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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.).
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.)
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
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).
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.
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:
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…
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.
(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:
4. Shop till you drop
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
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
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
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…
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.
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!
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.