White folks, a school and recess.

20 05 2012

One hundred pairs of wide brown eyes stared at us like we had just landed in their corner of Ivory Coast from the moon: Two women with pale skin, smiling.

The classroom.

These two strange-looking women were accompanied by a third woman, carrying a leather handbag, who looked like they themselves did, or rather like their mothers, just better dressed. And better fed.

We felt a bit like we were in a zoo: the grown-ups showed us what was there, in the classroom, and the hundred kids got to take a good long look at what had just walked in the door.

The question was only – which of us was the caged animal?

Perhaps they had seen white people like us before, but likely only men, and only in a position of power. A foreman on a rubber plantation where their parents worked as day-labor, or a buyer for the cocoa that their parents harvested on their smallholder farm. In both cases the white man determined what they would eat, and if they could afford to go to school, or to a doctor. Today or tomorrow. Or never.

The principal of the rural primary school about 150 kilometers east of Abidjan opened his doors wide for the visitors from far-away Europe. The children stood for us, bade us good morning in unison, and then sang for us. And they stared at us. It was a strange feeling, being greeted like royalty, or the President.

A goat munched serenely on weeds near the flagpole. A natural lawnmower today, lunch (if necessary) tomorrow.

The schoolyard (with goat and woman).

The school has three classrooms for the 180 kids currently enrolled, a small office for the principal, housing for the teachers – including solar cells on the roof for electricity – and a water well in the barren schoolyard.

The youngest kids looked to be about 6 or 7 – the age where most children in most countries start school. But the one or the other stood much taller than her comrades. A teacher told us later that these were the kids who lived farthest away, and whose parents didn’t let them begin first grade until they were 10 or 11.

Some kids, the principal said, just do not show up during the harvest of whatever crop their parents or neighbors farm. Other children attend for a year, but don’t come back when the new term starts. The teachers are used to this, and have no choice but to accept it as part of this traditional, agricultural society, where child labor (and child slavery) is not uncommon. Often the parents are illiterate, and don’t know better.

During our visit, the principal promised the kids that if they are really good students, and work very, very hard, then someday they can get on a big airplane and fly to where these two strange-looking women came from.

The older kids laughed, knowing full well this was something that maybe a single lucky one of them might experience in a lifetime. The younger ones seemed more bewildered than anything else. They didn’t seem to find this funny – or a state to which they would really wish to aspire. An uncomfortable, confused silence followed. We kept the smiles pasted on our faces so that we didn’t have to say anything – because we had no words at that moment.

At mid-morning a small child ran out of one classroom, grabbed a stick and banged on the rim of an old truck tire that had been stripped of its rubber, hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the schoolyard.

The bell.

And then we saw what happens at recess at probably every rural primary school in Cote d’Ivoire. And all over the world.

180 kids + break-time = boundless energy.

Screaming kids on airplanes

27 04 2012

So just because I love jetlag so much, I decided to go back to the States five days after I had just returned to Europe. Chicago last week, New York this week. But more about NYC another time, maybe.

Today I want to talk about children (again).

There is nothing on earth that brings the sociopath out in everyone than screeching, red-faced midgets on a transatlantic overnight flight.

I thought that my JFK-ZRH flight would be a good opportunity to get at least a few hours of shut-eye. Oh how wrong I was. Within the five rows around me there were seven kids ranging in age from about six months to 3 years.

Children in front of me, children to the right of me, children behind me.  There were no kids to the left of me because there was only a window, and beyond that, an airplane wing. And if you ask me, I would have put them all there rather than in the cabin with the rest of us.

The best place for kids: Outdoors!

Yes, attached to these children were also parents, all of whom seemed incapable and overwhelmed with the stress of parenting.

It’s bad enough when one child screams incessantly in a closed space with a captive audience of 200. But on this flight, they all screamed. Throughout the night. In a coordinated attempt to drive all the rest of us to commit extremely violent crimes.

Jethro Tull on the inflight entertainment system, at top volume, could not drown out these pint-sized terrorists.

My martyrdom (and that of my child-free co-passengers) lasted seven hours, thanks to a strong tailwind that got us to our destination faster than usual, plus 45 minutes of taxiing at both ends.

