The Shape of My Heart

It is early morning in a smallish European capital that is laden with history, both for me and my family and for humanity. I am trying to make this city my home for the second time. Although the person who walked here over 30 years ago could have been a stranger, someone I heard about or imagined. My half-formed self has changed profoundly since then. And even the city whose existence is counted in millennia changed a lot in three decades.

I am not yet sure whether I will befriend my new place of dwelling or loathe it. I have had both good and bad times here, and I fear what the northern cold would do to me. After six years of living in temperate climate, I find this European summer a bit cooler than the tropical winters of Nairobi. I am now wearing the same light jacket that I wore there when it got cold. The rain and thunderstorms arrive with the same frequency. But Africa’s weather, just like its people’s temperament, changes quickly from dark to light, and from cold to warm. Here, it takes longer for the air to warm from a cold spell, as it takes time for people to thaw from partially frosty and stand-offish attitudes.

I admit that I what I am saying is just my heart missing the warm embrace of Africa. With the exception of one glum taxi driver, who was not even local, I have seen nothing but warm welcome from colleagues and from the city itself. I look forward to exploring it on foot and enjoying, for once, the pleasure of being a flaneur in a well-organized walkable city. Because while African populations largely prefer walking, most of their cities and towns are anything but walkable. People still walk everywhere, among fields, on dirt roads and even on city highways. There are no rules nor paths for walking, the people just make them by the tread of their feet.

Europeans only walk for pleasure, not to commute or to get themselves from point A to point B. My current city is spoiled for choice when it comes to means of commute, as it has Subways, buses and street cars. And it is a fraction of the size of Nairobi, both in terms of space and population.

My current apartment is tiny in comparison to my place in Nairobi, but is well-designed and organised in a manner that makes its size irrelevant in comparison to its convenience. But there are still things to learn. How to sort waste, in the absence of informal recyclers who would make use of all discarded items of plastic and glass. And how to choose healthy foods from supermarkets bursting with choices and temptations.

It is relatively easy to replace mangos and avocados with apples and pears, even when your preference runs to the former rather than the latter. But it is much harder to go back from coffee capsules to regular ground coffee from a pour-on filter. My preference for plain water is already challenged by a myriad of fizzy drinks that offer low sugar content but god knows how many additives and sugar substitutes. And the African definition of fresh vegetables will surely be challenged by agricultural productions practices in Europe. My next learning tasks will be how to eat clean, when I am tempted by discount grocers and fast food outlets on a daily basis. How to maintain a frugal existence when I am surrounded by elegance and style. I am now an unwilling participant in the machine of capitalism, but I am powerless to resits it. The first thing I bought when I landed here was a fancy, and expensive, new smart phone. My African sensibilities cringed at this decadence, but I still produced my credit card and swiped it, confident in my financial and professional security. I made many excuses about this, but I know it is an unnecessary luxury. There are many cheaper phones that could do the job, but it is so easy to follow the temptations of luxury and convenience here.

I will watch carefully how this move will change me, to the better or worse, and I will learn more in the process about myself and my evolution as a human. The first lesson I am working on is how to let go of people, places and things that I loved deeply, and how to love new people, places and things. I will try to adapt and keep my humanity, and stay fair to those I interact with.

And while I am here, I will acknowledge that mother Africa and its people still have a big hold on my soul. Europe has the bling, the prosperity, and the convenience, but Africa has the shape of my heart.

Mom and Son Day

Yesterday I battled against another translation deadline, and my efforts in the past two days with this urgent translation ran my body down and I ended up with a terrible case of the flu.

I was excused off my day job for being sick but deadlines know no mercy, and the job had to be out by yesterday afternoon. I was totally exhausted by the time I picked up Robert from school, and I missed out on a beautiful warm autumn afternoon, I simply had no energy to get out with him.

This morning we both woke up refreshed, I think we clocked about 13 hours of sleep. The weather was cloudy and drizzly but we still got out. I visited Lucy at Jackie’s place, and saw her granddaughter Bulelwa there too. I was prepared to talk to Jackie had she been at home, but perhaps it was just as well she wasn’t. Later we went to the shops and I finally bought sunglasses instead of the pair that got broken last year on boxing day. Now I am sure there will be very few days of sunshine in Cape Town. I also bought some hair accessories, plastic bands that hold my hair in place if I want to keep it loose. My ex husband used to hate them and my son broke every single one I had so far so maybe he agrees with him.  One last thing that I treated myself to was lavender foam bath. I know I never was a bath person, but I developped this new love for scented foam baths, and it is also adds a lot of fun to having a bath with Robert making a lot of bubbles and foam.

The shopping trip put Robert to sleep and since I was feeling hungry I treated myself to a burger at a nearby family restaurant. During the meal Robert woke up and had a bite of my burger, and took a liking to my bean salad, which incidentally was also my favourite; he at every single kidney bean, perhaps he was attracted by their purple color.  I should perhaps go more often to this burger place, they have a play area where facepainting is done, and kids get baloons and coloring leaflets as gifts. There is also a girl in the play area who does face painting for the children. Unfortunately I discovered all this while we were about to leave, so Robbie ended up with only the baloon. Maybe next time he will get to appreciate more of the fun stuff, this time he got absorbed as usual in stacking the little chairs in the play area.

