Posted in Family, Personal life

Operation Zhu Zhu: It’s Surgery, But Not As We Know It

Christmas Zhu Zhus

My nine year old daughter Laura is renowned for the creativity of her games. She is quick to imbue inanimate objects, and not only toys, with names, voices and personalities. So I was not surprised that her favourite Christmas presents this year were the new additions to her Zhu Zhu collection.

What’s a Zhu Zhu?

Zhu Zhus are small, battery-powered toy hamsters on wheels who move around at random, making funny noises and bumping into things. When they hit an obstacle with their touch-sensitive noses (shouldn’t every pet should have one of those?), they execute a swift three-point turn and head off in a different direction. They’re sweet, funny, endearing and they don’t make a mess. That’s my kind of pet.

Zhu Zhu with its car
Have car, will travel

Another advantage of Zhu Zhus is that they are relatively cheap. When first on the market a few years ago, and in short supply, they sold for £30 each. Since  superseded by trendier toys, their price has dropped. Before Christmas, for a mere £8 I was able to buy not only a Zhu Zhu, but a Zhu Zhu with its own Morris Oxford car and surfboard, both of which it operates by itself when clicked into position.

Cover of "G-Force (Two Disc DVD + Digital...
Cover of G-Force DVD (Photo: Wikipedia)

Thus two new Zhu Zhus were welcomed into the fold on Christmas Day, and Laura’s been playing with them almost non-stop ever since. Out of old packaging, she’s built houses and car parks, hospitals and camp sites. They even have their own cinema, where the movie currently playing is, appropriately, “G-Force” , all about guinea pigs. (It’s actually a jigsaw puzzle of a still from the film). God bless the inventor of the cardboard box!

Why particularly did the Zhu Zhus need a hospital? Well, Laura’s oldest one was starting to show signs of ageing. Her wheels turned too slowly (I know how that feels) and the pitch of her once chirpy voice had ominously deepened. I replaced the batteries, hoping that would rejuvenate her, but it made no difference. I took a deep breath and gave Laura my prognosis.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but surgery. I’m going in.”

When changing the Zhu Zhu’s batteries, I’d noticed that her wheel mechanism was clogged with long dark hair which looked suspiciously like mine. Also entangled were tiny bits of paper and fluff, most likely picked up when traversing the living room carpet. I reckoned that by excising these materials, I could return the hamster to health. I might even restore her lost youth and energy. I felt a frisson of Frankenstein’s excitement.

Emergency surgery being performed on a Zhu Zhu pet hamster
Under the (Swiss Army) knife

In preparation, I assembled a motley collection of tiny tools: the set of miniature screwdrivers that had come in a Christmas cracker, the dainty Swiss Army knife  that I keep in my handbag for emergencies, and a pair of eyebrow tweezers.

I laid the Zhu Zhu on its back and removed the battery cover, plus a further piece of plastic casing that covered the wheel mechanism. The more parts I removed, the more nervous I became. Squinting into the delicate machinery, I carefully marshalled the growing collection of teensy screws that would be required later to bring the helpless round.

As I picked away at the tangled mess, for the first time I truly appreciated the skill of the surgeon.  What I really needed now was an operating table under a bank of bright overhead lights, with a bevy of scrub nurses to assist me, occasionally mopping my brow.

“Nurse, Swiss Army knife, please….. Nurse, glasses screwdriver.”

For some time, I tugged and tweaked at my patient, slowly extracting paper and fluff and hair. A surprisingly large pile of debris mounted up next to where the hamster lay on its back, poignantly prone. When at last I’d removed all that I could, I began to reassemble the creature.

Must make sure I don’t leave any instruments inside, I told myself, with a flash of professional fellow feeling for surgeons everywhere.

Eventually, exhausted by the intense concentration, I dropped the last screw into place and began tentatively to rouse my slumbering patient. I turned her over to rest gently on her wheels and pushed the start button on her back. It was the moment of truth.

The Zhu Zhu let out an alarmingly deep chirrup and trundled very slowly forward towards the pressed glass fruit bowl.  It tapped the dish with its nose and ground to a halt.

My painstaking operation had made absolutely no difference. Sighing deeply, I braced myself to break the bad news to the nervously waiting family.

