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A Flight to the Sun

December 22, 2010

What a long year.

It seems years since last Christmas, before the arrival of the “dag” who has now transmuted into the “little donkey.”

Last year’s Christmas was highlighted by a rare raucous drinking bout by Maria’s parents at a restaurant, calmly watched by my niece and myself. They decided to drink everything brought the table to ensure that I did not drink and drive back to the chalet through a snowstorm.

I had no intention of (excessive) drink driving, but they didn’t know that, and I didn’t know that they intended to polish off every bottle that I ordered, which much to their chagrin became more and more as I was mildly concerned that I was unable to get a refill of my glass over dinner since they kept drinking everything. Hence the surreal conversation afterwards as we walked (they stumbled) to the car:

Me: Your parents seem quite sloshed. I thought you said they never drink.

Maria: They don’t. They were drinking so you didn’t have to.

We also had a scare before the birth when Maria had not felt the dag kick for a whole day. We drove down from the mountains and to the hospital to get it checked. This is never a pleasant experience for new parents. Fortunately, the dag was merely heavily asleep because of Maria’s fondue indulgence over the past week.

Strangely, and in retrospect comically, at the hospital no doctor came immediately to see us because we had a too exclusive health insurance policy, kindly provided by Maria’s workplace. The policy meant that only a senior doctor could consult us. She was not available for some 20 minutes though a number of nurses, any of them capable of taking an ultrasound, hovered around.

Obviously everything worked out at the birth when finally the dag came out and we officially went binary.

So what have we learned over the past year?

Not much. Getting nose snot out of a baby is difficult, but I probably could have told you that before. Babies also love disorder, which is unexpected. Anything in a box or organised like shoes lined up or clothes carefully folded must, in her worldview, end up in a variety of places around the flat far from their original positions.

I have also learnt about myself. Such as the fact that I despise people who take lifts that should be reserved for prams, and anyway, you’re young enough to walk some stairs so get out and give me room punk. And ditto to those inconsiderates who walk slowly on footpaths when I’m behind with a pram trying to get home fast. Deep breaths.

But we’re off on a plane soon following the summer sun south as long as there are no plane-delaying snowfalls in Geneva, Munich or Singapore.

It’s a long flight to take with the little one, and I’m sure there will be tears, bad tempers and grumpiness. But that’s just me. Alika on the other hand will probably just take it all in her stride and amuse all 400 strangers on board by blowing bubbles at them.

But it’s been a fun year and thanks to all those who have followed, commented and helped on this blog (even if one complained there were too many big words Mr. Swedish Hippy), and to family and friends who provided toys, gifts and clothes after the birth who we never seemed to get around to formally thanking; still asked us out for coffee or lunch, or even dinner at their place despite knowing an unpredictable child will come with; let us tag along to museums; lend cars when needed; offer baby sitting; accepted phone calls at odd hours to answer baby questions; travelled across the world or a few hours or across town to meet the new kid; travelled across borders for her christening; sent enquiring messages that are always welcome; encouraged and supported us in simple ways that people may not have even realised they were doing; and were bold enough to offer suggestions drawn from experience. And it’s been fun too to watch others go through the same experience after us. Thanks again. And hopefully we will get a chance to see those who we wanted to see more of but time did not allow.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. May 2010 end with brilliance and 2011 begin beautifully.

I’ll be seeing my dad
My sisters and brother, my gran and my mum
They’ll be drinking white wine in the sun

And you my baby girl
My jetlagged infant daughter
You’ll be handed round the room
Like a puppy at a petting zoo

And you’re too young to know
But you will learn one day
That wherever you are and whatever you face
These are the people
Who’ll make you feel safe in the world
My sweet blue-eyed girl

tim minchin

 

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To Get or Not to Get

November 7, 2010

Our daughter is 9 months old, so she has spent more time outside the womb than in. I feel it’s an apt time to review her progress by looking at what she does and doesn’t get.

Not get:

Food ­Her forays into the world of culinary taste acquisition leave a lot to be desired. We try immensely hard through experimentation to get the right nutrients and variety of taste into her system with marginal success.

