Café Mischu in Sea Point

cafe mischu sign

It’s harder than you might think, living in this cool city, coming up with cool places to go for coffee which you’ll also want to blog about, so when my friend, Craig, suggested Mischu in Sea Point, I thought, hurrah, yes. Mischu is opposite the Spar, and the reason he likes going there – other than the great coffee – is that he says it’s funny watching women have conversations when their faces don’t move. And while on the day we were there I didn’t spot any of those and I really liked the way they’ve done it up and it’s the kind of place you can definitely hang out with your Americano and watch the world go by, it got me thinking about this whole botox thing and why I have such a problem with it.

And it’s not because I’m not vain or don’t care about getting old and ugly. I care about it much, and I spend ages in the mirror worrying that my teeth aren’t white enough and that my sun spots will eventually take over my entire face and I’ll look like an alien and I hate when I gain weight and my clothes cling. And in the interests of vanity I bleach said teeth and I eat salad when I want pasta and wear BB cream every single day while pretending I’m au natural, but there is just something about the botox thing that makes my toes curl.

It’s like I have these two opposing forces where the one is super invested in looking good at any cost, while the other – I guess you can call her my inner dyke, though I suspect that’s deeply offensive – says ‘fuck that for a lark. I’m a woman, not a girl. I’m amazing just as I am, and I don’t have to buy into that twisted conception of what female adults are supposed to look like. I don’t have to be skinny and hairless to be accepted, and I certainly don’t have to look like I’m 25 in order to have value in this world.’

And while I’m incredibly fond of the vacuous, shallow version of myself and have the bags and shoes to prove it, it’s the other voice that I pay attention to because she feels closer to the real me. Because I am more than the sum of my parts, and I can hold my own intellectually and in spaces that would have scared the daylights out of me when I was in my twenties. I might have had fewer crow’s feet, but I was also rather dof and uninteresting by virtue of not having done very much. Your average 20-year-old has a lot of living to do before they make interesting dinner companions and, honestly, I value having seen some things in my life and having an opinion very much more than I do looking perfect in the mirror.

And fuck knows, when you get to 40 you’ve seen some things. I’ve had my heart smashed more times than I care to count; I’ve given birth twice without so much as an aspirin to help a girl through (what was I thinking, right?); I’ve held sick, feverish babies through the night and got up at the same time the next morning to do the other things that needed to be done. I’ve made a life for myself in a far away, cold country and endured the relentless heartache of being away from my home and my tribe. I’ve written things that have made people laugh out loud, and things that have made people so furious they wanted to lynch me on the spot. I’ve made good choices and terrible choices, and I’m not more special than anyone else, I’m just alive in the world, as we all are, and getting on with this journey I’ve picked out for myself.

And to deny my face the lessons I’ve learned – to pay somebody money to inject poison into my head so that when I’m really, really happy or really, really sad you’d never know – feels like the biggest travesty. Worse, it feels like betrayal to myself, because I have earned these lines, every single one. These lines are living. These lines are what I have lived and the things I have seen and done. They are drinking wine late into the night and talking with my husband about what matters. They are shouting in rage when he doesn’t get a thing about me and I can’t believe how hard it is being married. They are the terror that he won’t get off the plane and I’ll lose the love of my life because he is the coolest human being I have ever known, and they are shrieking with laughter when my maddest friend picks up her phone and talks in the same funny voice that used to have me sent outside the classroom in Std 7 for my uncontrollable hysteria.

They are worrying that my children are safe; sadness that my dad doesn’t feel good about his life; hoping my mom gets home safely when she works late at night. They are consoling our daughters when their daddy goes overseas every month for work, the angst that I might have offended a friend and the secret 3am fear that I’ll never write that book. Maybe it isn’t as ‘beautiful’ as the smooth, blank faces you see on younger women, but to me its beauty lies in something else – in its naturalness and its grace and the message it sends to my daughters about what really matters in life. And it’s not whether their mother has a wrinkle-free forehead. It’s not the hope that people look at me and go, ‘wow, she looks great! How does she do it?’ And I never think that, anyway, when I see someone who’s had work. I feel pity and a kind of sadness for what she thinks she has to be to be loved and to feel okay in the world.

