Can’t We Just Brush It Under The Carpet?

Brush it Under the CarpetWhen it comes to questioning my mothering ability, nothing comes as close to opening up the minefield of guilt, incompetence and the ubiquitous I-should-haves as taking my kids for a visit to the dentist. Before I get to the point, though, I find it only fair to relate what a good start I DID make…

From the moment my precious sprogs showed the first sign of teething (and probably before), I prided myself on being proactive and sensible, flawless by the standards of any smugly written child-rearing text book  – no dummies/pacifiers, none of that business of letting them fall asleep whilst sucking on a bottle of milk which would certainly rot their newfound fangs, no fruit juices (unless diluted by 70% water) and thorough, supervised and assisted brushing morning and night.

Now, after a few years, there comes a delightful stage for parents during which your child’s independence is encouraged – even by experts – and, quite frankly, you think your six-year-old seems to have tooth brushing under control.

And then you arrive for the appointment. It starts off blissfully. Dentists these days have kid-friendly waiting rooms, specially decorated treatment rooms to appeal to any child’s taste, and – this has got to be what impresses me most – a choice of animated films in the child’s preferred language that replace having to stare into the Lamp of Pain. Even the numbing ointment and bitter fluoride come in flavours of their choosing. So, it’s all looking peachy for your child and you’re thinking that things are off to a great start, but not for long…

It starts with a muffled grunt from the dentist, who raises an eyebrow and taps at something significant. The assistant lowers her eyes in embarrassment and the dentist clears her throat to tell you that things are looking rather grim indeed. You’re summoned to hang over the chair and peer into your sprog’s mouth whilst the dentist grabs the sharpest looking tooth-scraper-thing and jabs it into your child’s gum with the gusto of a sushi chef. Why are they so surprised to see a bit of blood? If I did that with a toothpick to myself, it would be well deserved and they’d moan at me about that too. But all of a sudden I start to get the feeling that I’m getting the blame – and it takes a few seconds for the penny to drop, especially because it’s all happening in German. I’m fielding questions left, right and centre – brushing? how often? fizzy drinks? how often? S-W-E-E-T-S (uttered in the same category as a toe-crunching swearword)? Come on, show me a regular child who doesn’t like something sweet and I’ll call him/her a prize-winning poker player.

I swear I don’t remember my mother being subjected to this kind of interrogation. The only time I recall us getting a sharp look from the dentist was when he interrupted a high-jinks game of ‘I spy’ (no game is without wheezing and tears of mirth when it comes to my family) while we were waiting for the X-rays to develop and he must’ve thought we were giggling about him. So, I find myself wondering why they’re picking on me?

Then they drop the F word. Flossing. Completely to be expected, but – really – who has that nifty little dental chair at home to strap your kid down and get to the back molars without slicing the corners of their mouths or ramming your suddenly meaty knuckles through the roof of their mouth straight into the nasal cavity above? Flossing is not for sissies.

Some people might have a recurring nightmare in which they end up walking around naked in public or falling off cliffs or having to take their school-leaving maths exam again (or an exam on a topic they’ve never studied). Mine is having my perfectly healthy teeth falling out. Maybe it’s got something to do with the nine extractions I had for orthodontic reasons as a teenager, but it certainly is enough to send me into a blind panic when that dreaded silky floss wraps itself around the base of a tooth with the intent of a hungry python. Needless to say, Flossing and I have a ‘I’d rather leave it, if you’re going to take it’ relationship. The result being that I am not as thorough with it as I ought to be. Mea culpa.

After promising to police tooth-brushing and regularly administer fluoride (you know, it used to be in the water when I was growing up!) and ensure they Floss-Every-Day, I leave the rooms like a drunken on-duty mother who’s been allowed out on bail – without the luxury of the laughing gas. Oh, but first we have to make an appointment of shame to return in three-to-four months (because they’re worried that they won’t be able to save any teeth after the more forgiving six months).

This has just described one of our many visits, but today I managed to hit a new low in their mothering rankings. Sauntering 10 minutes early into the reception area with a newfound confidence (my child had actually allowed me to supervise and tweak two out of the last 14 days’ tooth-brushing-and-flossing sessions), I’m on my way to the waiting room when the receptionist clears her throat with a slight note of embarrassment, halting my presumptive swagger in its tracks. “Um… You will probably have to wait for five extra minutes… You see, your appointment was actually half an hour ago, so we are busy with another patient”. Of all the doctor appointments to get wrong, I managed to fail even further! Of all the places to be tardy – Germany, famed for its punctuality! Now, I can’t even make eye contact with the receptionist any more. The last person in the building who had a sympathetic smile just for me…

Maybe it was pity, but now it’s gone and I will miss it.

