Fix-me-up tea


I’ve been sick for the last few days. That type of sick where in the middle of the night you kind of hope God decides to take you.

When I am really sick, I long for my parents. They were spectacular care givers during my childhood illness. I was prone to high fevers and my treatments consisted of a blend of Old World and New World treatments. My mom would rub me down with 4711 Eau de Cologne and put me in one of my dad’s undershirts in an attempt to cool me down. My dad would bring me popsicles on his way from work. Then he would sit by my bed, put a cold washcloth on my head, hold my hand and tell me “Mija, you’re going to be all right – you’re tough – keep your chin up”. It was his mantra that he would tell me whenever things got rough.

As I got older, the fevers disappeared but they were replaced by other maladies for which the treatment was always the same: Fix-me-up tea. The recipe was highly guarded by my father but basically it is a cup of brewed Lipton black tea with the juice of half a lemon and about 2 teaspoons of sugar. The result is a tea that is smooth and sweet and comforting but not too sweet because of the lemon juice. Headache?chills?stomach ache? broken heart or broken leg, the remedy was always the same.

I can’t figure out how my parents came to begin drinking it or even have Lipton tea in the house. Mexicans don’t drink tea and the French aren’t big on it either. This was the 70’s though, a culinary wasteland and  Foldgers or Tang wouldn’t have had the same results. There was no Earl Grey or Rooboos or Sencha. If you wanted something warm it was only to be found in the red and yellow box with the sailor on it. And so for as far as I can remember, we have been drinking Fix-me-up tea, a name bestowed on it probably by my father who was fond of names and expressions .

Something could be called a doohiggy or a thingamijig. When he was content, he was “happier than a pig in slop” and if the answer was yes to a question, the response would be “does a fat dog fart?!”.  Colorful expressions from an understated man.

Five years ago, my parents were in a car crash. My father died  at the hospital and my mother was seriously injured. I stayed with her that night in her room. We were both in shock and pain. The nurse came around and asked her if she needed anything and she asked for the tea. By then, the kitchen was closed but the nurse went into her own purse for a packet of tea and we attempted to fix everything with the result. Of course it didn’t work, there was no lemon, it wasn’t Lipton and more than anything my father was gone.

In the years following, we attempted to replicate the tea. How long to brew the tea? Just how much sugar? As my mom became more ill in her last year, she only wanted Fix-me-up tea. She complained that the caregivers didn’t make it right so I would make big pitchers of it to be kept in a thermos. Eventually even the tea didn’t taste good anymore.

What I’ve learned is that you have to be generous with the sugar. Like life, the tea on its own can be bitter, add lemon and it’s even more so. You have to add so much sweetness that you cover all unpleasantness, create a balance and then add more to make things sweet and good.

Tonight, I sit with a cup of Fix-me-up tea. It doesn’t taste the same. I have had to use Lady Grey but it’s close. It has the same effect and I can hear my Dad telling me “to keep my chin up, it will all come out in the wash”.


The Dutch – what you see is what you get


I visited Holland for the first time about 16 years ago. We traveled to Soest to meet Joost’s parents. It was my first time meeting them. Joost had told them about my existence about two weeks earlier, he also mentioned that we would be getting married in a few months. Though we had been friends and colleagues for several years, we had only been dating for about 6 months. The whole thing was a bit sketchy considering Joost’s visa was about to run out and skepticism on other’s part could be understood so I was a bit nervous. I had no need to be, though I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.

We had rented a cabin in the woods near Joost’s parents. It sounded romantic. It was not. We arrived late and the manager had left the key for us. With good Dutch frugality, they had not preheated the cabin. There was snow on the ground and frost in the cabin. Never mind I thought, I’ll take a hot shower while the heater gets going. It was not to be. The water heater was kaput.

So the next morning, I met my future in-laws. They were kind and gracious to this woman who would take their son to America permanently. I got to take a hot shower and Mama gave me blankets to keep me warm. Immediately I fell for their warmth and directness.  What they said is what they meant. It was not something I was used to. I was very much used to what you said and didn’t say could always be construed to mean something that you didn’t mean at all.

