Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas Letter 2006

The Neil Family News

December 25, 2006

Uroru Gos tu Afriku
Annika has started first grade, at age 7 as they do in Sweden. Taking after her mother, her favorite subject is math. She completed her first short story, "Uroru Gos tu Afriku" (Aurora goes to Afrika) in which the heroine manages to fly on an erplan, meet Mark (who wus veri smart), get marid and of course they livd hapli evur aftor, written in creative but phonetical spelling.

In addition to violin, tennis and figure skating, she has started horseback riding and loves it. She spent a week of all-day riding in Switzerland in a throw-them-on-the-horse-and-go school, and then started at the local stable in the mom-has-to-lead-the-horse variation. Despite precautions (and mom’s lead), she still managed to get thrown, proving the merit of investing in safety gear, even at the entry level! She is back in the saddle again, and feels that she is one step closer (one fall closer?) to becoming a "real rider".

She would very much like a horse for Christmas, but understands that Santa requires parental approval (which is not very likely).

The Food Chain
Benjamin is a charming 5-year-old, and has just started mini-hockey, which he loves. Though he really has very little clue what he is supposed to do with the puck, and the facemask is mostly to protect him from the other kids’ sticks, his skating has improved immensely, and he can’t wait for the next class.

Despite his mom’s current occupation, he rarely plays with toys, preferring couch cushions and blankets, as he builds forts and houses – clearly a future real-estate professional. When not consumed with construction, he is setting up for a party or a store, or pretty much anything involving consumption of cookies.

Benjamin spent the summer learning to swim. After a couple of weeks of splashing around with no progress, he mastered the art of swimming forwards, and now looks remarkably like a fish in the water.

His most recent interests have been in the food chain and in understanding real and imaginary. Questions range from, "What do dragons eat?" to "Is Pooh real?"

Benjamin would like for Santa to bring him an ice cream machine so that he can expand the offerings at his cookie store.

I NOT Little
Christopher is a big 3, and the biggest insult you could deliver would be to suggest that he is little – which results in immediate tears and an insistent statement, "I not little – I big!" Of course, his constant companion is still Baby Two Rags, a blue teddy bear and two (or more) burp rags.

Not willing to be left behind, he tried skiing last spring (at age 2 ½). He LOVED it, going straight down the hill, held back only by the ski reins. He managed an hour or so at a time, before tiring so much that he put his head down on the snow to rest, like a tiny tripod. He is now ice skating as well, and enjoys it as long as he isn’t expected to do what the rest of the group is doing – Mr. Independent!

With all our travel over the past year, Christopher is now premier on United, probably one of the younger members, and one of the few who likes to take a bath with his silver card.

Cash Flow Crisis
David’s property business, Genesta, is doing well, and keeping him traveling to Finland and Baltics. At least there, nobody expects him to speak Finnish!

Leigh has now dived into internet retail with her toy store, ABC Leksaker (A, B & C after the children, and Leksaker meaning toys). The business is growing, and the inventory is expanding even faster! ABC is still a one-person operation, and Leigh is feeling a bit like Santa’s elf, packing and shipping over 1600 orders, 400 in December alone!

Unseasonably Warm
In a country where everyone complains about the length of the winter, we are surprised at the number who are now complaining about the lack thereof. It will be a green Christmas in Sweden, save for the lucky family who manages to win a truckload of snow in a newspaper lottery.

The warmer temps have not harmed our seasonal activities – skating in all its forms. We now spend three hours at the rink every Saturday with hockey, figure skating and beginning skating. However, the mud content of the kids’ clothes has even led us to dream of freezing temperatures - and snow!

Sad News
Last year, we were called back to the States right before Christmas, and last year’s Christmas letter never got sent… or even written. Leigh’s father was not doing well, and we expected the worst. His condition improved, and we celebrated his 75th birthday with him in Lubbock in May. However, he passed away in July, and luckily we were there with him. We miss him greatly.

We wish you a wonderful Christmas and a fantastic New Year!

