Sunday, December 28, 2014

But is it tennis?

Yesterday I helped save a Russian baby from drowning. It was the case of being at the right place at the right time - in this instance inside of the pool right by the edge as this small child in a swim nappy and T-shirt confidently walked up to the water's edge and stepped in. At first I thought perhaps he was one of those toddler prodigy swimmers - the kinds you see on YouTube where they've been taught how to swim from birth. But as he almost immediately began to sink like a stone I reckoned it was just a case of over confidence on his part and being mesmerised by how inviting the water looked. I grabbed him by the arm and lifted him to the surface as his mother simultaneously rushed over and fished him out. She smacked him on the bottom and frog marched him back to their sun lounger. I was not acknowledged for my part in the rescue. I think she was in shock from what might have happened and maybe a little bit embarrassed that it had happened in the first place under her watch. Poor kid - I could tell his ego had been bruised.

The day before that I encountered Djokovic, his coach Boris Becker and the Ukrainian player Alexandr Dolgopolov training at the courts at the hotel we are staying in. After my own game, I sat on the bench by their court and watched them play for an hour or so and listened in on their conversation - the upcoming Australian open, racing fast cars, the usual stuff incredibly talented and rich young men talk about I suppose. It was genuinely fascinating watching how these world class players train: Both had their coaches on the courts who stood in the corners with tennis rackets and hit the balls that had gone amiss back in. Then there were two other men (similarly armed with rackets) and then there was a ball man probably provided by the hotel. So all in all seven people on the court at a given time.

Djokovic is tall and lean and handsome. He doesn't swear when he messes up a shot, not that there are many that he messes up, and he hits long, hard and just over the net. And interestingly his backhands are both single handed and double handed. Boris Becker was virtually unrecognisable. A lot of sports figures grow old gracefully and land up looking lean, fit and tanned and sort of handsome in an ageing Gary Player kind of way. Becker, after having  double hip surgery and more recently ankle surgery, kind of limps around and looks a lot older than his 47 years. I imagine the pain leading up to the surgery and then during recovery has a way of etching itself on your features. 

When I play tennis, and I use the term very loosely given present company in the previous paragraph, I am ill tempered and an incredibly sore loser. If, during my regular life, I try and maintain a sense of calm, on the courts all my inner rage is unleashed. My husband tries to make small talk or extend some affection and this is usually met with: "Don't touch me, don't even talk to me." And some balls are deliberately aimed at vulnerable parts of his body. People who don't know us from outside of this environment would wonder why anyone would want to be with such a vicious sore loser, not to mention the expletives that exit my mouth. 

A lot of this stems back to playing tennis with my sister when I was a child. My sister, who is two and a half years older than me, got private tennis lessons. I played a bit at school, but was never really that good at it. My sister took it very seriously, and we would sometimes play in our backyard on the paved driveway. She would be Christ Evert Lloyd (because she was the attractive one) and I had to be Martina Navratilova. Obviously Navratilova was a better player, but her mannishness didn't appeal to either of us. And because my sister was stronger, getting lessons, and a better player, she also always won. It did not bode well for our already shaky relationship.

I guess a lot of my present day tennis rage is a kind emotional flashback situation from those days; the almost psychotic competitive feelings I get the minute I step on the court never fail to surprise me. So when I turned 39 I decided to dispense with the frustration of never really knowing if I was just a bad player or maybe I just needed to learn how to play properly, and decided to get lessons. These days I get a lesson once a week with an incredibly nice and talented coach called Michael. Michael is almost stereotypically handsome; that is, when you think of a tennis pro you think of them as being tanned, lean, with slightly curly hair beneath the cap, and handsome. Michael is all of these. He tells me I am very tense on the court (he doesn't know about the flashback rage), I need to relax, and I need to play more in between lessons. My friend, who also trains with Michael, and I have decided to play once a week together, although this decision was made as the temperatures in London started to plummet to around 5 degrees. We decided to take it up again in March when things start to warm up. However this holiday a new friend gave me that rare as gold tip off as to the whereabouts of an indoor tennis court not too far from my house, so I can now play year round without risking pneumonia. 