This I have learned to be a Dutch trait. Depending on how you see it, it can be considered refreshing or rude. Over the years, I have become used to it but every once in a while it can be a bit jarring. In the first weeks of school, Charlie made friends with a Dutch boy. I met him, he is lovely but after not hearing about him for a while, I asked Charlie about him. Charlie said he wasn’t really friends with him anymore because he had said some mean things. Apparently, the child did not want to practice piano with Charlie at school because he explained that since he was a higher level than Charlie, it would not be very beneficial for him. He also said Charlie’s drawings were not very good. These are true statements. In America, his words would cause a reprimand if overheard from a teacher. In Holland, the child was not mean as he did not intend to hurt, rather he just spoke the truth. Joost did a great job of explaining this to Charlie and Charlie understood but I think he would rather hang out with some kids that are a little less truthful.

The Dutch are also direct and uncomplicated in their food. Once again, I was not used to that. From my French background, I have learned that food has meaning. What you serve someone reflects what you think of them. Menus are discussed and pondered over. The correct champagne or wine needs to match the event. Before visiting my aunt in France she would always ask me not what do you want to do, but what do you want to eat. One goes to France already salivating thinking about the forecoming delicasies. The same does not happen before a trip to Holland unless you are an eleven year old boy.

That does not mean there are not nice things to eat. The cheese of course is nice. There are yummy french fries and pancakes and stroopwafels which are thin, waffle like cookies with caramel inside. There are plently of things that are tasty but will probably kill you. Charlie’s uncle introduced him to croquettes (think Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup, not cooked, with a fried crust over it) and frikandel, which is some processed meat with a sauce and onions on it. For the sake of convenience, one can buy these at the corner snack shack or street-side vending machines.

I think the Dutch do not make time for food because there is so much more they want to do. They want to walk on the plentiful walking paths through forests and dunes and flatlands. They want to ride their bikes across the countryside dotted with windmills and canals. They want to sit out on terraces drinking coffee discussing and discussing till one person gives.

Sixteen years later, we are back in a cabin in winter. This time the water heater works. I have eaten french fries and stroopwafels. I have walked through sand dunes. I have sat and drank coffee with my mother in law and laughed with her. I have spent time with brothers and sisters in law who are kind and good people. It’s very funny that this country that was so foreign to me in many ways has become like a second home.

Lucerne and Mr Booboo Face

“We did not move half way around the world for you to hang out on the #%! couch” I said in exasperation.

“But it’s nice here and the dogs need me” said the pre-teenager who had taken over my child’s body.

Charlie is on vacation for 2 weeks. If it was up to him, he would spend it on the couch with a blanket, his dogs, some books and video games being served yummy food by his faithful servant aka Mother. I,on the other hand, see the clock ticking and want to grab every opportunity to go see something. So, we compromise. He got to spend a few days home and I get a few days to drag him around. The second week of vacation will be spent in Holland visiting family and enjoying the Dutch life.

Yesterday we traveled to Lucerne and enjoyed a day immersed in Swiss transportation. In my mind, the Swiss are the champions of public transportation. The transportation is amazingly efficient, clean, pleasant and easy to use. It can also be really affordable which is saying something in Switzerland.

The Swiss Railway has an app that allows one to see all the timetables going everywhere in Switzerland, see how crowded individual trains are, and purchase tickets. The tickets are then stored on your phone – no need for a printed ticket. I have a Swiss Pass that entitles me to half fare on every ticket and Charlie has a kids ticket that allows him to travel free on every tram and train if he is with a parent. Our trip to Lucerne round trip, an hour trip, cost us a total of $30.

Wednesday morning, we woke up, got ready walked out the door and in two minutes we were on the tram. My tram pass was purchased and stored on my phone. We rode for 30 minutes in a clean tram, no trash, no graffiti to the Bahnhof(each tram is cleaned at the end of every ride by the conductor but as there is no eating or drinking allowed on the tram there is never any trash). At the Bahnhof we rode for one hour to Lucerne. I enjoyed the scenery while my child numbed his brain with some game until I made him stop with “look out the window, you are missing all the cows!”

