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Writing gives me great pleasure and the spinoffs are quite good too – there’s a sense of accomplishment when a blog is posted, a sense of satisfaction when someone “out there” likes what you’ve written and a sense of lightness that comes from simply getting stuff off your chest. But I have to be in the right frame of mind to write and I haven’t been, ever since returning home from my trip to America. Even my morning pages have suffered. For many years the first thing I do, as soon as possible after waking, is sharpen a pencil and attempt three A4 pages of stream of consciousness writing. Lately however I’ve taken to staring out of the window instead.

I always struggle to settle back into a routine whenever I’ve been gallivanting on the other side of the world. Returning home after being away for 6 weeks necessitates quite a few mental and physical adjustments on my part. Firstly, there is the jetlag to contend with. “West is best, East is a beast” is certainly true when referring to travelling through a number of time zones. It took a while to stop feeling incessantly hungry and tired and to get my circadian rhythm back in sync. Secondly, there’s the weather to acclimatise to – we left D.C. on a balmy summer’s day and arrived back to a bleak, wintry Midlands. And for the remainder of winter, the cold seemed to seep into my bones and get the better of me. However, the most difficult challenge really was getting my head around the fact that I was no longer on holiday.

Now, some might say that I’m permanently on holiday and although living in the country may appear to be a rather idyllic way of life, it does come with its responsibilities.  While I was away I never gave them a second thought, which was extremely liberating yet, as soon as I set foot on South African soil again, the to-do list started looping through my mind and I had a strong urge to turn around and head stateside again.

To add to my woes, not long after returning home, I picked up an extremely tenacious flu bug that not only took a month and a half to shake off but managed to sap what little energy I had left. With all of this going on, I kind of went into hibernation (feeling sorry for myself) and let the world slip by.

Whilst staring out the window, I had plenty of time to mull over the implications of turning 60 and, I must admit, it did add to my general malaise. I have lived what I consider to be an interesting life. I have few regrets and I truly believe that I’ve made a contribution and paid my dues to my family and society – I’ve worked hard, sacrificed my own interests for those of others and placed a high value on nurturing others (as a teacher, an NGO worker and parent). Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as a Mother Teresa, in fact as much as I’ve worked hard, I’ve played hard too.

However, this concept of paying one’s dues, of making a contribution, of finding meaning through work has been a bit of a problem for me ever since my youngest left home and I experienced the empty nest syndrome big time. I moved to the country to get over it, to find meaning and purpose again; trying, I suppose, in a way to reinvent myself after full-time motherhood. Well I thought I had succeeded until I hit this recent wobbly and the existential doubts started creeping in again, with questions like who am I, what the hell am I doing and why. Brought on no doubt by spending such a wonderful time with my family in America and returning home to pick up where I left off.

I’m forever trying to impose some sort of structure and meaning to my daily life, drawing up timetables that I never stick to or lists of things to do that I ignore. Finally, I was able to see (through the window) that I am constantly trying to convince myself that I have work to do, that I’m so busy doing important stuff that I just can’t keep up with it all when in reality I am redundant and have been ever since Alex left home; in reality I do charity work, have hobbies, garden, play bridge, cook and clean. Like Tom Wilkinson’s character in The Full Monty who hides the fact that he’s unemployed from his wife by pretending to go to work every day, I’ve been putting on a show for myself. The question is why? Because of that nasty little Protestant work ethic so engrained in my ego.

This need of mine to be useful hit home the other day when my mother complained about the lunch that I had prepared for her. This happens fairly frequently and usually I shrug it off but for some reason, on this particular day, it irked me. I, in turn, complained to Peter about her saying, in effect, that since she made no contribution to anything she had no right to complain. Afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about that need to make a contribution. Do we not matter when we stop making a contribution? Is that what I fear about not working, that I am no longer relevant?

