Wednesday, 25 July 2012

One more click

Salmagundi has closed its doors, after five glorious years.  Thanks for the laffs, friends.

Tracey Hawthorne ("Muriel") has a new blog at:

Jane-Anne Hobbs ("Juno") is blogging at

Scrumptious South Africa

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Bad ads

There are a few ads on TV that are driving us crazy, and among the very, very worst is the Knorr ‘shake shake’ one. It features a very white South African Mum doing an eye-poppingly embarrassing dance around the kitchen in front of her two gormless teenage sons while making dinner for them and their needlessly toothy Dad, and the only thing it stirs in those watching it is the deep wish that Ninja warriors would break in through the kitchen window, slice the Mum’s head off, toss it in the bag, and dance with that around the kitchen. (In fact, when that ad comes on – and it does, often – that’s exactly what we act out, in our family. But maybe that’s just us.) And, seriously, they play it seventy-eight fucking times a night, so the ‘Shake, shake, shake, shake it all the time’ song becomes a brain-worm, and you end up wanting to gouge your own grey matter out with a spoon. Why in god’s name would those people think that would sell a product??

(Interestingly, when I googled it, the British version of this ad came up - and, amazingly, it's frame for frame the same as the South African version. So someone, somewhere, thinks this concept works well enough to translate it exactly into another culture, and torture an entire other consumer market with it. In god's name, who pays that person's salary?!)

Then there’s the horrendous ‘you don’t stay the same, why should your insurance’ one, where some awful old geyser goes through the throes of puberty before our very eyes. When my early-20s kids watch it, they shriek with embarrassment, and I feel for them. If I had an insurance product sold by them, I’d be scrabbling hysterically for my phone to cancel it.

If you really want to be left cold, there's always King Price. Sure, I'll put my hard-earned bucks into a company that advertises people riding around on other people. Just as soon as hell freezes over.
And then there’s Reuben. Every time I hear him say ‘Cube your Rama’, my soul dies a little. Reuben, Reuben! Rama, really? Really?! It’s bad enough that you’ve sold out to the dried-herbs-and-spices overlords, but MARGARINE?!

I never thought I’d say this, but bring back the creepy Vodacom meerkat, by all means. At least he came with good music and his tongue was firmly in his cheek.

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Sunday, 15 July 2012

Lose Everything with Win Solutions

I never answer my landline any more because it's almost always someone trying to sell me something I don't want and probably can't afford.* But for now-redundant reasons, I have a second phone, which is connected to my ADSL line. I actually had four phones operating off two separate lines at one (pre-cellphone) stage - a guard against Telkom's near-legendary incompetence, when I always needed a working line to be able to get work through on deadline.

So on Friday, in a moment of dizziness, when the second phone rang, I answered it. The woman on the other end told me, in a very heavy Indian accent, that her name was Jaycee, and she was phoning on behalf of Win Solutions, and that they'd received several error messages about 'junk files' in my computer, and could I take a few minutes to go through a series of steps with her to clear these?

Several very loud warning bells went off. First, Jaycee's thick Indian accent on its own didn't worry me unduly, but her accent combined with a distinct delay on the line did; and, second, Jaycee seemed to have a disturbing lack of technical knowledge about how a computer actually works. 'I'm busy at the moment,' I said. 'Give me your number and I'll call you back.' She was clearly not thrilled with this idea, but finally - reluctantly and slowly, and obviously reading from something - gave me the number 021 813 9719.

I used my non-ADSL landline to call the number. As I expected, the ringtone was unusual, and I heard the call being rerouted. Another woman, also with a heavy Indian accent, answered. When I asked to speak to Jaycee, she asked me for my name and number, and said Jaycee would call me back. I gave her my name and cellphone number. About 10 seconds later, Jaycee called me back - on my ADSL line.

'Look, I'm really busy at the moment,' I said, 'but I'll write down the steps you give me, and go through them a bit later to clear my computer of the junk files.'

By this time Jaycee had had just about enough of me and my unwillingness to allow her to schnaffle all my passwords and confidential personal details, steal my identity and rob me blind. 'We don't work like that,' she told me snippily.

'What's your company's website address?' I asked.

There was a telling pause before Jaycee said, 'Just google ''pc care experts'' and you'll find us. In the meantime, press ''control'' and the Windows button at the same time, and--'

While pretending to do this (poor Jaycee! she must have been thrilled at the prospect of duping yet another stupid consumer), I did google 'pc care experts' and - surprise! - found their account had been suspended.

'Sorry, Jaycee, I'm just too busy to do this right now,' I said. 'I'll get back to you when I've got some time.'

Jaycee wasn't happy at all. 'If your computer crashes, it'll be your own fault,' she growled, before disconnecting.

I belong to a big online newsgroup, and I immediately put out a warning to its hundreds of members. A colleague, Georgina, hit the nail on the head when she responded, 'I would never fall for this kind of scam, but I know my parents-in-law probably would.' This is what's so insidious about these things: for every 10 people who know they're being scammed, at least one won't, and will unknowingly allow thieves remote access to their computers and everything in them.

