Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Wildlife and I

When deciding to move to Africa, one thing I never really factored in was the wildlife.

I don't mean the lions, the cheetahs, the giraffes, the elephants, the buffalo and all the other amazing animals that live in Africa. I mean, you can't really "factor them in" can you? It's not it's a possibility they'll live in your garden or be your next door neighbor or anything like that ("Hi there, welcome to the road, Just wanted to warn about the zebra carcasses you might see us dragging down the road. We find the traditional butcher is, well, a bit minimalist for our family's needs"). That is, unless you live next door to a game lodge or run one, in which case I imagine they'll be a pretty big factor.

I suppose, I did sort of factor them in, in a very minor way because I assumed our children would have easier access to these animals, which they do. Not in a stroke the giraffe walking down the street way (although that would VERY cool) but just, you know, big cat sanctuaries about. And, actually, we did once see an elephant strolling casually parallel to the N2. And yesterday we spent a while sitting on the rocks at Hout Bay while seals played in the shallow water, just metres away from us. So wildlife is a feature.

The wildlife that I most certainly didn't factor in was the type of wildlife I never think about, wildlife that- because of its lack of furriness, lack of impressiveness or lack of cuteness value- I never really think about. The kind of wildlife that doesn't make anyone goes "aaaaah": insects, reptiles and the like.

When we first arrived, whilst I was quite fascinated by the chameleon in the garden, basking on the leaves in the morning sunlight, I was less impressed with the geckos in the house. Or, as I screamed it the first time I saw one running across the wall: "Oh my God, there's a f***ing lizard in the house!".

The spiders didn't amuse me too much either. Whilst we have many fewer "dangerous" spiders here than in, say, Australia, we still have some and I have, of course, listened with horror to tales of people being bitten by button spiders and driving themselves, all woozy, to the hospital. I have trained my girls to be vigilant of spiders and never touch them and I pretty much have an OCD about shaking out their curtains and blankets before they go to bed. And the size of some of the spiders: my 2 year old is a fearless beast and one day she casually remarked that there was a spider in the bathroom. I patted her patronisingly on the head and went about my business. Later, on  trip to the bathroom, I saw said spider and, frankly, the thing couldn't see me for dust. Its body alone was the size of a my child's hand. It was a rain spider. Harmless, apparently. Can give you a bite but not poisonous. Now, I'm sorry but no spider has any business being that big. And the thought of that thing biting is enough to to make me faint, even now.

According to my husband, who  has fancied himself as a bit of a Ray Mears ever since we've been here, there are snakes in the mountains-  puff adders, Cape Cobras and boomslangs. He loves seeing them but this information makes a walk in the mountains unlikely for me.

I have learnt to live with the geckos and even love them for their mosquito eating qualities. I don't freak out when one is in my shower, although I insist on its removal (although not by me. The thought of touching it makes me want to throw up). I have become braver around spiders and can even remove them myself (using gloves and a receptacle). And my children just LOVE all the wildlife around them. My youngest girl wants to  look for lizards every night before she goes to bed. They're both mini Ray Mears in the making.

The one "bit" of wildlife that I am struggling to embrace is the baboon. I've never had an easy relationship with baboons. For a start, they're not aesthetically appealing to me. The whole matted, tick infested fur, big red bum and sharp fangs look has never really done it for me. On the "cute-o-meter", they wouldn't score terribly high. Ticks and red bums don't make for a whole lotta points.

Additionally, we've had a few run-ins and the baboon has not come off well. Years ago, when I was on holiday here visiting Cape Point, I was assaulted by one for my water bottle. Technically, it assaulted my brother first, he threw the bottle to me and it hurled itself on me. I had paw prints on my T-shirt. Not a look I was coveting. I now know that I cannot blame the baboon alone- lots of naive (I'm being polite) tourists feed the baboons who then feel a sense of entitlement to every food stuff and beverage they see. It was scary nonetheless.

Then, after we moved here, we went to the Porter Estate Market in Tokai. This is a gorgeous market in the forest where the parking guards carry huge sticks to scare baboons away from the cars. I arrived back at my car to find the parking guard grinning sheepishly. He said "The baboon, he broke your mirror lady". I thought he was joking until I saw the wing mirror hanging off, paw prints all over it and the windscreen. The children squealed in delight at the paw prints. I was less ecstatic. I'll give the baboon the benefit of the doubt- I am assuming my car was in the way rather than it being willful vandalism.