Full Circle – A Year’s Adventure in Blogging and Other Things

Full Circle - A Year's Adventure in Blogging and Other ThingsOver the past few months, I’ve come to appreciate that nagging feeling – otherwise known as gut feel or intuition – and subtle reminders that life seems to send my way. Today was filled with that same constant nagging feeling, like a toddler pulling at your jeans with sticky fingers after more of the sweet stuff. I had to do something and it wasn’t my overwhelming load of German homework, the mountain of laundry that rivalled Mount Kilimanjaro or the breakfast dishes still in the sink well after lunch time…

It all started with a beautiful butterfly that my little boy discovered outside our front door. To my non-scientific eye, it was clear it was a very special kind of butterfly thanks to its bright, bold and beautiful colour combination. The sad thing was that it was struggling, fluttering its wings which seemed to stick together, but not able to take off in flight. My boy was intent on saving it and I was anticipating having to deal with a lesson about the circle of life. The more he tried to urge it to climb onto a leaf and gently blew behind it, the more I tried to dissuade him, telling him to let it sort itself out (secretly hoping that it would manage to crawl away out of sight and be left to die in peace, and that he could forget about it). We went out for lunch and when we came back my boy went straight to where he had left the butterfly. Surprisingly, the butterfly had made its way onto the top of an old laundry detergent cap that my son had left for it to try to climb onto and was fluttering its wings more confidently. My boy whispered words of encouragement and went inside to hang up his coat. Not long after, my husband came inside and reported that the butterfly was nowhere to be seen and must’ve flown off.

In that moment I experienced an ‘ah-ha’ moment. What seemed like a struggle towards an end, was actually a struggle to begin – to embark on a new journey. The irony that butterflies are often associated with a connection between two states of being, beginnings and endings, did not escape me. So what did I need to begin? What was the message that the universe was putting before me so blatantly?

The restless feeling continued and intensified until I started up my computer (which is a MISSION for me in this age of hand-held tablets that don’t need updates and time-consuming software tweaks before you can log on). After managing to deftly skirt the matter of writing on my blog over the past few months, I was suddenly compelled to open it up and hope that my skittish inspiration would come out of hiding.

I was drawn to scroll down and then it jumped out at me: Today, 2 November, is the one-year anniversary of my first blog post. I’ve come full circle. How could I not write a post? Inspiration presented itself with the beautiful photo my boy took of his ‘rescued’ butterfly.

Seasons move on, Inspiration presents herself in ebbs and flows, but what might be considered as an ending could turn out to be a beginning. What my boy and a butterfly taught me today is not to give up even when it appears as though the odds are stacked against you – and to continue trusting that nagging feeling, with or without the sticky fingers!

Time, Space and Relate-ivity: An Expat’s Take on Friendship Across the Globe

The Road AheadWhen I was seven years old, my best friend moved across the Atlantic. It made a lasting impression on me – the newfound feeling of loss, having to strike up new connections with other children without feeling as if I were betraying our unique connection, and the frequent reminder of her absence each time we drove past her house which was just around the block from mine.

Even though the distance that separated us was immense, we kept in contact by post and the occasional long-distance phone call, where the first person you spoke to was the operator. I always had a sense just as the phone started ringing that it would be a call from her and, while we were growing up in two very different worlds, our connection was just as strong as it had always been. We could just pick up where we had left off the year before.

Over time, more friends moved away and it was easier to deal with – e-mail messages replaced the memorable long-distance phone calls as well as long-winded letters sealed in envelopes that had never gotten their stamps and were still stored in my cupboard, waiting to be sent.

I went to university, made more friends, started working, had children, made friends with the mothers of my children’s friends and life was good.

Then WE moved. Not to another neighbourhood or province. Oh no, we took a huge leap and landed on another continent entirely.

Missing my friends and family, it only took a South African Tourism advert on an international news channel to reduce me to a puddle of tears. The longing and grieving for life as it was, was real and strong. Skype and Facebook are my lifesavers, keeping me in touch with those dear to me on a daily, or at least frequent, basis.

There is something rather unique about being uprooted like a turnip and deposited neatly in a foreign country, surrounded by similarly uprooted turnips expats from all around the world. At first, the experienced expats are the ones who tuck you under their wing, chatting away to you as if they’d known you for years. This ‘familiarity’ is rather overwhelming and you back-off rather quickly. After all, you’ve just known them for all of five minutes! The ‘newbies’, however, seem to cluster around like puppies tentatively sussing one another out until there seems to be a mutual tail-wagging and a new friendship becomes a possibility.

