Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The dog ate my Christmas present

Our family Christmas present to ourselves this year was a game of Jenga. As evidenced by this photo, it’s probably best to pick up all the blocks as soon as they fall, especially if the Monster Baby is skulking around under the table at the time.

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Tony Park comes to Kasteel (again)

In January 2008, following a lengthy email correspondence, bestselling Aussie author Tony Park and his wife Mrs Blog came to Riebeek Kasteel and we partied all night. A week ago they visited again – but this time ‘just for lunch’ because they had things to do and people to see in the city the next day, and Mrs Blog still remembers the difficulty with which they had to negotiate real life the day after our last get-together.

We had a sensible lunch (thanks, Tony!) at Auntie Pasti, and we kept our wine drinking to a minimum because the Parks had to deal with red tape the next morning and everyone knows such things can’t be done on a hangover. So I can’t really remember when or how things deteriorated, but, well, they did. It wasn’t helpful that I hadn’t prepared anything for dinner but that we nonetheless partied on for many, many hours, fuelled only by what we’d eaten at lunchtime, plus a large helping of the giant lemon-meringue pie Chris had brought a few days previously. (And which is still feeding much of the neighbourhood – thanks, Chris!)

During the course of a long and winding night, I did learn that Tony doesn’t only write fabulously – he also plays various kinds of guitar, including air-guitar (below left) and person-guitar (below right).

It’s probably just as well we get together only every three years.

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If you want to really get lost, key it into your GPS

Global Positioning Systems are space-based navigation gadgets that provide reliable location information, including verbal instructions on how to get from A to B. But, like all computers, they are only as strong as their weakest link – often a human.

So if you’re my friend Ruth (a gadget freak of note), and you’re coming from Robertson to Riebeek Kasteel for lunch, you don’t just glance at an AA map and realise that it’s a fairly direct route through Worcester and Tulbagh. That would be far too easy. Instead, you key the exact street address into your GPS, then you pile your family into the car and drive for an hour, following the verbal prompts, until the voice tells you you’ve arrived, and you look around in some surprise, because although you’ve visited the house several times before, the place you’re parked outside isn’t ringing any bells. None at all. And then you realise that although you are indeed at the right street address, you’re not in the right town. You are, in fact, in De Doorns, a good hour up the highway in the opposite direction.

But Ruth and her family arrived eventually, and we had a reunion of sorts – Chris (back left), Bruce (back right), Ruth (in blue) and I (in pink) used to jol together in Cape Town back in the day – over 20 years ago! – before Chris and Ruth emigrated (separately) to the UK, Bruce semigrated to Durban and I moved temporarily to Botswana. That’s the ‘now’ pic. The ‘then’ pics (below) were taken on one of the last occasions we were all together in one place at the same time – my wedding in 1988 (Chris, Bruce and I, and Ruth).

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Sunday, 12 December 2010

A trip to the big naartjie

It’s amazing what you can squeeze into 48 hours if you’re motivated enough. And this weekend, on a trip to Johannesburg for a cousin’s wedding, my sister and I were moved to compress an astonishing amount into the few hours available to us on either side of the nuptial celebrations.

First stop, the dentist
My sister bought a packet of chips on the Kulula flight from Cape Town to Joburg, and somehow managed to swallow half a tooth along with them. So when we landed at Lanseria, our first call was to my friend M to find out if she knew of a dentist who’d be prepared, late on a Friday afternoon, to fit a temporary filling. She didn’t, but she phoned around and found one.

It was a ‘holistic’ dentistry practice (a term we’re still puzzling over), and the dentist, who came to meet us in the waiting room, was chatty enough to compel me to point in a bossy way at my imaginary wrist-watch. (She also intimated that she wasn’t above drugging her patients and then stealing their money, which made me a little uneasy; but my sister managed to leave her credit card behind by mistake, and the receptionist ran after the car when we were leaving to return it, so I must assume she was joking.)

Landing at Lanseria
I have fond memories of this little ‘international’ (ag, sweet) airport. Many years ago I lived in Botswana, and it was from this airport that I’d fly to and from Maun.

Once, after a heavy night of too much red wine and just the right amount of jollity, and then about six cups of tea the next morning to try to wash the alcohol out of my bloodstream, I neglected to go to the loo before taking to the skies from Lanseria for the two-hour flight in a 10-seater with – fortunately, as it turned out – only the young pilot for company. About an hour out, I couldn’t hold it any more, and was reduced to crouching in the back of the plane and peeing into a sick bag (small planes don’t have toilets). The pilot found this so terribly amusing that he radioed ahead to the swamps to describe the event in fairly intricate detail. So forever afterwards I was known as The Girl Who Peed In The Sickbag. Not nearly as fabulous as She Who Runs With Wolves, for instance.

Anyway, Lanseria is really just a little country airport, rather chaotic, especially when the comparatively larger Kulula flights arrive and several hundred people mill ill-temperedly all over the place, dragging their pull-along luggage over people’s toes, but what sets it apart (and always has) is that it has an outdoor viewing deck, from where you can watch planes land and take off, and there’s little as eye- (and ear-) popping as seeing an aeroplane leave the ground and soar into the air just a few hundred metres away. It’s just miraculous.

Driving the sewing machine
When we went to the hire-car lot, we were happy to see that we’d lucked out with a 1600 Toyota Corolla, but then puzzled when we couldn’t get the key into the ignition. And that was because we were in the wrong car. The right car turned out to be an 1100 Hyundai Atos, a vehicle that at top speed (about 80kph) sounds like a Singer sewing machine, and which throws a hissy fit if you’re presumptuous enough to employ the aircon while the motor is running. And if you’re going up a hill at the time, the sudden loss of power is potentially fatal in Joburg rush-hour traffic, and induces hysteria in the occupants.

Meeting up with M
My friend M and I have been soul sisters since the first day of Grade 1 – we’ve been best friends for 40 years. I’m not going to tell you where she lives because you may take advantage of the information, but here’s a thing: in a Johannesburg suburb that bristles with electrified fences, huge steel gates, intercoms, burglar bars, burglar alarms, garden beams, vicious dogs, night watchmen and the like, not only does she and her family of husband and three boys (aged 5 to 13) live an ordinary life without ‘benefit’ of any of these things, but their front door lock has been broken for years – their house doesn’t lock. In over a decade of living this way in the crime capital of South Africa, they have never had a break-in or experienced a violent crime of any kind. My sister and I decided that their abundant (and it is abundant) good energy protects them. [This pic: My friend M (on the left) and me (on the right) with my travelling-companion sister (at top) and my youngest sister (at bottom) in 1974 - M and I were 10 years old.]

And that’s not all. Their garden is a veritable Jurassic Park of giant cycads, mature trees, rock gardens, and enticing little copses and coves. And through this mini-paradise hop two bunnies (who are on ridiculously friendly terms with the resident cat and all his friends), and three chickens peck about peacefully, the two fine-looking roosters stopping only to crow their little hearts out from time to time – a surprisingly comforting sound for a country girl to hear in built-up suburban Jozi. [This pic: My friend M (on the left) and me (on the right) today - M and I are 46 years old.]

It was a good place to make our base.

Off to the wedding
M had put on a handsome feast for us on Friday night, so on Saturday morning, the day of the wedding, my sister and I decided to give her a break, and take off early and find somewhere to have breakfast.

Which we would have done if we hadn’t got hopelessly lost in the wilds of Pretoria. (And all I’m saying here is that it wasn’t the navigator’s fault.) We took over two hours to complete the 40-minute trip to the venue, and it was a journey punctuated by frequent stops to ask for directions and buy takeaway food. And, of course, snipe at each other. Thank god the Voortrekkers were responsible for conquering the hinterland, because had it been left up to two women of English extraction, they’d still be dithering somewhere around Colesberg, wondering where north was.

The wedding
It was breathtakingly beautiful. The bride and groom were handsome and radiant, respectively; the ceremony was held outdoors, ditto the reception – on blankets in a gorgeous garden; and the yummy food was provided in picnic baskets. The weather behaved beautifully (some attributed this to the direct line the groom has to Jesus).

