Wednesday, June 02, 2004

The Mother Tongue

June 2, 2004

It takes time to learn a new place of residence. In my life in America I lived in several places---both northern and southern California, Oregon, Massachusetts, Arizona---and visited quite a few more. And while America is bound together by the oneness of the Union, each of these places were as distinct from each other as if they were different countries.

When I moved to Massachusetts, to the Boston area, I was astonished that they didn’t speak the same brand of English that I did! In the western US the word “aunt” is pronounced like the insect, “ant.” In Boston it was a more British-sounding pronunciation: “awwnt.” Same with “vase,” which in the West is pronounced to rhyme with “face”; in Boston it was “vahz.” Even some common words had new meanings: when your friend asks if you would like a “tonic,” he’s not offering you tonic water or gin and tonic, but a soda, a soft drink. It took a while, but eventually I assimilated the language and even picked up a credible Boston accent (“park the car in Harvard Yard” became “pawhk the caawh in Haawhvid Yawhd”), which took a few months to shed once I returned to the West Coast.

So the necessity of re-learning English upon moving to South Africa was not a huge surprise to me. The accents on English are quite varied and I am still trying to tune my ear to some of them, but I’ve got the Xhosa accent and what my husband, who is Indian, calls “Indian mumble-speech” pretty well covered, and the professional British-sounding accent was a snap, and although I am still struggling to understand some of the other accents, I know I’ll eventually get them…I’m pretty good at understanding accented English, having lived and worked in the melting pot of Silicon Valley for so long.

The new words for everything, however, is a great source of interest and amusement for me. I expected “torch” for “flashlight” and “lift” for “elevator” and even “boot” and “bonnet” for “trunk” and “hood.” But some of them are just a startle: “robot” for “traffic light.” My maid was a bit nonplussed when I referred to myself as the “red light queen” one day as we were attempting to get some shopping done but every robot en route to the mall turned red as soon as we approached. Here are some of the differences I have encountered:

Beetroot = beets (but not “carrotroot” or “turniproot” or “onionbulb”---go figure!)
Biscuits = cookies
Scones = biscuits (big fat ones)
Chips = French fries
Cool drink = soda
Cottage cheese = cream cheese (I think…looks and tastes like it, anyway)
Marrows = zucchini squash
Mielie meal = cornmeal
Mielies = corn
Cornflour = corn starch
Pies = meat and/or veggie things with some pastry either around them (like a turnover) or on top of the pan the filling was cooked in
Tarts = pies
Porterhouse steak = T-bone steak
T-bone steak = sirloin steak
Gammon = some kind of pork…not sure when it stops being pork and becomes gammon!
Potjie = (pronounced “poy-key”) a stew; also, a cast iron stew pot, usually has 3 legs
Pudding = a soft spongy, gooey cake-like thing, usually served with a sweet sauce
Custard = pudding
Shiraz = Sirah
Streaky bacon = normal American bacon
Shoulder bacon = no American equivalent
Back bacon = untrimmed slices of Canadian bacon

Bakkie = small pickup truck (pronounced “bucky”)
Board = sign (especially roadside sign)
Garage = gas station (hey!! They actually have BAKERIES inside the gas stations here!)
Glide-off = freeway off ramp
Hire = rent, as in renting a car or a tux
Petrol = gasoline
Robot = traffic light
Verge = parking strip; parking easement. At the entrance to the Sunningdale suburb of Cape Town there is a board stuck in the verge saying “Do not post boards in the verge.” Obviously, the poster of this board has no concept of irony…

BIC = Built-in-cupboards. Apparently a big deal, having closets built into the bedroom. I don’t get it.
Bin = trash can
Cabinet = cupboard (in the kitchen and scullery)
Clothes dryer = metal structure with clothes lines attached (usually in the back garden)
Cupboard = closet (for your clothes)
Curtain rails = curtain rods
Domestic worker = euphemism; PC term replacing “maid” and “garden boy”
Duvet = a type of comforter (like a giant, flat pillow) with removable covers
En suite = master bedroom suite; bedroom with attached private bath
Flat = apartment
Front garden = front yard
Hob = kitchen stove
Hoover = generic term for vacuum cleaner: “Madam, I am going to hoover the mats.”
Let = rent, as in renting a flat or office
Lounge = living room
Motor gate = gate you have to open to allow your car into the driveway
Scullery = a room, separate from the kitchen, where the kitchen sink is…and sometimes the refrigerator and even some cabinets. Don’t ask---I don’t get this either.
Stoep (or stoop) = porch or area just outside an exit door from a house/flat
Telephone shower = handheld shower
Tumble dryer = clothes dryer
Wendy house = garden shed

