On the Beach

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Inspiration in Noordehooek

Yesterday, when the weather was great (let's rather not discuss the weather today, My visiting in-laws went out in long trousers and fleeces), we decided to take a trip to Noordehooek, over the other side.

In Cape Town, when you live in an area, it seems you rarely  leave it, talking about "the other side [of the mountain]" much like you would do Mars or perhaps something in the Twilight Zone that you have heard of, but not personally familiar with. To get your average Capetonian to even contemplate a part of town in which they do not reside is an effort, let alone getting them to go there.

Seeing as we're relatively new, it only took a couple of hours of summoning up all that mental strength to drive up and over Ou Kaapse Weg and find ourselves in Noordehooek. It took around 25 mins from door to beach. Phew.

For those that haven't been, Noordehooek is totally amazing. It feels completely rural, wild and cut off but is only around 35-40 minutes from Cape Town CBD. It is green, lush and quiet with a wide, wide beach stretching off almost as far as you can see. If there are 10 other people on it, you've hit rush hour.

Anyway, all that sun, sea and sand can make a person hungry so we set off in search of a place to feed 3 generations of one family.

We found ourselves at the Red Herring Trading Post on Beach Road in Noordehooek, a stone's throw from the beach. I absolutely love the Red Herring Trading Post. To reach the shops and restaurants in the Red Herring you have to navigate quite thick Milkwood Forest- all the traders are nestled among the branches that form natural jungle gyms for the children. As you emerge from where the Beach Cafe used to be, you get stunning views of the beach and the mountains. Rather like this:

 The Beach Cafe is no longer. It has been replaced by Franieba's Restaurant. It calls itself Cape Malay but the menu is broader than that- there is Cape Curry, Bobotie but also calamari, fish and chips, burger, a selection of salads. The chalkboard  menu definitely had something for everyone  but without being in the league of a small novel.

The setting was beautiful and the service should rather be described as hospitality. The girls had room to roam and were fussed over by the staff. The food arrived and it was exceptional- every dish. The Bobotie was the best we'd ever had, the calamari and the fish fresh and delicious, the chips crispy, the burger mouthwatering. And all beautifully presented. As we stared mournfully as our empty plates (children included, which is nothing short of a miracle), the waitress came over to tell us that there was home-baked lemon meringue pie on offer and that the baked cheesecake had just come out of the oven. The cakes arrived and- really, I am running out of adjectives here- they were amazing. Perfect. Washed down with espresso.

Why am I telling you this? Have I broadened my repertoire to wannabe restaurant critic? What's the big deal, great meals are a dime a dozen in CT, right?

In answer, I'd love to be a restaurant critic but I don't think it would be good for my waistline. Yes, bad meals are hard to find in CT but, even so, this home cooked, professionally served, reasonably priced menu was exceptional..

But the real reason I am telling you this is because Franieba's has an amazing story behind it.

As I chatted to the waitress, she told me she was the chef's daughter. Then she scurried off and returned, proudly presenting me with a laminated newspaper article from the Daily Voice. The restaurant's name is Franieba's- it is a mixture of the 2 owners' names: Francis Phalane and Monieba Moses.

Frances and Monieba are 2 friends from Ocean View (a township on the Southern Peninsula) who have know each other for 18 years, ever since they both worked in the same restaurant in Simons Town.

Monieba is the enviably talented chef, Francis the charming, efficient and ever-vigilant front-of-house.

Monieba was a waitress at The Beach Cafe (which is now Franieba's) but things weren't going well for the onwer. Worried about how she would support her family, she got the idea of opening a restaurant on that site as she'd always dreamed of having. She called her friend Francis who was rather taken aback at the suggestion, as she couldn't imagine getting together R20,000 for the lease.

Anyway, they gathered together every cent they had and got the keys on February 2011. With no money for stock, they took their RCS cards (like credit cards) and bought non-perishable goods and mineral water.

Having no transportation of their own, they got a bus from Ocean View to Long Beach Mall and then walked all the way to Noordehooek- a walk that can easily take an hour- carrying the stock in their arms and on their backs. As public transport can be tricky at 6pm, sometimes they walk all the way home. Today they both have bicycles- although Monieba had an accident and hurt her shoulder, so she's back to walking (but still cooking!)- with which they bring stock to Franieba's.

Today they are debt free (except for what they owe themselves in salary). They employ four people. The first meal they served was pilchard bobotie and since then the menu has grown as I indicated above. They also do takeaway family meals and with enough notice they can make anything you like.

South Africa has not had a good year in the news. The Secrecy Bill, the ANC infighting, Julius Malema's disciplinary hearing, the appointment by the president of a Chief Justice on a whim rather than according to procedure, the toilet issues in Khayelitsha to name a few that come to mind in addition to the constant corruption scandals.

Reading the news, it would be easy to believe that we live in a country of little hope, little ambition and little opportunity

So I wanted to share with you a story of posititivity and success, right under our noses. 2 inspiring, inconceivably hard-working, determined and talented women and their families running a business that deserves to succeed.

If you live in Cape Town or you're visiting, go there. Tell your friends to go there The name is Franieba's Restaurant, Red Herring Trading Post, Beach Rd, Noordehooek, CT. Phone number: 021 789 0122. If you have kids, there's a huge jungle gym in the restaurant itself, in the middle of a Milkwood Tree.

And if you see 2 women walking on Noordehooek Beach or cycling down Noordehooek Rd, carrying impossible amounts of food, give them a hand or just congratulate them for having the guts to make a go of things, of daring to think they can succeed rather than just sitting and moaning that life is not as they wish.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Cape Town's going on a summer holiday....

It's a funny thing, moving from a city that never sleeps, never shuts down like London, to a city that values and insists on downtime, chilling and leisure: Cape Town.

For those that don't know, Cape Town basically shuts down from December 16 (yesterday) to January 15 every year for the holidays. The reason for this, as I understand it, is that in times past, workers used to work far away from home so they almost always stayed where they worked for 11 months and then went home for a month- hence why everything shut down.  It became to traditional to send workers on their way with a "13th pay cheque"- a bonus effectively.

Whilst for most people things have changed and they no longer work hundreds and hundreds of miles from home, some still do and others simply have embraced the tradition for a month off. The 13th pay cheque? Well, that depends on your employer these days.

As a result the the beginning of December is a very funny time in Cape Town. The city and its people are not certain whether they want to speed up and get things done by December 15th or whether the year has just made them tired and, frankly, they want to avoid doing work until December 15th (and therefore actually, January 15th).  So, depending on who you deal with you'll either be enveloped by a flurry of frightening efficiency or be tearing your hair out in rage as despair as you realise that the unreturned calls and wall of silence mean that you will have no doors on your kitchen cupboards until people get into the groove in January. Let's just hope the Christmas guests will think it's a style statement.

Please don't assume that it is just manual workers that have this attitude. During a conversation with an eminent and highly professional attorney last week, it became abundantly clear that nothing was going to happen until he came back "early" on January 9th. Wow, man, don't push yourself too hard.

Apart from retailers, no one does any business in Cape Town after December 15th. And, what the strangest thing for me is, no one WANTS to or expects to.The "Bottom Line" is set aside for a month and people just enjoy relaxing.  Between Christmas and New Year, the vast majority of offices are simply closed and for the rest of "holidays" there is skeleton staff. As someone whose (sort of) career was mostly set in the City of London, this is frankly weird. Relax for a month? Even a week? Are you serious?

Why the date of the 16th? Well, why ever not?! OK, seriously it's because the 16th is a public holiday (It's Reconciliation Day- bringing together a date that is of significance to both Afrikaaners and the liberation struggle) and it is generally a week or so after the schools break up ie the kids have time to get over the tiredness that the final school term has inflicted on them and get excited about going away.

And so it was yesterday, December 16th, that the holidays began. It had been a nerve-wracking time for the weather obsessed Capetonians as we had had a day and a half of solid rain earlier this week.

 That rain was also a source of deep personal embarrassment to my husband I, having raved on to his parents about the weather and poo-poo'd their bringing out waterproofs. It's their first time here and for a few days it was reminiscent of an English summer. Cringe.Bad marketing, Cape Town, bad marketing.

