Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Travels with Muriel IX: kids, culture clashes and the cold

Having brunch with Donald and his three kids, ages 4, 2 and 1, in a restaurant today reminded me of how hectic it was having kids of similar ages, and why I'm so happy now that mine are teenagers and all I have to worry about where they're concerned is unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction and driving in cars with boys.

The meal was actually going to be breakfast but by the time we'd organised ourselves, then bundled the three octopi into their woolly jerseys, gloves, coats and hats - and persuaded 2-year-old Fergus, who was in what Donald described mildly as 'a contrary mood', that going out into sub-zero temperatures without shoes on probably wasn't a good idea - it was nearing noon.

I felt a bit guilty after lunch leaving Donald to the mercies of his offspring, but I wanted to go and look at the Castle and Fergus had reached the stage where anything - ANYTHING - he was offered, he absolutely did not want, even if he did. I'm not attacking Fergus personally - he is a lovely little boy and having him along is like having your own music box trundling around with you, even if the choice is limited to 'Scotland the Brave' and 'Away in a Manger' - but the truth is that all children at these ages can be just ghastly. One of my favourite quotes is one by Zola Budd-Pieterse who, giving an interview when her kids were aged 2 and 4, said, 'Everyone warned me about the Terrible Twos but nobody said anything about the Fucking Fours.'

So while Donald went home to cope with the consequences of having legal, socially approved, marital sex, I meandered up to the Castle. It's damned impressive and I definitely would have bought a ticket and a guidebook and done a tour of it (even though it cost £13.50, which is about R200) but the queue at the ticket office was (and I'm not exaggerating here) about 200-strong and moving too slowly for any progress to be evident. So instead I wandered around the battlements, enjoying the (free) views of the city below. (I never knew Edinburgh had so many hills.)

Then I followed a sign that read 'Grassmarket' (because it sounded interesting) and ended up in a narrow, steep, cobbled street directly in the shadow of the Castle itself; and in this narrow, steep, cobbled street were funfair rides - not the kind of namby-pamby funfair rides you might find at a similar sideshow in South Africa (although where you'd find ANY kind of funfair in South Africa in the shadow of a gigantic ancient castle, I cannot say), but alarming ones that either flung you a hundred metres into the air or spun you around at something approaching the speed of light. It's probably not fair for me to judge the scariness factor of these, since I cried real tears of fear the one and only time I went on the Cobra rollercoaster at Ratanga Junction in Cape Town, but just WATCHING them made me feel dizzy and sick. Strobe lights and loud pop music were playing and if I hadn't already felt disoriented by the hideousness of observing a girl more or less my daughter's age pay good money to tempt death, this would have completely done my head in. As it was, the whole scene - the funfair with its lights and music overshadowed by the massive dark edifice that is the Castle - was weirdly dream-like. I liked it.

By the time I could tear myself away from this hallucinatory spectacle, it was about 4 o'clock and the sun was rapidly setting. One thing most people know about Scotland is that it's cold - but until you've experienced it, you don't actually understand HOW cold it is. This morning when we left Donald's house, all the cars in the road - and, for that matter, the road itself - were covered in layers of frost and ice; the sun's brief appearance in the middle of the day melted much of this; but the second the sun set, the cold reclaimed the city and slapped yet another layer of frost and ice on everything. It's so cold that it doesn't take very long standing outside before feeling in your nose and fingers disappears; it's so cold that going out without a woolly hat on is really a silly idea; it's so cold that you'd rather just go on dying for a pee for another hour or two if the alternative requires removing layers of clothes. (And yet the citizens of Edinburgh aren't shy of getting out and about - everyone in this place loves walking, whether its to reach a destination or for its own sake; and it's probably worth mentioning that I've seen very, VERY few fat people since I've been here.)

I'd love to say, as a result of experiencing this extreme winter temperature, that I'll never complain about winter in the western Cape again. But I will.