Another decision I have made, in addition to improving my tennis game, is to lose weight. I was inspired by how lean Djokovic is. Now obviously it's insanity to compare oneself to a world class tennis player given he spends his life in training or playing in tournaments. But he also moved with such ease, and I don't. I am horribly unfit, or at least, too unfit to play as well as I would like. And the shorts of my skorts ride up because my thighs have gotten even wobblier than they were before. Also we had our Christmas family photo taken at lunch this year. I like comparative sorts of things and looked at the photo we had taken last year before realising that I can no longer fit into the dress I wore then, and haven't for quite some time.

I hate dieting. I find it boring and tedious and people who constantly talk about dieting are boring and tedious too. No one wants to hear about how many calories you consume or how many you managed to burn off  - it's genuinely of no interest to any one else, unless of course you are a member of an online forum or club that concerns itself with such things. Also it strikes me as slapping good fortune in the face when you think about how many people are struggling to put food on the table in the first place and there I might be saying: "Oh no, I think I'm going to have to give up on the daily de-caff soya lattes because that soya milk is not as fat free as you think!" First world problems and all that.

Anyway, a really good friend of mine who is amazing for many reasons, but mostly because she is the voice of reason in the face of my neurosis, said to me a few months back that people who regret becoming parents often do so because they see it as losing something rather than gaining it. We were talking about a couple of people we knew that had said something to the effect of: "I love my children, but if I knew then how much it would change my life, I don't think I would do it again." I think the same can be said for wanting to lose excess weight: If you see it as having to give up all the things you enjoy to attain it, it's probably going to be an awfully torturous, resentful, and ultimately unsustainable business. Whereas if you look at it as gaining better health, being fitter, feeling better emotionally, and an opportunity to buy some nice new (smaller) clothes, then maybe there's something to be gained by it.

"But we are intellectuals," I complain to my friend at dinner over sushi. "I mean -  I write, I paint, I concern myself with world events, what bloody difference does it make to what is going on in Syria if I am a size 8 as opposed to a size 10, er I mean 12?" This is how it always is with me and why I often sabotage my weight loss / get fit attempts - I veer between wanting to be leaner and thinking it's a case of pointless narcissism in the face of serious stuff. And I never, ever, talk about this kind of thing in front of my children because I don't want them equating their value or worth to their body shape. "Well", my friend replies calmly, "You are right, these things are not important in the context of what you mention, but personally I have a certain aesthetic and I enjoy feeling good about myself and being attractive to my husband too. Maybe that's not acceptable to some people but it's not about what other people think, it's about what is important to you."

Which leads me to today - I swam with the kids and a friend of ours that is also here on holiday looks over from his lounger and says: "Now there's a first!" And I was too embarrassed to tell him that I often wait until people I know are not around to swim with my kids because I am shy of how I look in a bathing suit. I'd rather he thought of me as an uninvolved parent than seeing all my wobbly bits. Which is a very sad admission on my part. I don't look at other people around the pool and judge how they look, and I was genuinely angry when years ago Cherie Blair was pictured on holiday and journalists, a couple of which were women! made fun of how voluptuous she looked in her bathing suit. As if she had committed some terrible crime by daring to wear a bathing suit and have fun with her children on what was a private holiday, just because she wasn't model thin. Heaven forbid she doesn't hate herself as we hate ourselves right?