Braces = suspenders
Broidery Anglaise = eyelet
Jersey (or jumper) = sweater
Off-cuts = remnants (for sewing)
Slip slops = thong sandals
Suspenders = garter belt
Takkies = sneakers; athletic shoes

Black = a person whose ancestry is purely black (a black person, in American parlance)
Coloured = a person of mixed ancestry that includes black (a black person, in American parlance)
Informal settlement = squatter’s camp or shanty town (no distinction is made, apparently, between those that spring up on privately-owned land and those that appear on public lands)
“just now” = sometime in the next few minutes or hours (kinda like “island time”)
Pharmacy = drug store (miniscule compared to Long’s or Walgreen’s!)
Pleasure = Equivalent to “you’re welcome”
Railway sleepers = railroad ties
Shop = store (“Meet me at the book shop and we’ll go to the furniture shop from there.”)
Takalane Sesame = Sesame Street (where the Cookie Monster has an Afrikaans accent!!)

There are a lot more new words in my South African vocabulary, but they escape me at the moment…I’ll post them just now.

Friday, May 28, 2004

...the more things seem the same...

I had occasion to be stuck in rush hour traffic this morning and I had this eerie sense of déjà vu. Except for the fact that we were all driving on the other side of the road, it was a creepily familiar scenario, right down to the woman in the car right beside me who was paying more attention to applying her lipstick in the rear view mirror than to the traffic.

What is it with that? Are women universally incapable of completely dressing and grooming themselves before going out the door in the morning? I thought it was just the legendarily rushed and harried American career woman/supermom who didn’t have time to tweeze her eyebrows or shave her legs before leaving for work, and so felt compelled to do so enroute to work, treating the rest of the drivers to an intimate view of her morning toilette. Ladies, don’t you think this is carrying the concept of “multi-tasking” a bit too far? What if you poke yourself in the eye with a mascara wand at 80 kph? What if one of those dimwitted guinea hens scampers out of the vlei and runs into the road in front of your car while you are concentrating on your lip liner? And can you REALLY make yourself look truly pulled-together in that miniscule mirror under ever-changing (and inadequate) lighting conditions?

Maybe I am somehow handicapped and just don’t realize it. It takes two lights, a BIG mirror and a small magnifying mirror, and both hands to make my face look its normal subtly painted self. What if I am putting on my moisturizer and find a rough patch of skin that needs immediate exfoliating? How do you do that in the car, with one hand on the wheel and one eye on the road? It requires me to get up from the dressing table, ambulate to the bathroom, locate cotton puffs and the exfoliant, application of said exfoliant to the cotton puff and said cotton puff to the face, eventual removal of the product, then a close inspection to make sure the offending flakes are gone. I cannot imagine myself trying to do this while piloting a two-ton, four-wheeled machine of impending death down a crowded freeway…do those women just plaster the rough patch over with an extra glop of foundation and hope no one notices the rough skin rising to the surface like scales sloughing off a dead fish?

My maid and I were in Checkers yesterday and espied a woman coming towards us in the aisle. After she passed, we were both just too speechless to do anything more than stare at each other, slack-jawed and wide eyed. Maybe her bizarre appearance had something to do with putting her make up on in the car, so she couldn’t tell she was using a blue pencil on her brows due to the unreliable light? Maybe the tiny size of the mirror prevented her from seeing the uneven shape…zig-zag, actually…that the brow pencil made as she hit a speed bump too fast, not having seen the warning sign as her eyes were on the mirror rather than the road? I’m not sure how to explain that her majorly frizzed out hair was white at the temples and brick red everywhere else…mebbe it was an in-transit dye job gone bad? Blobbed-on garish lipstick and clown rouge…you see what you get when the steering wheel is between you and the mirror?