The only sour note for me was the sermon (and why is it always thus?). The minister banged on for a good 30 minutes – at one stage even taking the time to admire his own anger – about the definitive roles of specifically males and females in god’s grand plan, and how modern society ‘distorts’ these. It was a thinly veiled but vicious attack on homosexuality, and it offended me. It was also, in my view, all just a little too much protesting. And you know what Shakespeare had to say about that.

The sermon was, for me, in stark contrast to the fine and beautiful wedding I attended here in Riebeek Kasteel some years ago; and echoed, uncomfortably, the bible-bashing I sat through at another nuptial event.

There was also much good-natured chit-chat about the fact that both bride and groom were virgins. (This state of affairs turned the occasion into – ironically, I would have thought – a somewhat sexually charged one.) My sister, who by then had drunk of the white wine thoughtfully provided, commented that perhaps, after all the build-up, there was always the possibility that the main event would turn out to be disappointing (these things have been known to happen). She was overheard by a nearby guest, who said, smugly, ‘It will be awesome. Jesus will be there.’ (I quote verbatim.) I leave it to you to imagine what having sex for the first time might be like with Jesus looking over your shoulder.

The rest of Saturday
My sister went jolling with our brother, which was a good thing because we see very little of him, living as we do in cities 1 600km apart. I drove the sewing machine back to M’s place through a phenomenal thunderstorm, including forked lightning that struck about with stunning force and regularity, and which made me remember how much I loved growing up in Joburg. And a dinner with M’s family – with whom I largely grew up too – was the perfect way to end the day.

Meeting up with the other M
The other M was my first boyfriend. Before this weekend we hadn’t seen each other for 20 years (although we’ve always kept in contact). And here’s another thing: we all grow older – our experiences change our faces and time changes our bodies; and sometimes just the act of living changes our minds. [This pic: M and me in 1981 - I was 17 years old, M 21.]

But it was so wonderful to finally be in the same room again as this man, who was so important to me when I was a teenager, and to realise that there was quite simply instant (and very loving) recognition. [This pic: Me and M yesterday. I am 46, M is 51.]

Last touch
Then it was Sunday, and time to go. But first: breakfast with J&S, my sister’s brother-in-law and his partner, in their The Palace at the Lost City house – wherever you look, plush carpets, luxurious satin curtains, orchids and a profusion of greenery, water features, artworks, mirrors, and a baby grand (of course), and all put together in a deceivingly ‘little’ house tucked behind a modest gate, a treasure trove of grace and loveliness. These are two men whose palpable affection and respect for each other – and for their friends and extended families – makes being with them a pleasure. They broke out the family silver for us, ‘royalty from Cape Town’, and the hour we spent with them took the sting out of the minister’s sermon for me.

There are, after all, many ways to love.

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Saturday, 27 November 2010

Aah, the festive season

It comes around fast, doesn’t it? One minute you’re thinking about what you might be cooking for dinner tonight, the next you’re being pressed for your plans for the 24th, 25th and 31st. Of December. And you’re still in October.

But that’s the thing about the festive season: one minute it’s something you’re going to get around to thinking about once you’ve done everything else on your to-do list, the next it’s here. And you’re forewarned, even if you don’t want to be: this year, I saw my first TV Christmas ad (like last year, for Fruit & Veg City) at the end of September.

So what are you doing for Christmas Eve? Christmas Day? New Year’s Eve?

For many years, while my kids were growing up, Christmas Eve followed a fairly established pattern. I and my kids, various friends and their kids, and other members of the family and their kids, would gather at my parents’ house in Cape Town. There, we would eat mountainous amounts of food, drink as much as our kidneys could process and then a bit, dance in a very silly way to very silly music, and, after midnight, once all the children had been put to bed in various corners of the house, assemble a complicated train set.

My son was my father’s first grandson (although he already had two granddaughters) and clearly he really wanted him to have a train set. My father’s first gift to my son, age one day, was a wooden engine and three cabs, which my son, over the next year or so, jawed, drooled on and flung across the room, before moving on to more interesting things like my box of bead necklaces.

My father, not a bit discouraged, bought my son, for his third Christmas, another, slightly more intricate train set (in that it included a simple circular railway), which we faithfully set up after midnight that Christmas Eve (always a challenge, given how much wine was consumed before this act of creation began). On Christmas morning an argument ensued between my son and my father: my son agreed to be the station master only if he could exchange the station master’s peak cap for his sister’s fairy wings. And still my dad didn’t twig.

Two Christmases on, and my father hadn’t given up the fight. This time, the train set had 120 pieces, which required the combined skills of about six sozzled adults to assemble, and even then it wasn’t done with extreme success (the bridge went nowhere, and when we finished we realised we’d somehow neglected to include the tunnel; about 20 pieces of track and other scaffolding were discovered under the sofa the next day). The train was battery-powered and came with a range of different cabs – passenger, rolling stock, water tanker, etc. On Christmas morning my son, then 5 years old, made a stand: he’s be station master, by all means, but only if he could be so in the person of his sister’s Malibu Barbie. And he wanted to wear his sister’s Princess shoes too. My father dug in his heels: fine, he said: but then my son had to help him mow the lawn first.

Anyway! And so on to Christmas Day. Since the grandchildren had usually started the morning in a glut of excitability at 4.30am, and all the presents had been opened in a butchery of festive wrapping by 4.33am, all that remained for the adults was to clean up the mess, take some painkillers, make a greasy breakfast, drink champagne and orange juice, stand on various spiky children’s toys, lose their temper with their offspring and spouses, and, by 7.30am, wonder if it was too early to fuck off home.

It was: because it was around this time that my mother would begin making her famous salmon mousse in preparation for the big blowout Christmas Day lunch, in case anybody’s internal organs were in any way in need of yet more saturated fats.

My mother’s salmon mousse was a source of hilarity in our family, thanks to Monty Python’s Mr Death sketch. So I was surprised, a few years before my mom died, when she asked me why everyone laughed hysterically every time she said the words ‘salmon mousse’. ‘Don’t you know?’ I asked, genuinely astonished. She didn’t. For almost 20 years my mother made salmon mousse, we all chortled at it, and she never thought to ask why.

I’m going to draw a veil over much of Christmas Day, except to say this: by lunchtime, all the children’s toys are broken and all the adults are overtired. The kids who haven’t fallen down in an exhausted heap are crying, hiccupping or throwing up, and the grownups are either laughing like hyaenas or declaring undying love for each other, almost always inappropriately.

Then, just as you’re recovering, New Year’s Eve arrives. Not to teach you to suck eggs or anything, but unplanned (or at least vaguely dishevelled) New Year’s Eve parties are usually the best. My favourite one was a hectic party for about 40 people that I was supposed to share with two friends who, for valid reasons (excessive drunkenness and overenthusiastic ingestion of a psychotropic drug, respectively), didn’t turn up, but whose friends did. So my indefatigable mother and I ended up catering for a horde of strangers on a South African summer’s evening that encompassed, bizarrely, a tsunami-type windstorm that swept the tables, chairs, several large vases of flowers and two little old ladies all the way down the garden, and a monsoon-style downpour that ruined all the women’s makeup and forced everyone into a space large enough, in normal day-to-day life, to have a modest snuggle with a small cat. It was such fun.

Less fun was * being stuck in traffic as the clock struck 12 * being subtly commandeered, at someone else’s party, to be part of the domestic drudgery (I don’t do this to you when you come to my house, please don’t do it to me when I come to yours) * starting too early, then clock-watching from 10pm * starting too early, then waking up the next morning and realising I'd missed all the festivities * high-spiritedly feeding a guest an excess of black sambucca, then having to wash the black vomit out of my down duvet the next day.

Aah, the festive season. I can’t wait.

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Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Change

For a while now I’ve been feeling as if my parallel self has broken through from that other universe and taken over my life – I’ve felt almost like me, but not quite. I’ve been even more absentminded than usual (socks in the rubbish bin, rubbish in the laundry basket, that kind of thing), gripped by deep anxiety from time to time, and my feet have been tingling. I googled my symptoms and found out I have diabetes.