What helped me out of all of this self-pity was twofold. I read an essay from Sarah Ban Breathnach’s book Simple Abundance on “the devil within”, that pesky little ego of ours and I realised that my ego was at the core of this need to feel important, to be productive, to make a contribution. At the same time, my ego was sabotaging all my efforts to achieve this. As my lovely yoga teacher used to say whenever someone inadvertently farted during the class, “If it ain’t paying rent, it’s gotta go”. So out with the ego and its constant criticism. I’m focusing on quality of life; if it adds value all well and good, if it doesn’t then it’s got to go. I’m looking at a different way of measuring success.

Success is important only to the extent that it puts one in a position to do more things one likes to do

Sarah Caldwell

And secondly, it dawned on me that we’re already in the 10th month and I have a garden to tend. Can you believe it – it’s not that long before 2017 calls it quits and we in the southern hemisphere are full tilt into summer? In the meantime, spring has sprung and I’ve started to get my gardening and writing mojo back.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom during the months of August and September, there were little rays of sunshine. The highlight being the wedding of Peter’s nephew, Will, and his lovely bride, Laura. I’m not a huge fan of weddings per se but this was family so I dragged myself off my sick bed and out of my warm bedroom cocoon and we headed down to Oribi Gorge on the KZN south coast. And what a lovely wedding it was. Firstly, Will and Laura are the real deal – they’re genuine, unpretentious and gorgeous people. And secondly, I have always enjoyed the company of Peter’s family; they’re a very warm and welcoming lot and have shown me how supportive families can be. Not only did all Peter’s siblings attend the wedding but all four of the groom’s siblings were there as well, 3 of them and their spouses having travelled all the way from Australia.

Peter with his brothers and sisters

Kiera and Alex, these are your lovely cousins – Bernice, Yvonne, Mary-Anne and David

Will and Laura

We also took a trip on a steam train with friends to see the aloes in the Creighton Valley – that was fun.

And a lot of progress has been made at the school but I’ll write about that in another post (If I ruled the World).

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Food Glorious Food

Spring is Like a Perhaps Hand

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thing and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and from moving New and
Old things,while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.

-E.E.Cummings

Still no spring rain here but the “perhaps hand” is quite evident. It seems like nature is compensating for the dryness by putting extra effort into spring flowers – with jasmine, azalea, alpine phlox, banksia all bursting forth. And a wonderful showing of spring veggies in the allotment – broad beans, asparagus, peas.

 

I found this Diana Henry recipe online which helped me to combine all my spring veg harvest in one dish. She is one of my favourite food writers (she has a weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph) and I have her book called Simple, which is just how I like to cook. The warm dressing poured over warm veggies is so delicious and mopping it all up with bread makes it a fine, finger-licking meal.

Peas, asparagus and broad beans with spicy mint and chilli

Serves 8

Ingredients 
For the yogurt:
250g (9oz) Greek yogurt
2 garlic cloves
4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1½ tbsp chopped dill

For the vegetables:
400g (14oz) broad beans, podded weight
400g (14oz) asparagus
125g (4½oz) peas, podded weight (you can use frozen)
5 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves
2 red chillis, halved, deseeded and finely sliced
½ tsp dried chilli flakes
juice of ½ lemon
1 tsp white balsamic vinegar
handful of torn mint leaves

To serve:
bought Arab flatbreads

Method
Stir together everything for the yogurt, but don’t overmix – it’s nice to see streaks of olive oil. Chill.

Cook the broad beans in boiling water for about two minutes. Rinse in cold water then slip off the skins.

Heat the flatbreads in the oven at a low temperature.

Trim the woody ends from the asparagus. Boil or steam, covered, for about four minutes, or until only just tender. Put the peas into boiling water and cook for a minute, adding the skinned broad beans to the pan halfway to heat through. Drain.

Heat the olive oil in a frying-pan and cook the garlic and fresh and dried chilli over a medium-high heat until the garlic is just pale gold, then quickly add the lemon juice and balsamic, and season.

Gently toss the warm vegetables with the mint and dressing and serve with the chilled yogurt and hot flatbread.


