulsive, impatient and self-centred, I’m choosing to be. I’m choosing not to be a responsible mother and a good role-model. I’m choosing to shout and scream because I think it’ll make me feel better. And it never does. It makes me feel like a failure. “Childish” is an imprecise term, we use it to describe an adult who is acting like a child but a child is actually doing just what he’s meant to do, the adult’s meant to be…. well, adult-ish.

And so (partly because Mr L is off again for another 6 nights a week after he returns and I think I need to remind myself how to do it) here is my “Solo survival guide”.

Day 1

Do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do– Ok, so for today it was a trip to Bunnings before dinner. Hardly up there in the excitement ratings, but Master L loves the place (and we did actually need an obscure replacement lightbulb for Miss L’s room). It filled an hour between Mr L leaving for the airport and bedtime, as well as conveniently pushing dinner back a bit so the dinner-bedtime gap was shorter. And Bunnings is big! Little legs running up and down a big warehouse = tired little boy at bedtime.

Day 2

Divide the day into chunks- Going to the extremes of 15-minute blocks (a la Will Freeman in About a Boy) is hopefully not necessary but I find 3 sections usually works ok (sometimes these get sub-divided depending how things are going and how much clock-watching is going on). Today divided nicely into “Early” (up until about 10am when my parents arrived to watch Miss L while I took Master L swimming) “Middle” (up until afternoon nap time) and “End” from end of nap until bedtime. I think it helps to schedule some kind of activity for each section- you don’t have to go out, but make some kind of loose plan. For example, our morning “activity” is often staying at home tidying up, feeding the chickens, doing the washing etc but at least something you can tell your toddler (and yourself) you are doing so that you don’t feel like you’re sitting around just waiting for the day to pass.

Day 3

Catch up on “me” things- So far this week, I’ve caught up on TV shows I don’t usually get to watch (thank you internet, watch out download-limit) and last night I managed to go to bed early enough that I was asleep by 10 (and unfortunately therefore oblivious to Mr L calling from Germany). I also plan to make a serious dent in the reading material I downloaded to take on holiday with us (although to be fair catching up on reading requires me to shut my computer rather than have L absent) and also de-forest my legs (using my time-consuming, uncomfortable and not particularly effective home depilating machine which is, at least, cheaper than having them waxed and can be done on the noisy discomfort of my lounge room floor). This again, is not something that Mr L’s presence precludes me from doing but I need to do something in order to prevent him from returning to a crurally hirsute wife and I can’t exactly leave the kids here while I go and get them waxed, can I?

Day 4

Make some extra coffee/play dates- Sharing the kids (usually) shares the pain. Plus I always find it’s nice to gain a bit of perspective by seeing what’s going on in the rest of the world, as managing at home alone seems to somehow magnify your own little microcosm. Also, you generally earn  lots of sympathy/admiration points which you often miss out on with non-mummy friends.

Day 5

Lower your expectations- I always blame every little glitch on a change in routine. I never expect the kids to sleep as well or things to go as smoothly. I was proven correct last night with Master L awake at 9, 1.30 and then 5.15, and Miss L (who never wakes up!) awake at 2.30. Of course their worst night of sleep is always the night before I have to go to work. I used to get really worked up about this and be fretting “they HAVE to sleep! I have to work!” Now I just take them sleeping through as a bonus when Mr L is away, I assume they know things are a bit different and are unsettled too, just as I am. I don’t exactly expect the worst, but I certainly don’t expect the best. So I just go with it now. If I’m tired at work, I’m tired. If disaster strikes, I’ll call in sick. The place won’t fall apart without me and besides, there’s not much else I can do.

Day 6

Think happy thoughts- It’s taken me over two years to really learn to deal with Mr L going away. A  part of that has been learning to shift my mindset and attitude towards him being absent. Although his trips away are always business trips, it took me a long time to get over the feeling of missing out. I mean, I know it’s not as if he’s out partying every night when he’s away, but for a loooong time I felt envious and a little resentful of the fact that he got to go away, sleep, eat and shower uninterrupted and, when he wasn’t working, essentially do what he wanted. I even envied the fact that he got to sit on a plane to Melbourne and watch the Channel 9 special edition Qantas news  if he wanted to (the fact that he actually works on his laptop on the computer was little consolation). Because this current trip is to Europe, he got to fly business class! Particularly so soon after our trip to Canada, I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t felt the teeniest bit wistful about the thought of 24 hours in business class watching whatever I wanted on the TV, uninterrupted save for the meals and drinks. But really, I wasn’t that bothered. And when I heard he was upgraded to First for one of the legs, I was actually really excited for him. To be honest, I doubt I will ever fly First Class but I couldn’t care less. What I’m getting at, is that instead of thinking “Lucky him he gets to go away and have a week without the kids” I’m much more conscious of the fact that he’s not sleeping in his own bed, he’s missing us, he’s having a pretty full-on work week, he can’t get a decent cup of tea, and I’m fairly confident he’d rather having Pizza and Pinot on the couch for dinner tonight that oysters and Dom Perignon in First Class. It’s made it much easier to deal with him being away, knowing that this is a week that’s hard for both of us, not just me.

Day 7

And always, not just on Day 7, but every day, I spare a thought (many thoughts, in fact) for mums and dads who don’t just do this by themselves for 7 days, 7 nights and 8 hours, they do it indefinitely. Not everyone is as lucky as I am to have a Mr L who makes it home 9 times out of 10 for bath & bedtime. I know people who have lost a spouse, or whose husbands are in the army, or even just people whose other halves have jobs where they don’t ever make it home for the kids’ bedtimes during the week. How they do it, I don’t know, but they do amaze me and make me feel slightly pathetic for complaining at all.