Recently, we went on holiday to Hermanus, to a beautiful villa in the wilderness outside the town. As we arrived, the lady said- wide-eyed- they'd just chased a big male baboon off the stoep. She advised us that we must close all windows and doors when we go out so as to avoid walking in on a baboon party in the kitchen when we came back. This information did not fill me with joy- I imagined a joyless holiday in an airless house, baboons knocking at the windows and pointing fiercely at the bananas. Planet of the Apes in Hermanus.

As it was, we didn't see any near the house (I guess they were frightened off by my savage children) but we did see them foraging in bins and chilling by roads. They live in the mountains and they come to hang out near the bins in the day. I guess it's easier than hunting.

On reflection, baboons make me uneasy. They're a wild animal and they just roam parts of the Western Cape. And humans and baboons have yet to figure out how to coexist. We can't treat them like pets and feed them, they're smart enough to soon come in and help themselves and they really won't care about the mess they leave. They're wild animals, so they need to be contained somehow for their safety and ours. I suppose I should marvel at the fact that I live in a city where I can do all the urban things I can think of, yet 20 mins down the road, a troop of baboons is chilling at the roadside, completely oblivious to the urban chaos close by.

You never know, this time next year given my progress with lizards and the like, I could have grown to love baboons. Although they'll need to have had a serious makeover first. Maybe there's a business opportunity for someone- baboon beauty salons anyone?

Monday, 23 January 2012

The problem with globalisation is..

I think the term "expat" sounds terribly glamorous. Maybe I've read too many books or watched too many films, but the term does make me think of very posh English people sitting in a wood paneled bar drinking cocktails while the fan overhead makes vain attempts to move the heavy, muggy, tropical air. The locals serve ice cold drinks while the ladies fan themselves and the gentlemen smoke cigars while talking business. An elderly piano players tinkles away in a corner. I think, in my head, this is all taking place in the Hotel Nacional in Havana.

This is all rather bizarre as I have been to the Hotel Nacional in Havana, and none of this happened. Except for the mojitos. And I think there was some wood paneling and a fan somewhere. Further, if ever such a scene existed, it was a significant time before I was born.

It is also strange because I am an expat of sorts and have yet to spend any time fanning myself in a muggy bar. In fact, I don't think I've actually ever spent any quality time with a fan.

Clearly, I have far too active an imagination and have wasted too much time on romantic spy novels and films set in tropical locations. The reality of expats these days is that we/they are people who move abroad for quality of life, for work or for money. We are people trying to get do our grocery, shopping, beat the traffic and get our kids to school, albeit in a different place to the one in which we born, raised or even educated. We're not so special anymore, there are more and more of us and we swirl round and round the world, filling international schools, setting up expat bank accounts and providing estate agents and airlines with a profit.

I think, most of the time, that this is totally amazing. That- for a proportion of the planet's population at least- you can step in to a giant tin can and some lost hours later, the tin can lands and vomits you up somewhere completely different. You can learn the language, see the country, eat the food, meet the people. You could even live there in some cases. In theory, it should mean people understand each other better and confront less (in theory!)

My family is a classic case in point. My brother and I are the children of the Polish immigrants. We have lived in Poland, South Africa, England and Norway. Additionally I have lived and worked in New Zealand and I live in Cape Town, South Africa at the moment. I am married to an Englishman. My brother has, as an adult, spent some time in Barcelona, Spain and currently works in Brussels, Belgium where he lives with his Catalan girlfriend.

Most of the time, I think that is totally amazing. The opportunities that my brother and I have had, the knowledge of and exposure to other countries makes us very lucky, very privileged people.

On Saturday, I thought it totally sucked. That our lives would have been infinitely less complex, less full of goodbyes and Skype calls if my parents had just stayed put. My fantastic brother had been here for 3 weeks and we had enjoyed his company immensely and intensely. He was here for long enough that we just hung out, and it felt like he lived here. And then, of course, he had to leave to return to his job, his girlfriend, his life. And it was horrible. I won't go into the tears, except to say that Cape Town seemed like a lesser place without having him to hang out with. My daughters didn't understand why we couldn't "keep him".

My doctor, of all people, said to me that it's better to have a wonderful brother far away in Brussels than a brother you can't stand just around the corner. Which is an excellent point. Exceptional people are worth knowing, wherever they are.

And the other point is that would be both be as happy had we stayed put? Would we be the same people?

The problem with globalisation in the context of being an expat is it causes far too many goodbyes, it causes too many tears. Yet, without it, if we simply stayed put, we could well have missed out on many, many hellos which may have changed our lives for the better.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The holidays are over...