This grooming behind the wheel seems to be a peculiarly female trait…I’ve never seen a guy even combing his hair at 80kph, let alone spritzing it with gel and styling it…or shaving!! But I have seen women rocketing down the roads at freeway speed , yanking rollers out their hair, fluffing and combing, even filling the car with clouds of hairspray! And putting on eyeliner and mascara using the rearview mirror! I’ve even seen women painting their nails while driving! I see men chatting on cell phones, eating and drinking…but doing their morning grooming routines that requires eyes on the mirror rather than the road or render their hands incapable of gripping the wheel and quickly steering around an unexpected obstacle in the roadway…like a suicidal pedestrian? Never!

Is there any country in the world where the roads are so safe that you do not imperil yourself and others with this kind of behaviour? With the reputation that Americans have as being arrogant and self-serving, on some level I guess I somehow thought that this degree of self-absorption was limited to American roads and women, but I see that it has been exported to…and adopted enthusiastically…by the women in at least one other country. What is the cause of this? Can these people truly believe that an extra fifteen minutes of sleep…the amount of time necessary to paint on the morning face and drag a comb through the hair…is worth endangering one’s life, as well as the lives of others? And if those few minutes of sleep are so precious, why not retire fifteen minutes earlier, rise fifteen minutes earlier, and enjoy the luxuries of adequate lighting, expansive mirror, and being able to actually focus on the task at hand?

I dunno…I’ve been a woman for a lotta years, and have worn make up for most of them, and this is one almost exclusively female trait that I simply cannot fathom. Put down that mascara wand, lady, and pay attention to your driving! Give that two-year-old in the back seat a chance to grow up!

Monday, April 12, 2004

Da Da Da Dumb!

All of my life, I have considered myself pretty much average. Intelligent, but not brilliant, amusing but not truly funny, and neither stunningly beautiful nor ugly enough to frighten little children. Just average.

There is some evidence that, in the abstract, I am incorrect in that consideration… embarrassingly high scores on IQ tests and a creepy ability to spell virtually any English (or French) word I have ever actually seen (and many I have not, actually), for example. But I have never considered those kinds of things to make me above average because they were overbalanced by a humiliating lack of facility with maths (I was an adult before I had the entire multiplication table memorized), a rather awkward relationship with things mechanical (machines…especially fax machines and copy machines…virulently hate me), and the humiliation of failing physics…not once, but twice…in high school and in university. Actually, I didn’t truly fail physics…I was asked by the instructors to transfer out of the class rather than take the inevitable failure and ruin my grade point average (which may mean nothing to South Africans, but is the Holy Grail of students in the US). For every attribute my family or friends or therapist could cite to “prove” how above-average I was, I had at least one (and often two or three or even more) humbling inabilities as counterpoint: I had perfect pitch, but I couldn’t read music or play an instrument; I had a great singing voice, but I sang in the tenor range (rather embarrassing for a short little blonde girl!); I could draw well but anything I tried to paint came out looking like I had used mud for my palette. For every attribute my champions could name, I could name a host of things that my most ardent efforts wrought no more than mediocre results. I was good at some things, but not enough to make me think I was anything more than average…I knew lots of people who were good at many more things than I was and I envied and admired them. And I never had the hubris to consider myself to be one of their exalted comrades (which was a good thing, because they would have laughed bookish little me right out their exalted presence!).

And so I grew up thinking myself as average and, as a result, thinking that my own tastes, attitudes and opinions were roughly representative of most working class Americans. I was an Average American, after all…why wouldn’t I be representative of the whole lot of us? The passage time and the rasp of hard-won experience smoothed out some of those sharp opinions from my callow youth, but I find myself still clinging to the notion that, intellectually, I am little different from the norm. I tend to think that if I understand it, everybody understands it. If it is obvious to me, it must be equally obvious to everyone else except, maybe, those who are truly intellectually challenged (surely a minority in all cultures) and those who wilfully and stubbornly refuse to accept the glaringly obvious.

Of course I am wrong and, intellectually, I recognize and admit and accept that this notion of mine is incorrect. But, despite my best efforts, I continue to not-so-secretly harbour this suspicion that if average little ol’ me can see and figure something out, then everybody else must be able to do the same…so what is their excuse for their idiocy?