Ah, this all sounds so hesitant because it is! Being without your usual frame of reference leaves you starting to ask questions about who you really are and what you really like. You don’t have your usual people to knock you back into shape and you also don’t have their expectations of who you think they think you are dictating how you think or behave (this sentence could be a test to see if you’re concentrating). Simply put, one of the most basic human needs is the feeling of belonging. By the time we’ve grown up and have addressed the “I need to find myself” and “I want to fit in”, you’re likely to have addressed this need and are reaching towards higher levels of fulfilment and striving to master all aspects of your grown-up life.

Ha ha. Nothing brings out the child within faster than when someone moans at you in German/*insert applicable language*, you have no idea what you’ve done wrong and you have no friend’s shoulder to cry on because something wildly irregular just happened. Nobody is going to Skype their friends online to cry over a petite woman having virtually picked you up and lifted you away from the refrigerator door you were standing in front of at the grocery store, whilst dithering over whether to buy yourself the low-fat or full-cream chocolate chip tub of yoghurt. Ok, this is not really a good example because my sister happened to be standing right next to me when it happened, but it’s these kinds of crazy stories that don’t sound that relevant to cry over 8 hours later when everyone is at home from work on the other side of the globe. You know they’ll laugh. So, you opt to keep them as part of your comedy routine or blog in the future.

Right, getting back to the point… Slowly, you start getting to know people and this is where the fields of relativity and quantum physics or some such in-depth science in the expatriate universe kicks in. Inevitably a crisis crops up and in the absence of friends, family and often your own spouse/partner (due to work and travel demands), you find yourself faced with the option of calling on a person you have known for only a month or two. If you are lucky, as I was, you find people you hadn’t really spent much time with coming to your rescue. Suddenly, you are on the receiving end of a level of kindness and support that you would normally only expect of your family and very close friends. Before you know it, they’ve worked out a schedule amongst themselves to fetch and carry one of your children to and from school, while you are house-bound with the other child who has pneumonia/scarlet fever/chicken pox/etc. Packets of groceries arrive and are often supplemented with heartening visits by the immune and/or very brave! A friendship grows out of this kindness that you hope to reciprocate. And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

Other friendships take time, or you mistakenly feel as though you have as much time as you would in the ordinary world, but this is a world of its own. Work contracts come to an end or are suddenly superseded by better opportunities or unexpected corporate shifts. People who renewed their contracts last week are those leaving in two weeks’ time. It’s a harsh reality. They leave.

Mostly, the shift happens just as you feel you can throw caution to the wind and allow your thick accent to replace the optimistically neutral one that you hope any elocution teacher would be proud of, and you start revealing more of yourself. You are at the point where you can make bawdy comments and throw your head back and laugh out loud (or you feel free to have an intellectual conversation on the pros and cons of multilingual education – whatever rocks your boat) – and you know it’s safe. And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

Some friendships just happen. From the moment the person next to you makes a comment at the school’s orientation-for-new-families day, you share a conspiratorial grin and just know that you’re already friends… And then the time comes when they tell you they are leaving.

It’s hard to move away from where you are. To see the contents of your home, your life packed into the back of a removals or cargo truck. To have to renegotiate learning a new language and cultural peculiarities in another foreign country or returning back ‘home’ to your roots where people have moved on without you or those who thankfully haven’t changed at all…

To see friends pack their belongings and drive away to the airport leaves a sadness hard to describe. A form of grieving for friends who became family, balanced by the joy of having gotten to know such incredible people with their amazing stories to tell and the hope of keeping those friendships across the seas and over time just as I did as a child…

Bon voyage, my special friends and, as the Irish blessing goes:

“May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
and rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand”

Woman, Machine and a Case of (Im)perfect Timing

Man and MachineThe kids were fast asleep in bed (finally, after a long, looong evening), it was blissfully quiet and I was inhaling my warm cup of tea when I realised I’d forgotten about the washing in the machine. As I made my way down to the utility room, my ‘doom’ sensors started to flicker. I hadn’t heard the familiar, annoying ‘bing, bing, bing’ that usually sounds the end of the cycle and summons me to unload it. Hmm. I opened the door and the first thing I saw, other than the evidence that the machine had tried to run away again by virtue of it being half a metre away from where I’d left it, was the bright digital ERROR MESSAGE. Just two little yellow letters that could elevate the heart rate of every mechanically challenged person and induce immediate perspiration.