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Travels with Muriel VIII: preparing for Hogmanay

Donald and I took two of his sprogs - Fergus, a charmingly musical 2-year-old (who hums 'Scotland the Brave' on and off throughout the day, interspersed with 'Away in a Manger' - a carol, he solemnly informed me, that is about 'Mary and Doofus and their son Jesus'), and Riona, already a diva at 4 - up to Princes Street last night to take part in a torchlight procession to mark the beginning of Edinburgh's four-day Hogmanay festival. It was bitterly cold but that hadn't stopped thousands of people - judging from the faces and voices, from all over the world - gathering there.

(I had an annoying interchange with another South African while we waited, along with throngs of others. This officious-looking woman with fussy hair instructed me to move out of the sightline of her camera - a digital one that she'd set up on a tripod - because, she said 'I've been waiting here for hours.' She was so unpleasant about it that I was tempted to tell her to piss off but I thought it beneath my dignity to travel halfway across the world just to have a spat with a citizen of my own country, so I did what she'd asked. I can't pretend I didn't smirk, though, when the procession began and the stupid woman and her camera were irremedially swamped by revellers.)

The sight of a floodlit Edinburgh Castle high up on its rock above the city was mouth-gapingly impressive, but more so - for me, still grimly amused by the Brits' obsession with 'safety first' - was the torchlight procession that followed. First down the mountain came two rows of vikings, resplendent in chainmail and roundy helmets (and some of them sporting suburban pot-bellies and wearing spectacles), carrying huge and clearly extremely dangerous flaming torches. Yay!

Behind the vikings came a marching band, followed by a slew of pipers. And behind them came several thousand people, most of them bearing very large wax torches - a more potentially dangerous gathering I haven't seen since I left South Africa, and it warmed my heart. Donald, kids and I joined the procession and in the hour or so it took us to walk along Princes Street and up onto Calton Hill, sparks flew into my eyes at least a dozen times and my hair was repeatedly almost set on fire. It was wonderful.

On Calton Hill was a huge sculpture of a lion rampant, constructed of firewood, which the vikings set alight by tossing their torches at it. By this time the sproglets were cold and tired, so we headed back down the hill. The climax of the evening, a spectacular fireworks display, we were able to view from the warmth of the back seat of a home-bound bus.

Fergus, not permitted to press the 'stop the bus' button (for the simple reason that Riona had already done it), expressed his displeasure by staging a sit-down strike that lasted just long enough for us to miss our stop. But we got off at the next one and enjoyed a bracing walk back home, Fergus recovered to the extent that he was once again happily humming 'Scotland the Brave'.

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Monday, 29 December 2008

Travels with Muriel VII: seat hoggers and paying to pee

There were no seat snoggers on the coach to Edinburgh (for which I offer up silent but sincere thanks), but Scotsmen returning from down south did nothing to alleviate their reputation for meanness when I and one other woman got onto the coach in Manchester at a very chilly 1am last night.

The coach was about three-quarters full and there were no double seats left - most people had bagged themselves a window seat and put their coats and bags on the aisle seat, the better to preserve both for themselves. As this other new passenger and I staggered down the aisle, wrapped up in jackets and scarves and gloves and weighed down with hand luggage, each person we passed possessively put a hand over their own hand luggage on the seat next to them, making it very clear that we were not welcome to sit down there. As a result, we both managed to get right to the back of the bus without ONE PERSON being generous enough to shift their bags to make space for our bums. I found this extraordinarily mean-spirited.

Fortunately, a young man took pity on me, and moved his hand luggage to let me sit down. And I lucked out - while the coach steadily filled up over the next few stops, forcing the meanies who'd tried to preserve two seats each for themselves to relinquish their extra space, the kind young man got off the bus in Lancaster, leaving me with two seats for myself for the rest of the journey. Oh, I love poetic justice.