When I visited Kiera and James in June, we went to a farmers’ market in Rockville and bought some lamb from an Amish farmer. We invited Susannah and Mike round for supper and I used this Ottolenghi recipe that Kiera gave me to prepare it. It turned out pretty darn good.

Lamb shoulder with broad beans and herbs

Serves 6

Ingredients

  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1.5kg new-season lamb shoulder, bone removed and rolled
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • Maldon sea salt and black pepper
  • 60g fresh parsley, leaves and stalks
  • 30g fresh mint, leaves only
  • 60g fresh coriander, leaves and stalk
  • 200ml white wine
  • 1½ tsp cumin
  • 3 tbsp lemon juice
  • 375g broad beans (fresh or frozen), blanched and skins removed

Method

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5.

Press the garlic slices into the crevices in the lamb, then rub in two tablespoons of the oil, a tablespoon of salt and plenty of pepper.

Put half the amount of each herb over the base of a small ovenproof dish (around 21cm x 27cm) and pour over the wine.

Lay the lamb on top of the herbs and roast for an hour, until cooked on the outside but still pink in the centre; baste every 20 minutes.

Once the lamb is done, lift it from the dish, transfer to a small oven tray, sprinkle with a little salt and grill for four minutes on each side to brown.

Set aside to rest for 10 minutes.

Strain the cooking juices from the roasting dish and skim off the fat – there should be about 100ml of liquid.

Put the remaining herbs in the bowl of a food processor, add the cumin, the remaining oil, a teaspoon of Maldon salt (or half a teaspoon of fine salt) and some pepper, turn on the motor and slowly add the liquid. Work to a smooth sauce.

To serve, slice the warm lamb and arrange on a platter. Stir the lemon juice and broad beans into the sauce, taste for seasoning and spoon over the lamb. Serve at once.


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Thank You

Since “silent gratitude isn’t much use to anyone” (G B Stern), I’ve decided to use my blog to write a thank you letter to all of you who helped to make my recent trip to the States so amazing:

Kiera and James, I can’t believe you put up with me for 6 weeks with such equanimity. Not all credit can go to you though, your lovely house and garden contributed enormously to keeping the peace. As Alex observed, in a rare moment of spatial appreciation, your house has a very good flow which, I think, helped to prevent us from encroaching on each other’s space and getting on each other’s nerves. The flow of energy also extended outside to your very calming and restorative garden. Feng shui aside, I loved falling into a routine with you guys, especially settling in to watch our anticipated Netflix series every evening after dinner, as well as our weekend trips to the local garden centre and Home Depot. I feel extremely privileged and grateful to have had the opportunity to share your lives in your new home.

(P.S. I’ve been using my Home ‘Deepot’ titanium secateurs to prune all our fruit trees – it’s like cutting through butter.)

Alex, seeing you at Dulles airport when I arrived was an incredibly special moment for me. It was such a surprise that I had to keep pinching myself to realise that you really were there. We had so much fun that weekend, I just remember lots of laughter and silliness. And I was very grateful to see you again in Miami, handling your new life in a new city with such aplomb.

Peter, for holding the fort for the first 4 weeks I was away. I never had to worry about anything knowing that you were taking care of things back home. You even got my mother back on her feet and walking outside which is a great achievement.

Meg, it was such a pleasure to come home and find all was as we left it. We always have peace of mind when you are looking after Edna, Layla, Buddy and everything else in our absence.

Jim and Jody, your hospitality knows no bounds. We were spoilt rotten by you and our holiday in Miami was FABULOUS because of you. Miami’s gastronomic delights still linger in my mind! We look forward to being able to reciprocate sometime soon.

And the rest of our American family who came to all the way to Miami to see us when we were there, we really did appreciate it. Suzie, Mike and cousin Bill, we so enjoy your company and love being part of your family (Maggie, we missed you).

