Sunday, November 27, 2005

Observations of the Random Kind...

Ag! Somebody call the WHO…Les Médecins sans Frontières…the CDC! There is a plague upon us! An epidemic! Oh, the humanity…It’s too horrible to contemplate…eeeeeeeeeeeek!!

We’ve had to spend a little time in malls lately and it would appear that summer us upon us here in Cape Town with a vengeance. Saturday was sunburn weather for pale, peaked-looking blondes like me, cabriolet weather for the young and the sporty, like my husband, and execrable taste in clothing weather for half the women over the age of consent.

Each year brings its own examples of trendy new looks which, because of their very trendiness, quickly fade into the realm of tedious and tiresome. This year everybody has a white tiered skirt. Yah, there are a few variations…lace between the tiers, bling on some of them, maybe not white but the same style…three fourths of the female population of Cape Town must own one of these trite…but light and summery…little numbers. Paired with them, invariably, is an ungainly eyesore of a belt, invariably of a contrasting colour, invariably of a weight, texture, size, and style to clash with and simply overwhelm the deliberate delicacy of the dainty summer skirt. Few, if any, of the adherents to this bankrupt notion of style demonstrate any fashion sense in selecting the tops they wear with those charming little skirts, either. Fragile, fluttery little tops with handkerchief-hems or lettuce-edges designed to catch the eye with their airy, ethereal, wispiness and which should pair beautifully with the skirts, are pinioned, overwhelmed and overpowered, by those clunky, clumsy leather and metal atrocities that instantly fatten even the slimmest hips.

But the most egregious offenders are not the young girls who haven’t paraded around in enough fashion disasters to have learned a few embarrassing (and expensive) lessons. They aren’t the twenty-somethings who failed to get the memo about pube-baring pants and bucket-bottom jeans being tacky and entirely too passé. No, the flagrant offenders are those who should, more than anyone else, know better. I am referring to the current plague of Mutton Dressed as Lamb.

I try…I really try…to stifle my urge to make an under-the-breath critical remark when faced with a woman who is definitely old enough to know better but who is running around, just the same, with a bunch of her wrinkly, crinkly parts grossly overexposed. I truly try to not roll my eyes and hiss through my teeth when someone who is well past the first…and second…blush of youth packages her saggy baggy bits in threads specifically designed for the fit, the firm, the young. Even a fit woman past a certain age is collagen-deprived all over her body and while the muscle may, with effort and a private flat at Virgin Active, stay firm, there’s no help for the skin. Yah, you can lift this and inject that, but the plump, moist glowing smoothness of youth inevitably gives way to the thin, fragile, crepey texture of age, no matter what you do…and a helluva lot sooner than most of us…and all of them…want to admit!

My husband is not ordinarily a critical man, particularly where women are concerned, and most especially when it comes to women’s clothes. He follows the age-old male dictum of “less is more” and is not particularly attuned to the nuances of female fashion, but even he has taken notice of the recent upsurge in MDL sightings. “Mouton,” he whispered to me in the queue at the Pick ’n’ Pay the other night, and subtly inclined his head towards a woman browsing the Coke Lite display. From behind…and at a sufficient distance…she could have been taken for being in her mid-to-late twenties.

Long, moussed, teased, highlighted, artfully tousled hair cascaded to mid-back. An long expanse of extraordinarily tanned leg reached from a trendy pair of orange and pink high-heeled sandals upwards to disappear beneath the hem of an extremely short white skirt that was liberally printed with large red rosebuds. A shoestring strap cotton knit lettuce-edged T-shirt, pink layered over orange, completed the ensemble. Even the faulty selection of the clothing…the matching shirt and shoes paired with an “oh, that is soooo wrong!” skirt, bespoke a young woman still getting her fashion bearings. And yet…

There was something too perfect…too packaged…about the whole thing, even from behind. And, sure enough, she turned around and the face, the slight neck wattle, the softened jawline, the dead giveaway aging hands…surely she had borrowed the clothes from the closet of her twenty-something daughter? There were signs of rhinoplasty…the nose didn’t look bad, it just didn’t look real on that face. Was her forehead botoxed or just lifted a bit too much? Too-perky, artificially firm bosoms pushed out the front of the top, creating a prow-like effect. It was all just a bit bizarre!

