Fear Factor

Today is All Hallows’ Eve, and I’m just not convinced I like it.


There are those who claim that Allhallowtide is a time to use “ridicule and humour to confront the power of death”, but what’s so effective about scaring little children?

My eleven-year-old came home terrified this week by rumours that a murderous clown is hiding out in garages, lying in wait to kill unsuspecting victims with a chainsaw. I knew it had to be a joke, but to her it was all too real.

Later in the day when I was researching online for an article, I came across a video about clowns in garages and clicked play. It turns out the rumours are not totally off: there is a clown (many of them and not far from here) hiding out in public garages with his accomplice, pretending to cut a man in half. Blood is copious. Peoples’ reactions are filmed live.

And what of the mother who shows up after shopping with her kid? Do you think she’ll ever feel safe again, even if it is a joke? And that child, scarred for life? Worse… my own daughter won’t even go to the laundry room these days for fear he’s hiding there. And she didn’t even see the video, just heard talk of it from equally terrified schoolmates.

I think that in the “face of the power of death”, light and peace are more effective than gory fear.

We whipped up a batch of pumpkin spice pancakes for dinner and carved a happy, jovial face into our own autumn pumpkin. We avoid the subject of clowns. But until this wave is over, I have an innocent little girl gently asking me every morning to drive her the few blocks to school, to take her downstairs to get a pound of sugar from the pantry, though she always enjoyed going alone to “shop” there before.

I’m not so sure the fear is empowering anyone…


To work or not to work

It’s hard for me to believe that there are still people out there who frown upon working moms.

It would appear that enjoying your job is worse than having one, since if you suffer in silence for the good of your family, if you happen to be one of those women who has to work to make ends meet, it is somehow more acceptable. Martyrdom is better than enjoying life, I’ve come to understand.

I’m one of those moms who has to work, but who is lucky enough to like it. I really wanted a home of our own, especially living in a foreign country as I do. I wanted a place that my kids could remember as their childhood nest. I dreamt of being able to stay here when they grew up and moved away, and have memories of Christmas mornings and school days.  I wanted a place with a tiny bit of a garden where we could stand barefoot of a Sunday morning and eat raspberries off the canes. So I worked harder. I got two jobs, and then three. And now we have our own little house, and the minute we moved in I knew we’d made the right choice. We all did. Even the Swiss husband knew it. But I lost some friends along the way who felt that I was enjoying my job too much. Enjoying yourself while providing for the family – this is a cardinal sin, it would seem.

Why is it that if you don’t work and don’t have a house, people feel sorry for you; but if you do work and achieve something, you’re tagged family-negligent?

I’d rather achieve something than let life just happen to me. Is that so bad?

There is this odd sense of nostalgia that leads many traditional families today to believe that we still live in the days of Pa Ingalls. That we can all own a farm and grow our own food, and actually make enough money to get by on that. But a life of rural sweetness is really only reserved for a select few: for the people who live in places were land is inexpensive and plentiful, and whose jobs pay enough to support an entire family. I agree, those people should be grateful. The contradiction is that Ma didn’t have a beautiful farmhouse and a life of sewing crafts; she could barely make ends meet in her nearly windowless sod house. She hated sewing and missed things in the East, like pickles and finery. I would venture to say that Ma (like Laura) would have worked had she had the chance, and bought her clothes ready-made. All the Ingalls family ever cared about was happy smiles all around no matter the circumstance.

Happy smiles all around. We have plenty of those.

This afternoon I’ll bake a spiced zucchini bread in between translations and press releases; I’ll kiss my children as they walk in the door and stay up late tonight making tomorrow’s sandwiches. But would it make me a better mom if my life looked cuter?

I’m a better mom when I’m myself, and no one else. At least that’s what the smiles around the table are telling me.

Fountains in Prague

“I’m only good at being nice,” I spat back at a colleague as he tried to encourage me in a moment of self-doubt. “I’m only good at seeing, not creating; at understanding. Where is the value in that?”

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Water spouts from small metal spigots in a kind of celebration that has drawn garden designers and royalty for centuries. A small burst of cool and sparkly is the diamond for every bronze or stone setting, regardless of the period or realm in which they were built. Water is the focal point, the thing for which kings will kill.

But it’s just water.

“Yes,” said the scholar, “the thing that brings life. Like seeing. Like understanding.”

I stood beside this fountain at Queen Anne’s Summer Home for a long while, watching sunbeams dance through falling streams and droplets. There is nothing worse than a fountain stopped for the winter, than art without a soul. And though the artist is the master, someone must make it live.

Let it be me.

And there were pumpkins

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“We still need to decorate for fall,” she said as I walked through the door and dropped my briefcase on the floor.

But you did it already. There are pumpkins here and there.

I felt her warm arms tighten around my neck, holding on as if I’d been away for years.

“But you didn’t. It doesn’t look like home.”

