My New Friend, Katie


wp-1475136549432.jpgI have a new friend. Her name is Katie and we met our first morning at the hotel. She and I agree that Paul eats too much at breakfast. I saw her later in the afternoon at the formal High Tea. She dashed over to say hi and I shrieked (quietly) when I saw her.  Then Katie looked down at the tray of tea sandwiches she was carrying as the hostess with her clipboard walked up to us.

“Are you enjoying your tea?” She asked. She looked at Katie with a direct stare.

“Yes,” Paul and I said together.

“Very good,” she said and sauntered away.

“Meanie,” I said under my breath.


Paul and I shopped all day. We counted off on our fingers the gifts we needed to buy for our family members. The bags began piling up—African clothes for Dane and Emma, tea and a Zebra mask for SarahKate and Brian, a kissing Meer cat carving for Connor and Sam.

We had a big night ahead of us. For a long time, one of the adventures on our “bucket list” had been to attend a Chef’s Table. At 7:00 we would be seated at a table in the middle of the kitchen of the five-star hotel restaurant. All night long everyone in the kitchen from the wait staff, to the sous chef, demi chef, pastry chef, the sommelier, and the big kahuna—the chef himself—would stop by our table to bring us food and wine and describe the preparation of food and its origins.

It had been kindly explained to us that men would be expected to wear a collared shirt and women a dress. Even though we had dressy clothes hanging in the closet in our suite, I wanted something new. (Who wouldn’t?) So, while shopping at a Pan African Market, we met a store owner who takes measurements and makes one-of-a-kind, custom fit African clothes for people. His shop is filled floor to ceiling with colorful fabrics and different textures. The colors and patterns were a riot of color. They couldn’t be organized by hue as the patterns contained so many different designs and pictures. Paul and I looked at each other. They were by far the most expensive clothes we had looked at all day, but to be able to say a tailor made a blue African collared shirt and a swirly green halter dress just for us…they will hang in our closet forever. We had to keep up our end of the bargain, however. Paul had better back off those breakfasts, and maybe just one glass of wine a night for me would keep that dress within reach. The tailor informed us to return at 4:00 to pick up our clothes.

Six hours later we picked up our clothes and walked back to the hotel with them hung over our arms. They had been pressed and starched. We walked through the park next to the hotel.  The staff was streaming out of the basement of the building. It was the end of their day. Their uniforms were left behind and replaced with jeans, headscarves, and serviceable jackets. I looked hungrily for Katie. I scanned the women’s faces, but not many met my gaze.

They flowed around us and we were like an island in their wake. They laughed and chattered to one another, some in English, but more in different languages that all blended into one. They didn’t look back at the Mount Nelson. It would be there for them in the morning.

We looked ahead at its pink façade. In one day we had spent 5,000 Rand–$500 American dollars for a night of wearing beautiful clothes and dining in the midst of smoking pans, sous chefs shouting instructions at their helpers, and watching food appear in front of us that took our breathe away.

What would Katie have thought of it all? I think she would be happy for me. I believe she would smile, squeeze my wrist, and say as she does each time we greet each other, “You look so happy. Be happy today. It is a fine day.”

Ripped Jeans

A much needed drink at the Table Bay Hotel

“Ick,” Paul said eyeing my fashionably torn jeans. “I don’t like those.”

“Too bad. Packing was horrible. I finally decided to pack by days. Today is cute day. Ripped jeans, pony tail and Keds tennis shoes.” Paul’s face was still.

“And tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. There’s still Sports day and Designer clothes day.” I paused.  “Although, all the designer clothes were bought at Ross, so they probably don’t count.”

“What are you wearing during the safari?” Paul asked.

“Heck if I know. I’ll figure it out then.”

We spent the morning exploring the hotel while it rained buckets outside. The breakfast buffet sprawled along one long wall. Meats, eggs, cheeses, fruit—it went on and on. While trying on my clothes, I decided that I would have to choose either dessert or wine each day. I couldn’t afford the calories of both.  Paul, on the other hand, told me that I always bought his clothes too big, so he had plenty of room. (Really?)

We’re staying at the Mount Nelson Hotel, an aging grand dame in Cape Town that reminds me of the Empress in Victoria, British Columbia. The “Nellie,” as she known, is painted pepto bismo pink.

The hotel is filled with wood-paneled rooms, walls of windows, and you can have champagne at the front desk upon your arrival. The restroom is called the cloak room, pots of tea are available 24 hours a day, and in the gift shop the clerk showed me a white and black striped clutch purse. It looked like horse hair.

“Zebra hide,” she said. “It is not tinted like the springbok hides are.” She waved at the wall of purses.

