Monthly Archives: January 2013

Soweto

Al’s mom (Carol) and step-dad (Gerald) are visiting us here in South Africa and we have many exciting things planned while they are here, including a trip to Kruger for a safari and a visit to Cape Town for wine tasting. But when trying to brainstorm things for us to do here in Joburg, I could only come up with the following activities: eat, drink, or leave Joburg.  We opted for all three today and left Joburg — sort of — to go on a tour of Soweto (Southwest Townships), something I’d been meaning to do since I got here.

Soweto shanty house

Soweto shanty house

First, a tiny bit of background: townships were the peripheral urban areas to which non-white South Africans were evicted or relocated from the cities before and during Apartheid. In Joburg, black people were moved outside of the city proper starting in the late 1880s after the 1886 discovery of gold in the area. What is now known as Soweto began in 1904 with the establishment of a township called Klipspruit, which was created to house black laborers (many of whom worked in the mines). More and more black people were relocated to this area over the years, particularly after 1948, when the National Party took over and began the policy of Apartheid. During Apartheid, starting in the 1950s, the government created separate townships for each of the non-white racial groups (coloured, black, and Indian). Soweto grew quickly (and in an unplanned way) over the years and today is home to around 4 million people.

Soweto "hostels" - housing for laborers

Soweto “hostels” – housing for laborers

Soweto is well-known because of the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which represented a turning point in the anti-Apartheid sentiment in South Africa and worldwide. On June 16, 1976, a group of students began to protest the government’s policy of forcing black African students to be educated in Afrikaans, rather than English. That day, as a group of 10,000 students marched in an area called Orlando West, police were called in and opened fire on them, killing adults and children. Soweto was engulfed by riots and by the end of the Soweto Uprising, at least 176 (but perhaps as many as 600) people had been killed.

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Sign from Soweto Uprising

Heavy stuff.

Today, Soweto seems an odd mix of desperate poverty, well-oiled tourism, and flashy wealth. Our tour started with the part of Soweto where the so-called “black millionaires” have moved in. Our guide explained that some wealthy black South Africans moved back to Soweto and revamped certain neighborhoods in an effort to revitalize the township as a whole. There are truly lovely houses there, with fancy cars in the driveways, swimming pools, satellite TVs, the works. And then, you go a few blocks away and you see this:

Soweto shanty town

Kliptown 

The poverty is so staggering that it’s hard to process. How do people live in houses with no running water, no sewage system, no insulation, no cooling, no room to move around or breathe? How do people make this work? I felt dismayed and helpless at the poverty we saw in Soweto, not only because of the depth of the misery but because of its breadth – millions of people live like this.

School wall, Soweto

School wall, Soweto

Within Kliptown, one of the shanty-town areas of Soweto, we visited a nursery school for kids ages one through six called Pastoral Centre. This was the most heartening (and adorable) part of our day. We were greeted by a classroom of six-year-olds who performed several songs and poems for us and it was quite possibly the cutest thing I’ve ever seen. Here’s a very short video I took while they were singing:

We met the principal, Pam Mfaxa, a truly impressive woman who started the nursery school to meet a need she saw in her community, giving poor kids a chance to succeed. The school gives the kids three balanced meals a day, allows them to sing and play creatively, and even teaches them computer skills. They’re intervening in these kids’ lives at a time when brain development is critical for success later in life, so the work they do is hugely important. They also have outreach programs for the elderly and other members of the community (including HIV/AIDS awareness and condom distribution). I was very impressed with the entire operation and it was one of the most hopeful things I saw in Soweto.

Cuteness!

Cuteness!

The tour also included a visit to a shebeen, which is the term for the formerly illicit pubs that sprang up in the townships during Apartheid, since black Africans weren’t allowed to visit bars or pubs for white people.  The shebeen we visited was called, appropriately enough, The Shack. They offered us a taste of the local brew, Joburg Beer, which is made with sorghum, maize, wheat, water and yeast. It had the consistency of chunky milk and smelled like bread. I took a pass, but I did get a photo of the carton.

Joburg beer and calabash cup

Joburg beer and calabash cup

We also visited the Hector Pieterson museum, named after the first person shot by the police in the Soweto Uprising. He was thirteen years old when he died. The museum was fascinating and moving and troubling. One thing that I learned today, which I was not fully aware of before, was how central a role the revolt against Afrikaans in schools played in the entire South African liberation movement. I knew that during Apartheid, everyone was forced to speak Afrikaans in school, but I didn’t realize the difficulties it caused or how hated it was among black South Africans as a means of oppression.

