Dress for Success

April 27, 2012

There are 15 women in my office and no one wears make up.  In fact, no one puts much effort into their physical appearance at all.  This is normal for Europe and I started noticing this phenomenon when I lived in London.  The Brits blended into their surroundings because they looked grey and drab, just like the weather.  Like most average, middle-class, working Joes in Switzerland or the UK, I also don’t put that much effort into looking good.  Most days, I dress for work in under 60 seconds. 

My cupboard is bursting with clothes I never use and I cycle through five or so of my most comfortable work outfits.  I generally look as if I have been dragged through a bush backwards and I don’t appear out of place.  Last Friday, Alastair and I were walking to the car in the morning and I realized I forgot to brush my hair.  I asked Al if I should run back inside the house.  He said, ‘Forget it.  Who cares what you look like?’  I spent the day looking as if I had stuck my wet fingers in an electric socket and I didn’t care and no one else seemed to notice.

South Africans that still live in South Africa are generally much more attractive than Europeans.  When I went home in March, it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was wowed by how attractive, bright and upbeat people looked in ordinary places such as restaurants and shopping malls.  It is obvious that South Africans (especially women) are better groomed and take more pride in their appearance than people in Europe.

If I lived in South Africa and worked in an office with 15 women, it would be unusual for no one to wear makeup.  I don’t mean that they would cake on base and lipstick to look like tarts.  I am saying that at least a few people would brush their hair and dab on a little lipstick, blusher and mascara to enhance their natural features.  Most of my friends in South Africa regularly go for facials, manicures or pedicures.  That’s not common practice here.

To be fair to the Europeans, the way of life here is different to South Africa and it does not lend itself to starting the day attractive and ending the day attractive.  Over here we use public transport and walk from place to place so function takes priority over aesthetics.  I recall once wearing my dainty, pretty South African work shoes in London and, after two days, my feet were ribbons of bleeding flesh.  I learned my lesson and now I wear shoes that are built to pound the pavements and withstand dirty puddles.      

When you have to wait for a bus in horizontal rain and wind that turns an umbrella inside out, there is no point in brushing your hair.  In London, I often travelled for 45 minutes in a steaming bus with my nose up against someone’s armpit so dollying myself up in the mornings lost its allure.    

I have never forgotten a story my school teacher told our class.  She had a friend who put off filing his tax return.  It was dry, dull admin and he always found better things to do.  Every weekend, he put ‘do tax’ on his list of things to accomplish but other more interesting activities kept sweeping tax off the list and every Sunday night, it was not done.  Days became weeks which became months and the tax return was still not touched.  The final filing deadline loomed. 

Then, one Saturday morning, his wife woke up and padded down the stairs in her pyjamas.  She walked past the dining room, stopped, blinked a couple of times and then reversed.  She peered back into the room.  Her husband sat at the dining room table, power dressed in a full suit – starched white shirt, tie and jacket.  He was sitting upright, like he was in some sort of straightjacket and he tapped at his calculator.  He didn’t notice her because he was absorbed in the piles of papers around him.

‘Bob!’  His wife cried.  (Let’s call him Bob)  ‘What on earth are you doing in a suit?  It’s Saturday!’

‘I’m doing the tax’. 

‘In a suit?’ she said.

‘Yes, it’s the only way I can concentrate.  Tax is work and if I am going to get it done at home, I must force my body to think it is at the office.  If I look the part, I will feel the part and I can focus and get these damn taxes done.’ 

And he did.    

When I was in South Africa, hanging around all those gorgeous people, I started to feel happier.  At first I felt like a scruff in comparison so, when I went to the shops, I put on a dash of lipstick and brushed my hair.  I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, ‘Not bad.  Not bad at all’.  I went out and about with a spring in my step.  Just like the tax man in his suit, the way I looked affected the way I felt and then behaved.

If you put effort into your appearance and look good, you can’t help but feel good.  Maybe that’s why South Africans are generally perkier and more gung-ho compared to the British and the Swiss.


To do list: Nothing

April 20, 2012

My job is one of extremes – I am either manically busy or I have absolutely nothing to do.  As in zero, zippo, diddly squat.  Most of the time I am bored stiff and, when I get up from my office chair, my bones creak and I wonder if my body is slipping into rigour mortis.

I can do the work in my job description in about 3 days so the rest of the month is free.  I try to lend a hand to others but then they just toss over the dregs, the shit, the donkey-work that they have been putting off and no one else wants to do.  I figure, if I am so productive, then why should I be eager to roll up my sleeves and do the work that is the corporate equivalent to cleaning toilets?  So, that is why I am as efficient as possible with the work in my job description, I lend a helping hand when asked and the rest of the time, I just look busy.

