My world in random order

Today is officially Squirrels-Gone-Mad Day. I know you might have been expecting a Royal Wedding post from this heaving city because nothing much else seems to be happening here at the moment. People are camping outside Westminster as we speak to get a glimpse of the family-that-is-not-boring and the couple-who-are-also-not-boring as they get set to tie the royal knot on Friday. But squirrels captured my attention today; they just did.

As I walked to my bus this morning, I decided that the squirrels in our ‘hood had gone nuts. Firstly, I saw a squirrel scurrying towards the water as I crossed the dock. There was no tree in sight and, I know it’s been a bit warmer here, but I didn’t realise squirrels liked the water. Although I saw no towel or swimming cap (health and safety considerations, of course), I think my squirrel friend was going for a squim.

Then, when I walked past a row of weeping willow trees, a couple of squirrels rushed past me and scurried up a tree. I heard a crinkling sound and then saw that one of the squirrels was carrying a large, crumpled-up piece of paper in its mouth. I watched it as it ran to the top of the tree, towards a nest. (Do squirrels have nests?) I thought maybe the squirrels just wanted to do anything to take their minds off this royal madness all around them; it was their equivalent of sticking their fingers in their ears and going “la-la-la-la-la-la”! I know the feeling.

My version of doing that is to share a few more of the things that I love about life in London and, in so doing, to keep the attention away from the you-know-whats.

1. Sir John Soane’s Museum

A glimpse inside Sir John Soane's museum (via culture24.org.uk)

Friends of ours told us about this little hidden gem in the heart of London. Sir John Soane was the Royal Architect (sorry for using the “r” word) in 1806 and, according to his website, began “to arrange the Books, casts and models in order that the students might have the benefit of easy access to them and proposed opening his house for the use of the Royal Academy students the day before and the day after each of his lectures. By 1827, when John Britton published the first description of the Museum, Soane’s collection was being referred to as an ‘Academy of Architecture’”.

We visited this Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Field near Holborn in central London a few weekends ago. We stood and waited our turn to enter the hushed and hallowed halls of this building that was home and house to both a family and an exorbitantly large collection of stuff. The number of visitors to the house at any one time is limited to about 20, as space to move is at a premium. I had to put my handbag into a plastic bag and hold it in my hand, to avoid the risk of knocking over artefacts that are stood and stored everywhere; all cameras and laptops were surrendered at the front door and no photography permitted. No washing machines either.

When we got the nod, we stepped into a surreal world of compulsive collections of artwork, furniture, paintings, statues, stained glass, casts, architects’ models and history. Our eyes stood out on stalks, our senses were overloaded and the abundance of assembled heritage from every corner and age of the world just about blew my mind. The house itself is a fascination of levels and sunroofs and alcoves and cellars and nooks and crannies. Every available surface and space is filled with another piece of art.

The “monk’s cellar” at the bottom of the house is home to a collection of Egyptian art, including a sarcophagus, complete with hieroglyphic engravings as well as a wooden mummy case. A cellar-level courtyard hosts the final resting place of “Poor Fanny” whose inscription on a massive headstone tells of a greatly revered personality, laid to rest in pride of place. I asked one of the staff members who “poor Fanny” was and was surprised to learn that “she was, madam, Mrs Soane’s dog”.

We were ushered into a high-ceilinged room whose walls were lined, from floor to ceiling, with paintings. The door was closed behind us and a white-gloved curator proceeded to talk us through the profusion of artworks that covered the walls. He talked with perfect comedic timing through a series of William Hogarth paintings, A Rake’s Progress, and then described the provenance of each other gem hanging from the walls, or should I say, cupboard doors, as they opened to reveal a further collection of artworks lining the inside of the doors and the real wall behind the doors. The opposite “wall” was also so composed, with one difference: the doors opened to reveal another set of doors which then opened on to an open space above the monk’s cellar, where Soane’s model of the Bank of England stood proudly for all to see. We all gasped and applauded.

The rest of the house brought with it equal numbers of surprises and sensory treats; it certainly requires a second and third visit and you can be sure that we’ll be back to discover more.

2. Charity in London

I work for a small charity that does remarkably big work in London. I never cease to be amazed at the level of dedication to our work that I see all around me every day, and the pace of change that results from passionate and focused campaigning.

