Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Fame at last!

...well, for my house at least!

A couple of weeks ago, The Guardian newspaper in the UK asked UK expats to send in the view from their window and I did. Well, to be honest it was not quite my view but more a view of me! It's a picture of our house.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/gallery/2012/dec/11/uk-expats-view-windows#/?picture=400800009&index=12

Apparently, was one of the photos that made the Guardian want to reach for its passport.

Funny, they should say that because it had the exact effect on us. This was an estate agent's bid to sell our house and, apparently, it worked. We bought the house in a very 21st Century way- having seen it on the web but not in person. We're not that crazy- we had excellent advisers on the ground advising us . Plus Google Streetview and a working knowledge of the area helped us.

We were a teeny bit nervous when we landed and went to visit a home we had chosen but never been in before. Luckily, it was love at first (actual) sight and  the view from the garden towards the mountains is even better in real life with the warmth of the sun beating down on you and the occasional waft from the sea 17km away.

It's an exceptionally beautiful place in which to live- we feel very lucky to live here.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Replacement Parent

As parents, I am sure most of us think at some point that- to our kids- we are irreplaceable  For me at least, this emotion can swiftly be followed by the feeling that I wish someone would replace me, just for a moment.

I got to thinking the other day what "value" I add to their lives and I came up with a list of 4 things they really need someone to do for them.

Someone to drive them places

When I asked my girls the other day what I did that they liked best, they both replied that it was driving them somewhere (the older one said to Monkey Town, the younger one to her grandparents' house).

And it's true, at some point in the last 6 years I seem to have- unbeknownst to myself- applied for the position of chauffeur to 2 noisy midgets and accepted. I'll be honest- the working conditions are tough, the pay non-existent and the only tips you get are on what music they want played.

Someone to find things

My younger daughter has been known, mid-stride, to suddenly burst into tears and start bawling that she can't find something which, judging by the racket she's making, must have life saving properties. It's not that she's been looking for it for a while, she just wants it RIGHT NOW and can't see it in her immediate vicinity  She gives me no clues (very often to what is IS: "I caaaaaaaaaaaaan't find IT!!" - not helpful) as to where it was last seen. Apparently I am blessed with psychic properties.

The older girl is a bit better in that she doesn't howl- she'll just whine, generally after we've put her to bed- but make equally little effort to find it before declaring it to be lost.

Someone to hold stuff.

The children like to take half the house with them when we go out. We have tried to limit the amount to hold luggage on a transcontinental flight. So we fight, tell them to take less, then relent and leave with the boot and back seat so full you wouldn't want me to reverse the car in your direction.

Inevitably, when we reach our destination, after 3 minutes I morph into a porter/valet. Another favourite time to dump me with a load of stuff is when they're getting out the car. I have no idea why   Later, I am held responsible when the treasured item that was flung at me with a million others cannot be found .


Someone to referee

My husband and I are regularly called on to passed judgement on who had it first, whose turn it is, who it belongs to (not easy, as they have engaged in a barter economy, the value of the toys being a mystery to us) or who is entitled to the last ice cream/biscuit (insert any other coveted item in short supply).

I have been giving a lot of thought to what or whom could replace me and fulfil ALL these vital roles for my children.

The conclusion: a psychic donkey (for carrying/holding- it could come with baskets) with a driver's licence and a whistle.

If anyone can tell me where I can get me one of those, I'd be grateful. It's day one of the holidays and I feel I may need a short break soon.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

An African menu

Sometimes, it's easy to forget where you live.

Yes, despite the beaches and the mountains,  the weather. Doing the school run, going to work, paying the bills, grocery shopping- you can live so much on the micro level that you become oblivious to everything else around you. I can be driving to the city centre from my house- literally driving around Table Mountain (sometimes you can see zebras)- but I am so absorbed in getting somewhere on time that I could be anywhere.

I like to be reminded of where I live- whether the reminder is about living in Cape Town, living in South Africa or living in Africa. It can be coming round Lion's Head and suddenly seeing that view of Camps Bay, Cape Town, it can be walking into a Padstal (farm stall) and being spoken to in Afrikaans, it can be driving along Route 62 for tens of kilometres- for an age- and not seeing another person, car or man made structure.

Today. my reminder was this:



We were browsing in a farm stall and  I spotted these delicacies which, I suspect, are unlikely to be found in Tesco, Waitrose or Sainsbury's. 

I like to think of it as  "locally sourced ingredients".

Friday, 23 November 2012

In defence of the parking guard

The words "parking guard" in Cape Town will inevitably elicit some sort of reaction from Capetonians. Not always- but most of the time- there are few kind words said.

For those reading from abroad, a "parking  guard" or a "parking marshal  is, in most cases a gentleman (well, of the male species anyway) who guards your car while you leave your car in a public place like parked in the street, a shopping centre, in a winery, a restaurant.

Some parking guards are appointed by a shopping centre/restaurant/whatever and others, are well, self appointed, shall we say. The self-appointed ones are generally to be found around Long Street day and night or around random pockets of commercial development. Normally, they are wearing a hi-vis vest that has seen better days. If you're unlucky, they stagger up to you with a whiff of a drink promising to look after your car. My husband and I often comment in these situations that the person offering to look after our car is precisely the person we want it protected from. In my experience, these self appointed gentlemen are irritating, they can be persistent but not dangerous. Most of these individuals apparently think I was born yesterday as they will often ask me for the tip  now and not when I return to the car because they need to eat, promising they'll be back with a snack. Yes, of course, you will.

Having said that, some of the parking-trepreneurs can sometimes be useful  pointing out places to park on an impossibly full Long Street and will occasionally walk you to your restaurant if you're alone or with a feeble looking friend.

So, asks the foreigner, what are they supposed to do? Well, depending on where they are:


  • Point out free parking spaces/spaces about to be free.
  • Guide you in and out of said parking space safely (avoiding crashing into other cars/ sauntering pedestrians). They tend to be very vigorous and active in this role, waving and flailing their arms to guide you out.
  • Help you push your trolley (if relevant) and unpack your bags into the car.
  • Take your trolley to the trolley park (if relevant).
  • Guard your car. In one market in the forest, they use a big stick to guard it mostly against baboons- really! They failed me once, I returned to a car with a wing mirror hanging off, the windscreen covered in tell-tale paw prints. In the vast majority of cases, it's simply to guard your car against property crime, it's not always as exciting as baboons.
Why do they do it? To earn a living. Some are paid by the place they guard, others work just for tips.

What do I think of them? When I started coming here on holiday, I couldn't bear them. Their flailing and waving arms as I manoeuvred in or out of a space seemed to me not to be helpful, but instead an indictment of my driving (which doesn't go down well, no matter who it comes from). Their offers of help with my trolley were unfamiliar and felt like an intrusion on my personal space. Coming from London, a tightly packed city, I should have been used to it but instead in this place of space made me feel claustrophobic  I was suspicious, ever wary of crime in South Africa, as repeated on the news- even though once a parking guard ran after me with the credit card I had dropped in the parking lot.

How do I feel now? I could do without the smart-arse self appointed ones that hound me from the car to the cafe about money for a snack.

But for the rest, I think it's a nice luxury that someone will help guide me out of a tricky space, helping to avoid accidents and bumps. I appreciate the help with the trolley, with the unpacking, especially when I'm trying to keep a feisty toddler under control. I like the snippets of information I gain from some of them about Africa (most are not from Cape Town- most are from Rwanda, DRC, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other African nations). It provides employment in a country where employment is much needed.

Mostly, though, I have respect for them. Standing in a car park all day, waving arms, making chit-chat and packing cars you can never hope to own is not a great way to spend a day. I don't think there's much job satisfaction in standing around in the searing sun or, in winter on a bad day, standing around in the pouring, pouring rain in the the hope of getting R2 here and there. It's a rubbish job but it is a job and  these guys turn up to work, make some money and send most of it home to their families in poorer parts of Africa.

And, you know, most men in this country are secret parking guards, I'm not sure if it just now inherent in the culture or if it is a man thing. The other day, I was trying to park in a tricky space in an underground car park (in these there are not many parking guards). I'll be frank- it wasn't going well. There had been multiple unsuccessful and entry attempts (in my defence  I was tired and stressed, normally I'd nail it one, honest). Out of nowhere, a well dressed young man appeared out of his car, Blackberry to his ear and guided me in. Maybe it's male civic duty here?

Next time: The small town in the Western cape where parking guards are exclusively white, very elderly Afrikaans-speaking people in wide-brimmed hats. Never a dull moment living in South Africa.



Saturday, 17 November 2012

The maid problem

South Africa has its fair share of problems, a lot of them you can't joke about. But some problems that people have- to a person that has spent most of their life in Europe can seem quite strange.

Most working households have a maid in Cape Town. No, not a [ insert heart-stopping amount of GBP] per hour maid that comes with a long list of things they won't do (like in England). Or a per hour person who comes with free non-stop repetition of life story, problems and nosiness  cleaning ancillary (like in Poland). No, here a maid/char/domestic comes in for the day and, in a LOT of middle class houses they have a person every day, all day. I say a "person" because some people have "housemen" too- generally a cleaner.nanny/gardener/handyman/pool cleaner. Some live in as well.  This is partly to do with history, partly to do with the excess of surplus, unskilled labour we have in South Africa.