For the moment, summer seems back on track and yesterday we hit road, along with the rest of Cape Town.  Heading out of town on the N2, there was a spirit of communal holiday, a sense of throwing caution to the wind as (terribly driven) cars, with roof racks, bike racks and trailers full to the brim of all the things that make a holiday, queued up in petrol stations.

On our day trip to Hermanus we passed cars with canoes on their roofs,cars trailing huge boats, fishing rods poking up and glistening in the sunshine as dogs stuck their heads out the windows (why do they DO that?).

Coming back, gliding down over Sir Lowry's pass in the late afternoon sun, False Bay gleamed golden and the mountains, slightly misty looked pleasantly exhausted from their first day of the holidays.

I would say that I'm really looking forward to a month off, but as a mother of 2 small kids, I think to say that would be a laughable statement, frankly bordering on fantasy.

Still, there are many worse ways to spend your time than beach hopping for a month- here's to the holidays!

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Parenthood, some thoughts

Today, my 2.5 year old told me that if I was squashed, she'd have to buy a new mummy. When I asked what kind of mummy, she replied- after some thought- that it would be a talking mummy. A robot talking mummy. Later she said that she liked me and didn't want me to get squashed.

Prior to this exchange- which, as her mother, I found adorable, funny and perplexing- she had thrown, if not the mother of all all tantrums, then certainly a close relative of the mother's of all tantrums. This was because I refused to let her decant her Smarties into a small bowl for the purpose of a car journey. This interaction, as a contrast, I had found futile, frustrating and infuriating. I defy any parent of any 2 year old to name anything more enraging than a pique of temper which seems to have no point to it other than to delay your arrival to wherever you were supposed to go. A tiny person can be so incredibly unreasonable that it just makes you see red.

I am sure plenty will read the above with horror, thinking that poor child, they don't know, they're just asserting their "little personality". Trust me, as my ears bleed from the shrieks there is nothing little about her (apart from the size of the eyes, which vanish, in contrast to the mouth which somehow becomes cavernous and vast- like the entrance to hell). It's times like that show the need for freely available intravenous alcohol.

And I got to thinking that, actually, my half hour experience of my little girl which consisted of the best and the worst of her, is somehow a metaphor for parenthood generally.

Parenthood can be the most wonderful, exhilarating feeling in the world- the immense love you feel for them, the surge of pride as they sing (badly) in their first nativity play, the mixed sense of relief, love and loss as they strut off to school for the first time looking ridiculously tiny but so grown up all at once. Then on the down of the roller-coaster, a few seconds, minutes or hours later, you feel frustration and anger as they don't listen, they booby trap your house with Lego, refuse the dinner you spent hours making, "decorate" your favourite shirt or slap their sibling accidentally by hurling a giant stuffed toy across a room.

When my first child was born, people kept saying "it'll get easier". And I suppose it did. I got to sleep more, she cried less and she becomes more and more rewarding all the time. And then, not too long after, her sister was born: "it'll get easier" people said again. Well, that getting easier took a bit longer than the first one as for a while they enjoyed doing crying, sickness and bad behaviour relays. Now, I must say at the ripe old ages of 2.5 and 4.5, it is much easier. They (mostly) adore one another, they play well together, they can both tell me what's wrong. All that horrid unexplained crying, accompanied by fevers is, largely, a thing of the past.

But has parenthood got any easier per se? Not at all. In some respects it is becoming so much harder.

I remember my mum and dad saying: " Small child, small problem. Big child, BIG problem".

Whereas before I could stop my eldest daughter crying by giving her Calpol, food, drink, the toy she had been screaming for or a hug, now it's not so easy. She's at school, she's in the big wide world and problems are not so easy for mummy to solve, try as I might. Friend politics, playground politics, not wanting to go to school because she's tired. The big wide world is creeping up on a growing person that used to be my baby girl and I am not sure who is more petrified her- or me. Trying to explain the world, people, human behaviour, religion- you name it is only going to get harder and harder.  Soon, I'll have 2 of them at large in the world, away from the protection of home.

I have enormous respect for my parents who brought up 2 children, alone in the world, away from their families. Somehow we turned out OK. But, my poor parents- their job is still not done. At the ripe old age of 36, whenever the world seems unfair I still go running to mummy and daddy who mercifully still take my calls.

I have a feeling that this parenting business is a rather long term affair- which actually delights me. I just have to hope that the medicinal power of a big hug is as effective later as it is now, because sometimes-even now- I don't really have any answer apart from that.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Feeling "Christmassy" down south

It is my second adult Christmas in South Africa and it still feels weird. By that I mean that Christmas here is not as a northern European would know it.

I think is partly because the northern hemisphere somehow has managed to exert a monopoly on what exactly Christmas is and should be.

Let me explain: Christmas in western culture is very much celebrated as  "festival of lights" in dark, cold times- think of all the candles, Christmas tree light, (hideous) house lights. Christmas decorations are snowflakes, Father Christmas is always very warmly dressed as he strides over a snow-topped roof, pictures of snowmen in the background. In the northern hemisphere, we need twinkling lights, cosy fires and nice thoughts of Santa to get us through very short, often dark days which can be rather nippy. I don't think it is any coincidence that Christmas is in the middle of winter, at a similar time to the pagan festival of light. As people we need something to get us through: for the religious it is the celebration of the birth of Christ. For  the more secular of the population, it's a time to enjoy the lights and the fires and get together with your nearest and dearest over a feast of food and drink, to exchange gifts and defeat the cold and dark, chatting with friends and family in a room of twinkling lights, while the mantlepiece overflows with cards with pictures of Santa, angels, the nativity scene and robins in snow.

Presents are a big feature of Christmas, at least for the shorter members of the population and the retail and consumer industry are very happy to help us to spend our money whether or not we have it. To be fair, on the other side of the planet when the weather sucks, it's one of the few things that you can do. Plus can you IMAGINE the drama if little Chardonnay didn't get the Bratz doll collection from Santa? OMG. It'd be enough to make her mum's spray tan fade.

Personally, I have always loved Christmas. As an expat from a very young age, my parents always ensured that we were all together at that one time of year and, thanks to my mum and dad, we kept our Christmas traditions alive wherever we were, and I am so grateful for that. For me, Christmas is about being with my family, just enjoying being together. I have some serious issues with the commercialisation and hijacking by retailers of Christmas (which would probably fill a significant portion of Wikipedia, so I'll keep my comments brief). My objections and rantings are probably best summed up by describing the Christmas lights on Oxford Street maybe ten years ago: "Captain Birdseye Wishes you a Merry Christmas". How festive.

So here I am, December 3rd 2011 and I really do not feel terribly "Christmassy" at all. The sun is shining, the days are nearly the longest they can be and I fear that Father Christmas would be rather sweaty unless he underwent a radical seasonal wardrobe change.

Don't we have lights here? Well, yes we do. The shopping centres are full of beautifully decorated and twinkling trees. You have to look really veryhard to see the twinkles because of the blazing sunshine powering through the doors, windows and skylights rather makes them difficult to see.  My youngest daughter became fascinated with some snowflake decorations and fiddled with them wearing shorts and a sunhat. I bought some wrapping paper with snowmen in scarves. And it looked odd as I put it into the car with the hot sun beating down on me.

The school opposite my house had their Christmas concert last week singing all the traditional Christmas songs. The difference? The concert was outside and the parents watched from picnic blankets, sipping rose wine and wearing sunglasses. "Moves like Jagger" by Maroon 5 would have been more fitting as a soundtrack, I think.

For someone who has spent most of their life in the northern hemisphere this is all very confusing. It's like the calendar has gone mad and everything is upside down. The most Christmassy I have felt so far was when I went to a hypermarket to buy a swimming pool and a Christmas tree (see??? what a weird combination!). It was quite dark and the displays were all lights, baubles and trees. Not forgetting the Christmas songs sung in Afrikaans. Actually, I must have been really desperate as I must confess to not find it the most soothing and appealing of languages. Sorry. It sounds like a Dutch person gargling to me. Just being honest. Sorry. If it makes you feel better, the other languages I prefer not to be sung to in: are Dutch, German, Flemish, Vietnamese and Mandarin. You're not alone in being excluded from my CD collection.

What I find most fascinating about this is the fact that that the northern hemisphere has someone managed to export their version of Christmas wholesale to the sunny southern hemisphere. I know they exported  Christ and Christmas in the first place. But it's like the "vision" came with it. Maybe it's "for the kids".

