Saturday, April 24, 2010

Three breasts and guests

The three breasts thought comes courtesy of the UK journalist and commentator India Knight who was being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour this week on the topic of guests. The discussion was in the context of having guests extending their stay indefinitely courtesy of the Icelandic volcano. My mother is fond of quoting the ‘guests and fish going off after 3 days’ saying, but India brought a new comparison to the microphone that has completely captivated me in that she felt that in numerical terms guest nights could be compared to martinis and breasts, one is not enough, three too many, but two is just right. In between pondering the issue of three breasts, the whole discussion made me consider the starring role of guests in the life of an expat.
In the words of that well known biblical passage from Ecclesiastes, “To everything there is a season” …/, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance”. As an expat I would be tempted to add “and a time for guests” to the list. Based on experience no matter what remote region of the world you may land up in, you can be guaranteed Aunty Flo’s friend’s nephew is just about to arrive on a round the world trip and would just love to drop in, (code for stay for at least a week).
I can chart our life overseas together through the occupation of our spare room. We moved to Sydney, for the first time, in our twenties. We arrived a couple of weeks after our wedding and at that point the spare bedroom was occupied on a revolving door basis by relatives, friends, acquaintances, and indeed relatives of friends and acquaintances. In fact we began to feel like Rabbit in Winnie the Pooh in terms of the number of friends and relations we both seemed to possess. The majority of our guests at this point were young singles and backpackers and they stayed for periods ranging from a couple of days to months. The record went to my brother in law who ended up staying for 13 months. In hindsight I must have been a much more tolerant person at that time of my life, bearing in mind we were just married and we all lived together in an quasi open plan flat. If memory doesn’t fail me I think we ended up buying him his ticket back to the UK once life in the family ménage a trois began to pall.
In Hong Kong with a small baby in tow, we had lots of people dropping by for a meal but far fewer spare bedroom inhabitants – just as well as they would have had to sleep in a room lovingly decorated in the style of first baby frenzy. Guests tended more to the business trip whiz throughs – and the odd school party including one group of teenage boys on a choir tour who nearly expired on the spot when they politely enquired when the baby was due, and I blithely replied “Today”. There was a palpable atmosphere of 16 year olds mentally checking the availability of boiling water and towels.
Back in London for five years we had a steady stream of Antipodean friends touring Europe and popping in. They acted as a constant, bronzed reminder that there was another life and world outside Wandsworth, small children and the tube.
By the time we got to New York, we were a family of five and rented a wonderfully expansive house that lent itself to visitors in terms of proximity to Manhattan and picturesque town and setting, and we had stacked up bookings for family groups heading our way. The house’s clapperboard charm never failed to delight the eyes of first time visitors – however in the winter it tended to loose its attraction as an ideal holiday destination once the inadequacy of the heating system became clear. We must have been the only family in the neighbourhood to regularly defrost the dishwasher with a hairdryer on cold mornings. The saving grace was that the guest bedroom was on the third floor and given the rising quality of heat was much the warmest place in the house. Even so I once caught my parents sitting under the duvet, fully clothed and wearing their fleeces. I don’t think it is any coincidence that Christmas presents from my family during our New York period included hot water bottles, sheepskin slippers and heated teddies.
Now in our forties and back in Sydney, the guest bedroom has played host to the usual parade of friends and acquaintances – including a gorgeous couple of girls on their post student gap year, one of whom revealed she ran an internet edible underwear company – husband nearly choked to death on his suddenly inedible spaghetti when she offered to model some for us.
The old faithfuls on the visiting front – though I am not sure if they would care to be described in this manner, have to be the parents and in-laws, who have nobly followed us round the world. As with most expats I occasionally torture myself that I have ripped my children away from all their relatives, family heritage, and the opportunity to learn national dances and eat haggis at regular intervals. However they have benefited from significant chunks of time spent with their grandparents. Australia is such a haul, that given time is not pressing for them, we find a month to five weeks is the usual stay for grandparents which gives everyone plenty of time to relax into a relationship, (and for me to have a nervous breakdown as my inadequacies on the housekeeping front become blindingly obvious, as all the objects stuffed into cupboards to make the place look tidy burst out and it becomes painfully apparent that my repertoire of family meals is somewhat limited).
When I look back over our intermittently kept up visitors book, it reminds me of how much our guests have enriched our lives. Having people to stay gives you the opportunity to relax and talk properly, in a way that attendance at a couple of dinner parties never does. One of the Drama Queens was in fact named after a childhood friend who came to stay and who was the ideal guest.
Being a fabulous guest takes effort, imagination and enthusiasm. I’ve come to the conclusion it’s like being married, hard work at times, but when it goes well great fun and when it goes really badly, divorce or guest eviction may be the only answer. I should add here that I am aware I am far from the perfect hostess; guest towels don’t match, meals tend to the irregular and what could be politely termed “interesting”, my children bicker, my husband and I have tight lipped hissing rows that we fondly imagine are inaudible to any guest and we have a dog with a fetish for stealing underwear.
Having lived through the waves of singles, backpackers, couples, and couples with children, we are now about to enter a whole new phase of guest life and it feels rather like waiting for a tsunami. Between us we have ten godchildren and twelve nieces and nephews and I think it is a fair bet that over the next ten years a fair proportion of them will decide Sydney looks like an ideal destination and jumping off point for the rest of Australia. In many ways I can’t wait, I can make up for those years of absence on the godparent/relative front and forge an adult relationship with them beyond the annual exchange of cards and the odd guilt ridden postcard of a kangaroo.
In the interests of the youthful tidal wave approaching the house, here are some of my top tips for being a great guest, that actually apply to guests of any age.
Go surfing not channel surfing. Don’t endlessly and mindlessly lie in front of the TV or computer and channel surf whilst simultaneously complaining at the standard of local television. Have a go at things you never get a chance to do at home.
Don’t complain about the cost of everything. Even if you think the place is expensive and/or a dive, try to find something positive to say about it. Most hosts like the city and country where they live and feel proud of it, they want to hear that you love it too.
Do be yourself, be happy to talk and share your excitement and experiences, but pick your moments. Husband who is not an early morning star, is still recovering from one guest who followed him round the house, talking to him with such intensity that he trotted into the bathroom behind him and chatted away whilst husband shaved.
Be independent, most hosts will have guide books, maps, and lots of good ideas but have some ideas yourself, be enthusiastic and don’t expect everything to be organized for you.
Do offer to cook a meal, hang out washing, wash up, load dishwasher – you will gain huge amounts of brownie points. The little things like buying your hostess an impromptu $10 bunch of flowers make a huge difference.
Do take yourself off at times, everyone needs a break, particularly if you are a long term guest.
Do be interested in your host and your host’s children – but in one of those immortal lines from Dirty Dancing “keep your hands off the daughters”.
Be tactful – I once overheard a female guest admonishing her children crossly with the immortal words, “If you do that one more time we’ll have to say you’re behaving like a little Ling.” Hard for me to pin my Martha Stewart perfect hostess face on after that one!
Finally, send your hosts a post card or email to thank them and to let them know you are still alive once you leave their door and if you feel like calling your children after us – well that would be great too!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pelicans and pearls