But she’ll always without hesitation put non-food products in her mouth such as wax and paper. One time I bought a large ironing board and jokingly put it on her lap as she sat in the pram. She then had the audacity to attempt to shove the board in her mouth.

Why she won’t taste a simple biscuit though is beyond me.

Expensive Toys Brightly painted hand-made wooden toys, designed to please any child, should represent in Alika’s world the pinnacle of human accomplishment. I have watched my daughter crawl halfway across a room, leaving these toys untouched, to play with and be amused for hours by some dirty scrap paper that you could find in a rubbish bin.

Depth perspective A weird one, because she has good eyesight, once recognising her mother walking towards her from 100 meters away. But place her on the edge of a bed, couch, or cliff face and she can causally crawl without hesitation towards the abyss with little expectation for the coming important life lesson that 10 centimetre drops or more are painful.

This should change soon as apparently babies develop the notion of fear at around 9 months.

Parental authority Nuff said.

Physics When you hold something it falls, and then someone picks it up after you. One day in a shop a lady gave Alika a helium balloon. When Alika let go of the balloon it floated upwards.

I expected Alika to say, “woah, what the …? Huh? It went up. Nothing goes up! This is amazing. SOMEONE EXPLAIN THIS TO ME! That’s so cool. I wonder if my stupid parents have seen this.”

The event – one that must have questioned all her observations of the physical world around her – was barely met with a shrug.

People are not the same Over one hectic four-day period, my wife and I with Alika in tow went to a couple of weddings in Italy and Austria.

In Italy she stole the show. She was the centre of attention, got taken away by waiters in restaurants to display her to the kitchen staff, people stopped her in the street to get down to her eye level and acclaim what a cutie she was, smile and shake her hand and pinch her cheeks. She loved the attention, giving back smiles and cuddly expressions to all and sundry.

Our next stop was Vienna. As my wife was pushing her through the airport terminal, Alika’s arms where extended out in a welcoming embrace for the new country and trying to catch anyone’s eyes. After a while, a look of confusion and bewilderment settled across her face – one that she kept for a few days – as suddenly she wasn’t getting the level of adulation here that she had become accustomed to from Italians. She’ll carry that scar for a long time.

Conceptual Continuity In the distant past a few months ago I was somewhat proud of the fact that I could pretty much read our daughter like a book, easily gauging her moods and knowing the appropriate action to take to suit any situation. I knew well what action would produce the desired outcome should she be tired, grumpy, bored, hungry etc.

Well, I’m never taking her for granted again. Greater mood variations occur that do not correlate to past observation, which in turn do not match previous causation, and situations cannot be ameliorated if there is a problem according to intervention that had worked before. Yep, she’s becoming more female everyday.

Gets:

Locomotion There was a time I could put Alika on the play mat in the middle of the lounge room and go have a shower, maybe a coffee with a friend outside and a bit of shopping, come back and she’ll be exactly in the same position as I left her.

Nowadays, she’s got the crawling thing down pat – her first attempts at crawling generally resulted in her going backwards arse first into a wall – and there is nothing too uninteresting that can’t be crawled towards and investigated, especially…

Stairs She loves stairs. It’s the ultimate trip for her, a multi-levelled challenge and each small altitude change brings an unexpected new view across the room. The trouble is that she is yet to learn that stairs also go down – sometimes very fast.

Sleep When someone asks how our daughter sleeps, we usually reply with an innocent “10-hours-a-night-thanks-for-asking-is-that-not-normal-really?-yours-doesn’t-gosh-yes-10-hours-a-night.”

Unfortunately that smugness may come back to bite us as she’s regressed slightly and wakes up now in the middle of the night crying loudly several times a week and will only calm down once she’s placed in our bed.

Which all just goes to show that what she gets and doesn’t get is fluid. My bet is the most fluid will be her understanding of parental authority.

I Say Potato, You Say Bwheegooga

October 10, 2010

Some time ago my wife asked why I don’t use baby English with our daughter. I pondered this for a while and a few weeks later asked, “What’s baby English?”