Since moving to Cape Town, I have realised that most South Africans are much more religious than people in the UK so I suspect there will be a lot more "Christ" in Christmas here.

All the food and travel literature seems to talk of Christmas braais, Christmas cocktails, Christmas ice cream  (merciful absence of turkey and Christmas pudding so far) and Christmas day on the beach which gives me hope that the folk down south will make Christmas their own.

While there is a part of me that misses the lights and the cosiness of Christmas in the northern hemisphere, I know that's pure nostalgia and sentimentality.

I'd rather be applying sunscreen.

Monday, 21 November 2011

A perfect beach day In Cape Town, or: Never Forget

On Saturday, the universe finally seemed to have sorted its issues out and we had an absolutely beautiful day in Cape Town- a perfect beach day. It was very warm and by the sea there was a gentle cooling breeze.

The effect of the beach on children never ceases to amaze me. At one of our closest beaches in Muizenberg there is a great jungle gym for kids but, to my mind, there is no need. My girls just see the sand, sink into it and that is pretty much the last I hear from the until we leave, save for requests for sea water deliveries for construction purposes.

For me, a person who was not raised by the sea, there is something extra magical about those kind of days. The smell of the sea and the sunscreen, the feel of the sand and the sound of children squealing against the background of the rushing sea: it must mean it is holiday time.

I have mentioned previously that I have wanted to live in Cape Town ever since I first set foot here on holiday many years ago. What made me want to move here? All the obvious stuff, really, the natural beauty, the climate, the atmosphere, the food, the people.  On the more recent holidays with my children I came to realise that Cape Town (and South Africa) is genuinely child friendly and that, actually, life for us could be much easier and much more pleasant for us as a family.  Having grown up in Jo'burg, I knew my kids would have a fantastic childhood in South Africa, in AFRICA where you can drive down a highway and see an elephant sauntering in the distance. You can!

Fortunately, for us, the planets aligned and here we are.

A lot of people move to a place on the strength of a few holidays and the results can be mixed. The effect can be that of a holiday romance that suddenly becomes an everyday relationship. All those things that seemed charming when you had all the time in world, are now annoying, they bother you. Or it can be like buying a souvenir on holiday, that seems like a great idea at the time but it just looks so wrong in your home. Who knew a 4ft beaded elephant wouldn't look in a Home Counties living room? Really, who could have predicted such a thing?

We have been very lucky: Cape Town has not disappointed, in fact, if anything, it has completely exceeded expectations.

But what has happened, is we have kind of forgotten where we are on a day-to-day basis. Kids, schools, work, grocery shopping,  trying to start a business- all that stuff that means modern life- means that you don't notice where you are as much as you should. Life just kind of gets in the way. It's very easy to forget that you live- are lucky enough to live- at the very end (almost) of Africa.

To end our hot, hot Saturday we went to my parents house in Somerset West and cooled down in the pool. After we EVENTUALLY, managed to put the kids to bed, we had a glass of wine of the terrace outside our bedroom and enjoyed the view. This is the very view that tempted us over and over again to come and live here, to come and live in Africa.

The trees around us, high up over the world on Helderberg, barely swayed  in the balmy breeze as we watched the last of the daylight disappear over the sea at the Strand, framed by the Hottentot Holland mountains to the left. Our soundtrack was silence- punctuated by Egyptian Geese, guinea fowl and a chorus of frogs.

Sipping my South African Sauvignon Blanc, breathing in warm summer air I was thrilled to be reminded that I am lucky enough to live here, at the very end of Africa, in this stunning part of the world, where I have always wanted to be.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

A note on the art of head massage

Worldwide, in hairdressers and beauty salons a "head massage" is very often thrown in as an additional "luxury" when you have a facial, a haircut, a massage or any kind of treatment. The idea is that it helps you relax.

Now, I'm here to tell you that that is not always the case and that untrained and insensitive hands have no business massaging my head or anyone else's. Aside from the few pleasant head massages I have had, there are, in my opinion, several types of undesirable head massage which fall into the following categories:

1. The pressure is too light and I feel like I am being tickled. Giggling like a 2 year old whilst lying on a bed, semi-clad, listening to "earth music" is not very becoming and, in the enclosed space of a treatment room could come across as a little weird.

2. The pressure is too hard: The Pimple Squeezer. This "massager" basically treats your head like a giant pimple with your brain being the pus. They push and they squeeze from all angles, perhaps in the hope that your brain will ooze out after enough pressure has been applied. I am far from relaxed and leave feeling as if I have pits in my skull.

3. The pressure is too hard: The Kneader. The person giving this massage is a frustrated baker. They actually knead your head. The pushing from side to side leaves you disorientated, bruised and  you leave with a misshapen head.   My focus during these is keeping my neck and shoulders very stiff to avoid, literally, losing my head. Not much R&R there.

I thought these were the only categories until today when I went to the hairdresser where, of course, an unsolicited  head massage is thrown in with the hair wash. The hair washer had a very unique style.

It started when she washed my hair, very vigorously and for a very loooooooong time. Her modus operandi would have been infinitely better suited to a dog grooming parlour or an uncooperative child with persistent nits. She scrubbed and rubbed until I must have had a large foam afro, kneading and kneading my hair until I feared that no amount of conditioner would ever untangle it. She did this twice. Perhaps the foam afro wasn't big enough or my hair tangled enough after the first round.

When, to my enormous relief, she started the conditioner phase she proceeded to SCRATCH her nails over my head. Finally, released the tyranny of her hands, I couldn't look her in the eye, feeling traumatised and manhandled.

She seemed terribly pleased with herself, as if, perhaps, she had just cleaned up some filthy flea-ridden St. Bernard.

My point (if there is any) is this:. Don't provide a free service if you can't provide it properly. A rubbish, unsolicited free service is just as disappointing as one you paid for.

And it may be less traumatising for your clients.

November was not happy..

It was as if November read my blog entry on Friday and, enraged by my mocking of his (because you know November's a boy, right?) inability to provide a half decent spring, decided to show me what he was really made of. He seems to have called in his friend November from the northern hemisphere and, after some discussion, they decided perfect way to silence that ungrateful blogger and teach her a lesson would be for it to HAIL.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, on this past Sunday  for around half an hour, ICE was hurtling from the sky. Hail the size of peas, no less. My children were fascinated and for a brief moment the hypnotic power of the super vile Agent Oso was broken as they stared out the window.

Just as an aside, why is it all programmes that children like have a theme song or riff that would qualify as torture in Guantanamo Bay? Any peace I may feel at my children having peeled themselves off me is immediately shattered as some revolting high pitched repetitive tune oozes from the TV at a volume that is unbelievable whilst watching adult programmes. Is it punishment from the parenting gods for having given in to the electronic pacifier?

Anyway, back to the weather: November, I now understand you are easily upset. For that I am sorry. No more hail, please.

It is now much sunnier but so windy. Never happy, am I?

As a friend said to me when I whinged about the weather: "Oh, I see, now the Brit is getting fussy about the weather!"

Friday, 11 November 2011

The mystery of who stole the Cape Town weather.

Would you like to know what I'm wearing...? OK....

Last night, a night in NOVEMBER (so the last month of Spring) I was wearing no fewer than 3 layers. And, frankly, I was still pretty chilly. Not quite the answer you were expecting, is it? (If you were expecting a different answer, suggests you should be hitting the "next blog" button until you find what you need...)

I am obsessed with the weather, I know. Comes from years in northern Europe where you do the opposite of a rain dance most of the time and strip virtually naked if temperatures dare to go over 18.

I just feel rather cheated, to be honest. The last line of my address is: South Africa. You, got it, AFRICA. That place of sun, heat and, er... HEAT. I'm not going to go into the fact that a lot of people would say that Cape Town is not actually Africa at all. My illustration works only as a generalisation and will crumble under meteorological scrutiny. I doubt many foreigners, when thinking of Cape Town would envisage strong, icy winds, cloud cover and heavy rain as typical late spring weather here and that's what we have.

As a former lawyer, I feel that the correct term to use is "Misrepresentation". This time last year, there I was in short sleeves, patting myself on the back for making such a meteorologically savvy move. More sunshine and warmth than we Europeans knew what to do with streamed through the windows and open doors of the house. Today, November 11th, my eldest daughter went to school in her winter uniform (ok, it's just a tracksuit, but still: WINTER uniform).

