I watch my mother tie the end of the balloon shut in a practiced movement of her small, strong fingers. She wants to teach me how but I am too scared to try. The other kids in the school holiday program that she runs in the pink community centre perched on the side of the hill, they all pick it up quickly. But what if it pops in my hands? I couldn’t stand the noise, the failure. I slide away. I’ll find another way to help set up for the party.
We take the babies to meet my Aunty Lyn and she showers them with gifts. A pop-up tent. Bubbles. Marshmallows. A packet of balloons. While I thank her and really am grateful, I privately scratch my head. Balloons are kind of a weird present, aren’t they?
Sometimes I just have no idea. Lyn adored children. She knew what would make them happy.
Time passes and our babies are about to have their first birthday. The kids don’t understand what’s happening but I’m excited about the party. Keeping two whole infants not just alive but thriving for an entire year is by far the greatest achievement of my life. We absolutely must celebrate.
The day before the party, I reach for Lyn’s packet of balloons.
It’s really a moment. I am stepping into proper grown-up territory now. The carefree years of my early adulthood were not a balloon-filled time. It’s been a long time since I’ve even touched one. The babies haven’t encountered one before. How exciting. Kids love balloons, right? They’ll be delighted. I call them over and they watch as I blow it up, interest quickly becoming fear as the strange new object just keeps growing.
Okay, time to tie it up. It looked pretty easy when mum did it, so long ago. You just stretch it out and…no, do you make the loop first? Don’t worry kids, everything is fine…okay, now my finger is stuck…I just need to…
The balloon flies off over the dining table and the children are absolutely terrified. They cling to their father like he’s their only hope of survival. They are not yet coordinated enough to flee and so settle for screaming.
Being a grown-up always turns out to be harder than you expected.
I eagerly squeeze through the chicken coop door and stand still for a moment, savouring it. It’s an odd thing to savour, I suppose, the stink of chicken shit and the irate clucking of hens who wish I’d get on with their breakfast, but it’s my favourite part of the day in the current phase of our mad rush around Spain, volunteering on a tiny organic farm in Basque country. Barnaby is certainly bewildered by it. Hard to explain, but it ties into one of my earliest memories. I remember being very small. I remember a big room, warm and dark, and the gentle rustlings and clucking of chickens. I felt safe there. But this memory makes no sense in the context of my suburban New Zealand childhood.
We skype my mum and I ask her about it. She’s as confused as the rest of us, and then suddenly her face clears. “Ah! Lyn worked on a chicken farm”.
I was only 18 months old when my brother was born, so I was still practically a baby myself when a dairy allergy sent him, a tiny infant, into hospital. With dad working full-time, my parents did the only thing they could do – they packed me up and sent me away. I can’t imagine how hard it was for them.
I was fine, of course. They sent me to Aunty Lyn.
Now, I am a grown-up, and I am determined. They’re balloons. I’m supposed to be a mother. I have to give my children the joy of balloons.
With a lot of soothing and coaxing we persuade them to watch as I attempt it again, albeit from a distance this time. They peek at me from their father’s safe arms. I blow up the balloon, go to tie it, look up at the kid’s worried little faces with their big round eyes, and I do something terrible. I just can’t help it. I know I shouldn’t have done it. It was just too funny. Even now, I’m not ashamed like I should be.
I let the balloon go….deliberately.
It flies around in the air, the kids scream, I bend over double laughing, and Barnaby, well, he’s not impressed.
The children are spirited away by their better parent and I’m left to blow the balloons up by myself. At least with the pressure off I finally work out how to tie them.
The damage is done, at any rate. The babies have realised the truth. The balloons cannot be trusted. When my friend comes for dinner that evening they lead her to where I have tied bunches of the offending objects to the curtain rails and they point, over and over again. They have almost no language so we’re not sure whether they are telling her to watch out for the flying menaces or asking her to save them from the balloons as their parents apparently won’t, but they successfully convey that they are unhappy with the continued balloon presence.
I leave them up anyway and they eventually get used to them. And a few months later I try again, blow a few up just to see what’ll happen.
The kids seem to have forgotten the earlier debacle because they are thrilled, laughing and racing around the room like children from an advert for life insurance. I take a video for Aunty Lyn. She deserves to see the joy she’s brought.
I spend a long time meaning to send that video to her and then a few months ago, suddenly, there was no-one to send it to.
Being a grown-up sometimes means learning lessons the hard way.
I’m in the supermarket when mum calls. Mum’s a texter, so I know something’s wrong before I even answer.
After she tells me that Lyn’s gone I’m shaky but not crying, vague and distracted. I lug the shopping around the aisles, staring at the shelves but choosing nothing, for quite some time before it occurs to me that I had best call Barns. He is waiting in the car with the toddlers and will be wondering what’s taking me so long.
We were going to facetime her but never worked out how.
I’m still in a daze when my little family run up to where I’m waiting. Nora and June positively fling themselves upon me. They embrace me with all the strength their tiny arms possess.
We said we were going to visit last year but we got busy moving house and we didn’t.
“There you go, Mumma!” Juney smiles up at me. “Now you’re not sad anymore!”
I never sent her the video.
It’s a big packet of balloons. We tied some to the letterbox for Nora and June’s second birthday party, as is the tradition of our people.
We had their third birthday party in a park. We thought it would be helpful to tie some balloons to a tree to show our families where to find us. They popped in the wind and the kids were so sad that well-meaning relatives blew up some more.
Those popped, too.
The relatives were determined to fix things. Were they not grandparents / uncles? Fixing things is their job. They had a brainwave. They would tie the balloons to the toddlers! That would keep them off of the prickly ground. Children never lower their arms.
So, when a balloon next popped, it was attached to a child. She screamed in abject terror. Her sister realised something. The balloon tied around her very own wrist might also pop at any second. She tried to run but the balloon followed her. She started screaming. We all gave chase. The balloon popped before we could undo the knot.
That was the last straw for both of them. They haven’t touched a balloon since. If I suggest they might like one, June will turn to me with enormous eyes. “But what if it pops?” she asks, and I have no answer for that. Accepting the truth that all things end is also the work of grown-ups.
I miss balloons though, and hope they will be over this current phase soon. I liked always having a few bumping around on the floor. I can’t seem to pass one by without picking it up and batting it around a bit. I like to see how long I can keep it in the air before it escapes me and drifts back down to the floor. It’s a game I’ve been playing for as long as I remember.
Who was it who said we don’t grow up, we just get old?
Aunty Lyn understood that better than anyone. She loved things with openness, innocence. She collected salt and pepper shakers. In the last years of her life, she was learning to play the ukulele. She was obsessed with elephants, and getting to touch one in Australia was the greatest thrill of her life. And she adored children, all of them, even through all the years of raising her own and helping with the nieces and nephews and grandkids, the stress and the toil of it. She made you feel special.
I hope I grow up to be someone like her.
To be completely honest, this piece has sat unfinished for months. I’m still learning to write, and while the above, the original end of the piece, is true, it’s not all the way true. I write, in large part, to explain things to myself. Perhaps here I’m reaching for the heart of something that doesn’t exist. There’s no pat summation or smooth conclusion when you lose someone. This stuff, the people you care about, what you think and feel about them, grief, family, love, it’s messy. So I’m just going to let this post be a bit messy.
Here’s what I do know. I don’t believe in life after death. That’s why it’s important that we send those emails and make those phone calls while we still can. We can’t do anything for the dead but remember them, and they can’t do anything for us at all. But if that’s really true, why do chicken coops still feel like home? Why was I so determined to take the kids to see their first elephant this summer? There’s still a few balloons in the packet in the cupboard. If I hide it away, keep it safe, there’ll be just enough left for one more birthday party.
The world seems to be slowly opening up again but it’ll still be a long time before I can go travelling. At least I can travel…in my memories. In this series, I enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! I am more ambitious and shockingly hubristic than that. I will review… an entire country!
On paper, Spain has it all: History! Architecture! Culture! Cuisine! Art! Nature! Beaches! But the reality is curiously subdued. I spent almost six months there and I did not love it.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 7 / 10.
Spain is easy enough to travel in. It’s affordable and has good public transport. It’s safe enough if you’re more cautious than you would be at home. We fell victim to a pick-pocket but the wallet really shouldn’t have been in an accessible pocket whilst we rode the subway. Lesson: things that are okay in New Zealand are not safe overseas.
A common complaint when travelling in Spain is that you will, not often but sometimes, be frustrated by the siesta thing. Now, I am not opposed to siestas. Contrary to what some people believe, the Spanish really do earn their siestas. They get up at the crack of dawn and labour all morning, putting in hours of work before most office workers have even sat down at their desks. I have volunteered on a farm in Spain and in that context siestas make perfect sense. You can’t be out doing manual labour in the hot afternoon sunshine. It’s not just disagreeable, it’s unsafe. But I still wonder how on earth it makes sense in the context of, say, a museum? Are the museum staff really going all the way home between 1pm and 4pm? Doesn’t it just mean commuting twice a day instead of once? Isn’t it very annoying to close everything and open it all up again? Wouldn’t they rather just finish their day earlier? I don’t know. Perhaps it works for them. Perhaps they love it. At any rate, the logistics of it are not my problem but I wanted to note that it certainly doesn’t lend itself to the style of travel when you show up in a town with not much of a plan and just a day or two to try and check off all the major attractions. You can find yourself at a loose end in the afternoon. It can be frustrating but you can’t change things in the slightest so (and now we come to the actual point of this paragraph) I urge you to research attraction opening times in advance.
Moving on, there is also a definite language barrier but – okay, listen, now I want to say something about language barriers. I don’t really think they are a problem. Oh, they can be a problem, of course, it’s not like I haven’t been served a plate of sliced pig ear in a restaurant when I meant to order something else, anything, anything at all really. But at its core a language barrier isn’t a problem in any given place, it’s a feature. If you’re one of those people who sees a language barrier as a terrifying and insurmountable thing, I’m sorry but I just don’t get it. I’ve always gotten more enjoyment out of travelling somewhere noticeably different from home. I want to go to countries where I don’t speak the language! It’s much more exciting. You get by. You should of course pick up a bit of the language before you travel, not just to make your life easier (this goes double if you’re leaving the main tourist routes) but also because it’s courteous to at least thank people in their native tongue. But I like travelling a lot so I’m not one of those types who thinks you need to properly learn a language in order to earn the right to visit a country. There are too many places I want to go, I do not have the time for that and I don’t expect you to, either.
Now, I know you’re yelling “colonialist privilege!” at your monitor and I hear you, I really do. It’s unfair that we English speakers get to arrogantly traipse around the world, expecting people to cater to our linguistic ineptitude in their quest for our tourist dollar while we reap the benefits of a history of oppression and economic imperialism. It’s very unfair. I’m sorry about it. And that’s all I have to say about that.
Having said all that, there’s a definite language barrier once you’re off the beaten path, so that’s something to be aware of.
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS: 10/10.
