Friday, 30 May 2008

The terribly important hyphen: we don't want a porn indaba that's anti-child, do we?

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I saw this advert, placed by the Department of Home Affairs in today's Star. I think, given the subject matter, I'll cry.

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Monday, 26 May 2008

Help save my ugly, skanky, whispery-soft old cotton T-shirt

There's nothing like a dose of trauma to clear out the sinuses, and no better way to refocus the mind than to launch into a feverish reorganisation of the domestic landscape. Let the wild rumpus begin! No bulging file, no deep-composted drawer, no teetering shelf has escaped my orgy of tossing, turfing, chucking and sorting.

And that's only the storage areas. Every door, window and skylight in the house bristles with bars, lugs, gates, locks, chains, padlocks and bolts. Beams sweep like spotlights across the lawn. Cans of mace and panic buttons dangle from hooks in every room. Slavering packs of deranged, red-eyed pitbulls menace the driveway (okay, the two useless Bassets and the geriatric Staffie - who were of no use at all during our robbery - snooze in the corner of the garage... but you get the picture).

My new trauma counsellor (or 'traumatologist', as my American-TV-junkie daughter so sweetly calls her) tells me that I am trying to impose order on a chaotic situation; trying to seize the levers of a runaway domestic train; trying to neutralise my post-robbery sense of infuriated powerlessness.

My traumatologist is probably right, but what she doesn't know is that this is NFM (normal for me). I've always responded to frustration, uncertainty, fear, stress and deadlines by cleaning cupboards. You should have seen the virtuous shine on my spice jars, and the anticipatory gleam on my refrigerator shelves, in the few days before my three three babies arrived! Never has a broom cupboard spicked and spanned the way mine did in the few days that followed by father's death.

Anway, back to the T-shirt. So evangelical was I this week in my chucking mission that I instructed every member of the household to scour their cupboards and hand over any item they hadn't worn in the last six months. I was astounded at the mountains of unused stuff that avalanched from cupboards. I suppose I can shrug a shoulder at the piles of T-shirts and tackies and trackie bottoms that came flopping of the teens' cupboards - they can hardly be blamed for not noticing that their thigh bones lengthen by an inch a week - but I couldn't get over how many old duvets, duvet covers, pillow cases, scuzzy blankets, covers, throws, rugs, shawls and towels I actually had, but didn't even know I owned. And how few of them I actually needed.

Well, the chuck-out did me good. Not only did I feel purged and calmly ordered on the cupboard front, but I also felt like Master and Commander of the Realm; the Chatelaine who found her lost keys. (And yes, in case you're wondering, the chuck-outs went to the Red Cross, who are caring for some of the displaced victims of Jo'burg's xenophobic attacks. I'm not going to get onto the subject of how ashamed I feel that it took me a good 10 days to realise that there were seven or so perfectly good old blankets on the shelves of my linen cupboard, waiting in folded patience for that glorious moment in the life of blankets when they finally get the chance to wrap themselves around the shoulders of a shivering refugee. )

So smugly wrapped up was I in packaging and parcelling my chuckouts that I almost missed by husband sneaking my favourite, legendary green T-shirt on to the pile.

'Time to let go,' he said. 'Really, give it up. It's disgusting.'

He might as well have tried ripping off a fingernail.

This is not any old T-shirt. This is my blankie, my binkie, my raggy, baggy, smelly, soft old companion.

It's 15 years old, is mainly light pistachio green, with blodges of the palest minty white (bleach damage), streaks of charcoal (scorch marks from several irons) and spatters of muddy sludge (ancient olive oil spatters and boerewors stains). It has tattered sleeves, several moth holes, a big rip over one sleeve, a few cigarette burn-marks, and a meandering hemline. It's at least twice as wide as it is long, and its cotton is a soft and light as a whisper. You could roll up the whole T-shirt and pass it through the eye of a needle.

You can launder my green T-shirt a thousand times over and not dislodge any of its perfume. It smells like my life. It smells like my feather pillow, like a loaf of hot bread, like breast milk, like all the puppies I've ever owned, like the skin on the nape of my daughter's neck. There are top notes of coffee, old brown sherry, love-making, camp fires, beach sand, cotton sheets, waterfalls and nicotine. It has the faintest whiff of sardine bait (I wear it when I go fishing at the beach) and a distinct aroma of fresh compost (it's my gardening shirt).

This is a T-shirt of note. It's a legend. It's the world's skankiest, shabbiest, ugliest, loveliest T-shirt.

Help save my T-shirt.

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Sunday, 25 May 2008

When parents have to let go (or ‘Yahoo! They’ve gone!’)

My 18-year-old son has been extremely tardy about getting his driver’s licence, and this isn’t only because he’s disastrously short on memory and astonishingly disorganised (but he’s a very nice chap too). It’s because he’s a genius and for this reason he thought he wouldn’t have to study for the learner’s test – he assumed the answers would be self-explanatory, and was all agog when he failed not once, not twice, but three times! (This, in my experience, is a record.)

The fourth time he sat the learner’s test I threatened him with grievous bodily harm should he fail. He has a black belt in karate so perhaps that was a bit ambitious of me, but as parents we sometimes have to make sacrifices. Anyway, it worked: apparently I scared him into finally passing.

Now we have ahead of us several months of gear-grinding driving lessons, plus a few more of practice, before he sits his actual driver’s test.

I relate this sorry saga for two reasons: one, because I yearn for the day that someone else in this household is legally and physically able to share the driving; and two, because it will be another step on the road to my children’s independence.

