Being an Exchange Student in Belgium, Assimilation & Brexit

Leaving Belgium after one year on exchange
Leaving Belgium after one year on exchange

Nineteen years ago, I arrived in Belgium as a wide-eyed Rotary Exchange Student. My first host parents were at Zaventem Airport to meet me and I was determined to boldly belt out my well rehearsed phrase: “Je suis tres heureuse de vous recontrer.” Translation: “nice to meet you”, which, I’m sorry, is a whole lot easier than its French equivalent. In hindsight, “enchantée” would have sufficed, but for some reason the French interpreter who’d retired to Plett with her South African spouse, decided to teach me the more sophisticated version…

When I climbed into the back seat of my host parents’  Renault Espace, they had to tell me that it was the law in Belgium to buckle up – even in the back. Seems odd to think back to a time when that wouldn’t be blatantly obvious to anyone, but it wasn’t a reflex to me in 1997.

Up to that point in my life, it was repeatedly remarked that it really wouldn’t hurt me to smile once in a while. At the beginning of my year in Belgium, people commented on my ever-present smile (according to translations from my host sisters). I was in a bubble with nothing but my own thoughts and the white noise of an incomprehensible language, around me and my coping response was to smile. It was possibly more a grin of mild panic, but fortunately it was positively interpreted.

Besides learning the French language, my instinct was to assimilate into my new surroundings in every way I could, although I did not put a word to it at the time. I set about purchasing a pair of hard, heavy, dark brown, Caterpillar lace-up boots – the type that may very well be worn by someone on a construction site. When I returned to South Africa a year later, those boots would stare at me from the back of my shoe cupboard as if to say: “who were you, last year?” I built up a collection of scarves. The French language even has two distinct words for “scarf”. (“Un foulard” is a scarf made of light, silky fabric and “une écharpe” is thicker, longer, woolier, warmer.) I wound my foulards and écharpes about my neck by creating a loop and folding the other side through that loop, as I saw my schoolmates do. I took up smoking, choosing to do so on an Aeroflot flight during a school trip to Russia, somewhere over the Balkans, at some ridiculous altitude. I felt at once high and severely nauseous, but the next day, I pressed on with the pastime. Many illegal Russian cigarettes later, I still failed to relate to the idea of “smoking pleasure” but I was happy to have something to do with my hands whilst trying to follow the foreign conversation going on at break-neck speed around me.

By the time my year-long exchange was drawing to a close, I had managed to fairly successfully absorb spoken French and would imitate the colloquialisms I overheard my family and peers using, so that I could more or less pass as an assimilated foreigner.

Two weeks ago, I flew to Brussels for the wedding of one of my host sisters, Julie. Zaventem Airport, having been rocked by terrorist bombs just months earlier, is now a maze of temporary marquees and heavily-armed, military personnel. Julie had recommended a guest house near the European Quarter, located in the Rue de Londres (London Rd), just off the Place de Londres (London Square). The bar downstairs which hummed with the excitement of the UEFA games until the early hours of the morning, went by the name of “London Calling”.

And then, two days after my arrival in Brussels, Britain voted to leave the European Union. It was in Geography class in Belgium in 1997 that I learned that Britain had joined the European community as early as 1973. And now they wanted to undo 43 years of assimilation with Europe. I thought of my own experience as an ex-pat in Belgium. Sure, when I returned to SA, I shed my Caterpillar boots, never to be worn again, but the moment I touched down in Brussels – as I had on at least five occasions in the past 19 years – there was a tiny part of me that assimilated into my host country once again. My brain switched to thinking in French after a couple of days, I instinctively greeted people with a kiss on the cheek, I felt a little bit at home. I ran laps around the Parc du Cinquantenaire, passing a bearded man in front of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Belgium. Perhaps multiculturalism cannot be detected in each and every English country village and not everyone has a sense of being a citizen of the world – or of Europe, at least. But what of the millions who do?

On the night of my arrival we watched Belgium defeat Sweden in a sports bar in the suburbs. It was the first time I had watched this year’s football and I noted the armbands the players were wearing, with the words “No To Racism”. It’s a word that we confront daily in South Africa, a word that has defined our past and continues to destabilise our present. And now, with the likes of Donald Trump and Brexit, it feels as though it is hauntingly shaping the future of the free world.

 

On French & South African Whine: An Observation from Val Thorens

Val Thorens
Val Thorens

A few weeks ago, I was privileged enough to go skiing in France. The resort our friends recommended was Val Thorens, part of the Three Valleys (made up of Val Thorens, Meribel and Courcheval) in the French Alps. The nearest airport is Geneva which is approximately two and a half hours’ drive from Val Thorens. When I met my friends in Geneva, they had heard news at Charles de Gaulle airport that the road to Val Thorens was closed because an enormous boulder had fallen onto it the previous evening.

"Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use"
“Concerted Mobilisation to Get Road Back into Use”

Soon enough, this rumour was confirmed by, Thierry, our taxi driver. He had been delayed getting to Geneva because of the road closure and as we drove, he listened to radio up-dates about the situation. Since 6am that morning, a tiny alternative route was being used. This road was so narrow it only allowed for one-way traffic and, as such, the local authorities had chosen to allow traffic down the mountain. It was a Saturday and the second last day of school holidays for the Paris school zone so it made sense to try to allow the people whose sojourns were ending that day, to exit the village.

At one stage we heard that vehicles would be allowed up the mountain at 2pm. But 2pm came and went and that wasn’t the case. By then we’d been in our mini-van for about four hours, driven alongside the magnificent Lake Annecy.

Passing Lake Annecy
Passing Lake Annecy

We’d managed to avoid a fair amount of bottle necks, thanks to our taxi drivers’ knowledge of back routes. We finally came to a halt in the village of Moutiers – at the foot of the closed road – and drank beer and espresso inside the local Carrefour’s cafe, where men still in ski gear, sat. They had made it down the mountain via the one-way road, but I overhead them saying that some had chosen to walk the last six kilometres as it was the quickest way down at that stage. The latest official information was that the (two-way) road would re-open at 6pm.

At about 4pm, our taxi driver raced into Carrefour and hustled us back to his van. He’d heard a rumour that the road might be opening. Once again, this proved untrue and instead we read our books in the van, while Thierry chatted to fellow taxi drivers and locals peered out of their windows at the curious sight of stationery cars lining their streets. By this stage of the day, there were cars lined up in every direction, up and down every nearby road.

At around 4:30pm, the authorities made way for buses to begin lining up in front of the closed off road as there were to be allowed up first.  At exactly, 6:05pm, the road was opened to all traffic. Thanks to Thierry, we were well positioned towards the front of the queue.

We then began making our way up the mountain. Besides a crane and other machinery, there were no signs of any disruption.

