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Bits and bobs about my life in my lovely home, Thatchwick Cottage, Pretoria, South Africa.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Wedding at Thatchwick

"I always imagined my wedding as a this beautiful garden", said Elmien in her wedding speech made on the verandah of Thatchwick Cottage on a fresh Saturday morning in November.
Elmien, a friend and member of the life group that meets weekly in my home, had asked me some time back if she could hold her wedding ceremony and reception in my garden.
A wedding sent me into a panic - I thought of long to-do lists, possible bad weather and the logistics of fitting 50 guests onto the front lawn. I learned a lot from Elmien and her friends who organised a stylish and very economical wedding with the greatest of ease. The day before the hired chairs and tables arrived, flowers arranged by her mother to be kept overnight in the cool dining room and platters of finger eats to be stored in the fridge.
Guests mingled on the lawn sipping champagne and tasting savouries and sweets after the ceremony was over.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Must you go?

The Schonbrunn palace, Vienna: home of Marie Antionette until the age of nine

I read books. I listen to books.  Listening doubles my book-acquisition-capacity. Listening in the car makes trips around the suburbs and up to the campus flash by. Listening in the sunroom transforms monotonous sewing jobs like my current task of machine-appliquéing eight panels with intricate cut outs for a  William Morris quilt. My book-listening is made possible by Unisa Library’s audio visual section where I regularly borrow Clipper Audio cds.
At present I am listening to the historical biographer (a very accessible historian), Antonia Fraser’s “Must you go? My life with Harold Pinter. This is an account based on Antonia’s diaries of thirty-three years with Harold Pinter, starting with their serendipitous meeting, her separation from her first husband, her divorce and marriage to Harold and their life together until his death from cancer in 2008. The couple are not ordinary - an upper class British writer with links to the peerage and a celebrated playwright, actor and director – and their lives were not ordinary either. International travel, political activism, the theatre, friends with the rich and famous (a phone call from Jackie Kennedy is just mentioned in passing, rather like I mention phoning a friend for her chocolate cake recipe), country houses, ancestral homes, town houses, swish hotels, luncheons, parties, picnics and poems.
I have read several of Antonia Fraser’s books and they have made their rounds in book club too: Mary Queen of Scots, Charles II, Cromwell, Marie Antionette and others. Brilliantly for their detailed research and brilliant for their accessibility. “Must you go?” captures Antonia’s grief at the demise of a beloved husband. Death is the great leveller: kings, playwrights, shopkeepers, housewives. Ten years ago I  whispered similar helpless words in the same straits: “Please don’t go!”     

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Seasonal shifts

Last night I slept curtains drawn with my window to the garden wide open. The quality of the air that filtered through the space at 5am this morning was different. How do I define it?  Of course, I have noticed the birds are already more active at an earlier hour – round 4.45 am.  Spring is on the way. But this change did not have to do with what I heard. I inhaled a nuanced scent – a freshness, a newness. The draft that touched my cheeks was bracing not chilly. Just a shift on a minutely spaced scale. 
Sprays of creamy blossom on the buddleja are unfolding. Clusters of buds are poking out among the green spears of the clivias.


Sunday, August 11, 2013

"Night falls on the city"

The golden statue of  Johann Strauss and his violin in the Stadtpark typifies the joyous spirit of Vienna. Ruth and I walked the famous Ring Road on a hot, muggy Sunday afternoon. We kept to the shade as far as we could and continually sidestepped the cyclists whose route seemed to have precedence over our pedestrian walkway.  We admired the grand grey stone buildings: the Opera House, the gardens of the Imperial Palace, the gate to the Hofburg palace, the Rathaus and Town Hall, the Burg Theatre, the University.
Memories of our time in Wien persuaded me to choose a novel of Vienna as my Book Club choice this week. And I have been engrossed every since.  As the paperback version of “Night falls on the City” by Sarah Gainham is 610 pages, I still have several more evenings tucked up in bed for an hour’s reading before I finish. This novel starts on the eve of Anschluss between Hitler’s Germany and Austria and ends with the Russian invasion of the city after six year’s of Occupation. The sweep of those most tragic years is carried by a clever literary structure: five ‘books’ each cover a ‘moment’ during the war period in the lives of the characters.  The main character is indeed a leading lady, Julia Homburg, star of the Burg Theatre. Or, is the main character Vienna itself? This story is firmly located in Wien, its streets, parks, beer halls and elegant cafes, grand apartments and mean working class quarters. The author’s intimate knowledge of the city is a significant part of the story’s power. Sarah Gainham’s several novels are all set in Central Europe and this was her triumph. Gainham was born in London in 1914 and settled in Vienna in 1947 as central European correspondent for important newspapers and worked through the decades of the 50s and 60s. She died in Austria in 1999.  
 I selected the book (first published in 1967 and an international bestseller) above the attractive piles of the latest contemporary novels. It has not disappointed.
At our vibrant book club evening, Sylvia remarked: “Another war book! Have you noticed how many books we have read that are about wars – the World Wars, the Anglo-Boer war, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran! ” Theresa answered: “There will always be stories of conflict. No one ever gets over a war.”  And those of us who gratefully have never experienced war still try to plumb how it happens so easily and so often.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Gardener's diary

