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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