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!

The Wild Wild West End

As I arrived in central London today, I realised I could have chosen a better day to go and have my hair done. I unwittingly booked an appointment at my Soho salon – just off Oxford Street – at the same time as about quarter of a million protesters walked along said street to deliver a powerful message about the government’s cuts in public spending.

The police got jumpy, the protests got messy and what the Guardian website described as a “generally good-mood” became “soured by violent and destructive attacks on symbols of wealth including the Ritz, banks and a luxury car dealer and an occupation of Fortnum & Mason”.

I couldn’t catch the bus from my area to Tottenham Court Road, as I would usually do, as all the roads around Oxford Street were closed. I caught the tube to Bond Street and emerged at the Oxford Street exit directly into a heaving mass of shoppers, onlookers, riot police and protesters.

I turned right out of the tube station and shuffled along in the midst of a mass of humanity for about ten minutes before I realised I was walking in the wrong direction. I turned around and shuffled back through those same relentless crowds, and walked towards the Soho salon.

There’s a kerfuffle in the crowds and I hear the faint chanting of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” in the distance. As the singing gets louder, I realise that Boots (a health and beauty store) across the road has been closed; it is fronted by police in riot gear, and a bunch of protesters dressed as walking wounded, with “blood-stained” bandages around their heads, are singing the oddly bizarre Christmas song to the grim-faced police officers.

I discover most of the large stores are closed and fronted by riot police. Many smaller shops have boarded their shop fronts. It’s an odd afternoon of business as usual, shoppers out for a bargain, against a backdrop of one of the largest protests in the past ten years.

I walk a little further and faster, trying desperately to look discreet and remain under the radar. The growing crowds, mounting evidence of riot police and chanting protesters all around, are just plain menacing.

I think, “I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here, I shouldn’t be here”. I soon hear police whistles, raised voices and, as the police storm a crowd of people in the middle of the road, a mass of humanity surges forward in my general direction. I see a sea of people, I see no space to go and I seek panicked shelter in the doorway of a nearby shop. A police officer tells a buggy-pushing dad that it’s not safe to be on the street with a buggy. The panic dissipates as the police presence recedes and the protesting crowd continues on its set path. I unclench my jaw and breathe again.

A little further along the road, I see a crowd gathered around an inordinately tall man. He is dressed in a fluorescent yellow worksuit and I assume that he is a side-tracked protester. People are taking photos of him; he is inviting one gentleman to feel his leg to see that he is not wearing stilts, and cameras click all around. He must be seven foot tall. What a bizarre diversion.

Eyes back on the road. I continue through crowds that ebb and flow. In the midst of an ominous flow I decide to step away from the main street. I walk down past the London Palladium, past Liberty and, with Carnaby Street in my sights, I turn into my chosen street in Soho. It’s quiet down that road, except for a protester walking towards me bearing a banner that reads: “Nick Clegg is a chopper”. I am so glad to enter that familiar doorway and find solace and shelter in my cosmopolitan hair haven.

I greet the multilingual receptionist, and, with a dramatic sigh, I tell her I could’ve found a better day for my hair appointment. She looks at me with a confused smile, until one of her colleagues says, “Oh, right. The protests.”

I am shown to my seat by a young Greek stylist, who settles me down, capes and covers me, and offers me coffee. I ask him if he’s seen what Oxford Street looks like. He tells me he went to the Apple store earlier (excuse me all you Apple-geeks for not knowing this, but apparently some new gadget was due for release today), and he was amazed to see such a crowd of people waiting to get into the store.

“Crazy, hey?” he says to me.

I realise we are speaking at cross purposes and, after acknowledging the stress of an Apple-storming crowd, I tell him about the protests and that they are becoming quite heated. He tells me he has no TV so had no idea what was happening, and asks me if I know why the protests were happening. We have a short discussion and then he says to me, with a sad and wry smile,

“No matter how bad things get here, they will never be like Greece.”

He says that that was the worst time of his life, when the streets of Athens were a burning, destructive mass of economic protest. Every time he returns home, he tells me, more shops have closed down and more businesses are struggling. He is due to fly home again tonight, and he’s unsure what sights will greet him this time.

My Bulgarian hairstylist, bubbly and constantly smiling, glides across to take care of business. I drink my coffee and remind my shoulders to subside. I begin to relax.

Half an hour later, four siren-blaring police vehicles storm down the quiet Soho street in front of the salon. Hot on the wheels of the vehicles are about 20 sprinting youngsters, dressed in black and wearing face masks. The hairstylists who don’t currently have scissors in hand all rush the front door and watch the action. The seriously gorgeous Australian owner of the salon watches out of the shop window and shouts, “Go, ninjas”,  as his scissors fly this way and that.