The problem with this is that I have too much time to think and some days I will gaze into space and contemplate the almighty hash up that is my career.  I got good marks at school and university and I thought I was destined for great things as a high-flying corporate executive.  My life spun off in the opposite direction and I seem to have climbed down the corporate ladder instead of up it.  I have a decent brain (if I don’t say so myself) but few companies I have worked for are bothered whether I use it or not.  It is such a waste of their money and my time.

Time drags when one has nothing to do.  The days are long.  It is amazing how tiring it is twiddling the thumbs.  The strange thing is that the less I have to do, the more lethargic I become and a task as straightforward as walking to the photocopy machine becomes like coordinating a mission to the Moon.  During spurts of busyness, I have daydreamed about parking off but I realize it is much better to be fully occupied from 9 to 5.  It means the time passes quickly and I have something to show for myself at home time.

I have tried all sorts of techniques to keep busy.  My instinct is to hop on to the internet but I can’t do that for long periods at work.  Every hour, I skim through The Daily Mail website but that is becoming a sick and unhealthy habit as I am starting to live vicariously through the likes of Kim Kardashian and Pippa Middleton.  Most of my colleagues have the dynamism of a corpse so I can’t even kill time with a bit of banter and office chitchat.

I am not much of an entrepreneur but I have considered starting a business aimed at bored individuals in the workplace.  I would sell electronic tools that create an illusion of productivity.  I could make millions because I have noticed every office has bored or lazy people who lurk under the radar.  My target market would be the dead wood in companies.  I could sell books that are formatted into Word or Excel and I would dot a few random, corporatey graphs within every file.  It would appear as if someone is reviewing a strategy document or something equally hard core when, in fact, they are just reading ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ by Johanna Trollope.

People have said that this down time is the perfect opportunity to do what I love – to write.  I struggle to write at home because I am distracted by the internet and it feels as if I am sharing the room with a 100 piece marching band.  In the office, I can stay in the fog of my imagination all day and no one is pressurizing me to come out of it.  So yes, I agree that work is a good place to write.

My predicament is that I can’t write at work.  I have all this free time and I am paralysed.  The irony is that when I am busy and have no spare time, then all I want to do is write.  My mind is alive and wild and my ideas and thoughts want to escape me and jump on to paper like my head is on fire.  When I am not busy and have plenty of time to spare, my Muse will not co-operate.  Maybe it becomes shy when the attention is focused on it.  I have realized I can’t pull out my creativity; it likes to do its own thing.

I think that boredom and stillness has clogged my brain.  My ideas get stuck in my head when my diary is blank and I have ‘nothing’ on my to-do list.  My mind is like an unused pipe and its contents have become stagnant and filled with thick, sticky sediment.

I am reading a great book by Ann Patchett and she said that to unclog a blocked pipe, you need to force a small ocean through the tap.  I should clear out the muck to see if there is anything worthwhile underneath and the way to do this is to write even when I don’t feel like it.  Art and creativity is about practice, practice and more practice which gets the junk out of the system so we can find the good stuff.

Ann Patchett believes that people misunderstand inspiration.  It is not magic.  She says that being creative is more about hoisting the pick than it is about keeping our ears cocked for our Muse.  I realize I have been thinking of writing as some kind of woo-woo, zen-like, whacky artistic process that relies on random inspiration.  Actually writing (or any art) is mostly about work.  It is about grafting even when you don’t feel like it.  Now I have something for my to-do list for tomorrow:  Hoist the pick.

I can never divorce South Africa

April 15, 2012

I have just returned from a super holiday in South Africa.  I am struggling to settle back into my routine again.  Going to South Africa always messes with my head and stuffs up my personal equilibrium.  Visits make me reflect on the life decisions I have made and I analyze the pros and cons of living away from my home country, lifelong friends and my close, extended family.

I love my new life in Switzerland.  I like it that I can go for a jog at 7am in the morning and I don’t have to worry that someone may steal my iPod or rape me.  I know too many people who have been murdered, raped, mugged, hijacked and held up at gunpoint in South Africa.  But, if South Africa is like the Wild West, why is it that when a visit ends, I feel empty?  I ache for the part of myself that I can’t help but leave behind.  Why?

I’ve decided that being South African is a bit like being married to a drunk who cheats, steals your money, sometimes beats you up and often disappoints you.  People advise, ‘Why are you still with such a loser?  There are better possibilities out there.  Move away.  Leave.’

The problem is, you can’t divorce him.  What ties you to this person?  You say, ‘I know he cheats, steals my money, sometimes beats me up and often disappoints me.  I can’t help but love him.  You don’t see what I see.  When he is in a good mood and on his best behaviour, there is no one else I would rather be with.   The bad times are very bad but the good times are very good.’

In South Africa, the bad is very bad but the good is oh so very very good.