Although I know we should never say ‘never’, I doubt I’ll be one of those moms who experience empty-nest syndrome. My own mother had it – I clearly recall my father phoning me, after the fourth and last of us had flown the coop, to tell me, in some despair, that she ‘won’t stop vacuuming’.

My poor mom, having spent about 30 years of her life as a full-time mother – an extremely busy, sometimes very stressful, nonstop-go job, as any parent will tell you – simply didn’t know how to fill all the hours in the day (and night) once her kids had left. (A few months later, once she’d vacuumed every single square millimetre of every single room in the house, she threw herself into charity work, and she contributed cheerfully and energetically in this way practically until the day she died.)

I, on the other hand, was horrified when my son was recently asked by a friend if he was looking forward to leaving home, and he answered, ‘I don’t think I will. I have everything I need here. There’s no reason to move out.’

I bit my tongue, although I dearly wanted to shout, ‘There is! There is!’ My reasons include (this is not a comprehensive list): being able to open a bar of chocolate without my bat-eared offspring hearing the rustling and rushing through to claim some of it for themselves; having a weekend that doesn’t involve six loads of washing (because school clothes have to be laundered by Monday morning); not caring if there’s no bread or milk in the fridge (I eat/drink neither); in fact, having only ‘treats’ in the fridge, and knowing they’ll last there longer than 10 minutes; doing a grocery shop that comes to less than R2 000; not having to drive anywhere that isn’t for my own benefit; knowing at all times where my clothes, makeup and jewellery are (ie, not in my teenage daughter’s room or on her body); not having to stay awake and/or sober on a Saturday night to fetch a child from a party in the wee hours; in fact, being able to arrange my social life as I like, rather than around the social lives of my teenagers; not having to work all the hours god gave me and then some, in order to throw money into the bottomless pit that is school fees and the like; having enough moolah over at the end of the month to buy myself a new pair of shoes; and, of course, being able to have sex anywhere/when other than in the bedroom, under the duvet, after the kids have gone to sleep, very quietly and with the lights off.

And if you’re wondering if, when my kids finally leave home, I will live in slovenliness, be constantly drunk and/or having noisy daylight sex, and eat only chocolate, the answer is yes. I can hardly wait.

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A modern horror-movie experience: where only the truly gorgeous survive

I recently had a momentary lapse of reason and allowed my 18-year-old son, a fantasy/science-fiction freak, to hire a DVD for us. He came back with something called Resident Evil: Extinction.

I steeled myself for two hours of violence and boredom (a nasty combination), so was delighted instead to be enormously entertained. This is what I learnt from Resident Evil: Extinction:

* After the apocalypse (in this case, a virus that escapes and turns most of the world’s population into flesh-eating zombies), only tall people with flawless skin, perfectly proportioned facial features and a total absence of cellulite, survive.

* Although in the post-apocalyptic world, life is a constant battle to find food and water (and avoid flesh-eating zombies), the survivors all have the time and apparently the resources to have their hair done and put on lipstick each morning. (And all the beautiful young men are clean-shaven, save for one, who has artful stubble.)

* If you are going to be the hero-girl in the post-apocalyptic world, part of your uniform must be a long flappy coat (which never gets in the way of your use of your two long knives and several guns), and you must wear very short shorts – and under those shorts, a pair of suspenders and stockings.

* As the inappropriately-dressed hero-girl, you will always have clean, shining hair and a freshly-washed and made-up face; but you will, occasionally, have slightly dirty fingernails.

* The post-apocalyptic world will have a dearth of everything (food, water, fuel, game reserves, good restaurants, etc) but all technological devices (hologram producers, GPS systems, conference lines, computers, etc) will work perfectly, every time.

* Chargeable devices (portable GPS systems, cellphones, etc) will have neverending battery life.

* If you are a hero in the post-apocalyptic world and your ammunition runs out (this happens very, very seldom), you will be able to throw your weapon at a zombie and it will take his head clean off.

I might have learnt other fabulous factoids from this movie but eventually had to stop watching because, as much as I enjoyed the show (once or twice I actually rolled around on the floor), I annoyed my son so much that he finally left the room. And it’s no fun watching a schlock-horror movie like this without pointing out the anomalies to someone else.

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Knowing what your mother likes: a valley tale

An enterprising trio of valley-dwellers recently opened a shop where they sell everything and anything from plants to old 45s (remember them?!).

They encourage locals to scout through their sheds and attics and bring them their ‘junk’, knowing that one man’s deeply-loathed plated-silver tea set given to him as a wedding present by his mother-in-law could very well be just the thing another woman has been looking for for years.

In a community this small, though, this concept can very easily turn full circle, which happened recently when G was browsing in the shop and came across a stack of old floral fine-china cake plates. He was thrilled: ‘These are just the kind of thing my mother loves!’ he said. ‘I’ll take them all!’

So he paid for the plates, then sat down to have a cup of coffee with the proprietors (who have also had the brilliance to apply for and receive a temporary liquor licence, which means you can have a shot of Jameson’s on the side to get you started on those cold misty winter mornings).

While G was sitting there, nursing his coffee, his mother walked in. G couldn’t wait to show her his find: ‘Look, ma!’ he said. ‘More cake plates to add to your collection!’

She eyed the modest stack. ‘You’ve just bought these?’ she asked. ‘For me?’ And when G proudly said yes, she laughed until she cried.

Because (you’ve guessed by now, haven’t you?) G’s mother had brought those very same old floral fine-china cake plates to the shop the previous day, to put up for sale. But because three people run the shop, and are not always on duty at the same time, she’d handed them over to one, they’d been put out on display by the second, and had been unknowingly sold to G by the third.

