Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Things to love about (a South African) Winter

Growing up in sunny KwaZulu Natal, I didn’t really know what winter was.  It gets cold there, but only cold enough for some decorative jerseys or scarves.  Grahamstown (and the wilds of Hosback) initiated me into real winter (as well as a first snow fall for the three of us (Yemu, Natasja and I) in this picture: ah, bliss!)  I have since come to love some things about winter.  So for those of you out there hankering for the summer months already, here are some things to savour:

    1.)    (this one is paradoxical) The sun
Winter sunlight does not scorch your insides or burn your skin.  It provides tempting nooks in your house for you to lie in, soaking it up reptile-style.  You will miss it when summer comes and every time you step out the house you have to smother yourself in layers of sunscreen (or avoid stepping outside altogether).
2.)    Hot water bottles
Getting into bed and curling your cold toes around something warm until your feet are toasty and then hugging that delicious warmth to your chest whilst reading a chapter of a book with only one hand out of the covers: it is the stuff of hallmark cards, I tell you.
3.)    Gluhwein
Spicy red wine served still steaming in a mug providing all the comfort of tea with a spicy alcoholic kick.  If you are in Grahamstown for the National Arts Festival, get yourself to Yellow House for a mug of authentic German stuff. Mmmmm.  Which reminds me...
Yup, this happens in winter in miserable Grahamstown.  It just wouldn’t be the same in warm weather.  In some corner of my brain, winter means shrugging yourself into four layers and a heavy coat and walking briskly to the nearest theatre or hall that has been turned into a theatre and watching some AMAZ!NG.  Then it means ambling over the Village Green for some fantastic, nutritious Vegetarian food and wandering amongst the colourful stalls until it is time to start bar hopping until everything else but the Long Table has closed and you end up having thought-provoking conversations with people until four in the morning, when you finally shamble out into the cold and make your way home through the deserted streets of Grahamstown, only to start the whole process again the next morning.
5.)    Fingerless gloves
I love these things.  I can keep reading or writing without my fingers freezing off and I think they look rad.  I have a stripy pair and a grey pair that extend up to my elbows for extra warmth.
6.)    Spending more time on the internet
I recently blogged about my issues with the internet.  At the moment though, it is too darn cold to do much else in the evenings.  So I have been spending time finding some mighty interesting blogs out there.  More anon...
7.)    Tea
Oh wait. I’ve blogged about this already. Twice.  J

(ADDITION: I had some input and am remedying some omissions.  A warm thank-you to Yemu, Robyn and SJ.)

8.)    Soup

A bowl of soup is a beauty to behold.  I love the way the steam rises from the top and the way it is just packed full of hot, vegetable nutrients.  My favourite memory of soup is, once again at the festival, but this time working at Wordfest and enjoying cup after cup of pumpkin, chilli, orange and tomato soup from (the now sadly closed) Reddits.

9.)    Rusks

I have four words for you (or five words or three words and one hyphenated monster word, I guess): hot-cross bun flavoured rusks.  They taste exactly like hot cross buns, but they are rusks.  Best. Idea. Ever.  And soon, I will be attempting to bake health rusks.

10.)       Snuggling under the blankets by the fire and having good catch-up chats

Well, you need a fireplace for this, technically, which is in no short supply in Hogsback, I can tell you.  On the Opera Company camps, each cottage had its own woodstove (one of those old-pot-bellied stoves that they rescued from the scrap heap) that would belch smoke so we would smell like woodsmoke for the entire time we stayed there.  We would have to tend that fire as carefully as a baby.  But golly, it kept us warm and having brilliant, long conversations and storing up our strength for the summer.  I am not there this year, but that memory has a rosy glow around it, and somehow just remembering made me feel that little bit more restored.  

