I miss News Café. I miss Mugg & Bean.
These are local hangouts for the Maestro and me, although he is also crazy about La Forneria, which he refers to as La Fornicatoria(!)
I think about the staff of our neighbourhood bistros quite a bit, not only because I am dying for a cappuccino, but because I miss the ambiance and the ‘outing.’ And I wonder how they are surviving during this shutdown period.
Mugg and Bean is our go-to breakfast, tea or lunch venue. If we’re meeting there, I try to arrive first so I can grab a people-watching possie, and if Andrew beats me to it, he can be found in a dark corner somewhere as far away from sight (and other people) as possible – and therein lies the difference between us. Jean-Paul Sartre and Andrew believe that ‘Hell is other people’ and I am fascinated by humans and energized by being among the throngs.
Of course, this fact about me drives my children to despair because no trip to the shops is ever quick. We are bound to bump (in a socially distant way, post-COVID) into acquaintances, fellow parishioners, past pupils, or their parents, or former colleagues. Liam believes this is no excuse for stopping to speak to them all, which is a cheek coming from a chap who makes a point of striking up a conversation with every cashier as if he has been starved for human contact. But my children’s reluctance to join their loquacious maman allows me to sneak off and date my husband. And if he is not chatty, I can always watch the crowds. Not in a creepy way of course. I am fascinated by observing and imagining what their back-stories might be.
You can’t people-watch nowadays of course, because the genteel art of coffee-sipping, while stalking-shoppers-with-your-eyes, is denied us thanks to the virus. Which is such a pity. I mean I have developed my sartorial style over the years from watching my fellow humans wear things well and well, … not well. How will I know what is in if I can’t watch? And how can I be in, if I can’t be watched. Mind you, I am looking forward to our first visit when they reopen because I can ‘window shop’ for funky masks while I drink my latte.
Then there is our evening haunt: News Café. You cannot beat the view from this establishment and the waiters greet us like old friends, so it feels a bit like a Cheers set and you don’t have to start googling Trip Advisor to get good service. The waiters are charming and good fun. Andrew always goes for the happy hour cocktails – ‘James Bond lifestyle,’ he says. We have good laughs over the various football matches we watch there and debate politics and philosophy, sometimes even with each other. Because we occasionally meet up there after work, I wonder whether the staff think we are having an affair. It’s fun to pretend we are.
Before I met Andrew, I could never have walked into a bar on my own (oh what an admission for a feminist!) but at News Café, it is so welcoming it’s easy. Although we never venture upstairs when the techno beat vibrates at night – that’s where the view, especially at sunset, is magnificent. And the people-watching there is spectacular. All the beautiful people going upstairs to see and be seen have to walk past where we sit (yes, we have ‘our table’) so it is like watching a fashion show. Scratch the thought that the waitstaff think we’re dating. We have ‘our table,’ for goodness sake! We must have ‘old fogey’ written across our faces. But still, a girl can pretend.
We have watched many a sunset from this restaurant and I hope they survive the lockdown period to open their doors again to us. I’m getting bored with my husband. It’s time to meet my lover again.
At least we’ll change out of our pyjamas then.
It’s a war out there. Venturing forth from lockdown today felt like creeping out of my foxhole or trench to sally forth to do battle with the enemy army, a covert (get it?) force of invisible soldiers.
Not that I have the faintest idea what it feels like to be an infantryperson on the front line of a battle, and the only thing I know about foxholes is ‘foxy’ ladies’ in jodhpurs chasing wee creatures to death. The closest I have ever been to death itself was when someone tried to strangle me once (No doubt others have wished they could do me in, but someone actually tried once. I’m still here, however, so guess who won that fight?!… but that can remain a story for another day.) Then there was the chemotherapy…but that was more like imagining death as an option because chemo was so agonizingly unpleasant… again a tale for another fireside though.
But the elements of a movie about twenty-first century urban conflict are all there in this death-dance with a coronavirus:
For the first time in centuries the world war is one in which all countries share an enemy. And the virus has no alliances. It is an axis of evil all on its own, unless you consider Diabetes, Hypertension and Asthma its allies. There’s no shortage of finger-pointing at possible partners in crime, mind you, with Trump vacillating between blaming China, The WHO, the Democrats and the media for being in league with the virus.