This was a revelation, as of all the things I could die of in a long and alarming family history of fatal ailments (including but by no means limited to strokes, cancer and insanity), diabetes isn’t one of them. So I keyed in a couple more of my symptoms (bizarre temperature fluctuations, difficulty sleeping) and found out I am in menopause.

Now, I am not a woman who has ever really known where in my menstrual cycle I am – for about 30 years, the monthly arrival of my period has been a big surprise (and seldom a pleasant one). This probably explains why I was almost five months gone before I discovered I was pregnant with my first child, and almost as shocked five months after his birth when I realised I was up the spout again. (Then I had my tubes tied – the only solution, really, for someone as clearly clueless as me.) So it took a great deal of paging backwards and forwards in my diary, and adding and subtracting multiples of 7, to work out that my period is indeed some months late. (Of course, I could always be pregnant – but only if the universe if playing a particularly cruel trick on me by causing a horrible miracle.)

I know next to nothing about menopause. I do recall when I was a kid a friend of my mother’s behaving in a disturbing way (crying, mostly), and my mother murmuring that it was as a result of ‘The Change’ – a fabulously mysterious term that nonetheless (now that I am having it) does describe very well what it feels like. My mother herself acted erratically for a while when she was in her early 50s or so (also, crying, mostly). She died some years ago, so I recently asked my father if he remembered exactly how old she’d been when she went through The Change and he said, no, and anyway that it can’t have been too hectic for her since he can’t remember it at all. Men!

Anyway, since menopause isn’t a medical condition and is just a phase of life, I’ve decided I’m going to enjoy it. Primarily, I’m going to absolutely love the absence of periods – no more fuss and mess when caught in a four-hour meeting or an hour-long traffic jam, no more needing to be within dashing distance of a loo for five days of every month, and no more spending on pads and tampons what over a fertile lifetime must be enough to finance at least a second car and maybe even a second house.

I and those around me are also going to love the demise of my monthly Princess Mental Syndrome, that week or so when a wrong look can cause floods of tears, lost car keys result in a volcanic temper tantrum and hapless telesalespeople are subjected to diatribes that can be heard at the end of the block.

I’m going happily into my Wise Woman years – I buy wholly into the theory, still held in several indigenous cultures, that with my reproductive life safely behind me, I can now concentrate on my inner self and become an Elder. I’m assuming this is going to involve a lot of sitting on the verandah, drinking good wine and holding forth – which I have, admittedly, been doing for years, but now I’m going to insist that people actually listen to me.

Above: Johann and I illustrate behaviour that may or may not be appropriate for Elders.

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Saturday, 20 November 2010

Oh, all right, here it is. Blogs, blogging, and basic decency

I suppose you need to know the exceedingly boring history behind this mind-numbing story.. zzz.... oh, sorry, dozed off... to appreciate its finer details, but I'm going to spare you all that, slap myself on the cheeks and cut to the chase.

In response to the eager enquiries of my dear Twitter friends, here is a copy of the restrained but cheerfully snotty comment I left (still unpublished and unapproved; I think the owner of said blog is sound asleep) on this post by Carl Momberg on, which has gripped the attention of Cape Towns's restaurant-grazers and navel-scratchers. [Note: my comment now appears on the site.]

Here goes:

I'm not afraid to put my name to this.

Blogs, in an ideal world, are places where people who aren't professional writers or journalists - and who wouldn't normally stand a chance of being published in mainstream media - can express themselves, build a following, and become online stars (or even superstars). They can say stuff they'd never be allowed to say if they were constrained by the policies of a newspaper or magazine house, and they can speak their minds openly, which is as it should be in any free society that espouses freedom of speech.

But when blogs - and other social media - become festering hotbeds where feuds are aired, dirty linen is hung out, egos are polished and axes are ground down to blunt weapons, no one really benefits. Not bloggers, not their audience, not the topic at hand (in this case, the Cape tourism and hospitality industry) and certainly not the amazing pool of knowledge and opinion that is the Internet.

I apologise for the mash-up of metaphors in the paragraph above, and if I sound like I'm pontificating. But I'm sick and tired of the negativity, the character assassination and the low-level bitching going on, particularly in the competitive and often astonishingly nasty Cape Town food/wine/restaurant blogging scene. (To be honest? The world isn't that interested in what you had for lunch today.)

I'd like to see more civility, more constructive criticism, more professionalism and some basic decency.

I'd like to see good, informed opinion, excellent writing, lively debate and thoughtful analysis. I'd like to see every blog post adding something of interest and value to the Internet, so that people who read our posts - and they surely will - in two hundred years' time will actually glean something useful from what we have to say. In short, a little cool-headed respect all round.

Jane-Anne Hobbs (

And here endeth the sermon.

POSTSCRIPT: Chris Von Ulmenstein has responded to the post mentioned above on her blog, Whale Cottage. Click here to read her response.

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Saturday, 23 October 2010

dstv suits me

Since seeing the movie What’s Eating Gilbert Grape in 1994, my ultimate life goal has been to lie in bed watching TV and eating until I grow so fat that I suffocate quietly in my sleep and then have to be removed from my home by a crane. (Actually, that’s not true. My goal was to be Liv Tyler – who isn’t in the movie – and live happily ever after with Johnny Depp. But we must work with what we have.)

My Mrs Grape goal has been somewhat thwarted by the need to constantly get out of bed to clean my teeth, transport my kids hither and thither, shop for supplies, sweep the kitchen, do the laundry, take the dogs for a walk and the cats to the vet, dance in a silly way late at night to Neil Diamond and backwash the pool. And it has been further frustrated by the fact that I’ve only ever had what Johann and I call ‘poor man’s TV’ (SABC 1, 2 and 3 and e) and, when my oldfashioned braai-grid aerial and the prevailing winds allowed it, MNet (far less often than I would have liked for the cost of my subscription) – not enough reason, it must be said, to keep me in bed.

But recently a number of things happened that culminated in my getting the Select 1 bouquet on dstv. These involved the donation of a decoder by my sister; several frustrating phonecalls to get quotes for the installation of a dish, which ranged over such puzzlingly wide sums that I wondered if I were being filmed for a Candid Camera insert; an argument with the company I finally chose, who insisted I chop down several of my precious trees in order to get a signal, alternatively (a suggestion offered by the ‘helpful’ owner of the company) move the house; and an additional payment (there’s always one, isn’t there?) for a special bracket to place the dish in a way that would obviate either killing the trees or repositioning the homestead.

And, voila, I had dstv.

My options on Select 1 include a multitude of sports and news and religion channels, none of which I’ll ever watch, and then a few channels that I will: MNet Action, MNet Series, Universal and National Geographic. Nothing that plays on any of these channels is current. The movies and series are at least five years old, and the movies are of such astonishing B-grade awfulness that you’ve simply got to sit through them. (When last did you see Rebecca de Mornay and Don Johnson starring sleazily together? It’s like watching a train crash – so horrible that you just can’t tear your eyes away.)

But the best thing about dstv is that they repeat everything endlessly. I haven’t counted it all up, but on balance I’d estimate that the number of shows shown for the first time on those four channels probably amount to about, oh, 16 or so hours of original viewing. The other 152 hours in the week are repeats. Interestingly, some of the channels make this a virtue: they brazenly admit that they repeat everything three or four times over each 24-hour period and double on the weekends, and then tell you it’s because you’re too busy to watch everything and they’re doing it for your benefit.

But actually, in my case, they are.

I’m a lifelong insomniac, and one of the few things that is absolutely guaranteed to send me off to sleep is watching TV. So, after years of missing the ends of episodes and/or having to re-hire movies to find out what happened, all I have to do now is turn on my TV at practically any time of the day or night, and whatever I’d started watching (sometimes several times) earlier in the week is there again, for my leisurely viewing pleasure. It’s bloody fantastic.

(It goes without saying that I’d rather fall asleep to and then later catch up on a better standard of movie than that offered by my Select 1 bouquet – but, as with the Liv Tyler/Johnny Depp scenario, we have to work with what we have.)