Most (but not all) people of my age who grew up in South Africa, were brought up with a maid/nanny around most of the time. If you're used to it, it's normal. If you're not, it seems odd to have someone around all the time, especially for someone of my socio-economic bracket. In Europe, the only people who have "help" all the time are fabulously wealthy.

I lived in Jo'burg for 6 years as a child and we had Sophie- our maid and nanny who lived with us but we left here when I was 10, so my memories of live-in maids are very distant.

Part of the attraction of living in South Africa is that one can afford "help" much more easily. A nanny/maid and gardener are staples for many.

When we got here, we had a lady for 3 days. I was SO delighted having had a cleaning team once a week for 2 hours in the UK who were most precise about what they did and didn't do and very punctual about leaving. It was almost tempting to make a mess just because you didn't have to clean it up. I became completely sloppy- I used to plan meals that were messy and pot-intensive to make on the day before she came, so that she'd wash them up the next morning. Dreadful. I dreamed of having someone 5 days (just to clean, no childcare) so that I really would have to do NOTHING around the house.

 That lady didn't last very long with us though- she was terribly keen on making calls when I left the house, had dubious punctuality,  laboured under the misapprehension that I was a bank and had very precise and very large food orders. After her, we employed another lady, who is fabulous and still with us, nearly 2 years on.. She used to come 3 days but then I felt there really wasn't enough for her to do. I also realised that whilst I love minimising my household tasks, I rank privacy and solitude for my family and me higher than a mess-free house. Whilst our lady is a lovely person and does her work  very well in a most unobtrusive way, I feel awkward if she's around too much. I'm (mostly) a stay-at-home mum and I feel a certain amount of guilt about not doing it all myself. I feel if I sit outside and read a book she might think I'm lazy. Do I care if she thinks I'm lazy? I suppose I must and, on some level, her doing my ironing whilst I peruse the pages of the latest best-seller makes me feel like I have some kind of privilege that I don't deserve, like I am playing at being the Lady of The Manor. That's never been how I saw myself and it bothers me that's how I might look to others.

I spoke to a friend about this recently, another foreigner and she feels the same. She actually asked her maid about it and her maid replied that, given the level of unemployment, the maid couldn't give a hoot what you were doing, she's just bloody happy to have a job. I think my attitude and the maid's probably say an awful about both our starting points.

We have our domestic for 2 days a week which is great and leaves me with every day tidying to do- she does the cleaning and ironing. I do have days where I wish she'd just bloody move in but, on the whole, I love having the place to ourselves.

Whilst I wrangle and wrestle with my thoroughly first-world problems and European projection, the locals are not so troubled.

The other day, outside the schools gates, I walked in on a conversation between 2 of my friends, both South Africans, both stay-at-home mums, both with maids Monday-Friday.One had been unwell and was remarking how she was actually grateful her maid had called in sick that day as she could just take a nap in bed. She said how nice it was to have the place to yourself, rather than having to bother about the maid and how, actually, it was liberating not to have had the house to herself. You know, that sometimes it can be a problem, inconvenient having a maid around all the time. The other lady was very much in agreement and sympathy.

So, I remarked- all steeped in my European culture, my European middle class guilt- well, you know, if you feel like that, why not have the maid fewer days a week? They both went silent-  not in a hostile way, more in disbelief, incomprehension, tinged with a teeny bit of pity- and turned to look at me simultaneously, I could see my reflection in both their sunglasses. Then they just turned back to each other and continued the conversation, as if having made a tacit agreement to ignore the lunatic in their midst.

It seems that the "maid problem" is different, depending on your starting point. Maybe I should just get over myself and help out with the unemployment problem.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Playdates and Manners

My children love play dates, especially the older one. She always wants friends to come over.

Play dates used to be hard work as the kids were too young and enjoyment was limited to twenty minutes before the rules of toddler ownership kicked in: "That's mine!" and the tears began.

Then, from about 4.5, a halcyon period seemed to start, whereby, if  little friends came over, it meant that my kids actually left me alone for a while: the rules of possession seemed to have been somewhat relaxed and they discovered that they prefer the company of their peers to me (which is sort of cool, but sort of sad). Now, at 5.5 we're at the stage where when they come over I am obliged to watch all manner of performances and parades and  to show equal appreciation of all my small guests'  artwork.

Something that never fails to make me laugh, even at their ripe old age of 5.5 is how much they still need to learn in terms of manners, self-control and social norms. My friend and I had a conversation about how our adult meetings would look if we behaved in the same way as they do. Bear in mind, we're both the north side of 35...

Let's assume the meeting starts in the car and we're going to my house. In the period prior to the meeting  I would have made the rest of my family's life hell: "But wheeeeeeeen can we go to see her....?" I would then refuse to go to the toilet before I left the house, making myself more irritable and agitated than I already am.

As we drive, I would try and tickle her and below songs in her face. She'd tell me I was disgusting but stick her foot in my face.  As soon as we pull into the driveway, we'd open the car doors before the car had stopped and rush out, leaving the doors open and I would force her to watch me as I leapt over the wall and then raced to the front door yelling "Na, na, nana, naaaa- you're so slow...".

So, we'd get in the house and, without speaking to her, I would immediately log onto my laptop, completely oblivious to her and what she wanted to do or was doing. She. however, would be completely oblivious what I was doing and proceed to go through the drawers in my kitchen and living room, pulling stuff out, examining the contents of my house, sometimes putting things back in the drawer, sometimes not. Without warning, she'd yell: "I need a poo!!" and run off. She'd probably sing in the loo while I taunted her outside about the smell.

If I asked if she wanted tea, she'd say: 'I don't even like tea! I want coffee!". I'd make the coffee, she'd taste it and make a face and say:"Yuck, I don't even like low fat milk. Can I have water please?". (because they are fundamentally nice kids with manners-----mostly!). I'd then ask if she was hungry and offer a sandwich. "No," she'd whisper "... chocolate...". I'd take out some chocolate muffins, which she would stand near, in case anyone else was going to have any. Perhaps piling 6 on her plate, leaving most of them in a trail of crumbs around the kitchen.

We would mostly chat and have a great time, unless there was an item we both wanted, say a cookie or magazine: "SHARING IS CARING!!!".

For the sake of completeness, let's say her husband came to fetch her. She'd run to the door when it opened and yell at him "I DON'T WANT TO GO HOME." He would spend a good 20 minutes trying to extract her, tempting her with food, wine, magazines  to no avail while she rifled through the drawers she had missed first time around- until, exasperated he would say: "I'm leaving without you- bye" and head for the gate. In a last minute panic, she would rush to the gate, saying "Thank you for having me" into her chest, invariably leaving an item of clothing or some shoes at my house.

Thank goodness for years of being trained in manners! Or maybe not...it actually sounds like a refreshing way to spend an afternoon.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

I got a hangover; or: act your age...

There's a song they keep playing on the radio at the moment called "Hangover".

I confess that I really like it, it's really catchy and very happy: " I got a hangover wo-o-oooo, I been drinking too much for sure, I got a hangover wo-o-oo, I got an empty cup- pour me some mo-ore..."

So, there I am driving in my nice family car along Rhodes Drive: shades on, windows down, kids in the back, singing along (I don't have a great voice, you wouldn't pay money to hear it- possibly you'd give me money to stop) and the music is quite loud. And, as the song plays, some thoughts occur to me:

1. The gentleman/infant who wrote the song was probably not thinking of  a woman the wrong side of 35, driving in a sensible  family car as his target market. In fact I have probably tarnished his cool rating by my behaviour, I reckon I can expect to be sued.

2. It's probably not very seemly for a woman of my age, at my stage of life, to be singing that song unless I want to invite the intervention of social services at the earliest opportunity.

3. My daughter- who is obsessed with song words- became very interested in the meaning of "hangover" and "trashed" as sung in the song. I really didn't need to be explaining that to her and answering questions like: "Have you been trished, mum?", "Do you have a hang over [words deliberately separated], mum? Does dad? How much wine is too much? What does it feel like?". No 5.5 year old needs that information.

4. Is a hangover anything to celebrate- really? Ever? Is waking up wincing with embarrassment at what you may or may not have said, dehydrated- with a mouth like a carpet factory at best or like a beaver died in your mouth at worst- anything to envy? These days, more than 2 glasses of wine in the evening and, I tell you, there's a beaver family making preparations for a family member passing in my mouth before the morning.

And finally, I thought- is there ANYTHING more incompatible in the world than children and hangovers? I can't think of a thing. Their early morning enthusiasm and chatter seems hateful and spiteful, their lack of understanding your need for personal space, slow movement and a strict requirement for noise to be below a certain decibel level is enough to make you never drink again. Is it me, or are they louder on those days, even more full of energy, even more demanding of your time? And whilst you're busy being irritated  you're busy feeling guilty for being irritated because they're so sweet- if only you could reach for that glass of water and attempt to flush the beaver...

So, I concluded as I changed the music and turned it down, in order to avoid:

1) being sued for damage to reputation; and
2) an inquisition from social services; and
3) age inappropriate questions; and
4) Celebrating hangovers;

I think I should act my age. Barney songs anyone? Easy listening interpretations of 60's classics?

I still maintain that song is catchy though.....

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

2 years on in Cape Town

It's hard to believe 2 years and 2 days have passed since we arrived to set up shop in CT. For my husband and I, it's a fraction of our lives. For my younger daughter, 2 years is more than half her life.

Has anything changed since a year ago? I'd say yes and no.