Now, I'm no fool, I watch enough CSI to know when a crime has been committed.

It seems to me that someone or something has STOLEN Cape Town's weather and replaced with their own, or, alternatively with whatever was left in the weather bucket after the rest of the southern hemisphere took what they wanted. It appears that this year, Jo'burg was first in the queue and left us down south rather short changed.

So, who are the culprits? Where does the evidence lead us? Well, London comes to mind first. With a  VERY hot spell in October, it's possible they swiped our warmth and heat, packed into a a few days and in return send us the low cloud cover we have been experiencing. Classic London November weather- feeling like the sky is on your head.

But that doesn't explain the icy winds. Perhaps Siberia has had enough and there are currently reindeer basking in a warm breeze, cruelly taken from under our expectant noses.

And the rain- where has that come from? I am sure those in Bangkok are asking themselves the very same question. It's like this year it July was a bit out of it and forgot to rain and now July has bribed November somehow into dumping July's excess rain which July can't carry into next year, according the Rules of Months.

If the weather has not been stolen, I can only conclude that it is the universe's way of punishing and ridiculing me for buying an extraordinary amount of exceptionally beautiful summer dresses for my girls. Every morning I weep as I bypass the funky floral print dresses, in favour of long sleeve t-shirts (which are almost too small) and long leggings or jeans.

Either way, Cape Town, please sort it out. My parents-in-law are coming soon and this weather is just embarrassing.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Happy anniversary- belatedly- to me. 1 year (and a bit) in CT.

Anniversaries and birthdays always lend themselves to a review of what has been and, perhaps, a view of what it is to come.

The anniversary of our arrival in Cape Town, has been and gone and I still have not written any kind of review. I think the reason for this is because I feel a (self-imposed) pressure to write something definitive, meaningful and almost final.

Well, I can't do that.

I wouldn't dare to be definitive (except perhaps after one glass of wine too many), any attempt to be meaningful would doubtless sound like terrible chick-lit and final just doesn't make sense .

But can I talk about why I came (or why I left) and how it's been.

Why did I leave? Frankly, a desire to recreate my childhood in Roodeport, Johannesburg in the the period from the late 70's to the early 80's. I had the best years there. Have I succeeded? Er..no. For obvious reasons. And some would say that not recreating an 80's version of Roodepoort in Cape Town in 2011 is a good thing.

But I do think that I have found the essence of  a South African childhood, which is what I was after. And what's that? Well, to me it's open spaces, lots of sun (although CPT is failing BIG STYLE on that the last 2 weeks), open and warm people, spontaneity, great food, world awareness and rapier-like wit. That's what I had and that's what I wanted to give my children. So far, so good.

Additionally, my husband and I wanted a better quality of life. In London we had a lovely home, he had a great job and he was very successful. We have lovely friends and he has family there (my brother has  been in Brussels for a number of years). But we had almost no time. His success was a burden- it was all or nothing. Everything seemed to me to be so very hard- getting around, getting parked, getting your kids into a decent school, going to the beach. It felt like such a mission to me. The government always seemed to be legislating about something that I now had to or couldn't do. Towards the end, I really felt as I couldn't breathe some days.

In Cape Town, we have a lovely home which is less then 5 minutes from school and 20 minutes from work (round Table Mountain and past the zebras, in the right season). He's successful and he's challenged but he's also allowed to be other things as well- for example a good father without feeling as if every moment with the children is a moment he has stolen from his work schedule.

We have had the privilege of meeting the most amazing people since we've arrived. We have amassed in a year as many, if not more, outstanding people that we call friends than I managed to in a lifetime before. Our weekends are filled with outings with friends and or last-minute suppers or braais. The children play, the adults cook, drink, talk, drink and laugh. It's just like Roodepoort in the 80's. In a good way.

That's not to say we don't miss our friends in the UK- I don't see friendships as capable of replacement: every friend has a certain place in your life which no other person can ever fully fill. Going back on a visit to the UK in July, I realised what excellent friends I had left there and it only takes an email or text message for me to start craving more of that person's company. My UK friends' missives often make me very sad. In a good way.

Has Cape Town disappointed in any way?

Apart from driving here which gives me a heart attack every few minutes in the car, there is nothing specific about Cape Town that has disappointed.  In fact, Cape Town has exceeded expectations in every way. Even down to security- many people were surprised that I would move my family to South Africa for better quality of life, given the horrific crime figures coming out of South Africa. Firstly, Cape Town is one of the safest places in South Africa. Secondly, yes, one does have to be vigilant- property crime does happen- and I am meticulous about the alarm but I live a normal life here. I walk happily and safely where I can (by which I mean, where there are pavements- parts of Cape Town can be very American in not having pavements. It's a very car based culture, largely, I suspect because of the sheer size of the place).

Has South Africa disappointed in any way?

Yes, the bureaucracy. Whilst entrepreneurship and business thrives, having lived here for a year, the thought of a visit to the Department of Home Affairs is enough to make me come over all queasy and lie down. The queues, the sheer randomness of when you will get served, what answer you may get on a given day from any given person makes it like participating in a a very stressful game-show, with ever-changing, uncharismatic hosts changing the rules of the game as they go and the final prize being something as prosaic as a peanut. They demand precision in the delivery of your documents, turning you away for such minor infractions that you feel they had to really try, yet the website is not updated for months at a time, thus providing misleading information. In fact, I'd better stop writing because the rage is building and growing..

It's the worst excesses of a police state administered by people with no vested interest in the outcome of proceedings except to spoil someone else's day.  It's revolting and in desperate need of an overhaul.

And the politics has disappointed. What South Africa and South Africans did in 1994 changing from apartheid to post-apartheid with such relative ease is nothing short of a miracle. Worldwide people braced themselves for an implosion, a blood bath but South Africans didn't let that happen. South Africa had a new constitution, the most enlightened in history. To see all that promise now sink into cronyism and a virtual absence of accountability, is to go beyond sadness and disappointment. I am not saying there is anywhere in the world a perfect government, that other governments are free of corruption or "got it right", but the way the politics is in South Africa at the moment seems to be to squandering the resources of a country so rich in potential. The politicians of today were given a  hard-fought legacy which they have either ignored or neglected. I must say I expected more, especially in terms of accountability and investment in education, but then this is a young democracy. We can but hope for the future.

There is so much more to say but funnily, I think Cape Town can be summarised for me right now by the recounting of a simple story. A few weeks ago, there was a power cut-citywide. No traffic lights (robots) were working, yet, somehow the city functioned as normal. At junctions people gave way, helped each other out, laughed and joked. Despite the adversity- everyone had somewhere to be, everyone just got on with it. And then the power came back on later and it was no big deal. And that's Cape Town: relaxed and positive.

Will I be here forever? Who knows, I'm a nomad by breeding. But I hope I'll be here for a while yet because I feel I can breathe again.

Monday, 24 October 2011

The north-south divide.

There is a very clear divide between the people in Cape Town.

No, no, no, it’s not what you’re thinking. It’s a north-south divide.

Having lived most of my adult life in the UK, I am completely au fait with north- south divides.

There has been much debate in the UK where north begins and where south stops, but I think it is generally accepted these days that "The North" begins just up from Watford and "The South" is just down from there.

What distinguishes the 2? Well a cup of tea in the North is not considered a cup of tea unless it is so strong that your spoon can stand unsupported in the middle of the cup. And it is always black tea, good old PG Tips. Those living in the South are free to drink herbal teas without ridicule, even organic fruit tea is acceptable and available in most middle class homes. In the North, if you ask for chamomile tea, you will immediately be called a pansy, and reinforce all stereotypes about southerners. The Northerner will dine out (on steak and kidney pie and chips from Morrisons- a shop mercifully almost entirely absent from the South. Somehow economy turkey mince never took off in the Home Counties) for months afterwards on the story: "Can you when I asked her what she wanted to drink she said chamomile tea. That's right chamomile. A bloody weed tea she wanted".

And personally, I wouldn't dare to ask for a latte, espresso or cappuccino north of the M25. And definitely not a skinny one: "Thinks she's bloody continental, she does.". As for the stronger stuff, be sure to order bitter not lager. And heaven forbid, continental lager.