* Spammers are currently have a field-day with my landline and cellphone, and the only reason I can find for this is the large loan I recently took out with Toyota Financial Services (underwritten by FNB). I filled in the usual kajillion forms, and declined to put my email address on any of them for the specific reason that I didn't want my inbox to be inundated with spam. I did, however, provide both my landline and cellphone numbers, and for the last two weeks have received up to 10 unsolicited sales calls a day on each. It makes me never want to buy anything ever again.

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After - a new sitting space with a real sofa and comfy chairs.
After weeks of noise, dust and chaos, the last stages of the renovation went very quickly - just as I was starting to think that it Really Wasn't Funny Any More, Lood and his workers sealed the last section of floor, and just like that, the space was ready to be furnished. Late on Tuesday night, with generous wine accompaniment, Johann and I made ourselves comfortable on the new sofa.

Before - small and cramped.
I wanted to spend a bit of Wednesday moving everything in, putting pictures up and reclaiming all the rooms in the rest of the house that had been stuffed with stuff for so long, but in the end it took the whole day. But it was worth it.

A much bigger space for the dining table.
I had high hopes for the new space but it really exceeded all my expectations, not least because Lood paid such careful attention to detail and found ingenious ways around several head-scratching problems (like seriously skew walls). The Oregon-pine floors we found under the wall-to-wall carpeting were a huge bonus - they look amazing after just a light sanding and wood treatment. They've also slightly ameliorated the hysteria when anyone arrives at the front door, because the dogs can't get paw-purchase on the wood, and instead of barrelling straight for the visitor, expend a bit of their energy scrabbling!

For some reason I couldn't at first work out, the new little sitting room has a 'London' feel - then I realised it's because the window looks directly onto the street. Paul confirmed this - his first impression, he said, was that it felt 'European'. (Thanks to Paul and Terry for so enthusiastically helping me roof-wet the new space - and to Terry's clock for informing us that it was well past 4am when we began to think of calling it a night!)

Another cracker gift from Terry -
a replica station clock.

Bedroom after (with new window).

Spare room before.

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Friday, 6 July 2012


I so loved this post (thanks, Jenny, for forwarding it) about the demise of Joburg’s drive-ins.

My parents both came from working-class backgrounds in the UK (my dad from Manchester and my mom from Glasgow) and, perhaps as a result, militated against all the fun things that working-class people did, which included going on holiday in caravans, getting take-out food and going to drive-ins. And as a result of that, my siblings and I wanted nothing more than to go on holiday in a caravan (despite having a real brick-and-mortar holiday house at Salt Rock), eat take-out food (although my mother was a fantastic cook) and go to drive-ins.

My brother’s best friend, Rob, had a family that was drive-in crazy – and, to add to the appeal, his dad had a Chrysler Valiant! (which my parents, who had a Peugeot station wagon, considered excessively flashy). I remember the actual ache of envy when my brother jaunted off, several times a week, to drive-in with Rob and his family in the Valiant, to eat take-out food and see movies in which people went on holiday in caravans.

(My parents did once take us to drive-in – we saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the Top Star – but it was just that once, which is probably why it stands out in my memory like a flaming beacon. We also once got take-outs from The Pizza Hut, and my mother vomited for the next two days, so that was the end of take-out food for us. And there was never any chance – none whatsoever – that we’d go caravanning.)

As soon as I found myself a boyfriend with a car, drive-in became a weekend treat. (And it was part of the fun, back in the days when you still paid per-person, to hide people in the boot so they could get in free.) And best of all (theoretically) were ‘midnight movies’ – double features screened when a public holiday fell on a Monday, and beginning at the stroke of 12 on a Sunday night. In reality, we’d all be played-out by midnight on a Sunday, and usually fell asleep a few minutes into the first movie, only to wake up and head blearily home at 4am on Monday. Still, it felt suitably untamed, heading off to drive-in at 11pm on Sunday night, so whether we actually saw the movies or not didn’t matter.

When I moved to Cape Town in 1985, there was only one drive-in still operating. I think it was in Strand (but I could be wrong). My boyfriend and I went there to see Out Of Africa, and it was a miserable experience. I was used to Joburg drive-in addicts who, like me, went to actually see the movie (or sleep, if it was a midnight movie; or vroetel*, but you could actually do that while also watching the movie if you positioned yourself just right). In Cape Town, people apparently went to the drive-in to show off how powerful their car engines/sound systems/spotlights were – and Meryl didn’t help, because every time she said something in her berserk Danish accent, the audience went noisily wild. It was the last time I ever went to a drive-in.

When I moved out to the Swartland in 2000, I was delighted to discover that there was still a drive-in operating in Malmesbury, although I never went to it. I’m sorry now that I didn’t, because it also closed a few years ago.

My daughter often tells me how she wishes she’d been a teenager in the 1980s, when sex and hitch-hiking didn’t kill you, legwarmers were an actual fashion accessory, music was universally danceable, and blue eyeshadow wasn’t ironic. I think it’s fair to add ‘when going to drive-in was a thing you did on a Saturday night’ to that list.

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Aaarrgghghgh! Banks!

I’ve long ago given up complaining about my bank – or any bank. They’re all as bad as each other. Regardless of their adspeak, they’re in it to make money, and that’s the bottom line.