Freedom Charter

Freedom Charter

Although the tour of Soweto was emotionally heavy and rather exhausting, I am so glad we went. I really got a look at a different vision of South Africa from the one that I see every day, which is comfortable, walled-off, a bit boring, even. Soweto was vibrant, sad, difficult, and hopeful all at once. I am not sure what I can do to help, but I will be contributing funds to Pastoral Centre, which relies on donations to stay in operation. I’m so encouraged that there are organizations that are trying to bridge the opportunity gap between the poor and the rich in this country by helping those who are most innocent and full of potential: children.

Pastoral Centre - one-year-olds

Pastoral Centre – one-year-olds

By the way, for anyone considering a visit to Joburg and who wants to go on a Soweto tour, I highly recommend the tour company we used, Themba Day Tours. They were very professional and reasonably priced and they struck a good balance between lightheartedness and respect for the place we were visiting.

Book review Tuesday: Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

[Programming note: my in-laws are in town, so Al and I will be busy having fun with them for the next little while. Blogging may be intermittent. Try to hold on without me.]

Far from the Tree is a book that I had heard a lot about before I read it, and then once I read it, I understood at once why people had been talking so much about it. In fact, I couldn’t stop telling people about it. I kept bringing it up and sprinkling bits of information I had learned from it into conversation. It’s one of those books that sticks with you.

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Far from the Tree is Andrew Solomon’s beautifully written, in-depth exploration of the lives of parents who have children that are in some way exceptional, defined broadly. He is particularly interested in the experiences of parents of children who have different “horizontal identities” from their parents or families. A horizontal identity is one that is not inherited from one’s parents; for example, a gay child of straight parents has a different horizontal identity (gay) from his parents, just as a deaf child of hearing parents would have a different horizontal identity from her parents. Solomon is interested in this particular question because he is gay and for most of his life, he carried a great deal of residual anger about the way he was raised by his parents, who were baffled by his homosexuality and tried, with the best of intentions, to make it go away. He wanted to forgive his parents by seeking to understand what it was like for them to raise a child who was so fundamentally different from themselves, and so he interviewed more than three hundred families who presented all manner of challenging parenting experiences.

The book is divided into the following categories: Son (a look at Solomon’s own upbringing and the alienation he felt at being gay), Deaf, Dwarfs, Down Syndrome, Autism, Schizophrenia, Disability, Prodigies, Rape (that is, children conceived in rape), Crime (children who commit crimes), Transgender, and Father (a reflection on Solomon’s decision to become a father, in light of what he learned in his research for this book). All of these chapters contain fascinating stories. Many of them are heart-wrenching. Some of them are uplifting. In fact, one of the most surprising aspects of the book was how many these parents said that the experience of raising their child had in some way enriched their lives or made them better people, even when, from the outside, the situation seemed dire or horrible or unworkable.

Solomon is empathetic and inquisitive. He shows tremendous compassion for the families he interviews, but he does not always agree with them. He delves deeply into the social, political, and ethical issues that come along with raising children with various horizontal identities. He examines the political movements behind Deaf culture, autism, and transgenderism. He considers the latest science behind various genetic conditions. He compares and contrasts the experiences of real people who have raised children despite seemingly insurmountable challenges. It doesn’t do to try to summarize the stories or the conclusions of the book. For that, I recommend playing around on the book’s excellent, engaging website, which contains interviews with some of the families and with Solomon himself.  You can also check this NPR interview.

