Buying Things

You Are Where You Eat

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I have never bought meat from a wet market in Shanghai.  I'm not sure if that's something to be proud or ashamed of.  I think it's just sensible.  Our wet market is pretty nasty.  There are flies and foul odours.  I have it on a reliable source that there are rats too.  I have been warned never to look through the windows of the market at night.  Teeming with life - apparently.  

Meat is a pretty dodgy substance in China.  I imagine it's injected with everything going...steroids, botox, concrete.  In Guangdong, they injected lamb meat (so just lamb I guess) with dirty pond water.  True story.  You can see why I'm not too keen on the wet market.   I don't even buy my vegetables there anymore but that's ever since they told Ayi that I had to pay more because I'm a foreigner.  I've been boycotting.  I don't think they've missed my business.  

The longer I live here, the more careful I get about where our food is sourced.  Like most things regarding safety here, my standards sway depending on my mood (which are directly influenced by the pollution levels and the amount of public spitting that has taken place in my immediate vicinity).  Some days I will only buy food that has been hand-picked by a Nicaraguan virgin and air-flown to China in a hermetically sealed chamber lined with pink Swaraovski crystals.  Other days, I'll eat something grown in China.  

So, I often end up in the foreign butcher weeping over the price of Australian beef or Norwegian salmon - neither of which we have eaten since arriving here because it's just too expensive.  If we're lucky, I buy chicken or pork but even they cost double what you'd pay at home.  

They call this 'sticker shock'.   It's when you nearly pass out in the supermarket because they want to charge €3 for small baguette.  And it's not like the bread is expensive to make or imported.  It's just the kind of things that foreigners like and those things are always expensive.  That's Mr Oh's theory anyway.  He says it explains the price of dishwasher tablets and toilet roll (the locals use toilet paper too, it just doesn't come on a roll).  

Speaking of toilet roll, the first week we were in China, Mr Oh paid about €15 for six rolls of toilet paper.  He said he bought it because there was English on the package and he knew what it was.  I calmly said "NEVER BUY ANYTHING WITH ENGLISH ON IT. USE YOUR EYES TO SEE WHAT IT IS. WE DO NOT NEED OUR TOILET PAPER TO BE IMPORTED".   (Mr Oh slinks silently off with the €15 toilet paper under his arm.)

So, first I decided that we would go vegetarian because meat is too expensive.  That didn't work out so well because I almost bankrupted us buying a small tub of ricotta for the creamy vegetable pasta.   The mistake, I thought at this point, is that I'm trying to cook western food when I should be cooking Chinese food.  It was a lightbulb moment.  I scuttled off to get my Ken Hom Simple Chinese recipe book. I picked out a nice noodle dish and spent the next three days trying to find either water chestnuts or gai-lan in China.  You'd think that it being Chinese cookery, you should be able to find the bloody ingredients in China.  Not so.  

So I picked out another recipe that didn't involve either gai-lan or water chestnuts.  It did involve Sichuan peppercorns though and Sichuan peppercorns are not called Sichuan peppercorns in Chinese, so I couldn't find them.  Eventually, I had to enlist Ayi.  I googled a picture of all the unfamiliar ingredients and did some kind of pathetic translation attempt and Ayi worked out the Chinese name for me.  She thought it was pretty stupid that we call Sichuan peppercorns Sichuan peppercorns when their real name is 'Hua Jiao' or 'flower peppers'.  Having translated for me,  she went to the market to get them for me.  I would have gone myself but I'm boycotting the market, as discussed.  

Eventually I have all the ingredients Ken Hom says I need to make Northern-Style Cold Noodles.  I've got the Sichuan peppercorns - I've even roasted them and hand ground them into a fine powder as Ken requested.  I'm standing in the kitchen yesterday afternoon making my noodle sauce as Ayi looks disapprovingly at me. 

"Too much spice", she says in Chinese, pointing at my large spoon of chilli bean paste.  I'm like "the recipe says I need to use a tablespoon".  Ayi says  "you foreigner, too much, ah-la-la".  I reduce the amount, mostly to stop her grabbing the spoon off me and taking over.  The recipe called for four tablespoons of soy sauce, Ayi only let me put in three.  
Me - "The recipe says four spoons, Ayi".  
Ayi - "Ayi says three". 
Me - "This is Ken Hom.  He's Chinese.  He's famous.  He knows" 
Ayi - "Ayi is Chinese. Ayi knows.". 

