At the Chalet

Chalet School covers

The Chalet School books are a series of 59 children’s novels by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, published between 1925 (with The School at the Chalet) and 1970 (finishing with Prefects of the Chalet School). I had several of these books when I was young, and read as many of the others as I could find in our little local library. I loved the boarding school stories genre, but the Chalet School books were my favourites.

The timeline of the books roughly follows the years in which they were written. The school is founded by Madge Russell in Tyrol in the Austrian Alps in 1925. The Chalet School in Exile, published in 1940, involves encounters with the Nazis and the school moving to Guernsey (and then, in 1941, to Wales). In 1954 with The Chalet School and Barbara, the school moves back to Europe, this time to Switzerland, and remains there for the balance of the series.

Living in tropical northern Australia, the world of the European boarding school was so exotic as to almost amount to secondary world fantasy. The strictures of life at the Chalet School – the days on which the girls could only speak French and German; the hurried morning routines where each girl had to bathe, strip their beds, and say prayers before breakfast; the solemn nature of “prep”, where homework was completed en masse under prefect supervision – were oddly alluring. Boarding school is a place free of parental supervision, and yet with its own labyrinthine internal structures and rules. The characters’ freedom to determine whether they would keep those rules, or experiment with breaking or bending them; to find their own place in the school community, is part of the appeal of the genre.

There is a wealth of writing on the world of the Chalet School books online. The World of the Chalet School discusses among other things the Chalet School as an educational institution and the moral themes of the series. I also love LH Johnson’s wonderfully funny reviews of many of the books, such as this one of Althea Joins the Chalet School, the penultimate book in the series published in 1969:

“It’s no secret that quality dips substantially towards the end of the Chalet School series, and Althea is emblematic of that shift. Following the now traditional format of ‘new girl attending the school’, we witness Althea’s eventual and inevitable integration into a true Chalet Girl during the first half of the term. The Borg-like overtones of the Chalet School at this point in time are hard to escape, and resistance is truly futile.

There are moments in this book which are truly legendary, and not in a good way. Whilst the actual quality of the writing has slipped, the tendency to ‘throw a maelstrom of incidents into the plot that make little to no sense’ has not. As a result of this, we get to witness a genuinely jaw-dropping moment where, and please note this is not hyperbole, Miss Ferrars manages to leap from one speeding motorboat to another. Frankly it’s an incident which sells the entire book.”

In 2008, prompted by a fit of nostalgia, I started re-reading the Chalet School books from the beginning of the series. I made it to around book 23 or so (Carola Storms the Chalet School) before succumbing to weariness. Too many Chalet School books read in quick succession ensure that the flaws of the series become all too apparent. This year, awake in the middle of the night with a baby, I took up where I left off, starting with book 30 and continuing up to book 43 (my collection is unsurprisingly incomplete, given the length of the series, and I’m missing many volumes between books 30 and 40.) They’re perfect midnight reading while breastfeeding; short, easy, and comforting. Brisk walks are taken in the mountain air, social dilemmas are solved over Kaffee und Kuchen in Jo Maynard’s garden, series of very unlikely disasters happen (avalanches! car accidents! infectious diseases! sometimes all in the one book) and are resolved.

I’m taking a break again from re-reading, partly because I started getting more sleep and wanted to read books with a bit more substance again, and partly because I wanted to avoid Chalet School burnout. One of my favourite tropes is the oft-repeated “new girl at school” plot, when new girls are brought kicking and screaming (mostly metaphorically) into the fold and emerge reborn as “real Chalet School girls”; morally upright little cogs turning within the school community. Jo neatly summarises this principle at the end of Ruey Richardson, Chaletian, “You’ve become a real Chaletian – someone who can face the hard things of life as well as accepting the pleasant ones. Someone who’s going to be some good to the world and her fellow human beings.” It’s all very soothing. May we all go out and be of some good to the world.

