Animal Crackers and the spirit of Christmases past…

Another Christmas is approaching fast. It’s less work these days, but sometimes I find myself looking back nostalgically to the days when the whole family was still together and the boys were small. The days when things were easier – or were they? Here’s an article I wrote back then, and yes, it is true!:

Animal Crackers!

I was looking forward to a nice, festive, family Christmas. The children were four and six so magic was still in the air, and this year Granny and Grandpa were coming from Scotland for another Swiss Christmas.
‘Don’t forget the animals,’ my older son said.
No chance of that! There were our two guinea pigs, snug in their hutch outside, three goldfish, swimming happily (one supposes) in their tank, and Hannibal, our rather anti-social budgie who ruled the roost in the dining room.
Yes, we were going to have a lovely, peaceful time.
Then the doorbell rang.

‘Hi,’ said the lady across the road, smiling hopefully. ‘Could you take Gritscho for a few days over Christmas? We’re visiting my parents.’
Gritscho was a large African Grey parrot. I’d never looked after a parrot before, but it couldn’t be that much different to a budgie, could it?
‘Sure,’ I said, and she beamed.
‘I’ll bring him over on the twenty-third!’
The boys, of course, were delighted.
‘We’ll put him in the corner beside Hannibal’s shelf,’ I said.
‘Hannibal isn’t very friendly,’ pointed out son number two.
This was true. Still, Gritscho was a big parrot. He wouldn’t let a budgie worry him – would he?

The following day, another neighbour called by.
‘We’re going away for Christmas,’ she announced. ‘Could you – ?’
Of course I could. We often looked after Minou and Griselda, their cats. My Christmas family was growing…

‘Mum, Speedy’s coming here while Sharon’s away at Christmas,’ announced son number one when he came home from school that day. Speedy was his little girlfriend’s guinea pig. Image
‘Can he stay outside with our two?’ I inquired hopefully, but no such luck. Speedy was an indoor guinea pig.
‘He can go under Hannibal’s shelf,’ said my son. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll feed him.’
I wasn’t worried about that, but it was beginning to sound rather crowded in the dining room…

Granny and Grandpa were the first of our Christmas guests to arrive, closely followed by the parrot in his enormous cage.
‘He talks non-stop. Just cover him up if you want some peace and quiet,’ his owner said, waving goodbye. Was I imagining the relieved expression on her face?
There was a strained silence in the dining room as Hannibal and Gritscho glared at each other. Hannibal broke it by giving one warning chirp, and Gritscho removed himself to the far corner of his cage, muttering darkly.
Speedy arrived next in another enormous cage, and was carefully installed under Hannibal’s shelf. Gritscho ambled along his perch to peer at the new arrival, but Hannibal immediately shrieked another warning.
Speedy hurtled into his little house and Gritscho retreated huffily back to his corner.
‘Goodbye, Gritscho, goodbye,’ he said in melodic Swiss-German. It was obviously wishful thinking.

After dinner I went next door to feed the cats. A medicine bottle and a note were sitting beside the cat food.
   ‘Griselda’s been in a fight again. Give her ten drops twice a day if you can. If not, don’t worry.’Image
   I blinked unhappily. Griselda wasn’t one of your typical smoochy pussies. She was three-quarters wild, spent most of her time in the woods and didn’t normally let me anywhere near her. Short of a general anaesthetic, I couldn’t see any way to get ten drops inside her.
Half an hour later, I was completely out of breath and Griselda was furious. And the drops were still in the bottle.
‘You win,’ I said. Griselda glowered at me and settled down for a wash.

The twenty-fourth is the big day in Switzerland, with a family dinner and presents round the tree in the evening. I was up early to start the breakfasts.
‘Three guinea pigs, budgie seed, parrot food, mustn’t forget the cats, and – ’
‘That fish doesn’t look well,’ Grandpa said from the living room. Sure enough, Patch was swimming around upside-down near the surface of the water.Image
‘It’s all right, he always does that,’ said son number one. ‘Mum says he’s got vertigo.’
Grandpa went on staring unhappily into the fish tank.
‘Maybe a drop of whisky?’ he suggested.
‘Where are your slippers?’ yelled Gritscho from the dining room, and the children looked guiltily at their feet. (Isn’t it reassuring how mothers the world over have the same stock phrases?)
Hannibal chirped rudely, and Gritscho shrank back into his corner, muttering away to himself again.
‘Poor old Gritscho,’ I said, laughing.

In the afternoon I did another animal-round and came back to find the family preparing dinner.
‘Mum?’ said son number one, a thoughtful expression on his face.
‘Yes?’ said Gritscho pleasantly.
‘That’s still a very poorly fish,’ said Grandpa worriedly.
‘Mum! Minou’s on the kitchen windowsill, did you remember to feed her?’
My head was reeling, and I hadn’t even started the Christmas sherry yet!
Nevertheless, dinner passed off well. Gritscho watched us as we finished our ice cream.
‘Let’s go to the pictures!’ he cried enthusiastically, bobbing up and down.
‘But it’s Christmas!!’ said my younger son, horrified.

After that chaotic first day, I got into a routine with my holiday guests. Griselda gave us a fright by disappearing for two days, but she turned up again none the worse. Speedy’s only vice was kicking his straw out at regular intervals. And Gritscho continued to regale us with various Swiss-German speeches, though some things I couldn’t understand at all.
‘Oh, he speaks Italian and Romanish as well,’ said his owner when she came to collect him.
A few hours later Speedy had gone home too, and Hannibal was left in solitary splendour once more.
It had been a Christmas with a difference. And it had one lasting effect…
Fast-forward a couple of months to springtime, when my neighbour put the parrot cage in the garden on sunny afternoons. And one day I heard him.
‘Poor Gritscho. Poor, poor old Gritscho.’
Gritscho the trilingual parrot could speak a few words of English now too – in a rich Glasgow accent!

Things’ll be less complicated this year! And maybe that’s a good thing…



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