Turns out Ayi did know.  The noodles were delicious, the spicy level just right.  I now call it the Ayi Hom Noodle dish.   If cooking vegetarian Chinese food is going to involve so much collaboration though, I'd be better off just asking Ayi to cook instead.  I know she thinks we'd all be better off if I did that too.

(Apologies if you’re offended by the photo at the top of the blog. It’s of chicken feet at our wet market. I’m offended by it too…that’s why I don’t go there).

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Yi Jia Jia Ju

norbo
I’ve moved house/country four times in the last 2.5 years so I’d like to think that I’m something of an expert on hauling oneself and a pile of one’s unnecessary belongings across the globe. At this stage, even my furniture is cross with me. There are many things you can do to prepare for a move, facilitate a smooth transition and reduce relocation stress. I’m a pro - I know all the tricks. There are only two things that are set in stone when it comes to moving house: 1. You will be shocked at the amount of useless stuff that you have accumulated in the previous location and 2. You will, upon arriving in new location, go straight to IKEA to buy more useless stuff. There’s no point in fighting it - some battles cannot be won - IKEA is inevitable.

I honestly do not know what happens if you move to a city where there is no IKEA. I shudder to think. It hasn’t happened to me since I moved to Wuxi in 2002 and anyone who knows me will know that I do not have good things to say about either Wuxi or 2002. Wuxi means ‘without tin’ which isn’t a very auspicious moniker if we’re honest. If you start naming towns based on what they’re lacking, it doesn’t bode well. I wonder if it’s too late to change Wuxi’s name from ‘without tin’ to ‘without IKEA’ (Wuyijiajiaju) - it’s a bit of a mouthful so I fear I might meet local resistance to the idea. Just as well I don’t plan going there ever again.

I digress. The point is - IKEA cannot be avoided. And why should it be? It’s bright, clean and has everything you didn’t even know you needed at affordable prices. Baby A didn’t know he needed a toddler sized baby rattan armchair, but he did. I don’t know how we ever lived without it - all toddlers should have one. In Singapore I made three visits to IKEA after the move. In Brussels, we made three trips out to the IKEA in Zaventem overall. We’ve been to IKEA twice already since we moved to Shanghai and I’ve had that feeling in my bones that the third trip was becoming more likely. Mr Oh thought my bones were lying to me and put it down to a touch of gout, but he was wrong. He fought it - by God, he fought it but in the end, as I’ve already said, IKEA is inevitable.

The problem isn’t really IKEA although anyone who’s been silly enough to try to go there on a Saturday afternoon (i.e. me) knows that sometimes maybe the problem is IKEA. The problem, this time, is China and IKEA - they don’t really get each other. For the Chinese, shopping is something you do online (Taobao) or at your local hole-in-the-wall random dude. IKEA is therefore not so much a place for buying things as a venue for hanging out with your extended family drinking tea and taking selfies in the show kitchens. And napping…it’s impossible to see a sofa or bed in IKEA because they’re usually all occupied by three generations of Shanghainese taking a communal catnap. I see the logic - why would IKEA put beds there if they didn’t want people to sleep on them? The result though is akin to walking through one of those Halloween house of horrors with the lights on. Everywhere there are bodies, progress is slow and at a few points along the defined trail, you’re actually a bit scared.

It doesn’t help knowing that, if you put your toddler down for a moment, he gets picked up by a curious Chinese person who thinks he might be part of the showroom. “See the Europeans live in their natural environment” - I’m sure it says that somewhere. You can see why Mr Oh wasn’t keen to repeat a Chinese IKEA experience. I had to be firm and told him, in no uncertain terms, that a visit was absolutely necessary. He asked me to define what it was that we needed so desperately. “Oh, you know…” I said, “sticky things, boxy things and those brightly colored roundy things”. He couldn’t argue with that.

We went last Sunday evening. We were clever about it. We skipped the showrooms. Chinese people don’t actually buy anything in IKEA so the tills are fairly empty. They only use the downstairs area because it’s the shortest route between the Swedish dream rooms and the 10c ice cream cones (also very popular). We were in and out within a reasonable time frame. There was a tense moment in the boxy thing area where the human equivalent of a 10 car pile up seemed to be taking place but we discovered that IKEA has these random little escape doors between different areas so you don’t actually have to follow the circuitous arrows (although I’m very law abiding so this option hadn’t occurred to me before). Well, I never! It was like straight out of an Enid Blyton - in kitchenware one moment and then - through the magic door - and pop out right at lighting! Incroyable!

