Monday, 7 November 2016

Large, please

Yesterday daughter N was off to yet another birthday party - she's been to about one hundred and forty-five in the last two weeks -  but this time an extra special one because it was her best friend's party (the young lad I've mentioned before here and here.) The party was also special because it involved reptiles. And a tarantula. A reptile lady came around and showed kids some amazing specimens, which they were allowed the hold and stroke. All but the tarantula, apparently a slightly unpredictable specimen and prone to nervousness. What exactly that means, I do NOT want to know. In any case, the reptile lady taught the kids all about reptiles and what you need to do should you run into one somewhere. They even got a wee diploma at the end of the session.

After dropping N off at the party, I took son S into town for a bit of mother-son togetherness, something we both really appreciate. We sat at one of our favourite cafe's, outside, not caring a fig that it was raining. We sat under the awning with an outdoor heater on, enjoying people rush by. "Would you like a small cappuccino or a large one?" the waiter asked. Normally I always go for small - I really have to watch the caffeine intake - but this time I thought I'd pull out all the stops. "Large, please."

My son laughed. "You and your cappuccino," he said.

Early evening we picked up N from the party. It was dark. There were stars out. A sharp scent of burning fireplaces filled the air.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Bionic dwarf hamster

You may recall Binkie, the cat we rescued from the shelter a little over a year ago. I was convinced Binkie would be with us forever - that is to say, until he would one day return to the Big Cat in the sky - but unfortunately that was not to be.

It all started around March, when Binkie suddenly squirted red fluid all over my bedroom door.  'What the hell just happened,' I asked him as if he was about to give me an explanation. As soon as the shock had subsided, I got on the phone and called the vet. 'Most likely a bladder infection,' she said. I took him straight over, she examined him, took a urine sample and lo and behold: a urinary tract infection. Not a bacterial one however, so antibiotics wouldn't do him any good. In fact, she thought it wasn't due to any physical illness, but stress. Stress?! Binkie was about the most relaxed cat in town, or so I thought. That is, until a few days later I witnessed him being bullied by a neighbourhood cat. You know the kind: bulky, intimidating, ginger-furred. A real thug. Straight from a gangster movie (he's even missing a leg).

In the following weeks I made a point of observing Binkie's interaction with other neighbourhood cats and in practically all cases, he was - to put it bluntly -  a complete pussy (I hate that word, but somehow it seems appropriate here). Binkie's predicament was heart-breaking. But so was ours, since what I also began noticing was an increasing instance of cat pee/spray in the house. On doors. On walls. On table legs. Even on son S's new skateboard. It became totally frustrating and I again consulted the vet. She admitted him to her clinic for the day, ran all sorts of tests (bladder, kidneys - the works) but to no avail. I seriously hoped she would find something - "Aha - the kidneys are the culprit; give him this pill daily and he'll never pee/spray in the house again. Ever." - but that wasn't going to happen. To cut a long story short: after trying everything, including extremely-expensive-stress-lowering-nibbles, I saw no other option than to return him to the shelter. It was a very, very difficult decision to make.

By now you're probably wondering what the heck this has to do with a dwarf hamster. A bionic one, no less. Please bear with me, I'm getting there.

After some time of grieving over Binkie, the kids were ready for a new pet. Let us choose a small one, I thought. One that won't be too expensive to buy and keep. Binkie had cost a lot in vet bills, plus taking him out of the shelter as well as putting him back in weren't exactly bargains either. Anyway, last Saturday I took the kids to pick up a wee dwarf hamster I had seen in a local pet shop. What a sweetie! Dwarf hamsters are not new to me - years ago I had two of them and they both lived to be three. But let me stick to this little fellow, whom we called 'Spekkie' (loosely translated: Marshmellow). Spekkie took to us pretty quickly, sitting quite happily on one of our hands and scurrying enthusiastically through the Lego maze the kids had made for him.

But then, the day before yesterday - Wednesday to be precise - something happened. As I was depositing cute little heart-shaped-breakfast-thingies into his bowl, he popped his head out of his little dugout, only to reveal a great hump of pink flesh hanging out of his mouth. 'What the hell just happened,' I asked him as if he was about to give me an explanation. And once again, as soon as the shock had subsided, I got on the phone and called the vet. 'Most likely an everted cheek pouch,' she said. 'You should come over right away.' And so I picked the little guy up, put him in his miniature travel basket and off we went. 'That doesn't look good,' the vet said. 'The pouch is infected as well.' No kidding. She suggested Spekkie stay at the clinic, so she could push the pouch back in and observe whether it would stay put. And did the pouch stay put, I hear you wonder. No, of course it didn't! The vet called me around noon to say that one of two things could be done: put Spekkie down, or operate the cheek pouch (not without risk, she added; the anaesthesia could kill him). Well, putting him down was out of the question. And so little Spekkie was wheeled into surgery, where part of his pouch was successfully amputated and the rest reattached to the inside of his mouth.

