Expat-ish

Expat-ish
On the Beach

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Christmas in swimmers

A few days ago, I was sitting having coffee with a friend in her garden. We were both wearing sunglasses to avoid squinting at each other in the bright sunshine, our arms and legs bare. Beyond the coffee cups, the mountains starkly jutted out against the kind of blue sky that can only mean summer. The children were running around- some shirtless- loading up on ice water between bursts of energy in the garden.

My friend is a recent arrival from he northern hemisphere suddenly asked: "After a while here, does it ever start to feel like Christmas?". They had been through all the Christmas rituals of putting up the tree, switching on the lights, arranging the presents from people they couldn't be with at Christmas and still she said, it didn't feel like Christmas.

This Christmas is our fourth in South Africa so, whilst this hardly qualifies us as Voortrekker stock, I feel I am a little qualified to answer the question. My immediate, instinctive reply was: "no".

I've been reflecting on my answer, though, and I've come to think that there isn't a yes or no answer to that question: whether or not it feels like Christmas, depends on what Christmas means to you.

Today- Christmas Day- I am sitting on a stoep in a remote part of the Cedarberg (is there anything other than a remote part of the Cedarberg?), my hair wet from the pool. The breeze alleviates the 35 degree C heat and I am grateful for that and the shade. The view is endless, dry with not a hint of human development in view. The dog sleeps: the heat is too much for him and some of our party sunbathe as the crickets sing.

Yesterday, Santa arrived (in full polar gear) on the back of the tractor with sacks of presents, eagerly received by two young ladies and a rather less desperate group of adults. He sat in a rocking chair on the lawn, the early evening sun beating down on him, his 2 acolytes and a bemused dog.

On a brief trip to Clanwilliam in the morning,  getting out of the car I was slapped by a wall of heat so strong it must  unimaginable to those in northern  Europe at the moment. 40 unforgiving degrees of stillness, no breeze, the hot air rising from the concrete and bouncing off the buildings. You sweat without even having to move. In the midst of this, a brass band jauntily played Christmas carols, their brows shiny with the effort,  and people frantically shopped for Christmas. They certainly seemed to be in a festive frame of mind.

So, I got to thinking that whether or not it feels Christmas, depends on what Christmas means to you. I'm an expat child, a serial adult expat and Christmas has always meant family to me. So far we have managed to be together every Christmas but 1 as a family- we congregate in one place, people flying in from wherever they are to be together. Christmas to me means our traditions as a family, executed as a family.

We've had Christmas on at least 3 continents and in more countries but it feels like Christmas because we're together.

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Zebra Ribs

South Africa is a huge country and diverse in terms of geography, ethnicity, lifestyle: you name it. It is so easy to become so embedded in your life that you forget that other people live their lives differently to you. I don't mean just that their child goes to a different school, they live in a different suburb, they don't like sushi or have a pool. I mean people who might look like the same species as you but, who, 6 hours drive away live a life that you cannot even begin to imagine.

Our paths crossed with the purchase of a dog. I'd love to say the kids wore us down, but actually I think it was me that wore my husband down. In a weak moment he agreed and, before he knew it I had ordered the dog. It seems very odd to order a living creature online, my requirements based on looks, gender and how it fits into my lifestyle. Confirmation, if any were needed, of my shallow nature: I can't have it spoiling the aesthetics of my house and garden by not looking right.

Before the due date- it really felt like a due date, except without worrying about the pain- we went shopping for puppy things. As with everything in modern times, it is possible to spend an infinite amount of money on things that I- and, I'm willing the bet, the dog- never knew were needed. The prize for the most outrageous item was a pet brush priced at R970- around US$97. For that price, it really should do more than just the pedestrian task of brushing. Among the things I bought were puppy treats which sounds sweet but is actually a selection of stinky parts of roadkill including, predictably, bones and-unexpectedly- hooves.


The creature was to be delivered to the Cape Winelands by the breeders from the Eastern Cape. Specifically a place in the Eastern Cape that the vet described as "the absolute centre of nowhere".