It is with much trepidation that I emerge back on to the street, newly coiffed. I look up and down the street and decide which way to go. I turn right, and right again and eventually end up heading into the eye of the storm. I realise Piccadilly is not my desired destination and turn to go back to Bond Street. I walk through thick and thin crowds of people, some with banners, some with face masks, all animated, all looking exhausted and all, it would seem, heading towards Bond Street station. The air feels heavy with tension.

I get on to the tube and I stand all the way home. I see a young guy, tousle-haired and anxious, looking through photographs on his camera. I watch along with him for a few minutes and see a range of blurred, close-up and random photos of protesters. A few sight-seeing photos pop into view, showing token protesters in the foreground, and he seems to be searching for that right shot. I couldn’t work out if he was a paparazzo or a tourist. I conclude that he must be both: a tourazzo.

I get home, and I realise how relieved I am to feel safe. I turn on the television, and see that an element of the protesting public has gone ballistic in Piccadilly, smashing ATMs, hurling metal grates into bank and shop fronts, spraying graffiti on building walls, letting off fire crackers and, ultimately, starting fires in the streets of central London.

Right now, I have no idea where this will end. It’s been an afternoon full of cops and yobbos. I’m so glad to be home.

Sunshine signing off for today.

And The Winner Isn’t …

It’s awards season. Everywhere. The movie-loving eyes of the world have been on Hollywood and the Academy Awards over the past 24 hours and the news and entertainment channels are bursting with news of the winners.

My focus today is on those who didn’t win. Don’t get me wrong – I’m thrilled that Colin Firth walked away with the golden statuette for his title role in “The King’s Speech”, and I’ve no doubt that every other winner was worthy and deserving.

If you're not a winner (image via gabrielutasi.com)

Because of where I’m at right now, and where I have been, my heart goes out to those whose names were not written in Academy Award script and hidden away in golden envelopes. It’s hard to be magnanimous when your heart is bursting with disappointment, and when the cameras focus on the faces of the other four nominees at the moment they found out they were unsuccessful.

There cannot be a nominee who didn’t want to win. There cannot be a nominee who hadn’t planned an acceptance speech and imagined himself delivering it. And, watching the Oscar winner thanking the world and his pet for making this possible, there can’t be a nominee who’s not thinking, “that could have been me standing there”.

Spare a thought for sound re-recording mixer, Kevin O’Connell, who received 20 Oscar nominations between 1983 and 2007, and never won one. With his 18th nomination and non-win in 2006, he earned the unwanted moniker of “unluckiest nominee in the history of the Academy Awards”. He then went on to break his own record twice after that.

How many speeches did he write and rehearse in front of the mirror? How many years did he arrive on the red carpet and imagine himself walking away, statuette in hand? How much would he have longed for his status to change from Academy Award nominee to Academy Award winner?

I have grown to hate the word “unfortunately”. I can relate, in my own small way, to Kevin’s relentless seesawing of hope and disappointment. Until the one thing you’ve been waiting for comes along, it just doesn’t do it to be an also-ran.

Sunshine signing off for today!

I Am Here

Our church has just had an International Weekend, celebrating the diversity of cultures and nations represented among our church’s number. As one who loves language and is fascinated by pretty much everything, I have had a cracking weekend – just amazing!

The church we belong to is a real inner-city church, and describes itself as a local, international church. It is a true microcosm of the broader population of London, with a diversity of language and culture that I have never experienced anywhere before.

On Friday, I went to help out at the church’s weekly coffee morning. At the early morning prayer meeting for both the coffee morning and the International Weekend ahead, one of the elders prayed that an Italian person would come to the church. For some reason, he had Italy on his mind.

Half an hour later, as we set up the coffee table and people started arriving, a woman walked into the church and stood awkwardly (without her cell phone!) and alone in the body of the church. Two women went over to greet her, and asked if this was her first visit to the Friday event. She didn’t understand what they were saying, because she spoke no English. She was from Italy. We were all wide-mouthed and blown away; an immediate answer to a specific prayer.

Her daughter-in-law arrived shortly thereafter and managed to translate for her. She told her mother-in-law the significance of everyone’s excitement, and the Italian woman seemed moved. When her daughter-in-law moved away, the English women tried to ask her what her name was. Using gestures that didn’t convey their question, the Italian lady responded by saying, “Oggi.” (Today.)

I called on my limited knowledge of Italian (I studied it for two years at university), and asked her what her name was. But I think I asked her what my name was. More accurately, “What do you call myself?”

