Thursday, 20 January 2011

I can’t wait for the new consumer protection laws to kick in

In the four hours of this working morning alone, I have had to deal with the following:

• Three SMS spams: a ‘Direct Plus Loan invitation of up to R150 000’; someone who will clear my name from a credit blacklist (and throw in the offer of ‘a loan, cell contract or visa card’ too); and a ‘win a car by answering this easy question’ bit of nonsense;
• A phonecall from Margaret of Vodaphone, telling me I had been ‘specially pre-selected’ (ie, randomly chosen) for something or other involving a free phone and a 24-month no-one-gets-out-alive contract; and
• A person who knocked at my door to tell me that her company could save me ‘up to 25%’ on my electricity bills.

In between those six interruptions, I’ve also met two deadlines, done an interview, dealt with a few legal matters, scanned some pics (and then rescanned them – my life would undoubtedly be easier if I could learn how to work my scanner), answered over 40 emails, put on a load of laundry, mopped up when the rinse cycle decided it would be more comfortable on the kitchen floor, backwashed the pool, walked the dogs… you get the idea – I’m busy!

I’m definitely too busy to spend precious time dealing with entirely unsolicited invitations to spend my hard-earned money on stuff I don’t want and probably can’t afford.

The spam SMSs, which are always disappointing (not, then, an invitation to lunch or a bit of fabulous gossip?), are easily dealt with: press delete.

The phonecall had to be handled with a bit more aplomb: one of my New Year’s resolutions is not to be nasty to telesalespeople, who are, after all, only doing their job. ‘I’m sorry, Margaret,’ I said, ‘I know you’re only doing your job, but I’m absolutely not interested.’ But I still felt bad when she said, ‘Oh,’ in a small, sad voice.

But the knock-at-the-door woman!! Are you serious??!

First, I have the frenzied-dogs element to deal with. The young woman at the door, hearing the furious barking (my dogs always think that any stranger – they sniff them under the door, then decide on their strategy – must first be ripped to bits), was wise enough to swing closed the security gate. When I inched open the door, using my knees in Nadia Comaneci style to keep the hounds of hell at bay, while poking one ear through the small gap, she said, ‘Hi!’ brightly. I caught a glimpse of artfully highlighted hair and carefully applied makeup.

‘What do you want?’ I said. (I didn’t have to snarl, the dogs were doing that.) ‘Make it snappy, I’m having a bit of a problem here, in case you hadn’t noticed.’

She upped the volume to be heard over the dogs’ barking. ‘We can save you up to 25% on your electricity bill,’ she shouted. ‘I need a few moments with your husband.’

Now, there were so many things wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin. First, unless you’re bringing me wine, flowers or news that I’ve just won an all-expenses-paid trip to Tuscany with four of my closest friends, don’t knock at my door uninvited.

Second, am I really going to believe that you, as a third-party representative, are going to save me ‘up to 25%’ on my electricity bills? How, prey, are you going to make your money? Or do you just have a citizens’ concern that Eskom is ripping us off, and want to make life easier for us? (And pigs, flying, and all that.)

Third, if that’s really the case, please do me the favour of spamming me via email or cellphone – it’s so much kinder to our blood pressure to just press ‘delete’, and unfortunately it’s not yet legal to kill cold-callers.

And finally, what’s with this ‘your husband’ shit? If there’s anything that made me want to slam the door in her face (and there was plenty), that did the trick. I haven’t had a husband for 20 years and quite frankly that’s still not long enough.

‘Not interested,’ I said, and slammed the door.

Then I watched, with some interest, while this woman and her young male compatriot hit every house in our street – walking up to the door, knocking, and then very quickly being sent on their way. No-one was buying.

But I can’t see my neighbour T’s house from my kitchen window (alas!), so I SMSd her (like me, a very happily unmarried woman) a short while later. ‘Did the elec woman come to your house?’ I asked. ‘And did she ask to have a word with ‘‘your husband’’?

‘Yes,’ she SMSd back. ‘And I shouted, ‘‘HUSBAND?? I DON’T HAVE A HUSBAND!’’ and slammed the door in her face. She’s probably thinking, Gosh, I’m not surprised that these women can’t find husbands!’

Which at least gave us reason to laugh in a very raucous and unwifely manner.

But here’s the thing – do you know that the Protection of Personal Information Bill, which was passed by Cabinet in August 2009, states that if you don’t specifically agree (for instance, check a box to say that you’re willing to receive marketing materials, ie, ‘opt in’), the enquiring company may not contact you again? And, if you’re already receiving info (and this very much includes spam of any kind) without your consent that you don’t want, you have the option to ‘opt out’ – that is, request that the company stop contacting you.

