Clueless in Paris, London or New York

20150729_114809

I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.

There but for the grace of God

image

As the year draws to a close, all the talk in Ireland is of storms and fatal traffic accidents. Every time tragedy strikes, as it has this week and every other week of the year, a family’s story is rewritten. They stop being the family with the trampoline in their garden, or whose mother who jogs every morning, and become the family that have experienced a terrible loss. And all the awful irreversible steps that led to the moment of the accident remain engraved in memory to torment them.

You get a glimpse of this in the feelings of shock and wonder that come after a near miss. Tragedy has been averted but it has shown its colours, its capacity to devastate. These are potentially life-changing moments, when the ground opens up beneath your feet and suddenly you are teetering on the edge of a deep ravine of grief and regret from which there is no escape. Most of the time, the gap closes as quickly as it has opened and you take your next step on firm blessed ground.

I had one such day this year, where a tortured alternative future revealed itself to me so sharply and clearly that I almost lived it.

Going anywhere with young children means having your accident radar switched on at all times. You have to anticipate, warn, and take precautions – constantly. But unfamiliar places, travel stress and too many distractions can interfere with this vigilance.

This particular morning we were in the middle of France, on our way back to Switzerland after taking the ferry from Ireland. To break the journey we had stayed the night in a depressed-looking village off the motorway near Orléans. To get to the hotel car park, we needed to wait on the narrow path in front of the hotel and cross a busy road where the cars were completely ignoring the speed limit.

I nearly lost my five-year-old daughter on that road. And I know for certain that I would have blamed myself for the accident forever. Why? Because of the dog. Because of the canal at the end of the lane. Because I was carrying too many things. Because of the choice of hotel. Because for just this once I did not anticipate, did not warn and did not take the right precautions.

Around the corner from the hotel, as I had discovered earlier that morning while walking the dog, was a lane that ran alongside the ruins of an old castle. I walked along that lane, not realising that I was setting in motion a chain of events that might leave my own life in ruins.

At the end of the lane I came across an old canal dock and overgrown waterway. Curious, I thought. The village, with its grand old indoor market hall, many derelict buildings and shuttered businesses, must have seen better days. Maybe the canal once brought life and trade to this place.

An hour later when we were crowded into the small lobby with our too many bags, dog on a lead and three children, the canal was on my mind. When I should have been warning the children about the road and seeking out the hand of my youngest child, I was foolishly asking the owner about the canal she seemed to know nothing about.

End the pointless conversation, say goodbye, transfer the dog’s lead to the other hand, gather up the last stray plastic bags, walk out the door, and see my little girl step straight out onto the road. I shout. She turns, looks at me and says oops, and I believe that is the last time I will hear her voice, that I have already lost her and she is now not six feet away from me on a provincial French street but on the other side where I can never reach her again.

But there was no car, and I got her back, and we are still just the family with the Irish mother and the dog. It is frightening to think how destiny can turn on the slightest sliver of detail. The best book I read in 2015 takes the concept of alternative destinies and uses it to build a fascinating story of the many possible lives of one person.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, highly recommended. This is my first ever blog post written and posted on my phone. Excuse any formatting errors. I wanted to write a round-up of the books I read this year but that’s not really possible away from base. I’ve had a lovely Christmas here in stormy, rainy Ireland, counting my blessings.

Wishing everyone a peaceful, pleasant and safe New Year.

Every day is Mother’s Day

mothers_day_vintage-739560

I’m wary of making too much of a public fuss of mothers on Mother’s Day. At the hairdressers on Saturday they were giving out red roses to the mothers who came in to have their hair done. They do the same thing in restaurants in Switzerland. Even the woman on the Scientology stand ran after me in the street to give me a rose.

Ten years ago, when I was feeling very low after a miscarriage and the only non-mother at a family gathering, I was handed a flower in a restaurant on Mother’s Day and it nearly killed me. I didn’t know that I would be the mother of twins within a year. All I knew was that the whole country had chosen that day to lean on my pain and that carrying that flower home was a torment.

I know mothers do an important job and should be appreciated for that but, for all the drudgery involved, it is a job with substantial built-in rewards; let’s not forget we are looking after our own children, hardly the most selfless task in the world.