On an every day level, this past year has been less exhilarating than the first year. The first year was spent getting our feet on the ground- settling into a new home, a new job, a new school, finding our way around a new area, making friends, trying to find the supermarket, the doctor, the dentist, staring at the mountain.  It was spent getting our heads around the marvelous and the mundane.

This second year, some friendships have blossomed, some didn't have the opportunity to take off, people have left and new people have arrived. Friends have come from unexpected places and also left for them. And I am sure that will keep happening. South Africans have ants in their pants almost as much as us Poles do, they don't hang around. Most of our friends we have met through the international school where our oldest daughter is. At best international schools provide you with friends and knowledge of places you've never been (but now you have someone to visit!). At worst, they're a revolving door of friends. We've had a bit of both. It's a an odd sensation when friends here say they're leaving- you want to say: "Hey! What's with that? I just got here! I just met you- I like you!". Just shows you that just because you're standing still for a second, doesn't mean the world stands still with you.

We have been lucky enough to discover more of the Western Cape since last year and we fall more in love with it every time we travel. Cape Town definitely feels like home to me now and it certainly does to my kids. Life is cheap with them here- we don't need to buy shoes and they have dispensed with cutlery when eating like all good South African kids. The older one could pass for a bonafide South African with her accent and I don't think I have heard the younger one say "yes" since we arrived. Simply: "Ja".

On a broader scale, I loved South Africans before I arrived back here and I love them more as every day passes. In my experience they are among some of the funniest, warmest, kindest, most welcoming, honest and helpful people that I have ever come across. Nothing is too much trouble. you're always welcome in their home and the country seems to be filled with people who love children. Now, really, NOTHING is too much trouble when it comes to the kids.No restaurant- however posh- has managed to recruit a member of staff who doesn't melt when they see a small child. If you see a car broken down by the road or there's been an accident, enough other people stop to help that the helping causes a traffic jam.

On a less positive note, the longer I live here, the more despondent  I become about the state of government here. I suspect that's normal- it takes a long time to become in tune with the way a country works and to learn to truly lose hope in a government. I probably have some way to go, compared to most South Africans. The biggest issue for me is that the government doesn't  seem to care at all. Lots of people living below the poverty line really need them to care. The ruling class, however,  are far too busy discussing why the textbooks haven't been delivered and whose fault it is  that they weren't- it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to actually, you know, go crazy and deliver them. So many politicians are busy posturing over who has power, who will win the ANC leadership election, that they all seem to have forgotten about the people who put them there in the first place. I've said it before- and I hope I don't have to say it again- but the lack of proper investment into education in this country is a scandal. How can you expect your people to achieve if you don't educate them properly? I've heard it said that perhaps it's better for the government to keep people ill educated, because perhaps then they are less likely to question what the government does (or doesn't do).

I increasingly think that the South Africa that I live in and the South Africa I read about are 2 different places. My family and I have a lovely life, we really do (save for the bureaucratic incompetence which continues to plague us), but every time I open a paper I read about strikes, uprisings, people trying to get a living wage. I walk out of my house and I don't see any of this, I drive around and, mostly, I don't see it.  I sometimes think that The Western Cape really isn't a part of South Africa, or maybe just the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town aren't. I realise, that compared to most in this country, I lead a very privileged life.

Any regrets about leaving the UK? None so far. My life in the UK seems so far away, so distant that sometimes I have to think quite hard (even harder than usual) to conjure up an image of a place or a person in my "former life". For some reason that makes me sad, as do the pictures of my friends' children who have grown up-virtually beyond recognition in 2 years. I suppose I feel I am missing out on something- and I am- but I have made my choice

Will we be here next year? Ja, I hope so: "unless it goes like Zim" (more on that phrase another time) or unless the world has other plans....

Enjoying life in South Africa- lunch in the winelands, Roca at Dieu Donne.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The West Coast Flower Phenomenon

Normally, my posts seem to be rants.

For this one, I just wanted to share with you the beauty of the West Coast of South Africa at this time of year. The normally dry and windswept coast  undergoes a stunning transformation every August and September, when normally arid land explodes into a huge blanket of wild flowers. It is one of the most beautiful and happy sights that I have ever seen: the view into the horizon- stopping only at the sea- is flowers and more flowers in every imaginable colour.

Depending on the year, they can blossom as early as July or as late as October, but the famous Postberg Reserve opens only August to September and there can be queues to get in! One day, we went specifically to see the flowers and another time, we saw them by-the-by as we drove up the West Coast. My younger daughter- whose love for flowers is second only to her love of dogs- had an especially fantastic day.

The season is a short one and it is now almost over. It fades almost as quickly as it blooms but they'll be back again next next year.

Here are some photos:


Flowers, flowers everywhere!



My favourite flowers of the season- and there were plenty to chose from.





Lost in flowers.



Thursday, 20 September 2012

I'm just trying to pay a bill

I absolutely cannot abide bureaucracy.  Bureaucracy is the fertile ground for administrative blunders. Petty little rules that empower petty little people to spoil your day.

Life is short- way too short -to spend in queues or on hold waiting to be attended to by an untrained, disinterested, incompetent  person who with one fell swoop of their clumsy paw, can reduce you to hours and hours of queues and hanging on.

So my latest foray into this misery started with trying to open a bank account. I won't bore you with misrepresentations by the bank, the time wasted, the misleading website because if I dip even into the memory of that mire of hopelessness, I may never haul myself out again.

The snippet I will reveal is that I needed proof of residence. The proof I had was not ideal- my utilities bill stated my address but the "address section" had my PO Box address (just don't ask, OK?).

I receive my utilities bill by email, which is great. So, I e-mailed them asking very clearly and simply to please put my address in the address section. Not rocket science, right?

Simple. Or so you'd think.

Except for the auto-reply- nothing. Radio silence. The day when I normally get my bill passes. A few days go by. I- being an EXTREMELY good citizen- try to call. Sadly (or not), I cannot afford to give up 3/4 hours of daylight being on hold, so I hung up and emailed them again on the basis that the auto-reply had absolutely assured me they would respond within 3 days. But they hadn't. Is anyone surprised?

So, 3 days after my second end email, I am very anxious. If you don't pay, you get cut off and the process for getting reconnected is enough to send anyone into therapy or on a plane to anywhere but here.

I call again and after some 30 minutes of the menu in pretty much all of South Africa's official languages and some especially aurally jagged muzak, I hang up. My kids are at home while I try to make this call and- for some reason- holding the phone immediately makes me the most interesting things with a 4km radius for them and a magnet for their noise. They really are like flies to you-know-what. So, I really think 30 mins on hold with children welded to my body screeching makes me eligible for sainthood. Or something close, at any rate.

3 days ago I receive an email entitled "Your Bill". Rarely, have I opened such a dull email with such delight and relief. Then I read it. I owe some money for this month under this bill, apparently, but R13,000 in arrears (say, around GBP1000.00). Horror, disbelief, wishing I'd never messed with them about where my "address" was located...

Upon further inspection, it transpires this is not my bill. Yes, my name is on it and my address is now in the right place (someone must be very pleased with themselves- only an eon to effect that mammoth change). But the payment dates don't tally, the amounts are wrong. The temptation to cry is overwhelming as is the urge to dig my own grave and just go and lie in it.

I wanted a bill. I have a bill but someone else's bill. Someone else's HUGE bill. I feel both suicidal and homicidal at the same time. The payment deadline looms.

So what did I do? I sent them an email. I received an auto-reply in all the official languages thanking me for my email and saying they'd respond in 3 days.

Whoever dealt with my query at the Council really took some time to get it wrong. It's a very special talent that really shouldn't be allowed to blossom.

I can't pay my bill even though I really want to. The Council won't get the money it needs, the money it really needs. It's incompetence on a basic level- it slows everyone down by wasting their time and there is far too much of it.

Pointless nuisances that ruin your day. Do I really have to beg to pay my bill? Should I attempt a reverse hold-up whereby I burst into the office of the City of Cape Town, desperately thrusting money at the cashier whilst flashing my account number? I can just see me ending up in the holding cells at Pollsmoor STILL not having managed to pay my bill.

I may blog again. If I'm allowed to pay my electricity bill.....

Monday, 17 September 2012

Blogger Idol 2012

In a pique of vanity and self-delusion, I have decided to audition for Blogger Idol 2012.

Auditions close tonight (I have sent them my audition piece already!) and after that, they choose 13 blogs to take part in a competition that goes on all the way into  December. Weekly assignments are set and each week an elimination vote takes place.

I must be missing my school days or something because I'm actually attracted to the idea of a weekly assignment and a deadline (if I make it that far..).

Check it out and, if you feel so inclined, please support me!

http://writersarethenewrockstars.blogspot.com/

http://www.facebook.com/bloggeridol

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Crappy Weather Capital of South Africa

Dear Reader,

Today I write to you- on a day in early spring where the temperature hit over 30 degrees C- from the Crappy Weather Capital of South Africa.

It's officially spring here and, this weekend certainly, you can certainly feel it.

Last winter- either because I came from northern Europe or because it was an unusually "good" winter- I  didn't really see the fuss. A bit of rain, slightly shorter days. Whatever. This year- over winter- I was griping like a life-long Capetonian about the wind and the rain. I was very much ready for the change in season.

I also can't be sure whether I have been affected by media coverage of the weather. In the car I listen to the radio a lot and many of the stations are based in Jo'burg. So when discussing the weather I have heard things like this:

" It's gloomy and dark in Jo'burg today, the weather came up from Cape Town. Shame, you can't blame them, it's been like that for months down there."