About half way up the pass, a woman taxi driver from the region was being interviewed about the situation. Her emotions were running high and she went on and on about the local metro police, about how unreasonable she had found them and how she vehemently disagreed with the way things had been handled. Lots of anger, lots of superlatives and lots of repetition. I confess if the rant had been translated into English and given a South African accent, I would have felt completely at home – as though I was tuned in to Radio 702 and someone had called in to complain about our local metro cops policing a road closure. In short, it sounded exactly like a quintessential South African whine, but instead it was being delivered by a French taxi driver in the Alps.

I try not to seek solace for the troubles of my country by finding fault with other countries, but hearing this woman losing her marbles and lambasting the authorities, did make me smile, in spite of the latter. This takes absolutely nothing away from France – the world’s most visited country with 84 million tourists per annum. It has just given me another perspective on whining: I no longer regard it to be quite so unique to privileged South Africans.

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Thierry’s  response to the crisis is probably one of many reasons France has such a booming tourist industry. He fielded calls from clients and potential clients all day and was ultra professional throughout. He must have lost out on a fortune of revenue that day, but he never showed an ounce of frustration. He simply did what he could to make our experience as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. He even went as far as to lend me Euros to buy lunch until we could get to a bank machine.

Despite the possibility that we may have been stranded in the village of Moutiers along with thousands of other tourists in the same boat, we were in our hotel having dinner by 8pm that night.

Sometimes, no matter its provenance, the glass really is half full…

Mauritius with Young Kids: Sugar Beach vs The Westin

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Our family of four has been privileged enough to have spent part of the last two December holidays in Mauritius. In December 2013 we stayed at the beautiful, colonial style Sugar Beach on the west coast. At the time, Chiara, our daughter was just over two and a half and our son, Joe was nearly five months old.

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The Manor House at Sugar Beach Resort

In December 2014, we stayed at The Westin, Turtle Bay (formerly the Grand Mauritian Hotel) in the north west of the island. Chiara was therefore about three and a half and Joe was 17 months.

The Westin, Turtle Bay
The Westin, Turtle Bay

The aim of this blog post is to compare our experiences at each. I specifically mention the ages of the children because tiny, little people and their needs change a huge amount in just twelve months and said tiny, little people and their needs can largely determine the extent to which their parents enjoy their holiday. (First world problems, I know).

THE POOLS
Sugar Beach has the most stunning pool called “The Quiet Pool” – literally. Kids are not banned from The Quiet Pool but there is a guy who walks around and tells anyone (big or small) who is making a noise to please be quiet. I have no problem with this (I fondly recall the days when I read books next to pools before I had kids) and we did manage to spend a few glorious early evenings at The Quiet Pool as Joe was still an infant and, at two and a half, Chiara could be made to understand that she needed to be quiet. A year later, however, I wouldn’t have gone near this pool with a seventeen month old.

The kid friendly pool with a fairly large shallow section at Sugar Beach is very nice, but we were there in peak season and we were NEVER organised enough to go early and put our belongings on the loungers to “reserve” them for when we had finished breakfast. So we never really had a spot to sit at this pool. I think the hotel was pretty full and the pool reflected this.

Aerial View
The kid-friendly pool with a shallow section at Sugar Beach

At The Westin, we LIVED at the “main” pool. (Not the “Reflections Pool”, in the “Whisper Zone” – we never went there as we never trusted our kids to whisper in or around the pool).

Kid friendly pool at the Westin with large shallow section
Kid friendly pool at the Westin with large shallow section

The main pool has an enormous shallow end which was amazing for the kids. It feels brand new and gorgeous, it’s enormous and we loved it. I doubt the hotel was very full (it re-opened under the Westin brand some time in 2014 so they are still building up a clientele) and we had a choice of well located loungers every morning. After about 5 days, the staff started booking our preferred loungers for us near the shallow end. I suppose it will become alot busier as the hotel gets more and more popular but I think it would still feel more spacious than the main pool at Sugar Beach.

THE BEACHES
Both the Westin and Sugar Beach Hotels have sandy beaches. The Beach at The Westin wasn’t huge but it was cute and never very busy. There was a lovely giant rock pool and the sea was nice and gentle for small kids.

The beach at The Westin Turtle Bay
The beach at The Westin Turtle Bay

If memory serves, the beach at Sugar Beach is alot longer and more sprawling. Rubber or neoprene water shoes are recommended for kids and adults alike.

But our kids at this age seem to be happiest at the pool, given the choice, so we didn’t spend large amounts of time on the beach. The beaches and the sea are very nice at both resorts, but if you’re after velvety sand and long, sprawling beaches first and foremost, rather venture to the four star Paradise Sun on Praslin in the Seychelles (the pool is average and the flight times from Joburg are hell with small kids but the beach and sea are unbeatable, in my opinion.).

THE ROOMS
David, my husband spoilt us and booked superior interleading rooms for both holidays. Our rooms at Sugar Beach were nice. There wasn’t much space to spare but they were bigger than the standard rooms.

Our rooms at The Westin were utterly unbelievably luxurious, gorgeous, massive, brand spanking new, magnificent. We could have moved in forever. We paid roughly the same amount for both holidays but I strongly suspect that The Westin heavily discounted its rates to attract people to it and I think that by December 2015, our interleading rooms will be charged out at alot more. (According to the paperwork from The Holiday Factory – the tour company that our travel agent booked our holiday through – we booked “Ocean Deluxe” rooms, but when we arrived, one of the rooms had the word “suite” attached to it. But even the room that wasn’t called a suite with twin beds, was huge and stunning, as were the bathrooms.)

A top floor version of our room (ground floor doesn't have this view, but makes pram usage so much easier)
A top floor version of our room (ground floor doesn’t have this view, but makes pram usage so much easier)

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION (OF YOUR ROOM)

At Sugar Beach, I requested ground floor rooms not close to the main pool as I was worried that Joe wouldn’t sleep during the day if there was too much noise. This turned out to be a mistake because getting to the kid friendly pool and the main restaurant was an almightly schlep (Sugar Beach is an enormous resort). I would definitely request a room near the main pool and restaurant next time.

At the Westin, I simply requested ground floor rooms. Fortunately, the rooms we were allocated were a stone’s throw from the restaurant and the main pool which was really convenient and just made our lives so easy with the kids and all the paraphernalia you somehow always need with them.

THE KIDS CLUB, BABYSITTING & KIDS’ MEALS

At Sugar Beach, you can drop your kids at the kids club from the age of 3, whilst at The Westin, they need to be 4 or older. If your kids are younger than these minimum ages you need to hire a babysitter to be with them at the Kids Club. In terms of the physical premises, the Kids Club at Sugar Beach is in need of a revamp (but the staff more than make up for that), whereas at The Westin, the Kids Club is brand new and gorgeous. You can also go and hang out there with your children if they are too young to be left which you might fancy doing if it’s raining or you just need to get out of the heat for a bit.

At Sugar Beach, we hired a babysitter every evening through the Kids Club. She was fantastic. Some mornings we hired another babysitter to watch the kids for just over an hour so that my mother-in-law and I could walk on the beach which was such a treat. I remember it being a really easy and seamless process and it felt like everyone I encountered at the Kids Club was exceptionally nice and very experienced with children.