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Bitter Lemon Gelato

Bitter Lemon Gelato/Ice-cream

Originally I thought that this wasn’t really a gelato because it has cream in it, but I’ve since looked it up and realised that gelato does indeed usually contain cream/milk fats, just less than what we commonly term “ice-cream”. I have therefore spent my whole life living a lie when it comes to the definition of gelato. A very sobering thought.

This is a recipe that comes before one of the chapters in Livia Day’s Drowned Vanilla (a lovely Australian culinary mystery that you should totally read if you’re into that sort of thing). It is wonderfully sour and tangy, a lovely palate cleansing sort of dessert to have after a meal.

ingredients:

1 cup water
2/3 cup caster sugar
1 cup lemon juice (around 5-6 lemons)
2/3 cup double cream or thickened cream

method:
Put the water, sugar, and lemon juice into a small saucepan and stir over low heat until sugar is dissolved. Pour into a metal bowl, and put into the fridge until well chilled.

Whisk the cream into the mixture, and cover with plastic wrap. Pop it into the freezer. Pull it out every half-hour or so and whisk or stir again, until it’s turned into gelato (about three hours or so). I must admit that I only whisked it a few times, because I was trying to get the baby to sleep and then accidentally fell asleep myself, but it still turned out quite well. I expect some additional stirring would have only made the texture smoother and creamier.

Dark Chocolate Chunk Biscuits

Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies

This is a recipe from Dan Lepard’s Short and Sweet which is actually entitled “Dark Chocolate Chunk Cookies”. I know this is much more alliterative than my version, but saying “cookies” makes me feel un-Australian. Biscuits it is. They’re extremely chocolatey and rich and magnificent. Lepard suggests using them for ice-cream sandwiches, but honestly despite my extremely sweet tooth I think that would be overkill. They’re pretty great as an accompaniment to coffee, though.

The original recipe calls for 300 grams of dark chocolate. I reduced this to 200 grams because that was what I had in the cupboard, and I think if I used 300 grams there would have been more chocolate than dough. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course; sometimes one is in the mood for a biscuit that consists mostly of chocolate. They turned out perfectly well with the reduced amount, so you could probably add chocolate chunks to taste without anything too terrible happening.

I presume the 25g of caster sugar is doing something vital texture-wise, otherwise I’d be tempted to leave that out as well just so you don’t have to haul two types of sugar out of the cupboard.

ingredients:

125g unsalted butter, softened
175g dark brown sugar
25g caster sugar
2 tsps vanilla essence
1 egg
175g plain flour
25g cocoa
1 tsp bicarb soda
300g dark chocolate, chopped into chunks

method:
Preheat your oven to 170C or 150C fan-forced. 

Beat the butter, sugars and vanilla essence together until smooth and creamy. Beat in the egg until well combined.

Either sift together the flour, cocoa, and bicarb in a seperate bowl and stir them into the butter mixture (per the original recipe); or measure them out on top of the butter mixture, refrain from sifting, then stir it all together. I promise the lazy method works perfectly fine. It mixes together into a fairly stiff dough, and is consequently too difficult to stir with one hand while holding a baby. You will have to put the baby down and manically sing to her while stirring the mixture frantically. The things we do for biscuits.

Stir in your desired amount of chocolate chunks with a firm and unyielding hand. Disabuse your three year old of his fine notion that we are putting one piece of chocolate in our mouths for every piece that goes in the bowl. While grinning entertainingly at your grumpy infant, scoop up tablespoonfuls of the dough, roll into balls, and place on lined baking trays about 4-5cm apart. This makes around 18 or so biscuits. Bake for around 12-14 minutes – the biscuits should be just firming at the edges and be a little puffed up. Let cool for a few minutes then transfer to a rack. Enjoy with coffee or tea, or possibly sandwiched together with ice-cream if you’re feeling particularly sugar deprived.

The hours

Numbers game

I make notes about the baby’s sleep patterns. When she’s had a string of bad nights I like being able to look back a week and reassure myself that she is capable of sleeping for five hours at a stretch when certain mysterious circumstances align. What those circumstances might be are between Frances and her conscience; she’s certainly not letting me in on her secrets.