Joe and Leslie, we’ve never met but you have very kindly opened your gorgeous house to us every time that we have visited Miami. It feels like a home from home to us now and we have many precious memories of time spent there. Walking to and from Jim and Jody’s in the evening with Peter, Kiera, James and Alex is one of my most favourite simple pleasures. Sometimes the walk back is a bit unsteady but very pleasant nonetheless!

enjoying the pool in Joe and Leslie’s backyard

And finally, my Nottingham Road friends thank you for cheering me up on my return. It’s always a bit of an anti-climax coming home after these action-packed holidays and saying goodbye to the kids leaves me feeling incredibly flat. However, you lovely ladies lifted my spirits no end by organising a surprise 60th celebration for me. I was tricked into believing that I was going to play bridge at Café Bloom, instead I walked into a lunch party complete with flowers from Elza’s garden and a gorgeous birthday cake, one of Sharyn’s delicious chocolate creations. I was also given a very generous gift voucher for a local garden centre which, as you can imagine, got me back into thinking about my garden. I was completely overwhelmed and grateful to be back among friends.

 

 

 

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Sign of the Times

I wake up when Peter puts my morning cuppa on the bedside table along with dog biscuits for Buddy and Layla. They snuffle noisily around the bed demanding that I sit up and give them their morning treat. On cold winter mornings, I’m loath to leave my bed cocoon. The house is like an ice-box so I stay in the comfort of the bedroom with its under-carpet heating for as long as possible. After their treat, the dogs curl up asleep on the bedroom floor, gently snoring. From my bed I can see the little seed-eaters jostling each other at the bird feeder and the francolins scratching about on the ground – there’s quite a flock of them that visit our garden now. I remember the excitement when I saw my first francolins in the garden; I spent hours watching and taking pictures of them. But I’ve become blasé and hardly pay them any attention.

Actually, I’ve become a bit nonchalant about country life in general, taking what I have here for granted, assuming it will never change. But the countryside is changing as more and more urban expats relocate to the country. Some, like me, want to leave the city behind to experience a slower, quieter pace of life; to live more simply and closer to nature. The dirt roads, the remoteness and the lack of shopping malls and plastic food are part of the appeal. Others seem to want to bring the city with them. Perhaps they’re not here out of choice or perhaps they fell in love with idea of living in the country but the reality turned out to be not so charming. So now they live in the country but want to have all the mod cons associated with city life. The irony, of course, is that the more “urbanised” it becomes, the less appealing it will be to all of us. Residential estates are replacing farms, electric fences break up the landscape and restrict the movement of people and game, land owners are moving workers off the land to prevent possible land claims, and a huge fast food outlet has just opened at the local petrol station. I can understand motorists wanting to grab a quick meal on their travels but the scale and variety of food on sale (15 different restaurants) indicates a local demand as well. Are locals that keen to buy convenience food? It saddens me but I understand that people have different needs. And it makes me wonder how long it will take before the first shopping mall opens in Nottingham Road. We’re on the slippery slope folks!

It’s made me realise that I shouldn’t take my country experience for granted, especially the wildlife that visits our property – in future, those francolins will not go unnoticed. What’s here today may not be here tomorrow and we need to appreciate what we have before its gone.

 

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Star Spangled Banner

Miami Highlights

So, the final destination of our road trip was a week’s holiday in Miami and although this was our third visit to the city, it was our first summer there and boy, was it hot, hot, hot. However, this did not deter us from having a wonderful time. Kiera’s in-laws, Jim and Jody, very kindly arranged for us to stay in the same house that we’ve stayed in before (a gorgeous place belonging to friends of theirs which now feels like a home from home) and Alex moved in with us so that we could spend more time together. Since I haven’t had anything remotely resembling a summer holiday in years, I tried to join in as many activities as possible – swimming at the beach and in the pool and even snorkeling off the coast. But what gave me the greatest pleasure of all was simply seeing how happy my children are and just how competently both of them are making their way in the world.