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The freedom of a public library

My current haul*
Joining the public library was, for me, a matter of financial constraints.  I really wanted to read the kind of books I cannot afford and cannot find in my university’s libraries.  So I trundled off with Zam that rainy Friday, and as I have detailed, it has been a real adventure (or a peri-urban adventure at any rate). 
But aside from the new experiences it has brought me before I even walked through its doors, the library itself has been a revelation.  For all the fun it is to browse in the university library, a book shop or on my kindle, I have to prioritise and decide to take only what is immediately relevant to what I study and do.  Every book I buy (or take out) must be strictly accounted for because every one is an investment of sorts that must give me finite returns in knowledge.  In addition, each of them has their drawbacks.

A book shop can only stock what it knows it is most likely to sell.  This means that certain popular series, new books and a limited selection of classics and older books that continue to sell well can be stocked.  A University library can only buy what it thinks will be relevant to serious study.  Sometimes that includes some popular fiction or science, but not often.  Searching for books on a kindle, like searching for information on the internet, is one of the most narrow and restrictive book-selecting devices.  When you search for a book, it will bring up that book, and a few recommendations that relate to that author, series or topic.  You cannot be distracted by something else from a different field of interest altogether as you can when wandering in a book store or library.  Anyway, I like to think I do not have generic buying habits, even within a genre, which is what you must ape if you browse books by category in Amazon. 

A public library, by contrast, is the accumulation of decades of government spending and the tastes of individual librarians that have been bought to cater to the many members of the public.  I only have the books for two weeks and I can return what I don’t like, savour what I do and return them.  Being able to dabble and browse without financial or category constraints is a really liberating sensation.  I feel like I have burnt my intellectual bra.

Knowing that I am one in a long line of people who will take it out a book is another benefit of reading a library book.  I have recently read editions of books that were brought out very soon after the original publication date.  The older is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, set in a post-feminist USA where everyone lives according to someone’s twisted version of Genesis.  This fascinating and disturbing tale was published in 1985.  When I paged to the back and looked at all the old date stamps, I could not help wondering what the citizens of Pretoria made of this futuristic, puritanical state that enforces serious censorship rules when they read it during the dying, violent years of apartheid.

The other book contained Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy.  This is what is now called a “young adult” fantasy, but it is written in such wise, philosophical prose that I don’t know if I would have been able to appreciate it fully had I read it as a teenager.  I loved it even more for that reason: she assumes that her teenage readership wants to be challenged.  The edition I had read had been rebound in hardcover from so many readings, and it had a slightly unsettling, brightly coloured picture of the wizard hero, Sparrowhawk on the cover.  The pages were yellowy-orange in colour and the texture was slightly grainy from age.  Knowing that many teenagers and older people like myself have read this book gives me more faith in the human race.  I have for years been an avid fan of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy as it is also intelligent, wildly imaginative and thought-provoking, and I am also a recent fan of Neil Gaiman.  This trilogy is still streets ahead.  These books are also older, however, and while good books stores will still stock Neil Gaiman and the Dark Materials trilogy, they seldom stock Ursula Le Guin.  It is up to the libraries to continue the tradition.

So go forth and have an adventure at (or near) your nearest public library.  They lurk everywhere there...

*From left to right: Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Gaston LeRoux's Phantom of the Opera, Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, Michael Ondaatjie's Handwriting and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

On my way to (writing about) my public library

I should like the crystal ball to shew me what my
husband will be like.
Disclaimer: In this blog, I was going to write about my new place to visit in Pretoria: my public library.  On the way, however, I became distracted by everything near the public library that I have discovered that I also love.  So this post will take you to the doors of my library, but no further.  Just so you know what you’re getting into...
 I have for many years been a compulsive book buyer.  My family have learnt to roll their eyes and find something time consuming to do if they take me within fifty metres of a book store as I will immediately find my way in and browse (and frequently buy) to my heart’s content.  Now I own a *kindle* which I love, particularly when I am addicted to a series as I no longer have to rush frantically from store to store trying to find a copy of the next exciting part of the saga.