The most powerful lesson in this book for me was that the experiences of raising children who are radically different from oneself is actually just an extreme version of all parenting. My own parents, over the years, have struggled to accept the ways that I am different from them. Even though I am not disabled or a prodigy or a criminal, my parents have nonetheless found it difficult to relate to me at times, and this, it turns out, is a universal experience of parents. I found the book’s discussion of these tensions illuminating and comforting. I typed out the following snippet from the book and sent it to my parents, because it perfectly encapsulates this idea of how parents’ identities become tied to and entangled with their children, and how this can cause hurt and confusion for both:

Our children are not us: they carry throwback genes and recessive traits and are subject right to the start to environmental stimuli beyond our control. And yet we are our children; the reality of being a parent never leaves those who have braved the metamorphosis. The psychonanalyst D. W. Winnicott once said, ‘There is no such thing as a baby – meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find yourself describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone but is essentially part of a relationship.’ Insofar as our children resemble us, they are our most precious admirers, and insofar as they differ, they can be our most vehement detractors.  From the beginning, we tempt them into imitation of us and long for what may be life’s most profound compliment: their choosing to live according to our own system of values.  Though many of us take pride in how different we are from our parents, we are endlessly sad at how different our children are from us.

These feelings of sadness over differences, though, are often counterbalanced by the feeling that one’s children are the children one is meant to have, writes Solomon toward the end of the book:

Most of us believe that our children are the children we had to have; we could have had no others.  They will never seem to us to be happenstance; we love them because they are our destiny. Even when they are flawed, do wrong, hurt us, die — even then, they are part of the rightness by which we measure our own lives.  Indeed, they are the rightness by which we measure life itself, and they bring us to life as profoundly as we do them.

In short, I recommend this book for both parents and children (so, everyone) because it will make you think deeply both about your own life and the lives of others.

Tea at the Westcliff

One of my friends here, Mare, had a birthday tea today at The Westcliff, a hotel with great views of the leafy top of Joburg. The Westcliff, being fancy and a wee bit colonial (awkward), serves a lovely high tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, and, you know, tea.

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

View from the tea room at The Westcliff

They didn’t have the kind of tea I normally go for (i.e., boring, Irish tea) but they did have all sorts of exotic, flowery things, including one tea that opened up into an actual flower when placed in hot water. I went with the least exotic kind of tea. Nothing flowering, blooming, or otherwise germinating in my tea, thank you very much. The serving implements were quite pretty and I felt very fancy pouring tea out of an individual glass pot being kept warm by a votive.

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeping

Tea, steeped

Tea, steeped

I ate some finger sandwiches, a mini quiche, and some fruit salad, and valiantly avoided the scrumptious looking desserts. They even had red velvet cupcakes, a particular weakness of mine, but I resisted.

Toward the end of our tea, it started to get cloudy, and by the time we left, it was pouring down rain, monsoon-style.

Clouds overhead

Clouds overhead

View from inside the car - crazy rain

View from inside the car – crazy rain

All in all, a nice little getaway for a Monday afternoon. Now I’m home, listening to the rain bucket down, and feeling inspired to get back to revising my novel (again).  Sigh. See you tomorrow, and happy Monday.

 

 

Cradle of Humankind and karaoke

This weekend was, and continues to be, packed, hence my lack of blogging.  On Friday, we went to a lovely dinner party at our friends’ house and woke up terribly hungover on Saturday. That afternoon, we bundled off to the Cradle of Humankind, a World Heritage Site where they discovered some super old (2.3 million years!) bones from an early human species, Australopithecus africanus.  So I guess it’s the cradle of humanoid-kind, but okay.

We went there for a birthday picnic for a friend. This wasn’t the kind of picnic where you spread a blanket on the ground and eat some sandwiches. It was this kind of picnic:

 

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Schmancy!  The Cradle is very pretty, so it was a nice way to spend an afternoon.

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After lunch, we drove back to Joburg and immediately went to dinner with some new friends, which then led seamlessly into a trip to our local bar, The Colony Arms, for some karaoke.  I didn’t sing (I just wasn’t in the mood, and I’ll be danged before I’ll half-ass karaoke), but Al sung “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks, and despite the fact that he and I were probably the only two people in the entire place who had ever heard that song, it was a hit.

Drinks list

Drinks list – remind me to try the Suitcase before I leave South Africa

And now we’re off again, to a lunch at another friend’s house. Who knew we were so popular, right? As we speak, Al is baking some honey-wheat bread to bring along (whereas I am just bringing my sunny personality).

This weekend has been great, full of new friends and nice food and booze, but it’ll be nice to have a chill night in tonight and, hopefully, to plow through the last two episodes of Season 3 of Downton Abbey (no spoilers, but holy crap, Episode 5, you guys).

Happy weekend to everyone!

 

Sound advice Thursday: How do I “unfriend” someone in real life?