What she meant was the use of particular verbs and nouns you use whilst talking to babies. I don’t use them to my daughter because I had forgotten these words existed, and secondly, what am I supposed to be talking to her about anyway.

Most Indo-European languages have the capacity for “baby talk” far more than in English (or at least in Australian – English). Generally, most English-speaking families I know well use made-up words that don’t get passed on to the next generation. My sister in England uses a host of very creative words and phrase constructions with her kids but I suspect they’re not sustainable.

Ever curious, I asked a host of friends whose mother tongue is not English for baby talk examples.

Generally, these are entirely separate words with no linguistic connection to the adult words.

Sleep, that all-important activity for new parents, is a word with many different ways of conveying. In Italian it is fare la nanna instead of dormire. In Spanish, it’s mimir, instead of dormir. In Swiss German, to go to sleep is heia machen instead of schlafen gehen, and to sleep in Swiss German is pfüsele whereas for adults it is schlafen. In Romanian it is nani and sa faci nani (to go to sleep) rather than the adult dormit. In Greek and Bulgarian, it is also nani (and I assume in Turkish.)

In Arabic, there is wawa for pain or discomfort, tata and seedo is grandmother and grandfather, and baba for father. Food is nounou (in Hebrew it is numnum instead of ochel), and a scary monster is a bo’bo.

Swiss German will usually put the suffix “li” when talking to children, for example a bicycle is Velo for adults and Velöli for children; bed is Bett for adults and Bettli for children. A song is Lied and Liedli.

So what’s it all for? A Spanish friend feels that some words used in baby language sometimes accentuate and help practise certain characteristics of the adult tongue, such as the r sound (/je/ ) in Spanish.

An old friend of mine in Sweden tells me that parents there are careful not to use special words for or with children. “We want our kids to use the right adult word from the very beginning,” though there are “kid’s words” for animals such as cat (katt for adults, kisse for children and hund and vovve).

She makes another interesting point, away from the topic, which I’ll put verbatim as it’s quite fascinating and something I have never heard before or thought about:

“About the only (?) word/sound that is common to all human languages: the sound “schhh” (to make somebody keep quite or to comfort a child). No matter if you’re from Guinea Bissau, Sweden, Australia, Romania, Russia or Japan, you’ll understand the meaning of that sound. So, why is that? Think about the first time you heard your daughter’s heart beat in Maria’s belly. Except for your baby’s heart beat you probably also heard the sound of Maria’s blood rushing through her veins. And what was the sound of that? Schhhhh. To comfort Alika you will probably rock her, whispering “schhhhh” in her ear. And it comforts her as it reminds her of the sound, and the motion, in her mother’s belly. And who doesn’t fall asleep, or at least relax, when going somewhere far by car? The monotone sounds of tires against the road (schhhh), and the “swaying” of the car. It goes far back, to the time before we were born.”

Interestingly, how we teach children to talk – speaking clearly and in short sentences, praising their early words, monitoring their grammar – is a peculiarity of Western culture. Linguist Steven Pinker studied societies where parents rarely talk to their infants and toddlers other than to scold or make a demand. Their two-year-olds are behind on language compared to Western kids, but by age four they catch up.

In academic papers, baby language is referred to as Child-Directed Speech (CDS). So what do researchers have to say on this subject?

In terms of how babies talk and perceive language, there are some interesting findings, though “exactly how infants become such skilled manipulators of a communication tool as complex and nuanced as language, and to do it within a relatively short time frame, still remains a fascinating riddle without a completely satisfying solution.”

Research claims that babies can already separate words. For example, they are hearing “how are you today” and not “howareyoutoday,” which is remarkable though I have some doubt. I can, however, vouch for the fact that we can babble away to Alika and she does turn her head at words we use frequently with her, such as “you numbnut”.

Also, kids prefer learning verbs though parents generally start off with trying to teach nouns.

Another interesting aspect of language that babies use that comes up in academic literature is that what we perceive as grammar mistakes when they talk is actually the speaking of another language, or at least another language’s grammar structure.