I am much more relaxed about co-sleeping this time around. At the moment I’m doing a weird combination of baby-carrier (during the day), putting her to sleep in her cot, and giving up during the early hours of the morning and sleeping with her on a mattress on the floor (as then I don’t have to worry about her rolling off a bed). Motherhood is so very glamorous.

Sleep deprivation steals my patience. Other things as well, but lack of patience is what I notice most; when I’m trying and failing to respond positively to being asked the same question for the fifth time in a row, or repeating my son’s name again and again as he fails to respond. There are quite a few pre-schooler behavioural traits that make me want to scream, but selective deafness is one of the most frustrating. I suppose from his perspective he is busily considering very important matters like volcanos and space shuttles, and in contrast I am wittering on about something incredibly dull like eating.

With a couple of months of broken sleep under my belt, patience is slowly coming back to me and I find myself able to parent with some grace again, to find enjoyment in Edward’s endless questions. “I have spotted an ibis having a drink!” he said to me importantly a few days ago, pointing towards an ibis picking its way along the dam edge. The intensity of his fascination with the world awakens my own joy, and the muddy little dam is transformed; the ibis is beautiful, gleaming in the last light of the day as it gracefully steps through the shallow water; the chirping high calls of the frogs in the reeds are like music, their notes following us as we eventually dust ourselves off and walk hand-in-hand back towards the house.

When the rain comes

Raindrops

Our back verandah stretches the length of the house, and if you stand at the top of the stairs you can look down into the garden towards the rear dam. When the water is low, you can sit on the back stairs and watch wading birds picking their way along in the shallow water. After some rain, when the dam level is higher, we see ducks flying in; usually Pacific black ducks and Australian wood ducks. I’ve taken a surprising number of photos of birds and wildlife from the verandah; recently a koala spent the day in one of the grey gums at the side of the house, and I could prop my elbows on the railing and take a few photos of it wedged into a forked branch.

On the weekend we had a full day of steady rain, and I bundled Edward into a rain outfit of ski jacket and surf shorts so that he could muck around in the puddles. Rivulets of water started running down the driveway as they unfortunately do every time it rains heavily, taking stones and gravel with them and depositing them into the drain that runs alongside the driveway and then under it, taking the water into the dam. Or at least it’s supposed to; bits of driveway previously washed into the drain have hampered its operation somewhat.

I stayed up on the somewhat dry verandah, as I had the baby strapped to me as she snoozed in her carrier, taking some photos with my zoom lens and watching the bright blue of Edward’s jacket as he puttered back and forth getting his legs thoroughly covered in mud.

My only zoom lens is a cheap Nikkor 70-200mm that I’ve had for around a decade, since I bought my first Nikon body. (Typing that was the first time I realised I’ve had that lens for a decade and now I feel terrifically old). I would like a better and longer zoom, but it would be an expensive purchase so I perpetually put it off, only remembering this with mild frustration when I’m trying and failing to take a photo of a bird in flight. However, taking a moment to try and find a shot that will work within the limitations of the lens is usually worthwhile; its restrictions create opportunities that I might have overlooked otherwise.

Things I found in my pantry

Common Crow

When I’m on maternity leave, I clean out my pantry. I do not, as a rule, clean out my pantry at any other time. You may think to yourself that this does not sound like a particularly good idea, and indeed, you would be correct.

Recently I had a baby and subsequently in accordance with my innate biological instincts, I spent a day cleaning out the pantry. I found a number of things.

1. Dead moths. In a past life, or possibly this one, I committed some terrible sin against the pantry moth species (Plodia interpunctella, as I just discovered), and as a result they have been hounding me ever since. Moving into my flour, lurking beneath tins and generally making pests of themselves. I bloody hate pantry moths. You may think to yourself, “perhaps if she cleaned her pantry more regularly than once a decade, she wouldn’t have such a problem with pantry moths”. I will thank you to keep such indubitably correct thoughts to yourself.