“I’m afraid the operation was not a success, but at the patient survived.”

My admiration for surgeons and anaesthetists has never been so high.

Part of the town Laura has set up for her Zhu Zhus
The hamster metropolis

This post is a tribute to all those selfless medical professionals who have spent their Christmas attending to emergencies working to keep their patients alive and well, while the rest of us have been amusing ourselves with frivolities.

Posted in Family, Travel

The Travelling Wardrobe

Tibetan Prayer flags
Tibetan prayer flags, reminiscent of my husband's holiday laundry (Image by Oliphant via Flickr)

Packing the ideal holiday capsule wardrobe for a 28 day tour of France in our camper van, I am torn between taking old clothes that I can jettison en route after wearing and aspiring to the well-groomed appearance of the average French woman.

I don’t want to clutter up the van with dirty laundry as space is at such a premium, nor do I want to use precious time and water (our tank is a small one) washing clothes.  This is a holiday, after all.

I compromise and take smart casual dresses and separates, but ageing underwear that I can bin with a clear conscience.  I’m gratified to discover that I have sufficient for the whole month and am bemused by the notion of leaving a Hansel-and-Gretel-like trail of discarded knickers across the country.

I’ve bought three dresses expressly for the holiday, floaty linen and cotton frocks that are easily rinsed and dried overnight in Provencal sun.  I abate any feelings of extravagance by remembering the experiences of a former colleague on her very first holiday abroad.

Margaret was about 22 and had never travelled far from her native Bristol.  In anticipation of a week-long package trip to Spain, she invested in seven outfits from her catalogue, so that she’d have something new and special to wear every single day.  The whole office was regaled with a detailed description of each outfit as the catalogue delivered it, and after waving her goodbye on the Friday, we looked forward all the following week to an account of her adventures on her return.

Sadly her investment did not pay great dividends.  Pressed for a description, she just shook her head.

“I think abroad’s very over-rated,” she said sadly and would not be drawn any further.

I have higher hopes for my holiday in France.

My packing strategy for my small daughter Laura is similar to my own and I look forward to a month without laundry.  Until Day 5 of our trip, when my husband announces, to my surprise, “Oh no, I’m down to my last t-shirt.”

Terse questioning reveals that he has brought with him just 5 t-shirts, 5 pairs of pants and 5 pairs of socks.  Considering he has approximately 40 t-shirts in his wardrobe at home and more underwear than Laura and I combined, I am not sympathetic.

The situation is partly remedied by persuading him to throw caution to the winds and wear his sandals without socks.  But I cannot extend the same philosophy to the other items of clothing in question.

And so for the rest of the holiday, the interior of the camper van is adorned at every stop with a varying array of his drying laundry, like a Tibetan prayer flag offered up to the god of hygiene.

So at least he can be considered hygienic.  Not so, it seems, his swimming trunks – but that’s another story…

The next post will reveal all – well, nearly all.

Posted in Travel

Lost in France

Senlis - Office de tourisme
Office du Tourisme, Senlis – Image via Wikipedia

Every time I go to France, it is my ambition to be mistaken for a French woman.  This is not so much to do with my linguistic powers, but with the ability to appear effortlessly elegant.  I’m not sure why I feel this compulsion, given that I’m usually such a scruff, but feel it I do.  And I’m on holiday, so what the heck, I’ll self-indulge.

So I’ve planned my holiday wardrobe carefully, packing crisp, simple linen shifts (well,  the two that I possess, anyway).  A trilby serves as a sunhat – a regrettable necessity for my English fair skin.  (I don’t suppose that French women wear sunhats unless they have to).  Simple leather flats, just a couple of pieces of jewellery and a totebag complete the look for a stroll down to the market through the ancient cobbled streets of Senlis, half an hour north of Paris.

When I pause at the tourist office en route to ask whether there’s a swimming pool in the town, the helpful assistant, Raphaelle, asks me which country I come fro.  I experience a fillip of triumph that my accent is not immediately identifiable.  This gives me the confidence to decline her kind offer to converse in English.