We really aren’t very critical of the majority of people whom we encounter on our sojourns about the city. Lumpy huisvroue, dressed in calico or jeans and the nearest T-shirt to hand, faces naked as the day they were born, hair yanked back in a knot…these are women who employ no artifice, make no efforts to be anything more than the creature, for good or for ill, who greets them in the bathroom mirror each morning. They make no attempt to join the ranks of the trim and trendy and cannot, therefore, be held accountable to that standard. The young and exuberant, stumbling their way through the ever-changing fashion/fad/trend/style landscape, learning by failing, learning by succeeding, learning by doing…this is a time of individuation, experimentation, learning for the young teen crowd, and they can’t learn without making a few…mostly forgivable…mistakes along the way. (But I am almost compelled to ask, when I see a 13-year-old dressed like a $2 whore, “Where is your mother? What was she thinking, letting you out in public looking like paedophile-bait?”)

Women who dress and groom themselves as if they were the be-all and end-all of fashion, however, who seem to view themselves as, if not trendsetters, at least cutting-edge fashionistas…but who fall desperately short of the mark…these women are a different story altogether. My favourites are the omnivores, the eager fashion omni-victims, those poor, deluded souls who disgorge the contents of their pocketbooks at the first sign of a new trend, whether it suits them or not. My husband, on the other hand, tends to notice those whom we have come to call “fake teenagers”…Mutton Dressed as Lamb. And the malls these past days have been overrun with them!

Last weekend we sat at a café, sipping cold drinks and watching the parade of passersby. There was the one I nicknamed Morticia Addams. Long, inky black hair (sadly, devoid of the suppleness and sheen that denotes natural, healthy colour and condition) with raggedy ends and a white streak emblazoned from one side of her forehead all the way to mid-crown. Long, lean…to the point of unnatural thinness…legs encased first in stiletto heeled boots sporting weapon-like toes, then in skinny black jeans low cut enough to be barely decent. From behind, as she browsed the skimpy summer tops at Mr. Price, she looked like an anorexic teenager, but the face, when she turned around, showed decades of hard living. So did her bared belly. It was deplorable, that toneless expanse of bare flesh, and although I was too far away to actually see the stretch marks themselves, the half-mast nature of her navel…a dead giveaway to another stretch-marked sister…told the tale.

In stark relief were the middle-aged ladies who were comfortable in their skins. Some of them were stout and matronly, dressed in casual slacks and tunic tops that skimmed their ample curves tastefully. Others had maintained the slimness of youth, but had opted for coiffures and fashion that flattered their mature looks: sport casual looks from the likes of Lacoste or the South African version of Liz Claiborne, attractively groomed women who saw no need to cling embarrassingly to a youth long past. Holding hands with their (presumed) husbands and strolling past the shops, the presented an almost poignant counterpoint to the pathetic and desperate aging MDLs that surged around them, tricep wings flapping, crinkled bellies jiggling, hair-extensions obvious to anyone who knows what they are.

It was actually kind of sad, seeing all these women who really are old enough to know better, reduce their self-worth to their tits and asses, to realize that without their youth…or the youth they see in their magic mirrors each morning…they believe themselves to be of diminished worth. Women who accept the stages of their lives, who recognize that age and gravity have a telling effect on us, are so much more attractive than those who cling in panic to a time long-dead. They not only look ridiculous and do themselves as disservice, they teach our daughters that, without youth we have no value, and therefore we must cling to it, claw it to our breasts, damage our skin, carve up our flesh, malnourish our bodies, and make damned fools of ourselves in public…all to maintain an illusion of youth that is immediately dispelled the moment a real teenager hoves into view. Kinda pointless, isn’t it?

And pathetic.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Letting the Bitch out...

So, on Thursday I let my Inner Bitch out to play

Sometimes this is a necessary thing, you know. Bitchiness, like any other negative behaviour, actually has a useful place in one’s repertoire of interpersonal skills. The trick is not to allow it to become a personality trait, but to keep and use it as a tool…a tool of last resort…when it is necessary to accomplish something that is sufficiently important to warrant its use.

