Peruvian Mangoes & Needle Rain

And so we have arrived, cold, pale-skinned and severely Vitamin D deprived, in my most hated month of the Northern Hemisphere year; February. Ooh she is a cruel mistress, February. And oh how I have so very often bemoaned her cold, grey ways. She does it to me every year, drives me up the walls of the apartment she forces us to hunker down in as the rain falls and the temperature hovers at a number germs and viruses thrive in, and all the way back down again. Every year. Every damn year.

Der Lüdde and I went out to the markets yesterday, for a coffee that was cold within minutes, and a stroll with a friend. The cold at the moment is wet, wet and biting, of course if you are a baby wrapped in a lamb’s wool-lined suit, that doesn’t really matter. Oh to be a baby wrapped in lamb’s wool and marvellously ignorant of Schietwetter. The markets this time of year are quieter, less colourful. Loads of pale,  knotty root veggies blinking in the light. That being said, in amongst the stalls of turnips and woodfired bread and tiny organic leeks, was a rainbow fruit stall, selling Peruvian mangoes for 6.50€ a piece. Quite apart from not being desperate enough  to pay 6.50€ for a single mango, yet, I have become accustomed to eating more seasonally, and the idea of a mango in February felt wrong. It seems a touch of the German sense of Ordnung has indeed got under my skin. (Now, the idea of a mango in February in Australia, well that is quite simply enormously right.) But, look, I have to say … I picked up a mango and smelled it, looking like a real loon, but it begged me to, with its sunset skin and sweet, sweet smell … maybe I am closer to paying 6.50€ for a Peruvian mango than I thought. This is what February in this part of the world does to you. Robs you of reason.

On the way home from picking die Lüdde up from her playgroup, the needle rain started and before long we were all dripping, cheeks red, eyelashes wet. Die Lüdde clung determinedly to a soggy rice cake, a gift from her little mate. The rain didn’t let up for most of the rest of the day, so we resigned ourselves to another day of puzzles and drawing and Kneate and fossicking around the apartment to find things we could turn into games (‘look, an old tin full of biros that may or may not work – why don’t you go through each and every one of them and test them out!’). This time of year is tricky with kids – it is too cold or too wet or too miserable to haunt a Spielplatz, or one of them is nursing just enough of a cough to not make standing in the damp cold for a few minutes of slippery dip fun quite worth it. So you build up craft boxes, grabbing glitter pens and sticker whenever you see them, dropping 12€ at Tiger on anything colourful that can be glued to paper. You crack out the puzzles you cleverly bought months back and put away for a rainy day (ie: the entire season of winter) and you read a lot of books. A lot. No wonder Germany is das Land der Dichter und Denker. The weather means one has not much else to do except sit inside and think and perhaps jot a poem or two down about how god awful the weather is and consequently, how dark one’s soul is.

Tja. February. You test me every time.

Erosion

As time passes and I find my answer to ‘seit wann sind Sie in Deutschland?’ changing to a number of years that seems heavy to me, a strange, uncomfortable thing is happening; I feel, sometimes, as if an erosion of my Australianess is taking place. It is slow and for the most part so incremental as to be almost unnoticeable, like the smallest leak in a very large bucket. But it is there, this sense of being washed away, this sense of, on difficult days, loss.

Loss, of course, occurs naturally with age. I have, rather unfortunately, lost the body I had as a 25 year old and lost the very blonde hair I had when I lived in a country with plenty of sun to help the sporadic dye jobs. I have lost the thirst, the uncertainty, the unending desire to prove oneself, that accompanies one throughout their twenties. I have lost patience for many things, interest in others. I have lost sleep, or rather, it has been stolen by the two little people I have gained in its place. None of that is bad. All of those things most probably would have occurred whether I had stayed in Australia or not (except the hair). But, alongside the things I am shedding as I grow older and further into my skin, are these intangible pieces of self, and they are disappearing not because I am growing older, but because of where I am growing older.