We turned up at the allocated time and place, ready to collect The Dog. My father and I arrived in an urban 4x4- you know, a great performance car but it looks so nice that it would actually be a shame to get it dirty on a road where you need a 4x4. We were dressed for the winter in a city slicker kind of way, clutching smartphones whilst making sure that our boots and trousers didn't get too muddy.

The breeders greeted us in a room of puppies, a warm fire in the corner of the cold damp room. They were lovely, genuine people who love their dogs. Their bakkie and trailer were filthy and their gumboots covered in mud. I can only imagine what they made of me and the lady who came after me, even more inappropriately dressed for dog collection and wearing all her investment jewellery. I watched them bid every dog goodbye and provide them with a bag of treats. I asked about what treats to get and what she was giving me for the puppy. The reply:

"Those treats in the bag, they are home made. I prefer homemade. Last week I bought a zebra, skinned it and hung it out to dry. Those treats for your dog, they are the ribs. The problem for you here in the Western Cape, is that it is too damp for the zebra to dry out properly."

Yes, the main problem with that whole idea for me, is the damp climate....



Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Back to the weather

I've lived in England, and the English are obsessed with the weather. Living in Cape Town, it is quite clear that the Capetonians are too. In fact, all South Africans are- there seems to be some low level rivalry on climate between the cities of Jo'burg, Cape Town and Durban. Low level in that it is not quite THE topic of conversation, but  a Durbanite will never miss the opposition to gently swipe at that "rubbish" Cape Town climate, if it comes up-even obliquely. Bizarrely (to me), Cape Town is pretty low down the South African weather chart rankings.

So what got me thinking about weather the other day (and, believe me, it doesn't take much) was the fact that we are going back the UK to visit for the first time in 2 years.

Normally, when you go on a summer holiday you don't check the weather, you assume sun and loveliness and throw swim stuff, shorts, sunglasses and sunscreen into the bag. Not so with UK. The word "summer" is used differently there- it is merely descriptive of a period of 3 months from June- August and not used to describe a warm set of weather conditions, as is the norm in other countries and part of the world. If you're travelling to the UK in "summer", do yourself a favour and check the weather forecast before you go. You might think that you can buy the clothes that you need while you are there, but you'd be wrong as the locals insist on deluding themselves and  stocking "summer clothes" in shops. Oh, except it is the summer sales now so there will be autumn stock in stores which is more appropriate...my, the world is confusing.

I have heard so much complaining from the UK about the weather this year, and it seems it is justified. Aside from a few anomalies of sunny and warm days, the predominant weather picture is of clouds and of pathetic rain whose only purpose is to ensure that the day cannot be classified as sunny. The most interesting for me though is looking at the historical averages: the temperatures this year are only a degree or 2 out. So it seems to me that the British are harking back to a time of grand old summers that never actually  happened. Capetonians, however, have justifiably high standards and never miss an opportunity to apologise for the weather: you know, like when there is a cloud in the sky in summer.

All this "research" was being done on a day in mid-winter in Cape Town where it was 27 degrees C and the wind was so hot and so strong that it was strange, almost ominous. You do get those days in winter (I speak with SUCH certainty after 3 winters here).

Fortunately, we are not going to Europe for the weather. We are going to see family and friends and visit places that we love and no amount of drizzle and cloud can stop us doing that (although I see from the forecasts that the weather has rather laid down the gauntlet on that one).

For the sunshine, we come home to Cape Town where the sun is very generous with its time.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Load shedding

I often think that  being a European expat (of sorts) in Cape Town isn't really like being an expat at all. Sometimes it feels like someone tore a bit off Europe and glued it onto the bottom of South Africa. In transit, that bit lost a little bit of European character,  gained some American elements and, over time, has acquired some African traits. Still, some days- if you squint a little- it kind of seems a little like Europe.

That's why, as you drift through  your not wildly different life in Cape Town. it seems odd to suddenlybe reminded of the fact you are not living in an altogether developed country.

One of these reminders is the yearly talk of "load shedding" in South Africa. When I first heard the phrase, I'll admit I thought it was something closer to a bodily function.

