Recent Reading

Maybe I just write these because I like to keep track of what I’ve read. Maybe it’s to show off. But I think the real reason is that I wish more people wrote lists of what they’ve been reading. I am regularly finishing books only to go to WhatShouldIReadNext.com to find a suggestion. I click on any reading lists links I can find. So I’m trying to pay it forward I guess.

British Murder Mystery Series:

I have loved this genre since just after Annie is born. I tried to read classics and got utterly stuck. Bleak House is exactly as described- bleak. So I started reading a British murder mystery called A Test of Wills, the first in the Ian Rutledge series. Then after reading that series, I read the Bess Crawford series also by Charles Todd. Both are set in England in the years surrounding World War I. After those, I read the Maisie Dobbs series, set in the years after World War I. And then the Maggie Hope series, set during World War II. All that to say, I think I have exhausted my options in this genre but I really enjoyed them. If you’re a mystery fan, you should try one of these series.

Non-Fiction:

I also got into non-fiction books recently. And not just history. I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and promptly followed at least the first step of Marie Kondo’s organization program. She is a little obsessive about tidying- she described a few incidents of angering her siblings by tidying their rooms and throwing their stuff away. But, I practiced holding each item of clothing and asking, “Does this bring me joy?” and I ended up giving away several large bags of clothes.

I also read The Road to Character by David Brooks. I really enjoy Brooks’ column in the New York Times and was intrigued by a review I read of this book. Brooks investigated historical figures and looked at the character traits that set each apart. He said that people with character have practiced a “long obedience in the same direction,” something that stands out from our rapidly changing culture. I really enjoyed the book though it did get a little long.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is not exactly non-fiction, but it is based on Boo’s visits to Mumbai slums and is more non-fiction than not. The book was a very detailed picture of the slums of Mumbai and the issues of poverty on both local and global levels.

And I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Words cannot begin to describe this book. The language is beautiful and moving and the book itself is just devastating. Written as a long letter to his son, Between the World and Me is Coates’ reflection on being black in America. I’d strongly encourage everyone to read it. I have never looked at race and differences as deeply as he does in this book.

Literature:

I read three books that I somehow missed reading in school. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving was fantastic. Owen Meany is an unforgettable character and this book made me cry, laugh, swear and think. I was truly sad when I finished it as I had to leave behind an incredible cast of characters. That being sad, the book was one of the most complete I’ve ever read, if that makes sense.

At the beach this year, we shared our favorite books. All three of my brothers said East of Eden by John Steinbeck. So I read it. It is really good. You should read it too- family, humanity, fall, redemption, it’s all in there. I would put it in a list of my favorites- which I am compiling and will post here sometime soon.

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger was always on my parents shelf and I think at least two of my brothers had to read it for tenth grade English. A magical story of a boy and his dad and sister who travel through the US looking for his older brother who is on the run from the law. One part family drama, one part coming of age and one part beautiful poetic descriptions of America.

Miracle Food

I recently went out to dinner with a number of other American and British women. We are all moms who stay home full time so a night out was fun albeit full of talking about our children. But it was warm and we ate outside in a trendier part of Geneva- a nice break from hot dogs and chicken nuggets in my kitchen.

The food itself was great and fresh but it was not what stuck out to me at this dinner. I was surprised by the conversation. Not the main topics- of course we covered parenting issues, our upcoming summer trips, current events but the entire evening was laced with this narrative about food that seems to be specific to women. I rarely (if ever) hear this dialogue from men but cannot go out with women and not hear it.

“Someone take this bread basket away! I can’t stop myself.”

“I would love to get the caprese salad but I shouldn’t. I didn’t go to spin class today.”

“I guess I can let myself cheat just this once.”