Another plus has been finally really cottoning on to Johann’s obsession with the retail therapy that is Glomail. (Oy, that odious man who tells us about ‘his’ promise to ‘us’? My nightmares about him repeat about as often as dstv’s offerings.) Nonetheless, I want a bobble remover. I want a slinky hose. I want a thingie that chops onions into a salsa in three flicks of the wrist. I do. I want all those things.

But Johann wants them more. Recently he got paid a big invoice, and he decided to treat himself to (and I quote him) either a weedeater or a lawnmower (both of which he does actually need). He came by my place to try to persuade me to go shopping for them with him (which would involve a trek to a nearby big town, a fair investment in going outside and driving in a car), but the last time I did, I ended up with four satin cushions that the dogs ate and a curtain that would look wonderful on the mother-in-law at an Indian wedding but does little for my kitchen window. And none of which I could afford.

So I said I’d go with him if he ate the macaroni-cheese I was making, which did involve macaroni but didn’t involve cheese and did involve a lot of spinach. The answer on both sides was an unsurprising ‘no’.

Later, I SMSd him to find out if he’d got his weedeater/lawnmower. This is his response (unedited): ‘Yes. A lawnmower, that magic washing ball, a teeth-whitening kit, a Shogun knife sharpener, a car charger for the cellphone, hormone replacement for older men, a lawn sprinkler, and peaches and cream for dinner.’

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Thursday, 21 October 2010


I lost my voice last Friday night.

It’s the first time this has ever happened to me, and it was a fascinating (and sometimes frustrating) experience. But I can’t say that being forced into constantly-listening mode was all bad.

Although of course first I had to listen to all the funnies. My kids thought it all superbly amusing. They made me try shouting, ‘I’m really cross with you!’ and fell about laughing when I screamed so loud the veins stood out furiously on my forehead and I couldn’t be heard more than 15 centimetres away. ‘Where are my socks, ma?’ my son asked, and when I told him, he said, ‘Is that a secret?’ Har-de-har-har. And when the phone rang, and I answered – obviously – and the person on the other end said, ‘Hello? Hello? Hello?’ – well, that was the funniest of all.

But perhaps the most interesting thing was hosting a party for about 30 people on Sunday, for my 46th birthday, and not being able to be heard. I had the most amazing backup in my astonishingly energetic friend Brigitte (a retired air steward, she is constantly coming in to land, which is very useful in large groups of hungry people), and everyone generally got on with things without my having to play director – in fact, probably a sight better than they would have without my offering my opinions (of which I have several, about everything).

My friend P (pictured here, at far left; that's me sitting silently in the middle, with my new short hair; and my friend T is on the right of the pic) took the opportunity – with astounding intuition – to make a speech on my behalf.

Now, my father has made speeches for me – on my 21st and at my wedding – but then he had to, and both times I think it’s fair to say he took the piss out of me (and, to be fair to both of us, I’m the kind of person it’s pretty easy to take the piss out of) but P was specific: she asked me beforehand if she could say a few words because, she said, she’d wanted to for a while.

She spoke about when we first met, 22 years ago, on Noordhoek beach (we were both there for boys – of course); about the ‘hazy, crazy days’ of the ’80s, which we both lived through with a great deal of enthusiasm and a severe shortage of sleep; and about how we’ve kept in contact through some hectic upheavals in both our lives. She reaffirmed that friendships – real friendships: formed in fun, based on loyalty, tested in adversity, strengthened through longevity, reinforced by differences, authenticated by similarities – are what enliven our world.

It turns out, sometimes you don’t need a voice. You just need ears.

* These photographs were taken at my birthday party by my darling Juno – also a real friend, over many years and many experiences, loyal through thick and thin.

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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

An encounter with baboons

I thought the most stressful thing about our group walk on Saturday morning would be getting all the participants (6 dogs, 3 adults and 2 children) onto the mountain before the cows came home.

My friend A doesn’t like getting up early, and even when I perked the coffee and left it tantalisingly in the kitchen, she refused to get out of bed until she had been served in situ.

Then our friend W, with her 2 dogs, arrived late. ‘Only by 6 minutes!’ A said, rolling her eyes at me – but if you add the additional 30 minutes it took to get A moving, time was marching on. (‘Patience’ is not, it must be admitted, my middle name.)

Then there was the collection of A’s son from a friend’s – when we arrived, he was standing at the gate, as instructed, and I was thrilled; but then I realised he was desultorily munching on a piece of toast and was barefoot – we had interrupted his breakfast and he required that we wait for him to finish it, and find his shoes. By the time we’d loaded him and the other kid into the car, the dogs were going nuts, my head was crackling, and A was apologising profusely (not to me; for me).

But finally – finally! – we were on the lower slopes of the mountain, the dogs were let out of the cars and ran maniacally all over the place, and we were off.

We took the longish route I walk every day, up behind the Allesverloren vineyards on the slopes of the Kasteelberg, which is effectively a mini wilderness area. The latest Riebeek Valley Handbook (the ‘essential guide for visitors and residents’) tells us that the mountain is home to 150 bird varieties, too many plant species to count (including over 100 varieties of orchid), and civet cats, dassies, porcupines, bushpigs, steenbok and baboons.

So we panted up the slope, the dogs having a grand old time. Poppy (a wiry-haired terrier-type street special) cockily kicked up dust; the elderly Harry (a shaggy, inky Collie-cross-something) kept to our heels; Simba (a ridiculously handsome young golden retriever) ran ahead, along with Sara the Wobbly Dog; Hullabaloo ran circles around us; and Tara (a fat little daschund) tottered along on her tiny legs, barking at everything that moved…

… when suddenly a terrible screaming rent the air. (I don’t think I’ve ever used the word ‘rent’ like this, but, believe me, ‘rent’ is what it did.)

‘Oh, god!’ said W. ‘I think Poppy’s caught a bird.’

A bird on this part of the mountain would likely be a Cape francolin, a helmeted guineafowl or maybe even a peacock, so we envisaged a nasty scene of bloodied feathers and flying fur. W called for Poppy – who, surprisingly, ran up to us… at the exact moment that Sara and Simba, sensing something we couldn’t see, took off away from us along the trail as if their tails were on fire.

The screaming sound went on and on, horrifyingly, and we added to the confusion by screaming Simba and Sara’s names, to no avail.

And then we saw the problem. Baboons.

Now, anyone who lives in the western Cape is familiar with the problem, down on the Peninsula, of troops of baboons who’ve been habituated to humans (who haven’t helped matters by feeding them), and who as a result have become extremely aggressive. Baboons are big, clever creatures, and the adult males have terrifying teeth. Any South African knows not to approach a baboon – it is a wild animal and if it feels threatened, it will attack.

And there was no doubt that the baboons we’d run into felt threatened. So would I, if two large dogs were after me and my family.

And so for 20 minutes pandemonium reigned. We corralled and leashed the dogs we could get our hands on (Harry, Balu and Poppy); W held them. A bushwhacked off the trail, straight up into the wilderness, screaming for Simba. I ran to the edge of the kloof up which the dogs had disappeared, shouting for Sara and Simba. Tara, the daschund, leapt unhelpfully around my feet, barking dementedly. The children were, like us, terrified. The sounds of shaking trees, breaking branches, snarling and shrieking continued.

Then, eventually, Sara came running up out of the kloof, followed by Simba. Both dogs looked immensely pleased with themselves, as if causing an adrenaline surge that could probably be felt on the Richter scale was just the ticket for a sunny Saturday morning.

Quickly, we examined them. Sara was unharmed. Simba, however, had a deep gash in his neck. The vet later told us the wound hadn't been caused by a baboon – more likely by a branch or sharp piece of rock that had snagged Simba in his headlong rush up the kloof. It took 6 stitches to close.