We pulled into Edinburgh at about 7 this morning and after six hours on the coach I was dying for a pee (I can't bring myself to use the loos at the back of the bus - yukky quotient far too high). So I was very much less than enamoured of the Scots, once again, when I was faced, in the large, modern central bus station in Edinburgh, with a toilet that required a 20p-piece to unlock a turnstile, necessitating my trundling my gigantic suitcase all the way down the concourse to the newsagents, buying some mints I didn't want in order to get the requisite change, then trundling my gigantic suitcase all the way back again - all with crossed legs. Then spending yet more bladder-wracking minutes trying to work out how to get my gigantic suitcase through the turnstile with me, because if you leave any baggage unattended for longer than a nanosecond in this part of the world, they clap you in chains.

But here I am at last, in Donald's beautiful, old, interesting, big house in Edinburgh, the Castle just over the hill. My room is up in the sky, on the top floor, with a fabulous view over Pilrig, which looks to be a promisingly fascinating place.

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Sunday, 28 December 2008

Travels with Muriel VI: meeting my cousins

Just when I was congratulating myself on having spent quite a bit of time drawing sober breath - days, in fact - my cousins came to visit. Robert and Steven are my auntie Janet and uncle Brian's sons. Robert and his wife Gill live in the Channel Islands; Steven is a barber, among oher things.

They are in their 40s, like me, and clearly aren't afraid of a party. We had a second Christmas dinner last night, catered with apparently effortless style by Janet and Brian, and we managed to stay up until some appalling time (it could have been 3am but I'm hoping it wasn't) drinking and playing word games. They forced me to guess the name of a magician I didn't know (my attempts - Houdini and Merlin - were greeted with veritable hoots of derision; the right answer was Tommy Cooper and I'm still not entirely convinced they didn't just make that up; my uncle Brian certainly made up some words in order not to be bombed out of another game ('ungulous'?); and I discovered that Robert has an encyclopaedic knowledge of movies going back to well before he was born. Who woulda knew?

So I don't have much to say this morning of a travel nature - all I have to report is that I have a pretty hefty hangover (although I have to add, better than usual because I am successfully pretending to be a non-smoker during this trip and haven't had a fag for over a week and strangely enough haven't wanted one - even though Steven smokes and I thought that might tempt me).

This seems as good a spot as any to mention that the British - who have, during their time, produced some truly intrepid explorers, at least one alarmingly brazen woman warrior (aside from Maggie Thatcher), and Richard Branson - are completely obsessed with safety, or at least the notion of it. I have heard the irritating injunction 'Safety first' from practically everyone I've come across on this island, from the minister who conducted the Christmas Eve service in Hitchin (and who seemed genuinely concerned about the possibility that the candles lit by his congregration to represent Jesus as the Light of the World might simply fly out of control and burn the church to the ground) to the driver of the coach that brought me here ('I will be getting you all to your destination as quickly, but MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY, as safely as possible' - comforting, I suppose, for a South African, who is accustomed to bus drivers who regularly and cavalierly steer their vehicles over cliffs).

Perhaps the most amusing 'safety' issue I've yet seen was the label on Michele's kids' trampoline in Hitchin (which, I might add, isn't just a bouncy thing like we're used to back home, but comes complete with a safety net that brackets the entire piece of equipment, making it look like a huge and somewhat intimidating spider's web) which illustrates a stick man bouncing off the trampoline and onto his head - with a big red line through it. In other words, the label instructs users of the trampoline NOT to bounce off it and onto their heads.

Takes the fun out of it a bit, I think.

An example: This building, in Scotland, wasn't 'dangerous' by any stretch of the imagination. It was an old stable on an estate that had been bequeathed by some generous past landowner to The People. The most dangerous thing about it was that you might read the 'Keep Out' sign and laugh so hard you'd give yourself a hernia.

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Saturday, 27 December 2008

Travels with Muriel V: PDAs

I never thought I'd say this, but I really miss the British reserve. I've already been subjected once, very much against my will, on the Tube in London, to a soft-porn show starring not-very-attractive people. And yesterday, on the coach (bus to South Africans) from Hitchin to Milton Keynes, I had just settled down with my crappy girlie novel for the hour's journey when I heard some horribly familiar sucking, licking noises coming from behind me.

