Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Friday, 30 September 2011

Whales

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

Birthdays

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?!)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Cape Town Weather Update

Since my last treatise on the weather in Cape Town, namely the winter here, I feel the need to post an update.

It's not right to say that I should eat my words because, strictly, we're in spring now, and not winter so my comments vis-a-vis this winter are still valid.

However, I must say that most of September has been quite gross. Rain and wind. And Cape Town rain and wind, if you've come from where I've come, from is quite something. Bear in mind, when reading my comments that the last place I lived was London which has a "mild" climate. Which means, basically, cr*p. On the whole London hardly ever has spectacular weather- rain is generally interminable drizzle, wind is more akin to a stiff breeze and summer's day is more often cloudy with spells of sunshine. Not exclusively, but mostly.

Cape Town weather, on the other hand is really "in yer face" weather. If it's sunny (which mostly it is ), it is glorious sunshine with stunning bright skies as the backdrop of Table Mountain. To recreate Cape Town rain, ask someone to pour a bucket of water over your head. To recreate Cape Town wind and rain, ask someone to throw a bucket of water in your face. If it's windy and sunny (which is often is in summer) and like me, a newbie at the time, and you go to the "wrong" beach you get a free exfoliation (if you can open the car door). Or you'll sit in your house in the evening and it will feel like a giant is simply repeatedly slapping your house.

Back to the current climate and, really, since the beginning of September, it has been windy and rainy.

The most curious thing to me about "bad weather" in Cape Town is the traffic. Without fail, when it rains, my husband will SMS me on the way home saying the traffic is bad. And some might think that this is normal for 2 reasons: firstly, that more people drive when it rains; and, secondly, that people drive more carefully and slowly in bad weather.

Well, you're wrong!! Let me tell you why:

1. It is impossible to get more cars on the road in CT. A more car-dependent society is hard to find. Perhaps America. The pavements that exist are perfectly adequate and the views and air are lovely. Yet they're empty. Are Cape Tonians allergic to pavements? Would they break out in hives if made to walk on them? Hives that are instantly cured by the smell of leather and air conditioning in an SUV? Take a Cape Tonian's car away and he will rot at home (thank goodness for online shopping!).

I live in a nice neighbourhood and enjoy walking ten minutes to the post office. My daughter's school is a fifteen minute walk away and when I walked to pick her up people either assumed my car had broken down or that I was on day release from a mental home.

So, my point is, that they're all in cars anyway, regardless of the weather. This cannot explain bad traffic in rain.

2. Driving more carefully. Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahahahhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaa. Oh, dear, excuse me, while I catch my breath and stop laughing at the notion of CAREFUL driving in Cape Town. Driving in Cape Town has taken me beyond road rage to sheer disbelief. It's like the Whacky Races but with worse cars, no insurance, overcrowded taxis and bakkies ( pick-up trucks) spilling people out of the back onto the road. My dad has actually seen a taxi (for non-South Africans, these are mini-vans), bursting with people (obviously) wobble a little on the motorway, a WHEEL roll away, and the vehicle casually pull over to the hard-shoulder. A normal sight in Cape Town.

So, if it's not more people in cars (impossible) or careful driving (out of the question), what is it?

I think Cape Tonians are so horrified by RAIN that they actually freeze in disbelief. This, in turn, renders them incapable of  driving at more than 10km an hour.

Don't worry guys, summer's just round the corner.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Parenthood: Part 1 of 6 million

I feel as a parent that I bumble through with instinct, advice and the occasional dip into a website about children. The latter most make me feel woefully inadequate; most seem to suggest that for proper development, a 2 year old should be making papier mache letters to form her own name whilst playing the piano with the other hand. Me, on the other hand, I consider it a success if they are in bed by the end of the day (mostly) fed, (mostly) clean and not broken. I try not to aim too high.


One thing my husband and I feel quite strongly about is always answering a child's question as accurately and honestly as we can. This can yield some interesting conversations and rather bizarre results.


Unless it's a long car journey, I have an absolute bar on children's music in the car. It is my last bastion of resistance against all things Mickey Mouse/Barney sung by children whose voices make me wince as if I have an ice cream headache. No, thank you. So we listen to proper music.


We and the girls (M, aged 4 and E, aged 2) both love Freshly Ground, a southern African band. One of the songs features an excerpt from an inauguration speech by Robert Mugabe. M asked who he was and we replied that he was the President of Zimbabwe. She asked why they were singing about him, so we said he wasn't very nice. She asked for specific examples, which we tried to provide- he takes things from people without asking, doesn't care about anyone, 4 year old stuff.  As excellent and important a book as Peter Godwin's "The Fear" is, we thought the electoral fraud and violence would be a bit much for her.