Why not make next Sunday University Graduate Day? A day when graduates can feel special and be rewarded for their, ahem, years of hard work. When I was a child, I sometimes complained that children were short changed. Why was there no such thing as Children’s Day? I would protest. My mother, annoyingly but quite rightly, just laughed and told me that every day was Children’s Day.

I’m not giving back the beautiful homemade cards and presents my children surprised me with on Sunday. Their excitement and pride in doing something thoughtful for me is also mine to cherish. But I don’t need public praise and congratulations on top of that. Besides, the significance of motherhood has nothing to do with a mass-produced flower.

Instead of trying to write something meaningful and original about motherhood, I’m going to leave you with this passage from The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell, set in the 1960s and written in the voice of Lexie, journalist and mother of baby Theo.

To distract herself, as ever, she worked. The women we become after children, she typed, then stopped to adjust the angle of the paper. She glanced at the paintings, almost without seeing them, the cocked her head to listen for Theo. Nothing. Silence, the freighted silence of sleep. She turned back to the typewriter, to the sentence she had written.

We change shape, she continued, we buy low-heeled shoes, we cut off our long hair. We begin to carry in our bags half-eaten rusks, a small tractor, a shred of beloved fabric, a plastic doll. We lose muscle tone, sleep, reason, perspective. Our hearts begin to live outside our bodies. They breathe, they eat, they crawl and – look! – they walk, they begin to speak to us. We learn that we must sometimes walk an inch at a time, to stop and examine every stick, every stone, every squashed tin along the way. We get used to not getting where we were going. We learn to darn, perhaps to cook, to patch the knees of dungarees. We get used to living with a love that suffuses us, suffocates us, blinds us, controls us. We live. We contemplate our bodies, our stretched skin, those threads of silver around our brows, our strangely enlarged feet. We learn to look less in the mirror. We put our dry-clean only clothes to the back of the wardrobe. Eventually, we throw them away. We school ourselves to stop saying ‘shit’ and ‘damn’ and learn to say ‘my goodness’ and ‘heavens above’. We give up smoking, we colour our hair, we search the vistas of parks, swimming pools, libraries, cafés, for others of our kind. We know each other by our pushchairs, our sleepless gazes, the beakers we carry. We learn how to cool a fever, ease a cough, the four indicators of meningitis, that one must sometimes push a swing for two hours. We buy biscuit cutters, washable paints, aprons, plastic bowls. We no longer tolerate delayed buses, fighting in the street, smoking in restaurants, sex after midnight, inconsistency, laziness, being cold. We contemplate younger women as they pass us in the street, with their cigarettes, their make-up, their tight-seamed dresses, their tiny handbags, their smooth, washed hair, and we turn away, we put down our heads, we keep on pushing the pram up the hill.

 

‘A bored woman is a dangerous woman’

ID-100160517

You cannot be indifferent to Hausfrau, the new novel by Jill Alexander Essbaum set in Switzerland. It is a novel that will spark an array of contradictory reactions: You will loathe the main character Anna or you will weep for her. You will recoil at the graphic sex scenes or find them erotic; you will be intrigued by the psychological and linguistic analysis, or find it tiresome. Whatever happens, the power of the story will keep you reading to the end.

If you happen to be a foreign resident of Switzerland you will recognize many of the quirks and frustrations of living in this would-be paradise, ruthlessly exposed by Essbaum. But if you are in any way defensive of Switzerland, you will bristle at the Swiss bashing.

Hausfrau is the story of a woman who has lost her sense of self and abdicated responsibility for her life. She follows her Swiss husband back to his home town near Zurich to settle down and raise a family, but nine years on she still can’t settle in. She’s depressed and remains an outsider, to her husband, her children and her community – stifled by it all.

We already know that appearances can be deceiving but in Essbaum’s debut novel the gulf between appearances and reality is so wide it’s disturbing.

The world sees a well-dressed American mother living in an affluent bubble in Dietlikon, “the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led”. Anna Benz has accepted the age-old deal of husband (a banker, natürlich) making the money while she keeps house and looks after their three young children. The children’s school is metres away from their home and she has babysitting on tap thanks to her mother-in-law.