2. A box containing a set of rather nice mugs that I received as a gift several years ago. Surprise! This made me feel like a rather ungrateful person, but I have now washed them and have been enjoying morning coffee in them. They’re great mugs!

3. Hey, I own a fondue set! I should make fondue!
(This is obviously never going to happen and I will be surprised all over again by the fondue set the next time I clean out the pantry).

4. A rusting can of “Steak and Onion” something or other that I distinctly remember moving with, probably because I thought at the time, “why do I own a can of Steak and Onion Something Or Other?” Alarmingly, I have lived in this house for eight and a half years. The can looked both suspiciously old and quite disgusting, and into the bin it went.

5. A jar of Bovril that my husband bought for reasons known only to himself. Its expiry date was in 2010. Wikipedia describes Bovril revoltingly as a “thick, salty meat extract”. When told that I had thrown it away, my husband declared indignantly that Bovril doesn’t go off, it’s like Vegemite. I am pretty sure that thick salty meat extracts do indeed go off, but I wasn’t willing to open the lid to find out for sure.

6. A very elderly sweet potato grimly trying to grow and propagate on the bottom shelf. Give it up, little potato, that’s never going to work.

7. Four different brands of caramel syrup. Whyyyy.

8. Three bottles of blue food colouring, two of which are unopened. So I guess I thought I needed blue food colouring on at least two different occasions, bought a new bottle, discovered the already opened one, then added the new bottle to the depths of the pantry.

Thankfully the pantry is a lot tidier now, and has no resident moths. (For now). And as thrilling as it is to unearth foodstuffs that expired 6 years previously, in future I’m going to consider the radical step of no longer linking my cleaning schedule to my reproductive system.

Brown Sugar Chocolate Cake

Brown Sugar Chocolate Cake

This recipe is from Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet, and makes a wonderfully unassuming loaf cake with a rich chocolate flavour and molasses-like sweetness from the brown sugar. He notes that cakes with a high proportion of fat and sugar to flour are susceptible to sinking, which as you can see mine did. Lepard’s suggestions for avoiding this are to add a little more flour, or an extra tablespoon of egg white to the batter.

I was not particularly inclined to locate glycerine for one recipe, and instead replaced it with a mixture of oil and glucose syrup. I’m not sure if this was particularly effective or whether I could have just left it out – it didn’t seem to be a disastrous decision is all I can really say about it.

ingredients:

50ml cold water
25g cocoa
100ml boiling water
50g dark chocolate, broken into pieces
½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
100g butter, softened
175g muscovado sugar (I used dark brown sugar)
125g condensed milk
2 medium eggs
2 teaspoons glycerine
200g plain flour
2 teaspoons baking powder

method:

Line a large loaf tin with baking paper, and pre-heat your oven to 180C (or 160C fan-forced).

Mix the cocoa with cold water to make a paste, then stir through the boiling water. Add the chocolate and bicarb soda, and wait for the chocolate to melt.

While you’re waiting, in another bowl beat the butter, sugar, and condensed milk together until smooth, then beat in the eggs and glycerine (or freakish mixture of glucose and oil). Lepard suggests mixing together the flour and baking powder in a separate bowl, but I always ignore those instructions because having three bowls to wash up after making a cake seems excessive. Beat in half the flour mixture (or if you’re me, half the flour and all the baking powder) into the sugar mixture, followed by the chocolate mix, and then the remaining flour, until well beaten together.

Scrape the mixture into the loaf tin, and bake for around 45 minutes, until a skewer comes out mostly clean (“with only a few crumbs sticking to it”). If your cake has sunk, comfort yourself with the thought of the exciting pocket of icing the middle slices will contain. Leave to cool in the tin and peel off the baking paper when cold. I mean, if you’re incredibly cautious and don’t feel like eating cake right away. It’s not that delicate, and it survived being de-tinned after 20 minutes or so in my kitchen.

Lepard suggests a Treacle Chocolate Fudge Frosting, which you can find a recipe for here. I just made a plain chocolate butter icing, and the cake is wonderful enough to stand perfectly well on its own without icing should you be so inclined.

