12: Swiss Parenting Style

The scene where moments earlier, we almost participated in a group heart attack.

I raised a boy who has dislocated two joints, did an axe-head split on his elbow joint, sheared bones straight across, used an incisor as a landing device when pitched from his skateboard, received his first set of stitches at around a year old and enjoyed the experience and so kept getting more. If this isn’t a training program in how self-destructive kids can be, I don’t know what is.

Hence, my perpetual terror on the streets of Switzerland where Swiss children cavort inches from speeding traffic and blocks away from their parents. I exaggerate not a bit. We checked this out with our local Swiss friend who confirmed that the Swiss are accustomed to the notion that nothing really bad can happen here, and people are good everywhere, and so why not let a two-year-old wander a city street 40 metres from his parents?

My mother, the mother of all catastrophizers, taught me that a pre-schooler should always be within grabbing reach, because grabbing will be required. This is especially true for children who have not yet reached the age of understanding that they can die or be maimed beyond repair. In the case of my son described in the first paragraph, that age was somewhere around 28. I had no idea it was going to be such a long haul, otherwise, I would have paced myself with more care.

But I drift.

Even these swans know to keep their young within grabbing reach.

As Dave and I stood on a bridge admiring Switzerland’s swans and other waterfowl, we heard a woman shouting. To our left, a woman of about 55-65 years of age was racing toward the steep canal banks, hand stretched out to grab at something. No. Not something, but someone. As my mother would have noted immediately, she had fallen into the folly of letting a child escape the grab-zone. About 10 metres ahead of her was a boy of roughly two years of age. He was a picture of delight as he raced on chubby little legs straight for the canal edge where a direct drop into a concrete slope followed by a bounce into murky water waited for him.

The woman clearly was not going to close the gap. She was pushing an empty stroller as she ran, but as the boy neared the edge with no sign of braking, she abandoned the stroller and proceeded to run in that posture that suggests if she had wings, now is when she would spring into the air.

I was still doing the metrics on the likelihood anyone could intervene, but Dave, a man of action, was already running down the bridge and shouting. It was just enough to startle the boy into stopping, which is about what my  heart was doing at that moment. There was no question that had the boy taken a few more steps, not Dave or the grandmother would have been close enough to do anything about it.

The drop was not terribly deep, but one cranial bang on that concrete would be enough. Dave was prepared to go into the water after the boy, but having retrieved a sinking head-heavy toddler once myself, I know how quickly they plunge, and in fast-moving water that murky, it would be only a prayer that would ensure Dave would find the boy.

But that did not happen.

The grandmother scooped up the boy who was still very happy. It was all good for him, he had a good run and was the centre of attention. We hoped the grandmother, who looked otherwise like a very normal and intelligent woman, had absorbed the grab-zone rule of child-minding.

It brought to mind that old 1960s motto about never trusting someone over 30. Just drop the zero and that number would be just about right.

 

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19: Why Do We Care About Ducklings?

Why do we care about ducklings? There are so many of them. And yet, we still care.

“He is already dead,” the waiter said as I twisted my key in the mailbox. I had stepped out our hotel’s side door where the staff take their smoke breaks.

“Who?”

“Him.” The waiter pointed at a still mound of yellow and umber down. A duckling lay on his back on the asphalt, his torso twisted, his head flung back so his thumbnail-sized bill pointed upwards, exposing a yellow plume at his throat. A handful of ducklings scattered over the walkway, their cheeps punctuating the street sounds. The waiter explained he heard a loud bang and then saw the dead duckling roll off a van parked by the hotel. We were on the Suze River canal walkway where service vehicles sometimes park. The canal had 15-foot deep walls. The ducklings could not have come from the Suze. With the recent rainstorms, the canal water rushed too fiercely for any duck to get lift from it, much less featherless ducklings.

The waiter reached a latex-gloved hand over the van and drew back with a live duckling. We looked up. Would a duck have nested at the top of a five-story building? It didn’t seem possible.

But then, why not? They have wings. About 20 feet away a stout woman pointed us toward the mother duck calling for her young.

Another waiter appeared, the father of a newborn boy. He looked down at the dead duckling and echoed the first waiter.

“He is already dead. It is nature,” he said with a shrug, but then he and the other waiter in their starched white and black uniforms circled the van to shepherd the ducklings toward their mother.

When all her babies were gathered around her, the mother duck stood quacking for a moment more, as though she knew one was still missing. Do mother ducks know how to count out their babies?