The Neils

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Mysterious Uncle Benny

In Swedish dagis, the kids do lots of crafts and gifts, especially around Christmas time. They usually wrap them and take them home to be given to various family members. Imagine our surprise when we received a package labeled "Merry Christmas Uncle Benny from Christopher". We racked our brains, trying to imagine who he could be. Christopher's uncles are Mark (Mak), Doug (Duk) and Rob (Wap), but nothing even approaching Benny or even two syllables.

Of course, Annika should have prepared us... One day when she was about 2, we were looking at an IKEA catalog (as one does in Sweden) and she started pointing at the pages and saying "fuck". Given that that particular four-letter word doesn't make up a large percentage of David's and my vocabulary, we wondered where she could have picked it up. I asked at dagis, and they were as mystified as I was, until we realized that the place for all their papers is a FACK, with a very long Swedish A-sound. Of course, we haven't met any French seals yet... (foque)

So back to Uncle Benny... we finally realized that Christopher tends to drop a few letters in various words. His word for "everybody" ranges from "eh-be" (which I mistook for Eva for a while) to "eh-biddy", and somewhere in the middle, the dagis must have heard Uncle Benny.

Christopher and language will be interesting. He is very talkative, and demands his share of attention. Many car journeys are made with his insistent "Mama, tak ME!" repeated over and over again. Benjamin gets so frustrated because Christopher's demands for air time interfere with his thought process, not to mention sibling peace.

Christopher has learned that most people understand him even if he speaks English. Every morning he starts the day being greeted with a "God morgon - hur mår du?" to which he replies without fail, "Good." However, many of his words are not so clear. Benzie and Aka are his siblings, "Piss" is fish and milk is a two-syllable word (me-yulk). Anything beginning with an S gets pretty creative. "Kwong" is strong, "bleepy" is sleepy, and snow is just plain "no".

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Prinses Uroru gos tu Afrika

(This is Annika's story for Grandma)

Ther was wuns a prinses and hur namm wus Uroru and she wus a rili biudufol prinses.! and she livd in a biudufol kasol. And she was 9 years old. And wun nit Uroru hurd her mom and her dad takin ubawt goin to Afriku and tehen she kam rasin dawn teh sters and sed I dont wunt to go to Afriku Uroru sed. But wi haf to sed mom we ar goin tumaro sed dad I dont wunt to Uroru sed. Kin David sed at last win he wok up teh sam tim Qin Leigh sed Uroru its tim olredi sed Uroru. And tenin teha wint. And win Uroru and Kin David and Qin Leigh wor an teh erplan Uroru mad a frind and his namm was Mark and Mark wus veri smart. And win thei got of the erplan thei had tu sei good bai and the did. And win hur dad and hur mum wur slipin and then she klim out the windo and bfor she noo it she wus in a humugngis junggol. And then she met a gurl and hur namm wus Annika and she wus veri nis and she brot Uroru tu har trihaws and ther wus Mark. And then theai gru upp and then Mark and Uroru got marid and then thei livd hapli evur aftor.

Uroru = Aurora

Still Life with Fruit

What names do children typically give their artwork? Probably not "Still Life with Fruit", but maybe at least something about the picture itself... Our creative Benjamin has given the following titles to his latest 5 watercolors:

"Footprints of tjuvs (theives) - you must hop over this. Move back and forth so the bad guys don't get you."

"Mamma - a frogman, puddle, duckie-moose, grass and part of the wind"

"A sky monster blowing a pipe - and then a cat bited it on its butt."

"Benjamin and Christopher when they were monkeys. They will eat the pear, the köttbulle and the apple."

"The baby stuck its head up out of a hole and a monster saw it. The mama named the baby Christopher. Please go over to a man and if you see a monster then go like this to smush is toes. You must hop backwards a lot of times like this - 1-2-3."

Reality anyone?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Mother-of-One?

I picked up a parenting magazine today, and they had an article on a family who has no schedule. Their 2-year-old decides when he wants to eat, when he goes to bed, and when he gets up in the morning. He goes to restaurants with his parents, and apparently eats anything from Asian to Greek, though he prefers McDonalds. And the thought struck me - this is a family that has only one child.