I’ve just bought a new car, which is financed. Getting your car financed is actually quite easy if you qualify – you need to provide a slew of documentation, but if it’s all in order, you get your bucks lickety-split. And there’s a good reason for this: banks make money out of people who borrow money from them.

This is why (and read this slowly) if you put down a BIGGER DEPOSIT and choose to pay your loan off over a SHORTER PERIOD, you get nailed with a HIGHER INTEREST RATE.

Yes, that’s right: if you do what our government and everyone else who’s anyone in finance is telling you to do right now, and try to pay off your debt more quickly, the banks ‘fine’ you by charging you a higher interest rate. Why? Because that’s how they make their money. (No, they don’t care about you. Really. They don’t.)

So that’s very irritating. But much more irritating was the astonishing hoops I’ve just had to jump through to get my previous car ownership papers out of Absa. Because that car was also financed. I paid it off about 2 years ago. And now I want to sell it. I was offered a laughable trade-in price; I just didn’t feel like being screwed by the bank and a secondhand car salesman on the same day, so I declined it and I’m going to sell it privately. For which I need ownership papers. Which, to my surprise, I discovered I don’t have.

Because when you get finance to buy a car, the bank keeps the ownership papers until you pay it off. Nobody told me this; I just assumed that the hefty file I was given containing all the documentation relating to the car when I took delivery of it also contained the ownership papers.

Several phonecalls later, I discovered that once you’ve paid off your car, you have to REQUEST THE OWNERSHIP PAPERS from the finance institution (and then go to all the trouble of actually changing the ownership into your name, which is a hoop I’m going to think about jumping through – probably with the aid of several Jack Daniels – another day).

I find this amazing, that you have to actually ASK FOR your ownership papers. After all, if the bank can lighten your wallet by several thousand rands each month, and post you monthly statements confirming that they’ve done so, surely it’s not too much to ask that once they’ve reclaimed all the money you borrowed plus a kajillion bucks extra for the privilege, they can just post you the ownership documents?

But noooo. That would be too easy for us. Why should they do this when it’s just so much more inconvenient for us to have to officially request the documents?

And that’s not all. Because I wasn’t aware that I wasn’t in possession of my car’s ownership documents (which, incidentally, are still in the bank’s name – I’ve been driving a car that doesn’t technically belong to me, although I paid for it, for several years), the documents have now gone to ‘Archiving’.

The word alone sends shivers down my spine. Archiving. It conjures up images of irritable old men in dusty basement rooms, moving very slowly, ignoring ringing phones and misfiling correspondence, breaking for tea and ginger-biscuits at precisely 10.15am and 3pm, eating pickle sandwiches out of brown paper bags between 1 and 2pm, and clocking off at 4pm as the second-hand hits the 12.

To get my documents out of Archiving, I’m now required to fax (yes, FAX! when last did you send a fax??) a letter of request, a copy of my ID and a copy of the licence disk. I asked the woman who ‘helped’ me on the phone if I actually am required to scrape the disk off the car windshield to make a copy of it, and she said ‘yes’. I also asked her if I’d have to take my car through roadworthy in order to change ownership and she said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, no.’ Obviously, I’m a little concerned about that ‘as far as I’m concerned’.

Once they’ve received the fax, it will take Archiving ‘seven to ten working days’ to locate my documents. SEVEN TO TEN WORKING DAYS!? Where the hell have they archived them? In Afghanistan? Even slow-moving clock-watching grumpy old men should be able to find a document quicker than that, surely?!

I know I said I’d long ago given up complaining about banks. But I haven’t.

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Thursday, 5 July 2012

Chaos makes crazy

As we slope into the fourth week of my latest home-improvement project, I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever be able to reclaim my space. The joy of discovering that under the ghastly wall-to-wall carpets were original Oregon pine floors in such good condition that all they required to make them studendous was a light sanding and a couple of coats of sealant was considerably cooled this morning when I woke to near-zero temperatures in a house where the simple act of walking to the bathroom requires stepping over several piles of stuff. And, of course, because there's paint drying practically everywhere, doors and windows must stay open - which makes for a Very Chilly indoor environment.

I took these pictures this morning.

The unlivable living room.

The verandah-cum-junkshop.

The stuffed-with-stuff spare room.

The unwelcoming workplace.

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Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Charles Darwin in the western Cape and the wonders of Afrikaans

Did you know that Charles Darwin visited the western Cape during his Beagle voyage and wrote quite extensively about our ‘botany, zoology, geography, environmental aesthetics, economy, urban planning and transportation systems’? I didn’t, and thanks to Ryno for providing this information, from the November/December 2009 South African Journal of Science.

‘Charles Darwin spent most of his time geologising at the Cape – as he did everywhere else on the voyage of the Beagle,’ the journal reports. ‘He kept a special geological notebook in which he described in considerable detail his geological and geographical observations of the road from Simonstown to Cape Town, Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Rump, the Sea Point Contact, the road to Paarl, Paarl Rock, the Drakenstein Mountains, Franschhoek and the pass to Houw Hoek, Sir Lowry’s Pass and the Cape Flats. He also collected insects, frogs, plant and other specimens of interest, most of which are housed at British institutions.’

