Thursday, 29 July 2010

Ronaldo adds miggie info

I lamented the fierceness of country midges (called 'miggies' in this part of the world) in September last year, and asked if anyone could tell me why the after-effects of country miggie-bites were so much more dire than those of their city cousins.

Ronaldo (who apparently has a memory like an elephant's) sent me this news snippet this morning, about why some people are bitten by midges and others aren't:

A study found that human attractiveness to the bloodsucking insects is hereditary, and that women have a stronger reaction to the bites than men. It also showed that larger women are more likely to get bitten because they give out more heat, moisture and chemicals that attract midges. Tall men were similarly susceptible because they are most likely to cross the paths of midges, most of which fly at a height of two metres from the ground.

Scientists from Aberdeen University and the Rothamsted Research Institute in Hertfordshire conducted a survey of more than 300 athletes and spectators at a race around the shores of Loch Ness, which is notorious for clouds of midges. They found that some people consistently got bitten more than others, while 14% of people never got bitten at all. Scientists believe that some people are born producing skin chemicals that repel the insects.

'Midges find us through the volatiles coming off our skin and also our breath, our carbon dioxide,' said Professor Jenny Mordue, who led the study. 'We found women's reaction to the bites was worse than men's, but that may be because women are more aware of their skin than men.'

The study, which will be published in the British Medical Council's Public Health Journal next year, dismissed a number of popular methods of repelling midges, such as eating strongly flavoured foods like garlic and onions, which it says have no effect.

This answers some questions - but are all the answers correct? I accept that because I'm both large and tall, I'm more susceptible to miggie bites - but then how does that explain the attractiveness to miggies of my friend Tanya, who is both of medium height and very slight in build?

Also, the statement that women's reactions to the bites is worse than men's because 'women are more aware of their skin than men' is just silly. A man whose miggie bites suppurate, whose eyes swell up and who experiences flu-like symptoms isn't feeling like this because he's any less aware of his skin than a woman.

I do like the idea, however, that some people have inbuilt insect repellants. I'm just sad I'm not one of them.

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Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Busy and Important People

I’ve only had one job in my life where I was required to be Busy and Important and I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t have the skills required to fob off perfectly reasonable requests from lesser mortals, change meeting times willy-nilly to best inconvenience my staff, or spend a lot of time with other managers behind closed doors drinking tea and eating snacks.

It is my load to bear that I do, however, often have to deal with Busy and Important People in my quest to track down information for use in the occasional articles I write for various journals.

Two responses from Busy and Important People recently reminded me why I thank all the gods every day that (a) I am not Busy and Important, and (b) I am not required to work in a fulltime day-to-day capacity with Busy and Important people.

I sent a very clearly worded email that consisted of a 2-line overview followed by 6 questions (and, interestingly, the emails were to Busy and Important People who actually had a vested interest in the article I was researching). The questions were all of an ‘opinion’ nature and required no research. Answering them would take a normal person about 10 minutes.

The first Busy and Important Person’s response was so typical of Busy and Important behaviour generally that I would have laughed if I hadn’t been so busy tearing my hair out. She told me that she was too Busy and Important to answer the questions via email but would accede to a 15-minute telephone interview, to be organised with her secretary, whose details she thoughtfully provided.
* My time spent composing and sending the email: about 10 minutes.
* Busy and Important Person’s time spent reading my email and sending her response: about 5 minutes.

I emailed the secretary, who sent me one of those irritating Microsoft Office auto-response thingies where you are ‘invited’ to a meeting at a certain time and on a certain date, and you must then click ‘Accept’, ‘Decline’, ‘Postpone’ or ‘Why won’t an ordinary email or even a simple phonecall suffice in setting up this appointment?’ Once you’ve selected your response, you are given the option of ‘Send immediately’, ‘Edit response, then send’, ‘I can’t be bothered with this, why can’t we just chat on the phone?’
* Busy and Important Person’s time spent in instructing secretary to find suitable time in crowded diary for 15-minute phone interview: 5 minutes.
* Secretary’s time finding the time and sending the ‘meeting request’: 10 minutes.
* My time spent in responding: 5 minutes.

Two hours later I got another ‘meeting request’ email – this one cancelled the previous meeting and moved it to another time. Again, I clicked and sent ‘Accept’.
* Busy and Important Person’s time spent in rearranging diary: 10 minutes.
* Secretary’s time spent changing the appointment and sending a new meeting request: 10 minutes.
* My time spent checking my diary, crossing out previous arrangement and accepting new one: 5 minutes.

