The Best Laid Plans…

“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans”

is one of my favourite quotes by John Lennon and I often find myself muttering it like a mantra, clutching to the last few strands of sanity as I try to release my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and accept that things happen that I just cannot control. No matter how many times I revisit the sequence of events in my mind, I cannot change the course of events through sheer willpower or desperate need to have things go MY way.

Now, while this quote has quite a universal appeal, I am convinced that parents (of children or pet children) know its true meaning better than most, so allow me some poetic licence when I say that KIDS are what happen while you’re busy making other plans. No, I’m not talking about the level of surprise associated with their conception (that’s another topic entirely), but rather how well they manage to scupper your best laid plans once you’ve taken on the reigns of parenthood.

Ask me to put a date (usually a very keen social one or – in my previous life as an office-bound mom – a rather crucial, this-could-bring-me-a-promotion kind of meeting) in my calendar more than a few days in advance and you’ll see the look of doubt that flashes across my face. Don’t mistake it for hesitance directed at spending time with you. Oh no, it’s all about me jinxing it by actually putting it in the diary instead of immediately booking a visit to the paediatrician.

Gone are the days of looking forward to that shopping trip to the City, followed by a hearty lunch (usually a salad for the figure-conscious friend who accompanies me) and a glass of wine, followed by a slice of cake because “we’ve earned it” (the said friend by going to the gym, me because I actually made it there which calls for celebration). Oh no, every minute spent counting down to the big day of possible parole from parental duties has me fraught.

Vitamin dispensing, temperature checking, skin-erasing hand-washing and looking for the signs of a snotty nose fill my days as the date draws near. The night before my big day out, and I start to exhale… slowly. During the night, my ears are alert to the sound of any possible cough, but the only sound is the buzzing of my ears as my excitement grows about ‘Mom’s Day Out!’. By the morning, I’m cock-a-hoop, punching the air in victory, silently high-fiving myself for being so darn good at staving off any chance of my child picking up some nasty virus and I start to visualise the layout of my day…

Just then, little Sheila shuffles into my bedroom, clutching her throat and looking like a little mini-vampire with her suddenly pale skin, dark rings under the eyes and red fever-cracked mouth. That much-longed-for taste of a creamy, strawberry laden scone evaporates on my tongue and becomes rancid as reality thwacks me on the back of my head.

By the time we’re on our way to the doctor, the adult within has taken charge again and my concern is focused on the mini-vampire in the backseat of the car. The truth is that I’ll always rather be there in the car with her, making sure that she’s soon back to normal so she can make me laugh with her alternative opinions that I never thought a child was capable of.

Soon – but not before racking up a sizeable paediatric bill and substantially supporting the local pharmacy, we’re back home lazing on the couch, spending invaluable time together – sharing a day we wouldn’t normally have been able to. There will always be more trips to the City with my pals (even though it doesn’t feel like it!), but she’ll never be as little as she is today and her unique world view is as untainted as it ever will be.

Sometimes the best thing is to let go of those plans like helium-filled balloons, admiring them as they begin to disappear above the clouds, and then turn your attention to the very best things that are right in front of you.

When the Hemispheres Switched – Part 2

The Shopping Basket Case

TrolleyStop the clock! This week marked a much longed for triumph. After more than two and a half years, I managed to fit all my groceries into my shopping bags just as the cashier rang up the total. On top of it, I managed to put the right things into the right bags – soft and dry stuff in the one, cold and heavy stuff in the other… and the bags were neatly nestled in my trolley as I achieved this Olympic feat. Trust me, this is a big deal.

Perhaps my memories have been adjusted to reflect a rather rosy perspective, but where I come from you usually have a fairly friendly cashier ably supported by an equally friendly packer, who try very hard to pack your things as they perceive you might like them to be packed. The worst you could encounter is having a dozen eggs supporting the canned goods or having to remind the packer to please keep the ant poison (sorry environment, I need to save my house) separate from the food items.