He also remarked on language use and revealed ‘a perhaps unsurprising degree of chauvinism and colonial joy at the growth of English. He thought the Dutch were crude, far too direct and lacking in refined etiquette.’

Which brings me to a lovely essay (and thanks, Michele, for this one) on the wonders of Afrikaans. For those who don’t know, Afrikaans is a relatively young language, having developed out of the various Dutch dialects spoken by 17th-century immigrants to South Africa. Originally called ‘kitchen Dutch’, it borrowed words from several local cultures (including Khoi, Malay and Portuguese) and more recently has been influenced by South African English. Although it’s the mother tongue of only about 13% of South Africans today, it has the widest racial and geographical distribution of any of the country’s 11 official languages.

As the primary medium of instruction in schools during the Apartheid years, Afrikaans was widely loathed both as a subject and as a language by those for whom it wasn’t their mother tongue. (I nursed a dirty little secret during my high-school years: I discovered the writing of the brilliant natural-historian Eugene Marais, and grew to really love Afrikaans. But I’d sooner have had my eyes sucked out by a giant squid than admit it to my peers.)

The Afrikaners have always been very protective about their language, and in 2005 South African billionaire Johan Rupert withdrew advertising (which included for Cartier, Montblanc and Alfred Dunhill) from British magazine Wallpaper after a South African English journalist described Afrikaans as ‘one of the world’s ugliest languages’.

The essay Michele sent me contained a few of the fabulously expressive Afrikaans words and terms that either have no equivalent in English, or a flabby approximation, for instance, ‘gatvol’ (fed up), ‘lekker’ (nice), ‘jol’ (play for grownups), ‘snotklap’ (really hard smack) and ‘kak en betaal’ (cough up payment). Many South African English-speakers use these words and terms so frequently and naturally that they’ve become part of South African English. Then there’s ‘sommer’, which roughly translates as ‘just because’ and ‘ja-nee’ (literally, ‘yes-no’), which is really just a thoughtful space filler; ‘moffie’, which is a fond word for homosexual; ‘gogga’ for bug or insect; ‘babbelas’ for hangover; ‘loskop’ for absent-minded; ‘skelm’ for a baddie (which can be used fondly, for a mischievous child, or otherwise for a real adult baddie); ‘moer’ and ‘bliksem’ (hurt really badly); and ‘voetsek’ (get away).

For more South African English expressions, many of which have been nicked from Afrikaans, click here.

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Thursday, 28 June 2012

Another step done

View of east side of ballrooms-sized
spare bedroom (before)
Once we'd divided the ballroom-sized spare bedroom roughly in half, there was still enough space over for a spare room that would take a kingsize bed, a wardrobe and a dresser. It needed a window, though, not to so closely resemble the Black Hole of Calcutta*.

As everyone knows, the God of Renovations requires that every step is fraught with unexpected and usually costly hurdles, and in this case it was discovering that the outer wall was thick enough to withstand, well, over a hundred years of Cape winter storms. So knocking through it took hours longer than we thought it would, and the window ended up framing a very deep recess - which actually wasn't a bad thing, as I've got a local ironmonger to fashion a sturdy set of burglar bars that we can now sink into the outer wall itself with plenty of space left over for the windows to open.

The window is placed
* I had a smallish bedroom in the house I grew up in in Johannesburg, and my mother often used to liken it, on a Saturday morning with the curtains closed and strewn with the bodies of my sleepover friends and their belongings, to the Black Hole of Calcutta. I didn't find out what the Black Hole was until years later, but it sounded gloomy and dank enough to be a fitting metaphor. The Black Hole was a 25-square-metre guardroom at Fort William in Calcutta, India, which was used to house British prisoners in the mid-1700s of which many infamously died of suffocation.

My mother, who was born near Glasgow in Scotland and spoke with a thick Scots accent until she died, in spite of having spent her entire adult life in South Africa, also often likened our house at the weekend - with its multitudes of hangers-on - to 'Sucky-Hall Street'. It wasn't until I visited Glasgow when I was in my teens that I realised she was referring to Sauchiehall Street, which is the main shopping street in Glasgow's city centre. My mom used lots of other Scots expressions that we, her kids, took as completely natural, but which confused and entertained our friends - 'piece' for sandwich, 'messages' for errands, 'smirry rain' for light soaking rain, 'gloaming' for dusk...

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Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Yet more noise, dust and chaos

Living room (from kitchen area), before
Work on an old house is never done. If you’re not plugging holes or shoring up walls or rewiring or fixing pipes – the boring, nasty bits – then you always have the much more interesting option of rediscovering or recreating spaces. Because old houses almost always have long histories with several owners, each with their own way of envisioning how their living space should look and work.

Living room (from kitchen area), with wall removed
Over the 12 years I’ve lived in my 116-year-old house, I’ve created a verandah out of a living room; a bedroom, bathroom and study out of a garage; and a flow-through kitchen/living room out of a galley kitchen and entrance hall. But this last has never really worked – an entrance hall is never going to be a living room, no matter how much you suspend disbelief.