A case in point: I do not pretend to know very much about South Africa’s political system yet, but I do have some knowledge of her history. So, driving down the road, I keep seeing signs put up by the DA (in English and Afrikaans…my lessons are working so I am beginning to be able to puzzle out the signs more accurately) promising 150,000 more police. I have pondered this promise several times and finally, yesterday, I discussed it with my husband. Now, you must take into account that my perception of race issues in this country are necessarily coloured by the country’s past and those news reports that made it to America (not a lot, by the way, because of your previous government’s policies on news), and that I am just learning about the various political parties and their positions. It seemed to me, based on what (admittedly little) I know about black people in this country, that a promise of more police would not exactly be something they would see as a promise they would like to see kept, the police having a less-than-sterling history in relation to black people here. And given that the vast majority of people in this country are black, it seemed like one of those duh! kind of obvious things…any idiot can tell you that if your campaign platform is based on something that offends or upsets the majority of the voters, you ain’t gonna win!

So my husband explained that the DA’s vision is one that appeals to the white middle class and that the DA expects to capture a swing of Indian and coloured voters because they, too, are very concerned with crime…the blacks are too busy trying to hold body and soul together for crime to be very visible on their collective radar yet. Now, I am the very first to admit to having rather poor math skills, but even I know that in order to win the upcoming election, the DA needs a significant black vote to put them over the top. Even my shaky math can calculate that if approximately 75% of the population is black, and even if the DA got every single white, Indian and coloured vote in the country, it wouldn’t be enough to give them the election. What kind of dimwit crafted a campaign promise that is guaranteed to alarm or offend more than half the electorate? Was he truly that stupid or self-absorbed that he couldn’t see the outstandingly obvious fact that he was shooting his party in the foot by alienating something like 75% of the voters with this kind of thing? I mean, for heaven’s sake, I’ve been here for less than two months and even I figured it out…and quickly, too! Mebbe he was a mole planted by the ANC…can you think of any more likely possibility (aside from being stupid as a stone)?

I’m finding it rather difficult to believe that the election is just a couple of days away. While there are plenty ridiculous posters, like the one noted above, they are all so small! Goodness, no wall-sized billboards extolling the virtues of one party and smearing another? And where are all the smarmy, innuendo-loaded, even flat-out lying television adverts? Where are the cloven-hoofed spin doctors and their legion of dark media elves, spinning out the yarns of deception, turning the voters heads with insinuation and allusions to wickednesses never actually committed? I mean, if John McCain can be cost the Republican Party nomination in the US with the allegation that he sired a child out of wedlock on a Vietnamese woman (while locked up and being tortured as a prisoner of war, by the way) when the truth was that he and his wife had adopted a Bangladeshi girl…if the supposedly sophisticated American voter can be swayed with this kind of mindless twaddle, why aren’t the spin doctors hard at work here, slinging their mud and trying to turn the electorate like a herd of mindless sheep? Mercy, guys, you better get on the ball…the election is only days away and if you don’t hurry, you’re likely to start giving democracy a good name!

Thursday, April 01, 2004

All the eggs are brown!

Originally published March 31, 2004

While preparing breakfast for my husband this morning it suddenly struck me that I haven’t seen a white egg since I got here. Not that the color of the eggshell makes any difference to me…it doesn’t…but in America most of the eggs are white-shelled and brown-shelled eggs cost more because they are (inaccurately) perceived to somehow be healthier than white-shelled ones. This set me to pondering some of the differences between South Africans and their food and Americans and theirs.

I’ve been doing my grocery shopping here for several weeks now, and have, after trying various markets, settled on Checkers as my primary source of food. I go to Woolies for premium stuff, I try to get my produce at the open air markets at the Rylands and most of my meats at a couple of butcheries (I have a particular favorite for boerewors in Parklands), my “uh oh, we’re out of bread” supplies at the closest market, a Pick n Pay, and everything else at Checkers…cleaning and paper supplies, juice, milk, cheese, bread, etc. In my search for delectable things to please my husband’s palate, I have made quite a few discoveries about how South Africans eat, at least as perceived by the people who sell the food.