" I went to Cape Town this weekend and the weather was great. Not the usual rainy Cape Town weather."

"The weather's been so rubbish in Jo'burg this weekend, it's been almost as bad as Cape Town- which must be the crappy weather capital of South Africa, hey?".

These reports have bothered me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they are obviously working from a different definition of "crappy" to me. I concede that we have a winter here, yes. But I think all that lack of rain and constant sun in Jo'burg must just be melting their brains. I'd love them to review a November in London- if they could last a month.

Secondly, I take it as a personal affront. I feel wounded. Why? Because, I moved here (partly-largely?!) because of the weather. I considered it a considerable upgrade from the deal that I was getting up north. And, frankly, it upsets me that having made such a momentous decision and feeling that I was right, at least in terms of the weather- someone comes along and p*sses on my parade. Someone tells me that I've moved to the London-weather equivalent in South Africa.  My FB claims about the weather sound hollow and false. Because I live in the Crappy Weather Capital of South Africa.

I have decided that cape Town has 2 seasons: 9 months of summer (3 cooler momths to start- everything is green and gorgeous. Then 3 hot months. Then 3 months of getting less hot and everything is brown.) and 3 months of on-off torrential rain with wonderful sunny days in between (aka winter).

Or, put differently: Cape Town has  9 months where I don't really bother to check the weather and 3 where I do. Summer seems to have an on/off switch: when "on" is hit, the rain peters out, suddenly stepping out you feel the warmth of the sun (today I went for  30min bike ride at 10am, came back with a suntan-no bad thing really, my legs were about to be entered into a translucency contest). The "off " switch seems to be a sudden bout of heavy rain fall, from nowhere (in the period of the 3 months where it is getting less hot and everything is brown) which signals "The End" [of summer].

Anyway, the "on" switch seems to have been engaged: today and yesterday we had gorgeous days which (for us) involved lagoons, flowers, sea views and braais with fabulous friends.

I think I can live with residing in the Crappy Weather Capital of South Africa after all..

Expat-ish

PS Just heard a fly buzzing around. My totally worst thing about summer. They're gross carriers of filth and make the most irritating noise possible. And if they touch you- yuck..

Thursday, 13 September 2012

A Good Idea Gone Bad

There are lots of things that we know are bad ideas: swimming too soon after eating, drinking too much coffee, not looking when you cross the road. Some other things are bad ideas, just not such obvious ones.

Firstly, let me tell you what is a good idea: make friends with a fabulous person. When, around of the time of your birthday, you start whining to this person that you don't want to do anything for your birthday because no one will come, you can't cook for that many [insert extra whinges as appropriate], this fabulous friend declares that, nah, now worries, they'll invite all your friends over  for you and, further they'll all bring food. Just buy booze.

And, then, as if by magic on the allotted day (almost) all your favourite people in Cape Town arrive at your house carrying the most delicious selection of food. The evening is brilliant and everyone has a drink. Or 2 or maybe more. Not too many per se, mind. Just too many if you have kids (which is more than 1/2 a glass- yet a day's parenting can sometimes feel like it deserves at least a bottle. But, of course, you can't drink that much EVER because there needs to be at least one sober parent, which normally means both, because otherwise the non-sober one is really a drunk who drinks on their own, and that's just too tragic to contemplate.).

The fabulous-ness doesn't end.You go to bed at 1am. Which for a parent with little children is actually just CRAZY. NUTS. The unadulterated joy and bliss ends at 730 the next morning when your 3 and 5 year old storm your bedroom with their delight and enthusiasm for the day which is absolutely beautiful and you are grateful for, but you went to bed at 1am and anything above a whisper and being stroked by a feather is far too much to even contemplate.

At this point the previous seems like a bad idea, especially as it is drizzling outside so you can't release their energy outside. You suggest seeing Tinkerbell at the movies, but your husband- having also gone to bed at 1am- will not entertain the thought of Disney  3D in Dolby Digital in his frame of mind.

So, instead, he suggests the Cape Town Aquarium. Out loud. The bouncy, happy children seize on this idea LOUDLY and EAGERLY. You shoot him a hateful look. You know it is A Bad Idea.

Let me clarify: the Cape Town Aquarium is an amazing aquarium. It is fun and interactive. It is educational. There are some amazing displays, arts and crafts for the kids, puppet shows, a sandpit, animal feeding times. It is easily the best aquarium I have been to.

It is also where anyone with a child under 7 goes on a rainy day in Cape Town. So, if you are desperate, that's where you take the kids on a rainy day. And is where I was compelled to go the day after the Good Idea. Now we were really in Bad Idea territory.

So, imagine if you will, a depository in a major city for every child under the age of 7 who hasn't had enough of a run around to burn off all that small person energy. A seething mass of children muscling in to pose in the middle of the clown fish tank for the billionth time. The tiny elbows jutting at your shins, the mass freaking out as they can't see their favourite crab or shark for the crowd, the tired undertone of bewildered, exhausted parents trying to instill discipline and keep an eye on their offspring as they bugger off as they please into the throng. Then, at the the end, you have to navigate the gift shop. They really should provide children with blinkers before they walk past the slimy fish toy or fluffy dolphin but I suppose that would defeat their point- if help my sanity.

My husband and I have  promised one another that, one day, when the kids get older we will go to the aquarium (and all other places of educational interest that we have been to with them) and actually read about the exhibits rather than taking the "toddler express tour" (jogging, pointing, briefly stopping, then sprinting tour).

In the end the experience was not so bad as we missed the puppet show (which on the 14,567 occasions I have seen it  previously seems to consist of an unfortunately scratchy-voiced woman screeching whilst holding a water life puppet of some description whilst 40,000 infants howl and scream in delight).

Also, I got to observe one the things I find most fascinating: people taking photos of the stuff in the tanks/exhibits. I can never understand why. It's going to be a rubbish photo and there's a better one in the leaflet. Nonetheless, they are persistent in lining up shots of tanks of seahorses or starfish in a darkened room. What a waste of memory card space.

Next year: party to be held on a day before a sunny day...

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Mummy's Bag

Women's handbags are a frequent topic of conversation.

All women have one and the world is always trying to sell us more. A different one for each outfit, to match another pair of shoes, to fit the occasion. A big one, a small one, a beach one, a plane one, a travelling one, a work one, a weekend one.

When you have kids, things change, bag-wise. Your daytime bag (even your biggest beach bag) cannot fit all the things that you need  the bag, Yes, of course you can have your own bag and then have a change bag as well, but I'm willing to bet that you'll soon give up that idea as it is pretty much just another thing to either a) forget; or b) get hacked off with carrying.

So you end up having a huge sack which (at the beginning) carries:

1) All manner of feeding paraphernalia;
2) Wipes (6 packs- at least);
3) Several changes of clothing (you never know which part will leak) for baby (and sometimes yourself);
4) 400 nappies;
5) Nappy Cream;
6) A selection of toys that you always carry even though they never pacify your child; and
7) Your wallet, keys and phone (in a teeny compartment).

It is an unspoken rule of life that you will forget the one item you actually need on the day.

So you have this gargantuan bag- so big that Santa Claus calls and offers to lend you the reindeer and a sleigh.

As the kids grow up though, the bag size diminishes- you no longer need nappies, feeding paraphernalia. Eventually, you just takes snacks and water. You're so proud. You're almost back at a normal bag size.

Then, if you're me, you think it's a good idea to have 2 children in 2 years.  So you have to upscale your initial baby bag to one that provides for a newborn and a toddler. I may as well have attached a tow bar to myself and dragged a caravan behind me for a good few months.

But, you know, life gets easier- the kids grow up.

So, where I am now is that I have a larger bag than is ideal but it can accommodate the odd My Little Pony, a bottle of Water and other small stuff.

From the outside, it looks pretty smart. It is roomy and has lots of pockets for hiding all manner of sins. If you didn't know you wouldn't know I had kids just by looking at the bag itself.

I have had a few close calls though- recently I reached into my bag at a business meeting and almost pulled out a pair of panties with Dalmatians on them. Once, when looking for my wallet I first had to pull out a monkey, a pink feathery pen and wipes. Fortunately, this was at a dinner with mums so no one batted an eyelid. My crap didn't stand out among the dummies, ponies and tissues that everyone else had put on the table while looking for their wallets.

Today proved to me, however, that having a (big-ish) smart bag is not enough. I'm still in child-world. I can't deny it. It appears I have to pay attention and be organised too. Anyone who knows me will know I'm not very good at zipping up the pockets of my bag which contain all manner of things. Things that are prone to dropping out.

And, today, as I walked my daughter into school I left a trail of...sachets of toddler stool softener in my wake. A bit like Hansel and Gretel, just, well, much grosser and more humiliating.

It looks like I need to work harder on my bag image. I clearly haven't graduated back to the adult bag just yet.


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

What passes for conversation around 4 children

I want to give you a loose transcript of a conversation that I had with a friend the other day. Our kids had just finished an  extra-mural (I still can't get my head around that phrase, but have been forced to use it like it's normal. It makes it sound like my kids are painting another wall. It just means extra curricular).

At the time of the conversation we had 4 of the 5 kids we have between us there (ages-3-5).We were on a grassy area on the edge of a dirt car park and I was attempting to impart to my friend my enthusiasm for buying a sewing machine (don't judge me). To preserve her anonymity, I will call her kids "W" and "X",and mine "Y" and "Z".

