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!

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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.