My brains fled back up the stairs, grabbing the tea cup and muttering words of denial and something along the words of, “it’ll all work out”. So, instead of relying on my traumatised brains, I followed my instinct. It was all I had left. I pulled the plug out. Then realised the machine was still full of water and hadn’t drained. Oops. What to do? I checked my phone – nope, husband was definitely on a plane and in the air, heading towards another continent and wouldn’t be *vaguely useful until the next morning. *Vaguely useful because I think he has as much mechanical knowledge as I do, except he’s braver and stronger, and can break things apart and put them back again, even if they still don’t work. Typical – always when he goes away and always as he is just out of contact so that I don’t even have a sounding board, a second opinion or someone to blame.

With shaking fingers, I decided to make use of my technology and hitch a ride on the information highway. Google. YouTube. They answered my error message and a patient, kind and helpful female voice guided me through a visual presentation of how to open the machine and manually drain the water from it. I love how it worked out for the guy who was doing the demonstration. There was a lovely little flap that came down and formed a channel and the water flowed obediently into a little water tray that he had ready. All I had was a bucket, a little door that was too low to get the lip of the bucket underneath and a spout that preferred to spew the water right down instead of into the bucket. I emphasise the use of the word BUCKET because that is what I used and it still wasn’t anywhere near enough to contain all the water that came running out. The little water tray in the demonstration was a ploy – a false sense of security about how bad the whole process really is when you’re in your long t-shirt pyjamas, bare knees on the cold floor, trying to get all the water into a bucket and most of it is running along the tiles looking for the nearest exit. Thankfully, we have a drain in the middle of the floor. It never made sense to me because it seemed so shallow and useless… until now.

As I was muttering words we never say in front of nice people or our children, my feisty memory jumped back to another time, long ago, when I was dealing with another kind of water flow…

Husband and I had recently moved into the very first home we had bought together. I had enjoyed a long, robust day at work, begging clients to accept my spelling and grammar changes and getting their very late adverts into their chosen publications through diplomatic – um – begging with our media contacts. I was looking forward to a nutritious, gourmet microwave meal (no kids, no conscience). Husband was away on business and I was going to watch all the girly TV programmes of my choice. As I entered the townhouse complex with my car window open, I was struck by the sulphuric smell that must’ve been from those building works down the road.

As I entered my kitchen through the adjoining door from the garage, I realised that the smell was somehow stronger. As I turned left out of the kitchen and into the hallway, a flow of water trickling out of the guest bathroom on the opposite side of the hallway caught my eye. It was immediately very clear to me that it was more the kind of water that goes out of a house via the toilet than the kind that you allow into a house…

The realisation of what that ‘water’ contained completely overwhelmed my OCD-inclined self and I can only say that my reaction was similar to that of Janet Leigh in the horror film Psycho. It all happened in a bathroom, the ‘visitor’ was unwelcome and there was a lot of water and other stuff.

I realised that I had to take control. I was an independent, salary-earning grown-up and this was no time to stamp my feet and wring my hands like a five-year-old. I grabbed hold of a mop and bucket and approached the offensive stream with purpose. After a few ineffective dabs and a lot of dry retching, I knew this was not going to work. I had to be decisive, a problem-solver and make a mature decision about the next steps to be taken. So, I burst into tears and phoned my dad.

Don’t judge me. There’s a lot to be said for appreciating the value of your parents even after you’ve left the fold. He arrived in a flash, armed with a plunger and already wearing his black gum boots (wellingtons/rubber boots). He’d called the emergency plumbers who were on their way and he’d brought my mother with for moral support as I tried to process the horror of my hallway and living room having been turned into a sewer.

It’s important to note that, at that stage, we were slowly discovering that the very things that usually secure a building certificate were turning out to be non-compliant – plumbing, electricity, and so on. All I am grateful for was that they were also not too perturbed about how to lay the concrete so THANKFULLY there was a slight dip in the flooring (not normally visible by looking at the tiling) that created a channel. All the nasty stuff was somehow making its way out of the front door via the hallway and straight out of the back door via the living room without entering the kitchen. We had no carpets and everything was tiled. These were my silver linings on a very murky evening.

And, so, going back to the other night when I was busy rinsing off the clean washing in the bath, I realised how grateful I was for the fact that the washing was at least clean, although not properly rinsed and that I had drained the machine all on my own. I was very proud of myself.

The kids weren’t too interested though. Neither was the repairman nor my husband.

So, I just had to share my story with you.

A Terrible Case of Irritable Yowl Syndrome

Irritable Yowl SyndromeIrritable Yowl Syndrome. No typing error here. The naming of this increasingly common affliction, suffered by mothers mostly (this is not based on gender discrimination, but more from general observation that will be explained later on), takes effect from the date of this blog onwards, with full credit due to me.