The next day, early in the morning, this process was repeated (I am not making this up). This time, however, the new time clashed with another appointment I had, so I had to click ‘Decline’, then ‘Edit response’, then write in the block why I couldn’t make the meeting, then send.
* Busy and Important person’s time: 10 minutes.
* Secretary’s time: 10 minutes.
* My time: 10 minutes.

Secretary then sent alternative time and date; I accepted.
* Secretary’s time: 10 minutes.
* My time: 5 minutes.

On the morning of the day of the 15-minute phone interview, I received, completely out of the blue, an email from the Busy and Important Person, answering all the questions I’d sent her. After a brief moment to consider whether I’d dreamt all the to-ing and fro-ing of the preceding few days, I emailed the secretary to inform her of this, and to tell her that I wouldn’t need to do the phone interview after all. She then sent me a ‘Meeting cancelled’ confirmation email.
Busy and Important Person’s time spent answering questions: 10 minutes.
My time spent communicating with secretary: 5 minutes.
Secretary’s time: 5 minutes.

So… let’s tot that up, should we? In order for me to get a response to a short, succinct email,
* Busy and Important Person spent 50 minutes
* Secretary spent 45 minutes
* I spent 40 minutes
That’s OVER 2 HOURS of people-time spent trying to save the Busy and Important Person 10 minutes of effort. God!!

The other Busy and Important Person’s response was as ridiculous in a different but related way. When I hadn’t received a response from her and followed up my email five days later (there was a weekend in between), she emailed me back, stating ‘Three working days is not enough lead time for me on this.’ Boy, I wonder when she finds time to pee.

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Monday, 19 July 2010

Keeping warm

It gets pretty chilly here under the mountain in winter, and living in a big ole house that wasn’t built with benefit of a spirit level (and so has yawning gaps between practically every door/window and its frame) has its challenges. Mainly, we huddle around the fire, but there are other ways to keep warm.

Evan the cat takes advantage of any warm body; here, he snuggles up to a rather suspicious-looking Balu. When no live heater is available, he’ll settle for the warmth coming off the stereo.

Maui prefers this butcher’s block, which is usefully positioned against the stove.

Sara the Not-So-Wobbly-Anymore Dog, warmly wrapped up.

In summer it’s the verandah that’s the favourite place for a quick snooze; in winter it’s the sofa in the living room. Here, Maxi and his mom and Sara catch a few Zs.

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Friday, 16 July 2010

A unique and wonderful approach to interior design

I took this pic, of a venerable door frame (gleaned, who knows how, from the palace of the Sultan of Zanzibar) lying in the elements, at Makouvlei Guest Farm in Barrydale. If this seems a weird way to treat a precious collectible, that’s because owner AW believes in things that last – no matter what you do to them.

The guest farm grew out of A’s unfashionable (at the time – in the late 1980s) wish to find a rural retreat far from the madding crowd. (The serious South African semigration movement – that shift from the city to the country – only really started gathering speed around the late 1990s.) He bought the farm (but in a good way) and wasted no time in, in his own words, ‘homosexualising’ it – planting gardens, installing sprinkler systems and introducing flocks of chooks, among other things.

A tells a whomping good story, and by his reckoning, several weird and wonderful characters then took over the upgrade/refurbishment/management of the guest farm (while A disported himself on tropical beaches and generally behaved badly, at the same time as growing a thriving carpet-manufacture business on a nearby island, and I’m not making this up). This entirely gratuitous gate arrangement, for instance, was commissioned and built by someone else in A’s absence – it is located pointlessly in the middle of a large garden. He looks at it with fond puzzlement now. ‘I suppose I should have it demolished,’ he says. I suspect he won’t.

But to get back to the Sultan of Zanzibar’s door frame… At some stage while all this was happening, A returned from his sojourns and decided that he wanted to start again from scratch. So he simply emptied the house of furniture and left everything to lie in the elements for, well, about two years. ‘What was still intact after that period, when I’d finished rebuilding, I took back inside,’ he says. I believe him. A lot of the woodwork finishes (door frames, doors, etc) are interestingly – and apparently genuinely - weathered. The Zanzibar door frame has only been lying in the rain for six months – it hasn’t done its time yet, but when it has, it will be the finished door frame for this ridiculously hedonistic double-bath en-suite bathroom (the bedroom it’s attached to has two queen-sized beds, pushed together).