In English we have the expressions "mother-of-two" or "mother-of-three" - you see it in articles. Gina, a mother-of-three, did thus and so... In Swedish, the same expressions exist. Två-barns-mama or tre-barns-mama, and even fyra-barns-mama, which would be the equivalent of sainthood in my book. But there are no expressions for a "mother-of-one" or an "ett-barns-mama".

Reading the above article caused me to remember a news segment I saw on Today or some such show when I was in the US on "Diaperless Parenting". Wow - you can avoid the whole discussion over cloth versus Pampers by just potty-training your three-month old. The segment had moms with their babies, who were in real undies from extremely young ages. The moms just put them on the little potties every five or so minutes so that they would figure out when to go. Several thoughts struck me on this one, number one being that these were families without wall-to-wall carpeting, or even rugs, for that matter! Also, that these were moms that had ample time to spend with their child - and of course, that these were moms with only one child. Can you imagine the chaos of trying to put the baby on the potty every 5 minutes while your 2-year-old is throwing a tantrum? And how could you ever leave the house?

Anyway, back to the mother-of-one... How wonderful it must be to have the time, freedom and flexibility to be a mother-of-one! How much quality time has Christopher missed as the youngest child of mother-of-three? (He might not be 3 1/4 and still in diapers...) Of course, being a mother-of-three lets me really appreciate the times that I get to be a mother-of-one...

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Swedish Election (by Annika)

Annika's class (first grade) has been discussing the upcoming Swedish election. Though she hardly understands what a democracy is, not to mention representative government, she was quite intrigued by the political symbols and campaign information.

In Sweden, each party builds a little house (valstuga) outside each of the major shopping centers so that anyone who is interested can come in and talk. Mörby Centrum looks like a little playground with houses for 4 of the 8 major parites. I was having trouble defining the differences between the parties, so we made the trek to Mörby to see if the volunteers in the cottages could do any better. Here is her view:

"The Vs" or Vänsterpartiet, the far left. According to one of Annika's friends, if the Vs win the election, we will all have to move out to our summer houses and live in the country. Since we don't personally possess a summer house, this would leave us rather homeless, so they don't get Annika's vote. They didn't actually have a house we could visit - I guess our neighborhood is not their highest potential area for votes.

"The Ms" or Moderaterna, as far right of left that you can get in Sweden. Everyone got a box of candy, which was a big hit with Benjamin and Christopher until they tasted it, and then we all agreed, along with the people in the cottage, that it was "adult" candy. They also won extra points with the boys because the volunteer (female) who spoke with us had a super cool Harley that Benjamin got to sit on. The volunteer's picture was also in one of the brochures, as was a picture of our neighbor, so they scored points with Annika, though not enough to put them over...

"The Rose" or the Social Democrats. They want to help people, so they are good. They also gave us a real red rose and a button that said "Alla ska med" (Everyone should belong). Annika was fairly predisposed to like the Rose party, just by virtue of the symbol. They also had nice "playing cards" with pictures of all the important people in the party (though she couldn't recognize Göran Persson) that were good for school. High points.

The Folkpartiet had the coolest symbol (the blue thing), though we really couldn't figure out what it was. They tried to differentiate themselves to Annika on education - "We want grades and exit exams" - grades which are meaningless to a 7-year-old who has no idea what they are, and exams, which sound like fun to her - some points, but nothing special to take back - no buttons, no pictures...

The Miljöpartiet and the Kristdemokraterna did not do well in our investigation, the greens because they didn't have any information Annika could take back to school, and the Christian Democrats because their cottage was closed.

To sum up, after recovering from her inital disappointment that 7-year-olds are not allowed to vote, nor are their parents allowed to vote for them, Annika still investigated the project thoroughly. In the end, she said, "You know, mama, maybe it's good that kids can't vote. I might vote when I'm 18... but maybe I'll wait until I'm 40, like you."

Saturday, August 26, 2006

How Perspectives Change...

Remember when we had one child, Annika, and we thought it was so difficult? Then we had Benjamin and began to realize how easy just one was! Of course, two was difficult, until we had Christopher, and wow - what a breeze it is to just have two! I have often wondered what it would take to make me think three was easy - a fourth?