One American woman told me that she has gained so much more weight in Switzerland because of all the fresh bread. I asked about her time in the States since Americans tend to be much heavier than Europeans. She said that the amount of carbs available here meant she ate way too much. So I explained that the French approach to this is much more measured. In the book French Women Don’t Get Fat (which is not an entirely true assertion but fairly accurate) the author, Mireille Guiliano, explains that women in France approach food as something to be enjoyed and savored. They eat smaller portions. They eat all kinds of food, mostly fresh. They would never cut out an entire food group or overdo it on any one. That chapter was my favorite section- the one where she addressed protein overloading: “Half a pound of anything in one sitting is probably not good for you.” When I explained this to my friend she whined, “Yes, but Swiss women walk everywhere and are always moving!” Only in America would we rather cut out an entire (miraculous*) food group than walk to the grocery store. My favorite suggestion from the book was the “pick two” idea. Instead of eating bread, drinking wine and ordering dessert, maybe just pick two. That is a healthier approach to life- maybe don’t overdo it in all areas. Don’t eat all the things, all the time. Wise woman.

Now, there is a deeper issue of course. Society has ridiculous standards for women that it does not have for men. Women talk about diet and appearance because we are told we are valued for that. I understand that. By no means am I trying to gloss over major issues with food. I have several friends who have had serious struggles with anorexia and bulimia. This is not meant to diminish those experiences. But my point is this- in general, we waste so much time talking about food and our relationship to it. We could accomplish, share, create so much more if we just gave up the script about food.

French and Swiss women don’t discuss food while they are eating except to say something is “Cela a un meilleur goût” (This tastes good). They don’t have this need to share their diet with one another. There is so much shame hovering around a table of American women eating. And we do not help each other out. If you don’t want to eat the bread, fine. But try to help your friends out by not disparaging them for eating bread. American women (maybe all Western women) see being anything less than skinny as a moral failure. Another woman here told me about her friend who adopted several children. “She’s a saint. I mean, she’s overweight but she’s a saint.” I almost spit out my food. Which would have been a tragedy because it was delicious.

I don’t know what the answer is. I am not a model of this. In fact, while I am writing this blog post, I am simultaneously ordering a lot of Indian food. But I hope we can figure it out. Ask more questions, worry less about people judging you for eating bread. Please see my note below. Help your fellow American women out and don’t mention carbs or protein. And quit talking about your diet. It’s the kind (and European) thing to do.

* On a side note, I think bread has gotten a really bum rap. I am currently reading At Home by Bill Bryson and one chapter is devoted to the development of city and community living. He wisely points out just how miraculous it is that we discovered that not only could we eat grain but at some point, we had to thresh it, grind it into flour, combine it with other ingredients, put it in a oven and hope it all worked out. Bread is an incredible feat of human persistence. I think it should be celebrated. We should all be dancing when the bread basket arrives not bemoaning its existence.

Eleven.

“America, we need to talk. I’ve been away for awhile and though I miss certain aspects of you, I really don’t miss others.”

This is the thought I’ve had multiple times over the last few months. Like I could have this crazy, analytical conversation with a whole country, or really just the stereotype of a country. And yes, I probably shouldn’t listen to stereotypes and some of you may be saying, “Who cares about stereotypes? We’re America!” But let’s look at the progress here folks- I can find fault in my home country and even more than that, I can point out things I am wary to return to. Progress!

When my mom has some constructive criticism, she says “May I just say…” And America, may I just say, we have a cell phone problem. I mean, we use them ALL THE TIME. And we don’t just use them in our cars or our homes or offices. We use them everywhere. I really noticed it in New York. I lived in New York for three years without a smart phone- just an old brick phone. For the entire time Josh and I dated in New York, I was using good old SMS texting. I had to look up places on a map before I left the previous place. When we visited New York, I physically ran into people multiple times because we were on our phones looking up where to go. This is a good thing that cell phones have done for us. But a lot of people are missing out on an amazing city and the ridiculous things that only happen there because they are looking down into a phone screen to see a virtual picture of what is in front of them.

But, before I sound like a crazy old person talking about the good old days, here’s what I really want to talk about. We are so, so very loud. I come from a loud family. In the past, I have been described as a loud person. But I love that people are quiet here. People speaking on phones in public is rare. I feel rude when I do it. On subways, trams and buses, you cannot hear other conversations very well. Unless they are British or American. Then you can hear it. And yes, I did wonder if it was just that I only really heard English conversations and could ignore French ones. So I did an experiment. Long story short, it is not about the language. It is about the volume.