At The Westin, hiring a babysitter felt like alot more of a mission. Their policy states that you have to physically go to the Kids Club and select your babysitter from their list (pictures included) of ladies. You then hire the person directly and pay them directly in cash (local currency), plus you need to pay them for their transport (which added quite a bit to the cost). So hiring a babysitter for an hour’s walk on the beach was more effort and money than it was worth. We also happened to have very little cash (in any currency) on us and the nearest ATM was about a 20 minute taxi journey away, so we only hired a babysitter twice during our stay. The effort of needing to pre-plan and pre-book with someone external to the hotel (aside from having to mission in to town to get cash) made the option a little less attractive. That said, the ladies who work in the Kids’ Club are allowed to do babysitting when they are not on duty, but I only found that out later and when I asked one of these ladies to babysit there was a schedule clash.

There were alot of South Africans staying at the hotel while we were there and I noticed that most people put their babies to sleep in their prams and brought them to dinner. We did that twice with Joe and it worked well. Fortunately we had met a great couple with a daughter Chiara’s age and they entertained one another at dinner (with the help of an iPad). Otherwise, most nights we put the kids to bed in one of the rooms and had room service in the adjoining room, watched movies and sipped wine on the balcony. (The downside was that in-room dining doesn’t form part of the half-board offering).

At Sugar Beach, the Kids’ Club offered a kids dinner from about 5pm or 5:30pm which suited my kids’ usual routine perfectly. At The Westin, we tried to organise early dinners a couple of times for the kids but it was a huge mission and 6pm was the earliest it could be arranged so the best for us was simply to order a starter from room service for them at around 5pm. Joe lost his sense of humour at around 6:15pm every night, gulped down his bottle and pointed to his bed by 6:30pm so the 6pm dinner thing didn’t work for us.

WASHING & STERILISING BOTTLES

At Sugar Beach, I dropped Joe’s bottles and dummies off at the Kids’ Club where they were washed and sterilised for me with a smile. At The Westin, I called room service and they were equally great. (I took Medela microwave steriliser bags with me both times). Some large international hotel chains have policies about washing and sterilising bottles (in case they get sued, I guess), so one might not always be so lucky…

THE RESTAURANTS & THE FOOD

Main restaurant at The Westin
Main restaurant at The Westin

Personally, I loathe buffets – especially at dinner. It feels like musical chairs and kills the mood. Fortunately, both hotels have a variety of a la carte options for dinner (and lunch). These all come at a price, of course, but at least you have options. I don’t remember too much about the food at Sugar Beach so I assume that it was pretty good!

We stayed at the Westin before we had kids in 2010 (when it was The Grand Mauritian) and found the food to be excellent. We found it equally fantastic this time. The lunches were fresh and delicious (with deliciously expensive price-tags to match).

THE SERVICE AND THE STAFF

In general, I recall the service and the staff at Sugar Beach to be outstanding. At The Westin, we had a more mixed experience – some staff members were amazing, some were not great at all. I would say overall that there was a much better culture amongst the staff at Sugar Beach, whereas I felt like I heard alot of “I am not able to do that because we have a policy…” – i.e. very rules based culture, presumably based on a fear of being sued.

COSTS & EXTRAS

As I mentioned, I think The Westin’s prices for December 2014 were significantly lower than their prices for December 2015 will be so I am not sure they will necessarily compare well with Sugar Beach from a cost perspective, even though they are both five star resorts. At both resorts, any food or drinks that were not included in our half board packages were exorbitant (but, in my experience, that is the same in all the luxury Mauritian resorts).

CONCLUSION

We would choose The Westin again over Sugar Beach for one simple reason: the main pool. Perhaps the resort will grow in popularity and there will be a bun fight for sun loungers, but until then, I would go again tomorrow.

Please comment below if you have experiences at Mauritius resorts with young children that you’d like to share.

New York: 10 Tips for Surviving a Stay in Manhattan

View from the gym at The Standard
View from the gym at The Standard

In 2012, I took my first mommy vacation to visit my sister in New York. I arrived on the Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, so the Monday was a public holiday, and I left for JFK early on the Tuesday morning.

I loved, loved, LOVED Manhattan. At the time, my sister was living in a shared apartment in the West Village. I arrived in her tree-lined, facebrick, quiet, gorgeous street and decided that this was better than the movies. Not even hauling my suitcase up five flights of stairs could put me off. Naturally, her apartment – shared by three twenty-somethings – was minute. But it was irrelevant. We were hardly there. We had brunch at the Gramercy Park Hotel, ran in Central Park, shopped at Lulu Lemon, ate sustainable, free-range eggs at Bubby’s, dined on brown rice sushi at Dean & Deluca and swanned around The Met. It was divine.

When I returned to New York last month, however, all of my senses went into shock. Mainly my ears though. Manhattan on Memorial Day weekend was a very different place to Manhattan in late July. The place was LOUD. It felt as though the whole of Manhattan was “under construction”. My sister had moved to the “vibier” (read noisier) Lower East Side, and buildings were being razed right there on her road.

So the tips below were heavily influenced by my current phase of life: I hate noise, I don’t do crowds but I do love acquiring beautiful books, clothes and bags and eating yummy food in trendy establishments. This is how I’d recommend negotiating Manhattan for anyone with similar proclivities:

1. Tax

Like death, you can’t avoid the 8.875% New York sales tax. No matter what the dodgy midtown salesman tells you about not charging you tax but shipping your bill to your distant cousin in another state. (He forgets to mention that your cousin will be liable for the tax). The annoying part is that tax is not included in the marked price – unlike VAT in SA – so it’s hard to remember to include it when have your hand on a beautiful handbag that is borderline in terms of budget…

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Bloomingdales, however, has mercy on foreign shoppers. I was offered a 10% discount to negate the sales tax when a very proactive and helpful salesgirl picked up my accent.

Hotel taxes come to more than 8.875% – around 15-% if I’m not mistaken, which I omitted to factor in when I booked The Standard online. Sure, the site said the price quoted excluded tax but I figured the amount would be negligible. Ahem, not so.

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We loved our stay at The Standard (& yes, the logo is meant to be upside down – it’s art, okay?)

(My sister’s stylish French friend met us for lunch at Cafe Gitane at The Jane Hotel in the West Village and proffered this handy tip: The Jane costs around $220 per night – inclusive of tax – which is unusual for a boutique hotel in a fabulous location, within walking distance to the High Line and cute shops in the Meatpacking district. It’s also well-positioned if you want to go for a run along the Hudson River, all the way into the financial district. There are lots of runners but there’s also lots of place to run, walk and cycle and the area is well kept and clean.)