With some help all the roses have been dug over, moats created and filled with a handful of fertilizer, potting soil and my own homegrown compost.  I could not resist having another ‘go’ at the bushes with my cutting shears – taking off more errant shoots and old wood.

My compost heap is a source of great pride. I devote kitchen organic waste to it, veggie and fruit peels mainly, and all the garden cuttings. I occasionally add a bag or two of bone meal and keep it damp. When we extracted compost from the heap last week, it was alive with earthworms. Understandably the Heuglin's robins were the first to visit the rosebeds followed by the orange thrushes.

Bags of leaves waiting for the current compost to be harvested and the new one to be begun.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Won't you have a rusk?

I consider the humble rusk (Afrikaans: beskuit) as one of the great South African contributions to the world of cuisine. Not haute cuisine, of course, but the mundane world of everyday eating pleasure. Most folk from every background in this diverse country enjoy the simple but hearty snack of rusks and a cuppa – tea, coffee or hot chocolate on a cold winter’s evening.  I start the day with rusks and coffee, a ritual that has been eagerly shared with a succession of Thatchwick dogs, and now taken with Kaela and Flash.

A rusk is a hard, dry biscuit which is achieved by double baking. First the rusk dough  is formed into shapes or cut into shapes and baked. The individual rusks are loosened from each other with enough space for the air to circulate between rusks and returned on baking trays to a low oven to be dried out for a couple of hours.  Versions of rusks can be found in the baking repertoire of several countries.  Ours are traced back to pioneering days when provisions had to keep without proper refrigeration or storage for long periods of time. My rusk baking took on new dimensions when Ruth gave me these rusk pans with a contraption to make neat indentations into the wet dough.

In South Africa rusks and coffee have found their place onto  the menus of some upmarket coffee  shops specialising in local fare, like Karoo Café on Lynnwood Road. Commercially baked rusks appear on supermarket shelves and are an essential item at small home industries.  I disdain buying rusks as the supermarket goods are just not good enough. Home industry offerings are excellent but pricey. Beside to whip up a batch of dough, more or less according to my favourite recipe, takes a flat 20 minutes. I say ‘more or less’ as I am not a stickler for exact amounts and improvise my rusks with abandon.  My recipe calls for raisins and I add cranberries; sunflower seeds and I add pumpkin seeds and chopped pecan nuts if I have any; All Bran Flakes or muesli, whatever is in the cupboard. An addition that I never miss is a cup of coconut and treacle sugar in place of standard refined white. If the mixture seems a bit stiff due to the unconventional ingredients, I just add a little more cream or buttermilk.
Jethro loves Granny’s rusks and I suspect his parents do too. A dozen or so bagged in clear cellophane and tied with a ribbon makes a thank you or birthday gift or a comfort  package. Kaela is a special fan. When I take out the bowls and baking trays, she takes up her place of vigilance on the kitchen floor and stays put watching the oven until the first phase of baking is over.   

Monday, July 22, 2013

Gardener's diary

My denuded rose garden after hours of hard work this Saturday. I was left with sore hands after gripping the shears and a few scratches after I had impatiently tossed off the leather gloves.  My technique is first to tackle those straggly winter roses with the hedge shears. Does that make you experts flinch?  This is a tip I picked up from a DVD on rose pruning by an Australian expert. After chopping the spindly canes to a manageable size and removing the debris, I return with the pruning shears and  begin to prune with care.

 Altogether I pruned approximately 45 bushes throughout the garden. Standards, miniatures in pots, climbers, which incidentally I believe benefit from pruning, tea roses and floribundas.  Now I m ust spray them them with lime suphur, build up the  moats and fill  them with my own homegrown compost.

These are the roses in early summer glory in Vienna.

Ruth and I celebrated the roses of Vienna with two poppy seed pastries and cappucinos on a park bench on a hot, sticky Sunday in June. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The secret to a happy birthday is to arrange the celebration yourself without waiting, often in vain, for someone to do that for you. Friends and family are keen to participate and will go to great lengths to make the celebration a success but the initiative remains yours.

