Saturday, 30 January 2010

My embarrassing Afrikaans trips me up again

I did 12 years of Afrikaans at school, though you would never say so. My vocabulary is okay but my accent is so awful that when I do attempt to praat die taal (speak the language), Afrikaans speakers look alarmed, say, ‘Skuus?’ (Excuse me?) then, when they realise what I’m trying to do, collapse in hysterics. It’s a little dispiriting.

I only realised how appalling my grasp of Afrikaans actually was after I’d lived in this small town (occupied, certainly back in the day, anyway, mainly by Afrikaans-speakers) for several years and was suddenly required to have a henhouse made for the already large and rapidly growing family of chickens I unexpectedly found myself owning. (Two notes here: (1) For those thinking of going into at-home poultry, chickens breed like rabbits; and (2) I did not, as many city folk do the minute they move to the country, go out and acquire a flock of chicks: these, like many of the other animals that now call my house home, simply arrived one day and wouldn’t leave.)

I asked around about where to find a chicken run and discovered (not surprisingly) that most local folk make theirs themselves. Not me, though: I can hang a picture like nobody’s business, but don’t give me a jigsaw unless it’s made of 1 000 pieces.

Finally I was directed to the farmers’ warehouse in a neighbouring town, and off I went.

‘Middag,’ I said to the woman behind the counter. ‘Ek soek ’n hoenderhok.’ (Afternoon. I’m looking for a henhouse.)

‘Skuus?’ said the woman, her eyes widening with what might have been fear but, okay, was probably mirth.

‘Ek het hoenders,’ I said, and made flapping motions with my arms, ‘en ek het ’n huisie vir hulle nodig.’ (I’ve got chickens and I need a house for them.)

The woman made a strange farting noise with her mouth (which I realised, in retrospect, was her trying not to chortle) and said, ‘Gaan loer ’n bietjie op die kennisgewingbord,’ then she dropped suddenly out of sight behind the counter (which I realised, in retrospect, was where she went to giggle her guts out).

So I went to look at the noticeboard, as instructed, and there, front and centre, was exactly what I was looking for: a posting (in Afrikaans) offering tailor-made hen houses. Brilliant! I took the number and toodled off home to phone the man.

When he answered my call and I tried to speak to him in Afrikaans, he immediately switched to English (which, after tittering, is what most Afrikaners do when they speak to me – a small courtesy for which, I must add, I am always immensely grateful). His English wasn’t great, but it was a damn sight better than my Afrikaans.

‘So, how big do you need it?’ he asked.

‘Oh, big enough for, say, a family of 10,’ I said.

There was a silence (which, in retrospect, I realised was stunned).

‘Ten, you say?’ he said.

‘Yes, a mom and nine babies,’ I said.

Another silence (in retrospect, even more stunned).

‘Look,’ he said. ‘I can maar [just] give you my biggest one. Will that do?’

‘That will be perfect!’ I trilled. I have a large plot and a large henhouse was just what was required.

We agreed a price and a delivery date, and on the appointed day, he turned up, with a trailer hitched to his car. And on it was, puzzlingly, a dog kennel.

‘Where do you want it?’ he asked, untying bungee cords and instructing his helpers on its removal from the trailer.

‘Um…’ I said as the penny hit the ground like a Boeing 747 with both engines on fire. This was a hondehok (a dog house), not a hoenderhok (a hen house).

I was simply too embarrassed to admit my mistake, so my mommy hen and her nine babies were summarily moved into the dog kennel, where they spent several very happy seasons before being displaced by the Monster Baby – who played with them so enthusiastically that I’m sorry to admit that several died of heart failure before the rest had the sense to move next door.

Anyway, this weekend my Afrikaans failed me yet again. An Afrikaans friend who knows Yzerfontein – the small coastal town in which I keep a holiday flat for occasional escapes from the oppressive summer heat of our valley and taking the dogs to romp about in the sea – advised me, on one of our long walks, to look for the cave with the pigeons in it. ‘It’s on one of the points; it’s called Duiwelsnes,’ he said – or so I thought. (The various coastal points around Yzer are, rather bizarrely, marked with their names, somewhat like streets might be elsewhere.)

Well, if it was on a coastal point and it had ‘duiwel’ (devil) in its name, I kind of knew what I was looking for, didn’t I?

So this morning, when my daughter and I took the dogs on one of our coastal strolls, I advised her to look for Duiwelshoek (thereby compounding my error by turning the ‘nest’ into ‘corner’, but it must be said that when my Afrikaans friend told me about the pigeons I had the better part of two bottles of red wine in me, so for that small blunder I forgive myself).