The irony? We have had little €9 Spekkie for six days and he has cost me €150 in vet bills already. Wow. A little painful, but as Roald Dahl liked to say: 'Always, ALWAYS, be kind to small animals.' 

Warning: the photo below shows the everted pouch.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016


Don't you just love Autumn? Blustery days, golden leaves falling, that special light the colour of lemon juice. Though I look forward to it every year, and certainly after late Summer heat, the one thing that always takes me by surprise is the tiredness that accompanies it. And I mean tiredness to the bone. It happens to me every year, in September and October - sometimes even November. And every year I wonder what the heck is wrong with me. Am I anaemic? Too overloaded with work? Dying, perhaps?

I have just returned from a thorough check-up and apparently the latter is not the case. Not just yet anyway. And since I'm not aenemic either, it must come down to too much work. However...I have cut back on my teaching hours this year, so surely that can't be the case. What I am therefore beginning to suspect is that I am simply suffering from a decline in (mental) flexibility. You see, there is nothing I love more than the languid mornings the Summer holidays offer, when I ease my way into the day without the persistent ringing of an alarm clock, mornings in which I wander downstairs when I'm good and ready to find that the kids have pretty much taken care of themselves (quietly too!). M and I are lucky enough to practise the same profession, hence no alarm clock for him six consecutive weeks of the year either. And that seems to slow us down to a normal pace of life. In fact, I am always visited by a particular peace of mind that is pretty much a stranger to me during the busy months of the school year. All this makes the start of the new school/working year a shock to the system. There's schoolbags to pack, sports kits to think of, kids to get out of bed (increasingly difficult!), lunches to make (thankfully M takes care of those) etc. Not to mention a flood of emails to plough through, play-dates, birthday parties and so on and so forth. And our own work to top it off. Anyone with a young family knows what I'm talking about. 

As an antidote to the exhausting business I mention above, let me include a couple of photos from our Summer holiday this year. Instead of going abroad as we usually do, we stayed in Holland and went sailing in Friesland. And I'm glad we did. As the domestic tourism campaign slogan used to say back in the days when I still lived in New Zealand: 'Don't leave home till you've seen the country.'

(And yes, I'm the one hiding under the umbrella to prevent sun rash, being the all-round sensitive girl I am).

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

What she wants

"Why are those people pushing strollers?" my daughter asked as we cycled past the golf course one recent Friday morning. She had just recovered from a nasty case of chicken pox and I had decided to take her out for a breath of late winter air. Her question of course made me laugh. "They aren't strollers, schatje, they're caddies; to carry around golf clubs and stuff," I replied. I have always enjoyed these creative 'misinterpretations' she makes, as well as her outspoken opinions and attitudes. She is one of these girls who knows what she wants and if she ends up not wanting what she initially thought she wanted, she knows why. (Confused? Please read on.)

Take her attitude to Chico*, for example. A doll that cries and runs a fever when you pull the pacifier out of its mouth. You can make it better by sticking a thermometer in its ear and a needle in its butt (no joke). "I really, really want one of those," I would hear N say every time the advert blurted onto our TV screen. "Really, really." This surprised me somewhat, since N has never shown much interest in dolls. But okay. For Sinterklaas (difficult-to-explain Dutch tradition I have written about before) we - or should I say 'Sinterklaas' - got her Chico. "Lovely, isn't he - now you can push him around in that stroller you never use," I said. Soon enough she invited her best friend over (the one she's going to marry someday) and they played doctors and nurses all afternoon, with N being the doctor and friend J being the nurse. It was truly moving to see such emancipation in two five-year-olds.

Pretty soon though,  N started to ignore the doll. In an attempt to arouse her interest, I got Chico downstairs one day and placed him beside her on the sofa. "Perhaps you should change his nappies," I tried. She looked at me, then at Chico. "I don't smell anything," she replied. I'm not one to give up, though. "Okay...," I said. "It's bring-your-own-toy morning coming Friday; how about taking Chico to school then." To my surprise, she reacted enthusiastically. And so Chico was carted off to school quite lovingly the following Friday morning.