I whipped around and poked my nose between the seats and there, so close I could have, well, licked them, were yet another horny British couple, doing the grooming-marmosets thing. Again, the cute factor was resoundingly absent - these two could have been stamped from the same mould as the London pair, the boy gangly with a huge nose and premature baldness, the girl utterly unremarkable except for her bottle-bottom specs and greasy hair.

I said, loudly, 'I don't bloody believe this,' but they were so intent on cleaning each other's tonsils by tongue that they didn't hear me.

I'm no prude (really, I'm not), and the human populace at large is more than welcome to kiss itself into a coma, but I so wish they wouldn't do it where I have to watch and, possibly worse, hear them.

Anyway! The British Reserve was fabulously well represented by the young man I sat next to on the next leg, from Milton Keynes (a major bus exchange that lacks anything at all in the way of amenities - a blot on the otherwise impressive landscape of British public transport, in my opinion - which meant that I had to sit outside on a metal bench in sub-zero temperatures for two hours waiting for my next coach, a paralysingly chilly experience) to Manchester.

Wishing to tilt my seat back a bit so I could snooze, I fumbled around under it to find the lever that would allow me to do this. The young man, similarly searching for the lever on his side (as it turned out, neither was there), mistakenly brushed his hand against mine. His reaction was very entertaining: he recoiled as if stung by a scorpion and stared at me aghast, his eyes so wide I worried they might actually fall out. I gave him what I thought to be my most unthreatening smile and said, 'Looks like the levers have broken off, so no lying back and relaxing for us this trip, eh?'

I know he spoke English because he was reading a thick textbook entitled 'Biological Psychiatry' and you have to have more than a smattering to get through something like that, I'd imagine, but he reacted, again, as if I'd just suggested we nip down to the Portacabin at the back of the bus and have a quickie. He turned bright red and shifted his body so that, as far as he was able in such limited space, he had his back to me. I found this reassuringly odd.

By the time I reached Manchester last night the temperature was beginning to plummet in a satisfyingly winter-in-the-UK way, and by the time we - my auntie Janet, of Bobby the Baboon Spider fame; my uncle Brian and my cousin Stephen - wandered 'down the pub' (I wonder why Brits leave out prepositions willy-nilly) it was so cold it hurt to breathe. We had a slap-up dinner at a local Indian restaurant, where, for reasons we can't work out (except that maybe one of us had been mistaken for someone famous), we got lots of free stuff - a bottle of wine that Janet immediately drank because it would have been rude not to; a Nepalese vegetable dish that we all agreed should probably have stayed in Nepal; and mugs with the restaurant's name printed on in fantastically gaudy gold script.

This morning, to my delight, we woke up to a frost-covered world, all white and sparkly and delicately pretty. Who knows, I may even see snow before I leave.

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Thursday, 25 December 2008

Travels with Muriel IV: Merry Christmas

I haven't been to church since at age 17 I was effectively excommunicated for being a loudmouth. I was 'asked' to leave Confirmation classes and consequently, as a nasty heathen, wasn't allowed to get married in church. While I'm not saying my marriage failed because it hadn't been sanctified in the eyes of God in His own house, but rather in the eyes of my mates in my parents' home, I don't think it helped.

Last night, here in Hitchin, UK, I went to the children's Christmas church service, where I was so overcome that I cried real tears; and I drizzed again this morning when I went to church for the 'real' (adults') Christmas service. Yup, that's TWO church attendances in two days, and I can't say I didn't enjoy them. For the simple reason that I did. (The genuinely stupendous St Mary's church, which is vast and beautiful and very very interesting, was one of the reasons why - go to http://www.stmaryshitchin.org.uk/)

On less religious matters, I spent yesterday in the historic university town of Cambridge - it's the 800th anniversary of the varsity next year, so it's been around a pretty long time, more or less from when Robin Hood and his Merry Men were causing havoc in Sherwood Forest.