Recently, I went to the first English playgroup I have come across since having my first baby here two and a half years ago. I don’t seek out English-centred activities for my children, although I will as they get older and most of their days are spent speaking German with teachers and classmates. And I will always feel the need to defend doing English-centred activities with them because I heard these words so often when I first moved here, they hang around my neck like a chain; ‘you live in Germany now, you must speak German.’ And as immigrants, we are naturally defensive of passing on our culture and our language. Defensive and yet proud. Obstinate, irritatingly so, but only because we fear being lost in our children.

So there we were, a disparate bunch, a Kiwi who had married a Dutch woman who herself had grown up in Kiel. An American who had married a German, a German who had married an Englishman, a British-American born in Germany, raised in London, who had married a German and returned to the country of his birth, if not his citizenship and so on, so forth. Our kids had accents and mixed their vocabs and it was a warm and easy meeting of like minds. I was asked where I was from, and when I said, ‘Australia’, the response was one I hear often, but this time, this time it stuck with me; ‘oh, you can barely hear it.’

I know that accents often come and go, exist in a constant state of flux. They come back with a vengeance when you are with family and friends, they pop out when you are angry or excited. And they drift off when they haven’t heard themselves for a while, and you find yourself mirroring another person’s vowels, or over-annunciating some words to be better understood, or inserting quirks of the language you are learning, into your mother tongue. But your accent reveals your heritage, warns others of where you come from, singles you out in a roomful of people. And mine, albeit never particularly strong in the first place, is fading. So I try and hang onto the way we speak. I hated shortening words when I lived at home, words like ‘arvo’ for afternoon, but I say it all the time now. Almost deliberately. Definitely deliberately. For the same reason we have hung the paintings of Australian birds, bright and colourful and heart-warmingly distinct, around our apartment, my husband and I throw flat Aussie vowels at each other, use expressions I grew up hearing from my parents, and it helps.

My formative years, of course, indeed my first 25 years, were spent in the country of my birth and my citizenship. I grew up there, was educated there, voted there, worked there; I come from, I am. And yet, I have never rented an apartment in Australia. I have never had a baby there. I have never bought a house there. All three of those things, those so very adult, life-defining things, I have done here. There have been three Prime Ministers – I think –  since I left the only country in which I am legally allowed to vote.  I see what angers my people, and it angers me too. I celebrate our victories. I will always support the green and gold. But I do it all from afar, without the immediacy of being there, without the context of having been there as things take place. And of course, I lot of it passes me by. A lot of names, I don’t recognise, a lot of things happen and I come to them late; a lot of problem are not my own, or rather, they are my own but they are occurring in a different system, in another language.

Strangely, I do not feel like the slow erosion of my Australianness correlates with a deepening of my Germanness. I do not feel any more German than I did six years ago, freshly arrived and floundering. I understand the Germans and German far, far more. I love them and this country in a manner achievable only through being a part of it. But I do not feel a part of my cultural identity is German. I feel a part of my cultural identity is being foreign within Germany, but not German. And from where I stand, in a position of terrific privilege, I – even I – can see, how immigrants isolate. Isolate and insulate. Because as an immigrant, you are never not what you came from, but you are also never what where you are. This tension can be a wonderful thing. Fascinating and eternally educational. But it can also be disengaging, a slippery slope to disenchantment, an easy reason to cling to what you left behind in defiance of a culture you do not feel a part of.

And yet, and yet. There is another way of looking at this, for I also know that a part of me was always seeking something different, a tension, a suspension, otherwise I would never have left Australia. Otherwise I would not be sitting here, looking out on a cold, grey north German winter’s day, while my half German son gums a rattle on the floor. And that same part of me knows that there is another way of looking at this sense of erosion, this fear I am being painted over as life barrels on and further away from both what I knew and what I thought it would look like; rather than being taken away from, I am being added to. I have lost nothing, but instead gained abundantly.