When I came to pick her up at the end of the morning however, I noticed Chico wasn't sucking on his pacifier. Nor was he crying or running up a fever. "How can that be?" I asked, truly surprised. N looked at me and sighed. "Another kid in my class wanted to play with the pacifier, so I gave it to her. Then I got fed up with all that crying, so I switched him off. Look, there's a switch on his back." I couldn't help laughing. "Good idea, schatje," I said. "Sometimes parents would love to switch off children." She looked at me with her hands on her hips and immediately replied: "And children would love to switch off parents!"

When I tucked her in that evening, I burned to ask her one question, namely: why oh why had she  lost interest in Chico so quickly, a toy she had wanted more than anything? She looked at me thoughtfully for a minute and said: "...Chico looked so much fun on TV. But now I realise that sometimes things can look fun on TV and be disappointing in real life. TV and real life are totally different!"

I merely gave her a kiss and a cuddle, for what could I possibly add to such wisdom?

* Name altered to avoid advertising.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Binkie boy

Meet Binkie. A new member of our family.
Now Binkie is a strange cat of sorts - if, in fact, you  could call him a cat. Oh, he purrs, snuggles in boxes, rubs your legs and all that other cat stuff, but he is also in the odd habit of following us around. Everywhere. And I don't mean just to the toilet. He not only follows us all the way to the shops (seriously), the tennis club or the children's school, but he is also in the horrifying habit of following our car as far as his little legs will allow. On an average day I will look in my rear-view mirror to discover Binkie running after our car like a some kind of dog desperate to be taken for a walk in the woods or on the beach. It's heart-breaking really. And pretty scary, what with all that traffic. In fact, I am always relieved to find him alive and well when I turn my car into our street. 
Thankfully, there he will be: sitting on the fence, waiting for one of us to come home.

We got him from the animal shelter late autumn. He had been found roaming around some neighbourhood or other. The folks at the shelter were reluctant to let him go, due to their conviction that something was wrong with his left paw, which he kept holding up for some reason unbeknownst to them. 'When we squeeze his paw, he doesn't react, so he's probably not in pain,' they said, and: 'it's a bit of a mystery.'

It wasn't much of a mystery to us.We just figured he was using his paw to point at the door: 'I'd like to leave, please.'

A few days after our visit, the folks at the shelter came to the conclusion that, since he had now taken to holding up his right paw, nothing was really wrong after all. And so we rushed over to adopt him.
He likes to drink from the toilet (remember to flush please, children!) and sleep in the sink. He likes to nibble at toes under blankets and wait patiently to lick the last drops of rice milk from my morning cereal bowl. And when he's tired he likes to retire early to the laundry room to snuggle up in a pile of dirty washing.

He's only been with us for three months, but it's as if he's been here all along.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Ich bin ein Berliner

...I'd always wanted to say those words. Unfortunately, I'd never had the opportunity because, until this summer,  I'd never been to Berlin. After the thrill of Paris, we were keen to visit another city - a slightly cheaper one though, since we wanted to stay ten days instead of three without risking bankruptcy. So when a number of colleagues mentioned Berlin being relatively cheap as well as relaxed and child-friendly, the choice was easily made. But we didn't want to be tourists for ten days. So instead of booking a hotel, we opted for an apartment through Airbnb in the relatively quiet suburb of Neuköln. And I'm glad we did. It was super: a regular neighbourhood with regular locals - son S even enjoyed playing soccer with the neighbouring boys and girls, communicating with hands, feet and bits of German he was picking up. And I of course enjoyed imagining having moved house. "We've moved to Berlin, you know," I pictured myself saying to anyone willing to listen.
I also imagined eating out every night for the rest of my life at the fabulous local cafes. Nothing posh, just life-worn street eateries serving good, basic food: veggies and fruit, fresh herbs and spices. And good coffee. Boy, the coffee was good! But not only the food and drink were deeply satisfying. Just kicking off your shoes, sitting back and watching Berlin's colourful inhabitants pass by: that alone made the trip worthwhile. A dip into my diary, in which I recorded a kaleidoscope of images, not only of the people, but of Berlin itself: 'polished nails holding cigarettes, flip-flops, bare feet, boys with braided hair, sunglasses, breakfast in the afternoon, multilingual chatter, laughter, faces close together, laptops, books, newspapers, graffiti, cobblestone streets, slow traffic, trees, playgrounds, high-ceilinged apartment blocks, entrepreneurism, cappuccinos and fresh mint tea.'