Not only does Spain have heaps of cool stuff, it has cool stuff you can’t see anywhere else in the world. There’s literally nothing else on earth like La Sagarada Familia or the Cordoba mosque-cathedral or Guernica. Or the Alhambra. Or Casa Batlló. You get the idea. Forget about beaches, go to Spain for art! The art galleries are astonishingly good, especially in Madrid. Go for architecture. You take the exuberant Gaudi buildings of Barcelona and add in the solemn churches, cobbled old streets and stately town squares of the rest of Spain and it’s a real feast for the eyes. It helps that the scenery is mostly very lovely as well, especially along the Northern coast which is all rugged cliffs and golden beaches and little towns draped in foliage. To be honest there is a chunk of Spain right in the middle that is all super blah looking countryside but they do make up for it by strewing pretty little churches around.
Okay, but beaches are also rad, you say? I do happen to agree with you, as a matter of fact. I thought the rugged beaches of Northern Spain were more interesting than in the South. Go to San Sebastian! The best town in the world counts as an attraction, right? If anyone knows of anywhere else as perfect as San Sebastian then please tell me immediately so I can start saving up money. San Sebastian boasts a gleaming expanse of golden sand, lovely old buildings, a quirky island to explore, a million ice cream shops, a fireworks festival, lively pintxo (Basque tapas) bars, and a long promenade on which to stroll arm in arm with your sweetie. It’s old-fashioned in the best possible way. I can’t think of a more perfect spot for a vacation.
Honestly, Spain is festooned with excellent little towns. I’m talking dozens (hundreds?) of places where the old town has survived intact and you can literally step into another century. What a feeling, to be surrounded by golden stone, lit up in the late afternoon sun. Salamanca, guys. Toledo! And even the mediocre or modern places all seem to have a square or an old church or an ancient bridge, something beautiful to raise them up. You won’t lack things to do in Spain.
As far as I can tell the shopping is good but I was broke when I was in Spain so I can’t say for sure. The funnest shopping though is if you go in the weeks before Christmas and go to a Christmas market in a square somewhere and look at all the goods they have for sale for nativity scenes. Spanish people apparently love nativity scenes and we’re not just talking about like, the stable and a few figures, on no, we’re talking recreating the whole of Bethlehem, so the Christmas markets are full of stalls where they sell individual miniature eggs and tiny baskets and pots and bottles and little buildings and mini plastic pigeons and anything you could imagine to give a nativity scene a sense of life and place. It’s wonderful window shopping.
It’s hard to know how to score this. When you eat out in New Zealand the food is almost always decent but rarely either fantastic or dreadful. Spain has the exact opposite problem – it was seldom merely mediocre – sometimes the meals were absolutely amazing and a lot of the time the food was just plain bad.
I think some of the fault lies with us – we were in Spain for around six months and so we weren’t exactly going to research where to eat every meal. We had mixed results on the occasions we chose a restaurant based on Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor recommendations but anyway we mostly just ate what at whatever place was nearby and that nearby place was mostly bad. Greasy, bland, just plain bad. Soggy pasta and frozen pizza and over-cooked chips. Blegh. Some of these places were tourist traps but we spent time off the beaten path and so a lot of them mostly catered to locals, making the poor quality of the food quite inexplicable. Perhaps the locals only go there for a drink?
The best food we ate was in people’s homes or restaurant recommendations from our Airbnb hosts. And that is the problem with eating in Spain. You know there’s good food out there. Spanish food is famous for a reason! But it all feels out of reach. It’s out of town. It’s home cooked. You have to be in the know. You needed a reservation months in advance.
When we did have good food, it was out-of-this-world unforgettable. Why do I still think about that stew with chips we got as a tapas in that pub in Grenada? It was just stew, for goodness sake. But god it was tasty. And the tomatoes at the organic farm were out of this world. The yellow cherry tomatoes grew everywhere as weeds. We ripped handfuls of the vines out of the ground, Barns cramming as many as he could eat into his mouth, unable to believe they’d all go to waste. The simple revelation of a tomato. Finally understanding what flavour is as dozens of notes unfold in your mouth and you truly see for the first time that a taste is comprised of hundreds of chemicals that interact and combine, that even a single tomato isn’t a song, it’s a symphony.
You’ll try to grow yellow cherry tomatoes at home but it’s not the same.
There is one workaround I want to mention in the very unlikely event anybody turns to this blog for advice: Don’t buy lunch. Find a supermarket and buy some decent bread and a bit of ham and pre-sliced cheese. Ta-da! It’s all you need for a slap up meal, much cheaper than buying a sandwich from a cafe while being of better quality, and the ham will be way nicer than what you get at home (if you’re from New Zealand, anyway). You’re welcome.
Truthfully, it doesn’t feel nice to write this. I know Spain has been hit incredibly hard by Covid19, and those who rely on the tourism industry are suffering terribly. It’s almost a comfort that an incredibly popular post of mine will garner maybe five page-views so no one will read this. I don’t want to harm people who are in strife but I do have to be honest with you: People in Spain are generally not very friendly to tourists. Some were, of course, I mean we were there for five months so you’d hope that some people were nice to us in a time period that long, but they were far outnumbered by the people who clearly wished we’d just fuck off.
I don’t know. When you read about Spain, it sounds very exuberant. Imagine a place where not just the bars but the streets fill up in the evenings as people make the rounds, chatting with friends, stopping here and there to pick up some gossip. It seems really lovely for them and in reality it is great people watching. But the problem is just that – you’re only watching. It’s not exactly that I expected to be included, actually I am hopelessly socially awkward and never expect that anywhere, but if you’re on your own or it’s just the two of you, Spain can feel pretty lonely. We went back to our airbnb early most nights. It was easier that way.
OVERALL SCORE: 6/10.
Obviously, we were in Spain in a pre-Covid19 world. Who knows how things have changed? Tourist dollars will now be more valuable than ever worldwide. Tourists will possibly be more welcome. I’d love to give Spain another try. This time I’d enjoy the art, plan all my meals in advance, not stay very long, and happily skip home to my people.
“So…”, Mary leans in close, smiling hugely. “I’ve got a guy I want to introduce you to! I think you’re perfect for each other.”
“Uhhh”, I manage, backing away. It’s late 2012 and things aren’t going well. Mere weeks ago I left Taiwan, my home of two years, my job, and the partner I’d been with for most of a decade, when our relationship fell apart for reasons that he never actually articulated to me. I’m heart-broken, I’m suffering from jet lag and reeling from reverse culture shock. I’m unemployed. I’m staying with my parents in a house I’ve never lived in before.
To top it all off, I’m about to be Maid of Honour at a dear friend’s wedding. On the blessed day I will see friends I haven’t seen in years. When they ask me how I am, I will check that the bride is definitely out of earshot, lean in close, and inform them that love is a lie.
“I just…” I try to find the words.
“Do you need a bit more time?”
“That might be for the best.”
“Bad news, I’m afraid. It’s not going to happen. He’s got a girlfriend now.”
“Who?” I ask.
“Barnaby. The guy I wanted to introduce you to”.
I am mooning over a much younger and entirely unsuitable man, who I will soon learn doesn’t fancy me in the slightest.
“Well, that’s okay. I wish him all the best. Let me tell you about this guy I met at a party last week!”
“It’s just so boring being single”, I gripe. “You can’t do anything fun. I just want someone to go to the movies with”.
“Well, guess what? I think Barnaby broke up with his girlfriend!”
Mary’s exasperated. “The guy, you know, the guy I’ve been telling you about for months! Barnaby! I work with him and he’s really nice. I think you’d be perfect for each other. Let me feel him out, see if I can set something up.”
An actual blind date? Do people still go on those?
Am I really that desperate?
I think of my lonely bed in my parent’s spare room. Yes, yes I am that desperate.
“Um…okay. Yup, sure, sure. Thank you”.
“I’ll come along, too, and I’ll bring my boyfriend so we’ll help you out a bit. And in the meantime, let’s make a plan of attack. It’ll take the pressure off if you don’t have all your eggs in one basket. You’re going to sign up for a dating website. The most popular one is…”
A few days later I get a text. We’re going to meet up a week from Sunday.
“Oh, I know Barnaby!” says Emma. “I met him at a party one time. He’s nice…but…” She trails off and frowns at me for a moment, assessing. Is this bad news? Is he dreadful in some way? It does not worry me, anyway. I have followed Mary’s instructions to the letter (she’s that sort of a person) and have been talking with a few guys on the dating website she recommended. There are plenty of other fish in the sea.
So, you see, I’m not worried. I refuse to be worried. There are lots of men out there.
I am persistently…wondering…about something, though. What does one wear to a blind date? My mum says a dress, my red dress to be exact, and while I do look good in that, I wonder if it’s the wrong tone for an afternoon coffee date. Too formal, surely?
Emma finally finishes her thought. “He was wearing a polyprop. To a party”.
I decide on jeans instead.
“Sorry I’m late. Nice to meet you.”
Here’s Barnaby at last, reaching out a hand. I take it but then visibly recoil. “Your hands are freezing!” I exclaim. I don’t think the poor guy expected the first words out of my mouth to be a criticism. He fumbles an apology and stumbles off to the counter to order.
I’m a bit discombobulated myself. Besides the unfortunate zombie hands, Barnaby’s first impression is that he smiles easily, is nice to look at, and is just as nervous as I am. Recent events have left me with all the self esteem of a box of Christmas chocolates still sitting on a supermarket discount shelf in March. I am not convinced that a normal man will want anything to do with me. And I can’t have made much of a first impression.
He does come back to the table so it can’t have been that bad. Still, even with Mary and Matt’s help, the conversation gets off to a rocky start. We have both lived overseas so we chat about that, and this is how I learn that Barnaby was the “friend who lived in India” who gave Mary the advice on the Indian railway system that saw us kicked off our train at 2 in the morning in a very small town, right as the giardia hit me. He is extremely sheepish about it. I try to reassure him that it was all for the best. Harder to shit and vomit at the same time on a moving locomotive, after all.
We gamely move on but things are stilted and so I complain way too much about the brownie I ordered (what gives, Fidel’s Cafe? You’re usually so reliable) which could be used to exfoliate dry skin cells off the feet. We try to talk about films but despite having a degree in that area I have worse taste in movies than the average 12-year-old while Barnaby is a proper grown-up so we don’t have much overlap. Also, he doesn’t go tramping and is scared of the ocean. I don’t like sports and Twitter bewilders me. Despite all this, I get the astonishing impression that he might actually fancy me. This seems too good to be true. As we have attempted to converse, I’ve noticed that Barnaby is sincere, intelligent, a good listener, and I definitely fancy him.
We say goodbye at the door, both trying not to seem too keen. I think we just managed to admit that it was, in fact, nice to meet each other. Then Mary and Matt start a round of goodbye hugs so Barnaby and I hug, too, and he leans down and kisses me on the cheek.
