Sunday, 29 April 2012

On the ball at our airports

I’ve never once been asked to open a bag at an airport after it’s gone through the X-ray scanner, but on a recent trip to Johannesburg, my sister and I had our belongings searched twice.

On the outward-bound trip, the eagle-eyed crew at Cape Town International Airport spotted a pair of small paper scissors in my sister’s laptop bag – she’d had no idea they were there – and confiscated them, because you know what kind of havoc small paper scissors can cause on a plane.
And on our return trip, my handbag caused consternation at the X-ray point at Johannesburg International Airport, and I was asked to step to one side and empty out its contents. A vigilant officer had spotted this contraband – a keychain I bought in Holland last year. (It caused all-round hilarity and they didn’t confiscate it, happily.)

I must say that on both occasions (and particularly the return one, when Joburg airport was like a zoo), the staff were polite, friendly and efficient.

  • I travelled via Dubai a few years after 9/11, when airport security worldwide was at its peak. I bleeped when I walked through the X-ray machine, and was asked to take off all my jewellery and try again (I’d already removed my belt and shoes, as was standard practice at the time). I did, and it bleeped again. I was asked to walk through with my hands raised (by now the long queue behind me was starting to mutter), and it bleeped again. I was asked if I had any metal plates in my head and I said no (although I was tempted…). Finally, the staff looked at each other, shrugged, and told me to proceed. And that’s how I smuggled a detonator onto the plane. NOT REALLY, OKAY?!

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Fear of heights

My daughter Isabella and her friends Rob and Lorissa went off to Ratanga Junction this weekend, and brought back this fantastic photo of sheer fear, taken as they launched on the SlingShot (‘the human catapult’).

I laughed my arse off when I saw it, and also felt just a titchy bit vindicated, because 10 years ago (when, apparently, my kids had less fear than they do now), I went with them to Ratanga Junction and, for reasons that escape me to this day (I have a morbid fear of heights), agreed to ride the Cobra with them. It was by far the most terrifying experience of my life, as this pic taken as we got back to ground level shows – I was so scared that I cried. The fear stayed with me, and even when they finally persuaded me to go on the baby ferris wheel with them that day, I cried again and begged the operator to stop the ride. (He laughed at me.)

Incidentally, for those with a fear of heights, the three-storey, super-fast, super-long escalator at the Gautrain station is quite a challenge – it’s a real don’t-look-down trip.

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Headlice ain’t nice

I love The New Adventures of Old Christine, probably because when it first aired in South Africa, in the mid-2000s, I was also a single mother, about Christine’s age (we never find out precisely how old she is, as she’s terminally vane about it, but we can assume from various references that she was born in the mid-1960s, and so was I), and with kids around the same age as her son, Ritchie (pre-teen).

Christine and I do have several stand-out differences (her ex-husband, Richard, is supportive to an almost ridiculous degree, for instance, and mine isn’t; and I like to think I’m not as fabulously self-obsessed as she is) but we also have many similiarities (we both love our wine, hate dating and have a dysfunctional family of origin).

A recent episode, though, really struck gold with me – it was one about an outbreak of headlice at her son Ritchie’s posh private school. Christine, who stands out like a sore thumb among the other parents at the school because she’s a single mom, and also because she’s nowhere near as wealthy as them, is immediately targeted as Patient Zero.

In a ‘truth is sometimes stranger than fiction’ kind of way, this very same thing happened to me and my kids back when they were attending a very posh private school in Cape Town. I could barely afford the fees and often had to ask for more time to pay them (and then do complicated things with my revolving bond in order to free up funds); I was the only single parent in either of my kids’ classes; we lived in the little hippie suburb of Observatory in a very small house, while most of my kids’ peers inhabited mansions in Bishopscourt and Constantia; and while my children’s classmates arrived at school in chauffeur-driven limousines with TVs in the back (I’m not exaggerating), we walked – this was considered such a phenomenon that we were actually known as ‘The Walking Family’.

Now, as any parent of schoolgoing kids knows, headlice outbreaks are fairly common, and targeting Patient Zero is usually impossible. Headlice spread very quickly between children, and the only way to control an outbreak is to make sure that every child affected is taken out of school and properly treated – including washing with a pesticide shampoo and manually removing nits (eggs) – before being allowed to return, otherwise the cycle just starts all over again. (Back when I was a schoolkid, headlice outbreaks were so common that hats were banned; and affected children had to be examined by the school nurse and issued with a clearance certificate before being allowed back to school.)

In the case of my kids at the posh private Cape Town school, it quickly became clear that the outbreaks weren’t being properly managed: no sooner had I picked the last nit from my kids’ heads (a laborious procedure involving a bright light, a fine-tooth comb and the patience of Job) and hot-washed the last piece of linen in the house, than they came back from school with more. It was unbelievably frustrating, and I couldn’t understand why my repeated appeals to their teachers to make sure that every child was treated were constantly received with sideways looks and embarrassed shoulder-shrugs.