2. When You Gotta Go

My romantic notions of strolling along Fifth Avenue, holding David’s hand and exclaiming ” Oh my God, would you look at that gorgeous jacket/ bag/ dress!” were crushed in seconds. Sure, the shops are amazing but when you’re on the “sidewalks” you may as well be on London’s Oxford Street – ie it’s MANIC!!! This is where I figured out that the best places to “spend a penny” (the McDonalds staff keep an eye-out for non-consumers using their restrooms) were in the beautiful old department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodmans. (I could live in these stores). Which brings me to my next tip…

3. Books at Bergdorfs

On my way out of the restrooms at Bergdorfs, I happened upon the children’s section and couldn’t resist taking a peak. One item of designer kid’s clothing would feed our household for a month, but the books sell for the recommended retail price on their dust jackets and they are magnificent. I could run my hands over the silky paper all day. Here’s what I picked up for the kids:

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4. Shop till you drop

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So what if heels are last season? These still look sexy, I’m sorry…

Something I noticed was that some branded items cost exactly the same as they do in SA. I don’t know how this works with SA’s import duties, but a pair of Nike running pants purchased at Totalsports in Joburg in June compared with the exact same pair I saw at a sports store in New York in July, cost the same (give or take a few cents for the Rand/ Dollar exchange rate on the day). I also compared the price of an I-pod Touch which was a bit cheaper in New York, but honestly not a saving to write home about.

To shop at places like Zara & H&M, make sure you have your big girl panties on, because you are going to need them. I’m talking, chaos, crowd control, queues for change rooms, queues to pay… Not to mention the fact that I was literally policed by shop assistants for trying on a cardigan on the shop floor. Apparently this is not allowed. The prices at Zara in SA might be higher but I’d say it’s worth it for the shopping experience.

 5. Far From the Madding Crowds in the West Village

My neighbour did me a huge favour when she put in an order for a Marc Jacobs tote. My sister could see that I wasn’t coping well with the crowds and suggested that we hit the mini designer stores in the West Village instead. Sure, you won’t get the range that you’d get in a huge department store and not all the brands are there by far, but it’s a really pleasant experience compared to the madness of Soho, Broadway and Fifth Ave.

 

6. Sharing is Caring

The eensy weensy space between tables
The eensy weensy space between tables

Vanity aside, there is a reason there are no fat people in Manhattan (I blogged about this in 2012): it just isn’t practical. According to a 2013 census, 1.6million people live on the 59 square km island – excluding the additional 2.3 million commuters who come in on business days. Often, the tables in little cafes were so close together, I literally didn’t think I would fit through them sideways – or certainly not without knocking over my neighbour’s latte. So I had to get used to feeling like I was also having brunch with the table next to me. It is completely impossible not to hear every single word they say to one another but sometimes this comes in handy – like when they see you eyeing their banana bread, hear you and your sister contemplating ordering some and they feel obliged to share their experience of it with you. Hell, the setting is so intimate at one point I though they were going to offer us a taste and was inwardly panicking re the appropriate response. But that’s the other reason Manhattanites aren’t fat – the portions aren’t huge – so sharing does have its limits.

7. BYOB on Broadway

I’m told there are more affordable Broadway shows and less affordable ones. (I was told this after booking tickets). For the show Book of Mormon there are only two ticket prices: unbelievably effing expensive and literally double that. We got over that before leaving SA but thought nothing of grabbing a drink at the theatre’s bar before the start of the show. The damage for two average double whiskeys and a sparkling water was no less than $76. And when David balked and asked the barman to please repeat, he shouted back “That’s RIGHT! Seventy six AMERICAN dollars!” That, really, was the cherry on top and David vows he’ll never set foot on Broadway again.

8. The World of Water in the States

I absolutely LOVE the fact that it is perfectly acceptable to ask for tap water in all types of American restaurants. And when you’re on the run, you can totally buy bottled still water anywhere. But sometimes, when I really want to let my hair down, I do like some bubbles. Unlike SA, however, where every affordable brand of still water (Valpre, Bon Aqua, Woolworths, you name it) has an affordable bubbly equivalent, in the States sparkling water equals Perrier equals imported from France equals really expensive.

8. Modern Art

Jeff Koons balloon dog
Jeff Koons: balloon dog

The beauty of New York is that most of the waiters/ bellhops/ hostesses/ receptionists double up as struggling actors/ writers/ artists. We learnt that Jeff Koons was having a solo exhibition at The Whitney thanks to a waiter at The Standard. The exhibition blew my mind. Jeff Koons chose a Polish-Italian porn star as a muse, fell in love with her and married her, she somehow became a member of parliament (only in Italy) and he shocked the world with their sexually explicit “art” (basically pornographic photography) but otherwise most of his work is fun, fabulous, playful, ironic, over the top and, in short, like nothing I’ve ever seen. I loved the experience.

Something to note is that The Met is moving most of its modern art collection to The Whitney and The Whitney is moving from the Upper East Side to new premises near the start of the High-Line in the Meatpacking District. As a result, there is currently hardly any modern art available to view at The Met (it’s all in the process of being packed etc) but then there is always the Guggenheim and MOMA which I am gutted I didn’t get to see.

9. Flats Are the New Black

My sister told me that flats are totally acceptable in lieu of high heels in NY and I must say I did notice a definite trend. Heels still seem to be the footwear of choice amongst girls fresh off the boat, lining up for the night club on the top floor of The Standard, but otherwise, I did feel kinda last season in my heels – tragic, as I only bust them out for really special occasions.

10. Top of the Standard

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View from the Top of the Standard

Undoubtedly, the most beautiful bar in the whole wide world. The almost 360 degree views of the city are just spectacular. Even the sexy little dolly bird waitresses in their silk mini dresses whom you just expect to be bitches are SUPER nice (and actually really fast and efficient). And then the foie gras mini burgers with truffle oil are possibly the most delicious of any food I have ever tasted. And thanks to the new fashion, you can even go in flats…

Finally, some quintessential NY pics:

My sister, hailing us a cab on the Lower East Side
My sister, hailing us a cab on the Lower East Side
An exhausted tourist catches a nap while waiting for his table at The Boathouse, Central Park
An exhausted tourist catches a nap while waiting for his table at The Boathouse, Central Park
Running over the Williamsburg bridge from the Lower East Side into Brooklyn
Running over the Williamsburg bridge from the Lower East Side into Brooklyn
At a food stall at a vintage market in Brooklyn
At a food stall at a vintage market in Brooklyn
Manhattan & the Empire State Building from Brooklyn
Manhattan & the Empire State Building from Brooklyn

#IronmanLakePlacid #firstworldproblems

David did his first ultra triathlon at Buffelspoort in March this year. A few weeks later he was itching for more and took a leap of faith by signing up for the half Ironman in St Croix in the US Virgin Islands. British Airways lost his bike (fortunately it arrived the night before the race) but he had the most incredible experience and loved the race. The bug had bitten and in early May we tucked the kids in and scoured the Ironman website in search of potential races. I was definitely going to New York at some point for sister bonding time and he was going wherever he could swim, bike, run. It meant we’d be apart alot so when he saw that there was a full Ironman in New York State, instead of being terrified, he was bursting with excitement. (Yes, people regularly tell him he’s mad and I totally concur).