Dear Steph:

How do you “unfriend” someone in real life? One of my best friends has a girlfriend that she met through work that I’m not particularly fond of. Whenever we all hang out, she makes passive aggressive and snarky comments to me and goes out of her way to prove that she and my best friend have a closer relationship. She has always been a “frenemy” that I tolerated for the sake of my best friend (who’s oblivious to this girl’s rudeness toward me).  However, my friend recently moved away for graduate school, and her snarky friend is now contacting me, asking me to hang out. If it’s a big group setting like a happy hour, I’ll go, but I try to avoid any one-on-one time with her. I never initiate any sort of contact with her and I don’t do anything (at least in my mind) that would give her the impression that I like her and want to develop a deeper friendship with her. Is it wrong to completely ignore her or make excuses to avoid her until she gets the hint and stops contacting me?

Sincerely,

I Don’t Want To Be Your Friend

Poor Chris Birillo. He never saw it coming.

Poor Chris Pirillo. He never saw it coming.

Dear IDWTBYF,

If only unfriending an annoying person in real life were as simple as it is on Facebook: just click “Remove friend” and you’re done.  Easy. Painless. Quick. But IRL, as the kids say, things are more complicated. There’s no easy unfriend option, and simply ignoring the negative Nelly in your life might not actually rid you of her.  I think the success of your ignore and wait strategy with Nelly will depend on two things: 1) the likelihood of your running into her while you’re out and about, and 2) your ability to persevere in the face of her continued friendship overtures.

You didn’t say whether or not Nelly and you run in the same social circles or whether your only connection to her was through your friend who moved away.  If it’s the latter, then simply not answering her emails, or replying with a curt but polite brush-off (e.g., “I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid my dance card is full for the foreseeable future!”) might do the trick.  Even though it sounds from your letter that Nelly is not the most adept at social cues, there’s not much she can do in the face of your unresponsiveness.

On the other hand, if you and Nelly are apt to run into each other frequently, you need to be more direct.  Let’s say you’re at your local watering hole having a beer with friends and Nelly saunters up and asks if you got her last six emails and if you’re free for drinks next week.  Be polite but firm.  Say something like, “Thank you so much for the offer, but I don’t think I’ll be able to make it.”  You don’t need to give her a reason or an excuse. All you owe her is courtesy (which is more than she has shown you in the past, apparently).

The second important leg of a successful avoidance strategy is the ability to resist the urge to answer her repeated emails, texts, and calls to make excuses for yourself.  Women are socialized to be polite and to think of others’ feelings, which can be wonderful in many contexts, but which can also bring up unnecessary feelings of guilt and anxiety when trying to avoid or get rid of someone who is a drain on your positive energy.  It may be tempting to want to give Nelly a list of reasons why you can’t hang out with her, but it’s simpler (and more honest) to just say you can’t make it and thank her for the invite.  Eventually she’ll get the hint.

Your letter begs the question of why someone who makes snarky, passive aggressive remarks to you would be so eager to hang out one-on-one, but I suspect it’s because Nelly doesn’t have a lot of friends.  She has probably alienated many potential pals with her nastiness and is now struggling to find people to hang out with, which is actually quite sad, if you think about it.  However, life is short, and my advice is to limit or cut out contact with people who make your life worse.  If you’re feeling charitable and/or masochistic and want to give Nelly another chance, feel free, but keep your expectations realistic.  It might take some tough love for Nelly to change her tune.

Good luck!

Yours, Steph

Please send your burning etiquette/life questions to stephanie [dot] early [dot] green [at] gmail [dot] com.

Book review Tuesday: Snowdrops, by A.D. Miller

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately about places and cultures that I didn’t know I was interested in until I started reading about them.  I learned that I was interested in Japan after reading Richard Lloyd Parry’s excellent People Who Eat Darkness, and I suppose, in the same way, I learned I was interested in Russia after reading A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops.

snowdrops

Snowdrops, which was shortlisted for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, takes place in early 2000s Moscow, at the height of Russia’s post-Soviet oil boom. The book opens with this disturbing definition, which sets the tone for the story that follows:

Snowdrop. 1. An early-flowering bulbous plant, having a white pendent flower.  2. Moscow slang.  A corpse that lies buried or hidden in the winter snows, emerging only in the thaw

The opening scene of the book finds the narrator, Nick Platt, a late-30s British project finance lawyer, discovering his first snowdrop (and not the bulbous plant kind) in his Moscow neighborhood.  We then step back a year or so and learn the story of Nick’s ill-fated involvement with a pair of (quite obviously sketchy) Russian women, Masha and Katya, their elderly aunt, and the parallel story of a disastrous business deal that Nick’s law firm undertakes with a shady figure they refer to only as “the Cossack.”