And then, a few days later, I did. I got a letter from the principal of the school stating that my two children had been identified as the ‘Patient Zeroes’, and ordering me in very frosty tones to make sure that they were lice-free before sending them back to school.

I was incensed. Not only had my children both been completely lice-free several times, and then been reinfected at the school, but there was absolutely no way that, in a school of about 500 kids ranging from grades 0 to 12 (and there were headlice outbreaks in almost every class), they could possibly have been correctly identified as the carriers of the plague. It was sheer snobbery at work.

I did prove my point, in the end. During the midyear three-week school break, I took my kids away on holiday. Before we left, I made sure they were lice-free; and when we came back, I checked again. On the first day of school, I phoned the principal and invited her to check my kids’ heads herself, to confirm that they were entirely without creepy-crawly infestations. She did, and they were.

Within a week, my kids were reinfected once again. Although I wrote a letter to the principal pointing out (in matching frosty tones) that this proved once and for all that my children couldn’t possibly have been the ‘Patient Zeroes’, I never heard another word from her on the subject.

Wealth and privilege might buy status, but it sure doesn’t buy good manners.

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Sunday, 22 April 2012

An Afrotropolis to be proud of: Jozi rocks!

I grew up in Johannesburg, in Parkview and later Parkwood, and when I moved to Cape Town at 19, I missed it desperately. I moved back to Jozi briefly in my mid-20s for a job (which paid well over double what I’d been earning in Cape Town), and quickly slotted right back into that vibey energy that (sorry, Slaapstad) was so missing in the Mother City.

The five years I’d spent in Cape Town had, however, hooked me – it really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world – and I ended up settling there for the next decade or so, before decamping to the little town of Riebeek Kasteel.

I’ve gone back to Johannesburg briefly from time to time, on business and for various family occasions, and I’ve always enjoyed it, but for some reason my last visit, last week, really reminded me of why I so loved growing up there.

Everything's bigger in Jozi: my sister shows off a
chocolate croissant, presumably made to share....
My sister and I spent two days in Sandton presenting a writing workshop for a large corporate, and although we had precious little spare time, we did manage to soak up a bit of Jozi’s amazing energy. Sandton itself has changed beyond recognition from the early days – when Sandton City was first built in the mid-1970s, it was the biggest thing ever to have happened in the northern suburbs. Before the mega-shopping centre went up, Sandown, Bryanston and Rivonia were out in the sticks – I went out there to ride offroad bikes along endless miles of trails, and some of my better-heeled friends had horses stabled out there.

Sandton City became the place to meet on Saturday mornings – my generation of teenagers were the forerunners of today’s mall rats. We played Space Invaders in the video arcade, ordered four glasses of water and one plate of chips to share at the restaurants (there were no food courts yet), and shopped for skin-tight high-waisted jeans at Goophee’s.

Ten years ago I went back to Joburg on a business trip, to write a story about Montecasino. I was booked into a BnB in Fourways, and declined the offer of directions to get there because I’d lived in Fourways in my late teens and knew where it was – the suburb was, after all, named after the four-way stop at William Nicol and Witkoppen. It was only when I was well on my way to Hartbeestpoort that I realised that the old landmark had disappeared under a three-lane highway.

My sister and I experienced same somewhat unsettling disorientation on this latest visit – our teen memories of landmarks were confusingly overlaid by the new Sandton, packed with gleaming skyscrapers, uber-smart office headquarters and trendy apartment blocks. When we drove past a Tudor-style townhouse complex on Rivonia Road, we both shrieked recognition: our father’s friend and colleague, cameraman Ernie Christie (who later gained notoriety when he flew his Cessna into a block of flats down the road from our house in Parkwood, killing both himself and two other people), had lived there with his wife, Nikki. A family outing to the Christies’ place back in the 1970s was a trip out to the country! (By some bizarre coincidence, the headquarters of the corporate where we presented our course was built on the very piece of land where Ernie once had a film studio.)

From left: me, my brother, my sister and my brother's wife,
at Kai Thai. My brother is the only member of
our family still living in Jozi.
My sister and I stayed at the City Lodge in Sandton, which is very much in the centre of things. It was clean and bright, and the staff were without exception on the ball, friendly and eager to please. And we experienced this service excellence everywhere, including the News Café (where we went for a drink in the early evening, and sat outside in the nippy autumn air, surrounded by some of the cream of Jozi’s young and energetic labour force) and Kai Thai, a fabulous restaurant in Randburg where I had one of the best yellow Thai curries I’ve ever eaten. For someone who’s long given up going out to eat in my own neck of the woods, because it’s always such a frustrating experience, this was a pleasure practically beyond description.

