Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Panic at the Baby Shower

I knew I'd outstayed my welcome but I couldn't leave, even if I'd wanted to.

It was a perfect Spring day. After weeks of persistent rain and wind, the sun shone and the sky was a brilliant cloudless blue. In the early morning, I'd put up gazebos, hung paper lanterns and laid out plastic chairs. Tables draped in reds and whites were laden with baby shower presents, bowls of fruit punch, and plates of tiny pink and blue cupcakes. In the kitchen, meat pies and sausage rolls cooked in the oven and, in the bedroom, my wife's sisters put the finishing touches to party games and tokens of appreciation.

The guests would soon arrive and mingle on the freshly mown grass cut to within an inch of its life not two hours before. Gifts would be given and gossip shared. My work was done and I had a window of opportunity in which to disappear and leave the women to their party. This was a baby shower after all and the rules of society had me banned from setting foot within a hundred yards of the house once the festivities were underway.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (A Baked Creation)

My moment of escape came and went.

Instead of grabbing my car keys and making a break for freedom, I answered the front door and greeted two early arrivals. I found myself back in the kitchen making polite conversation. I answered the door again and welcomed three more. I helped serve some food and tidied away the rubbish. Put more pies in the oven, re-arranged cakes on trays.

The guests kept arriving. I smiled, I chatted, I caught up on their news. We laughed, we cried, we talked about babies. "No, I haven't figured out how the breast pump works." "Yes, I'm looking forward to getting down the gym again." "Of course we're considering air and gas but I still prefer epidurals." The conversation flowed and I doled out more punch, happy to serve and eager to please. I was caught up in the moment, in my element, loving this life, and not in a hurry to leave thank you very much.

"Are you still supposed to be here?" one of the guests suddenly asked, her bleach blonde head tilted to one side, frown set firmly upon a sun-kissed face. The question knocked me clean out of my fruit-punch induced haze. Left sprawling in a pool of reality, the penny dropped and my baby shower bubble burst. I shouldn't really be here, should I? This is for ladies only. A man-free event.

"Erm... sure... I'm just... you know... welcoming people to the baby shower and... well... catching up with old friends," I managed to say. "I'm leaving shortly. Just got to gather my things. Won't be long." I felt several pairs of eyes on my back as I put down my punch.

My wife tried to rescue me from my inquisitor. "It's okay Russ. Stay if you like. You don't have to go." But I did. I needed to leave. I had to leave. I knew it deep down in the bones of my newly minted metrosexual body. I had to break free from this incredible fun. From these wonderful, blissful, perfectly delightful baby shower moments and resume my regular role as husband, man, non-invitee.

Of course, I couldn't leave until I'd found the bloody dog lead. Where had I put it? As I hunted high and low, I was cornered by a friend from my university days who insisted on reminiscing about the life and times of our alcohol-ridden student life. The eyes on my back turned into many sharp daggers and started to stab and stab. I tried to carry on the conversation, acutely aware that the clock was ticking and I should be well on my way.

"Still here Russ?" one of my wife's workmates called out as she walked past me into the garden. "Shouldn't you be out with some of your man friends?"

I squirmed where I stood and a bead of sweat worked its way down my back and into my underpants. I wanted to be anywhere but here. The beach, the city, out of the country, in another continent, maybe the UK. In fact, I'd heard that Travelodge offer great rooms in Manchester at this time of year. It was time to get out of dodge... and fast.

Mumbling a feeble excuse, I snuck off to the car, male ego slightly bruised but for the most part intact. I took my dog to the beach, grabbing a coffee on the way, and played ball on the sand dunes for hours. Afterwards, I headed home to help with the party clean-up. I couldn't exactly leave my heavily pregnant wife to the task alone.

As I pulled into the driveway, I glanced at the clock on the dash. 4pm. 4pm??? I'd only be gone one hour?!! The party was still in full swing and I'd come back far too early. I decided to hide in the house, keep a low profile, try to blend into the background.

I crept into the living room and put the dog into his bed. I had to place the car keys on the hook in the kitchen, then I could retire to the bedroom and read a good book. Crouched down low enough to keep my head below the kitchen window and hidden from any wayward glance by a guest, I heard someone point out that the dog was on the back deck. No, now he was in the garden eating scraps off someone's plate.

"Russ? Are you back already? Are you there?" my wife called out.

Panic gripped me like an oh-so-manly vice but I straightened up and walked meekly onto the back deck with the condemned air of a suspect caught with his trousers down. A dozen pair of eyes tracked me. Twelve women judged me. The verdict was given and I was (almost) unanimously found guilty. I'd returned to the scene of the crime and committed the crime once again. I was a man at a baby shower, the one place a man is not allowed to be.

Then, like an angel sent express post from the gods, my good friend Nick, one of the guest's husbands, sauntered into the backyard. Another wolf to the slaughter, another man well out of his depth. "Hey Russ, thought I'd stop by and pick up Sammy. Any chance of a cold beer?" he called out.

And with those few beautiful words, those expertly delivered lines, any crisis was averted and my panic was abruptly over. After which, I cracked a couple of cold ones and we went and watched the footy.