When we told my parents-in-law of David’s plan to sign up for a full Ironman so that we could combine our travel objectives as a couple, his Dad stated the obvious: why didn’t David just come to New York with me for a holiday? David’s response: “How long have you known me, Dad?”

Understandably, excitement did give way to outright panic within 24 hours but by then David had purchased his charity ticket with the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation to enter the race (the only remaining option, ten weeks before the race) and there was no going back. We were going to New York, baby! There was just this small matter of a 3.8km swim, 180km cycle, followed by a marathon (42.2km).

Rather him, than me, was all I kept thinking…

Fast forward to race day in Lake Placid on Sunday 27 July. We were up at 4:15am and walking to Mirror Lake in the heart of the town by 5am. When I asked David how he was feeling he responded that he’d “gone non-verbal”. I, on the other hand, seemed to have gone “emotional”.  A supporter rode past the other competitors and supporters walking to the start and wished everyone good luck with such exuberance, my eyes started to well up. I saw a man in a wheelchair with the tell-tale blue armband signifying that he was a competitor and I started to drizz. I kissed David goodbye as he made his way amongst the 2,700 competitors to his spot on the lake and I had a lump in my throat. They played the Star Spangled Banner before the gun went off and I found that emotional. And all I could think of was something that has been cropping up in my head alot lately: hashtag firstworldproblems.

A few months ago I saw a Twitter post with a picture of someone, somewhere, in a third world country, standing in front of a grass hut with the hashtag “first world problems”. It read something like this: “My house is so big, I need two modems to access wi-fi all over #firstworldproblems”. I think this hit home because most days I am seriously annoyed that the wi-fi coverage is not expansive enough for my needs. And here I was, on a luxury vacation in America, crying my eyes out because people with $15,000 tri bikes may or may not finish a crazy race called the Ironman? #firstworldproblems, I kept telling myself.

I pulled myself together, found my sister and her boyfriend who’d driven up from New York City for the weekend, and we watched the swimmers head off on their first lap. We managed to spot David amongst the crowd coming out of the water to start his second lap. By this time, the weather predictions had come true and it had started to rain fairly heavily. I saw a supporter with a badge which read “F*ck Cancer!”. That set me off. A little later I was standing in the rain watching competitors coming out of the water, having finished their swim. From Mirror Lake, they had to run about 400m to get to the transition area to climb onto their bikes. That was when I saw a man carrying the paraplegic competitor in his arms and sprinting, in the pouring rain, to the transition area. He was running like his life depended on it.

By now I was bawling my eyes out.

The rain started during the swim
The rain started during the swim

When I was standing at the finish line, expecting David any minute, the MC introduced a finisher and told the crowds she’d had a double mastectomy in 2011. Now she was – as the MC was calling the finishers – “an Ironman”. (Needless to say, that had me blubbing again).

Of the 2,700 competitors (a handful of whom were professionals) I saw many people with incredible, athletic physiques. I tend to categorize those people as different to me – naturally very talented at sport – and then it makes sense to me why they can compete in a full Ironman. But it seemed that for every super athletic looking person, there was a very “normal”, non-athletic looking competitor getting out of their wetsuit, grinding uphill on their bikes, jogging past me in their running shoes. Sure, they had strong, muscular quads, but many were overweight. Not obese, but honestly, quite chubby. I don’t say this as a criticism at all. To me, this proved that I was ultimately witnessing a testament to the power of the mind. For some, finishing the race was the equivalent of screaming “F*ck cancer!”. For some, it was a tribute to someone they had lost to cancer (or perhaps in other ways). Some may have been competing to overcome a “firstworldproblem”. And some may have simply competed for the personal challenge.

Regardless, it was inspiring – and very, very emotional – to watch.

Here is the story of David’s amazing achievement in pictures. He came 405th out of 2,772 athletes who started the race. Hashtag determination (and talent), my love. Well done!

Mirror Lake - site of the swim
Mirror Lake – site of the swim

 

My Ironman on his time trial bike. By then the rain had stopped.
My Ironman on his time trial bike. By then the rain had stopped.
David's support team: Justin, together with Sylvia in her MMRF charity t-shirt
David’s support team: Justin, together with Sylvia in her MMRF charity t-shirt
IMG_5874
David, coming out transition after the 180km cycle, about to embark on a marathon
IMG_5889
You are an Ironman now!

 

Do Cry for Me, New York City

Yesterday, I spent several hours fantasising about being a high-powered career woman. The fantasy was brought on by Chiara’s incessant crying, moaning, general ill-discipline and toddler delinquency. In my fantasy, I would be wearing a pair of Kurt Geiger black patent leather stilettos – exactly like a magnificent pair I used to own before losing them at an office party where I’d removed them to dance, before waking up the next morning having no recollection of how I got home and finding myself sans cell phone and sans my beautiful shoes. Still, I don’t think the headache I had that morning rivalled the headache brought on by my unplayable toddler. Not even close.

Anyway, back to my fantasy in which one of my greatest dilemmas would be how I would make it across our company’s skywalk to get to a meeting and back in said stilettos which were not built for long distance… Another dilemma would be whether I’d make it to my Step class on time and which dinner invitation I’d accept for later that evening. Of course there’d be other dilemmas like deadlines, deliverables and office politics but this week, that all seemed a whole lot more appealing than a screaming toddler.

Besides my screaming child, the other reason I found myself in another world in my head over the last few days, was because I was quite literally supposed to physically be in another part of the world – in New York City, to be precise. I was supposed to be blogging on Bleecker Street, running in Central Park, sipping cocktails at The Standard, brunching in Brooklyn, shopping at Lulu Lemon, strolling around the Met and watching James Franco on Broadway. That was the plan. I would be a footloose and fancy-free 35 year old getting a tiny taste of my younger sister’s glamorous life in New York. But fate had other ideas.

On Sunday morning, David was man-down with what we thought was a stomach bug. By the evening, the nausea was so severe that I took him to the Emergency Room at Morningside. We were in a curtained cubicle for several hours while he was pricked, jabbed, tested and questioned. Separated by only a curtain from the bed next door, we couldn’t help hearing that patient’s violent vomiting every few minutes, nor could we help overhearing her explain her medical history to the doctor. She’d had a gastric by-pass and a history of stomach ulcers. I don’t know whether the by-pass made her prone to ulcers but what I do know is that I wouldn’t wish the pain and suffering she was experiencing on my worst enemy. Not even to be eternally thin. It was traumatising just to hear her.

By the next day, David appeared to be recovering but Chiara had been coughing her lungs out all weekend, had woken up at midnight complaining of a sore ear and needed to see a doctor. The doctor diagnosed an ear and throat infection and put her on antibiotics. By Monday night, Joe was coughing his head off too. When he finally settled, I went back to my bedroom where David was in agony with stomach cramps. Our GP arrived at 11:30pm and by midnight I was in my car to find the 24 hour pharmacy at Olivedale Hospital. Imagine my horror when I was greeted by a sign at the entrance which explained that, on 31 March 2014 (that very night), the pharmacy would be closed for stock-take until approximately 1am. (Fortunately, they re-opened promptly at 1am and I was back home with much-needed painkillers by 1:30am.)