If Barnaby sat down before we met and studied my history and tastes, planned the perfect first date, he couldn’t have come up with a better parting shot than that kiss. An adult’s way of saying goodbye. A wordless expression of his interest, without being scary or overly forward. Hinted intimacy in the intriguing sensation of beard on soft cheek. I am a nerd and most of my friends are, too, and this means that all the experience I have with men, as friends or boyfriends or flirty acquaintances, has all been with nerds. And my ex loved me, I think, but he didn’t treasure me. I’ve never experienced a move like that before. In fact, my life has hitherto been completely devoid of tall, kind, handsome men giving me kisses on the cheek. I might be working as a temp, I might be living with my parents, but things are suddenly looking up.
“He is so cute”, I tell Mary and Matt as we walk away, “that I’m going to die”.
Less than an hour after we part, he texts me.
These days, in the day-to-day hubbub of marriage and raising kids, I will admit I sometimes forget Barnaby wasn’t always in my life. It’s scarily easy to take someone for granted. To forget how much it means to have met someone, how much it gave. To forget that without one friend’s act of kindness, and one choice to go along with it, I would have missed out on so much.
And then I’ll notice him across the room, and sometimes he’ll notice me back and smile, or sometimes he won’t and he’ll just keep right on making dinner. Either way, it’s okay.
So I finally wrote up the story of Nora and Juney’s birth. It’s long but I make no apology for this – lots of things happened.
Content warning: This post talks about the death of a child.
A woman’s body may be designed for birth and pregnancy but we’re not built to carry twins. The last trimester of pregnancy was not kind to me. The babies just took and took until I felt like a half-person at best. I was absolutely enormous. I was exhausted all the time. I had to give up my job earlier than I wanted, at only six months pregnant, as I could no longer make the five minute walk between the bus stop and work without sitting down for a rest halfway. After that I was home alone most of the time and played a lot of video games.
I couldn’t do anything – by 30 weeks pregnant I couldn’t even make it all the way around the supermarket. I had the usual nesting urges but couldn’t bend to vacuum or dust. I spent half of every day lying in bed, too nauseous to get up, and the other half eating, insatiable. One of my most vivid memories of late pregnancy is listening to music in the shower and crying because I realised that the song was beautiful. (Nigel Kennedy – Solitude (For Yehudi Menuhin)). I know, I know, super melodramatic, but it was the first time in days that I’d felt any pleasure. So it wasn’t much of a life and I was relieved when the time was upon us. And I was booked in for a elective c-section, so once it was time, it was really time.
I was glad to be scheduled for a c-section. I mean, I wasn’t only glad. There aren’t many straightforward emotions about childbirth. I was scared of the surgery, dreading the pain. I was irritated that this choice was made for me, although I wouldn’t have chosen differently. But I was mostly glad. A year and a half before Nora and June were born, my infant niece died from brain trauma caused by lack of oxygen while my cousin was in labour with her. It is a long story, but she was the victim of a series of bad decisions and mistakes made by hospital staff. Losing Ellie was incredibly painful for the whole family. Her poor parents have suffered unimaginably. A well-timed c-section would have saved her life.
So, obviously, I was never going to romanticise vaginal birth. It seems to me that there are no “good” birthing options, any way you do it entails risk and pain, but at least an elective c-section pretty much guarantees that you get to take your baby home. I’m no longer able to see anything else as being important.
And anyway it’s not like I had a choice. The lead twin (the twin closest to the cervix) was transverse/breech for the entire pregnancy. She just got stuck that way. Nobody wanted to risk vaginal birth. My midwife went from “when they change position then we’ll talk about a birth plan” to, “so, I’ve booked your c-section with the hospital”. I feel lucky to live in a country where access to such a vital and life-saving surgery is a given (and free!).
And I liked that it was simple, straightforward. Like making a dinner reservation. I’m highly-strung and not great with uncertainty at the best of times. So there’s me in the past, all too aware of how things can go wrong during birth, nodding to herself. Yes. Good. It’s all sorted. I really liked that. “Book a flight down for the birth” I told my father-in-law. “Even if you can only manage a few days, it’ll be fine. It’s all booked in like theatre tickets”.
Oh, how fate must have laughed.
I got a steroid shot in the bottom at t-minus two days. The next day I went out for lunch with my cousin to celebrate my last day as a non-parent. I had a lemonade at lunch and the kids got all worked up from the sugar. This is deeply uncomfortable with two full-sized babies inside you. I was seriously ready to not be pregnant anymore.
After dinner that night I took a pill for the surgery then went nil-by-mouth. On Friday we woke at five, I fought through the morning sickness that still plagued me at 38 weeks pregnant to take a shower, and we got in the car and drove to Wellington hospital. We listened to our favourite songs and debated what would be the first song we played to our children once they were finally out in the world. (Barnaby – Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkle vs Me – To the Great Unknown by Cloud Cult). I was so excited I was close to tears the whole trip.
We got to the hospital and we waited. Our midwife Julie arrived, my parents arrived. We’d asked them to be there to support us. Someone took us all through to a delivery room and we waited a whole lot more. We did a crossword and everyone but me had tea and biscuits. Time wore on and by mid-morning it was clear there was a problem. To make a long story shorter, I did not have the children that day. There was absolutely no room in the hospital for us, not in the operating theatre or in the delivery ward, not in the maternity ward. They’d had an unusually large number of emergencies come in and they had to take priority.
The consulting obstetrician sat us down to discuss other options. They were having trouble re-booking us. It was November third, a Friday. Wellington hospital doesn’t do elective c-sections on the weekend. Monday and Tuesday were already booked solid. Leaving it until Wednesday was too risky: 38 weeks is considered “full term” for twins because after that point the incidence of placental failure increases daily. But despite all this, the obstetrician was pleased. He’d found a way to have the c-section that day. The other hospital in our area had room for us and the consultant there was willing. We just had to agree and they’d transfer us.
The other hospital was the hospital where the mistakes were made that caused the death of my little niece. I still kept an open mind. We were kind of desperate, after all. “Remember, what happened to your cousin was very different circumstances” said Julie. True. I prepared myself to be even further from home and to be without our excellent midwife, who was not licensed to work in that hospital. But then we found out the name of the consultant who was to perform my operation. It was the consultant who was on call the night my niece was born. The person who made the worst of the bad decisions. The person who bears the brunt of the blame.
The very same doctor.
As worried as I was for our children, as aware as I was that they were at risk, I couldn’t possibly go through with that. I didn’t even trust myself to be in the same room as that person. The consultant in Wellington was very kind through the million tears it took me to explain all this. He respected that this was a case of trauma (interestingly, I’d never thought of it that way until he said that word) and he made a note in my file to ensure that medical staff on other shifts wouldn’t raise this as an option with me again.
It was an awful discussion, but it’s funny how the brain works in these peak moments. I remember very clearly having a wee moment of levity, sitting in my hospital bed and looking at all the faces that surrounded me as we talked it through, the doctors and midwives grave, my husband serious, my father pale, my mother weeping. Oh my god! I thought. I’m living in a medieval tableau!
But what to do? “You might just have to go into labour”, joked Julie. “Then they’ll have to make room for you”. She’d previously told me that if I went into labour it was a medical emergency of the call-an-ambulance kind, so this wasn’t exactly reassuring. (Given the position of the babies and how fast twin labour can progress, there was a chance that Nora’s umbilical cord would fall out my cervix and then be squashed by her bottom as she tried to follow it, cutting off her oxygen)
Anyway, the only thing left to do was try and get it done the next day. Through no fault of my own, I’d become a Special Case and Exceptions would have to be made. In other words, I was a problem. At least, that was the attitude of the hospital midwife the next morning when we returned for our elective c-section – on a Saturday, of all days!
We once again waited around for half a day. I was shaved for surgery and put in a hospital gown. But the hospital was still at capacity and we never even spoke to that day’s obstetrician before they sent us away again. Starving, we went out for lunch with my parents, my mother-in-law, and my poor father-in-law, who had to get on a flight back to Auckland immediately afterwards, his grandchildren still unmet. The heavy atmosphere of that awful meal is burned irrevocably into my brain. I mean, I went out for one last brunch with my ex-boyfriend the day before I was to board a plane back to New Zealand from Taiwan and leave him forever, and that meal was waaaaay less heavy with unspoken sorrow and tension.
After we left the cafe a woman called me a “fat cow” because I held up her car for milliseconds while I waddled across the road. The world seemed a cold and uncaring place that day. Also, and this still annoys me because I’m pedantic, I was not fat but like the most pregnant a person could possibly be. I was visibly the world’s most pregnant person. Was she an idiot?
As we parted I forbade my parents from coming to the hospital the next day unless the children had actually been born. They had gone all grey and limp like old dish rags after two full days of waiting in the family room, worrying, ready to spring into action at a moment’s notice. Mum was… not thrilled. Poor mum. She so desperately wanted to be of use to us.
With another day ticking past the risk to our children was growing. Trying to keep our spirits up, Barns and I decided that we’d go see Thor: Ragnarok the next day after the hospital sent us away again, and then for the third day running I went nil-by-mouth after dinner. I slept poorly that night, kept awake by the wheezing sound of my own breathing, kids by that point so enormous my lungs were constricted when I lay down. I wound up sleeping semi-upright in a chair. Barns left the bed to be near me on our sofa. That was a nice thing about pregnancy. No matter how hard it got or how much more he had to take on (cutting my toenails was just the start of it), Barnaby supported me every step of the way and never complained.
At least we were allowed an hour’s extra sleep that morning. “Never mind the usual reporting time, just come in at 8am”, we were told. “We know you’re coming”. Oh, so comforting. We couldn’t manage music on the drive that time.
The atmosphere in Wellington Hospital was rather different on Sunday. “This is ridiculous!” raged that day’s consulting obstetrician (the third, if you’re keeping count). “I can’t believe they’re doing this to you! Well, I’m going to make them sort it out. I’ll get the head of NICU to come and explain things to you. You just wait here”.
While we were grateful that someone had taken up our cause, he left without explaining what the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) had to do with anything and we were bewildered – as far as we knew, our babies were full-term and perfectly healthy. But the head of NICU, who, astonishingly, did come in for us, explained that twins are statistically more likely to need help after birth and despite the risk to the placenta, the babies were safer inside than out unless the NICU had two free incubators. There was finally room in the operating theatre, Delivery and Maternity, but the NICU was chokka.
“I’m going to see what I can do. They have room in the SCBU (Special Care Baby Unit) at Hutt Hospital so if I can transfer some of our patients out there then there’ll be room for your babies here. But this is over my level so I’ve got to get the head of Wellington Hospital to call the head of Hutt Hospital. It all takes a bit longer because it’s Sunday but I’ll know by 2pm at the latest”.
Goodness! All this bother for us! I felt a little guilty – I’ve heard that the SCBU is a lot less comfortable for parents than the NICU. If the parents who had to move because of us ever read this, I’m sorry!
I was still nil-by-mouth so they hooked me up to a drip to stave off dehydration and left us alone for hours. The only things I remember doing in that time is taking photos of my feet, one of which had puffed up like a balloon.
And getting into a hospital gown, yet again.
At around 2:15pm, a midwife burst into the room.
“Let’s move. We’ve got a spot for you but we’ve got to do it right now”.