We emerged triumphant, laden down with inevitable, unavoidable, irresistible things and without too many injuries. Feeling quite pleased with self, I let Baby A down just beside the food section to stretch his legs a bit while Mr Oh loaded up the bags. I turned my head for a moment to check out the Swedish biccie section and when I whipped my head back around, literally about two seconds later, Baby A was standing in the middle of the mayhem, not two feet from me, with an untouched IKEA ice cream cone in his hand and look of shock on his face. I don’t know where it came from. I don’t know who gave it to him or why but from this day forth, I fear my son’s happiest memory of China will be set in the aisle at the far side of the cashiers in IKEA Shanghai. If the look on his face was anything to go by, that memory will be hard to beat.


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How To Spend Your Cash

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You know, one of these days I might wake up in the middle of the night with an inexplicable yet pressing need to buy an overpriced handbag right that minute. These things can happen. They don’t usually happen to me but let’s not rule it out. If this were to happen, if I were to jolt upright in bed at 3am and start shrieking ‘Guuu-cci!’ at the top of my lungs (so desperate and acute would be my yearning), it is reassuring to know that I would be ok. Help would be nearby in the form of my local Gucci cornershop which is open round the clock - 24 hours a day, 7 days a week - to cater to all my emergency designer needs. The Chinese Super Rich (they’re a thing - like D4 x 100 to the power of Kanye) really do have more money than sense.

I can’t imagine why one would need a 24 hour Gucci on-hand but clearly there’s a market for it or it wouldn’t exist. Too much alcohol, too many raised emotions, not enough sobering daylight - a €3,000 handbag might seem like a cracking idea one pre-dawn Sunday morning. Needless to say, the presence of such a neighborhood facility was not a deciding factor for us when choosing an apartment. There’s a dumpling bar beside Gucci and I really hope that it’s 24 hour too because I think I’m much more likely to wake up craving pork than bling.

There’s a lot of cash floating around Shanghai and the Chinese are coming up with increasingly more inventive ways to spend it. Shark fin soup is one example. Shark fin doesn’t really taste of anything. It’s kind of ribby, like the inside of a satsuma but fairly tasteless. The Chinese like it because it’s expensive. To kill (or as good as kill) an entire shark just for one tiny, rubbery fin…it is the epitome of decadence. They’ve been doing it for years and the price of shark fin is going up as the number of sharks go down which makes it even more desirable. It’s like the Gucci handbag of soups - tasteless and overpriced.

Sharkfin soup has a long history in China going back to the Ming Dynasty. It’s not very popular with the animal rights peoples because the process involves hunting down a shark, cutting off its fin while its still alive and dumping the rest of the shark back in the water where it’s rendered fairly immobile and dies shortly thereafter. The Chinese say western objections to shark fin soup are Sinophobic and disrespectful to their culture and tradition. I’m not an animal rights person so I have no great thoughts on the cruel vs tradition argument but it just strikes me as bad home economics. It’s so wasteful. Does shark meat taste nice? Could we not keep it and serve seared shark steaks along with salsa verde and a nice pinot grigio?

Shark fin soup is nothing new but the rise of the Chinese elite means that it’s more in demand than ever. Despite the price, there’s only so much shark fin you can eat and really, I would think, only so many designer handbags you can own (maybe not? handbags aren’t really my thing). The Chinese also like to spend lots of money on weddings (don’t we all? *sigh*). The hot new thing is to fly to Europe for your pre-wedding photos. You obviously bring your photographer with you from China - no European photographer could grasp the extent of the fantasy-kitsch-melodrama required to execute a truly desirable set of wedding snaps. Bizarrely, Nazi themed wedding photos are en vogue right now - example of good photo in this genre includes bride (in giant flowy white dress) oozing blood from a chest wound as she ‘dies’ in the arms of her improbably Asian Nazi lover who is decked out in full Nazi military regalia against the backdrop of some stately castle in the Swiss alps. Sometimes I feel that the Chinese are an odd sort of people.

