I’ve changed jobs and find myself I’m working in Basel, which lies near the border between Switzerland, France and Germany. It means, as I’m still living in Germany, that I’ve become a Grenzgänger, or what the French call a frontalier – someone who crosses a national border to go to work. 

There are a few stereotypes of the Swiss and there’s much about Switzerland that I’m curious about, however so far I haven’t seen a single cuckoo clock. That said there’s a big show on in town this week – a watch and jewellery exhibition. It typifies the other end of the Swiss sterotyp scale: the luxurious, money-laden gold-backed life of luxury. It pretty much lives up to the hype. Yesterday on my way home I saw a Luis Vuitton people carrier with blacked out windows giving way to a Lambourghini, and today a sharply-dressed couple sporting a Rolex bag.

The show is just a flash in the pan, though, and doesn’t reflect lives the lives of most Swiss. Wages are higher than the surrounding countries, but so is the cost of living. That seems to be breeding some resentment about us border-crossers (the Swiss may soon be introducing quotas for foreigners working there), but it’s not something I’ve experienced directly. Basel seems much like any other city. There are super-markets, kebab shops, people just going about their daily business. There’s the odd run-down building, some very smart bits and some buildings that look a bit the worse for wear. Apparently the crime rate is low, but I can’t imagine it’s significantly different to Freiburg.

So what’s my favourite thing about Basel? It has to be the Rhine. At lunch-time, if I have time, I take the five minute walk to the river-bank enjoy a stroll along its shores. In Basel it’s wide, but bridgeable, comparable to the size of the Thames in London. It flows impressively fast and there’s a ferry-boat that uses the flow to go across. It’s also lined with high, colourful buildings and so far I’ve seen canoes, ferries, barges and even the odd swimmer passing by. Living in the centre of the European land-mass, I miss the sea, but the Rhine gives me just enough open water to keep me going.


I’m rumoured to be a bit of a lefty, so it was with great surprise that I found myself the other day agreeing with David Cameron. The essence of the tight-rope he’s trying to walk on the subject of the EU is that he wants the UK to be part of Europe, but feels that the relationship with Europe needs to change. I feel much the same, although I’m sure we differ somewhat on exactly what needs to change.

Perhaps we often overlook the benefits of Europe. I’m now happily living on the continent with a wife who’s also a continental type. Neither of us has had to apply for a visa or work permit, we’ve just stepped smoothly from one country to another and got on with our lives. Do I need the security of knowing that bananas will be the same shape here as back in Blighty? No, I don’t. However, if I were running a business it’s nice to know that I could sell my goods in numerous countries without the hassle of bureaucracy from twenty-something different jurisdictions. There are considerable up-sides to the freedom of movement and goods.

Even more importantly, I’m not on the side of those who raised cynical eyebrows at the EU’s award of the Nobel peace prize last year. Please let me know when the last time as much peace existed between the member countries as has been for the last fifty years. Part of the raison d’être of the EU was to prevent the kind of problems the led to a couple of large-scale skirmishes at the beginning of the twentieth century, and numerous tussles before then, that centuries of monarchies inter-marrying had failed to stop.

Federalism is a dirty word, well in the UK it is. Going back just a couple of hundred years (or conceivably to the time of the grand-parents of my grandparents) and Napoleon was busy re-organising Germany from hundreds of city states into a few dozen regions. Some of the tensions that were there then still remain (think Lancashire vs Yorkshire), and so a federal system where each state has a large degree of self-governance is pretty much the only workable solution. The UK has been largely a fixed entity (ignoring Ireland) for such a long time that we often think of other countries in the same way. French as a language was only used around Paris up until around the time of the revolution and words of local argots are still used (the wife’s grandparents still spoke their regional language). How does that apply to the EU? Well, if your idea of nationhood and citizenship is a little more fluid, then you become more open to the idea that decisions about your life can be made at various levels. Some at regional, national, multi-national or global level and these things are not fixed with time. In the UK so much is concentrated at national level that we fail to consider the alternative.