We’ve all got a bit leery of doing the ‘unsubscribe’ thing in response to spam, because in the past all this did was confirm your details for the bastards who were sending you the stuff. But if this Bill gets passed into Law, you will have the law on your side: be specific about not wanting further communication (tick the box, click the ‘unsub’ option, tell the cold-caller you don’t want them to call you again), and if they do, sue the buggers.

Also, the new Bill says that consumers be allowed to ask cold callers where and how they got your information - and they can't fob you off with some 'specially pre-selected' crap: not only do they have to tell you exactly where and how, they also have to send you all the records they have on you if you ask for them. Seriously, read the Bill summary - knowledge is power, after all.

Incidentally, there’s also a new Consumer Protection Act that takes effect in April this year that is going to make South African consumers the most protected in the world. No more ‘caveat emptor’ (‘buyer beware’) – at long last, the seller is going to have to take responsibility for what you end up with in exchange for your hard-earned bucks.

Cool, hey?

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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

The old and the new (and hot and cold) of Christmas food

I was moved to write this by Nicole’s post on the stupidity of a traditional Christmas dinner in the sticky heat of a southern summer.

My late sainted mother was a Scotswoman, and as a result, took Christmas very seriously. I was quite amazed, when I visited the UK two years ago, to discover how ingrained and important those end-of-year rituals are. The sending of Christmas cards to practically everyone you’ve ever met in your whole life, for instance, is a chore not done only by the most slovenly of households. And it requires forethought: cards to foreign destinations must be posted a good month in advance of Christmas. Ironically, the card destined for my friends’ neighbours in Hitchin was the last one to be despatched: on Christmas Eve, the task of exiting the front door, walking five steps to the left, putting the card through the neighbours’ letter-slot and returning home - which had been put off by the father (‘Can’t, the turkey needs basting’), the mother (‘Can’t, I’m doing every-bloody-thing else around here’) and the two teens (‘Ah maaa, do we have to?’) – was finally accomplished by, yes, the mother. ‘Well, that’s the Christmas cards done at last,’ she said, with some satisfaction.

But back to the food. For years – decades – our family did the traditional Christmas dinner on Christmas Eve. Like Nicole’s experience, it was always hot, bothersome and, ultimately, not a meal you’d choose if you were on Death Row. And it was wasteful – for instance, my mother always prepared a large bowl of Brussels sprouts, which was never so much as touched (although lots of people made nasty comments about them). She tipped the whole lot into a Tupperware and put it in the fridge the next morning, and a few weeks later discovered them slowly liquefying and tossed them in the bin. And this happened every year.

Eventually, when we were all finally grownups and could smoke in front of our parents and sometimes tell dirty jokes without being sent to our rooms, we suggested that we ditch the traditional meal and do something that didn’t involve several days with the oven on at 180 degrees. My mother wasn’t madly keen but we talked her round – as long, she said, as she could cook the turkey the day before, and we could have it cold. Deal.

I’d long been responsible for the dessert – in the days of Christmas cake and Christmas pudding (both of which I consider a gustatory abomination), I would simply ask someone’s gran to make it for me (and often the brandy butter too), pay her the bucks, and turn up with it. The first year we had our non-traditional dinner, however, I was tasked with making a vanilla/apricot-chocolate bombe. My mother, who I suspect was enamoured with the shape of it (it’s also round and looks, at least, like a Christmas pudding), sent me the recipe early in December, and I stuck it in my diary to attend to at some other time, which turned out to be the morning of Christmas Eve. So I was quite shocked to read, when skimming the recipe to go shopping for the ingredients, the phrase ‘Leave in the freezer overnight’ appearing not once but twice.

Before I left for the shops, I cranked my freezer up as high as it would go. When I returned, and with the temperature hovering in the high 30s, I started making the bombe. I discovered several things about making a vanilla/apricot-chocolate bombe on a hot Christmas Eve morning when it is required for dessert that evening. I discovered that some things that aren’t left in the freezer overnight don’t actually freeze; I discovered that trying to fit a Christmas-pudding-shaped mould of apricot-chocolate sludge into a reverse-Christmas-pudding-shaped mould of vanilla sludge is a messy business and causes swearing.

I also discovered that vanilla/apricot-chocolate sludge doesn’t travel well in high temperatures. I packed the thing in ice in a coolbox and gunned it the 100 kilometres to my parents’ house, and when I got there I quickly whisked it into my parents’ freezer, hoping that the four hours that remained until it was required on the table would do the trick. It didn’t. Instead of tipping out elegantly onto the waiting plate, it made a sound like an elephant farting, then lazily shook itself free of the bowl before settling into a large puddle of what looked like the crap of an elephant that had eaten too many apricots. Not exactly a Nigella moment.