And maybe I’ll change my mind in 10 years when the passage of time really starts marching across my face, but honestly I don’t think so. I think that other me will nip that thought right in the bud. Because the kind of beauty that comes of knowing who you are and what you have to offer doesn’t exist at the end of a needle. Anyhow. I think I got off track. Café Mischu does kiff coffee. My wrinkles and I will be back.

The service is warm and friendly, and the coffee is goo-ood.
The service is warm and friendly, and the coffee is goo-ood.
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How the contraceptive pill made me crazier than a rabid iguana

Me, just crazier.
Me, just crazier.

I guess I should have seen it as a warning from the universe when I told one of my best girlfriends that I was going back on the contraceptive pill and she said, wow, that pill makes me insaaaane. And this from a gentle, chilled out little Piscean who is about as not insane as they come. But instead of thinking, ja, insane could be a problem, I confidently assured her – as I myself had been assured – that this new generation of birth control pills is totally different from its predecessors of 20 years ago, and even if the ones from the olden days disagreed with you for whatever reason, these new low-dose numbers were a veritable stroll in the park, hormonally speaking.

So, as I swallowed that first small, pink tablet and sat on the couch waiting to have a thrombosis (the side effect they do remember to warn you about), the idea of going bat crazy was the last thing on my mind. Since they said it took seven days to be effective, I waited, and while waiting I monitored myself and how I was feeling – just in case – and up to day six, everything was pretty hunky dory. But then came day seven. This was also my daughter’s seventh birthday and, since I’m not good on not-enough sleep and as we were having friends arrive to stay that same day and it was going to be busy and hectic I asked her, the night before, to pleeeease try to wait till 6am before she woke us up.

But, she is seven and her birthday is the biggest event of her year, and 6am is a long time to wait when you’re that young, so it was still dark when her and her sister snuck into our rooms and announced that the gift opening was about to begin. Normally I would be a little grumpy but pull myself together, make a strong pot of coffee and get immersed in the excitement of her big day. Instead, I was a thundercloud. Rage doesn’t even describe the blackness of my mood. My family watched in surprise and bewilderment as I thumped about, furiously blowing up balloons, angrily icing the cake, going on a tidying rampage and then crapping on my husband for something he did six weeks ago. And still (duh) I didn’t put two and two together.

It took all the way till the following day, as I sat sobbing in the front seat of the car on the way to my favorite beach in the world on a perfect-weather Sunday morning where we were going to boogie board, play bat and ball and have coffee with Cremora and slap chips for breakfast (I mean, does life get any better?) for me to go, okay, hang on a dang moment – what the fuck is going on here? And then the penny started to drop as I realised I recognized this feeling – this odd, prickly and difficult-to-describe kind of malaise where you feel like you don’t belong in your skin and even though nothing different is going on you are madly on edge as, at a speed that stuns even you, wild anger gives way to tears and sorrow and sadness.

Because this is how I felt for most of my twenties on a triphasic pill which had me, towards the end of the month, wanting to rip my own hair out in chunks. And nobody presented emotional disturbances as even the vaguest possible side effect, so how was I to know it wasn’t just my personality? And I can be mad, don’t get me wrong, but my mad and I go back a long way and we are very well-acquainted. I know what it’s about and what triggers it (thank you, clever therapists), and for the most part – give or take the odd irrational moment (which generally happens when I’m tired and hungry) it doesn’t make itself known very often anymore. And my madness definitely doesn’t involve indiscriminate rage and absolutely definitely never ever does it involve depression. I get sad like everyone else, but my sadness is about something. For the most part I’m cheerful and resilient and upbeat.

That person crying in the car on Sunday morning? That was not me at all. And it’s just kind of weird that no-one warns you about this side effect. In fact, I was assured it was all psychological (a friend’s gynae told her her lack of libido since taking the pill was psychological, too. No, it isn’t, stjoepid!) The second I got home from the beach I went online, and I was astonished at the amount of information and stories shared by women who had exactly the same thing happen to them – going from (relatively) normal and together to stark raving lunatics, and the longer they took the pill, the worse their symptoms became. And they all describe it in the same way: they feel like they’re ‘going crazy.’ Then I read about how women on the birth control pill show activity in different areas of their brains to women not on the pill and how, in fact, studies indicate that they make different choices in partners than their non-pill-taking counterparts, foregoing thrill-seeking, adventurous men for quieter, more stable types.