 This year, however, as I fall deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole that is my Masters thesis, all my mind wants to do is delve not into more rabbit holes, but into popular science, economics, history, poetry and shallow popular fiction (I won’t tell you what, it is entirely too embarrassing).  I have also been the victim of the vagaries of the scholarship system and I have had nothing to spare for book purchases.  I could take out books from Wits University’s libraries, but I have often filled my card with work-related books, and every time I step into the libraries I feel obliged to take out something, if not work related, thenat least literature that is high-fibre: you know, the stuff that’s good for you.

She asked the fates to let her sons have long, long lives.
 So, propelled forward by my addiction to these shallow and air-brushed forays into the human heart, I ‘phoned the National Library Services (based here in my very own Pretoria) and found out where my nearest library is situated, which while not within walking distance, is in one of the nearby tree-ed neighbourhoods.  Zama and I set off down the road and after driving twenty minutes too far into the wild green yonder and turning around, we finally found the place.

 It is just up the road from an honest-to-goodness park, replete with a see-saw, swings and a slide surrounded by grass.  Opposite the library is a neighbourhood shopping centre: an old-school one with an Indian-owned green-grocer that sells fresh flowers, vegetables and fruits.  When I walked there from the bus stop one day I bought a punnet of fresh raspberries and ate them then and there, leaving my fingers stained pink.  There is also a pet-grooming parlour and a Chinese restaurant with an outdoor area canvassed with red fabric to protect it from the wet.  There is even a corner cafe and bakery that sells R1 orange ices so filled with sulphur dioxide that I coughed every time I took a sticky, icy bite (and yet I just kept right on eating that thing...).

 They have a car boot sale there every so often.  There are second-hand clothes, white elephant stalls and (of course) a woman with a table filled with second-hand books, left to her by emigrating relatives and friends.  I know I said I don’t have money for books this year (and that was the whole reason I joined the public library) but then I found “Stories from the Faerie Queen”, a children’s book given by The Hatfield Baptist Sunday School to Violet Cross for Attendance and Good Conduct at Christmas, 1929.

But the knight was Britomart, the fair lady with
a man's armour and a man's heart.
To misquote Hadley Freeman (who is misquoting Charlotte Bronte): Reader, I bought it.  And I am letting you share in my good fortune by peppering this post with some of its whimsical illustrations and captions (albeit in blurry photographs from my humble blackberry camera).  I hope you enjoy (and that your appetite has been whetted for my next post: what I found in my public library).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Tea: A more personal note

When I was writing about all the different teas I have tucked away in my cupboard, I realised that part of the reason I particularly savour all the different flavours is that each one was introduced to me by a different person, and when I drink it, I am reminded of them.  Tea is the stuff of long conversations with friends around the kitchen table.  It is the stuff of family visits accompanied by milk tart or Assorted Bakers biscuits.  It is served at important functions, like graduation teas or weddings, or even funerals.  You could drink it on your work or tea break while you sit and have a gossip, or, like me in my solitary working state, I enjoy it as it helps the words come out better.

In this way, knowing how someone takes their tea can sometimes be a measure of how well you know them, because if they have been invited into your home, there is a strong chance you will have made tea for them frequently.  Everyone has their own tea-drinking quirks. I drink all my tea black (after my mother) with the tea bag still in (at this, my mother thinks I am crazy) but Zwe and his sister take theirs with milk, sugar and not only the teabag still in, but the spoon as well.  My father has complicated routine that involved warming up the cup with some plain hot water first, and then using white sugar for tea and brown sugar for coffee (and never the twain shall meet).  I know I haven't speant much time with my school friends for a while because I have forgotten how they take their tea when I used to know.  This makes me a little sad.

I never used to be much of a tea drinker.  The only time I drank tea growing up was when I stayed with my grandmother. The taste of milky, sweet Earl Grey will forever remind me of her neat little cottage in Waterfall Retirement Village.  She no longer baked but always made sure there was something sweet for her first granddaughters to eat.

