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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