One afternoon I tagged along when Kiera went to the bank with Alex to help him apply for a credit card. I waited in the foyer while they sorted out his application and I felt quite emotional when I looked over and saw them chatting and laughing together while they interacted with the bank consultant. I couldn’t understand why this particular moment affected me so much but on reflection I realise that it was because it felt so normal and yet it wasn’t, it was an anomaly. It’s been a long time since I’ve been around to observe Alex going about his daily business, let alone see Kiera and Alex together, relating just as they always have, with Kiera as big sister. On the one hand, I missed with an aching heart our former unfragmented lives and on the other hand, I felt enormous pride at how far my children have come.

Our holiday in Miami included some memorable highlights:

  • Being on holiday with both our kids was amazing, as well as seeing all of our American family again. We really appreciated everyone making the effort to join us in Miami and Jim and Jody for being such gracious and generous hosts.

Jody & James (photo: Bill Leazer)

Jim & birthday boy Winston

  • The food. OMG I was indulged – all my favourites (dates stuffed with manchego cheese and wrapped in bacon, buffalo wings, fried green tomatoes, guacamole freshly made at our table and key lime pie). Jim, who hails from New Orleans, made the most delicious Louisiana Boiled Shrimp and Alex and James barbecued the best burgers ever on the 4th July. Oh, and did the champagne flow.

  • Snorkeling over a reef way out at sea. James’ friend, Jeremy, took us out in his boat and we spent a glorious, laid back day snorkeling and swimming in crystal clear, flat water. It was such fun to be out on the water again, I’ve missed it.

view of South Beach from the water

  • Getting the guided tour of Alex’s apartment and having him drive us around Miami was quite awesome.

view of downtown Miami from Alex’s apartment

  • Celebrating my birthday a second time and being thoroughly spoilt, as well as made to look somewhat ridiculous!

Mexican birthday (photo: Bill Leazer)

  • Spending the morning of the 4th July swimming at Miami’s South Beach. After lolling about in lukewarm water for about an hour, I headed for Nikki’s Beach Bar and Mimosas with delightful “cousin” Bill.

I wish it didn’t have to end but of course all good things do. We make the long trip home later today, which I dread, but it’s got to be done. Thank you Kiera and James for putting up with me for 6 weeks, I’ve had an absolute ball.

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Road Trip USA

Once again, I must give all credit to Kiera for planning our road trip with such wonderful attention to detail. We always rely on her to organise our trips and I feel guilty about that but what can one do, SHE DOES IT SO WELL!

Our first night was spent in the beautiful riverside town of Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a long drive (8 hours) because of snarl-ups on the I (interstate) 95 which, by the way, runs all the way from the Canadian border down to Miami, Florida. Once we got past Richmond, VA, the traffic thinned out and we were on our way. Because we didn’t have time to stop properly for lunch we pulled into a drive-through burger joint, a first for Pete and me, and I have to say for one who doesn’t eat burgers as a rule, it was not half bad.

We stayed in a converted schoolhouse in Wilmington within easy walking of the river and the town centre. We enjoyed the river walk as well as strolling around the historic district looking at lovely old houses.

the river walk

Wilmington’s historic district

loved the purple house

After Wilmington we made our way to Charleston, South Carolina. En route we took a detour to the beach on Pawleys Island, which was quite spectacular.

storm brewing

tidal creek at Pawleys Island

In Charleston we stayed in the most gorgeous Air B&B in central Queens Street and visited a couple of plantation gardens along the banks of the Ashley River.

our Air B&B in Charleston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the swamp garden at Magnolia Plantation

From there we went to Savannah, Georgia and spent many hours wondering around this lovely southern town. I turned 60 in Savannah. I like spending my birthday in foreign places, it helps me remember them. And although it unsettles me a bit to think that I’m that much closer to decrepitude, I enjoyed celebrating it with Peter, Kiera and James.

Our last stop before Miami was St Augustine, Florida.

a cafe in St Augustine

street behind our hotel

the view from our hotel

our hotel

After a week of travelling we arrived in Miami just in time for the 4th of July weekend and a chance to put our feet up and relax. More about Miami later though. Suffice to say that it has been an absolute dream spending time together as a family again, not just in the same city but all in the same house, made possible by our wonderful American family.

