Friday, July 10, 2015

Around here lately ...

There have been playroom walls painted and time spent chilling at home. It's been a little cold and rainy and not quite summer most days. Not as much time at the pool as we had hoped. But there were playdates and a sleepover and a short football camp. We are taking things slow, day by day. This summer. No big plans, no rushing around. Nice and easy.

He made us all breakfast. On his own.

The first blueberries are ripe. I found a recipe for lemon and blueberry bread and pretty much ate the whole loaf myself. It tasted of summer. Delicious.

A lovely gift from our neighbors for letting us look after their dog. We should be thanking them. The perfect summer thank you.

A Sunday morning on the beach. Just the littlest and I. Much needed.

A local outing for the 4th July.

This girl.

She loves animals. More specifically - rabbits, dogs, turkeys and horses. She has been begging for riding lessons for a long time. Waiting and waiting.

This past week we signed her up for her first lesson. She had to have boots. Cowgirl boots. No sneakers. I wasn't sure we'd find any instore, in the middle of summer, but there they were, just waiting for her. One pair, in her size.
She has only taken them off to sleep.

My beautiful American girl.


Saturday, July 4, 2015

Happy 4th July and on not worrying about the rain ...

The 4th July is one of my favorite American holidays.

For all that it stands for, but also for the way it is celebrated.
I love the theme of red, white and blue ... these have become the colors of my summer. I love the flags flying from front porches ... the fireworks and barbeques and parades. The official beginning of summer, it is a holiday best celebrated with sandy feet and a slice of watermelon in one hand, dripping sticky sweetness. A drink in the other.

Usually we spend the day at a pool with friends. We swim and laze in the sun and eat too much. We drink a few drinks and after sunset we wander around slowly in the dusk as the grass cools against our feet, sun-kissed and limbs heavy, gathering our belongings in the growing darkness. Then we drag our chairs out onto the road at the edge of the harbor - children hanging over the railing above the water's edge or drifting on boats tied to their moorings or up on the rooftop of an SUV or two, for the best view. We sit impatiently and wait for the night sky to light up.

This year was a little different. It's been a long few months of feeling up and down inside - before I went back to South Africa even (more on that later) and after, when I got back. I often battle on the holidays, knowing so many around me have their families with them, their friends they grew up with ... I often feel noticeably alone, just the four of us. It happens when I drive through our town and see cars piled into driveways and imagine the family gatherings taking place inside. I picture smiles and conversations and cousins running outside, the familiarity of people who are comfortable enough to snap at each other occasionally, not to have to be polite. Who disagree and stomp out of the room only later to make up and sip a drink together outside, oblivious to the screams and mad running of the children around them. Finally catching up on gossip and family news now that the spat is over. It happens at school functions when grandparents line the seats around me. At birthday parties.

Sometimes when we have spent a week up the coast I have walked past houses in the early morning to see families gathering on the deck outside, eating breakfast together, tossing a frisbee to the dog, taking a long walk on the beach before the day begins ... generations walking together. Later i see them again, blankets spread out across the sand. More chairs than I can count. Cooler boxes and snacks for the children. And i think back to my own childhood days on the beach, aunts and uncles and my parents ... communal meals and heading back to the house for lunch and rests in the afternoon heat. Everyone together.

Always a stab to the heart on days like that, no matter how I try to shake it off.
So i expect it. This feeling of being slightly out of place. No matter how lovely the day.
On this particular holiday though, it's usually not too bad - in all the happiness of summer outsideness, the cherries and glasses of wine and skin browning in the sun. A holiday I never observed until we moved here, so it has no associations with home or family, really.

But today I felt like the child left standing after everyone has chosen their teams. The one no one wants to have to pick. The one who wants to grab her bag and run through the gate before anyone notices the tears building.

And then late this afternoon the sun broke through after a day of rain and the world looked brighter. I reminded myself that life teaches me this lesson over and over again : I can choose to allow sadness and regret to take over, or to shake it off and focus on everything I have to be grateful for. I have to actively decide to lighten my mood and to focus on what is in front of me, instead of what is not. With my children watching, my mood is shaping their memories. Do I want them to remember their Mama silent and pensive with sadness, or giving in to laughter and making the day a special one for them.

And so we headed out to our local historical homestead and ate gelato on an old park bench and watched the little one riding a pony.

We came home and pulled our blankets out onto the freshly mown lawn in the late afternoon sun and watched cloud shapes drifting past. I played with our neighbor's dog and the youngest drew pictures of a Tiki bar we could build in our backyard. One day. (Yep. No idea. We just nod and play along.)