We are following the Ashes in Europe story with interest and thanking our lucky stars that we are neither stuck in Europe nor desperate to get there. Husband has a client who must be beginning to wonder if he should apply for permanent residency in Sydney as there appears no immediate way he is going to get home. However if I had to pick a city to be marooned in then Sydney would have to be a top choice.

It has been a wonderful Sydney weekend, the city is set in such a beautiful harbour side environment that when the sun shines, everything sparkles. The weather is getting cooler and producing days of such clarity that industrial pollution and smog seem like a figment of an overheated imagination. I had the perfect Sydney day on Thursday. My exercise group meets down on the local beach at 6am each morning – one of the great joys of living here is the ability to exercise outside every day of the year and at 6am the beach is buzzing with swimmers, runners, dog walkers and exercisers of all descriptions. As I came down the hill to the beach, a fabulous crimson sunrise illuminated the dark bulk of the Heads that stand sentinel at the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Later on I walked the dog down at a dog beach where the water was so clear I could see shoals of small fish flickering through the water. A pelican bobbed around in the shallows, unmoved by the gamboling dogs. I find even after almost five years here, the sight of a pelican,with its gawky elegance has the way of lifting my day into the unusual. In the evening I drove back home down another hill, as you may have gathered, Sydney is quite a hilly city and I got a fabulous vista of a pink and blue fluffy backdrop to the darkening silhouette of the city. I can however confidently predict that by tomorrow when we have a friend from America arriving for a brief 48 hours in Sydney, that it will be grey, morose and pouring. Like children you can never rely on cities to show themselves to full advantage when the pressure is on.