And so the holidays are over, and we're back to the old routine. Happy 2012 everyone!

On January 9th, the eager beavers back at work started making calls. I was roused from my slumber. Today must be serious back at work day because I even got some calls from builders.

How were the holidays? Totally amazing. I feel that actually it was our first "proper" Christmas here, although it was technically our second one. Last year we were very fresh off the boat (plane) and a bit befuddled by it all.

This year, feeling more local, we were much more able to fall into the lazy pattern of the holidays and actually enjoy a period where a city take s a break. And we knew that no one would do anything, anything at all, not even for any amount of money after Dec 15.

My husband's parents were here and my children were lucky enough to spend Christmas with 2 sets of grandparents, so they certainly didn't suffer from any deficit of attention.

Over the holidays, the roads were quiet (with 2 glaring exceptions, see below) and the pace was slow. Cape Town showed itself off in a wonderful light as I played tour guide to my parents-in-law, for whom this was their first trip outside Europe.

The mountain for us as "locals" can still make your heart skip a beat in certain lights as it catches you unawares when you turn a corner. Sadly though, the mountain is part of my husband's commute, I can see it from my garden. In other words, it has become an everyday part of our lives. And so, as my parents-in-law's jaws dropped and ooohs and aaahs fell from their lips as we drove around, it was good to be reminded of how very lucky I am to live in a place of such natural beauty. Interestingly, they also found the food and service generally (shops, restaurants, tourist stuff) to be outstanding.

What I also found quite intriguing was how different Cape Town was to how they had expected. They were amazed at how green and lush it is in places. They said they thought it would be more dry and dusty and, I got the impression, more dangerous. And that made me sad because it just shows the impression that "foreigners" can have and the media bias. Still, Cape Town put on a stellar performance and now has 2 (more) 2 lifelong fans.

There were several things that I learnt over the holidays.

1. Hermanus is a great place for a holiday, not just a day trip. It is very old fashioned but I love that and the pace of life is seriously slow- which is the way it should be on holiday.

2. A day trip to Hermanus on Dec 16 is a stupid idea. I don't know why this didn't occur to me before. Like an ant among thousands of other car ants we headed out of CT, past the brimming service stations and overflowing farmstalls. Still, we definitely felt a part of the holiday buzz, but could have done without the longer journey (kids not really getting the "holiday buzz" part, more vocal on the "this is taking sooooooo long, part).

3. Going to the beach on Boxing Day or January 1 is a bad idea, unless you like to see the entire population of Cape Town covering its beaches. Linked to this, a relaxing scenic drive on Baden Powell Drive on either of these days is a bad idea. Beaches that lie empty for 363 days of the year are unrecognisable, you cannot even see the sand. It's people soup framed by sea and road. Parking is impossible. Actually, correction, when I say parking I mean abandoning your vehicle somewhere that you deem to be appropriate. More or less (leaning towards less) on the verges. So there we sat on Boxing Day, in the mother of all traffic jams (caused by, of all things, a police car that had to be towed- all crumpled- out of the sand dunes-TIA!). It was boiling hot and the crowds continued to surge across the road, weaving between the cars. Children skipped happily although, looking at the beach, I somehow doubted they would be able to find a square inch of sand to sit on. Well-to-do gentleman sauntered along, large watches gleaming on their wrists, click-clacking on the road in very expensive, shiny and colourful shoes, set off by a Hawaiian shirt and big hat. Not what I'd call perfect beach attire, but each to their own. As they walked, they avoided the barely welded together, over stuffed taxis, careering through- one wheel on the road, the other in the sand- while other drivers waved their fists at them. The drive may have not been what we expected, but it was most certainly an education.

The holidays are well and truly over for me. Husband back at work, older daughter back at school. In fact she started Reception yesterday- a source of great delight for her, utter devastation for me. The scene at the playground as I blubbed away was either amusing or embarrassing to other parents. Added to which, my younger daughter had her welcome morning at her preschool where she starts next week. I was thrilled and upset in equal measure at how she took  it in her stride.

So what with being abandoned by my husband and my children, an existential crisis looms. It's horrible. Is this where I have another baby because I can't think of anything else to do? Er, no, thanks so much.

Still, 2012 has started well. Tomorrow, I show around a client of my new relocation company, Move Me To Cape Town and we seem to be getting lots of interest. Hopefully that will do well. And maybe someone will take pity on a rusty lawyer and law lecturer.

Interesting times ahead for me in CT in 2012.