Family Heirlooms

By Susan Roberts

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the things we inherit. As some of you know, most of my novels are constructed around something inherited by one of the characters. This can be an actual object: a ceremonial knife, a notebook filled with cryptic diagrams, or a box of faded photos and old letters. It can even be, as in the case of my current Work In Progress, an estranged stepdaughter and an old house filled with bad memories and even older secrets.

I must admit, my own life is not quite this exciting, but I do have some things that I have inherited from my family. (That is, apart from a love of stories, a fascination with books and local history, and a warped idea of how exciting it might be to uproot and move to another country in my middle years. This last tendency had skipped two generations, possibly because my parents and their immediate forebears had too much other “excitement” during the war years.)

Two years ago I uprooted and came here to Australia, following my sister who did the same four years before me. On my first visit to Australia, I was delighted to walk around her house and be able to see and touch things from our childhood, and from our parents’ lives, all safely ensconced in their new Australian home. Little bits of settler history transferred from one former British colony to another former British colony in the twenty-first century.

I didn’t bring my whole household with me – just a small Move Cube and two beloved cats. The cats have settled in well, but the contents of the Move Cube are still, for the most part, occupying space in my sister’s garage. I’m hoping that before too long I will be able to unpack and spread my things out in a home of my own.

What are these things? Sentimental things, mostly. Things that are unable to be replaced. Family heirlooms of the material type. While the inherited characteristics from my ancestors are with me daily, on my face, in my actions, in my general outlook on life, many of the more material objects are waiting to come out of their boxes.

One of my favourite family heirlooms is my dining table, hand carved by my grandfather between the end of the Great War and the birth of my father ten years later. My father grew up as the youngest child in his household, eating all meals at that table. A generation later, I too was the youngest child growing up eating meals around the same table with my big sister.

Throughout our childhood many activities were done around this table. As a family, we played board games, put together jigsaw puzzles, blew out birthday candles and wrapped Christmas presents. My sister and I watched our mother cut out and sew dresses on that table; we typed our first literary masterpieces on our mother’s portable, manual typewriter at that table; we painted with messy water colours on it – albeit with several sheets of newspaper between our artistic endeavours and the surface hand carved by our grandfather.

In more recent years, I set up my computer at that table, moving it only for the occasional dinner party. I have also written the bulk of my novels, short stories, plays and various competition entries at that table.

It thrills me to know that the table has come all the way to Australia to start a new life with me. I wish I knew more about its origins, where our grandfather carved it, what gave him the idea for the patterns on it, how long it took to complete it, and so on. Our grandfather died when I was very young, but I never thought to ask my father the history of the table. He must have known it, but probably never got around to telling us.
Somewhere in those boxes in the garage there is a photo of my father and his brother sitting at the table with their father and an aged great aunt, eating a meal. The table is simply being used for one of the daily functions of a table in those times, and my hope is that it will continue to be used for many more ordinary, daily functions in the years to come.IMG_0766

What Fruit and Veg Taught me about Selling Novels

By Susan Roberts

Many years ago I worked in a beautiful old building in Johannesburg that had been converted from a market to a very successful theatre. Some of us jokingly used to refer to it as the Fruit & Veg building. It’s strange how things change as life moves on, but it’s even stranger how some things circle back to you.

I now work in a genuine fruit and vegetable building, selling actual fruit and vegetables. It wasn’t something I ever envisaged doing, but I enjoy it.

Food is, of course, one of the essentials we all need for life. In addition to fruit and veg, our store sells meat – good quality, from local sources – and we sell a lot of it in bulk. Some customers in the shop buy huge quantities, and I know that for many of them, it’s because they run restaurants, help to support footy clubs or cook for charities.

We have a lot of special deals, and many customers see them advertised on our Facebook page, so they come in when there’s a special and buy a lot more than they otherwise might. I guess that many meat buyers have large freezers and will use it up over time.

There is a pensioner discount on weekdays, and many of our sweet older customers buy the cheaper fruit to put out for the birds. We also run a coffee bar and often those who come in for the coffee, cake, sandwiches and a cosy place to have lunch or tea, will then browse the shop afterwards and find tasty things to buy and take home.

As I enter my sixth week of gainful employment, I find that I’ve had a few thoughts about how my present situation relates to my writing. Although I sell food every time I go to work, writing is as essential for my existence as food is for most other people. I have to do it every day, and the more I write, the more I want to write.


My aim in life is to keep writing novels for as long as I live. I’m diligent about writing them, but not very good at selling them. So in my new job, I’m trying to observe my boss and his selling habits in order to glean from him how one sells things successfully.

I think he runs a great business, and he does it well. His chief aim is to please the customer and give them friendly service with a smile, good deals and anything that makes them feel special. He is almost always in the store, chatting to customers, making them laugh, and joking with the regulars, most of whom he knows on first name terms. The atmosphere is friendly, busy and pleasant.