The past week, we have been back at home after two months away, the bulk of the time spent at the Embassy Suites. Somehow this week has seemed surprisingly easy, and I just can't figure it out. Maybe the kids have gotten that little bit older... Maybe after two months of playing together they have finally figured it out... Maybe being back at home with familiar surroundings has calmed things... Maybe they are just happy to have their toys back... Maybe I'm just happy to be home... Maybe being at the Embassy Suites for 7 weeks was our "fourth child"... Whatever the case, this week has been great! The kids have been playing more together and they have been more cooperative. I have even begun to feel like a parent, rather than a firefighter.

This weekend, I have only Annika and Christopher - David has taken Benjamin to Copenhagen for an overnight with a good friend, but I just couldn't handle the thought of travelling again! Annika and Christopher have been so easy - I even had time to read a bit of a book - WOW!

Friday, August 18, 2006

Cultural Differences

I forgot how big the cultural differences could be between the US and Sweden. Two examples...

1) Critter Fest at the Science Spectrum - a big event, with tons of people, real tigers, snakes and other live things. Of course, with one adult and three kids, somebody was bound to get lost, and this time it was Christopher. I knew he was fine because we were in the basement level, and he wouldn't venture up stairs without me. After five minutes of "lost time", I saw a small crowd gathering behind the door to one of the exhibit halls - no exhibit, so a most unusual place to gather - and I knew Christopher was found.

A couple of days later, we were back at the Science Spectrum (minus critters) and I mentioned how Christopher had been lost in the crowd. Their response was a worried, "Well, we really need to have a policy about lost children - a total lockdown of all exits until the child can be found and returned." I was amazed by the paranoia. My response was that it would be useful to provide a sticky nametag with the parents' cell phone number to put on the kid's back so that somebody could call if they find them. Everyone was amazed when I wrote my cell phone number on each kid's arm... not exactly high tech, but it does wear off after a few days...

2) The Junk Food - We couldn't belive the amount of junk food, EVERYWHERE. Parents who had open drawers full of candy, shelves of cookes at kid level, chips and cokes, amusement parks that don't serve milk as an option... and the most disgusting of all, a hot-dog on a stick, wrapped in a chocolate chip pancake (which calls into question the appropriate condiment - mustard or syrup?) It is so nice to be back to our limited-selection grocery, something I never thought I would say!

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lubbock - a Vacation Paradise

This was not the way I planned the summer - 8 weeks in the Embassy Suites. But... it has actually turned out pretty well for the children despite circumstances. So why is Lubbock a vacation paradise?

1) We can count on hot sunshine, every day, without fail. No rain (despite a public prayer session that attracted national news), no cold weather - just blue skies and sun. I guess that after a few Swedish summers - which can be a contradiction in terms - we forgot to expect heat and sun!

1a) A sauna is not required after a swim. The kids are still looking for the sauna at every pool, just like at home, but with 100+ temps, standing outside is plenty good!

2) Lubbock has great outdoor activities. Outdoor parks like our neighborhood Wagner has been "remodeled" and even includes spinning chairs that work so well, the kids can't stop spinning! Legacy Village is an extensive play area, and there's even a water amusement park that we haven't even tried!

3) The local wildlife is plentiful and interesting. We got to stand in a field surrounded by cows - a first for me, too! I have never felt so watched.

4) And then there's the indoor stuff to do - camps and such, that don't exist in Sweden. I almost forgot about all the summer daycamps I used to do with the museum, church, YWCA, etc., and they're still there. Even better, the Science Spectrum offers exciting classes for kids from 3 to 12 that I would love to sign up for myself. Annika did "The Science of Games" for two days, and the boys did the open days - what fun!

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Good Child and Birth Order

Sometimes I wonder what kind of a child Benjamin would be if he were an only child... instead of stuck in the middle. He thrives on attention, but doesn't quite know what to do to get it. Of course, he is most often sandwiched between Annika, who is so verbal and charming, and Christopher who is still so cuddly-cute, that it his hard for Benjamin to stand out.