Because A certainly has a keen instinct for hedonism. The water that supplies the farm comes from a spring on the mountain. ‘It’s bottled here, and sold elsewhere as premium drinking water,’ A tells us, then grins wickedly: ‘but we use it to flush our toilets.’ (He also has a good eco-sense: all the hot water comes from solar geysers, which you can see atop the buildings in the top pic) and even though we were there on a cold, overcast day, both Tanya and I had piping-hot morning showers.)

Above is the fabulous outdoor lounge area, and at left is the connected indoor one (equally fabulous, although the pic is blurry). The outdoor lounge area looks onto the pool; the pic below, of Tanya taking a pic, is notable for the amazing tree in the background – one of several on this gorgeous old farm.

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Friday, 9 July 2010

One man (and his lamb and his calf) went to mow a meadow

Our twin villages are surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, and the summers here are very hot and dry, so the threat of seasonal runaway fires is ever-present, and the potential financial loss to local farmers is high.

For this reason, the municipality takes its task of overseeing the annual clearing of plots very seriously: as the rains start easing in August, residents will get a friendly reminder in their mailboxes to level overgrowth on their properties; six weeks later a somewhat more sternly worded missive will go out; and if you haven’t done the necessary by November, the municipality will take it upon themselves to clear your plot and charge you handsomely for the trouble.

Strangely, there is a large gap in the market in our village on the plot-clearing front: every year, we all scramble to find someone willing to spend half a day wielding an industrial weedeater for a sum that won’t cause instant bankruptcy.

Johann has come up with an ingenious solution – two, in fact. They’re called Lilly the calf and Rammy the sheep, and they are currently resident in his back garden, where they are doing a slow but steady job of clearing his overgrowth.

Rammy is comfortable going for walkabout on a lead (here, Johann takes her for a trot). And isn’t Lilly the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?

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Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Cool coin

My house was built, as far as we can establish, in 1896. We take this date from the house at the end of the road, very similar in style and materials, and which has the useful additional feature of having the date (yup, ‘1896’) inscribed in plaster on its front.

However, we don’t know our house’s birthday for sure because in 1969 there was an earthquake in a neighbouring town, Tulbagh, which entirely decimated that village, knocked down houses in an approximately 50-kilometre radius of the epicentre, and caused a week-long fire to rage up and down the valley, burning settlements willy-nilly and, along with them, all the planning records for this entire area. So the house’s provenance remains a mystery.

When I bought the house, it had three gigantic bedrooms (seriously, big enough to swing a Bengal tiger in), one Fungus-the-Bogeyman bathroom, a bizarre, huge, cold (in spirit and temperature) room that served as the living room for the previous occupants, a galley kitchen (without benefit of a hotwater geyser) and a very strange small ‘reception room’ that lacked any windows. It also had a garage big enough to house a tank. Or, perhaps, a collection of coffins. All told, it is possible the previous occupants were the Undead; they even left a ghost for us to contend with.

We made the nasty big room into an open verandah, upgraded the bathroom, and turned the tank-park into another bedroom, another bathroom and a study/library/junk pile for moi.

We didn’t do anything to the garden except put a pool in it. (Boy, was that exciting – they brought it on a lorry.) And when the dogs arrived – first Sara, then Balu, then Maxi – I was happy I hadn’t spent hordes of money creating some sort of landscaped outdoor paradise, because they had their own ideas. Mainly, they dug lots of holes that I could fall into.

But look what they dug up this morning! It’s a coin dated 1893 (117 years old!), in really good condition.

On the ‘heads’ side there’s a profile of Queen Victor. Around the edges is inscribed VICTORIA D:G: BRITT:REG:F:D: (DG = De Gratia, ‘by the Grace of God’; Reg = Regina, ‘Queen’; FD = Fidelis Defendas, ‘Defender of the Faith’.)

On the ‘tails’ side it says ONE PENNY 1893 and there’s a picture of the seated figure of Britannia, a lighthouse and a ship under sail.

Having got madly excited and hopeful that my financial woes were finally at an end, I did a bit of Internet research and discovered that, depending on the condition of the coin, I could get anything from ₤14 to ₤200 from it. So: a pretty penny, but alas not enough to save me from penury.