While it has nothing to do with intestinal disorders or symptoms, it most certainly comes about after a bad case of diarrhoea – verbal diarrhoea that is. In my case, it all started on a Thursday morning…

“Come on guys, you’d better finish your breakfast. You’ve still got to brush your teeth and get dressed… and we’re running late this morning. I’m sure you don’t want to be late”. It was my best attempt at putting the ‘I’m-not-going-to-lose-my-cool’ hat on and keeping my voice steady, calm, in control and below the usual banshee pitch. The ensuing elephantine thunder heading up the stairs towards the bathroom reassured me that they were on track and so I kept attending to my own needs, which included trying to find the new underarm deodorant that seemed to have disappeared within the mountain of things that I still need to sort out. On top of it, the heating in the bedroom seemed to finally be on top form and the beads of frustrated sweat forming under my arms and on my face were not helping my case.

The strange muffling and occasional thumping sounds coming from little man’s bedroom broke my concentration as my fingers just managed to knock the deodorant further under the bed, a haven for dust bunnies of the world. The kids were clearly having a little bit of a disagreement.

Now, mothers will know that dignity goes out the window from about the time that the little being within you enters the world. However, over time you try to build it up again, trying to forget the moments the children just NEED to tell you something important while you are on the loo or when they say the things that came straight out of your mouth in the company of someone who should not know that you could ever say those things. I could go on, but you get the just of it.

Dignity. All of it gone as I stomped across the landing in my underwear, painfully aware of the extra kilos nodding along as if in agreement with my stomping. Flinging open the door, I had no choice but to adopt sergeant-major tactics, clipped tones, loud enough to be heard but not by the neighbours, “RIGHT! Both of you, stop fighting right now! OH MY WORD! Are you still in your pyjamas?! ARE YOU STILL IN YOUR PAJAMAS?! That’s it! I have had enough, you’re going to school in your pyjamas!”.

The threat of my mother just glaring at me with her ice-blue eyes when she got cross was usually enough to stop me in my tracks, but with this lot here? Oh no, the fact I was stomping around like an ogre in ladies underwear was not enough. The fact my eyes were bulging in an attempt to recreate the ice-blue scary mommy eyes was not enough. The fact that they’d have to go to school in their pyjamas seemed to be the least scary of all, resulting in a look from both of them that showed they thought it slightly novel and considered it a darn good idea for a bit of a lark.

Finally, after having glared at them for a while as I tried – as ladylike as I could – to wipe the little bit of saliva from my chin that had escaped when I tried to express my shock at their lack of motivation, little man seemed bold enough to respond. I expected… Hmm, what did I expect to hear? Well, an apology perhaps or a promise to get a move on.

He opened his mouth, “Mommy?”. “Yes?” I replied with my hands settling on my hips. “Mommy, do you know if sharks can eat fish in a fish tank?”. “No, sharks can’t eat fish in a fish tank because sharks are in the sea and they also can’t fit in a small fish tank”. “But Mommy, what if sharks could fit in a fish tank? Would they eat my fish?”. “Argh! That’s not the point – you’re supposed to get ready now. Just PLEASE get ready, you two, ok?”. Trying to regain my composure, I steadied my voice again, trying to keep it calm and reasonable, pleading without being too desperate, with a slight intonation at the end without turning into a whine.

Finally, I found a use for the feather duster and knocked the deodorant from under the bed, and applied it generously to attempt to mask my efforts after grappling with it and the two tykes in the other room. I heard toothbrushes buzzing and the general sounds of them getting ready. Enough to relax for a minute as I got dressed and put my makeup on.

As I was concentrating on getting sufficient mascara on that one eyelash that decided to change direction like a squint eyeball, little man flew into the room with enough energy to cause the mascara brush to smash into my eyeball like a toilet brush in jelly, leaving a trail of black stripes across my entire eye area. “Mommy! Did you know that a jet wawawawawawaa? A-n-d that it wawawawawawawaa? A-n-d one day, I’m going to fly the fastest jet which is a wawawawawa! What do you think about that?”. First of all, I had no clue what he was talking about. It was just technical enough for a five-year-old boy to grasp and just technical enough for me to have to consult with a robust, yet idiot-friendly search engine later on. “Mmmm” was the best I could muster in an attempt to match his excitement, cover up my ignorance and to stop my eyes from watering from that fiercely unrelenting stinging sensation in my left eye. “No, mommy, I’m asking you!”. I sighed as I pleaded reasonably, “Let’s talk about it later then, okay my boy? I think we’re going to be very late now, so let’s get going. Can you get your boots, hat and jacket on so long?”. His little shoulders slumped and in an attempt to restore his spirits, I offered up a bit of motherly praise, “But good job for thinking of such a good question! We’ll look it up when you get home”. I don’t think it worked…

Five minutes later, with mascara hastily reapplied and an extra layer of eye shadow to hide the marks of the first failed attempt, I got to the door where the two were hanging around, chuckling like hyena pups. My suspicions and hackles rose simultaneously, but I breathed out, clutching onto the front door handle as I hopped about, zipping up my boots.