So... the big debate.... Should baby showers be the sole preserve of women or should men also be allowed to get in on the act? Or should we be doing something else?

Do share below.

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Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Five Marvels of Modern Technology

Have you ever felt as if you've been overseas too long and you've lost touch with what's happening in the old country?

Does it take a major event in the motherland to make you realise just how far you've fallen behind with everyone and everything - from the latest gossip with friends to the next big thing on TV?

When you pack your suitcases and travel, do you wish you could remain connected with happenings back home?

It doesn't matter if you've lived in five countries, backpacked across three continents, or travelled the world for five months and a day, there's always something you miss from home. We've all been there and felt that growing sense of disconnect.

During a wet and overcast English summer of sports programming saturating my Australian TV, I couldn't help being drawn back into the nest I flew from almost ten years before. Bleary-eyed and sleep-deprived in the early hours of the morning, I listened to reports filed by familiar British commentators and I caught the end of programs broadcasting from across the length and breadth of the UK.

Surfacing from these epic dawn endeavours, I realised I had a longing for the familiarity of my old home and a need to keep the connection going with the country of my birth. As the English summer lovefest ended, I made a commitment to myself to become more connected through the marvel of modern technology and the wonders of the BBC. Here's how I've been doing so.

Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons (Kristina Schuster)

1. BBC iPlayer

For three months, I've been trialling the BBC iPlayer app on the iPad, courtesy of BBC Australia. Already a fan of the Beeb and its regular supply of quality programming, I was initially sceptical that the iPad app would deliver given its limitations over the traditional television set. However, I've enjoyed being able to access most shows through the iPlayer interface. It's easy to navigate, streams the content relatively smoothly, and allows me to watch as many programs as I like under the monthly subscription.

We're spoilt in Australia by the number of British programs on national TV but the iPlayer generally provides them sooner, with greater variety, and on demand. For Australians, the ABC's iView and SBS On Demand apps are also excellent but, as I understand it, only available to those people actually residing in Australia.

2. VPN Services

Have you seen the growing number of Virtual Private Network (VPN) subscription services, including AdTelly or ExpatTelly? These VPN services have allowed me to watch a range of television channels from the UK directly on my computer or iPad from anywhere in the world. The services connect your PC to their VPN servers so that when you visit websites such as the BBC or ITV, you appear as a resident of the country. This means you have full access to their UK-only 'live TV' or 'on demand' services without getting any error messages.

When the Australian television channels reverted to local programming during the Olympics, I'd switch on my VPN service, log on to one of the British channels, and continue watching live coverage. Sometimes slow, occasionally jumpy, it always allowed me to navigate the various stations as if I was located right there in the UK.

3. Apple TV

Apple TV has been a wondrous discovery in the Ward household. I can now stream most of my iPad applications directly onto our widescreen TV through the magic of AirPlay. I can also mirror the actions I take on my iPad, rent and download movies, connect to my iTunes library, and even subscribe to the NHL.

While this has been something of a revelation, the real benefit has been the ability to watch both the BBC iPlayer and VPN service programs on my regular TV rather than only on the iPad. Eyesight saved, job well done, much happier expat.

4. FaceTime over 3G

I know, I know, this post has a distinctly Apple flavour minus the huge sponsorship dollars but FaceTime has been another great find. With the roll-out of the latest operating system on the iPad and iPhone, FaceTime now works over cellular networks as well as Wi-Fi, so I can make and receive FaceTime calls wherever I happen to be and without being hooked up to the Internet.

I'm not quite ready to wave goodbye to my relationship with Skype and I've no idea how much this new tool is costing in terms of phone plan usage but I'm slowly converting to a world where FaceTime is my preferred friend.

5. TalkSPORT Live

One thing we Brits can't long be without is our football or soccer. As the world's most popular sport, it's likely that a few others can't long be without it too.

An innovative new way to follow the English Premier League is through talkSPORT Live which gives football fans outside Europe exclusive access to live commentary of every Premier League game for free via the Internet. TalkSPORT has also just joined up with Twitter to bring its live commentary to Twitter users outside Europe at so there's no excuse for the soccer tragic to ever miss a game. Pretty good, eh?

So what do you use to maintain that connection with your own home or country of origin? Are there any tools or gadgets that you subscribe to and would like to share below?

By the way, the people at talkSPORT Live have very kindly donated a Liverpool FC football shirt signed by former player Stan Collymore to give away to my readers here.

Stan is talkSPORT's chief commentator and was a prolific and controversial goal scorer in the English Premier League in the 1990s. He also held the British transfer record when he moved from Nottingham Forest to Liverpool for £8.5 million in 1995.

To be in with a chance of winning this signed shirt, simply leave a comment below telling me why you want the shirt. I'll pick the best one and the winner will be announced in the next post on this blog and on the Facebook page.

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Thursday, 11 October 2012

Raising My Bilingual Baby

"You should raise your child bilingually", my heavily pregnant French friend suggested to me a few week's ago as she adjusted position on a remarkably soft sofa.

She described her own plans to bring up a bilingual baby. "I want my child to grow up knowing about my culture and my home language", she told me. "And it doesn't involve too much hard work. Whenever I speak to my little girl, it will be in my native French and Daddy will talk to her in English." She slid further into the yawning gap between the cushions and I resisted the temptation to haul her out.