Family Travels

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Exploring the snow at Whistler Creekside

We’re at the end of our 8 day trip to Canada now. It’s always sad to get to the end of a holiday, although I know I’ll be glad to be home once we actually walk through the door.

This wasn’t our first overseas trip with children, although it was one of the more logistically complex. There was a conference I wanted to go to in Whistler and given that we love the place and love to ski, the obvious choice was to take Mr L and the two little Ls with me.

A number of people (most of them with children themselves) expressed their admiration, as in “Wow, you’re brave coming all this way with 2 young kids”. A couple of others (without children and unlikely ever to have them) simply gave me the impression they felt a bit sorry for me having to compromise my holiday “fun” because of my kids.

However, I really don’t agree with either of these sentiments (although I was happy to accept the admiration of the former group!) Like many things in life, and definitely life with kids, not only do you get out (to some extent) what you put in, but you learn fairly quickly that if you really want to make things happen, you can. Yes it might be a bit more work, but there’s a good chance it’ll also be more rewarding.

A lot of it boils down to mindset, I think. When I was pregnant with Master L, friends of ours announced they were getting married in Whistler (he’s Canadian). They hoped as many people as possible would make it and were planning a week’s skiing leading up to the wedding. I calculated that Master L would be about 5 months old by then and so my first reaction was “Oh, that’s such a shame, we won’t be able to make it” but before I could say words to this effect out loud, Mr L said “Awesome, skiing in Whistler, sounds great!”. I was a bit dubious, but once I realised Mr L was serious, I thought “Well if we’re going to do this I need to be positive about it and make it work”.

And so we did. And it was brilliant! Flying with a 5 month old, breast-fed baby is a piece of cake (now that I look back on it anyway! Ok, so at the time it seemed like a bit of a big deal, but it was fine). We stayed in a self-contained apartment at so we had everything we needed including a kitchen. I hear a lot of people complaining about going away with kids and staying in self-contained places, they grumble that they still have to cook & wash and tidy up, so “you may as well be at home”, they say. But I disagree. You cook a bit, but much more basic stuff, the biggest load of laundry you’ll do is the contents of your suitcase (and that’s unlikely to be done all at once) and someone comes in every day and spruces up- but only when it’s convenient for you, of course. When Master L was playing on the floor or sleeping I a) read b) slept as well or c) drank wine (well, at night anyway!) I did a bit of skiing- we’d get a babysitter for a long morning (which is about my skiing limit anyway, especially 5 months after having a baby) and it was actually very relaxing. Plus there are none of those chores and ongoing projects calling to you and making you feel guilty for sitting down and relaxing.

So we had similar plans this time. I took loads of distractions and snacks for Master L on the plane, we booked an apartment with an extra bedroom and we had my conference to complicate the logistics slightly. It’s a little harder flying with 2 kids, in that you end up each “having” a child the whole time, instead of passing one back & forth between you, but that’s ok, at least he had his own seat and I gave up the expectation of reading or watching movies with children on planes a while ago. Babysitting costs no more, really, for 2 than for 1. And because you have a toddler there’s not as much time for the reading & sleeping etc, but then there isn’t at home, either. And we still had our wine!

A spanner was thrown in the works by Miss L, who came down with a nasty bug the day after we got here which meant we had to cancel the baby-sitting a couple of times to stay with her ourselves, which was really disappointing, but those things happen at home, too. It also meant Mr L and I didn’t get an awful lot of time alone together. With her cold, Miss L slept terribly all week and in a strange bed, Master L didn’t sleep well either. So we are all tired!

There were some great things about going away with our toddler, though. We got to spend more time actually doing things with Master L and watching him enjoy them- like playing in the snow, riding in the cable car and watching the trucks clear the snow each morning. Last time we went, at 5 months old, these were the things we wanted to enjoy with him but he was more interested in practicing rolling over! We got 8 days away from the work-home-sleep-work cycle to take stock. I really enjoyed my conference. We both managed to get in some skiing. We went on a sleigh-ride….

I’ll never be one of those “I backpacked around south-east Asia with my baby on my back” type of people, nor have I been brave enough to try camping with the little ones yet, but I do think you can do anything if you really want to. You will undoubtedly have to compromise at some stage and be realistic about what you can enjoyably do. So while I look at those people who do go traipsing round the world and think “you’re crazy!”, I also say to those people who tell me “Oh I wish WE could go skiing with our kids”, you can! Yes we are lucky that we can afford it, some of it’s about affordability, but from a  logistical perspective, some if it is really just a bit of lateral thinking and determination.

So, what did we learn?

  1. Get to the airport extra-early. Toddlers hate to be rushed, they also love running around the airport and plane-spotting. And toilet stops take a long time!
  2. Don’t plan to do anything much within 24 hours of a long-haul flight. The kids need time to recover.
  3. Don’t worry too much about not having “exciting” things for little kids to do at your destination- riding buses and going to new playgrounds can be just as much fun as things which cost money.
  4. If you have the luxury of being able to take or meet (helpful) friends or relatives on holiday, do it! We realised (way too late) that Mr L’s mother was off work this week and it would have worked out perfectly if she’d come with us. It would also have solved our problem of not being able to leave a sick child with a baby-sitter.
  5. Don’t overestimate how much time and energy you will have to do your own thing- we booked a 5 day lift pass, of which I skied 2 and a bit days, and I brought 2 new books with me, and haven’t read as much of a page of the book I was already on!
  6. It’s your holiday too, so while you need to consider your kids, you also need to do what you want to do some of the time as well.
  7. You can make it work with kids, you might just have to compromise a bit!

So, to our next holiday, bon voyage!