At school, I think the only tea I really took notice of was Paddock tea, mainly because my friend Carmen's father was a tea farmer and as a result, Paddock tea was held in wide esteem in my humble part of the world.  Sadly, no one in Paddock makes tea anymore, so if you come across any lingering boxes of the stuff, you should snap it up quickly.

Plain rooibos tea was my procrastination of choice when I was in residence at Rhodes University.  Breakfast or lunch or supper would be finished, but if you were still nursing a mug of rooibos from the dining hall stash, then you didn't have to go back to your room and get back to work.  Living in the annexe, I would drink the decadent Woolworths Green Tea (everything from Woolworths Food seems decadent if you live in a town without one.  Oh yes, Johannesburg readers, they do exist) one of my housemates would bring from Johannesburg, or I would make my own hot drink with honey and lemon.  Grahamstown is also bitterly cold in winter, and tea was always a sustaining cordial to get you through the winter (well, that and copious amounts of alcohol.  You would be amazed what you can get away with wearing out in winter when some alcohol has warmed you up first).

Twinings tea is all because of my mother and our English holiday at the end of 2009.  We shopped until my aunt was horrified that we had come all the way to London to shop (the horror! to be fair to us, I did arrive two days before Christmas and I hadn't done any of my Christmas shopping...)  England in winter is just so cold and dark that a flavoured tea can be the last thing between you and full-blown madness.

It is from 2010 onwards that my tea obsession has really taken a solid form.  Zwe's sister Zama introduced me to Buchu tea (on one of our annual Summer get-fit drives) and her friend Thabi stayed at the flat one night and brought her own tea (something every sensible tea lover should do).  That was when I discovered the marvel that is instant, extra-strong Honey and Ginger Tea.  I have sustained myself on that tea when it is late and everyone else is still partying and my alcohol jersey has worn off.

The Chai Tea is something that brings all sorts of people together.  Zwe's mother likes it, as does my sister who is my supplier of the delicious stuff.  (In some ways, she is my drug dealer, as sugar is my drug of choice any day)  She worked in a wonderful little health shop called "The Mustard Seed" in Grahamstown that is the only place I have ever found it that sells it.  She and I often let each other know when we are drinking it and it is definitely something us sisters share.  I also introduced it to my old friend Christy (we've been friends a whole decade now, whoopee!) the last time we had one of those delicious catch-ups, and she really enjoyed it too.

Some catch-ups in my world occur not in my home, but in the English Department.  My one-woman-wonder friend Eva who is currently completing her Phd (along with working three or four other jobs) invited me for tea in the Phd room when I was too broke to go out for some, and we sat and sipped our way through two cups of Laager Green Rooibos, Citrus and Ginger tea.  Ah bliss.

The Five Roses Orange and Lemon teas was also introduced to me by friends, Malcolm and his wife Jess when Gwynlyn (another school friend) and I were staying at their newly-wed home in Secunda.  It was a revitalising visit for both of us, we speant a lot of time sitting at their table or in their living room just chatting about everything under the sun (and by everything I mean everything, as these three are comprised of two engineers and a geologist) and down time with distant friends is better than a weekend at a spa.

My next tea adventure (I think) will be into leaf tea.  I have a teapot and a strainer, and the redoubtable Mrs. Spiller gave me leaf tea for Christmas in two gorgeous boxes: Assam tea and Caramel Rooibos.  Perhaps, like my adopted grandmother, Granny Pam, I will learn to tell fortunes in the tea leaves...