For those who have not heard of  load shedding actually is: "rolling blackout, also referred to as load shedding, is an intentionally engineered electrical power shutdown where electricity delivery is stopped for non-overlapping periods of time over different parts of the distribution region. Rolling blackouts are a last-resort measure used by an electric utility company to avoid a total blackout of the power system." (Thank you, Wikipedia).

It had been a bigger problem in the past than it is now, the worst year being 2008 when they entire country experienced blackouts and the whole national grid almost collapsed. Broadly speaking, the problem stems from some power stations having been mothballed in the late 80s when demanded exceeded supply. Following the demise of Apartheid, investment and output increased, and demand exceeded supply.  Mismanagement, ineptitude and inefficiency in the supplier of 95% of the country's electricity ( government owned Eskom) meant that, in 2008, the government said that there would be load shedding until this year when supply  would once again exceed demand. Given that we operate on African Time, I can tell  you with some certainty (having lived here for nearly 3 years) that we will continue to have load shedding this  year and probably for a few more.

On the radio, Eskom urges us to conserve power during times of peak demand (6-9pm). Helpfully, they say we should dress warmly and turn heaters off (most South Africans eschew any form of home heating and walk around their homes bundled up like they're about to hit the slopes at Chamonix anyway, so this is rather  like trying to teach your grandmother to suck eggs (as an aside, i have never understood this phrase as I have never seen my grandmother or, indeed, someone else's trying to suck eggs)). They also say we must switch off  the geyser (the boiler- not the geezer, would be nice to be able to switch geezers off, I think), minimise lighting and not use electrical appliances during this time. You know, during the time when it gets dark and everyone has supper. The message is always finished with an energetic: "Eskom: powering the nation.". It makes me smile every single time and i cannot believe that no one in Eskom has picked up on the irony of it.

Turns out there is a loading shedding schedule (which I only found out about because someone mentioned it by-the-by on my Neighbourhood Watch Facebook page. Note to WC government: you might want to spread the word more). It seems that all parts of Cape Town take turns to potentially be blacked out-  every area gets 2 evenings a week.

Please don't get me wrong- I am all for energy conservation in the name of minimising human impact on the planet. I don't need or want my house lit up like a Christmas tree, I don't like dozens of appliances making noise and I don't need to have my house at tropical temperatures. 

At this point, however, South Africa can and should be doing better. South Africa is a large country but with relatively low population density: 50 million people in a land mass that is over 5 times larger than the UK- and at the end of 2011 only 85% of those people had access to electricity. 

Eskom really ought to start living up to its catchphrase of powering up the nation. Or at the very least to remove the phrase from the end of public information messages where it is telling that us  it is incapable of doing that very thing.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Cape Town Triangle

Someone said to me the other day that you "work in Jo'burg and live in Cape Town". The comment was not referring to a commuter, but simply to the mindset of the 2 cities.

I have yet to visit Jo'burg but I am informed that it is a very vibrant, fast-moving city full of motivated people making big bucks, making changes. I have no idea how it compares to London, but let's assume for sake of this blog post that it is at least comparable (broadly) to the mindset and motivation in London.

I suppose you can't have beaches, sun, mountains, cafes and wineries without there being a downside.

The downside is doing business here or working here.The pace is slooooooooooooow. The attitude to sticking to deadlines, answering emails is the equivalent of a hippy looking at you through a dope haze, shrugging and saying: "Meh" before taking another puff.

My husband has had a crash course in slowing down- he used to work in the City of London, attached to his  Blackberry which normally had an American voice shouting out of it: "...and I want that YESTERDAY!!"

Here, there seem to be deadlines but mostly for decoration, you know, just something you say to end an email, a phrase to finish a conversation. Kind of like when you say, "I'll call you" after a date but you're not really sure if you will.

Most people from Jo'burg and overseas are convinced that Capetonian work practices would lead to quick unemployment in most other cities and countries.

I spent a signification portion of 2 months sending out my CV- mostly in Cape Town, very occasionally to London. Some emails I sent in November I have not had acknowledged, others have just responded (after 3 months) with: "Sorry for the late reply, I've been so busy." Busy? BUSY? If it took you 3 months to write 3 lines in acknowledgement, dude, you're not busy- you've just come out of a coma! Others reply enthusiastically, saying they'll be in touch soon. Whenever that may be...