On the full moon

Flowers

My daughter was born on a full moon. This was not due to some mystical cosmic alignment, but rather to the fact that the hospital had space on that day for an elective caesarean section. Placenta previa had upended my easy pregnancy and plan for a relaxed drug-free birth, and meant that the hospital was reluctant to let the pregnancy go beyond the 38th week due to a significant risk of bleeding should labour commence naturally. I had expected the surgery to be booked around my due date, and I drove away from the hospital after that appointment feeling rather blank.

I was disappointed when I found out I had to have a caesarean birth. Prior to the birth of my son, I had taken hypnobirthing classes and intended to have a drug-free birth. His birth was induced, which meant I had constant and fairly invasive monitoring and took pethidine for the pain. I hoped the birth of my daughter would be closer to my original plan, being free to move around the birthing suite and breathing through the birth. The thought of giving birth in an operating theatre surrounded by people was so far from my original plan that it saddened me, and I felt quite anxious about it. Giving birth was about trusting my body. Having surgery meant placing that trust in other people. I spent the last two weeks of the pregnancy reading positive stories about other women’s elective c-sections, and trying to think about the surgery in a relaxed way, but it still took me until a few days before the surgery date to finally start to look forward to meeting my daughter.

The surgery itself was perfectly straightforward. The morphine included with the anaesthetic made me feel relaxed, and the anaesthetist looked over the drape and talked to me throughout the whole process. “They’re making the first incision now… there’s a few layers to get through… now they’re cutting through the muscles…”. It was quite surreal to listen to this commentary as my body moved and shook occasionally as the surgeons worked. A few minutes after the first incision, they pulled my daughter out and I heard her give a wet gurgling cry, sounding like an angry cat.

The worst part of having a c-section is the recovery afterwards. Getting up for the first time and staggering to the shower while a nurse walks next to you holding your catheter bag, going to the toilet the next day and wondering how you’re going to manage to get back up off the seat again, calling the nurse during the first night to change your baby’s nappy because you can’t face getting out of bed – I found it so much harder than the recovery from my vaginal birth. Healing is certainly fast and I only spent two nights in hospital, but it is frustrating having to gingerly manoeuvre yourself up to breastfeed in the middle of the night without using your abdominal muscles, and to avoid picking up anything slightly heavy.

My full moon baby is almost two months old now. She smiles at me. I am sure the experience of having your first child in comparison to your second differs not only because they’re different children, and because you have some idea of what you’re doing, but also because of your inevitably foggy memories of what it was like to have a newborn. I don’t remember life with a newborn as being terribly pleasant, what with the shattering exhaustion and all that accompanies it. Life with this baby is actually quite enjoyable, aside from her occasional fits of inconsolable crying. I still don’t appear to have mastered the mysterious art of getting a baby to have a nap without putting them in a baby carrier, but am trying to appreciate this as a “well, one day you won’t have a warm sleepy baby strapped to you and then I expect you’ll miss it” experience. And while I suspect this is not actually true, as I type this and bend my head to press her soft hair against my cheek, and smell the sweet scent of her skin, I think to myself that this is actually the most wonderful thing in the world.

Baby-To-Be

Phasmid

The changes to your body are much less interesting during a second pregnancy. I don’t take enthusiastic bathroom-mirror photos of my expanding girth, and my feelings towards the pregnancy mostly consist of eagerness to reach the end of it. My recollection of the first months of parenthood with my son is that they were grindingly exhausting, and I think this contributes to my general longing to get on with the whole pregnancy business and start work on the brand-new-baby bit. Selecting potential names is an activity I am more wholeheartedly enthusiastic about. I have various draft lists of name combinations and occasionally bombard the husband with series of texts of my more outlandish choices. “Clementine? Beatrice? Wilhelmina?” These are inevitably not met with glowing approval.