This is what I noticed about Cambridge, as opposed to Guildford, London and Hitchin (the only other three places I've visited so far): a LOT of people ride bicycles; a surprising number of people smoke (I haven't had a fag since last Saturday and that secretive Malboro at Ruth's place); the traffic isn't so bad (this is because, my friend Michele tells me, there is a 'traffic calming' project in place, where people park on the outskirts of town and catch a bus in - so, as elsewhere, there's really efficient, fast, frequent public transport); and the coffee shop staff are as gratifyingly abrupt and inept as much of what might be found in South Africa on a good day.

Really fab in Cambridge (aside from the bookshop, Waterstones, which I could quite easily have moved into and stayed for ever) was the Corpus Clock (or Chronophage, which means 'time eater'), a monumental modern mechanical sculpture based on historic timepiece principles. The grass-hopper that tops it is so wonderfully evil-looking with its needle-like gold teeth and its gold-plated eyelids (which it blinks creepily now and again); and I love the idea that it doesn't keep exact time (except once every five minutes) because the inventor wanted to illustrate the 'irregularity' of time. That lateral thinking thrills me. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHO1JTNPPOU for more.

Am about to sit down for a blow-out family Christmas lunch, so until next time, happy happy Christmas.

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Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Travels with Muriel III

There are two things the British do really well: public transport and the British Museum.

The British Museum is... well, it's wow. Just wow. Try and go there before you die. Really.

We got to the museum from the chichi little London suburb of Richmond via the Underground - in on the District line and then one change at Piccadilly. It's very crowded (like everything here) but boy is it efficient. Michele, the friend I'm now staying with in Hitchin, tells me that the Underground (and public transport in general) is savagely underappreciated by the Brits, who make comments like, 'It's like a Third World country's,' which is funny if you happen to come from a country like South Africa, where there is effectively no public transport system at all. (Both Michele and Brigitte - neither UK-born - mentioned that the Brits do whinge about everything, and if there's nothing either valid or handy to whinge about, they'll make something up.)

British people are known for disliking human contact - physical, visual or emotional - so the way they deal with the crush on the Underground (and elsewhere) is by pretending they're on their own: they sit staring forward and nothing on God's green earth will entice them to make eye contact with any of the other 60 to 80 people crushed into the same train compartment.

Sometimes, apparently, two British people together might pretend to be on their own; in the case of the couple on yesterday's journey to the museum, on their own in their own bedroom. They licked and sucked each practically without cease for more or less the entire 30-minute ride; it was like watching marmosets grooming, only without the cute factor. Fortunately, just as I could stand it no longer and was about to shout at them, 'For the love of Christ, stop it!' they arrived at their destination and got off - still joined by the tongue.

During this public soft-porn demonstration I had tried to make eye contact with several of my fellow travellers, raising my eyebrows in a 'Can you believe this?!' kind of way, but not one of them acknowledged either me or the heavy petters. It really was most peculiar.

Oh, the Brits have also recently got very good at recycling. Domestic waste is sorted into various different coloured containers for plastic, glass, paper and compostable material, and these are put out on the pavement on garbage-collection day. My friend Brigitte was a tad embarrassed about the contents of her glass bin, which included possibly 10 empty wine bottles (not an unthinkable number, really, for a week's worth of consumption by two people plus, probably, a few friends here and there).

Her neighbour, a nervous-looking woman called Susan, clearly had even more of an issue with her empties than Brigitte. Susan didn't realise that I was with Brigitte (I was standing out on the road, be-hatted and be-gloved and be-scarved, enjoying the bitter biting cold of a London morning), so didn't click that I was observing and would be reporting back. Susan took the opportunity, while Brigitte was inside the house switching off lights and checking that the gas was off and so on, to surreptitiously transfer the contents of her glass container (probably about 20 empty booze bottles) into Brigitte's.

When Brigitte came out of the house and into the street, she looked down at her now-overflowing glass container and did an extremely amusing double-take. 'Vot is ziz?' she said (her German accent becomes very pronounced in times of stress). I took great delight in telling on Susan.

