Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Honeymoon's Over

Let’s talk a bit about the phase that most Trailing Spouses go through AFTER the Honeymoon stage.  I have previously referred to it as the “Oh, Shit What Have I Done” phase, but it could also be called the “Why is Everything So Difficult Here?” phase or “Please Don’t Make Me Go Out of the House and Deal with THESE PEOPLE Again” phase.  There is actually a psychological condition that can manifest itself at this stage called “Trailing Spouse Syndrome”.  Really.

Here are some tips from someone who has quasi-survived this difficult transition period and is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.  I understand that once I am clear of this horrible stage I will be considered “acclimated” to my new culture and everything will be all lollipops and giggles until it time to return home.  Then, apparently, everything happens in reverse, but that is many years in the future so I’m just not going to think about it.  Baby steps, baby steps.

1st Tip:  (Please note, I am going to be brutally honest here with these tips.  Yes, Virginia, it really is THIS bad).

You had better become the kind of person who stops complaining about things that are different and learn to enjoy the differences.  And you had better do this quickly.  Learn the phrase “Get Over It” and make it your mantra.  If you are still bemoaning the ice situation, the sliced bread situation, the nothing’s-open-on-Sunday situation after 9 months to a year in your new place, well, honey, you and your therapist will have a nice, long relationship.

Remember, your spouse is not experiencing this transition phase the same way you are.  He or she is happily going off to work and having lovely, English conversations all day with other adults.  Monday through Friday, your spouse is feeling the culture clash to a much, much lesser degree than you are.  And then, when the weekend comes, he or she will be ready to go exploring your fabulous new country and will totally rely on you to have the itinerary already planned out, (well, honey, really, what else do you have to do ALL WEEK?).  They will look to you to speak to the natives, (because you do this ALL WEEK, sweetie, and your French is so much better than mine), and show them the way on the public transport system, (because you do this ALL WEEK, snookums, and you know I’m used to just driving the car).  If you dwell on this one simple fact too much, you will drive yourself crazy with jealousy.  Concentrate on finding one little thing in YOUR day that YOU accomplished without mishap and take some small pleasure from it.  Spouse is in Amsterdam on business living the dream, probably smoking pot and hiring hookers and ordering from room service all at same time?  Get over it.  YOU managed to get it into your head that 1 kilo of ground beef is the same as 9 McDonald’s Quarter Pounders so all you need to order from the butcher is 200 or 300 grams of meat to make supper.  See?  Wasn’t that fulfilling?  Look at you go, you smart, little cookie!

So, different does not equal “bad”.  In your new world view, different must come to equal “what a fine opportunity for personal growth”.  Snowy day?  Well, strap on some snowshoes, sister, and go for a hike, because a trip to what Europeans euphemistically call a “mall” can maaaaaaybe be stretched out to a 2 hour excursion, if you include lunch.  When you try to describe a typical North American mall to a European, they don’t believe you.  They don’t get the whole “shopping as a leisure activity” thing.  Shopping is shopping and entertainment is entertainment and those two things don’t travel in the same circles.

Can’t find the right ingredients for your recipes?  Get over it.  Try something else that looks close and keep experimenting until it comes out edible.  Let’s face it.  The odds of you finding Kraft sliced singles outside North America are slim to none.  In Europe, there are a million other good cheeses.  Yes, they are different and it is going to make your burger or your fajitas taste different, but that’s OK.   No running lawnmowers or power tools on Sunday, the day of quiet?  Go skiing.  Go hiking.  Go biking.  Enjoy this time in your life where you don’t have to cut the grass on Sunday!  Not only do you not have to cut the grass, it is AGAINST THE LAW to cut the grass!  Free pass from all Do-It-Yourself projects every single Sunday.  What’s not to love about that?

No concept of “lite” foods?  No light dairy products, no light beer, no diet anything in sight?  You won’t need it.  Because you end up walking everywhere and are partaking of all of these outdoor leisure activities, you can eat “real” food and you will still come home at the end of your stint skinnier that when you left.  No joke.  The cream that I put in my coffee every morning is 52% milkfat.  I am addicted to it.  It is called “Crème de Gruyere” and if possible, I would bathe in it.  It is that good.  I eat potatoes, bacon, cheese and bread at least once and sometimes twice a day.  I haven’t put margarine in my mouth for 9 months, it’s all butter all the time.  Yet, I have lost 9 pounds and Mr. Big has lost 12.  And we have done nothing!!  That one fact alone is enough to make you never want to go back.

2nd Tip:  Stop comparing prices to “what you paid in the US”.  This will only make you want to commit hari-kari.  Also, it turns you into a very boring conversationalist because you are so preoccupied with the whole cost of living issue.  Mr. Big has not been able to get beyond the high Swiss prices yet, and it’s all he ever thinks about.  Booooring!  You, Trailing Spouse, must overcome the urge to compare prices between countries or you will never buy anything.  If you want to bargain shop, compare prices within your own new country and look for deals comparing apples to apples.  If you need new boots, and the cheapest ones that you like are 150 euros, DO NOT try to figure out how much they would cost back home or you will be walking around all winter in your old boots.  Physically and mentally stopping yourself from doing this is hard and requires a conscious effort but it can be done.  Well, I say that, but I think this is much harder for really, really thrifty people.  Of which I am not one.  Mr. Big, on the other hand, is a Scrooge by nature, so he is still doing the human calculator thing 24/7.