 M is now obsessed with Robert Mugabe (and fleas, but that's another story) and him being a "bad man". I think she thinks he is the absolute root of all evil. I thought it might amuse you to know that when she had a friend over today, they decided that E was Robert Mugabe and were shouting at her to go away, telling "Robert" he was bad and running away from her. Her friend, who I don't think knows who Robert Mugabe is, joined in the game eagerly  and, E, bless her, (who is aware of  the existence of Robert Mugabe in her own way- she knows he's  bad) seemed to, worryingly, delight in assuming the mantle of Bobby M and ran around terrorising people, flora and fauna. 

With children, and I suspect this will continue, a parent is constantly having to make quick decisions when a child asks a difficult question and you just have to hope you get it right more times than not.

In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy the southern African human rights fantasy playing out in my garden. 



Tuesday, 6 September 2011

On the Expat Scene

Although, as I have previously discussed - ad nauseum- one might say, the fact that I am not, by definition an expat, many people I assume that I am. I cannot blame them, my accent is a clue and my surname would appear to be a giveaway too (although I must point out that the two do not match, very confusingly).

My British accent is a problem for some people here. My accent over the telephone seems to cause some South Africans much consternation. More than once, I have been asked to spell simple words like "three" over the phone: "Aaaah, THRRREEEE", they say as if they have cracked a Nazi code: "It's that Brrrytyshh egsent". In person, when I ask for things in the supermarket, I am often faced with the facial expression of someone who is hard of hearing, trying to tune into a crackly radio station. I kid you not, reader, once I asked for beer and a poor soul lead me to the pears. Eventually: "Beeeyah, ja, shame man, over theeere".

My surname, frankly, sometimes its spelling should be a question on Mensa entry forms. A couple of z's and everyone is freaking out.

So I do accept that it is legitimate that people might think that I am an expat and therefore ask the question: "How's the expat scene in Cape Town?". It's not a reflection of the people that ask the question that I absolutely loathe the question because of everything I perceive that it implies.

I don't like the use of the word "scene". I know it can mean simply a place, a picture or a view or an embarrassing public row. For me, in the context of "expat scene" I always think of the word in the theatrical sense, like a scene in a play. A bit contrived, a bit practiced and not very real. And that is what an expat scene is- removed from reality.

I suspect part of my prejudice comes from the fact that my parents, even though we were what seemed like itinerant Poles for a long time, always insisted we lived like other natives of the country we were in. Mum and dad felt very strongly that they didn't want to "ghetto-ise" their children; they didn't erase who we were, they felt that we should integrate and get on, rather than live in a pocket of say, Jo'burg or London where you could walk a couple of blocks at least and hear only Polish spoken by people purveying Polish goods. They felt that they hadn't left their country to try and seek it out in another part of the world.

That's not to say that I think people should avoid such communities. To some it is something that they need, especially if they have been forced to leave their country, even if for economic reasons. Sometimes it's just nice when someone else understands what bigos is and don't think it's odd to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve. Not only that but the myriad of expat communities in places like New York add enormously to the charm and draw of the city.

I am just saying that I don't feel it's healthy to take the trouble to go somewhere else only to seek out what you have just left. And you know what else? It's rather pointless going that far to be with your own kind. What's more, I think you're really potentially missing out on something.

If you live on the "expat scene" in Cape Town, you'll enjoy the views, the cafes and all the aesthetics but will you ever really experience the real Cape Town? You'll miss out on Cape Tonian hospitality, being invited to a braai at a moment's notice , you'll miss out on the people and their perspective (and they're an opinionated bunch- expect lots of perspectives!). More than even The Mountain, what defines this city is the people who live here.

I get slightly depressed when I hear there is a "British Women only" coffee morning organised somewhere in CT. What would happen if a non-Brit came? Would they all self-combust? Would their morning be a write-off because one person attending hadn't watched Bagpuss as a child?

By "allowing" other people in, they could share their  love of their country and their culture with others and, hey, go crazy, maybe learn something about the place in which they live. Think of it as helping with international relations.

When my husband and I lived in New Zealand, we were made to feel extremely welcome by everyone around us. The New Zealanders have a well-deserved reputation for friendliness. We weren't there for all that long but through our local friends we saw and experienced things that no expat or guidebook would have led us to.