West side of ballroom-sized bedroom, before
The plotting and planning (and, importantly, saving) for this renovation took about a year, and included getting a professional in to examine the roof and walls to make sure the house wouldn’t fall down when we started knocking out bricks. He gave us the go-ahead to take out a major wall, but pointed to several sizeable cracks in the same area which were, he said, being caused by shifting in the foundations – which he advised us to leave well alone. So we decided a drywall, despite its drawbacks in terms of both aesthetics and soundproofing, was the way to go.

West side of bedroom, with wall removed
And so it began – taking down most of a long wall to steal space for the living room from an adjoining ballroom-sized spare bedroom. I’ve been living on a building site for about 10 days now - in fact, a quick calculation reveals that, of the 12 years I’ve been living here, I’ve spent a full year in this state of suspended animation: wiping dust out of cups before using them for tea, getting grit in my toothpaste, working for quick bursts in the short periods when the chaos subsides over workers’ tea and lunch breaks, piling furniture and knick-knacks up in corners, in other rooms and on the verandah, trying to find the kettle under piles of bedding, trailing electric leads from other rooms for light, and so on. (And, for some reason, a lot of this has happened during winter – which has also meant wrapping up warmly because of holes in exterior walls and/or constantly open doors.)

Drywall framework up (from existing living area)
Bedroom-side drywall panels in (same view)

Yesterday, my incomparable handyman, Lood Erasmus of Fluksnuts, cheered me up considerably when he showed me the industrial glue he was using to fix the drywall panels in place. It’s called Sticks Like Shit.

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Saturday, 16 June 2012

Mad hats and DIY photography

Mad hats

My knitting obsession is in full flight and is taking the place of ordinary human interaction (and, for that matter, inappropriate human interaction, of which I’m normally quite a big fan), binge-drinking, chocolate-scoffing, DStv-watching, smoking, cooking, sleeping, reading and all the other things I usually do to fill my free time.

Having ‘mastered’ (and I put that in inverted commas because it’s not true) gilet- and sock-making (left), I’ve moved swiftly on and through dog jerseys, then scarves (too boring – even where the incomparably boring pastime of knitting is concerned), and now am on to hats.

My late sainted mother believed that you had to have ‘a face for hats’. She had one; to her regret, I didn’t – and, as evidenced by these pics, still don’t.

This was my first effort. I sent this pic to Johann, who replied wittily that all I needed was a bottle of Obies* in a brown paper bag to complete the picture.

This is my second attempt (which my friend Angie immediately dubbed ‘The Furry Monster’). I modelled it for my son and he couldn’t stop laughing. When he could finally squeeze out a sentence, he said, ‘I’m sorry, but it looks like a shower cap.’ Which I thought was a cheek, because anyone can see it looks like a tea cosy.

This is The Furry Monster, with a brim added. I love it in the way any mother would love a slightly backward child.

DIY photography

Most people’s self-taken pictures are odd-looking. Orangutans would probably do a better job, being able to hold the camera further away from themselves, but anyone with normal-length human arms ends up looking like a still from The Blair Witch Project. There’s also the problem of angle – too low, and your double chins magically multiply; too high, and you get a mad-eyed squint.

My daughter, who’s a beautiful young woman (here’s a pic of her as she actually looks – although, oddly enough, in this picture her eyes look brown when in fact they’re pale blue), gave me the following advice about self-taken pics:

1. Always take the pic from above.
  1. 2. Always purse your lips slightly.

  2. 3. Always look away from the camera.

This is the pic she took of herself to show me how well these tips work.

* Obies: curdling the cockles of your stomach

Obies, or Old Brown Sherry, has long been a South African favourite, although I first discovered it back in the day when I went away with friends on a midwinter hiking trip. After dinner around the campfire, the bottle was passed around, and everyone took a warming nip or two from it. Everyone except me. I was so thrilled with its lovely nutty taste and the way it made me find everything so charming and funny that I couldn’t stop drinking it, despite several warnings from those present. What I learnt from that is that hiking the Swellendam Trail in a driving storm on wobbly legs after being up all night puking Obies and two-minute noodles into the fynbos isn’t an experience you'd want to repeat.

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Thursday, 14 June 2012

Telkom and technological woes

It hasn’t been a great week where technology is concerned out here in the country. A series of power cuts on Tuesday – the first really bone-cold day of winter – reminded us just how fragile is Eskom’s grip on the grid, and doesn’t bode well for the chilly months to come. And a concurrent ‘network failure’ on Telkom’s part didn’t exactly inspire confidence either.

Not that I knew it was a network failure to start with. I first did all those fiddly things people do when their email/internet isn’t working, like reboot the modem, then reboot the computer, then reboot the modem again, then phone my neighbour to see if she was having similar problems: she was; and, like me, her ISP is MWeb. So I phoned MWeb, and got a prerecorded message that listed Riebeek Kasteel among about 20 other places that were having network failures; it was, apparently, a Telkom problem and Telkom’s engineers were ‘investigating’.

Fair enough. These things happen.

But when lunchtime rolled around and the situation hadn’t changed, I decided to phone Telkom’s helpline myself and find out what was going on. And, honestly, if I hadn’t made a resolution not to scream at people on the phone, I would have, because Telkom has a ‘it wozzen us’ policy that seems designed to drive its customers crazy. After following an infuriatingly lost list of computer-generated options (which included, annoyingly, keying in my phone number twice – why? – and a laughable one that invited me to go online to fix my problem) in order to finally get an actual human being on the other end of the line, this is how the conversation went.