Another way to spend your mysteriously obtained cash is the age-old art of pimping your ride. From observing the type of things that try to run me over several times a day, metal vehicles seem to be hot right now. “Is this not just, like, cars without paint?” I hear you ask. No, not quite. More like cars dipped in gold…or silver. They’ve got a very smooth, impossibly shiny almost liquid look to them - like melted aluminum foil. It is possible that they might also protect those inside from alien death rays as well as looking cool and blinding pedestrians on sunny days. If metal SUVs aren’t your thing, you can also get your paintwork personalized. I saw a Mini the other day with the words ‘Fen Fen loves Ricky’ inscribed within a big pink love heart on the back passenger door. I sure hope ‘Ricky’ doesn’t spook easily.

Although an increasing number of Chinese seem to have an alarming amount of money, most Chinese are still not wealthy. They tend to be the ones we meet most. I’ll tell you about them next time. I’m aware that in the last few entries, I’ve mostly written about the weird, the bad and the ugly in China. There’s lots of good too.
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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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Babydom

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I live in Babydom. It’s a land populated entirely by babies and the people who pander to them. It’s a muffled maze of invisible interconnected bubbles that exist within normal society. Citizens of Babydom wander among you looking like average folk but they’re not.

There’s a whole baby sub-culture out there that goes unnoticed until the day you need to shop for a baby and realize that at least 15 pieces of equipment are required just so a baby can go for a nap:

  • cot/moses basket/warm section of floor
  • mattress protector
  • sheet
  • muslins
  • babygrow
  • baby sleeping bag
  • gro-egg (cute little egg shaped plastic thing that changes color with the temperature of the room)
  • humidifier
  • musical mobile
  • star projector
  • night light
  • cuddely toy
  • pacifier
  • book (to look up explanations for why your baby won’t sleep)
  • mobile tablet device (to look up explanations for why your baby won’t sleep and/or buy books that will explain why your baby won’t sleep)
  • repertoire of random lullabies/hymns/jingles (for when your baby won’t sleep)

You need another entirely different set of equipment for feeding the baby, even more stuff for changing the baby and don’t even mention traveling with the baby. On our first trip back to Dublin when Baby A was seven weeks old, I was packing for both Baby A and myself and Mr Oh suggested that I should try to bring just a small carry-on bag and not check anything in. I genuinely thought he was joking and when it became clear that he was, in fact in earnest, concluded that he must be either insane, delusional or blind.

The amount of stuff required for babies is so significant that its production could fund the recovery of a mid-sized South American economy. In Babydom, the consumer megaliths Chicco, Lamaze, the Gro company, Dr Browns and Tommee Tippee are household names. Annabel Karmel is the celebrity chef every mother turns to for baby weaning recipes (I didn’t even know there were over a hundred ways to make puréed vegetables). I personally don’t know how I
lived without my Boppy pillow and Lansinoh cream before (although the fact that I wasn’t breastfeeding a 7 kilo barracuda might have had something to do with it). Our apartment is now full to the brim of stuff that Mr Oh and I had never even heard of ten months ago - nasal aspirators, Caldesene, gro-bags, steam sterilizers, Aptamil, baby gyms (we have two), bouncers, sock-ons and more muslins than can be produced by China in a week. For something so mid-sized, he needs a lot of stuff.

This small butter-mountain of obscure paraphernalia tends to provoke bemused looks in the older generations and the seemingly irresistible compulsion to say something along the lines of “We didn’t have/do X in my day and babies still survived”. On the one hand, they have a point but on the other hand I can clearly remember Milton sterilizing units, bouncy chairs and large piles of muslins when my brothers were little so I think the older generation have just chosen to block out the madness. In reality I’ve discovered, people forget things very quickly. When I met my nephew, Baby T, for the first time last month, I was ashamed to admit that I’d forgotten how to hold a newborn despite the fact that it had only been five weeks since Baby A’s newbornhood. There’s also the fact that Baby T seemed more fragile than Baby A, who - at almost 10 lbs -was born half-reared and punching.

As well of masses of hitherto unknown staple goods, Babydom has its own religious sects. One can choose to worship at the Church of Parent-Centred Parenting, the Synagogue of Attachment Parenting, the Temple of Letting-Them-Cry-It-Out, the Mosque of Winging It and the Commune for the Organically Obsessed. I’m an á la carte Attachment Parent which I reckon is a bit like being an iconophilic Evangelist.

One of the biggest hot-button topics in Babydom is the issue of co-sleeping. In my Pre-Baby-A days, I discovered that friends of mine still let their three year old daughter sleep in their bed. I remember observing (and not silently either) that this was a ridiculous situation and one that I would never tolerate once I had children. They just smiled silently - I now know why.