Once in church, a former pastor and his family came back to visit. They were thanking the congregation for the things they had learned during their time at the church. The pastor’s wife said, “Thank you for teaching us to speak more quietly.” After they shared, the woman sitting in front of me turned and asked, “Did that resonate with you? The loud part? As an American?” Taking a deep breath, I chose to not be personally offended and instead shared my own realization that America is a loud place. And then realized my voice and volume have decreased significantly since moving here.

Another example: An American friend came to visit and we were explaining the honor system for public transportation. You buy tickets but it is rare to be checked. . My friend, in her normal tone of voice, asked, “So you didn’t pay for your tickets? You NEVER pay for your tickets?” We got a few looks that time. And yes, we do pay for our tickets especially now that you can pay via text message. And because if you get caught forgetting to buy them three times, you can be deported

But don’t feel too badly. All English speakers tend to be loud. Case in point: a few friends went skiing with us and to get to the slopes, we had to take a very long telepherique ride to the base of the resort. It usually takes five minutes. Since it was early in the day, the cabin was very full. Something happened two minutes in and the cable car stopped, swinging above the trees and valley below. Everyone was fine for the first few minutes and then the car moved a little and everyone got very quiet. Except a British guy (full disclosure: he may have been Australian) who narrated the entire twenty minute adventure on his phone. “Oh, sorry love, the car just dropped again. Yeah, everyone’s pretty nervous. Oh yeah, I mean, this whole thing could fall. People are really scared.” Everyone hated that guy.

One of the reasons I can be so much quieter here is that everyone I would talk to is asleep for the first half of the day (see previous post here). And I think that has taught me a valuable lesson about filling my time and ears. I have found I like quiet. In college, I studied in coffee shops because silence was so foreign to the Anderson in me. When your brother has a band that practices in the basement every day, a lack of noise indicates something is very wrong. Yes, I leave my phone on silent and miss a few calls but I also get to remember that there is something good about not always being in the loop and not always being available to everyone. It’s humbling to realize not everyone wants to hear you. And more than that, it’s polite to be quiet.

I’m not perfect in this regard. Get me around other Americans or get me upset about something and I can get loud. But we are drowning in noise. I cannot begin to describe how jarring it is to land at Dulles and hear everyone’s personal conversations as soon as the seatbelt sign is off. I don’t particularly care to hear everyone’s opinions about their meals or their flights or the latest problems they are having with their moms. 

But, I wanted to make you aware of the not-so-far-off-base stereotype that is floating around out there. Maybe we can work on it. Until then, I am just enjoying the fact that there is another thing I like more about living in Europe. Progress!

The Times They are A-Changing

One of my least favorite things about living here is actually turning out to be really good for me. I feel like that sentence might sum up my whole time in Geneva. Things that I think are terrible or stupid or backwards actually end up helping me or improving me or keeping me from doing something bad. Case in point: the time difference. It is my very least favorite part about living in Europe while our family and closest friends live in the States. It means that when we travel back to visit them, we are jetlagged. Not just us but our children who are too young to understand what time is let alone why we have time zones. I mean, Forest thinks two minutes is longer than five minutes. All they know is that they slept in until 9 am their time which unfortunately translates to 3 am East Coast time and I spend the next four hours trying to keep them quiet despite it feeling like lunchtime to their little confused internal clocks.

But this morning, I decided I should actually be grateful for the time difference. I got upset about something petty that someone had done. I said something to Josh but then wanted to keep griping about it to a friend or two (or three). I went to find someone to call or text or send a g-chat message to and realized “They’re all asleep.” That was the first step in gaining a little perspective. This perceived slight was not worth waking up my close friends or family members to whine about it. But I really wanted to. I wanted to get everyone to validate how I was feeling. I wanted to say, “Can you believe this?” and have someone say, “No, I cannot believe it. You are exactly right to feel as you do.” But my closest friends were fast asleep. I pictured how angry they would be if I woke them at 3 am. Instead, I had to sit on this grumbling for six hours.