There is nothing Anna could not change in her life if she wanted to, as her psychiatrist tries to tell her again and again. Why the passivity, the indifference to her fate? That is the central question of the book and while we get many hints, it really remains unanswered because Essbaum provides scant details of Anna’s former life, apart from the fact that her parents were killed in a car crash.

The story begins when Anna is finally starting to make an effort by beginning a German language course and attending analysis sessions. At the same time she embarks on a reckless affair, seemingly on a whim.

Essbaum manages to successfully switch between different strands and moments in time – events at home, the language classes, memories, lovers’ trysts, therapy sessions, descriptions of Swiss culture, and a lot of Anna’s internal reflections. The scenes are short, some snapshots of just a few lines, but you instantly know where you are and the story is constantly moving forward.

The book is short but it is not short on ideas and Essbaum manages to sketch interesting relationships through a few interactions. The children remain peripheral characters, as Anna is going through a phase of waltzing in and out of their lives.

I don’t know how readers with no familiarity with Switzerland will tolerate the level of detail, bordering on information dump that happens throughout the novel. I’d say most readers will find some element that doesn’t grab them – the analysis sessions, all the commentary on language structure and vocabulary, the cultural information, the sex scenes, the insomnia wanderings. But the whole is much greater than the parts because Essbaum has created a baffling compelling character in a story with powerful momentum.

Putting aside some people’s criticism of the moral message of the book – fallen woman pays for her sins – the story is gripping. Hausfrau was an intense and thought-provoking read and it left me with lots to think about.

I’d love to hear what other readers thought of this book, inside and outside Switzerland. Looking forward to reading your comments!

(Image courtesy of Sira Anamwong at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

The desolation of domestic life

2014-12-21 12.06.59

It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last July.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to think again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness!

To the disgruntled aunt on the train

20151230_175656

Really I should be writing to the nephew of the woman I overheard complaining on the train yesterday. You see the nephew hosts Christmas dinner in his house, as the disgruntled aunt explained to her travelling companion (a woman of few words), and anyone else in the carriage who spoke Swiss German. He invites the extended family, including his disgruntled aunt, for a fondue chinoise on December 24th.

(Cultural note: fondue chinoise is not remotely traditional but it has become really popular as the seasonal celebratory meal. You have a big platter of thin strips of raw meat and each person spears their piece of meat on a fork and cooks in a hot broth set up over a flame on the table. This is eaten with French fries, salad and a selection of up to five mayonnaise based sauces for the meat.)

Now the disgruntled aunt usually contributes lamb’s lettuce (Nüsslisalat) to this meal and she brings a lot more than is needed, a kilo in fact. So the nephew has at least 500g left over and can eat lamb’s lettuce all week. Lamb’s lettuce lasts for ages.

But this year the nephew is asking the guests to chip in to pay for the meat. The aunt is outraged, what with all the extra lamb’s lettuce she’s been providing , not that she ever got a word of thanks or recognition for that. And lamb’s lettuce is not cheap.

In revenge this year, the loud aunt will contribute only 500g of lettuce and certainly no money and we’ll see what the nephew thinks of that.

There is a separate row simmering in the family over the Christmas songs. Another relative takes it upon herself to print out a booklet of Christmas songs for everyone to sing together and there have been mutterings about the songs being too old fashioned, and there is one in particular that the loud aunt cannot abide and she has asked the other relative to strike it out because she simply cannot bear it.

The disgruntled aunt provided some entertainment for her fellow travellers today but also a little food for thought. Why is the nephew hosting a party he cannot afford, inviting people who are less than grateful? If he can afford it, why is he asking for money? Is this the kind of Christmas gathering these people should be having? How many other people are chained to arrangements that they are dreading? And of course, wouldn’t this gathering make a very entertaining Christmas film?

All this reminds me of a sweet poem by Frances Cornford which I first heard earlier this year from a colleague of mine who recited it at a very apt moment, the details of which I can’t remember now.

To a Fat Lady Seen From the Train

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much.

This post is in tribute to Maeve Binchy, the great advocate and champion of listening in to conversations.