Baby A does not like his cot. Well, actually, I don’t think he minds it really but it is Baby A’s view that the big soft place where the sheets are pre-warmed, the cuddles are cheap and the milk is on tap is a far better deal. Baby A also has a rule where he will only fall asleep outdoors on the move or alternatively indoors on human. If it is indoors-on-human, he will not stand for being moved into his cot before midnight. All pre-midnight sleeping must take place nestled in the arms of…well, anyone really. He’s fussy but not a total despot. Once midnight has passed, he will allow himself to be placed (gently) in his cot - but he likes his parents to be near by. If he doesn’t sense at least one of them, he wakes up and protests. He’ll usually demand more milk as well, just for the hell of it.

He will stay in his cot until anywhere between 5 and 8am. Then it is time to move in beside the mama where he lies like a Winston Churchill shaped starfish in the middle of the bed. All previous habitants are either shunted unceremoniously off to work or forced to lie shivering and clinging precariously to the outer edges. He likes to wake the mama up by poking her in the eye with his nails.

He is not allowed to lie in between his parents for fear that one of them will roll over on him (we know which one that is likely to be). While Baby A is robust, he is still mini in comparison to Mr Oh. Mothers are known for their ability to sleep without really sleeping and always being aware of where the baby is and what mischief he is up to (or ‘to which he is up’).

There are some people who say that co-sleeping is dangerous and parents should never fall asleep with their babies in the bed. There are others who say that it is natural, healthy and, if done properly, entirely safe. I have no strong views on it either way. The one thing I’ve learned from living in Babydom - other than how to tie a stretch wrap sling - is that it tends to be a fairly judgmental and polarized society. I’ve seen other mothers frown (and visibly bite their tongues) when I tell them that Baby A doesn’t go to bed until midnight (even though he usually sleeps until 10/11am). It works for us. I’ve been frowned at for many things - not using cloth nappies, supplementing breastfeeding with formula, letting him sleep in the bed, not having a nap-time routine and not giving him Vitamin D drops regularly enough (although it’s only Mr Oh who frowns at me for that). There’s a lot of frowning in Babydom (it’s all quite passively judgemental). But every morning Baby A is happy and smiley and clean(ish) and healthy and perfect so I must be doing something right.






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Being Enormous

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I’m finding it harder to write my blog. Not because I’ve lost interest in it or because I don’t have the time - it’s just that I don’t have very much to write about. I’ve written about back pain, bloating, hormones, cereal, milk and Percy Pigs. Really, what more is there? I can no longer tie my own shoelaces. Is this newsworthy?

New things don’t really happen to me from one day to the next at the moment. I am essentially immobile. Mr Oh drives me in and out of work. Going across the road at lunchtime to get a sandwich makes me so tired I have to nap under my desk afterwards. My colleagues have taken to waddling down the corridors after me in mock baby penguin formation and I am told ‘You’re enormous’ at least once a day (Really? Am I? Compared to what - a baby elephant?....a sumo wrestler?... or just a woman who is not 33 weeks pregnant??).

This week I was sitting in a meeting beside a middle-aged man I had never met before whose first words to me were ‘You must be overdue. When were you due?’. I assured him that if I were overdue I would be at home munching on raw chillies and pineapple and not sitting beside him contemplating the outline of a strategy paper that would be written, discussed, commended and then promptly forgotten about until it was decided in five years time that we need a strategy paper at which point the entire process would begin again like an incredibly boring re-run of Groundhog Day. Such is the perpetual cycle of public sector strategising. I actually didn’t say any of those things to him. I just gave him a weak smile and said “I’m not due for another seven weeks”. Had he known me better, I’m sure he would have told me that I was enormous. Had I known him better, I would then have growled at him.

Despite the tone of the paragraph above (and maybe the one above that as well), I’m not actually grumpy. Although I am in a state of deep discomfort on account of the kung-fu water balloon compressing my internal organs, I’m pretty zen and relaxed. Mr Oh pointed out that I’m the first person he’s known who is literally engaged in naval-gazing for much of the day. I like to sit on the sofa and watch my bump move around. Little limbs push out here and there and slide under the skin like the sandworms from Dune. I play the baby music and talk to it about important things like sandwiches and celebrities. I’m also watching my bellybutton slowly disappear - I reckon it’s just about ready to pop out (too much information?)

