Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Wednesday, 29 February 2012

You know you're living in Africa when...

I have mentioned before how, even in a city as stunning and jaw-droppingly beautiful as Cape Town, you just get used to it. When we we first got here we were saying: "WOW, IT'S TABLE MOUNTAIN" every 2 minutes (and, actually, I don't exaggerate- TM is there, all the time, wherever you go and it has so many moods, so many angles...). The locals would look at us like we were slightly simple with a look that said, well, er, Ja. My husband marveled at his commute, which literally hugs the mountain, takes in a view of the harbour, Robben, Island, the City Bowl and Lion's Head- to name a few well-know sites in Cape Town. He'd even see zebras sometimes.

Now, sad to say, we've become a bit more local and well, perhaps a little blase, about the lump of sandstone that we can see from our back garden. The mountain still astounds and there are times when I turn a corner and it takes my breath away but, even so, sometimes you're so caught up in the school run or annoyed by a traffic jam that you wish someone would just build a damn tunnel to ease your commute. Wonder of the World or not, I'm running late, for crying out loud. And, sometimes, on this side of the mountain the damned thing just spoils a good sunset (although please don't tell from the Atlantic Seaboard that I said that. It would be like admitting defeat).

What I'm saying is that, sadly, I do take some of what makes Cape Town exceptional for granted. However, there are some things that can't help but remind me that I live in Africa.

What I am about to recount will wash over long-time Capetonians, but not the rest of us. Bear in mind that what I am telling you happened in the suburb of a city of 3.5 people. In an urban area. In a  city with a major international airport. With some of the best restaurants in Africa. We ain't no backwater here, is what I am trying to say.

The other day, at my daughter's preschool, a fellow parent was telling me how their daughter had become very clingy since the baboon incident. Yes, world, since the BABOON INCIDENT. You're assuming this happened on game reserve, right? Think again...

Apparently, her daughter was in her high chair in the kitchen (they live less than 5 mins drive from me) and her nanny had gone to the loo. When the nanny returned, a young male baboon was sitting on the kitchen worktop opposite the little girl, munching a banana. The not-yet 2 year old was silent. Unsurprisingly, the nanny was horrified and scared the baboon away- but he didn't leave before grabbing some take-out: 2 bananas.

As the mother recounted the story, one of the aspects she was most concerned about was the fact that "Baboon Watch" had not alerted the area.

Yes, ladies and gentleman, I live in a part of the world where we have Baboon Watch. Not just Neighbourhood Watch. No, we  watch baboons too. Apparently, how this works is when a baboon is walking through the streets (really), the security companies call the wildlife people but also a general SMS is sent to subscribers in the area, telling them to close windows and doors (and presumably hide bananas) until the animal has left. You then get an all-clear SMS. Apparently, if they get in they make a real mess of your kitchen. A bit like having a toddler baking in your kitchen- just more furry, bigger teeth.

In the area I lived in in the UK, we had Neighbourhood Watch. I guess we were looking out for real thugs, you know, the moronic looking type whose knuckles drag on the floor. Baboon Watch is very similar- they're just hairier and more likely to target your fruit bowl than your HD Ready TV.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mummy's working hours

When people find out that I am a stay-at-home mum, mostly they take a sharp intake of breath and say: "Wow, that's a full-time job!" which it is. Except the hours suck, the pay is ridiculous, the contract of indeterminate length and the boss(es) are prone to change the terms at any time, by any means (eg tantrums, throwing, screaming, general non-compliance). And no one really, actually recognises it as a full-time job. People say that because they feel bad for you and your vomit soaked, mud covered clothes that have faded through incessant washing and were last fashionable before your first child was born. So they call what you do a" job" to make you feel less wretched about it all.

Please don't misunderstand, I am very fortunate to have been able to stay at home with my kids. But some of the time I do feel quite wretched and put upon and nowadays would consider a corporate due diligence (something I became well acquainted with while I was a lawyer) to be the height of glamour and excitement- trawl through contracts? Me, yes? Yes, please! Let me just discard my apron and wash my hair...no.no, come back....!Oh... I'll go back to refereeing the toddler fight then

 I'm sure most people think we mummies don't get dressed until midday and as soon as we do, we're drinking wine in a bistro with fellow mummies.

Anyway, I have been told one too many times recently that it is a full-time job (often in a high-pitched tone- you know that tone, when people are covering something up: "No, you don't need to wash your hair!!" a few octaves too high), so I got to thinking I should probably try and formalise this working relationship in some way. Y'know, get some rights for me.

So what defines a job, a full-time one? Well, firstly: pay. Not much I can do there. Unless I want to get paid in mud, monkeys or stones, that's a non-starter.