We know from the very beginning of the story that things aren’t going to end well for Nick, but we don’t know precisely how things are going to go awry. As the story unfolds, Nick’s folly becomes clearer and clearer to the reader, while he remains blissfully unaware of how stupid and dangerous his choices are becoming.

Snowdrops is not a perfect book. But it is a gripping book. For the most part, it’s fast-paced, well plotted, and the descriptions of Moscow and the brutal, decadent, selfish culture of post-Soviet oligarch culture in the early-2000s is excellent.  Miller paints a sharp picture of Moscow, the surrounding countryside, and even Odessa, where Nick and his lady friends take a debauched vacation.

There were also certain lovely little observational passages that I enjoyed greatly.  For instance, when Nick is out to dinner with Masha and her putative sister Katya, he asks them back to his place for some “tea” (euphemism alert) and Masha agrees:

Masha looked hard into my eyes and said yes.  I waved at the waiter and wrote a little squiggle in the air with an imaginary pen, the international let-me-out-of-here signal that, when you’re a teenager and you see your parents make it, you think you never will.

The novel is interesting, structurally: it’s set up as a letter that Nick is writing to his now fiancée, confessing his dalliances and laying out the bare truth about his moral failings so that she knows what she’s getting into before she marries him.  Quite early into the book, I thought, Run, lady! Run while you still can!  Nick is pretty awful.  And he’s quite unsparing in providing unsavory sexual details about his previous relationships, which, to me, seemed a tad unnecessary. Can’t you just tell your fiancée you’re an asshat without proving it by filling her in on the exact nature of your sluttiness, Nick?

Despite the quality of the writing and the effectiveness of the pacing of the book, I did have a few major issues with it:

1) You can see the bad thing (no spoilers!) that is going to happen coming from a mile away. Around halfway through the book, you realize that the jig is up, and you wonder why Nick is being such a f***wit, pardon my French.

2) Speaking of Nick, he really does suck. It’s hard to root for the guy.  He’s insipid, selfish, and shallow. He realizes all of these things about himself, but blames them entirely on the fact of his being in Russia.  Nick’s willingness to point to Russia as the sole cause for his moral collapse is part of the message of the book, which is that modern Russia has the capacity to unearth the dark side of our human nature, Lord of the Flies style, which we would prefer to believe does not reside in each one of us. Okay, fine, whatever, Russia is inherently corrupting. But Nick is still a bad person. The premise of the novel, that he is unburdening himself to his now fiancée, makes him appear even more cruel.

3) The side-plot about Nick’s misbegotten business venture with the Cossack is a snore. Perhaps I felt this way because I myself used to work in project finance as a lawyer, so I know intimately how boring it really is, but I could have done with less detail about the ins and outs of his obviously doomed venture with a bunch of sketchy Russian oilmen.

Nonetheless, I recommend Snowdrops for the rich, disturbing picture it paints of modern Russia and Russians, and for its lively pacing.  It won’t take you long to charge through this one, and if you’re like me, you’ll come away with a new curiosity about Mother Russia.

Swaziland

We spent this weekend in Swaziland, at the Mlilwane Wildlife Sanctuary, a national big game park.

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Our modest plan, as per usual, was to hang out in the park, go on a game drive, maybe go horseback riding, braai, and see a new country.  And, once again, our plans were thwarted.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if maybe Al and I were criminals in a past life and are now being punished for our past misdeeds by Vishnu or whoever is in charge of karma.  I don’t think we were felons or anything – but maybe shoplifters? How else to explain the rash of bad traveling luck we’ve had recently? This trip wasn’t as out and out disastrous as our Botswana trip, which, admittedly, is a low hurdle to clear, but things definitely did not go as planned.