Me: "So, I'm thinking of getting one to share with my mum! How cool...HEY Y!! STOP RUNNING IN THE CAR PARK!...is that? I'm not sure what brand but I'm looking around.

Friend: "Where are you looking? Have you....W, X, STOP DOING THAT. I ASKED YOU TO GET YOUR BAG....spoken to the people in Cavendish?

Me:" No, not yet. Just the ones in...."

Z:"Mu-u-um, I can't find my baby panther."

Me:" Have you looked under the bench? Y CAN YOU HELP X FIND HER PANTHER!...in Claremont, On Landsdowne Road, they.....Y DON'T IGNORE ME, YOUR SISTER IS CRYING, PLEASE!"....seemed really very nice.

Friend: "My sister has one but......X, PLEASE COME CLOSER, NOT SO NEAR THE ROAD PLEASE!...I'm not sure how much she actually.....PLEASE, NOT SO NEAR THE ROAD...uses it."

Me: " Yeah, I guess you have to..."

Y:" We can't find the panther, we've looked everywhere..."

Z: *sobbing* "I can't find my panther..boooooooooooo...hoooo......hoooooooo..."

Y:" Can we have chocolate?"

Me:" No, you've had enough chocolate, please find your bag.......factor in how much you use it, but I'm quite excited about......Z!! AWAY FROM THE BIN! YOUR PANTHER'S NOT IN THAT BIN!!...it. I'm looking forward to the lessons."

Friend: You'll have to tell me when you.... W, X WILL YOU PLEASE GET YOUR THINGS? I HAVE ASKED YOU SO MANY TIMES! .....get it. It'll be good for costume making."

Me: *opening car door*  I know, we have so... LET YOUR SISTER IN FIRST PLEASE!! SHE'S UPSET ENOUGH ABOUT THE PANTHER......many dress up days ahead of us."

Friend: *silence* then.."Listen to us...talking and....X, PLEASE JUST GET IN THE CAR...admonishing children in between."

Me? I thought we just had a conversation. I told her about my sewing aspirations, she listened, added her own nuggets. Do people talk differently...?

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Simplification without permission

There is a general assumption in the world that all progress is good, that nothing must stand still, that everything that exists can be improved.

I disagree, things are being redesigned around me, made faster and simpler and no one even asked me.


Toilets.

I think the flushing toilet is a miraculous invention. It needed no improvement. Really- sit, flush and leave. What more could we want?

Apparently there are very clever people out there, who- rather than going into professions where their skills could be well used- go into redesigning toilets. I'd say it was to spite me, but I know I'm not that important.

Toilets in shopping centres in Cape Town are amazing. Weird thing to say, but they are. Beautifully designed, clean. Actually far too good for most people that go in there. They're probably around the right standard for J-Lo and the Queen of England. Marble, glass, light..and they're free! I feel quite guilty using these divine facilities as I come rushing in with a toddler that just dipped half their head in ice cream and chocolate sauce.

The aesthetics I can handle. It's he redesign of what I will call "the toilet process". Which, I must say, causes me no end of anxiety.

Example 1: you enter the cubicle and a sign proudly states that "this toilet flushes automatically on exit". Which I read as: 'Every time you exhale too deeply or even shift slightly, Victoria Falls is going to be reenacted behind you". Toddlers, not know for their ability to sit still, do not fare well on these toilets.

Example 2: you enter the cubicle and the sign states "Touch/ wave in front of  the light to flush". This is all very well and good if the light is on and if it feels like responding you your touch/wave. If it's not feeling in a good mood, you end up waving repeatedly or slapping the wall like the village idiot, all the time anxious that it won't flush.

Wasn't life simpler when we just pulled a chain or pushed a button?

The anxiety and humiliation doesn't end there. Step up to the sinks, which are no longer sinks but slabs of marble, inclining towards the wall. There is no tap to turn but a stainless steel wedge where you invited to put your hands under the "movement sensitive" tap to wash your hands. If it works, it works briefly and gushes. And you must hold your hands in exactly the same place but move them slightly all the time to keep the "movement sensor" happy. Alternatively, they don't work at all and you are left jabbing repeatedly at the air under the wedge, like a mime who never made it big.

Was life so hard when we pulled the chain, pushed the button or turned on a top?

Phone Apps and Mobi Sites

Smart phones have revolutionised life in many ways. My daughters take it for granted that if they have a question and I can't answer it, I can simply look on my phone and find out. A mine of information in your hand: the Internet wherever and whenever you need it. Wonderful.

Except someone tried to simplify it for me. Again, without asking.

For the last few months it seems I am unable to do anything as basic as checking the weather or the news headlines without being ambushed by a bright and energetic screen inviting me to "GET THE APP!! FASTER, SLEEKER, SIMPLER" . I don't want an App- if I have many more apps I will need a separate App to provide an index of my apps or carry an index the size of the yellow pages with me. I just want to check the weather. Please, can I just?

OK, so I shut down the App offer (not before struggling to touch the screen exactly in the place and inadvertently almost installing the damn thing). And, lucky me, I'm on a mobi site! "Welcome to our mobi site! "SLEEKER, FASTER, SIMPLER!! This site has been simplified for use with smart phones. Content is reduced, the options simplified- perfect if you've been recently lobotomised and prefer one syllable words!" I might have made that last part up. The assumption seems to be that if your screen is smaller, then your brain must be smaller and there is simply, absolutely no way your pea size brain could ever, ever handle the FULL weather forecast. Just keywords with odd symbol. We can't be overloading you now, can we, you poor simple soul!

I wouldn't mind if it was easy enough to get to the "full site" but in some cases, it won't let you do so at all and, in others it is such a mission that I have lost the will to live and  forgotten what it was I was looking for in the first place.

Was Internet on phones not enough?

Predictive text

...is my final bugbear (for today anyway).

I see the point and, at times, it can be very helpful but, I think what gets me is its arrogance, its assumption that its suggestion is somehow superior to what you have in mind. Once it has made a suggestion, it sticks with it to the bitter, bitter end, even if it is a word that obviously doesn't fit in the sentence. And the little cross to shut down the suggestion is so, so small, so hard to  to shut down like it thinks its chances of being wrong are so minor that shutting it down is really unlikely to happen.

It's not good if you're in a hurry- which I always seem to be.  And it can lead to results that, at worst, are insulting and, at best ridiculous. The other day, I received an SMS from a friend asking if I was happy being a plate. She's nuts, but not that nuts. I vote for a return to spell check.

Next time you want to simplify something for me, please ask first.


Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Not South African yet

The other day I had a problem. My internet access was non-existent and then intermittent. Had I never heard of the internet before, this would have been NOTHING to me. Seeing as I am an internet junkie, it was a real problem for me.

To the surprise of many South Africans, this was the first time the internet had gone down in my house since we moved here almost 2 years ago. On this basis (and a couple of calls to them) my opinion of Telkom was pretty good. Not amazing as they're pricey but OK. I have since discovered that they are a source of some hatred among South Africans.

As an aside, I think I have decided it takes a while to really hate something like a service provider. I mean really hate. You can dislike them for a one-off here and there, but it takes a decade or more of feeling let down and ripped off to get that hatred that sits in your belly and makes it hard to breathe. I'm sure some people that have lived in the UK for maybe one or 2 years think that BT are fine. After 22 years of a "relationship" with BT,  I left UK shores bitter and twisted having spent my last 2 weeks dealing with BT. These dealings culminated in a richly worded and detailed  letter (6 pages) telling them the best thing about emigrating was that I would no longer have anything to do with them. I may have overreacted.

Similarly, I had an exchange with friends who went to the UK and said how wonderful the London public transport system is. I disagreed. A lot.. But that is what 22 years on riding those trains and tubes (11 as a commuter, for my sins) did to me. I cannot be objective about it. Years of being late, being ripped off and left standing because of leaves on the line make their mark.  I'm sure most people who are in the UK short to medium term think its fabulous. I thought the NY subway was a fabulous ride! Now sure many New Yorkers would agree but I had fun. Loved going over the bridges!

Anyway, so I logged the fault complaint and the next day, completely unannounced, the engineer dude came over. Unannounced, of course, because tradesmen here assume that you're either in or your domestic is (that's a whole other topic!).

He showed me the problem. Now, this is something I would not have experienced in the UK. There is a wire that runs along my roof, off the edge and into the trees. If my kids were a bit taller they'd love to use that wire as a tight-rope or something else I wouldn't let them use it for. Apparently, this wire- just hanging there, through the wind, rain, scorching heat- is my link to the outside world. I was amazed that I had had any internet or phone at all. It seemed more likely that I would have used tin cans with string in between to communicate. The specific problem was that this wire which I had always nonchalantly assumed just went into a tree (never wondered why- why?)actually went into a post which had become overgrown in such a way that I thought it was a tree. So this lovely gentleman went around the neighbours to access the post ("Full of bugs!" he said) and plugged me into something else. By the way, this is IT on a level my brain understands: physical plugging in. So there we were, my very un-First World internet connection was back. Phew.

After this, this super engineer stayed for an hour sorting out all the not-physically-plugged in IT stuff that I wasn't coping with and set up all manner of passwords and accesses that went straight over my head. He was so helpful and so nice that when he left, I felt a warm glow for Telkom and its employees.

A friend who has been having internet issues was not so full of love.It seems my engineer had arrived at work first that day and taken all the helpfulness with him, leaving almost none for the other employees. When I told her- delighted- that I had it all fixed, she asked whether I had his number. No, why would I, I can just call Telkom....