Me: I work in one of the areas that is currently having a network failure, and I wondered how long it’s going to take to sort it out?

Telkom rep: Is your modem switched on?

Me: Look, we don’t have to go into all of that. I’ve already established that it’s a Telkom problem. I just want to know how long it might take to resolve.

Telkom rep: Oh. Hang on.

Quite a long break while I hear computer keys clacking.

Telkom rep: Right, here it is. The problem was resolved at 9.56am.

Me: Uh, no it wasn’t. I’m sitting in front of my computer, and there’s still no internet access.

Telkom rep: Oh. Hang on.

Another long break, more computer keys clacking.

Telkom rep: Okay, I’ve got it. It’s a network failure.

Me: Yes, I know it’s a network failure. It’s been a network failure since last night. I just want to know if you have any idea how long it’s going to take to fix.

Telkom rep: No.

So it was a completely fruitless exercise, and I put down the phone feeling bloody frustrated – but a little bit proud of myself for having remained polite and even-toned.

Almost immediately, the phone rang. Now, I must note here that I never answer my landline any more, as it’s inevitably someone trying to sell me something I don’t want; but I answered it this time because the timing seemed to suggest that it might be Telkom phoning me with news about the network failure – I had, after all, keyed the number in twice.

It was, indeed, Telkom, but it wasn’t about the problem – and, in fact, the timing of this cold sales call was so bizarre that I had yet another one of those ‘where’s the hidden camera?’ moments that seem to happen so often to me.

Telkom rep: Good afternoon. I’m calling from Telkom to offer you an extra-special deal on our ADSL packages—

Me: Hello? What? Are you really phoning me to try to sell me a Telkom ADSL package?

Telkom rep: [pushing on regardless] —as a valued Telkom client, you qualify for a month’s free internet access and—

And, I’m sorry, but I lost it.


Telkom rep: [apparently unfazed; I suppose they must do a course in verbal abuse before they begin harassing people] So you don’t want one of our ADSL packages?

I slammed down the phone so hard I’m amazed it didn’t shatter.

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Saturday, 9 June 2012

The joy of knitting II: a jersey for Athens

I recently took up knitting again for the first time in over 20 years, and I've become completely obsessed with it. So far, I've made the hideous gilet I mentioned here (which I love and wear often, and which draws comment - some of it amused - wherever I go), and finished the black woolly jacket (pictured left); and I've knitted a pair of woolly socks (the two turned out to be completely different shapes and sizes, which was something of a puzzle, but I'm knitting while I watch TV, so that probably explains that) and am well on my way to completing a second (and hopefully more similar) pair.

But the most fun I've had was knitting a jersey for Athens, Jill's little dachshund. (Jill is the creative genius behind my gorgeous garden mosaics, here and here.) I used the same furry wool as for the black jacket, and had to guess at the shape and size (because I knitted it without having Athens around to measure), so it was a hit-and-miss affair, but luck was with me, and it fits Athens perfectly. She looks like royalty in it, and we agree that a string of pearls would be just the thing to round it off. (I love this picture of her modelling her jersey, with her tail wagging so fast that it's a blur.)

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Thursday, 31 May 2012

Housemates together again after almost 3 decades

Me, Terry and Andy in Rondebosch East, 1985
A few months ago I told some tales about part of my misspent youth, sharing a house with Terry and Andy in Rondebosch East back in 1985/6. It's been fantastic reconnecting with Terry, and this week he sprung a wonderful surprise on me when I visited him in his Bat Cave in Cape Town.

He told me that he'd invited a third person - an old friend of his - to join us for a prawn-dinner blowout at the Seaforth in Simons Town, and put his considerable sales skills to good use in persuading me that it was a good idea - I wasn't keen on meeting someone new. So I really was blown away when our old housemate, Andy, turned up.

Terry, me and Andy, Simons Town, 2012
It was another excellent reunion, and the 'all you can eat' prawn supper reminded us all of regularly doing the very same thing together at East 19 restaurant in Mowbray (which closed down a long time ago). We also went to the Polana for drinks afterwards, and spent some hysterical hours remembering stuff we (well, mostly they) got up to 27 years ago.

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Sunday, 27 May 2012

Two more lies told to children

Johann and I were talking about our childhoods the other day, and he related two stories his mother used to tell him that made my hair stand on end and my arse drop off I laughed so much.

The first was the tale of the giant frog that lived under the bathtub. Johann’s mom told him that if he stayed in the bath so long that his skin started wrinkling, he’d turn into a jelly-like substance and, when the water was let out, the frog that lived under the bathtub would suck up this Johann-jelly. As a result, Johann has vivid memories of playing happily in the bath as a little boy, but repeatedly checking the skin on his fingers, and the minute a wrinkle appeared, screaming in genuine terror, ‘Maaaaa! I have to get out! Now!!’

The other – which, although still pretty twisted, perhaps makes a titchy-tad more sense – was the tale of the giant rat that lived in the kitchen cupboard. In order to stop her children unpacking the lower shelves of her kitchen cupboards (and all kids do love to do this), she told them that if they poked their nose in there, the giant rat that lived there would pop out and bite it clean off.