We kept our eyes peeled for a coastal point that looked devilish – something sharp and rocky, perhaps where the sea smashed up onto the cliffs; maybe it got a lot of mist; perchance there was even a formation that looked like a devil’s horns?

So when my daughter stopped on the cliff path, then pointed and sighed, I realised I’d fucked up yet again. ‘Duiwenes,’ she read. Doves’ nest. (Well, really, he should have said doves, not pigeons.)

We climbed down for a look and sure enough the place was alive with pigeons. Nothing about it was in the least bit devilish.

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Thursday, 28 January 2010

How do you know an elephant’s been in your fridge? Footprints in the butter.

It’s been a year since Balu, the Monster Baby, arrived in our home, and it’s safe to say that nothing’s been the same since. Well, very little remains intact, anyway.

I freely take the blame for the Monster Baby’s dogged (if you will excuse me) unwillingness to obey orders – I can’t bring myself to smack her, and even shouting at her causes me such psychic damage that I often have to have a bottle of red wine to repair it.

As a result, the Monster Baby took a long (and messy) six months to be housetrained; and she’s never grown out of her compulsion to chew to bits anything she can get her teeth on – including but certainly not limited to an entire sofa.

Much of the havoc is wreaked when I have the nerve to leave the house for any length of time. My friends Johann and T (Maxi’s Mom) told me that I had to have a word with her before I left, explain where I was going and how long I was going to be, and ask her politely please to try to exercise the tiniest modicum of self-control in my absence.

Alas, it does not work.

Yesterday I was away for about four hours as I had to go to another town. For reasons unknown, the Monster (and I am now dropping ‘Baby’ because really she isn’t one any more) went even more bos than usual, and when I got back I found the following: three outside chair cushions dragged to the bottom of the garden; one watering can chewed to a pulp; one potplant emptied, the plant itself eaten, and the soil all over the back stairs; all the sofa coverings dragged off and through the dust; one outside chair cushion ripped to bits, its intestines scattered across the verandah; and one Monster, beside herself with joy and thickly coated with mud.

Something I only noticed this morning, however, because the verandah gets early-morning sunlight, was this: Monster-sized muddy paw prints ALL OVER THE OUTSIDE TABLE. She is, clearly, a girl after my own heart, and enjoys dancing on counters.

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Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Clothing the generation gap

I’m not known for my dress sense, or not in a good way, anyway. This probably has something to do with being 6’ tall and having size 9 feet – woefully few are the clothing stores that cater for these Amazonian proportions. (And please don’t direct me to Big&Tall stores – my wardrobe is bizarre enough without adding to it the hideousness that is the stock-in-trade of those.)

As a result, when I find clothes or shoes that I like (or even that just fit me), I keep them forever. Hence my two-decade-long romance with my handmade Ugg boots (and, interestingly enough, and entirely by coincidence, I ran into Stefan, the man who made them for me, a few weeks ago; it was a very happy reunion).

Also as a result, for much of the last twenty years I’ve always been completely out of step with prevailing fashions. More recently, however, with the rise of ‘retro’ – gladiator sandals, flares, hippie prints, Empire lines and the like – I’ve found myself, unexpectedly, at the cutting edge of what’s hot. Thus, as mentioned in the post below, the constant drain on my wardrobe by my 18-year-old daughter.

This T-shirt, while admittedly not something that would make the fashion pages of Cosmopolitan, recently gained a new lease of life when my daughter found it in a suitcase of ‘old’ clothes (ie, clothes that I’m not wearing right at this second but probably will be at some stage in the not-too-distant future). My friend Ruth made it for me for my 23rd birthday – the screenprinted image of a dinosaur doing a handstand on a Volkswagen Beetle over the legend ‘Let’s say yes to another excess’ more or less summed up our lifestyle at the time.

The pic above, of me wearing the T-shirt, was taken in 1987; the one to the left, of my daughter wearing the same T-shirt, was taken on Sunday – 22 years later.

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Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Fates have a giggle with me in Cape Town’s morning rush hour

I didn’t really like the actress Sharon Stone until I read an article about her in which she said, ‘I like to drive with my knees. Otherwise, how can I put on my lipstick and talk on the phone?’ Then I loved her.

I was thinking about Sharon this morning while I was stuck in Cape Town rush-hour traffic, although I wasn’t actually driving and I wasn’t putting on my lipstick and I wasn’t talking on the phone. The traffic, two lanes of it heading in the same direction (I was in the left one), was at a dead stop and had been for about 15 minutes (bless our World Cup preparations, bless them).