What can be done? I have three solutions:

  1. Completely child-free flights. Malaysia Airlines has the right idea, having banned infants from its First Class cabins and implementing a child-free upper deck on its new A380 aircraft from July 1. This is an idea whose time is way overdue. Folks like me who have to go from the gate to the office after an overnight flight will not stand for this kind of noise pollution much longer.
  2. An “objectionable noise surcharge,” kind of like the fuel surcharge all of us have gotten used to paying. The younger the child, the higher the tax. This would automatically disqualify families traveling with multiple infants because they would likely no longer be able to afford it.
  3. A sound-proof cabin at the back of the plane. Like a playpen, or a time-out box. Or just seal off the last five or six rows from the rest of the cabin with sound-proof glass. They used to put smokers at the back of the plane, and now we can just put kids there. Screaming (like smoking) is harmful to the environment and the health of all those individuals not currently engaged in it.

OK, time for all you parents with young kids to come at me with a machete. But you know darn well that I am right.  You have to deal with your own screaming kids all the time. You can’t escape them. (And don’t you wish you could?)

But ask yourselves this: Why must babies travel to other continents before they even know who they are? Why do you people drag them across oceans and time zones when they won’t remember any of it when they grow up? Why do you expose them to foreign germs and the misery of jetlag before their first day of school?

A suggestion that could keep all of us happy, the child-rich and the child-free: Show your kids your own country or region or continent when they are really small. There is so much to see in Europe, or North America, or Asia, alone. Then, when they turn six, or seven, or eight, when they are old enough to appreciate what you are offering them – that’s when you begin to show them the world.

The pursuit of happiness

11 10 2010

I’m currently in the middle of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book “Committed”. You know the name – Gilbert is the author of that blockbuster of self-reflection: “Eat, Pray, Love” (now a major motion picture).


The Book.


If you are one of the three people on the planet who have managed to escape the EPL hype so far, the story is this: After a messy and very distressing divorce, Gilbert found peace in Italy – where she ate, India – where she prayed, and Indonesia – where she loved. (FYI, the movie’s OK but the book was better.)

“Committed” is an intellectual examination of the institution of marriage, and Gilbert lists the many reasons she never wanted to go near it again. Bad luck for her, the U.S. government intervened, basically damning her to wed her foreign lover, even though both were aghast at the idea. Initially, anyway.

It’s easy enough reading, and I’m entertained. Light vignettes, good storytelling, interesting facts about something that I never bothered to research the history of. I’m only about halfway through, so please nobody tell me how it turns out… I’d like to read for myself. (I assume she and Felipe get married in the end, but I’d like to know how they found their way there.)

In 2007, even though R. had already asked me to marry him (on a cloudy New York afternoon, at the bar in the Boathouse restaurant in Central Park), we never really seriously discussed it in detail. We were both modern, enlightened 21st century adults who didn’t need a piece of paper to certify our relationship. Kids weren’t on the horizon (“Are you getting married because you’re pregnant?” is a really rude first question, by the way – and you’d be amazed how many people ask precisely that question), neither of us needed a visa for the other’s home country (yet) and I wasn’t looking for a new identity that would come with a new name (I wasn’t running from the mafia or the law). So to us, there was no real requirement for it.

Until my father fell suddenly and seriously ill. On what turned out to be his deathbed, R. asked him for his permission to marry me. You know, the old fashioned way.

So, well, we did. And today happens to be our second wedding anniversary.

On October 11th, 2008, this is what we asked of and pledged to each other:

Please join me on a journey of discovery, adventure and celebration, so that together we may face whatever this life will bring us, as friends, partners and lovers. I promise to encourage you, inspire you, support you, comfort you, and respect you as an equal, in good days and in bad. I promise to give you the best I have to offer. I will hold you close, and remain faithful to you, for all the days to come.

It’s been two years since that glorious indian summer afternoon when R. and I officially legalized our love before God and the Commonwealth of Virginia, as well as friends and family, some of whom had flown in from halfway around the world to watch and to party with us. And it was absolutely fabulous.


The moment of truth on October 11th, 2008.


More fabulous yet is the everyday of being together. Our friendship and respect for each other has shifted, changed and grown and two years on our relationship is stronger than ever. We are definitely having way more fun together the longer we hang out with each other.

I finally feel like I belong somewhere. To someone. Who always welcomes me home.

The bullies of Salt Lake City

14 09 2010

And once again I out myself as despicable, selfish, child-free and…much happier that way.

We were in that family-friendly of all cities, the LDS-church capital of the world, Salt Lake City, Utah. One fine and sunny morning, three small children and their two mothers were sitting in the breakfast area of the Crystal Inn. Irritating, high-pitched screams echoed through the hallway before we could even see and identify the creatures they were coming from. Shrieks, rivaling the sound of nails on a chalkboard, greeted us before we even had a chance to smell coffee.