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Friday, 23 May 2008

Fungus the Bogeyman has been in my bathroom

My bathroom (as opposed to my children’s) is one of the older rooms in our very old house, and was probably last refurbished some time in the ’60s.

It has a bath-tub the size of the QEII (great for wallowing, a disaster for water conservation) and a toilet cistern not much smaller (yes, yes, I have put a brick in it). The dreadful paisley-patterned brownish linoleum on the floor was clearly chosen to offset the hideous floral-ish beige tiles that go halfway up the walls. The taps are huge and ornate, and require the help of a spanner to turn on and off, and the sink (which is cracked in several places) is set into a wooden cabinet that I can only imagine was knocked together in the outside shed by some keen but very amateur handyman.

Not only that, but because the room itself was apportioned off the gigantic verandah and poorly roofed with corrugated iron, it leaks constantly – mysterious puddles of murky water appear apparently out of nowhere (but presumably having dripped down behind the tiles) and there’s a constant smell of damp.

It is, in short, a horror show.

It wasn’t, however, until Tuesday evening, when I had some friends around for dinner, that the true nature of what’s happened to my bathroom was revealed. Someone who’d answered the call of nature returned to the table with a mushroom and showed it around, saying teasingly, ‘And guess where I got it?’

There followed a small stampede to the horror-show bathroom where, behind some loose tiles, we found a modest but healthy crop of mushrooms growing out of the wall. Not only that, but a few baby slugs had crept in to keep them company.

So now I know: Fungus the Bogeyman has taken over my bathroom.

For those who aren’t familiar with this fabulously fetid Raymond Briggs character, Fungus and his like get up to go to work (scaring humans, or ‘drycleaners’) ‘as the last light fades’, in ‘the black dawn of a new Bogey day’. His first visit is to the bathroom (or ‘barathrum’ in Bogey-speak; we’re told this means ‘pit, chasm, abyss of muck’), where he runs a sink of water (‘Ah! Nice cold filthy water,’ he says. ‘Good head of scum on it this morning’), to which he adds a large dose of Muck (the box reads, ‘Old! Diseased! Just add slime!’). This he uses to wash his armpits, and he brushes his teeth with Pepsomuck, which promises to ‘get teeth really black’.

Other Bogey bathroom unguents include Old Mice aftershave, Femstench roll-on deodorant for Bogey ladies, Bogeygas Contamination underarm deodorant for Bogey men, Eau de Colon, Faboge Pus, Ambre Bogaire and, of course, Toilet Water.

Although I haven’t found any of Fungus’s personal non-hygiene products in my barathrum, that’s probably because he’s carrying them around in his Bogeybag (which is made of damp sacking, allowing the things inside to drip and emanate smells). And until I have funds available, I’m going to just have to accept that I’m sharing this space with Fungus, and probably also his wife Mildew and his son Mould.

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Monday, 19 May 2008

Weekus horribilis: weak us, and horrible humans. Someone's opened Pandora's Box

Jeez, am I lucky or what? Unlike certain other people who live in Johannesburg, I wasn't stabbed, shot, beaten or burned to death this week. I could have been, I suppose, after my family and friends were held at gunpoint, in my own house, in the self-same city, nine days ago. But, right now, I'm not even going to begin to entertain the thought of what could have happened to us during this ordeal. I'm tempted - oh yes, sorely and tearfully - but it just doesn't seem decent to dwell on the possible outcomes of a small domestic crisis in a week when bigger demons are afoot.

I'm not being facetious. I do feel lucky. I woke up this morning to see a shocking, grisly picture on the front pages of The Times of a human body on its knees and engulfed in flame. This man - his name still unknown - was beaten and burned to death by a baying mob, one of a dozen or more other packs of feral bastards who have stampeded through Johannesburg's informal settlements, burning, beating and killing 'foreigners' - that is, hapless refugees and illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and elsewhere in Africa. If you're remotely interested as to why this is happening, Google the words 'xenophobia South Africa'.

I don't have words to describe how sickened I am, not to mention frightened, shaken and rattled. I can't think of another week in my life that has made me feel so chilled and full of despair. Someone has opened Pandora's box. Bad news, misfortune and evil piles up, folds in on itself and replicates (and I'm not even the supersititious type; yes, even atheists get rattled).

Consider the events:

1. Cataclysmic storm in Burma; countless thousands killed and displaced
2. Tens of thousands perish in Chinese earthquake
3. Mayhem, murder and mob rule in the suburbs of my own city
4. Gunmen invade my home
5. My son's friend dies in a car accident
6. The nine-month-old baby niece of my domestic worker is badly burned (third-degree burns over half her body) when a candle falls over in a small shack in a Jo'burg shanty-town and sets light to the bed clothes. No news as yet.

I'm reasonably resilient, and I think I might have absorbed and coped with all this bad stuff if No. 4 on the list hadn't knocked the wind clean out of my sails. But - enough already. I think I'm going to do a Rip van Winkle and go to sleep for 20 years. Please wake me up when May has been abolished.

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

Milk of human kindness after our house attack - thank you

The feral bastards who invaded my home last week have terrified me and traumatised my husband, kids and friends, but they have not destroyed my faith in humanity. Forgive me if that sentence sounds like a platitudinous gobbet from a self-help book, but I'm just blown away, and so comforted, by the kindness and wonderful generosity of my immediate family, my mom, my sisters, my friends, my neighbours and my community.

I've been inundated with hugs, phone calls, emails, SMS messages and good vibes. I thank you all, and apologise if I haven't returned your calls. I feel as if I've had a group hug (sorry to sound mushy, but there is a cheese-factor involved here) from 3000 people.