Having established the pool’s whereabouts and opening hours and that it’s découverte (open air) – a welcome discovery on this hothouse of a day – I head down the hill to the market.  Carefully I choose the best strawberries in the most promising barquette , hoping I’m indistinguishable from the milling French housewives.  In my exchange with the stallholder, I take a different approach to my grandmother’s tried and trusted “speak English in a very loud voice”.  Instead, I speak French in a very loud voice.  I not only to sound more confident but feel more confident too.  To my delight, the old farmer running the stall treats me just the same as his other customers.

“I think I’m getting away with it,” I smile to myself.  Even so, I am filled with admiration for those war-time spies who successfully infiltrate a foreign country, passing themselves off as native.  Travelling as I am with my husband and his unique approach to the French language, recollections of the English policeman’s comical Franglais in “‘Allo, ‘Allo” are never far from my mind.

On my way back to the camper van, I browse the rails outside a couple of dress shops, now selling off their summer ranges at a discount.  I note contentedly that the most popular style is very similar to the dress I’m wearing.

In a little cloud of self-satisfaction, I potter back up the cobblestones.  I’m reaching the outskirts of the shopping area when a white Renault Clio pulls up alongside me.

“Madame, s’il vous plait?”

A pleasant looking Frenchman leans out of the window to peer up at me, enquiringly.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” I venture, loudly.

He fires off a rapid, complex query as to how to find a particular address in Senlis.  My smile disappears.  He might as well be asking directions to Mars.  I’m fooling no-one after all, not even myself.

“Desolee, monsieur,” I falter in a small, low voice.  “Je suis une étrangère.”

I am a stranger/foreigner.

He nods and waves in sympathy before driving on.  My confidence shattered, I take a wrong turn, lose my way, and for the next fifteen minutes, I am Lost In France.  When the camper van with its GB sticker eventually appears on the horizon, this tiny piece of home territory is a very welcome sight indeed.

Posted in Family, Travel

A Holiday Treat

Strawberry
Image via Wikipedia

Tucking into muesli and strawberry yoghurt one morning during the half term break, I am startled by the strength and depth of the flavour.  I do  a double-take and inspect the bowl as if I might find a hidden mystery ingredient that’s making it taste so good.  My search is fruitless, (or as fruitless as Marks and Spencer 48% Fruit Muesli allows), and I surrender, sitting back to savour this unexpected pleasure.  I let the mixture roll voluptuously across my palate like a wine taster, seeking the right vocabulary to describe the complex sensation.

Why does my breakfast taste so different today?  It’s much the same breakfast that I have every day of the week, though the type of yoghurt may vary slightly, depending on what’s currently on special offer at the supermarket – or whether I’ve misread the label.  Cherry, blueberry, strawberry, rhubarb – hurrah; forest fruits – bother, I thought it was blueberry, but still it will do.

How can this familiar taste suddenly strike me as exotic?  I gaze across the table and out of the caravan window for a clue – and this gesture is in itself a clue.  Usually, I’m not facing a window at breakfast.  Nor am I sitting at a table.  First gulp of the yoghurt is grabbed as I pass by the kitchen counter, a chaser to the handful of tablets I take on waking (thyroxine for an underactive thyroid, sulfasalazine for rheumatoid arthritis).  Before the next spoonful, I whisk upstairs to give a ten-minute warning to my sleeping husband and daughter; the next is grabbed on the way to the utility room to iron the latter’s school uniform.  My morning yoghurt may or may not be mixed with muesli, depending on hungry I’ve been on waking.

I thrust a few coins into my daughter’s purse to pay for her toast at morning break, then grab another spoon of yoghurt on the way to pack her schoolbag.  (Better not mix those two actions up.)

Occasionally as I dash about on my early morning auto-pilot course, I recall my lovely, late friend Eileen’s insistence that there are no calories in anything you eat standing up.  If there’s some raisin bread in the breadbin, I’ll add a slice of fruit toast and butter, confident that it will pass my waistline bywithout sticking.

On workdays, my mind is far too full of early morning routine tasks to spare a thought for the enjoyment of my breakfast.  Now, on holiday, with time and energy to spare, I wonder what other pleasures my usual morning rush makes me miss.  And vow, when I go back to work next week, to take the time each day to smell the muesli.