Second, working hours. I like to think that my hours are- more or less- 645am to 730pm (and I work, weekends, obviously). Sadly, this very often doesn't work. The start time doesn't present problems for many (except me) but my tiny bosses seem very loathe to adhere to the end-of-the-day hours. In theory, even if they've been ditched in their rooms by 730pm, they're always yo-yoing out: "Can I have a drink?", "I'm hungry", "Can I tell you what happened at school today" (this one is especially sneaky, I swear my older withholds information deliberately to extend her time up before bed), "I need a kiss and a hug" (sounds cute, I know,  but proves wearing after the 16th foray into the kitchen) and, of course "I need a poo" which my older daughter coordinates precisely me sitting down to eat my supper. Good bowel control, I say. If my working hours do end at 730pm, these visits and requests are like a workaholic boss who insists on calling you on your Blackberry after you've left the office. I love them dearly but, really, by the end of the day I NEED to be left alone.

Recently, things have been a bit chaotic for me and I always seem to call service providers after hours (still haven't got used to the fact that in Cape Town everything starts and finishes earlier) and I constantly seem to get the message "Our offices are now closed. Please note our office hours are x to x. Feel free to leave a message and we will deal with your call during office hours. In case of an emergency, please dial xxxxx". This frustrates me enormously, but slowly I am learning to make the effort to call during office hours. So...

Here's my plan: for all requests after 730, I will simply hit a button and a creepy voice over a loudspeaker will say: "Mummy's office is now closed. Mummy's working hours are between 645am and 730pm PRECISELY. Feel free to leave a message and Mummy will deal with it during office hours. If it is an emergency, please ask Daddy or, even better, press 1 to speak to a grandparent who might give have the strength and will to deal with you. Thanks for your call. BEEEEEP".

Friday, 24 February 2012

Mine's better than yours

In Cape Town, I live opposite the playing fields of the most prestigious prep schools in the country. Or at least that's what the marketing tells me. It's also what some of the parents think, judging by some of the attitude.

The road I live on is a narrow little road and I must concede that having the playing fields opposite is nice, they're well maintained and give a sense of space outside my house, plus the buildings are beautiful. It does have a reputation for academic and sporting excellence

Cape Town is, very often, a place of extremes and the school is definitely one of them. The "elite" most certainly send their boys there- the place is dripping with money and, as a friend said, oddly everyone there looks the same- they look great, don't get me wrong- but they look the same. Something in the water? Admission criteria? Free plastic surgery with every admission? Who knows. But it's odd.

Oh, and the other thing that seems to be requirement for admission is a skeletal, blond mother with a golf-ball size engagement ring, driving something that must be equal in size AT LEAST to a Hummer. It's like some kind of Gulliver's travels all mixed up- tiny people putting tiny children into giant cars. I am certain even the drivers need booster seats.

Now I have no problem with their uniformity, their giant cars or their choice of school. But I do have a problem with their attitude which seems to be : "mine is better and more important than yours". By mine- you filthy-minded readers- I mean of course children.

3 times this week, I have returned to find a car of monstrous proportions on my driveway blocking my way in or out. Twice the Stepford Wife has driven off with a wave of a perfectly manicured hand from on high in her skyscraper mobile. But this is only after psychotic hooting and gesticulating on my part from my car. The sight of my gate opening and my furious face, cavernous opening and shutting mouth was enough to drive them away.

But once, someone just parked in my driveway and left their car their for 10 minutes. No amount of hooting or shouting was gonna move that car. So I sat there on the bonnet of my car, stewing, brewing, simmering and by the time the owner of the car arrived I was Vesuvius waiting to explode. It was a teenage sister, who saw me, panicked and said: "I'm so sorry ma'am, I'm not an inconsiderate person". Which was kind of weird because it was like she was "Say the Opposite of What You Are Land". Maybe she'd fallen off the top of the Faraway Tree that morning. Anyway, suffice to say I don't think she'll be doing that again in a hurry.

Last year, a woman parked on my driveway, left her engine running. As my gate opened, the light from her giant diamond blinded me and she said, laughing: "What are the odds of you coming out?!'. Well, given that this is not an abandoned house, pretty high actually! I could list many more run-ins, but I'll just make myself angry.

I'm now on first name terms with the Receptionist at the school who probably doesn't give a hoot, but makes out she does. I'm 3 blocked driveways away from being a crazy vigilante, waving traffic cones in my road in a high visibility vest, screaming about tow trucks and no one needs that.