Once we’d all calmed down, we were able to work out what had happened. The initial screaming sound we’d heard was a warning being given by a baboon sentry – during the hysteria we could see him, perched on a rock outcrop up the kloof. The baboons reacted, sensibly, by running away from us and our dogs – but by then Simba and Sara had seen them and gave chase. Fortunately for us, these baboons are not at all habituated to humans, and all they wanted to do was get away – although I daresay that if one of the dogs had caught one of them, there would have been a different end to this story.

And next time I invite any youngsters along for a nice walk on the mountain and they say, ‘Do we haaave to? It’s so booooring!’ I’m going to just smile and nod.

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Friday, 1 October 2010

Really, really nice things about growing older

From a physical point of view, this growing-older thing doesn’t have a lot to recommend it. Stuff that used to point up (breasts) point down. Stuff that used to be thick (hair) becomes thin. Stuff that used to be thin (ankles) becomes thick. Getting up is always accompanied by an oomphy sound, like an elephant getting poked in the stomach. And - I tell you this from personal experience - don’t try and do a cartwheel because it will hurt.

However, in discussion with various similarly aged friends, we came up with several pluses.


Remember when you were younger and your parents would encourage you to go with them for a ‘nice walk’ after lunch? And you would say, ‘Do I haaaave to? It’s so boooring!’ There was really little you could think of that you’d rather do less than a toadilly pointless meander up a mountain or along a beach (except maybe wash the dishes, tidy your room or get a job).

But as time goes by and your body becomes less willing to go for a 10km bike ride first thing in the morning or a 5km run after work, the value of a ‘nice walk’ becomes apparent. I never thought I’d say this, but here goes: walking is one of my favourite pastimes. It’s free, you need no specialised equipment, you can do it alone or in company, and it’s good for you physically (20 minutes of enthusiastic walking three times a week is all a normal person needs to stay relatively fit and healthy) and mentally (it takes you away from your computer and provides brain space for creative thinking).

And the dogs love it.

Having dogs

If you aren’t getting married and settling down in your youth (in which case a golden retriever becomes de rigueur, along with the people-carrier, plush leather sofa and washing machine), you’re probably not at home enough to be a good pet owner.

I had pets thrust upon me in my late 30s – a cat that turned up and refused to leave (despite frankly pitiless attempts to make it unwelcome) and a dog that did similar and almost immediately became deathly ill, resulting in an emotional and financial trauma that bonded us like shit to a blanket.

But, judging by the experiences of my friends of a similar age (mid-40s), I would have finally gone down the pet route anyway. Remarkably, even those who were not ‘pet people’ in their youth suddenly acquire and become doting owners of dogs and/or cats.

This has a salutary effect on your social life. Bizarrely, just as your kids reach they age where, if left unsupervised, they will no longer stick their fingers straight into an electric socket or plunge to their certain death in the swimming pool, and you can finally go out without worrying yourself half to death – you can’t go out any more, because the dogs will be too unsettled.

But that’s okay, because you’re happy to stay in.

Staying in

Remember when you were in your 20s and some ancient geezer at the end of the bar eyed up you or your friends, and you looked at each other and went, ‘Ee-uw!’? Well, that oldie was probably in his 30s. Because, yes, there does come a time when going clubbing is just creepy – you get too old for it (sooner, often, than you realise, especially – with apologies to the rational male readers of salma – if you’re a man).

And hanging out all night in the latest trendy restaurant with your mates, drinking enough to make you behave so badly that the manager actually longs for the days when he was a telesalesperson, also no longer holds appeal. As a grownup, you realise that the restaurant chairs aren’t comfortable, the person at the next table is having an argument with his wife, the lights are too bright or too dim, you’ve left your reading glasses at home and can’t see the menu, the music is execrable, the waitron seems to have been recently shipped in from another planet (one where they don’t have food), you ordered the chicken and you got the lamb, your wine glass is always goddamn empty, and when your Irish Coffee finally arrives, it looks a frog vomited in it.

And when it comes time to pay the bill and you split it between the six of you, you’re just pissed off at ending up paying for Joe’s Chateaubloodybriand, when all you had was two bits of dry bird, some overdone butternut and a floret of charred cauliflower. Oh, and, of course, the amphibian-spew Irish, which is going to wake you up at 3am with heartburn. And as you leave the restaurant, you hiss bad-temperedly at your friend/partner, ‘I could have made that at home, much better and for a fifth of the price.’ (See ‘cooking’, below.)

It’s when you’ve had a really tough week at work and Friday arrives, and all you want to do is get into bed early with a good book, that you realise you’re all grown up. And waking up well rested on Saturday morning, with your bank balance precisely the same as it was on Friday night and with all your personal belongings (including brain) intact, sets you up perfectly for a day at home, gardening or cooking.


This bug hasn’t bitten me yet, but it has sunk its tines deep into my friend A’s thumb and turned it green. She says that gardening – much like walking – is good exercise and that it also clears her mind. She can happily spend hours weeding, mulching, pruning, top-soiling and the like. And, bonus, she has a gorgeous garden to show for it. (She does, however, also have dogs - a word to the wise: these two things are not always compatible.)

My ‘garden’ is a jungle for all but two weeks in the year. Once in September and once in December (and both times because the law in these parts decrees it), I have to employ someone with an industrial weedeater and biceps like The Incredible Hulk’s to level it to a point at which we can see the distant mountains. Then, for exactly one week, we live in perfect Pinelands-type order, in a fabulously landscaped setting. With the one disadvantage that getting rid of the ‘overgrowth’ also reveals a myriad ankle-breaking holes, copious mounds of dogshit, inexplicable rolls of rusting barbed wire, and several mouldy garden-furniture cushions (I wondered where those had gone).

Okay, so I’m not completely grownup yet. And Amanda also plays golf, something I’m not yet big enough to understand. But I do love cooking.


‘I never got how my husband could de-stress by cooking,’ says my friend P, who’s been married for over a decade. Now in her 40s, she’s a convert.

P and I go back aways – back to the days of The Lounge in Long Street (anyone out there remember that – Claudine?). Back to the days of playing pool, drinking tequila and staying up all night. Back to the days of waking up in the gutter and laughing about it (‘Hey, doesn’t this feel comfortable? It’s like we belong here! Hahaha!’).

Then I had kids and had to wise up – basically, I had to learn how to cook things like fish fingers and mashed potato, and scrambled eggs on toast. (And to stay out of those gutters.)

P wasn’t best pleased. ‘Who are these small people and why do they keep interrupting our conversation?’ she would ask, ‘and why are we always in the kitchen?’

Because I was always in the kitchen, slowly but surely making food started making sense. I got interested in things like Jerusalem artichokes and parsnips (although, when it comes to those actual things, admittedly not for long). But: great pasta sauces and how to really roast a chicken. Why long, slow heat does different things to meat cuts than the quick, high version. What you can do with eggs. How to make, say, a pecan pie (something I always thought sprang fully formed from the belly of Pick’n’Pay, like prepacked soup veggies and Swingball sets). How to make koeksisters and vetkoek. Fajitas and tacos. Thai green curry. Chateaubloodybriand. (And if you really want to get into food, go here.)

Now, when I wake up with my brain inside my head (rather than having to be located with the help of a GPS) on a Saturday morning, I go and shop. For ingredients. I buy lovely fresh seasonal things, and sometimes some prime cuts of meat (we are lucky enough to have a working on-farm butchery in striking distance), and I cook.

P gets it. She’s also grown up now. (She had kids.)

Not finishing the wine

This might be a bit of a surprise as an inclusion on this list to regular readers of salma, who know that ‘We don’t have to finish it!’ is the utterly futile battle-cry of Opening Yet Another Bottle Of Wine Late At Night in my house.

But it was my friend N’s contribution, and in fairness to those who don’t live within visiting distance of me (and a nod to the less excessive of us oldies out there), it must indeed be included.

Because, look, it’s true. As grownups, we don’t always have to finish the wine.

(Refer to ‘gardening’, above.)