Ten days ago, we stood on Tower Bridge and cheered on the 100 or so runners who joined the 36,500 others to run the London Marathon 2011 in our charity’s colours towards a goal of raising some quarter of a million pounds for us. It’s far and away our biggest fundraising event of the year, which makes sense: the London Marathon is, I am told, the “biggest fundraising event on the PLANET”.

The elite women. The green-vested speedster on the right ran in what was her second marathon and won in just over two hours.
From the sublime to the ridiculous: these ladies stopped their running and took photos of each other on Tower Bridge.

Each person running for us had a reason to run for us: to raise funds for world-class research that might change the course of his four-year-old son’s life; to run in memory of her nephew who died 15 years ago, aged 16; three university students who ran because their mate is in a wheelchair and he’s an awesome guy; brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, friends – all honouring someone close to them and supporting them in this amazingly tangible way. There are no more words.

3. Endless eavesdropping opportunities

Last week, a woman sat behind me in the bus on the way to work. She arrived at her seat mid-conversation on her cell phone. She had a slight accent, and from what I could overhear, she was whingeing about someone; female I think.

The conversation continued in a monotone and then I heard her say, “But you know what? I’m really worried about the herpes.” I then began to wonder what kind of a weekend she’d had, exactly, and began to understand why she was so irate with this other person.

“Everything else is okay, the shoes and everything, it’s just the herpes. And I’m really worried. I don’t know what to do about it.”

I was about to move seats, when I realised I was heading off down the wrong track.

“You see, the thing about the herpes is that … well, it’s more like a veil than a herpes. You see?”

She was talking about a “hairpiece”.

4. Riding along the Thames

I am quite proud of myself because I can still ride a bicycle. Well, ride might be too generous a word. I can stay upright on a bicycle and not fall off. Just.

Easter Saturday was a beautiful, sunny day with a light breeze. My husband and I set off on our newly-sorted bikes to enjoy a little ride along the edge of the Thames. I haven’t been on a bike for about 30 years but, as they say, it’s just like riding a bike. I managed to stay pretty much balanced and didn’t wobble myself to a complete standstill.

Thank goodness we didn’t ride in traffic, just along the Thames footpath, and I mostly managed to avoid hitting any pedestrians. For a short distance we rode on a road with traffic and I discovered a have a unique instinct: instead of fight or flight, I have my own response: act like a complete idiot. Fearing being knocked over by a car, I do the sensible thing when I hear it approaching: I ride towards it.

I don’t think that approach will lengthen my life, but I’ll stay off the busy roads just in case. It is also a bit of a challenge riding a boy’s bike that is slightly too big for me, but I’ll get over it. In fact, I did! And the uncomfortable saddle. And the handlebars that seem designed for gorilla-length arms. But you know what? The freedom of riding along in a gentle breeze, alongside my best friend and along the edge of a raging river that’s been churning and flowing since time immemorial, made me feel alive and unbeatable.

Until I hit a cobbled path and riding over it was like being aboard a jackhammer at full throttle. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

This post has felt a bit like Sir John Soane’s museum – nothing really makes too much sense; it’s filled with bits of this and bits of that and peppered with randomness and collections of thoughts and observations, with nothing really to hold them all together except that they all come from me. I don’t think there’ll be people queuing for a viewing of my thoughts but you never know; this is London, man, and people here are crazy.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Tall, dark and interesting

There’s a really cool guy who comes to clean our offices in the evenings. He listens to music through earphones as he works, and, quite frankly, he fascinates me. He looks so trendy and interesting, and the other day I found myself wondering what his story was. And that reminded me …

A few years ago, back in Cape Town, I went to night school to study. I had two young sons, I worked full-time and I studied part-time with a bunch of mainly youngsters who had just completed their undergraduate studies, and had continued straight on to this course. Most of them still lived at home, most had nothing else to do except the course. I thought about that as I juggled supper, washing, helping my sons with their homework and trying to study for a test the following evening.

I also thought about that the one evening when our lecturer told us to “cast your minds back to 1978”. I got totally in the zone … where I was, what music I listened to, who my friends were, the level of insecure that I felt as an awkward teenager in her second last year of high school … when I was shaken out of my reverie by a fellow student who said, “Bob! Most of us were only born in 1978!” Was I ever glad I didn’t open my mouth?