It’s hard to understand the psychology behind it all, but here the picture is tinted somewhat differently. The tension creeps in as you approach the tills. Typically, you find yourself in a long queue, which you accept as being par for the course, but you are alone in your acceptance. The impatience levels are tangible as the trolley or basket behind you gives you a firm push along, as if you had any other place to be than the spot in which you are standing. The person in front holds firm even though there is a half-a-metre gap in front of her (which is possibly what Mr Behind Me Now sees and hopes I can help close). Now if you really want to start getting a South African’s hackles to rise, it’s to nudge them in a shopping queue. We’ve far too street-smart to know that’s how you get to donate your smartphone or purse to a quick-fingered quasi-shopper. So, Mr Behind Me Now doesn’t realise that he’s dealing with a ticking time bomb who did a self-defence course when she was in high school and can go from sweet little caring Cara to I-can-make-an-example-of-you-if-you-give-me-a-chance wannabe Ninja.

Now, this is when a small miracle takes place every time. Suddenly a frail little old man (actually, it could be a twenty-something in his prime – it doesn’t seem to make a difference) appears to the side of us, apologetically holding his sparse supply of goods for the day ahead in his two hands, the weight of which makes his shoulders droop. The queue shrinks and steps back to allow him to take pole position at the till. This is where us South Africans draw the line, we are very firm about our place in the queue and it takes a very rare moment of letting your guard down and not having the energy to argue to let anything like this happen, especially when they are not supporting the supermarket to the degree that you are (and they have the cheek to pay with a credit card, taking up even more time!). Yet, here, where impatience is the hallmark of the shopping experience, it is understood that the less you have to buy, the better you are treated.

It’s at this point when my conscience taps me on the shoulder and reminds me that I can be a better person and look how happy that queue-defying shopper jauntily exits the shop (yes, the frail old man suddenly develops a carefree spring in his step and I haven’t moved an inch).

In the meantime, the cashier has summoned reinforcements and Cashier Number 2 arrives. Well, the moment the announcement is made by Cashier Number 1 your fellow shoppers morph into sprinters, eyes focused on the target, legs-get-set and awaiting the go-ahead. It took me many months to realise the go-ahead comes in the form of either a subtle lift of Cashier Number 2’s eyebrows or slight movement of the chin, but then all hell breaks loose like long-distance runners jostling for position over a two metre cross-over. There’s no such thing as, “Well, I was here first and you came after me, so I guess I’d better go over to the other side then and thank you ever so much for taking over the spot I warmed up for you!”. Oh no, if you’re not quick… well, then you’re exactly where you were before. The rule, it would seem, is “Last in the first queue, first out the shop” and it hardly ever works in my favour, unless the Mr Behind Me Now has just nudged me and I am ready to pounce. Then my senses are primed for action.

Finally, I reach the till where the last opponent in this tale is Cashier Number 1. The cashier is usually a robust, narrow- and steely-eyed character who, with her/his deft wrist-flicks and a strong sadistic streak, matches and overtakes the speed at which you attempt to pack your shopping bag – and, let me tell you, it’s a clumsy, feeble and humiliating attempt. You almost hear the silent cheering by the shoppers waiting behind you, egging her on to greater speeds as you smash your loaf of bread into the side of the bag, while squeezing in the cartons of milk and shredding the bag. Mr Behind Me Now adds to the scrum by moving into your spot as you try to stop the trolley from rolling away after your last effort at hurling the washing powder and softener into the trolley, beyond caring whether they make it into a packet or not. Cashier Number 1 jubilantly calls out the total due as your fingers turn to jelly strips, trying to clutch at those little items that just keep falling back onto the waiting area of shame. Giving up, you scoop them up in your arms and throw them down, not caring if they even land in the trolley. The queue makes a further choreographed move and shifts forward about a metre, edging you closer to the door. You hand over your debit card and key in your pin code like a T-Rex, extending your neck to try to make up for you having to reach your little arms from the back of the trolley to the front where Cashier Number 1 sits, tapping the pen impatiently against her fingers, waiting for the payment to go through.