The Laws of Love by Clare O’Dea

Some children start out unwanted but are soon loved and cherished. It was not so with me. Once unwanted, always unwanted. When I reached an age where I could question this, I could only conclude that I was missing the loveable ingredient possessed by other children, and no amount of eagerness to please would make up for this.

If my eldest brother is to be believed, my parents were happy in the early days. There was laughter and fun, there were callers and outings. Ten years later, when my newborn cries were keeping everyone awake, there was bitterness and want.

I developed a system of good and bad luck omens. Walking home from school I would fall back from my brothers and sisters and bet my wellbeing on chance variations in detail along the route. If the Currys have sheets on the line I will get a smile from mother, if it’s clothes I’ll get a clout, if it’s nothing, I’ll get nothing. I had the odds well worked out.

Mealtimes were quiet. There was none of the grabbing and rushing people associate with big families. We had our portion and we wanted to savour it. Not to forget my mother’s temper, which had a civilising effect on us all. I did not go to bed hungry although if I woke in the night hunger was lurking. We had clothes to wear, we washed. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

Escape was a room in a boarding house in Dublin 7, a house of straw as it turned out. I got shop work and independence, blighted at first by unwelcome attention from men in the neighbourhood. I faithfully sent money home and scraped by. A new room in a new house and life turned a corner. I met your father.

Shall I recite for you the list of his virtues? You could not know them all, for what child does? In the order in which I discovered these sides to him: he was good company, true to his word, thoughtful, tender and compassionate. He was in love with life and with me by association, and so together we built a house of sticks. What you saw between us was less than we started out with, to be sure, but it was still something good.

When I discovered that I was expecting – pregnant was considered a coarse word in those days, much too blunt – I felt the deepest and fullest satisfaction of my life. Those were my glory days.

Nothing could match my zeal. I was going to be the perfect mother. I was determined to shield you two from any harm at any cost. You placed your fervent baby love in me; I mixed it with my anxious adoration and gave it back to you in dangerous measures. It is not an exaggeration to say that I worshipped you. The light that shone from your eyes was my sun, moon and stars. I feasted on your purity and beauty. Your father could only watch and pray.

No doubt many mothers delight in every gesture and utterance of their children. But if they do, there is a counterbalance – feelings of criticism and irritation. This was missing in me. I bathed you in love and subjugated myself to you and your needs. There were no tensions between you children because I fulfilled your every desire. My purpose in life was to see that you wanted for nothing. I am truly sorry.

Wherever I was in the house I ran at the first cry. I smoothed over every conflict, made equal room on my lap for victim and culprit. When you stumbled I caught you before you hit the ground. I cooked only your favourite foods, bought your favourite toys and shoes, protected you from challenges and disappointments. I was ever vigilant. No laws were broken but the laws of love.

School was torture for me – hours of the day when anything could be happening to you, and all out of my control. I redoubled my efforts at home. There your spirits were replenished before you went out to face another day of adversity without me. Your father, Lord rest him, could not compete with my fanaticism. He retreated into his own life outside the home, which suited us, didn’t it?

This has been the way of our family until now. And look where it has taken us. For all the love I heaped upon you growing up, your cupboards are bare. Your every action motivated by self-interest, you can only muster mean-spirited possessiveness and call it love. Christopher is the worst offender, the newspapers are sure of that. What he did to that poor girl is one thing, but who can fathom his lack of remorse? No-one, apart from the woman who nurtured that weakness over many years.

What about you Paula? The results may not make headlines but I have failed you just as badly. When I think of all your father’s virtues, you match each one with the opposite vice. You navigate your way through life with wilfulness and spite. People are drawn to your narcissistic ways and then hurt by them. Your children suffer, their father too. I have my reasons alright.

Now that your father is gone, the house reverts to me. When you get out of prison Christopher there will not be a home here for you anymore. I am selling and plan to buy a small house of bricks for myself. I will not be passing the address on to either of you. Paula, get a nanny. If it’s any consolation I blame myself.

I hope you enjoyed this piece of flash fiction. I haven’t posted any short stories for a while because I discovered that publishing on a blog breaks the ‘previously unpublished’ rule for most journals and competitions. All the same, sometimes it’s nice to send a story out for its own sake.