Upon arrival, we stepped out the train station on onto a bus that drove us around the Lake for 15 minutes where we arrived at The Museum of Swiss Transportation! It’s an amazing museum dedicated to air, marine and land transportation. There are old trains and submarines and airplanes and IMAX movies and a great explanation on the creation of the tunnel through the Gottard pass – the longest tunnel in the world. And because we are in Switzerland, there is an attraction on the history of chocolate in Switzerland, the highlight being the Lindt chocolate balls that are spit out at the end.

Going home, we took the boat back across Lake Lucerne. As everything else, the boat was clean and on time. We enjoyed a beautiful view of the lake and the Alps that were trying to sneak through on this gray day.

By 5:30, we were home. Charlie told me he had a great day and I promptly thwacked him on his forehead. Alas, he is like me going to the gym. The pain is in the motivation but once I’m there, I’m glad to be there and I am always glad to have gone. I ask myself though for how many more years will I need to be the motivation for my home loving child?

The Cold War, the War on Cold and Bomb Shelters


Our home has a bomb shelter. It is downstairs in the cellar. The room is the size of a small kitchen. The door is made of thick armored steel and there is a ventilation system with an anti-gas filter. There is also a toilet in a box. I am not sure how any of this works but our landlord said the directions are on the wall.

                               Air filter with instructions in all of Switzerland’s official languages

We are not unique. Since the 1960’s it is a legal requirement that every person has a protected place that they can reach quickly from their place of residence. There are shelters in all apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping malls and most public buildings. As of 2006, there was enough coverage for 8.6 million inhabitants, or a coverage of 114 percent. Though Switzerland has always been neutral, the government claims that “Neutrality is no guarantee against radioactivity”. In 2005, with the Cold War over, some tried to argue the case against the shelters as they no longer seemed to be necessary and they are very expensive to build and tear down when a building is destroyed. The law still stands with the threat of terrorism and dirty bombs.

Most people use their shelters for junk but I know the Cold War is a real threat or rather the War on Cold. My shelter is going to help me survive the approaching winter and come out unscathed.

I hate the cold.  I hate the rain even worse. Even though Joost insists that Basel is the Swiss Riviera, I know what is about to befall me is nothing as I imagine a Riviera. Palm trees and pool boys bearing cocktails with umbrellas, I think not. Instead, I see buckets of freezing rain and perhaps even snow. All of this is fine if one is inside which is where I intend to be as much as possible when winter bears down on us. So, in order to not have to forage for food in the cold and rain, I must stock the larder(aka bomb shelter) now, much like our forebears did many years ago as they prepared for the mean and harsh winters.

We do not have a car, which for Angelenos is like saying we no longer have legs or some other vital part of our body. Most days, we do not really need one. The tram is steps away from our front door. Joost now merrily takes off to work with a book in his hand to read on the trip to work. Instead of battling the 405, he is now engaging in reading literature. Charlie can walk to school and I either walk or take the tram to wherever I need to go. It is only an inconvenience for when one wants to buy a lot of something. Like provisions for winter.

So, my challenge  is how to fill the bomb shelter with all we need for winter. The bomb shelter comes equipped with a wine rack, a freezer and shelving. A big Cotsco run is not a possibility. So I become like the squirrels who stock up their dens a little at a time. Everyday, I go to the store for what is needed that day plus a little more in the non-perishable department. Yesterday, it was laundry detergent. Today, it will be some frozen food. Tomorrow maybe canned soup and wine. Whatever I can carry in my two reusable bags. Down the stairs it goes, into the bomb shelter.  We will be prepared for whatever comes our way – whether it’s Putin and his foolishness or a big freeze. These American pioneers will survive!


Big Pharma and Speed Dating

Closeup of Pills

Everyone wants it, craves it, needs it. We all have that look in our eyes, desperation. We will do anything to get it as the signs of withdrawal are already rearing their ugly heads; depression, tears, regret. And so, we put ourselves in situations we wouldn’t normally, sometimes several times a week to get our addiction filled. After, you walk away more frustrated than before, disgusted at how you pimped yourself out or, on a good day there is a glimmer of hope. Maybe this time, you found the one. Maybe you found a friend.