What I Know About North Germans

Let’s open with this: to a real north German, north Germany is essentially Schleswig-Holstein (der echte Norden) and, at a pinch, Hansestadt Hamburg. The Schleswig-Holsteiners say Meck-Pomm is east Germany, and anything south of Hamburg is south Germany. End of. Niedersachseners may be surprised to find they are, in actual fact, not from the north of the country. Sorry.

 

Let’s get another thing out of the way; the reputation of the North Germans precedes them and it isn’t pretty. Unemotional, unfriendly, cold as the wind that whistles in off the North Sea and freezes the tears on your face. Well, I have to say … lies. I have lived in three different Bundesländer in Germany, and the friendliest, the cheeriest, the most open to foreigners, I have always found in the north.  Hell, I even married a northener.

This coolness is a front, and/or they have literally been frozen by the wind and need some time to thaw out. But when they do thaw out – and they will – they’re truly lovely people with questionable taste in food.

North Germans favour brevity when it comes to conversation and interactions on the street. This isn’t to say they won’t slip a wry grin or a twinkly eye in, but the crisper and less time consuming an exchange is, the better. Hence they tend to use one word for forty different things; ‘jo’. Learn it. Use it. It is the key to the northerners’ heart.

That isn’t to say the northerners don’t love a good Schnacken. Favoured locations for a good chat are bakeries, or during  a brisk stroll by some frigid body of water.

North Germans seem to holiday almost exclusively in Denmark. It is quite extraordinary.

While there, they love nothing more than a good Wattwanderung.

Normal Germans worship the wurst and northerners do too … but they worship the mighty Fischbrötchen more.

Normal Germans enjoy Fleischsalat and northerners do too … but they up the ante with Nordseekrabbensalat and it is exactly what you think it is; tiny, rubbery little shrimp-like things swimming in a creamy sauce.

North Germans have a very dry sense of humour. Sometimes so dry, it can crack the skin on your face and you are not sure whether to laugh or whimper.

North Germans put sugar on their Grünkohl.

They are weirdly unphased by really, really, really terrible weather. In fact, there is no drizzle, no sideways rain, no downpour they won’t slip on some boots, throw on a raincoat and go out for a bracing stroll in. The term ‘schietwetter‘ is uttered almost joyfully as horizontal rain drills into their faces.

They love water and absolutely any and every kind of sport one can partake of in and around and under and on water. Arschkalt water is also totally okay, as is a Steife Brise. As winter slowly recedes, some real hardcore NGs can even be found sliding into the Kieler Förde for a dip. You can almost hear their gruff, internal thoughts, ‘it’s good for the soul!’ as their skin slowly turns blue.

North Germans really, really like boats.

Really, they like any person-carrying vessel that moves with the wind and partake of any or all sports along this theme.

Generally speaking, the German spoken up here is lovely and easy to understand (Oberpfälzers, I am looking at you pointedly as I type …) but on many occasions, and quite without warning, an NG might lapse into this bizarre dialect that you swear might be Old English with a sprinkle of Dutch.  This is called Plattdeutsch or Plattdootsch and the variety spoken up in this parts is unbelievably cute.

North Germans are simultaneously both very proud of their region and also rather self-deprecating (Hamburgers, I almost need not say, are excepted from the self deprecation. Big time.). The two most common phrases I seem to hear are the borderline smug ‘live where others holiday’ and the outright baffled ‘why on earth would an Australian move to Kiel?’

If you want self deprecation taken to a whole new level, perhaps more in the direction of Negative Nancy, read the comments on the Kieler Nachrichten Facebook page. Those people need a sunny holiday.

Perhaps it is a symptom of coastal towns, perhaps it is the huge cruise ships that bring in thousands of tourists every summer, perhaps it is par for the course with port cities, but there is an openness to the northerners that has come to define the way I see them. An openness and an interest in others.

Along with watersports, NGs seem to be very keen on horses.

This region also seems to have produced most of Germany’s most recent tennis stars.

Things you won’t find up north:  Dirndls, Lederhosen, Christkind, Karnival, Weißwurst, Grüß Gott, a great deal of Catholicism, mountains. So, pretty much everything you associate with Germany.