1) South Africans have a considerable sweet tooth! I was strolling down an aisle at the market the other day looking for a product and realized that there was an entire aisle devoted exclusively to sweets! The whole length of the aisle! I was amazed! Americans are perceived as being a sweet-loving people, but I’ve never seen anything like it in America! When you look for marshmallows in the US, for example, you have only three choices: minis, full-sized, and sometimes colored marshmallows; and there are generally only two brands to choose from: Camp Fire and the store’s generic brand (which was probably made by Camp Fire). The marshmallow selection here would just about take up the entire candy portion of an American supermarket! Multiple brands, shapes, colors, sizes, even flavors…you have more variety in marshmallows alone than Americans have in trendy coffees! And then there were the candy bars!! My goodness…such choices! I wandered the candy aisle wondering if I had died and gone to Chocoholic Heaven! But being a good little girl (who is nearly at the end of her household budget for the month) I resisted the urge to splurge and indulge my chocoholic tendencies. I get my budget account renewed tomorrow…who is kidding whom?...there is a reason I am putting off buying groceries until then!

2) South Africans are real carnivores! It is inconceivable in America to have shops that sell nothing but jerky (biltong). On my first visit here, a year ago, I was fascinated by the biltong shop in the local strip mall because something like that could never make enough profit to survive in America. Jerky, as biltong is known in America, is sold in little sealed plastic packets that are kept beside the till in convenience stores like 7-11. And it is never made from game meats, only beef, with various treatments to alter the taste (pepper, chili, teriyaki, etc.). And dried sausage? Never saw it before I came here (and I come from a family in which my father made his own venison jerky after a hunting trip, and my grandfather prided himself on his homemade sausages). The variety and quantities and quality of meats here is stunning! The beef is deliciously tender and flavorful (although I am having to relearn the names of cuts of meat because what they call a porterhouse here does not bear even a vague resemblance to a porterhouse in California), lamb is plentiful, and I have never, ever seen mutton in a market before, or game meats, for that matter. Some of the best boerewors (which is also unknown in America and a particular favorite of mine!) I have eaten here was made from game meat and purchased at a SuperSpar. South Africans seem inordinately proud of their braais, but because virtually every household in America has at least a kettle-type barbeque and cooks on it frequently, the braai, of course, was initially no big thing to me. But the meats that are to go onto those braais…what choices we have here and how wonderful they are! Marinated chickens already flattened to braai well, tasty pieces of meats already on skewers, boerewors...virtually all Americans have barbecues, but South Africans have elevated the concept almost to an artform! YUM!

3) South Africans…or at least Capetonians…have a thing about calamari that I neither share nor understand. Even if the stuff wasn’t disgusting to even contemplate eating, once in the mouth…ick!! I am astonished at the quantities of calamari served here and the creative ways people have thought of to serve it. I ordered a paella at a restaurant recently, anticipating a bed of saffron rice studded with chicken, mussels, clams, prawns, and perhaps a piece of fish or two. I got a plate full of oversalted reddish-brown goo…I couldn’t tell the mushroom chunks from the chicken bits, but the little legs sticking up from the monochromatic mass like those of a dead spider were a dead giveaway as to the identity of those little buggers. I picked at least two dozen of the nasty little things out of the rice but missed one and it ended up in my mouth…oh, yuck, it was horrid…a gritty texture and dark musky flavor that put me off the entire rest of the plate. EW! as we say in America… eeeewwwwwwwwww! To be fair, I have to admit I am not a big fan of fish in general, and so far the only one I have found here that I like is Cape Salmon (yes, I’ve tried snoek, a local favorite…too oily, too boney, too fishy tasting for me), but that is no surprise, considering that in my entire life in America, I found only four fish that I like…and I am the daughter and granddaughter of avid sportsmen and grew up eating the stuff, courtesy of Dad’s or Grandpa’s latest fishing trip. I like tuna salad, shrimp, crab, lobster, abalone, scallops, salmon, halibut, trout, and catfish…that is, at present, my full range of seafoods that I consider fit for human consumption. Calamari is fish bait. Ick!