It's true that sometimes I do look at exceptionally hairy men around the pool and then I tell my husband that they may in fact be werewolves and when there is a full moon he will have to fight them off. And he looks at me in that way he does (with long suffering love and affection and slight concern for my sanity) and says, "Uh-huh." Likewise on the aeroplane over to our holiday I show him this image of Sam Faiers and say: "Wow, now that's a great bikini body, don't you think?" and he points to a more curvy woman and says he prefers that look. Which is probably why he was attracted to me in the first place, because I am a lot curvier than the curvy woman he pointed to. God bless him and people like him. I wish I shared his aesthetic, but no matter how hard I try, Linda Hamilton's figure in Terminator II became an iconic 'how one should look' mental imprint for me at what was probably an important body image developmental age. And bizarrely, because I should know better, it remains the figure I aspire to and will probably never achieve. I guess it could be worse, it could have been Barbie I wanted to look like, and then, like the very thin Russian woman who is also poolside, I might have to have my lower ribs removed.


I'm going to start on cutting out the wine during the week, go easy on the carbs at night, and in addition to tennis, try and get 20 minutes of cardio in a few times a week. That doesn't sound too bad, does it?  And on days that I fail to do any of the above and partake in my 4pm tea, biscuit and stroking the cat ritual, I must remind myself of the following: That  it may not be peace in the Middle East, but somewhere in the world there is a small Russian baby with delusions of swimming grandeur, that is still alive in part, thanks to me. Even if I did execute said rescue with my wobbly bits on public display.

Monday, December 22, 2014

All you can eat

Fridays in the Middle East are like Sundays back in England. It's the day of rest, and also, as it turns out, the day that everyone, hotel guests and people living in Dubai alike, descend on the magnificent Al Qasr hotel for the all you can eat (and drink) buffet brunch.  An enormous and famous enterprise spanning three vast interconnecting restaurants and terraces that you are free to wonder between with every kind of cuisine you can imagine: Grilled meat, prawns, sushi, truly exceptional and authentic Indian food, Mexican food, Italian, middle Eastern, puddings of every description, chocolate fountains, candy floss, and so forth and so on. Plus Sangria stations, Mohito Stations, Rum Stations, people walking around endlessly topping up your champagne glass. Accompanied by live music and starting at 12.30 and finishing at 4pm it seats hundreds of people at maximum capacity. 

In the four years that we have visited Dubai, we have attended this buffet on three occasions, and on each occasion I look around at the Bacchanalian excess and decide it's a bad idea. Things like this inspire the inner glutton in people even if you aren't gluttonness by nature. Because it's not inexpensive you find yourself thinking: 'I must get my money's worth!' And if say, like my husband and I, you only go for an hour and half with the kids (beyond that and they start getting bored and running around) and have the equivalent of a starter, single mains, a dessert and two glasses of champagne, it's not great value. I imagine were we not with the children, and say with a group of friends, we could quite easily while away three and a half hours while grazing, talking, and getting mildly lit, as so many of the tables of people appear to do.

Some of the tables, however, don't so much graze as stock pile. And the plates of half eaten food and desert as people greedily go on to the next thing before the food in front of them is finished, always makes me feel deeply ashamed of this kind of wasteful excess even if it is not my own. I often wonder what some of the waiting staff, some of whom are from very poor economical situations back in their home countries, think of such gluttony and decadence.

It reminds me of an occasion where as a teenager I attended a wedding with my parents. My mother, who has a beautiful voice and would sing in the church at weddings, was almost always invited to the receptions along with my father and us children. They were grand and opulent affairs, where the bride and groom seldom knew a good 70 percent of the hundreds of guests because they were friends or business associates of their parents. At one such reception, a rare occasion my father had agreed to accompany us, he unluckily as it turns out, got sat next to the organists's boyfriend. The boyfriend, in contrast to my father's quiet and reserved nature, was an exceedingly loquacious man in his early 20s with lots of product in his hair, very pointy shoes, and a shiny suit that ended at his ankles. He informed my dad that because his girlfriend played the organ, he too got to attend a lot of weddings and the parties thereafter. He relished telling my father that by now he had fine tuned his modus operandi: He would eat and drink as much as he could, go to the toilets and make himself sick, and then return for rounds two and even three. To illustrate this he ensured the waiter brought him not one, but two large bowels of the soup we started with, and beamed at my father. I imagine intellectually my father thought this reminicent of how the Romans behaved at orgies, but instead of interest his face registered suddenly smelling something very unpleasant and he excused himself and risked the dance floor with my mother. "What a truly disgusting young man," my father later told us. "Who does such a thing?" 