Which tells you that it is, in fact, having an effect on us, and given the complex nature of the endocrine system and how much the pill changes the way women’s bodies work the surprising thing would be if it didn’t do anything weird. And I’m not saying it has this effect on all women or that you should stop taking it if it’s working for you. I have several friends who take the pill very happily and love it. But I also have a handful who won’t touch it with a barge pole for the same reasons as me. I stopped right away, and today is the first day I’m really feeling 100% myself. And I think this potential symptom should be presented as a real possibility and not swept under the rug by medical people who don’t believe it/think it’s exaggerated/haven’t encountered it personally because this type of meltdown, when you’re not prepared for it, is actually really pretty scary and horrible. And life for us chicks is weird enough as it is.

So, if nothing out of the ordinary is going on in your life, but your recent switch to the pill has people removing their children to a safe place when they see you coming you might want to consider that it’s not working that well for you. We’re all different, and some of us are more sensitive to hormonal changes than others. That’s just the way it is. You know your body – listen to it. If it’s not good, stop and find another way. The convenience just isn’t worth it.

Dance – you’re Afrikaans!

Johannes Jacobus Botha as a young man of 26.
My grandpa, Jan Jacobus Botha, as a young man of 26.

I think the two most surprising things I experienced travelling and living ‘overseas’ was that everything was not, in fact, cooler/better/more fabulous than it was in SA (we Saffers suffer from a terrible inferiority complex in that regard), but also how deeply, madly and uncompromisingly South African I became. Before I left the country I had a tenuous, undefined and vaguely apologetic sense of my own heritage. But – and I guess this is identity politics 101 – put me amongst a clan of white-blonde, herring-marinating, super-stylish Scandinavians, and I was one step away from wearing a lion skin to the Vårdcentral and throwing bones for people as my party trick. Since I didn’t own a lion skin, what I did instead was join a South African book group and learn to bake rusks and source a boerewors maker in Copenhagen and phone my mom just to weep when I heard Alicia say, ‘molo, Sisi! Kunjani?’

And the other thing I did, after not doing this thing for many years, was start to speak Afrikaans. Afrikaans – the language of my country, of my childhood, of my history with its uncompromising ‘r’s and it’s guttural ‘g’s that sound like they come from inside the earth, itself. Its verkleiningsvorm that adds ‘tjie’ to small things so that they shrink before your very ears, and its words which are so unique and descriptive that they refuse to be moulded into the clipped, uptight and inflexible rigours of English. Nothing is as crawly as a ‘gogga’; nothing says you’ve hurt yourself like ‘eina!’, and that’s not even touching on the assortment of swear words and abuses which are so colourful they verge on psychedelic.

And, of course, the more ‘Kaaps’ you get, the more evocative and descriptive Afrikaans becomes. And it’s a shame it got associated with all that bad stuff. That a language so vibrant and defiant and home-grown became branded and white-washed and sterilized so that it served the purposes of a few power-hungry old men who loved this country but not its people, and, in the way language constructs reality, was used as a very effective tool of oppression. Which, given its origins – a ‘secret’ language developed by slaves so that they wouldn’t be understood by their tyrannical masters, and also a rebellion against speaking the language of their oppressors – is deeply ironic. Another thing I only discovered recently is that ‘kombuis’ in Dutch signifies a ship’s galley. Which implies that it might not be ‘kitchen Dutch’ as we have always understood, but ‘ship galley Dutch’, which carries its own insidious connotations. And its hybrid of Dutch, Portuguese, Khoi and Malay (with some Xhosa and Zulu influence along the way) makes it magnificently unique and special as languages go.

And while I wasn’t nearly conscious enough at school to understand that Afrikaans was a tool of apartheid, the overt preference the Afrikaans kids got in my dual-medium Somerset West school was enough to distance me from it and all it represented. We English-speaking kids were largely regarded as wayward and traitorous and, despite being as South African as they come, in this country of divisions and apartness, our affiliations were somehow believed to be British. Because Afrikaans was not our home language, we were not ‘true’ South Africans, and I have vivid memories of teachers comparing us negatively to the Afrikaans kids, a censure which hurt me at the time, being a diligent, conscientious student who loved my school and was very proud of my good grades.