“Mommy?” it was little girl’s turn now. “Yes?” I said, trying to show interest (although “WHAT!” was what I heard my brain say). “Do you know what so-and-so said to Ms. (Insert teacher’s name) yesterday?”. “No, my darling, I don’t know. What did she say?”. So, with that bit of encouragement, she launched into a blow-by-blow account of some rather interesting story that I should’ve heard the night before when we had oodles of time and nobody had the energy to speak to me because ‘nothing had happened at school and it was all very boring that day’. As I regained my balance as the boot zip finally closed at the top of my calf, my eye caught the clock. Oh no! We WERE going to be late after all my ‘crying wolf’ to get the kids ready!

I shuffled them (little girl used the word ‘pushed’, but that’s up for debate depending on which side of the shuffling or pushing you were on) out of the door, slammed it shut and then frantically checked my jacket pockets to make sure I had the house key (which is a little too late when it is a self-locking door).

By this stage, the kids were both throwing all kinds of trivia and juicy news my way without pausing for breath, while I was clutching onto the last threads of sanity that were melting like candy floss. I unlocked the car, flung the boot open (narrowly missing the tip of my nose and almost hitting my forehead as I threw my handbag in the boot along with their school bags). As I slammed it shut, I expected to see two heads sitting obediently in the back seat, waiting for me to perform a cross-check on the seatbelts. But no – there little girl was talking to the fairies somewhere in the hedge, while little man was stubbing the ice with the front of his boot. “Come on, we’re late!” I exclaimed in exasperation.

As little girl skipped in slow motion towards the car door – the other one on the other side of the car, not the one I opened for her like a chauffeur, forcing me to run across to the ‘wrong’ side, skittling along the ice – little man thought it would be a great idea to demonstrate how effective his ice-breaking method was and how far he could kick shards of ice across the driveway right up to our elderly neighbour’s garden gate, giving running commentary as he did so.

Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore, my levels of irritation hit an all-time high, and I let out a yowl through gritted teeth that started like a humming wasp and ended in pure banshee pitch, “JUST GET INTO THE CAR!”.

When we got to school I looked into the eyes of at least 10 other mothers who seemed to have endured the same experience as me, all a little pale in the face but with red spots on our cheeks (the kind that you can only achieve through pure frustration), slightly pink and watery eyes, and husky, hoarse voices that betrayed the volume levels we’d achieved that morning.

And the fathers, you ask? Well, weren’t those just the people walking hand-in-hand with the deceptively obedient children who were skipping along, plotting their next move to make mom crazy tomorrow.

Best Wild Animal Encounter – Ever!

Wildly in Love

Wildly in Love

A few weeks ago I decided to risk it and asked you, my ‘followers’, for some fun blog topics to challenge me beyond my comfort zone. One of those received was, ‘Best wild animal encounter’. Well, growing up in Africa and being treated to many bucket-list type of safaris gives me loads of material and an unfair advantage over those of you who might be more familiar with the concrete jungle and animals of a different kind.

My gut response to that kind of topic, though, is to automatically respond by saying the best way to encounter a wild animal is definitely not at close range and I have a few stories to keep us sitting around a campfire from dusk ’til dawn as well as a good dose of advice (that comes from studying just enough psychology to do a fair bit of damage).

For now, though, I’m going to start with my favourite story.

The four of us – the Husband, the Children, and I – were slowly making our way down the footpath at Boulders Beach (part of the Table Mountain National Park) to watch the African penguins as they went about their daily manoeuvres. Every now and then we’d hear a rustle as the penguins scuttled about in the beach vegetation. To give you a taste of what’s to come, I can’t resist mentioning that they used to be called the Jackass penguin because of the braying sounds they make, until somebody decided that it was a bit non-PC. Personally, I think it adds a little perspective and character to their antics and I’m still rather fond of their maiden name.

Finally, we reached the viewing platform. A small group of penguins swimming gracefully caught my eye. They were close to shore and were bound to make an exit when the most hilarious thing I’ve ever seen happened. Like surfers they caught the next wave, but instead of gliding onto the beach as the marine experts they are, they were tossed and tumbled about reminiscent of toys in a washing machine, spat out onto the beach like amateurs in a total wipe out.

