Wednesday, December 31, 2008

..and an Engish Christmas in Africa

The Christmas marathon continued with presents from Santa, and a large family dinner, with all the extended family, many of whom I had not yet met, South Africa being a very long trek from San Francisco. Us early risers were charged with preparing the table for the dinner (21 seated to eat), along with the housekeeper. I haven't quite got used to the idea of having servants, but "cookie", a sweet indian woman who comes every weekday to clean and do laundry, is very sweet, and certainly makes our lives easier. Labour is cheap here, and all middle class folk of any race employ help in the house. (the kids, always early birds, are getting up atound 5.00am here, which is slightly denting the 'relaxing vacation' concept.)

The sight of her stocking stuffed wth gifts brought great excitment from geekygirl, though we did persuade her to down a bowl of "strawberry pops" before the unwrapping frenzy began. (every single breakfast cereal here seems to be sugar coated. I eventually found a Cheerio like brand, called Oatees, but even these innocent and wholesome looking cereal circles were coated in a veneer of sugaryness. I find going to the supermarket in different countries to be endlessly fascinating. Here there are many unfamiliar brands. In this age of globalization one tends to find many of the same products everywhere, but the forced isolation of South Africa by international sanctions forced it to develop its own version of almost everything. Though apparently not heathly breakfast cereal!)

As I hoped, Geekgirl was enthralled with her new baby doll, Christened after a whole day of consideration as "Hannah". She retreated into several hours of fantasy play, and allowed me the luxury of a bit of time with my book!

When she woke from a very deep present stimulated nap, the house was filled with guests. Geekygirl is wary of new people, so was rather overwhelmed. Geekybaby, however, loves everyone, and was passed arund from pillar to post, lighting up the room with his baby smile, despite the yellow crusts around his eyes. Poor guy developed a nasty cold after the trip, one of the downsides of taking a curious ten month old who puts everytihng in his mouth on three consecutive flights.

Two of the new comers though were Nikki and Sasha, boys aged 5 and 3. It did not take long for Geekygirl to become the boss of them, engaging them in a hilarious game of kiss chase. "I chase you then I kiss you".

The afternoon had a scary mment though. This houe is on a golf course, green and beautiful, and very civilized. It doesn't really feel like Africa, until the electricity goes out (every couple of days), the water goes out (just once so far), and the plumbing fails (a couple of times on the trip). The other thing that gives a tase of the exotic is the local pests; monkeys! Just as squirrels may run around in an ordinary estate, the monkeys raom free here. They are adorable little beasts with long long tails. The children are fascinated, geekybaby demonstrating his pointing skills at the fantastic creatures.

Geekgirl was so enamoured of them on Chritsmas evening that she walked backwards of the high patio in the courtyard, losing her footing and tumbling down 5 steep concrete steps. I thrust geekybaby into the arms of the nearest relative and grabbed her, my heart in my mouth. I waved off the attentions of the gaggle of well meaning great aunts, who geekygirl was not very keen on anyway, and definately did not want to be fawned over in her terrified state. Fortunately she was unscratched, and this was confirmed by a cousin who is a doctor. Within a few minutes she was back to running around with the boys as if nothing had happened.

It was certainly a Christmas day to remember

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Danish Christmas in Africa

The Christmas celebrations are over, we are knee deep in toys, generously given by the many new relations I have met, but making me nervous about how much our already laden bags can hold for the journey home, and living of tasty leftovers.