Because I suppose, even though we were children and clueless, the Anglo-Boer war with its concentration camps and brutal treatment of the Boers was still fresh in a lot of minds. So that when my maternal grandfather, Jan Jacobus Botha, who grew up poor on a farm in the Eastern Cape, went to school barefoot on horseback and spoke Afrikaans and Xhosa but not one word of English, met and fell in love with Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley who spoke no Afrikaans, their families were none too pleased. And when, in a real Romeo and Juliet-style saga they married anyway, his family, who lived literally down the road from their home in East London, would sit on their stoep and refuse to greet my granny when she walked past.

The beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilly.
My beloved granny, the beautiful Emily Norah Elizabeth Dilley, shortly before she married.

Unfortunately, in those days, Afrikaans was – and still is in some quarters – considered a lesser language, and my granny made it a condition of their marriage that their children would be raised English-speaking. So, while both my parents are bilingual, my accent is bad, and I wish the language hadn’t been allowed to slip away over the generations as it has. But, with growing up, I’ve learnt to love it again and appreciate it and consciously embrace it as an integral part of my heritage. In a strange way I feel like my Afrikaans roots bind me to the soil of this country, and legitimize my living here. Because the Afrikaners were, really, South Africa’s white tribe. I wish I’d been older when my grandpa was alive so that I could have asked him questions about his life back then. And I wish I’d been awake enough to tell him not to speak his accented English to me, but to talk to me in his mother tongue, using the words of his own childhood to paint pictures of the world.

Now I rely on my mother’s memory to keep my ancestors alive, while in my own mind I’ve reclaimed the culture for myself. For me, it has nothing to do with those cross men and their brylcreem who didn’t smile one time in their lives and conjured a political system madder than your wildest imaginings. It’s a connection to this corner of Africa; my soul’s dompas, if you will. The blood of those people who fought and suffered to live freely in this country runs through my veins, too. And to the ones who say I don’t belong here, I answer in my best, accented Afrikaans, ‘fok jou! Gaan vlieg in jou ouma se klein kwassie!’ And I defy anyone to translate that.

I think this is one of the most beautiful songs ever written. It’s by the late Koos du Plessis, and it was used in a TV series when I was growing up, but I don’t remember which one.

Beleza on Upper Kloof

Beleza interior Love the retro interior. And the outside-y section is great, too.

This morning’s coffee arrangement with my mom was a little bit different because it was preceded by a meeting at Elisabeth’s school where one of the moms has initiated a project whereby available parents have been asked to provide assisted reading to some kids who come from homes where their caregivers don’t/can’t read and are at risk of falling through the cracks of an education system which isn’t really equipped to provide this type of individual attention. And while I like to think of myself as terribly committed to this country, the shameful truth is that I do zip diddly in terms of offering my time/skills/money to any of the many worthwhile causes around while there are so many people who do so much. It’s a very nice idea, this. It’s just 15 minutes per child per week, directly after drop off and, as was explained, this brief time spent alone with an adult is often the only time these kids will get in the week.

Having grown up in a home where I was read to constantly it’s hard to imagine a childhood without books and words. But that’s the reality for a lot of South African children. And it will cost me nothing and is the absolute least I can do given the amazingness of every part of my life in this country, and it’s horrible that I’ve never done anything like this before, and that I’m only doing it because it’s really easy and I know that it will turn out to be at least as rewarding for me – who has no clue, really, about how some people in this country live. So, we will each have a child allocated to us, and once a week we’ll bring books from home or choose them from the school library and read together and learn the words and talk about the stories. And I should do much, much more than this, but it’s something and it’s a start.

On the way to coffee afterwards, my mom – who is awesome with kids, and has offered her time, too – was already planning little treats to bring along for after their session and that’s a nice idea, too. To give your reading buddy a little sticker or a sucker because – and I know this from my own kids – these small tokens celebrating their achievements mean the absolute world to them. By the time the meeting was over we were both hungry, and I remembered seeing a sign at the bottom of Upper Kloof advertising cheapie breakfasts, so that’s where we headed. Turns out the place we’ve been driving past (across from Rafiki’s at the big set of traffic lights) is called Beleza (http://belezarestaurant.co.za), and it’s awesome and I can’t believe I’ve never been there.