 

Rest assured this is a work in progress. I’m not leaving this part of the world any time soon …

Quiet & Slow

Temperatures plunged, the roads turned icy, and any lingering resolve I may have had to go outside disappeared over the weekend. On Saturday we postponed plans with family because the Feuerwehr advised against driving and, as I get older, and my children weigh heavily on my heart, I make almost all decisions based on variations of the ‘those parents’ question: in this case, ‘do we want to be those parents who go driving, have an accident and get asked by the police why we were driving in the first place?’ Having cancelled our plans, I set out on foot to buy nappies, or something equally as urgent, and nearly fell on my arse, twice. I turned back and handed the job to SG. I am in no mood, at this time of year, to fall on my arse carrying nappies and cast about wildly for someone’s hand to assist in heaving my Christmas-fattened body back on its feet. I am in no mood to do much at all, mid January, except eat, watch my jeans tighten, and plan imaginary holidays to Greece.

(Actually, on the note of planning imaginary holidays, I thought about exploring the possibility of a little long weekend break in Denmark. So I hopped online, looked at houses, and over the course of doing about ten minutes of research, my subconscious spun through the logistics of an easy breezy weekend with a baby and a toddler – travel cots and baby food, and a toddler who is very much wedded to the idea of sleeping exclusively in her own bed, toys for indoor play, snow suits and boots for freezing outdoor adventures, groceries … And I stopped. I closed every window I had opened and went and made myself a coffee. I think I’ll wait a bit for easy breezy weekends away to become a thing again.)

But, there is beauty in the cold air. And each day brings us closer to Spring, even though I am sure there is snow waiting in February’s wings.  I almost hope there is, because die Lüdde is completely obsessed with it. If and when it falls, I hope there is enough for a snowman, or a sledding situation with Papa. Perhaps, quite like the spell they cast on Christmas, children can make winter a little more magical too.

Januaries are always quiet and huddled, here. it almost feels like the volume gets turned down. Many of my non-German friends fly home for the weeks over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, cleverly skipping the grey, post-Christmas letdown. The past couple of years we escaped too, but not this time. And that’s okay. We can huddle too, play with Christmas presents, drink tea and brave drizzly morning walks to playgroup, the air wet and cold. With each winter I spend in this part of the world, it gets a tiny bit easier, the hibernation a little more restorative. And there is something quite nice about being forced to stay inside and laze about without feeling guilty about it. I mean, if the Feuerwehr say ‘don’t drive anywhere’, it is a very small step to reach ‘stay in your pyjamas all day and watch Netflix until Netflix itself asks you if you are sure you are still watching.’ Very small.

That being said, come February, I will be singing a very different, far whinier tune.

The Sick Season

I used to think the most intolerable part of a north German winter was the grey. The grey sky, the grey trees, the grey water, the grey air. Days of no colour that bled into one another, January indiscernible from February. Second to the grey was the wet, the needle rain, the Schietwetter, the drizzle, the downpours. Oh, and the cold, of course – the thigh-numbing wind, the ducking and darting from overheated shop to overheated shop. (I am used to the cold now, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. Although I dream, I dream, of beaches.)

But now I know that the most intolerable part of winter is actually the fact that, for months on end, everyone is sick. Dastardly colds, the flu, the stomach flu, they cycle through the general populous, knocking cities out like dominoes. As you stagger to the finish line of three days of efficiently throwing up, efficient because you have to be while your kid projectiles all over every piece of spare bed linen you own, someone in the family starts coughing threateningly. A week later you are all hoiking up vast amounts of phlegm and splashing seriously weak eucalyptus oil over every piece of spare bed linen you own. Your toddler develops a Honigfenchel addiction and considers it part of bedtime routine.  You use the word ‘Schleim‘ about three thousand time over the course of th day. After about a week, you stagger out of that cold, thrilled the baby can now breathe without a litre of Otriven being pumped into his nose every night, and then the toddler’s nose starts streaming. Again. Your throat closes up. You genuinely start drinking Erkältungstee because you are that desperate and when you are desperate you start to think like a German, and thinking like a German means believing a bag of dried unhelpfulness dipped in boiling water will cure all that ails you.