Christmas with the Geeky inlaws is a multi faceted affair. We are in South Africa, the native country of my father in law. His heritige is British, and so are the Christmas traditions. (The white folk in South Africa are of two basic stock, British, the descendents of colonialists, and Afrikaans, people of dutch descent who have their own language and culture. Despite the many years since the end of apartheid, south Africans still identify strongly with their own cultural group, and make the others the butts of jokes. The Afrikaaners seem to get the short end of the stick). My mother in law is Danish though, and the 'Jul' traditions of that country are very different. So we got to do all of it:

On the 24th we all had to sit and sing around the tree (Artifical. Apparently they once tried to get a real tree here, but ended up with some kind of tropical plant that bore no resemblance to a Christmas tree and whose branches did not hold up to the baubles, so it was a very sorry sight). Then gifts were exchanged. Geekybaby had retired for the night, the poor guy has had a nasty cold, but Geekgirl was very enthusiastic, both at giving and getting. Her enthusiasm affected the whole room, with her "What do you have"? "Who is this for?" "Open it, Open it, Open it", More presents, there are still more presents!". My brother inlaws girlfriend has her seventeen year old son here too. He is of course too cool to get all into presents...until he opens a box containing "guitar hero III, legends of rock", and he turned back into a little boy! Actually so did we all. Everyone should share Christmas with a three year old for the sheer joy and wonder of gift opening, and with a seventeen year old so that you can play "Guitar hero", and awesomly cool game. And I am not a gamer. I know what Geekydaddy is getting for his 40th birthday now!

Dinner came after presents, the Danish traditional roast duck, steamed red cabbage (sweetended with currants and cooked in wine), and boiled potatoes coated in sugar, followed by rice pudding with cherry sauce. Geekgirl tried to stay up for dinner, and sat exitedly at the big table, but after a couple of mouthfuls said "I'm just going to take a little rest. Then I come back". So sweet! I put her to bed, and not surprisngly she fell asleep immediately, and slept until morning, awaiting the next present marathon, the much anticipated visit from Santa Claus.

Friday, December 26, 2008


I'm stealing a few moments while Geekygirl watches her new sesame street DVD, and Geekybaby sleeps, to share a few stories form the past few days.

The estate where Geekdaddy's parents live is on a golf course, right on the Indian ocean. Surrounded by a large electric fence. It is quite a long way from any ameneties, so any trip to the shops must be well planned, since you can't just pop back if you forget something. On December 24th, Grandpa, Geekydaddy and geekgirl were sent out on a mission to pic up the floral centerpieces for the Christmas lunch table. They also had a laundry list of other, less importtant items to collect.

They went to the shopping center in Bellito, a modern affair very similar to a mall in the US, and the only shops for the myriad of developments that are springing up along this section of the Durban coast. Geekgirl, Grandma and I had been there a couple of days before and I had been surprised by the bland cleanness of it. Apart from the stores selling carved giraffes, it didn't feel very African at all. Until we went to the "Wimpy' bar; fast food, but with table service, a bounce house, and roving nannies who swoop your kids off to play and bring them back when you call!

Considering the history of this country, I was impressed by how egalitarian it seemed, that both the store assistants and the shoppers were a mixture of white, black and Indian people (back in the 1800's, the British brought Indians here to work as servants and under apartheid there were four racial classifications, white, black, Indian and 'colored' - mixed race).

Anyway, After queueing to get in to the center, and circling for parking, our shoppers found a spot and completed the purchasing. Grandpa had just relinquished the coveted parking spot when Geekgirl, peering into the back of the car said "Where are the flowers?". Yes, they had forgotten the one thing that was mission critical! Two grown men and it takes a not quite 3 year old girl to remember what they actually went to the shops for! So another parking spot was found, and the flowers were collected. Geekygirl saved the day, and Grandpa's ass.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

the longest journey

I'm blogging here from the beautiful 'rainbow nation' of South Africa. It's in the high 80's here, with a warm breeze blowing in from the Indian ocean, which I can see from the window here in my father in law's office. It is great to finally be here. It is a very long way from San Francisco. The trip was beyond exhausting, but really went about as well as one could expect. The whole geekyfamily can now be considered seasoned travellers, so I thought I would share a few tips for traveling half way across the world with a baby and an almost three year old:

1. Use Skypark, or equivalent. Take your own car to the airport, and use an off airport parking company that shuttles you right to the terminal, and has people to help with your mounds of luggage. Buses are as exotic as airplanes to our kids, the evil automobile being our main mode of transport, so we started out on an exciting note!