Total strangers have phoned and emailed me offering their help in various ways, including one or two dedicated individuals who are moving mountains and cutting red tape behind the scenes in order to nail these predators. (Wow! Three cliches and mixed metaphors in one sentence!.)

I've received messages of support from school principals, from a dedicated police captain (and several of his officers), at the Rosebank police station, from the station's victim-support team, from generous teachers and colleagues and therapists, and from the wonderful mothers of my daughter's classmates. I've had arm-squeezes and big sympathetic ears from supermarket cashiers, garage assistants and all the other people who've taken time to listen to my outpourings.

Friends on Facebook sent messages and greetings. My darling friend C baked cookies, and then the next day delivered two delectable roast chickens, perfect spuds and a dish of cauliflower cheese (recipes coming soon). Not only were they piping hot, but she brought them to our house on her motor bike. My other darling friend, R, a photographer with an exquisite eye for design and detail, accepted the portfolio of Getting Us a New Gate, raced around town photographing suitable gate-designs and doing all the donkey-work I just didn't feel up to.

And as for my husband and kids, and the guests who were involved in this sorry episode - well, words fail me. They have shown such resilience and optimism and kindness (and I admit that I have been a huge girls' blouse in the last few days, with my obsessive arming-and-cross-checking of doors, my frantic padlock-buying and my nasty snappishness), that I feel like the luckiest person on earth to have them in my life.

And here endeth the lesson: the nastiness of this episode has been thoroughly diluted by the milk of human kindness.

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Tuesday, 13 May 2008

What is it with travel agents, estate agents and insurance salespeople?

Before all you travel agents, estate agents and insurance hawkers out there get your knickers in a knot, I just want to ask you this: how is it possible that in the 44 years I’ve been alive, I’ve had (this is a rough estimate) one good experience with a travel agent and six bad; one good experience with an estate agent and 12 bad; and no good experience ever with an insurance salesperson? (I’m talking business experiences here, obviously.)

It just seems to me to fly in the face of the law of averages.

I wish I were making this up but I’m not: an estate agent once ‘sold’ my house, only to discover months later that she’d actually sold the house next door – she’d requested and been given the wrong deed documents by the deeds office, and never noticed. Worse, she actually had the temerity to phone me (but not before banking her big fat commission, of course) and ask me to sort out the mess. (I told her no.)

I can’t tell you how many times insurance salespeople have schnaaied me. I’ve spent fantastically enormous sums of money on short-term insurance and have never – NOT ONCE – put in a claim, genuine and honest in all respects, that didn’t turn into a nightmare of red tape, backpedalling, excuses and the like. NOT ONCE.

I was also once pressured into buying a life insurance policy by a ‘financial adviser’ on behalf of a huge bank that turned out to have been sold to me under entirely false pretences. The salesperson disappeared off the face of the earth; the bank continued accepting my premiums; and when I finally queried the policy, they denied all knowledge of it. It was only when I threatened to take the case to the Ombudsman that they relented – and then all they were prepared to do was refund my premiums, no interest added. By then I was just too bloody tired to fight any more.

As for travel agents: sheesh. If you read about my disastrous attempts to get a US visa for my daughter, you will know that I had truck with a travel agent in securing her air ticket. This same travel agent sold me a travel insurance policy that, she assured me, would cover the cost of a ticket cancellation. FULL STOP.

She now INSISTS she told me that the policy would only cover the cost of ticket cancellation in the case of illness or death. ‘Really?’ I said. ‘But why would I buy such a policy for my hale-and-hearty teenage daughter? If you think about it, you’ll see that it just doesn’t make sense.’

Down to the wire, I asked her to email me a copy of the policy document I’d supposedly signed (I signed at least a dozen bits of paper that day in her office; I assumed the policy was among them). Waddaya know, she couldn’t find it. And when she emailed me a clean copy, I realised why: I’d never seen it; I’d certainly never signed it.

When I pointed that if I hadn’t seen the policy document, I could hardly be expected to know what was contained in it, she informed me (and I am quoting directly from her email here), ‘I recall giving you a brochure when you were here in the office after you had filled in our booking form and terms and conditions. It had the phone number and the web address of the insurance company on there if you had any questions or wanted advice, so you were given the tools to get information from the insurer, as well.’ (‘As well’? As well as what?)

Now, isn’t that alarming: she gets to flog the insurance policy to me (and, I assume, take a commission on it – if not her, her company), but she doesn’t have to tell me what’s in it? Isn’t that like, say, selling someone a mulberry tart (one not made by you), and handing them a brochure at the same time. The brochure has a website address on it. And if you care to go to that website, you may find the following: ‘You are strongly advised not to eat this mulberry tart. It is loaded with arsenic.’

Okay, that’s an extreme example, but you get my drift? It just isn’t right that these middlemen earn bucks off your business (bucks that, make no mistake, YOU pay in the end), and then don’t do their jobs right. And then, when the kakka hits the wookah-wookah-wookah, they turn around and tell you it’s YOUR FAULT!

It just makes me so damned angry.

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Monday, 12 May 2008

Nothing sluggish about this South African project

As hard as it is to follow Juno’s post about her horrific experience on Saturday night, I thought I’d share this good-news story with readers of salmagundi. Because as much as life in South Africa seems pretty grim at the moment, there are people out there still fighting the good fight.

There are several communities on our west coast that are in severely dire straits: a report commissioned on the area a few years ago found that many small towns there have ‘almost a complete lack of economic opportunity (particularly for women), a dependency on government grants, a lack of accessible basic services (healthcare, transportation, food security, education) and a culture of debt amassed to cover basic living expenses’.