2. War Correspondents/ Propagandists (and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference)
As with any modern war, events unfold live on TV. So, you have your obligatory war correspondents: those talking heads on TV who spout commentary all day and night are worse than googling your symptoms for frightening the bejesus out of you. It’s only when they interview the likes of Professor Salim Abdool Karim that I realise we shall be all right with him at the helm of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19. (Prof K has been voted the sexiest COVID-19 scientist by some ladies in the deep South – well they put it a little cruder, but still, not only is he a measured and eminently lucid academic, he is rather cute in a grandfatherly way.) From someone who watched the first Gulf War unfold on TV (That was when I was going through my chemo) as well as living through 9-11 and its aftermath in the US, I find these reporters often spread panic far more than information. They have to fill a 24-hour news cycle and so much of what they do is speculate…and confuse.
Choose wisely who you watch. Avoid almost all politicians. They are conflicted between the health and economic crisis, and their own next election. And yes, I know I sound a little Trumpian in my criticism of the media, but choose carefully which ones you take your truth from. Remember ‘Pravda’ means ‘truth.’ Remember Squealer in Animal Farm and choose the views that do not defend or glorify politicians.
In fact, the press plays a massively important watchdog role in a war. They are the ones who warn of excesses by authoritarian forces and remind us that emergency measures should not become the norm in surveillance and curtailing of freedoms and abuse of power. Study who owns media houses to see whose interests are being served.
These are different from political allies. They are ordinary folk and in the COVID War they are ordinary citizens who just Won’t. Stay. At. Home during lockdown. You know the ones who don’t wear a mask because they ‘can’t breathe nicely’ with it on or aver they are ’not scared to get this virus, because they are young/healthy’…. (insert other obnoxious, entitled utterings). These are the ones who defy the regulations and who in two weeks will either be ill or have passed on the virus to some poor cashier at the supermarket or their elderly parents.
We won’t mention Nkosazani Dlamini-Zuma’s dodgy dealings with illicit tobacco kingpin Adriano Mazotti because the ANCasked us not to pick on the ministers. But, ja… There will always be those who profiteer in a war.
Any conflict involves a complex network of spies on both sides, scurrying around gathering information and exposing the underbelly on both the human and alien invader side. And they are spending lockdown with binocs surveilling their neighbourhoods for humans out after curfew and joggers nipping over the dunes for a quick paddle in the sea, posting their pics on Facebook Neighbourhood sites like ‘Wanted’ posters, shaming the offenders and turning in the collaborators.
The important spies in this fight are the scientists and doctors who are devoting their waking hours to finding a vaccine and uncovering how this little bugger works. Move over James Bond and Jason Bourne -these are the spies we really need.
The enemy spies and reconnaissance guerillas are unseen, jumping easily from one coughing cyclist to the next one in his unprotected slipstream. They live among us, invisible until we touch our eyes or scratch our mouths. Like Mata Hari, they lurk on our lovers’ lips and in their hair, but they are scarier and more prolific than the Army of the Dead in GOT, because they are unseen and unstoppable.
As so many times throughout history the easiest cannon fodder have been the drafted serfs who are forced into a war not of their making to serve on the frontline and take the brunt of the distant generals’ and nobles’ wars. Spare a thought for the poor who didn’t bring the virus here (they can’t afford to fly) but will ultimately pay the price of the virus just as they have with HIV. Think of them in your safe, air-conditioned car on your way to your salaried job, while they commute in crowded public transporters (Oh, come on taxis are definitely going to try to defy the regs!) and return to their tiny homes to take the advance guard of corona to their elderly parents and tuberculoid roommates.
6. Foot Soldiers
Then there are the foot soldiers, you and me who ‘also serve who only stand and wait’ in lockdown and the advance guard in the hospitals, petrol stations, shops, police stations and clerks in government offices; teachers in their nests; farmers in their fields; truckers on the road. Don’t forget security guards and sanitizing company works who can be seen spraying down offices like the nuclear scientists of science fiction movies, in their Hazmat suits. I really hope all the essential workers will finally be rewarded financially for being the cannon fodder of this disease.
When this is over and people no longer clap at eight o’clock, please vote for salary increases for them. Like soldiers in combat, many will not receive medals and state funerals. And they are dying for us, folk. Doctors and nurses are bearing the brunt of enemy fire: by mid-April, 17 000 Italian doctors and nurses were infected with 159 medical personnel being among the dead. And that’s just Italy. Sadly, they seem to be operating like the field hospital in M*A*S*H, using their wits and making do sans proper PPE.