On our most recent visit to the Friday brunch at the Al Qasr, a nearby table comprised of two well dressed English couples in maybe their 50s. One of the women kept singing to and haranguing the increasingly wary-looking young man from the Indian Sub-Continent who would gingery approach to fill her glass. I imagine she was telling him not to wonder too far off because her glass would soon need refilling. I felt sorry for him. At one point she had to use the bathroom and needed escorting by her huband because she was unable to stand up alone let alone put one foot in front of the other, unassisted. By five minutes to four as we were about to leave with the children I noticed their table had visisted the Mohito station and had lined up rows of drinks to last them once the free booze had stopped being served.  The last time I recall stacking up on drinks in this way I was in my twenties on a budget and it was nearing the end of happy hour in a bar. 

If you are in Dubai, I'd definitely recommend having the experience of the Friday brunch even if it's just the once, because with the right company I think it can be an incredibly fun afternoon. And seeing that vast array of food so beautifully laid out is quite something. I also remind myself that irrespective of age or budget we all derive pleasure and ascribe value differently, and for some the opportunity to sample so many different kinds of food or perhaps even drink excessively is an afternoon well spent. Even if, like my unfortunate father's dinner companion from so many years ago, some require bulimia in order to achieve it.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Notes from a holiday

My son lost his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle Leonardo in the sea this week while he was playing with it where the waves break. He was very upset. Back at home that Leonardo is often at the bottom of his toy chest or lying behind his bedroom door sometimes for a week at a time, and he won't even notice. But when we come on holiday, the children are only allowed to bring one or two toys because of space, and therefore these items become extremely valued and special. I appreciate there is a lesson in all of this. I spent 20 minutes wading in as far as I could with waves crashing against me, trying to spot Leonardo - hoping he might float to the surface or be washed up on the shore. I watched children searching for shells, hoping one of them might find Leonardo and hold him up before I'd trot over and say "Actually thank you very much, that belongs to my son!" But eventually I had to admit that he was well and truly gone. I walked back to where the children were sitting and admitted as much, but attempted to add an upbeat spin to it: "Just think what adventures Leonardo might have ahead of him? Who knows where he might wash up right? Perhaps India?" The children weren't buying it and showed me a small pile of sea sand with an ice-cream stick stuck in the middle of it. "This is a funeral mound for Leonardo," my daughter announced. My son nodded solemnly.

I think my children are a lot more at ease with the harsh realities of life than I am.

Growing up, holidays were few and far between. My father was self employed and either couldn't afford to take the time off, or we couldn't afford a hotel. Holiday rentals were mostly rejected by my mother, who unusually for someone in 70s/80s middle class South Africa eschewed the then affordable domestic help. In turning down our suggestions of a holiday flat, she'd protest: "Why would I want to go on a holiday and still have to cook and clean? That's not a holiday. I might as well stay at home where I do that anyway, and not spend the extra money!"

On the few 
occasions we did get her to relent to holiday rentals, my mother would pack her bleach, assorted cleaning materials, sponges and clothes, and we were not allowed to even sit on the edge of a bed without my mother sanitizing the entire place first. That evenings meal of takeaway fish and chips on paper plates (she would not have had a chance to clean all the pots and pans, plates, glasses and cutlery in the kitchen before we were allowed to use them) would inevitably be accompanied by my mother's blow by blow account of how black the toilet bowl had been, or how many times she had had to empty the inferior vacuum cleaner before deeming the carpet acceptable for our bare feet. "How some people live in such filth is beyond me," she'd lament with a look of disgust on her face.  "They have no shame. Can you imagine putting up your house for rent in such a state?" We'd eat our fish and chips quietly and dream of a holiday in a hotel that lived up to my mothers hygienic standards so she could stop cleaning, relax, and do fun things with us. My father's expression said pretty much the same thing.