 I'd begin to take it personally, if it weren't for the fact that people in other cities and countries are awake enough to give me reasoned and timely responses.

Even workmen (in a country with a 23.5% unemployment rate) are chilled about their response time, about when they will or will not turn up. It's ridiculous to BEG someone to come and fix your toilet (really).

It's so bad it's contagious. I had an interesting email in my inbox the other day, offering me a potential opportunity. My reaction?"Meh, I'll answer  that later..."

I've been try to find a reason for this inertia, this sloppiness, this relaxed attitude, this-well, frankly- rudeness in not getting back to people.

I have concluded that Cape Town, like Bermuda  has a triangle  However, in Cape Town's case it is a triangle where, rather than planes and people disappearing, emails vanish, deadlines disappear and the will to work, to do business simply dissipates.

Why? Well, if you met all your deadlines and answered all your emails, you'd run out of time to go to the beach, climb a mountain, eat some sushi, drink some wine and have a braai with friends.

It's because of the Cape Town Triangle that so many want to live here.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Beach Education

One of the attractions of moving to Cape Town is that, wherever you live, really, you are no more than 15 minutes or so drive from the beach. As someone moving from northern Europe, the prospect of "beach on demand"  is very alluring.

But life is never that simple and, as with everything, there is a learning curve and the Cape Town Beach learning curve appears to be an especially steep one- I have been unable to master the "which beach and when problem" for over 2 years. At first, I assumed that maybe I was just a complete cretin with an inability to absorb and process information, but the other day, I spoke to an ex-pat who appears to be in what I will call Phase I of Beach Education in Cape Town. I have now realised that mastering the beach experience is actually more of a Rite of Passage for Expats; a test, if you like.

So, for those coming to live in Cape Town and for those visiting, I thought I would provide you with a list of phases that you will go through. Perhaps my step-by-step explanation will help you navigate them quicker than I am.

Phase I

This is the phase where you have just arrived and are SO excited about having the beach on your doorstep that, as soon as you see the sun (which is most days), you head to the beach. Your ignore the howling wind that batters your car on your  way down to the beach, you disregard the huge waves that you can see in the distance as you descend Wynberg Hill. Because, after all it is sunny and therefore it MUST be a beach day,

Arriving at the beach, you congratulate yourself on living in a  city where you can get parked so easily at the beach- there's no one else in the car park! Hurray! With a sense of adventurous triumphalism, you open the door of the car and note- just by the by- that opening the car door is more difficult than normal. Never mind. Eager to get on the beach, your hair swirling around your head you open the kids' car doors (using more force than should be strictly necessary but your enthusiasm cannot be dampened!)

It is only at the point where your kids start crying as if needles are being stuck in their arms, shrieking: "Close the door!!" that you realise something is amiss. You are the only people in the car park, the wind and the sea are so loud that you cannot hear yourself think and your children are crying whilst being exfoliated.

A little put out, you head back, feeling slightly cheated and also embarrassed. But you'll do it again, maybe even twice more. I know for a fact that we are not the only family to have done this.

Phase II

You've made some South African friends, they've been polite enough not to laugh at your beach greenness but they have given some wind advice. You're told that if the wind blows in a certain direction, you are to avoid that beach. You feel very pleased with yourself and your new information and you use it, or you think you do.

You see, the wind changes throughout the day (direction and strength) so a cursory glance at the wind website is not enough. It requires some analysis- something that you (in Phase II at least) fail to realise.

So, there you are, pleased as punch, arriving on the beach just as everybody else is leaving. You get out of the car and, whilst you are not experiencing the sandpaper effect like last time, it's clear this is not going to fly with the kids.

You get back in the car- sheepish again- feeling your children's disappointment and contempt from the back of the car.

Phase III

OK, great. You've checked the wind forecast, you've broken it down into hourly segments and you're all set to go!

Setting up on the beach, right time, right beach, gentle breeze, you feel so proud of yourself you could burst. The kids are playing. Or for about half an hour and the whining starts.