This morning is the first since I arrived in the UK that I haven't woken up with a crashing hangover, which has made such a pleasant change that I'm now off to Cambridge to look at colleges and churches and maybe even do a spot of punting. We're going by rail, of course, and this time I'm going to try not to end up in First Class by mistake (as I did last night, on my return trip to Hitchin from London) - although it's wonderfully comfortable, Michele has warned me that if they catch me, 'They will fine you!' Oo-er.

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Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Shell Ultra-Pretty

The thing I dread most about long car drives is stopping for a pee. Unlike my daughter who thinks public toilets rock, I have a real aversion to parking my pretty posterior on a seat that been sat upon by 3000 people in a single morning. Accordingly, we made only one wee stop on our drive between Johannesburg and Beaufort West - some 900 km; yes, I have a bladder of steel, and so does my daughter. Shell Ultra-Shitty was what I used to call these pit stops, but I have to say that the Beaufort West branch really pulled out all the stops to make my visit a pleasant one. Isn't this just lovely? The fragrance was amazing. The men's loos had the same treatment.

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Travels with Muriel II

Toinight I'm drunk in Richmond.

I got here by way of the Groucho Club in Soho, which would likely have been more interesting to me if it hadn't been so bloody hot. Look, I know English winters are cold but what's stopping these guys from just wearing jerseys indoors, like we do in the cold wet Cape winters? Instead, you freeze your arse off outside then go into swelter-down the minute you enter a building. I for one am mightily sick and tired of repeatedly removing and replacing my coat, hat, scarf and gloves. (But I did love the loos, with their handwritten sign Presticked to the mirror warning sternly: "Anyone taking illegal drugs on these premises will IMMEDIATELY be ejected from the Groucho Club." Oo-er. I thought the better of it and put my syringe away.)

But I really am dying for a cigarette.

NOBODY on this verdomde island smokes. Well, almost nobody. I saw a girl smoking a cigarette outside a Boots chemist in Hitchin this morning and I couldn't help it - I ran up to her, grabbed her sleeve and gasped, 'Oh thank god thank god please exhale in my direction.' She did that humiliating English thing of pretending she hadn't noticed me.

Hitchin is a very strange little town. I won't say too much about it now because I'm going back there tomorrow and want to gather more ammunition before I pull that trigger (I'm bouncing around this place like a rubber ball, apparently - the Engish really dislike disorganisation, and my itinerary hasn't impressed anyone) but this I will say: it's VERY weird ordering a Starbucks coffee in a 600-year-old building with moss growing on its roof.

One other thing: England is CROWDED. I have mentioned (slightly questioningly) to the friends I'm staying with the absolutely terrifying levels of traffic on the roads and the frankly nightmarish press of people EVERYWHERE. I caught a train from Hitchin to King's Cross Station (the station from which, incidentally, Harry Potter takes off for Hogwarts) at 11.30am today, a Monday - it's holiday time and I was travelling off peak - and it was so crowded I had to stand with my bum pressed up against a pensioner's forehead and my nose squashed against a Aramis-drenched teenager's back, a double bill I never ever want to repeat... When I point out the crowds to my hosts, they look at me as if I've just grown an extra set of boobs and say, 'This is a small island and SIX MILLION PEOPLE live on it.' Well, okay then, just freak me COMPLETELY out, why doncha.

Also, faaahk but is this place expensive - a 30-minute return ticket cost me 23 pounds which for we cash-strapped South Africans is about THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY RAND - for a train trip more or less the equivalent of from Rondebosch East to CT central, I am still reeling so badly from it, it's hard to tell if I'm drunk or just astonished.

(Okay, I'm drunk. They make really really good mojitos at the Groucho Club. And that's all I'm going to say about that.)

Anyway. I spent this evening listening to Bob Dylan, the Crash Test Dummies and Laurie Anderson with my mad-professor friend John and being fed and otherwise elegantly entertained by his fabulously energetic wife Brigitte. Tomorrow Brigitte and I are going to hit the British Museum in London (I want to see the Rosetta Stone). I'll keep you posted.

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Sunday, 21 December 2008

Travels with Muriel I

I'm in the UK, specifically in a very pretty area called the Hogsback, where my friend Ruth lives.