We are crawling out of a fortnight of sickness (when I say ‘we’, I mean the kids are crawling out, I appear to be crawling in …) which began precisely a fortnight after die Lüdde got over a cough/runny nose combo. I have come to realise, through sheer positive thinking, Netflix, enough chocolate and wine, and a good coat, I can do grey, I can do cold, I can do wet, I can do days on end finding ways to entertain a toddler while the Spielplätze outside are off limits … But I don’t know if I can do the sickness. The constant, hoiking, coughing, sniffing, vomiting sickness. That sense of never quite feeling well.

I had a chat with a couple of other immigrant ladies the other night, about why the sickness season in Germany is so dire (and dire squared when one has children). Dire in that, when a bug goes around it is both vicious and so widespread it knocks out the country. Dire in that, there is a period of health that lasts about a month, before the next bug barges in.  And we were a varied bunch theorising: a few Americans, an Australian and a Finn. I have always theorised it is a combination of no sun, low light, low vitamin levels, and the completely unhealthy overheating of indoor areas which means you go from freezing outside, to overheating and sweating inside, about four times a day. An American tossed in her theories of population density and lower levels of hand-washing. I then began relentlessly questioning SG as to whether he believes Germans are less hygienic and whether or not his colleagues wash their hands enough.

Anyway. We’re surviving, if not thriving over here, and the end of this latest bout is in sight. It is a fresh, new, shiny year and I love fresh, new shiny years. Let’s clink Erkältungstee cups and drink to good health, even if only for a couple of weeks.

The Darkest Day

It is the shortest, darkest day of the year today. Winter solstice. And yet, there is blue sky, and the sun keeps pushing through the clouds, undeterred. There is a metaphor in there somewhere, for the state of the world right now, where there is so much darkness, so much insidious darkness.

From here, the days will begin to lengthen. The sun will rise earlier in the morning. There will be more light. The tiny kernel of promise, the little flame of light, that seems so small during these dark days, will grow and grow, until it is almost all we can see. The darkness never disappears, but it never triumphs either.

Last week, family blew in from all corners of the globe, from Sydney and London and Amsterdam, and it was wonderful. We had a long weekend of German Christmas treats and coffees and vegemite Brötchen and catch ups. The kids were fussed over and die Lüdde ate way too many Zimtsterne. It was a big dose of familial cheer and carried us almost all the way to Heilige Abend’s front door.

Holy Evening. Christmas Eve. I don’t believe in a God, but I respect your right to. I believe, though, in the sanctity of family, however that family is formed. I believe in the faith we place in each other, in community. And I believe that this time of year is a time to draw close and celebrate each other and that which binds us as family, as community.

So Merry Christmas to all of you. Draw close. Let the light in.

Bittersweet

It has become apparent that, at this stage of the proceedings, I am essentially existing off Stollen. I was inclined to ignore it myself, but as I ferried in another plate of it into the living room at around the lunchtime hour, SG idly mentioned it seemed Stollen was replacing meals. I thought back to breakfast … Stollen with a side of Knusperhaus. I looked ahead to the afternoon, and saw Christmas Market treats. Momentarily, the poorness of my diet loomed large. Then I shrugged. ‘It’s Christmas.’

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And Christmas it indeed is. The most magical and, in a way, most bittersweet time of year. There is always, and will always be, one eye so very firmly fixed on Australia during this season. Sure, there is the nostalgia associated with my childhood Christmasses, that seeps into adulthood, even more so now I have children of my own. There is the keen awareness of the passing of time that the end of year brings, and the knowledge that time has once again passed without certain people in it; it begins to weigh heavily on my conscience, a strange type of guilt. And then there is the simple fact that I miss home, I miss my family, I miss my friends. The dull, ever-present pull of Heimweh is more acute at this time of year than at any other.