The two rather rotund women who seemed to be the mothers of the screeching, squirming beasts sat at a table along with one mute and sickly-skinny man. (I thought polygamy was illegal…even in Utah!) Two kids were in highchairs and the third was perched on a lap. After every vocalization of 107 decibels or more, one of the women would tell her son, half-heartedly, “Jake, now stop” or “Nathan, don’t do that” as the other woman just smiled and laughed and pretended she could actually hear herself think amid all the noise pollution.

Other breakfasting guests concentrated hard on staring into and picking at their bacon and eggs, none making any visible attempt to address the great white (bellowing) elephant in the room.

And the whole time I’m thinking – if a little dog was yipping away like a maniac in the breakfast room of a hotel, would everybody go about their business as if it was nothing? I think not. The rules of society seem to be different when it comes to disruptive children. Everyone is supposed to actually enjoy the pandemonium they create.

If only one could silence such terrors with a milkbone. Soaked in grain alcohol. Or rat poison.

Here little kiddie, time for breakfast!

As the racket began to fray our tender early-morning nerves, I finally got up to ask the two mothers, obviously incapable of handling their kids effectively in public, if they would please just try to calm them down or leave because there were other guests who had paid for the right to enjoy their breakfast in peace. The childrens’ high-pitched squealing stopped for an instant as the mothers launched into a rampage, telling me that their precious little boys are just learning how to behave and little boys must also eat. And that they will grow up into competent, responsible adults. (Really? I wouldn’t be so sure about that.)

“But… how can they eat if they are screaming all the time,” I asked, which was the red flag for both obese mothers and a few other guests in the room to attack me all at once. I was surprised at the decidedly family un-friendly language used.

By this time R.’s blood was coming to a boil as well and he jumped into the discussion with a few choice words of his own. His comments betrayed his foreign accent and promptly we got a “Get outta here and go back home!” tossed our way from a white-trash, tatooed, slimy, IQ-deficient blob of body mass sitting at another table.

After an eternity the clan finally got up to leave, threatening us with a “We’ll be back tomorrow!” to which we lobbed a “Thank God we will not!” back.

Charming folks here in Salt Lake City. I don’t think I will come visit again anytime soon.

The Anti-Parent

23 08 2010

It’s back-to-school time so let’s talk about… children.

Now…I am over 40 and I am childless. No, excuse me, child-free. I make that distinction because to me, “less” implies there is something one wishes one had but does not, and “free” implies that one never wanted it in the first place. So I am happily child-free, most content to have nothing to do with kids, and to be able to keep a healthy distance between them and me. As far as I am concerned, kids = problems, noise, trouble, anxiety, stress, mess, complications, expenses, broken stuff, and an all-around pain in the neck.

As far back as I can remember I had no interest in having or just being around children. A cousin and I discussed this when we were teenagers… she said she wanted kids, but didn’t care for a husband; I said I wanted a husband but no children. (Today she is a lesbian mother of two, and I am a wife. At least that worked out for both of us.)

In my early 30’s my attitude towards kids shifted temporarily. My friends started procreating and I was briefly under the delusion that I, too, must experience that facet of life, and add the label “mother” to my CV. But thankfully that phase passed and, while currently being subjected to a second veritable baby-boom in my immediate vicinity, I am now more positive than ever that I don’t need the aggravation nor do I need to boost my own ego by attempting to create another being in my image.

I can’t imagine going through the discomfort of pregnancy and the high drama of childbirth. And those two traumatic experiences mark just the beginning of problems that will last a lifetime, with no escape.  No, no matter what the norms of society dictate, I can’t see how locking myself in that emotional and existential cage would make me happier, or a better person.

Seeing a very good friend turn into a shell of her former self after becoming a mother, and watching a marriage deteriorate because the adults have no alone-time has certainly not helped.

And in not having children, I am actually doing all you purportedly happy parents and the world a favor. I am making a significant contribution to the sustainability of our planet. There will be one less human being to feed, clothe, house, educate and keep safe for 80 or so years; one less person whose garbage and waste will pollute our limited natural resources. There will be no contribution to overpopulation, and in waiving my right to offspring I am also leaving more space on this earth for your kids to romp, make a racket, be creative, and thereby realize their potential. It’s only fair that they then help pay my pension.

So parents, skewer me if you want to – I’m used to it. I just don’t buy into the “kids are the best thing that ever happened to me” mind-set. Yeah, sure, your little bundles of joy are all wonderful – as wonderful as screaming, dominating little tyrants can be. Actually I love (your) kids… and thanks for going through the hassle of having some so that I don’t have to.