Holidays with my parents were also incredibly boring. My mother and father would find a spot by the pool or on a grassy patch as one approached the beach ('that blerry sand gets in everywhere'), and would bake themselves like steaks - alternating sides. They had no desire to sight-see, spend any money (my father), or take walks on the beach. My father hated spending money. There is a photo of us children, I think I am six years old, pictured with my father on the beach. We are all eating ice creams. We all look incredibly happy, except my father, who manages to look cross while eating an Eskimo Pie. I remember ahead of that picture being taken that my father was in a bad mood because he had to fork out for the ice creams.

Now that I am an adult myself I appreciate that my parents didn't have much money (a relative term I suppose, especially in South Africa at the time), and that from months, and sometimes years of no holiday, my parents were quite simply exhausted. Their idea of a holiday was quite literally resting, sleeping and doing nothing. Although I also remember evenings playing cards with my father who was an accomplished rummy player and had taught my siblings and I how to play from a very young age. Or visits to the Shark Board to see that day's autopsy and being fascinated by what was found in a shark's stomach, and always a little disappointed that it wasn't a human limb. The occasional treat eating in a nice steak restaurant, or the occasion  I'd suggested to my father he might want to rent a canoe and take me out on the small lake because I found the idea romantic. We got stuck in the first mud filled nook and I had to listen to my father berate me for my fancy bloody ideas as he tried in vain to row us out to open water. I laughed and laughed, much the same way my daughter often laughs at my frustration.

I think what my parents failed to appreciate is just how much we children longed for their attention, their time, and to be doing things with them. Even little things. Our weekends were never spent going to zoos or museums or at play dates the way my children's are, apart from family gatherings on occasion. My parents spent the weekends working around the house. If you weren't working at your job during the week, then on weekends you had to cut the grass, clean the house, do the ironing, fix the light switch, etc etc etc. So on holidays we were desperate to do things with them, and they, understandably wanted to do nothing at all. 

I try and remember this now that I am grown and have my own children. Like my parents, by the time the holiday comes all I want to do is read on my Kindle, drink a glass of wine, and sleep on my lounger. I have no real desire to do anything more strenuous than that, especially the first few days of the holiday which are usually a kind of recuperative period from some or other cold I am recovering from.Or a kind of sleep catch-up time. And like we did with my parents, my own children beg us to swim or play with them, and we inwardly moan but get up and do it, and find it's rather fun actually. My husband is far better at engaging with the children in a physical way than I am and is always up for taking them on walks, for ice creams, or to the water park. I am the parent that enjoys sitting with them on my lap talking and listening to their little stories and plans. Although swimming with them is also one of my pleasures.

Unlike my parents, I avoid the sun at all costs. I spend my days lying in the shade and venture out only wearing a high factor face cream and sun hat. As children we would often burn and our skin would peel. This was considered the sign of a good tan and a holiday well spent. These days it's considered a good way to get skin cancer. But I doubt we knew much about things like that in those days and sometimes I long for the ignorant bliss of childhood as opposed to the neurotic times we live in these days where pretty much everything gives you cancer, or so we are told.

I wish my father was still alive. I am so sad that he doesn't know my lovely husband or my children or me as an adult for that matter. I'd love to take him to some of the places I've been so very fortunate to visit, and say, "It's OK Dad, don't worry about the money, just relax and enjoy yourself. Or likewise take my mother to a nice hotel that she'd declare perfect lovely and sanitary. And then of course I'd guilt my parents into swimming with the children or taking them to the beach so that I could lie on my lounger and sleep.