Contrast that with someone I used to know. To look at his "CV" of travel and places he'd lived, you'd imagine he'd be the most well informed person on the planet. He's been to so many places for so long, you'd think you could safely make him foreign secretary and he'd solve all the world's ills. When he lived in Auckland, no Kiwi accent could be heard anywhere near him unless it was serving him coffee. Of course, he ticked all the boxes from the Lonely Planet's "Must Do's in Auckland" section and had photos to prove it. This gentleman has visited a significant portion of the world, in exactly same fashion. He has beautiful photos of things most people will never be lucky enough see.

I always felt, that it would have been cheaper for him and more environmentally sound had he just stayed in London and bought the guidebooks. He'd still have seen pictures and, arguably, had the same experience. For him, travelling and living in different places was the equivalent of notches of the bedpost. There was no attempt at a relationship  or understanding with anywhere that he went.

I know there are places where the expat scene is an invaluable necessity, a sanity finder. Anywhere where you don't speak the language for instance or where the culture is very different. For instance, I imagine living in the UAE as a Brit, say,  it must be essential to be plugged into other expats.

But I do wish that people would try a little harder, rather than cutting themselves off fully from where they are living- they might be surprised at what they find  past the Expat Curtain.

For Brits moving to Cape Town, there is no language barrier- English is one the official languages. You'd think that would be an incentive enough to "integrate" more. But no, for some there is no reason to emerge from behind the Expat Curtain.

Cape Town, and South Africa generally, has a lot to offer those who move here. For a lot of people the main attraction is moving here is the climate, scenery and lifestyle.  But for a value added experience, try enjoying it all with some Cape Tonians.

It's really quite lekker.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Queues and the self-esteem issues of supermarket displays

Being a citizen of the world may sound very exciting-or totally poncy depending on your viewpoint- but it does have its difficulties and dilemmas. I have already discussed my outfit based approach to sports teams as a means of filling the void where nationalistic fervour should be.

Other difficulties include not being able to decide on a flag which you can fly from your car or porch. I mean, think of my torment and how much easier my life would be if I were a single-flag person. I can feel the swell of sympathy as I write.

Another cultural issue is queuing. You are as defined by your queuing method as you are by, say, what food you eat at Christmas.

Some nations have more recognisable ways of queuing than others. Some are very distinct, others less so, but I believe it goes to the heart of what you are like as a nation.

I am constantly faced with the dilemma: how do I queue? It's not something I think about every time I queue but, when there is a stressful situation, for instance when I am in a hurry and there are swarms of people, I have to give considerable thought to my approach and how it will be perceived in the cultural environment that I am in.

New Zealand and Norway are the 2 the countries that I have spent the least time in so I am sure that I cannot be expected to exhibit the behavioural characteristics of these nations when queuing. I feel certain that Norwegians will queue very politely in a manner that is very fair and liberal and they will do so with alarming fluency in 12 languages. The Kiwis, well, with that "can do Kiwi attitude" that I heard SO much about when I lived there, I am sure that they will deal with any queuing problem in a pragmatic and friendly fashion, all the while telling you that they're doing it better than the Australians.

No, for me the choice comes down to the nature of the Pole and the nurture of the Brit.

The Brits are famous for queuing and doing it in a very orderly fashion. The way of the Brit is to stand behind the person who got there before you, even if this was a nanosecond and, all being well, the person who arrives after you will stand behind you. At a safe distance. No eye contact. You stand mutely until your turn comes, no fussing or commenting, even if the person at the till is working at the speed of a lobotmised sloth. Now, should anyone break this peaceful spell by asking if they can just pop in front as they only have a few items, you can hear a collective intake of breath. Of course, you'll say yes, because you're British, you're polite but, my word, you'll dine out on this outrage for months. And if someone actually queue jumps- you may even go so far as to make eye-contact with fellow outraged queuers, sharing your disgust at this break of protocol. If pensioners start muttering and whispering, that means it's gone big. It's no wonder that a Brit would never consider taking 11 items to a "10 items or less" till- those stares and whispers are just not worth it.

There is the occasional passive-aggressive moment, where, during busy times a new till opens up and people will make mad and undignified dashes to get there first. Without any eye contact.

And now to the Poles. They couldn't be further away from the Brits. You can't call a queue a "line" in Poland, just a mass of plum colored hair, elbows and bad attitude. Think Roller Derby with trolleys and baskets, but without the protection of helmets. A queue at a supermarket till could look to a passer-by like a heaving mass of people waiting for Madonna to sign a long-awaited album. No, they just want to pay for the plethora of pork products in the trolley. Pushing, shoving and shouting is the norm- survival of the fittest. And after you have paid, it is quite likely you will feel like you have done the Bull Run in Pamplona. If you're planning on shopping there, get elbow pads just to buy chewing gum from the kiosk. In Poland you can call a queue an Express queue but you'd be wasting ink. If someone one with 3 trolleys wants to pay there, they will. And the shop assistant won't argue- shes's too busy feeling resentful about the fact she's not a supermodel (more on Polish customer service another time).