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Friday, 2 July 2010

You can’t always just throw money at it

This is my friend Hilton (on the right) and my son. Hilton, who now lives mainly in New Zealand, is back for a South African sojourn, and turned up for a visit to us wearing – completely coincidentally – the same subversive T-shirt as my son. (Apparently, you can take the South African out of South Africa, but you can’t take South Africa out of the South African.)

Hilton is a man of unimpeachable morality, as evidenced by the story he told about a dog walk gone wild. He had two young dogs, not very big specimens, and one afternoon he took them for a walk on Cape Town's Rondebosch Common – on leads, of course, since he is not only ethically irreproachable but also possessed of intelligence.

Two Rottweilers (not on leads) came tearing out of nowhere, and one of them grabbed one of Hilton’s dogs. A scene of unspeakable violence ensued, during which a woman (whom Hilton took to be the owner of the Rottweilers) managed to grab the Rottweiler’s penis and yank, causing the animal so much pain that it finally let go of Hilton’s dog.

Hilton’s vet was within walking distance of the common, so he picked up his badly injured dog and, with his other dog (still on the lead) following, ran as fast as he could to the vet.

Hilton’s dog pulled through and, remarkably, the woman who had become involved in the fray actually took the trouble to follow up – she got Hilton’s contact details from the vet, and phoned Hilton to explain that the Rottweilers weren’t her dogs, but her sister’s, and that she had taken them for an unleashed walk because… well, who knows why, but let’s be charitable and assume she just didn’t know any better. Could she pay Hilton’s vet’s bill? she asked.

No, Hilton said.

But she felt terrible, she said, and she wanted to do something to try to put things right.

Okay, Hilton said. You can take me out for dinner and allow me to crap on you for being so astonishingly irresponsible.

She agreed to this. She duly made the booking, took Hilton out for dinner (for which she paid) and sat meekly for two hours while he lectured her on the jaw-dropping stupidity of walking on a public common with two unleashed Rottweilers.

They parted on civil terms and never saw each other again.

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Impressions of Nieu-Bethesda

This is the back garden of the house loaned to us by Katrin and Ian, long-time residents of the town. It has a wonderful Zen feeling to it. For info about renting the house, go to

The house was simply but comfortably furnished. Best of all was the bedding - down duvets and mohair blankets, with the option of electric blankets and/or hotwater bottles - the winter here is fuh-reezing! This was the room with the girl ghost in it.

The town is fed by a spring, channelled here towards the new, refurbished mill where three types of local beer are brewed.

The town is rich in unexpected imagery. Here, a 'drive slow' sign, posted in the middle of a vacant plot, dances with a cactus. As in many small South African towns, the church is Nieu-Bethesda's focal point.

This is 'The Corner of Debauchery' in the Owl House. It reminded me of Johann. Hmmm, I wonder why...

Local artists produce work modelled on Helen Martins's outside the Owl House. Here, Tanya chats to the granddaughter of Koos Malgas, who makes mermaids, crosses, owls and other cement-and-glass sculptures.

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Castles in the Karoo

There’s something about small towns that attracts people with a certain kind of energy. I know this because I live in a small town, and although it’s become rather gentrified over the last decade or so, it still boasts its fair share of eccentrics. As, judging by some of the structures in this little Karoo village, does Nieu-Bethesda.

Although Helen Martin’s Owl House certainly put Nieu-Bethesda on the tourist map, this castle is worth more than a passing glance. Jakob, the local tourist guide who offers donkey-cart trips through the village accompanied by a lively and very entertaining commentary on the town and its denizens (and on how he came to own his two ‘kêrels’, his darling donkeys, despite the initial scepticism of his wife, Betty), told us that it was built single-handedly by someone with the unlikely name of Dusty Canyon. (It is possible that I misheard, or that I misinterpreted the name spoken in Jakob’s fairly strong Afrikaans accent.)

This little castle has been built entirely with local stone. I particularly enjoy the counterpoint of the dragon peering around one side of a circular room, and the satellite dish installed on the other.

Echoing the castle theme in the town is this charming (new) building, part of a community project. The tower has three storeys – the café kitchen is on the bottom floor; there’s a room with twin beds in the middle; and the top storey boasts a circular double bed.

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