For example, the double negative, a favorite grammatical error among very young children. “I don’t want no vegetables” isn’t perfect English, but it is perfect Spanish. Another common mistake is dropping the definite article: “I want puppy.” Several languages, including Russian, do not feature articles. Sometimes the verb to be is ignored by children, such as “Where my shoe?” This sentence construction simply mirrors Hebrew and Arabic. When kids leave out the subject in the sentence “Where going?” they’re thinking like in Chinese, which sometimes drops the subject.

Which grammar system they end up using will be the one that doesn’t get corrected when they’re talking.

Researchers also expound on why adults participate in CDS.

To whit, it attracts attention, conveys emotional affect, and conveys language-specific phonological information, and each of these roles are reflected in certain components of the speech signal – pitch, rated affect, and vowel hyper-articulation.

Some interesting facts abound. Researchers found that fathers use more sentences beginning with ‘Wh’, such as Who, Where and What. I noticed I do this a lot, saying to Alika not that “Your nappy is disgusting” but rather “Whose nappy is disgusting?” The other use of language academics noticed is that mothers use more connecting language to bond with a child in general and fathers use more command language to set status.

The only change I have noticed in speaking to my daughter is my frequent use of the Bulgarian nay rather than the English no because it is easier to keep her attention by using the ā sound, which you can hold for longer to compared to the ō in no.

But this is all jumping the gun. Alika can’t talk at eight months. But I suspect that language acquisition is going to follow the pattern that I’ve noticed babies develop, in that to accept a new skill or experience, they have to first “own it.”

You see it in the food with the beginnings of solids.

She doesn’t need to own her food it by hunting and killing a wild beast. Yet before Alika accepts new food, she has to relish it, see how it feels in her ear, how it sits in her hands, how well you can blow bubbles with it, throw it and then maybe see how it tastes. Then and only then will she think about swallowing it.

It will be the same with language. Babies have to own it, see what works, play with it, create own ways to build it, react with it in their own way that will be different from the parents’ usage because mimicry can only go so far.

And if it’s going to be anything like her eating habits, it’ll be a lot of fun for her but very messy for everyone else.

Thanks to the following for their valuable input: Maria Efremova-Holmes, Baher Rushdi, Elisabet Ek, Ana Serban, Haber Patricia, Anna Lipowska, Silvia Rasheva, Siegrun Krayer Meier, Nir Ofek, Oded Ofek, Julia Martinez Garcia, Eva Simeth Di Fortunato, Bjørg Helene Edberg, Chloé Bonnard, Ariela Perez-Vald, and Renae Akritidis.

Aeroplay

June 29, 2010

Our little one has an ability to wake up in a joyful mood every morning. Unlike some she does not need 15 coffee shots to see the day’s beautiful potential. Yet she’s generous in her waking, not shoving her happiness in our face. She’ll lie in the cot playing with her thumbs and singing while she waits for her parents to wake.

The other day I accidently on purpose woke her early because we had a big day. I was to take Alika to Geneva airport and fly with her to England. My wife was at a conference in Brighton and we took it as an excuse to see the small cousins in Sussex.

Flying alone with a child is a big deal in my world because I’m self-conscious about babies crying, which I’m trying to not give a shit about, and flying with a child takes a bit of organisation panache, which I’m not to good at.

But I had a plan. It entailed stuffing copious amounts of food in my daughter so she’ll either sleep or be semi-conscious as her stomach saps all her energy, incapacitating all other functions, including crying. Hence waking her up early and giving her four bottles whether she wanted it or not before we left for the airport at 2pm.

I did ask a friend – a relaxed super cool mum who has been-there-done-that many times with three kids – for advice. “Just expect the worse and it is usually manageable.”

That did help because I have a vivid imagination. Thus, I was extra aware of the worst case scenarios, so I took extra nappies, double checked I had the right passport, made sure I did not leave the formula in the kitchen, and was acutely aware not to accidently leave Alika in the departure lounge.

With Alika stuffed to the hilt and formula seeping out of her ears we boldly set of into public.