One evening, our first lecture in research methodology was about to begin. Students had gathered and seated themselves and were chattering noisily throughout the lecture theatre. The lecturer arrived and put his books on the podium, and we all settled down in silent anticipation of the riveting lecture ahead. He greeted us, welcomed us and began to introduce his topic for the evening.

The doors – which were near the front of the lecture theatre – opened dramatically. A tall, gorgeous, James Dean-esque vision in denim stood in the doorway. Perfectly coiffed and beautifully sculpted, he surveyed the theatre to see where he was going to sit for the evening. A million of us wished we could raise our hands and invite him to sit next to us, but we all just stared, open-mouthed, fascinated and speechless.

He took a pew and we all – males and females alike – repositioned our jaws and turned our gazes, reluctantly, back to the lecturer.

A few weeks into the course, we were invited to form ourselves into groups – where we were sitting – to discuss a possible research topic. We were encouraged to think about topics relevant to our work, if we worked.

A delightful and infectiously smiley fellow student sat in front of me. He knew everything and everyone. And what he didn’t know he would find out. Lecturers loved him, he made everyone laugh and he became everyone’s best friend. He joined with the students on either side of him to form a group with the four students sitting in the row in front of them. The Eastern European James Dean was sitting in the row in front, and joined that group.

We began to discuss the topic in our group, as did others all around the lecture theatre. My smiley friend in front of me suddenly sat up tall and swivelled his head around at me, like an owl. He stared at me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed like he was yawning, but he was sharply inhaling, not yawning the air out. Then he wrinkled his nose into a full concertina and, when he could breathe properly again, he whisper-shouted to me, “DO YOU KNOW WHAT HE DOES FOR A LIVING?”

I kind of wrinkled my nose too. I had to; the situation called for it. Then I whisper-shouted back at him, “NO. WHAT?”

“HESONLYAMALESTRIPPER!”

At this stage, the smiley guy was swivelling his head backwards and forwards, not wanting to miss out on any conversation in his group and wanting to report it as quickly as he could to me and my group.

From that moment onwards, we all took a renewed interest in that tall, handsome Eastern European guy in our research methodology course. We wanted to ask our lecturer to arrange a special “show and tell” evening in the course, so everyone could share a little about their work. But I know the internal auditor guy in the grey suit would have totally hogged the limelight. He really loved his job.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Comedy and errors

I remember a joke from a hundred years ago, when I was a child. It went, “What goes hahaha-bonk?” The answer, which had me laughing like a drain, was, “A guy laughing his head off.” We’ve done a fair bit of that, lately, and I wish we could have done more.

I spent a day in Liverpool last week. I went there for work and, apart from seeing (from the outside) the Beatles Experience Museum and spying the shining waters of the Mersey, I could have been in any city in the world. I’d love to go back and spend more than twenty minutes exploring the city.

I travelled with three colleagues to a meeting in Liverpool, and we really had a lovely and useful day. We stopped at Crewe to change trains on the way up, and we decided to go and buy some sustenance for the continued journey. We stood and waited for about 20 minutes to get served at a station cafe  and eventually abandoned our would-be purchases and ran. It’s not like we had a train to catch, or anything.

I spotted a well-known UK comedian in that station cafe. I am pretty sure he’s still there today, waiting for his sandwich. He’ll gather good material doing that.

On my return from Liverpool, we went to have supper with some friends. They invited us, after supper, to go with them to a comedy night at their local community centre. “Apparently it’s really fab,” our friend told us.

We got to the community centre, knowing little about what lay ahead and even less about where on earth we’d find a place to sit. We eventually benefited from the kindness of a stranger bearing chairs, and sat and waited for the show to begin.

The first half of the show was a Whose Line is it Anyway? kind of deal. Four comedians – I’m not sure if they were professional comedians, but they sure were funny – took improvisation and improbable scenarios to a whole new level. They would glean ideas and suggestions from the audience, and work off each other to great and hilarious effect. They shared the telling of an improbably-titled story at the random, pointed command of one of their colleagues. The story rambled and roamed in all directions as each one took the mic. It was clear they worked together often, as they played off each other so crisply and intuitively.