I have to say, though, I’m a little disappointed in some of the customers. I shouldn’t be, because they’re only exercising human nature, but it doesn’t bode well for my novel selling. Here’s why:

We all like a bargain, we all love getting a good deal, and we especially love getting something for free. However, when it becomes the norm to expect to always get a special deal, the greedier side of human nature rears its head. A special deal that is always special is not really special, is it? It should only happen from time to time. That’s why it’s called a special.

The careful shopper can browse all sorts of sites and take advantage of specials all over town, but the shopper who becomes abusive when the special that was on last week is no longer on this week? Well, that’s just ugly.

Yesterday a customer bought a bottle of pasta sauce along with her other things. When I rang up the bottle of sauce at the register, she complained that the price was expensive, and that last time she had bought it, a week or so back, it had been on special. I refrained from telling her the basic definition of special.

She asked if it wasn’t perhaps on a two-for-the-price-of-one special, so before she sent her husband back to get a second bottle, I scanned the bottle a second time to see if we had some kind of deal on it. We didn’t. When I voided that second scan, she asked me to void the first as well. She said she wasn’t prepared to pay so much for a bottle of pasta sauce.

That’s her right as a customer, of course. I smiled cheerfully as I voided it and put the bottle aside. I scanned the rest of her items, she paid for them and departed in a happy mood, but it got me wondering…

If we live our lives getting something at a bargain price, or for free, why do we begrudge paying the full price when the special is over? The sad part is, I think we’re all a bit like that, to be honest. I scan the web-pages of the pet stores every month, hoping to catch a special on the cat food and litter that I buy. If there’s no special, I pay the full price because I have to. Inside I’m a little disappointed, but I know there’ll be specials again in the future, and I’ll win another time.

How does this work with selling books?

I think that people who like free things or special deals are always going to look only for those, and why buy when there are hundreds of thousands of books available for free? Many people I know have downloaded scores of free books onto their Kindles and haven’t read them. If they already have more books on there than they can read in a lifetime, they are certainly not going to pay to buy mine.

I don’t rely on book sales for my income any more (fortunately!) so I think I’ll keep my books just as they are – for sale; not for free – and hope that serious readers will find them. Maybe I’m an ostrich, but at the moment my head feels lovely and warm, buried here in the sand…


Getting to Know You, Australia

By Susan Roberts

It’s funny how, once the first few cogs click into place, the wheels begin to turn smoothly, in the way that you always knew they were meant to turn. I’m not a cyclist, but from what I understand, that moment when you switch into the correct gear is the moment your wheels find proper traction, and you move along a lot faster. Finally, my cogs have connected, my wheels have found their tracks and are turning smoothly, and my life is starting to gather pace.

At the end of next month it will be two years since I touched down in Australia to start living my new life here. After the frenzied packing and goodbyes of the preceding months, all was calm for a few weeks. I was relieved to no longer be the centre of my crazy world, but happy to be an orbiting moon on the outer periphery of an altogether different universe. I was content to let life happen around me as I slowly got my bearings and settled into an alternate existence.

As the bewilderment slowly eased off, this foreign life became more familiar to me, but there was always one thing missing. As much as I loved the idea of living a writer’s life, my funds weren’t going to support it forever. Despite being granted permission to work a year later, I was unable to get a job. An ordinary job, nothing special. Just something to enable me to earn my own living, and to move into a rented place of my own so that I could get back to the “normal” life that I knew and missed.

Who knew it could take so long to find something like that?

The humanitarian organisation I started volunteering for on my birthday last year proved to be a gift in itself. For the first time since getting here, I started to make new friends outside of the family circle. I experienced for the first time what it was like to be part of an Australian organisation; a work-force despite there being no salary to go with it. By the time we had our volunteers Christmas lunch, I knew that I was part of something that mattered, something special. I longed to work for them full-time, but if that couldn’t happen, it was a place I knew I would always enjoy spending my free time in.

I’ve been applying for some of the paid jobs within that organisation ever since, of course, and with increasing desperation as my own paltry funds dwindled away.

Suddenly, in the last month, several things have coincided and I am now working part-time at two jobs. I’m still not completely out of the woods financially, but doing these two jobs are the steadiest things I’ve been able to do in almost two years, and I intend to hang onto both of them for as long as possible. I’ll continue with the volunteer work too, because I love doing it.

The really great thing about no longer pounding the virtual pavements in search of a job, is that I now have more time to dream, to build my little castles in the air. My little, windswept, outback shacks of castles that are not very high in the air at all. My dreams have changed over the years, but suddenly I have new fodder to inspire them.

For example, the internet articles I write are all about places in Australia, and at least half of them are places that I might otherwise never have heard of. I do a lot of research – online, in books, and personally if I can get there. Learning about new places opens my eyes and inspires me even more.

I’m getting to know Australia at last, up close and personal. Two or three days a week I sell fruit, vegetables and meat to Australians. Two other days a week I help to sell clothing, books, furniture and bric-a-brac to other Australians, in aid of funds to help those less fortunate than the rest of us. I spend the remaining days of each week researching towns all over Australia to see what news I can find to interest Australians online. Some of these people have lived here all their lives, while others have only just arrived, like me, but we’re all part of the same country now. Just different cogs on the same set of wheels.