2. Pack as light as you possibly can. We booked seats for the kids (which I am so grateful for being able to do. Though despite having their own seats we both had a kid asleep on our lap for at least part of a flight), which meant we had a lot of baggage allowance, but of course babies cannot tote their own bags.

3. Use car seats on the plane. Much safer, and the kids are used to sleeping in them. We have the radian 80 seats that fold up and come with a shoulder strap, so though they are heavy, they are much less bulky to carry than the regular seats. Our two, amazingly, slept all the way from San Francisco to London.

4. Break up your journey. Instead of jumping straight on another 10 hour flight to Johannesburg, we spent one night in London. My lovely sister and her family live close to Heathrow, so we had a great 24hrs there. Geekygirl got some bonding time with her cousins (they even slept in the same bed), and we got to catch up and relax before steeling ourselves for the next leg of the journey.

5. Fly South African Airlines. Probably this only works if you are flying to Africa, but they were so awesome. Full interactive entertainment system, yummy food and free booze, (really nice south african red wine). They provided baby food, kids fun packs, and give you socks and eye masks and tiny toothbrushes (in a zebra striped pouch!). It was flying like it used to be before all the airlines went bankrupt.

6. Don't fly to Johannesburg from London over the holidays. There are many many South african ex pats. Most of them go home for the holidays. There are only about 5 immigration desks at Johannesburg international airport. We were the last people off the plane, and found ourselves at the back of an insanely long line. Well not really a line, more like a mob. For some reason, though we gate checked out stroller, it was not given to us at the gate in Joburg. And it was miles and miles of walking to get to the baggage claim. Luckily I had a baby carrier (an essential on any trip), but poor Geekygirl had to walk the whole way, since her dad and I were laden with bags. Another tip, practice carrying your carry on bags for half a mile, then decide exactly how many board books, toys, encyclopedias and barbells you really and truly need on the flight! On no account, though, remove the life saving portable DVD player and its extra battery, however much they may weigh. I borrowed one of these treasures at the last minute, having been reminded that its all very well getting the kids their own seats and their own TV, but often the programming does not include "Clifford the big red dog", or "Charlie and Lola".

7. Accept help. A couple of uniformed staff (very important in Jo burg to only accept help from the official people, apparently) saw our plight, and overheard us say that our connecting flight to Durban was in 1 hour. We were probably a good hour away from getting to the front of the immigration line, and then still had to collect our checked bags, re check them through to Durban and get over to the domestic terminal, so the prospect of making that connection was looking rather grim. These fabulous guys whizzed us through passport control, found our bags and shouldered some of the burden, rechecked them for us, jumping the queue due to what looked like some serious flirting with one of the ground staff, and then took us through the flight crew security instead of the passenger one. We made it with 10 minutes to spare!

8. Break the rules. Toddler only allowed pacifier and blanky for bedtime and car rides? Those are our rules but I added on planes, in airports and at any time during transit. But be warned, Blankies, those threatening objects, must be surrendered to the X ray machine. Mind you, the amount of filthy floors they have been dropped on between American and Africa, they probably are a biohazard by now.

9. Be prepared for the mother of all tantrums when the rules must be re-enforced. Having been a true trooper of a traveller, Geekygirl finally lost it completely when I took the paci away today. I think its her way of releasing all the stress of the last few days, and I'm grateful she saved her meltdown for the safety of our temporary home.

10. Take a tiny camera that fits in your jeans pocket, and take lots of pictures documenting the whole trip, not just the kodak moments. I'm planning on making a photo book for the kids, telling the story of this trip. Though they are too young to really remember it properly, I think a book will recharge those memories and keep them alive.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

holiday party

I know some people don't much like their company holiday events, but I have always enjoyed them. An American company holiday party is generally a far less debauched affair than that enjoyed by the typical British employee, but ours have always been fun. Both geekydaddy and I are social creatures and enjoy a party. I like to socialize with coworkers in a different environment, and to meet their spouses. Plus these days it is a rare occasion that we pull out suits, ties, pretty dresses and high heels and go out all gussied up. It took Geekydaddy five attempts to tie his tie, it has been so long!