I backed out of the store feeling ill. Paul, ever my conscience and irritant, said,

“I’m sure they are farmed. It’s not really different than leather, Lesley.”

“Ick,” I retorted.

We caught the hotel shuttle to the Victoria and Albert waterfront. The car dropped us off at a three-story mall. I was outraged. If I wanted to shop at HM, I’d go to the city back home.

We skirted around the mall and walked the piers where workers were building boats, fishing vessels were pulling in to sell their catch, and Table Mountain towered behind us shrouded in clouds. There were security guards everywhere, and unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the gate each time. People walking towards us grumbled a bit as I refused to give way to my lane on the board walk.

Lesley in her ripped jeans with part of Table Mountain in the background

“I think it is like cars. They think we are driving on the wrong side of the road,” Paul said in a low voice.

Grudgingly, I worked a little harder at moving to the left instead of holding fast to my side of the sidewalk. Then I remembered something my friend Linda told me at work.

“Paul, did you know that the toilet flushes in the opposite direction because we are in the Southern Hemisphere?”

“Hmm. Really.” I knew he could hardly wait to see if I was right.

We were looking for the Nelson Mandela Gateway in order to buy tickets for a tour out to Robben Island. We saw a building that had a faded sign that stated it was the Pier 1 Embarkation Point. Curious, we stepped inside the decrepit building. A surly woman gave Paul minimal directions to get to the new tourist building.

“Can we look around in here?” I asked her. She nodded.

Embarkation Point was the last place political prisoners were held until they were taken to Robben Island. It was empty except for us. Somewhere a TV was blaring, so we headed up a narrow set of stairs. In the first room were arm and leg shackles hanging on the wall. The floors were covered wall to wall with scratchy hard mats. The next room was covered with shellacked pieces of paper—typed, handwritten, blue, white, some with the names of churches or organizations on them. Regardless of appearance, they were all written by women begging the wardens and the government officials to allow them to see theirs fathers, husbands or sons. A prisoner on Robben Island was allowed one visitor a year for 30 minutes. 30 minutes. Paul and I talked about my wardrobe for longer than that this morning.

The letters were desperate. The elderly spoke of how they longed to see their children before they died, while wives begged to share pictures of their children with their fathers, while most poignant to me, there was a letter from a sixteen-year-old girl who was finally old enough to see her father. The women all wrote their identification number  from their passbooks on their letters which made them a “real” person in apartheid South Africa. It was a gamble to put your name and number on a document. Women were political prisoners as well. The letters were signed “faithfully”.  In the hundreds of letters on the walls, there was perhaps less than a quarter of them that had the word “Ok,” scrawled on the paper with a cavalier, uncaring hand approving the visit. The letters? They were written in 1965—a year before I was born.

We left the building, so small and insignificant, in the midst of the towering mall and working harbor. I looked down at my jeans and felt my face burn. Torn jeans are a symbol of privilege in my world, while for others each tear is a story untold and even forgotten.

The Horror of Packing


Packing. How do you put a representative sample of your entire life in one suitcase? Take two suitcases.

Paul resisted.

“Let’s just travel light, the plane to the safari lodge may have a weight limit.”

I looked at him. “I think a man started that rumor. It can’t be true. There are women like me everywhere.”

The deciding factor for clothes making the final cut is how they will look in photos. Does that sweater make me look fat? Are those pants dowdy? What effect would those decade-old pajamas have on an inadvertent meeting with someone? The sassy pile is puny. The frumpy pile is substantial. I may have to go shopping.

I have been having bad dreams. What if I left a banana in the back of the second drawer of my desk at work? (Somebody check, please). What if someone has to drive my car out of the driveway in a fire and they see the collection of empty diet shakes rolling on the floor? The biggest, however, is the idea that Tucker might not be there when we return. He is old. He weighs 100 pounds. Our house sitter weighs 98 pounds. It is more than that. He fills every corner of my heart. He knows we are leaving. Three weeks in his life is a long time.

There is the obvious. What if I die? I know I should not release that thought to the universe, but it is the most frequent nightmare of the last few days. How will my family get me home? What will my children do with my 21 carefully collected antique beaded purses mounted in shadow boxes? What is the memory of me they will mentally wrap in delicate paper and only open when they really need their mother? What about Lily? Someone please take Lily. In spite of her reputation, she really is a nice cat.

Paul strolled back into the bedroom. “Is there anything you aren’t taking?” He lifted the sassy pile with his toe.