I wonder if the baby knows that there’s a world out here. The only world it knows is inside me. It probably thinks I’m its god. Or maybe it thinks I’m its captor - it feels like it’s trying to get out sometimes. I think it likes me in general, I feed it custard on demand.

People say nice things to you when you’re pregnant too. The man in Cafe Sol told me - after he’d seen me leave the back of the queue one day because the wait was too long - that I didn’t have to queue for my maple pecan pastry in the morning - that I could just walk right up to the till because I have priority. The man giving out the free Metro paper on the corner presses the pedestrian button when he sees me coming so that the lights change on time for me (at least, I think that’s why he does it but it never works). A junkie shooting up outside my local Tesco asked me if I was having a boy or a girl. Taxi drivers give me blow by blow accounts of their wives 6-day labours. My favourite comment (although not pregnancy related) came from an elderly British gentleman I was speaking to at a lunchtime business reception last week. I was standing with a glass of sparkling water and when a photographer came over to take our picture, the man said ‘Lower your glass, dear, or people will think you’re a lush’. I thought this was hilarious, particularly as he was completely serious (I did lower my glass though).

So besides work and home, the only places I go at the moment are Tesco, yoga and Eurobaby on the Long Mile Road (had never been to the Long Mile Road before - very disappointed - expected it to be like the Vegas Strip but turns out just to be an industrial estate with a roller disco). Babies, it turns out, need a lot of stuff. We’ve put the bed against the wall in the spare room to make way for all the stuff. Baby now officially has more possessions than Mr Oh. Baby’s possessions though are generally smaller than Mr Oh’s, but not that much smaller because, as you will recall, I’m enormous.

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Ka-ching (in a bad way)

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I had always heard it said that having a baby was an expensive business. It turns out that this is amplified by the fact that by the time the baby comes along you have no money left because you’ve spent it all on being pregnant. I’m thinking of abandoning my career and devoting my time to selling things - any kinds of things - to pregnant women at three times the price that you would sell them to unpregnant women.

The whole market is driven by a heady combination of fear, novelty with only the most transparent spattering of maternal concern. Fear is by far the most powerful. If you do not buy this XXX, then something-kind-of-bad will happen to you and/or unborn child.

It starts with pre-natal vitamins. “What do you mean I’m pregnant? I can’t be pregnant...I haven’t been taking super-strength folic acid tablets wrapped in extra strong vitamin b-multitude for the last sixteen weeks!!! I’m done for. I might as well sign the child up for remedial maths classes. Sigh.”. So, the first thing you do is run out the door, to the chemist, and buy its-not-too-late-to-take-your-vitamins vitamins at €30 for a months supply of pink tablets that you take with see-through-fishy tablets, thereby guaranteeing that you are not a failed mother before your child has even lost its tail (which it does at about 8 weeks).

This said, you generally save money in the first trimester overall, depending on your cravings. Mine were cheese sandwiches, and not like crusty baguettes and gruyere or anything, just white sliced pan and processed cheese. My only nod to frou-frou was a need for organic mayonnaise because Hellmans was too white and freaked me out a bit.

The next big spend is BioOil (€25 a bottle) which is a vaguely sticky pink oil that you are supposed to slather over your skin in order to fend off stretch-marks. The fact that BioOil itself admits that it does not prevent stretch-marks is irrelevant. If you don’t bother using it, you might as well stay in your pjs all day, eat butter with a spoon and stop brushing your hair. It’s a symbol to the world that that you are not willing to let yourself go in the face of genetics, limited cellular elasticity and a 10lb trainee ninja recreating scenes from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon in the space behind your belly button. BioOil is a necessity - a token of your spirit. It’s worth the money.

Maternity wear is next and its a racket. It’s not a case of buying one or two wraparound dresses in demure colours. Nothing that you wore pre-pregnancy can be worn during pregnancy. You need new underwear (bigger underwear), new bras (bigger bras), new socks (to prevent varicose veins - if you don’t wear special socks and you get varicose veins you’ll have no one to blame but yourself), new pyjamas (bigger pyjamas) and new shoes (to make you feel better because everything else is getting bigger). You will also need to buy an full wardrobe of things made entirely from elastic. None of these stretchy things are cheap. If you have to go to a wedding you will have to spend €200 on a dress that you don’t particularly like but that you gratefully buy because it is the only thing in the country that you fit into that does not look like either sleep-wear or a mu-mu. Any ideas you had about being able to continue to wear looser fitting items from your previous wardrobe are dashed when you try on a v-neck jumper and realise that you should probably not flash your belly button in work.