I can’t wait to see where these tracks lead me next…


Unrequited Love – Years Later

By Susan Roberts

Do you ever think back to the lost loves of childhood? I do. I still remember the boys I fantasised about while still in primary school. There was one in particular whom I’ve never forgotten.

He was a boy I saw at the ice rink, and he was a wonderful skater. He was a few years older than me, and I thought he was just gorgeous. I must have been 10 or 11 when the ice rink opened and ran for a few brief years in our town. I used to save my pocket money for tickets to go skating. I also saved for my first (and only) pair of figure skates. My sister and I attended Saturday morning skating lessons given by a past UK Olympic champion, and we stayed for the public skating sessions afterwards. That’s where I first saw him.

I mentioned that he was a really good skater. In fact, he was well on his way to becoming a junior champion, along with several other serious young skaters. Tall, good-looking – he had the ability to make skating look easy, which it definitely wasn’t when I tried to do it.

He never noticed the pathetic creature that was me, the girl who could barely let go of the safety rail without falling over. He was too busy perfecting his moves in the centre, where he and other local champs practised their competition work. One afternoon I skated after school and saw him in his school uniform, so I knew which school he went to, but I still didn’t know his name.

The ice rink proprietors put on a variety concert, using the cream of the local skating talent. Our family went to see it, and – there he was, doing a solo piece. He really was extremely good. I still have the programme, and I’ve never forgotten his name since I first read it that night.

While I might be ready to spill my own secrets, others might not, so to protect the identity of innocents involved, for now I’ll refer to him as Beloved Crush.

Living in a fairly small town, it was easy to look up surnames in the local phone book and find someone’s address. There were only two addresses of people with the Crush surname: one on my side of town, and one far away on the other side. But which one was his?

One Saturday afternoon after skating, my mother commented that she’d seen one of our local doctors (who also happened to be called Dr Crush) in the car park outside the ice rink, obviously waiting for his offspring.

My mother didn’t know about my passion for Beloved, so it was an innocent remark about one parent commiserating with another on the wasted life spent waiting for their offspring outside of schools, dance classes, cricket matches and – in this case – ice rinks.

I could hardly wait to get home and kidnap the phone directory. Oh, wonder of wonders – Dr Crush lived a few streets away, higher up the hill. I hugged my secret to myself with schoolgirl glee. I knew where Beloved lived at last! Now to put the second part of my plan into action…

If my parents thought it odd, they never said anything when suddenly, in addition to the new-found keenness for skating, I developed a habit of taking my somewhat bemused spaniel, Honey, for walks almost every day.

Back in those pre-television days, the evenings were long and filled with family activities. We often took both dogs for a short walk, but my walks with Honey became daily afternoon excursions. At the time, I liked to imagine that my parents thought I was becoming a responsible pet-owner, but I’m sure they sniggered quietly to themselves as they heard the leash rattle and the gate click closed. They must have known there was an ulterior motive.

Honey quickly became the fittest dog in town, because Dr Crush’s house was further than I had thought it would be, and up quite a steep hill. Also, Honey and I were chased several times by bigger dogs in the area, and we both learned to run fast. But it was all worth it. Honey was fit and enjoyed his daily adrenaline-fuelled run. Over the weeks we found alternate routes with fewer dogs, but of course the destination was always the same.


Beloved Crush’s house was a big one, on a corner with a waist-high hedge that was easy to see over. I walked my pooch nonchalantly past, sometimes pretending complete indifference, but always hoping to see Beloved in the garden or drive. With visions of romance bubbling in my head (even then, a future romance novelist), I fantasised about chance meetings on the pavement, or being invited inside because it was a hot day and I might look pale and thirsty, and as a doctor’s son, Beloved might be concerned for the welfare of the diligent dog-owner whom he surely recognised from the ice rink. Perhaps he had a dog as well, and we might find our common ground there, if not at the ice rink.

I gazed upwards at the windows, wondering which room was his, hoping to see a glance, a glimpse to nourish my dreams on the long walk back down the hill.

But it was never to be. Weeks turned into months and I never got any closer to Beloved – either at the rink or when passing his house. I never saw him in the garden or with his dog. I knew it was the right house, of course, because I’d seen the doctor’s car in the driveway. Back in those days, any car owned by a doctor had a small cross on the number plate – like the Red Cross symbol – in case they had to park somewhere illegal in an emergency.

The ice rink was my idea of heaven, but unfortunately there was a pattern in my town. Almost every new activity that started up lasted only a season or two before local apathy set in, took over and the activity closed, soon to be replaced by some other new activity. And so it was with the ice rink. It closed and life moved on.

A year later I entered high school. A few years after that Beloved must have finished at his high school, but I never saw or heard anything about him, ever again.

Many years later, I had a chance conversation with a girl I knew from high school. She had been a more serious skater than me, and she knew him. After all those years, I finally found someone who knew Beloved Crush.

I threw something into the conversation about our family having vaguely known his father, Doctor Crush, because we had lived nearby.