I won’t lie, I am sure I need a new debit card with a super-duper magnetic strip, but this is where I exact my revenge as she has to swipe the card two, three times before it registers and the queue holds their breath, nearly exploding with annoyance.

Over time, I’ve learnt to stand my ground, smugly keying in my pin code and standing in the same spot as I put my purse away. Another tactic is to hurl my groceries into the trolley, moving to a quiet place where I can slow down to a panic and pack the contents at my leisure while at least five shoppers are processed, scuttling out the shop in a hurry to goodness knows where.

On this day of success, almost a week ago, I devised a new tactic. My cunning took me by surprise, but oh how it paid off. My success has made me generous and I don’t mind sharing my secrets with you. To put the cashier on the back foot from the get-go, I placed the big bag of toilet rolls first. A friend has expanded on this tactic by recommending that I put the fruit and veg that require weighing down next. Then I put the rest of the contents down in the reverse order of how I would unpack them back at home (this is usually how it should be done, but thinking in reverse is like doing trigonometry for me) and finally I made sure I used firm bags that would be able to stay open in the trolley as I started filling them. Now, maybe I was in a more resilient or determined mood than usual – or maybe it was because I was the only customer in the queue on that day – but I’d like to think that my success all comes down to me mastering the art of packing. It’s taken over two and a half years and I’d hate to think it’s a fluke.

Maybe I’m reluctant to put my newfound mastery to the test, but boy am I happy that the shops are closed on Sundays. If anything, I usually just need a day to recover from the shame and humiliation of being a tad too slow, but this week I want to hold onto that mental trophy for as long as I can, while Cashier Number 1 reflects on her failure, licks her wounds and cracks her knuckles in preparation for her revenge…

When the Hemispheres Switched – Part 1

Adventure, beginnings, fear, ignoring the chatterings of a severe risk aversion and a leap of faith are all related to how this blog started. They’re also words I associate with the switching of my hemispheres…

Ah, I see you there rolling your eyes and circling your forefingers around either side of your head and muttering to yourself, “What is she going on about? Loopy, loopy chick!”. Well, perhaps, but actually it really does make sense. I’m talking about when I left my family, friends and home in South Africa for an adventure in Europe. It’s not really as ‘devil-may-care’ as I’d like it to sound. In fact, I have a very vivid memory of me prodding my forefinger in the vicinity of my husband’s face (he’s a tall guy, ok? Think well-fed Chihuahua versus St Bernard) and making him promise that it would be for the shortest time possible and that we’d be back in the blink of an eye. Expat contracts don’t work that way. In fact, they’re rather unpredictable in nature and you learn to go with the flow and make the most of the here-and-now… but he didn’t tell me that because he knew better. You don’t yell a warning at an ostrich while it’s got its head buried in the sand – you’re going to get a nasty kick and a very scrambled egg.

Now how did I get on this tangent? Well, all these lovely memories got hauled up by the arrival of a South African family to my current city this past week. I’m finding I’m putting myself in the new lass’s shoes, trying to give her very worthy advice based on the lessons learnt in my first few weeks here. Call it therapy for me, if you will. Plus, I’ve never really had a chance to relate all my “When the Hemispheres Switched” stories on my visits home because: a) we’re too busy catching up on what has being going on behind our backs; and b) I don’t want to ruin the great vibes when our nearest and dearest are quaffing the best red/white that South Africa has to offer, while I savour every sip of my it-costs-more-to-get-there-than-the-wine cream soda.

The problem, I’m finding, is that there’s a very fine line between giving valuable advice and underestimating the lady’s resilience. Add to that the most bizarre thought that occurred to me: Allow her to experience some of the things herself. Now, could this be supreme genius on my part, allowing the lady to immerse herself in experiences, creating memories that she can share back home, “You won’t believe what happened to me today…” and learning things in her own way and on her terms? The alternative is slightly sinister with overtones of ‘schadenfreude’ and I’d like to think that I reserve that only for my most mean-spirited foes. So, what the heck, let’s go with supreme genius.