How Much is Garlic Crushing Worth?

I am not a kitchen guru, and precisely for this reason I need the correct kitchen gadgets to help my mediocre skills in the kitchen.  Finding the right implement, however, is a challenge by itself, because my inadequate skills and my left-handedness conspire against me.

It is difficult to explain the dilemma to the 90% of the population who were lucky enough to become right-handed. We left-handers cannot buy mass market utensil and products : Pictures on mugs end out looking away from us, knives cut funny because the cutting edge and the force applied are on opposing sides, and can openers have to be operated backwards.  It takes major effort and expense to find a tool that works correctly for us left-handers, and therefore I mostly settle for the clumsy right-hand tools.

Since the gadgets used for crushing garlic do not fall under the category of hand-specific tools, I thought that finding one would be a piece of cake. I was so wrong. I have been on the lookout for the correct one for over three months now. During this time I minced my garlic with my non-hand-specific knife, but before that I tried crushing it with my hand-neutral mortar and pestle.

The mortar and pestle were a little too heavy and clumsy for regular and repeated use (I had a stone one), and the cleanup was also problematic. Mincing with the knife on the other hand is much more straight forward, and there is very little cleanup. Disadvantages were the time needed and the risk of ending up with garlic smelling fingers for the rest of the day. The chopping board of course is a lost cause, and it has to be dedicated to chopping only the vegetables who are good companions to garlic.

A month ago I forked out R45 to buy a stainless steel garlic crusher, but it turned out to be wrong. It looked fine when I bought it, made of stainless steel with the garlic crushed in a little compartment that is detachable for easier cleaning. On actual use, however it proved very impractical, perhaps for this very detachable element. Apart from its overall faulty “engineering” which made the garlic come out more squeezed than crushed. This led me back again to mincing and smelly fingertips.

Finally today I discovered and brought home my new love and the most useful kitchen utensil for lovers of garlicky pasta sauce. I bought this beauty, and thank god it was on sale. It is made of brushed stainless steel, cool and velvety to the touch. It also has a round grip that makes its weight fall comfortably on either left or right hands. It looks and feels heavy, durable and practical. With a deceptive simple design of real expensive kitchen tools. Believe me, I rarely wax lyrical about anything in the kitchen, but this is simply one of my most valuable kitchen utensils.

Taking it Easy

We have had stay-at-home weather since Saturday, and except for the necessary trip to the shops I was happy to oblige. My holiday is almost over and I cannot believe that I will be back at work on Friday. For the next few days I plan to take it easy and do as little as possible outside the home. I am still trying to clean up the flat, clean up my desktop computer and transfer the good and important files to the laptop. Eventually I will sell the big machine and experience full mobility with the laptop.

Under the drizzle we managed to get out to the shops today. I bought a 2 gigabyte flash memory drive for R100.  Would you believe that three years ago I bought a 128 megabyte flash drive for around R 300 ? The progress of technology is really scary.  The flash drive will minimize the time it takes me to transfer files between the two machines, and eliminate the need for creating multiple CD ROMS unnecessarily. If I was really technologically savvy I would just buy a network cable and build a network of the two machines, but I do not want to go there. My desktop machine is really iffy and may get unstable if I change too many settings.

The next thing I bought today was Christmas Pudding. I have been feasting on Christmas goodies and cooking easy but fancy meals.  The Christmas Pudding was something that I could added to my menu, but its price last week was prohibitive. Now that Christmas is over, the shops are putting all the goodies out at half price, so we can have the goodies for New Year.

I plan to have a quiet New Year celebration. Reflect on the difficult year that was and make a plan for the year coming. Last year at this time I was still a part of a family, and I thought it was going to last forever. Now it is just me and my little son,  a smaller family unit, with the difficulties resting squarely on my shoulders. I will be able to handle it, no problem, but sometimes the sheer magnitude of the task gets daunting.

I cannot help remembering that at the start of 2008, my ex was fond of saying: “2008 will be great”. His prediction turned out to be a fallacy, and the only great thing about 2008 for me was the disappoinment of my marriage. So this year I will not make lofty predictions, I will predict that in 2009, we will be just fine.

11 Months

Robert’s eleventh month has passed by in a state of chaos. Our life at Jackie’s is not perfect and we are struggling within the rules and the limited space.  As Robert grows more mobile, I find that he needs more and more observation and Jackie’s place is perhaps the most child unfriendly space I have encountered so far. At the end of the day I am exhausted by the constantly repeated NO, NO, NO. Financially we can barely afford even Jackie’s place, and my hopes are now on selling the house in Gonubie. The auction is on the 31st and I am hoping for the best.