She laughed. “Oh no, this boy wasn’t related to the doctor’s family.”

“But he had the same name,” I said.

She shrugged. “Common enough name, but he certainly wasn’t that doctor’s son.”

“Where did he live?” I asked.

“I can’t remember. Somewhere on the other side of town. Far away.”

All those anguished childhood dreams I had nursed, all the walks I dragged my poor dog on, all of them melted away and vanished forever, to later become nothing more than the subject for this blog-post about unrequited love.

Such are the dreams of youth. Wonderful in fantasy and memory, but in reality so far off the mark. I wonder where he is now…

A Fresh Start

By Susan Roberts

Today I browsed through my previous posts on this blog, reading snippets from the last two years, re-living the traumatic build up to my relocation from South Africa to Australia. Sometimes I can’t believe how much has happened in the last two years, yet at other times I wonder what on earth I have been doing since I got here nineteen months ago, and wondering why I haven’t done so much more than I have.

I started planning for this journey from the time my sister started planning her move – more than six years ago – but I only kicked the machinery into fast gear two years ago when my bridging visa was granted, and my medical was passed.

It’s hard moving from one country to another. Let’s just get that out of my head and onto the table. There are degrees of difficulty and everyone faces different challenges, but no ex-pat I’ve ever met looks back and says, “Gosh, that was easy!”

As I write this, I am still applying for jobs and trying not to squander my last few hard-earned South African rands that I converted to Aussie dollars at vast cost less than two years ago. I am ever hopeful that soon I will be able to start earning a steady stream of actual Australian dollars. I need to build up a tiny nest egg and find my own place to move into; a place where I can spread my wings a little, unpack my boxes of sentimental stuff, buy a few kitchen appliances and start to live the Australian life in my own way.

Sometimes I wonder what my emotions will be like when I finally unpack the boxes I haven’t touched since packing them back in Durban in early 2015. Will I rejoice at finding things I thought I had left behind? Will I feel sad when I realise just how much I did leave behind? Will I act like a spoiled child as I look around my few paltry belongings and wail “Is that all there is?” Only time will tell.

In the frenzy of packing two years ago I forced myself to cull my collection of… well, everything. I suppose I should say I decimated it, because I had to cut down everything to about a tenth of what it had been. At the time, I took inspiration from articles about Marie Kondo. I grasped every single item I owned and asked myself that all-important question, “Does this spark joy?” and then I ditched the least joyful nine out of every ten of them.


It naturally follows that I am soon going to face the problem of building up a new collection of goodies – everything from mundane necessities to desirable luxuries, and I’m not yet sure how that’s going to affect me. Not that I haven’t already started gathering things. Some would say too many things, but such is my optimism about finding a job that I didn’t want to lose out on bargains when I saw them. To date I have acquired a portable CD player (so I can listen to the CDs I brought with me), a sewing cabinet (because I had to leave my mother’s bulky wooden one behind), a small 2-drawer filing unit, a wok and a few other kitchen utensils, and – inevitably – more books and DVDs…

I found an interesting article the other day, by Anna Monette Roberts, in which she listed four important lessons she has learned from KonMari-ing her house.

How did these four things resonate with me? First, she experienced the enjoyment of liberating herself from many of her lesser-loved possessions. I too found it liberating to reduce the contents of my house. I also managed to get rid of some odd things which I hadn’t really wanted but had felt obliged to hang onto for so long. Liquidating bits of the family silver and turning antique crockery into hard cash was easier than I’d thought, and I had a good excuse so I didn’t have to feel guilty. It also helped me to acknowledge the quirky assortment of things I really couldn’t bear to part with.

Second, she found it easier to move house. I think I will find the same. I couldn’t keep as much as I’d wanted to, but what I did keep I managed to fit into a very tiny Move Cube which sailed across the sea all the way to Australia. Once you’ve moved countries – nay, continents – I imagine that a shorter trip with less stuff will be less daunting.

Third, she discovered her own sense of design – and it wasn’t the same as her interior designer mother’s. While I had to leave behind many beloved pieces of wooden cottage furniture and other items I had gathered slowly over more than thirty years, I am still the same person inside, drawn to the same type of things, and already I have gathered a few irresistible items around which to build my new life.

Fourth, and it is this final point which excites me the most, Anna Monette Roberts feels that her house is no longer “a dark, heavy place filled to the brim with stuff from my past.” I too want a place with no regrets, to break free from the past. Some of those lovely old pieces of furniture were strongly linked to ex-boyfriends and others were reminders of less-than-pleasant times in my life, so this is the part I am looking forward to the most. To be able to make a fresh start with new trappings around me, things which are symbolic of a new start in life, mixed in with a select, eclectic mix of treasured pieces which I hand-picked from my old life.



Why My Job-Search is Like Hunting for Bison in the Sahara Desert

By Susan Roberts

I’m trying to get a job, in case anyone hadn’t noticed. Yes, a real grown up job like normal people have. I know I should probably be looking for a job right now instead of typing this, but to be honest, this is a lot more productive. Maybe we don’t get a lot of people viewing this blog but whatever the number, I think its hands-down way more than the number of people who have read my resume in the last four months since I’ve been allowed to seek employment and been on the search for a job.