This year I chose to have an early morning coffee and croissants get together for my friends. My daughter and grandchildren stopped over on their way for a country weekend. Ruth brought a red velvet cake and cupcakes. I ordered plain, almond and chocolate croissants from the excellent fresh bakery at Woolies.
Plump strawberries caught my eye as I entered the store and were the perfect accompaniment to the pastries. A selection of jams and cheese rounded off the menu.

We chatted till lunch time.  The evening was special. Friends invited me out to a dinner/chamber concert at a restaurant. Spicy butternut soup, grilled chicken breasts with spinach filled on a bed of garlic mashed potato, macaroons and coffee interspersed with Schubert, Hadyn and Khachaturian played on clarinet, piano, cello and violin were delicious to the ear and the tastebuds.
 An aside on aging:  the members of the quartet were so young, vibrant and enthusiastic. Their journey is beginning. A day after my birthday a forty-something friend commented to me, “I enjoyed your party. But your friends – they are soooo old! When I got home, I felt good. I realised how young I am!”  
Just a few of us oldies!

Friday, July 12, 2013

A month of incidents

Brightly coloured window frames on an apartment block create a pop art composition in Linz.Ten days in June were spent visiting Austria for an international conference combined with sightseeing.

But a tumble just three days before my departure - tripping over my hasty feet - in my own backyard left me with torn tendons and acute pain. Not the best way to start an overseas trip. But the splendours of Vienna eased the pain as Ruth and I scoured the city.

 Our first dinner in Vienna was schnitzels at a leafy tavern. The cold weather that had accompanied the floods earlier in June had given way to hot summer days.

Sight seeing trips (in posts to come), a busy conference, new getting acquainted with colleagues from across the globe, the long haul home followed almost immediately by an out-of-town workshop for doctoral students, a joyful reunion with my dogs("Thought we were abandoned in the kennels! De Luxe boarding does not make up for home, sweetest home!" reproached Kaela), Jethro - mornings while preschool is out for the holidays, an avalanche of emails and catch-up, and a flurry of birthday parties including my own, has filled the rest of June/July to date.

PS Composing this post has tested my determination to keep up blogging again. The text 'freezes' and will not allow further editing. The fonts return to Normal (which is small to my eye). An being in a constant strikeout mode does not allow insertions. I need a techie!

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Small ambitions

This morning on campus I met a  newly retired colleague waiting for the lift to the 6th floor where the Faculty of Education is housed. 

"Retirement experiences are as varied as one's fingerprints, " he told me, "Some people, mainly men, who have been in management, can't accept the change to just an ordinary person. No power, no glamour. But as for me - I love it. I doing a bit of marking and have some short term duties. This has helped to phase in the transition."

I listen, somewhat enviously. I am under pressure. I am off to an overseas conference and just when I thought I was under control,  unpredicted demands popped up. My email went on the blink. A minor family crisis emerged. I must re-apply for a research contract.

"But you must prepare for retirement," my friend continued, "Make a bucket list. I did that and so has my wife."

"Okay...." I muse.

"My wife just wants to walk on Red Square!" he continues, "And as for me, we follow my dream later this month. A barge holiday on the canals of southern France".

"Mmmm", I walk off intimidated by such colourful ambitions, "That's one deep bucket!"

That darn bucket list bit has been worrying me ever since.

All I can think of is the joy of an hour or two of gardening after early morning coffee. Playing ball with the dogs without glancing at my watch. Fetching Jethro from preschool for the afternoon without having to juggle his nap with  finishing a report. Making quilt after quilt without tidying up the sewing mess in the sunroom. Taking a leisurely stroll down the aisles at the supermarket with a scribbled recipe in my hand. 

The delights, the sheer attraction of small ambitions. They would fit into a teacup and bring me as much pleasure as that bucket.

Sunday, June 2, 2013


Winter on the Highveld means blue skies and sunshine but it can get chilly. May weather has been balmy and today - officially the second day of winter - the midday temperature reached 26 C. Barbecued hamburgers with lashings of German mustard, tomato sauce, fresh rolls and salad made a great Sunday lunch in the  back garden.

Flash has settled into his new home and loves having Jethro for Sunday company. 

Flash is a four-year male Labrador which I rehomed about 8 weeks ago. He has stepped into the gap left by Galahad. Flash is gentle, sweet and loving. But what else does one expect of a Labrador?  He's also ball-crazy. 

And where were Kaela and I on this sun-dappled Sunday? Both behind the camera!  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

No agenda

Saturday with no agenda.Time to pick lemons. Time to sew while listening to an audio-book. Time to throw tennis balls for the dogs. 

"How was your Saturday?" I ask Catherine on the phone.

"Wonderful! No agenda." she replies.  

                       A painted iris lasts for only one day.