Because I am unaccustomed to waking up before dawn and then leaving the house as the first sparrow farts, my at-home preparations had been particularly shambolic and, between begging (really, begging) the dogs not to eat the sofa or the outside cushions, pouring coffee down my gullet and finding clothes to wear that were (a) clean, (b) not too terribly wrinkled and (c) made after 1980, I’d done nothing with my hair except wash it.

My hair is long and tends to berserkness, and since I was en route to present a professional workshop, for which I was being paid good money, I thought the least I could do would be to turn up not looking like the Wild Woman of Borneo (which is what my late sainted mother called me practically my entire life, and not always only because of my hair).

Anyway, as I say, the traffic was at a standstill, so, keeping a close eye on the car in front of me in case it began to move, I started the laborious process of plaiting the longer, wispier pieces of hair around my face so I could pin them up at the back.

Which, for reasons that still elude me, absolutely infuriated the man behind me. Perhaps he’s not a fan of Sharon Stone. Maybe he, too, hadn’t been able to find his favourite pair of pants because his daughter had expropriated them. Perchance he’d had an argument the night before with his wife, who similarly has long, unkempt hair, and the sight of me plaiting mine brought back unpleasant memories. Whatever the cause, he became very agitated, and started making aggressive hand motions around his head while mouthing angry words at me. His meaning was obvious: I was to stop messing with my hair, and right now.

Weird, I thought, but since the traffic was still stationary and showing not the slightest inclination not to be, I continued with my impromptu hairdressing.

The man became utterly enraged. He put his car – a very smart new little Renault – into gear and edged it forward, jerking the steering wheel this way and that, and making it clear that his dearest wish was to ram into me from behind.

I am a little nervous of driving in the city as I have long since lost the ability to push dangerously into long queues of cars, neglect to indicate, tailgate people driving at the speed limit and hoot feverishly at drivers who don’t leap from the traffic lights like Olympic sprinters the nanosecond the light turns green – all vital skills for surviving city traffic. So, rather than have the man beat me to death with the baseball bat he doubtless had stashed under his passenger seat, I stopped doing my hair.

Just then, the right-hand lane of traffic – the lane we weren’t in – began moving, very slowly. The Renault driver spotted his chance. Neglecting to indicate (of course), he wrenched his wheel to the right and charged (honestly, there is no other word for it), motor revving, into the tiny gap that opened up between the car next to me and the one behind it. Dementedly racing his motor, he pulled up alongside me. My windows were closed and so were his, so I didn’t hear what he was screaming at me, but I didn’t need to: the purplish tint to his face and his mouth, opening and closing like a cartoon vampire’s, was plenty message enough.

But, silly Renault man, he was so busy shrieking invective at me that he didn’t notice that the car in front of him had suddenly stopped, and he ploughed right into it with a bang that I felt through my feet.

With the kind of timing that can only be attributed to divine intervention, the left-hand lane – the one I was in – began moving at that moment, and I drove slowly past Renault man, waving in a friendly manner. The last I saw, in my rearview mirror, was the man whose car he’d tail-ended climbing out, waving a baseball bat. (Not really, but one can dream.)

This experience buoyed me up through the entire day, and even when I got home to find the dogs had eaten the outside lamp (including stand, shade, bulb and about 10 metres of flex), my mood remained upbeat. Poetic justice can do that to you.

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Monday, 11 January 2010

‘When the neighbours complain, it’s time to move’

So says my friend Ronaldo, and I agree.

Ten years ago, when I first moved to the small Swartland town in which I have since lived in a state of unadulterated bliss if you don’t count the three relationships I’ve had with serial killers, it was so off-the-map that people would ask me where it was. It’s actually only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, but at that time it was so little known it may as well have been a clitoris.

Back then, I lived on the outskirts of town in a little house (so small we called it ‘The Doll’s House’) on a huge plot of land. My only neighbour was a crazy artist who could frequently be seen standing outside on the dirt road, wearing nothing but outrageously camp jockeys and holding a charged martini glass, admiring and sometimes howling at the moon. We often held noisy parties on my verandah, and since the crazy artist was almost always a guest at these, and all the others were Cape Town temporary-escapees and/or criminally insane, no-one complained.

Eight years ago I moved some way into town – I bought a house on a tarred road (the house I wanted; the tarred road came with it). I had no neighbour on one side, just a large empty plot; and my neighbour on the other, the incomparable Oom Vossie (now deceased and much missed), was both slightly deaf and gratifyingly sprightly – he enjoyed hearing us partying into the small hours, he said, and I had no reason to disbelieve him. Across the road was a young, newly married couple who were so busy honeymooning that they were, assumedly, always too exhausted (or, perhaps, busy) to be disturbed by the 2am strains of ABBA emanating from my living room.