The point of all of this, is that the people who do block driveways assume that their children are more important than mine. Or me. They assume it's OK to block my exit because it's more important for their child to be picked up than mine. Mine can sit weeping at school wondering where her mummy is as long as Hummer lady can pick up little Hans and have a chat with a fellow skeleton. It's not just a CT thing, it's a phenomenon all over which seems to be worse with private schools. I saw it when I lived near a private girls school in London. Maybe it's because private school parents have more cars.

I suppose that it is nature: we protect and nurture our own children and, in order for our gene pool to survive, we must do the best for our own, think they are the best and the most important, to the exclusion of  others- who cares if I inconvenience them?

Just like the Hummer Skeleton, I want to be there on time to pick up my babies, but I won't block someone's driveway to do it. I'll park down the road and walk. Or I'll call the school and tell them I'm running late.  And maybe that way, I will raise a child who knows she is important but understands there are others in the world- and not a Hans Hummer Driveway-Blocker.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Aerobics for mere mortals

That time has come- my oldest in school and my youngest is at preschool 4 mornings a week. Having given up whatever semblance of a career I had when the first one was born, I am now- in theory- a person with time on my hands.

Truth be told, once drop offs, pick ups and shopping has been done the time is not so great but still. I have time- which is a novelty.

So what's a girl to do with all this me time?!

Today, I thought I would revisit aerobics. Retro Aerobics to be precise. I've been getting fitter recently and I thought it would be great to "mix it up" (dreadful phrase, I know).

I gingerly entered the mirrored room and slunk along the sides, relieved to see other anxious looking people- a group of around 8 women. I wondered what on earth I had let myself in for.

Suddenly, the instructor burst in, as personal trainers and gym instructors always do: burst, bound and grin. They're either theatrically happy or alarmingly burly and muscular. The latter looking as if their greatest pleasure in life would be to chase you round an assault course in the mud at 5am.

She bounced to the front, beaming- her enthusiasm, energy and positivity at this time of the day a clear giveaway that she didn't spend the best part of 2 hours chivvying 2 under-5s out the door.

"Okay, great!", she enthused, "Thanks soooooo much for joining me today. This is a low impact class with some high impact aspects if you want in the middle. We'll start with a low impact warm up".

The words "low impact" were music to my ears; I sensed the relief around the room.

She put the music on and started moving in a way that can only be described as a cross between J Lo, a whirling dervish and a Tasmanian Devil. Low Impact my arse.

"Grapevine to the left!! Sashay 2 counts to the right...and now twinkles for 8...! Woooohoooo!".

My first instinct was to put my hand up and ask for a dictionary: grapevine? Isn't that where wine grows? Twinkies? Eh? Isn't that a biscuit?

No time to think- we're off to the left, back round, clapping, hopping.

I said revisit: suddenly, I have flashbacks from the first aerobics class I ever attended: Long Aerobics in my first term at university. For some reason my friends and I didn't realise the word "Long" meant, well, the class would be long. An hour and a half. The most unfortunate thing was that my friend and I discovered that we were lacking that one thing you needed for aerobics about ten minutes in: coordination. We spent the first ten minutes trying, the last 80 laughing. The instructor was not as amused.

No coordination. Still. The music is great but I flail round the room either 2 steps behind or 5 steps ahead of the instructor. Luckily, there are more Heffalumps like me in the room and occasionally we unwittingly congregate in the centre of the room where we should all be on the right doing a mambo followed by a Vstep.

Just as I am feeling good about the uncoordinated camaraderie, in steps the gay guy. How do I know he's gay? The  coordination, the perfect bod, the backing dancer smile permanently on his face. But what gives it away is the enthusiasm with which he does jazz hands and the flourishes with which he finishes every perfectly executed move. Ain't no straight guy gonna do flourishes. He swims through the cement bags of the rest of the class effortlessly, grinning all the while.

And then, oh please no: "Find a partner!! Woohoo!". And the backing dancer finds me despite my best efforts to hide behind the Swiss balls. "C'mon!", he enthuses. He drags me round like a sack of potatoes, my malcoordinated limbs heavy with humiliation. The rest of the class look at me with sympathy and a: there but for the grace of God look. They've been here before, I can tell, they've learnt to hide.

The class progresses and I progress from bag of cement to rusty robot moving through molasses. At one point the persistently happy instructor bounces over to me and shouts:" Good going!". Bless her, she must have been looking out for the one time I was in time to the music.

The warm down was less intense: more acrobat mixed with podium dancer although I think at this point I was just staring at her, arms hanging down like a dying gorilla.

"Thanks for joining me!! Join me next week and on Saturday if you wanted to be humiliated twice a week!" (she didn't really say the last bit).

