Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

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.