By the time I’d paid for pregnancy yoga classes (which was actually only recently because my mommy kindly bought me the first couple of months), the credit card was starting to creak. Needless to say, I also needed maternity yoga clothes.

As pregnancy also seems to have tipped me over the edge into a full blown earth-hippie-frantically-looking-to-connect-with-my-chi-before-I-forget-where-I’ve-put-it, I signed Mr Oh and I up to a hypnobirthing course. It was worth it just to hear Mr Oh loudly chomping on an imaginary lemon while the instructor guided us through a basic hypnosis. He has gone from being a total skeptic to a dedicated believer. He is also, we have learned, very easily hypnotised.

As it turns out, hypnobirthing was one of my better buys - much better than the tights that reach my neck or the app that each week compares my baby to a low-lying vegetable (this week Hu Jintao is the size of a Chinese cabbage). I’ve gone all birth-organic and will be refusing any form of pain relief or drugs for (at least the first fifteen minutes of) my labour. I think most of the reason I don’t want an epidural is that I think it might hurt. Needles into my spine give me the heebie-jeebies. It’s a pity they can’t just dose me up on Solpadeine. I could give birth in a opiate-haze....that sounds like a good time.

In the last month or so, my hips have started started hurting and I have been unable to sleep. I refused to buy a maternity pillow on the grounds that I didn’t want to bring any more unnecessary stuff into the house. Instead I spent a small fortune going to see an osteopath who specialises in pregnancy. Then, upon discovering that osteopathy necessitates sitting around a lot in one’s underwear, I had to go and buy
even more underwear (this time in colours other than beige and grey).

I thought I had spent all the money I was likely to on a tiny person who has no earthly needs other than a bit of kicking space and a lot of milk. I had not yet factored in the-item-formerly-known-as-a-buggy. Nowadays, you don’t buy buggies, you buy a “travel system“. A travel system is a piece of machinery that costs as much as a Fiat Punto and has the design capability to double as a mid-range missile launcher. It is, however, essentially a buggy, with bits. It has a pram bit and a stroller bit and a car seat bit. You take all the bits off and put them back on depending on which bit you need. Buggy with bits can cost up to €1,500.

Choosing the right travel system is important. It is essentially an indication of how much you love your child (this is what I told Mr Oh). All the celebrities have Bugaboo travel systems. These are very nice and they do many wonderful things, but I did not think a Bugaboo was the right match for baby Hu Jintao. Hu is not a follower. Hu is not a slave to pedestrian trends (DYSWIDT?). Hu needs a different sort of travel system - something that will let baby Hu express him/her self in ergonomic luxury with a minimalist undertone. Hu needs a Stokke.

I fell in love with the Stokke travel system the first time I saw it. Mr Oh was slightly more skeptical (why does a buggy handlebar need to be designed by Audi?). I thought I had time to convince him but my friend Mary told me that she had to order her travel system 10 weeks in advance. I kicked up the campaign and after 48-hours of parroting like an infomercial, Mr Oh caved. The big selling point for him was the height. Every other buggy we tried, the baby carriage was hovering around his knee-height (which on other people is waist-height). Stokke is designed by tall Scandinavians for tall Scandinavians (and tall Irish men).

They told us last weekend in the shop that it would take six weeks to be delivered. Turns out it only took a week and arrived yesterday. After I’d unpacked it, I spent the day strapping my teddy bears in and wheeling them around the living room. I thought it would make a good shopping transporter and briefly considered taking it to Tesco but am not ready to be the crazy woman with the pram full of broccoli. Mr Oh has safely stored it upstairs in the spare room but not before he spent a bit of time practicing with the teddy bears (and at one stage even trying to strap himself in).

With the travel system out of the way, hopefully the next twelve weeks or so will be relatively expenditure light. Mr Oh is studying all the time and I am generally quite tired so life on the cheap may be a possibility.

As I was writing this, Mr Oh emerged temporarily from his study-cocoon and asked what my blog topic was this week. I said ‘How much being pregnant costs’. Before disappearing back up the stairs he said ‘But you save money too...you don’t have to go out all the time looking to meet someone that you might want to have a baby with’. I think the hypnosis has left him with deep and profound insights.




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