I'll be back, it was fun and the music was good. I'll be there early to scout out a good place to hide first though.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Health and Safety Gone Mad

This last weekend we went away to stay in some cottages on a farm near Greyton in the Western Cape. The place was idyllic beyond what we could have imagined. The accommodation was more than fine and the views, well, they just stopped your heart. This was the view from the stoep:

For me, this is the kind of holiday that childhood should be made of. We went with 3 other families and the children interrupted swimming, exploring and playing only to eat (communally) and then collapse at the end of the day, ready to start again the next morning. It's a whole blog post in itself.

One afternoon, we ambled down to the river and the children to proceeded to disrobe, wade in the river and make constructions from rocks and slimy river mud. The water was about knee deep on a 5 year old at its deepest in this part of the river and the parents watched as the children (youngest aged 2) roamed freely in the water.

Out of the blue, a boy aged perhaps seven or eight waddled down to the river bank and and nervously made his way to the middle point of the river where he simply stood for quite some time. I say waddled, not because this child was in anyway overweight, but because he was encased in a life-vest for someone 3 times his size and girth. The sight of this modern day Michelin man stepping gingerly past them made even the 5 2-5 year olds stop and stare. The vest was absolutely luminous in colour and stood out against the river and the forest on the other bank, well, like a luminous orange vest against a river. If that boy got in trouble in mid-calf deep, calm water, there wasn't anyone who wasn't noticing.

The sight of this child made even the parents stop yakking and I said, (only half-joking): "I bet that's an English child!"

What would make me say something so mean about a poor little boy with in a buoyancy aid? Am I an irresponsible mother?

No, I am just used to "Health and Safety Gone Mad"- I do believe I am borrowing that phrase from the delightful Daily Mail. The attempt to eliminate all risk from life, however small, so that no one ever, ever get hurts- or even better, learns to take care.

What do I mean? Let me me elaborate: whilst I believe that public places should be safe and playgrounds, for instance, should be obliged to ensure that they area is safe i.e., no rusty nails sticking out, no jagged bits of metal- I don't believe that they have to eliminate all risk to anyone by creating an experience so very bland that it is no challenge and therefore not much fun to any child over 1 year.

In England, the councils so fear being sued by a parent whose child falls of a slide that was too high that they build the slides so low that no one can possibly fall off them. Just step off it. Where's the fun in that?

Another example: apparently a law has been passed in England that you cannot order your burger rare in some establishments, to avoid health risks to yourself. So even if you like a bit of red in your meat, the government has decided to save you from yourself (just in case the meat is off) and you may now only have it well done. Another example of removing responsibility from the hands of the individual and allowing the government to legislate for the lowest common denominator. I think it's outrageous. Demanding standards of hygiene in eating establishments, yes. But this- come on!!

Anyway, to go back to my story, just as I remarked that the boy must be English, his mother- anxious and tense- appeared nearby. "Be Careful" she called...in a crisp, British accent. We looked at each other and tried not to laugh.

The poor sweet boy stood, enveloped in the luminous hideousness, mid-calf deep in the water, staring at his mother, wringing her hands in angst. Meanwhile, our 4 year old watched him with increasing curiosity. He wobbled a little, his orangeness swaying bizarrely above the water lapping over the rocks. "BE CAREFUL!", yelled his mother again, casting off her flip flops and dashing through the water to steady him. Turns out, he'd got his feet stuck between the rocks. She led him out of the water by the hand, totally emasculated, as 5 girls (most of them butt naked) looked on. Truth be told, the vest probably unbalanced him- it looked like he'd gone in in a sumo suit.

The boy obviously wanted to go in the water, why else would he wade in by himself? Was there a risk of something happening to him? I guess he could have fallen over and bruised his bottom. Risk of the vest coming in use? Absolutely minimal! In fact, a huge swell as a result of a month's worth of rain probably wouldn't even have made the vest useful.

I'm not criticising the mother or the child, I am criticising a culture of Health and Safety that gets under your skin, makes you doubt your judgement as a parent,  undercut your child's sense of adventure and remove from your child any ability to independently judge risk. Wrapping them up literally in cotton wool all the time is not a good plan.

When we first arrived in South Africa, my daughter (3.5 at the time) visited her school before she started. The kids came running up to her and she happily scarpered off with them. As I turned to look where she was, my heart stopped. She was on a jungle gym so tall that if I had lifted up my arms, my fingers would have tickled her toes. I had no idea where she had found the courage to climb so high and I feared how she'd get down. The thought of her going that school every day and climbing so high with a seething mass of children was almost enough for me to pull her out of the school. Seriously.