Allow me to elucidate, please…

Two years ago, newly wed, I followed my freshly-minted husband from my home in Silicon Valley to his home in Cape Town, South Africa. Unlike many Americans, I was not so insular that I expected to find lions roaming the streets and giraffe ambling along the dirt tracks connecting the dusty villages full of barefoot villagers. I knew that South Africa was the single most modern and powerful nation on the continent and, although technically an “emerging nation,” it was a country full of modern conveniences and a wholly Western-style government and infrastructure.

I was not disappointed when I arrived. It looked a lot like America. The weather was a lot like the Bay Area’s. I saw more Mercedes and BMWs on the roads than in Silicon Valley. The food was mostly familiar, virtually everyone spoke English (if I listened hard enough), and with the exception of learning the currency and how to drive on the wrong side of the road, the integration process was mercifully brief and virtually painless. Unashamedly, for my only paradigm was that of a liberal, “Left Coaster,” I saw Cape Town (and by extension, the rest of South Africa) as being more like America than different from it.

For the most part, this impression has borne itself out, at least in the white, middle-class sector. In fact, the majority of white South Africans enjoy a higher standard of living then their Silicon Valley counterparts, a completely counter-intuitive declaration but demonstrated readily by the sheer magnitude of the domestic service industry: almost every white South African householder has a maid at least once a week. Many have “sleep in” maids. And, when perusing the property ads, the phrase “servant’s quarters” is not uncommon to find.

South Africa, for all its similarities to America, has profound differences in even the most superficial aspects. And one of the differences that I have found most glaring is in the service sector. To put it briefly and bluntly, it sucks. And not just with South African marques, either. We have endured three years of dismal service from the local Honda dealers and nearly two years of equally bad service from Mercedes (although I must say a complaint to Mercedes HQ got a much better response than a complaint to the Honda HQ). Even American companies…which pride themselves on good service…are not immune to the service malaise that infects this country: my latest run-in was with Whirlpool!

I must confess to having owned Whirlpool appliances in the States and having been very satisfied with them. But, sadly, I can’t give them anything but a grudging “not exactly excrement” grade for my service interaction with them this week. You see, my husband and I own a rental property here in Cape Town, a property that has been under renovation for several very expensive months. A large house has been divided into two spacious flats and the maid’s quarters, a dark, dismal, foul, barely habitable hole has been completely gutted and renovated and made into a bachelor flat (studio cottage). Now, Cape Town is the holiday destination in South Africa, for Europeans and South Africans alike, so we decided to put the little cottage up for rent as a “self catering” holiday flat (that means we provide everything but your food and your clothes: dishes, pots 'n' pans, appliances, etc.). We can make more in one week than the flat could rent for on a month-to-month rental so, since holiday season is hard upon us (is it gloriously summer here!), we listed ourselves on some holiday websites and, in the very first week, we had a bite! R2000 for five days (the long term rental is R2000 a month!) and the man was pleased to pay it! We eagerly confirmed his booking, grinned like two Cheshire cats when his deposit showed up in our bank account, then scrambled to get the last minute things done to get it ready.

Hubby put together the kettle braai (Webber BBQ), cleaned the pool, got a TV for the place. I got a TV technician in to set up the antenna leads. We picked up a cute little stainless steel microwave at a ridiculously low cost, and a small refrigerator with a little freezer on the top. Last Saturday, Hubby and I spent hours getting the place ready, running the extension cords to the appliances (everything runs on extension cords and “multiplugs” here) and confirming everything worked, and I popped some bottled water into the fridge for our guests. Tuesday, three days before our first guests were due, we stopped by to water the gardens and I pulled a bottle of ice water from the fridge…only to find it wasn’t cold. Not even cool. Dear God, the brand new fridge didn’t work and the guests were arriving in two days...and had taken four days to get the thing delivered!

For two days my husband was shifted from one place to another. Salesmen and department managers and service people promised to “look into it” and call him back…few did. By Thursday, things were looking critical…our guest was arriving the following day and we still didn’t have a functioning refrigerator…and neither the store from which we bought it nor their service arm had come up with a plan. And then Hubby had to go into a meeting and said that I had to call the supervisor at the service company which, by the way, was Whirlpool.