Going to bed to sleep

This was also N's contribution, although I must admit that I go to bed for many different reasons, and almost none of them are actually to sleep. I go to bed to eat leftover reheated penne arrabiatta and watch CSI New York (NOT Miami; I am going to have to get a whole lot older before I can appreciate Horatio ‘Aiyeeeeeee!’ Caine). I go to bed to cuddle with the dogs and/or cats. To read a good book. And sometimes, briefly, a bad book. To get warm. To chat with Johann (even though this once led to a ringworm epidemic). To play Solitaire (endlessly, until I realise I haven’t blinked for two hours and my eyeballs have dried out). To avoid having to get out of my pyjamas. To jot down ideas in my diary.

Not caring what other people think

Were you the odd girl at school? The fattie? The techno-geek? The ‘least likely to succeed’? These labels can be hard to shed, even after you’ve left school. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s (and so had been out of school for longer than I was in it) that I stopped being insulted every time someone called me ‘weird’ (which was – and still is – quite a lot) and began embracing my eccentricity.

It’s bloody brilliant to get to an age where you can just be who you are. As Sam Wilson, the editor of, says, about looking back at your 17-year-old self, ‘The bad news is your dress sense isn’t going to improve. The good news is you’re going to care a lot less.’

It may take us 40+ years to grow into ourselves, but when we get there, it's great. Who cares what other people think? This is who we are. We like ourselves. Live with it.

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Feeding the senses

One of the fabulous things (among many) about living in this small country town is the amazing creativity of the residents. This weekend we celebrate them and their art with the annual Shiraz & Arts festival, a weekend-long adventure covering food, wine, song, dance, painting, sculpture … a whole gamut of unique homegrown entertainment to thrill and challenge eyes, ears, palate and brain.

My friend Loni Drager is one of the featured artists. You can invest in one of her limited-edition bronze female torsos this weekend (on sale at Still Pure on the Square), but if you can’t make it to the Riebeek Valley (and if not, why not??), then try to catch her exhibition at the Rust-en-Vrede gallery in Durbanville from 4 October to 5 November. Called ‘Sensus – the landscape of stolen moments’, the works, which Loni describes as 'split-second cameos of memory', are inspired by the landscapes of the Karoo and the human form. Pictured here are two of them, in wood, ‘Bath Belly’ (top) and ‘Verlatekloof' (above).

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Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Road. (Warning: Prozac required)

There are great movies that are so relentlessly bloody horrible that it takes real commitment to see them through to the end. The Road is one of them.

In this undeniably accomplished but endlessly depressing offering, Viggo ‘Versatility’ Mortensen plays a man whose sole objective, following an unspecified cataclysm that has burnt the world to bits, is to protect his young son from the ravaging hordes of cannibals that stalk the unremittingly grey, unyieldingly cold landscape. (My thesaurus has now reached its limits of alternatives for ‘without end’ – feel free to insert your own synonym almost anywhere you like.)

Viggo is, in fact, the only reason I didn’t hit the ‘stop’ button. In a post-apocalyptic world, I’d like him to be my dad. (Or, you know, my boyfriend.) He even does us the favour, at one point, of removing his clothes and frolicking in a pond – a moment I have been eagerly waiting for since I saw his naked wrestling-in-a-sauna take in Eastern Promises.

(A quick side note: like most women in the known world, I fell hopelessly in love with Viggo’s Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. But in real life, Viggo is even more swashbuckling: he’s worked as a truck driver – way to earn rough kudos! – has a degree in Spanish, and established his own publishing house, Perceval Press, to help struggling artists get the recognition they deserve, because he’s also a poet, musician, photographer and painter. He was married to a singer in a punk band – can this man get any more fabulous?? – with whom he has a son, now 22.)

Anyway, back to the movie. I’m not a fan of horror movies because I don’t like having nightmares (I couldn’t sleep for a week after seeing the apparently tame The Frighteners), so I never rent them. But there was nothing on the cover of The Road that led me to believe that I’d wake up, strangling in my duvet with terror, at 3am. It didn’t say, for instance, that Viggo would come within nanoseconds of purposefully blowing his own son’s brains out. It gave no inkling of the Deliverance-style scene where a hillbilly’s snake-lipped black-toothed grin at a petrified boy would send horrified chills down my spine. It didn’t warn me that Viggo would find, in a locked cellar in an abandoned house, a roomful of deranged, skeletal people, cached there by cannibals as a food supply.

‘Please, let something good happen,’ I whispered, about half an hour into the movie, when my nerves were so stretched that when my cellphone beeped to tell me an SMS had arrived, I let out a little scream.

Then something did! They found food! And warmth! Oh thank god! I relaxed a little, and massaged the crescent-shaped indentations in my palms.

But it was a shortlived reprieve. Very soon, they were back on the road, having an entire forest of trees fall on them, getting pierced by arrows, being robbed, vomiting, being wracked by fever, exhibiting meanness to blind old men and generally displaying man’s inhumanity to man (well, Viggo was, which did make me a little disappointed in him).

The ending – which really couldn’t come soon enough for me – was both as traumatising as the entirety of the movie (and - spoiler alert - another thing Viggo can put on his CV is playing a corpse with genuinely upsetting credibility) and unbearably annoying. Okay, I’ve given this much away, I may as well just reveal all: Viggo dies, and the boy finds a new home with a mom, dad and kids – and a dog!

A dog?? Hello?? In a world in which nothing grows and dinner is, literally, a hay seed if you’re lucky, not only does a dog somehow succeed in not being turned into dried strips of much-needed protein, but appears glossy-coated and cheerful? Yes, I realise it’s a metaphor for hope and new beginnings and all that stuff – and I suppose I’d rather starve to death than eat my own hounds – but come on! There’s seldom been a time when I’ve wanted to kick Hollywood’s butt more.

Anyway. By all means, see The Road (if you want to, now that I’ve told you what happens*). But be warned: this is not a road movie, it is a horror movie.

* I’m sorry if I’ve spoiled The Road for anyone who hasn’t seen it, because I’m a great fan of how carefully movie buffs protect the plot twists of movies even years after they’ve left the main circuit. So I have to share this astonishing experience I had, in a DVD-rental store in Malmesbury, a while ago. I took out a movie called The Orphan. When I went to pay for it, I asked the clerk on duty if it was any good. ‘Ja, I s’pose it’s okay,’ she said, mindlessly snapping her bubblegum, ‘but I think it’s just schoopid how the 9-year-old orphan girl akshully turns out to be a 33-year-old woman.’ Not believing for an instant that someone who akshully works in a DVD-rental store could possibly supply such an obvious spoiler (and temporarily forgetting that Malmesbury is not the centre of the world’s brains trust), I assumed that more would be revealed when I watched the movie. It wasn’t. The whole point of the movie was that ‘the orphan’ wasn’t a 9-year-old girl, she was a 33-year-old mental patient. So, if you’re planning to see The Orphan any time soon, sorry for that plot spoiler too.

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Sunday, 26 September 2010

Pop goes the geyser – but this story has a happy ending

Several years ago my son, then about 12, came staggering through to my bedroom in the middle of a freezing midwinter night. He shook me awake and said, ‘It’s raining, Mom.’

‘I know, it’s okay, go back to sleep,’ I muttered.

‘No, I mean it’s raining inside,’ he said.

And so began our geyser adventures. For reasons that nobody can fathom (and therefore for which nobody can suggest a solution), my geyser goes pop about once every two years. It’s sited above one of the bedrooms, and every time it does this, it ‘rains inside’ – the valve explodes with such force that the water quickly overflows the drip tray.

For many years, I wasn’t aware that geyser repairs/replacements were covered by the mandatory insurance that comes with my mortgage bond, so I spent thousands of rands and hours of difficult logistical organising (I live about 100km from the nearest major centre) every time this happened. Also, as is the way with these kinds of things, the geyser only ever went magoela (a) when the weather was cold, rainy or (usually) both, and (b) on the eve of a public holiday, weekend or (usually) both.