4) What fabulous restaurants we have to choose from! Maybe it is just Cape Town, but man, I could eat out every night here…and I like to cook. For my husband’s birthday I found an authentic sushi bar and we had dinner there (prawn and salmon sushi for me, thank you) and I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the California rolls at Maz in Sea Point were better than the California rolls in California. Killer wasabe and delectable pickled ginger! I’ve been to a couple of Indian restaurants, some seafood restaurants (please, Ocean Basket, more offerings for those of us who are merely accompanying the fish-lovers), Italian, continental and quite a few others. I haven’t found a Mexican restaurant I want to try yet, though. I grew up eating Mexican food and the few so-called Mexican dishes I have had here were a grave disappointment. I’ve found a couple of Mexican restaurants but a quick perusal of the menus sent me scuttling away. Trust me on this…I have been eating Mexican food for decades…I lived in the Mexican part of town for years and frequented the local eateries where my rusty, halting Spanish was my only means of communication…Mexican cuisine does NOT include calamari! In the Gulf of California Mexican fishermen catch and sell calamari to the Japanese restaurant industry, but they do not eat it themselves! Any Mexican restaurant in South Africa that includes calamari in their offerings does not get my approval! (I brought a Mexican cookbook with me just in case.) All in all, however, I have found eating out here in Cape Town to be an unparalleled pleasure, from breakfast at a roadside farm stall to lunch at a local mall to dinner in town, it is one of the great pleasures of living here.

5) The produce is fantastic! I’m not too impressed with Fruit and Veg City…the veggies were limp, not crisp, and rubbery broccoli just doesn’t do it for me. But once I found the open air veg market at the Rylands, I’m a happy camper. My favorite food is fresh fruit, and there is a stall there that sells mangoes that must come straight from heaven. I have discovered litchis…never even heard of them before I came here and now they rank in my top ten favorite fruits. I bought the most gorgeous, red red red tomatoes this week, and beautiful crisp snap beans. The cauliflowers and cabbages are the biggest I have ever seen in my life, and my grandfather used to grow his own huge cabbages for making sauerkraut…South African cabbages dwarf anything I have ever seen in Grandpa’s garden! I’m wondering what the apparently national obsession with creamed spinach and yellow squash is, though…they show up as the standard veg with almost every restaurant meal and I gotta tell you, those two rank near the absolute bottom of my list of edible veggies…just above fried parsnips, I think. Hmmm…I think I have just come up with a way for me to whittle down a few of those extra kilos that cling to me like a frightened child…to heck with BioSlim and other quackeries, a diet of calamari, creamed spinach and mooshed up yellow squash should see me very thin in very short order!

Saturday, March 27, 2004

Maid in South Africa

Originally published March 26, 2004

One of the things I dearly love about South Africa is my maid. I love my maid, I love having my maid, and I especially love that I don’t have to be apologetic about having my maid! She only comes in on Monday and Thursday, but her bi-weekly visits have transformed my life!

In America, middle class people don’t have maids…only rich, snooty people have maids. Instead, middle-class Americans…a few of them, anyway…have “cleaning ladies.” In most American households, however, the woman of the house does 80% or more of the housework, the remaining work being performed by her husband and/or children. The more affluent middle class household might have a cleaning lady come in twice a month or so to do what is referred to as “the heavy work,” which translates to mopping floors, running the vacuum, scrubbing bathrooms and woodwork, polishing furniture, and perhaps cleaning a kitchen appliance or two…like the oven or the refrigerator. The rest of the work is performed by the household residents, including the windows, as American cleaning ladies consider window washing to be “man’s work,” particularly outside the house. In America, the cleaning lady tells you what tasks she will and will not do…“I don’t do windows” is a common refrain.

One of the reasons so few American households have regular cleaning ladies is that they are extremely expensive. As I was preparing to move out of my house in California in 2003, I contacted several cleaning ladies…two independents and one cleaning firm…to give me bids on cleaning my house after the furniture was removed so that the new owner would have a nice clean home to move into. It was not a particularly large house, mind you, but a one story suburban ranch house with three small bedrooms, two very small bathrooms, living room, kitchen and a dining room just barely big enough for the table, 6 chairs and china cabinet. And it wasn’t particularly dirty, either---it had been thoroughly cleaned before the first open house, and then kept up as strangers traipsed in and out, trying to decide whether or not it was worth nearly half a million dollars to them. Dutifully, the cleaning ladies visited and took notes and submitted their quotes…all of them $350, give or take a few bucks. Now this was for cleaning an empty house…no furniture to dust or polish, no carpets to vacuum, no dirty dishes to wash, no laundry or ironing (which American cleaning ladies don’t do anyway), no windows…$350…R2 450…to clean two bathrooms, wipe down the walls and woodwork, and wash the floors of an empty house…that’s nearly double what I was earning for a day’s work as the executive assistant to the Vice President of the Legal Department of a Silicon Valley high tech firm! And, believe it or not, one of these women actually tried to convince me it was more difficult to clean an empty house than one full of dusty furniture and dirty carpets!