In Cape Town, the divide is between the northern suburbs and all the other suburbs including the southern suburbs (where I live).

For the rest of Cape Town, going to the northern suburbs is almost like a safari into the unknown. I have no idea what the dwellers of the northern suburbs think of coming south- I wouldn’t dare be seen talking to one, the way the southern surburbanites talk, I feel my family could become social pariahs if there was any cross-suburban fraternising.

My children were recently invited to a party that was held in the northern suburbs in a place called Bugz Play Park. They had a wonderful time and it is one of the places that is absolute heaven for kids- rides, jungle gyms, sand, playhouses, ice cream, cakes. It is, frankly, less heavenly for the parents  for the very same reason it is a pleasure for a child.

All the guests at the party were fellow southern suburb dwellers. The location of the party was a topic for discussion not because it was a longer drive (no, South Africans generally consider anything around 100km to be: "round the corner") but because we were in the northern suburbs.

What's makes the northern suburbs so different? Well, for starters, there are more Afrikaans speakers and, if rumours are to be believed, it is the world of the indoor braai and 2 colour or 2 tone safari shirts. Long trousers on men at any time of year are frowned upon.

Hardly earth-shattering differences, but still the rest of Cape Town seems to treat going to the northern suburbs like a safari. I’m surprised they don’t take a camera and guide book to compliment their trepidation and uncertainty.

The way people talk, I half expected a check-point on the way back down south, manned by very cosmopolitan, English-speaking South Africans:

Them: “Please pull over, madam. We have reason to believe you’ve in the northern suburbs”

Me: “Well, yes, but….”

Them: “We’re not interested in your excuses, we just need to ask you a few questions to make sure that what happens in the northern suburbs, stays in the northern suburbs. First: how long did you spend there?”

Me: “Er..Um…3 hours.”

Them: “Ok, alright, a relatively short time. We’ll just do the brief survey. Next question: did you have an indoor braai?”

Me: “No”

Them: “But do you like the idea of one?”

Me: “Um, well, I suppose on a cold day...”

Them: *worried look* “Would you consider having one in your home, madam?”

Me: “No”

Them: “Phew, well, great, close one there. Has your Afrikaans improved since you left home this morning?”

Me: “ Not at all, apart from hearing “Never Ending Story” in Afrikaans on loop on the children’s train sung by a tuneless child, no. In fact, I tuned it out. I considered it a trauma”

Them: “That’s what we like to hear. Next: have you done any shopping, specifically; has your husband bought any 2 tone or 2 colour safari shirts?”

Me: “No.”

Them: “Can we just check the boot? Often people buy them as “joke souvenir” but then end up wearing them anyway, say, in Camp’s Bay. They can be quite compelling once bought. And that just won’t do.”

*Look in the boot*

Them: “Great, madam, you’re free to go”

Me: “Can I ask why you stopped our car?”

Them: “We had a report that your husband was wearing shorts. And it is spring.”

Me: “Well, yes, but it is a warm day. And he’s English.”

Them: “He’s ENGLISH!! The shorts! Well, that also explains your cavalier and carefree attitude about visiting thing the northern suburbs. Have a good day.”

Monday, 17 October 2011

Helpful hints for Capetonian Road Users

I am generally a fan of the old adage : “When in Rome….”.

Except when it comes to driving in Cape Town, where I feel the locals could use a little help.

Below, I have a few tips and action points for pedestrians and drivers which, if implemented, I believe would mean that there would be fewer tourists and expats paralysed with fear, bewilderment and confusion at the wheel.


1.      Traffic lights and stop signs are not optional. Indulge them.
2.      Added to the above, some basic revision: Red means stop and green means go. For everyone.You're not special.
3.      Look at your steering wheel: either on the left or right of the steering wheel is something that looks like a stick. One of the functions is to indicate when you turn: indicators. Go crazy: use them. It might make you feel good to let people know in advance when you screech off the road. Oh, and try to indicate the way you are actually going to go.
4.      Taxi drivers: I am sure your car has more gears than first. Enrich your life and help me retain my hearing for longer- explore your gears.
5.      Taxi drivers again: doing a sudden stop in the middle of the road to talk to your taxi driver friend doesn't build up much goodwill with other road users (although I know this is hardly aspirational for you).

Drivers: On the motorway

1.      I get that undertaking is allowed, but 60 in the fast lane? Shift over.
2.      If you car was produced in the 70’s, was last serviced in the 80’s, is a variety colours welded together and carrying your entire family, your pets and furniture, chances are you should be reconsidering the wisdom of being on the motorway, never mind the fast lane.

1.      If there is a pavement, use it.
2.      If you choose to ignore the above, try not to walk 5 abreast.
3.      If you choose to ignore both 1 and 2 above, at least move aside for traffic.
4.      If you've ignored 1,2 and 3, I am probably rabid with rage, but can you speed up? Please?
5.      Pedestrian crossing: not a road decoration, they have a use. Crossing the road 5m either side and waving your fists at me as I don’t stop at your self-styled, invisible crossing is a not a valid reaction.
6.      At peak time traffic, if my car is trying to push out of a busy junction, chances are, if you look me in the eye and then crawl across the road in front of me like a snail, it’s not gonna make me happy. Don’t look so surprised.
7.      Pedestrian lights- they’re there for you!
8.      If you see a car coming down a road, stay where you are. Don’t walk out. Or if you must, try a walk rather than perform a languorous creep. If you’re feeling chipper, try for a light jog. The time to cross (cf pedestrian crossing and pedestrian lights) is you know, that time when you were standing in the road (because you obviously would not have been on the pavement) and no cars were coming.

Pedestrians: On the Motorway (yes, this is a necessary category.)

1.      Pedestrian bridges: use them unless you’re a thrill seeker.
2.      Pedestrian bridges: If you’re crossing a motorway 10 metres away from the bridge- please stop me and tell me why? Is it that you’d rather cross in the relative cool of the shadow of the bridge and die less hot? Are bridges for sissies?
3.      If there is no bridge or using them is against your religion try using gaps in traffic and GETTING A BLOODY MOVE ON!!
4.      Crossing with goats, donkeys and other stupid animals not renown for speed and with no self-preservation instincts is not an award winning activity. Although I admire your determination.

A few simple rules and we’d all just get on so much better. Not to mention my blood pressure would be so much lower.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Bedtime: the final insult.

I have been a stay-at-home mum for four and a half years now, since my first daughter was born. Before she was born I did have a career.

Hmmm…well, ok, don’t get excited- no novels were published, no awards were won. By career, I mean that I held down a few jobs, broadly (*clearing throat*) in the same field.

I think I pretty much knew from the moment she was born that I wouldn’t go back to work. Firstly, I never really loved my job that much (ok....at all). Secondly, I didn’t see the point in busting my gut, spending time sweating on a commuter train to just about cover the cost of a disinterested individual smelling of old fags, filing her nails in some cesspit of a playgroup whilst “minding” my child. Professional nannies would have demanded more than I earned and would probably have demanded that I do their ironing and washing as well as providing only organic food for their lunch. And the schedule would have been strictly around their yoga class. So, yup, you got it, childcare in London is, er…, variable in quality and expensive.

Let me be clear, though (still can’t shake that Blair-ism of “being clear”). I did want to stay at home. But then, I’d always wanted to stay at home (rather than work) so now I had the perfect excuse. It would all have been ideal if not for that pesky baby, just crying, wanting food and interrupting my online surfing and soaps…

There are quite a few misconceptions about babies ( eg. that they sleep, amongst other things), pregnancy (for instance, that it is in any way enjoyable) and about stay-at-home mums and their lives.

Generally, I think women- as always- are their worst enemy. The only people to ever criticise a woman for a decision to either stay at home or go to work are other women. It’s like we’re in perpetual competition with one another. Same thing with weight issues. On the whole, the only people who care about your weight and notice it are other women. Most of us spend time trying to be skinny, yet men keep voting curvy women like Kelly Brook the “sexiest” on earth. There’s a message in there somewhere. I don't understand why we can't be more supportive of one another. But that's a whole other discussion.

One of the many things I have had thrown at me is: do I not find being at home with the kids boring? I can think of many words to describe being a stay-at-home mum but “boring” is not one of them. Rewarding, hilarious, heart-warming, heart-breaking, disappointing, thrilling, exhausting, infuriating, exhilarating..the list goes on.