The road to Swaziland

The road to Swaziland

Al and I set off from Joburg on Friday at 2 pm with a trunk full of food, hiking gear, and — optimistic fools that we are — bathing suits.  Four hours later, we reached the border with Swaziland.  The drive was remarkably painless, except for a steady drizzle the whole way, and we were feeling confident — TOO confident.  We stepped out of our trusty* old Yaris and were walking towards the customs/immigration building when a police officer pointed at our car and said, “You’ve got a flat.”

Understatement of the year.

Guys. This is what our tire looked like:

NBD, we just drove over some knives.

NBD, we just drove over some knives.

Yeeeah.  Al and I immediately spiraled into a state of deep denial, followed by nervous (bordering on hysterical) laughter, followed by rage, followed by resigned acceptance.  These are the stages of African car trouble.  We know them well.

A few South African police officers changed our tire, putting on the spare in our trunk, at lightning speed while Al and I stood around uselessly and pretended to be helping (“Yeah, get that spanner in there. There you go.”).  Then we drove over the border into Mbabane, the bustling capital city of The Kingdom of Swaziland, where literally everything was closed.  It was 7 pm.  I figured we needed to get our tire changed that night before we attempted driving into the wildlife park, because I was pretty confident that the road into the park would be the kind of pothole littered, rocky, lake-sized puddle obstacle course of horrors that we’ve come to expect on our trips out of town.  However, after driving around for an hour in search of a mechanic or anyone else with the ability to repair a tire, we realized that we were not getting the tire fixed that night and began the slow, rocky, bumpy road into the wildlife park.  About this time, it started to pour down rain.

After an excruciatingly slow 4 km drive over an unpaved, potholey, wet road to the gates of the park, we were met by a guard who told us that the road to the backpackers’ hostel in the park was “too wet” and we’d have to take an alternative route.  Suppressing our desire to beat this man with his own shoes, we turned around  and made it back to the main road, where we began following the extremely vague directions we had been given to the hostel.  At 9 pm, when we still hadn’t found the hostel, I started to lose it.  Right at the point where I was ready to jump out of the car and hitchhike back to Joburg, we found the hostel, where we were showed to our room and told that we would be sharing a bathroom with everyone else on the hall.  We were not pleased.

Five minutes later, the power went out.

Are you getting the picture here?

That first night, after braaing in the dark and carrying our plates back and forth in the pissing rain, Al and I told each other, like always, that things would look better in the morning.  Neither of us really believed it.

Later that night, our friends Josh and Ken showed up, too.  The next morning, it was pouring rain, and the four of us were told — you guessed it — that a game drive was simply impossible.  Impossible!  Since nearly all activities in Swaziland are outdoors/safari oriented, we were in sort of a pickle.  Not to be discouraged, we decided to take care of business and get our tire fixed.  We eventually found a tire garage, which could more accurately be described as a shack on the side of the road that contained tires, but the guys there were helpful and only charged us about $30 for a new tire.

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Turns out, though, we needed TWO new tires.  I’ll spare you the ridiculous details, but after much ado, we ended up with two new (to us) tires and an instruction from the guys at the garage/shack to get our back right tire looked at as soon as we got back to Joburg, because it was about to separate from the wheel. Awesome.

After getting the car taken care of, more or less, we checked out one of Mbabane’s famous attractions, a concert venue called House on Fire, which has a reputation for being one of the coolest concert venues in all of Southern Africa.  Hopeful, as always, we showed up to see what was going on that night, a Saturday.  The woman who worked there told us that the staff was on vacation that week so there would be no concerts. Of course.

So, we looked around the venue, which is filled with really cool art.  Some day I’d like to go back and actually see a concert there. Imagine that!

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The rain had still not stopped, but in the afternoon, the four of us decided to go for a hike in the park.  The people at the hostel looked at us like we were insane, but we wanted to see some animals, gosh darn it, and we were going to go for a hike, rain be DAMNED.  Since Al and I had not brought ponchos, we made our own fashionable slickers out of trash bags and set off on a soggy two and a half hour hike around the park.

This happened.

This happened.

Although we were hoping for hippos, we didn’t see any.  But! We saw antelopes of various descriptions, Wildebeest, warthogs, birds, and — my absolute favorite — zebras! For anyone who has been on a real safari, zebras are old hat, but for me, they were incredible.  I also sort of wanted to steal one and keep it in our apartment.