A small group of people have found a solution to these ills, and it’s surprising: snails. I was offered a commission to do a story about the project, and, given my own experience with eating snails (see ‘Dagga Flashbacks’, below), I jumped at it. And what an interesting wealth of information I unearthed about these slimy little critters.

The west coast Poor People’s Movement Snail Project sees otherwise unemployed workers (mainly women) picking snails in the local vineyards for six months of the year – which has the fabulous run-off effect of encouraging farmers to use fewer dangerous pesticides. These snails are then purged for a few weeks (a very necessary step – don’t be tempted to pluck a few snails from your garden spinach patch and just pop them in a pot), then chilled to the point where they seal themselves and go into hibernation, after which they’re sold to a local snail exporter. This exporter ships the snails, very much alive and very sound asleep, to Europe for use as food.

Now, isn’t that fabulous? I love the notion of some fat French gastronome tucking into his amuse bouche of snails-on-a-stick and having not a clue that they’ve come not from a nearby snail farm, but all the way from the Africa – and that they’ve contributed in a very real way to the financial upliftment of an otherwise savagely impoverished community.

During the course of my research I discovered that snails aren’t only delicious to eat (and that they’re enjoyed in cuisines all over the world, not only in France), but they’ve also long been used in medicine. Pliny, who lived around the time of the birth of Christ, prescribed for patients with stomach pains snails that had been ‘boiled and grilled over a coal fire', and added (very sensibly) that they 'should be eaten with wine’. He also mentioned, flatteringly and mysteriously, that ‘snails from Africa are the best, but they must be prepared in an uneven number’.

I also came across a useful recipe for ‘snail water’, published in 1738, good for ‘skin redness’ and ‘the spasms of spitting blood accompanying tuberculosis’. Snails are crushed in a mortar, then put over a simmering pot and mixed with ‘the fresh milk of a female donkey’ (I’m assuming that milk from a male donkey doesn’t work as well). This potent potion is allowed to sit in the sun for 12 hours before being distilled, then it’s ready for use.

Jokes aside, helicidine, a biological extract prepared from snails, has been used with good results in cough medicines in France for the past forty years, and snail mucus, which has antibacterial properties, is currently being marketed as a salve for various skin disorders including roseacea, and to heal scars and keep skin smooth and supple.

I was thrilled and a little ashamed to learn that the long top two feelers on a snail contain light-sensitive organs – so the huge fun I used to have as a child, touching those tentacles and watching them recoil, was tantamount to poking the snail in the eyes with a sharp stick. (The smaller bottom ones feel, taste and smell.)

And perhaps best of all, I discovered that the common brown garden snail – the very snail that is now being exported to Europe from our shores – was probably brought to South Africa by the French Huguenots in their vinestock in the late 1600s. So all we’re doing, really, is sending them home again. (Sure, it’s to be eaten, but you can’t win ’em all.)

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Sunday, 11 May 2008

Our family and guests survived an armed attack last night: check out our statistics

I am surprised I managed to type the title of this blog post, considering how tired and shocked I am. My fingers are shaking and icy, my skin is itching, and I wish I was anywhere else but sitting in my own home.

I have had 'several' medicinal tots of whisky today (starting at 5 am, when I woke up with my teeth chattering) and still my legs seem made of water.

It's not a surprise to me that our house should be attacked - I've been anticipating having 'my turn' in South Africa's crime wave for at least twenty years - but it is a shock. I just didn't expect it to happen last night, at the innocent hour of 7.30 pm. I didn't expect to have three gunmen burst like a swat-team through a closed automatic gate, literally bashing the wooden panels out with their shoulders. I didn't expect that I'd be standing cheerfully in the driveway, welcoming dinner-party guests who had just driven in. I didn't expect to be forced to lie face-down on the cold concrete of our driveway, my shivering little nine-year-old daughter tucked into my side, a gun pointed at our heads.

It's a long story (about eight minutes in all, although it felt like eighty) and I'm already tired of telling it, so I'll give it to you in a large nutshell. They burst onto the driveway with guns, put four of us face-down and stripped us of valuables. Then they swaggered into my home, held up my husband and two of our friends, and accosted my teenage son in his upstairs bedroom. They threatened to shoot my dogs if I didn't 'quieten them down' and told me to cover the eyes of my daughter, because, my personal gunman said, he didn't want her to have to 'go for trauma counselling'. They slapped my husband when he told them we didn't have a safe or guns - and we don't; why would we? - and then gave him another slap when they found he was wearing a cheapie watch. They demanded my wedding band, and then threw it back in my face, telling me, 'You can keep this'.

Then they herded the four inside-victims onto the driveway, and told us driveway victims to stand up. ('Cover the baby's eyes,' my gunman said to me. 'She mustn't look'. ) I can't even begin to tell you what went through my head at this point.

But we were 'lucky'. They marched us upstairs and put us in a bathroom. We waited until we thought they were gone, and summoned help.