Yes, I could call them. And not get the same telecommunications superguy. I've missed a trick. The South African way is to nab a good tradesman where you can. Get your expert in your phone book because you never know who the monopolistic monolith will send to you. Proof, if any were needed, that a green ID book does not a South African make.

For the record, it never occurred to me to get a BT guy's number in the UK. Because I actually cannot remember anyone ever turning up at the allotted time. Or otherwise. The hate hasn't died down, time hasn't been a healer.

Now I know where my internet fix comes from, I shall watch it like a hawk. Treat it with respect. And take a much harder line with those pesky birds casually perching on it.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Cape Town winter- again.

So, I feel a little foolish posting this, given that my last blog post about the Cape Town winter said: "was that it?".

As I sit here, by my fire (20cm away) with rain cascading like a waterfall out of the sky, I feel aggrieved. I've forgotten the fact that it was 19 degrees yesterday and we spent the day in the wine lands, the fact that I dried 3 loads of washing outside today. I am JUST SO OVER THE RAIN. It's 12 degrees and raining. OK, it's almost 9pm at night but I am so over it.

There are 3 explanations for this:

1. The honeymoon period with CT is over for me.
2. Someone stole my rose-tinted specs.
3. This winter was worse than the last one.
4. It has taken me less than 2 years to become an ungrateful Capetonian.

This winter has most certainly been wetter than the last and, I am reliably informed by fellow unhappy CT dwellers, that this has been an exceptionally cold one. But last year was exceptionally warm. So, am I speaking to people prone to hyperbole or is CT unable to produce a "normal' winter for me? What'a the deal?

My heaters and fire have been - in my view- excessively used. This is Africa. Excuse me, bringing my British educated preconceptions into play, but isn't it supposes to be warm here?

I have found myself, without me even noticing, wearing too many layers indoors, not taking a coat off when I get inside and having a good old grumble about the weather at the school gate. Somehow, umbrellas have found their way into my boot along with raincoats- on a permanent basis. Often, I find myself saying: "Can you believe this weather?". The sunny days between the cold rainy days are lost on me. I  want summer back.  I want warmth.

Sorry...what was that English Me? Yes, the lowest temperature I've experienced in the day this winter is around 7 at night and 11 in the day (once)? What's your point, English Me?

Oh, crap. I've become ungrateful. Sorry, English Me, but when you have a summer that has pretty much no rain for 4 months and then you suffer 3 days of rain followed by 2 days of sun, followed by 2 days of rain...oh, you don't get it?

Get back in the box, English Me, we're living in Cape Town, we have standards now.

Could it be that we are becoming Capetonian?

Roll on summer, or at least spring. There are ponds and lakes in parks in where no body of water has gone before. There's a message there- enough with the rain. I don't like hail. And you can keep the wind that makes the rain into a horizontal mist. For a while I thought when it rained like a dam had burst in the sky that it was the end of the world, now I'm just bored. I feel like I joined a cult that says the world is going to end on a set day but it didn't. Now I'm disillusioned. I'm over the rain. SO over the rain.

Even my kids are over the puddles- that's s saying something. C'mon...please?


Monday, 6 August 2012

Mummy Olympics

The 2012 London Olympics are well underway and London seems to be giving its doubters a big old slap in the face. Things (mostly) seem to be going swimmingly and none of the gridlocked by a hundred millions people dressed in national tracksuits seems not to have happened. The rather superbly eccentric opening ceremony boded well and the goodwill (and even the good weather, mostly) seems to have remained with the event.

I was quite excited to begin with but it's all a bit much for me. Wall-to-wall sport for days and days on end doesn't float my boat for very long. I did briefly become obsessed with the medals table (although therapy helped with that). The only thing that has stayed with me, Olympics-wise, is a fascination with what I consider to be "obscure sports".  Or maybe just "Weird sh*t". I was briefly unable to stop watching a women's judo match (? is it called a match?) as it seemed to me the purpose was to bounce around a small area on stiff legs whilst batting stiffly with your hands at the opponent. Then someone would tell them to stop and we'd be back to the stiff bouncing dance. The there's dressage which is completely bizarre to me. Making an a poor trussed up horse dance and then pause mid-move. And again. Like watching a DVD that keeps stopping.

And then there's shot-put which is ludicrous. Giant, GIANT people throwing what looks like tiny balls (but first bending backwards in a move that looks like you're trying to put an ear to the ground- "Sorry, did I hear something? No? OK, I'll just throw this ball then.). I shouldn't laugh because my fellow countrymen (the Poles) seem to excel at this. I should be proud. But then I should also be proud of the weight-lifting at which they seem to do well. Lifting a weight, whilst doing a little skip with a constipated facial expression? Not my idea of a good time, but each to their own and it's nice to be good at something. Even if it's..er...that.

So I got to thinking that if all this weird stuff can qualify as Olympic Sports, all us mummies who don't have enough time to practice and shine at the these things at the Olympics should be afforded our own Olympics where we can show what we're good at.

Some ideas:

"The dining table lunge": this is the movement where you sit across the table from your child and keep having to half rise to feed them/water them/wipe them. Great for the thighs. Gold would go to the mother who gets the child to eat its meal in the shortest period of time without flying off the handle. Harder than you think!

"The adult dinner time half-sit": This event would be conducted after all small children had been put to bed and the mother was under the impression she could eat her dinner. She attempts to sit but is prevented from doing so by constant spurious requests for random sh*t. Again, great for the thighs because you're never standing or sitting. Gold would go to the team that could finish and meal and carry out most random requests in the shortest period of time. This would be a team event and persistent children with whiny voices make the best younger team mates.

"The Corridor Relay:" This is an event for both parents and is linked to the half-sit. The child yells out ever more desperate requests for stuff and the parents must rush to deliver. Mum and dad must take turns (hence the relay). There is no baton here: "your turn to go" said in a bitter voice must however be uttered between events. Gold goes to the team who delivers 10 requests in the shortest time. For advanced teams, an extra child is thrown in with no extra time allowed.

"The puke sprint": this is the sprint that every parent does when they realise that their child is going to vomit but there's no receptacle in the room. Gold goes to the parent who catches the most vomit in a bowl.

"The "I can't find it" bend: this is the move you do when searching for a toy that your child desperately needs (normally at bedtime) but cannot find. The toy would be hidden amongst a mountain of useless crap while your child wails and weeps in the background. Gold goes to the parent who finds  the toy in the fewest bends. This event is not recommended for those with bad backs. There is a special prize (a platinum medal maybe?) for the parent that shows the most patience (ie doesn't lose it within 3 minutes).

"The "getting dressed" chase: each contestant is given a perky and uncooperative 3 year old who they have to undress (from pyjamas) and dress in time for school. The course is an obstacle course consisting of toys, bits of breakfast, slippery books and discarded clothing. Gold for the child most quickly caught and dressed. Extra points given for patience and lack of swearing. During this event, the phone must ring at least 3 times and one must be a cold calling salesman.

I think it could work- don't you? No weirder than watching people bounce stiffly in a small area whilst wearing a dressing gown, surely?

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dear Graham..


(A long response to a comment on my last blog post, it was too long for a reply..)

Dziekuje Panu bardzo za kommentarze, zawsze dobrze wiediec co inni mysla. Cieszy mnie barzdo ze Panu tak smakuje Polskie jedzenie. Zgadzam sie ze jest bardzo dobre ale chyba osobiscie wole jedzenie z dalekiego wschodu.

I don't think that the blog post "The Other Way Around" had  any intention at all, just an observation on an observation but I am quite concerned that you read it as a treatise on why I moved to Cape Town from London: petrol pumps and self-scanners. The list of why I chose to move here is long and probably boring to everyone but me (and even so, it bores me)but I feel that as you have stated some reasons why you don't miss being in SA, I should reply to your comments and state the reasons why I don't miss my life in London too much and why I like it here. Briefly. Sort of briefly.

Firstly, except for the period up until I left Poland (age 4) I don't think I have ever lived near or aspired to live close to a Polish shop. It hasn't formed the basis of where I live. If we have Polish food, we cook from scratch at home although, now I think about it, there is a farmstall in Constantia that sells Eastern/ Central European stuff if I want it.

Living in Africa you do put yourself at a distance from lots of amazing European cities. In the 27 years of my life that i lived in Europe, i visited many of them and I hope to again one day in the future but with 2 kids aged 3 and 5 city breaks, I suspect, will not be on my list for quite some time. I have had a fairly nomadic life and I love to travel so, for me, wherever you live, you are far away from somewhere. I haven't lived in Poland for 32 years and I don't hark for it although I know it would be better to see my grandparents more often.

I have never been scammed by a petrol pump attendant and I don't know anyone who has (maybe they just didn't tell me). I'm not mad about parking attendants as I think I am capable of parking my own car but they can be helpful when unpacking your car or if it's busy. But for the officially employed ones, it's a pretty crappy job and I admire them for getting up in the morning to earn a living, some people beg or steal. The ones in long Street are very irritating but useful for helping you find a spot when it's busy.

I've never been nervous at traffic lights here- irritated, yes, by the hawkers. Agitated by the state of driving, the recklessness of pedestrians, yes. When I lived in London, I used to carp endlessly about the terrible London cabbies but, compared to the standard of driving here, I think they (and all British drivers) should be held out as world-wide exemplars of fabulous driving.