The next day – the day I was due to jet off to New York – Chiara stayed home from school with her persistent cough, I took Joe to the doctor and we waited to hear whether the gastroenterologist could perform an urgent gastroscopy on David. A couple of hours later my mother-in-law – who had gamely taken Chiara to Pappachinos followed by a trip to Sandton City, replete with pizza, ice-cream and any number of treats – phoned to say that Chiara was inconsolable and wouldn’t stop crying for mommy. So I went to fetch her and brought her back to the hospital where she played on her I-pad while I proceeded to pass out on David’s hospital bed. Apparently the head nurse was not amused.

Fortunately, David’s procedure went well and we were all home that evening. David and Chiara are back at work and back at school but poor Joe has thrown up three times in the last twelve hours, including once at 5am this morning when I was trying to tuck him into bed with me to convince him to go back to sleep. So much for that. I’m heading back to the doctor with him at lunch-time.

Chiara’s mood has improved and my fantasies of tripping down corporate corridors have become less intense… although my book club recommended Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” which, I have to say, is pretty inspiring. She’s obviously an exceptional case but she provides some study-based evidence about women who have families and careers, indicating greater levels of satisfaction within this demographic. Food for thought while I sign off this blog post and attempt to tackle the topic of the first derivative and differentiation for my Maths worksheet for Monday.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy weekend.

Natalie xx

 

 

 

Le Cr*p d’Antibes

The Princess and I had the most wonderful time with my cousin and her family outside Zurich while The Husband completed The Haute Route from Geneva to Nice.

The three of us were then re-united in Nice and made our way to Antibes for our non-cycling family holiday. We’d scoped out the area in June 2010 when we’d spent a few nights in Juan-les-Pins, just next door to Antibes. Before that trip, I knew of Juan-les-Pins only as the glamorous destination of the woman being addressed in the 1969 song “Where Do You Go To My Lovely?” by Peter Sarstedt. In the song, Juan-les-Pins is on a par with St Moritz in terms of fashionable locations frequented by the jet set. Although I am really fond of Juan-Les-Pins, in some ways it kind of feels as though it is past its prime. I suspect that today’s uber jet set, have migrated just a few kilometres onto the peninsula of Cap d’Antibes, which has mini cliff faces instead of beaches, like its neighbours on either side of the peninsula: Juan-les-Pins and Antibes. But I suspect that like Cap d’Antibes’ most famous resident, Roman Abramovich, many of the residents are not too concerned about beach access given that they have their own yachts…

We chose a hotel with a small beach located near the centre of Antibes, bordering the gorgeous Old Town of Antibes on the one side and Cap d’Antibes on the other. For my morning run, I would run alongside the ocean through Cap d’Antibes and back. My first run must have been on rubbish collection morning, because I ran past a household which had evidently run out of dustbin bags. So as not to miss collection day, their trash had been elegantly placed in an assortment of different sized Chanel shopping bags.

Such is life in Cap d’Antbes…

View from Cap d’Antibes across towards Antibes

In neighbouring Antibes, we spent our days on sun loungers on the beach. Well, to be exact, we paid our 20 euros for our sun loungers, threw our towels on them and then spent most of our time running after The Princess. Although there were those cherished mid-morning moments when The Princess would pass out in her pram for her daily nap and we’d be able to get in some reading…

Mid-morning siesta on the beach

And then she’d wake up and we’d have to mediate the fight over beach toys between Italian, Russian, British and Dutch children and The Princess, who sees no reason to share whatsoever. The Queen of our little beach was undoubtedly a feisty little 21 month old Italian girl named Flaminia. Brown as a berry, she’d strut around in her little bikini bottoms like she owned the place and in a way she kind of did. She and her parents had booked front row sun-loungers in advance and Flaminia had the coolest toys. One morning she arrived with a pink, plastic cart on wheels… I could just smell disaster… The Princess LOVES anything on wheels that she can push or drag. Sure enough, a fight ensued, during which Flaminia’s parents insisted that she share her cart with The Princess. Flaminia was not amused and let the whole beach know it. Can’t really blame her – it was a very cool cart. Around lunch-time, Flaminina and her parents would say goodbye and then her parents would return, sans Flaminia, for a leisurely afternoon of reading and sun-bathing. The Husband and I daydreamed about how they achieved this. My money was on an Italian mamma stashed away in their holiday apartment, whilst The Husband was betting on a nanny. When never did find out whether either or these theories bore any resemblance to reality…

In the evenings, we’d retire to our room to put The Princess to bed and settle in with room service and a bottle of French wine. And so, when The Husband decided that he’d treat us to lunch at Eden Roc (an uber fancy hotel in Cap d’Antibes frequented by the jet set) I decided to bust out my best frock and my gold sandals, since this was going to be my only chance. (Okay, I had worn the dress to dinner in Geneva, but since we ate dinner at 6pm with The Princess, we were literally the only people in the restaurant at the time, so that didn’t count.) The thing I didn’t bank on was that everyone else at Eden Roc had either floated away from the pool for a spot of lunch or they’d stepped off their yachts. Literally. I mean they’d stepped off their yachts into a little Eden Roc boatie thingie and been deposited on the hotel’s jetty just below the poolside restaurant. So pretty much all the other diners were in their bathing suits with matching cover-ups (those sheer, long-sleeved tunic/ kaftan things that go over swimsuits). A few girls upped the game when they paired their bathing suit ensembles with high heels. Suddenly my gold flats from Woolies weren’t looking quite as out of place. Phew.

View from Eden Roc’s poolside restaurant

Our last beach day in Antibes was unfortunately tainted by a sea water warning. The life-guard on our hotel’s beach was quietly going up to anyone entering the water and telling them that the sea was uncharacteristically dirty on that particular day and that he strongly advised against swimming. When I enquired as to what may have caused this, he ventured that a boat must have “let go something” (direct translation from the French). Reading between the lines – and looking at the white, chalky particles we could sea floating in the Mediterranean – The Husband and I deduced that one of the luxury yachts we could see from the shore, must have dumped their cr*p into the water – quite literally. After The Princess somehow picked up salmonella and ecoli in the Seychelles with its pristine beaches and sea water, I decided that our beach holiday needed to end a few hours early and we retired to our air conditioned room.

I guess even the likes of those who wear high heels with their bathing suits, still have to cr*p…

On Cupcakes & Frozen Custard in New York

As friends and regular readers of this blog well know, I am fascinated by diets, weight, food, fat etc. So basically, I’m a girl 🙂 In all seriousness, I know thin girls, fat girls, slightly overweight girls, super skinny girls and obese girls and no matter our size, most of us obsess over our weight and/ or food in some form or another. I may be on the slightly more obsessive end of the scale, (if you’ll excuse the pun), but I’ve come to realise, over the years, that I’m a lot more normal than I used to think, in this respect. And so, it should come as no surprise that when I travel, I can’t help taking note of the food/fat phenomenon amongst other cultures (for example, on the ski slopes of Austria in 2010). My trip to New York at the end of May was no exception.