The other day I found myself in Pick 'n Pay at peak time with a small basket and I headed for the Express till. The name was a misrepresentation. Nothing was express about it and the 5 lobotomised sloths has taken their seats, slowly, at the tills. I swear I grew roots and the newspapers on my way out were dated 3 days later than when I arrived. But those express queues trap you into their narrow coils, you cannot escape. You cannot do anything but gawp at the magazines and other things you don't need around you. The Brit in me was outraged by the woman with a trolley, brimming with shopping in the EXPRESS queue but the Pole in me thought nothing of it, in fact, admired it.

As I shuffled along, I looked at the magazine promising me a great holiday, a stylish new home (I noted there were no children in the pictures, rubbing chocolate into sofas while a dishevelled parent cried in the background), better health etc. Finally, at the end of this bit of the snake coil was a magazine with the all too unbiquitous Gwyneth Paltrow half-naked, glossy hair billowing behind her. And as ever, I was filled with the usual self loathing, standing upright, sucking in my stomach and feeling generally bad about myself.

Every time I do this, I am so angry with myself. I am an educated, well-informed, balanced woman and I know that magazine photos are airbrushed, the star spends hours being made to look like that and, actually, it's her job to look good and sell magazines so she spends a lot of time trying to look nice. My job is make sure there is enough milk in the house at all times to satisfy my dairy queens (trust me, that's tough).

But still, every time I see a magazine like this, I have that reaction, however brief, even though I know it is not rational. And, on the whole, I am a very happy person. Must say something about female role models today.

Supermarkets know us so well. What makes you feel better if you're feeling down? Chocolate, of course, and right next to Gwyneth Paltrow's flat stomach is a wealth of items that could make my stomach look even less like hers.

Oh, sod her, at least I didn't name my first-born after a fruit. That's got to count for something in the universe.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

The wonders of the internet

I must just say that I have become completely obsessed at checking the traffic for my blog. Not for any reason of vanity but because I so sometimes feel that I am living in in a futuristic sci-fi movie.

This blog has, inexplicably, been read in Mauritius, Canada, Germany, Spain, Italy, USA, Australia and UAE. More explicable in SA, Belgium and the UK where I know there are people whom I have all but compelled to read it. Think water-boarding.

And for those of you that don't blog, I must tell you about the map that I can pull up and it will tell where in the world at that precise moment in time, someone, if anyone is reading my blog.

Right now, for instance, I can tell you that someone in the UK is reading this on their iPhone: Hello There!

I find it astonishing that my laptop can tell me who is "linked" to me and by what means right now and yet, the Department for Home Affairs cannot find over 70% of Permanent Residence applications lodged in the last two years.

The world is so incredible and just so absolutely hand-droppingly useless, all at the same time.

My first Cape Town Winter, or: Was that it?



 Was that it? 

 Is that all it was?

After all the griping and grousing I heard in the lead-up: “You’ll see!” and “You need to get away from Cape Town in the winter!” and “You won’t know what hit you!”.

Um… was it a bit of rain and slightly shorter days?!

The first of September marks the beginning of spring for us here, thus yesterday was the final day of that dreaded and most terrible Cape Town winter.

Now, I don’t intend to mark the changing of every season and every equinox with a blog but I felt that the end of our first winter here deserved a mention, especially given all the fuss about it.

 Cape Tonians were virtually fleeing for the hills, wide-eyed and full of horror stories as the first of June loomed. At one point, I thought maybe they were all part of some cult that rocked and chanted in their furry boots and knitted scarves as that damn sun insisted on still shining and ignoring their tales of rain, mud and frosty winds.

Rather bizarrely, the Cape Town winter folklore starting flying at me in January- the height of summer. When, by the way, the shops start stocking their winter ranges. I know shops stock next season’s stuff unseasonably early all over the world, but it seems especially ridiculous in 30 degree heat. I went to the shops to buy t-shirts for my little girls and found myself frustrated and sweating at the very sight of woolly knits and tights. I had heat stroke on behalf of my kids just looking at them.

Even so, I was not willing to believe that over a million people could be wrong. Even I was fooled into buying a pair of fur-lined boots (because, of course, I didn’t have enough of those, emigrating from the UK). I am now, at the end of winter, convinced that a hallucinogenic drug is pumped into the water and, over the years it makes you rant like a mad-man about “the rains” and the cold and gives you an entirely skewed body temperature.