I've always preferred to walk in the day rather than at night (I find I can see more) and I walk happily in the day here with my kids or by myself. In London, I only walked at night if I was coming home after work or a night out. After there were signs on the way home from the station for a week asking for witnesses to a sexual assault in my lovely leafy suburb, I went off walking at night even more.

I can't argue with you about crime stats and I you have my deepest sympathy if you have at any point been the victim of a crime anywhere. I am surprised but not shocked that in 3 years you have not met anyone who has been a victim of a crime (although I would be shocked to hear of a hijacking in the UK). But that's great, I'm pleased that you move is circles that have been untouched by crime. Nice to know they exists somewhere in the world.

Since I have lived in CT (22 months)and my parents (5.5 years) we have read in the press about crime of course.The crimes we "know" about are 3 burglaries (while people were out) and one friend was mugged in Long Street in the early hours on a Sunday morning. That's 4 more incidents than we would ideally have heard about.

It could be that we are lucky not to have experienced more, I don't know, just reporting the facts.

Let me list what happened to me and people I know in London in recent years:

1. I had my wallet stolen 3 times in a month, once mugged at a cash point.
2. A friend was mugged, someone hit him over the head with a pipe, took his stuff and left him there.
3. At the end of last year, a family friend was greeted in his garage by 2 gunmen who made off with his car, phone, laptop wallet etc. He was in the car with his teenage grand daughter. They are fine, just were a bit shaken.
4. On a train home from work in daylight, I was spat at by a group of about 6 boys repeatedly (aged between 9-12) when I asked why they said 'because it's fun, **** off'. Not a single other person on the train(and it was 1/2 full) said a word. Maybe not a crime, but it didn't leave me feeling very good about my environment.
5. Whilst taking my girls for a walk in their pram (age 1 and 3) to get some milk in the beautiful suburb where I lived, I was stopped by 3 youths who asked me to buy some booze and fags for them as they were too young. I politely declined to which they replied: "F*** off you stupid b***h". They were kind enough to repeat that several times. Again, not a crime, but didn't make me feel too good.

That's just some stuff, not an exhaustive list, and it may seem petty to you but it didn't make me feel great about where I lived and where I wanted my kids to grow up.

From the sounds of it, living in South Africa didn't make you feel great about it which is why you left. I had the luxury of the choice to leave or stay (as I assume you did) and, so far, I am glad we made the choice to leave.

Yes, we have an alarm which is hooked up to a security company (which my parents have in London anyway) and we check before we pull into the driveway, we are generally vigilant (but not tense) but, for us (and it may not be the case for everyone) we have a better quality of life here. We have more time together, we are under less pressure, the kids have more freedom (yes, they do!) and we love so much of what living here has to offer.

Some stuff I don't miss about London:

1. Getting around. Takes an hour to get anywhere at all. Too many cars so they, rightly, imposed the congestion charge. Shame they didn't make the trains, buses and tubes run well enough and at a reasonable enough cost to compensate for that.

2. The work and consumer ethic. Work, work, work and getting more money to buy more stuff is king. SA may well go that way at some point but for the moment, for us, it's nicely behind.

3. The fact that I either having to fake finding faith or bankrupt myself to provide my kids with a half decent education (which is slipping year after year on international league tables- such a shame because the UK education system used to be a hallmark of quality).

4. The prices of everything, London is so expensive (except some clothes, I'm pathetic and miss cheap clothes).

5. The weather.

6. The fact that I always felt like a foreigner, even in a city of foreigners.

Things I miss about London:

1. It's an amazing city but since I had kids, my enjoyment of city attractions has been at a minimum. Life has other attractions for now.

2. The diversity and availability of the arts.

3. British comedy, cheap books, the BBC, Channel 4.

4. Mostly I miss that it's close to Brussels, where my brother is.

5. The friends that are still there.

I don't think CT is perfect, I don't think anywhere is perfect because if it was everyone would go there and it would be ever so slightly less perfect. But I think some places are more perfect for some people than others at different times in their lives.

I'm genuinely very happy for you that you are so happy in the UK- there are millions who love living there like you! I'm delighted the proximity of Polish food and Poland makes you happy.

I don't think I need to write AGAIN why I like it here. My all too numerous posts say it all.

I hope you'll be happy for us that we made an informed choice to live here that things are working out well for me and my family here for now.

All the best, Graham, enjoy your trip to Poland and New Year there. Just please don't think I left a country on account of petrol pumps and scanners....

Friday, 13 July 2012

The other way around

Some South African friends of ours are doing a tour of Britain and France and blogging about it as they go. I am finding it fascinating to read because I am interested in their travels and increasingly intrigued by how one views things, depending on where you come from. And even if you look the same, sound similar (ish) and have lots in common, so much of your worldview comes from your starting point. In my case: a muddled, mostly European (occasionally African) background and in their case, well-traveled South Africans.

There are some things that we agree on, some universal truths. To buy coffee in France, especially Paris, you need to ensure you seriously refinance your home. We agree that northern European weather is terrible, on the whole (who wouldn't?!). We agree that what is described as "Luxury" accommodation in some parts of Europe falls rather short of that standard, we agree that parts of northern Europe need a technology upgrade. We also think that there are too many people, too many tourists. I think these are all fairly commonly accepeted.

But what is most interesting is what we view differently, 2 small things that I picked.

Firstly, our friends remarked on the fact that in the UK you need to get out of your car, refuel yourself and go inside to pay. They thought that perhaps this wouldn't work in SA because although people might be happy to refuel themselves, they might be sloppier about the paying part.

I have mentioned before that in South Africa, you pull up into a petrol station, someone greets you, puts fuel in your car and then takes payment. I think this is MARVELOUS! Putting petrol in my car is not a highlight of my day, ever, so having someone do it is a treat. And if I can remain parked on my bum while I pay through my window, so much the better. It provides employment and I must say it never occurred to me that this is a security measure- to make sure I pay and don't take too much petrol. But perhaps it is, just in my glee and laziness, I never thought about it that way.

For me, in the UK the lack of a petrol pump attendant is another example of companies "cutting costs" (the amount of CCTV cameras in each petrol stations means I wouldn't exactly be successful in flight), the fact that I have to queue to pay in the shop, removing offspring from the car (and the drama associated with that) while someone ahead of me in the queue is busy doing their weekly shop does not make me feel very excited about the process.

The other thing that jumped out at me was the fact that they thought that being able to scan your own shopping in Waitrose or Sainsburys, was quite cool (although this was tempered by the fact that they knew that people had been "randomly selected" to have their trolleys or baskets checked one too many times).

 When self-scanning started in the UK it seemed like a good idea. Until you realised that the scanners didn't work quite often, that the queues for self check-out were often longer than for a regular till. When they did work, they could be terrible sensitive, demanding that you "replace the item in the bagging area" in a loud voice while a red light flashed over your head. It was never clear to me what the bagging area was although I am convinced it covered a precise area no bigger than a postage stamp. At this point, the machine went into meltdown and one of the elusive members of staff had to come and do something magical only for the damned thing to do the same thing on the next item. Once again, the self-scanners, in my opinion, are a cost-cutting measure- fewer members of staff, fewer wages, fewer costs- nothing to do with making life better for the customer. Give me a Pick 'n Pay till and packer any day over that.

But it all depends where you come from...


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Euro 2012- a female perspective (from Africa)


In short, I'm over it.

That doesn't really cut it as a blog post, does it?

OK, the long version. So, I live on the (almost) very end of Africa (I was going to say arse-end but Cape Town is far too wonderful to have the word "arse" used in any description of it) yet a European football tournament has taken over my house. The TV remote seems stuck on the sports channels and for 1 or 2 ninety minute periods every day for the last 2 weeks, adult conversation is limited. Clearly, once football grips a man's soul, geography is no obstacle.

I feel that UEFA, FIFA, Sepp Blatter and all other football related power houses (c.f. killjoys) have, in their planning and marketing, largely ignored the female population of the world who are NOT interested in 22 men getting far too emotional and upset about the placement of a ball sewn together from small, black and white pieces of leather. When I say 22, I refer to those on the pitch, not the trillion watching ,who are at their most emotional when their team is playing.  Wanna make a man cry? Show him footage of his team winning or losing some game for some trophy they consider important.

Anyway, in the interests of a more harmonious world (in respect of gender wars) I have a few tips for the organisers which they may wish to implement in future football events. It will keep the (billions) of  uninterested females much happier and therefore your mostly male audience much more rapt and less anxiety and divorce prone.

1. Cancel the whole thing. I know it sounds crazy but rather than keeping the organisers in plush accommodation deals around the world and a bunch of thugs in tattoos, tricology and bling, you could instead spend the money on, I dunno, maybe helping world poverty? Or anything else nice and altruistic!

No? Don't like that one. OK...

Suggestion 2: Make it all low key and old school. Small grounds.  Think pub football. Last minute announcements as to where matches will be. To bring the passion back to football, that playground joy, rather than mansions in Epsom and Grazia front pages as the  ultimate goal. So much more authentic, close up, interactive and would save the huge salaries, the constant demands from SKY for more airtime.

Sponsors and players not keen on that one? Alright...

3. Change the timing. My TV access has been severely limited during the tournament and I am beginning to feel resentful. I know you've already rejected my plea for cancellation, so I am now just asking for a change of timing. Perhaps one match a day on at 2230?  And if you must be outrageous and  have 2 a day, I feel it is only fair that the second is on at 0100. You know the real fans will always watch anyway, so what's the problem?