“Look, Trailing Spouse, just look at the price of this pizza.  50 francs!”

Yes, I see that, Mr. Big, but it is, after all, a family-size pizza, and what are you going to do, just starve yourself?  And, yes, honey, I am aware that eggs are 85 cents each but it is really hard to make an omelette without at least a few of them.  Perhaps we should just dress in flour sacks and live off bread and water?

On second thought, it might be better off for you, fellow Trailing Spouse, if your significant other NEVER gets over this astonishment at price discrepancies.  Because when you travel anywhere else, he/she will think everything is incredibly cheap and you can shop with abandon with no guilt and no hiding of receipts.  Even Paris and London are cheap compared to Zurich and Geneva.  Hmmmmm.  Remind me again why I am encouraging Mr. Big to overcome this bad habit?

Next time, Tips Three and Four. . . Forcing Yourself to Leave the House and How to Make Friends

Friday, January 15, 2010

Family Vacation Part II

 OK, more of you wanted to hear about the further travails of the family ski vacation in Chamonix than about my new camera, so there you have it. 

When renting a chalet or a beach house or whatever for a large group of people of varying ages, it is important to remember a few things if you want to keep your sanity.

Number One.  Make sure you are the first one in the front door so you can quickly scope out the bedrooms and snag the best one for yourself, narrowly beating out Small Son who is onto your tactics and actually tried to claim the master bedroom.  Oh, no, no, no, Small Son.  I do believe those are my gloves lying on the bed that I just sailed over your head to mark my territory.  Possession is 9/10ths of the law and all that.

Number Two.  If traveling with small children, make sure there are approximately 81 liters of apple juice and 32 boxes of cereal stocked in the cabinets at all times.  Apparently, Mr. Big did not get this memo, because he was forever going to the grocery store to buy yet even more juice.  This is Europe, remember, and drinks come in teeny, tiny packaging.  Because they have teeny, tiny refrigerators.  I mean, where would they put an American gallon of apple juice?  Out on the deck?

One day he came home with white grape juice.  Can you say Calamity?  Mr. Big’s life is a Catch-22.  He loves, loves, loves going to Swiss or French grocery stores.  Seriously.  Loves it.  But, he speaks no French.  So, it’s a crap shoot what comes home in his grocery bags.  It’s an adventure.  Because he guesses.  This is why he ate horse once at work in the cafeteria.  Anyway.

So, he knows that “Jus” means juice.  Plus he can look at the container and be, like, “OK, juice”.    But the remainder of the words are a mystery to Mr. Big.   In Mr. Big’s world, Jus de Pomme is basically the same thing as Jus de Blanche Raisin, right?  Um, no.  The 4-year old Instant Grand spotted Mr. Big for the poseur that he is in one sip.  “This is not my juice.”

Ooops.  That container of juice came home with us to Lausanne, where, I believe, it is still residing in the door compartment of my teeny, tiny fridge.

The third thing to remember for a harmonious family vacation is that YOU, oh paying parent in your late forties, early fifties and beyond, were once twentysomething, too.  People who are twentysomething want to go out when you are going to bed.  They will arrive back home when you are having coffee and reading the paper.  This is even more magnified because they are ON HOLIDAY.  

After a lovely dinner out in Chamonix on New Year’s Eve, we went outside into the town square, as one does, to watch the fireworks.  It is ubiquitous in Europe, the fireworks/New Year thing, even in the smallest of villages.  By the way, for those of you reading this from around here, the Chamonix fireworks sucked.   Go to Kufstein, Austria.  Best concert/fireworks for New Year’s ever.  Believe me.  I’ve been to many.

I digress.  Chamonix was typical.  People drinking champagne right out of the bottle.  Setting off their own personal fireworks in the midst of a large crowd.  Wearing costumes, etc.  We once saw a Dad in Bled, Slovenia holding out his hand, setting off Roman candles, with a baby in a backpack strapped onto him.  Weird.  OSHA would go crazy.  Hello, sir, you have a baby on your back and you are lighting off large, incendiary devices.  Doesn’t phase them, they just have another Vin Chaud.  Bonne Annee!

New Year’s rolls around.  My kids are passing around Mr. Big’s cell phone to call all of their friends back home to brag that they are having New Year’s six hours ahead of time.  The Instant Grands are tooting on the horns I got them and screaming “Bonne Annee!” in southern accents, turning the phrase into something containing approximately 8 syllables.  So, then we walk back to the chalet and the “big” kids want to go out.  Fine!  Mr. Big and I are certainly not going anywhere.  It is 1:30 in the morning!   We are old and we are tired.  Go, have fun!  Leave the babies, we got their backs!  See ya!