I ignored him. “The safari list says to dress up for dinner. You need khaki pants and a couple of nice shirts. I’ll bring a dress and a skirt.” I hesitated. “I don’t know about my lucky shoes.” My lucky shoes have been everywhere. They debuted at our wedding. They attended an inaugural ball. They attempted salsa dancing. (Not their best outing). They gamely stayed on my feet as we ran through a thunder shower on uneven streets in New Orleans. They know me.

Paul knows them too. The correlation between their distinction as lucky and the likelihood he will get lucky is as close to perfect a psychometrican will get.

“Bring the shoes.” He wandered out the room.

I toss them in the suitcase. They’ve endured more than a decade. They’ve never left the closet unless I was with Paul. They’ll bring me home. Best of all, I’ll have to go shopping to find a dress to show them off.

Starting Out

I’m lucky to have my husband, Paul, as my best friend. In our years together we’ve raised three children and watched our golden retriever, Tucker, go from a puppy to a solemn old man dog who occasionally remembers his reckless youth.

Since we are a blended family, we did not have any time to grow up together as a young couple. After marrying, our first few years (okay, I’m lying. Every year) felt like we were jumping off the high dive into a pool without a bottom and we weren’t even sure there were ladders on the side to clamber out.

Our family trips always involved drama. It was usually me; I’ll admit it. But, it was well deserved. We bought a boat. Paul ran it aground and the kids and I had to squash into the bow so he could pop the stern out of the mud. Three kids, small space, Mom’s face right near…you get the point. There was a hike in Arizona where the youngest grabbed onto a boulder only to have it break free. I watched them–the son and the boulder–tumble down the rock face. He survived. He begged to keep the rock. We said no. In Sun Valley, our oldest son poked a stick into the vegetation and then informed his family that rattlesnakes do indeed have reticulated scales. We yanked him so hard he practically flew through the air.  Our poor daughter. Her claim to fame in the family saga was the time I overdosed her on Benadryl during a particularly dusty visit to Minnesota. She fell asleep with her face glued to the counter top with drool.

But there is one more. We took Tucker on a beach trip and by the fifth day you couldn’t tell what kind of dog he was, because the layers of sand and salt were so thick on his body. He saw a car down the beach that looked just like Paul’s. He took off at a full gallop with me chasing him desperately screaming “that’s the wrong car!” When he launched into the stranger’s back seat and shook his coat so it rained sand all over the inside, I’d had it. I wasn’t going on any more trips.

Our Tucker

Then one day the three of them were gone. Military, college, baseball…Tucker looked at us bewildered. What happened?

So Paul and I and Tucker tiptoed around the house for a while. It was weird. We never lost the TV remote. There was actually carpet in the room where I had only seen dirty clothes. The milk went bad but we were always out of wine. I was bored. “Let’s go on a trip,” I said. I saw the look that crossed Paul’s face. “And,”I threatened, “we’re not going to see any of the kids.”

Instead, we went by ourselves.

We went to Kauai and almost died on a hike to the Fantasy Island waterfall. We saved a mother turtle and her eggs outside a beachfront restaurant in Mexico. We ate beignets at midnight in billowing clouds of powdered sugar in New Orleans. We climbed a tree in the organic garden of the fanciest restaurant in Napa Valley. (Oops).

I don’t really mean this, but I mean this. I love my husband more on vacation than I do at home. Women, don’t roll your eyes.  You agree. When we are traveling, Paul isn’t just smart, he is brilliant. He isn’t just cute, he is vavoom! Stateside, I take his gentleness towards me for granted, but when I see him help an elderly woman in Mexico out of a boat, my heart swells with tenderness. What did I do to deserve such a husband?

On our first date we talked about traveling and what destinations were first and forever on our list. Me: Italy. Check. Loved it and will do it again. Paul: Africa. Over a decade has passed. It’s Paul’s turn. We are going to South Africa and the highlight of the trip is a safari in Ngala Game Reserve near Kruger Park. Paul is like a kid at Christmas Eve. He is giddy. He even spent $54.00 on special safari cargo pants with seven pockets. When I booked the trip last January, I showed him  a picture. “This is where we are staying,” I whispered. It is a photo of a thatched lodge back lit with an orange sunset. The lodge faced a watering hole where a family of elephants amble up during cocktail hour. “We can talk to them while we are drinking wine,” I grinned.

So, darn it, I want to write a blog. I don’t want to stand in the grocery store line three months from now, remember  something from the trip, and think, “Why don’t I go home and write about it?” I am going to write while the elephants trumpet and the lions roar.  It probably won’t be like the movie Out of Africa. I know I’m going to have a drama queen moment (or two), but Paul is going on safari, and I get to see him the moment he catches sight of a lion in the wild.

That moment will be priceless!