“Turn and face the strange”

(Lyrics from “Changes” – my own little tribute to David Bowie – when I was in a pub band I used to love his songs the most as they had the best basslines – have a listen and see if I’m right.)

We are in SA. Our flights went OK – we amused ourselves by letting our teenage son, Finn, try out a herbal sleeping remedy, which added to the sense of nervous energy and borderline-hysteria. On the overnight flight I was in front of That Family with no volume control – unhappy kids who seemed to be rummaging around in blankets made of crisp packets through the night. Their mum had an enormous rucksack that she bashed against all the passengers when she went up and down the aisle, and to give you an idea of her lack of self-awareness, she insisted on deliberating over, then buying duty free jewellery at 3am, in a normal talking voice!! ANYway the main thing is the kids slept a bit (especially Finn!) and we got to Jo’burg safe and sound, around 5am. We played dumb to the fact we were being bribed about our excess baggage. We paid £30 in the end – fair enough, because we had this much luggage. How did that even happen?

IMG_2957

Not long now until Evie gets a real dog instead of that mutt who comes all over with us..

Right, so “Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes” …. here is my first 24 hours in SA. (I have only written about my first 24 hours, and I know you will be dying to hear about how the kids are – I promise I’ll do that soon. In a nutshell, they’re fine. Amazingly good-natured and resilient – thanks to everyone who prayed for them.)

IMG_2965Flying into Bloemfontein was weird but wonderful. Why do clouds settle in strips, can anyone tell me please? It is very flat, and mercifully they had had some rain the night before so it’s not been too hot. Hot enough for us Brits, but a good 7 or 8 degrees less than last week. I’d say it’s been low to mid 30’s. IMG_2969We went to our apartment and it was fab – no time to enjoy it though as we were on a mission – to get kitted out for school the next day. The boys could have gone to an orientation morning at school but we were told nope, not without a full uniform – such is the value placed on getting everything exactly right. No pressure then…….

Oh how I wish I could convey to you the ruggedness of the mountain we had to climb … we had no idea. We were preparing for two schools – St. Andrews (boys) and Eunice (girls). I was quite anxious about it, imagining a couple of white shirts, shorts, 3 pairs of shoes etc, just like every other start of term I’ve done, but this was another level. We didn’t even understand some of the vocabulary. People were extremely kind to us that day, explaining expectations and showing us things but really we wanted to lie down. Evie did in fact lie down when we had a quick pizza at lunchtime, and she fell asleep on my lap there and then in the food court. We needed winter and summer uniforms all at once because the first day back for the boys was formal wear. This included – horrors – a STRAW BOATER!! You can only imagine the mortification as the boys realised they were going to be looking like ice cream salesmen in their royal blue blazers and hats. The hats are called ‘bashers’ and they were sold in this shop called Kloppers, where I honestly reckon we’ve spent 7 solid hours of our time here already. Yesterday I was sitting on the floor in there waiting for child A to buy emergency school trainers, and a lady actually thought I was fainting. Ha ha! Anyway back to the first day …. Kloppers has a school section just for all the different schools in this city. I climbed a step ladder to give you a sense of the scale of it.

IMG_1752This is about a third of the school section. Those boxes in the far distance up the top? The staff climb up there to collect the right sized shoes etc. You can just about make out my famalam testing the patience of Saint Candice who was helping us on the right – by a trolley full of uniform. Those boxes along the wall behind my family are all labelled ‘hockey shorts, school X’. ‘cricket socks, school Y’, ‘pre-primary ties, school Z’ and so on and so on. It was hellish.

There were also school shops at the actual school campuses, for all the PE kits, sports bags, swimming kit, specific school bags – tick, tick, tick we went, working our way down the lists then back in the car to the other school shop, tick, tick, tick…then a stationery shop who had boxed up 3 sets of pre-ordered stuff…  rulers, plastic sheeting (eh??), compasses, diaries, sets of pencils, tick, tick, tick…. We bought plastic lunch boxes, water bottles, sun caps, then another shop for 2 compulsory black belts…. queueing again and again.. At one point I was in a shoe shop looking for BROWN shoes for Evie – none to be seen… (it was everyone else’s last day of the holidays too don’t forget, before the school year started – there were mums everywhere with notebooks and kids in tow – think “Clarks UK, looking for school shoes the day before term – gaaahhhhh!) I was gazing around having been told no, there’s no more size 13’s and no insoles are made for less than a size 2. We had failed, it was the third shop we’d tried and we were at the end of the day … I was just staring at people vacantly … when suddenly I noticed a sales lady dealing with another little girl, trying the same brown shoes for Eunice school – BINGO. The ones in the box under her arm had been too small. Just right for Cinderella Evie.

Ugh.. it was endless. Around 4pm I asked Diane to remind me not to forget to buy actual FOOD for the kids’ lunches too! I’d love to say that we’re sorted now but we’re not.. we have been buying bags of things both days since – just yesterday we found out that today is a sports day at St. Andrews so they needed ANOTHER set of clothes!! So today the boys went in PE stuff, yesterday in summer uniform and the first day in full winter uniform (including long grey socks underneath the long trousers and blazer – talk about melting). No bashers in sight on day one, so they got left in the car: There is a God!!

(By the way, a lady I met in the phone shop queue works in the St. Andrews’ tuck shop and as a favour, let us in during break yesterday, so we could get ready for sports today. We pulled our boys in from break and made them try on tracksuits, ‘house’ coloured shirts, PE kits and wait for it….. SPEEDO’S. Well I thought our boys would just about die. Colin waved them at Finn’s classmates through the window, just to help with the building of his friendships. The ladies in the shop liked our “budgie smugglers” nickname for those Speedo’s.)

Back to day one. At teatime we gathered everything together and started labelling everything and putting it all in the right bags…. YOU try labelling a hundred quid’s worth of stationery at 9pm – every hi-lighter pen, every pencil case… oh and all the clothes too, and I had to take up two pairs of grey trousers – borrowed the needle and thread. I said to the boys “They never mention this stuff in the Newday “Here I am, send me” talks do they?” We FELL into bed, completely strung out. I remember thinking ‘God’s timing doesn’t feel very perfect’. Up at 5.30 the next morning and the assemblage began. We hadn’t unpacked our luggage so it was ‘where’s the shampoo…? , where’s the hairbrush…?’ We were rummaging through sections of any of our 7 suitcases frantically trying to keep it together. The kids looked great, if a little pale and shell-shocked. Photos of my boys were prohibited but I’ll bribe them another day when they’re less tired. Here’s Evie though on day one:

IMG_2973We made it – Eunice at 7am and St Andrews at 7.20. It was the day we had dreaded for nearly a year – Colin said last February he felt ‘sick to his stomach’ at the thought of dropping them off. But you know what, we felt OK, even excited for them actually. We chatted to some other parents and pupils then wandered off to the mall searching out caffeine before another very full-on day of banking and phone shops. “Closed – no water” said one cafe. “Closed – back soon”, another. What WAS this ghost town we’d been sent to…? Then we realised that although we’d been up for 2 hours and the sun was high in the sky… it was still only 7.30 in the morning!! And that was my first 24 hours. Talk about ‘ch-ch-changes’ …… !