Getting here involved 26 hours of travelling (via Dubai), the first half of them in a plane that was built for about 300 people although there seemed to be about 1 500 on board. The seats were so close together that only one sitting position - hips facing forward, feet together on the floor - was possible, and until you've sat in the same position for 10 hours straight you don't know how uncomfortable this can be - it actually borders on pain.

To add to my misery the man next to me was suffering from such eye-wateringly bad halitosis that every time he opened his mouth to speak to his bud on the other side of him, he triggered my gag reflex. Although I was hugely relieved when he finally drank so much whiskey and Coke that he passed clean out, this was shortlived: in his drunken slumber, he relaxed completely, allowing his legs to fall open so that his thight ended up resting with considerably too much intimacy on mine, and his head slowly sank until it was resting on my shoulder.

Dubai airport is bizarre and wonderful architecturally. It was clearly designed by someone who's travelled a lot because its main purpose - that of moving passengers around - is fabulously well realised, although its secondary aim - that of selling as much high-priced produce to as many people in as short a time as possible - is also very efficiently achieved.

I had about an hour to kill before my London connection and was just fantasising about my bed - or anywhere, really, I could lie down; by then I hadn't slept for 24 hours - when I walked into the travel section of the airport and saw, to my disbelieving joy, serried ranks of loungers, many of them holding sleeping passengers. Now that's what I call a REAL airport! I bagged one of them, lay down, put my jacket over my head and went immediately to sleep. When my flight was called about an hour later, a kindly airport official came and gently woke me up. I have seldom been so impressed in my life.

The second leg of the journey was on the new A380 airbus and it was great - the seats, even in economy, are widely spaced and there's lots of legroom and the touch-screen TVs are new and work properly and the food is edible. I wish all planes were like that.

The purpose of my travels is to catch up with friends. Ruth kindly agreed to fetch me from Heathrow so she was first on my itinerary, and she took me for lunch at Wagamama in Guildford (luvverly Thai food), then shopping (an experience which, like all shopping experiences for me, made me immediately exhausted and weepy), then to a typical English pub for a glass of mulled wine (which perked me up). Her husband Julien cooked us a dinner of roast duck and Brussels sprouts (a vegetable I think should be put to death by the Taste Police, but which I ate because my mother raised me right), and we drank a LOT of wine. We also wrapped a lot of Christmas presents, very badly.

Later, we braved the chilly English outdoors to furtively smoke two Malboro cigarettes each. Smoking has become so infra-dig in England that if you are a puffer, you guard this knowledge closely, almost as you would a stash of S&M porn mags you might keep under your bed. (Ruth is an occasional smoker and she suspects several of her friends of being secret smokers too.)

I'm now off to Hitchin, where my friends Michele and Kevin live. I'll keep you posted.

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Monday, 8 December 2008

I can’t remember signing up for this when I had legal, socially approved, marital sex

My teens have just finished writing end-of-year exams and wanted to blow off a bit of steam.

So they started, creative creatures that they are, by having a snip-and-dye hairdresser-fest on the verandah with a few of their friends. When it was over, my son looked like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, my daughter looked like a Playboy centrefold, and I had two hours of cleaning up to do.

By that time, however, they had hit the town and, breathing a sigh of relief, I climbed into bed with a good book.

At some ungodly hour of the morning I was woken by hysterical screams. I sprang from my bed, my hair putting all its little hands up. Racing out of the house, intent on saving some poor innocent denizen from certain death, I was confronted by scene straight out of a teen-slasher movie: what seemed to be dozens of (but turned out to be about 10) teenagers, butt-naked, leaping noisily in and out of my pool.

‘This isn’t acceptable!’ I shouted, King Canute-like, from the top step of the verandah. ‘You must leave!’

I was resoundingly ignored.

A person stumbled past me, looking intent on sucking someone’s neck. My son!

‘Hey!’ I yelled at him. ‘Get these people out of here!’

He gazed at me in a diffuse kind of way, then said, amiably enough, ‘Okay, ma,’ before plunging into the plumbago and falling fast asleep.