It all could have gone terribly wrong. The bus to the station was packed and very hot, the airport train’s doors nearly crushed us as we jumped on, the flight was delayed by an hour, we sat on the tarmac for another 30 minutes in a cramped plane, and then did loop the loops above Gatwick for ages as if the pilot was scared to land.

Yet she was well behaved for the whole trip. She amused the waiting queues by singing to the amassed captive audience, brought joy to the row of people on the plane by smiling and meeting everyone’s eye, provoking a number of comments on her calmness and cuteness.

The only time she cried was at the airport bar when I went for a calming ale, not realising she must be a secret paid up member of the temperance movement. She was also slightly unsettled when I changed her in the airport’s female toilets. A number of women entered the cubicles while I was in there, but I am pretty sure that none of the women – probably out of embarrassment of bodily sounds – did anything behind the door while I was changing Alika. That will teach them to have baby-changing tables only in the female toilets.

Much to Alika’s and my delight, we caught up with Maria and my sister’s family in Sussex and had an archetypal weekend in an English country village, including a Morris Dancing festival, introducing Alika to ancient pubs, and watching England play football badly.

The only blight of the trip was the flight Maria and I took back to Geneva. Alika went nuts on the plane, and cried throughout with a high pitch wailing that had you been walking the streets of Paris, you would have heard her as the plane flew above.

My wife was clasping Alika close to her body concerned by our daughter’s obvious pain. Half way through the flight, I leaned across to her and, ever helpful, said with a smile “She wasn’t like this on the flight across.”

If she hadn’t had a crying child on her lap, I would have been thrown head first through the window.

Putting a Baby to Bed in 25 Easy Steps

June 8, 2010

The secret to putting a baby to sleep is to ensure there is as little intervention as possible, so as not to awake nor stimulate her.

  1. Turn off anything that can make a sound, dim lights and wait for her to fall asleep after the last milk bottle of the night.
  2. Carry her upstairs to the cot.
  3. Take her back downstairs to switch off the stairwell lights.
  4. Take her back upstairs and jiggle her around to open with one hand in the dark the bedroom door that should have been already open.
  5. Place her in the cot.
  6. Lift her again to place the sleeping bag in the cot.
  7. Place her in the cot.
  8. Lift her again to open the sleeping bag in the cot. Watch her wake because of this.
  9. Place her in cot. Watch her cry for one minute and then lift her to feed milk.
  10. Put her crying back in the cot and go downstairs to get milk bottle.
  11. On re-entering bedroom notice new milk stains over bib and take off bib.
  12. Feed child with milk.
  13. Realise bib should be replaced with clean one.
  14. Put her crying back in the cot and go back downstairs to get clean bib.
  15. Ignore inquiring eyes of wife.
  16. Put clean bib on and feed.
  17. Watch her fall asleep in arms and move to place in cot.
  18. Repeat last step after waking her with a falling milk bottle crashing on the floor.
  19. Watch her fall asleep in arms and move to place in cot.
  20. Realise bib still on and take off bib.
  21. Watch as she vomits milk over body clothes.
  22. Change body clothes.
  23. Repeat steps 14 – 17. Then take bib off.
  24. Trip over bedroom lamp in dark and let it crash to floor waking her up.
  25. Take child down to wife to let her put it to sleep.

A Bath Without Soap

June 1, 2010

Long ago the Orthodox Church would only baptise a child if they were old enough to understand the words of the service. This changed when the church realised that many children would not make the age of comprehension because of disease.

The problem with baptising a three-month old baby, however, is they generally cry throughout the dignified event. Alika didn’t cry as the priest’s baritone singing cast her off to sleep (and nearly me). But she certainly didn’t understand a word of the service.

The Orthodox baptism is both to introduce a person into the church and to atone for one’s sins. Alika hasn’t really done anything sinful, apart from a few milk-related incidents and a habit of vomiting on my shoulder, but I agreed to the ceremony despite my agnostic persuasion.

The obvious question is then why baptise her at all. I can only speak for myself here. The answer is to do with following a cultural system and recognising some ceremonies are intrinsically important to create a shared history. And the wife wanted to do it. And it’s a good party afterwards. And you get to see lots of friends and family. And it is good to hedge your bets.