My main observation was: THERE ARE NO FAT PEOPLE IN NEW YORK! I looked and looked and searched and searched – purely out of curiosity –  and I honestly couldn’t find any. I’m sure they must exist somewhere, in some part of the city…(and no, I did not leave Manhattan) … but they weren’t making themselves evident during my three day visit there.

As a case in point, The Sister and I stood in a 45 minute queue at The Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, trying to buy one of their famous burgers.

Home of delicious burgers in Madison Square Park, New York

The kind folks from The Shake Shack have a method designed to a) keep their long-suffering queuing customers in good humour in 30 degree New York heat and b) entice you with their yummy, junk food. What they do is they hand out free nibblies. The Sister and I got handed a tiny, teeny pot of something that resembled ice cream. For all my food weaknesses, I can usually say “no” to ice cream, but it had been a long wait and I decided that one little bite wouldn’t hurt. The waitress handed it to me and declared it to be “frozen custard”. Now, I have tasted custard, I’ve tasted yoghurt, I’ve tasted frozen yoghurt and I’ve tasted ice cream and I’d like to declare that the American innovation   known as “frozen custard” is un- frigging – believable!

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed in awe. “This is amazing!”

“What’s the difference between ice cream and frozen custard?” I asked The Sister (given that they look so similar).

Before she had a chance to answer, I heard a Southern drawl from the person next in line. She spoke as though she truly, in her heart of hearts, understood my excitement at my first taste of frozen custard and she explained the difference with a dreamy look in her eyes. I don’t remember the details, but I do recall her looking at me sadly and explaining that one of the key differences was that frozen custard had more fat in it, than ordinary ice cream. I believed her – frozen custard definitely tastes way too good to be true. The point is, this very sweet, very friendly Southern gal was the only person I saw who actually looked like someone who would know the difference between ice cream and frozen custard in the whole of Manhattan.

Instead of queuing for burgers at The Shake Shack, I saw New Yorkers with bodies to die for doing the following:

… sunning themselves in Madison Square Park, right next door to The Shake Shack

I mean, why wouldn’t you lie around in your bikini in the middle of the city if you look like a million bucks in your teeny weeny bikini?

… doing yoga in Central Park

…and running and cycling in Central Park and all around the city. Before I left for New York, I asked The Husband what he thought I should not miss out on, given that I had only three days there. Being the sports obsessed psycho that he is, on the top of his “to do” list was: a run in Central Park. And so, on my second day in The Big Apple, The Sister and I got dressed in our running kit, caught the subway to the Upper East Side and set off on a 5km run in Central Park.

Entering the famous Central Park for the first time…

It was a Sunday morning, overcast but not cold, so yes, it was a perfect day for some cardio but I have to say that never, ever have I seen so many people being so active in one area at one time. I kept on wondering whether we weren’t perhaps running “against the traffic” – we just passed jogger after runner after cyclist after walker after runner after sprinter after roller blader. The throng of exercise freaks seemed absolutely endless. Then, the next day, we took a stroll along the river, heading towards Wall Street and the Financial District. That morning was absolutely sweltering and yet, once again, we passed a constant throng of people running, cycling and playing tennis. Watching all of this was so exhausting that we were forced to stop for breakfast. This is what a place called Bubby’s in Tribeca ordinarily serves one person:

Breakfast for one, at Bubby’s, New York

The sight of all these ripped people (and the sight of our neighbour’s gigantic portion and the organic/ grain-fed/fair trade/ local farm-around-the-block price tag of $22 per portion) led us to share one between two…

Besides endless amounts of cardio, the other potential secret to New Yorkers have for limiting calorie intake is the institution of “brunch” over the weekend. On my first day, The Sister made “brunch” reservations for us – at 12:45pm. As far as I’m concerned that’s almost a late lunch, but as I would learn in the coming days, “brunch” in New York is basically any daytime meal eaten over the weekend. And you can’t eat two brunches in one day, can you? So, with a mere change in terminology, you have wiped out one of your three meals for the day. Pretty neat, huh?

Still, the extent to which New Yorkers are in shape is completely at odds with the extent of tempting yummies on EVERY street corner. Red velvet cupcakes, cheesecake, giant chocolate chip cookies… delish tasting calories are simply ever present in this town. And someone has to be consuming this stuff, or else the gazillion bakeries simply wouldn’t survive. The only possible explanation is that there are just SO many people that when you divide the calories up between everyone who can only but indulge from time to time, that leaves you with an insufficient number of calories for a red velvet cupcake boep… that’s my theory anyway.

Because cupcakes truly are the epitome of evil. I found this out when I picked up a stash of American magazines at the airport. According to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, the state of Massachusetts had attempted to “ban school bake sales of non-nutritious foods”:

Long live the Great American Cupcake!

While people with mouths rejoiced in Massachusetts, The Sister and made like her fellow New Yorkers and brunched on brown rice sushi at Dean & Deluca after our run in Central Park. We couldn’t quite face the soy milk cappuccinos, though.

Maybe next time…

“Brunch” at Dean & Deluca

 

 

 

Velcome to America: My Bizarre Encounter With Immigration Official, Azov

As I think I’ve mentioned before, The Sister moved to New York in January of this year and I thought it a perfect excuse to spend a long weekend in a city I had only dreamed about, read about in books, or seen in movies, prior to last month.

I could have sucked The Husband’s frequent flyer miles dry and flown there on Business Class via London, but that would have wasted precious time away from my child which could have been spent shopping in New York. And so we scraped together our SAA Voyager Miles and I hopped on the 17 hour haul from Joburg to JFK in cattle class. The last time I had 17 straight hours ALL TO MYSELF to do WHATEVER I WANTED where I ONLY had to think about YOURS TRULY was in March 2011, before The Princess was born. So, yes, I was excited at the prospect of the flight!

And it turned out to be great: I read a book, I slept and slept and slept (no sleep aids or special pillows required), I wrote, I chilled. I didn’t even turn on the TV. Basically, I had a ball.

17 hours later, we touched down at JFK and I made my way to the immigration queue. I still had my ESTA visa waiver on my British passport from a trip two years earlier and so I handed this, together with my UK passport, to the immigration official. That was when one of the most bizarre interactions I have ever experienced, occurred with Azov, the immigration official.

AZOV: (Inspecting British passport). You live in England? (Raising furry one-brow).

NATALIE: Er, no. I live in Johannesburg.

I interpret a slight pause which I may be unfairly attributing to a prejudicial perception of Azov’s lack of knowledge of the globe.

NATALIE: In South Africa.

AZOV: Souss Africa! Humph.

Another pause. I figure it’s best to let the person with all the power do the talking – after all, he holds my girls’ weekend in New York in the palm of his hands – unless he asks me a direct question.

AZOV: Why you live in Souss Africa?

And here we have the direct question. Play it safe, here, Natalie. Just stick to the basics. Who gives a continental what an immigration official thinks of where you live?