And just like that, we were off. I couldn’t believe I had to go start my life as a parent in the state I was in. For one I was shell-shocked from the stress. Worse, as I hadn’t been allowed to eat or drink anything for the majority of the last three days whilst heavily pregnant and travelling back and forth to the hospital, I was already utterly exhausted. I wasn’t capable of feeling excited about meeting the babies or nervous about the surgery or relieved things were finally sorted out. I did however manage a brief pang of regret that I wouldn’t get to go see Thor: Ragnarok, so make of that what you will.
The operating theatre was startlingly unlike the ones you see on telly – I literally walked to the operating table and it had a curtain instead of a door. The anaesthesiologists did their thing and soon I was shaking uncontrollably (which is apparently normal) while the surgeon sliced me open. I couldn’t cope with looking in the direction of my stomach at that point so I watched Barnaby’s face as our children were carefully lifted into the world. I wish I could write more profoundly about this stuff but I am only able to say that he looked really happy.
June flipped over as soon as her sister was out of the way (poor kids had been squashed for months) and so they both came into the world bum-first. They were checked and pronounced perfectly healthy. After all that trouble, the beds in NICU were not needed, and thank goodness for that. They were weighed and then weighed again because they were the exact same weight and that confused everyone. They were placed on my chest while I was stitched up. I could see one face with the lovely dark eyes of all newborns but I could only see the top of the other child’s head.
“I can’t see her face,” I told Barnaby. He patted my hand.
“The baby. I can’t see her face”, I told Julie. She gave me a sympathetic look. I understood this to mean that seeing my child for the first time was lesser in importance to not disturbing the surgeon while he was trying to sew my guts back together but I was still a bit sad about it.
Eventually the kids went off with their father and I was wheeled into recovery where five or six people gathered around the bed to stare at (brace yourselves) my vagina. Honestly I wasn’t thrilled about this but they all seemed really worried about me so I decided not to mention it.
“She’s trickling”, one of them said. Trickling was obviously bad. The solution to trickling turned out to be massaging my stomach to get my womb to contract, and when this didn’t work, pounding me on the abdomen so firmly that it was disturbing not to be able to feel it. Once that was sorted the gaggle of doctors was replaced with a bundle of midwives and my vagina swapped with my boobs, at least in terms of being out for the whole world to see. I needed quite a lot of help (literally five people) but soon I was breastfeeding! Actually breastfeeding! Me! Astonishing. The midwives left me to it and I finally had a peaceful moment with my little ones. I could even see their dear faces. They were skinny wee things with only a bit of fluff on their heads. Long fingers. They were so sleepy.
I wish I could leave it there, a small and cosy scene, but sadly I have more difficult events to process through this free form of therapy.
As we were snuggling I became worried that I was going to drop the kids. It seemed difficult to get my arms to do what I wanted them to do. This…didn’t seem… to be a normal worry… so I thought about it for a while…but my thoughts were moving… very slowly. Oh dear… I think…this is bad…and shouldn’t be happening… I should… tell someone.
“Excuse me. Can somebody come take the babies? I don’t feel right”.
The nurse’s face when she glanced at my vital signs was enough to tell me I’d been correct to call out. The babies were rushed away.
The next five hours are a bit blurry so I’m not sure what order any of this happened in, but anyway: My heart rate was well below normal. The medication to fix this put me into atrial fibrillation. My blood pressure fluctuated wildly. My blood oxygen saturation dropped. None of the medical staff seemed overly worried but I was mildly concerned that I was about to die. I would have appreciated it if my husband was holding my hand but he was nowhere to be seen. I later found out that the midwives were keeping him busy – and out of the way – by teaching him how to put on nappies and dress the babies.
At some point the morphine wore off and I was in terrible pain. Apparently it was worse than the usual post-cesarean pain because of the surgeon slamming my stomach when he was trying to get my womb to contract. I wasn’t allowed more morphine. They give you two doses of morphine, an instant one and a slow-release one, and the slow-release one was in my body, it just hadn’t kicked in yet. So they gave me…paracetamol. As you may guess, it didn’t do shit. Also my blood sugar tanked, which was actually brilliant: they gave me two lemonade popsicles, the first things I’d consumed in 24 hours. I can’t imagine enjoying anything more than I enjoyed those popsicles. This is when Barns reappeared – while I was scoffing ice blocks – so it took a while for him to fully comprehend that scary things were happening.
This all sounds very urgent but actually it happened over several hours while I mostly just lay around and felt dreadful. The kids considerately napped in the corner. At some point the head of NICU dropped by to congratulate us (I swear, the doctors, nurses and midwives in this story do all have names but I can’t remember a single one of them). I remember apologising to her because Nora and June didn’t need to go to the NICU after all her efforts, and she just laughed. She pointed out that doctors do actually hope for good outcomes for patients, but said it kindly and didn’t make me feel like an idiot at all.
We had texted my parents and my mother-in-law when I went into the surgery and they diligently jumped in their cars and sped to the hospital so they were sitting in the family room waiting all the time I was not dying. The hospital staff felt so sorry for them that they convinced Barnaby, over my objections, to take the kids out to meet them. I like to imagine that they were happy to meet their grand kids but I get the feeling my parents were so worried about me that they were rather distracted.
Eventually everything was sorted out but the blood oxygen. Barns and I were actually talking about this recently and we had both been thinking, oxygen saturation is at 91%, right? That is quite a lot, what’s the big deal? And then Barns read an article about Covid19 which mentioned how Covid patients would show up at the hospital with similar stats and the doctors would freak out, so I suppose it was pretty low after all.
The anaesthesiologist explained that she must have given me a bit too much juice in my epidural and so my lungs were probably a bit crumpled or something. I don’t know. We had to wait for an x-ray but it could probably all be fixed by my taking a few big breaths. That was all they were asking and I was incapable of it. The second round of morphine still hadn’t kicked in and I couldn’t bear the pain of deep breathing. If she’d upped my painkillers I might have tried but she wouldn’t and so we were at a stalemate. Still, she must have been feeling guilty about it because she decided to let my parents come into Recovery to see me. This seems to be a big hospital no-no. The head midwife was deeply opposed and the anaesthesiologist just straight-out stated that she was a higher rank and so it was happening. Barns and I pretended very hard not to watch the ensuing argument.
I don’t know how bad I looked but my parents looked like the walking dead. They’ve never coped well with worry for me. I sent them home again.
Finally, after 5 hours, they decided 98% saturation was good enough and it would fix itself overnight once my morphine kicked in (it did!). I was released to the delivery ward on oxygen. It was past 8pm. I ate something – a sandwich? yogurt? – and a trundle bed was set up for Barnaby, and then sleep took me and wouldn’t let me go until the next morning. I’m pretty sure that one of the reasons they usually do elective c-sections at 8 in the morning is to avoid this exact scenario. I was in no fit state to tend to the babies. Somebody – Barns tells me it was him and a couple of midwives – looked after the kids overnight and I’ll forever be grateful for that because I just couldn’t. I had nothing left.
So, the birth of my kids isn’t a super happy story. I know things could have been much worse, please believe me that I know this. I am aware that we have a lot to be grateful for. But honestly it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever experienced by a large margin. I in no way blame the hospital staff for how things played out. One common thread of the experience was that everyone was doing their absolute best for us. They were in a difficult situation, too, although they tried a lot harder to hide it.
It also wasn’t much of a bonding experience. In fact, you have probably noticed that the children are barely in this story. I remember though having the sense that I loved them greatly when they were very small, in fact being sure of it, because nobody could put up with all the newborn tribulations if they didn’t truly love their kids. And now we’re healthily close so it all seems like so much water under the bridge these days.
We spent five days in the hospital which was such a shit show that it would need a whole other blog post, except I was exhausted and on morphine for most of it so I don’t think I could put it in chronological order. I do have a few things I want to say about it, though:
Please, somebody, please give our health system more money. These poor doctors and nurses and midwives are working so hard with so little. I know we were in the hospital at an unusually busy time but there has to, has to, be a better way of doing things than putting babies’ lives at risk by postponing a c-section because there’s literally no space in hospital. And surely we can do better than having scared new parents wait forty minutes at 3 in the morning for a nurse to be available to bring some formula for a crying newborn. Or not having enough staff to keep track of when patients need painkillers, which resulted in me having to go back on morphine 3 days after my surgery and Barns, who frankly already had quite a lot on his plate, having to monitor all my medication for the rest of my stay. Surely, New Zealand, we can do better than that.
I told my dad that the shadows on the tap were moving and I wasn’t sure if it was morphine or ghosts and he was obviously the wrong person to ask because he told me in earnest that it was probably both. “Lots of ghosts in a hospital”.
If you have a c-section then remember I told you to start on the Kiwi Crush early. Don’t wait until you have a problem.
Not surprisingly, it took a while for me to piece myself back together after the surgery. Barnaby rose to the occasion magnificently. Once we got home from the hospital he had to teach me how to change nappies and make formula because he’d done it all up until that point. He is a truly wonderful dad and I was awfully proud of him.
I got my first lesson in trusting myself as a parent watching a midwife try to work out why my baby was still crying after she’d just had a feed.
“Maybe she’s still hungry?” I ventured.
“She shouldn’t be still hungry! Her stomach is the size of a pea. Her nappy is fine…maybe she wants her glove back on, it fell off. Or do you want a blanket, bubba?”
I didn’t like to argue with the professional but I wasn’t convinced. I mean, I’m her mother and I’m always hungry. I was quickly proven right, and this was a useful thing to learn early on.
On around day two or three of my children’s lives, I was lying in bed in the quiet of the morning and I felt eyes on me. I looked up to see Nora watching me through the Plexiglas of her bassinet. She just lay there calmly and I locked eyes with her, caught up in, I like to imagine, similar wonder. Oh wow, I thought. I’m her mum!
“What’s it like, having twins?” she asks and then, while I am still working on an answer, she laughs to herself. “Well, I suppose you wouldn’t know any different, would you?” This isn’t the first time it’s happened and I wish they’d give me a chance to speak. I’d like to give an answer even though I’m not sure what it would be. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot.
“Do twins run in your family?” asks the ultrasound technician out of the blue. He barely gives us time to shake our heads before finishing with a practised “…because they do now!”
We laugh all the way home, only slightly hysterical. We’re thrilled. We’re not just having a baby, we’re getting a whole family.
It’s early in the morning and I’m awake because both babies are moving inside me. Are they having a party in there? More likely fighting. We watched them do it on the sonogram once, kicking each other through the membrane that divided them. Not yet born and already making each other cross.
The babies are a few weeks old and it’s late in the evening. I’m cradling one to sleep and my husband is rocking her sister. He smiles across the room at me.
“We’re so lucky. Isn’t it wonderful, having twins?”
I glance at the baby he holds. Even though I’m busy with her sister, she’s my baby and I long for her. It’s really hard, always putting one baby down so I can pick the other one up, when everything in me is telling me I need my newborns in my arms all the time.
For you, maybe, I think.