My favourite was the monologue of the Latvian cat-juggler, kindly interpreted into English by his fellow comedian. The disconnect between the body-language expressed as the Latvian cat-juggler spoke and the words that emerged in English, was just cryingly hilarious. The interpreter said, “All of which leads me to my favourite Latvian folk song that I am now going to sing to you.” Too funny.

We laughed ourselves silly in that first hour. There was then an interval, and we waited in anticipation for the second half to begin. The MC introduced the next act and when he couldn’t think of any more descriptive words to say about him, than to say “he’s a real ****er”, I thought we might be in for trouble. Enter the manic, un-funny clown, with his physical, slapstick and hysterical (in the true sense of the word) act. We sat wide-mouthed and hopeful that he would actually become funny, but it didn’t happen. Not even once.

When we got home, I Googled him to see if I could find out if he was for real or not. Turns out he has the dubious accolade of having been the first person, live on TV (in Germany’s Got Talent, no less) to have placed a firecracker in an unmentionable orifice (of his own) and set it alight. I think you get what I mean. He must have laughed his *****cks off.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Crossing boarders

This morning I woke up and saw that it was 6.13am. The alarm hadn’t gone off and I wondered why. I turned the radio on and tried to shake myself awake. Then I remembered it was Saturday. I lay back and fell again into delicious slumber land. Relief.

That feeling took me instantly back to my childhood. I was very young when I went to boarding school in another country. When I was nine, my 11-year old sister and I travelled by aeroplane or bus from Zambia to Zimbabwe to go to school. Going home for the holidays was the most amazing and wonderful thing in the whole world. I remember waking up in the mornings, expecting to hear the clang of the rising bell that the matron rang to wake the city, and then I’d feel the soft sheets of home and remember I was not at boarding school. That feeling, for me, defines relief.

My mom would come and peek around the bedroom door to see if we were awake and then she’d come and sit on one of our beds and chat to us until we got out of bed. Ah, precious memories.

When we lived in central Zambia, on the Copperbelt, travelling to boarding school was a simple bus trip. Then Zambia closed its borders with Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was called in those days) and our bus trip became tricky. We travelled by bus literally to the line that divided the two countries, to be met by a bus on the other side of the line. We got off the bus, walked across the line to the other, the drivers exchanged contents of the holds (trunks and suitcases and bags) and we continued our journey to Harare.

Thereafter it was easier to travel by air. However, because the borders had closed, we couldn’t fly directly from one country to the other so we had to fly via Malawi. Then we moved further north, to a small town called Kasama, close to Lake Tanganyika (where we holidayed once – what a beautiful, unspoilt paradise).  Our journey from northern Zambia to Harare usually involved about four or five separate legs. We’d start with one or two flights in very small aircraft that left from rough and rural airstrips where the “airports” were small, dome-shaped buildings made from corrugated iron.

Those short flights would take us to the relatively massive airport in Ndola and from there we’d fly to Blantyre’s Chileka Airport in Malawi. And it was there that we – two little girls – would sit for up to six hours waiting for our connecting flight to Harare. The airport shop (there was only one) would close between scheduled flight arrivals and departures. So we’d sit on a wooden bench and swing our legs and talk about our holiday memories and what awaited us at boarding school. It was a boring wait, although sometimes my sister would imagine her next home-theatre production that she would write, produce, direct and star in. I loved travelling with my best friend.

And then we would board our flight to Harare where we’d be met by a matron, for our onward journey, by car, to our school.

The return journey was equally circuitous, but somehow when our hearts were filled with hope and longing to be home with our family, the journey seemed so much shorter.

So today is Saturday, I’m not at boarding school any more, and we’re about to go and explore the day, by bus. Today we have no borders to cross.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Afrikaans in English

There’s little that should surprise me in this heaving world city that is London. But hearing a Middle Eastern man testing out his Afrikaans on me in central London certainly made me smile.

I bought myself a new handbag last week. Carrying around a postage-stamp-sized bag just so I don’t have to take my Oyster card (London Transport travel card) out of my bag to ‘tap in’ every time I travel on the bus or the tube (the card reader can read my card through my bag), had long since lost its novelty. I needed to carry a bag that could hold more than my Oyster card, glasses, cell phone and one pound.