So, what would I change? I’m not going to comment on specific policies, I’m going to chicken out until a later post. The one thing that infuriates me more than anything about the EU is that the parliament’s accounts have failed to be successfully audited for a great many years. How can an institution that wants to be taken seriously leave itself so open to accusations of fraud and not investigate such things properly, especially at a time when finances everywhere are under so much pressure and scrutiny? Von Rumpuy et all, please sort it out!

Despite its faults, I still firmly believe the EU has to exist and has the potential to be a benefit for every citizen of Europe. In the UK, we just need a little more love in the love-hate relationship we have with our neighbours across the channel and beyond.

When little darling number one was about five months old, my wife came home one day and said, ‘You know, babies don’t need nappies, they can tell you from birth when they need to wee’, or words to that effect. This had to be one of the craziest things I’ve heard in a long time. That afternoon we took off her nappy and, bizarrely enough, managed to catch lots of wees. After that I became paranoid that any second (in fact about every 15 mins) I would get a yellow fountain (or worse) headed in the direction of my nice clean pair of jeans, which happened several times. I still took some convincing that it wasn’t just chance, but with a little persistence we managed to learn the signs that she was about to wee or poo and started to catch them in a potty at a regular rate and started to relax about the jeans. By the time we got to baby number two it was a race to see who could be the first to catch a wee in the potty. I can now announce that yours truly was the proud winner of that competition and both little darlings are regular potty users.

What’s the theory behind it? After all, it runs totally contrary to everything we are led to believe, that babies cannot be potty trained before two and at earliest after their powers of speech have developed. It turns out that potty training is a retraining. Babies are born with an innate awareness of when they wee. Ok, that’s perhaps not such a bold statement. What is more is that the communicate to their parents when they are about to wee. These signs can be arm or leg movements, a certain kind of cry, or a sudden change behaviour, it depends on the baby and their age. It’s the parents who need training to pick up these signs. After about six months with nappies they stop and become comfortable just going in their nappy. The practice of not using nappies now goes under the terms ‘natural hygeine’ for the hippy inclined, or ‘elimination communication’ for those averse to the common words for what comes out of the nether regions of your little bundle of joy.

So, you never use nappies? Well, that’s not quite true. At the moment with a two and a half month old we have a muslin square wrapped around her bottom which catches anything we miss and mostly avoids having to do a complete change. Choice of clothes is quite critical – it needs to be something that is easy to take off and we generally avoid baby-grows, or tuck the flaps at the bottom up so they don’t get wet. When we are out we usually put on a complete nappy, but if we can find a toilet in time we can usually keep this dry too. My wife came back very proud from a 6 hour trip into town the other day with a dry and clean nappy. Since she was already in her own bedroom when we started, the oldest one also has a nappy at night, which is currently dry in the morning about 50% of the time. For the youngest we’re currently putting on a nappy at night and trying to catch the wees, reducing the need for changes and night-time disruption.

Does it really work and would I recommend it? The benefits are great. With every poo I catch in a potty I breathe a sigh of relief that it didn’t happen in a nappy. Using reusable nappies, we’ve also massively reduced the washing load. Ok, some days there are several changes and lots of nappies, but the trend is definitely downward. Of course, there is no need to potty train your child. I have no idea how much hassle it saves, but judging from some people’s reactions it’s a lot!

It’s not for everyone, that’s for sure. You need to be around your baby a lot for a long time, so it’s not suitable if you’re considering using child-care under the age of 18 months or so (unless you have very understanding carers). You also need to be prepared to go anywhere and expect to get odd looks in public (or a round of applause from your paediatrician who happens to be on the same tram, as happened once to us!), although no-one has ever said anything negative to us. We often carry a bucket with us just in case, so if using it in a busy street would make you feel self-conscious, maybe think again. We’re lucky that Freiburg town centre has little channels of water flowing everywhere, which are very convenient as make-shift conveniences. You also need to be prepared to ‘fail’. Whatever you do, don’t blame your baby if you miss a wee – after all they almost certainly told you so if anyone’s to blame it’s your fault! If there’s an accident and the bed/sofa/floor/Aunt Agnes is covered, just smile, clear up and move on.