They bounced up like a teenager who’s taken a tumble in front of her class, humiliated but playing it cool. Shaking the water off and getting their balance back they clustered together as if to compare notes on who recovered the best. As I was about to turn away, I noticed two penguins looking into each other’s eyes and suddenly they appeared to kiss. The remaining peers all looked off into different directions, awkwardly waiting for this romantic moment to pass. If you’ve seen the various Madagascar films or the spin-off Penguins of Madagascar, all I can say is that these guys were the inspiration for Kowalski and Co.

Normally, romantic encounters in the Animal Kingdom are not as elegant as this couple were and I think I’ll say no more on this, except that I’ll leave the details for a dedicated nature programme on television.

Now for Wordy Cara’s words of advice on wild animal encounters:

1) If you find yourself driving a car in a nature reserve/national park, do NOT drive up the animal’s backside. I’m sure you don’t like a shopping trolley up yours, so give it a bit more thought, especially when following an elephant who’s having a rough time with his sky-high testosterone levels and looks like he’s crying. It’s called ‘musth’ and although it only happens to boy elephants I can only equate it to a woman at the wrong time of her cycle who’s just discovered lipstick on her man’s collar.

2) Related to point 1, you suspend the right to complain if you annoy the animal to the extent that you end up with a wrecked car, on all the social media you can imagine and with a nomination for the Darwin Award.

3) Related to point 1 and 2, you should be banned from ever entering a nature reserve/national park/zoo/circus if your actions resulted in the untimely death of the animal you provoked.

4) Persons who should be exempt from any of these points are those who have been unfortunate enough to have been guided by an ‘expert’ who has no clue what he/she is doing and who should, him/herself, be banned from owning, running or visiting a nature reserve/zoo/circus (in fact, could we just leave animals out of a circus unless they decide to submit their own application to join one due to their unbelievable sense of self-confidence and talent?). Rather go into the field of fleecing tourists by letting them have their photos taken with life-size photos of wild animals at an obscene price. It’s less messy that way and saves a few lives.

5) Do NOT ride a bicycle through a nature reserve on your own and especially not when the pedals squeak. This sounds like an obvious point that needs no mention, but I have almost WITNESSED what could have been a live kill. Briefly, we were seated in a game-drive vehicle at the crack of dawn, admiring three male lions in their prime. Suddenly, we heard a ‘skweeek, skweeek, skweeek’ approaching us and one of the male lions jumped up into his starting blocks, staring intently through the bush at the approaching sound. The tracking game ranger at the front of the vehicle lifted his hand slowly in a warning and it was only then that we noticed the reserve employee on his bicycle just over 50 metres away. Looking at it from the lions’ perspective, I visualised a prime piece of fresh steak seated on a serving tray with two wheels. Luckily the employee could back-pedal quicker than the lion could dismiss the fact that he had actually just eaten breakfast, even though he still felt slightly peckish. So, stick to the authorised and organised bicycle tours… if you must.

6) Capturing that incredible moment on film when a lion/leopard looks through your car window is awesome! Well, the fact that he’s looking through the window is a slight indication that he’s a bit too close and if your window’s open and your arm is extended beyond the outline of the car, the reality is that you might never get to see that photo or your camera or your arm ever again. The fact you’re a coward and you let your kids do it on your behalf is even worse. Sunroofs also count as windows. Keep your body parts tucked safely inside before they’re plucked off you.

7) Do you like it when you hear a pimped-up ride pull up next to you as you sashay down the pavement with the occupants catcalling, whistling and yelling all kinds of proposed shenanigans at you? I didn’t think so. Don’t tease wild animals if you don’t feel confident you’d be the last gladiator standing.

8) I love that moment when a stranger comes up to my kids, dangles sweeties in front of their face and then shoves them into my kids’ hands without asking me. Actually, I don’t for many reasons. DON’T FEED THE ANIMALS! I can’t make it any clearer and neither can the signboards, unless you think it’d be cool to take a baboon for a drive down a coastal road with the top down. Have you seen the size of a baboon’s teeth? Would you let someone with an uncovered, unwashed and chafed-looking backside sit in your ultimate set of wheels? Would you like the product of the food you’ve just given the animal and an upset stomach to be all over that pretty leather interior? NO, NO, NO! If it’s alive and not in special care, that means it’s getting food from its natural source. Leave well alone or start allowing creepy people to give your kids sweets.

I could go on with this list of do’s and don’ts, but I don’t want you to end up feeling like you might have to consider scratching a safari off your bucket list. Truly, seeing a wild animal at a safe distance is one of the most magical moments you could ever experience. The absolute peace and oneness with nature you feel as you hear a giraffe chewing the juicy leaves at the top of a thorny acacia tree in the morning sun or the far-off hysterical whooping laughter of a hyena at nightfall is incomparable.