Now, giving advice about business and shopping hours (none on Sunday), parking rules (important in a city in which there is slim to no chance of finding any in the vicinity of where you’d like to be and in a space that was demarcated for horses without the cart, testing your proficiency as a professional parallel-parker), etc. all makes sense. It’s the smaller, finer lessons learnt that are the trickiest when deciding to share, overshare or not to share at all.

The one that really bothered me was whether to warn her about the baked goods. Oh, there’s nothing at all wrong with the baked goods here – they’re heavenly, delicious, wickedly crammed with all kinds of fillings – some fruity and some that should have a percentage of alcohol stamped on the side. You see, the problem comes in when you sample a fresh Breze (pretzel) – the crispy, salty golden outer layer with a soft bready dough inside. You like it so much, you go back for more so you can enjoy it the next morning.

Yum, before you know it breakfast arrives and you grab that Brezel out of the packet and, defying common sense and convention, you sink your pearly whites into a weapon of dentists’ dreams. Overnight, it turns into a deadly boomerang – light as a feather and as hard as a brick.

Now then, do I assume that any person new to the city would make the mistake I did, based on delightful ignorance? Hmm, perhaps that’s just one of the things best left to discover…

Wordy Cara Enters the Blogosphere

GravatarI love words. I love the way letters merge together to form the shape of words, the way fonts set the tone – fun and playful informality or rigid seriousness – and the way these letters create a rhythm unique to the language. So, it might be surprising to you when I admit that everyone who knows me will agree that I am, somewhat ashamedly, a terrible letter writer.

This could pose a slight problem since most of my family and many friends reside in the opposite hemisphere, but thanks to social media I have managed to keep them updated, while earning new friends along the way. The trick, though, is to keep things short and concise, not to flood people with posts and not to impose my random thoughts and ideas upon them.

Of course, I battle to restrain myself and after much soul-searching decided that the answer was simple – to create my own blog. This way, people can choose to follow me and I can tap at the keyboard to my heart’s content, when I please, about whatever I please (trying to keep it clean).

I decided that the best way to go about it was the proper way, which really is against my instincts when it comes to these things. I usually prefer to approach technology like a child who learns by doing. The results are often disastrous, no matter how user-friendly the buttons are. Sometimes there is no ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ option before your hard work disappears into a space beyond any safe cloud. So, I thought that research was going to be the first step.

I didn’t like it. To have a good blog, apparently, you need to identify a ‘niche’ target – a group of readers that your writing will appeal to. Well, to begin with, I have a rather delightful motley crew of friends. Male, female, single, married, divorced, ambitious career climbers, laid-back beach devotees, those with or without children, with or without pets, grown-up punks, goths, metal-heads and pop, disco and classical-lovers, those who love wine and those who never touch the stuff… The point is, where would I even begin to choose? Secondly, and probably most importantly, I am doing this for me – to create an outlet for my thoughts, feelings and opinions, and to flex that writing muscle, taking a leap of faith into the public domain. I am not a corporation, targeting my brand to any particular group.

I write the things I want to write, expressing my point of view and welcoming comments. If something resonates with just one reader, then I will be content.

Ah, that word ‘content’. Now, the next piece of advice I read was about choosing what ‘type’ of ‘content’ I will be writing about. Will it be about food, health and beauty, motherhood, business, careers, housekeeping (bwahahaha!), music, relationships, travel and adventure or about writing itself? Well, while I don’t dabble much in the world of astrology, it could be rather apt that I fall under the 12th sign of the Zodiac – Pisces – a mixture of everything. So, how could I ever be satisfied writing on one tangent, when I favour so many?

I stopped reading the advice and decided to give the blogging thing a go. Choose a theme, write a page and then see what happens. It’s a subtle warning then that you and I can prepare ourselves for some learning curves along the way. Pages that don’t open, links that don’t work or dealing with the impact of whatever I was supposed to have done, but didn’t. Since hindsight is perfect vision, I reckon that one day I’ll be able to look up at the screen and realise that the masterpiece I always wanted… Well, that’s the other part of me – my rather overactive imagination.

Deal with it, you chose to follow the blog. I’ll do my best and hopefully keep you entertained along the way!