Children in school, mothers on stand-by

2014-06-24 19.16.11

I’m not saying there is a conspiracy in Switzerland to make life difficult for working mothers of primary school children, but if there were a conspiracy it might account for my experiences over the past four years, and look something like this:

Strategy 1: Mix it up
Have children start school (kindergarten) at the age of four but give them an erratic timetable. For fun, have the children come in three mornings a week, obviously not consecutive mornings, and throw in an afternoon just to keep it interesting.

I’m not making this up. My four year old has school on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings and Thursday afternoon for two hours. That’s it. Every night she asks, do I have school tomorrow? And every morning, do I have school today? Keep ‘em guessing.

Strategy 2: Complications
In the first few years, give different classes different afternoons and mornings off each week. That way, families with more than one child will be kept on their toes with multiple childcare gaps and a different timetable for each child.

Strategy 3: The lunch trap
Close down the school for two hours in the middle of the day so that the timetable looks like this: Morning: 7.45a.m. to 11.30a.m.; Afternoon: 1.40p.m. to 3:30p.m.

Let the parents worry about where the children will eat and who will look after them. Provide a minimum number of places in an after-school programme nearby. Sit back and watch the parents scramble for these places, at their own expense.

Strategy 4: Rise and shine
Start school at an ungodly hour of the morning, so children are too sleepy to eat breakfast and parents are grateful for the children having random mornings off during the week to recover.

Ok, the early start is part and parcel of Swiss society. It’s the norm for people to start work before eight so we all have to go to bed early and get up early.

But the rest? I hear the argument sometimes that these timetables are geared towards children, based on the notion that starting school is a big change for children so they should be eased in gradually.

But I find it hard to believe such a lack of routine is good for children. What about the body clock? And I know it is not good for parents trying to organise childcare.

For stay-at-home mothers who are attached to their role, these timetables have one advantage. It makes them indispensable. They can rightly point out that they hardly have time to turn around, do the shopping and start cooking before the children are home again.

But what if this is a gilded cage? I want stay-at-home mothers to be valued, not shackled to the home. Is it good that mothers who have already put in a huge effort in the baby and pre-school years are so restricted they cannot think of taking on another activity during the 20 to 30 hours their school-gong children are away during the week?

Is there any other country clinging to this home-for-lunch model? In Ireland the four and five year olds attend school from 9a.m. to 1p.m., Monday to Friday. They eat a packed lunch at the 11a.m. break. From the age of six or seven (first class), the school day runs from 9a.m. to 2.30p.m.

This is not about treating schools as a babysitting service for selfish career-mongering parents (a view I’ve heard expressed), it is just a simple plea to stop pretending that the two worlds – home and school – have nothing to do with each other.

I should point out that my children like coming home at lunch on the days I am here but I wouldn’t consider it a hardship for them if things were different. They were just as happy doing five-and-a-half-hour days when they attended school in Dublin for a term.

More and more Swiss schools are adapting, and have begun to provide supervision and hot meals at lunchtime but it is still a minority. Maybe mothers will be able to ‘lean in’ a bit more when this becomes the norm.

Like most mothers of young children in Switzerland, I work part-time, and accept the trade-off that my career will stall for the time being, in return for spending more time with my children.

But to “escape” into the earning world even for 20 hours a week without live-in childcare requires some creative solutions. Last year I traded childcare with a neighbour, both of us taking on each other’s children for a 10-hour day. Luckily my husband also leans in to childcare duty and we have great support from family living nearby.

To repeat what I said earlier, it’s not that there’s a conspiracy to make life difficult for working mothers. It is just that the system evolved to complement a traditional situation which is no longer the reality for many families – and in some regions the winds of change have not yet arrived.

It’s complicated enough for two-parent families. Last week I heard a Swiss parliamentarian say that the majority of social welfare recipients are households headed by one parent. How many more of them would be able to hold down a job if their children weren’t coming and going every few hours?

So what do you think? Am I being unfair to the Swiss way of life? Would you swap your system for ours?

You’ll find more background on this topic in this article I wrote for swissinfo a couple of years ago: Swiss mothers hold back from having it all.

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

Photo_6AEE6DB4-F527-CC2A-DF23-B7EF820BC320

This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full
The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.