Remember to do everything the game ranger tells you, but just take the story of ‘why the warthog’s tail stands up’ with a pinch of salt.

Tongue Twisters and Other Misadventures in a Foreign Language

Tongue TwistersVisiting or living in a foreign country brings adventure, new tastes and smells, great discoveries and loads of fun. It also brings – often with a nasty surprise – the challenge of having to deal with a foreign language. Coming from a country that has 11 official languages (along with loads more unofficial ones thanks to South Africa’s colourful history), I am no stranger to different sounds and words, but I am no multilingual aficionado, able to seamlessly chop and change languages as I please.

After the Big Move to Germany, I would start a question, request or brief chat in German, then apologise profusely for my poor German language skills, explaining that I had just arrived in the country. The person I would be talking to would look at me wide-eyed and puff out their lips with adoptive pride and reassure me that my German was very good indeed for someone from the southern tip of Africa as I bowed my head in false modesty. You see, I wasn’t being entirely honest with them if you count the year of German I had at school when I was 13 and the five or so cramming sessions I had before we made the big jump across the ‘pond’. Plus, I had managed to master first-year University-level isiZulu during my degree years ago and I felt rather cocky and self-assured of my linguistic abilities.

Oh my, how I’ve learnt. After almost three years of going to class once a week (when the kids aren’t sick or on school holiday), I haven’t progressed as much as I expected and now my modest protestations of language proficiency (or lack thereof) are met with motivating attempts from those who know me far too well by now – my neighbours, pharmacists, doctors, sales assistants, cashiers and my German teacher (bless her for not banging her head on the desk or flinging herself down the stairs when she has to repeat the same concept or word for the umpteenth time). It’s embarrassing, but speaks volumes of the depth of their kindness in being so encouraging, even though I suspect I am a disappointment to them.

So, it was with great admiration and delight when we recently boarded a train to embark on our big weekend adventure from our city to Paris and I heard the announcements in French, German and English. “Wow!” I thought to myself, “These people are an inspiration”. At first, the announcements were impressive as the gentleman reeled off instructions and updates in all three languages and then I started to notice little discrepancies between the German and English versions. We were close to France when he gave an update in French without any hesitation; then came the German, which seemed alright; and then the English, “We will already apologise that there is a 30-minute delay”. Then, in German, he said something along the lines of, “If you would like more information (pause as he realises that he’s messed up)… I will give you more information when I can.”. Now, I know that pause meant he knew he messed up, because it’s what I do while I scramble through the Rolodex of words in my head and try to match them with the mastermind code of grammar.

The next announcement in English had me in stitches, “Laydees and jennelmen, we are no longer on the fast track, so we will go on the tracks and we will be 40 minutes later”. The kids were understandably a little confused, so Husband helpfully (?) decided to translate, ” We’re completely lost, but the driver says he’ll take the ‘agterpaadjies’ (back tracks in Afrikaans) and we’ll get to Paris only 40 minutes later than planned”.

By this time I was beyond mirth. I was gleefully loving every mistake I could discern. It was just so good knowing that everyone makes mistakes. We do our best and thank goodness nobody has ever been as wicked as I was laughing at this very brave fellow’s slip-ups.

As I said, every now and again, I am brought back to earth with a bump. Wrapping my mouth around words and sounds that my tongue just isn’t as agile for as it should be. The worst is when you confuse your second or third language sounds with what should be those of your mother-tongue language. My best example is the German ‘S’ (a ‘shhh’ sound) and the regular English ‘S’. It’s gotten so bad now that I cannot say Stellenbosch without my first attempt sounding something like ‘Shhtellenbosch’, which makes me appear to have enjoyed far too many jolly trips sampling the offerings of its world-renowned vineyards. Oh so much still to learn…

If I can give you just one word of advice – actually I need to give two – rather sacrifice your pride and memorise at least a few key phrases like “Excuse me, do you perhaps speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. I cringe when I hear tourists stomp into a shop, braying for some help in English, giving the absolute impression that the language of their host country is inferior to their own. Sometimes a pathetic attempt at another language conveys a more sincere message that you appreciate their culture, respect them and are at least trying. It is more often than not met with kindness, even if not reciprocated with the requested language.

The other piece of advice I do have to share with you is to NEVER, ever ask, “How much does that cost?” in the foreign language if you cannot at least count or do mathematics in it. The blank look the sales assistant gets from you just gives you away as being another dumb tourist who can’t afford to pay…