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But what luck I have, how rich I am, to have family and friends in good health on both sides of the globe. And how wonderful it is to peer into the bittersweetness of December, with its light and chocolate and carousel rides, its post boxes and Skype calls and story-telling, and see that richness, that luck. There is a part of being foreign, the part that sees your family living so far away, that sometimes wonders when that luck will run out, that awaits the time a flight home will not be for a happy reunion, or a hot Christmas. It sits alongside that aforementioned type of guilt, that you put roots down so far away from those who love you. It is an odd confection, emigration, and mine was in the most privileged circumstances, that I am all too aware of.

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St Nicholas came last night and left some little treats in die Lüdde’s slightly muddy gumboot. We will get our tree today and dress it with ornaments new and old. I’ll cut another slice of Stollen and we’ll risk a late afternoon visit to the Weihnachtsmarkt with a toddler and a baby a few more times yet. It is always worth it for the delighted cry of ‘Lights! Lights! Mama look!’ and the steaming hot Glühwein. And the Poffertjes. The most wonderful time of the year it most certainly is, the most bittersweet time of year it will always be.

Plätzchen

One of my aunties emigrated from Switzerland to Australia in the 70s, drawn there by my uncle (who she met when her father gave him a job as a shepherd in Switzerland) and his tumbling blonde locks and form-fitting flares. She was around the same age I was, when I moved to Germany. Out in Oz, she added English to her stockpile of languages, including the key phrase at the petrol station, ‘fill ‘er up, mate’, and had two kids, a girl first, and then a boy. (Strangely, I always thought of my auntie as Italian, because I was told she could speak it, and then my cousins learnt it, and as a child, I had little to no concept of Switzerland, with its various official languages and ethnicities. I was also suitably impressed by the fact she could speak Italian, yet had no idea she could speak German until an embarrassing amount of years later. I think in many ways, she was just a very exotic European to my young eyes.)

Since I emigrated from Australia to Germany, there have been so many times I have thought of my auntie, doing the reverse of what I have done, decades earlier. The culture shock, the language barriers, the Heimweh. Now that I have kids, first a girl and then a boy, I have started wondering how she navigated the playgroups and playgrounds and giving her children the culture and language she grew up with. I also wonder how she managed to keep in touch with anyone without the internet.

One way my auntie brought her Swiss-ness to us Aussies, was through food. Every Christmas she would arrive with a huge platter of her famous biscuits. (That is genuinely what they were called.) Chewy, spicy little stars, glazed hearts, jam filled discs. They were the way we finished off every Christmas lunch, and if we were lucky, we would have some leftover for the next few days of idle gluttony.

Those biscuits, I came to learn a couple of years ago, were Plätzchen, special Christmas biscuits this part of the world bakes and consumes by the ton come November and December. They were Zimtsterne and Plätzchen mit Erdbeermarmelade, little bites of tradition that were part of my Australian Christmasses because my auntie was there and now, of course, my German ones, because I am here.

The first Christmas after die Lüdde was born, one of my then-new mum friends invited us round to bake Plätzchen and drink Glühwein. We did it again this year, this time with sticky toddler hands ‘helping’ and eating the decorations. We’ll do it again next year, with more sticky toddler hands and a hell of a lot more Glühwein. Our Plätzchen will take a while to reach the polished, nigh on professional heights of my auntie’s, but we’re working on it. I even had a crack of (packet mix) Vanillekipferl a week or so ago, and they weren’t half bad.

In this time of life, and particularly at this time of year, I am so aware of family traditions, both making new ones and continuing those of old. And I am also so aware of how the traditions we make for our children will and should fuse two hemispheres, two countries, two cultures. Somehow, through the twists and turns of fate, baking Plätzchen does just that.

Isn’t life funny.