She smiled graciously and told me her name. She beamed at the thought that I might be able to communicate haltingly with her, and I confessed my limited ability. I managed, however, to tell her how welcome she was and she smiled broadly. Either she was pleased, or it was because I might have said, “he is welcome”.

At our International Weekend, church members were invited to dress in their traditional outfits and to bring their traditional foods to share. I’m sure I’ll miss some out, but nations such as Nigeria, Sierra Leone, America, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Scotland, Ireland, England, Iraq, Brazil, Germany, Iran, India, and Thailand were represented both sartorially and culinary-wise.

Reflecting on this extent of diversity I realise that while I am a lover of language, there is a lot that I know a little about. I so wish that the reverse were true, and that I could have had a decent conversation with Friday’s welcome visitor from Italy.

I also studied French at school and majored in it at university but, not having had the opportunity to work with the language, nor to spend time in France, my rusty and limited knowledge of spoken French leaves me little to say of interest.

I went to night school to study Xhosa when I lived in Cape Town. Xhosa is one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, and is indigenous to the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape (where Cape Town is).  It is difficult to learn for a few reasons: there are three different clicks that you use, and the mastery of these clicks alone is a huge challenge; the structure of the language is quite different from any other language I have studied, with its use of compound words being the biggest challenge for me.

It is a beautiful language and so many of its expressions relate to the culture and the nature of the Xhosa people.  When you see someone for the first time in a day, it is important to greet him and ask how he is. The answer is usually an honest description of how you are; I’m fine, thank you does not feature, as far as I know. It is possible, however, just to say, I am here. I love that. Sometimes I am just here, there’s nothing more to say.

I loved learning Xhosa, and practising it with my friends and colleagues. Like any other language, practice makes perfect and it is easy to lose the language if you don’t keep speaking it. So now I could have a conversation with you in Xhosa, if all you wanted to know was how I was, and what my name is, where I live and that I am married. We could then smile at each other, and look awkward. I could also tell you that I have two small boys, but that would be a lie. Truth is, I can’t remember how to say I have two young adult sons.

So many languages, so little time. Immersion in a culture is truly the best way to learn its language and learning the nuances of English in this vast and shrinking global village is enough of a challenge for me right now. Thinking any further makes my head hurt or, as they say in Xhosa, “Ndinentloko.”

Sunshine signing off for today!

Quick, Look Busy!

I got to the bus stop this morning and every single person waiting there was on his or her cell phone. Every single person. Staring into a small, shiny, square piece of technology. I went into a panic. How would they know when the bus got there?

It seems like being on your cell phone is the new folding your arms. What happened to the days of standing around at the bus stop, staring at your feet, avoiding eye contact with others and folding your arms? And occasionally mixing it up by putting your hands in your coat pocket?

Has the need to play games, read emails, send text messages or listen to music overtaken our contentment to stand around looking awkward? Heck, when I’ve finished staring at my feet, I could always look at yours. Or even his.

There seems to be an urgent need all around always to be busy; to be doing something. What would happen if someone caught you just hanging out? When did we become obsessed with filling every waking moment with activities and information and doing things?

I am amused when friends update their status on Facebook with “so so so so busy”. Right, so how come you’re on Facebook? I have friends who bemoan their busy lives, but I never know what they’ve been doing, except being busy. And being busy reluctantly. With apologies to Shakespeare, they are the ones who have had busy-ness thrust upon them.

I went to a children’s day event on Robben Island a few years ago. On the ferry back to the mainland, I sat next to a woman who had been a celebrity guest at the event. She was a beautiful, striking woman and she had delivered a lovely “healthy living” message at the event. We sat down in the ferry, and she told me she had to catch up with all her messages on her phone. She said,
“I’ve had so many people contacting me this morning, and my friends just never leave me alone.”

I left her to her connecting. I glanced over to discover she was reading through the settings on her cell phone. She obviously had no messages, and yet she’d felt the need to tell me she had. That made me feel so sad.

When did it stop being okay just to be? When did we decide it was best to fill our lives to the brim with activity to the point that we lose sight of this moment? Does the one who dies, having had the busiest life, win?

At Camden Market recently, I saw a T-shirt with the slogan, “Jesus is Coming! Look busy.” I guess that says it all.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Sunshine Overseas

Where I live right now is overseas.  When I hear anyone here talk about going overseas, I wonder why they would do that because they’re already here. In my vocabulary, the UK and Europe are overseas. Everywhere else in the world has a name.

(Please note that this is purely my perception and my take on this word.)

In my experience, the word overseas has always held a certain fascination and hint of glamour. I remember, as a child, hearing friends talk about going overseas on their school holidays. I would kind of melt into an envious heap, thinking,

“Ah, you’re so cool. You’re going overseas. AND you’re allowed to wear nylon socks with lace at the top.”