In May, Benjamin got to travel with us BY HIMSELF to Texas for a week, in part to give him some special attention, and in part to ease the babysitting load back at home. He was still a bit difficult, as four-year-old boys are apt to be on long international flights... but what a difference! He pulled his own bag, sat calmly on the three flights, and didn't complain once when our third and final leg of the trip was canceled due to weather and mechanical problems at 11pm, which was really 7am his time, after being on the go for nearly 24 hours. When we were being issued our hotel accomodations and vouchers, the comments swirled around - "He's so cute!", "What a good boy!", "What a little trooper!", "What a great little traveller you have!" - all the comments that are usually directed at his siblings.

When we were at the hotel, it was so easy! He has always been a good sleeper, and he went to bed every night without complaint.

His view of the experience? Difficult to tell. I think he liked the one-on-one time, and enjoyed the extra attention. However, he missed the other kids, and found it a bit boring to be with the adults all the time.

As parents, we really enjoyed the opportunity to be one-on-one, and will have to try to create more opportunities as the children get older.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Don't leave home without them!

The children are getting older, and we thought we would be able to leave them more often... but we were wrong! The statistical data sample of 3 for 3 suggests that we are still attached to our children on a daily basis!

1) Marrakech - well, so it wasn't really the kids this time, but our first weekend away from them was almost brought to an abrupt end by a failed heater, in Sweden, in mid-January. Annika has her first sick day in 6 months for a cough and cold.

2) Texas/France in March - this time, David's French trip was cut short by a babysitter who fell down the stairs and sprained her ankle. We also suspect that our three proved to be more of a handfull than fun... Annika also has her second sick day this school year for a suspicious rash.

3) Texas - David was on the ground for a mere 28 hours in Lubbock before turning around. Every parent's worst nightmare - the babysitter called that Christopher had been admitted to the hospital for observation and put on an IV. Though we suspected his condition would soon improve, we couldn't leave the babysitter - no matter how outstanding she was - with a hospitalized child.

I guess the kids will be coming with us in the future!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Away from the kids

I haven't been away from the children very much. Last year, after 6 years of motherhood, I think I had spent fewer than 8 nights away from the children, total. Now they are a little older, so it should be easier, in theory. Of course, D's travel schedule and the kids' activitiy level make it difficult to find a way for me to get away.

I just spent six nights away for the Baby och Barn mässa in Göteborg, and it was good, but hard. I called once when C had just been reprimanded for something, one of the times where he didn't just laugh and run away, but when he took it (too) seriously. "Ma-(sob)-Ma" he kept saying on the phone. When he calmed down, he managed "Mama come? Mama come night? Mama home?" - enough to take away that sense of freedom I felt and replace it with a few twinges of guilt.

Of course the mässa... that was another matter. As I loaded up a whole moving van of toys, display shelves, tables, bicycles, floor mats, tools, etc., I kept shaking my head in amazement. The last time I moved house without a moving service, somewhere between business school and London, I swore it would be the last time, and it was... until now. Why I felt compelled to move - effectively twice - within six days - is beyond me. And then drive across Sweden? Insane is more like it. A little physical labor is always refreshing, since I spend far too much time at the internet, but I have never been so tired!

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Skiing, part II

Wow - another skiing holiday - this time with a little skiing for the parents!

First, it felt so wonderful to be driving up to the slopes with three "bigger" children. They sat happily for the first 250 km, sharing crayons, looking at books, and generally cooperating in ways I have never seen. A few kids songs were enough to smooth any conflicts - wow! Of course, there was the second 250 km...

We - the kids and I - managed to arrive, check in, rent skis, buy food, check in for lessons and transport four pairs of skis and boots back to the condo. We even had a lively meal at the local pizzeria. Wow - didn't know it was possible!

So... what was awesome about this holiday...

1) It was a real hill, not a mesa with a few runs down the side.
2) Everyone, including C, enjoyed the skiing. C was a real trooper, not wanting to be left behind. He was extremely proud of himself, skiing for about an hour until he was so exhausted he just put his head down on the snow, resting upside down like a tiny tripod.
3) They had a babysitting service for ALL the kids - which meant D and I actually skied together, or could have in theory... but it was hard to pass up a chance to have A with us.
4) They had "tidlig ski" so one of us (me!) could ski from 7-9 in the morning, on one run, before the rest of the mountian opened.
5) There was SO MUCH SNOW - we could hardly get into our condo. The kids couldn't get out by themselves, but had to be helped out of the hole we had for a door.