So here are our personal crime statistics:

Bodily injuries: None (apart from a small tender spot over husband's one eye)
Children involved in incident: Two
First-timers (ie, crime virgins, never been attacked before): Six
Third-timers : Two
Guests in our house who were shot 11 months ago in similar attack: One
Time taken for armed response to arrive: Two minutes
Time taken for police to arrive: 45 minutes
Suburb where this happened: I feel too scared to say, but it's near Zoo Lake in Johannesburg
Evil bastards with guns: three inside, three or more outside
Number of armed guards outside house at time of attack: one private guard standing in adjacent driveway; two patrolmen in armed-response vehicle
Lot of good this did: fat
Valuables taken from house: A bit of cash from wallets. A cell phone. And a... actually, who gives a thruppenny fuck about what was taken?
Biggest topic of conversation among victims: Knysna or Cape Town?
Brave, co-operative, big-balled kids, husband and guests: seven
Mommy who remained icy calm during attack: me
Mommy who can't stop crying: me
Kids who aren't going to school tomorrow: three
Number of times today I've been advised to go, with my family, for trauma counselling: 86
Number of times I've said 'Of course we will' today: 86
Lives changed forever: Nine, including son who was out of the house at the time, but who is so shocked and upset that he is chalk-white and has spoken hardly a word all day.
Number of residents in our suburb who responded to my email alert: Three out of fifty or so recipients
Number of lovely friends, close neighbours and relatives who phoned, visited and lent succour: I love you all.


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Friday, 9 May 2008

All you ever wanted to know in 30 seconds

I love board games, not least because in our circles they often culminate in stand-up slap-down screaming arguments between siblings, best friends and long-time live-in lovers. There’s nothing like board games to reveal the cracks in relationships, and it’s all so deliciously public.

30 Seconds has become my most coveted (it’s a love/hate relationship). I’m not an entirely calm person at the best of times, and being put under pressure to display my wealth of general knowledge by a common-or-garden egg-timer is just designed to bring out the worst in me. Driven half-crazy by the stress, I flush from the feet up and, after losing my power of speech and knocking over my wine, I eventually start giggling uncontrollably, just when I should be putting in a last effort to win the match. It doesn’t make me a pleasure to play with.

[It reminds me of my one and only attempt at bridge. After having been coached for several hours by a serious player, I was then partnered with him in a game/set/match (I’m sure they have a word for it but I don’t know what it is).

[(I’ve just remembered: rubber! What a strange term for something so astonishingly boring.)

[Anyway, after having done a couple of rounds/hands/shots during which I apparently bid as if I were mainlining crack cocaine, my partner threw his cards furiously onto the table/green/baize and said, ‘This is ridiculous! I’m not playing with her!’

[I don’t exactly blame him – I was completely/utterly/irretrievably useless - but I am still just a tiny bit taken aback by his lack of gamesmanship/swordsmanship/whatever.]

Anyway, I mainly love 30 Seconds because people make such delightful blunders when required to think freely under time pressure. And it’s all made so much interesting by the fact that the asker has to be fairly creative with his/her questions: you can’t say any word in the answer, and you’ve got to find a way to point your partner very very quickly to the solution (you have to get five of these right in 30 seconds – seriously, it’s not as easy as it sounds). It’s that ‘Who was Noah’s wife? Joan of Arc!’ thing, but it happens spontaneously, and everyone involved is required to laugh hysterically and not think any the worse of the person who’s made such a twit of themselves (which is why I hate it).

Here are two of my crackers from this evening:

My partner: ‘The movie with the Orca in it?’
Me: ‘Lord of the Rings!’
[Correct answer, for those who have recently have a prefrontal lobotomy: Free Willy. I think I heard ‘Orca’ and processed ‘Ork’.]

My partner: ‘The shape where planes disappear?’
Me: ‘Trafalgar Square!’
[Correct answer, for Robert McBride and his friends: Bermuda Triangle.]

Fortunately for me, my partner (whose questions were, without fail, fabulously incisive) was my son, and he knew that if he got cross with me I’d dock his pocket money.

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Thursday, 8 May 2008

The unabashed avarice and arrogance of the US Embassy in South Africa (and probably elsewhere)

Regular readers of salmagundi might remember my raging post about the hoops I would have to jump through to secure a holiday visa to the States for my 17-year-old daughter. It began with the frankly greedy requirement of buying a PIN number from Pick’n’Pay, just in order to phone the Embassy and make an appointment.

Which I did, and everything has gone downhill from there. The man I spoke to at the Embassy gave me a list of requirements, each more ridiculous than the last: an unabridged South African birth certificate (which no South African citizen actually ever needs for anything else, including quite important things like buying land or getting married); a letter from the school principal; letters from both mother and father; a full itinerary; etc. I sat with my diary and a pen and listed the requirements as he gave them to me, so I am absolutely sure that I didn’t miss anything (about which more later).

After he’d given me this ridiculously extensive list, he then deigned to make an appointment for my daughter (because the person applying for the visa has to have a personal interview at the Embassy before a visa application can be considered). It was for 7.30 this morning. I told the man that we live over 100km from the Embassy but he was immovable: 7.30am was the only time-slot available.

In the run-up to this morning’s appointment, I jumped through many hoops. I applied for and eventually received an unabridged birth certificate for my daughter (not without endless frustrating phone calls to Home Affairs, who refused to fast-track the application for me; it finally arrived yesterday, in the nick of time, and I had to drive to the next town and queue for an hour to collect it). I got letters from the principal and from my daughter’s absent father. I wrote a letter myself. I checked the itinerary, the validity of her passport, the correctness of the air ticket, etc. And by this morning, when we left home at 5.30am, I was sure we were all set.

It took us over two hours to reach the Embassy through morning traffic. When we got there, we were told by the guard at the gate – who was lording it over a huge, almost empty carpark – that visa applicants weren’t permitted to park on the Embassy grounds. Instead, we had to drive to a nearby shopping centre, park there, then walk the +-1km up the hill to the Embassy building. (What the hell is that about??!)

This we did, and when we got there for a second time, we were directed to a long queue of about 40 people – all standing outside in the drizzly cold. I asked the man in front of me if he was queuing for a visa. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘and I’m really pissed off. What’s the point of telling us to be here at 7.30am if you’re only going to queue for the next two hours?’ Quite.