I have known and worked with people who have never travelled out of their home towns, let alone travelled abroad. Or overseas. One of my colleagues in Harare said he had no idea what overseas looked like. He then asked,

“Are there many tall buildings there?”

My younger son went overseas on a school history tour three years ago. The tour took them to the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, and they travelled in March. The day he left, I took the day off work to spend with him before we took him to the airport that evening.

It was 36 degrees Celsius that day – a typically hot March day in Cape Town. He was flying to Prague, where temperatures were expected to be about 0 degrees Celsius. It was strange for him to think about feeling cold.

A delightful, older lady was working at our house that day and we enjoyed the opportunity to catch up with each other and share sighs at the hot weather. I told her my son was going overseas that evening. She looked at me, bemused.

“Is it very far?”

I said to her, “Yes, it’s very far. And it’s very very cold.”

She looked at me even more bemused. Her frown disappeared as the penny dropped.

“Ah. He’s going to Springbok.”
(Springbok is a small town in the Northern Cape in South Africa, renowned for diamonds, copper and beautiful springflowers, but also notoriously much colder – for South Africa – than most of the rest of the country.)

I smiled inside as I thought, “Yes, he might just as well be going to Springbok.”

At that time, I worked for a non-profit organisation that provided counselling services, and trained lay counsellors. The receptionist who worked there (I’ll call her N) was a cheerful and chirpy character and she and I used to laugh together plenty.

Our favourite was to try and beat each other to say TGIF to each other every Friday. It was our thing. If I got in first and said, “TGIF!” she’d look up and me and say, “Thanks, God.”

One day someone arrived at the office, and said she had an appointment at 10h00. N checked the counselling appointment book and saw no booking for 10h00. The consummate professional, she smiled at the new arrival, asked her to take a seat and proceeded to run through the offices and whip up a volunteer counsellor to see the awaiting client.

She found a counsellor who was available, made sure the counselling room was tidy, and told the client her counsellor was on her way. The counsellor came through, introduced herself and off the two of them went into the counselling room and shut the door behind them. Five minutes later, the two of them emerged with much hilarity; the appointment the client had come to the office for was a job interview with the Executive Director!

N and I laughed like drains as we imagined what went on in the counselling room, with the so-called client not able to talk about her job experience because she kept being asked how she was feeling. How funny.

One of my direct reports was the administration manager, G: divine, well-spoken, nattily-dressed, eloquent and the most gentlemanly gentleman you can imagine. He led a team of four staff members, and they had regular team meetings. Occasionally he would invite me to join them, and it was fun to be included.

One of the team was D, the handyman. He was a constantly recovering alcoholic who worked like a Trojan when he was present. But he often went missing. We all loved him, and he was a central character in our offices. However, he had no time for meetings.

The first time I was invited to join the team meeting, someone asked if D would be there. At that moment, D walked past the meeting room and G asked if he was going to join them.

D didn’t break stride. He flung his left arm in the air and said,

“Ag, daai’s ‘n klomp k*k!” (That’s just a crock of s**t!)

I guess he wasn’t going to join us.

The meeting began. G, ever formal and eloquent, welcomed everyone, made a special mention of the visitor (me) and asked if anyone would like to open the meeting by sharing something.

“Feel free to speak, if you have something to share,” he said.

N, along with many of us, often battled to understand what G was saying because he usually used really formal language and long words (thanks to his prior career in the diplomatic corps). She was leaning heavily on the desk, her elbow only just stopping her face from hitting the desk. She looked at G with incredulity, she frowned, she wrinkled her nose, and then said,

“About what?”

Moving on swiftly then.

G read an excerpt from a book of inspirational sayings, quoting Mother Theresa. It flew right over the head of everyone present, and N continued to look at G with that expression of WTF (Why The Funny-Sayings)?

G worked us through the agenda and, after about half an hour, was ready to draw the meeting to a close. He invited any closing comments. N stood up and cleared her throat, then clicked her tongue on the roof of her mouth.

“I would like to say something please.”

G welcomed her to go ahead.

“I think we should always have Nomalanga with us at these meetings. [Nomalanga is my Xhosa name, and it means Sunshine. She meant me.] Because why? Because it’s so nice having her here; it feels like we have someone here from overseas.”

She sat down, G thanked her for her input and said he would give it some thought, and the meeting closed. I’m so glad I write a blog, because this was always so going to be in it.

Sunshine signing off for today, from overseas!