So I went to our local shopping centre and found a bag I wished to buy. The vendor told me the price and duly closed the sale. As he handed me my change (which I could now fit into the new handbag), he looked at me sideways and said, “South African?”

I assume he recognised my nationality from my accent. Not from the cheapness of my purchase. I smiled and nodded.

“Buy a donkey!” he said.

He then stepped back and beamed with pride like he’d just performed a magic trick.

I nodded and smiled my super impressed-ness to him, decided against saying something back to him in Afrikaans because that would have just been awkward, and walked away, smiling.

For my non-South African friends, baie dankie, which can, to an English ear, sound like buy a donkey means thank you very much. It was a very sweet interaction.

Travelling home on the bus the other day, I eavesdropped in Afrikaans. The guy sitting next to me had a long and detailed catch-up, in Afrikaans, with his friend on the other side of the aisle. I think I might have leaned over to listen more closely to what they were saying and I might have asked them to repeat a few words that I hadn’t heard properly. Apart from that I think they were oblivious to my nosiness.

One asked the other how his wife was and when his baby was due. (I’ve heard many a South African say the other one asked the other one, but that’s a story for another day.) He replied that the baby was due on Sunday, and his friend said,

“Ag, foeitog.”

It’s not the kind of expression you can translate easily. It could mean oh dear, how unfortunate or alas. In this context, I would say it means “Ah, shame” or “Ah, cute”. But you would never hear any men speak like that to each other in English. Some words just cannot be translated.

Shame is a word that is used in an interesting way in southern Africa. I could look at your new baby and say, “Ah, shame.”

Before you rush off to the paediatrician for a full assessment, you would need to know that what I’m really saying is, “Your baby is really cute/gorgeous/pretty/bonny/handsome/so small/so chubby/looks just like you/clearly the child of the milkman”. You can choose. But know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your little one.

The appropriate response would be for you to smile and say, “Buy a donkey”.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Like Old Friends

We arranged to meet in Marylebone at 10h30 Saturday morning. I set off early from my home in south east London, caught the tube, fought my way through the thronging mass of tourists outside Madame Tussauds and walked down a quiet side street to our deli meeting place. The moment we met, we were instantly friends. Lovely to meet you, Renee from Life in the Boomerlane!

I walked down this street, which looked lovely in the crisp sunshine

Renee had flown in from DC to spend a week in London with her daughter. She said her daughter found it weird that two blogging buddies from opposite sides of the world were going to meet up for breakfast. I guess, if you put it like that, it was kind of weird. But, despite the fact that we had the novelty of communicating verbally – no laptops to hide behind – we talked like old friends. Nearly three hours went by at lightning speed.

We started off talking about writing and blogging and things we knew we had in common. It wasn’t long before we were talking about everything else and laughing and joking and pointing out interesting people in the deli! I guess that’s what we have in common. We love life, we love people, we love noticing things about others, and we love telling stories.

What a wonderful morning it was, what a lovely person you are, and such fun it was to meet you, Renee. See you next time you fly over this way and until then we’ll continue to chat in the cyber world. LOL.

Enjoying a little glimpse of London sunshine

Sunshine signing off for today!

Shimmying Backwards

It’s been a funny old week in London. On Monday, the 2012 Olympic machinery launched the official Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square in London. I’m not a huge fan of the London Olympic logo myself, and I find the shiny, angular, steel construction of the countdown clock to be quite jarring. Especially in a setting such as Trafalgar Square.

(via sports.yahoo.com) The clock was working when they took this photo.

 

The clock was unveiled with much fanfare, to herald 500 days until the opening of the London 2012 Olympics. Last night our news bulletins told us that the clock had had to have some running repairs done to it. The visual they showed was the clock presenting 533 days to go until the opening of the Olympics. The clock had started ticking and running backwards. In the words of the Telegraph reporter, “If only this were a wind up.”

Let’s hope that isn’t any reflection of how the Games will go, although if the clock is anything to go by, I think we might have already missed them.

And, after a really busy day at work today, I blasted my mind into refreshment with a fabulous Zumba class. I haven’t been for a few weeks, so it was great to enjoy the dance and movement again. I tell you what, though: Shakira’s hips might not lie, but mine? I wouldn’t trust them for a minute.

Sunshine signing off for today!