We ate our bbq as the light faded and the air grew cool and we celebrated in our own way, just the four of us.

Tonight there were no fireworks and I missed the sun on my skin and the company of friends and I thought of family far away. But tonight we still laughed and ate and looked at the beauty around us. And tonight, finally, it was enough.

(My ten year old British-born son would like the records to show that he is not entirely in support of celebrating this holiday anyway. If it were up to him, England should still be in charge. He seems to struggle with giving into the celebratory mood of the day and always reminds me how it's really not his holiday as actually for him it is a day of mourning, not a cause to celebrate. Each to their own. We hide our smiles as he tells us this. Each 4th of July. Each of us carries a different passport in this house. An international family to be sure.)


Thursday, April 23, 2015

For Bernie. Gone but not forgotten.

I have wanted to write this for a while now and kept coming up with reasons not to. It's been so long ... and the loss really belonged to others, to her family, which makes it not my story to tell. And yet what else are stories if not a way to remember. To make sense of the world in all it's horror and it's beauty. And so if we remember, the story belongs to us too.

At the end of December in 1993, members of the APLA opened fire in a tavern in Cape Town. The Heidelberg Tavern. A name some of us will never forget. One of the women killed in the attack was one of my best friends.

It was an attack in the name of Freedom. The Revolution. Casualties for the Struggle. The end justified the means, they said. 

There have been so many casualties. Atrocities of history burnt into memory. Too hard to talk about sometimes. All of us carrying stories of loss and grief. So many many stories.

And yet ....

This tavern was just a small place frequented by students, not all of them white. Bernie being one of them. No political agenda there, just an ordinary place on an ordinary night. 

She was at Rhodes with me. We took the same subjects ... we sat through Psychology and Art History lectures together ... we drew and drew all through that first year and went for tea breaks and suffered through those agonizing crits at the art school. We sat up for hours drinking coffee and talking ... about growing up and our families, about what we wanted from life. About boys and falling in love. About politics and how we hoped the future would go, in South Africa. She told me about her brother and how worried she was about him. How the gangs in P.E. made it not a safe place to be for her family.

Bernie is the one I sat up with the night before the 1992 Referendum in my digs just off the High Street ... a bundle of us smoking and drinking tea and worrying about the day ahead of us. What would happen to the country we loved. She's one of the first people I looked for when the results came in, a group of us jumping up and down in the street to celebrate, not caring what anyone thought. 

She dreamt of giving back to her family, and to her community. She went to UCT after Rhodes to finish her HDE so she could teach ... art and guidance counselling. She wanted more than anything to enrich the lives of the kids in the city she came from, to support her mother ... to take care of her family. She had so much to give back. It was all she wanted.

She was brave and funny and wise. And strong. She was one of the first friends I turned to when I needed advice and encouragement. She's the one who pushed me to leave when i wasn't ready to go, trying to hold on - saying life would have a way of working itself out, i would see. 

The last time I saw her she came to stay at my new digs to rewrite an exam so she could graduate from Rhodes. I had left the front door unlocked and they came upstairs in a line of laughter - her family had come to drop her off - carrying packets of food and piles of textbooks in their arms. Their laughter stopped when they saw me waiting. The unexpected color of my face.
'The other students who live here .... are they also...' The question hanging. Her mother, so worried.
'It's alright. I'll be here. And they're not like that, I promise. They know she's staying and it's OK - but right now there's no one else here. It will be fine.'

It's how things were then. Having to reassure.

It was the height of summer, the heat of January flattening us and sending everyone indoors to sweat and dream of cooler weather. In between my waitressing shifts and Bernie's studies, we sought out the breezes on the balcony and continued with our conversations from years before. We drank tea and cold cokes and told stories from our childhoods. I still remember the way the heat sat on our shoulders. How empty the streets were, how quiet my house ... waiting for the noise that came when varsity began and the streets filled up with students. How impatient she was to be done, to be able to leave. A new adventure waiting.

She went to Cape Town and I stopped my studies and returned to Durban. She graduated that December, just weeks before her death. She wrote to tell me, so relieved and proud. Against all odds, she had done it. Her future lay open before her.

The years have gone by, but she has not been forgotten. We remember her, the ones who knew her. The memories come to me on the wind sometimes, when I am walking alone. Or driving with the window down, air rushing to snatch at my breath. A quiet moment when the sun is setting just so, and I think of all she has missed.

Today I pulled out the newspaper cutting from the shooting with her photo. I have kept it all these years, to never forget. I read the transcript of the Truth and Reconciliation hearing from that night, online. How strange that it's all there now, for anyone to see. For the first time I read her mother's words as she described her beautiful daughter to the court that day.