Image result for minimum wage job

Almost every day I scan all the usual sites, looking for that special niche job that requires someone of my quirky talents, OCD work habits and key skills. I was quite picky at first, but in recent months I’ve dropped the bar so low you couldn’t trip over it even if you dragged your feet. In fact, I’ve lowered the filtering criteria to the point where the only requirements I ask is that it’s in Melbourne and that it pays some kind of a salary.

Minimum wage would be good. Fantastic, in fact. All I have to do is mentally convert that back into South African rands and I’d be rolling in the good stuff, but no luck so far. I’ve started volunteering at a local Op Shop and I’m really enjoying it. In fact I love everything about it except for the small fact that I don’t actually earn anything.

I’m not averse to working for nothing, of course, but it doesn’t pay any bills or give me the means to move out of my sister’s house and set up my own place, which I’d really like to do because part of me feels… well, to be honest I feel a bit embarrassed to be living like a useless teenager in someone’s house when I know I could be doing that special something that makes me independent.

Of course, I’ve worked without payment for years with my writing. Some would say I’ve done that for years with most of my theatre jobs too, especially back in the early days before anyone dreamed up (let alone wrote down) any basic conditions of employment for theatre workers in South Africa. It wasn’t unusual then to work around the clock for four days on end, just to get a show set up and open for business. Those were the days when we were young and foolish enough and didn’t lack for energy. Sadly, at my age that last bit is no longer the case either.

Why the title about the bison in the Sahara, you may ask? Well, in between browsing for likely jobs and writing the first draft of my new novel, I find all sorts of interesting snippets on the internet. Did you know that once upon a time the whole area now occupied by the Sahara desert used to be lush jungle? No, I didn’t know either until I read it somewhere online. Of course, I don’t think that area ever had bison running wild across it though – bison seem to have been native only to northern America, not northern Africa. (There’s also a species called European bison, but they weren’t native to Africa either.)

Bison, even if they ever roamed North Africa, certainly never did it while there was a jungle there, or during its current desert condition, because they graze the plains and disturb the soil which gives rise to new plants.

Related image

Anyway, I digress. Not unusual in my current state of joblessness, I assure you.

I really don’t want to point out the obvious parallel with dinosaurs here – me being possibly too old to find a job in my sphere of interest and all that – but the mismatch does bear thinking about. Maybe some great job is just around the corner and I’ll be able to do that as well as write novels that everyone will rush to buy and then I’ll have to give up working to keep up with the demand and…

Maybe I should try writing fantasy instead of romance. Looking for the impossible might be easier than looking for the perfect match, don’t you think?

Kitty Hunger Games with the Sphinx and the Pyramid

By Susan Roberts

My cats are very aware of the fact that in Ancient Egypt, cats were worshipped. They have set out to remind me of this on several occasions. Looking at my cats, it’s easy to believe the Egyptian connection. Valentine, my beautiful black-and-white, is long, lean, and in great shape. He has a glossy coat, and is majestic and inscrutable – just like a sphinx.


Galadriel, the ginger cat, brings to mind certain other characteristics of that ancient civilisation. When she sits, her belly spreads onto the floor and her front feet don’t quite meet. This gives her a broad base, and with her fat neck and smallish head she looks… well… a bit like a pyramid.

That’s kinder than saying she looks like Jabba the Hut (which she does) but there’s no easy way to say this: she has a weight problem.

It’s probably all my fault, but she’s not completely blameless. Every winter she puts on weight because – like many of us – she likes to comfort-eat. Every spring I put her on diet (which means both cats go on diet even though Valentine doesn’t need it) until her weight gets back to normal.

Unfortunately, after last year’s upheaval of moving to another country and major comfort-eating brought on by that, my little pyramid didn’t lose enough weight in the spring. Add to that the fact that she developed a psychological problem with the great Australian outdoors, so she comfort-ate even more.

The result was that, when this winter started, she was already a little ahead on the road to being pyramid-shaped. Now that winter is nearing its end, she looks like a cartoon. That’s not the classic Tom & Jerry cartoon, or even the Sylvester and Tweetie Pie one; more like Garfield or Simon’s Cat. Especially since the entire focus of her being seems to revolve around the words: “Feed me!”


Both cats – the sphinx and the pyramid – are getting older, so it’s understandable that they lead a less-energetic life than they used to. They are mainly indoor cats as well, so I just don’t know what to feed them. Why does no one make a non-fishy, dry cat-food for mature, lazy, overweight indoor cats? Surely my two can’t be the only ones in that category?

When I realised my cats had become more indoor than outdoor cats, I stopped the diet food and put them onto an indoor cat food, because this makes up for the lack of grass in their diet. (Eating grass outdoors helps cats to expel furballs before they become a problem.) In addition, this food makes the smells from the litter tray a little less offensive. I also mistakenly believed that it would be lighter in fat because most indoor cats don’t get much exercise.