 I used to be a lawyer working in the City of London and I don’t think anything that I do now could possibly rival for boredom the drafting of an exclusion clause in the small hours. City boys all puffed out, braying and strutting like the piece of paper in their hand will change the world, rather than simply save a merchant bank some money. Me? Wondering what brand of washing-up liquid smells the nicest. It was a very motivating time for me.

But I digress. One of the myths of parenthood (before you have kids) is that bedtime is a lovely time of the day. Huggies and Johnson’s adverts show alert, clean and happy mothers looking on as daddy comes in from work (in plenty of time) to read a story in a perfectly decorated room with fresh-faced toddler eager to listen. The way the advert has it, daddy leaves, the four year old turns the light off by itself and goes to bed.

Bedtime didn’t start well for us as a family. My older daughter’s” time” (when she acted as if possessed) when she was born was from 7pm to 10pm. This baptism of fire consisted of her screaming as if she was being branded or scalded incessantly- nothing would pacify her. The size of her open, screaming mouth was way out of proportion with her tiny head and it was impossible to imagine such a hideous and vile noise coming from such a small, previously sweet -looking creature.

We tried everything- feeding, dummy, water, nappy change, picking her up, putting her down, rocking her, standing still and arranging her at a variety of angles. Nothing. A frantic online search and chat with my mummy friends revealed we were all being tortured to varying degrees. So we descended on the shops and bought, between us, pretty much every single item marked “soothing”, “calming” and, crucially “reduces hours of crying”. A friend of mine bought everything until she finally found an electronic swing (although I am not sure whether the crying or the tinny songs combined with the crunching of the swing were worse). We bought a baby sling. Supposedly, it was based on African cultures where the baby is close to the mother…yadda, yadda…. it worked, I couldn’t have cared less about the reasoning. Frankly, as I said at the time, had someone told me that putting meerkat dung in her hair with my bare hands would stop her crying, I’d have been first in line at the zoo toilets.

That’s how bedtime started and, frankly, now with 4 and a half years of bed time experience and 2 kids, I am not sure if bed is any less of an ordeal.

Far from the blissful scene on TV and in magazines, all parents who are at home with kids know that suicide hour(s) begins at 5. Cinderella’s carriage turned into a pumpkin at midnight, children turn into hideous beasts at 5pm. You can set your watch by it in my house. A perfectly nice child one minute, the child from The Exorcist the next.You despair at the thought of the next 2 or so hours: you have to feed them a meal, bathe then and put them to bed.

 I’ll gloss over the rejection of the meal, the violent and loud demands for buffet-style TV-focussed dining, consisting of crisps, chocolate and ice cream, the conflict over what looks to the parent like the same plate and the same cutlery. They will demand a bath as they refuse to eat, then refuse one when it’s run. They will fight like the mafia over bath territory, refuse to be dried, reject the chosen pyjamas and leap like escaped prisoners into the lounge to watch a bedtime DVD.

And then bedtime: the final insult.

Children, or mine at least, are extraordinarily talented at dragging out bedtime. They have all the making of complete con artists at such an early age.

We read stories or do puzzles, you know, standard stuff and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. I am almost shaking with anticipation of a child-free period in my day.

They sense my beseeching, desperate manner, and they make a plan. I know they do.

And so it is, we say: “Right, bedtime girls.”. Firstly, my little one exhibits the signs of Hussain Bolt in the making. She’s a flash of yellow in her pyjamas, out the door, hooting with laughter. I leave my dignity in her bedroom and set about catching her, telling her it’s not funny. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch her. If I’m not she’ll do something like wedge herself between her cot and toybox, slip on a toy and head butt the cot- seriously. Cue: hysteria.

We wrestle her into a nappy, then into the cot. First, the excuses come thick and fast: I need a wee, I need to say goodnight to my sister. We’re seasoned veterans though, and we know a ruse when we see one. Undaunted, lights out, she barks demands from her room: “I need me cheetahs”. Silence. “I want my Lion King things”. Silence. “I don’t have so much milk”. Silence. “I need a blanket”. That’s on a good day.

Meanwhile, the older sister, we’re not quite so lucky with. She’s in a big bed and free to roam, which she duly does. We put her into bed only for her to get out again. Honestly, it’s like having a talkative boomerang. She has 2 tactics: either howling in a voice and tone that could clear a stadium: “I don’t want to go to bed…..”. On loop. It’s like a whinge combined with a wail which has the effect of rendering me incapable of coherent thought. At this point, as my evening ekes away from me, second by second, minute by minute I am filled with either a despair that makes me want to collapse on the floor and weep immediately or sends me into a furious rage.  Still, the mental patient howls and howls and howls.

If this tactic fails, as it invariably does, she yo-yos up the corridor on the pre-text of hunger or thirst, to tell me information about school that she had deliberately withheld earlier in the day, in the hope it would buy her more time now. She shows an interest in my food and activities which have been mysteriously absent for the whole day.

Between shoo-ing her back to bed and making crucial deliveries to her sister, I reckon I cover about 10km just walking up and down the hallway at night, carrying various weights and receptacles.

 I’m trying to see this as a positive- saving on gym fees? Earning my dinner?

Finally, worn down, still trying to swat off a 4 year old, I get to eat my cold dinner accompanied by a room temperature glass of  white wine far later than I had  dared to hope for. A few tepid  moments of peace before the bedlam of the morning

And even so, I'll take this over an exclusion clause any day,

Monday, 3 October 2011

Parenthood, Part II: The Worst Bath Ever

Recently, I experienced the worst bath ever. Think it's weird to grade your baths? Read on- there can be such a thing as a good bath or a bad bath. I think, possibly, it was the very unfortunate coming together of 2 facts:

1. Adults, especially women, like baths and tend to expect a "luxury treat".
2. Children love baths. Not as a treat. As their inalienable human right.

I'm not certain what it is about baths and adults. Is it pure marketing? All those beautiful people slipping into a bath in a candle-lit bathroom the size of most people's houses. Is it purely aspirational that we want to be like them, disappearing into a creamy, scented bath, surrounded by nothing but peace, a glass of champagne (and perhaps the entrance of George Clooney at some point later)?

For most people with kids, a bath for an adult is most likely to first involve removing all toys from the bath- but not all, as you lower yourself into the bath, it is obligatory for some surprisingly hard rubber beak to jam itself into your bottom, thus rather ruining the moment somewhat. Stepping backwards, you may trip over the potty or slip on a discarded Dora facecloth. And rather than candlelight, most of us have rather harsher lighting which is perhaps has a less flattering effect when looking in the mirror. It also has a tendency to  highlight that tiling you "really must have seen to".

Nonetheless, most adult women like baths. I have known one person who hated baths because she "didn't see the point of wallowing in her own filth" which I thought was absolutely hilarious, sort of agreed with but has not put me off. I have no idea whether it is because being in water replicates being in the womb, perhaps the lapping of the ocean or because I like the idea of it. Whatever the reason, the beauty industry makes a killing on bath stuff. Even though after a hot bath I resemble a woozy prune.

Kids just LOVE water, it's amazing. Bath time in our house is one of the highlights of the day. They love it. Fill a big bowl of water in the garden with water, they'll drop whatever they're doing and rush over to make "soup" or stomp in  it. Frankly, put some water in a saucer and they're stripping off and trying to bathe in it. Again, I'm not sure what it is- the womb again!? I suppose water has so many possibilities.

And so it is, that one evening, not so long ago, the two worlds met.

The girls had been particularly, um, challenging that day and I longed for a bath. We actually have a lovely, huge bath which has been the exclusive preserve of my children since we moved in. Damn it, I thought, I DESERVE a bath.

I thought I had timed it well. They were eating dinner, supervised by the poor father: "Please, eat...no, stop, eat, please...no, stop it..if you don't eat...". In theory, this meant I could escape, unnoticed without the usual Gestapo inquisition from my 4 year old as to my whereabouts. Seriously, the child just needs a uniform- otherwise, attitude and tone, it's all there.

I snuck off, turned the taps on and poured a liberal amount of bubble bath (without children's TV characters on it) into the bath. Let the bliss begin. As the water poured noisily, I didn't hear the steps until it was too late.