The babies have just learned to crawl. The play peek-a-boo with each other in the curtains and they laugh and laugh.
“Isn’t it wonderful, having twins?” I ask Barnaby as we watch the video together for the tenth time. “We’re so lucky!”
The babies love to watch each other be played with, danced with or swung around. They smile and laugh like it’s happening to them instead of their sister.
“Isn’t that amazing?” says my mum. “You’d think they’d be jealous”.
If one of the toddlers wakes in the night she usually winds up in our bed. We have to transfer her veeeeery quietly – if her sister hears then we’ve got two screaming kids on our hands and neither of them want Barnaby. They can’t stand the thought of their sister getting to be with me while they stay in their own cot. Both toddlers are implacable in their jealousy, miles beyond reason. Lately we’ve had to give in, unable to endure another hour of screaming when we should be sleeping.
We try the three of us at the head of the bed. Juney tells me to move the arm I am cuddling her with. There’s nowhere else to put it. I can’t exactly detach it. So we sleep top-and-tail. Another night we try width-wise, me in the middle, stretching my legs out under Nora. Barns sleeps on the sofa. I google king-size beds that we can’t afford. I’m appalled when I work out that they’re only 15 cm bigger, anyway.
There’s a bird shit on the window. A huge one. It’s been there for weeks, a foul streak of pestilence besmearing the ranch slider that opens off of the living room, the window I happen to look out of the most. A poor repayment, I think, for the half-chewed crackers and sandwich crusts I pop out on the lawn for the feathery gits.
I’m not a cleaning obsessive but I’m itching to do something about it. I’m sure it’d only take five minutes. If I could only get five minutes. Maybe when Barns gets home, I think, turning away to change a nappy.
I’m making lunch and I hear the scream. I know the scream in my bones. It’s the one that means one of them is hurting the other. I’m already running.
The need to protect my kids is primal. Although I try for gentleness in these moments, try to lead by example, the truth is that someone is hurting the person I love the most. But it’s the other person I love the most. I freeze, I panic, I yell, I put kids in time out just so I can calm down. I never get used to it.
The kids are ratty. It’s nearly bedtime. One of them won’t share. Her sister swings her arm back and I’m already moving to intervene when she hesitates, puts it down again, whatever violence she’d been contemplating left unfinished. I blink tears back as I praise her.
We’re running late. Really late. Blame yet another bad night. I stuff the lunch boxes into the pram, hoping we’ll get to playgroup at least in time for morning tea. I go to round up the children. Nora stinks. Never mind, a quick bum change and we’ll go.
June poos while I’m changing her sister. She’s in a mood and it takes ages to clean it up. I manage not to start crying from sheer frustration but it’s a near thing. Playgroup means a lot to me, much more than it does to the kids. For those few hours a week I’m part of a community. It’s fortifying in a way that I’ve never experienced before.
June poos again while I wash my hands.
I’m loading Nora into the pram when I notice she’s pooed again. She is absolutely furious when I unbuckle her. I have to change her in the hallway by the front door, unable to get her any further into the house. At least I’m calm again now, the zen of someone so late that they don’t have to care anymore.
We still go. The kids eat morning tea in the pram on the way.
“Let’s hold hands!” Nora says, reaching out her hand for June. June takes it, smiling, and they toddle off down the footpath.
“Look at us!” Nora calls over her shoulder. “We’re being sisters!”
It’s the first day of kindergarten and they are so overwhelmed that they don’t even wave when I leave. At least they have each other, I tell myself.
They stay all morning with no problems or tears. I never get the phone call I’ve been dreading. Later the teacher sends us some photos of their day. In one of the pictures they’re a little apart from the other kids, a little unsure, standing right next to each other and holding hands.
My cousin has just taken her darling baby daughter home from the hospital so I volunteered to make her some lactation cookies. She requested Caramilk flavour and since I couldn’t find a recipe, I adapted one from the delicious seeming recipe on “My kids lick the bowl”. I was stoked with the result! I’m assuming you all know what a lactation cookie is, but if not then other people have explained it better than I can. There’s not a lot of science that’s been done around lactation cookies and truthfully I’m not entirely convinced they work – I tried a few different recipes while I was breastfeeding and never experienced the notable bump in supply some people report after eating a few – but even so, I think they’re a good idea. Hungry breastfeeding mums absolutely need tasty snacks that cost them no effort. Also, lactation cookies are packed with beneficial nutrition so what’s the harm? Well, yes, this particular recipe comes with sugar too but people who are operating on three hours sleep deserve that stuff guilt-free, okay? So back off.
If you know a mum with a new bub and you’re wondering what you can do to help (and you know she’s breastfeeding) then a gift of lactation cookies is a good bet. I suggest only baking half of the batch and giving the second half of the dough frozen in ball form, ready to be defrosted and baked. I personally didn’t want like 30 cookies at once but a supply of fresh ones from frozen dough kept me really happy.
Lactation cookies can, of course, be enjoyed by anyone (except obviously women in the process of weaning). Considering that these bikkies are high in protein and contain omega 3 and B vitamins, I’m sure they’d be particularly beneficial for vegetarians. My kids liked them, too. Come to think of it, I bet they’d make great tramping snacks – must remember that if I ever get to go bush again!
My cousin hasn’t actually tried these yet, but I will update this post with her verdict when she has. You see, Barns woke up sick the morning we were going to go visit and so we stayed home and ate the cookies ourselves. PSA: if you are even slightly sick, do not go and visit people with a new baby. They might love you but there’s no way they want to see you more than they want to protect their child. Hopefully in the post-Covid world you’re all thinking, jeez, Tara, I know that already!
Eating these ourselves wasn’t exactly a hardship. They really are wonderful biscuits. Calling them cookies, at least in a New Zealand context, is a bit of a misnomer – I only hear the word “cookie” for biscuits when they’re really big, sweet, and chunky. Instead, these are incredibly moreish little mouthfuls, a bit chewy and a bit crumbly, nutty and not too sweet, with a distinct Caramilk flavour. Yum!
A few recipe notes:
I substituted nutritional yeast for brewer’s yeast because I couldn’t afford the latter. Some websites I looked at accept this substitution and others don’t think it’s the same thing at all. Like I said, we’re not working with exact science here. Oats and flax meal are the main thing anyway, the brewer’s yeast is optional and nutritional yeast is very similar, so I thought I might as well. If you do use brewer’s yeast you’ll need to look for one of the low-flavour types or possibly up the amount of chocolate in the recipe. It’s really strong tasting stuff. Nutritional yeast has a cheese flavour which doesn’t come out in the biscuits at all.
I chopped the nuts and chocolate reasonably finely to achieve a more crumbly textured cookie. This is also why I’ve used “quick” or rolled oats. The labelling in the supermarket (in Countdown, at least) isn’t very consistent, but you want the oats that are a bit broken up as opposed to whole oats.
Recipe: Nutty Caramilk Lactation Cookies.
125g butter (softened)
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup quick oats
1/2 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 cup flax meal
1 Tablespoon Brewers Yeast (optional)
1/2 cup chopped Caramilk chocolate
1/2 cup chopped nuts (I used a mixture of almonds and cashews)
Line a cookie sheet with baking paper.
Cream butter and sugar in a large bowl. Beat in egg and vanilla extract.
Sift flour and baking powder into the bowl with the wet ingredients. Add all the remaining ingredients and stir until well-combined.
Wet your hands and roll mixture into balls about the size of a big prune.
Space the balls out on the baking sheet and bake for around twelve minutes or until nicely brown.
Cool at first on the tray and then transfer them to a wire rack. (If you let them cool all the way on the tray they will stick). Enjoy!
One last note: The biscuits are very much to my taste, but if you wanted them a bit more cookie-ish, you could try this:
In this series, I will enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! I am more ambitious and foolhardy than that. I will review… an entire country!
Okay real quick before we go any further: if you are somebody who will feel the need to tell me that Taiwan “isn’t a country”, go away. You’re wrong, I don’t want to hear your opinion on this, this blog is not for you, just go away.
Now that we’ve gotten that over with, let me preface this by saying that this review isn’t really fair to all the other countries in the world because I lived in Taiwan for two and a half years and it was home. It’s the only country other than New Zealand that I would cheer for the sports team of or wear a scarf with the flag on it. But it’s an unusual tourist destination for the English-speaking world so I think I have some useful things to say even considering my bias. If you might consider travelling to Taiwan (if travelling is a thing we ever get to do again) and need somebody to make up your mind for you, read on!
Taiwan is a small (relatively speaking, I mean. I realise it’s a bit rich for a New Zealander to label other countries “small”) island off of the coast of China, plus a few even smaller islands dotted around. Despite all the arguments about who Taiwan actually belongs to (although the answer is, the people of Taiwan), the important thing to know from a traveller’s perspective is that it functions as an antonymous country. And that the status of Taiwan is a political subject and therefore tact is advised when discussing it with the locals. The main languages are Chinese (Mandarin) and Taiwanese. The currency is the New Taiwan Dollar. Population? I don’t know, I’m not Wikipedia. Look, what you need to know is that Taiwan is small and cheerful and packed. It’s a little different from anywhere else. It’s really good fun.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 6/10.
Taiwan is safe and affordable and has good public transport, with English language signs at train stations and comprehensive connections. Taxis are cheap. Despite this, Taiwan is hard to visit in some ways – there isn’t a lot of English language tourist information, for example, and there is a real language barrier. However I don’t think anybody even vaguely intrepid should avoid Taiwan. Sure, outside of the major centres you will struggle to find English speakers but if you find yourself needing help then people will usually try their best to help you anyway. If all else fails, Taiwan is so eager to promote tourism that they have a free multilingual 24/7 tourist helpline. How cool is that! I’ve called it before. They are very nice and they will translate for you. With this and google maps and a menu translator saved to your phone, you’ll be just fine.
I have a theory that there are two sides to Asia – the shiny side (think Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong island) and the gritty side (think Kowloon). Taiwan has some flash bits but is mostly on the gritty side. This isn’t a criticism! I love this about Taiwan. It’s very real. But it can be a bit…jarring…when you first set out to explore. It’s a land of noisy scooters (literally 15 million of them) and huge cockroaches and air pollution and you do not wear sandals if it’s raining. Gross. I tell you this not to scare you but because it’s best that you’re prepared. Before we arrived – and I moved there and was stuck with it – I’d only seen photos of the shiny side of Taiwan. The bits they show in Lonely Planet. It looked like Japan. I’d visited Japan and it was clean and I’d felt safe there. And then we arrived and it was… erm… not what I was expecting. It was nothing like Japan, for one thing. This was in the days before the high-speed train went all the way from the Airport to Taipei so my first impression of Taiwan was, instead of zipping comfortably through the countryside as I imagine you do nowadays, we were stuck on a bus crawling through the seediest bits of Taoyuan. We passed betel-nut girls (that link is NSFW) and grimy looking eateries with little fans going round and round to keep flies off the buffet and old men sitting around with their singlets rolled up to their armpits so their bellies hung out (lots of old dudes do this in Taiwan, I never found out why) and just like miles and miles of grubby urban dystopia. Now, that’s a particularly rough part of Taiwan and actually the cheap eateries have the best food but it took me a long time to get over the culture shock and start appreciating where I was. Consider yourself forewarned, and therefore forearmed. Bring close-toed footwear.