Got to go, that sounds like a ‘need a wee’ kind of cry…

If you want to be a trendy parent who is seen to taken good care of your child these days, it seems you need to sign up to attachment parenting. By my understanding this covers a range of methods designed to treat your baby in a way as natural as possible so that they have some measure of control over their tiny lives.

Wonderful stuff, but there is one aspect I remain unconvinced by: co-sleeping. That is, sleeping with your baby in the same room as you. Options range from being tucked up in the same bed, to having a bed-extension or simply being in the same room. The benefits are said to be ‘improved communication’, reassurance for the baby and making it much easier to breast-feed in the night without anyone really waking up.

Why am I unconvinced by this? Our experience with our first little darling was that she moved a great deal in the night and within a few weeks was moved into her own room. She seems to have suffered little psychological trauma from this and my wife in particular slept a lot better, even while doing night feeds. I would say that the extra rest was beneficial to everyone. Ok, that’s one anecdotal experience, but we have a couple of books that coer the subject. One is not very clear and even admits that research that has been done into the benefits is contradictory from different studies, while the other sells it as a solution to an problem we don’t really have, namely over-fatigue and a baby who just won’t sleep.

What to conclude? It seems that for the foreseeable future our latest addition will be with us and close at hand. This is for feeding and, more importantly, wees during the night (we’re not using nappies, but that’s a whole other blog). I like to think that sleeping in her own room is a step that will happen in the not-too-distant future, won’t be traumatic and will help the whole family get better rest. When to make the switch, I’m not sure. Perhaps this issue isn’t so important in itself, but is a necessity if you are trying other aspects of attachment parenting. Maybe it has just been overplayed by its proponents so that it sounds like an essential element of nouveau parentalism.

I would be interested to hear of anyone else’s experiences. Does anyone feel guilted into keeping your baby in bed with you, or just finds it such an amazing experience they would never have it any other way? One thing is for sure, it’s not for everyone but probably is for someone.

It’s high time I said something about the German health system. It’s one of those things that Germans seem pretty proud of, but I just cannot get along with. Call me a raving lefty (you wouldn’t be far off the mark), but after a year here I miss the NHS (Britain’s National Health Service).

From first impressions, you would think that the German system is pretty good. You pay more, have a choice of any doctor you want to go to and all the practices are glitzy and staffed by chic, efficient looking people with Colgate smiles.

Then, you try using the system. First, you need to choose a health-care company, then a doctor, then a dentist, then a specialist for x, y and z, then a midwife, then a paediatrician then a …. you get the idea. I’m really confused the the pro-choice agenda in health exemplified in Germany and on the lips of many a politician in the UK. How is Joe Public (or yours truly) supposed to choose between one doctor and another, one paediatrician and another etc etc when there’s no centralised list or comparison information? Can’t we just try and make them all good and have a decent system to complain when things go wrong? Also, can’t my GP refer me to specialist for such and such, or at least give me some information to make an informed decision. So far, these kind of recommendations have consisted of ‘I think such and such might do what you want, here’s a phone number’. My wife had a minor emergency a few weeks back and spent an hour (with a German) phoning round half a dozen different doctors,starting from our usual, to be told they were all on holiday or couldn’t see her. In the end she went to hospital and was told in no uncertain terms that she shouldn’t have gone there. I’m confused as to what else she should have done!

Next, when they have their claws into you, it seems you need to keep going back for more and more. I’m really suspicious that a lot of the appointments we’ve had (including five at a dentist over one tooth) were not really necessary. They are just there either to reassure you that they are doing a good job and you won’t go elsewhere, or else they want the money for seeing you from the health company. There is never any chance of either of those possibilities from the good old NHS (although admittedly dental work can be an exception).