After so many years decorating, un-decorating, and re-decorating only to have to un-decorate again… I’m tired of Fall pumpkins and Christmas bobbles. I’d rather have a candle and a fire in the fireplace. I slipped off my coat and went downstairs to throw in a load of laundry. The thing is – I mused as I poured a tiny cup of pink soap – that they haven’t been doing it for years. That it’s still new to them, that it’s home, that it’s mom-love spread all over the house for them to see.

Tired from a long day, and quite frankly a long month, I went to the attic in search of the Fall decorations. The box had been opened and rummaged through, but all the best decorations were still there. I pulled out some strings of overly-colorful leaves and ceramic pumpkins, and climbed the stairs. The children were all outside, so I arranged things with minimal effort: a string over the entry mirror, a wreath hanging by the door. Then I went to the kitchen to cook dinner.

Some time later as Nora was singing me through the chopping of a huge pan of vegetables, I heard the front door click open. A moment of silence, and then a squeal.

“You’ve decorated! Oh yay!”

One after the next they came inside – and each of them said the same thing in their own ways. Even the 16-year-old son didn’t hide his delight.

I had 10 translations waiting for me in the office, four articles, a website to design and bills to pay; but the smell of dinner and the sound of chatting children was ringing through the house, and bright eyes were sending me signals of love.

Such a small thing is the presence of one person. But it changes the world.

Just a little jaunt

The thing about publishing is that there’s always this tug-of-war between the editor and marketing. Editors want quality content and believe that a good read will attract advertisers. The marketing department, well, they feel differently.

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I’m on my way to a biz lunch to nurse along a three-way meeting that involves a new client and the monster. This basically means that when marketing speaks I’ll be like, “What he really means is that we want to provide you with fantastic articles that promote your company. He didn’t mean we want to make a buck off you.”

I hate this. I despise it. Twenty years as a wife has taught me to do it well, however. Following in the wake of my husband at various social events, sweetly apologising for things he didn’t really mean to say. Some things never change.

Two hours each way for a single lunch. You have to admit that I’m devoted. The upshot is that my 19 year old asked me to meet her halfway home to ride the train together, and that – quite frankly – makes it all worth while.

Champagne and little girls

I was invited to attend a concert given by Diana Damrau and Nicolas Testé at Smetana Hall, my first time at this sumptuous ‘Art Nouveau’ Municipal Hall in the centre of town. I dressed in velvet and picked my way over cobblestoned streets, glided up red-carpeted stairs and through bevelled glass doors. It didn’t matter that I was alone that night, for all the world and all the beauty was enough to keep me company.

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I’ll never forget the sound of Diana’s voice as she began to sing. Clear and uninhibited, there were no modern sound pads to kill the ring; she was wonderful. The hall was made for her.

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But as I held my glass of champagne at intermission – in a room full of well-heeled guests and music aesthetes – a message lit up my phone. It was my daughter, and her message sounded like a fire alarm.

I clamped my flute of bubbly under my elbow and punched in the home number, trying – in vain – to hear her anxiety over the din of chatty people. Her voice was low and quiet.

“I’m afraid to go to school tomorrow, mom, the other girls don’t like me.”

What do you say to a little girl two countries away when you have just five minutes? Guilt washed over me, but I pushed it aside. There’s no time for self-reproach when work needs to be done.

“Listen, my sweet,” I said. “I know how you feel – it’s happened to me, and you know all about that. But you’ve got this. We’ve got it! You just walk in there and hold your head up high, and tomorrow after school, we’ll have a chat in the kitchen when I’m home.”

I gulped down my champagne. The bell was ringing to return to our seats.

“I love you,” I called into the phone. And clicked off.

Diana sang pieces from ‘La Traviata’ after that, and while I’ll never forget that moment – really never – I couldn’t forget my daughter’s words over the line, either: “I’m afraid…the other girls don’t like me.”

There is a struggle for the working mom, and it isn’t only guilt. It’s anguish. And I wondered, as I walked back to the hotel that night, whether I could really fix it better from home. I don’t have an answer, just a question.

Good night, working moms.

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Truth and Love


“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred.”

-Vaclav Havel

I came upon a table and chairs not far from the John Lennon Wall, stopping to sit in a seat of understatement near the legendary political platform that has lost its way with time. At first the Wall was a place to honour the memory of Lennon, but it morphed for a season into a place of protest behind the Iron Curtain. Now it’s where tourists affix sticky notes with declarations like ‘I HEART ISABELLE’ or ‘ONE DAY SUZY WILL BE HERE’, just two of the florescent squares pasted over decades of art. Proudly in front of the dime store souvenirs, the dreaded selfie.Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 9.10.49 PM I walked past and felt disappointed. I didn’t stay long.

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Further on, Vaclav’s bench is a quiet place designed by Czech architect, Borek Sipek, that offsets the protest wall with a simple statement of practicality. A gentle word where no one has yet thought to bring graffiti. I took my seat under the linden tree tarnished with fall leaves with no one watching, no one making the peace sign, no one talking, really. The peaceful mini square is hushed and quaint; reflective. On this day, the quiet voice of truth and love speak louder to me than the vacarme of tourism. I am glad to be a dreamer. I am glad to seek harmony with Vaclav among the din of thoughtlessness.