My March trip observations … THE BAD 

1.  When did South Africa become so expensive?

I loved my holiday but I would have loved it even more if I didn’t hemorrhage cash.  For a country with as many poor people in it as South Africa, it is helluva expensive.  Alastair and I are still reeling from the shock of our R4,000 bill from the dentist in Durban.

I think South Africans have a raw deal financially.  Cars are expensive, health care is expensive, education is expensive, food is expensive, bank charges are expensive, housing is expensive – compared to Europe, everything seems pricier relative to people’s incomes.

It’s difficult to make a financial head start in life under these conditions.  South Africans have additional expenses that people in established European countries don’t need to factor into their budgets.  In Switzerland, my kids will have free education and health care is reasonably affordable.  Straight away, I have more money to play with than people living in South Africa.

I wondered if South Africans save or have any disposable income but, if the pumping shopping malls and grocery stores on every street corner are anything to go by, people still have cash to burn.  Then I realized that they’re not burning real cash, they’re burning plastic.

2.  Any criticism is racism

My mom is a trustee in her complex and had to respond to a complaint that the black, female gardener was watering the plants in an apron and had nothing underneath it.  Her melon boobs were peeking out and residents found this overwhelming, especially with impressionable kids around.  My mom asked her to please put a t-shirt under the apron and the woman cried, ‘You racist!’

A black man jumped a queue at Joburg airport.  When I politely reprimanded him, he bellowed, ‘You are a racist!’

I used to do lots of government work when I was based in Johannesburg.  Once a black guy called Chilliboy proposed an off-the-wall plan and I knew it would not work.  I tactfully shot down his hare-brained idea and he said, ’Are you criticizing me because I am black?’  I was stunned.  ‘No Chilliboy’, I whispered under my breath, ‘I am criticizing you because you are stupid’.

During this trip, I watched the news and read the papers and it dawned on me that, these days, some of the most racist people in South Africa are black.  By constantly thinking that every criticism is a personal affront and racist jibe, we put up an iron wall that is a barrier to progress and open, honest discussion.  The racist defence creates an impasse and it gets my back up.  I have learned that a quack idea is a quack idea – full stop.  An idiot is an idiot and they come in all colours (kind of like Smarties).  We South Africans must accept that healthy criticism is part of a healthy democracy.  Not all ideas are good ideas, we must wait our turn in queues and we can’t flash our boobies at everyone while we water the garden.

3.  To feel safe on South African roads, buy a Hummer

I never feel 100% safe in South Africa.  Forget about crime – it’s the roads that make me nervous.  Some things about South Africa are more than first world but the roads are definitely not.  The condition of the roads is passable (there could be less potholes and more cat’s eyes) but the condition of the vehicles that use them is not.

Most trucks should be pulled off the road – either they barf black fumes, are overloaded, poorly lit, move too fast or they chug along too slowly.

My biggest concern is that cargo is not strapped down securely and these drivers don’t create dangers for themselves; they selfishly create dangers for everyone else.  I drove past a van with a tractor tyre on the back and it looked like it was tied down with something as flimsy as a piece of string.  If the van braked sharply or there was a strong wind, the tyre could fly through an innocent person’s windscreen.  That’s a tragic and avoidable way to die.

Once, when I was based in Johannesburg, I was driving to work and I heard a traffic announcement over the radio: ‘There is a buildup of traffic on the N1 highway.  This is owing to a double bed which is lying in the fast lane before the Beyer’s Naude offramp’.

I know car accidents can happen anywhere but it is reassuring to know that, in some countries, it is unlikely I will have one by hurtling into a double bed in the fast lane.

My March trip observations … THE VERY GOOD

Something strange hit me as I stepped off the British Airways flight into OR Tambo airport.  I felt everything and everyone say to me, ‘Welcome home.  You are home’.

There is something special about South Africa.  There is energy, a vibe, a spirit that I have not encountered anywhere else in the world.  We are warm and open.  We are real.  The Zimbabwean author Peter Godwin hit the nail on the head when he said, ‘In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life as a spectator but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue.  You feel perishable, temporary, transient.  You feel mortal.’  Maybe that is why we South Africans live and love so vividly.

This trip I realized how much South African-ness is hard-wired into me.  I noticed how many things I love and miss.  Woolworths, Truworths, Nandos, Steers, dom pedros, boerewors, biltong, NikNaks and bunny chows.  I miss chicken mayonnaise toasted sandwiches on a menu.  I miss having a maid.  I miss old, deep friendships that are so solid that we can pick up where we left off.  I miss my family.

Living overseas is the right thing for me and Alastair for now.  We are happy.  So, let’s just say that I am separated from my first love South Africa who cheats, screws me out of money, sometimes beats me up and often disappoints me.  This trip I realized that while I can’t live in it, I also can’t live without it.