I recently read a book about envy and it talked a lot about how we treat one another. One pattern the book identified is that envy always involves taking something even it is just taking from someone’s reputation by speaking poorly of them. When I envy someone’s busy life and make comments about how she should probably take more time for herself it is a small but appealing way to cut her down. Or if I see someone prioritizing his time differently than I do and I judge him. That was exactly what I wanted to do this morning. But I did not just read the book on envy and say, “I want to keep this whole envy thing up” but rather, “Wow, I should probably try to change my ways a bit.” And that is when I recognized that maybe this whole time difference thing is a blessing in disguise. Instead of sitting in front of my computer or on my phone and spewing meanness, I went for a walk with our dog. I thought about why I was reacting so strongly and recognized envy and malice (my most prevalent character flaw- just ask Josh who sometimes affectionately calls me Captain Malice). I had six hours to decide how to react and ended up choosing to not say anything else. And honestly, it did not take all six. It probably took one. I even made a productive game plan for how to address the issue with the proper person and did not mention it to anyone else.

I am not anywhere close to where I would like to be with regard to envy and malice. I don’t want to struggle with them. But I do and maybe that’s just another reason we moved to Geneva. God’s got to make sure I have six hours to think through anything mean or dumb I might say or do. They say you should count to ten before saying anything you might regret. Well, I just get to count to 21,600. And I might need all of those.

The dirtiest word

For the most part, I really like the medical system here in Switzerland. See my previous post about delivering a baby here. And when I had my gallbladder out five weeks after that, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay. My hospital even sent me a Christmas card. Josh says he thinks they are trying to drum up business. “Remember us if you have other extraneous organs to remove. And Merry Christmas too.” I think it’s more like the time we spent so much at Cabela’s that we qualified as a corporate client and were sent a ham. I am probably in the top ten percent of guests for the hospital- not the best but certainly a frequent visitor.

The one part of Swiss health care that I do not like? The pharmacy. Ahh, the Swiss pharmacy. It sounds amazing. Many people love it because they can get all sorts of cosmetics there that you cannot get in the States. I’ll admit it. I love some of their products. If it were simply a cosmetic store, I would give it an A+. But as a pharmacy, it is somewhere in the D range. What makes a good pharmacy? Well, the first qualification is a drive through but alas, that will not happen in Switzerland so I will forget about that. No, I like my pharmacy to be efficient, organized and helpful. Our neighborhood pharmacy is none of these things.

I have a prescription I need to get filled every month for a year. I went into the pharmacy to get a refill in July. The pharmacist asked for the paper prescription that my doctor had written. I gave her the benefit of the doubt. It was a little confusing because my mom had filled it for me in June while I was in the hospital. So maybe this lady needed to see the paper copy to verify the prescription. Sure. Then August came. I went back in to get my refill, presented my insurance card and ID to a different pharmacist and was told that she needed to see the paper copy. I said, “No, it’s in the system.”

She said, “No, our system does not keep track of prescriptions and refills.”

So I said, “But they typed it in the computer last time.”

She replied, “Yes, I see that you have gotten this filled twice here but I cannot give you a refill without the paper copy of the prescription”

To which I said, “In America, they keep that information in the computer.”

At which point she informed me that the Swiss system was completely different than the American one. I almost said, “Yes, obviously since you cannot even keep an Excel sheet of my refills.” But I bit my tongue and unfortunately I got a little teary. The nice pharmacist then informed me she would be happy to sell me these other medicines I had brought to the counter but could not refill my prescription. Please note, these other medicines? Baby shampoo.

Prescriptions in general are different here. I asked my doctor to write me a refill for my medication a week before I was leaving on a trip. She called me and said she had written it and would mail it to me. I offered to pick it up but she had already put it in the mail. Doctors do not call prescriptions into the pharmacy here. They write them on paper, then you take them to the pharmacy who may or may not keep the medicine in stock and then you can get it filled. And then you keep a tiny piece of paper somewhere safe so you remember where it is next month. As a doctor friend of mine said, American patients would never get their medications refilled if it required all this work.