So it was on Thursday morning, a chilly, dreary day before the Heritage Day long weekend. I hadn’t had a good morning anyway. I’d woken up stuck to my pillow courtesy of a weeping miggie bite, and when I looked in the mirror I saw Joseph Merrick looking back at me – another miggie bite, this one on my right eye, had swollen my face alarmingly and given me about three extra eyelids. Then my wobbly dog, in a perfect imitation of a kudu, jumped the fence into the neighbour’s garden – a problem, as from there she runs into the street and I get (entirely justified) complaints from the neighbours about my untrammelled hounds. I was so freaked out that my furious calling only made her frightened, and she refused to come back.

And then the geyser popped. Perfect.

We were due to leave home for our Old Mac Daddy Trailer Park getaway at 1.30pm, so I knew the chances of securing and having a new geyser installed by then were on the shady side of nil. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, eh?

I phoned the Nedic (Nedbank insurance company) helpline, and my first pleasant surprise was Fortunate, the aptly-named woman who answered. When I told her what I was phoning about, she didn’t immediately go into that rigmarole that proves to the helpdesk person that you’re not out to defraud them – usually, a long list of personal facts to corroborate who you are, including but by no means restricted to account number, ID number, postal address, physical address, landline number and cellphone number.

No, indeedy. Instead, what she asked was, ‘Have you switched off the electricity to the geyser and the water supply?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Are you all alright?’ she asked. ‘Nobody’s hurt?’

‘No, we’re all fine,’ I said. ‘But thanks for asking!’

‘Right,’ she said. ‘Is there any damage to ceilings or floors?’

‘Nothing I can’t live with,’ I said.

‘And where do you live?’

I told her.

‘What’s your nearest big centre?’

I told her that, and then said, ‘So I suppose there’s no chance of getting it fixed today, right?’

‘We’ll do what we can,’ Fortunate said, and then and only then proceeded to extract all the relevant personal info.

Our phone conversation finished at 9.10am. At 9.30am I got a phonecall from Nico of Plumb Guarantee. ‘I’m on my way,’ he said. ‘I’ll be there by 11.30am.’

Yeah, right, I thought, and pigs will fly. But, by golly, he arrived smack on time, and by 1pm I had a new geyser, fully installed, and Nico even went to the trouble of carefully replacing the geyser blanket.

So, thanks, Fortunate at Nedic and Nico from Plumb Guarantee, for great service.

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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Not so trashy, these trailers

As an early birthday present for me, my sister and brother-in-law took my kids and me away for a night to the Old Mac Daddy Luxury Trailer Park in the Elgin Valley. Being stuck in a two-hour traffic jam over Sir Lowry’s Pass made finally getting there – the last stretch along an 8km farm road – even better.

The Elgin Valley really is incomparably gorgeous, and the hillside site of the trailer park allows for the most magnificent views across farmlands and orchards to the mountains beyond. The afternoon we arrived there was cloudy and wet, but this didn’t detract at all – to the contrary, the landscapes looked fabulously moody, and the low cloud cover gave a contented feeling of cocooniness.

It’s a pity that the human element was less inviting. A woman who turned out to be the manager (apparently, at Mac Daddy, ‘manager’ means walking around a lot while avoiding eye contact with your customers) wasted no time in informing me that the bookings my sister (who had not yet arrived) had made were insufficient for the number of people expected in our party (seven), and that they’d have to ‘charge extra’ to make up a sofa bed in one of the trailers. (The trailers accommodate four people – 2 adults and 2 children up to the age of 16 years. Given that the sofa beds on which the children sleep are easily big and sturdy enough to accommodate an adult such as myself – I am both big and tall – I have to assume that the age restriction relates entirely to Mac Daddy’s bank balance, rather than the actual logistics of accommodating an extra adult.)

I was surprised by Ms Manager’s assertion, as my sister’s middle name may as well be ‘Organisation’, and I told Ms Manager this. She shrugged noncommittally, then pushed the bill under my nose. ‘Sign here,’ she said.

‘This is my sister’s birthday present to me,’ I said. ‘I’m not responsible for the bill, and I wish you hadn’t even shown it to me.’

Ms Manager shrugged again and turned the page. ‘Then sign the indemnity form,’ she said.

This somewhat hostile and unapologetic attitude was repeated by other ‘senior’ staff, including the resident chef. At dinner later, we waited patiently for over an hour to get our food, which we ordered from an astoundingly limited menu containing one meat dish – lamb shanks, which presumably had been prepared in advance and needed only plating before serving, and which turned out to be lukewarm and tasteless. Becoming increasingly hungry as the tables around us got and finished their food, we finally ordered a salad to bridge the hunger gap. It never arrived.

It didn’t escape our notice that salads and bread were supplied to some of the other tables around us, and that every single other person in the restaurant was fed before we were. Why were we so roundly ignored? Was it because most of the tables were couples and we were a larger party? Were they punishing us for being shirty? It was a mystery. (When my brother-in-law quizzed Ms Manager about this – and a few other things – the next day, her answer was that ‘uptake had been better than expected’ and thus they hadn’t had enough staff. This is just not an excuse. Mac Daddy isn’t a place you pass on the road and pop into on the off-chance that accommodation will be available – it’s an end destination in a cul-de-sac valley.)

Also, dinner here comes at an ‘extra charge’, but no prices were displayed on the menu. And where else, in the middle of nowhere, are you going to find a place to eat, anyway? Why don’t they just up their per-night charges a bit and include dinner? The constant ‘extra charges’ (breakfast was another) were intensely irritating.

(There was one human being – the enthusiastic, cheerful, unfailingly polite and hardworking Kenneth, who showed us to our rooms, and was on duty as a waitron at both the dinner and breakfast shift – who almost made up for the manager and chef’s surliness. Thanks, Kenneth!)

When my sister arrived, she immediately established that Ms Manager had indeed got it wrong – my sister had booked three trailers which could, between them, comfortably accommodate 12 people, so far from not having booked sufficient accommodation, she had technically reserved five extra berths. (I hate this ‘grabbiness’ that some enterprises display – it’s as if they’re so sure they’re going to be ripped off in some way that they unashamedly and aggressively make sure they secure every last possible penny, and give no thought to the impression this leaves. Given that our total bill, for one night, came to about R5 000, this was just bloody annoying.)

Anyway! On to the good stuff. The redoubtable Kenneth showed us to our trailers, and what a lovely experience they were! The trailers themselves are mainly the sleeping areas, and each one is attached to a modular-style living and ablution area with floor-to-ceiling glass. My daughter and I were accommodated in ‘Yellow Submarine’, complete with a periscope, table-top Arctic map, sub-style doorway and ‘emergency supplies’ cabinet stocked with tinned food.

My sister and her husband and their kids took the ‘Mills and Boon’ trailer – possibly not the best choice for an old married couple travelling with offspring, but wonderfully Barbara Cartland-style romantic nonetheless, all done up in frilly pinks and with a glass ceiling over a ridiculously luxurious double bed.

My son slept in splendid isolation in ‘Metalmorphosis’. This trailer was the least photogenic but the most interesting, I thought. The entire interior is magnetised (the reason why my son, the only one among us with no fillings in his teeth, was billeted here!), and everything, from the light fixtures to the cupboards on the walls, could be moved around. Also, much of it is made up of a huge magnetised puzzle – hours of stoned fun could definitely be had in this one!

The design and layout of the trailer park is very interesting. No effort has been made to ‘blend in’ the trailers and their attached living areas with the immediate environment, but far from being jarring, this actually gives them added cachet – this is no bunny-hugging-hippy trailer park; it is a ‘statement’ venture.

The huge 'barn', with its dazzling picture windows, houses the bar and restaurant, a library (woefully understocked – come on, guys, get someone to go to a secondhand bookshop and fill those shelves!), a computer hot desk, the reception area, and a kids’ inside/outside entertainment area.

The gardens, planted with indigenous species, haven’t yet grown in – the park only opened in July this year – but when they do, this hillside caravan park-cum-luxury lodge will be a sight to behold and an experience worth having. Let’s hope the staff and the food have grown into themselves by then, too.

PS: Have cow pajamas, will travel.

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Monday, 20 September 2010

Can coffee really kill (someone else, that is)?

I was quite fascinated (in a ‘whaaat?’ kind of way) by this story, about an American man who strangled his wife with an extension cord – and who claimed that coffee made him do it.