ATTRACTIONS / ACTIVITIES: 7/10
Real talk time. Taiwan is not, you know, Paris. You won’t be bored and it has cool stuff but not on the Louvre/Disneyland level. You need to think differently about how you spend your time while travelling. You don’t pay a lot of money and go to an attraction for a day (except Taroko Gorge). It’s more about fun atmospheres, little excursions, that kind of thing.
Architecture is not a strong point, for a start. Most of their buildings are covered in small white tiles, greying in the air pollution. I have never confessed this to a Taiwanese person but as a New Zealander this has the unfortunate effect of making all the cities look like a giant public toilet. I am so sorry but it’s true. If a building is covered in white tile in New Zealand, it’s a loo or a changing room at the beach. There are some lovely scenic spots in Taiwan but in general it’s not a place you go to for the beauty of it, is what I’m trying to say.
But who cares! There’s other great stuff!
Taiwan has some excellent museums – my favourite is the Taichung Science Museum with its poison dart frogs. The National Palace museum is famous for a reason and you don’t need me to tell you it’s well worth your time.
Taipei zoo is large and attractive and the animals are well cared for. You can see bears!
If you’re lucky enough to be in Taiwan when a festival is on, please go. They are energetic, fascinating, exciting and yet you feel completely safe.
Taiwan is blessed with abundant hot springs. Oh, there’s nothing like a proper Asian-style hot spring, we really don’t get it right in New Zealand. (I spend every winter here cursing this fact. Dammit, Taupo, get your shit together!)
And these aren’t even the best of Taiwan. The very best attractions are the colourful temples, the quirky little towns for day-tripping, and the wonderful night markets. In other words, places you can mingle with the cheerful throng and get a slice of Taiwanese culture.
By contrast, my favourite activity in Taiwan is finding comparative peace and quiet while enjoying the superlative hiking. Really, I come from New Zealand, which is hiking-central, and I loved the hiking in Taiwan. You’ll walk through alarmingly verdant forests and past huge waterfalls, cheeky squirrels, gargantuan spiders, you name it. It’s a vertical kind of place, and this has lead to some fun work-arounds on the tracks that you’d never get away with in New Zealand thanks to our boring health and safety laws.
Did you know that Taipei is the only capital city in the world which has a national park in the city limits? You can spend a wonderful few hours there hiking up Seven Stars Mountain. First you slog uphill through dense forest, then emerge, blinking, into a world of long swaying grass. As you make your way to the summit keep an eye out for butterflies, then take a rest at the top with the swarm of other hikers and try to make out a view through the smog. When you’re ready to go back down, descend the other side of the mountain where the trail leads you right past some exciting geothermic activity. And there’s the bus-stop right there so you can take a well-deserved break. Can you imagine a better way to spend an afternoon?
Surprisingly for an island, Taiwan is not a good beach destination, having very few sandy beaches and a populace deeply suspicious of the water. Don’t go there in the summer, anyway, it’s dreadful! Go in the autumn like a sane person. It might still be warm enough to enjoy the decent scuba-diving, especially on Green Island. If you do go in the summer (don’t) then Taiwan has excellent river tracing and I particularly recommend this, although please prioritise your safety and go with a guide.
Some people like shopping? Taiwan has a lot of shopping. It’s good for cute and silly things – think bags, cell-phone cases, socks with crazy patterns. In hip areas you can find little boutiques with unique items by local designers. For souvenirs, I’d take peanut candy over pineapple cake any day of the year. I like ceramics and had a really lovely day wandering through Yingge, selecting a tea set from one of the dozens of pottery makers. Also the pottery museum there is fantastic, much cooler and more interesting than you would expect. Taiwan is not a good place for clothes shopping if you’re an average or above size for a westerner, ditto shoes.
Why isn’t Taiwanese food more famous? This is the hardest bit for me to review because honestly I like Taiwanese food so much and I think I lack the writing skills necessary to create any kind of impression on a reader. There is, after all, a limit to the amount of times you can read the word “delicious” before you get fed up and close the tab. But I will try. I am a cheap eats person. The linen napkin, the glass of wine, the array of silver cutlery, these are not for me, oh no. I am a firm convert to the way of the plastic table, the bad lighting, the disposable chopsticks. Taiwan is the cause of this. Taiwan is the king of cheap and cheerful food. There is also flash and expensive food obviously but who cares? The other stuff is so much more fun. Taiwanese cheap and cheerful cuisine is salty, savoury, warm, meaty and unfussy. It’s the food of busy people who work hard. There are too many highlights to capture them all so I’ll just touch on a few.
Anyone who’s seriously considering a trip to Taiwan has heard of beef noodle soup and even if you haven’t, Taiwan’s most famous dish isn’t a hard sell – it’s a big bowl of savoury meaty loveliness with a bunch of noodles, what’s not to like? But that’s not what I would eat for lunch if I had just one day to revisit Taiwan. No, I’d want a lunch box. I’m always up for visiting a lunch box shop, especially one that has stewed bamboo on offer. They are self-service so you don’t need to deal with a menu and astonishingly cheap. But if I could eat anything at all, I’d want a Fulong beach train station lunch box, with pressed tofu and a pork chop and a tea egg (You can throw the fish sausage away though. Bleugh!). Imagine getting off the crowded sweaty train that you’ve been stuck on all the way from Taipei and spilling out into the hot sun and getting into line for one of those treasures. What a way to start a day at the beach!
What about dinner? My two favourite options are hot pot or a night market. Hot pot is pretty self-explanatory but I would like to point out that if you go to a flash place then they often have self-service Haagen Dazs or Movenpick in the ice cream fridge. I’d always be way too excited about this and have to start my meal with a dessert course before I could pay attention to my meat and veg.
Time to talk about night markets. Taiwanese night markets and the culture of “small bites” are legendary. They are all different but I can make one generalisation – night markets are the best! Honestly they are among the funnest and tastiest ways to spend an evening that I have encountered in the entire world. Some would say to select your market carefully but I would encourage you to try a selection. I’ve been to most of the most popular tourist ones – Shulin, Raohe (I did not like this night market and expect most animal lovers to feel the same way), Taichung, etc, and I liked our local in Banqiao best – Nanya night market, it is called. It has a more relaxed atmosphere and fewer space-wasting oyster omelette stalls.
What culinary delights await you at Nanya night market! The blender place will whip you up a cold, fruity drink while you wait – pineapple juice for the beginners, watermelon juice or a papaya milkshake for night market veterans. The skewer place will baste your selection in barbecue sauce and roast it while you wander around looking at other things. I particularly like the spring onion wrapped in bacon. Hot Star Chicken is a Taiwanese institution. They bash a chicken fillet until it’s absolutely enormous and then deep-fry it to perfection. There is a sesame oil chicken place which is terrifying to order from if your Chinese is bad (mine was appalling) – they are immensely popular and always in a huge rush and there’s invariably a queue building up behind you by the time you’ve got their attention – but it’s worth facing that ordeal for the bowl of absolute perfection you eventually wind up with. I could go on and on but I think you get the point and anyway night markets are made for wandering and speculating so telling you the specific stalls I liked is actually doing you a disservice. It’s not just because my memory sucks, no. It’s for your sake. But I will leave you with two tips: 1) don’t worry about the horrid smell you will encounter from time to time when wandering a night market. It is not, as I believed for an embarrassingly long time, because night markets exist in areas with sewer problems. Taiwan is more sanitary than that. The smell is merely stinky tofu. I never learnt to enjoy this local delicacy but the ex-boyfriend was a fan. 2) whichever night market you visit, when in doubt, do as the Taiwanese do and join the end of the longest queue.
Taiwan has the best and nicest people in the entire world. They are incredibly proud of their little country and will show hospitality to travellers whenever they can. I was assisted by total strangers when I was struggling dozens of times. When we couldn’t find a loo at a festival, a local stall-holder let my mum use the one in her house. When I got hopelessly lost in a rural area trying to find a train station, I was given a lift. I had been hiking and was muddy, stinky, and exhausted and my rescuers, dressed up to the nines for a party, let me into their immaculate car without hesitation. This was during moon festival so the car was full of food and they spent the entire trip plying me with moon cakes and drunken chicken. A cup was somehow procured in a moving vehicle and I was poured a glass of Sprite. Taiwan is just that kind of place.
It can take a while to tune in to the kindness of the Taiwanese people. It is not a culture that is big on smiling at strangers. Also, people will stare at you. But once you get used to these things, I’m sure you’ll start to notice how lovely people are, and how cheerful. The Taiwanese are a people who are not beaten down because they’re too busy enjoying themselves. Really, the best thing about the whole country is the mood. “Cool culture” never infected Taiwan. It’s not cynical. Instead, there’s an infectious optimism, a buoyancy, that permeates the place. It’s such a fun place to be. I can’t tell you how much I miss it.
Need more convincing? Okay, imagine you are in Taipei. Here’s how to have a perfect day. Sleep in. Dawdle a bit. Go to a local breakfast place and have dan bing, taro cake and warm soy milk for breakfast. Catch the MRT to Xindian Station. It’ll take a while so make sure you pack a book. When you get to Xindian, catch the bus to Wulai. As you wander through the village you will pass dozens of hot spring resorts. Select and book the private hot spring that appeals the most for about an hour and a half from whenever “now” is. Splurge on a nice place with a river view. Now you’ve recovered from the bumpy bus trip have some pork skewers from a street vendor for lunch. Take a picture on the bridge. Wend your way out of the village and take the road to the waterfall. It’s an easy 25 minute stroll. Soak up some peace and quiet. Enjoy the view of the river and the forest. Breathe in a lot when you get to the waterfall. Apparently the negative ions are good for you. Don’t rush any of this but make sure you head back in time for your hot spring booking. Enjoy your soak. Luxuriate. It’ll probably be dark by the time your hour is up – the sun always sets early in Taiwan – so select one of the local aboriginal places for dinner. Feast on earthy wild pork, bamboo, ferns, mushrooms. Catch the bus back to town, or even better, don’t. Spend the night, dreaming of the hot spring that awaits you in the morning. When the day comes that you have to leave Taiwan, you’ll keep dreaming of it. I promise you that.
I have this friend who, when we had met up after a while apart, as soon as pleasantries were over, would lean in close, look me fixedly in the eye and ask, “so…how are you, really?”
I was living a relatively untroubled life at the time so this always flustered me. I was fine…I think? No, I was. I was fine. Really! Totally fine. Anyway, it’s not a question that is designed for a positive answer, and I truly was fine. I wished he’d stop. These days I miss it. As you become a grown-up, the number of people who are willing to listen, really listen, when you need to get something off your chest becomes smaller every year. And when it’s a flu season and school holidays double-whammy, even I start to wish for more people around to chat to.