I’d also forgotten how distinct Jozi’s seasons are – although this is very much something I missed when I first moved to Cape Town, where there are really only two seasons, summer and winter. So coming out of the hotel early in the morning, with the city already fully awake, into the clean, crisp autumn air, and watching two grey louries fly from tree to russet-coloured tree, was just too wonderful. Jozi is no concrete jungle – with over 10 million trees, the city boasts the biggest manmade forest in the world. And when it turns orange in autumn, and the trees shed their leaves into huge scrunchy piles, it’s a fabulously picturesque signal that winter is on its way. And – bonus – we also got to experience an afternoon thunderstorm!

(I do recall battling through the Joburg winters – it gets so bitterly cold, and the dryness makes everything crackle with static electricity, and causes nosebleeds and painfully cracked lips.)

The cherry on top of our visit was being whisked from Sandton to the airport on the Gautrain. It’s not a cheap 15-minute ride at R115 one way, but it’s fast, efficient and sparkly-clean. Buying a ticket was a bit of a pain – although there’s a rank of automatic ticket-dispensing machines at the Sandton station, you can only use them if you already have a Gautrain card (which we didn’t), and that meant we had to queue at the single ticket office. Each ticket sale took about a minute and a half, which doesn’t sound long in isolation, but when you’re in a queue of 10 people, the minutes stack up.

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Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Juno’s fabulous food soon to be available in book form!

Jane-Anne Hobbs, who started this blog and wrote as ‘Juno’ for several years before turning her energy to her food blog, Scrumptious, spent many months of last year slaving over a hot stove to produce a cookbook, which will be published by Random House Struik at the beginning of July.

‘Although I can’t yet tell you what the title of the book is, it has (of course!) the word ‘‘Scrumptious’’ in it,’ she says. ‘What I can reveal is that it’s a beautiful, full-colour dustjacketed hardback, filled with superlative photographs, and that it contains 90 of my original, triple-tested recipes, most of them entirely new.’

Jane-Anne and I have long shared a deep love of food, and I know that every one of her recipes will be a winner, and that her cookbook will become a beloved kitchen staple. (I’m also hoping that now that the book is in production, she’ll answer some of my emails!)

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Is a solar geyser really worth it?

I had a solar geyser installed in July last year, and looked forward to its paying for itself over about 3 years, according to the figures provided to me. I’ve had many enquiries about solar heating since, so I did a few quick sums to work out exactly how much the solar system is saving me in electricity bills each month.

My average electricity bill from January to July last year (seven months, including two winter months) was R565.

My average electricity bill from August last year to February this year (also seven months, and also including two winter months) was R400.

That’s a saving of R165 per month or about 30%.

The cost of the system, less a rebate from Eskom (which was only paid in December, 5 months after installation and all the paperwork had been submitted, and after repeated enquiries), came to about R10 000.

So at the moment it seems that the real payback time is about 60 months or 5 years.

It’s probably worth mentioning (and can be seen by my average bills) that we as a household use very little electricity – we don’t have power-hungry appliances like heaters, air-conditioners or tumble-dryers – and I’d think that in a home where the general electricity consumption is higher and there’s more hot-water demand, the savings would be more marked.

Also, because of the vagaries of the weather in the Western Cape (with both summers and winters varying in their degrees of harshness), a more accurate reflection of any savings would be the average electricity consumption of the full year before installation (July 2010 to July 2011) and after (August 2011 to August 2012).

I’ll repeat the exercise in September.

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Robert Downey Jr does the dirty in Due Date

I finally got around to watching Due Date, which I’ve wanted to for a while because it has two of my favourite actors in it (Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifianakis). I enjoyed the movie, but it’s gone down in my list of Top Ten Movies of All Time for the scene in which Robert Downey Jr’s character punches an irritating pre-teen boy in the stomach.

It’s such a fabulously unexpected and wildly politically incorrect scene that I missed the next 10 minutes of the movie because I was rolling around on the floor in hysterics. Because, really, who among us hasn’t been driven to near-violence by the behaviour of other people’s children?

This is not to say that my own pre-teen children were perfectly behaved – they most assuredly weren’t, because pre-teen children are just like that. But it’s bad enough putting up with the annoying behaviour of your own kids, without being subjected to that of other people’s.

But it’s a very sensitive subject around parents of kids of all ages: the simple fact is that parents don’t appreciate having the shortcomings of their little darlings pointed out to them (and the same goes for me and my kids). I wrote a column for parent24 about this subject as it applies to toddlers, and the range of responses – from those who accused me of being a child-hater to those who congratulated me for saying what needed to be said – was interesting.

Anyway, for anyone who’s ever wanted to punch a kid, that scene in Due Date is the ideal conduit for your vengeful fantasies. Whenever you find yourself clenching your fists and eyeing a pre-teen’s midriff, watch it. It’ll probably keep you out of jail.