"Why? Why? WHY?", you crying, glancing bitterly at the other families happily enjoying their time on the beach, frolicking around. And then you realise: you didn't bring shade. Dammit, what a northern European, sun-happy fool you are! This is Africa, not Brighton!

You leave the beach, disappointed but at least you made it to the beach and had (brief) enjoyment from it.

Phase IV

What could POSSIBLY go wrong now? 2 years in and things have been going for well for a while. The beach umbrella, the wind forecast: although you're getting sloppy with that, everyone KNOWS in summer it's a south-easter.

So, confident as can be, you take your overseas visitors to a beach in January.

20 minutes later, you and your brother's girlfriend and wrestling with an umbrella that's blown inside out and threatening to inflict mortal injury on some poor soul.

I looked around and saw that others had those shade tents that you peg into the ground. They sat there smug, unperturbed, reading, not wrestling and bloody well in the shade.

When I got home, I found out that on that day when everyone knows it's supposed to be a south-easter, it was- unusually-  a westerly. And when there's a westerly, apparently, you DO NOT go to Lllandudno.

Phase V

I'm guessing this phase will involve a pegged in tent shade and more frequent wind checks. Just a hunch..

Will it be the final phase in my beach education- I really hope so.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

When is an ex-pat no longer an ex-pat?

No, it's not a joke, there's no punch line (that I am aware of anyway)- it's a serious question: is there a cut off, a time when you no longer regard yourself as an ex-pat or , to quote Wikipedia,: "a person temporarily or permanently residing in a country and culture other than that of the person's upbringing". 

I was speaking to a friend the other day who moved here just over a year ago, and I asked her whether she felt "settled in". She said that they say that the first year of your move is about finding your feet- whether that be at work, in your home, at school or in your city. If you get past the first year, the second year is used for consolidation and if that is successful, after 2 years you can consider yourself to be "settled in".

By her definition, therefore I should be settled in- we moved here in September 2010, that's well over 2 years ago.

When we moved here, my husband was taking a not inconsiderable professional risk, we were taking a financial risk but we felt that, overall- if it worked- the decision would serve us well as a family. We put in place mechanisms to "catch" us if things didn't work out here and steeled ourselves for having to go back-just in case (we'd had to do it with a previous (failed) emigration, we were used to coming "home", tails between our legs).

 It's been 2 years- and some- and it feels like home.My older daughter sounds like a South African, my younger one almost does and has spent most of her life here. Is time to dismantle all the mechanisms that  would allow us to leave very easily, to emotionally and practically give ourselves over to South Africa, make changes that transform "let's see how it goes" to "this is how it is"? 

The definition of ex-pat that I give above doesn't really apply to me: I am living now in a country that was a large part of my upbringing- but then, other countries were too.

For so many people in the world now who move around the world with work or study, the traditional definitions don't apply-  a large proportion of the world cannot fully consider themselves one thing or another; their lives have been spent incrementally all over the globe and they are unable to give a definitive answer when it comes to the question: "where are you from?'. I think the term for us is 'Third Culture Kids' (I read a book by that title, the names of the authors escape me right now, but it is an interesting concept and read).

So do I consider myself an ex-pat, still? I don't think I ever thought of myself as that, simply because in my head, over time that description has come to have  negative connotations.  

Forgetting the term "ex-pat" for the moment, am I at the point where I can give myself fully over to my life here, consign London and other places  simply to "somewhere I used to live"? 

I don't think so- for a start my accent sets me apart, marks me out as a foreigner and I am sure people here, ad infinitum, will mistake me for a tourist or a Brit here on a 2 year contract. Shop assistants still don't understand me when I ask for beer, so I'm quite a way from being taken for a local.

Whichever of the countries that I used to live in I go to, I am regarded as foreign: in England, my name marks me out as being "not from these parts", in Poland, my English accent speaking Polish makes me foreign.

In all, honesty, I don't really care about that. I don't aspire to patriotism at all, I don't feel the need to belong in that way.

I love my life in Cape Town and I embrace my life here with enormous gratitude and enthusiasm . Am I ready to sever ties with other places? I don't think that's in my breeding or my blood.

But it might be time to make some things more (semi!) permanent.