Apparently I was wrong. To add to the problem, the manufacturers all seem to have the idea that indoor cats have very little happiness in their lives, so they have made up for this by changing the taste of the indoor cat food to something much more yummy, scrumptious and palatable than before. Result? My pyramid loves the taste so much that she can’t get enough of it. She wolfs it down in gargantuan proportions, not even pausing to chew. Just swallows it whole, sometimes throwing it up, barely digested. That’s not good for anyone – human or cat – so I began shopping around for yet another brand of cat food.

A month on the diet food and a month of smelly litter tray and we’re almost there, but a new problem has surfaced in these hunger games. Both the diet food and the indoor food are for cats aged 1 to 6 years. My cats were already 7 and 8 when they arrived in Australia, and they were both 8 by the time I put them on the indoor food. A year on, they are both 9 and the pyramid will be 10 in less than a month.

There is a different manufacturer that makes indoor food for cats over 7, so in desperation I have switched to this food now that the pyramid’s weight is almost back to normal. The litter tray doesn’t smell as bad, but there are two new problems. One: the food smells fishy which I hate. Two: now both cats spend the entire day sitting beside shiny scoured-and-licked bowls waiting for the next morsel to drop from above so it can be hoovered as fast as is felinely possible because all that fishy smelling stuff obviously tastes really good!

Soon I will have two pyramids instead of one pyramid and a sphinx. When the current bag of cat food is finished we’re going back to the diet food. The kitty hunger games are clearly set to continue indefinitely…


Getting the Groceries (and the Shackleton Clothing) Right

By Susan Roberts

For the whole of my working life in South Africa I never gave a thought to the way in which supermarkets were stocked. Of course I knew the products and brands I liked, so I didn’t bother much about the rest of the stuff. In fact, some of those preferences probably took root when I used to push the trolley for my mother back in the days of Noah’s Ark, when someone first invented the supermarket. Things have always been set out in a particular way and there’s been no reason to suppose it would ever be different.

Until I reached Australia. Ever since I arrived here I’ve been confused by the arrangement of goods in the local supermarkets.

Why do Australians put yoghurt sachets with desserts? Why do they hide the lemon juice in an aisle that bears absolutely no relation to anything regarding lemons, juice, fish or baking?

And another thing: I still can’t find packs of four frozen pizza bases that actually work properly on my pizza stone!

Slight digression here: I’d been here about six months before I finally found a pack of two enormous frozen pizza bases to make my own pizza. It took me ages to find the right ingredients, and even longer to ring up my purchases at the self-service checkout. Why do they call green peppers capsicum? Why are patty pans known as “squash yellow”? Did you know they call button mushrooms cup mushrooms? Me neither.

When I finally got the whole lot home I pulled my magnificent pizza stone out of its bubble wrap and did my usual thing. However, when the pizza came out the oven, its base had hardened into something resembling a stone itself and was completely inedible. Needless to say, the beloved pizza stone is back in its bubble wrap in the garage…

So – digression over; back to the current topic.

Last month I got myself a temporary job. In a supermarket…

To cut a long story short, I didn’t find this job – a friend very kindly found it for me and I spent four weeks capturing data in a supermarket for an online grocery shopping company. As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve never been a techno-wiz, but it seems that even I could point an iPod at a bar code, then take a photograph and fill in some details and press the “OK” button.

Well, okay let’s be brutally honest here – I did get some of those details wrong and after the button’s been pressed there’s no going back to change anything. However, I had a very patient boss who, when I phoned him to tell him I might have categorised a product or twelve in the wrong place, assured me that it was easy enough for him to change in the system when he checked it later.

Categorising groceries is actually harder than you think. I no doubt displayed my tendency to procrastinate as well as my warped, un-Australian idea of where to put them.

What are almond milk, rice milk and soy milk if they aren’t milk? Dairy alternatives? Fine, but then why was the normal cow milk stacked between them? Was it hiding from something? Pretending to be what it wasn’t? Or was it (as I suspect) lying in wait purely to trap me into classifying it as the wrong thing?

(Surely if they stacked the shelves in a less confusing way the manufacturers of cow milk wouldn’t have to put a drawing of a cow on the carton to avoid confusion? In retrospect, it’s probably just as well that most of them do. At least if I’ve categorised something wrongly, the picture should alert them.)

In the end, the best option seemed to be to pick the most likely category that people would search under and use that. Hence, if a vegan or lactose-intolerant person is looking for their version of milk, they’re less likely to look under “milk” and more likely to search under “lactose-free” or “vegetarian/vegan” options.

I really enjoyed categorising teas, hot chocolate and fresh yoghurt, though. In fact, I’ve never seen so many varieties of tea in my life. Fortunately I captured the data for hot chocolate after lunch and not before, or I might have been tempted to tear open packages and sample them with my bare hands because they all looked so good.

Did I say bare hands? Did I not mention that it was freezing in the supermarket where I stood static for hours each day? My only movement was in my thumbs, like some demented teenager texting on an iPhone, moving a few centimetres to one side or the other at a time. Around me, the staff of the supermarket dashed about with trolleys, unpacking boxes, moving stock and generally keeping their circulation going, while my feet slowly froze into ice blocks.