Even after all the years, there is still crying to be done.

We remember, Bernie.
We will never forget.



Friday, April 17, 2015

South Africa and immigrants ... here and there.

I read a blog post a little while ago (find it here) about how we bury our heads in the sand, sometimes ... reading blogs about interiors and the latest fashion trends ... how to plant a spring garden ... celebrity gossip. When there are serious issues at hand, things we should be talking about. I know what she meant ... it's the song from Midnight Oil from all those years ago ... how can we sleep while our beds are burning ... but at the same time it's also about what we choose to spend our time reading, seeing, believing, wanting. And sometimes we choose to escape a little.

Sometimes it's because the politics are too much, the world is heavy on our shoulders, and we find no answers ... that we look to escape ... a book about somewhere completely different, a movie to take us away, new recipes to try ... Pinterest with its beautiful interiors and perfect images.

This week my thoughts have turned to home a lot ... so many conversations on Facebook - articles flying back and forth, opinions, thoughts, worries. A friend who wrote about turning to her husband's facebook feed at the end of a long and stressful day to find pictures of beautiful travel destinations, interiors, smiling babies. It's what we choose to see and feed ourselves with ... sometimes.

Still, from far away the talk all week has been about an uprising in Xenophobic attacks in South Africa and the unease that has been spreading ... outbreaks of violence and looting. The chasing out of immigrants. Illegal or not. Just a small group involved, this in no means reflects on the majority of the country ... there is so much outrage and anguish at the uprising starting. We've been through this before, long enough ago to still remember. 

Immigrant : Someone who leaves a place to make his or her home elsewhere. Usually permanently.

That's me. That's so many of us. So many of my friends, and family too. Maybe not intentionally .. but we leave or wander or move for all the reasons that it means to be human. Because of love, we run towards or away from it ... for adventure ... to study, work, progress, change. To try a new horizon. To see something of the world. And it's to survive. After War. Famine. Disease. Disaster. 

It's quite a thing, to leave one's home and set off for new horizons ... it's quite a thing to make a new home somewhere else, to start again. Day after day in the unfamiliar. Never quite belonging, never fitting in. All the new rules to learn, new languages.

I think of how it is at home, of the anger and the suffering so many are experiencing. Of what it means to have crossed borders on foot to set up home somewhere else, at the very toe of Africa ... after which there is no where else to go. To be forced back again, to the beginning, after all of that. To have to leave friends and new family, wives and husbands even. Because of jealousy and narrow vision. To try to find refuge until the violence calms.

In Australia, this beautiful campaign. 

The struggle happens everywhere. I felt it in England. I feel it here. Sometimes with pride when I look around at the history of this country, this city where so many seem to come from somewhere else, or their parents before them. Sometimes with less than pride when people talk about first generation immigrants with pity, and I realize I am one too. 

It's a conversation with no beginning and no end ... I'm one in a long line of travellers ... great grandparents who came to Africa, and we who left ... and so the story continues. Those of us who are living the story know the only way to survive is through kindness and compassion from those around us, and towards others living our story with us.

Onward and upwards.


Friday, March 27, 2015

The reality of the ex-pat life ....

I step out of the shower, trying to ignore the throbbing of my cheek. It's been almost six months now and it's not getting better ... it comes and goes and there have been root canals and extractions and somehow we're no closer to having this resolved. I make a mental note to call the dentist, maybe I'll have to go on a fourth course of antibiotics. I wonder if I'll have to delay my trip home - again. Three years has been a long time to wait, I can't imagine waiting any longer.
The house is quiet - one off to school, the other home sick but happily playing for a little while, enough for me to shower and get dressed. I saw a post on Facebook this morning ... a dog stretched out, exhausted, and the caption said 'I can't do adult today.' It's how I feel. Some days it's overwhelming, the being grown up stuff. I'd like to climb back into bed and lose myself in a book and pretend there's nothing else I need to be doing.

Speaking of beds, it's been a while since I changed our sheets. Maybe that's a good place to start. Find some order in the chaos that is life right now and change the sheets. Tidy the room. I strip the bed in a few seconds. This will help. At least one room in the house will feel peaceful and clean when I head to bed tonight. I stop at the linen cupboard. I forgot, we only have one sheet. The second one tore and I meant to replace it but I clearly never did. Add that to the list of weekend chores. And I can't wash the sheet today because we pulled out the washer and dryer last night in an effort to repaint the laundry cupboard and make the space more organized, and when we did, we saw the peeling paint on the wall and the calcified hose. Water has been leaking behind the washing machine, and now we have to fix it. Only we don't know any contractors or plumbers and I'm not exactly sure who to call. The plumber we called out this week for a broken toilet didn't end up fixing it properly. I have to call him back too, but when i do he's going to remind me that he saw that our water tank needs replacing and that's a few thousand, and today that's just one more thing I don't want to have to deal with.