The Otherness of Being

Our family moved around a lot when I was a child. Every new place we went to, I had to adjust to a new school and make new friends. My parents did the rest. I learnt quickly to adjust, to settle in and to feel like I belonged. It’s not so easy when you’re older.

Some years ago, I worked for a non-government organisation in Cape Town. I worked there from 1993 to 2000, straddling the regime change in the South African government to a welcome democracy. Apart from the work that the organisation did, it focused keenly on organisation development; ensuring that the work it did, as well as they way it did the work, transformed appropriately in line with bigger changes in the country. Change was something we could always depend on.

We did loads of workshops and bosberade (literally “bush councils” – meetings in isolated venues to focus on a particular topic), learnt massively about ourselves as an organisation and as individuals, and laughed and cried as we grew in so many different ways. It was an incredible time in my life, and I learnt much that I loved and hated about myself.

Accordingly I changed in ways I hadn’t recognised even needed changing. It was about shining the mirror clean to get a clearer reflection of myself. I will always be a work in progress, but having the opportunity to develop a consciousness of that is something for which I am eternally grateful.

One workshop we did was presented by a daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. An amazing speaker and awesome personality, she gripped our attention for the entire day. I don’t remember what the workshop was called but she delved into loads of different awarenesses of self.

The strongest learning point for me was in identifying my own primary identity. I am totally oversimplifying this, but she told us that once we understood our own primary identity, we could understand how we view the rest of the world. And we tend to view the rest of the world in relation to that identity. So if I see myself primarily as a woman, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”. Equally, if I see myself primarily as white, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”.

It’s something that I have regularly been challenged to look at afresh in my own life. As a Christian, I am secure in my identity as a child of God. It’s finding my identity in my humanness that is my biggest struggle right now.

It’s no secret how much I miss my sons who are both back in Cape Town. Being a mother is a huge part of my identity, as is being part of a loving and close-knit nuclear family. We speak often, our love for each other is unquestioned, but we’re far apart. A month or two ago, a young couple in our church had their baby son dedicated. Both of their extended families filled our church for the service. I looked at them all together and I wept like a child with longing for my own family.

It is a conscious battle for me to choose not to find my identity in my work. Having worked constantly since I graduated from university (apart from a few years when my sons were born), I find it difficult to reconcile my identity as an unemployed person in London. Because of my job hunting nightmare here, I tend to view others from that perspective, and I find I see everyone around me as employed or with an income or livelihood of some description.

Finding my identity as a friend extends me too. I have wonderful, close friends back home – ones I hang out with regularly, talk with deeply, laugh with incessantly. They know who I am; I share a history with them. I have lovely friends here too, but I’m only just beginning a journey with them. That’s not a bad thing; I’m just trying to find where it all fits.

Starting a blog has been an amazing and positive experience for me. I love to write, to tell stories and share experiences and adventures with a growing community of wonderful writers, many of whom have also become friends. I haven’t quite found my identity through this yet; sometimes I see myself as a writer until I read the work of real writers, and I realise I am just a blogger. That’s okay too, and it keeps me reading and learning and growing and honing.

As you well know, life is not all bad in London! It continues to be an amazing adventure for my husband and me; we explore the city; we walk and we talk and we laugh; we grow memories and share a life here that we could never have imagined for ourselves. I know there is a deeper purpose in all of this for me and only with hindsight will I recognise what it is.

I don’t really know where I belong right now; I’m an absent Saffa and a visitor in London. Mostly I’m okay with that, but this topic has toiled through my mind for the whole weekend, circling and circling like a dog in a basket. I think it has now found its comfortable space and is ready to surrender to welcome sleep. As for me, I couldn’t have found rest until I wrote this.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Minding My Language

Yesterday I travelled by train to an area south west of London. A young woman boarded the train a few stops after mine, and immediately made a call on her cell phone. I don’t think she needed the phone, she could have just shouted. Then she made a second call, and said this: “Hiya! You all right, love? Guess who died?”

I can’t imagine what response she got on the other end of the line. (I couldn’t hear because the callee didn’t shout.) The caller then said, “Only Doris, off Gavin and Stacey.”

I gathered she was a big fan of this romantic comedy that has now finished its run on BBC, and was sad that this dear actress had passed away. I did, however, find her method of sharing the news quite fascinating.

So that made me think that it was time for another post of talking forrin. If you’re new to my blog, this is something I write about from time to time: sharing new words and expressions that I hear here in the UK and words that I know from a lifetime in Zimbabwe and South Africa, that I know mean nothing over here.