Of course, when we wake up the next day and get enough caffeine in our system to become fully functional, we realize that they are not home.  Mr. Big goes ballistic.  I’m like, been there, done that.  The first time this happened was in Ruka, Finland, when Domestic Son led Charming Daughter astray on New Year’s.  They showed up in a cab at 8 a.m., well after we had already called the Finnish police to report them missing and had been out checking dumpsters for Charming Daughter’s dead body.

Calm down, Mr. Big.  They are fine.  They are enjoying their little moment of après ski.  Surely, at some point, Ms. Fiancee will sober up enough to remember that she has two children, um, someplace, and she will make the move toward the house.  Which, of course, she did and they did and all was well.  Well, maybe, not so much.  I later spotted pictures of Small Son dancing in a nightclub in Chamonix, sans shirt, on Facebook.  But I have not shown those to Mr. Big.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Family Vacation Woes

Bonne Annee!  Happy New Year, everybody!  Well, we had quite a time over the holidays with all three children, one new fiancée and her two children incorporated into the mix.  Trying to get eight people up, motivated and all moving in the same general direction was a challenge every day but we somehow managed to do a little skiing, a little sightseeing and a lot of eating.  Isn’t that the definition of a great European vacation—the time spent between meals?

It is always fun to watch Euro Newbies react to stuff that we don’t think twice about anymore.  Ms. Fiancee and The Instant Grands have rarely travelled outside of South Carolina, let alone across the pond.  There were some quizzical looks as to why we were traveling in two cars.  We had rented the biggest bus available for rent to a non-commercial entity for our group but it still wasn’t big enough to fit all of us, our skis and our luggage.  A “big” vehicle in Europe is not the same thing as a “big” vehicle in America.  I know Ms. Fiancee was thinking, um, why didn’t you just rent a bigger bus?  She is, however, a polite and sweet girl and she refrained from pointing out the obvious.

So, I had to drive our regular car from Switzerland to France following the Griswold-mobile. 

Except Mr. Big was driving so slow!  Why are you driving so slow, Mr. Big?  This was my first time driving over here and I was worried about the roundabouts.  Ha!  I should have been worried about the speed limits!  I estimate that I will be receiving 6 tickets in the mail in about five weeks from my one little driving adventure.  Apparently, my kids were having quite a time watching speed cameras flash on and off all around me and I was just tooling along worrying about the stupid roundabouts.  They said it was like watching a disco lightshow, driving behind me.  Whatever.  I prefer the US system where there is an actual cop with an actual radar gun that you can actually see and try to elude.  These anonymous speed cameras over here are just way too devious.  Hopefully, most of my speeding was in France where they won’t deport me for too many tickets, like they will in Switzerland.

The next day was a major disaster and it was all my fault. 

I take full responsibility.  Thinking that we would start off with an easy day and let them get over their jet lag, I make the decision to forego skiing and just take a ride up the gondola to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, take some pictures of Mont Blanc, have some lunch and let them soak in the views from the top of Alps. 

Oh my Lord.  Everyone was fine at the midpoint waystation at 7600 feet.  Clouds started rolling in just as we boarded the second gondola to take us up to the summit at 12,600 feet.  Well, at about 10,000 feet, they started dropping like flies.  The Telecabine was rocking in the wind, we’re swaying over blue glaciers, the Instant Grands are starting to pass out from altitude sickness, Charming Daughter is having a panic attack thinking we are all going down and Ms. Fiancee is looking daggers at me like I have deliberately planned this Evil Torture Ride from Hell as a special welcome to the family. 

And me?  I’m blithely taking pictures with my new camera, oohing and aahing over the ice caves!  When it got really windy, I had checked the Telecabine operator’s face and he wasn’t at all concerned, so neither was I.  I didn’t really become aware that half of my family was swooning until Charming Daughter actually hit the floor. 

Even after disembarking when I should have immediately sent them all back down on the next gondola, I was convinced a little snack and a hot chocolate would perk them right up and they would all be fine!  So, I herd them into the cafeteria and put Mr. Big into line to get snacks and off I go to get more photos.  Sometimes I amaze myself with my own idiocy.

Luckily, Small Son was unaffected by the altitude and set me straight.  He put his two hands on my shoulders and looked me directly in the eyes.  “Mom.  This.  Is.  A.  Very.  Bad.  Idea.”  By this time, the little 4 year old was practically comatose. 

Right, gotcha.  Down we went in The Telecabine O’Death once again.  At about 5,000 feet, they started to come around and by the time we reached solid ground, everyone was back to normal, except Ms. Fiancee who I think was convinced that I was trying to kill her children.

NOTE TO SELF:  Do not bring people who live at or below sea level to the top of the Alps on the very first day of their visit.  It might result in a very short visit.

I did not let them know until after the vacation was over that 50 people actually had to be extracted via helicopter harness from the gondola in Zermatt two days after our own misadventure.  That would have just been the icing on the cake.  I’d never see Domestic Son and his entourage ever again.

Do you want to hear more about the Griswold’s family vacation or do you want to hear about how the world’s most electronically challenged person attempts to use a fancy, digital camera?  Let me know!