I have just read a book review of Tears of Mermaids, a non-fiction book about pearls. The reviewer began by revealing that she received a large, lustrous pearl to celebrate the birth of her first daughter – puts me in mind of a friend in London whose husband whisked her straight from the maternity ward, off to a slap up lunch at a top London restaurant and straight into the jewelers to buy large and glittering eternity ring. However I would caveat the green with envy quotient by saying I think 24 hours after birth of first child I was in such a state of shock that any attempt to whisk me anywhere from the safe refuge of my bed would have been met with some nasty words and language that might have popped the romance of the occasion. However 15 years and three daughters later, hope is rising in my breast – sitting in the car in traffic jam with husband I attempted idly to distract him from the enraged wheel tapping that any traffic delay brings on, by pointing out a large roadside advertisement featuring a stack of Tiffany rings.
“Which one do you like best?” I inquired, innocently or pointedly, depending upon your view of the female psyche.

He considered the question and then asked whether they were rings or bracelets – my response was of course, that, that depended on how generous he was feeling!

However as previous surprise presents have included a pink and purple spotted wetsuit (if monster of the deep is the first image to shoot into your mind here you are spot on) and a giant pair of bolt cutters my hopes on the jewellery front are not high. The bolt cutters I hasten to add, arrived as a Christmas present in response to a recurrent nightmare of mine of mast coming down on boat, rather than as a necessity to release him from his chains.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

My life on the fridge

I have just come across an article detailing the fact that women may be moving away from electronic personal organizers and returning to paper based filofax type ways of ordering and sorting their lives. I am so far behind any type of organizational trend that I may catch up my more methodical sisterhood by default for I regret to say that my filing system consists of a combination of the fridge and scraps of paper.

I have in fact made a new resolution that my life must move from the fridge to a more reliable and portable method of recording the daily trivia of everyday life. As it is I envy people with huge, all singing and dancing, American fridges – not because of the instant ice cubes, but for the space afforded for party invitations, plumbers’ names, library opening hours and bin collection day notices. I am a sucker for any kind of magnetic giveaway so if you need to order a tandoori chicken, consult a vet, ring a variety of schools or make a dental appointment my fridge is the frost free yellow pages.

Magnetic witty slogans, given by well meaning friends and relatives as presents, and rather revealingly dealing with my attitude to housework and/or alcohol, peep bashfully round motivational photos of myself. On the motivational side I haven’t been able to decide whether I am less likely to raid the fridge if my eyes light upon a picture of me looking like Ten Ton Tessy prominently displayed or whether I should go for the carrot approach as it were, with one of the far rarer photos where by a trick of the light I actually look quite a Slimcia Girl. Actually I can happily report that having tried both options that neither works when the remains of the last night’s pudding are calling me.

Part of the problem with my fridge personal organizer is that for sentimental reasons I am using three separate calendars; the Scotsman calendar placed so I can sigh mournfully and think of the ancestral homeland, portrayed in snowy beauty, whilst reveling in 28oC heat; the school calendar complete with obligatory offspring’s artwork, and finally, the secondary school calendar that has all the important dates (eg holidays) on it. As I use all three calendars on a random rotational basis as the fancy takes me it’s hard to gain a reliable overview of life without a major page flicking routine.

In defence of my chilly filing cabinet, the photos of family and god children stuck all over the surface give colour and purpose to my day and my life is an open book to any friend looking for milk, butter or a cold bottle of wine. What electronic organiser can do that?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Hooray for Sydney holidays - and happy holidays to tow men everywhere

We have just staggered back into the house after a week away, three days camping in country New South Wales followed by a blissful four days at a beach house on the South Coast. For obvious security reasons I am always nervous about broadcasting that we are going away – I don’t actually think any of the readers of this blog are of criminal intent but I would feel a mite silly saying to the police “and of yes of course I did put up on my blog that we would be away for a week, and I also mentioned where to find the spare key, etc.” According to The Week – another great publication in the life of the expat, the Exeter boys in blue have been staging burglaries in houses that they find unlocked. Once inside they rummage around, find a few valuables and place them in a sack marked SWAG on the kitchen table – sadly they have had to stop this jolly prank as there is apparently the potential for them to be sued for trespass.