My memories of childbirth have blurred in the intervening three and a half years. While I remember thinking at the time that it was the most shatteringly painful thing I had ever experienced, the very definition of unbearable, I can no longer recall what that pain felt like. Last time I had rather lofty ambitions of following the lessons learned in my hypnobirthing classes and breathing my way silently through birth. This time I’m limiting my goals to things like a) take your skirt off before giving birth so it doesn’t get covered in gore; b) don’t try and complete a conveyancing while being induced – little things I feel I can improve on from last time. (The conveyancing thing was just spectacularly poor timing and not because I thought it was somehow a good idea).

I remain hopeful that the brand-new-baby-business will somehow be easier the second time around. Less weeping despairingly in the middle of the night longing for sleep, that sort of thing. (From me, not the baby. I figure the odd bout of weeping despairingly is fairly central to babyhood.) Combining this version of brand-new-baby with parenting the already existing toddler will no doubt be an interesting experience. Although he is no longer a toddler, I suppose, given that he is heading rapidly towards age 4 and about to begin kindergarten. A pre-schooler. Albeit a pre-schooler who still needs to be snuggled to sleep and who has an unhealthy attachment to my hair as a soothing aid. I won’t be making that mistake this time around. Baby-to-be can get unhealthily attached to a teddy or blanket or anything that’s not actually physically part of my body.

Reading Round-Up for 2015

DSC_7385

My reading mojo officially returned in 2015, for the first time since having a child in 2012, and I finished 86 books. This comes just in time for me to have a second child during 2016. Hopefully Baby No. 2 is less of a shock to the system and it won’t take me as long to remember how to read again.

Look! Here you can see the covers of all 86 books prettily laid out with links to their pages on Goodreads and so on.

Some very thrilling percentages that are of interest only to me and people genetically related to me who find all my activities fascinating because they are legally required to do so:

  1. I rated 40% of the books I read 4 stars and above.
  2. Romance/erotica (both the historical and contemporary variety)replaced speculative YA as my light and relaxing genre of choice, and made up 19% of my reading for the year.
  3. Fantasy and science fiction still made up a large chunk of my reading – 40% – although I would guess this is slightly less than previous years, as I feel like I read more contemporary fiction this year.
  4. I read a couple of reasonably long series this year:
    1. Rosemary Kirstein’s Steerswoman series (4 novels so far)
    2. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s Rev. Clare Fergusson & Russ Van Alstyne Mysteries (8 novels so far)
    3. Sylvia Day’s Crossfire series (4 novels so far – this is really appallingly written erotica which I don’t recommend, but which was strangely addictive).
    4. Pretty much everything written by Liane Moriarty, which are all stand-alone novels, but it sort of felt like a series because I was reading them one after the other and they’re stylistically similar (6 novels so far).

A few stand-out books from 2015:

Euphoria by Lily King is an excellent short novel, loosely based on events in the life of Margaret Mead, and centres around three anthropologists working in PNG in the 1930s. It is quite a sombre book, but just stunningly written. One of my favourites for the year.

The Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein is one I really enjoyed but it does feature a gentle rambly sort of pacing which may not be to everyone’s taste. It works perfectly with the theme of the novels though, and they were such a pleasure to read.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty was one of my favourite contemporary novels, which managed to pull off a narrative that was both funny and light-hearted, as well as darkly serious (dealing with various types of abuse).

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan is a gorgeously surreal fantasy, filled with beautiful imagery. On the opposite side of the fantasy spectrum, An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet feels very earthly and grounded, exploring the lives of its characters with a wonderful depth and seriousness.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin is a more traditional other-world fantasy, and it is both wonderful and quite horrifying. (If death-of-children is something you avoid in fiction, this is not the book for you.)

The Race by Nina Allan is four interlinked novellas which form a novel-length work, and is really wonderfully done – all four stories are excellent, and the way they link together is fascinating.

As at 5 January 2016, I’m already reading three books at the same time, so I’m well on the way to getting through another 80 or so books this year. Depending on how disruptive Baby No. 2 is, anyway. I am optimistically and no doubt vainly hoping for an excellent sleeper this time around. Please politely smother your derisive laughter and wish me all the best in this endeavour.