Is there something I’m missing about the German system, am I being an old-fashioned moaning Brit?  Probably. Talking to a well-informed doctor friend of mine, he assures me that a lot of German doctors are over-worked and want to go abroad and that the NHS offers the best value for money and quality of  care anywhere in the world (with the possible exception of Cuba). But then, he’s an old-fashioned moaning Brit too. It’s curious that the system Obama is putting in place in the US is, at least superficially, similar to the German system. That said, imagine the uproar if you tried to build an NHS in the States. I guess each country to its own.

After all that moaning, I’d love to hear if you’ve had a positive experience of health-care in Germany, or anywhere abroad for that matter, or any tips on how to navigate it! Even the locals seem to struggle some of the time…

I don’t like to reveal too much about my family on the internet, but here’s the bare facts: I’m a married guy with, at the time of writing, a 16 month old daughter and number two due in about a week’s time.

Every time I look on Facebook, there’s someone else I know/knew who’s becoming a parent and often I don’t know anything about it until after the event. Congratulations to you all! You get a glimpse into the world of parenting reading these posts and it means a lot of the guys I know are Dads, but I’ve almost never had a conversation about it. I’d really like to know how other guys find being someone’s old man and share some experiences.

To kick it off, here’s the best piece of advice we were given before number one came along: when it’s 2 in the morning and your little bundle of joy starts screaming, give them as little stimulation as possible. Don’t turn on the light if you don’t need to, certainly don’t go anywhere near the radio or TV, even if it’s an extended session, and don’t even talk to them. That will teach them that it’s night-time and nothing exciting is going to happen. It feels pretty cruel, but it seemed to work pretty well for us and our bundle of joy was sleeping 8 hours at a couple of months and 12 hours after 3 months. All in all, a great tip and great for our sleep pattern and sanity.

For the uninitiated, custard is a sweet vanilla flavoured English dessert sauce. In short, it’s delicious. In fact, in my humble opinion, it is one of the pinnacles of British cuisine.

For many years I’ve been lazily reliant on packets of Bird’s instant custard and the occasional Ambrosia ready made custard when camping or sailing. That’s all changed. I can no longer obtain such things with ease so I’ve been investigating ways to replicate the brilliance of custard from raw ingredients. So, my first experiment was  ‘proper custard’. You use four egg yolks and a load of milk and, to be honest, it doesn’t taste like Birds!! I guess that means I can’t lay claim to being a great custard snob after all. I decided that there lay madness and a waste of eggs. Knowing that Mrs Bird was allergic to eggs, the cheap stuff is basically a white sauce with vanilla flavouring, so that’s what I made. This time, the taste was pretty good, but it looked awful, like anaemic vanilla-flavoured gloop. No, that wasn’t for me. So, experiment three was a mixture of the two. Here (tada!) is my recipe for delicious, good-looking, irresistable custard:

Put a dollop of butter in a pan and melt it

Add about the same amount of white flour (you can use corn flour if so inclined), about two heaped dessert spoons for a pint

Add milk, followed by one egg yolk and stir. I stir with a mixture of spoon (to get the bits round the edge) and whisk (to make sure it’s all dissolved in and mixed well).

One the sauce has thickened (the more stirring the better), add in vanilla essence, about 1tsp and sugar to taste (1-2 dessert spoons per pint is good for me).

Serve and savour. Mmm.

I find the egg just lifts the flavour and gives it a more classy taste, without being as strong as experiment number one. Let me know if you try it! To be honest, now I’ve found the perfect formula I don’t think I’ll go back. It takes about the same amount of time as the packet stuff and you can play around with the ingredients to get the optimal texture and taste.

Now, about custard in Germany. I’ve seen vanilla sauces, even in sachets, that amount to more or less the same thing. There are really two problems. First, the sachets are way too small and you’d have to buy loads of them to have a decent supply. Secondly, when I’ve been served it, it’s cold and to me it’s just not the same. Now I just have to work on the perfect crumble, sticky toffee pudding, spotted dick, treacle sponge…..