In fact, the kids have so impacted our social life that I realized, scanning my closet, that I was in that age old dilemma of 'not having a thing to wear'. I can't complain too much about the way my body has recovered from pregnancies, but I am not the hard bodied size 4 (US size, i must add, before I terrify any UK readers into thinking I suffer from anorexia) that I was before the two kids. My slinky bias cut dresses just don't hang right on my muffiny mummy frame, and spaghetti straps don't work with nursing bras. Maybe I watched too much 'what not to wear' while on maternity leave, but I couldn't bring myself to flaunt my 38 year old thighs in a tiny mini skirt, even though my thighs don't look half bad thanks to pushing a double stroller around the hills of San Francisco, and it is a classy wool one from 'Theory'.

So, the day of the party, while both kids were napping and Geekydaddy was in charge, I nipped up to 'Ambiance' in Noe Valley. This is a tiny store that stocks dresses from French Connection and BCBG, and more importantly, cheaper designers of the same ilk. I filled a fitting room with about 20 dresses, sensibly selecting size 6's and mediums, and threw them on one after another. Shopping post kids is a speedier and more decisive process than the lesiurely days I used to spend browsing, trying on, contemplating choices over a nice lunch, then finally returning to select something.

Luckily one dress was a hit, a short shirt dress in ivory and black stripes, made of that knit polyester that hangs elegantly but can also be thrown on the floor after wearing and shakes right back into shape. Even more fantasitic, I had to return the medium, and buy a small! I was so speedy in my selection that I even treated myself to a drop in pedicure, and when I got home only one of the kids had awoken from naptime!

Feeling almost glamorous in the new dress, we were ready to go. Some kind of police action in the neighbourhood delayed our babysitter, but we eventually got out of the house. We go out so rarely that I don't have a regular sitter, but we do have a great network of parents in our neighberhood who share resources. Gloria was a sweet mexican Grandma, who seemed kind and competent. However I think she feels we don't keep our kids warm enough; Geekybaby goes to bed clad only in his fleecy pyjamas, no blankets. He wriggles too much for coverings. When I got home Gloria showed me proudly that she had found several blankets to cover him, surrounded him with stuffed animals, and wrapped a cloth diaper around his head, in the fashion of a cartoon character with toothache!

I unravelled him from her ministrations, and went to bed, hoping that I had drunk enough water during the evening to avoid the dreaded "up at 6.00am with lively kids and pounding hangover" syndrome, that afflicts us reformed party girls, who sometime forget that after two pregnancies and years of breast feeding, we now have the alcohol tolerance of a teenage nun.

Monday, December 8, 2008

baby's breath

Its supposed to smell sweet and wholesome, soft and milky and to draw a mother in for snuggley closeness, I believe. There is even a sweet smelling flower of the same name. Last week, geekybaby's breath, if it smelled like a flower at all, smelled like that exotic thing at Kew gardens that flowers once every 50 years and emanates the odor of rotting carcass.

As any parent of a child in daycare knows, now is the season of back to back colds and sniffles. Geekybaby, on the mend from his first snottiness of the winter developed another fever last week. This one was accompanied by heavy congestion. There is nothing more uncomfortable than a congested baby, unable to nurse he bit at my nipples in frustration. Strong as he is now, he fervently resisted my attempts to squirt saline up his nose and suck the boogers out with my bulb syringe. I hate to do this, but find it strangely satisfying when a large volume of snot is retrieved! And on top of this his breath took on a putrid smell. So nasty that I kept thinking he had a soiled diaper, when in fact he was just exhaling. I could imagine a comedy moment where a friendly passer by, lured in by his adorable smiley face, leaned in to tickle him under the chin then recoiled in horror at his reeking dragon breath. Something so cute really shouldn't smell this bad.