Entrepreneurism? I hear you wonder. Yip. One thing that struck me about Berlin was the number of 'businesses' or 'niches' popping up all over the place. It seems people simply hog a space in the city and do their own thing. Quite successfully. None of the red tape we have over here, apparently. In that respect Berlin seems to be a blank canvas for boundless creativity and that certainly gets my heart pounding.
And so I imagined us moving there. Setting ourselves up in a neigbhourhood surrounded by the many artists (writers!) who so happily flock to the Berlin to settle deep within her bowels. I mentioned this flight of fancy to one of the neighbours who was in charge of the house keys. "Berlin is just fantastic'," I said, to which he replied without hesitation: "Yes, in summer." When I stared at him, expecting more, he added in his attractive German accent: "In winter it's a whole different story: cold and dark."
Oh. In that case: Ich bin ein Berliner... in den sommer.


(Just in case you are wondering: the kids of course wore safety helmets while biking; I don't for the life of me get how they're not wearing them in these photos). 

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Something with apple

Last week saw the 44th birthday of a very good friend of ours. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" he asked cheerily on the phone. And indeed, come Saturday morning he showed up on our doorstep with his infant son, as his wife was out of town. Just days before, another friend of ours had mentioned "all that delicious baking" I do and I was forced to reluctantly admit that well, I hadn't done any - save the odd batch of biscuits - for quite some time. Why I haven't done any baking? I'm not sure. I could say I was swallowed up by work at school. Or by work on my book. Or by lots of nice outings and general busyness during the summer holidays. Or simply by a kind of kitchen lethargy. A combination of all the above is probably most accurate.
Anyway. "Shall I come over for coffee and pie?" rang in my ears all Friday through to Saturday morning and a kind of panic gripped me. Much like at the start of every school year, I wondered: "Can I still do it? What if it turns out my teaching/baking 'successes' have been nothing but flukes all along?" Silly, self-absorbed thoughts, of course. As with teaching, the best thing to do is ignore thought altogether and just get on with it.  I was in the mood for 'something with apple', and so I dusted off my favourite kitchen companion Nigel Slater for a bit of inspiration. As I got on with preparing the dough and peeling/coring apples, I felt a pleasant quietness emerge within me, a deep sense of satisfaction in what I was doing. To cut a long story short: I found myself completely in the moment and apparently I hadn't been there for a while. And when I pulled that glorious, golden pie out of the oven - well, that must have been the highlight of my day.

When our friend had been, seen and eaten, I set about clearing out my baking cupboard to give it a good clean. Then I reorganised all my baking necessities, throwing out stuff that was over the use-by date (quite a lot, to my shame). Measuring spoons, bowls, whisks, flour, packets of baking powder and all sorts of other useful utensils and ingredients passed through my hands. And as they did so, I felt an old familiar thrill.


The photo has nothing at all to do with the pie. I asked M to leave a piece of pie for me to photograph, but he 'forgot.' Hence a photo taken in a Berlin cafe where we drank some lovely green tea. We spent part of our summer there (in Berlin, not the cafe) about which I will write later.
Apple Shortcake
Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries, by Nigel Slater
For the pastry:
150g butter, softened 
150g raw cane Sugar
250g spelt flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
lemon rind of one organic lemon
a little milk to finish
For the apples:
5-6 apples
lemon juice
50g butter
1 tablespoon raw cane sugar
  • lightly butter an 18cm pie tin (Nigel says a shallow one, but since I don't own one of those, I used my usual loose-bottomed springform tin)
  • using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy
  • gently mix in the egg, then stir in flour, baking powder and lemon rind
  • with a light hand, work ingredients into a ball in the bowl or on a thoroughly floured work surface
  • cut pastry in half, wrap one half in glad wrap and store in fridge for a half hour
  • roll out the other half of the pastry to line the tin (this may require some patchwork), then store tin in fridge for a half hour
  • preheat oven 180 degrees Celsius
  • peel and core the apples, slice them into wedges and throw them in a pan of cold water to which you have added the lemon juice to stop the apples discolouring
  • heat a pan, allow the 50g of butter to melt
  • when the butter sizzles, add the apples, bake until they have coloured lightly, sprinkle the sugar over the apples and cook until lightly caramelised
  • remove the pie tin from the fridge, carefully transfer the apples to the pie tin
  • roll out the other half of the pastry and cover the whole pie (again, this may require some patchwork); press the pastry edges together so as to 'close' the pie
  • brush the top with a little milk
  • bake for 40 minutes
  • allow to cool briefly, then eat warm with unsweetened whipped cream