She turned and hopped the low stone pedestal that rims the canal; her babies clambered at the ledge to join her, but for them it was too great a height. She slipped through the wrought-iron railing and readied to leap the 15 feet down into the churning green water, but then realized her babies were not at her belly. She threaded back between the bars, but she did not come down from the ledge to join her young.

Instead, she waddled east toward the lake, while her babies followed, fretting against the stone, keening pitiably to join her. The lake was still a mile and many busy crossroads away. Her path would take her fledglings through the thick of the city.

A small audience formed in the apartment balconies above the canal.

Under their watch, I followed the family and I wondered, why do we care so much about ducklings? The restaurant where the waiters work serves duck.

The mother duck was nearing the street when she seemed to reach a point of decision. Here, the stone pedestal sloped downward, so a few of her ducklings were able to make the leap and cluster around her belly. She slipped under the fence onto the edge and dropped down into the hurrying water.

Some of her babies trusting their mother, tumbled over the wall with her.

The remaining ducklings threw themselves against the stone and quickened their cries. The current forced the mother duck and her babies downriver, but they fought their way back up to where the crying babies scrambled at the ledge.

The balcony audience shouted and made sweeping motions with their hands, indicating I should send the babies over the edge. As I bent down, one duckling cleared the stone and with little featherless wings outspread, fell down into the water.

I gently cupped the last duckling in my hands, lifted him onto the pedestal, but he would not jump. I nudged him closer to the edge, but he only bleated louder and struggled back into my hands. I pushed him over then, feeling sick as I did it. Below, the ducklings swirled around their mother. They were all together.

I turned around and said, “C’est bien, tout c’est bien.” Everyone raised their hands and shouted in joy. For them it was over, but when I turned back I saw one duckling carried away by the current, her mother hurrying to catch her, but forced to circle back to gather her brood who could not keep up. The separated one bleated, her little dark wings outspread, facing her mother, as the water pulled her backwards tail-first and farther away.

It seemed for a moment as though the mother and her brood would close the gap, but then two merganzers appeared and pecked at her babies, teasing them away from her in the swirling water. She could by herself catch the duckling being carried away, but she would have to abandon the rest to the hungry merganzers. She gave up the one and circled back to fight the merganzers, with her babies frantically working against the current to stay inside her protective reach.

The merganzers gave up, the mother was too fierce, but by that time the little duckling had been carried out of sight, although we could still hear her bleating, but soon, even that was drowned out by the city noise.

 

Good things come to an end, Part One

These are not the high-end shopping carts. They are the "I'm thinking of going to the over $200 cart range, but I'm not there yet" selection. Prices in this batch are in the $150 neighborhood.

We are still more than three months away from our European exit, however, the disengagement process has already begun.

Yesterday, I took one of our two grocery pull-carts out to the canal, dropped it by the shrubs and said good-bye, I won’t be needing  you any more. We have not actually needed it for about nine months, since we replaced this $20 item with a $30 cart. But I drift: My point is that this marks the inauguration of the jettisoning of ballast.

In Canada and the U.S., personal shopping carts are looked upon as a sign of age, but here they can be a sign of status. True, the under-30 set stride out from the stores still carrying their goods in arms, but somewhere around 35 they realize that an easier life free of shoulder-strain is available to them in the form of a pull-cart. That’s when it starts.

But how do the suave make room for an appendage associated with arthritis and decline? They look to status pull-carts, the ones priced over $150. The under-$30 black wire carts clash with those Louboutin pumps. They will not do.

The pricey ones come with telescoping swivel handles, sleek brushed nickel and black finishes, large swiveling shock-absorbing wheels, light high-end metal tube framing, multiple pockets and privacy-protecting tops – you get the picture. Money.

The cart speaks for its owner, saying: I may be over 35, but my cart costs more than your grocery bill for the week. That’s the statement the well-heeled are looking to make in Europe this season.

Signs are popping up that the black and nickel Mercedes look may be on the way out. Yesterday, a silk-scarfed woman in a designer asymmetrical-hemmed  trench strode down our town’s retail corridor pulling an open-top green and cream polka-dot cart, a snappy convertible in the pull-cart world. She was making a statement: Yes, I am toting a shopping cart; don’t you wish you were, too?

It wasn’t too hard to imagine her giving the Audrey Hepburn flip of her scarf and squealing those wheels.

In the meantime, my abandoned cart wasn’t lonely for too long. By this morning, it was gone, perhaps adopted by one of the town’s elderly dog-walking ladies, a group particularly fond of pull-carts. Bet she wishes I had dropped off a Prada version on the pavement.