The nice advice nurse at the doctors thought he probably just had a regular cold, but when I mentioned the breath issue she suggested I bring him in. By this time his fever had subsided, and apart from the stinky mouth breathing he seemed in good shape. He giggled at the lovely young resident who examined him, even happily endured the dreaded ear exam, and I felt quite daft, bringing this clearly perfectly healthy if rather congested baby to the doctor. Even the breath seemed less foul, though the resident took a sniff and said "well that certainly isn't baby breath".

This was Friday, and we were planning a weekend trip to tahoe, so though no infection was diagnosed, ears and chest clear, I got a prescription for antibiotics. They next day, fever still coming and going, and smell even worse than ever, I started to treat him. The putrid smell thankfully vanished after the first dose, and the congestion cleared right up too. I don't know what he had, maybe a sinus infection, but I'm glad he no longer smells so horrible!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

'tis the season

This year the geekyfamily are heading to South Africa for a southern hemisphere Christmas with Geekydaddy's parents and extended family. We're excited about this of course, but the closer our departure date comes, the more daunted I feel by the thought of taking a 9 month old and an almost 3 year old half way across the world, spending over 20 hours on airplanes. We are breaking our trip after the first of our three flights, spending a night with my family at my sister's house in London. We will get to meet her latest addition, baby Sophie, and Geekgirl and Geekybaby will get to spend some time with their cousins. Then we hit the air again with another 10 hour flight to Johannesberg, followed by a short hop to Durban.

I apologize in advance to anyone unfortunate enough to be seated near us on any of these flights!

Though geekygirl enjoyed opening her presents last year, and mastered the word 'presents' in the process, this will be the first year she can anticipate the visit of Santa Claus (or Father Christmas, as we would call him back on the UK and in South Africa). We are not religious, and in fact Geekydaddy is quite the Scrooge, would happily do without Christmas altogether. I however embrace my inner hypocrite, and really like to celebrate the holiday. I'm comfortable separating the peace, love and giving part from the the baby Jesus coming to save the world part, and want to create our own traditions for the kids.

So, this means that Santa's presents must be transported half way across the world, without the benefit of flying reindeer. To cut down on bulk, I removed Santa's bounty from its packaging. I'm thinking this was a good idea anyway, since I needed wire cutters to get her new doll out of its box, and this may have caused some frustration on Christmas morning. Santa has been asked for a new baby doll. I had looked at very beautiful, lifelike and stupidly expensive dolls, and almost bought one, then came to my senses as I realized that one of Geekygirls favourite dolls is my old "tiny tears" circa 1972, with her matted hair and marker pen decoration. So Instead I sensibly picked up a nice, inexpensive, "little mommy" doll, easy to dress with her soft body and lifelike with her plastic face, arms and legs, and a selection of extra outfits and accessories for her. However, as I looked at her in her box, in her jaunty purple toweling outfit and blue sneakers, I realized that she was not truly a 'baby doll'. More of a toddler doll. After unpackaging her, I decided to dress her in one of her alternate outfits, a more baby like pyjama set, and then I nestled her in the soft pink carry cot bed I'd bought for her. Somehow this made her much more like the baby doll I think geekygirl is envisioning, and I feel satisfied that she will be delighted with her new baby. I feel an inordinate amount of stress about providing perfect gifts for my sweet girl. I know that love isn't about material things, but still, I want so much to give her things that make her happy. I can feel how easy it could be to fall into the trap of gift giving excess that those clever marketing folk at the toy companies try to push on us.

I have also purchased gifts for various South African cousins who we will be meeting for the first time. For two little boys I chose fisher price "Cars the movie" shake and go vehicles. Some genius at fisher price decided that these should be sold active and ready to go, which does save that scramble for batteries, but also meant that any time these things were moved they let our an offensive, loud throaty engine roar and said things like "you can't escape the law". I had visions of our luggage getting unwanted attention if every time a bag was handled these these noisy little buggers started roaring, so I hacked them out of their little display boxes to find the off switches, and put them to sleep for the trip.

Now I just need to find the time to mail my Christmas cards, launder everything that needs to be packed, double check the kennel booking for the animals, find everyone's passports, and fill a bag of tricks to amuse the kids on the flights!