"Mum, is it bath time?" My four year old was walking through the door, shedding clothes across the floor as she went. Desperately, I looked for her father, hoping he'd rescue me and remove the child from what was intended to be an exclusively adult experience.

"Are you bathing with us, mum?" My heart sank.
" How did you know I was running a bath?"
"I heard the water, mum."

 Let me clarify briefly, that this is the child whom I suspected had a hearing problem- you know, failure to respond to questions and failure to carry out basic requests unless barked through a loudspeaker. Suspected a hearing problem, that is, until I realised that if I whispered the word chocolate from across a valley, she'd coming running up:" Where's the chocolate, mum?". I think they call it selective hearing.

"No," I said, firmly. "I am having a bath on my own.You're having one later." It was hard watching her face fall and seeing the disappointment linger, but I had to be cruel (to her) to be kind(to myself).

I had finally persuaded her to leave the room when my red-faced 2 year old came barrelling through the door, screaming : "I WANT A BATH..........WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH". (The ..... represented the silent scream. Come on parents, you know the one: they take a DEEP breath as if to scream and then silence. As a rule, the longer the silence, the louder the scream).

Now, you can reason with a 4 year old. Not so easy with a teething 2 year old who had refused her nap. My husband and I tried VERY hard to explain she would have a bath later and mummy wanted to have a bath on her own. Couldn't she just play with her sister for a while? At this point she was pretty much fuchsia and grasping the edge of the bath like she was possessed: "BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATH". Well, never one to give into a tantrum, we thought we'd let her just go until she calmed down.

So this is how it went:

I got into the bath and my husband removed the child to another room. Intent on ruining the experience, she'd stagger in under the weight of snot, tears and rage within seconds of being removed. It was like Groundhog day, no sooner was she removed, then she was back: "BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAATH".

I have no idea why I sat there soaking for as long as I did, the screaming echoing off the tiled walls while I pretended to ignore her, reading the same 3 words of my book over again. Like I needed to prove a point: I WILL have a bath.

Conceding defeat, ears bleeding, I got out, let beetroot snot baby and her sister in and went to read my book in bed.

So there you have it. The worst. least relaxing, most disappointing bath ever.

 I'll stick to showers, for now.

Friday, 30 September 2011


September 30 marks the beginning of the Whale Festival in Hermanus, Western Cape.

Trite as the phrase “charming” is, Hermanus really does fit the description of a charming town, around 1 and a half hour’s drives from Cape Town. The views in Hermanus, are not charming, they are breath-takingly stunning. From the coastal walkway, there are dramatic views of the bay, the dassie-dotted, stony slope in front of you giving way to a rocky shore, further a seemingly endless white sand beach and a sea dotted with kayakers, swimmers and boats and this time of year, whales. Behind you are  shops and caf├ęs,  all with huge windows and  outdoor tables, inviting you to enjoy the views over a coffee.

Whale season lasts longer than the festival- from June to October when the Southern Right Whales swim up from the cold Antarctic seas up to the relative warmth of the waters on the shores of the Western Cape.  What would normally be “low season” in winter and spring in Cape Town is a little island of High Season in Hermanus when people flock to catch a glimpse of the massive underwater beasts.

A month ago it was my dad’s birthday and we decided to make a day trip of it to Hermanus from Cape Town:  the drive is spectacular, Hermanus has some fabulous restaurants and the weather in Cape Town looked so-so.  Also, we hoped to catch sight of some of those whales.

By "we", I actually mean my two little girls (4 and 2) and my husband who gets as excited about nature as my daughters.  Binoculars and whale story book in hand, we set off on our road trip, the girls craning their necks from the back seat to see whales. With every rock that was lapped by the waves, “Whale!”, they cried.

The drive from Cape Town to Hermanus along the coast road is worth leaving the house for in itself. As the road rises up past Gordon’s Bay, whole of False Bay opens up. The road seems be chiselled out of the mountain side, wide enough to accommodate 2 cars. The view as you pass every bend causes an involuntary, awe-inspiring intake of breath, as the road drops away sharply to the waves crashing at the foot of the mountain.

Going inland, you pass through Betty’s Bay and Pringle Bay, the houses dotted amongst the rocks like they were sprinkled at the foot of the towering rocky mountain behind them.

Finally, an hour so later, lunch in Hermanus, overlooking the harbour, the girls reluctantly eating between taking turns to hold what look like outsize binoculars in their tiny hands. They were disappointed as the still surface of the water stubbornly refused to throw up any whales, or even a tell-tale upward spurt of water.
I must confess that I have always been rather dubious about whale watching, although I was trying very hard not to spoil the party. 

I had never seen a whale but any pictures advertising whale watching cruises always featured the same old picture of a tail or a spurt of water. I suppose I felt it was all rather over-hyped and the money spent on these trips seemed rather a lot to only see PART of animal. I mean, really, a tail? That’s what, like 10 % of the whale? Imagine how ripped off you would feel, going to the zoo and only being allowed to see 10% of all the animals- half a cheetah’s face, just the elephant’s bottom, ONLY the lion’s man, one giraffe leg…you get my point. So, frankly, I couldn’t really get terribly excited about seeing a “portion” of the whale. Rather go the whole hog and go diving.

After lunch, we walked along the beautiful coast path in Hermanus, meandering past whale-watchers. Suddenly- a collective intake of breath and all fingers and eyes were pointed in the same direction- there it was a WHALE! Perhaps 25m from the beach. And, you know, my heart jumped, and I was transfixed, snapping away and waiting patiently for it to resurface along with everyone else. And yes, I only saw the tail and a spurt.

So why was it so exciting? I don’t know, I can hazard a guess that maybe the immediate juxtaposition of human civilisation and the wild creature of sea was something amazing. The fact that I could buy an iPhone , have an espresso and watch one of the most amazing creatures on the earth frolicking, not 100m away- not even having to get a on a boat- is a miracle of the modern world.

 And maybe we should only see a part of the whale, maybe it should retain some of its mystery and privacy, leaving us in awe and imagining the rest.

Don’t be fooled by the name “Whale Festival”- the whales aren’t actually attending the festival. They won’t be manning any stalls, sipping espresso and perusing  postcards and souvenirs. No, the festival is not quite big enough (physically) to handle a couple of browsing whales. But they may well be there. You know, just over the wall, playing in the water while you enjoy your ice cream or your kid hangs off what must be one of the most spectacularly place jungle gyms in the world.
Trust me; it’s worth it just for the tail.

(September 30 also marks the 1 year anniversary of our arrival in CT- more on that soon!)

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Road Trip

Living in Africa, you have to do a road trip. Not one but lots.

In fact, lots of people argue that living in Cape Town is actually not like living in South Africa, let alone Africa. It has been said that Cape Town is a little bit of Europe, hanging onto the edge of Africa. I can see lots of Europeennes,  lighting a cigarette, flicking back their scarves and saying: "Mais non! C'est pas vrai!"

All I am saying is, is that some people feel you have not experienced Africa until you have left the CT postcode and The Mountain behind, so it is almost vital to get out to be certain to get your African credentials.

South Africa is one of those countries whose size and population density invite road trips. Throw on Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and you can believe that you're living the dream like Thelma and Louise. Ok, look, if  I'm honest it was more Winnie the Pooh and the Lion King, than " Don't Stop Believing", but in my head it was the latter.

I don't think that there are many places in Europe that you could do a road trip in the same sense that you can here, or say (I imagine) the USA and Canada. On the streets of Bromley, UK, the road trip ideal dies pretty quick. Car packed, kids in, enthusiasm high. 30 minutes later, bumper-to-bumper on the M25 the dream dies and you feel that Michael Douglas in "Falling Down" was a reality show contestant, rather than a fictional character. That's not to say there aren't beautiful places to visit- there are plenty as the tourism figures show. It's just such an looooooooong ordeal to get there.  I swear, once on a trip to Cornwall (over 8 hours), my will to live tapped me on the shoulder, gave me a despairing shrug, took his  bags out of the back and left. I only wish I could have gone too.

Today we're off for 3 nights at a wilderness reserve near Clanwilliam, 270km from CT. Directions? Go out of Cape Town, head north, after 230km turn right, right again and look for the gate. Seriously. Look on a map. It's the Cape Town-Namibia route and, save for a few turns it is pretty much a straight road.