With hindsight absolutely amazing that we pulled out of the driveway on our camping adventure – the car was packed to an inch of its life to the extent that the DQs were just visible as faces pressed to the glass surrounded by all the paraphernalia needed for camping. The car had in fact staged a Lazarus like recovery from the vehicular equivalent of a nervous breakdown last week. The straw that broke its camel like back was possibly my habit of reversing out of the driveway and with what I like to think of gay panache whizzing the car into first before the vehicle came, as they say in the airline trade, “to a complete halt”. I don’t know what broke mid manoeuvre but I can categorically say gay panache were not words that sprang immediately to my lips. Even to one of my limited technical knowledge of cars it was obvious it was a tow job – top tip when you can hear bits of metal grating against each other, it’s mechanical shorthand for fatal and expensive.

When we lived in the US I had another car die on me and the tow man on that occasion berated me for parking the car in a spot in my driveway from which it was going to be impossible to tow it out from. I bit back my immediate, cutting response that I don’t actually park my car with a weather eye to the possibilities of having to be towed out. In my mind that would be a bit like going to a party and considering where to stand so that in the event you fall pole axed to the floor, you won’t block traffic.

I am happy to report that Australian car rescue people beat the US team into the ground in terms of charm and people skills and the car was borne off on top of a tow truck to be resurrected. Though to be fair to my US tow man, who unnervingly looked as if he ate squirrels for a breakfast snack in between auditioning for ‘wild man of the woods’ shows, what he lacked in customer skills he made up for in effectiveness. Faced with the car that was untowable owing to eccentric British parking habits, he asked me if I had a hammer. I went and fetched a large hammer with the timorous air of a future ‘bride in the bath’ slaying victim, whereupon he promptly gave the steering column a hearty whack, and lo and behold we had action.

It has been such a spectacular sunny weekend in Sydney that there seemed to be an inordinate number of brides fluttering around the place yesterday as Balmoral, our local beach, is a very popular wedding spot/picture backdrop. While on the topic of brides having spent three or four days camping on a property belonging to great friends I have discovered ‘the bride’ seems to be a term of jocular endearment in country company amongst people who have been married for a staggering amount of time, as in “pass the bride the wine” and “ask the bride”. I have informed Simon that if he refers to me as ‘the bride’ in public company he’ll get more than a whack with a hammer to the steering column.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Time to get the leathers out

Yet again a new dawn is about to break in my life – dawn is quite a useful analogy as it does come round every day and indeed most days I do vow this is going to be the start of a brighter and better me. This particular new dawn was brought on by bumping into an acquaintance who I like very much but don’t often see as our children have now parted company as school mates – she’s a boy specialist and I am the girl expert so in the Sydney predominantly single sex senior school environment we are destined to lead parallel lives. It was 7am and I was staggering into the coffee shop for my post exercise life-reviving slug of caffeine. A fabulous red Ducati motorbike roared up and my glamorous acquaintance climbed off clad in her leathers, looking like every red blooded male’s Bond girl fantasy. The usual queue of tradesmen waiting for their coffees were reduced to spluttering wrecks and shambled off into the morning wiping their brows. Apparently pre marriage she raced motorbikes and made her husband promise that once their children reached a reasonable age she could go back to them. Once I had quelled the fantasies of myself in leathers – the image of a teletubby shoving a helmet onto its head forced its way into my mind, I resolved I would make sure I go back to all the things I enjoyed pre children, fortunately some of them such as skiing actually lend themselves to being family pursuits and there is the off chance I could find a skiing outfit that might create a streamlined effect to emulate Glamour Puss friend in her leathers.

The need for a bit of glamour uplift was reinforced by the fact that owing to International Day at the school I teach and the resulting requirement to dress in a way that reflects your national origins I nearly crashed into my own child’s parent teacher interview wearing my Scotland Rugby strip, thereby confirming my reputation for eccentricity and low centre of dress sense with my child’s teachers and fellow parents alike.