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Sunday, 8 April 2012

Another concert: The Eagles

My friend Amanda and I have made it our mission to see old rockers in concert. We did Smokie in 2008 and Neil Diamond last year, so nothing was going to stop us seeing the Eagles. So, last week, it was off to the fabulous Cape Town Stadium once again, and this time Amanda did the booking and got us seats a little closer than the mile-away ones I managed to secure for Neil. (I also took binoculars – a necessity if you’re sitting anywhere in the stadium other than in the first +-30 rows down on the field.)

I began panicking a little as concert time approached – at 7.50pm, minutes before the band was due to appear on stage, the stadium was still embarrassingly empty. How could one of the best groups alive play to so few people? But it was just the typical Capetonian disregard for time that was at fault, and by the time the Eagles came on at 8.30pm (a trendy half-hour late), there were bums on almost all the seats.

10 minutes to go to play-time:
where the hell is everybody??
Show time: the Capetonians
come drifting in.

Which is where they stayed, sadly. As happened at the Smokie concert at Grand West, security guards were militant about stopping people dancing. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong about being forced to stay seated while the band on stage is playing its support-hose off, clapping their hands above their heads and urging people to join in. This isn’t a symphony concert, for god’s sake, it’s a rock concert – the music is designed to dance to!

This wasn’t, however, a problem for the woman sitting next to me. She was probably in her early thirties (so way too young to have been around when The Eagles were really hitting their stride), and she simply wrapped herself in a blanket and dozed off for most of the concert. Then, when the first unmistakable bars of ‘Hotel California’ drifted out over the audience, she suddenly came alive. She threw off her blanket and, jiving enthusiastically in her seat, sang every word of the song, incredibly loudly and completely off key and right in my ear. The minute the last strains died away, she wrapped herself back up in her blanket and went back to sleep.

There were, in fact, a surprising number of youngsters (in their teens and twenties) at the concert – a credit to The Eagles’ music, the appeal of which clearly spans generations. But, not surprisingly, the vast majority were ‘oldies’ (over, say, 40), and this was a problem when it came to identifying our seats from the numbers printed on the tickets. The printing is very small, so all over the stadium we saw people of a certain age, holding their tickets out at arm’s length and squinting to try to read their row and seat numbers, or scrabbling in their pockets and bags for their reading glasses. Haha!

A highlight for me was Don Henley’s ‘The Boys of Summer’, which isn’t actually an Eagles song (it was written by Henley and Mike Campbell, guitarist for Tom Petty, several years after The Eagles disbanded in 1980), but which, since the band reunited in 1994, now forms part of The Eagles’ collection. Listening to Henley performing it, I remembered where and when I first heard ‘The Boys of Summer’: back in the summer of 1985, driving along in Terry’s beach buggy! It was a fabulously nostalgic moment.

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Another reunion

A couple of months ago my friend Troy phoned me with a story. He was invited to a party and, because he doesn’t drive, a friend of a friend, Lee, was despatched to fetch him. During the drive, they made small-talk, as two strangers stuck in a car for any length of time tend to do. When Troy discovered where Lee lives, he began the ‘do you know…?’ game that strangers tend to play, regardless of the likelihood (and it’s usually small) of any mutual acquaintances actually being established.

But here’s where the story gets interesting. Troy meant to ask Lee, ‘Do you know Peter So-and-so?’ (the name of the guy who lives in Lee’s neighbourhood) but mistakenly said, ‘Do you know Peter Hawthorne?’ (which is my father’s name). When Lee answered, ‘Yes, I do know Peter Hawthorne, and I went to school with his daughter, Tracey,’ Troy says there were several seconds of stunned silence. And in this completely coincidental way, Lee and I made contact again.

So, last week, three Parktown Girls’ High School pupils, class of 1982, got together at my house with our families for a very festive reunion. Mandy (who’s been my BFF since long before ‘BFF’ was a buzzword – we met in Grade 1, 42 years ago, and were inseparable through the 12 years of school; and we’ve never lost contact) came from Joburg with her family (her husband and four sons, aged 7 to 27) and Lee came from Cape Town with her son (11) and daughter (19).

Parktown Girls' High, winter 1981: me (squinting),
Carolyn (another schoolfriend who Lee's
still in contact with), Lee (right) and
Mandy (bottom).
Riebeek Kasteel, summer 2012 (30 years later):
Lee, me and Mandy


With our families. (My daughter is missing from this group pic as she took the photo.)

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Yet another recent reunion was with my friend Angie, after an absence of eight years. And, as evidenced by these pics (the recent ones are awful quality, because my daughter took them on her cellphone), we slipped straight back into what we always loved doing most: dancing.


Above: Riebeek Kasteel, winter 2004

Below: Riebeek Kasteel, summer 2012

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