When we go out in our masks we circle other people warily like combatants in a fencing match or Star Wars Jedi knights, facing down our nemesis on a narrow ledge, our hoodies our cowls, and hand sanitizer our lightsabers. Please don’t believe Mr Trump that Lysol injections are the way to go if you’re scratching around for an adequate weapon (that one is firing blanks, my friend), or the Madagascans peddling untested plant-remedies like Thabo Mbeki on steroids. Please don’t fall prey to the anti-vaxxers refusing to contemplate a vaccine cure in the future. How do they think we got rid of smallpox, for goodness sake! You don’t need a ray gun. Just wash your hands!
8. Body Armour
A word on masks: there is an entire universe of sub-cultures evident in how we are wearing masks: from the disposable medical ones; to the pretty, lacy, hand-made ones or the crudely sewn efforts of the needlework-challenged. Then there are the wannabe bandits with their bandanas tied cowboy-style across their faces like train robbers.. Trendy people don a variety of snoods and infinity scarves in multiple colourful shades and fabrics from surfer cool to cyclist flashy. The ‘boets’ of course stride through the shop in their artisan masks for chemical spraying with all sorts of filters and respirators. My favourites so far have been the old lady I spotted at the pharmacy in her ingenious McGyver-inspired mmmshield fashioned from staples and one of those plastic envelopes you put in office files, and the man who went shopping with his tiny boys armoured up as a miniature stormtrooper and some masked Marvel creature that was scarier than Joan Rivers sans make-up (Okay that is a bit mean, but if she can dish it, she should take it too).
We cannot fight on the beaches (well, not in Lockdown Level 4), but we shall fight on the school grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
With apologies to Winston Churchill
So I have graduated to being managed by a personal assistant. Her name is Gizelle and, like the ballet character after whom she is named, she glides through my life, effortlessly and gracefully fielding calls, managing staff appointments; gently correcting my mistakes (and they are many); protecting me from cute Grade 4 groupies whom I simply don’t have the heart to turn away, but who were becoming accustomed to spending every break with me, not to mention running the administrative nightmare that goes with managing a large school. And she makes me tea, leaving it steaming on my desk like the lingering whisper of an elfin gift.
Ariel Dorfman refers to the life of a secretary as ‘responsibility without power, the fate of the secretary throughout the ages.’ Now far be it from me to question Dorfman’s experience of personal aides, but Gizelle’s petite, ballerina-like personage may look fragile, but she is a tower of strength and surprising talents, despite her youth. No one argues with her – especially not me.
Wikipedia has this cute explanation of what a personal assistant does: ‘The personal assistant is required to do any task that the manager requires whether personal or professional.’ Seriously? Truth be told I feel guilty every time Gizelle brings me tea, because that is personal and I believe that her duties should be professional only. I wonder how many managers cross the line by exploiting their assistants to do more ‘personal’ work than ‘professional’ work. The Marius Fransman situation is a case in point of how patriarchal managers view those who work for them, especially when they are young, naïve and vulnerable women.
The expression ‘my PA’ has a certain feudal ring to it and carries overtones of possession which are worrying. I certainly hope no James Bond wannabees on our staff have tried to flirt with the Meridian Miss Moneypenny. (I don’t think they’d dare.) But on a feminist aside, just google ‘secretary – images’ and see how many pictures of male secretaries with woman bosses come up…yeah…none. The job is almost exclusively considered ‘women’s work’ especially when the boss is a man. And I think as a result is often considered to be a servile position.
Now I would be hypocritical to say that Gizelle does not field calls from Caitlin (‘Please buy electricity’ – now there is a scary assistant!) or remind me to respond to my sister’s message (an even scarier personage to ignore), but I wouldn’t dream of requiring her to fetch my dry-cleaning (if I had any) or buy my husband flowers/ whisky/ cigars. The school does not pay her to serve me, but to support me.
And thank goodness it does. Her prowess on the computer is lightning fast. She can take complex, scattered data and make graphed sense out of it and her attention to detail has saved me several times already this year from embarrassment and error. She works long hours and frequently takes work home. I am filled with mild panic at the very thought of her being absent. She has seen me at my weakest, but I live in fear of her seeing the mess in my stationery drawer.
Now here is the thing: she does all of this uncomplainingly (well she did once moan at me for signing a document in the wrong place), while running a family of two young children plus three older step-children and a husband who works shifts. Why am I mentioning this? Well because she may be employed as a ‘personal’ assistant, but it is important for me to remember that she has a personal life. She has hopes and dreams and ambitions.
Once a year, we celebrate our secretarial and administrative staff with a hallmark moment, but truth be told, it is impossible to truly give pen to the contribution of such an éminence grise. All I can say is that I am immensely grateful for the person that is Mrs Gizelle Marais, a woman of courage and one to be respected.