Really, it’s a bloody miracle we've turned out as normally as we have.

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Smashing pumpkins

I’ve so enjoyed my new garden during the past year. It’s been amazing watching how things have grown and changed, and although all the hedges have yet to fill in, the beds have grown gorgeously and the lippia lawns are green and lush.

Last spring was a real joy, when many of the indigenous plants flowered, and every morning was a pantomime of birds and bugs. ‘The ruin’, which was once the maids’ quarters, and now houses garden tools in what was once the ‘bedroom’ (and truly the mind boggles, because it’s barely big enough to turn around in) and chickens in what was the bucket-loo, really came into its own, its enveloping creeper changing seemingly overnight from bare sticks into a plushly verdant cover.

It was while the ruin was hidden by this luxurious pelt of leaves that sculptor Loni Drager created the most amazing set of five wooden squashes to sit atop the roof. (For those unfamiliar with South African rural Karoo scenes, it’s common for pumpkins, which are very heavy for their size, to be used to hold down the sheets of corrugated iron that in many places serve as shelter; and this doubles as storage, as pumpkin skins are incredibly thick and hard, and the squash can be left up on the roof until it’s required for the table.)

When we put the wooden squashes (of various kinds, including pumpkins and butternuts) up on the roof, they were largely hidden from sight by the leaves. But over the last few weeks, the creeper has turned fabulous shades of red and gold, and then shed its leaves, and Loni’s beautiful sculptures are now clearly visible.

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Thursday, 24 May 2012

More sartorial missteps and the joy of knitting

I worked in the city this week, standing up under bright lights in front of a conference-room full of people, sharing the fruits of my long experience as a writer. It’s a pity that the fruits of my long experience as an appalling dresser accompanied me to Cape Town too.

I discovered, on undressing for bed last night, that I’d been wearing my shirt inside-out all day. And it’s not a shirt you can wear inside-out and get away with it – it’s got obvious seams and bits of thread and spare buttons and labels and things. I imagined the delegates thinking, ‘Well, maybe she can write, but she sure can’t dress herself.’

This happened partly because I got dressed in the dark, but also because I seldom put much thought into what I wear, as long as it’s clean and doesn’t have too many holes in it. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m a huge fan of bright colours and patterns.

Once, many years ago, when I was a teenager and only just embarking on a long career as an appalling dresser, I was waiting in line at a fastfood joint when a gang of older boys (probably university students) suddenly materialised around me and enthusiastically invited me to a Bad Taste Party. I thanked them and declined politely. When I got home and told my sister what had happened, she gently led me to a full-length mirror and asked me to have a close look at what I was wearing. I can’t (of course) recall the exact garments, but I do remember realising that the joke was on me. (As my daughter often points out, I live in an irony-free zone.)

Another time, when I was travelling overseas, somebody in a pub asked me if I was a struggling art student. When I said no, he asked, ‘Why are you dressed like that, then?’

A more recent sartorial misstep resulted in a bergie in Malmesbury declining to beg from me on the grounds that I quite evidently couldn’t afford to give him anything.

And now I’m moving into even more sartorially fabulous territory: I’ve taken up knitting again for the first time in over 20 years and I’m enjoying it immensely. It’s actually an incredibly boring and repetitive pastime but by the same token really hard to think of anything to do that’s more Zen.

When I last knitted, it was during the years I caught the train from Lansdowne to the city for work, and I gainfully employed myself during the 20-minute journey by knitting obsessively. I mainly made jerseys and tanks for my then-husband who, fortuitously, was colour-blind. He loved them, and it’s fair to say that they did turn heads.

My late sainted mother was an inveterate knitter, and made many darling jerseys for her large band of grandchildren. They adored them, of course, but they would almost inevitably unravel after a couple of washes, and I always wondered how she managed to drop so many stitches.

Now I know. She knitted while she watched TV at night. While this may be perceived as an exercise in multitasking, it clearly wasn’t a successful one. And, since beginning knitting myself at night in front of the TV, I’ve discovered that it’s actually a lose-lose situation: not only do you drop stitches like Zuma drops his pants, you quickly lose the plot of the programme you’re supposedly watching. Which, for me, isn’t actually a problem at all, thanks to DStv’s habit of endlessly repeating everything it ever flights – I know I’ll finally work out what’s going on in CSI:Miami after I’ve seen it four times.

I’ve just finished knitting the world’s most hideous gilet, a garishly multicoloured gem that I know is going to invite caustic comment for years to come. And I’ve started on another one, which I’m making out of a curiously fluffy wool, the texture of which makes it difficult to see the individual stitches. But I’m knitting it while I watch TV at night, so that doesn’t matter.

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Tuesday, 22 May 2012

The amazing disappearing potatoes

I’ve been passionate about cooking for so long that I often forget that there was a time when I didn’t know how to boil an egg*.

I was making baked potatoes last night and it reminded me of the first time I tried this very simple culinary undertaking. It was in the 1980s and I was living in Woodstock in Cape Town. I was pregnant with my first child and experiencing all the mental aberrations of that state, including a brain utterly incapable of retaining even the simplest bit of information for more than a few seconds.