We baptised Alika in Varshets, a small town in the northwest of Bulgaria. This forgotten and heavily forested region of the country is sparsely populated with clusters of industrial towns and underutilised farming land. You can travel all day and not see a fence; instead peripatetic shepherds tend the few livestock around.

Varshets is an old spa town of piddling size. During the communist years it was popular as a resort for factory workers to escape to on an all-expenses-paid holiday. Scattered around are the remnants of large and ornate houses attesting to a former bourgeois wealth before the onset of proletariat socialism.

With its dearth of streetlights the evening falls heavily here. Coupled with the morbid tradition Bulgarians have to place photo obituaries on street walls and doorways, it makes the night more suitable for vespillos than lovers on lonely walks.

During the day it’s a lovely place, but we decided to baptise Alika in Varshets mainly because Maria spent much of her childhood here with her grandmother and many of her family still live in the town.

During the baptism godparents are the centre of the service and the parents demoted to the background. In the Orthodox tradition, the godparents also become family – meaning that their offspring cannot marry Alika.

Alika’s new godmother, a school friend of Maria’s, came from Sofia, and the godfather and his wife came from Romania following their wedding. (I had attended this wedding the week before, originally wanting to fly to Romania and then to Bulgaria. Iceland’s ash cloud meant that I spent 40 hours in trains crossing central Europe, including, unbeknown to me at the time, the most dangerous one on the continent, the overnighter from Vienna to Bucharest. That’s what I got told at the wedding. I think the train got robbed once in the 1990s and the story perpetuated.)

Maria and I brought Alika into the church while waylaid observers awaited her arrival. We passed her to the godparents and retreated to the back of the church.

There is a lot of chanting by the priest as he reads out the blessings – the priest is apparently known in Bulgaria for his beautiful voice – then the ceremonial baby dip in the water font, and ends with the baptised child dressed in new white clothes by the godparents and given back to the parents. In the old days, the godparents would exclaim at this point “you gave us a Jew, and we give you back a Christian” though this tradition is no longer adhered too. Apparently.

Although I didn’t understand a word of the service the priest apparently gave a very kind and emotional speech about Maria’s family whom he had known for years, and one of Maria’s cousins who had trained as a priest gave part of the prayer.

After a while in Bulgaria, you get used to this “personal family involvement” in aspects of your life, particularly with food. For example, at the baptism lunch the rakia (a local spirits like schnapps) was made by an uncle from the paternal side, the wine came from vineyards owned by an uncle from the maternal side, and the lambs we ate were raised locally on a neighbour’s farm. The next day we took Alika on a picnic, and ate sausages made by her grandfather’s uncle. Yet another cousin gave us homemade goat cheese, and fresh milk and eggs from his property. Mostly this food and drink is made for personal consumption. Note that none of these people are farmers per se, but all this output is done on the side while they’re not working as doctors or engineers.

I am not trying to create a “pastoral idyll” of the country, but I have nothing comparable from Australia. I spent a bit of time on a sheep and cattle farm, and my brother is a beef farmer, but cannot remember eating the produce; most of it got sold to either McDonalds or Japan.

Though the country is not a “pastoral idyll”, it is a smokers’ paradise. But finally it seems Bulgaria is catching up with the rest of Europe regarding smoking laws. While we were in the country, the parliament debated a plan to ban smoking anywhere indoor such as restaurants or cafes. This was seen as bit of a harsh shock, so instead the government decided to ban smoking only in hospitals, schools and public transport.

So Bulgaria is not quite the Western European “nanny state” that looks after your best interests, but we get a lot of parenting advice from the family. This is not entirely unwelcome since I have yet to properly read a book on rearing babies, which says more about my laziness than any parental confidence. Some of this advice is based on experience, some on wife’s tales, but some of it was just contradictory, such as the advice that we were underfeeding Alika, and then the next day from the same person, we were overfeeding her.

After a few rakias at the baptism lunch, I think I agreed with both her differing opinions at the same time.