I'm still not detecting much enthusiasm for my proposals, but I will persist.

4. Why not cram the while tournament into 5 days- or less? Kind of like speed dating: "speed football?". The players are so knackered already at the end of the season that a short, sharp tournament won't do them any harm. And while we're at it, why no shorten the games to, say, 20 minutes in total? Imagine the excitement  crammed into a mere 20 mins!

5. This is my final offer. Absolutely final. If the FA, UEFA, FIFA and all other sporting bodies that are determined to diminish the quality of my life persist in going ahead with tournament upon tournament, then please, I beg you, at least only use players that are good looking and outfits that are pleasing on the eye. What you may lose in men being dismissive about the quality of the game, you gain in female viewing. I'm thinking Bradley Cooper in goal in a royal blue uniform and Ryan Gosling up front in aquamarine. It would make the whole thing so much less stressful on the eye than the current bunch of eyesores in all manner of disturbing attire (cf Croatia).

I hope you take my suggestions in the spirit in which they are meant and consider applying them to other sports.

Rugby's beginning to get on my nerves, for instance. I mean, do these people EVER have a break. They even go from one hemisphere to another to play when season is over on their piece of planet. What is it with these people, some kind of OCD about constantly having to play rugby..?

But that's a whole other conversation..

Monday, 11 June 2012

Staying warm in winter- a revelation

Dear South Africans,

My 2 year anniversary of living in the beautiful city of Cape Town is coming up. Can you believe it? It's been a roller-coaster ride of pleasantness and delight. You've been so kind, so welcoming and made me feel at home. We're friends now, right? Yeeeah. I thought so- great!

And friends must be honest, mustn't they? I feel the time has come to be honest with you. I couldn't have said any of this before, a Johnny come lately. But now, things are different. My whole family say "ja" instead of yes and my children's vowels are all messed up. I'm almost one of you. Almost.

There are several topics upon which I feel we need to have a discourse, but today we'll just start on one.

The subject of heating and insulation.

I can feel you all tense up, start whining and saying: "but the winter's so short". Short it may be, in comparison to many other places in the world. But there is a winter and you know it. I know you know because of the clothes you weather (c.f. fur lined coats and winter boots in April) and because of the whinging you do when I see you. You wrap up like human sausage rolls from the moment you roll out of your icy bed, you refuse to go out at night because it's too cold (for readers from overseas, if the night time temp hits 7C in the dark hours of the night, that's really very low). I come to your houses and there you are, all padded at all times of day(if someone didn't know it was cold, they'd think you were wearing an outfit to make sure you didn't catch yourself on any sharp edges in your house) or, alternatively, shivering because of your winter/heating denial. And I'm not talking about middle-income people who might not be able to afford it. I'm talking about people living in homes that Middle Eastern dictators aspire to. Really.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not denying that 15C (a revolting low in winter!) feels very chilly after 27C for 3 months straight. I'm just suggesting you do something about the chill. The winter is "only 3 months"- a quarter of year wearing extraordinary amounts of clothing. Indoors.

I introduce to you the concept of...drum roll.... insulation and heating in your home!! As hardly anyone seems to know about it, I reckon a lot of South Africans are googling the terms as we speak! I reckon I could be the market leader on this. Make my fortune, retire early, perhaps. The possibilities are endless.

Or maybe they're not. maybe you've thought about it and decided against it. Maybe you feel that living in Africa, it would be an affront to international perception to suggest we sometimes get chilly here in South Africa.

Linked to this, I have a theory as to why so many South Africans live in London. Nothing to do with worries of political stability, economic opportunity or the lure of living in Europe. And we know it's not for the weather (especially at the moment, yikes!). I reckon that a certain percentage are so overawed on arrival by British engineering  (central heating) that they feel they must stay (warm) surrounded by such invention. They need never be cold again(indoors, anyway)- imagine that!

This letter to you is really saying: it doesn't have to be like this. You CAN be warm without looking like a sumo wrestler for 3 months. Waddling due to over-clothing is optional in the modern world. Give it a try!

Speak soon,

Me (sitting in my warm, insulated home wearing an acceptable amount of clothing for indoor purposes).


Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Tradesmen- London to Cape Town

I have always been fascinated by tradesmen. We seem to be (loosely) the same species but somehow oh-so different.

One of the subsidiary aims of my blog is to help people who want to move or are considering one.

To this end, I have decided, purely for the benefit of those people to do a comparative analysis of tradesmen in the south-east of England and in Cape Town. I have divided up my analysis into what I feel are helpful categories.

Timekeeping

South African tradesmen are mostly on time. They will arrive and, even if you have just asked for a quote, a swarm of people will arrive, the purpose of most them in relation to the quote will be unclear to you. However, at some point during the quoting process, the "main" man will bark (probably in Afrikaans) at one of the army of minions. I can only assume he asking their expert opinion.

When the job starts, they will arrive on time- all 50 of them. The "supervisor" or driver will greet you politely, establish what they are doing and then bark randomly at the assembled mass (in Afrikaans, mostly) and leave. He will return throughout the day and the process of polite greeting, then bellowing will be repeated. They do start very early and will always stay until 4/430 (although please see later comments under productivity).

English tradesmen's timekeeping is not so good. "I'll be there at 9 on Wednesday" translates loosely as any point in time a few days around that. If they're late, they won't call, won't  \apologise and will seem rather put out when you mention that you have been waiting for them and as a result missed a doctor's appointment and failed to pick up your child from school because they said every time "I'm 5 minutes away". The fact that you are not happy to revolve your life entirely around a builder's work schedule is perplexing to them. And that's just the quote.

When you instruct them (and you will instruct the only person who turned up, the others having never made it to the door despite you pleading with them) they will generally turn up within an hour, then leave to go to another job, have tea, have a chat, then have to leave because of the traffic. And early on a Friday.


Breaks

South African tradesmen have regular breaks. And by regular, I mean the speaking clock sets its time by them. Break from 10-1030 and again from 1-130. No compromise, no leeway. That's when they break is. Doesn't matter what they're doing, they'll stop. Finish painting that 10cm of wall? NO WAY- it's 10am. They will never trouble you for a drink or a snack.

And, at break time. They collapse. No, really, they do.It's like the  clock hand hits ten and all their bones and cartilage vanish, because one minute they doing something, next minute (10am, say), they're all lying down. Doesn't matter where. They lie down- on the lawn, on grass verges, in the car port, the garage. And at 1030, some force from above replaces their bones and we're off again until a repeat at 1.

And they balk at tea. It's either coffee with 6 sugars (the amount of sugars is normally directly correlated to the amount of teeth missing) or Coke. Coke is hard currency among tradesmen here.

With English tradesmen, breaks are difficult to distinguish from the working day. They come straight from a breakfast at a greasy spoon and tradition dictates a cup of tea is offered when they arrive which, tradition dictates, they must accept. They may then ask for more. Then, they go back to the greasy spoon for lunch. This takes at least an hour. Tradition dictates a cup of tea is offered after lunch which, tradition dictates, they must accept.  And then maybe a mid afternoon one? By 330, they must leave. So, I feel with English tradesmen it's more of a pattern than a fixed timetable.

And, if you employ an English tradesmen, go to Tesco and buy tea in bulk. I feel that but for English tradesmen, many tea plantations in India would fold.

Productivity

Productivity is directly linked to breaks, so please factor that into the analysis.

However, please do not assume because South African arrive in small armies and have limited breaks that they must be more productive. It is sometimes amazing to see how little can be achieved by so many. Studies should be carried out to investigate this phenomenon. That said, if a job is running over, the foreman will being more men, but given what I have just said, it doesn't necessarily result in more work. Just more collapsible people at your house.

Please note there is a direct correlation between the amount of work done and the presence of the yelling driver.

Productivity in England is affected by breaks too and by the fact that tradesmen are often the most loquacious "Y" chromosomes. So you may have a deep knowledge of his father's problems with the council, but your fence ain't getting any higher.  

Another problem in England is that they may arrive in the morning with quite a few workers, only to spirit most of them away during the day to "finish another job". This does not help productivity.

Friday afternoons are least productive for the English, the pub beckons. For South Africans, it's Monday morning where, occasionally, babalas and sore head will keep them in bed.

Manners

Here, most people call me "Ma'am" which makes me feel like an old lady living in the American Deep South. In England, they call me "luv" which makes me feel like a barmaid.

Excuse my being graphic here, but tradesmen in Cape Town can seem to go for an entire day without using the facilities. In England, this was not my experience, one particularly cultured gentleman leaving such a gift in the guest toilet that it made me eyes water for 2 days.


Pricing

Generally, even taking into account the disparity in earning, work is cheaper here which undoubtedly will be to do with the oversupply of labour (cf. swarms). People also expect you to negotiate the price.

In England, I advise opening some smelling salts before opening any quote and contacting your mortgage company for options on increasing on financing, even just to paint your bathroom. Before discussing any specifics on price, an English workmen will suck in air through his teeth, shake his head and declare: "It'll cost ya, luv."

Builders Bum.

Prolific in England, to the point I expect it forms part of the job spec. This is combined with virtual stripping down to underpants when the sun shines and the temperature is over 14 degrees C. I feel it only fair to warn, that most often these men's bodies are not their temples.

Mercifully mostly absent here.

There you go, a comprehensive comparative analysis of tradesmen in south-east England and Cape Town. No need to thank me.