Here are a few links to previous such posts: English as she is spokeSo this is where I learnt to speak funnyThis blog’s seriously going southDoes this make sense? I doubt; I’ll be there now now; Blogging is not pants;  Is that your new wife? Shame

I’ll start with English expressions I’ve heard:

  1. To get the hump: this means to go into a sulk, to get upset or fed up about something. I watched a quiz show the other day on the telly (as television is fondly known over here). When asked how she’d like to spend her prospective winnings, a contestant said she’d like to travel to Egypt to see the Pyramids and to ride a camel. (The programme was clearly filmed before the current events in Egypt.) Her adversary, who’d not been doing as well as he’d hoped, then said to her, “Well, love, sorry but you won’t be able to ride a camel.” “Why?” she asked. “Because I’ve got the hump,” he said.
  2. Flower. This is a term of endearment, used particularly in the north east of England, around Newcastle. A Geordie term, if you like. I travelled up to Newcastle for a conference last year, and I absolutely loved the city – it was such a beautiful surprise, and I’d love to travel there again when I can spend more than two days there. I am also mad about the Geordie accent. I went into a little newsagent in central Newcastle, and the shop owner said to me, “Can I help you, flower?” I immediately adored the expression and wanted to put her words and her accent into bottles and buy a dozen.
  3. Thick: this means dim or unintelligent. It is often accompanied by putting your tongue between your bottom teeth and your bottom lip and making monkey-type noises.
  4. Go on! This expression crosses the cultures, for me. Its use as I’ve heard it in England is quite different from its use by my Dad. In England, if someone is trying to persuade you to do something, and you’re hesitating and not quite sure whether or not you want to do it, and then decide you will, you’ll say, “Ok, go on!” By contrast, I grew up with my Dad saying this to me every time I’ve told him something that I find amazing.  “Hey Dad, the Springboks have just won the World Cup! Again!” He would say, “Go on!” which, in a slightly patronising way, means, “You don’t say?” or “Well, I never” or “Knock me over with a feather”.
  5. Gutted. This expression means cut up or distressed or extremely disappointed by something. So, for example, if your house burnt down and you lost all your possessions in the fire, you could well be completely gutted.
  6. Knickers in a knot. If you get yourself into an unnecessary panic about something, you could be getting your knickers in a knot.
  7. Faff: this verb means to waste time doing unimportant things while you’re supposed to be doing something important. It could take the form of procrastination, or it could be fiddling about doing things when you’re supposed to be going out. You can either faff or faff about. Either is annoying.
  8. All over the shop: this means everywhere or disorganised. For example, “He was trying to explain to me what happened, but his mind was all over the shop and I couldn’t follow what he was saying.” The equivalent expression I would use is all over the show.
  9. Argy bargy: argument, disagreement, fighting. For example, a sports commentator might say, if there is a potential fight on the field, “Ah, now there’s a bit of argy bargy going on there.”

And on to some of my words and sayings from Saffa:

  1. Naartjie (pronounced narchy): this is the term I would use for tangerine, Clementine, mandarin. It refers to any orange citrus fruit (apart from an orange) that has an easily-removable skin and is easily divided into segments (which I call skyfies, pronounced skayfies).
  2. Chaff (pronounced charf): this word also has a dual meaning, and is no longer really in common use. It can mean to chat up someone, or it can mean to stretch the truth. So, for example, a guy might meet a girl and, if he fancies her, he might chaff her. When I was at junior school, I remember reading our school magazine during one of my holidays. It was quite an honour to have your story or poem featured in the magazine, and I always read others’ writing with interest. I remember reading a story written by a girl who was a year younger than me, which would have made her about nine. It was a fantastic tale, that I was struggling to believe, but I persevered with it because, hey, it had been featured in the magazine. When I got to the end of her story, she had written “Chaff chaff.” (Which meant she had made up the entire story.) I was horrified.
  3. Ja (pronounced ya): this means yes.
  4. Is it? This is an expression of interest or surprise. Is that so? For example, someone might say to you, “There are terrible riots happening on the streets of Cairo right now.” You might respond by saying, “Is it?”
  5. Hanguva: this means very or a lot. For example, in London lately, it’s been hanguva cold.
  6. Stroppy: this means difficult, aggressive, uncooperative. For example, actor Russell Crowe sometimes gets stroppy with the paparazzi.
  7. Koppie: this means a small hill. There is a koppie in the middle of a park near where we live, and if you walk to the top of it, you get a great view over south east London.
  8. Dof: this means dim, or not very intelligent. (See thick above.) For example, if you can’t find something or don’t understand something, you might say, “Sorry for being dof, but I don’t know what you mean.” So it usually refers to a temporary state of mind, rather like having a brunette moment.