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I Will Teach Them

It is a cold Friday, but the good kind of cold. The red-cheeked kind of cold. You can get by without a scarf, but candles in cafes still feel lovely. I have left the kids at home and come out to clear my head a bit; sit in silence and stare at a wall while elevator jazz plays in the background and two old men sit in the window and talk about Facebook. The coffee in this place is average, but I’ll drink a bucket of it in exchange for the sheepskin seats and candles in jars and golden, golden silence. If someone had told me before I had kids, how much I would come to appreciate sitting still, sitting quietly, with a hot drink, I would have never, ever believed them. And yet here I am.

Really, I have come out to write. Exercise that sorely neglected muscle, throw a few paragraphs at an essay I know will be great, one day, when I finish it, perhaps when the kids are at school and I have more time to write about having kids. Try, perhaps, to order my thoughts on a big week and what it means. I mean, I know what it means. I know what it means hyperbolically, sensationally, realistically. I have consumed all of the memes and tweets and statistics and anger. I have felt that sudden queasy surge of uncertainty in the form of fear. I didn’t really, truly believe he would ever get in. But who am I kidding – bad men have always run countries, populations have always made rash, uneducated, hopeful, hateful decisions. The world keeps turning. None of this is new, none of this reveals something about the way humankind works that we didn’t know before. And yet. Here we are. Surprised, shaken and so very, very sad.

My sister wrote to me the other day and said she didn’t know how parents were going to find a way to raise their kids in this world. I don’t know either. Arguably, how I was always going to raise my children, before America handed its nuclear codes to a profoundly awful, disastrously unqualified, vicious, small man. Children are, simply and logically, the future, and you can say that poetically or say that scientifically, or say it without giving a great deal of thought to what it means because it is something you have always heard. But they are the continuation of our species, a future that will one day vote and pay taxes and make films and write for newspapers and discover and cure, and like we try and right the wrongs our parents’ generation made, so will our children right the wrongs we make.

So I will teach them that we are killing our planet, even if the leader of the free world thinks that is rubbish. I will teach them that religion is a construct humankind has turned to since the very beginning of time, because something within us cries out for answers, and something within us finds tremendous comfort in faith. I will teach them religion can do so much good, and so much bad. That we are free to believe, and just as free not to. We are free to learn and criticise and be angered by. We are free to rail against and rally for. But that we cannot and should not impinge on others’ rights to do the same. And we should never deliberately hurt someone based on a complex relationship with a complex concept. I will teach them to think. To really, really think. To ask questions, and to question those answers. To look at all of the pairs of shoes they should consider wearing before they arrive at their own conclusions. I will teach them to look at how they came to be, how their parents came to be, how their family came to be – because people crossed borders and got on ships and planes and took on new countries and new languages and that so many, many factors go into belonging somewhere. To identifying with something. I will teach them people are female and male and neither nor and how very normal, how very personal, how very part of being human that is. I will teach them to be feminists, both of them. I will show them every single way our world has come to devalue and oppress women, and every single way they can punch that in the face. I will teach them that they, and people around them, can love who they want to love, marry who they want to marry, if marriage is even something they want – it is okay, all of it is okay. I will teach them to stand up to the bully, to share their tremendous fortune, and to always, always keep learning. Keep reading. Keep asking questions. Keep talking. Keep their arms and their eyes open. Keep pushing against what is unfair, hurtful, isolationist. Keep absorbing and sharing ideas, those powerful, powerful things.

I would have done that all before he came in. Perhaps, though, I would have faltered, forgotten along the way. Perhaps I would have run out of puff on a few occasions and let an opportunity to teach them slide by, let myself forget how all of this, all of these ideas, they begin at home. But now I know, now I see, we cannot afford to run out of puff, nor falter, nor forget. And I will raise my children intentionally, as best I can.

That’s what I will do. It is the very least I can.