The Swiss, ironically, seem to hate efficiency. It is a dirty word here. I know. I know. They basically invented clocks and their train systems are second to none in terms of timing. But everything here seems to require extra steps. For instance, there is no such thing as auto billing here. We get bills in the mail and have to pay them ourselves. Simple enough, right? But each bill has a twenty digit reference code and account number and we have to key in all of it in order for our bank to pay the bill. Like I’ve mentioned, there are no drive-throughs. Dry cleaning takes a week. To be fair, they do have grocery delivery. But refrigerators are small and thus, you have to do your shopping every day or every other day. Stores are closed on Sundays and from 12-2 every day for lunch. Even my Internet slows down between 12 and 2.

I’m torn about this. On one hand, I’d like someone to usher in the twenty-first century with our super fast cell phone banking and drive through everythings and double-wide refrigerators. But it is probably good for me to move a little slower. Don’t get me wrong. I love convenience. But I also appreciate quality– of food, of life. Yes, things are slow but they are also prettier. We might have to shop multiple times a week but our markets are gorgeous and the food is delicious. And while we tend to want to export all of our good ideas, the Genevois (and I) might not think all our ideas are good. I’ll admit, when I go back to the States, I question our noise level, our willingness to have phone conversations anywhere (anywhere!), our obsession with being connected, anything other than silence. I understand that each culture has its strengths and weaknesses. I go back and forth about efficiency but I do know that if I move back to the States, I will never take it for granted again.

My friend Cheryl, another Geneva resident, sent me this article when I was describing it to her. It’s by a man who lived in France. He describes better than anyone what I have experienced:

“Efficiency for the French is a poor measure of the good life, just as making a buck from the sale of a house pales before the expression of feeling about what a house may represent. Whether this is good or bad hardly matters. It is often bad for the French economy. It is also a fact of life.”

It is a fact of life and I’m almost used to it. Sundays used to stress me out because I would worry I wouldn’t have food for dinner. We discovered our local Thai food restaurant is open on Sundays and that gave me enough peace to actually enjoy Sundays. I still try to do my grocery shopping in advance but I know that if I can’t get to it or burn everything, we can always eat delicious Pad Thai.

To finish my story, I went home, found the paper prescription and filled it elsewhere. I still have to keep the paper copy. It was a small victory. It might be a minor amount and I may be more tolerant of the French/Swiss lifestyle now but I am not giving it to the pharmacy from the fifties. Maybe if they get Windows 4.

Bill Clinton and Madonna walk into a bar

sprockets

I got my hair cut last weekend. It’s not very exciting. It’s a lob (a long bob) and I like it. But like every experience here in Geneva, it was fraught with cultural and language differences. I had wanted to get my hair cut for awhile but was a little nervous about having it done here. To my credit, all of the pictures in the windows of the many coiffure shops around town look VERY European. And not classy European. More like punk rock meets Sprockets European. I just couldn’t trust a salon that advertised asymmetrical purple hair. So, I looked for a recommendation online. Apparently I am not alone. Many women (and some men) on the ex-pat websites expressed concern. We are very worried about our hair. But I found one that declared her undying love for an English speaking hair stylist. So I called the salon. I got through the first sentence “I would like to make an appointment” but then got lost. As the receptionist went to find an English speaker, I realized she was asking “with whom?” I feel like that is progress. I did not know what she was saying in the moment but it took me less time to translate than usual. I credit Duolingo, a great free app on my phone that is teaching me French. Anyway, I made an appointment with an English speaking stylist and waited until Saturday.

Armed with a picture from Pinterest, I showed up at the salon Saturday afternoon. Everyone looked pretty normal. They washed my hair like a normal salon and we spoke in French about what I wanted my hair to look like. I was even able to share that I would like it not quite as short as the picture. Thank you Duolingo. Then the stylist pulled out the clippers. Not scissors. The thing I saw my mother use to cut my brothers hair. I must have looked panicked because the stylist reassured me (at least I think that is what she was saying) and began to cut. For some reason, she used the clippers for the entire cut. And none of it is that short. Maybe she’s more comfortable with them. But I was terrified. I thought for sure I’d end up with my head shaved in parts. But I did not. 