I’ve heard of the devil causing this kind of urge in people, and also one’s spouse neglecting to put the cap back on the toothpaste, but coffee?

Like many people, I’m slightly caffeine intolerant, and after my third cup of coffee in the morning (without which I remain in a state of suspended animation, unable to put my pants on the right way or remember where I left my head), I, too, sometimes suffer from ‘nervousness, excitement … and rambling speech’. And it’s possible I’d suffer from insomnia as well [really? from coffee?? little-known fact], if I hadn’t just woken up.

I’m also often gripped by anxiety after drinking coffee (and three cups is, according to the American Psychiatric Association, an overdose): I get the feeling that something bad is happening somewhere, and as a result, when the phone rings, even though I’m physically capable of answering it, I’m not mentally capable of anything other than nervous and excited rambling.

Interestingly, the person phoning is usually someone trying to sell me something I probably don’t want and definitely can’t afford. Which probably goes some way to explaining why my usual response to the telesalesperson password ‘How are you?’ is so, well, nervous and excited.

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Monday, 13 September 2010

Grown-up (so to say) sleepovers

Partying hard at home has some drawbacks, including the late-night possibility of cavalierly opening your lovingly saved bottle of 2004 Chateauneuf du Pape because all the plonk has run out, and the morning-after shock of what you and your friends managed to do to your house in mere few hours. But it does have the benefit of establishing you, having taken temporary leave of your senses, in a place where you’re familiar with the floor plan.

When you sleep over at a friend’s house after partying hard (because you mustn’t, you really mustn’t, drink and drive), there are many nasty experiences that can befall you.

First, there’s the waking-up-at-4.30am-in-a-strange-place thing. By then, you’ve only been asleep for a couple of hours – just long enough for your stomach to start turning the alcohol in it into battery acid which it then begins leaking directly into your brain, your kidneys having long packed for Buenos Aires.

Additionally, if you’ve fallen into bed in a giggling, loose-limbed heap, halfway through the magic bra trick* and with your shoes on, you’re likely to have done it face-down and with one eye jammed open against the pillow, so the first thing you feel, as the horrible realisation dawns that you’re still alive, is a stabbing pain in your cornea. You fumble for your bedside lamp switch but it is not where you left it. In fact, you realise, as you cover your copiously weeping eye with one hand and stare frantically around with the other, your entire bedroom has been inexplicably and nightmarishly rearranged. There’s a window where your wardrobe used to be and the door has been moved to the right-hand side of the bed.

You get up and immediately fall down – your jeans are around your ankles. You pull them up and crawl, whimpering, to the confusingly misplaced door, where you use the jamb to right yourself, slowly and painfully, like a kangaroo foetus inching up towards its mother’s pouch. Then you fumble around until finally, thank god, you feel a switch, which you turn on. The light pierces your retinas like a chef’s knife and it’s all you can do to stop yourself from screaming.

(There’s a host of unpleasantnesses that may be revealed when you turn on the light, including but by no means restricted to discovering that you don’t recognise the room you’re in at all; that someone else was in bed with you; that someone else was in bed with you and he’s naked; and that you’ve been sleeping in a truckle-cot, which can play evil mind-games with your sense of perspective.)

As your brain starts grinding into gear (and some of the cogs, it is becoming alarmingly clear to you, are damaged beyond repair), your body begins telling you several things: it is sore on your right knee, it is sore on your little finger, it is sore in your spine. It is tremendously, agonisingly sore in your head. It is also as thirsty as if it has just spent two weeks crawling through the Sahara (after, perhaps, a harrowing small-aircraft crash), and it needs to wee, desperately.

You stumble into a corridor that looked bright and fun last night when you were dancing up and down it with your friend’s underpants on your head to the tune of ‘I will survive’, but now is long and dark and filled with unnameable threats. Clamping your teeth down over the groans that are emanating unbidden from somewhere in the region of your toes, you find your way to the loo.

You switch on the light and discover that someone’s already in there – and she’s clearly dangerously deranged. Stifling a shriek, you hold out your hands in supplication, as she jolts towards you with scarlet eyes and murderous, grabby fingers. Then you realise it’s a mirror.

It’s categorically not possible to look at yourself in close-up – your already-overloaded grey matter would simply liquefy and pour out your ears if you did. You wee (two drops! when your bladder is literally on the point of bursting!), then, hunched over the tap like Quasimodo, you scoop frantic handfuls of water into your parched mouth. Even after you’ve been drinking for what feels like an eternity, the thirst hasn’t eased one jot, and additionally it appears that your brain has clunked against the top of your upside-down skull and stuck there.

You straighten up, then close your eyes to rid yourself of the horror-hallucinogenic effect of hundreds-and-thousands, but this makes it a gazillion times worse, so you open them again. They both hurt, a lot, although one more than the other (perhaps). You stumble back to bed.

(At this point, it’s possible you won’t remember which room you came from. The corridor seems so long and it’s so dark, and there are so many doors leading off it. Which one is the midget’s bedroom? Sometimes, if you can’t find it, you might just retire to the living room and collapse on the sofa. Sometimes you might find there’s someone already there. The potential traumas of this kind of night-time meandering are infinite.)

You wake again five hours later. Naturally, you neglected to close the curtains the previous night and now the early-morning sun is streaming in and causing such bizarre synaptic activity that you begin to fear the onset of epilepsy. In addition, none of the pain has eased since 4.30am; on the contrary, some of it has increased significantly. You can’t open your left eye. You can’t straighten your right arm (which you realise is as a result of your bra trapping it against your side, something that would be easily remedied if you could only remember how to unhook the damned thing). Your back aches and you’re sure your little finger shouldn’t be pointing backwards like that. You get up and immediately fall down. Your jeans are now where they should be (or, arguably, not, because you probably shouldn’t have slept in them) but there’s something wrong with your knee.

You stumble out of the midget’s room and down the corridor (curiously of the regulation length and quite ordinary-looking in the light of day) into the living room, where your host is using braai tongs to fish CDs out from under the sofa and remove random bits of clothing from the chandelier. ‘Hi,’ he says. ‘Sleep okay?’ Then he grins and says, ‘Creature of the night.’

You have no clue at all what he’s talking about, but it gets worse. There are three total strangers sitting outside on the verandah drinking coffee, but they seem to know you quite well. Uncomfortably well, in fact. ‘Vindaloo, my arse,’ says the one by way of greeting, and everyone falls about laughing. (Oh god, you think to yourself, please don’t tell me I told the ‘Vindaloo, my arse’ joke. But apparently you did.)

You realise that the only way you’ve going to make it out of there alive (there is, let’s face it, no saving your dignity) is to make tracks. But you also realise, when you try to put your coffee down on the table and your body in a chair at the same time, and succeed in accomplishing neither, that you’re still drunk and probably won’t be able to drive for some time to come. This causes yet more good-humoured hilarity in the gathered company – it turns out you’re a bit of a card, which is news to you, as you normally suffer from fairly advanced social phobia.

At this point, realising it’s only 9.30am and the day can’t possibly get any worse, some people opt for hair of the dog. And sometimes a kennelful of dogs. The downside of this is that you’re going to be repeating all of the above some time in the next 18 hours, and as mentioned at the start of this post, it’s always preferable to do so in a place where you know where the light switches are (and the doors). So my advice would be to take some power painkillers, drink as much water as your body can hold, and try not to cringe too obviously when yet another person compliments you, with a knowing wink, on how well you do the tango, a dance you’ve never learnt.

And when you can stand up without veering about like a tall tree in a storm, and are able to clearly differentiate real objects from those your brain keeps creating out of nothing in your peripheral vision, go home. And stay there.

* The magic bra trick is taking off your bra without taking off any clothes. I once did a magic bra trick in the Wimpy with a winter vest (so, in this case, the magic winter-vest trick). Johann and I had gone there quite early for breakfast and it was cold when we left home, but then later it got hot and I didn’t want to traipse through the shopping centre looking for a loo. Johann was very impressed and a bit embarrassed.

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