It took about half an hour and a lot of ungentle encouragement to get the last of the teens into their clothes, on their feet, and off my property.

I had to physically remove my son (who is 6’3’’ and has swimmer’s shoulders) from the herbaceous border and into his bed, while my daughter spent some time indulging in a technicolour yawn in the bathroom.

Let this be a warning to those newlyweds who say, with stars in their eyes, ‘Darling, let’s have a baby.’

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I won a washing machine!

I’ve never won anything in my life – and especially not the stereo system I was promised by the time-share crooks I mention in ‘comments’ under Juno’s last post below – so when I entered our local Pick ‘n’ Pay competition to win a variety of prizes, I didn’t think for a second that I’d be successful.

But the first prize was R20 000-worth of food-shopping vouchers, and, given that I live with two teenagers and (often) a variety of their friends, who are able to clear about a thousand bucks’ worth of groceries out of the fridge and cupboards in a single weekend (and I’m not exaggerating), I thought I’d give it a go.

And guess what? I won the fourth prize! A brand-new washing machine!

Sure, it’s not R20 000-worth of food vouchers – but the woman who won that actually broke down and cried, so her need was clearly greater than mine.

And my lovely old washing machine, which has given me faultless service for over 15 years, is definitely past time to be put out to pasture. (It is to be donated to a young couple with a new baby, so will go on to do more good things, although probably with a lighter load.)

Thanks, Pick ‘n’ Pay!

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I am broke – AND, apparently, look old enough to be my friend’s mother

I haven’t posted on salma for a while, and thanks to those of you who noticed (that's you, Johann).

Part of the reason for this is that I have found myself financially embarrassed and, as happens in these circumstances, somewhat paralysed. I can’t really work more than I do (I work a lot; and there isn’t, given the world’s financial climate and the global end-of-the-year closedown, a whole horde of freelance work going around right now) and I don’t have useful things like savings or policies I can dip into or cash up.

So I’ve been lying awake at night a lot, biting my pillow.

Finally, I decided that I should sell my house. I love my house but it’s a very big house and next year it will be, relatively speaking, even bigger, when my son goes off to university in another town – it seems somewhat profligate for just me and my daughter to be rattling around in a large rambling four-bedroomed house on a big piece of land.

So I asked a friend/estate agent, Annie, to come around and do an evaluation.

As it happened, when Annie arrived, with Susan, an estate-agent-in-training, in tow, the house was full of people – my two teens and some of their friends; and my 34-year-old friend Dean, who is living with us temporarily.

The two women had to put their nose into all the rooms – that is what estate agents do – and Dean’s was one of them. Dean, dear thing that he is, isn’t the tidiest person on the planet, and I felt driven to say, on opening the door to his room and being confronted with what looked a little like bomb site, ‘Oh, sorry, excuse the snakepit.’ Dean, who was hovering, laughed uneasily.

Susan, who doesn’t know me or my family from Joe Soap, shot Dean a maternal look, then whispered in my ear, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve also got a son in his 20s. They’re messy buggers, aren’t they?’

Too astonished and affronted to correct her mistake (Dean is only 10 years younger than me, for goodness sake), I smiled grimly. But I did tell Dean later that it was high time that he started growing some grey hairs.

Left: Me and my friend (not son) Dean, playing silly buggers with a disposable camera and a mirror.

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Monday, 1 December 2008

Another blogger feels the lash

Nothing spoils my day like the news that a blogger has been threatened for voicing his or her opinion. First, Cape Town blogger and theatre critic Megan Choritz felt the lash across her pitiful shoulders, and now another local blogger, Donn Edwards, is being sued for defamation for criticising the RCI-affiliated Quality Vacation Club. In short, his wife was told she'd won a car, but when the Edwardses arrived at the 'prize-giving ceremony' they found that it was just another timeshare marketing shindig. Has this company, and its legal advisors, never heard of the Streisand Effect? Do the words 'laughing stock' and 'Justin Nurse' not ring any bells with them?

If you've also been 'scammed', here's how you can help Donn.

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