This year I was entrusted with the salmon mousse (another make-ahead-and-put-overnight-in-the-fridge project, with similar travel-distance requirements). I could not find a salmon mould in which to make it, so it went into the same bowl I’d used for the apricot-elephant-crap bombe (thoroughly washed, of course). The mousse looked suspiciously wobbly when I removed it from my fridge for transportation, and I steeled myself for more hoots of derision when it flopped out looking like, oh, fish-shit. But it didn’t! After a harrowing few seconds during which it clung tenaciously to the inside of the bowl, it sighed quietly, then let go. And voila! A perfect dome of salmon mousse – not as elegant, perhaps, as it would have been in a fish shape, but gratifyingly not looking like poo. I immediately had five glasses of champagne to celebrate.

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Friday, 7 January 2011

Hairdressing in the 21st century

I’ve just been for my second professional haircut in about 20 years. The first was in December, when I asked the hairdresser just to tidy up the back of the chop-job I’d done myself. I’ve been cutting other people’s hair for years, and was quite chuffed when she said, ‘Who cut your hair last?’ and I said, ‘I did,’ and she laughed and said, ‘No, really, who?’ (I think she said this because she was impressed, obviously; Johann thinks it’s because she was horrified and wanted to report my previous hairdresser to the Boss of Hairdressers*.)

I went to her again this morning, for two reasons: 1. It’s unbelievably, unbearably hot here at the moment, and the salon is airconditioned; and 2. It’s unbelievably, unbearably hot here at the moment, and I wanted all the hair on the back of my neck removed and that is the one place I can’t do cutting myself with any acceptable degree of accuracy.

These are the things that have changed since I last went to a hairdresser for an actual cut-and-style back in the 1980s.

The shampoo basins

Twenty years ago these were devices of torture. They were one-size-fits-all, and definitely not made for six-foot women. My choices were: sit with my bum hanging off the seat so that, with my neck in the gap, my shoulders weren’t forced up into the base of my skull; or sit with my bum on the seat so that, with my neck in the gap, my shoulders were forced up into the base of my skull.

Nowadays, the shampoo basins have flexible bases, and the chairs are on rollers, so you can adjust both until you’re comfortable. So at the end of the shampoo ritual, you don’t stagger out of the chair requiring the services of a physiotherapist to realign your spine.

The shampoo ritual

I hated the old shampoo-shampoo-condition ritual. The double wash stripped your hair so that it squeaked and the conditioner was always one-size-fits-all heavy and was so strong on the chemical scent it made your eyes sting. Also, the shampooers always made the water too hot, liberally doused your ears and/or eyes with it and/or caused litres to gush down your back, and worked mainly with their fingernails.

Nowadays, the double wash is quick and gentle (and the shampoo is gentle too – no inkling of a squeak here), the conditioner is agreeably light, and the shampooers seem to have a firm grasp of how to use the spray attachment. (I asked about this – apparently this is because in the old days, the shampooers were the lackeys who were also required to sweep up the hair, wipe the surfaces and make the tea; these days, the shampooers are apprentice hairdressers.)

Best of all, though, is the 5-minute head massage you get, which includes the pressure points on your forehead and temples and the knots in your upper back. By the time the shampooer is finished, you’re so relaxed you find it hard to stand up – a far more pleasant reason to stagger out of the shampoo chair than crunchment of the vertebra.

The style you request

The last time I went to a hairdresser, back in the 1980s, was when my fringe had finally grown out to around chin length (I have infuriatingly slow-growing hair), and I said very clearly to the hairdresser, ‘Whatever you do, don’t cut me a fringe.’ And – I wish I were making this up but I’m not – the very first thing she did was comb my grown-out fringe down my face, carefully line it up, and snip it across at around nose-bridge height. Perhaps she was hearing-impaired; perhaps she was just stupid. I probably gasped, but I said nothing: I was only in my 20s then, and intimidated by hairdressers - there was something about being trapped in that seat under a big black plastic apron, your scalp and back aching, looking at your red-eyed drowned-rat reflection, while the purple-haired skeletally-skinny much-pierced sloe-eyed hairdresser pranced around you with scissors that could cut a throat, that made it impossible to assert yourself. (This isn’t the worst hairdressing story I’ve heard from those days, when practically any woman who went for a cut-and-style ended up with a Princess Di, the patron saint of Elton John, and look at his hair.)

Today, when I sat down, the hairdresser asked me what I wanted. ‘Take it all off the back and trim the rest,’ I said, and that’s what she did. In fact, she did a bit more – my hair is woefully fine, and she did something artful to the top of it that made it look kind of bouncy and thickish. It restored my faith.