I'm ready for more - but spring is here - finally!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why do kids...

I got a call from dagis - seems our future neurosurgeon and rocket scientist, 4-year-old B, put a bead up his nose. At least he had the intelligence to say that it was there so we could deal with it. Fortunately, it came out easily in the children's emergency, and no, we did not decide to keep it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Icy Conditions

We had a great weekend! The children are FINALLY getting to an age where we can do things together, without worrying about strollers, naptime, baby food, etc.

On Sunday we went to the lake to skate. This is such a novelty for me, having grown up in Texas. I am always amazed that one can truly have the confidence of skating without worrying about falling through the ice. Of course, a few days of -20 will do it! And knowing that the plow has already driven on the ice to clear a track helps me feel more certain the ice will - maybe - support my weight.

Once at the lake, A was doubtful that she could actually skate with figure skates, so I took my figure skates as well to either prove that it could be done, or to commiserate that our toe picks made it too difficult. After a traumatic three minutes, she was off! B didn't care about ice conditions - he just ran in his skates... or rather ran ten steps, fell on his butt, hopped up and was off again for another ten steps. (Of course, this proves my theory that boys are fundamentally differnet from girls - A never would have bounced up again without floods of tears... but I digress...). C absolutely HAD to have his skates on, and as long as he was sitting in the sled, he was content. Otherwise, he was a dead weight on rubber legs. After a while, he consented to having snowboots on, and we all enjoyed the day. THIS is why we have kids and live in Sweden!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Murphy's Law and Electrical Wiring

Last November, one of my best friends announced that she would be celebrating her end-of-January birthday with a weekend and party in Marrakech, and we were all invited. Of course, it seemed like a distant and exotic dream to us, unless we decided to make the trek with all three kids. But then, fortune smiled upon us in the form of the World's Best Babysitter (WBB), our first-ever babysitter from 6 years ago, who had since grown up and taught school for a few years, and was now studying again. She came by for a visit to see the kids, and volunteered for the challenging and rewarding (?) position of babysitter for our gang of three, for SIX WHOLE DAYS. We couldn't believe our luck! So we tempted fate, booked tickets and a hotel, and made plans to go.

The day before the trip we made our morning trek to the breakfast table, whereupon my daughter announced that it was cold in the house. I checked the temperature gauge and noticed that it was a couple of degrees below the usual tropical temperature usually found in our house. Just for kicks, I wandered to the basement to check the värmepump (VP) and saw that it was completely dead, as were several lights in the house. I immediately called the plumber who suggested that I buy fuses (the old-fashioned screw-in kind) and he would come by later for a look. On the way back from dagis drop-off, I stopped at the grocery and bought a selection - 8 boxes in various sizes, thinking it was best to be prepared. I changed the VP fuses, and things came back and seemed on track... for about 10 minutes, when the whole system went black again, taking with it a random assortment of lights in the house - kitchen counter lights, but not the overhead lights; the stove top but not the oven; the dining area, but not the living room; the upstairs hallway but not the bathroom - we won't even mention the crazy way the house is wired. Let's just say that we are "fortunate" in that our electrical system is so screwed up that the whole house is rarely left completely in the dark. We then had visits from:

10am - The plumbers - who pronounced a complete failure of every fuse in the panel, and pulled most of them, even ones that were working.


1pm - The electrician - who pronounced a failure of the power from the street, ie. a grid and distribution problem.


4pm - The grid electricians - who fixed the grid problem, replaced the three main fuses for the house, got everything up and running, waved goodbye, and drove off just as the house plunged into darkness again.


7pm - The emergency grid electricians - who said that the problem was no longer in the grid, but in our house and BV.


8:30pm - The emergency BV technician BY PHONE was able to diagnose the problem, talk me through two fuse changes (each one bought us 5 minutes to work with before the lights went out again) and give me instructions to decouple the compressor from the BV, so it would just work on electricity.

9am, day of travel - The emergency BV technician who removed the compressor from the operation.