I still have trouble watching my daughters on jungle gyms, they're terribly cavalier 6ft above the ground and there have been a couple of accidents but, generally, provided they go on age appropriate equipment, they're fine. Interestingly, my younger girl who has spent half her life here is much more of a risk-taker than her sister was at the same age. Possibly character, possibly an environment that allows her to explore and a mother that has thrown off the Health and Safety culture a bit.

That poor boy, I can't help wondering what the rest of his holiday is like. I have no doubt he will be eating all his food well done and he won't forgot the bemusement and confusion on the faces of 5 naked 2-5 year olds in a hurry.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Not such a spoilt expat brat

There are many reasons why I feel to be lucky to be living here but I am slightly ashamed to admit to one of them: I get much more "help" here than I did in the UK.

"Help"? You ask, what do you mean? Well, I feel weird saying it- I suspect partly because I have been tinged by British colonial guilt- but basically I get an awful lot more assistance with menial tasks which, frankly, have never given me any joy: cleaning, ironing, packing my shopping, unpacking my shopping, washing my car and even putting petrol in my car.

 It's only been 16 months, I don't think I can even remember how to switch on my vacuum cleaner or iron, I have trouble finding cleaning products in the house- this is all thanks to our lovely domestic help, Judith, who comes in 3 times a week for a day. I am sure she relishes nothing more than the sight of accumulated pots and pans when she comes to work (we have a hidden sink in the scullery, so to guests we look civilised, only those that venture to the scullery know that we are revolting beasts but for Judith).

At the supermarket checkout, I am free to vacantly stare at the wall or check my messages while a lovely person packs my shopping into bags by category. A young gentleman then whisks the trolley in the direction of the car and unpacks my shopping into the car. If the kids are with me, he'll put them in the car, fussing over them  all the while. Another young man then directs me out of my parking spot and, after the trauma of actually having to drive the car home by myself, Judith helps me unpack the groceries. After this ordeal, I have to prepare my lunch (can't afford a chef- the shame!) and Judith clears up after us.

If the car needs petrol, I pull into the petrol station and wait for someone to fill up my car and clean my windscreens. No cash? No problem! The card machine is brought to your car window, interrupting your listening to the news only briefly. We have become so accustomed to this that, when visiting London last year, we pulled up at a petrol station and my husband just sat in the car. I opened the door, he said: "What are you doing? Do you need something from the shop?".

I must admit I find these things indulgent and wonderful after living in SE London where I paid too much money to people to move around the dirt in my house for a couple of hours a week, where I struggled to pack my shopping fast enough, people in the queue tsk-tsking behind me. And no one ever filled the car up for me. It's not that these things are so terrible to do yourself, just so much nicer if someone does them for you.

In South Africa, there is an oversupply of unskilled labour which is the main reason who so much help is so affordable. It feels almost like the New Deal under Roosevelt where you actually "invent" jobs to give people something to do, a way to make money. Obviously, this isn't like paying people to carry balloons through the streets, it's much more useful. Crucially it provides people with few skills the ability to earn money. And it makes my life, well, a bit better.

So, for a while, these things have been a guilty pleasure for me, better than chocolate, better than wine. But I have felt a bit ashamed: my biggest fear about having to move away is that I will have to clean my own house, pack my own shopping and fill up my own car. Worse, I won't be able to complain about it. I thought I was a total expat brat. A shameful colonial-era beast.

So it was with great relief the other day, that I had the following conversation with a tradesman who came to quote on something at my house. He had to check something on the roof and came down with a fistful of leaves. Here's the conversation:

Him: "There are a lot of leaves up there, they'll block your gutter. Make sure you get it cleaned out regularly."
Me: "OK, sure. I'll remember."
Him: "Just ask your garden boy to do it every so often."
Me: "I'll tell my husband. We don't have a garden boy."

He looks at me. Silence. Disbelief.

Him: "You don't have a garden boy?". Now, he says this in a voice which implies that rather than telling him we don't have a gardener, I have told him that we don't use the toilets, we just defecate on the lawn.

Me:" No, we don't. My husband enjoys gardening."

He walks backwards a couple of steps, as if moving slowly away from a madwoman brandishing a knife.

Him: "OK, the quote will, er, be with you soon."

I haven't yet received the quote which makes me think he is either inefficient or considers us too weird too work for.

So, whilst getting another quote might be a hassle, at least I feel a bit about myself. I don't have a gardener. Or, even worse, a live-in garden boy and 2 maids like one family of four  I know.

So perhaps South Africa has not ruined me completely.

But there's still time.