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Tea

My illusrious tea collection
and beloved red teapot.
I spend a lot of time in front of my computer these days, clacking away at my Masters thesis and my spine seems to curve in on itself because of the cold.  As soon as I have wrapped my fingers around a solid mug full of steaming tea, however, everything warms up and I feel cheered, comforted and energised, all at the same time.  The trick is to have a lot of flavours.  Here are some of my favourites (in no particular order: picking a favourite tea?  As my friend Karl once said, it would be like choosing a favourite child!)
1.)    Woolworths’ Green Tea.  Green tea is not everyone’s, well, cup of tea (I walked straight into that one).  It has a distinctly bitter, green taste.  I quite like it however, and until very recently, the Woolworths brand has been the cheapest.  I like to make a pot with two tea bags and I can get four cups of strong tea out of it.  Perfect for a morning when to get up out of your chair to make another cup is to lose your train of thought.

2.)    Twinings’ flavoured Green Tea(s).  I have never seen this in South Africa (so maybe it is a little unfair of me to write about it) but if you ever go to England or even if the most distant friend or relation is going, ask them to bring back some flavoured green tea.  Twinings is ridiculously expensive over here (for my student budget at any rate) but in England it is a very cheap and light gift to buy.  The green teas I tasted were flavoured with pear or cranberry or grapefruit flavours which may sound quite strange but are just perfect to take the bitter edge from your brew as well as add some subtle sweetness.

3.)    Freshpack Rooibos with added Ginsing.  I am not sure if I believe the hype about ginsing being good for energy, but what they don’t tell you on the tin is that this tea has strawberry granules in it, which makes a sweet rooibos flavour that little bit more sweetly fruity.  Delicious!

4.)    Laager Green Rooibos, Citrus and Ginger: This tea is something magical, not least because its aroma fills your cupboard with its invigorating smell.  It is very more-ish, so be prepared to return for another cup.

5.)    Five Roses Orange-flavoured Tea:  Another more-ish tea is this Ceylon tea with a hint of orange flavour.  My friends who usually have sugar in their tea go without when drinking this one, as the flavour also removes that edge without removing the comforting strength of good old traditional tea.  There is also a lemon version of this tea which only really comes into its own when a dash of honey is added.

6.)    Eve’s Honey and Ginger Tea (Extra-Strong): I am not sure this is strictly a tea, as it comes in box containing little sealed packets full of yellow granules that make your throat burn with ginger.  Only suitable for those ginger nuts out there...

7.)    Skimmelberg Buchu Tea: This is supposed to be a natural remedy of the San for a whole host of problems from constipation to cystitis.  Whatever it actually does, I really love having it first thing in the morning as it makes my insides feel refreshed somehow.  It’s difficult to describe the taste.  I suppose you just have to experience it for yourself...

8.)    Holotropic Pukka Chai: Again, I am not sure this is strictly a tea as it is pretty much some chai spices, milk powder and sugar but it is richly delicious.  I recently gave up all cocoa products that are not fair trade and this is an excellent substitute for Hot Chocolate or Milo.

And remember...

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Ebony and Ivory

The theme song of my boyfriend and mine is“Ebony and Ivory”. We usually sing the first few bits together (not in harmony, alas as my white ears are rather deficient at that skill*) and move our hands together in slow motion so that our hands meet and our fingers intertwine. For those not blessed with knowledge of this eighties optimistic kitsch, the words go like this:
"Ebony" (sung by Zwe, aforesaid boyfriend)

"And Ivory" (sung by me, rather ineptly)

"Live together in perfect harmony" (sung together, of course)

This is funny (to us, if no one else) because I am white and Zwe is black, though I always prefer to refer to myself as“faintly pink”. I mean, “white” isn’t even a colour (technically) and it makes me annoyed to have to tick the “white”box on forms rather than the box that says “other”. Maybe I have actually always wanted to be Gonzo from the incorrigible Muppet crew, who is known as a “whatever”. Which just goes to show that Muppet Shows and the latest excellent Muppets film (called, classically, The Muppets) actually has really intelligent things to say about everything.

Like these excellent (Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Concords (just had to throw that out there)) *rhyming* lyrics from the opening piece:

Life's a happy song,
When there's someone by your side to sing along.

Which, as this blog post attests, is just too true.

*Zwe to Clea on reading this bit: “Not all black people are good at music, you racist white”.