Imagine losing easy contact with almost everyone you loved, everyone who knew you, your family, your past. Those that have witnessed your child grow up, those that know small things about you. Losing your neighbor who you can always rely on for a 5 minute chat or a cup of sugar or your best friends who you can complain to or laugh so hard that you snort. When you get on a plane and leave your country, that’s what happens. Yes, there’s email and skype and FB but that is absolutely not the same, especially with a 9 hour time difference. Being in the physical presence of someone cannot be replaced.

Here in Basel, we live among a community of people who do this on a regular basis. They are employed by the big Pharma companies;Roche, Novartis, Bayer, etc. They go from country to country, wherever they are sent as they get promoted up the ladder. To say no to a move is to say no to promotion and higher salaries. Children Charlie’s age may have already lived in 3 or 4 countries. Each time it’s pack up, move and start over. The companies pay to move everything but the one thing they can’t take is their friends.

Most of the children at Charlie’s school have parents at one of the pharma companies. For the employees life does not change much but for the children and spouses life is turned upside down – new home, new language, new culture and the loss of their support group, their friends. The children muddle through, mourning the loss of their besties trying to find a new one and so do the spouses. I say spouses because there are lots of stay-at-home dads in the expat community.

The school supports all of us in our search. There is a Welcome Commitee who assigns each new family a buddy to show them the ropes and answer questions. Then there are coffees and lunches for the different nationalities and grade levels. There are American coffees, Dutch coffees, French coffees, Italian coffees, African coffees, Danish coffees and so on. There is a woman who leads hikes, there are field trips to the Swiss Army Knife factories and conferences on travel and the rules of driving. If you want to meet new people, the school does an awesome job of facilitating. But oh, it is tiring.

Meeting new people is not my forte. Maybe I overthink it. I try to figure out what to wear. Should I go casual or a little nicer? I try to think about unique conversation starters. And then once I’m there, should I be truthful when someone asks how it’s going? Or should I try to just be upbeat and positive? If I’m positive the person I’m speaking to might think “oh she’s from California, as long as there is sunshine she’s fine”. If I say exactly what is on my mind at the moment, “I just wish there was a Target and it was open on Sunday and I would kill for a bagel”, then I give off a “jeez what a whiner” air.

So I go, unsure of what to wear, or say, looking for that one person who may turn out to eventually be a friend. You can see everyone is doing the same thing, checking each other out for some clue that “she’s the one”. I join a group and start talking. Sometimes it goes well, other times, like a bad date, I wish I could just take back some stupid comment I made during a moment of nervousness. Then there’s my forehead. My forehead always gives me away – I so need Botox but I think it’s illegal here. My forehead tells the listener what I really think of what they are saying, the lines expand when I don’t agree or am bored. The efficient people go from group to group making conversation until one clicks and they have found someone. They exchange contact info and go from there. Being more of a caterpillar that a butterfly, I end up not moving. After my first conversation I am usually too exhausted trying to control my forehead and my speech that I can’t do it again.

We have been here for a month and a half. I cannot replace people who have known me for years. I have met some nice people though. My neighbor Sue is British and has a lovely Golden Retriever. We meet some mornings on the walking paths and we are beginning to share bits of our lives together. My host, Isabelle has taken me shopping and to lunch and answers all my questions and always gives me a hug when I run into her. Angie is from Tennessee and shares her frustrations and joys with me. She lives in Reinach as well so we have gone for a lunch and a walk together. She though has only committed to living here for a year no matter what her husband ends up doing. This is the other problem for the children and spouses – you make friends and then they leave.

Maybe this is not the place to make besties. Maybe it’s enough to have an occasional lunch and coffee with someone. I met a woman who told me when she left the US, that was it – she severed the cord. She said her goodbyes and didn’t intend on maintaining friendships or going back. I can’t imagine.