If we were at home, my step-dad would just come round and he'd know exactly what to do. He'd fix it for me, all of it, or he'd know a guy who could, and it would all be done and I wouldn't have to worry. 
But he's an ocean away.
I could wash the sheet, the machine could still work as it is now, pulled away from the wall with it's leaky hose - just one more cycle wouldn't hurt. But then i wouldn't be able to dry it because spring has not arrived and there is snow on the ground and the dryer was working just fine but when we pulled it away from the wall last night I tore the delicate silver extractor pipe at the back. I have no idea how to fix that either. I could ask my neighbor but although we've lived here just short of two years now, and get on just fine, that seems too intimate a request. I'd be imposing.
If we were at home I'd just take the whole load of washing to my mom or to one of my sisters and that would be my clean bed done. But we're not. 

I head back into the bedroom to remake the bed with the same old sheets. They'll have to wait another day. Or two. My daughter calls from downstairs, her fever has risen. I call the doctor and make an appointment for later in the day. Which means I have to cancel the arborist who was due to inspect our trees. We accidentally bought a forest with this house and a dozen of the trees are apparently not stabile and need to come down. We have been wondering if we could just do it ourselves. My brother-in-law said we could fly his gardener over and that would be cheaper. We laughed and nodded at the time. Now it seems like a tempting option. I wonder if he'd also be able to patch my leaking water pipe and patch the wall. In South Africa he'd just do the whole job and paint the wall for me too.

In the county I'm from there is a lot of talk of staying and leaving. Each time I go home I notice how often it comes up, maybe because I left and so it's the natural way of talk to flow, to ask and wonder and compare. Do I have regrets ? Am I coming back ? Is my life perfect so far away ? The day to day FB posts talk about load shedding and eating by candlelight and I understand how we all sometimes have days when we want to run away.

The reality is that it's the same struggle no matter where we are, just in different ways. The grass is green here, yes, and very beautiful in the summer - but the winter is cold and white and goes on way too long. The reality of the ex-pat life is that the homesickness often lurks around the corners. It hides in the cupboards and under the bed and pounces out at the most unexpected time, making one lose concentration for the better part of a day. Months. Years. There's no cure. One learns to carry on.

Since we became parents it's definitely been harder. In our twenties we were glad for our freedom and the chance to live our lives far away, in a new place. It was a huge adventure and we went home to recount our tales and we were happy. If we missed home too much we went back for a visit and when we returned it was to a community of South African friends and our British colleagues and it was easier. But the children, they changed everything. There are no family dinners or weekly coffees. There are no grandparents at our birthday table, no popping by to quickly drop off the kids for an hour. There is no one to babysit or take the kids when they are sick, no weekend sleepovers, no one teaching my son how to catch fish. There is no maid for the priviledged, no one to keep the house clean and watch the kids for a quick half an hour, or help me with dinner or sweep up the sudden mess on the floor that I swear was gleaming clean just half an hour ago.

It's the small day-to-day intimacies of having family close by that I miss. The last minute phone calls to come round for a meal, join us for a braai (bbq), come shopping for a new outfit. Come round to help with a project, can you sew these curtains for me. Have I chosen the right paint color ? It's the having to start over, trying to fit in and find a way to belong. Accept being the odd one out, the one who doesn't always know how things are done, the one who's accent gives her away. Get comfortable admitting not knowing and ask a lot of questions. Get lost a lot. Flounder, cry and pull oneself back up and do it all again. It gets easier. Mostly.

I don't regret where life has taken me. I am aware of all the choices that led me to this place, and why I made (and am still making) the ones I did. But to those of you dreaming of the faraway places and starting life anew ... it's an incredible experience to be away and start a new life somewhere else. I love that I've lived on more than one continent, that so many of my friends have travelled the world and had incredible adventures, and know what it is to move continents away and start life again. Sometimes more than once. But we all know the price we pay for our freedom, and some days it would just be nice to be able to call up my parents and say please come and fix my broken wall and can you play with the kids while I just nip out for an hour or just come and have coffee, i could do with some company. I'll even throw in a cake.

So instead i write a blog post in between a hundred interruptions to spell out words for an Easter card. Fever does not stop 5 year olds being creative. Then I'll walk away from the computer and deal with the day and think how really none of this is important and we all have those days sometimes. 

Just another day in paradise, right ?