I hope this has expanded your vocabulary horizons somewhat, and I’d love to know some of the interesting words and expressions that you use at your ends of the stick. I won’t get the hump if you don’t, but I’d be hanguva interested to learn more words. Thanks for reading, flowers.

Sunshine signing off for today!

For Auld Lang Syne

I wrote about Scotsman, Andy Murray, yesterday and then I went to do a Pilates class with the most enthusiastic, chatty Scotsman since William Wallace. Today I thought I would introduce to you some more of my husband’s Scottish family: meet Mac and Lily*.

*I have given them false names, as you probably wouldn’t believe the names by which we knew them. I thought about calling them Mac and Cheese. Nah.

I can’t tell you what a blessing it is to have married into a Scottish family. Mac was my late mother-in-law’s brother. He would have been about 87 now, and Lily would have been about 84. They both passed away in Scotland within the past eight years. They had no children of their own, and adored their nephews (my husband and his brother) as if they were their own. My husband is named after Mac.

Let me tell you what I know about Scottish names. My husband has three first names and is known by his third name. He likes his first name, and when he asked his parents why they didn’t call him by his first name, they said it was because they didn’t like it. Right. They had named him after his uncle, and clearly his parents hadn’t liked his first name either, because he was always known by his second name. We knew him by an entirely different nickname all together. And to add further confusion into the mix, the name my husband is known by is the same as his father’s. And his father was known by the first of his three names, even though he was given an entirely different name at birth (see Not Just Another Winter’s Tale).  And his brother is known by his second – of three – names. You’re confused?

So back to Mac and Lily: I first met Mac when he flew out to Zimbabwe for our wedding in 1984. He arrived unannounced and threw the entire family into frenzied excitement, leaving my garrulous mother-in-law speechless. He was a true Scotsman: he’d insult you then hug you, he’d laugh at you and with you, and tears and laughter gurgled in equal measure. Love of family, humour, generosity, love and kindness ever lurked behind his thinly brittle exterior. I loved him immediately.

I first met Lily when my husband and I travelled to the UK in 1986 and we stayed with Mac and Lily in their wee croft in Perthshire. Lily was about knee-high to a grasshopper and was teased mercilessly by Mac for being so wee. She was a hairdresser and her stories of colleagues and clients and running a salon in Zimbabwe (as she had done for a number of years) are stuff of my husband’s family legend.

Returning to Scotland, she worked at the old folks’ homes, doing the hair of the “old biddies”, as she called them. She never fussed too much about whether her work was good or not, as she chose to live by her belief that the difference between a good haircut and a bad haircut was about three weeks. Possibly longer for the old biddies. She was gentle, kind, quick to laugh, generous and loving: I loved her immediately too.

We saw them every couple of years after that; when they travelled to Zimbabwe and then South Africa for holidays, and when we visited the UK on holiday. Just as they had taken my husband and his brother as sons, they took our boys into their hearts as grandsons. Mac taught them stories and language that, shall we say, broadened their education.

Our boys were little when Mac and Lily first came to Cape Town. We’d told the boys how funny Uncle Mac was and they couldn’t wait to meet them. Our older son, who was about four at the time, laughed loudly and unconvincingly the first time Mac said something, and then looked at us and asked,

“When’s he going to be funny?”

I think he’d imagined a clown.

Our younger son, aged about two, sat on my husband’s lap and watched Mac with interest. After a while, my son grabbed his dad’s face between his hands, pulled his face towards him and, gesturing towards Mac, said,

“Him’s got a big nose. Hey, Daddy?”

One day my older son had a friend coming over to play, when Mac and Lily were with us in Cape Town a few years later. I heard my son say to his friend,

“My uncle and aunt will be there. I’m really sorry but my uncle swears a lot.”

His friend, ever the gracious trooper, said,

“Ooh, that’s okay. I think that will be rather fun.”

Mac was fun. He’d run and play soccer with the boys in the garden, until his smoke-ridden lungs would cause him to gasp and return to the sidelines. As he lit a cigarette, he’d say,

Bleep bleep! Those bleep bleep kids sure take the bleep bleep bleep out of you! I’m not as young as I bleeping-well used to be.”

He’d wrestle with the boys and then send them on their way. He’d watch them play sport and boast about them to his friends. He laughed at their jokes and regaled them with stories.

We had a wonderful time staying with them in Scotland in 2000. They took us all over their native Perthshire, showing us the beautiful countryside and introducing the four of us – with enormous familial pride – to everyone they met. They took us to the Highland Games in Pitlochry and Mac went to tell the organisers that “B’s son” was there (my mother-in-law grew up and went to school in Pitlochry). Family was everything to Mac and Lily, and we knew we meant the world to them.