“Whirlpool?” I asked, aghast. “Whirlpool the American company, Whirlpool?” He confirmed and then rang off, saying he just had to get to his meeting.

Steam escaping from my ears, I picked up the phone and called the supervisor. I could understand the “hang loose” attitude that many South Africans evidence in their own daily workaday worlds, but this was an American company and I fully expect American levels of service from them. The company that has been jerking me around for two-and-a-half days is not a laid back South African firm but an American one? I’m pissed!

The phone was answered and the accent was definitely South African…but the company was not. “This is Mrs. Gxxxxx,” I said by way of introduction, “What is the story with the refrigerator?”

“The technician says it needs to go into the workshop,” he tells me.

Huh? How the hell would the technician know anything? Nobody has been out to see it! Nobody has called me, and I have the keys to the flat where it is locked up… “How would he know?” I asked. “Nobody’s been there.”

Now it was his turn to be confused. He was sure his technician had been there to look at the machine. Soon it is discovered that the technician did see the refrigerator, he just failed to telephone me…my builder, who is still renovating the other two flats…let them in. Hours ago. And neither I nor my husband knew a thing…which wasted hours of precious time needed to arrange for a replacement.

“I need a refrigerator in that unit by noon tomorrow,” I tell him. “It is a holiday flat and we have guests arriving tomorrow afternoon and I need something in there by noon so it will be cold by the time they arrive.”

“Weeeeeeellllll,” he drawls out in his South African accent, “We have to pick up that unit and it needs to go into the shop…”

“Look,” I interrupt him, “I don’t care. If you can’t have a working fridge in there by noon tomorrow, just come pick up the broken one…and bring my money with you. I’ll just go to House and Home [a major competitor] and buy a bar fridge that I can get there in the back of my Mercedes.”

“It’ not that easy…” he drawls out. Again I interrupt him. “This is an American company, right? And I am sure you can tell by my accent that I am an American. In fact, I owned Whirlpool appliances when I lived in California. And I fully expect the same level of service from Whirlpool here in South Africa that I would get from Whirlpool in the States. I don’t care if you have to stop at the warehouse and pick up a brand new refrigerator and swap it for the dead one, if you cannot have a working fridge in place in this flat by noon tomorrow, bring my money with you when you come for the dead one!

He said he would see what he could do and call me back in five minutes.

Fifteen minutes passed, then twenty, then half an hour, and my husband called to see how it was going. After relating the conversation to him…and the fact that the fellow had not called back, Hubby said he’d look into it. Five minutes later it was the Whirlpool guy on the phone.

“We can bring you a loaner fridge,” he tells me.

“Excellent,” I respond, softening my tone. No point in being tough when things are moving in the right direction. “What time will it be here?”

“Well, it will have to be tomorrow as it is too late to get anything from the warehouse today…”

“What time tomorrow?”

“Well, the delivery guys are in the Southern Suburbs until 1 pm…” I, of course, am in the Northern Suburbs…

“Nope,” I interrupt him sharply. “If you have to put it in your own personal bakkie and drive it over here your own personal self so that it is here before noon, that is what you are going to have to do…or have those delivery guys bring my money with them because, one way or another, there will be a functioning fridge in that flat by noon tomorrow, if I have to go over to House and Home in the morning and pick one up myself!” He again promised to call me back.

He was only fifteen minutes late…but this time he had a solution. That “Southern Suburbs” delivery thing was suddenly flexible…apparently it was worth nearly R2000 to them to “adjust” the delivery schedule, particularly in view of the fact that their facility was located in an industrial park only a couple of miles up the road from the flat!

Next morning at 8:30 the fridge shows up and the driver and his helpers wrestle it into the flat and carry the dead one away. By 6, when our guests arrive, the bottled water we have put in for them is nicely chilled, and they “ooooh” and “ahhhh” over the flat, tiny, cosy, compact, with “everything we could possibly need!” Including a functioning refrigerator.

Sometimes a bitch’s gotta do what a bitch’s gotta do…