My Country for a Passport! (Part II)

May 18, 2010

Alika is now in possession of a Swiss work permit, an emergency Australian passport, and a Bulgarian passport.

The Swiss work permit was sent to Alika automatically by the Geneva government and will be valuable if child labour laws change. The Aussie passport was delivered within a few days after we sent the application from Sofia to the embassy in Athens. The Bulgarian passport followed a stranger path and took a while to get thanks to bureaucratic weirdness.

We had to go to Sofia to get the Bulgarian passport, as the authorities require that they see the child, and we had with us Alika’s temporary Bulgarian passport – with two spelling mistakes in her name – and an international birth certificate that proves who are the parents.

This matters. In 1981 Maria and her parents took a holiday in East Germany. On their return trip to Bulgaria the crowded train forced them to find separate seats, but Maria was finally able to sit next to her father. The mother sat in another carriage. At one border control the guards became wary of Maria’s father – a tall dark Bulgarian – travelling with a blond blue-eyed child without any papers. The lack of a common language between the guards and the father did not help the situation and they arrested him on charges of child kidnapping. Meanwhile, in the other carriage, Maria’s mother was arrested and escorted off the train on suspicion of child trafficking, since she had travel papers on her for a child although she was travelling alone.

Back to the present and on the first day in Bulgaria we took Alika to the local government office to get her National Security Number and the Bulgarian birth certificate. The process to get these started three weeks before our arrival. The only reason they were ready by the time we turned up was because of family connections sped up the process.

With all the necessary documents in hand, we confidently stomped off to the passport office in Sofia.

This is located in the suburbs in an old two-storey flushed concrete building that blends in better with the dusty pot-holed street in front than the surrounding modern apartment blocks. The actual office is down a long wooden-walled corridor that termites where doing their best to reduce. A single sliding smoky-glass window serves as a buffer between us and the world of passport providers. The window is generally closed. Once you knock, it slides open to expose a solitary sitting female bureaucrat. The window is so small and low you have to get in a bowing position to see or talk to them.

We smugly passed to the lady Alika’s birth certificate and security number.

“And where is her document proving where she lives?”

“Huh?”

“We need a stamped document from her local authority showing her permanent address.”

“But she was born in Switzerland and is too young to have a permanent address in Bulgaria.”

“It doesn’t matter. You have to have a permanent address in the country to be Bulgarian.”

So back to Maria’s hometown to get a stamped piece of paper stating spuriously that Alika lives with her grandparents.

The next day was smoother and somewhat logical. First we handed over the documents and forms, then another office to pay for the passport, then to the police office in the same building for both a background check to ensure Alika does not owe outstanding taxes and for the official passport photo.

That’s all. All up it took about 40 minutes of waiting, mainly because the office was shut for lunch, and the passport would be ready in three days, not the two or more weeks as we feared.

The illogical part was you could pay for different express services to get the passport back in 8 hours, 48 hours or 3 days. The prices are different but we were told no matter which service we choose, the passport will take a week. We were able to secure a relatively quick service because the man in charge thought that Alika was cute.

As an aside, a local newspaper wanted to interview us at the passport office for an article on peoples’ experience with the government. They wanted, however, a week’s notice that we were unable to provide. The irony of needing such a long lead-time to organise a meeting on the inefficiency of the Bulgarian bureaucracy was, I reckon, lost on the journalists.

As a precaution against Alika’s passport not arriving on time for the return flight to Geneva, we also applied for an emergency Australian passport.

This was straightforward. We met with the Australian honorary consul (HC) in Sofia, who sent the necessary documents to the Australian embassy in Athens, who within two days returned the passport via DHL back to Sofia.

I mention this because the HC office has a large mahogany table used to welcome government dignitaries, heads of state and other VIP persons. This table was the site – and I say this with swelling pride – of Alika’s first nappy change on official Australian territory.

All in all, none of the fears eventuated of being stuck in Bulgaria for months on end awaiting her passport. As the saying goes, “I’m an old man with many worries, most have never come true.”

It is the sort of naive optimism that in the future we’ll have to beat into Alika.