After the first day, I resorted to wearing the layers that I only ever used to use on holidays in the Berg. Gloves with the thumbs opened at the tips proved to be a good defence against frostbitten fingers, along with thermal underwear, scarf and beanie, and my trusty warm snowboots.

One family friend in Melbourne already calls me Mrs Shackleton because I’m smothered in winter woollies every time she sees me. It’s a good thing she didn’t shop in that particular supermarket in the last four weeks…

IMG_5028My Shackleton clothing waiting by the front door.

On Passing the One-Year Mark

By Susan Roberts

If the first year of doing something is the hardest, then I am optimistic about the future. I’ve just celebrated my first year of living in Australia. Sometimes it feels as if I landed only a few months ago, but at other times I seem to have been here for a good portion of my life already, because so much of it is second nature to me.


It’s hard to believe that more than a year has passed since I gave away most of my books, frantically packed my Move Cube, sold my car, left my job, tearfully sent my two cats on a plane and even more tearfully said goodbye to all my South African friends.

So what have I learned about Australia in that first year? Let’s look at the bad first:

  • Exchange rate: Coming to Australia was not cheap. On the day I bought my foreign exchange, all the money I had in the world was reduced to only 10% of its buying power. This is worth crying about until I can earn Aussie dollars. So far I’m not earning, and my converted Rands are running out…
  • Accents: I still have trouble decoding some accents. Apart from the peculiar words for things (dunny for toilet, doona for duvet, chook for chicken) Australians abbreviate everything: arvo for afternoon, servo for petrol station. As a writer and wordsmith, I hate showing my ignorance by using the wrong words.
  • Weather: Winter is bitterly cold here. After fifteen years of living in Durban where the temperature seldom drops below 18 degrees, this is something that will take me more than a few winters to overcome.
  • Rules and regulations: In Australia these are mandatory. While it was easy to convert my driver’s licence, I also had to have a medical to ensure that my thyroid medication didn’t affect my ability to drive. This involved precious money spent on what I felt was an unnecessary doctor’s visit – a $90 appointment to fill in a one-page form cost me R900!
  • Regulations are strict for pets: Cats have to be registered with the local municipality and there is a limit – no more than two cats per property in the suburbs. There is a dusk to dawn curfew. Also, if your cat annoys a neighbour, the neighbour can trap it (humane traps are available from the municipality) and send it to the pound. This costs the owner a small fortune to retrieve their pet. End result: I don’t let my cats out on their own. I take them outside once a day on a harness and lead. One cat is fine with this but the other can’t bear the harness so she has to be watched constantly. I feel happier knowing my cats are safer, but the cats themselves don’t understand why they can’t be allowed out to freely roam the neighbourhood.
  • Work situation: Until last month I wasn’t allowed to work so I’ve been gradually using up my meagre financial resources. The workplace is very competitive here and it’s not uncommon to be out of work for several months before finding a job, which is a scary thought. Who knows how long it will take me, and if my last few Rands will stretch that far?


But there’s a good side to everything:

  • Sense of belonging and shared history: The official language is English, and while not everyone looks like me, a large number of Australians have travelled here from far away. Whether they crossed the globe voluntarily as my ancestors did to Africa or are descended from British convicts who were forced into ships and transported across the sea to penal colonies, the end result is that a pioneering spirit and a can-do attitude lives on in most people here.
  • Weather: Three good seasons definitely make up for the fourth! Summers can be scorching – up to 47 degrees in January – but the lack of humidity leaves you with plenty of energy. The between seasons – Spring and Autumn – are a novelty for me because I’m finally able to wear scarves, jerseys and light jackets which only gathered dust back in Durban.
  • Bureaucratic efficiency: After the expensive medical to convert my driver’s license, Vic Roads lost my paperwork and I was threatened with suspension of my shiny new licence. However, Australian efficiency ruled because the doctor had a copy of the filled-in form, and an amazing gentleman at Vic Roads was able to fast-track that copy through his system and my licence was given the go ahead the very next day.
  • Calmer Lifestyle: Wonderful public transport system of trams, trains and buses – all safe and efficiently run. Clean streets with plenty of trees. Parks and open spaces which are used by everybody. No litter, no load-shedding, no water cuts, no rioting, no burning of cars, buses and educational institutions while protesting. In fact, no protesting because if people here are unhappy with something, there are properly working channels through which to register their disapproval without endangering the lives of others.
  • Safer Lifestyle: No burglar bars, security fences, barbed wire or razor wire. No guns. Cars that park on the street are seldom broken into or stolen, and if they are, the perpetrators are caught. It’s also safe walking to and from places after dark.
  • Friendly officials: Policemen are friendly, polite and helpful. So are the transport police who monitor station platforms and who board trains to check for valid tickets. Just because they wear bullet-proof clothing doesn’t turn them into robots. Likewise the officials behind counters in municipal offices, traffic departments, shopping centres and banks. They greet and smile at you; they are well-informed and help you. People at help desks are actually helpful!
  • Friendly people: You can stop a person on the street and ask directions and they will talk to you. In fact, chances are they will stop you first if you look lost, and offer their help. On the first day of our road trip from Brisbane we reached a street corner where the car hire place we were expecting wasn’t there. While we were still fumbling for our map, a man stopped and asked if he could help. And he did. (Whoever you were, thank you again. You and the thousands of other Australians like you!)