As is the way when you’re standing around in the rain with a bunch of strangers and know you’re going to be there for quite a while, we all got chatting. There wasn’t a person who wasn’t in fits of fury about the list of requirements and the numerous roadblocks put in the way of ordinary people trying their damnedest to organise a simple holiday. ‘I’m travelling with my son,’ said one woman, ‘and they wouldn’t give us an appointment together – or even on the same day! I’m here today and he has to come tomorrow.’

But it was only when someone said, ‘And non-standard visa photographs? I mean, they haven’t made it difficult enough for us already?’ that I went cold (well, colder) all over.

‘Visa photographs?’ I asked. This hadn’t been on my list of requirements, given to me by the Embassy official over the phone two months before. (Perhaps this was stupid of me – of course a visa requires a photograph! – but last time I applied for a visa to the States, I didn’t need a pic; they just stamped the visa into my passport then and there.)

‘Quick,’ I said to my daughter, ‘let’s run back down to the shopping centre. I’m sure there’s a photo place somewhere there.’

‘No, no,’ said someone else. ‘They’re not standard passport or ID pics. They’re 5x5cm, completely non-standard for South Africa, and only a few places do them. And they have to be in full colour.’

‘And you can’t smile, and you have to have your ears showing!’ added someone else, and there were incredulous murmurs of agreement.

So already we were buggered – clearly, we wouldn’t be getting the visa this morning – but out of interest I asked a fellow would-be-applicant to show me her list of requirements. According to her list, this is what was missing from my package of documents: three months’ worth of bank statements from me, proof that I hold a mortgage bond, proof that I had already paid the R1 000+ for the visa into a specified account (I had the amount in cash – ‘No, they don’t accept cash,’ the woman told me) and R40 in cash for postage. Also, an extensive form of personal information which had to be downloaded from the Internet, printed out and filled in – but which I in any case wouldn’t have been able to obtain as the website address given to me by the Embassy official on the phone was invalid! (I couldn’t phone back to get the right or another address, of course, because they don’t answer the phone unless you have a prepaid one-time-use-only PIN number to enter, and I’d already used mine – it’s a ghastly Catch 22.)

‘And you do have your letter from your employer?’ she asked.

‘No, but I’ve got a letter from my daughter’s principal.’

‘Well, that’s okay then,’ she said. ‘My husband had to get a letter from his employer…’

She was interrupted by someone else. ‘You mean you’re here to get a visa for your husband?’

‘Yes, why?’ asked the woman.

I tried not to look smug (as this was, apparently, one of the few things I’d actually got right). ‘Your husband has to come for the interview himself, in person,’ a few people said in unison.

The woman said a very, very rude word and not one person was offended by it. We all knew just how she was feeling.

My daughter and I walked back down to the shopping centre and found a coffee shop. We were drinking our cappuccinos in silence – I was thinking, with a sinking heart, of having to gather the additional documentation, get another PIN number from Pick’n’Pay, make another appointment, and repeat the whole depressing crack-of-dawn-and-morning-traffic exercise all over again – when my daughter said to me, ‘You know what, Mom? I actually don’t want to go to America any more. They don’t want me, I don’t want them.’

‘You sure?’ I asked her (trying not to look as delighted as I felt).

‘Ja,’ she said. ‘I’d rather go to England. At least they don’t make us feel like terrorists before we even set foot there.’

So I’ve cancelled my daughter’s tickets to America (the cancellation fee was staggering, but at this stage I don’t actually care) and she’s going to England instead.

America can just go fuck itself.

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An open road and big African skies make my heart go da-doef

Did your heart do a somersault as you hit the open road on the way out of town this last long weekend? Did you get a soaring, giddy feeling as you zoomed free of the sooty city outskirts and watched the landscape unfurl into singing golden grassland? Did you pump up the music, roll down the window, crack open the salt-and-vinegar chips and put your bare feet up on the dashboard?

Do you like long weekends?

Are you incredibly lucky to live in South Africa?

If the answer to all the above questions is yes please join me in a furtive little group hug.

I can't help but come over all touchy-feely and sentimental. I've just downloaded the photographs I took last Wednesday as my family headed out of town for a four-day stay in the Drakensberg, and each one of them makes me want to go down on my knees and beg for more public holidays.

The pictures of the resort where we stayed - the hikes, the landscape, the waterfalls and forests - are pleasing enough to look at, but it's the photographs taken on the way to the Berg that make my heart quicken, and my stomach sicken like a seven-year-old.

Any outward journey is bound to be more exciting than the homeward journey, but I don't think there's anyone on the planet who gets more excited than I do about the drive between Johannesburg and the Kwa-Zulu south coast, via the Free State town of Harrismith. (This weekend, we went only as far as Harrismith, before turning west towards the Drakensberg, but this didn't diminish my hysteria at all.)

I first made this journey as a babe-in-arms in 1962, and have done it three or four times a year over the past four decades, aiming either for our family cottage south of Durban, or, latterly, for the Drakensberg. As a six- or seven-year-old, I was so excited about driving to the coast that I packed my bags a week in advance. I ached with anticipation the night before we left - literally rolled around in my bed, clutching a gnawing stomach. My Dad shook me awake at 5 am, and bundled me and my sisters, wrapped in our eiderdowns, into his old Ford Fairlaine parked on the driveway, which was thundering and chuffing and smoking like a tethered dragon. We curled up, seatbelt-less, three dozy puppies in flannelette pyjamas.