Beleza is a café/restaurant/vintage clothes store, and the interior is stylish and retro and one of those Cape Town spots that you walk into and think, sheesh, this city is cool. Since today is such a magnificent day we decided to sit outside and watch the world go by. After a perfectly tasty bacon and eggs breakfast (for R19, if you please) and very good coffee (they won an award in 2011 for best coffee in town, fyi) we browsed around inside, and while I’m not really a big vintage clothing kind of person, they have some nice stuff – sunglasses, accessories and a pair of funky 60s-style sandals I might have bought were they in my size. It’s one of the few vintage stores I’ve been into where I thought, Oh, I’ll be back. And it’s just quite a delightful concept – gathering your girlfriends for a few drinks and bite to eat, and picking up a cute frock or throw or bracelet while you’re at it. And I’m sure it’s fab in the evening, too. So, I’m excited about next Tuesday where I strongly suspect that, while I might be helping a child to read, the one who will be doing the real learning will be me.

The vintage clothing store. They often have sales - check their website for the next one.
The vintage clothing store. They often have sales – check their website for the next one.
As my friend, Stef, says, there is no reason not to be fabulous.
As my friend, Stef, says, there is no reason not to be fabulous.

The Right to Write

mountain and rainbow

A week or so ago I was invited to join a discussion group because the topic they’d picked out for the evening was my controversial blog, The Trouble with Maids. While every part of me wanted to hide in the cupboard rather than go forth and own my words, I also knew it would be a good (albeit uncomfortable) learning experience to show up and hear what people had to say. It’s by far the most un-PC thing I’ve written, and it’s the one I feel most conflicted about. Because, honestly, while it comes from a heart space of trying to bridge divides and decipher some of the complexity of the relationship between black and white South Africans, I do sound a bit like a whiny, privileged madam and I talk about the fact that she was stealing my perfume and loo paper and sugar without presenting the other side of the story – a big part of it being, of course, that when people are paid decent wages they don’t need to steal sugar.

And it was hard sitting there in the firing line, and afterwards I even wondered whether I should delete the blog entirely because who the hell am I, with my comfortable middle class life, to make judgements about domestic workers who live in shitholes and spend their days eking out a meager existence while the likes of me have cushy jobs and luxury cars and the time, frankly, to write blogs and attend discussion groups. And lately, honestly, I’m feeling like a bit of an arsehole and wondering whether I have the right to these opinions and to write about things like that, or whether I should shut the hell up and be happy for small mercies – like the fact that my house wasn’t torched back in 1994 and that, despite the horrors of apartheid (which we rather like to forget about) we transitioned into a democracy utterly unscathed, if we’re going to be honest with ourselves. Really. Did our lives change in the slightest? Mine didn’t.

As I write this, I can hear the char mopping my kitchen floor. Later I’ll drive my eldest daughter to the beach with the aircon on high and nice Kauai smoothies while we wait the hour-and-a-half before her ballet class. She, on the other hand, will wait in queues to take a series of trains and taxies home while she hopes her children, who travel alone, will make it back in one piece. Extra-murals are out of the question. Then they’ll eat something starchy and filling because that’s what they can afford and go to bed very tired and probably pretty stressed out about how the hell they’re going to get through another month. And this is me speculating – I don’t even know the half of it. A while ago I tried to talk to her about her life, but I was met with the kind of resigned and slightly mistrustful reticence I used to get from Nosipho. She is far too polite to be outwardly hostile, but her eyes said, ‘who are you to ask me this? What do you understand about my world?’ And she is absolutely right. Until I’ve walked in her shoes I’ll never get it.