The thought of teaching my firstborn a second language still seemed like a lot of hard work. "You only need to speak to your baby in French for a few hours each week at home", she added. "Before you know it, the little he or she will be well on the road to fluency in two languages and will be set up for a great future career."

Really? I thought. Could I honestly grow my child into a highly sought-after globetrotting professional from this early age? Did I even want to?

On reflection, it wasn't such a bad idea.

My child would be fluent in two languages, they'd be well ahead of the development curve from an early age, and at the front of the queue when job hunting later on in life. In a global economy continuing to falter, having that second language on their CV could be handy. I’d need to start early, pull together a game plan, and set clear goals on what I wanted 'Junior' to achieve.

inspire language learning

My own bilingual journey

For me, the road to bilingualism and speaking a second language ground to a halt the moment I moved to Australia.

I learned French during my school years in England, went on exchanges to France as a teenager, and spoke the language fluently while working for the Federal Government in Canada during my late twenties. Having a second language under my belt helped me on my merry way up the career ladder and then I came to the land down under. There wasn’t much need to speak a second language so I simply stopped and I've regretted it ever since, perceiving a grinding halt to my job prospects and a long life of wishful thinking ahead.

In an attempt to retrieve the lost language that in some small part defined me as a younger man, I recently started private tuition with my French friend and the years of learned vocabulary and grammar have slowly winged their way back to me.

Now my wife is about to have our first child.

Assuming all goes to plan, we’ll be welcoming our baby boy or girl into the world in three week's time and I'm quickly warming to the idea of raising our child in two languages. I'm keen to buy French kid's books with colourful characters and charming turns of phrase, excited to tune in to an array of foreign language stations on the radio and television, and yearning to whisk our newborn off to France le plus tôt possible.

The pros and cons

Raising a bilingual baby is a big effort when there's potentially not a lot of point here. We live in a country where only English is generally spoken and we’re located far from our neighbours where foreign languages are predominant so should I give up before I've started? And let’s not forget we’re talking about a baby here, not an older child. Isn't it better to let it have its time as a newborn and leave it to develop in peace?

The leading books on raising bilingual children describe huge advantages to bilingualism such as providing a better understanding of other countries and cultures, significantly improving brain development at an early age, and ensuring an ability to compete and succeed in the job market in an ever-shrinking world.

Yet for every person who supports the idea of their child being fluent in two or more languages, there is another that says it’s not a good thing to do.

Teaching your child to learn two ways of saying every word will confuse them and may even cause language learning delays. They’ll have to be a superstar to learn not one but two quite different languages and it’s a lot of work to succeed in this endeavour, particularly if neither of you are native foreign language speakers. And all this to achieve something that may not even be useful in a career here in Australia.

My gut feeling is that many of these negativities are myths.

A hopeful future

Children are capable of almost anything at a young age so why not put in the hard yards early on with the prospect of a brighter future for them, however distant or unnecessary it might currently seem.

Imagine listening to your developing child parle a little francais with ses amies over Skype, feeling supremely confident that this tiny person has an opportunity-laden life ahead of them because you put in the homework early on and set them on their way. Your teeny tiny ankle biter may develop greater intelligence as a result of your combined early efforts - and their job prospects and career aspirations should flourish

For me, to bring up a bilingual baby is to prepare my newborn for an uncertain global future while giving them every available tool for increased confidence and a deeper awareness of other cultures. An added bonus is that I get to learn something along the way.

And what could be better than that.

What do you think? Is there any point in raising a bilingual baby or child? Have you tried to? Is it all about future career prospects?

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Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Love My Neighbourhood

If you read this blog often enough, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of Sydney's Northern Beaches. This short stretch of golden sand beaches and salt water lagoons stole my heart six years ago and I’ve remained here ever since.

Occasional traffic snarls, barefoot bogans and the high cost of living aside, it’s a remarkable little corner of New South Wales offering outstanding natural beauty and idyllic beachside living less than ten kilometres from Australia’s largest city and I'm privileged to call it my home.

So pack your bags, order some travel money, and stock up on the sunscreen because I’m taking you, the reader, on a whirlwind tour of my favourite spots in this beautiful environment that I call home. 

Photo credit: Russell VJ Ward

I’ve written a guest post for a series called I Love My Neighbourhood on the site of Edna Zhou, an American expat currently living in Paris. Edna describes herself as a serial expat travelling the world by living in a different city every year and her blog is proving to be a hit amongst both the expat and Paris community.

In I Love My Neighbourhood, Edna asks expats from across the globe to share the joys of the local life they’ve found in their corner of the world so I was more than happy to oblige.

If you like the sound of exquisite espresso coffee served less than two streets back from the water or if a tour around the picturesque beach village of Avalon takes your fancy, head on over to I Love My Neighbourhood: Sydney’s Northern Beaches right now and enjoy a unique taste of Australian beachside living from the comfort of your very own home.

Have you ever visited Sydney's Northern Beaches? If you had to submit your own entry, what neighbourhood of the world would you love and why?

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