Belgium

Baby A and the Jallopy

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As Baby A lives in Belgium, it is important to us that he remain in contact with his roots. As such, we bring him back to Ireland with alarming frequency. We were there last weekend, we will be there next weekend and then again two weekends after that. During these visits he can get to know the place he was born - a country that, unlike his current residence, values children more than yappy dogs. In Ireland, he can accidentally eat black pudding, listen to people grumble about the weather and bemoan the state of the economy. He can take long walks, wear woolen jumpers and track his ancestors around the house (I’m not sure my mother will take kindly to being referred to as his ancestor but it might make her rethink her aversion to ‘Granny’). In Ireland, he commands the attention of large swathes of people who hang on his every gurgle and watch admiringly as he eats bath bubbles off his forearm. He loves the way of life, the cheering crowds and the big, brown dog that licks his face when no one is looking.

In truth, we go back to Dublin a bit too frequently but it’s so close (a 1hr 20 min flight) and there are people in Dublin who will hold Baby A indefinitely while we nap. Then, they make us tea and sandwiches and hold Baby A some more. Baby A loves it because he gets to shout at new people who don’t ignore him when he makes irrational demands (“Take me to the tree…now back to the house….to the tree again…oh look fish, we must see the fish…and back to the tree…in the pram now, in the pram…and lift me…good, now put me back down…give me a toy…back to the tree, don’t forget the toy…okay and nap….no, no more napping…let’s dance!”).

The Dublin-Brussels flight isn’t particularly baby friendly - possibly because babies don’t generally go to Brussels. It’s full of lackluster civil servants with dull eyes and cross faces (much like the way I was before I discovered maternity leave). The good passengers of Aer Lingus don’t know how lucky they have been - he has never once cried on a flight. Were he to start, they would all be wishing they were back in the EU working group on dust particles or wherever they were for the previous 8 hours that day. They are very, very lucky that Baby A doesn’t seem to mind planes. I’m pretty sure a few more months of sitting on the lap of his semi-hysterical mother as they bump through cloudy turbulence together should put an end to that. For the moment though, planes are ok.

Cars are a different story altogether. You hear stories about babies who fall asleep as soon as they get into the car. The only time Baby A sleeps in the car is when he has screamed himself into such a state that he is unable to cope with life and collapses into a protest coma from which he intermittently awakens to loudly register his objection to being stopped at a red light. It’s actually deeply unpleasant driving alone in a car with a baby who seems to be under the impression - so great is the force of his hysteria - that his limbs are in the process of being cut off by invisible elves.

Last week, I was pulling out of a car parking space and Baby A had reached Level 9 in the screaming stakes, i.e. crying so hard that he sounds like he’s choking. I thought ‘I’ll just keep driving because we’re only five minutes from home’. Two seconds later the screaming abruptly stopped and the car went totally quiet. I didn’t think he had calmed down because he usually gives a woe-is-me howl of resignation before falling silent. With the car half in the middle of the road and half in the parking space, I pulled on the hand brake and lept into the back seat with a speed and dexterity that would have impressed a Chinese gymnast. What I saw was most shocking. Baby A’s entire body was clenched in paralytic terror, his eyes were wide open, his face dark red, his little fists were bunched around his car seat straps as if trying to rip them off, his mouth was open but, quite alarmingly, there was no air going in or out. Baby A was not breathing. It was as if he had become so upset that he was no longer able to draw breath and he seemed quite taken aback by this sudden development. I pulled him out of the carseat and as soon as I picked him up he drew a great big breath and started sobbing into my shoulder. I think he’d gotten as much of a scare as I had. As babies do, he fell fast asleep about 20 seconds later. I popped him back in the car seat and drove home. It was four hours before he was ready to wake up and do the world thing again. I spent the rest of the afternoon being traumatized and wondering how I was ever going to drive anywhere again.

Each car journey since has become a careful balancing act to avoid the kind of hysteria that makes Baby A stop breathing. I have gone from a sane person to the lunatic belting out Nelly The Elephant with the windows down in November at traffic lights in the car beside the confused Belgian people. Or alternating brake and accelerator repeatedly in order to jolt the car slowly towards a red light rather than stop and risk a baby meltdown. Using a car as a giant rocking device is probably not the best idea I’ve ever had and it’s only a matter of time before I get arrested and Baby A is motherless. Poor Baby A.