Parenting has its good weeks and its bad weeks. This week was rough. I’m a bit sick but not sick enough for Barns to take time off work. We are potty training one of the bubbies (attempt 3). She’s doing well with it this time but it’s spurred her into a sleep strike. We’re so tired. The kids are in a phase of intense sibling rivalry focused around my time and attention. I’m starting to feel like Dear Sugar’s decapitated head of a black-haired plastic princess. Barns is stressed about work, and, well, you get the picture.
Eventually things reach a crisis point. Last night I asked Barns to drain the soba noodles for dinner. He picked up the pot, took a look at the sink full of dirty dishes, and announced he was going to drain them in the garden. He returned some time later and set the empty pot down on the bench.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll just make more.”
“What? What happened to them?”
“I lost them.”
“You… lost… them? Are you…are you okay?”
“I’m just hungry. I mean…it’s kind of funny, isn’t it? I’ll make some more. Let me fix it. ”
He looked at me with his big brown puppy-dog eyes. Poor tired bastard, I thought, and I did what any compassionate wife would have done and kicked him out of the kitchen. Later, fed, in bed, the children finally asleep, I asked him what had happened.
“Did you like, trip? And drop them? I still don’t get it.”
“No, I just got it wrong when I drained them. I made the gap too big. It was dark. When I looked in the pot, they were mostly gone. So I tried again and lost the rest of them.”
This is when I started to see the funny side. It was a while before I could talk again.
“It’s that mental image, you know. You standing there in the dark, calmly pouring the noodles on the ground. Twice!”
“On the path, actually. I was trying to kill weeds with the boiling water. I slipped on them later when I went to throw out that stock that went bad.”
I lost it again but eventually managed some sympathy.
“Oh, lovey. Are you really okay?”
“I think I would have done it even if I wasn’t this tired. You know how clumsy I am.”
I don’t even slightly believe that but I’ve decided to leave it there for now. I’ll also tackle Barnaby’s worrying belief that our garden can absorb any amount of kitchen waste on some other day.
And then last night was another bad night. Not as bad as some this week, but bad enough. We lay in bed next to each other this morning, as Nora’s whispering from her room became steadily more insistent, playing a familiar game of chicken. Whoever admits they are awake first on the weekends, by the unwritten laws of parenting, has to be the one to get up and deal with the shit show that is trying to make breakfast when the toddlers are tired.
I cracked first. “You know I was up in the night, right?!”
“You were up? You know I was up too?”
“I… did not know that.”
“So…we’re just lying here, each being cross with the other for not getting up now when we were the one who got up in the night?”
That about summed it up. In the end we both did breakfast. Then we made a phone call.
Some weeks, the bad ones, it’s only your love for your kids that gets you through, or other weeks it’s the support of your partner. Sometimes it’s just sheer tenacity, holding onto the knowledge that kids change in the blink of an eye and bad times don’t last. Today it’s our community. Thank god it’s Saturday! Barnaby’s brother’s family are babysitting while we sit in our favourite restaurant, ignoring each other and eating popcorn chicken. I’m writing this and Barns is lost in a book. When we pick our kids up later, nothing will be different except that we’ll be a bit lighter, which is all the difference in the world. We’ll finally be, well, fine. No, really.
Well, the borders are still closed and it looks like they will be for a while yet but honestly this doesn’t make a lot of difference to my plans. I have two two-year-olds and no money, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway. So I’ve decided to travel…into my memories. In this series, I will enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – wait for it – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! – an entire country!
Oh, I don’t know, it’s Japan, isn’t writing this kind of silly? You all know Japan. It’s a long island country in Asia, mountainous and forested, with enormous cities, intense weather, a huge population and a fascinating culture. People from the West are drawn to Japan, some obsessed with it, the image of the country occupying a certain space in the imagination where exoticism and coolness and nerdiness and wistfulness collide. In reality you find yourself somewhere less stuffy and less traditional but also less dazzlingly modern than you were expecting. Still, even occupied by normal people living their daily lives as it is, Japan impresses and excites.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 6/10
Helpful things: Safe. Comprehensive public transport, lots of tourist information around, signage often in English. Plastic models of food outside eateries are helpful. You can eat delicious Michelin-starred food for not very much money if you eat food that’s traditionally cheaper anyway, e.g. ramen or if you opt for a lunch set-menu special.
Frustrating things: Expensive. Crowded, clamorous cities. Some insanely huge and cavernous train stations that take half-a-fucking-hour to exit. Sprawling. Getting anywhere takes a million years, two different trains and a bus. Weather can be challenging. Don’t go in summer! The sun literally rises at 4:30 in the morning! It’s terrible! Terrible, I tell you!
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS: 10/10
Japan has so much cool stuff! First of all, they have anything you could desire for a “cultural” experience: museums and art galleries, open-air modern-art sculpture gardens, palaces and castles, historic districts in ancient cities. There’s wonderful scenery and tea-ceremonies and tradition. Japan is OLD and has been rich and powerful for a long time, accumulating all the trappings that come with that e.g. art and beautiful buildings. A lot of this has been meticulously preserved. Most wonderful are the temples and shrines, so different looking from anything at home (assuming of course that home is somewhere like New Zealand) and so beautiful. I’m not a spiritual person but I’ll never forget the eerie sense of power emanating from some of the temples. However, you can easily get “temple-fatigue” in Japan, it’s a thing people write about. It’s best to space out your days with a mix of things, and don’t worry, Japan has you covered!
Where Japan really gets interesting is in the mix of the old and the new. A bit tired of culture? Why don’t you go relax in an onsen? Perhaps you want to do something fun. It’s time to visit a cat cafe or the ramen museum or, best of all, what about a theme park? You could go to Tokyo Dome City, where Barnaby feared for his life on the roller coaster that sped down the side of a building, but that’s not for me. Let’s talk about the cream of the crop, the reason that we currently squirrel money away in a bank account in the hope of taking the kids overseas in five or six years: Tokyo Disney Resort.
SO I’M A DISNEY NERD and Japan has two Disney theme parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disneysea. People in the know reckon they’re up there among the best in the world but I’ve never been to America and so, sadly, I can’t weigh in on this. What I can tell you is that Disneysea, at least, is mind-blowingly incredible. We spent a day there in 2015. I love Disney. I love theme parks. I was completely primed and ready to love Disneysea, and so I am perhaps not the best gauge of how entrancing it actually is. Take, then, Barnaby as an example. Barns is not a Disney fan. He vaguely likes some of their movies but he at least tries to resist the forces of capitalism and cultural imperialism that Disney epitomises. He planned our trip there as a gift for me. He bloody loved it. I once overheard him telling people it was the best day of his life six months after our wedding. All I can tell you is that it’s real, the magic I mean. It’s real.
I will add this caveat: The best attractions in Japan are scattered over the entire country so expect to spend a lot of time and money on public transport. Tokyo city proper is weirdly light on things of interest. Pack light and expect to move around a lot.
Japan isn’t heavy on activities of the water-sports variety, but the skiing is famous if you like that kind of thing. I’ve never been hiking there but I’d love to. It looks beautiful.
If you can’t find something you want to buy in Japan then you must be walking around with your eyes shut. Excellent things you can buy there include: snacks, handicrafts (I covet beautiful washi paper and furoshiki), electronics, nerdy paraphernalia, high end bean-to-bar chocolate, kitchen goods (Japanese knives are world famous), and Studio Ghibli merchandise. I love the Ghibli / Noritake collaborations. I mean, look:
And that’s just stuff that I personally am interested in shopping for. Obviously they also have clothing stores and shoes and, well, basically anything you could fancy. Oh hey, I read that they have wonderful fabric shops if you’re into sewing, and of course there’s sake and whiskey if you like drinking. There are model train shops, and specialist model air plane shops, huge crafting stores, dusty caverns that specialise in doujinshi, and the list goes on and on and on.
Sorry, France! Apologies, Italy! Japan actually has the best food in the entire world. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t eat sashimi or seafood (except for cooked fish, I do eat that. Does fish count as seafood? I’ve never been clear). I’m told that if you do, Japanese food is even better. This is hard to imagine.
But what is so amazing about Japanese food, you ask? Pull up a chair. This may take a minute. Well, first of all, Japanese people love dining out. The food scene in Japan is absolutely enormous. I’ve read that Japan has the highest concentration of restaurants per capita in the world (although I can’t seem to find anything to substantiate that) and if you put that together with one of the world’s largest populations, well, you get the idea. Now factor in that Japan, like most of Asia, takes eating very seriously. Not that there aren’t fun cafes and restaurants, there totally are, but the food industry in Japan is full of dedicated artists of the type who get up before dawn to scour markets for the finest ingredients and spend decades honing recipes both traditional and modern. For their part, the dining populace subject the full scope of food from high end kaiseki to humble bowls of ramen to the same level of scrutiny and the results speak for themselves.
Next, Japanese food has a tremendous range. There are lots of different dishes and cuisine types to experience. This is helped by strong regional and seasonal elements, which is very pleasing for the traveller in search of the new. It’s exciting to go to a different city and try whatever the speciality is there.
The third wonderful thing about Japanese food can be summed up with one word: umami. Oh, I just love it! That little pucker of the mouth, that tang! And the different ways this elusive flavour is explored, played with, in Japanese cooking, well, no other cuisine can compete. It’s all just so darn tasty.
There are delicious sweets too, don’t worry, although to be completely honest the appeal of jiggly Japanese cheesecake continues to elude me. And mochi. Yuck. But there are lots of nice sweets! I particularly like things filled with sticky red bean paste. It’s sort-of an old fashioned taste but in a good way.
The cherry on top is that Japan is the world-leader in the snack department. It’s impossible to leave a convenience store without an armload of mango flavoured popcorn and green tea pocky and consomme flavoured potato sticks and wasabi kit-kats or perhaps even more exciting and unusual treats. It’ll all be nice, too, with decent quality chocolate. It makes wonderful souvenirs if you can get it home without devouring it all on the plane.
Japanese people are famous for being polite and helpful for good reason. The customer service in Japan is generally excellent and people are mostly kind and tolerant. I remember taking restaurant employees outside with me so I could point at the plastic model of the food I wanted without anyone minding, I remember people asking me if I was lost in the train station, I recall a very busy and harried convenience store employee taking the time to help us buy our Disneysea tickets from the kiosk. People really tried to help us even though we were bumbling around their country and generally being inconvenient.
You may encounter some racism or sometimes people will be too shy and not want to deal with you. Don’t show that you’re cross – in Asia, the person who gets angry is automatically in the wrong. All you can do is to try not to take it personally. When I first visited Japan 17 years ago you’d still see the occasional NO FOREIGNERS sign on an otherwise appealing looking little shop, even though this was supposedly illegal. I tried to take the view that it was an opportunity for me to learn about my white privilege and what it might feel like to be a different race and maybe grow a bit as a person but truthfully it wasn’t a nice experience. We didn’t see any signs like that when we were last in Japan, which was 2015, and Barns never saw any while he lived there so hopefully it’s now a thing of the past entirely.