Then our little town got popular. ‘The new Franschhoek’ (blech), people started calling it, for the plethora of eateries and boutiques that began springing into existence (like, say, venomous serpents from Medusa’s head); the old and beloved Royal Hotel was bought by foreigners and renovated into ‘the Mount Nelson of the Swartland’ (ugh, and try and get a simple gin and tonic there and they’ll look at you as if you’ve just ordered squid eyes on a bed of minced babies); and house prices sky-rocketed. Where before, on any given street, there were at least two large empty plots to every dwelling, a demented rash of subdivision and construction began profoundly changing the landscape of the village.

And I got neighbours. And with them: noise. The house below mine, previously occupied by an elderly farmer’s widow whom I kept sweet by allowing her to harvest, for free, all the fruit on my property for use in her jam-making enterprises, sold out to a city couple, who wasted no time in renovating the house and installing – as city folk invariably do when they move to the country, because clearly they leave their brains behind – a large fowl run replete with crowing roosters, quacking ducks and honking geese. The plot on one side of my house was subdivided and sold, and the new incumbent immediately began building and has never stopped; and, for a time, he raised (or, anyway, tried to) free-range bunnies in his garden, and as the owner of (then) six cats I don’t think I have to say anything more about his choice vis-à-vis his rural ambitions, do I? When Oom Vossie died, my friend T bought his property and the renovations on that side have been ongoing for a year. My honeymooning neighbours produced, to no-one’s great surprise and in quick succession, three children, and then went the whole koeksister and opened a preschool so that during the week their front lawn was populated by dozens of tots apparently intent on tearing each other limb from limb and not doing it quietly.

And so some sort of quid-pro-quo reigned: my neighbours didn’t complain when my friends and I occasionally partied well into the night, and I didn’t complain about the endless daytime din of barnyard, building and minced-babies-in-the-making.

Until Wednesday night. We had a little gathering which, as these things do, turned into a bigger one when Johann arrived: late, and with bad company. While some of my more sensible guests went to bed, the others (and, of course, me) stayed up and danced. Granted, the music system – a small portable one – was, unusually, outside on the verandah (normally it’s inside, so the 100-year-old house walls screen at least some of the sound). And, at 2am, the police came knocking and told us to turn off the music as they’d received a complaint. We didn’t, of course, receive this information at first hand (we were too busy dancing): my son, asleep in one of the front rooms, was woken by the police (ironic, really, when you think about it), and he then came through to the back verandah and said to me, smirking with the kind of smirk that told me he would be cashing in this particular chit some time in the not-too-distant future: ‘Well, Mom, you’ve just got your first official complaint.’ (I wanted to say to him, ‘Nobody likes a wise-arse, darling,’ but I didn’t because the music was too loud and he wouldn’t have heard me. Not really.)

So, chastened, I turned down the music (more). Well, I was chastened; Johann immediately offered to burn down the house of whoever it was who’d whinged. But he can be like that.

On Friday morning I tested the sound system to see how loud the music had actually been – its top volume goes to 32; we’d kept it at 20 (and, as I said, it’s a small portable system). A friend who’d slept over (who, indeed, was accommodated in a room that opens directly onto the verandah) said that while she was dropping off to sleep, not only could she clearly hear our voices talking over the music, but that the sound of our feet as we lang-armed across the verandah was audible. So, we concluded, the music really hadn’t been that loud at all. (I double-tested it on Friday night, by taking it out onto the verandah and turning it up as loud as it would go and playing it at that volume for all the hours available until midnight, and it still wasn’t all that loud. Really.)

Look, I know what it’s like to be kept awake by thumping music and drunken screeching – I lived in Observatory in Cape Town for seven years, in a house sited directly, with frankly bizarre unfortunateness, across the road from two student digs whose denizens partied practically without cease, and there were times I lay awake in bed, drenched in anger and harbouring murderous intent. But, having conducted my volume experiments and garnered opinion from those who’d been in my actual house on Wednesday night, I have to conclude that one of my neighbours just has a bug up their bum.

So perhaps, having now received my first ‘official’ noise complaint in 10 years, it’s time to move on. I’m thinking an old rambling house under a windmill on a remote Karoo farm, where the nearest neighbours are kilometres away and the silence is deafening – except, of course, when the pristine semi-desert night is being torn to bits by Neil Diamond playing at full volume on the industrial music system I plan to install.

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