Feeling unusually domestic, I decided to whip myself up something for dinner rather than grabbing my customary salome** from the corner café. There were potatoes in the house, so I cranked the oven up to 180 degrees and chucked a couple in. Then I retired to the sofa with a book to wait for them to be ready.

About half an hour later, I heard what I took to be gunshots. This wasn’t an unusual sound for Woodstock in the ’80s, so I just hauled myself off the sofa and went around checking that all the doors and windows were locked, then returned to my book.

Another half hour later, I went to retrieve my potatoes from the oven, fully expecting to be able to tuck into a lovely hot meal. So I was a little surprised to find the oven empty.

I say ‘a little’ surprised because during my pregnancy I’d already done several amazingly stupid things, including throwing dirty clothes in the bin and carefully putting rubbish in the laundry basket, so I concluded that I’d only thought I’d put the potatoes into the oven but hadn’t actually done so.

So I resigned myself to another hour’s wait before I could eat, and chucked another couple of potatoes in.

This time, when the double salvo sounded, something about the timing – about half an hour after I’d put the potatoes in the oven – made me wonder if they were gunshots after all. That, and the fact that the noise seemed to be coming from the kitchen. I went and looked, and discovered that both the first and the second batch of potatoes had simply exploded in the oven, disintegrating so thoroughly that there was literally nothing left of them (if you don’t count the fine layer of half-cooked potato that coated the oven’s interior).

That’s how I learnt that, when you bake potatoes, you have to prick the skin before you put them in the oven.

* And I still can’t make a drinkable cup of tea or successfully cook any rice other than basmati.

** For non-South Africans who don’t know what a salome is, it’s a fabulously butter-rich, textured flatbread called a roti filled with a veggie or meat curry and rolled up into a lip-smacking feast. You can shop-buy rotis to make them, but it’s very easy to home-make them – as my friend Pieter and I recently discovered, when all I was required to contribute to a curry meal was the rotis, and I didn’t realise that the entire bloody country (including all the big grocery stores) actually does close down on Good Friday. So we were required to home-make them at short notice, and they were a thousand times more delicious than the prepackaged ones.

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Monday, 21 May 2012

The morning after the supermoon

I’m late with this post (sorry, been busy) – it’s about the supermoon at the beginning of May. Its rise coincided here in the Riebeek Valley with our annual Olive Festival. I was cooking up a storm inside (where it was cozy and warm, thanks to our first fire of the season – like clockwork, we got our first substantial rain on the weekend of the Olive Festival), but I did set up the telescope outside for people to go out and have a look at the moon. I was a little surprised at the lack of interest but discovered the next day why this was.

My telescope is a Towa 30X-90X60mm Zoom, and using it you can see the hills and valleys on the moon – it’s really spectacular. It’s a refracting telescope, which means it’s got two lenses: an objective lens, which produces an upside-down image; and an eye lens, which both puts the image the right way up and magnifies it. And a nimble-fingered little visitor a few weeks ago carefully unscrewed the eye lens and dropped it on the floor, and it rolled away under a table (where I finally found it after a worried search). Obviously, without the eye lens, the image is way too small to appreciate – hence the lack of interest in the supermoon through the telescope.

A supermoon, which occurs when the moon is nearest to the earth and looks much bigger and brighter than usual, rises about once a year. Astronomers call it a perigee-syzygy moon (fabulous name, don’t you think?). The picture at the top was taken by Kenny Nagel of the May supermoon rising above Cape Town.

I missed the photo-op on the Friday night, but I took this picture the next morning, over the roof of my house, of the moon setting over the Kasteelberg at 7.30 in the morning, in very bright sunlight.

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Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Another reunion! Seriously!

‘Hi, I’m coming to Cape Town tomorrow…’

So planning isn’t Alex’s strong point, but then she does have 3-year-old twins, so it’s not like she’s got time to turn around (as my late sainted mother used to say).

Still, it was cause for gigantic excitement, because Alex is another very close schoolfriend I haven’t seen since matric – 30 years ago. (It’s been quite a year for reunions.)

We had very little time to sit down and catch up – and, in fact, Alex didn’t sit down at all, because that’s what having two tots does for you: keeps you on your toes. A few hours isn’t nearly enough to trawl back over shared memories, never mind fill in the gaps since, but we managed to do a précis version, and I asked Alex why it is that I don’t have one single photograph of her (because I’ve always been an enthusiastic happy-snapper). ‘Don’t you remember?’ she said. ‘I hated having my photograph taken.’

As regular salma readers will know, I love ‘thens’ and ‘nows’ (especially with such yawning chasms of time in between), so I was sad. Then I remembered that the school photographer was something that Alex couldn’t avoid – and there’s a very specific reason why. Among Alex’s many astonishment achievements when we were young (she really was a genius), she managed to take the honours at the end of matric for being the pupil who hadn’t missed one single schoolday throughout her entire high-school career. For someone like me, who bunked at the drop of an exercise book, that was an achievement way above and beyond the straight As Alex got on her report.

So here they are: now (top pic) and then (bottom two). Alex and I were in the same class in high school only in 1978 in Form 1 (now Grade 8), and we managed to get into the same photographer’s frame the following year, when we had to pose for a shot of the junior choir.

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