I generally don’t like talking to my hair stylist. Usually I dread the questions about children or jobs or travel. But I was eager to use my French so I happily answered questions and even asked a few of my own. I’m sure I sounded terrible but we understood one another. I am grateful that early French lessons cover vocabulary like “I have a son. He is two.” I can also say “The man eats an apple” but that was not relevant to our conversation.

The male stylist next to us was cutting the hair of a Spanish woman. They spoke in English about her son and her husband. This was helpful when my stylist asked me a question I did not understand. He could translate. Then another man left the salon and he must have been the owner because the stylists changed the music after he left. “Now,” said the male stylist, “I turn on the best musical artist of all time.” Then he added “American!” for my benefit. I assumed Michael Jackson. I was wrong. “Like a Virgin” began playing over the speakers. “She is American, yes?” he asked. I assured him Madonna is American though I had to think about it. She does that fake British accent thing which made me second guess myself. Then he told me a Bill Clinton joke. I had heard it before but it was funnier coming from a Swiss man. It was almost like I was in America. Then he referenced the disco.

At least I like my haircut.

She’s Here (and I’m a little behind)

IMG_2160It’s been at least two months since I last wrote- made obvious by the fact that I’m typing this while sitting next to our two month old daughter, Anne. She was born here in Geneva and I cannot more highly recommend Swiss hospitals. I generally don’t like publicized birth stories so I will save you the details but the experience was fantastic. I mean, despite the physical discomfort and the complications that arose, this was the best hospital/medical experience I have ever had. If you get a chance to give birth here in Switzerland, do it. 

For instance, when we came to the hospital to check in, they handed us a card with our room number, our direct telephone line and the Wifi code*. Then they showed us our room. Words cannot do it justice so here’s a picture:

IMG_2090

Yes, those are whitewashed wood floors. Yes, that is a terrace. And yes, there are ashtrays out there. I guess it would be too much to ask people not to smoke at a hospital.

As we were waiting for our nurse, I flipped through the information booklet they put on the bedside table. I found information about the spa (not in the hospital but affiliated and willing to come to the hospital) and a wine list. In the hospital information booklet right next to visiting hours and nursery schedule. Because the wine list and spa menu are as important as your medical needs.

Prior to the delivery, I was nervous about the language gap. Mostly I worried that I would answer a question incorrectly and wind up with an amputated leg. I should not have been worried. Yes, my OR was full of French speaking people. But, rather than being scared by the different language and the diverse group of people in the OR, I was struck by what a neat introduction to the world our baby was going to have. She was born in a very international city in an operating room that absolutely reflected that. I had several nurses and doctors who could explain it all in English and I was able to use my French. In fact, when I woke up in the recovery room, I asked for a glass of water in French. Apparently my French was not as good as I thought because I did not get a glass of water. Instead I was immediately taken to the ICU. But I said it. I know I did. 

The rest of my stay went smoothly. The entire experience was beautiful and not just in a sentimental “a new life has begun” way. It was physically beautiful all around us. Annie was always wrapped up warmly in beautiful Swiss baby clothes and her little clear bassinet included a personal baby-size duvet with WHITE cover. They fed us baskets of pastries for breakfast with real butter and jam. They came by every afternoon at four with a cart of yogurts in sweet little glass jars and fresh fruit on platters. I miss my four-o-clock snack times. No one brings such a cart to my house. My dinners were plated and served with a cloche cover that they would remove before I ate. You know- the things from Beauty and the Beast. Like this:

CL50

The attention I received was incredible as well. My doctor came by to visit every day (including Saturday and Sunday) and my anesthesiologist came by every day as well. I have had a few surgeries in my life but I could not tell you the name of any of my anesthesiologists. This one I remember well and not just because he gave me an epidural. They sat down and talked with us for ten minutes each time, about our family or how I was feeling or what they were concerned about. At one point, we figured out we had mutual friends. It was almost weird. I wanted to say, are you sure you don’t have somewhere to be? Are you sure you want to be here? 

I’ve gone back to the hospital a few times (more on that later) and gaze wistfully at room 17 and it’s terrace. My house is not and will not ever be as clean or quiet. I miss the hospital. Can you tell? Who misses the hospital? 

*Have you read about how many Americans pronounce Wifi “wiffy”? I love that.