We’re going to Mother and Baby yoga in an hour…we have to go in the car. I want to cry at the thought of it. We were at a dinner party last week and I mentioned that the baby didn’t like the car another guest (who was Austrian) said, in her Arnold Schwartzenegger accent, “Vell you cahn’t just stop driyhving because ze bébé doesn’t like ze kah”. That’s the kind of thing I used to think before I had a baby. “I’ll just drive right through that crying…I ain’t stopping this car for no pissed-off baby.” Hah! That’s like the time I said “I want a natural labour without pain relief because that is how the earth means for us to give birth”. I was stupid back then. We say these things before we have the baby because we don’t know how much that shit hurts. Labour hurts like hell - take the drugs. Next time (if there is one), I’m going straight for the giant needle in the spine, it hurts too but it hurts so much less. Listening to your baby scream himself blue in the back of the car where you can’t see him and he can’t see you…that hurts too. Sniff.

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For the love of Tesco

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Where once I had Tesco Prussia Street, I now have Carrefour Auderghem. The junkies have been replaced by winos, the fresh figs are cheap and the cheese takes up three aisles. There’s a fresh sushi counter and zebra on offer in the meat section. You would think I would be delighted to be surrounded by such diversity and range of produce but I’m not. I miss Tesco Prussia Street - the 2-for-1 deals on Muller Fruit Corners, the three litre bottles of milk and the self scan that let me smuggle (steal?) an unlimited number of red peppers for 97c. Okay, I admit that’s ridiculous - Tesco was awful. It was a warehouse of tasteless vegetables, ready-meals and saturated fat…but at least it was manageable. Carrefour is enormous, it’s always jammers and, quite frankly, there is too much cheese. *Gasp*. Who knew such a thing was possible? The truth saddens me greatly but there you have it - there is too much cheese in Carrefour. Let’s not linger on this point for too long…

There are other things that make me not like Carrefour. It’s hard to find a parking space. They have special spaces reserved for ‘bébé et sa famille’. These are always occupied by nefarious people who I suspect do not have bébés and it frustrates me that I am too cowardly to shout at them and insist that they vacate their space to allow for legitimate bébé-having people to park. The issue is probably less one of guts and more one of capacity to shout at people in French. “Est-ce que vous avez un bébé avec vous?”, I growl internally while acting out my triumphant confrontation in my head. “Non? Je ne peut pas voir un bébé…Allez toute suite! Le parking est mine! Vamoose! Vous-etes l’interloper…je suis outragé!”. I have restrained myself from actually confronting anyone in real life…wisely I think. Baby A may be young, but he’s not too young to be totally mortified.

Also, because Carrefour is in Belgium it closes on a Sunday like everything else. This is why I was down there at 8.20am on Saturday morning. The fact that it didn’t open until 8.30am seems to have escaped me. In fact, I think it used to open at 8am but one day they just decided that the opening times would change and didn’t tell anyone. That would be a very Belgian thing to be at. My theory of whimsical time changing was supported by the fact that I was not alone standing outside the gates of Carrefour in the early morn. There were at least thirty other people hovering around the entrance, trolleys at the ready. It was like the start of a marathon…a nano-marathon run by geriatric Belgians toting small, yappy dogs. If I had better French and was more confrontational in real life (as opposed to in my head, where I’m very confrontational), I would object to dogs in the supermarket (and everywhere else where dogs should not be like sitting on their own seats on the tram). Fortunately for the dog-lovers of Belgium - of which there are many - my French does not stretch to public declarations of effrontery.

Early morning is about the only time one can go to Carrefour on a Saturday. By 10am, the queues are endless, the shih-tzus have turned on the toddlers and the place has degenerated into mass hysteria as people scramble frantically for the last carrot. I am there, that morning, for yoghurt, milk and pain au chocolat. My basket also appears to contain an unnecessary amount of plastic items that are a direct result of not having the baby with me. Shopping with Baby A is a race against time to grab the items on the list and get out before the screaming starts - I don’t have time to eye up the tupperware aisle.