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That night, we had a braai and drank wine and sat around, satisfied in the knowledge that we had made the most of our time in Swaziland, despite the flat tire(s), despite the rain, and despite the intermittent power. The next day, I took some pictures as we drove back to Joburg, which should give you an idea of what Swaziland looks like, more or less.

The driver

The driver

HIV/AIDS awareness

HIV/AIDS awareness

Cow

Cow

Overall, given the circumstances, not a bad trip.  It probably would have been nicer had everything gone to plan, but what can you do? We should know by now not to expect things to go perfectly.  Message received, Vishnu.

*Read: not trusty at all

Off to Swaziland

Happy Friday!

There’s no time for a real blog post today, I’m afraid! I am running around on this gray, rainy Joburg day to try and get ready for our weekend trip to Swaziland.  We’re leaving today at 1 pm and before that I need to go grocery shopping for four people, get to the gym to swim, shower, eat, pack, and pick Al up from work so we can get on the road.  Yeesh.

We’ll be back Sunday.  In the meantime, here are a list of things you can do:

  1. Send me a question to answer in my Sound Advice Thursday advice column
  2. Read all the archives of my blog and laugh uproariously, when appropriate
  3. Pine away for me
  4. Watch this video of a baby Bassett hound who does not want to go on a walk:

Enjoy your weekend!! See you Monday!

Sound Advice Thursday: Do I have to tell him I’m seeing other people?

Dear Steph:

I’m recently single and have been trying to get back into dating mode. I don’t know what the technical term for this is, but I’ve been hanging out with a few different guys on a fairly regular basis. I’ve made it clear that I’m not looking for a relationship, but I haven’t really mentioned to these guys that I’m also seeing other people. Is that a necessary conversation, or is it okay for me to continue as I have been?

Sincerely,

Playing the Field (but not a Player)

Dear PTF (BNAP),

Dating etiquette these days is complicated, eh? With the New York Times heralding The End of Courtship (replaced by oh-so-classy casual hook-up culture, a vestige of the millennial college experience), it’s hard to know what’s socially acceptable and what’s just plain rude when it comes to dating.  Does playing X-Box and making out count as a date?  Is it a date if his bros from Sig Ep are there, too?  Is it okay to break up with someone via emoticon? And if so, is it okay to use the Robocop emoticon? ([(  (“Your move, creep.”)

But let’s get to your question. If you’re wondering if it’s okay to date multiple people, of course it is!  But is it okay to keep that fact to yourself?  That depends.  But probably not.

First, you’re doing the right thing by making it clear to your potential paramours that you’re not looking for a husband, which should help clarify your intentions.  However, men can be quite literal and may be bad at reading between the lines.  This means that if you hang out with a guy long enough, you’ll need to disclose to him that you’re also seeing other people. Why? Because at some point, if you spend enough time together, the guy will assume that you’re probably a couple.  The precise point at which each guy will assume you’re an item depends on the guy – but for his sake and yours, you should let him know you’re not exclusive before things get awkward.

Let me give you an example using the hottest current pop stars: imagine you’ve been seeing Howie, Brian, and Nick, each for about three weeks, maybe once or twice a week.  Nick assumes you’re seeing other people and so is he.  Brian thinks you’re only seeing him but he’s seeing other people.  And Howie, bless him, assumes that you’re only seeing him and is saving up money so that he can someday buy you your dream home in Orlando (WITH an aboveground pool), because even though you say you’re not looking for a relationship right now, Howie knows you two are meant to be.  Do you see the issue here? Same time spent with each dude, but three different sets of expectations.

Don't break Howie's heart.

Don’t break Howie’s heart.

So when to have this conversation? I’d say after the third or fourth time you go out with someone, you should casually mention that you’re seeing a few other people.  If the guy is looking for a serious commitment (which you’re not), he’ll probably balk.  If he’s not, perfect, you can continue as before.  I understand that telling someone you’re dating other people has the potential for awkwardness, but this is a small amount of awkwardness in order to avoid a large amount of awkwardness down the road.  So just do it.  And tell Howie to hold off on that down payment.

Good luck!

~ Steph

Please send your burning questions to stephanie.early.green [at] gmail [dot] com.