Around April (so, the  October equivalent  for you in the northern hemisphere), something changes about the people. It’s like an edict is issued from above and t-shirts are banned and scarves must be worn. Around this time, I remember a couple we know and their kids arrived at our house. She would not have looked out of place in Siberia in the winter and the rest of the family was dressed for a similar climate.  Us, well, um, I think I had jeans and t-shirt on and the doors in the house were open…

I have a very dear friend here who called me as she dropped her daughter off at school, saying we couldn’t possibly meet somewhere outside for coffee as her teeth were chattering from the cold. The temperature was 15 degrees.

Calm down, calm down Cape Tonians.  Yes, of course you sensitive souls, it is cold. But only compared to your summer which is gloriously and blissfully hot, not to mention, (almost) rain free.

Let me tell you how I found the weather: I found autumn to be mostly beautiful, there were some dodgy, rainy and randomly foggy days but there was so much sun and warmth without that searing January heat. And that wretched wind died down which pleased me, so we enjoyed lots of time on the beach. You can definitely feel the change in the seasons, not least because of the non-native trees like the oaks changing colours which makes the drive up to Constantia Nek even more stunning in autumn than in summer, if that is possible.

But back to winter, yes, colder for sure and much more rain. Much less wind and gentler light, the trees are bare, although in the last few weeks or so you can definitely see the blossoms of spring poking through.  On the sunny days (and there are plenty of them- even on the shortest day of the year, there is an average on 8 hours sunlight), you can easily have lunch or coffee outside.

The wonderful thing is, as a friend says, that when the weather’s bad in Cape Town, it won’t be bad for long. Cape Town weather is never passive, it is always doing something:  whether it is sheets of horizontal rain or beautiful, cloudless blue skies.

What got me most about winter, and my dad had warned me of this, was the temperature INSIDE, not outside. The houses are not designed for anything below 20 degrees. So we have had some loft insulation installed and it has made all the difference.

Our investment in heating is unlike a lot of Cape Tonians who insist the winter is so short, that really it’s fine to parade around indoors with 3 layers and a coat for 3 months. I think it’s called embracing the “bringing outside, inside” lifestyle.

This winter my children have been able to play in the garden, go to the beach, go to the park and enjoy everything else that Cape Town has to offer on most days.

But before you mock my enthusiasm, consider where we came from.  During the winters I have had in the UK since my kids were born, we only went outside if we had a doctor’s appointment for one of the 4 of us. The preludes would consist of a half hour coat-wrestle with each of them, with a few tantrums thrown in. At one point, I spent so much time in the doctor’s surgery, I felt it would be more environmentally friendly and time-efficient if I just rented a room there. It was a very convenient location as well with Sainsbury across the road and some lovely little coffee shops and cafes nearby. Location, location, location.

In the UK, I have some lovely friends whom I miss very much living here. I also missed them very much every winter as we did the fever/flu/tonsillitis/gastro relay meaning that eons would pass before we could hobble into one another’s homes, having skidded there on the ice the council had failed to grit (unusual weather, 3 years in a row, PURLEASE!!) to exchange horror stories of  multiple infant/toddler/parent  illness.

The last few winters we lived in the UK it snowed every year. Which is great!! For five minutes. Until the trains stop running, the council stops gritting the roads and Sky News starts reporting food shortages in Central London. I remember it taking 20 minutes to get us all dressed to enjoy the snow, only for my daughter to announce it was too cold and wet and demand to be taken back in. I suspect things would change as they grew older and they would enjoy the snowball fights, snowman building  and inevitable school closures every snowfall brings.

Back to Cape Town and , of course, I concede it is colder and rainier in winter. There are most definitely seasons in Cape Town and I love that. And I am acclimatising. I too, have started wearing knee-high boots where previously Birkenstock sandals would have been the order of the day.

I think another reason for people wearing  different clothes  at different times of year in a city where the annual temperature variation is not as great as in some other places (aside from non-stop marketing from clothing retailers who now seem to have 8 seasons) is actually that people like and need change. The cycle of change is somehow comforting and reassuring. No one likes to stand still. And if you need to mark that change by wearing a polo neck in 19 degrees, well, that’s your prerogative.

Today, admittedly, is a foul day in Cape Town. When the rain abates I can see the trees in my garden looking increasingly and precariously horizontal. Today I have seen people wearing earmuffs and woollen gloves (15 degrees).  

But I know, and all Cape Tonians know, that in 2 days or so it will be glorious again.

OK, maybe that’s  just me.

Cape Tonians will thinks it’s mild.