For what seemed like hours and hours, I'd stare out of the car window, dazzled and carsickened by on-off on-off sulphur-yellow street lights. Then the sky went inky and I'd doze off. Two hours later, I'd wake to the sound of my mom popping the top of the coffee flask and peeling the wax paper off the mashed-sardine-lemon-juice sandwiches.

And always, it was the same wonderful, Free State landscape: mile after giddy mile of tawny hill and golden mielie field, a dizzying dome of pale-blue sky, and, in the distance, the grey smudge of Harrismith's Table Mountain, beyond it, the Drakensberg, and beyond that, two weeks by the sea.

I've never forgotten or grown out of that YIPPEEEEEE feeling of going on holiday, and I got it again, last Wednesday, driving the beautiful stark stretch of road between Harrismith and the Oliviershoek Pass. Me and Mr Husband have been to the Berg dozens and dozens of times over the past 30 years or so, as singles, on our honeymoon, with our babies, toddlers and tweens, and now with our teens, and the drive just gets better and better.

It's listed on maps as a 'scenic drive' but the word scenic doesn't even begin to describe how lovely this landscape is, with the vast glittering Sterkfontein Dam stretching chilly and wind-whipped to the horizon, and the little puffs of white cloud. It makes me want to burst into song. (In every case, a Juluka song - it's a family tradition to listen to Johnny Clegg on this stretch of road. All together now: E-Africa book-arla Benguela, e-africa book-arla Benguela, hey, now. Joking.)

Okay, enough of that nostalgic nose-wash.

Did you enjoy driving out of the city for the long weekend, or what?

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Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The indestructible wife and other festival stories

Once a year our quiet little town goes fabulously festive. Every hay bale from miles around is commandeered to block off streets and provide impromptu seating; there isn’t a spare bed to be had for love or money in hostelries or private homes; supplies are trucked in for days before; artists beaver feverishly at their easels and pottery wheels; foodies amateur and professional slave over their stoves deep into the night; new outlets for plants, food, clothes, furniture, jewellery, tit-tat and bric-a-brac suddenly fling open their doors in previously unused corners; stalls appear where before there was … well, nothing.

What was once a humble annual display of the town’s arts and crafts (and olives, for that’s what the festival is nominally held for) has become something of a yearly juggernaut, and by the Friday evening – the day before the official start of the festival – the town is already overrun with hawkers and gawkers; by midmorning on Saturday it can take a visitor arriving by car a good hour to inch their way in, and a wander around the town square is fraught with both frustration (my deah! the people!) and temptation (ooh, the food! the clothes! the jewellery! the mirrors! the books! the… you get the idea).

Most locals do something to participate. My contribution is an olive-themed kick-off dinner at my home on the Friday night. I source all my ingredients from the locals, and having wined, dined and accommodated my guests, I then squire them up to the square on Saturday morning and insist they spend vast sums of money. It’s not much, admittedly, but it’s something.

Others are far more ambitious, and one of these is V, my friend Johann’s indestructible wife. (She’s not really his wife, although they do co-habit; but then, I’m not really his mistress, although any time he doesn’t spend with V, he spends with me. They’re only honorary titles.) V, who is a Woman of a Certain Age, has an extraordinary ability to work hard and party harder. While that’s not entirely unknown in this village (except for the ‘work hard’ part), most people need, after one of our infamous gatherings, to stay in bed for two days drinking bottled water and reading nothing more challenging than heat magazine.

Not V, who began partying in the simmeringly exciting run-up to the festival on about, oh, Wednesday, and whom I last saw on Sunday night, her hair exotically dressed in bright-green plastic curlers pinned with wooden kebab skewers, pole-dancing outside a local restaurant. According to Johann, she had not had what could be termed actual sleep for about five days, despite his sincere and well-meaning attempts to get her to rest from time to time. (During this, she also managed to organise, open and run a busy shop.)

The assumption was that by Monday V would be, if not dead, at least a little frayed around the edges. Not so! Johann SMSd me on Monday evening: ‘V has escaped. AGAIN!’ Astonishingly, she had taken herself off to the city for a spot of post-fiesta partying. Now, there’s a woman who simply has to leave her liver to medical science.

Our Friday night dinner was, while long-lived (it ended at about 5 on Saturday morning), remarkably tame. Or so I thought until Johann asked me if I’d seen the pictures, yet, of the ‘naked boys’. ‘Gosh, no!’ I said. ‘Where do I find them?’

‘On the camera!’ he said. ‘When you all whipped off your clothes and leapt in the pool, I started snapping.’

Whipped off our clothes and leapt in the pool? Surely, I thought, Johann had gone on to another party and taken the pictures there? After all, not only had it been quite chilly on the Friday night, my pool is simply not swimmable at the moment – the pump has been broken for weeks and frogs have begun spawning in it. And I can tell you right now: no way would I be whipping off my clothes and disporting my 44-year-old self with delicious 30-year-old boys. I’m just not that sort of girl.

Alas for the power of the digital camera, for on Sunday afternoon I was forced to face myself – and my balloon-boobs and my jelly-belly – when pictorial evidence was presented to me. How embarrassing! (But at least it explained why, when I woke up fully dressed in bed at about 10 am the next day, my clothes were wet. I had been wondering about that.) (And also the slimy stuff in my hair – that really had me going for a moment there.)

So while I don’t have the staying-power of V the Indestructible Wife, I can at least lay claim to the title of Muriel the Naked Mistress. Even if I don’t have the vaguest memory of it.

* Following Catriona Ross’s drubbing in the Sunday Times Lifestyle for writing an irreverent piece about drunk driving (after, coincidentally, a visit to our village), let me assure loyal readers of salmagundi, who I’m sure are generally sober and always law-abiding, that beds were provided for all revellers.

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