Lily would cook wonderful meals for us all, and our best times were when we sat and chatted over coffee and chocolate biscuits in their lounge in the weak mid-morning sun. She and Mac were always interested in our lives and what we had to say, and asked us questions constantly.

One evening, we sat in their little lounge, next to the ever- glowing fire, as Mac relaxed into his favourite pastime: reminiscing. He told us of a Hogmanay party at their house a few years before, where Mac pretended he was a soldier. He put a bucket on his head, and with a broom as a rifle he marched back and forth through their small lounge. It wasn’t long before he smashed the light fitting with the broom and caused the party guests to collapse into hysterical laughter.

He then went further back, to recount tales of his inordinately naughty childhood. He told us of all he and his brother and friends got up to at school, including putting one teacher’s car up on to bricks and waiting to watch as the teacher tried to drive off at the end of the day. Mac and his mates lurked in the bushes, and as they watched the teacher they rolled over and laughed like drains.

He was constantly in trouble. That naughty streak glinted in his eyes through his whole life. Not even the unspoken-of horrors of his wartime service could quench that spirit.

His school-day nostalgia then reminded him of his favourite poet: Robbie Burns. He told us he had once recited Burns at a formal occasion. He ran upstairs to haul out his notes and proceeded to recite the elaborately un-understandable words of Burns to an audience of us. To our African ears, it sounded like,

“Heenel honnel, heenel honnel, heenel honnel, aft the glen.”

His sudden move into serious poetry was at odds with the evening’s levity. The absurdness of the poetry, the absurdness of this sudden turn of events and then, spotting their mother fixing to burst with laughter, caused my sons – and then all four of us – to explode into childish laughter till we cried. Mac was taken aback:

“What the bleeping-bleep you lot laughin’ at? This is Rabbie Burns! Don’t ye like him?”

We tried, we really tried to pull ourselves together but the words of Robbie Burns will forever be etched in our memories in the schoolboy style of Mac’s recital and our childish inability to stop giggling.

I miss Mac and Lily. All of our family does. And I understand why Mac loved to reminisce. It keeps the memories alive.

Sunshine signing off for today!

New Balls, Please

Yesterday Novak Djokovic won the Australian Open Men’s Tennis Final. In grand style. His opponent, Andy Murray, was Britain’s great hope and the nation stood anxiously by as he lost yet another Grand Slam final. Commentators said Djokovic won the match as much as Murray lost it. And lose it he did, in more ways than one.

I am not a huge fan of the Scotsman, Andy Murray, I have to confess. His tennis is great, constantly getting better and he works hard at it. However, I find his on-court behaviour and monosyllabic, monotone demeanour tedious and frustrating to watch. His post-match interviews tend to be the same whether he’s won or lost. I heard a comedian say that Andy Murray made Gordon Brown (the then British prime minister) look charismatic. I think you get the point.

So yesterday, in deference to my husband’s Scottishness, and as a temporary resident of Great Britain, I chose to support Andy Murray in the Australian Open final. After about ten minutes I wished my allegiance lay with the balletic, crazy athletic skills and calm demeanour of Novak Djokovic, who was so much easier to support. I found the childish, pouting tantrums that have come to characterise Andy Murray’s game, really difficult to watch.

He yelled at his “team”, he told them to relax and calm down, he told them to “shut up” and he swore like a trooper at almost every error in his game. He kept his eye, worryingly, on his team’s box after every shot, as though he was going to get into trouble for playing badly. His head hung low through most of the match. He threw his racket on the ground, he smashed the ball back across the court when he made yet another unforced error, and he ranted and raved. His mental attitude clearly didn’t serve him well.

In the post-match award ceremony, Andy Murray conceded that his friend, Novak’s, game had been unbelievable and he deserved to win. He then went on to say thank you to all the right people: his team, the tournament organisers, the volunteers, the court-side staff and all his fans.

Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, thanked his team and said he wouldn’t be where he was without them. He said that although tennis is an individual sport, he could not continue without the hard work that happens, for him, behind the scenes.

“I love you, guys,” he called out to his team. They, in turn, applauded as they took photos of their man of the moment, and shouted back, “We love you too”.

He thanked his family, mentioning his brothers in particular. He thanked the Australian Open team, he acknowledged the suffering of those who’d lost loved ones or homes in the devastating floods in Queensland, and he dedicated his newly-won trophy to his troubled home country, Serbia.

How differently this would this have played out had the final result been different, I cannot be sure. But based on yesterday’s performance, this is how I see it:

Two superb athletes? For sure. Two international sporting icons? Without doubt. Two true sportsmen? I’m not convinced. Let’s see what happens next.

Sunshine signing off for today!