Of Acorns and Squirrels

When I was a girl, courtesy of my mother’s own girlhood literary leanings, I read and re-read and read again, until the pages were torn and the covers fell off, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. (The Twins of St Clares genuinely didn’t have a cover for the decade my sister and I turned to it, often, as a sort of comfort read. Like comfort food, but better.) My sister, far horsier than I was, got deep into my Mum’s Jill books collection and some trickled on to me. She also let me read her James Herriot tomes when she wasn’t reading them, and I was always quite impressed by the wide-reaching knowledge on all things animal-related that she accrued from Herriot’s writing. Really, save for a few books here and there, like The Seven Little Australians or anything by Morris Gleitzman, and the phase of believing there no life more worthy of emulation than Jessica Wakefield’s, my literary upbringing was decidedly British. (I suspect that is why words like ‘shall’ pepper my sentences, and I am quite comfortable with the ‘owts and nowts’ of the Yorkshire accent.)

My diet of Dahl, Blyton, and Herriot paved the way for a teendom of Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole (his first volume also read until cover-less) and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, and put me squarely on the receiving end of the boom of late 90s, early naughties British chick-lit, some good, some truly terrible. It is also possibly why, still, my favourite authors are English and my favourite TV shows of all time are English.

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There were a few parallels between my childhood and those of the characters I read about; I went to an all girls school, which had a boarding population and a borderline obsession with sport, including hockey. I grew up with the sort of free rein on a large property that allowed the Famous Five to get into their scrapes. Although I do recall being shocked their mother/aunt allowed them to take a caravan off to some village for the entire summer, where they lived off sandwiches and cake that Anne made. That was another level of freedom entirely, and they were lucky to survive the carnival folk and their weirdly clever animals.

There were, of course, more differences than parallels. I was an Aussie in the other hemisphere, growing up in the 90s, as opposed to post-war England. In my books, the squirrels ate acorns and snow fell at Christmas. Their school terms were all around the wrong way, and fields seemed scattered with moles and hedgehogs and berries. Winters were cold and bleak and there seemed to be a tremendous fixation on spring. There were no goannas on the look out for your recess, no snake to keep an eye out for in the hot summer grass, no burning your arse on the slippery dip in January. No backyard cricket using the otto bins as stumps, no Christmas Day spent in the pool with your cousins, or watching Mum heroically time it so the ham and turkey, piping hot in the midst of summer, were ready at the same time, and Nana had enough room at the bench to make any last minute brandy cream.

The other day, I found my childhood copy of My Nut I Think! by Enid Blyton. I gave it to die Lüdde to read, because she had recently developed something of an obsession with acorns found in a long and trudging tale, Herr Uhu Macht Urlaub. As she turned the pages and pointed out every single acorn she could find, being ferried home by a very industrious red squirrel, and then stolen by a bossy nuthatch, I idly thought about how we should take her looking for real acorns on the weekend.

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And then it hit me. We can go looking for acorns. Acorns ferried about by industrious red squirrels. It will probably snow this Christmas, and school has just gone back for its first, as opposed to fourth, term. The childhood unfolding for my own child, is one I read of only in books, books that formed a literary childhood quite opposed to my actual one, but a childhood of sorts all the same. And as we collected acorns a few days later, die Lüdde warmly eingepackt against the cool autumn wind, a type of wind I only sometimes met in winters growing up, it was one of those moments in which it was so very clear to me how different her experiences growing up will be to what mine were.

This is, of course, true for all parents and their children. We cannot and do not live the childhoods our parents did. But when you grow up in the same country your parents did, inheriting bits and pieces from their own upbringing is an easier, more unthinking process. When you raise a child outside of the country you grew up in, giving them pieces of what you had becomes a more deliberate act, one made obvious by its separation from context.

Of course, we are enriched by, and rich in, our ability to give our children both squirrels and koalas, snowy, cold Christmases and ones spent in the pool. They will read of both hemispheres, and in as many ways as we can provide, live both as well. Already, they hear the Australian in my language, eat it on their toast, read it in books sent over by friends and family.

And yet. It will never cease to be wonderfully strange to me, that these squirrels and acorns I knew of only from books, these topsy turvy seasons the absolute opposite to the ones I always knew, will be the norm for my children.

What is life, I suppose, without a little bit of wonderfully strange.