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Waitin’ on a Sunny Day

Thanks to my innate Protestant work ethic, I felt quite guilty about planning a six-week holiday in America and leaving Peter behind to hold the fort while I was away. I felt that I needed to justify not just being away from home but being on holiday for that length of time. The way I did this was to steadfastly maintain that for the first 4 weeks I would not really be a lady of leisure. It was my intention to make myself useful, slogging away in the garden and working my fingers to the bone in the kitchen. A bit like the granny in the Fattis and Monis advert. The real holiday would only start when Peter joins us for our road trip along the south-east coast of America down to Miami.

This is, of course, not quite how it has turned out. I happen to have had the most wonderful, relaxing time. Yes, I’ve gardened in the searing heat and cooked and cleaned while the kids have been out at work. But I’ve been able to do it in my own time and I’ve really enjoyed simply being a free agent. To be honest it has come as a bit of a surprise just how therapeutic this leave of absence has been. Before I left home I was getting increasingly concerned about my mother’s well-being as well as quite impatient with her defeatist attitude. She was refusing to make any effort to exercise and as a result her legs were becoming weaker and she was becoming more and more frail and dependent. It was becoming a matter of time before decisions about her care needed to be made. What I hadn’t realised was just how much the situation had begun to weigh me down. After a few days here I started to feel a lot lighter in spirit, like a dark cloud had lifted and I could breathe more easily again. It’s funny how, without knowing it, we allow situations to get the better of us just because we can’t see the wood for the trees. Sometimes it helps to step away from the problem to get a better perspective and to realise that you’ve let things get out of kilter.

Ironically, with me gone, my mother finally admitted to Peter that she wasn’t feeling well. He arranged for the doctor to pay her a visit. After a clean bill of health, a vitamin b jab and instructions (from someone other than me) to exercise she’s up and about again and concerns about her health have been allayed. So it seems that change has been as good as a holiday for her as well.

I find that gardening also helps to clear the mind and lift the spirits and it’s been such a pleasure working in Kiera and James’ delightful woodland garden, despite the heat and wretched mosquitoes. The garden was beautifully landscaped by the previous owners and the plants that have survived years of neglect just needed tidying up. However, there were lots of gaps in the beds and my job was to help choose suitable plants from the garden centre, decide how many were needed and then to plant them – my idea of heaven. So far about 50 new shrubs and flowers have gone in, as well as a new raised veggie bed established. Having a framework within which to work has been a great help. Aesthetically pleasing landscaped gardens are not a common sight in this neighbourhood because, I think, the main priority is easy maintenance. So what you see is mostly lawns, a few shrubs “under arrest” (as Nate Berkus described furniture that had been placed up against walls) and a whole lotta mulch. Colour and interest come in the form of garden ornaments, not plants. I’ve spotted some very weird garden decorations; the ones that freak me out the most are the animal statues dressed up in real clothes!

 

 

I would understand if this was near a pond but little boy blue is fishing in a driveway.

This one I rather like.

There is, however, no need for fake animals in Kiera and James’ garden, they have plenty of real ones; birds galore, squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits and even a groundhog who goes by the name of Mabel. It’s a bit like being in a Beatrix Potter story. Mind you, these little critters do tend to lose their enchanting appeal when you’ve spent a fortune on plants and sweated buckets planting them only to find them half eaten or dug up the next day.

Mabel, the plant munching groundhog

squirrel nutkin

peter rabbit

new raised veg bed in front yard to catch maximum sun

seedlings from local farmers market waiting to go in

tranquility

lead me down the garden path

I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone. It’s not long now before Peter arrives and this part of my stay is over. Its been good for my soul and I’m feeling much revived, just in time to head south to see Alex and the rest of our fantastic American family. Look out Miami, here we come.

a little drink at Kiera and James’ local

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