And these are the things that haven’t changed since I last went to a hairdresser for an actual cut-and-style back in the 1980s.

Magazines you never get to read

I don’t buy magazines (okay, except Heat and Time), so I was thrilled to see a lovely selection there before me: Reader’s Digest (‘10 things you never knew about Sigourney Weaver’), Country Life (‘Cook up a Christmas feast’), GQ South Africa (‘6 sex position you never knew you knew’), etc. But hairdressers, like dentists, have a captive audience, and instead of boning up on the square-jawed one, tantalising my tastebuds or improving my sex life, I was required to chat inanely about the weather, my kids and what I did for the festive season (but mainly the weather).


I’ve never liked what hairdressers do to my hair with a blowdryer. I end up looking like ‘my mother’ or ‘Hitler’ or ‘as if a flock of seagulls have squabbled on my head’ (these are all verbatim observations), and anyway, I’m going to jump in the pool or march up the mountain the minute I’m home, so what’s the point?

Today, I requested no blowdrying, but I got it anyway. Hairdressers just can’t help themselves. ‘Uh, do you have to?’ I asked, as she switched the thing on (aside from anything else, it was hot, and hot was exactly what I was trying to avoid). ‘Just a quick finger-dry,’ she said, breezily, and proceeded to blow and brush my hair into a style that accentuated my turkey-wattle and made my ears look enormous (a strange thing to do to what was, before she began with the blowdryer, a rather nice style).

The bill

R180 for 15 minutes’ work. Not bad if you can get it.

* I've been doing some third-party work for the South African Setas (Sector Education and Training Authorities), and was thrilled to receive, in one of their amazingly labyrinthine communications, a note from a woman whose job title is ‘Client Care Services: Hairdressing and Postal Coordinator’. (I checked: it wasn’t a joke.)

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Monday, 3 January 2011

And on into 2011

Out here in the country things happen at a different pace. Slowly, mainly. So when zero-hour approached on Friday night and the DJ was still playing something by Rihanna, I began fidgeting a little.

‘Don’t panic,’ said my friend Bruce. ‘Everyone knows you count down to midnight on the thirty-first of December.’

Bruce lives in the city – what does he know?

Midnight came and went, and still the teenies were bopping to something loud and inexplicable (definitely not Abba’s ‘Happy New Year’ or even the Time Warp), and the hosts of the street party we were at were poised with champagne bottles and whiz-bangs at the ready and we were all holding our breath… and the DJ put on something by Ludakris (or someone else with a misspelled name).

‘Pop the bottle!’ I screamed hysterically. ‘Pop it! Pop it! Pop it!’

And at last they did, and I immediately got drenched in sweet champagne (and as a result stuck to everything I touched, like human Velcro, for the remainder of the night). And gratifyingly the DJ played Auld Lang Syne and if I’d been physically able I would have joined crossed hands and danced in and out, but it was a challenge at that stage just to keep my brandy and coke vertical. (Yes, brandy and coke.)

But there it was at last – 2010 finished, and 2011 begun.

A friend remarked recently, ‘2011 is going to have to try really hard to be kakker than 2010,’ and I agree that 2010 wasn’t exactly a bumper year, but my god does anyone want to go through 2009 again? We need to remember, people, that we’re just coming out of one of the worst financial setbacks the world has ever seen, and if you’re one of the lucky (or rich or ridiculously organised) ones who made it through without losing your job, your house or the shirt on your back, you’re doing okay.

As 2011 approached, during December, my brother in Johannesburg was diagnosed with two life-threatening aneurysms, and Johann’s father in Bloemfontein died unexpectedly – these were not good omens. But people do get sick and people do die, and we who are fortunate enough to be in good health and have loved ones around us must carry on. And we must do it with great enthusiasm, and often behave badly, because otherwise what’s the point? You know that old chestnut: ‘Work like you don’t need the money, love like you’ve never been hurt, and dance like no-one’s watching you.’

Now’s the time for all that.

The morning after: Here in Riebeek Kasteel, 1 January 2011 arrived with a flash and a bang. Thunderstorms are extremely rare in our part of the world, and it hardly ever rains in summer, so the massive electrical downpour that arrived early on the first day of 2011, after several harbingers of lightning on New Year’s Eve, was a fabulous start to the year. Thanks to Peter, Bruce and Pieter (and Daniel, not pictured – poor man had to go to work!) for excellent company, and to Tony and Liesel for having the foresight and fortitude to provide ‘babbelas burgers’ on New Year’s morning! (And, PS, Johann, this is the last festive season we spend apart.)

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