We picked up M from school and did a beer stop. 33km and 20 minutes later, any signs of urban habitation were a distant dream. The odd house, the odd hamlet but pure countryside.

The road was straight but with enough slight turns to keep away driving ennui. Occasionally, it was like a rollercoaster, making us and the kids squeal with delights as we sped up and down, the open road stretching like an arrow into the distance.

As you leave Cape Town, the vistas are wide and expansive, the hills a verdant green in spring (I imagine they look rather different at the end of summer- think dust). The further we got from the city, the emptier and narrower the road as we headed to the mountain pass that would take us into the Cederburg Wilderness. We passed by rolling hills that were a sundrenched yellow rapeseed, against the blue sky it all looked positively Provencal, reminiscent of a Van Gogh painting.

After Citrusdal, we hit the roadworks. This is how South Afrcian Road works go: a few km before, you are warned roadworks are coming up. As you get closer and closer to where they begin the amount of unseasonably dressed, miserable looking women wearing high-visibility vests, waving flags in a bored fashion increases. Your car stops. They walk past you waving flags- no eye contact. You see a sign "Roadworks for 15km. Waiting time +/- 10 minutes" Please be patient". The sign that is manually adjusted says " Stop". No sign of any cars coming the other way.  So far, just you and 2 other cars parked there in the sun, the sign attendant cradling a walkie-talkie to her chest, a thousand yard stare in her eyes.

Can you imagine the chaos, the road rage if this happened on the A1 in the UK, ever? It doesn't bear thinking about but you can rest assured that the Daily Mail would have a field day and Sky News would have plenty of disgruntled citizens to interview in the drizzle (on loop, obviously).

What happens here? We stop, we get out, we stretch our legs and nod hello. Everyone looks around surreptitiously to see if this a possible loo stop, one look at the driver of the high-elevation lorry, makes it a resounding no. It is silent but for the occasional vehicle coming the other way, and one joining our queue (and my girls baying to be let out of the car).

Eventually, the sign is languorously changed to "Go" and, slowly, we all pull away, speeding up and overtaking until the next roadworks. There were 5 in all and all passed in the same, pleasant fashion, the scenery getting more and more beautiful and lush.

The final roadworks over a mountain, where what can only be described a feat of engineering was taking place, as they blasted the mountain to make a wider pass. This being the main route between Cape Town and Namibia, there are a lot of trucks and one in particular, which looked like a 3 load Coca Cola truck, hauled itself up the narrow pass in a glacial, unnerving fashion.

On the other side of the mountain, we were greeted by narrow roads, winding their way through orchards and hugging rivers and streams.

Dutifully, we turned right where we were supposed to and passed through the town of Clanwilliam. This was the last time we would have mobile phone reception until we headed home, past this same point.

If we thought that we had been traveling through unpopulated lands so far, this was something else. A few kms beyond Clanwilliam the landscape turned into occasional towers of vast red, orange and black rocks- almost like lego which a giant child had randomly planted around the landscape. The road undulated and veered between the vast, towering rocks. Not a house, not a soul to be seen for 40kms.

Suddenly, on the right, a gate.

A red dirt, duty track meandered up and down through the scrub, fynbos and rocks. No sign of civilization.

4kms on, a sign "The Lodge". Up past the dam, past the ghost gum tree on the right and a dam shining sliver in the afternoon sun. Slowly, looming up beyond the bush and trees, the most perfect looking white homestead, stoep all around providing cool shade and cover from the African sun. A weaver's nest hangs over the pool.

On the stoep a mouth-watering, sumptous high tea served with homemade Rooiboos ice tea, all against the background of a perfect African vista.

The rest?

Frankly, I'm too busy stuffing my face to tell you.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


I don’t like birthdays at all, my birthdays that is.

Like a lot of people, I am pretty much always ill around my birthday. I think it might be the universe’s way of reminding every child of how much their mother suffered when they were born. Call it Birth Karma.

I suppose I must have liked my own birthday at some point, I remember my mum organised some amazingly imaginative parties for me when I was little and, of course, when you’re small it’s SO important to be that whole year older and, let’s be honest, a lot of (all of) it that age is PRESENTS, cake and friends.

It was my birthday recently and I got to thinking: why do I not like birthdays? And when did I stop liking them.

It is easier to answer “when”. I think in the teenage years, most people hit a wall of awkwardness that is impossible to shake for the longest time. This is not helped by the politics of school and what is “sad” and what is “cool”. Inviting the wrong people to the wrong McDonalds on the wrong day is tantamount to social suicide. And, if your parents are even visible when dropping you off or picking you up, you’ll be blushing with shame for years to come.

As to “why”, well I think the “when” stays with you for quite some time, for a start. I also blame it on the “Birthday Monsters” that I have known.

Don’t know what I mean? Sure, you do. A Birthday Monster is a person who in the period around their birthday every year looms larger than ever in your life, your phone, your inbox. This otherwise perfectly normal individual, suddenly morphs into a beast around 2 months before their birthday asking that you diarise, days, weeks, months in your calendar and insists and dragging you into every detail of a party or event that will involve 400 people you don’t know doing something that you will not enjoy. Such is the effect of the Birthday Monster that the emails, SMS and calls day after day, week after week wear you down and you have no choice but to attend a hula party at London which is “no big deal”, just a few friends getting together. Shortly, after said Monster’s birthday occurs, they resume their normal, delightful persona as if they had had a blackout for 2 months and have no recollection of the emotional blackmail of the last 2 months. People who know Birthday Monsters are often to be found on holiday, without working email or phone or in a bunker when they know the BM is emerging (it’s a bit like the Incredible Hulk).

It may sound odd for someone who blogs to say, but I don’t really enjoy being the centre of attention and the idea of forcing people to do something on my account is something I cannot bear. So I’d rather not do anything except low key stuff with family. We accept we are at each other’s mercy.

The other reason being that a birthday, like any type of anniversary, by its very nature, asks for a review of what has gone before. And the review generally doesn’t look very good to me.

When I was younger I had (clearly, very realistically) assumed that by my age I probably would have achieved the combined efforts of Kofi Annan and Tony Blair. Or at least won a Booker Prize.

It never helps that every year around my birthday, the author Zadie Smith (who is pretty much exactly my age and an amazing author- her book White Teeth was so prescient and brilliantly written) seems to do something wonderful like publish another book, have a TV series made from one of her books, open an orphanage, save a species…..something that makes me feel like I just haven’t achieved everything I was “supposed to”. It’s like she’s a reminder of that.

This year was my first birthday as an adult in South Africa and I did lots of South African things- I had dinner in a restaurant overlooking the ocean, I had brunch in a winery (where my girls love seeing the cheetah and bird sanctuary) and my husband had organised my good friends to come over (and they came laden with food, drink and gifts) for afternoon tea. The kids played in the spring sunshine, the men ate all the food and the women complained that the men ate all the food while we’d been too busy gabbling to notice. It was actually a wonderful birthday and I am glad my husband “forced” people to do things for me. It was relaxed, low-key and good fun with great company and great food. A bit of a microcosm of Cape Town for me.

I didn’t open any of my presents myself of course- my four year old does that. I suspect I won’t be opening any until the younger one is too cool to care what mummy got for her birthday. I wouldn’t mind, except she ruins the surprise: “this one is a book, mum and this one is cheese” (she was wrong, mercifully, the “cheese” was halva, cheese would be a bit weird, wrapped the day before as it was).

And then I got to my yearly review and realised that, whilst I may not have achieved peace in the Middle East (neither has Tony Blair, to be fair to me, although at least he tried-arguably) or published a novel, I have done one or 2 things which I should maybe give myself credit for; I have 2 kids whom I have managed not to break (a fact that never ceases to amaze me, they didn’t come with instructions or anything), my family and I moved to Cape Town, in what appears to be (so far) a successful emigration- unlike one we attempted to NZ, that was a bit like “National Lampoon emigrates to NZ”- not pretty). I’m going to be starting my own business.

And, actually, I’m pretty happy.

Which must count for something.

I’ll get round to that Peace Accord eventually…

(Oh, and Happy, Happy Birthday Alex! Wish you were here/we were there xx. We miss you. Maybe you'll get to that Peace Accord before me?!)