Even though I’m baby free, I still don’t really want to hang out in the drafty aircraft hanger that is Carrefour Auderghem for longer than is absolutely necessary. I’m in the queue, there’s only one person ahead of me and he doesn’t have a whole lot of stuff. Some baguette, some meat, a small bag of oranges and a newspaper. The checkout lady is chatting away to the man. She has a long conversation with him about the weather (which is bad) before even picking up the first item to be scanned. She eventually starts scanning things although stops half way through to read the headlines in the newspaper which she declares to be ‘choquant’ (which is probably ‘shocking’ but I momentarily think might mean ‘chocolately’).

Now I love a queue as much as the next Belgian but this woman is taking the piss and if I knew how to say that in French, I would have told her that…and not just in my head either. Eventually, she finishes chatting to the elderly monsieur and begrudgingly serves me. I give her an icy stare. She looks blankly at me and painstakingly drags each of my items across the scanner. In my head I am Tesco Prussia Street, laden down with cheap yoghurt, bounding towards the self-checkout where I scan items at the speed of light. Ah, the good old days. Sigh.

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The No Zen Zone

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Baby A has picked up a new and disturbing habit. He has started thrashing about in his sleep, scratching his face then waking himself up terrified because he thinks someone is attacking him. He isn’t old enough to understand the concept of self-harm. His little pudgy face is covered in cuts and he looks at me mournfully as if I have failed to protect him from this assault.

I’m not sure what’s causing the thrashing and scratching but it doesn’t help that his nails are like razorblades. The Book says that the safest way to cut a baby’s nails is to bite them. I’ve tried this and apart from the fact that you can’t get a really short cut by this method and that Baby A’s nails do not taste good (he doesn’t let me wash his hands), the biting of the baby-nails gives my teeth the heebie-jeebies. Both Mr Oh and I have tried to use baby nail clippers. We have both ended up accidentally cutting his little fingers which, in conjunction with the scratched face, would be enough for social services to take him off us. Luckily, we live in Belgium, beyond the reach of social services so that’s less of a concern. They probably have social services here but I like to think we’re living off the grid.

In order to bring some zen back into Baby A’s life, I took him to Mum & Baby Yoga this afternoon. To be honest there’s very little about the whole experience that promotes relaxation and calm. First there is the never-ending preparations for exiting the apartment. This involves hunting down nappies, muslins, clean clothes, soothers, emergency bottles (for places where breastfeeding is just unseemly - like the supermarket checkout), wallets, phones, keys and putting everything into a bag. This is before the baby is even out of his pjs.

The baby is the least of my problems though when it comes to yoga. The biggest problem is that I have to drive to get there and driving in Belgium is enough to make one consider life in Amish country. There’s a lot of beeping, lane swerving and yielding inexplicably to traffic coming from the right. It’s like a high-speed free-for-all with SUVs. All of this is compounded by the fact that the steering wheel is on the wrong side of the car and the traffic is on the right. My driving tactic so far is: accelerate, scream and hope for the best. Baby A doesn’t like it either and he usually screams as well so there are often two of us screaming. Terror loves company.

Today we made it to yoga in one piece. I even managed a parallel park that was so stupendous I nearly took a photo of it and posted it on Facebook. Upon arrival at yoga, what I really need is a drink. There is no gin at yoga - sadly. I take my place on the sofa beside the other mothers who are all feeding their babies until the class starts. This is a common mothering technique referred to as ‘tanking-up’. The more milk you can get in the baby, the longer you’ll be able to do yoga. I made it a whole 45 mins today. Baby A quite likes yoga. He lies on my mat and makes gurgling noises as I try not to step on him. He’s not so into the other babies. Today he got hungry in the middle of the Wheels of the Bus (it’s not normal yoga) and decided he’d had enough. He then screamed the entire way through Itsy Bitsy Spider, the meditation session and the final relaxation. He screamed as I put him in the sling. He screamed as I bid my farewells. He screamed as I walked down the steps. He screamed as I put on my shoes. The moment I set foot on the pavement, he stopped screaming, smiled and promptly fell asleep. He’s still asleep two hours later. Yoga really tires him out.

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