Truth and love take more thought and mastery than lies and hatred; I walk to keep learning.

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Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 12.28.34 AM “Youth is happy because it has the ability to see beauty. Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”
–Franz Kafka

It is nearly two in the morning, and I type from my warm, soft bed in Prague. I arrived around 1:30 pm and was met by a driver who took me directly to the hotel. The drive into town suggests a Prague of innocence and beauty; you don’t immediately notice the impact of two communist eras as you wind down the cobblestoned highway lined with plants and flowers. Tall spires rise up, arched bridges. I fell in love almost instantly. Screen Shot 2014-10-18 at 12.25.08 AM

Twilight Zone

So that was weird.

I was at a cocktail tonight to celebrate the completion of a project with a long-time colleague and a handful of other contributors, and the strangest thing happened. I’m going to reveal, get ready.

About two weeks ago this colleague (let’s call him Georges) and I were working via Skype on a project. He was in Asia and I was here in Switzerland. It was late over there, and he was having his night cap, something we’ve done together for twenty years. After the hard work is done, we like to laugh it off.

Suddenly, out of the blue, he says: “Francesca, I’ve loved you for many years. Now I’ll be retiring and I just wanted to say that you’re a beautiful woman, kind, and sensitive. You look like a woman who feels good in her skin (sweet, but gag). If you’d like to have an affair with me, well, I wouldn’t say no.”

Say what?

“I wouldn’t say no.”

Hmmm, what to do – what to do.

I leaned back in my chair and studied his nervous face, his hands twisting around the beer can. The thing is… (close your ears if you’re of a delicate nature)… he screwed with me three years ago. At a time when the corporation I work for threatened to fire me if I didn’t relinquish rights to my retirement fund so they could save face for a mistake they’d made, he didn’t have my back. He says he did, but he didn’t.

Georges, you’re a sweet guy. Attractive. And I’m willing to have that conversation. But before I have that conversation, I think we should have a different conversation – and that is why you didn’t have my back three years ago. It was painful and humiliating, and you kept silent. And now you want to sleep with me?

He fumbled, it was obvious. Slightly ashamed, to his credit.

“Ok, Francesca. Let’s have that conversation. I’ll take you out to dinner after the cocktail and we’ll talk.”

So imagine my surprise tonight when, after preparing my revenge speech for two weeks, he stood me up. And I looked damn good, too. I was going to smile and speak professionally the entire dinner, and then drive in the final “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass” skewer just as we were about to leave. But fate was not to be so kind, and he feigned fatigue.

“We’ll do it after you get back from Prague,” he kissed my cheeks good-bye.

But there’s not a chance in hell I’ll do it after Prague.

Do you want to know why I’m writing this post? It seems so pointless, I know, but here’s the thing. I grew a lot from that experience three years ago. I became stronger, I started to love myself; now, I take good care of myself and hang out with people who also love me. Sometimes, they hurt me, and I hurt them. But we forgive each other and move on. I never let dangerously painful people into my inner environment anymore. I learned that the hard way.

So driving home tonight, I was disappointed with myself. I had disregarded my personal policy not to position myself in a place of potential pain; I took a risk out of a deep desire for revenge. And I got pushed aside. That’s why I drove to a bar before coming home, and had a dark draft all by myself. Francesca needed a talking to, and here is what I told her:

Next time Georges comes calling, you will just say no thanks, I think I’ll pass. Next time anyone in your life who you have previously red flagged comes calling, you will just say no thanks, I think I’ll pass. 

My phone beeped as I took the last sip. It was a friend in Italy: “Ciao cara Francesca. Ti penso tanto. Ti voglio bene. A presto!”

I smiled and walked out the door toward home. I already have all the friends (and conversations) I need.



After Berlin I was burned out. The shock of meeting the alter ego of Siena just hours after kissing her goodbye was overwhelming. In the German metropolis I worked with a glass of prosecco in the hotel lobby and walked post-war-era streets in search of a Deutsch Bellezza… in vain. Berlin was not for me, though my teenagers say it’s the hot place to be these days. I’ll pass.

Cynical and uninformed, I know. Please forgive me.

This week we gathered up the little girls and headed down to Morat, a charming little Swiss town nestled on the lakeside. Tall ramparts surround the village, and we walked the length of them, scratching our names into the limestone walls. Pumpkin patching, we picked our treasures and carried them on our laps like babies. It felt good to be together – to feel small hands in big ones – to laugh over a lunch of calzone – see the sun in their hair.

This morning I’ll pack my bags for tomorrow’s flight to Prague, and while I’m excited to discover what some call Europe’s most beautiful city, something there is that keeps me here… with little hands and pumpkins. With sunshine on smiling faces.