Japan is famous for having a lot of etiquette rules but it’s really not that complicated and you can learn them, easy. Promise. Anyway, in most situations it’s enough to try. Japanese people will be forgiving if you’re trying. I forgot myself and wore my shoes into my friend’s house which is massively rude and she just laughed, but like, she really laughed. I didn’t do it again!
Hmmm, turns out I like Japan the best out of all the counties I’ve visited. It’s officially the raddest. Go Japan!
Disclaimer: This post contains links but they are not affiliate links because like four people read my blog and so why bother? I will not make any money out of it if you click on them.
So you are expecting twins? Congratulations! How are you doing? I hope you’re keeping well. I hope you’re here in a state of calmness. But it’s okay if you are not. Being pregnant with twins is scary. Are you perhaps worried, squinting at lists on the internet at four in the morning when you can’t sleep because the kids are fighting each other in your uterus and then your brain starts working and you need to do something to get ready because god knows you don’t know what you’re doing and you get googling and are led, perhaps, here, hoping for some sane suggestions? Suggestions that don’t involve shelling out over a hundred dollars for what looks like a normal backpack but is somehow better for babies because it has more pockets? Well, I hope I can help.
Spoiler alert: I don’t really get designer nappy bags. I just used a normal back-pack? It was fine? (Don’t even talk to me about handbag style nappy bags. I don’t have enough hands as it is) I am not an Instagram mum. I don’t need things to be flash. I mean, my house is literally full of holes. We also don’t have a lot of money and I need the things I buy to be worth it. So here’s what was truly worth it for us.
Or Vitaplan. Whichever you prefer. Chocolate, obviously. I used to have it when I felt peckish between my second afternoon tea and dinner. That’s not a joke. Trust me, you’ll get why you’re so hungry all the time once you see both kids… and the placentas… oh and also the umbilical cords. Do you know the amount of blood in your body has increased by up to 60%? You have to make all of that out of something.
I suppose you could make something similar to Complan out of chia seeds and nut butters and protein powders etc etc but you are pregnant and have earned the right to just like do things the easy way sometimes.
2. Chest freezer
This is is seriously up there with the best shopping decisions I’ve ever made. My parents treated us to one around the time I stopped working (couldn’t handle it anymore at 26 weeks but I did have a pretty physical job) and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy filling it. Once the kids were born we didn’t need to cook a dinner for the first four months of their lives! It was an absolute life-saver. Evenings with two newborns can be rough, ease the pressure wherever you can.
The best thing about getting a chest freezer is that if people hear that you are stocking up because you’re pregnant with twins then sometimes they will want to put things in it for you. I was totally unprepared for this and it was wonderful. What amazing kindness. It was the most unexpected people, too. Barnaby’s boss sent us lasagnes. My mum and dad’s downstairs neighbour made bolognaise, as did a good friend, while another friend who has kids of her own to worry about made us pasta bake. You may notice that there is definitely a theme to the kind of food that we were gifted but Barns and I are dedicated pasta fans so we couldn’t believe our luck.
3. One of those belt thing that holds your belly up
My husband has just informed me that these are called “maternity belts”. Oh, I suppose that does make sense.
Anyway, my auntie treated me to one of these and I wore it all. the. time. It’s basically wet-suit material and Velcro. It gave me a weird hump if I wore it under my clothes and looked like a kid’s imitation of a wrestling championship belt if I wore it on the outside but I still wore it everywhere. Why? It really helped with the feeling that my tummy was about to split open and all my guts were going to fall out at any second. And back aches and stuff, too, I guess.
4. Twin breastfeeding pillow
This was indeed useful for breastfeeding but even handier for bottle feeding and so I’d recommend it to anyone regardless of which manner you intend to feed your children. It’s one of those things that becomes a part of the furniture and then when it finally gets ripped after years of intensive usage you’re like? How? Are we supposed to cope without it??? It’s okay though, my mother-in-law sewed it up. We got a handmade one from a nice lady on Facebook.
5. Proper bottles
Our first tries with the bottle were all those round teat ones you get in the hospital or the supermarket, and frankly we were in despair. So much leakage! So much wind! How on earth were we going to survive months of this?! We’re melodramatic but it was seriously problematic. Then salvation came in the form of a family member suggesting we try Mam bottles. You can get them at Farmers, Baby City, etc. They were so much easier for our tiny wee bubbies and feeding became less of a dreadful chore for all of us. I hear good things about other bottles but we never needed to try a different brand.
It’s a good idea buy a few of these before the children are born. Leaving the hospital will seem a lot less scary if you’ve got bottles, formula, and a sterilising system (that you already understand) waiting for you at home. Some people do exclusively breastfeed twins, it’s true, and I wouldn’t want to put anybody off who’s really committed to trying but wow, that would be hard, and I would never expect it of anyone. I didn’t even slightly expect it of myself. There are good reasons it’s not very common.
6. A jug and a whisk for making formula
OH MY GOD, WHY DIDN’T WE GET THESE SOONER? We made up SO MUCH formula using the absolutely tedious and time-consuming method of gently swirling scoops in bottles. What a waste of life! I mean, I know you need to do this in the very early days when babies can’t handle the smallest amount of bacteria but we didn’t get the jug until they were seven months old. That is four entire months longer than we needed to wait. It made a huge difference to our life. Suddenly, boom! A whole day’s formula made up in less than five minutes, all sitting in the fridge ready to be chucked into bottles the second the kids got hungry.
You know what the very best thing was though? Even better than the convenience? Turns out the whisk incorporates less air into the formula than the in-bottle-swishing does and so overnight burping the kids became a thing of the past! Amazing!
You don’t need one of those special formula making jugs. A regular Sistema one or similar from the supermarket will do. Just make sure it seals shut, and that you take all the moving parts apart when you clean it so it’s properly hygenic. If you don’t have a whisk you could even use a fork.
If you are wondering, we heated it up a bit in the microwave. We didn’t make it super hot, just took the chill off a bit. I know you are not supposed to because apparently you can get “hot spots” but we tested it on ourselves first and our microwave didn’t seem to do that and like I said, we never made it warmer than room temperature anyway. Actually Barns quite often gave it to them cold out of the fridge, but he may be a sociopath so I’m not sure if you should follow his example.
7. Boon Grass
This is a flash drying rack for all your bottles, sippy cups, tiny spoons, etc, and what’s good about it is that it not only keeps all this nonsense hygienically upright, it keeps it out of the way so you can still fit your grown-up dishes in your normal dish rack.
8. Baby bouncers, play gyms
The thing about having two newborns is that if you are alone with them you always seem to be picking them up just to put them down again. The second your baby is calm and happy with a full belly and a clean bum, twinkling up at you all appealingly, you have to put her down because your other baby needs you and possibly has done for some time (If you aren’t squeaking “just a second darling I’m sorry I’m coming please just hold on a little longer” on repeat to a wailing infant who doesn’t understand while trying not to cry on your other baby as you change her out of the clean nappy you only just put her in that she has now pooed all over, do you even have multiples?). You need four hands and you don’t have them. It’s…I’m trying to keep the tone light-hearted here but it’s rough. If you have somewhere nice to put them, somewhere that makes them happy, it’s a tiny bit less rough.
A baby bouncer keeps your baby a bit upright supposedly so they can see you but we mostly had ours pointed out the ranch slider window because our newborns were totally obsessed with the tree out there. They definitely preferred watching it to looking at me all the time. It’s also handy if you’re not sure you’ve burped her properly and you don’t want her to puke.
Play gyms are wonderful! Babies love them. It’s just a soft mat with dangling toys above it. We had two but put the kids in the same one, head to head so they didn’t bother each other, and swapped to the other play gym every few days so they didn’t get bored.
These are pretty easy to find cheap at second hand shops or on trademe. If I were you, I wouldn’t bother with ones that vibrate or play music or rotate the toys or whatever. Babies are pretty easy to entertain (see above re tree) and you don’t need to be messing around with batteries all the time.
9. Moses baskets
If you spend any time on a multiples forum or facebook group, you’ll see some of the same questions come up over and over again. “What did your newborns sleep in?” is a real common one. There are people who advocate for pepe pods, there are frugal folk who suggest going straight into a cot. Personally, for first-time parents, I’d recommend flexibility. Every family is different. The nice thing about Moses baskets (or bassinets) is that they are portable so you have the freedom to experiment and find what works best for you. Want to try them both on your side of the bed? One next to you and one next to your partner? Both at the end of the bed? Take the Moses basket off the stand and try it in the bed? Try them in their own room? Take their beds into the living room with you during the day? You can easily do all of this.
The extra nice thing about Moses baskets is that they have handles and you can just pick them up with a baby inside them. Super useful if you’re trying to sneak the kids out of the room at 1 am without waking your partner. No awkwardly groping for the baby in the dark, clumsily supporting the neck whilst half asleep, then trying to find somewhere to put her in the lounge so you can go back for the other one. Just pick up both baskets and take them out quickly. Brilliant.
10. Car seats and a double pram
It’s kind of hilarious to me that these things get included on lists like these. I know I’m being rude, people are just trying to be helpful, but who doesn’t know they need a pram? You definitely need a double pram and you will literally not be allowed to leave the hospital with your children if you can’t prove you have car seats for them.
We didn’t buy these things – kind friends of family members gifted us ones that their kids had grown out of – obviously source them this way if you can! We’re very lucky and I know not everyone can. Also, I know they’re your precious infants but don’t fall into the trap of thinking they need everything to be new. Second-hand is better for your wallet and the planet and babies don’t care.
Our pram is a Baby Jogger City Mini double. It’s not a cool pram and it’s pretty clunky but I will say this for it: some of the cooler prams have a much smaller barrier between the kids and they can bother each other (I’ve seen it happen) but my two-and-a-half year olds still can’t reach each other with their arms. If only there was a wall between their legs as well…
BONUS CONTENT: Stuff to worry less about
It seems like a good idea to stock up on nappies whenever they are on special at the supermarket if you know you’re about to have a couple of babies anyway, but don’t go overboard! Some brands might not work for you. All babies are different. You don’t want to wind up stuck with piles of the brand that gives the kids dreadful nappy rash (I’m looking at you, Huggies) or somehow isn’t quite the right shape for your kids and leaks every time you use them (hey there, Treasures).
This really depends on the person but I was in pain for months after my c-section and carrying the kids in a front-pack never worked for me. I just took them everywhere in the pram and it mostly worked fine. There were a few doors we couldn’t get through, true, but only a few. My friend pushed her twins out her vagina and she used the twingo a fair bit though. YMMV.
The kids obviously need clothes! But what I mean is that you might not need to spend hundreds getting everything first-hand. First spread the word a bit, a lot of mums have a box of baby stuff in their closet that they keep meaning to pass on. If that doesn’t turn anything up, I’d check in with your local multiples club. Most clubs have a stash of decent quality second-hand stuff for members.
I hope that has helped! Wherever you are on your twin journey, good luck, and know that even opening up a list like this, disagreeing with everything I say, closing the tab in disgust, and feeling more confused than ever, is making a start on getting organised!