Those few Americans I know who do have cleaning ladies are funny about them…more than once I have extended an invitation to a colleague for a cuppa after work, only to have it declined with the explanation “The cleaning lady is coming tomorrow…can we go out tomorrow night instead?” Now, that might not make any sense to a South African, but to an American, no further explanation was needed…the cleaning lady was coming so my friend had to hurry home and clean the house up before she got there… heaven forbid that the cleaning lady should see the house in a mess!

Americans are raised with a work ethic that says we should be able to do it all ourselves…you are a weakling, a sluggard, a layabout, a failure as a worthwhile person if you don’t. So, if you have a regular or frequent cleaning lady, you’d better be prepared to explain to your colleagues and friends why. Did you just have a baby? Is your arm broken? Are you crippled with arthritis? Have you suddenly gone blind or developed a terminal allergy to cleaning solutions? No? Then what’s your excuse for not scrubbing your own dirt (and your husband’s and your kids’ as well)? You say you work a 40 to 50 hour week plus another 10 hours of commuting each week as well? So what? Who doesn’t? Unless you are approaching or have entered the executive ranks or have 14 children (in which case someone is going to ask you why the kids aren’t doing the housework and saving you all that money), most Americans are going to take issue with your having a cleaning lady. If they can juggle all of the demands of contemporary life and still find a way to wash their own kitchen floors, just exactly what is wrong with you that you can’t do it too?

Whew! Am I happy to be in South Africa where the regular visits of a domestic worker who will do laundry and windows in addition to the floors and bathrooms is part of the domestic landscape. In America I stopped buying clothing that required ironing because I simply didn’t have time to set up all the ironing gear, iron the clothes, then take the gear all down and store it again…and I didn’t have the space to leave it all set up. In America I practically stopped cooking, relying instead on frozen meals that could be microwaved because, even though I had the time to cook, my dishwasher wasn’t big enough to handle the icky pots and pans and, because I didn’t get home from work until 7 pm (and had to get up at 5:30 in the morning to do it all again), I didn’t have time to cook and wash up. In America I had an embarrassingly large collection of underclothes, outerclothes, bedclothes, kitchen and bath towels…because at any given time, half or more of them were in the laundry, waiting to be washed, folded, or stored away. In America you could write your name in the dust on my coffee table and it was a good thing I had hardwood floors because the vacuum was stored so far back in the hall closet that it practically needed a rescue expedition to bring it out into the light of day. My daily routine began at 5:30 every morning, and by the time I arrived home, microwaved dinner and consumed it, and had my evening shower, it was 9 pm and time to get enough sleep to get up in the morning and do it all over again. Housework came after such things as paying the bills, grocery shopping, washing enough clothes to get through the following week, and making sure the bathrooms and kitchen did not lapse into a condition that would bring the Department of Health down upon me…when on earth was I going to do housework?

Having a maid has transformed my life…I buy shirts that need ironing! I cook Chicken Picatta!. I buy fresh fruits and veggies that need peeling! I eat things that leave a mark if they spill on my clothes, like beetroot and curry. I have less than half the clothes that I had in California and don’t miss a thing, my bathrooms and kitchen are spotless at least twice a week, and my coffee table doesn’t even know what dust is! My maid washes windows, she irons, she polishes furniture…and when we got ourselves a little dog, she told me to get some dog shampoo and she would wash him too! She gets worried if she walks in and doesn’t find dirty dishes in the sink or if the laundry hamper is empty “Don’t you need me, Mem?” she asks. I wish I could employ her every day, but my husband has me on a budget and twice a week is all I can afford…but I live for those two days! I pay her 25% more than the going rate, drive her to her minibus taxi stand each afternoon, and plan my “messy” cooking for the nights before her work days. She goes shopping with me and points out the correct cleaning products to buy, helps me determine the best values, even suggests things to buy and the stores in which to find the items I am seeking. We have lunch together and tell stories about our families and our lives and she is as much my friend as my employee, and she is a true blessing in my life.

I love South Africa and I love my maid!

Note: The maid referred to in this entry died in a domestic violence incident three months after this was originally published.