Here’s what I have learned about myself and my ability to adapt in that first year:

  • I’m older and probably a bit more fragile, but that’s a natural part of aging. I’m optimistic about the future. I feel safe here. I feel that I have a future here. I am happy knowing that I can grow old in this country and be reasonably protected. Not just by the systems in place, but by the majority of people who harbour no ill-will towards their fellow human beings. Where there is crime, arrests are made and criminals are served their due justice. That gives me enormous confidence in the system.
  • I feel inspired. As a writer, I feel more creative here. I feel that I can write heroes and heroines who really can live happily ever after. I can invent characters and put them into stories where worries about the past, dangers of the present and fears for the future can be narrowed down to suit a particular plot-driven situation instead of being constantly overshadowed by the guilt-ridden burden of being a scared person in Africa.
  • I love seeing kangaroos, koalas, wombats, dingoes, emus, and even the occasional duck-billed platypus – both in the wild and in wildlife sanctuaries.


  • I am ticking things off my bucket list. Last year I saw Hugh Jackman performing live on stage. Now I can die happy.


But first I have to find myself a job…

Nostalgia and Very Old Friendships

By Susan Roberts

A few weeks ago I had a Facebook conversation with an old school friend who now lives in America, and we relived so many memories. Some things that she couldn’t remember came flooding back to me like a tidal wave, and yet some names she mentioned brought not a glimmer of recognition, and I felt embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t remember certain people.

It got me thinking about how selective memory can be. It’s not the first time this has happened. Sometimes an incident that stands out for one person has no place in the memory of another, and yet some things that we hold dear forever and cannot imagine anyone forgetting, turn out to mean nothing to others.

A year or two after leaving school I met one of my old teachers from a few years before in the street, and I had to remind her which class I’d been in and what I had studied with her. I was quite horrified because she was one of my favourite teachers but clearly I was not one of her favourite pupils.

Conversely, about twenty years later I was wandering through a shopping centre in Johannesburg, when I recognised my art teacher from school. I caught her up and she remembered me, and even asked after two of my art buddies from the same class. She had an amazing memory. We were not only two decades further down the line, but five hundred kilometres away from that school as well.

This also got me thinking about how some meanings can be read into situations, that may not be so. My Facebook friend from the other night remembers a teacher picking on her unfairly for what she imagined was a certain “look” on the girl’s face. I had endless battles with a Religious Education teacher who constantly blamed me for being a “giggly girl” like my sister. (Neither my sister nor I have any idea where that came from! I mean, is there something wrong with enjoying life?)

Once we had a Geography teacher who started ranting at us and then burst into tears one day in front of the whole class while we were calmly drawing maps or something, and we still – forty-two years later – have no idea what happened to upset her.

I had some great teachers at school, but it was the bad ones who helped me to decide something important: I have never, ever wanted to become a teacher because I knew I would be one of the bad ones – one of those impatient, snappy, unfair bee-yatches who would be universally disliked – particularly if I ended up teaching a subject in which I had little or no interest, which is the way the teaching system worked back then.

When I started at university, all those who enrolled on teaching loans had to register for maths and geography because those were the subjects they needed teachers for at the time. I’m eternally grateful that I was able to sign up for bizarre stuff like history, classical civilisation and introductory law, alongside my majors of drama and English literature. No one’s children had me trying to teach them maths and geography a few years later – something for which we can all be grateful!

Here’s another thing that I didn’t realise until I attended my twenty-year high school reunion: we are what we are by the time we leave school. There wasn’t one girl at that reunion who surprised me. In one way or another, they all turned out to be exactly the way they always were. Of course, some had changed their looks, lost or gained weight, gained or lost husbands, had children or emerged from the closet. No matter what diverse jobs we held down, we were still essentially the same as we had always been in school – class clown or painfully shy; most likely to succeed at whatever we did or most likely to make a botch-up of it; caring and considerate or brash and insensitive – we had all become what we always were.

The little group that chatted on Facebook the other night has been chatting again. The following day three more of our old classmates joined the discussion – one from England, one from New Zealand and one from South Africa. Much hilarity and mirth whizzed around the earth’s atmosphere from five different continents and it felt as if we had never been apart. In fact, we had such fun that one of the girls decided to form a Facebook group for our school year and so far we have 11 members.

There’s talk of having some kind of reunion, but as much as we’d like to physically get together, it’s probably a bit beyond the bounds of possibility with all of us being so far apart geographically. However, we’ve got the next best thing – a friendship that has stood the test of time and lasted for almost half a century so far, with no end in sight.