While it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had, a lot of important issues came up on that discussion night – like, how intimidating we white people can be just by existing. And it’s something I’ve never considered before, but on reflection it’s so true. Sometimes I find myself assuming a familiarity with black strangers (in shops, whatever) that I wouldn’t use with white people. It’s an arrogance and a sense of entitlement our kind has gotten down to a fine art, and one which we aren’t even aware of. We also talked about how we white people (and it was largely white people night that night – usually the group is racially mixed), when faced with something incomprehensible, are afraid of looking stupid and endorsing the us-them divide and not understanding ‘black culture’, so instead of just asking the questions – (why are you late again? Why do you always come to my child’s birthday party without a gift? Why do you take ALL my fruit with you when you leave?), we put it down to an African thing. When it isn’t, actually.

The first thing my char did the other day when she arrived at work was complain about how all the other parents were late for the school meeting. Normally I would have nodded and thought, ‘well, I guess it’s an African thing.’ But, since it had just come up, I took a deep breath and said: ‘but, I always thought it was a bit of an African thing, and that nobody really minded.’ She said, ‘yes, I mind a lot. It’s very inconvenient.’ And it was such a relief being direct with her and getting a straightforward answer instead of surmising and second-guessing and pretending to understand things I don’t.

And the other pretty important thing that came up was the issue of whether we are even entitled to an opinion. For me, I have these opposing views – one is that we white folk need to stop sounding off and let other people speak for once; that, over the years we’ve written the history books, colonized everything we could and made all the rules, and it’s time we stepped back and let other people take the podium; tell their stories; use the voices that have been silenced for so long to present another side to the story of this divided country. And then there’s the part of me that thinks, I didn’t invent apartheid; I was also a victim, in a sense; why should I suffer and be silent for the rest of my days for the stupid mistakes a bunch of horrible, hoary old men made before I was born?

It’s a complicated topic, and I don’t begin to know the answer, but I do think that unless we raise these issues for discussion and listen to what others have to say and how they feel we’re never going to reach any kind of understanding of one another, or of ourselves and why we do and think the things we do. And it’s one thing keeping quiet out of respect for other opinions, and another thing keeping quiet out of inertia and ignorance and an unwillingness to engage with issues that makes us uncomfortable. Because we all like to think of ourselves as basically nice people. But, are we when daily, consciously, we turn a collective blind eye to the gross inequalities which beset this country we live in? Are we really better than those who instituted segregationist politics back in the day when the system is one we still largely accept and support?

Apartheid might not exist in our legislation, but it’s alive and well nonetheless. And while we pretend it isn’t nothing is going to change. And I’m as guilty as anyone. I haven’t made up my mind about the blog yet, but since it sparked a lot of dialogue maybe I should let it be. What I have made my mind up about is that I will attend that discussion group for as long as I am welcome because just by talking I’ve seen how much potential there is for learning, and it’s never too late to challenge yourself and change the way you think. And if you’re going to live in South Africa this stuff is really important.

Summing it up as only Eddie Izzard can :-)

Raddest Plakkies in the Universe

The gold ones for girls, but they come in lots of styles and colours.
The gold ones for girls, but they come in lots of styles and colours.

If we South Africans had a national shoe it would, without contest, be the plakkie (or the slip slop or the flip flop – whichever word you prefer) – they’re cool, comfy, easy-to-wear and when you buy the larny metallic ones you can take them straight from the beach to the bar and still look fabulous. And, to this end, my sweet and gorgeous friend, Mike Cloete, is making plakkies that are, truly, very awesome to wear. And I know because he gave me a pair which I wear ALL THE TIME. Not only are they much (much) cheaper than a certain brand which begins with a ‘huh’, they’re excellent quality, very pretty, and best of all – they’re made in SA.

80% of all Beach Religion footwear is locally produced, which means Mike’s company is creating jobs for a lot of people, developing and utilising local skills, and wouldn’t you know, he’s just sent a consignment of shoes to Italy – land of Prada, Dolce and Gabbana and all manner of fabulous footwear – which means his shoes are bladdy well made. He’s also got a very fun, interactive thing going where you can design your own slip slop before each season, but mostly I just think it’s cool when quality stuff is made down here, and supporting local business helps us all. For info on how to purchase the raddest plakkies in the universe check out http://www.beachreligion.com. (And you don’t want to not be rad).

Mikey and his beautiful boys, Jacques and Dominic.
Mikey and his beautiful boys, Jacques and Dominic.