Book review Tuesday: The Sea, by John Banville

I’ve been absolutely devouring books lately, like a starving person who can only take in nutrition through the eyes.  That’s a thing, right? One of the things that I love most about my new life as a writer is how much I get to read and consider it “work.”  I’ve learned that when left to my own devices, I’ll read a book every day or two, or sometimes two or three books at a time, and I just can’t get enough.  Substitute the word “read” for “inject” and “book” for “vial of heroin” and one might think I have a problem.

Anyway, I’ve been getting a ton of my recommendations from the Man Booker Prize. In case you’ve never heard of it, the Man Booker Prize is given out each year to the best novel written by someone from the UK, the Commonwealth, or the Republic of Ireland.  Their website helpfully lists all of the winners of the Prize as well as the books that were short-listed and long-listed for every year since 1969. For a book addict, the Man Booker Prize website is a dangerous website indeed.

I’ve downloaded and read quite a few of the Man Booker Prize winners and short-listers now, from various years.  One that I recently finished is The Sea, by Irish author John Banville, which won the Prize in 2005.

the-sea_bookcover

The story is narrated by a man (Max) whose wife has recently died of cancer.  While revisiting the trauma of her illness and death, Max also looks back on a certain childhood summer at the seaside when he became acquainted with a family, the Graces, who rented a house in the same resort town where he stayed with his family.  As an adult, he’s so hung up on the events of this particular summer that he moves back to that resort town, Ballyless, and takes a room in the house where the Graces used to stay, which has since been converted into a rooming house.  The book flashes between Max’s fresher recollections of his wife’s death and their life together and his old memories of the summer he spent with the Graces, a family he found fascinating.  However, as the novel progresses, we learn that something terrible happened that summer at the seaside, and that Max is still trying to come to terms with it.

The Sea was not an entirely satisfying read for me.  Some of the themes in the book seemed overly familiar, even a bit hackneyed, to me.  For example, the Graces are a family of a mother, father, fraternal twin children (one of whom, the boy, is mute and has webbed feet), and a governess.  I felt that Banville didn’t have any particularly new insights about the mysteriousness of twins, and his heavy-handed hints that the twins, Chloe and Myles, may have been sexually experimenting with one another seemed unnecessary.  Plus, I think Donna Tartt and George R.R. Martin have pretty much cornered the market on blonde fraternal twins having sex.  Maybe that’s unfair.  But there are only so many times we can drag out that trope before it gets a bit stale.  Some of the other themes in the book (watching a loved one die of cancer, first love, the perils of aging) also struck me as rather well worn.

I also felt that Banville failed to adequately build suspense for the final, terrible event that occurs at Ballyless.  The foreshadowing was clouded with too much exposition about the narrator’s fascination with Mrs. Grace, the twins’ mother, his contemporary observations about his adult daughter, and his myriad complaints about aging.  I understand that these layers are what add to the complexity of the book, but I found myself skimming whole paragraphs just to get to the meat of the story.

However, the novel is very well written, and contains some very insightful observations about life, particularly about the differences between adolescence and adulthood.  This was one of my favorites, describing how Max felt after his first kiss with Chloe:

Happiness was different in childhood.  It was so much then a matter simply of accumulation, of taking things – new experiences, new emotions – and applying them like so many polished tiles to what would someday be the marvelously finished pavilion of the self.  And incredulity, that too was a large part of being happy, I mean that euphoric inability fully to believe one’s simple luck.  There I was, suddenly, with a girl in my arms, figuratively, at least, doing the things that grown-ups did, holding her hand, and kissing her in the dark, and, when the picture had ended, standing aside, clearing my throat in grave politeness, to allow her to pass ahead of me under the heavy curtain and through the doorway out into the rain-washed sunlight of the summer evening. I was myself and at the same time someone else, someone completely other, completely new.  As I walked behind her amid the trudging crowd in the direction of the Strand Café I touched a fingertip to my lips, the lips that had kissed hers, half expecting to find them changed in some infinitely subtle but momentous way.

I love that observation about collecting experiences in adolescence and stacking them up to create a vision of yourself.  So perfect.

In all, I enjoyed Banville’s evocative writing, but I felt a bit let down by the psychodrama aspects of the plot.  Maybe the synopses I read promised more than they could deliver in terms of the “dark,” mysterious nature of the plot.  Luckily, the book is a rather quick read (only 198 pages, according to my Kindle), so it doesn’t require a huge time commitment to get through, so why not give it a try?