To mark his eleven months birthday, Robert got a ride today in a supermarket trolley at the Fruit and Veg city in town. As it is clear on the picture, he is not impressed, but soon enough his intimidation of the new surrounds vanished and he started pulling himself up in the trolley. I was glad that we were getting ready to leave by then.  On our way back Jackie took us to a little farm which is located very close to town.  There were chickens, goats and a few pigs running around. I thought it would be nice to show Robert one of the pigs, so we approached a black one and started to examine its coarse hairs. I must have picked one in a bad mood, because the beast grunted and attacked my ankle. I hobbled in pain towards the car to find Jackie hooting with laughter at my predicament. She said that she thought I would drop Robert. In fact I was actually relieved that the animal bit me and not Robert. The casualties : My tan pants were filthy but not permanently damaged and I had a scrape where the animal’s teeth bit on my ankle. I was shocked but otherwise fine. However the episode left me with a little bit of insecurity regarding the state of my luck at this point in time.

Feeding Various Addictions

Time and again I find myself craving things. I go out to buy myself food, then I go to the wool shop and buy yarn, and of course my biggest addiction buying books. Our largest bookstore chain in South Africa has two annual sales, the winter sale and the summer sale, and I have been very dedicated in attending them from my days in Johannesburg to this day. I know I missed a few when I was overwhelmed with work at the garage, but I usually make it a point to be there as soon as my closest branch opens on sale day. This year I was there one full day too early, I showed up with Robert on Tuesday, and found an almost deserted mall. The staff at the bookstore were still setting up the tables of the sale books, which weren’t open to public viewing yet, so I had to try again the very next day.

Earlier this week Ron sent me a text message to say that he would like to “look after Robert” sometime, and I arranged for him to be with Robert on Wednesday, when I planned to go and hand in Robert’s registration forms for the daycare, and now I simply had to add checking out the sale books to my program. To make my life still more complicated a friend called on Tuesday inviting us to lunch with a few other moms, and of course I wanted to be there too. Plans were changed at short notice; Ron’s visit with Robert was rescheduled to an earlier time, I asked him to pick him up at 8 AM rather than ten, so that I can make the lunch date at my friend’s at eleven. On the day I rushed from home to the post office then quickly on board a bus to the Waterfront, and I spent a couple of hours browsing books. I did not spend as much as I used to in the old days, and even though I bought some books for Robert as well my purchases were relatively conservative this year. Perhaps the constraint of time also helped, I had to leave to make it in time for the lunch/playdate.

I picked up Robert just after eleven then I walked with him to where my friend’s place. I met W a few weeks ago at the park and we related to each other quickly because we are both single moms. Her story is slightly different, because she was not married to the father of her baby, but we still ended up in similar situations. In her case, the father sends money regularly but does not want to be involved in any other way. Sometimes I wish this was the case for us as well. Ron’s contribution to our finances is pathetic and in return for it I have to put up with his strange behaviour and venomous comments, and I do not consider it a fair bargain at all. Another thing that W and I have in common is that we both share accommodation with friends. W’s place is more chic and upmarket than this old home, but the problems are still the same. We both need to protect our babies from the dangers in the house – in her case there are open steps and banister- and at the same time we need to protect the house (or its contents) from the menace of little hands and feet. When the moms showed up we had a full complement of little boys, ranging in age from 4 months to just over a year. W’s son had just turned one on the 14th of July (Bastille Day – which incidentally is also my dad’s birth date). The older kids spent some time playing and generally making a mess while the little ones watched angelically from their cots or cushions, there was curry for lunch and then cake and muffins for tea, and we all enjoyed ourselves. Robert tried many new toys, and naturally they held his interest much longer than the toys at home. A rattle with a long handle was a hit with his as usual. I was very surprised though when he suddenly found interest in a ring stacker. He has a similar toy at home, and I have been trying to show him how to fit the rings correctly around the base, but he was had never shown real interest in the process until today. W’s son had loads of interesting toys, but Robert spent most of his time playing with the ring stacker. All good times come to an end though, and my queue to leave was Robert’s voice increasing in volume, announcing that he had enough and was really tired, so I had to leave in a hurry. The problem was fixed immediately once we started moving and Robert went to sleep in the stroller as soon as we cleared the block. I often wonder how I would deal with a similar situation on a long-haul flight, I get panicky just thinking about it.

Because Robert was peacefully sleeping I got to stop at the shops once again. I bought more books from the book sale, this time from the tiny branch near our place. Then I bought more goodies from the supermarket – savory muffins and a Thai Chicken. Robert and I arrived home shortly before sundown. Later in the evening I spread out my prizes for the day; there were books for me and Robert and a dozen baby pajamas from W’s son, and lo and behold there was a light sweater and two vests which Ron must have bought for Robert. Maybe I should think that it was nice of him to buy something, but since he is the father I find these items rather insufficient, something that a childless friend would buy because they did not want to spend too much money. When it comes to buying things for Robert, my ex is hopelessly outdone by my family and my friends. His own family made more effort for Robert’s sake than he did, and even Jackie’s mom made a bigger effort. Now I know what ex wife number one must have felt when her kids used to get silly birthday cards or cheap presents, and I know what my ex meant when he used to complain: “what’s the point of sending this?”. I really fail to see the point of two vests and a cheap sweater.