NATALIE: Um… I was born in South Africa and most of my family is in South Africa.

AZOV: But why you not live in England?

NATALIE: Well, because South Africa is my home and (putting on fake smile and trying not to grit teeth) I like it there.

Another pregnant pause with Azov still staring at me intently and raising his furry one-brow.

Against my better judgement, I find myself growing annoyed and I give some more reasons to defend my choice to live in the country I was born in:

NATALIE: And because it’s exciting and there’s alot of opportunity.

AZOV: But you no like London?

NATALIE: (Deep, deep breath. Muchos patience required with this man). No….. I didn’t say that. I like London very much.

Azov looks confused and possibly even suspicious.

AZOV: I no like Africa.

NATALIE: To each his own, I guess.

This idiomatic expression appears to be completely lost on Azov, but he is undeterred.

AZOV: I travel to 30 countries, but I no like Africa.

Really? You don’t say? Tell someone who cares, dude!

During this lengthy interaction, he has intermittently been tapping a few things into his computer and now asks to take my fingerprints. I follow his orders, of course and there is the blessed sound of silence for a short while.

But I should have known by now that Azov was not the silent type…

AZOV: You say there are opportunities in Souss Africa… What you do?

Ha! Sneaky one! I honestly hadn’t seen this coming. You insult third world countries, get their economically active inhabitants travelling to America to bring up the topic of economic opportunity and then it’s only natural to enquire as to the nature of those opportunities… All of sudden, Azov no longer seems as idiotic as he’s been sounding.

I tell him that I have a small, part-time business but I realise that this is the one time I really need to play up the dreaded “Housewife” title. After asking what The Husband does, he drops the occupation topic and reverts to his favourite subject:

AZOV: So you stay three days in New York and you go back to Africa after?

NATALIE: That’s right.…(Unable to resist): As part of your 30 country experience, did you ever travel to Africa?

AZOV: No, but I no like to go. Except where big mountain is. Where that?

NATALIE: You mean Kilimanjaro in Kenya and Tanzania?

AZOV: Humph. Maybe. I see. Maybe one day.

Don’t do us Africans any favours, Azov!

AZOV: Okay! (handing me my passport). Have good time in New York!

And zat, dear readers, vas my velcome to America. A true story, believe it or not.

The End of our French Adventure

The Husband’s sojourn in France ended on a high note.
Even though he doesn’t exactly have a mop of hair to manage, he can’t go more than a week without getting a haircut. Our two weeks in France were no exception. And so, on our second last day (miraculously, a non-cycling day), we took a walk into the village of Fayence in search of a “coiffeur hommes”. This coiffeur hommes was not manned by an 80-something year old Frenchman with a pair of shearers and a shaving bowl. Instead, we were greeted by an attractive 40-something Frenchwoman with some sort of modern hair-cutting machine that The Husband approved of. The hairdresser couldn’t have been friendlier and The Husband even tried to practise his French on her but the real clincher was when she paused, looked at him in the mirror and said, “You know, you look a bit like Bruce Willis.”
Well, The Husband was in seventh heaven. The hot French hairdresser had made his day.
Buoyed up by his new-found mean man looks, his confidence in practising his French that evening was up too. He decided to practise a sentence on the waiter at our favourite Fayence restaurant. We were thinking of ordering the crayfish risotto and wanted to know whether the crayfish was served in its shell. I wasn’t entirely sure how to say this in French so I translated it literally from the English: “is the crayfish still in its shell?” It didn’t sound entirely right but I was at a loss as to how to phrase it any other way and so I taught The Husband this literal sentence in French. He, very bravely posed our question to the waiter. But the waiter beautifully finished his sentence because, you see, in French there is a wonderful word which means “out of its shell”. “Decortique”. Isn’t that just so neat and beautiful? Sigh… French is such a beautiful language.
After our last dinner under the stars on the terrace of our villa, we retired for our last night in France, before waking up the next morning to a 24 hour journey back to SA. We had to check out of the rented house by 10 in the morning, even though our flight from Nice was only at 4pm. When I say “our” flight, I mean myself, The Princess and her nanny, Charity. The Husband had found out a few weeks ago that he had to fly straight to London for work. I was terrified and decided I had nothing to lose by asking the French granny at the check-in desk whether there was any chance Charity could be up-graded to business class? Pretty please, with a swish of creme fraiche on top? Of course, there was not a frigging chance of that and so The Princess and I were going to be all alone sans daddy and sans nanny on the long haul flight from Paris to Jozi. Oi.
We had a six hour layover in Paris where The Princess fell asleep once only on Charity’s shoulder, lulled into slumber by the soothing music in Sephora. She promptly woke up 20 minutes later and was as wired as anything for the rest of the night which is precisely what I had been afraid of. Our flight was only leaving at 23:20 and I figured by then she’d be hysterical if she hadn’t slept. I was praying I’d have no-one next to me in the two-seater configuration but it was not to be. The flight was jam packed. Luckily, the guy next to me was a father of two kids under the age of five and was the most chilled neighbour you could wish for. A Brazilian engineer living in Maputo and building a mine somewhere in Mozambique, he kept on telling me that everything I apologised for was “no problem, no problem” in his thick Portuguese accent. And when I think back to my tolerance for babies on planes, I should be ashamed of myself. A tiny peep out of any kid on an aircraft in my former life and I would’ve shot the “pathetic” parent the blackest look ever… How the tables turn.
Fortunately, The Princess reserved her two hysterical screaming fits to nappy changing time in the bathroom. The first time, the well-meaning stewardess who was holding her while I mixed her bottle, told me she thought she’d heard some butt thunder. There was nothing but pee but The Princess was still outraged at being dragged into that tiny bathroom and placed under those bright lights and boy did she let me know it.
The next morning, just before breakfast we really did have a Code Brown on board. Of course, it would be one of those Code Browns that had smudged all the way up The Princess’ back and soiled her vest, so we had to do a full clothes removal and re-application. NOT a happy princess.
That aside, though, she really behaved well. I was too terrified to “abandon” her in her little bassinet as I was certain that would produce screaming, so she simply slept in various positions on my chest all night and I think the two of us actually got a fair amount of sleep. She must’ve sensed her mommy was panicked and that she needed to behave.
When we finally got our bags and met our transfer company, the idiots hadn’t sent a safe baby seat for The Princess, so we were off on our next adventure: The Princess’ first train journey aboard the Gautrain. The Princess is strictly a one-poo-a-day girl but on very, very special occasions she has been known to poo twice a day. Today was one of those occasions. With ten minutes to spare until the departure of the Gautrain, we had our second Code Brown on board. It was too bad, though. There was no time for a nappy change. We had a train to catch. And so it was that The Princess, Charity and I, boarded the Gautrain with a monumental whiff wafting about us, for the final leg of our two week adventure.
Twenty minutes later, we were home AT LAST. And what fine weather we have come home to! Summer is upon us. The Princess and I celebrated by taking a stroll to Tasha’s in all our summer finery. Long may it last!